More Fun News!

I have two fun announcements.  I wasn’t sure which I should start with so I tossed a coin, and here’s what I’ll share with you first.

The second episode of my new podcast, Equiosity, has just been published.  In case you haven’t heard, this podcast is my latest project.  I have teamed up with Dominique Day, one of the co-founders of Cavalia, to create the Equiosity podcast.

We taped the first four episodes last August.  They were part of one long conversation that we split into four episodes.  I was in the midst of writing the Goat Diaries, so naturally that was what I was thinking about.  So these first episodes of a podcast that is about horses start out with goats.

That’s not all we talked about.  These first two episodes cover a lot of ground.  The overall theme of Episode 2 is emotional balance.  How can we have the enthusiasm we love coupled with the calmness we need for optimal learning?

You can learn more about the podcasts and listen to the first two episodes at

The second piece of exciting news is our goat herd has expanded.  Yesterday Thanzi gave birth to twins.  If they were horses, I would say she has a colt and a filly.  Baby goats don’t seem to have names that indicate gender.  They are just referred to as kids.  So I will say she had a boy and a girl, both black, but thankfully the little girl has a spot of white on her forehead.  She will be easy to tell apart from her brother and Trixie’s black triplets.

They came during the day which is good, but at an awkward time for me.  Yesterday afternoon I had an appointment with my tax accountant.  When I checked on Thanzi before leaving for a few hours, she was just starting into labor.  What to do!  At this time of year you don’t cancel tax appointments.  But I couldn’t leave Thanzi.  So my tax accountant, who doesn’t even know about the goats, got what has to be for him a unique excuse for canceling an appointment.  At least it’s better than my dog ate my homework.

Thanzi did great.  I got to watch her twins being born, and thankfully I didn’t have to help out.  That’s exactly what you want.  I helped dry them off just so they would get to know me, and then I stepped back and let Thanzi bond with her babies.

After barn chores were done, I spent the evening with Trixie’s three curled up in my lap.  Thanzi’s newborns were sleeping within reach so I could stroke them as I welcomed them to the world.  We are in for a lot of laughter at the Clicker Center this spring!  Come join us!

Thanzi drying off her twins

Thanzi is drying off her first-born twin.

Thanzi's newborns visited by patience 3:21:18

No, Thanzi didn’t have triplets.  This is one of Trixie’s babies come to meet the new arrivals.

You will need a password to watch this video.  Since it shows Thanzi giving birth, the password is Thanzi.


Launch Day for Equiosity!

We’re ready!  Today Dominique Day and I are celebrating the start of a great new adventure.  We are launching our podcast, Equiosity – the podcast about all things equine.

Equiosity banner for blog

To listen to the podcast visit:

If you find yourself tripping over the spelling, take Equus and combine that with curiosity.  You get both our name Equiosity and a great description of the podcast.  Whenever the two of us get together, it’s always a non-stop conversation about horses and training.

Last August I visited with Dominique at her farm and we recorded our first four podcasts.  I was in the midst of writing the Goat Diaries so what did we talk about in this podcast that is about all things equine?  Goats, of course.  So if you are missing the Goat Diary journals, this first podcast will take you back to the start of that great training adventure.

All roads lead to horses and that, of course, is where the goats take us.  In these Equiosity podcasts we intend to dig deep into the layers of training, to tease apart nuances and details that make a difference to our horses.  But first you need to meet us.  These introductions are not done in a stiff, formal way.  Instead you will meet us through a conversation that begins with goats and then takes us straight into what matters most to both of us, the well-being of our horses.  That’s the underlying theme of our first four podcasts.

Good things often take a long time in the oven.  There’s no rushing them.  We’ve been preparing for this launch day for a long time.  And now finally it is here!  I hope you enjoy our first podcast.

You can listen to it at, and you’ll also find it on itunes.

Equiosity tile
Alexandra Kurland
and now also

Baby Goats!

We have babies!

IMG_4126 Trixie with newborns 3:7:18

Count them: One, two, and look closely – number three is under Trixie’s belly.  That was the surprise that was waiting for me when I checked on Trixie during last week’s snow storm.  Triplets!  Trixie had three totally charming little girls – small, medium and large.  Their names quickly changed to Felicity, Prudence and Patience.

They were born on Wednesday, March 7th during the afternoon.  When I stepped out of the barn, I heard voices I didn’t recognize and knew Trixie’s babies had arrived.  I spent a delightful evening helping Trixie to dry them off and keeping them warm.  Outside our snug goat house the snow was falling closing us into a private world of bliss.

I have been indulging this past week in spending many hours sitting with baby goats on my lap. I alternate between being a hot water bottle for them to sleep on and a mountain to climb.  They delight in trying to climb over my outstretched legs.  I know it won’t be long before they are agile, sure-footed little beings.  Now they fall and tumble over my legs, always determined to get up and try again.  They are born to learn and that’s what they are doing – fast.

Get ready for cute pictures.

