Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Giving Instead of Taking- How to Deal with Destructive Behaviors

 How to deal with destructive behaviors? I've been dealing with a few in the barn recently from both the horses and the cats. And another behavior which, though not currently destructive, will certainly become so if not addressed.  While it can be tempting to take things away in these situations, I opted to try giving more instead.
With the horses, the problem was the cover which my husband had built for the water tank. It was one of several pieces we put together to be able to offer the horses open water  through the winter, as opposed to tanks that froze over shortly after filling. In order to protect the wooden cover from the moisture environment, my husband glued some waterproof paneling onto it. This worked perfectly...until Percy got bored one day last week and started picking at it. Whether he removed it all himself or he just lifted it enough that high winds removed the rest of it, I'm not sure. But the end result was that it was completely off. Initially, we were going to just wait until Spring when it could dry out to re-glue it, but then all the horses started to nibble at the wood...and Percy started to climb onto it. Prompt measures were needed. 

The problem was that it was February turning March, when all creatures in this part of the world get cabin fever. Eating hay is necessary for survival but it gets boring when that is all there is to do all day. I offer the horses little bits of enrichment but I get nervous leaving them with anything which could be potentially dangerous; which, let's face it, is everything when it comes to horses. They love the jugs of hay stretcher pellets I put out, but we only go through so much milk and once they've smashed them, I need weeks to collect more so that everyone gets one. I cut apples and carrots up into inch-sized pieces and throw them into the paddock for them to chase down and sniff out, but that only lasts for a short period of time. I snowshoe out to the far side of the field with their hay on a sled so they have exercise and environmental variety, but all these things just aren't enough by March. 

Since what they were doing was chewing on wood, I knew they were craving that sensation. Poplar logs to the rescue. This is an annual tradition in March, and it really helps to let them gnaw away at the bark so they don't gnaw on the wood of buildings and water tank covers. Once we had substituted something else (given them something), my husband replaced the waterproof sheeting with some special nails that we hope will hold it down better than glue did. Risky as it was, I hoped that when Percy put his feet on the slippery surface, the foot would slide and he'd decide against climbing further. 
The cats, on the other hand were destroying the interior of the barn by sharpening their claws on the corners. I had ignored it for the last seven years with George as he didn't spend a lot of time in the tack room and the other spot he chose was the back of the pony shed. It is amazing how much wood he's removed over the years in that spot, however.  
But now I have Jerry as well, and he just adds to the wear. In George's youth I did not have a tack room to worry about so it's a problem of the luxury of having a tack room at this point. I'd previously given George a cheap piece of cardboard to scratch on which he enjoyed but it wasn't enough for Jerry. A quick scan of the internet provided me with a couple options for scratching that I set up in the tack room. Now that they have somewhere else to scratch (I have given them something) I think I will try to cover the old spot with some hard plastic since that spot has a history. They'll need a reason to try out the new options.
My last problem (well, for the moment) was Jerry deciding that my saddle was the most comfortable place to sleep. I had protected it with pads and a safety vest but that was a temporary solution. I didn't want cat claws in my leather saddle any time I was washing saddle pads or wearing my safety vest. I needed to figure out why that was an ideal spot in his opinion and how I was going to give him what he needed and wanted in another way. 
First, height. Cats enjoy high spaces and Jerry loves the shelf in the feed room as a place to walk back and forth and tap on my head when I walk by. So I would put up a Jerry shelf. I put it as close to his present spot as possible. I realized that from my saddle, he could see out the window and soak up the sun in that spot. George chose the windowsill for this and I was grateful that the little upstart hadn't tried to displace him. That was another reason to give him a spot of his own. It meant moving a bridle rack, to have a spot to put the shelf, but for now I have just moved the bridle until I am sure it is going to work. 
I also needed a way to make it appealing. I purchased some heat reflective pads and put one up on the shelf, using duct tape to hold it in place so that it didn't slip when he was on it. He loves the reflective beds I have for the dogs so I am hoping he'll figure this works the same way. I also hung a ribbon with a card on it from the bridle rack so it dangled temptingly. He didn't seem to explore it right off so I added my final temptation in the form of some fishy cat treats. That was enough to have him climb from my arms onto the shelf to clean them up. So far, I have not seen him sleeping there but I know habits don't change easily. I may have to cover my saddle(s) with something slippery to make them less appealing (tarps?) in the short term so that he seeks out the new shelf. 

So now my question for one more problem. George has really spoiled me- or his upbringing in the previous rough barn spoiled me. He has always drunk out of buckets or the horse water tanks. Jerry not only knocks over the little stainless dog buckets I put down, but will knock over a horse bucket (no, I don't know how). So I'm looking for recommendations on water receptacles. I know that fountains are the thing but I am not going to use anything that needs to be plugged in. It also has to be small enough to fit in an already overcrowded tack room. That a can't will be less likely to tip over (he loves to dangle his arms in the horse water buckets...I imagine that has something to do with how he dumps them). 

