Deer Fencing – A Great Example of Everything is Connected

 

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The view in winter out my window

I recently took the deer fencing down.  That may not sound like a horse training topic, but it turned out to be a perfect example of one of my favorite training mantras: everything is connected to everything else.

The deer fencing protects a sprawling, low-growing evergreen.  I let the deer eat most of my garden, but this tree I protect.  Every fall the fencing goes up.  And in the spring it comes down.  That means taking down the plastic fencing I use and then pulling the metal fence stakes out of the ground.  After I had rolled up and put away the fencing, I tackled the fence posts.  I took a firm hold of the first stake, expecting it to come easily out of the soft spring ground.  It didn’t move.  I changed my grip, and it slipped out of the ground.  The image of a warm knife cutting through butter came to mind.  What was the difference?  Simple answer – bone rotations.

As I pulled up the rest of the stakes, it occurred to me that this would be a great way to let people practice the rope handling technique that you use to get a horse to lift his head up from grass. ‘Tis the season when the grass is calling with a Siren’s song to our horses.  In traditional training we are taught to fight the grass.  The horse MUST NOT drag us to grass. This sometimes keeps clicker trainers from seeing grass for what it is  – a wonderfully convenient source of reinforcement.  Instead we struggle to keep our horses from plunging their heads down to graze.

No one enjoys being dragged to grass. So how do you change this picture? One answer is to change how you view the grass. Your horse wants it. Great! That means you can use it to reinforce behavior YOU want. Instead of trying to stop him from diving for the grass, you’ll be looking for opportunities to let him graze.

This lesson is connected to something else I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and that’s frames.  Here I’m not talking about picture frames, though that’s a good metaphor for them.  I’m referring to the mental constructs that George Lakoff describes in his books, “Your Brain’s Politics” and “Don’t Think of an Elephant”.

Frames contain things

Whether frames are the kind we hang on a wall or the kind we form around ideas, frames contain things.  According to Lakoff, we organize facts within a frame of reference.  Facts that fit within a given frame are easily processed.  Others bounce off these frames as though they don’t even exist.  Either that or we push back against them because they don’t fit comfortably within the frame.  There’s no structure, no way to relate to them so the new idea might just as well not exist.

Frames both include and exclude facts

If you’ve always resisted letting your horse have grass during training, the following lesson is a great opportunity to practice expanding your frame to let some new ideas in. The first step is to decide that you’re going to give this approach a try.  That’s a lot more inviting than facing another summer-long battle with your horse over access to grass.

You can’t just suddenly declare that the grass is a reinforcer and expect smooth sailing.  You need to go through a teaching process for your horse to understand how to behave on grass.  I’m going to assume a general understanding of clicker training.  If you haven’t yet introduced your horse to the basics of clicker training, you’ll want to do that first.  I’ll refer you to my web sites for details (theclickercenter.com and theclickercentercourse.com)

Many of us have to hand-graze our horses to acclimate them to spring grass.  This is the perfect opportunity for this lesson. (If you need an easier starting point, you can begin in a paddock and use small piles of hay.) The idea is that you are going to teach your horse to leave food in order to get food.

For this lesson on transforming grass into a useful reinforcer here are the steps:

Begin by taking your horse out to graze. Don’t try to keep him from the grass. (If you are using hay piles scattered around your training space, let him take you to the hay. Don’t resist.) Let him eat for a couple of minutes. As he begins to settle and relax, you can start the lesson.

1.) Use your lead to ask your horse to lift his head up. He may ignore you at first, but do the best you can. This is where the image of pulling fence posts out of the ground becomes handy.  If you pull straight up on the lead, you’ll feel as though you are playing tug of war against a team of football players.  Your horse’s head won’t budge. Remember when I tried to pull the fence post up with a simple grip, it stayed planted in the ground.  But when I coiled my arm around the post like a vine coiling itself around a stake, it came out easily.

So before you head out with your horse, go practice pulling some metal fence posts out of the ground. Test the effect.  Take a simple grip and see what happens.  If the stake is buried deep into the ground, you won’t be able to pull it out.

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Now coil your arm around the stake.  You’ll feel it lift out with very little effort.  This is the technique you’re going to use on the lead.  You’re going to stand directly over the snap so the lead is perpendicular to the ground.  As you slide your hand down the lead, let your arm coil around it.  You’re now in a position that matches the way you coiled your arm around the metal stake.  Think about how you pulled the stake out of the ground.  You’ll use the same action with your horse.

In the past you may have had to yank, tug, and plead to get your horse to “come up for air”. Now suddenly his head is popping up.  It can’t be this easy!

Even if your horse feels as though he’s one of those stakes that is well and truly cemented into the ground, you’ll still be able to pry his head up with considerably less effort than you would have had to use in the past.  As his head begins to lift, be ready for the next step in this lesson.