IMG_2193 Patience close up ?

The babies weren’t the only ones who were cute!  Elyan wanted his cuddle time, too!

IMG_2191 Elyan looking in 3:18

So that’s one announcement.  We have triplets in the barn.  So much fun!

Here’s the other announcement:  The Equiosity podcast is almost ready to launch.  It’s so like waiting for the baby goats.  You know it’s coming.  Any day now I’ll be able to say: it’s ready!  I don’t know which is more exciting, the baby goats or a new podcast!  Both are great fun.   I’m enjoying the babies.  I hope you enjoy the podcast just as much.

A Happy Announcement!

Last week I finished posting the July Goat Diaries.  So now I am on to the new project.

I am teaming up with Dominique Day, one of the co-founders of Cavalia to create a podcast.  We’ll be presenting a series of conversations centered around our horses and our training experiences.  Dominique is one of the most articulate proponents for positive, horse-friendly training methods that I have met.  Whenever we get together we have non-stop conversations that dig deep into the nuances of training.  We’re having an email exchange right now about conditioned reinforcers that is crying out to be turned into a podcast conversation.

We’re still putting the final touches on the podcast so we don’t yet have an official launch date.  I am hoping it will be the end of this week, but if baby goats arrive to pull me away from the computer we may not be ready until next week.

What is the name of our new podcast?  Combine equus and curiosity and you get Equiosity, the perfect name for our conversations.  So look for the official announcement coming soon of Equiosity – the podcast about all things equine.

And for those of you who are missing the Goat Reports, there will be more updates on the current training.  Any day now we’ll have baby goats in the barn.  I know I won’t be able to resist sharing.

For now here’s a quick just for fun video:

Goat Diaries Day 12 Last Day

I started sharing the July Goat Diaries on October 2, 2017.  I knew in the two weeks that the goats were with me they had generated enough material to fill a book, but I really didn’t think they had also generated enough posts to fill five months!  But here finally I am at the last day of the July Goat Diaries.  I certainly learned a lot.  One of the main things I learned was how entertaining goats are!

When I started this project, my goal was a simple one.  I wanted to get to know goats a little better, to see if they would make a good addition to the barn.  My training goals for the goats were also simple.  I wanted to introduce them to clicker training and to get the basics stabilized enough that they would not frustrate or be frustrated by novice clicker trainers.

I had started with two timid goats who wanted nothing to do with me.  They spent their first evening in the barn trying to stay as far away from me as possible.  I had observed them, and they had observed me.  The following morning the peanuts arrived and greed took over.  They forgot about being afraid and tried instead to raid my pockets.  The clicker training was under way!

Mid-way through their stay I was wishing I had more time.  They were delightful.  They were charming.  They were enthusiastic learners.  But they were oh so very were greedy for treats.  Stable, polite manners seemed like a very distant goal.

I was feeling greedy myself – for more training time.  On this their last day with me I wanted to squeeze in a couple of extra sessions before they were collected in the afternoon.  I decided for these sessions to experiment with putting platforms out in the arena.  I began with P.  As we entered, he veered off towards the mounting block.  I unclipped his lead and walked beside him as he ran across the mounting block.  At the far end he jumped down.  I backed up a few feet.  As he followed me, I clicked and reinforced him.  Then I directed him towards one of the platforms.

We went from platform to platform then back to the mounting block.  It was fun to engage with him in some goat play.  As he jumped off the mounting block, I turned, and he trotted with me all the way to the first platform.  There are all kinds of fun ways we could build on this.

Goats day 12 our playground fig 1-7

Goat Diaries Joy of being a goat 2.png

Goat Diaries Joy of being a goat 3.png

Things changed dramatically when I put P on a lead.  Everything would have been fine if I had simply gone with him as he forged ahead to the next platform.  But I didn’t.

With horses mats let us work on two sides of the same coin.  At first, the horse is reluctant to step on an unfamiliar surface.  He’s right to be cautious.  Avoiding holes is how you keep from breaking a leg.

So the first half of the mat lesson is developing the horse’s confidence and comfort level around mats.  Stepping on mats is a good thing.  It produces lots of goodies.

The other side of that lesson is dealing with the mat once it has become a tractor beam.  Horses become eager to go to mats.  That’s where you get lots of goodies.  So instead of hanging back and avoiding the mat, now your horse is dragging you to them.  You’re dealing with the same kind of I-want-to-go-somewhere emotions, the same pull that you encounter when you take him out to his paddock or you turn for home out on the trail.  He doesn’t want to wait for you.  He’s in a hurry!

Except heading for the pasture gate or for home after a long ride generates even more excitement than a mat.  So the mats provide a way of having this conversation but at an emotional level you can both handle.  With P I was now having that conversation.  “What do you mean I can’t just run to the mat!?”

The first time I redirected him from the mat, he handled it okay, but in the middle of the lesson things disintegrated.  He reared up and spun around, bumping into me in the process.  I felt as though the mats had turned into Borg ships from Star Trek – Resistance is Futile.

