It has been almost a year since I began an ongoing project with Percy. This was actually phase two of something I had worked on in 2017, which I wrote about in a post called Desensitization Continues. But this year I am taking Percy out into the world more. His world has been limited to the barn, the arena, and the turnout fields. With the rotational grazing, the turnout changed regularly but did not go beyond consistent boundaries. Last year when my daughter visited, she took a pony and I took Percy (in hand) and we went for a little walk beyond the fringes. We all survived, he stayed with me, but neither he nor I were relaxed. Having the new horse Walter has reminded me how nice it is to have a horse who is blasé about things. Of course the ponies are but one expects ponies to be. Walter is a big TB and he can get high headed and spook…but it’s rare. He’s given me something to shoot for.
Many years ago I developed my own theory comparing working with dogs and horses. I differentiated between horse distractions and dog distractions by saying that with dogs, one usually just needs to be more interesting than the distraction because so often the distraction is something they want to get TO. They want to chase the cat, eat what just landed on the floor, run to go meet that person or dog, etc. So we can increase the value of the reinforcers to show them that staying with us and focusing on us is even better than a given distraction. But for horses, the distraction is so often something they fear. As prey animals who evolved as horizon scanners, with long legs for fleeing, horses see things in the far distance and immediately begin assessing whether they should run in the other direction. They want the safety of a herd to hide in the middle of, which means if they are given the chance, they are going to run away from the handler and back to the barn, field, or wherever they feel safe. I fully admit that this is generalizing and that there are dogs who are fearful and horses who pull toward grass, but overall, I feel this is a significant generalization to work with.
What is the point of this? When horses are fearful of distractions, no higher level of reinforcement is going to make them focus on me. Which brings me to my underlying principal
Horses need to trust the person more than they fear the environment.
Thinking about this, I wanted to know just what more I could do with Percy so that he didn’t feel like he needed to be on alert if we went anywhere new. I felt that a 10 year old who’d been clicker trained all his life should have resulted in more trust. I did a lot of thinking. And then some more. I listened to Hannah Branigan’s interview with Susan Friedman where Hannah refers to one of her dogs needing to “file a lot of papers” in a new environment or something like that. And I thought what a great analogy. Look at EVERYTHING and figure out where to file it. And in my mind Percy’s files have different colors for different levels of dangers and many are flagged and many are cross filed in multiple places!
As I listened to that interview, a plan started to form in my head. The thing that always blows my mind about Susan is that I listen to her and nod along, agreeing with everything and then I get hit with something that makes me come to full attention. It’s not a sentence or an idea but somehow all of a sudden I get an aha! that I would have said I should have already known but…now I see it more clearly.
My new plan would be to start from a place of success (success in this situation defined as relaxed) and we would build from there. I took into consideration the environment, activities and me. I drew out “zones” on the farm (the environment); a progression of activities that he was comfortable with; and decided on some rules of behavior for myself.
The procession of activities were as follows:
Day 1 was exploration day- he was on halter and lead but I followed, rather than directing. I did this because he loves to explore and I know that hand grazing is a good activity for allowing a horse to settle in. I realized this as he “grazed” scraps of hay in the aisle (the first zone) while walking around. Now I started this project in February. Living in northern Vermont, there were no hand grazing possibilities mid-winter.
In the following zones I filled a hay pillow on exploration day and that became a cue that he was the leader and could do whatever he wanted…as long as he stayed in that zone. In future zones, he was not allowed to retreat to an easier zone…we had just spent a full five days in the previous zone during which he could certainly see, hear and smell the next one so I thought that was a fair rule. Interestingly, he never ate from the hay pillow! The first time I put it outside, he used it as a mat. haha!!! After that, he just wandered around with his nose to the ground or head up looking around.
|February- Percy using the hay pillow as a mat|
Once grass came, he grazed! But I still used the (empty) hay pillow as his cue that he’s the leader on this exploration day. The amount of time I spent depended a lot on how cold it was those first months. I tried to do a minimum of 10-15 minutes. Once we got to grazing weather, it often extended to 20.
|March- stationing at a boat bumper while I walk away|
I also developed a weather rule. If the weather was such that I didn’t want to be out in it, we skipped that day. Those were the cold, raw, or rainy days. But if I found myself hesitating because I didn’t think HE would like the weather, we went anyway. Because those were days involving wind which made for scary noises. We live in a windy, breezy place and if we didn’t venture out in the breezes, we’d be severely limited. He needed to learn to trust me through the wind.
Day 2 in each zone was Alexandra Kurland’s Foundation Lessons. I did 10 reps of each foundation lesson with half of them facing away from the barn…and the other half of them with his butt to the scary world. Anything which could involve duration, I went up by 5 seconds each rep. So the first head down was clicked and treated for just nose to the ground, the next was a count of 5 seconds, then 10, etc, so that by the end of mats, grownups and head down, he was up to 20-30 seconds (if his head came up a bit or he moved a foot, I’d restart the count even though he re-set the behavior on his own).
