Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Helping Others to be Brave: Component Parts

A year after beginning the project, Percy
 continues to demonstrate a higher level
 of confidence in his outings.
In my last post, I wrote about a lengthy project I worked on helping my Percy horse to be brave going away from the barnyard area and his friends. I got many lovely responses telling me I had struck a chord with others in similar positions.  I also received some questions about specific things I did and why, and if a certain variation would be ok to use. 

I also mentioned that I used this same approach to get Percy more comfortable in the arena, as well as with a couple dogs I was working with (and their people). Some people wanted to know more about those possibilities. 

I know that in my previous post, as well as in the Equiosity podcasts during which I discussed this with Alexandra Kurland and Dominique Day, I made a lot assumptions about the component parts of this whole project.  So now I'd like to delve a little deeper, specifically why I chose the pieces I did and how I think that benefitted the result.

Exploration day, which included the opportunity to graze, was the first day in each series. I came upon this as the initial experience in each new zone while watching Percy.  He was the one who gave me the idea to use this as part of the strategy.  I had let him loose in the barn, the doors closed against the winter chill, and he did what he always does when he has the chance.  He explored. I keep a cart in the wash stall with a bale or two of hay in it and while he usually goes there for part of the time, he doesn't spend a lot of time standing there and eating.  Instead he wanders around sniffing the ground like a big red dog. He looks out the windows of the aisle doors, he goes into the other horses' stalls and looks out their windows. He goes back into the aisle and pokes his nose into places to see what he can find.  When he is "confined" in any way, such as in his stall or on a lead rope, he loves to grab stuff with his lips or teeth: halters come off hooks, blankets come off racks, etc.  But when he's loose he doesn't do that.  He explores.  During the exploration he "grazes".  I use quotes because in the barn, he isn't eating grass. We often use the word "vacuuming" to describe it. He walks along slowly, using his whiskers and lips to hoover up any hay on the barn floor. Since this floor and environmental exploration is something he does by choice, as opposed to standing and eating at the hay cart, I believed it was something he liked to do. 

And this leads me to an underlying goal I had for this project. I wanted him happy. I knew I was going to be taking him places he might not be comfortable but I aimed to do it in a way that kept him as happy as I possibly could.  During the Equiosity interview, Dominique expressed some confusion and perhaps dismay that I was not always giving him choice to return to the barn. I acknowledged also that he was not always under threshold as we otherwise want a learner to be in a desensitization protocol. That concern of hers is hugely important and should be seriously considered. The success of this project has not changed my mind about animals having choices and keeping them under threshold whenever possible.  As Alex said, Percy is on the very outside of a bell curve and so maybe this approach is similarly on the fringes of a training bell curve. But it sounds like there are others out there.

By starting each zone with this freedom to eat or wander, I felt I was giving him choice, but within a set of parameters. You can do whatever you want, as long as you stay with me. I followed him, my only request that he not leave the zone. And as I mentioned, we know that grazing is exhibited by horses who are in a relaxed state and that grazing can help an anxious horse to become more relaxed. So not only was I choosing this based on his choices and expression, but I was also going on ethological foundations. Could someone do this project without that grazing and exploring piece? I don't know.  A different trainer with a different horse might. But I would suggest that they observe and think carefully about what they choose to do instead, if they want it to be an initial day of a happy and relaxed horse. 

Rope cues were another assumed behavior in Percy's backpack. Rope cues, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, are just what they sound like. I simply used contact on the rope to ask him to stop or turn. I would encourage you to check out Alexandra Kurland's work for more detail on the subtleties of using them for flexions and more. What is critical about this is that his rope cues were taught and maintained with positive reinforcement. That is such an important part of this entire project that I am going to repeat it. 
His rope cues were taught and maintained with positive reinforcement.
If he had been taught with escalating pressure ("if you don't respond, I'm going to pull harder"), putting pressure on the rope would have been associated with fear of escalating pressure.  Instead, the association with slight rope pressure is a happy one because when he learned about it, he was clicked and treated for responding. 