In my neighborhood I can watch lots of excited dogs behaving just like this.  It’s one thing to manage this when the animal is the size of a dog.  I was thinking what this behavior would look like in a horse.  Standing up your hind legs is not a behavior I want to encourage, no matter the size.

I used the lead to redirect him and just rode out the wave of energy.  “I know you want to go to the mat, but that’s not what we’re doing right now.”

The Sister had described to me how they introduce the lead to the goats.  They put the lead on the young goats and let them work out the restriction of the lead.  There’s no step by step progression of lessons, so this twirling, leaping, rearing behavior that I was getting was very much in P’s repertoire.

Once all four feet were back on the ground, I used the mat to help me teach him how to stay with me instead of pulling ahead.  We walked in the general direction of a mat, but I asked him to keep going past it.  When he turned in my direction and put slack back in the lead, click, I reinforced him.  I then added another layer of “yes! – aren’t you clever!” by letting him go to the next mat.  Click and treat.

Note in Figures 2-3 in the series of photos below it might look as though I am dragging him away from the mat.  If that’s what your used to seeing, that’s how your eye will translate this.  But actually, as soon as the slack goes out of the lead, I am waiting for P.  I don’t keep walking.  Instead I wait for him to turn back to me. Click and treat.

Goat diaries day 12 tractor beams 2.png

Goats day 12 Pellias 5-9

The value of mats is they begin to have this magnetic draw.  I want P to be eager to go to them.  But that draw can mean the sight of a mat overrides all other cues.  I wanted to teach P how to stay with me so we could walk together to the mats.

Goat diaries day 12 magnetic draw of mats 1.png


Goat diaries day 12 magnetic draw of mats 2.png

Goats day 12 P panels 9-13

Goats Day 12 Fig 14-19 with Pellias

P began to figure it out.  Now we could walk past a mat without it dragging him into it’s magnetic orbit.  When I released him to a mat, we could go to it together with slack in the lead.  I ended the session at that point.  The last day of training didn’t really feel like the time to be opening a whole new chapter.

E’s Session with the mats

Now it was E’s turn.  As usual, he was completely different from his brother.  There were times when he spotted a mat and started to head there without me.  Instead of going with him, I changed course.  The lead would go tight.  I’d pause, waiting for E’s next move. He’d redirect back to me.  There was no leaping about as there had been with his brother.

To picture what he was like with the mats think eager dog who wants to greet another dog or say hello to a person.  He was all happy wiggle.  When he turned back to me, click he got a treat.

All the work we had done with the backing was paying off.  If he started to surge past me to get to a mat, I would stop.  The answer was sitting right there, fully primed, ready to open at the top of his rolodex.  All he had to do was back up and we were right back together.

Goat diaries Day 12 e encounters mats 1.png

More good leading:

Goat diaries Day 12 e encounters mats 2.png

Once E was “parked” on a mat, I focused on grown-ups.  When we left the mat, he let me redirect him with the lead.  I was thinking what a pleasure it would be to walk him round my neighborhood at home.  I’m not sure what the dogs would think, but I would certainly have the most elegant of companions on the end of my lead!

Goat diaries Day 12 e encounters mats 3.png

The importance of Shaping on a Point of Contact:

Goat diaries Day 12 e encounters mats 4.png

E makes choices:

Goat diaries Day 12 e encounters mats 5.png

Goat diaries Day 12 e encounters mats 6.png

Because it was their last day at the barn, I wanted to get in as much training time as possible.  So I brought P back in after E’s session.  Just a half hour earlier he had struggled to go past a mat.  Their magnetic attraction was very evident.  We had to weather the storm of an extinction burst as he tried to get to the mats.  He had been like a fish on the end of a line, rearing, spinning, trying everything he could think of to get to a mat.  None of it had worked.  Landing back on the ground, moving away from the mat, that had earned a click and a treat.

This is where it is so important to stay on a point of contact and not add pressure.  If I add make-it-happen into the mix, I run a very high risk of poisoning the process.  Yes, absolutely, I could have dragged him away.  He’s a small goat, and I’m used to handling much larger animals.  I could have punished the rearing.  I could have forced him to follow me.  He would have learned his lesson, and I would also have broken everything I was trying to create with these goats.

Instead I stayed on the point of contact, moving with him, not against him.  This is very much like holding onto a squirming cat.  You don’t try to confine the cat, you simply keep moving with it, redirecting it as it tries to wiggle out of your arms.

There is always a chance that this lesson was too much.  Remember the training mantra: you never know what you have taught.  You only know what you have presented.

When I brought P back out for this second session, he showed me what he was learning by walking with me past the mats.  If a mat started to draw him in, I could easily redirect him.  He was learning that there are many ways to get treats.  Going to mats was a bonus, but going away from mats was also good.  Hurray!

P’s late morning session

I did another round of training in the late morning.  I thought I would make things easier if I put just one tempting mat out.