Suggestions happily suggested in the comments, on my Facebook page, or on Instagram or private message on social media or email





Friday, January 22, 2021

Pony of the Month- A Training Plan for Too Many Horses


There, I've admitted it if it wasn't already obvious.  Too many horses. Actually only two are horses and the other four are ponies. One of the challenges with this many is finding time and focus to work with each of them. I really can't give them each time every day and meet all my other obligations so I have used various plans to find ways to give them each at least some attention.

My plan this winter has been to focus on one pony per month. I still try to do something little with the others in turn, but the pony of the month gets daily sessions. The horses get daily sessions as well or at least, as weather permits. I tell myself to pick a temperature that I won't work below but it depends on what else is happening on the weather stage. Sunny and still at 10 degrees F is ok for going for a walk, whereas damp and windy at 25 is really hard. As a result, the projects I picked for the ponies this year so far have been able to be done indoors for the most part. 

2020 was quite a ride!

For December, I started with Kizzy. I had decided on this plan for my holiday card to clients. I like to do a card which includes both canine and equine subjects when I can since I work with both. I also like to use my card as a teaching opportunity- to explain the amount of training I put into the setups I choose. 

In this case, I didn't just put Eloise on Kizzy's back and expect them both to remain still for a photo. I thought about the component parts and how to work up to this step in a way that kept both of them happy. Before working with two animals together, it's important to think about what you expect from each, and train that with each one alone. Since there is a deadline for a holiday card (I send mine out for New Year's), I couldn't have this project go on endlessly. Choosing a setup that took advantage of behaviors they each knew was one way to give myself a better chance at being successful. Basically, they both had to remain still, and preferably look at me, rather than dozing off. 

Kizzy has a lot of experience with standing on a mat, but tends to tap dance a bit at times, and also didn't have a lot of practice with me going a distance from her and then turning to look at her while holding still (i.e. taking pictures!). So we started with that and it was a lot of work to get that! As Kizzy is a lesson pony, most recently teaching people of all ages about clicker training, she mostly works on the very basic behaviors so she had a lot of history of getting on the mat and getting treats, as opposed to standing there for an extended period of time. We spent many sessions on that piece alone. 

For Eloise, my mental image was of her standing, not sitting. That was going to be a challenge in itself since she has a rapid and automatic sit.  So the majority of her sessions were finding ways to teach her to stand and remain standing. I also had to introduce questionable balance while she stood and used my saddle rack to practice that. 

Finally, I needed the two together. They are not strangers but I usually try to keep dogs and horses a safe distance from each other and this would be quite different. I began by just having them together in the same space, feeding treats to each. I started with Eloise up on a  shavings bag, to give her a little height for confidence, as well as to set them both up for increasing height as we progressed. Over several sessions I moved them closer together, until Eloise was on a height of three shavings bags right next to Kizzy. It was when she was this close and that high that Kizzy started to demonstrate dislike of the situation, putting her ears back at her. 

I have put many, many children on Kizzy's back over the years and she has been a saint. I think for that reason, I wondered if that would be better than next to her. I was using a thick bareback pad to give Eloise some grip while also protecting Kizzy' from dog nails. We'd been practicing with that and so since it was already on when I saw the unpleasant faces, I took a chance and popped Eloise over onto Kizzy's back. I held on, stayed close, and watched. Kizzy was perfectly fine. No more grumpy faces. 

At this point though, I really found myself challenged with juggling treats. Dogs are more than happy to eat hay stretcher pellets but it takes them a while and involves a lot of crunching and dropping bits: not ideal for rapid reinforcement. And horses and ponies get very insulted if you try to feed them dog treats...or even if you happen to have crumbs or even the scent of meat flavored biscuits on your hands. There was no way I could use anything moist. Luckily, Eloise works well for tiny bits of hard biscuit. 

Even with horse treats in left pocket and dog treats in right, I found myself getting tangled up while also trying to feed Eloise just-so to keep her standing. Props to the rescue. I pulled out the shavings bag again, put a tub on it and put a scoop of  hay stretcher pellets in it for Kizzy to freely eat while I worked with Eloise on her back. Classical conditioning for Kizzy, operant for Eloise. Once Eloise was confidently standing while I backed away and returned, while at the same time Kizzy in her solo sessions would stand while I did the same, I was able to merge them back together. 

We did a couple sessions in the barn aisle where I took pictures just to be sure I could really do it. Then I think we had one session outdoors before the day I took the final photo I used. 