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2.) As soon as he starts to lift his head, click and offer him a treat.

3.) Keeping the lead fairly short, fold your hands together at your waist. This base position is part of a lesson I call  “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”.  With both hands folded together, if your horse tries to pull down to get to the grass, you’ll be able to anchor the lead to your body.   It’s surprising how solid you can be in this position.  From your horse’s point of view, it’s as though he’s tied to a well anchored post.

This only works if you have a fairly short lead so he can’t get too far down to the grass.  If your lead is too long, you’ll lose your leverage advantage.

Your horse is going to try and drop his head back down to the grass. With your hands anchoring the lead, you are essentially holding him as if he was tied to a post. As soon as he stops trying to pull down (even for an instant), click. Offer him a treat, and then anchor your hands again to your waist.

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Panda would love to keep eating.  The short lead tells her to go into “grown-ups” instead.

Repeat this several times and then, click, give him his treat and let him drop his head down to eat grass.

Let him graze a little, then again, standing directly over the snap, coil your arm around the lead.  When you’re in position, rotate your arm so the “stake pops out of the ground”. As your horse lifts his head up, click and treat, then anchor your lead by standing in “grown-ups”.  Remember that means you’ll have both hands held together at your waist, and the lead will be short.

As soon as he stops pulling down, again you’ll click and treat.  Repeat this part of the pattern several times.  Release him to the grass when you see a noticeable improvement in his behavior. The behavior you’re heading towards is his side of the “grown-ups” picture.  That means he’s standing beside you with slack in the lead.  His head is about level with his chest and he’s looking straight ahead.  In other words he looks like a settled, well-mannered horse standing politely beside you.  If a friend were with you, the “grown-ups” could talk, and your horse would be waiting patiently beside you.

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A lovely result: this horse can stand on her own over grass without needing any reminders from the lead. She’ll get a click and a treat for this desirable behavior.

Instead of fighting the grass, you are now using it to reinforce the behavior you want. When you ask him to lift his head, your horse will begin to come up faster.  Instead of trying to dive back down to eat grass, he’ll shift on his own into “grown-ups”.  He knows he’s going to get reinforced for standing beside you with his head up.  And he also knows you’re going to let him eat more grass.  Instead of being anxious about getting to the grass, now he can relax and stand beside you keeping slack in the lead.

Paddy leading on grass 2

Lots of temptation under foot, but note how relaxed this horse is leading over the grass.

Once he’s coming up readily, you can ask him to walk a few steps to get to another patch of grass. At first, just go a couple of steps, then stop. People tend to want to keep going once they have a horse in motion, but this can undo the good work you’ve been establishing.  Go too far and the Siren’s call of the grass may overwhelm your horse.  So go just a couple of steps, stop and ask for grown-ups. As soon as he settles, which means he’s able to keep slack in the line because he’s not trying to go down for the grass, click, and let him graze.

On the search for good grass

On the search for good grass. Note the slack in the lead. This horse isn’t anxious about getting to the grass because he knows he’ll be given the opportunity to graze.

You can turn this into a game in which you are helping him find the best grass. From his point of view, you’ll probably be an incompetent grass hunter.  We humans seem to be drawn to the grass that our horses don’t want to eat.  We pick the long, extra green grass.  They want the stubby weeds.  But even if we take them to less than ideal spots, they do seem to understand that we’re on their side.  We’re trying to find them good grass.  It’s a great way to build a deep connection with your equine partner.

As you expand this basic lesson, you’ll be able train on grass without it becoming a distraction. In fact, when your horse does something you especially like, you’ll be able to thank him by letting him graze. What was once a major distraction will be instead a handy reinforcer. Leaving the grass will no longer be a problem.  Your horse knows he’s going to be able to graze again.  When you’re ready to move on, he’ll come away from the grass without a fuss. Your horse will be relaxed and ready for more work, and you’ll have a great new way to say  you for a job well done!

You’ve learned how to do this because everything is connected to everything else. Pulling up garden stakes has taught you the skill needed for asking a horse to come away from grass.  You’ve also learned that you can change long-held habits of thought. Instead of pushing against the grass and fighting your horse over every mouthful he snatches, you’ve found a way to transform it into a reinforcer.  That’s a great way to begin transforming other habits of thought that get in the way of creating a positive connection with your horse.

Happy grazing everyone!

Whisper walking away

What Did You Mean – Not What Did You Say?

Be The Teacher Your Learner Needs 2 THM.pngThe Kentucky Derby was run this past Saturday.  Years and years ago I used to pay attention to the Triple Crown races.  How could anyone who loves horses not be captivated by Secretariat?  But the glamour wore off as I came to know many ex-race horses, including some of Secretariat’s offspring. Now, if it didn’t pop up on the national news coverage, I could easily forget that the first Saturday in May is Derby Day.  What brought it to mind today is a photo I use in my conference presentations.  I was skimming through the talks I gave this past winter. That’s when I spotted the photo.  It was in a talk connecting George Lakoff’s work with horse training.