This lesson is all about the now/not now nature of cues.  It is learning that the lead has priority over other cues.  This is what I want him to learn: The mat may be sitting out in the middle of the arena, but until I release you to it, I want you to just ignore it.

When P started to surge towards the mat, I would say “wait” as the slack went out of the lead.  That’s a useful verbal cue for an animal to understand.  The meaning evolves with usage.  P very promptly changed direction and came back to me.  Click and treat.

I began to tack back and forth past the mat.  He got reinforced for ignoring it.  With the horses I can use the draw of the mat as a preliminary step towards teaching them to leave something they want, such as yummy spring grass.  It is much better to begin this lesson in the safety of a familiar paddock than out in a complex environment that’s full of distractions.

Dragging me to grass, to other horses, back to the barn, these all have similar emotional roots, just different levels of intensity.  I would much rather begin with the mats.  The draw they have is one I’ve created, and it is nothing like the draw another horse or a field of fresh grass can have.

I begin the discussion with mats.  My horse can learn to manage his emotions as I show him that there are alternatives that work just as well.  Going to the mat earns treats, but so does walking past the mat.

When they arrived, the goats had sled-dogged their way into the barn. I knew they could pull!  Now P was learning to lead even past something he very much wanted to get to. Click and treat.

E’s session:

Goat Diaries Day 12 – If Goats could purr . . .

E’s last session in the arena was a lot of cuddling, and a little bit of leading.  If goat’s could purr, that’s what he would have been doing.

Goats day 12 if goats could purr fig 1-2

Goats day 12 if goats could purr fig 3 -8

I took E back to his stall, finished my barn chores and then went in to sit with them for for another round of goat “purrs”.

Their ride would be collecting them in a few minutes.  I decided on one last adventure.  I put the leads on both goats and took them outside for the first time since their arrival.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to be trying to manage two sled dogs going in opposite directions, but they were perfect.  All that work on basic training was paying off.  I’m sure to many all this caution where I spent so much time first in their stall and then in the barn aisle must have seemed silly.  These are goats!  Just get on with it.

But I’ve seen what “just getting on with it” means for both horses, and dogs.  I’ve watched enough dogs pulling against their leads to know that just getting on with it isn’t my idea of a fun walk.  When the goats arrived, they showed me they could pull as hard as any dog.  Now they were keeping a soft feel in the line.  Because I had taken my time in the beginning, we could all three enjoy a walk together now.

Trailer Loading – Goat Style
Sister Mary Elizabeth arrived in her pickup truck.  When the goats first came, my question had been how do you get them out of the back of a pick up? Now I had the reverse question.  How do you get them in?  E was small enough to lift up, so that was easy.  I tossed some treats on the floor of the pick up and showed P a target.  He jumped right up onto the tailgate.  Easy!  I wish all horses were as easy to load.

And then they were off.  My two weeks of goat training were drawing to a close.  There was just one more piece to describe and that’s graduation day.

Graduation Day!
That’s how I think of the following three days.  I drove up to the convent to give a clicker training workshop to the 4-H group that the Sister runs.

We had a great set up for introducing goats and children to clicker training.  The goats were in pens made from metal livestock panels.  We could begin with protective contact, introducing the goats to targeting with the children staying on the outside of the panels.

Most of the children had brought their own goats, so they already had relationships well established.  Even so, the panels were a great help.  We started all of the goats out with protective contact.  The barrier helped explain the “rules” of the game to both the goats and the children.  Touch the target and click – treats appear.  The panels stream-lined the process.

E and P showed what they had been learning.  P came in first and was a super star.  I set out two wooden platforms and showed the children how he would follow the target from one platform to the next.  Some of the children were sitting up on top of the panels.  P never even so much as glanced at them.  His focus was entirely with me, inside the pen.

With E I used a different approach.  I put him on a lead and had five of the children come into the pen with us.  Each child had a target stick.  One by one they held their target out for E to orient to.  He was very cautious at first.  From his perspective the children must have looked very predatory leaning towards him with their outstretched sticks.  But he did reach his nose out to touch the target, click, treat, on to the next child.  He caught on and began to move with much more confidence from target to target.

We did the same game with P.  He was much more confident.  It was good for him to move from target to target.  It’s a great way to generalize targeting to many different objects.

Both goats were great.  They led beautifully, took their treats politely, oriented to the target, worked for other people.  It was truly graduation day for them.

My own special treat was leading them down from the upper barn where most of the herd was housed.  It was cooler up there.  There was more of a breeze and the goats could shelter in the barn from the sun.  We’d tried the day before keeping all the goats down below where we were working, but it was just too hot for them.   On the second day only the goats we were going to be using were brought down to our work area.  I went up with the Sister to bring E and P down.  We got them through the gates of the upper pasture and into a fenced lane way.  The goats followed me one on each side, just as they had at the barn.  When an animal chooses to be with you that is indeed a great honor.