Day three I chained Foundation Lesson behaviors. I asked for one to four behaviors before a click/treat. I varied what and how many so this was less prescribed, but I stuck to Foundation Lessons only and ignored any environmental input. Just because his head shot up did not mean I asked for head down. I just asked for a variety of things.
Day four I called “new” behaviors. These were not brand new things but things I knew he liked to do (step over rails) or I felt were important (my stepping onto a mounting block stool). I had a list of about 6 things that I pulled from but only did one in a given day. I felt like that made me more reliable. "Rails are out, we’re doing rails today” etc.
Day 5 I used Foundation Behaviors to reinforce a “new” (as above) behavior. Not necessarily (in fact rarely) the one I’d worked on the previous day. They were just two unit chains followed by c/t.
note- even though I was consistent spending five days in each zone before moving on, the world was not always consistent. The weather changed day to day which not only was a different feel, but sometimes meant the world looked different- from snow to mud and back to snow again, or leaves busting out on the trees. In some zones, our sheep were pastured nearby one day when they hadn't been the day before. When we got to the road, there was sometimes traffic that went by (something which surprised me in that it fazed him not at all). But I didn't change my plan. That was part of this process. We are going to proceed regardless of what the world throws at us but we are going to proceed in a manner that is predictable and you can count on me not to throw something unexpected at you.
|the quonset hut door was open, ready to eat horses|
After going through the five days in one zone, I moved further from the barn to a new zone and started over again with exploration day. My zones were small. I wanted to increase incrementally. I'd say most zones averaged about 20 yards in length. We all know horses who willingly march forward to investigate, only to wheel and tear off in retreat. Wheeling and retreating was not part of my plan. Staying under threshold was.
February, March and April were slow going. The cold and snow and wind kept coming, the driveway was icy and I skipped many days but we made progress. I never repeated a day and never backed up in the progression. I wanted slow and steady progress toward the rest of the world. Finally grass came and his exploration days were something he really looked forward to. I'd go out early in the morning and we'd go exploring before chores. The weather varied but there was always grass.
As we progressed, I developed some rules for him and this was really important as in the past I always let him be who he is. If that meant he wanted to move, we moved. If that meant he wanted to retreat, we retreated. I felt I was respecting his concerns and giving him choices. But we seemed to be stuck in that routine and I started wondering just how much I was enabling his reactivity, rather than helping him through it. Sometimes I tried to help him through his worries by asking him to put his head down or reinforcing low. He never knew how I’d respond and I wanted to change that so that my response would be one less unknown. I traded interesting for reliable.
One rule is that when we are going to the zone of the day, we maintain a casual but steady pace. I do not break my gait. If he's dragging his feet from worry, I don't creep along slowly, I just walk casually. As soon as the slack is out of the rope, he comes along (it’s a short rope). Some days that happened several times; some days not at all. My pace was part of my predictability. If he gets nervous and gets ahead of me, I do not speed up. Only a couple times did I need a Tai Chi wall to prevent him from circling when he got out in front of me. Circling is not allowed. I am aiming for a horse who walks along with me rather than a whirling dervish. He can look at whatever he wants but he must keep walking at a steady pace. Initially I tried to keep him on one side of me but there are places where he really feels safer on one side than the other so he may lag behind and swap sides if he wants as long as we don’t break pace.
As far as rules for ME: in addition to what I ask for, I feed predictably. It’s been hard! I feed in the same place every time. I do not lower my hand to keep him quiet or feed where he is just to get the food in. I do not ask him to back. I had a very reliable food delivery protocol. I clicked, turned to be perpendicular, and my outside hand went full arm’s length slightly lower than shoulder height.
And I stuck to the plan of the day. No creative problem solving. No surprises. We just did what was on the plan. I like to think he knows the plan as well as I do by now.
|May- grass to graze but keep an eye on what might come out of the quonset hut|
|June 5- he is concerned on our first day on the road about what might come up behind him|
|June 9- progress. Curious, but not worried in this zone. He has chosen to graze, lifting his head occasionally to look into the woods.|
Once we reached the road, I chose to make a big leap in our zones. There's 100 yard stretch where the woods and ditches made it impossible for us to get off the road if a car came. We don't get a lot of traffic on our road but there's a blind corner near the driveway and what traffic does come, comes far too fast for my liking. I didn't have anywhere to place a mat other than in the road. Instead, I decided to continue walking until we got to where the trees ended and opened to fields so I could step off the road for grazing and had room to do our Foundation lessons. By this time, Percy was familiar with the routine and content near the road. His head was high and ears swiveling as we walked down the road, but he maintained a steady pace with no spooking. When we stepped off the road to graze, just look at the grass he found.