American pharoah lip chainIt’s a photo that appeared in my local newspaper, as well as on the internet.  It shows our most recent Triple Crown winner, American Pharaoh, being cooled down after a workout.  It could have been a photo of any race horse, or really of any hard-working performance horse.  There was nothing particularly distinctive about this picture.  You can see the sweat and the steam rising off his coat.  And you also see the chain that runs through the halter ring and into his mouth.  You can’t really tell from the picture, but the chain is probably over his top gums, an area that is even more sensitive to pain than his tongue.  That’s how young, very fit thoroughbreds are controlled on the track.

Why was this photo of a thoroughbred race horse in a talk about George Lakoff’s work?  What’s the connection? Lakoff is a cognitive linguist who has studied the power of metaphors in shaping how we think.  He is particularly interested these days in American politics.  One of his central ideas is that the current divide in our politics can best be viewed through the metaphor of family.  Long before any of us were aware of national governments or political parties, we were aware of the authority of our parents.  They set the rules and modeled the behavior that became the template for how each of us thinks society as a whole should be structured.

Lakoff has proposed that there are two primary family models:  the strict father family and the nurturant parent family.

In the strict father model, the father is the head of the family.  As the moral authority of the family, it is the father’s job to teach his children right from wrong.  He communicates this to the children in a hierarchical way.

Lakoff’s description of a Strict Father patriarch sounds eerily like force-based training.  You have only to substitute a few words – trainer for father, horse for child – and you have this:

“The trainer is the legitimate authority, and his authority is not to be challenged. . . Obedience to the trainer is required. It is upheld through punishment. Bad behavior from the horse is always punished.

The trainer teaches the horse right from wrong, and he communicates this to the horse in a hierarchical way.

Punishment is seen as absolutely crucial. It is the trainer’s moral duty to punish bad behavior in the horse.”

The nurturant parent model provides the contrast.  In this family structure it is moral to show empathy, to nurture, and to take on individual as well as social responsibility.  Cooperation with others is seen as more important than competition.

Instead of hierarchical communication, the Nurturant Parent model focuses on open communication. There is mutual respect between children and parents. This is different from other parenting models where children are expected to show respect for their parents, but not vice versa.

People often say words matter, but words are defined by our core values.

The chain in American Pharaoh’s mouth becomes a  symbol of command-based training.   In this very conventional view of training, horses are considered to be stupid animals.  If we look at that through the lens of Lakoff’s metaphors, we see more clearly what these words mean.  It implies a hierarchy – people above horses.  It means people can do whatever they want with horses.

Here’s the rest. Because horses are stupid animals, you have to use force to control them.  You have to show them “who’s boss”.  Here’s the corollary to that:  “But don’t worry.  They don’t feel pain the way we do.”  The frame these metaphors create very much influences what we are able to see.

In this view of the world, when a horse shows resistance, he’s being disobedient. He’s challenging the trainer’s authority and must be punished.  This training frame makes it hard to see other reasons a horse might fail to obey.  Only secondarily will the trainer break the lesson down into smaller steps, or look for physical causes.

Here’s the contrast:

Robin hug

This photo represents my core belief system.  It says something very different.  It is much more in line with Lakoff’s description of the nurturing parent model.  I believe that horses are intelligent animals, and that they should be treated with great kindness and fairness.  There is no hierarchy.  There is no separation between their needs and mine.  We are partners together.

What matters more than the words we use are the core values we hold.  Words only have the meaning that those values give them.  Respect is a perfect example.

Suppose you are new to the horse world.  You’re looking around for an instructor who can help you train your first horse.  You’ve been told that you should go watch a few lessons before taking your horse to anyone, so that’s what you’ve done.  You’re watching this trainer interact with his horses.  They are behaving exactly how you would like your youngster to be.  They move out of his space – no questions asked.  They stand politely to be groomed and saddled.  They seem safe to ride.   You like how he talks about his horses.  He talks about partnership.  He says it’s important that your horse respects you.

Respect is an important word for you, as well.  You like what this trainer is saying.  You like how calm and safe his horses are.  You leave feeling very confident that you have found what you’re looking for.

But have you?  What kind of respect do each of you mean?  In the strict father model respect is maintained through the use of punishment. So, yes, horses can appear to be very respectful, meaning they are afraid of the trainer.  They have learned what to do to escape punishment.

In the “nurturing parent model” respect means something very different.  It is something that is earned.  It is not something that is demanded.

Both parenting models can produce horses that show what you would call polite, safe manners, but the teaching process the horses experienced will have been very different.  If you send your horse to this trainer, you may find it’s a perfect match.  You were both talking about the same kind of respect. Or you could find yourself second guessing your decision.  You like him.  You can see that he’s skilled.  He certainly gets results, but the lessons make you squirm.