The goats were fun visitors. I enjoyed having them in the barn.  The training I did with them was just the beginning steps.  It was nothing unusual or fancy.  It was just clicker training basics, the same basics I would be using with a new horse. But basics are never boring or ordinary.

Always it is a study of one. And in that study of one, you discover the individual.

What do you do?
On forms that ask for your occupation I am never sure what to say.  I’m a writer, a teacher, a business owner.  For convenience I often say I’m a horse trainer, but really that is the least accurate description of them all.  I never really think of myself as a horse trainer.  To me that title refers to people who train other people’s horses for a living.

Very early on I tried having people send me their horses to train.  I hated it.  I felt as though I was running an assembly line.  It was get this horse worked and then move on to the next so I could get everyone done.  I barely had time left in the day for my own horses, and it began to feel as though they were also part of the assembly line.  The horses I had in training left my care knowing a lot more than when they came, but I didn’t enjoy it.

Training for me is about love.  I open my heart to each animal I work with.  When I sat with the goats, it wasn’t about training them to perform a particular task.  It was about making a connection with them.

Perhaps this is why far too often professional training can be so hard on horses.  The trainers certainly love horses.  They love the talent a particular horse shows.  But, do they love the individual?  Do they have time for that?  After so many horses have passed in and out of their barns, do they have the heart space for it?  Do they thank them, appreciate them, love them, each time they see some little breakthrough of understanding?

That’s what a marker signal lets us do.  Each time I click, I am celebrating the success of my learner.  I am building a relationship – a history of reinforcement.  That matters to me.  It is why I do not have a barn filled to the rafters with animals.  It is why I am a teacher not a trainer.  I want to have the time with each individual to make it a study of one.  That is what I share not by training horses, but by teaching the people who love them.  Together we are on a voyage of discovery.

It would have been fun to have had the goats stay a little longer.  Their two weeks of intensive training laid the ground work for so many grand adventures yet to come.  The goats were clearly eager learners.  Their leading skills meant we could have gone for walks around the property together.  I could have set up obstacle courses for them and taught them about agility.  As clever as they were, I could have taught them match to sample, color discrimination, counting and other forms of concept training. Mostly, I would just have enjoyed their company.  Because at the end of the day, that is what training lets us do – enjoy one another.

Instead they were going back to the children who love them.  They will be taking back with them the gift of clicker training.  Hopefully, it is a gift the children will be able to open.

The Goat Palace – Update

As you know the goats left in July, but came back to spend the winter.  So while this marks the end of the July Goat Diaries, it does not mark the end of my goat experiences.  In fact Trixie is due to give birth in just a few days so I suspect there will be many more goat reports once we have baby goats in the barn.

I have some other exciting news to share, but this has been a long report so I will wait for another day to tell you about my next great adventure.


Please Note: if you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order.  The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd.  I suggest you begin there:   Two of the goats I write about originally came for a twelve day stay in July.  The July Goat Diaries track their training during this period.  In November these two goats, plus three others returned.  They will be with me through the winter.  The “Goat Palace” reports track their current training.  I wish to thank Sister Mary Elizabeth from the Community of St. Mary in upstate NY for the generous loan of her beautiful cashmere goats.




Goat Diaries – Day 11: A Walk In The Park

Our brains love habits.  Predictable routines let our brains go on auto-pilot.  We don’t have to make decisions about every little thing.  Think how exhausted you’d feel before you even got as far as deciding what to have for breakfast if you didn’t have these micro-habits helping you get through the day.

I was establishing routines with the goats that were definitely helping with the smooth running of the day.  The morning of this their eleventh day of training began with a long cuddle/groom session.  E was particularly interested in being scratched.  I had the grooming mitt with me.  He stood perfectly while I used it all over his back and sides.  He seemed to be enjoying the feel.  P was not interested.

These goats need to be combed to get their beautiful cashmere fiber.  Combing was on the priority list, but they were both very clear that they weren’t ready for that step.  The grooming mitt was enough of a stretch for now.

Cuddle time was followed by leading sessions for each of them.  I was pleased by how good they both were.  I worked on grown-ups and took care that they stayed back during food delivery.  They were becoming very good at maintaining space between us.  I was also feeling that they were definitely responding to the click and not just my body language.  Their “wheels” were turning.

Little things were now evolving.  They knew the routine.  They knew they came out one at a time.  They knew they got treats on the floor when they went back to the stall so returning was not an issue.  They had become eager backers.  That meant I had to be careful to keep backing in balance with all the other things I was teaching them.  Backing is good, but in all things – moderation.

Our learners always tell us what we need to work on next.  Their eagerness to throw backing into everything suggested that I might want to put some mats out in the arena so they would have stations to go to.  That would help build solid standing still so I didn’t get hung up in some unintended chains.

E’s Session: “A Walk in the Park”

E was a delight.  He’s a charmer.  The way his long coat ripples as he walks, I can’t help but think I’m leading an overgrown Yorkshire terrier.  He’s a very elegant walking partner.  His good manners were beginning to match his good looks!