|June 13- just days after reaching comfort on the road, we were able to get this far from the barn and other horses.|
In describing this to others, people always wanted to know, “but what are you going to do when (insert problem, lack of response, here)”. Miraculously, problems did not arise. He never had a meltdown- he never yanked the rope. He never got so worked up that I was worried for our safety. I never wondered how I was going to get back to the barn with a nervous horse jigging alongside. I guess instead of saying miraculously, I should say the training worked. The reliability served its purpose. That is not to say he always remained under threshold. This horse LIVES on his threshold. He'll spook out at pasture and spin in his stall if the moment calls for it. My goal was keep pushing the threshold he lives with further out, rather than tipping him over it.
I ALWAYS have a calmer horse walking back than going out. Every single day. And significantly. Even when we were in uncharted (incompletely filed?) territory.
Sniffing along the roadside as we return from a session far from the barn
Places he would previously have been alert in, he is now able to walk through calmly. We kept pushing the envelope and the safe environment is expanding.
I kept track of body language. I logged looks, startles and spooks and defined them as:
a “look” is head high and ears forward, a “startle” is one of those spooks in place- muscles tense but the feet don’t move…or at least land where they left the ground! and a “spook” is movement of feet or change of gait). I did not see an increase in any of these over time and they decreased within each new zone from day to day, and rarely happened in a previous zone.
Once the arena dried out in late Spring, I began working Percy in there every other day so our outings were less frequent. One day we'd be in the arena, the next day we went for a walk. Sometime in mid-summer, I had to change my route. Our sheep were now grazing the zones Percy and I were headed for. My goal had been to continue on around the perimeter of the fields and back to the barn. Instead, we began in the other direction. This meant going down below the house which now blocked the view of his buddies at the barn. It was fascinating to see that he was more relaxed further from the barn when he could see the others, than closer to the barn if they were out of sight.
At this time I also had to add another strategy. When we went below the house, we were near the woods where real life predators lived. Ever since we moved here 5 years ago, we were often alerted to wildlife coming out of the woods when we saw Percy in his paddock standing on high alert, nostrils flaring, body stiff and you could almost see his heart pounding at a distance. Bear, deer, moose and coyote lived in those woods and came out to graze or hunt. And now I was asking him to leave his buddies behind and approach those dangerous woods. What I found was that he was willing and able to maintain our progress closer and closer, but when we turned to go back to the barn, he would suddenly leap forward at some point. Having the woods behind him was too much. I have no idea what he'd hear that would suddenly cause him to leap (still never pulling on the rope but a definite over threshold situation). I decided to try grazing our way back to the barn. With so much grass available, it seemed silly not to take advantage of it. So regardless of what we were working on that day, when we turned for home, I'd stop frequently to let him graze. I started with stopping every 5 steps and letting him have 20 bites of grass. That seemed to help immensely and the spooking stopped. I progressed to going 10 steps between grazing, then 15, and so on, until we could go all the way back to the barn, only stopping once. Again, the routine, the permission to look but progressing to fewer breaks, all served my long term purpose.
|August- lifting his head from grazing to look into the woods on our return|
One day I tried taking a buddy out with him when I had a working student at the farm to help. Surprisingly, he was more nervous that day than he'd been in a long time. He felt he had to keep an eye on the surroundings AND the pony (you know, so he could warn him if a bear was sneaking up behind him). So much for the quiet pony being a calming influence.
|September- taking Stowaway along for company|
At some point, the grazing sheep got in our way again and we had to turn around and go back to our original travels. Happily, I was able to start where I'd left off. Then, in October, it snowed. A lot. Winter came way too early and I was not acclimated and unwilling to wade through deep snow to our current zone. Then came the holidays and in January I told myself I had to get back to work. I wasn't exactly sure what to do for our adventures. Last year we were still working close to the barn and were able to stay in the plowed driveway. Now what will I do? Just to see what a couple months off had done, I took Percy out down the driveway. No treats and we hadn't been out there in months. His head was high and watching but he never stopped. He passed the quonset hut, doing his usual swapping of sides as we went around the corner in the driveway. It was getting dark and below zero degrees but he walked along with me without so much as a startle. We didn't go out on the icy road in the half dark, but turned around before I froze. He quickened a little, but slowed when he felt the slack go out of the rope. I was probably walking more slowly than usual due to the footing but he accommodated me.
I am looking forward to using this technique with Percy going forward. There is no doubt that keeping things interesting is an important part of working with him. But so is being predictable and reliable in both my requests and my responses. It's like balancing on the edge of a knife with this boy sometimes. He continues to teach me so very much.
To listen to Hannah Branigan's interview with Dr Friedman which inspired this project: https://wonderpupstraining.com/podcast/39/