If Percy spooked at something during this process and that resulted in the rope being straightened (our default is for there to be slack in the rope at all times), I didn't want him to feel trapped, but instead to automatically yield and take the slack out of the rope on his own, and to do so happily.

Likewise, if he was exploring and tried to leave the zone we were working in, I could redirect him back in my direction with a light rope cue. If I had ever had to put real pressure on the rope, I think that would have increased the tension in the overall emotions he exhibited. And I can tell you that if you try to stop him when he doesn't want to stop, he has a very effective twist of his head and neck that make it quite clear who is stronger. It's not me. 

Building chains of behaviors is another component I used. To use this, again, the behaviors must have been taught and maintained with positive reinforcement. Chains (which are referred to as sequences by some) are built by cueing another behavior at the moment that one would normally click the previous behavior. I have been chaining behaviors with Percy for about seven years and he can happily do quite lengthy behavior chains. On day 3 of this project I asked for very short chains and they were simply a slight progression in his focus from the previous day's Foundation Lessons in which he was clicked and treated for each behavior.  

A horse with no history of behavior chains should be introduced to them in a calm environment, and be allowed to explore them for some time before ever using them in a situation which might otherwise be stressful, such as a taking them out in potentially scary places. 

So, could you do this project without using chained behaviors?  I think I can more easily say yes to this than to skipping the grazing and exploration day. The chained behaviors were a way for me to ask for just a little bit more focus. It was also a way for me to assess if cueing behaviors in this environment was still reinforcing. If he was stressed to the point that responding to behaviors was not in and of itself reinforcing, then the chain would fall apart and that would tell me something about his emotional status. 

A trainer could substitute some other cue/response for chained behaviors if their horse is unfamiliar with behavior chains. To stick with my approach of making each day just a little more challenging, the trainer would pick a cue/behavior that fits that description. One might go straight to newer behaviors. Or one might try different cues for well known behaviors.  If a behavior is initially trained with body cues, and a verbal cue is added later, one could see if the horse responds as well (accurate and low latency) to a verbal cue as a body cue. 

The way the treat was offered is something I described in the blog post but we didn't discuss on the podcast. There are many ways to present a treat to a horse. As any student of Alex's knows, one should at the very least keep one's own balance and one's horse's balance in high regard for this process. Emotional balance and physical balance are inter-related. A trainer can choose to present the treat in a location that affects the training in various ways. Offering a treat in a slightly lower position can bring an anxious horse's head down in an effort to tap into the physiological/emotional response similar to grazing. One can turn to face the horse in a way that asks the horse to either rock back or step back in an effort to help the horse's balance or teach them not to push into our space looking for food. One can also offer food in a place that sets them up for the next repetition. 

I did none of these. 

As a component part already in place, Percy has a very reliable square halt. I did not want to fuss about his being square at any point in the process but we have worked on it so much in the past, that I did not feel that his balance was going to negatively affect his emotional state. In contrast, a horse who falls on his forehand is going to have a harder time stopping (for Grownups or the mat) and will be more likely to speed up just to try to catch up with his own balance. For a horse without that understanding and practice of halting in balance, the emotional success of this project could be jeopardized.

Remember that my goal was to increase Percy's trust in me when we went places. To build that trust I wanted to be reliably consistent. I wanted to offer the treat in the exact same way each time. If he was keeping an eye out for monsters as I clicked, I didn't want him to turn quickly and have to look for the treat, which could have resulted in frantic grabbing or frustration. Neither did I want to be shoving treats in his mouth wherever it happened to be when I clicked. I wanted to establish a norm in which I was responsible for putting the treat where he knew to find it and he was responsible for receiving the treat politely.  