When you find that for you there’s a disconnect between someone’s  words and their actions, it’s time to look at core values.

What do the words really mean?  When we train thoughtfully, we learn to look beyond the outer shell of the familiar words we use. Are we letting someone else’s meaning take over?  Do our words reflect the kind of relationship we want to have?  Do the training methods match our core values?

Do you want an example?  Kay Laurence has just produced a promo video for our October Training Thoughtfully conference.  It’s a beautiful video.  Words and images are aligned.  They tell you so much. When I watch this video, I know it was produced by someone whose core values match my own.  If they match yours, as well, I hope you’ll join us for some Thoughtful Training this October.

Training Thoughtfully Milwaukee, Oct 20-22, 2017: Visit: https://www.trainingthoughtfullymilwaukee.com/

Training Thoughtfully Milwaukee Oct 20-22 2017.pngWatch the video: https://vimeo.com/216184198

If you want to learn more about George Lakoff’s work, read my January 8, 2017 post. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/01/08/)

Enjoy!

I Don’t Understand You. You Don’t Understand Me. Thank You Donald Trump For Helping Me To Understand Why.

New Years Greetings!

I always like to prepare a New Year’s gift for everyone, a thank you for all the support people have shown for clicker training.  This year’s gift comes in the form of a new blog post.

As we count down the days towards the Presidential Inauguration, this seems like an appropriate article to post.  There were so many times when I was puzzled and even deeply disturbed by the 2016 election campaign.  To help decipher the puzzle that is American politics, I’ve been reading some of George Lakoff’s books.  What really hooked me were the very obvious parallels with horse training.  This post is a result of my reading.

I thought about breaking this article up into a series of shorter posts so it wouldn’t monopolize your reading time, but it is better read in larger chunks.  So make yourself a cup of tea and enjoy.

Alexandra Kurland – January 2017

 

frightened-horse-close-upI can still hear the filly screaming.  She was only three months old, and she was being weaned.  Her mother had been abruptly taken away earlier in the day.  She was left on her own for the first time in her life, trapped in a dark stall.  She was rearing and spinning, screaming for her mother.  The older gelding in the stall next to her was aware of her distress and in the quiet way of horses provided her with comfort.  She had latched onto him for security.  As long as she could hear him next door, she was okay, but now that he had been taken out to be ridden, she was screaming her distress.

The barn owner wasn’t having it.  He moved the gelding to another part of the barn and put a different horse next to her.

I was watching this drama play out from the other end of the barn where my own horse was stabled.  The filly’s anguish wrenched at my heart.  I wanted to help her, but she wasn’t mine to comfort.  I couldn’t do anything but listen to her scream.

The barn owner didn’t share my concern.  He explained he was doing this for her own good.  She was destined for the race track.  She needed to learn how to be on her own. Her life would be a lot better if she learned early on not to attach herself to other horses.

After the third move, and the third loss of her equine comforter, the filly did settle.  She stopped forming attachments with the horses that were nearby.  She stopped screaming for them whenever they were taken away.

Over the years I’ve seen the terrible stress some adult horses go through when they are separated from their friends.  I think of that filly when I see their anxiety.  Through his actions the barn owner may well have been saving her from a lifetime of stress, but every time I think of her I still want to give her the comfort she was so desperately crying out for.

If I told this story to the cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, he would immediately know who I voted for in the 2016 presidential election. – I’m guessing that’s not where you thought this story was heading.

 To save myself some time I have uploaded the full article as a pdf file. Click on the link below to continue reading.

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JOY FULL Horses: Epilogue: To Love A Horse

To Love A Horse
This is the final installment of the JOY Full Horses posts.  I know we are in the midst of the Holiday season, and it is hard to find time to read things on the computer, but I hope you will find time to read this final post.

It contains a request on behalf of Panda, Ann Edie’s guide horse.  This past May Panda became very ill.  Her health issues have been on-going and the vet bills have mounted up.  The details are in the post.  If you would like to send a thank you for the JOY FULL Horses posts, you can do so by contributing to Panda’s fund.  The money raised will go towards paying her vet bills.  To contribute go to:

https://www.youcaring.com/annedieandherguidehorsepanda-718398

If you go to Panda’s youcaring.com page, you can also read a letter from Ann describing the work Panda does for her and the relationship they have.

And now for this final chapter of the JOYFULL Horses posts:

I have thought about this final chapter so many times, but I have never yet put the words down on the page.  Now that I have come to the end of these JOY FULL Horses posts it is time to say this.  On September 10, 2015, as he was coming up the hill into the barn, Peregrine had a heart attack and died .  My very good friend, Bob Viviano, found him when he checked on the horses mid-day.

I was out of the country.  I had left the day before.  Where I was staying during the first part of my trip didn’t have an internet connection so it was two days before I could be reached.   By then it was too late to get home to see him buried.  All I could do was continue on.

