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.

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