While it might take some brain work, I hope describing these component parts helps with adapting this to other situations, whether it is other species or other places. I'll walk through one example to try to help further. It's a concrete example as I used it for Percy again to teach him to be more comfortable in the arena. My arena, like all arenas, has a scary end. When we built our current farm, I set it up specifically so my paddocks surrounded my arena.  Therefore, the horses were turned out on all sides, my hope being that would eliminate a scary end since all surrounding space was happy turnout space.  It seemed to work on days that they were turned out in that specific paddock at the far end but for Percy, if he hadn't checked for monsters in the last 12-24 hours, they might have returned. 

"The Recipe"

  1. Start where the horse is comfortable. 
  2. Build a succession of behaviors to build on in that space.
    1. each successive approximation should require a little more from the animal
  3. Once complete, move to a slightly more challenging zone.
  4. Repeat the same succession in the new zone
Applied to the arena- 
  1. started at the gate, envision a zone that I think he can remain calm in
  2. day one- remaining in that zone, allow him to sniff, graze the edges, roll in the sand, weed the arena.
  3. day two- 
    1. stand by the gate and do one of the foundation lessons 5-10 times, followed by
    2.  walking in a circle on the edge of the zone, returning to the gate facing the opposite direction
    3. do that foundation lesson another 5-10 times,
    4. walk around the edge of the zone and back to the gate
    5. do another foundation lesson 5-10 times
    6. repeat through the foundation lessons
  4. day three- I used the mounting block as the "marker" of where each day's work would be. So before going out with Percy, I placed the mounting block in the next zone.  I used dressage letters as a way to advance.  So my gate is in the corner by the letter F.  The next day I put the mounting block at C and that is where we did our foundation lessons, walking off in a slightly larger area which now included the zone by the gate and the new zone around C. After 5-10 reps of a foundation lesson, we walked off around the edges of the zone, returning to face the opposite direction and do some more.
  5. day four- now I put the mounting block in the corner by K. We did our lessons there, and now the walk could include the entire close end of the arena.  In previous years he  has been fine for the most part at this end of the arena.  But I was developing a routine he could count on in a comfortable space before pushing on. 
Percy standing and waiting for me at the mounting block, head down was his choice.
And so on we went around the arena. Each day we were in there (I was doing every other day walking out around the farm still), I moved the mounting block to the next dressage letter and repeating our pattern. I also added in other fun things he liked to do.  I put ground rails and cross rails out that we could go over on our walks around. I changed them up to add variety, while still being things he reliably liked to do. 

You could do this in hand or under saddle. I progressed to partly under saddle through the summer. In that case the zones were mental, not physical. After we'd gone through the process all the way around the arena, he was completely relaxed at the scary end now. I added the mental challenge (for us both), of getting on him, first by the gate and then over time all around the arena. Some days were windy. Some days there were "things going on" that he could see or hear at a distance.  But we stuck to our pattern. 

So I hope that gives you some idea of the flexibility that is possible while still following the critical piece of the recipe that I laid out above. 

While there is still about three feet of snow in the arena, I was able to get Percy out down the driveway a few times in Febuary and March this year. I did not progress slowly, but went as far as I could to assess whether the training had "held" with many months off. He kept a steady pace with my, although his head was high and looking.  Amazingly, for the first time, he did not switch sides behind me at the scary corner as he did all last year. He stayed on my right going out and back.  He did foundations lessons and chains beautifully out there over a week or so, on days we could get out.  The last time, I took the boat bumper out for stationing and he stood quietly while I walked away. 

Then I had a funny idea.  I wondered what would happen if I let him walk back to the barn at liberty.  I assessed the dangers. I knew he wouldn't turn toward the road, since it was the opposite direction of the barn.  The snowbanks were well over both our heads so he would be funneled back to the barn if he did decide to race back.  Walter was calling to him from the barn, but he'd been able to stand quietly as I walked away.  I decided to try it. I unclipped the lead rope and started walking back. 

And I was thrilled with the results.