They put him next to Magnat, our senior horse.  I planted 500 daffodils for him, and in the spring, while I was publishing the first section of this book, I watched them bloom into new life.

Much of my life is very public. My horses have been my teachers so it is often their stores I share.  When I write about clicker training, I am writing about them, but this time I chose not to share.  I wanted private time to remember Peregrine.  When you have had the privilege of loving someone for thirty years, they are your heart.

When I lost Peregrine’s mother I promised her I would write her a love story.  That love story was clicker training.  She began it.  Peregrine continued it. All that I have written, all that I have shared through all these years has been my love story to them.  Clicker training means many things to many people, but that is what it means to me.  Woven into every lesson are gifts of love from my horses.

Remember that as you are using it.  For those of you who have taken my work and given it your own twist, your own names, by all means build on this work, but treat it well.  What you are building on came from them, it came from a very great love.

I began writing JOY FULL Horses when Robin was in hospital, recovering from colic surgery.  I finished it during Sindri’s long illness.  I wrote about that when I began sharing these JOY FULL Horses posts back in January.  It was a book my horses gave to me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it.  And then I lost Peregrine, and I knew.  This is his gift. That’s why it was important to share his book with all of you through these bog posts.  With each post I have been remembering him, honoring him.  He was the first of our clicker trained horses.  For thirty years he was my teacher.  I have been pleased to share his lessons by giving you these JOY FULL Horses posts.

It is a gift, but as I said at the start of this post, I do now have something to ask of you.  This has been another very hard year.  In May Panda, Ann Edie’s guide horse, became ill.  She had an intestinal blockage.  Without the surgery she received, she would have died.  Her recovery has been a long, hard one.  She was in hospital for three weeks following her surgery, and then at the end of June she developed pneumonia and had to be readmitted to the hospital.  She was on IV antibiotics for a week before she was finally well enough to go home.  She remained on antibiotics through the rest of the summer.

In September she developed severe diarrhea and had to be hospitalized again.  She spent another six weeks in hospital.  She is home now and doing okay.  She’s well enough to go for walks around the neighborhood with Ann, but she can’t yet resume her full role as her guide horse.

I’m sure you can imagine how fast the vet bills have added up.  The vets have generously given Ann a service animal discount, but even so Panda’s bills have risen towards a staggering $30,000.  The amount is unthinkable, but even more unthinkable would have been giving up and losing Panda.  To help out I have just started a youcaring.com fund raising campaign.  If you would like to send a thank you for the JOY FULL Horses posts, you can do so by contributing to Panda’s fund.  The money raised will go towards paying her vet bills.  Please share this through your social network so we can help Panda and Ann.

The fund can be viewed at:

https://www.youcaring.com/annedieandherguidehorsepanda-718398

Peregrine and I thank you for your help.

Happy Holidays

Alexandra Kurland

JOY FULL Horses: Doorways

I Can’t Do What You Want
“I can’t do what you want.”  What I wanted was for the horse’s owner to show some enthusiasm, some appreciation for her horse’s good effort.  He was giving her very solid work.  She asked for a lateral flexion. He presented himself in good balance.  Click and treat.  She handed him a single slice of carrot.  He barely bothered putting it in his mouth.  She asked again.  He responded.  Click.  “I gave at the office.”  That was his level of interest in the exercise.  He was shutting down.  Why?

Remember you always want to tell a story that works in your horse’s best interest.  Was there something physically amiss?  This was a three year old.  Were his teeth bothering him?  He was certainly of an age where this could be the case.  He was a big horse.  Was he going through a growth spurt that made the work difficult?  Did he simply not like carrots?

I filled my pockets with the same treats he had been getting from his owner, and took a turn with him.  I asked for a lateral flexion.  It wasn’t great.  To me he felt a bit like a car with four flat tires, but it was well within the range of the work I’d just been watching.  Workmanlike but not brilliant.  I clicked.  I gave him a couple of carrot coins – and I made a fuss.  I scritched his neck.  I told him he was clever.

I asked again.  He gave me an okay response.  Click – carrot coins and more fussing.  He ate the carrots and went straight back to work.

His “tires” were beginning to inflate.  He took his treats with enthusiasm.  He interacted with me.  The work became more fun for both of us.

“I can’t do what you do,” his owner told me.  “I can’t be happy.”

Our horses bring us to our truth.  He needed her to do more than give him carrots.  The treats in your pocket are not a substitute for love and appreciation.  They are an expression of that love.  In my book “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker” I wrote:

“Before I ride, I fill my pockets with appreciation.  That’s what the treats I feed my horse represent.  Each time I click, I’m providing my horse with information: “That step you just took was a good one” or “I liked the extra lift I just felt in your back.”