Goat Diaries Day 11 walk in park 1.png

E has become a very elegant walking partner.

P’s Session

P came out full of energy.  I thought he might need a bit of a run across the mounting block, so I let him loose.  He stayed with me.  We did a little bit at liberty and then I put him back on the lead.  He fussed a bit as I clipped the lead to his collar.  If he had been staying with me through the summer, cleaning that up would have been high on my to-do list.

He had much more go in him than E.  When I walked off, he trotted by my side.  He didn’t pull.  There was no feeling of the original sled-dogging.  He was staying with me.  He just had a lot of joyful energy that needed to be expressed.  I clicked, fed and went into grown-ups.

He was reminding me of an Icelandic stallion I had met at one of the spring clinics.  The stallion was in a new environment.  What an adventure!  He was a jumble of emotions.  He was excited – new horses, new sights and smells, so much to explore!  He was worried – new horses, new sights and smells, so much to take in.

He could have been a handful, but he came with a superb foundation in grown-ups.  Any time he started to get excited and to rush forward, his person stopped his feet and folded his arms together.  That was his cue for grown-ups.  That’s all he had to do.  His stallion instantly stopped his own feet and stood quietly.  It was a master class in the value of these foundation lessons.

P was on the first rung of the ladder that leads to grown-ups having that kind of stabilizing effect.  It doesn’t matter that he’s a fraction of the size of this horse.  Having these good manners in place will make him a much more enjoyable companion.  He made me think of the many dogs I have watched with their owners.  Some are over-controlled.  In an effort to manage them in human environments all their dogginess has been suppressed.  Don’t jump, don’t bark, don’t chew the furniture.  Don’t be a dog.

The other side of the pendulum looks at all that control in horror and lets the dogs do whatever they want.  Somewhere in the middle is a place where our animals can live comfortably and safely in our environments and still be themselves.

P is so very smart, and so full of joyful energy, that’s something I value and very much want to preserve.  I want to encourage his energy, not suppress it.  A very wise training mantra is: never get mad at energy.  You need it to train.

P’s energy can be channeled into so many fun activities.  I want to celebrate his quick learning.  His eagerness is a plus, something I want us both to enjoy.  He was learning to stay with me, to stand by my side, to move away from my treat pockets – not by being punished, but by being told over and over again how right he was.

Goat Diaries Day 11 Visitors

In the afternoon a friend I hadn’t see in quite a while came for a visit.  Ann joined us, as well.  We started by taking three chairs into the stall.  The goats visited a bit with Julie even though they hadn’t met her before.  That’s progress!  We talked for a while, then I took both goats in to play on the mounting block – except they didn’t want to!  After telling them how much fun it was watching the goats racing up and down the mounting block, they were total fuddy-duddies.  Oh well.  Perhaps Mount Everest loses it’s appeal after you’ve scaled it a few times.

Instead they stayed with me as I walked around the arena.  They were working together beautifully as a pair.  When I clicked, they both stayed well back away from my pockets.  All that was a plus.  What they didn’t do was put on an acrobatic show.  Oh well.

I took them back to their stall and then brought P out by himself on a lead.  I had Julie introduce herself via targeting.  She offered a target, in this case her hand.  When we clicked, I gave P his treat.

This is such a very safe way for him to meet new people.  I’ve used it many times with horses.  In clinics I’ll station people around the perimeter of a large circle.  For safety I’ll keep the horse on a lead.  One person will hold out a target, and I’ll walk with the horse as he moves towards the target.  Click.  I usually begin by handling the food.  The treats initially come from me.

After he gets his treat, we’ll back up to a mat that’s in the center of the circle.  Click, he gets reinforced for landing on the mat.  We do a couple of rounds of grown-ups and then the next person offers a target.  We use the mat in the middle so the horse’s hind end is never turned towards a person he doesn’t know.  I don’t want him to be frightened and suddenly kick out at someone.  Instead we back up away from the ring of people.

Remember, this lesson is most often used with horses who are worried by people. If something else in the environment suddenly startles him, I may be stacking one worry on top of another, creating a bigger spook than he would have to either one by itself.  So I structure this lesson with lots of layers of added caution, including backing up away from the people, but towards a mat.

All these little steps mean that this is not a beginning lesson.  I must first build all these components to make sure the lesson stays safe.  Look at all the skills this horse needs to understand and do well: targeting, taking food politely, backing, going to a mat, and even harder backing up with enough directional control that he lands on the mat, and finally grown-ups.

It’s a great pattern.  Every element gets stronger the more you play with it.  The horse gets more comfortable approaching people he doesn’t know.  His targeting skills become more generalized.  Backing becomes better.  The mat becomes an even stronger conditioned reinforcer.  Duration in grown-ups expands.  Treat manners get better.  Cues get stronger.  The behaviors overall become more solid.  Each element serves as a reinforcer for whatever preceded it.  You get all these benefits, and the animal thinks he’s just playing a game.