If you look at the photo, you can see that a couple of my planned components did not pan out but I liked the end result so it was ok. As we approached my deadline (needing to get the card designed, ordered and delivered in times of covid), I started looking for appropriate weather for a photo shoot. When I saw a stretch of bad weather coming in, I knew I had to give it a try late one afternoon before the weather turned. The light was fading and it was cold.  Even though Eloise's stand was coming along beautifully in the house, and pretty good on Kizzy's back, I knew she'd be cold standing in the frigid wind so I let her sit. I still don't know what Kizzy saw behind her to cause her to turn and look back, but it worked out to a nice photo and didn't require me to catch her with her ears up looking at me. 

Once the card was done, I had about a week before the end of December and I returned to working on each of them alone again, to finish up Kizzy's month by putting more reinforcement history for standing on a mat while I walked away.

Feline fotobomb of bow training with Stow

January's pony is Stowaway. Last winter I decided that teaching him to bow would be a fun thing. Ha! As usual, it was a much bigger project than I anticipated and while we got enough of a start for me to realize how long it was going to take me, I dropped it when warm weather came. I decided to resurrect it for him this winter. 

When I initially started, I turned to my good friend Katie Bartlett for a training plan as I knew she'd done it and written about it. Reading her article was the first indication that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. First of all, the bow she taught was no small thing. Be sure to check out the article, with the photo of one very impressive final behavior! Secondly, Stowaway is notoriously unaware of where his parts are. It's always been amusing to see the positions he ends up in when you ask him to move one end..because he only moves that end. The other end does not catch up unless you specifically ask it to. So whether it's a lesson child who has pulled his head around to tie him, or the hoof trimmer who has asked him to step his hind end over, that's where he stops: with his front end facing north and his hind end facing west. It's actually one reason I chose this for him so that he could learn a little more how to coordinate his pieces. 

Whew. Both his history as a camp pony before I got him (where he learned "don't move unless they absolutely force you to") and his temperament (the barn could come down around him and while his head might shoot skyward and his eyes bulge out, his feet would remain still), I've had my challenges with this. I abandoned any notions I had of Katie's end result, and thought if I could just teach him to lift and hold one foot up while lowering his head a bit, we'd call that good. 

When I started up again this year, I was thrilled to see him perk right up and offer exactly the result we ended on last year. There was no need to backtrack. He would quickly lift a foot and hold it up without me touching him, and he would target my hand at any height or location I put it. Two separate components- check! What he struggles with is the balance to do both at the same time. When he lifts a foot, his head goes up and in the opposite direction of the lifted foot. Since body awareness and coordination is my purpose, and the bow is just a fun possible end result, I've been focusing on teaching him about starting square (originally he seemed to do better if one front was significantly behind or in front of the other); and slowing down his fist target. He wants to shoot his head down rapidly which throws him off what little balance he has, resulting in him slamming his foot down as soon as he sees my fist. 

What I am trying to do here is use "additive adduction". Again, I refer you to Katie's blog, to a report she wrote on a talk by Ken Ramirez at the 2020 ASAT conference

  • Additive adduction: cue one behavior, while animal performs that behavior, cue a second behavior so that the animal continues with the first behavior and now adds the second behavior, performing both simultaneously.

It's an advanced skill for an animal, and therefore requires a solid base of training. Just as with Kizzy, Stowaway has been a lesson pony, both for kids' riding lessons and clicker training for all ages. So it would be expecting a lot for him to figure out this concept. We'll get what we get when it comes to a bow, but at least he's getting a fun training session each morning and learning about how to move and balance a little better. We've got another ten days to play with this before February starts.  

In February, I will turn to Rumer. She is a fun little pony who loves attention. I have been intrigued with the notion of equine agility for a while and played with pieces of it with both Percy and Ande. I think Rumer will have fun with it and so have signed up to be a member of the International Horse Agility Club to have access to the courses and ideas they use for competitions. With covid, they opened up their competitions to video and whether or not Rumer gets to the point where I might want to submit a video, I think she'll enjoy the training games involved. I'll be using my own training plans. While they accept the use of treats, I know I'll want to break things down into smaller slices for her but it's always good to observe how others train, providing it isn't aversive. 

International mail is such fun to receive!

I'm going to have to figure out things I can do indoors, for the days (who knows how many) when weather or footing prevents outdoor training. 

I'm not sure yet what I will do in March. Many people are planting gardens and are able to do warm weather horse activities by then but we are usually still up to our eyeballs in snow at the beginning of the month with anything from snow to mud and back again by the end. I do have one more pony, but someone else has been coming a couple times a month to work with Ande so on top of regular husbandry training I do with each of them, I don't feel he is as needy as the others. But this will at least have gotten the ponies and me through the deepest part of winter.