Appreciation is information, and it turns into love.  With the clicker I’m not just telling my horse he did something that will get reinforced, I’m also thanking him for a job well done.”

I would add – I am telling him I love him.

Finding Joy
Every time I fill my pockets I am filling them with appreciation.  At times I may be on a fast rate of reinforcement.  It may be click – treat – repeat with no time for extra scritching, but my focus tells my horse that he is doing great.  And when we take a break, I tell him he is “so smart!”  I tell him he is wonderful.  I turn every session into a time of play.  That’s when I do my best training.

Sometimes I am tired, or just distracted by “Life”.  I forget to play.  I give a horse a work session.  It is competent, fair, even productive, but it is not creative.  And it’s not really even any fun.  It is what I do “at the office.”  That’s not the training I want to share.  I want people to see the joy of clicker training.  Play gets us there.  It is a doorway.  You step through it into love.

Play is important for so many reasons.

We learned from Stuart Brown that it is a dress rehearsal for life skills.

We learned from Jaak Panksepp that it is one of the seven core emotional systems.  We need it for good brain development.

But this last reason, play is a doorway that can open up our hearts is the what our horses teach us.

For all these reasons we need to play.  We need to be PLAY FULL.

I am writing this sitting in the stairwell of my barn.  It’s early morning,  June, 2014.  From my perch on the middle landing, I can watch Peregrine and Robin dozing in the barn aisle.  They have just come in from grass and are taking a nap side by side.  I can also look out over the arena.  The long side is open so I can look out over the trees and listen to the early morning bird song.  I would like to say it is otherwise very quiet but in the distance I can hear a tractor.  One of the local farmers is cutting hay.

It’s going to be a warm day, but sitting here in the shade of the arena, I get a soft cross breeze.  I have a cup of tea, my horses are nearby.  It is a perfect place to write.

Peregrine and Robin have helped me face many of my own truths.  They have shown me that what I want by myself is not as important as what the three of us can want together.  I want to ride.  I love to ride.  But riding has never been about me.  It has to be about us, what we can do together.  They are herd animals.  They love doing things together.  They love to play.  That’s one of the great truths of horses.

Peregrine is teaching me a new truth.  He is 29 with some health issues.  He has a heart murmur and other metabolic issues.  I don’t ride him anymore.  When I wrote about the similarity between extinction and grief, I know what those emotions feel like.  There is a grieving process when you can no longer ride the horse who has been your teacher and partner for almost three decades.

This is a quiet time for us.  The barn is organized around Peregrine’s needs.  He wants Robin for company. He gets Robin.  He needs to be able to move around the barn.  He has the freedom to do so.  The doors are left open so he can choose where he is the most comfortable.  He can hang out in the barn aisle or take long naps in the arena.  He can sun bathe in the barnyard or wander out for grass.  It is all available to him.  He wants to play clicker games.  I play with him.

This could so easily be a sad time, or a time to set aside my old friend in favor of younger, stronger, rideable horses.  Instead we share the joy and comfort this great truth brings us.  We have learned to Play, and it has opened many doors.

Coming Next: Epilogue: To Love A Horse

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

JOY FULL Horses: Understanding Extinction: Part 14

Our Creative Horses
Yesterday I shared with you the story of Robin’s “pose”.  The use of resurgence has helped us develop a much more systematic way of creating unlikely behaviors.  Because we understand the process better, we can be more deliberate in it’s use.  I ended the post by saying: “The end result may look like magic, but there is good science behind it.”

When we open up our training in this way and turn our learners into more active participants, we often find that they are even more creative than we are.  Once again Robin provided me with a great example of this.

When Robin was three I took him to the Equine Affaire to be my demo horse.  I wanted to show people what freeshaping via clicker training looks like.  I didn’t want them just to see the end product of freeshaping.  I wanted them to see me teach Robin a completely novel behavior.  The problem was he already had a pretty extensive repertoire. I was stumped for ideas, but I thought the easiest solution would be to use a prop.  One of my clients had been teaching his horse to flip a hula hoop up over his head.  I thought I could make a start on that with Robin.

Robin had been our first equine retriever.  Picking things up was solidly in repertoire.  I figured if I put the hula hoop on the ground, he would try to pick it up.  I’d be able to reinforce that and build it into Robin holding it longer which might over three days of demos lead to him flipping it over his head.  Such was my level of creativity, that’s all I could think of to work on with a hula hoop.

So during our demo, I brought out the hula hoop and tossed it out on the ground.  I was still explaining freeshaping to the audience so I wasn’t focusing yet on Robin.  While I was talking, he walked over to the hoop and stood with his front feet planted in the middle of it just as he would have stood on a mat.  Before I could respond to him, he reached down, picked up one side of the hoop and began walking himself forward foot by foot with the hoop!  That was his level of creativity!

The Creative Process
Here are the steps the horses have been teaching us:

First, you build a strong history of reinforcement for the component behaviors.