With P I wasn’t concerned about him kicking out so I didn’t worry about moving him away from Julie.  We just ping pinged back and forth between going to her to touch her offered target, and coming back to me for a treat.

I had just one more day with the goats and then they would be going back to their home farm.  Giving them this lesson would make it easier to transition new people into the games they had been learning with me.

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Goat Joy

Before we left the arena, I took P back over the mounting block.  The first time I kept the lead on and had him follow me up.  On the top step, I unhooked him, and he delighted us all with a wild leap into the air.  Such fun!

There’s more to this than just letting P entertain us with his acrobatic prowess.  P gets to practice getting excited, and then I ask for grown-ups and he practices calming down.  That’s a useful life skill no matter the species.

On the next run I unhooked him on the first step of the mounting block and let him go the rest of the way on his own.  He rewarded us all with another joyful leap off the mounting block.  I loved how he always came running straight to me.  Without really trying, I was building a great recall.

Goat diaries Day 11 Goat Joy.png

Who knows.  I may be triggering some form of goat to goat aggressive display.  All the goat experts reading this may be shaking their heads, thinking oh the trouble she is going to get into encouraging this kind of behavior.  Perhaps they are right.  Or perhaps, balancing his antics with grown-ups will mean I can allow this behavior without it tripping over the edge into emotional states I don’t want.

E’s Turn

E is much more people shy than his brother.  Again, I took advantage of the opportunity to have two experienced clicker trainers in the barn to help build his confidence.

We began by having him target to Julie’s outstretched hand.  He approached her very directly.  Click, he had to leave her to come to me for the food.  I do like this process.  It begins to build some duration between the click and the actual arrival of the treat.

With the horses there can eventually be a considerable time lag between these two events.  When I click, there are times when the horse I’m working with may be eighty feet or more away from me.  He’ll stop and wait patiently while I bring him his treat.

All the behavior that he is presenting between the moment he hears the click and the moment I get to him and stretch my hand out to deliver the treat are things that I like.  This kind of duration didn’t happen over night.  It is built in small increments through a long series of lessons.  The horses wait patiently because they know the treat is coming.  All that good, quiet waiting is reinforced over and over again through the ritual of the food delivery.

We moved from Julie to Ann.  I had Ann hold out a cloth frisbee.  E touched it, got a treat from me, but then was reluctant to go to Ann again.  I wanted him to be successful, so I had Julie step forward and offer her hand as a target.  He went to her directly, click, the treat came again from me.

We went back to Ann.  This time I had her hold her hand out.  Again, E was reluctant to approach her.  After a couple of failed attempts, I offered him the frisbee.  He touched it directly.  I handed Ann the treats.  E took them from her without hesitation.

So we used this pattern a couple of times.  Flexibility was the name of the game.  Training is not like baking a cake where you need to stick to the recipe or you end up with a mess.  In fact sticking rigidly to a recipe is a good way to guarantee a mess.   Always it is a study of one.  And always you are adjusting to the needs of your learner.  That was the major takeaway from this lesson.  We were asking E what level of interaction he was comfortable with and then making changes as needed to help him succeed.

Goals – Short or Long Term

When we were all done playing, I was really pleased with the return to the stall.  Both goats tend to rush ahead on the way back to the stall.  I could have simply released them.  The immediate goal was to get them back to the stall.  That’s where they were heading.  Letting them go on their own would have avoided any pulling they were doing on the lead.

It would also have missed an opportunity to teach them to stay with me in distracting environments.  There were going to be times when letting them off the lead wouldn’t be an option.  The walk back to the stall created an opportunity for me to show them that staying with me was worth the added effort.  I was taking them back to the stall.  But on the way there were lots more opportunities for treats.  Walking beside me had value.

E was figuring this out.  He was walking with me down the aisle.  There was less rushing ahead, less pulling to get back.  Out in the arena he had been listening to P calling.  He had clearly been wanting to get back to his brother.  I had kept the session short because I didn’t want him feeling too anxious.  So I was especially pleased that he walked back with me to his stall.

8 pm

At the end of the evening I had another cuddle session.  E in particular wanted to be close to me and to be scratched.  He’s so very sweet.  I’ve discovered he really likes having his chest and belly rubbed.  In fact, I haven’t found anywhere that doesn’t turn into a “please scratch” spot.  I can think of few better ways to end an evening than with goat bliss.  This was their last evening in the barn.  I was going to miss what had quickly become part of the day’s routine.

Goat Diaries Day 11 Goat bliss.png

Coming next: The July Goat Diaries: Day 12 – E and P’s Last Day at the Barn

Please Note: if you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order.  The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd.  I suggest you begin there:   Two of the goats I write about originally came for a twelve day stay in July.  The July Goat Diaries track their training during this period.  In November these two goats, plus three others returned.  They will be with me through the winter.  The “Goat Palace” reports track their current training.  I wish to thank Sister Mary Elizabeth from the Community of St. Mary in upstate NY for the generous loan of her beautiful cashmere goats.