You change the situation somewhat so mild extinction comes into play.

You get a resurgence of these previously reinforced behaviors and new combinations emerge.  That’s creativity.  The most fun for me is seeing what the horses invent. As we have seen, they are often so much more creative than their human partners!

Familiar Landscapes
Kay Laurence might say we were seeing familiar landscapes with fresh eyes.

Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz would say you have to understand the process of extinction before you can master it.  If you understand it, you’ll avoid situations that create macro extinction processes and all the frustration that goes along with them.  Instead you’ll use micro extinctions to build complex behaviors.

I would say that monitoring the level of extinction your learner is experiencing is a keys-to-the-kingdom part of good training.

I’ve just spent a couple of days working with a group of horses I have come to know well. One of them is a retired performance horse. Without going into a lot of details, I would describe him as an emotionally fragile horse. He’s easily worried.  If he thinks he has the right answer, he’s a superstar, but I always have to be careful how far I stretch him into new behaviors.  If he thinks he might get something wrong, he worries.  He’s come out of a training environment in which he had to perform correctly or his rider could get seriously hurt. I suspect he was punished for mistakes which accounts for his worry.

Mastering Micro
His back was looking prematurely aged so I wanted to teach him Robin’s “pilates pose”.  I had already shown him that he could get reinforced for lifting his back up and releasing at the poll.  In this particular session I was holding out for slightly better versions. As I withheld my click, I saw him experimenting.  Was it higher with his poll? Was it more lift of his back? What did I want?

The shifts he was giving me represented micro changes.  They were all within a clickable range.  Clicking him for any of these variations would have been fine, but I was waiting fractionally to see what else would pop out.

I was using micro extinctions to create the next step.  And because I was thinking about this in terms of extinction, I was monitoring closely his emotional responses.  I did not want him to become macro worried.  We were always just a second or two from a click so I could let him experiment without risking the emotional fallout of a larger extinction process.

Micro Masters
Micro is so very much the key.

Macro extinctions are frustrating.  Micro extinctions are part of good teaching.

Macro shaping can be confusing.  Micro shaping is elegant.

Macro negative reinforcement is literally painful. Micro negative reinforcement is clear communication. It is a conversation with cues exchanged in both directions.

When you go micro, your learner is always just a second or two away from a reinforceable moment.  You can cue another behavior, or you can simply click and treat. Either way, you are saying: “Yes! Great idea!” Micro Mastery is what we should be striving for in our training.  When you say someone is a great trainer, you are really saying that individual is a Micro Master.  In training that’s the “black belt” we should be aiming for.

robin-pg-lying-down-micro-masters

With this last section we come to the end of my JOY FULL Horses book – almost.  What remains is one final chapter and that’s what’s coming next.

Coming Next: Doorways

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY FULL Horses: Understanding Extinction: Part 13

Puzzle Solving
In the previous post I gave several examples of how a complex behavior could be taught through the imaginative use of resurgence.  Training is not a random process where you hope your learners will offer you something you can reinforce before the intense emotions associated with extinction shuts them down.

Instead you teach your learners a whole range of behaviors.  You are in effect planting the seeds for what you want to grow.  With this rich repertoire of behaviors to draw on, your learners may come up with some new or unlikely combinations.  We have a procedure for setting up the creative process.  You give your animals the repertoire, the components that form more complex behaviors, and then you set up a puzzle and let extinction be the catalyst for solving it.  Sometimes what pops out of this process is something that wasn’t even on your training radar.

The “Pose”
Robin’s pose is the perfect example of this.  I’ve told the story of how this behavior evolved many times.  I’ll keep it brief here.

Robin first learned a stationary “pose”.  It originally was a by-product of cleaning up his treat taking manners when he was two years old.  He was such an eager learner.  I loved his enthusiasm.  He would grab the treat from my hand and immediately be offering me something even more brilliant than whatever brilliant thing he had just done.  I was enchanted.  The food delivery was a little problematic, but so what.  He was brilliant.

Robin drove home the importance of one of my favorite training mantras.  “If you don’t notice an unwanted behavior when it is just a little thing, don’t worry about it.”  That’s not normally the kind of training advice you expect to get, but here’s where this takes you:  “If you don’t do anything about the behavior when it’s just a little thing, don’t worry. It will get bigger.  Eventually, it will be too big to ignore and then you will do something about it.”

I ignored his all too hasty treat taking for a while, and then I decided I really did need to do something about it.  This was a long time ago. I probably would choose a different method today.  Robin, and all the other horses I’ve worked with have been good teachers.  They have shown me many more options to replace the one I used.  At the time the strategy I chose was to stop the behavior I didn’t want by taking away something Robin wanted.  In other words, I was using negative punishment.

Here was the set up: I put Robin in his stall with a stall guard across the door.  I picked out the biggest carrot from a bag of big carrots and stood across the aisle from him holding it out.  Of course, he reached out for the carrot.  Immediately, I snatched it away and turned my back to him.  I counted to three and offered the carrot again.

Again he reached for it, and again I snatched it away.

I offered it a third time.  This time he hesitated ever so slightly. Click.  I reached into my pocket and handed him a piece of carrot.

A couple of clicks later I could hold the carrot directly under his chin, and he was drawing up away from it.  He wasn’t going to reach for that carrot!  He had learned that drawing back from it generated what he wanted.  If he reached for it, it disappeared, and I handed him nothing.  But if he drew back from it, click, he got exactly what he wanted – a piece of carrot and my laughter.

Robin being Robin made a quick leap from the carrot cueing this behavior to offering it to me without this prompt.  Of course, I clicked him.  He was looking so handsome.  I wasn’t expecting this added bonus, but I was certainly liking it.  As always, when I worked with him, I was enchanted.

He made the leap so fast to offering “the pose” without needing the prompt,  I was blown away by his brilliance.  He started “posing” more often, arching his neck and looking for all the world like a well-trained dressage horse.  I liked the look so much I continued to reinforce it.  It became a default behavior. In the absence of any other active cue from me, if Robin posed, I would click and reinforce him.  In other words I became the cue for the behavior.

It meant that if Robin wanted to interact with me and engage in the clicker game, he had a sure-fire way of doing so.  Even if I was busy doing barn chores, if I saw him posing, I would click, interrupt what I was doing, and reinforce him.

At the time I was keeping my horses at a boarding barn where a good portion of their day was spent in their stalls.  I didn’t want them to become like the proverbial four year old child banging the kitchen pots and pans trying to get mother’s attention.

Robin wasn’t ignored when I was busy with other things.  If he wanted attention, he had a polite way of asking for it.   He never had to become that frustrated “toddler with the kitchen pans” banging on the stall door or raking his teeth up and down the stall walls.

I didn’t create a regression into these unwanted behaviors.  Instead I was able to reinforce a behavior I liked, one that was a useful warm-up for our formal training sessions.  When he asked for attention, Robin was always confident that I would engage with him. He lived secure in a world filled with clicker-training interactions.

Reinforcing him for the pose went on through that winter.  I didn’t have any plans for developing the behavior.  It was simply something I liked. It was Robin who was the creative one.

It must have been late March.  I was lunging him in the arena one evening.  He was giving me a ho hum trot.  There was nothing there I could reinforce.  Robin went once around the circle, twice, three times without reinforcement. Normally I would have been clicking and reinforcing him at a much higher rate, but given the plow-horse trot I was presented with, there was nothing there I wanted to say yes to.

At the time I would not have described it in this way, but I was putting him into an extinction process.  I could see him searching, trying to decide what to do.  On the third time round he had the answer.  He would try his pose.  But in order to pose and still stay in the trot, he had to add energy.

Within one stride he transformed his trot into magazine-cover magnificence.  I captured the moment with a click, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. That single stride has evolved into horses all over the world moving in magnificent self-carriage.  The “pose” has evolved into a major component of my work.  Robin showed us that we could indeed shape self carriage.  What began as a happy accident has become a deliberate and very systematically-trained behavior.

I don’t introduce the pose to other horses the way I taught Robin.  I needed him to show me what was possible, but today I use other shaping methods.  I originally called it “the pose”, admittedly not a good name.  Since then I’ve expanded the name to the “pilates pose”.  Others have called it crunches, rock backs, “look pretty”, etc.  It really doesn’t matter the name it is given.  What is important is our understanding that horses can become very active partners in maintaining their own good balance and long-term soundness.  It was Robin who first showed us just how possible this is.

Seeing Familiar Landscapes with Fresh Eyes
When I first told this story to Jesús, he commented that the pose came out because of resurgence.  I remember the comment well, though I didn’t understand the significance of it at the time.  Jesús told me later that Robin’s story got him thinking more about resurgence.   It prompted him to use PORTL to look at the different extinction processes. I described the results of those experiments in the earlier sections of this chapter on “Understanding Extinction”.

So here is one further result of Robin’s brilliance.  We now we have a much more systematic way of creating unlikely behaviors.  Because we understand the process better, we can be more deliberate in it’s use. The end result may look like magic, but there is good science behind it.

This is one of my favorite videos.  It was taken a long time ago when Robin was three.  He is lunging around me at liberty.  You’ll see I have two dressage whips in my hands.  I am using them as targets, giving him reference points to balance around.  When this video was made, he had never been in side reins or any other type of mechanical device.  He had not yet had a rider on his back, and yet he is presenting me with this beautiful balance.  I know the lighting is terrible.  The indoor we worked in was poorly lit, but to me it is a shining example of the connections that form when we mix together science, clear communication, and a lot of love.

Coming Next: The Creative Process

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com