The Goat Diaries Day 10: You Can Never Do One Thing

The July Goat Diaries

I don’t know which label to give this session:

The longer you stay with an exercise the more good things you see that it gives you.

You can never do one thing.

These both work.

E was very cautious around people.  He had shown me that many times over.  When Panda first arrived at eight months of age, she was more than cautious.  She was afraid to the point of charging anyone who leaned over her.  She hadn’t shown this behavior when we first met her in July, but it’s what she arrived with in September.  Panda was a Florida girl.  That’s where she was born.  We had to wait the extra two months for it to be cool enough to transport her North.  She arrived sporting the most gorgeous show clip.  Because she is little, I suspect the clipping was imposed not trained.  She was probably the victim of the “three men and a boy” school of horse handling, meaning she was wrestled into submission and made to stand still while someone towered over her with a pair of clippers.

So the horse we received in September pinned her ears and snaked her neck out whenever someone came near.  If I had seen any sign of this behavior when we looked at her, I would have passed on her as a potential guide.  But here she was.  Florida was a long way away, so this was the horse I was going to train.  I had enormous confidence that clicker training would get this sorted – and of course it did.  Not only did Panda become a super guide, these lessons led to her favorite game – Panda catch.

So now with E I had a goat who was afraid of people.  I found myself using many of the lessons that had worked so well with Panda.  Who knows how many good things these simple lessons would bring us.

E’s 7 pm session
I brought E out on a lead into the arena.  He was very good.  He showed me that he was understanding the morning lesson.  When I clicked, he was moving away from my treat pocket to get the treat.

Ann joined us in the arena.  I led him up to her.  He reached out cautiously to sniff her.  Click, treat.  I repeated this a couple of times, then he decided he wasn’t interested in going towards her again.

If his caution had been only that, discovering that approaching Ann produced treats might have been enough to break the ice.  But his caution was a reflection of real fear.  I have to be careful under these conditions.  If I am afraid of cats, but I really need the fifty dollars you are offering me if I touch the hissing kitten, I might do it.  I’m still afraid of all things feline.  Take away the fifty dollars, and I won’t go anywhere near the kitten.  That’s always a question when you are using positive reinforcement to get an individual “over” their fear.  Are you really changing the underlying concern, or are you just masking that worry?  And is it really fair to ask someone to make that choice?

It is possible that when I touch the kitten, it turns into a soft ball of purring contentment.  Instead of being afraid, now I’m enchanted.  Being clicked and reinforced for approaching the kitten has shown me that I have nothing to be afraid of.

Being clicked and reinforced for approaching Ann, was not enough to convince E that she was harmless.  I changed the game.

I clicked E as he walked beside me keeping slack in the lead, but instead of giving him the treat directly, I walked over to Ann and put the treat into her outstretched hand.  She was now the “food bowl.”  The first time I had to hold my hand over hers to get him to approach and take a treat.  After that he was willing to eat directly from her hand.

I wanted E to discover that people can be the source of good things.  I did a lot of this with Panda.  It began just as I was doing here.  Gradually, as Panda became more comfortable approaching people, we added in more people and changed the game to a targeting lesson.  At clinics I would have people form a large circle.  Each person would have a target, but only one person at a time would hold out the target.  When Panda approached and oriented to the target, click, that person gave her a treat.  Then that target disappeared, and someone else would hold out a target.

This game gradually morphed into its current form.  Panda gallops from one person to the next.  As she approaches, she runs around behind the chosen person and comes to a halt neatly at their side.  Very fun!  They click, give her a treat, and then off she goes – galloping to the next person.  If you asked her, she would say she invented the game, and in many ways she would be right.

I was borrowing from the beginnings of Panda catch to help E make several important discoveries.  I was hoping this lesson would help him to become more comfortable approaching people other than myself.  I also thought it might direct him away from my treat pocket.  When I clicked, I immediately headed over to Ann.  This took the focus off my pocket.  It wasn’t click and then zero in on my hand reaching towards my pocket.  Now it was click and follow me to the “food bucket”.

After he got his treat, he had to decide what to do next.  Should he stay where he just got fed, or he should follow me?  Decisions, decisions.  The choice he made was to follow me.  Excellent!

So now we had a new game.  I used the lead to direct E away from Ann.  I was careful not to drag him.  If he didn’t follow right away, I waited.  The contact from the lead told him I wanted something.  It was up to him to figure out what – and to be willing to do it.  As soon as he moved towards me and away from Ann, click, I walked the treat back to her outstretched hand.

Once he had his treats, I used the lead to ask him to move away from her hand and to come to me.  I know many dog trainers use versions of this game.  They’ll toss the treats so the dog has to move away from them to get them.  Or they’ll have the treats stashed in a bowl.  When they click, they’ll take the dog with them to get the treat.  These are all good strategies for keeping our animal learners from becoming locked onto our pockets.

The photos below show a wonderful progression. E gets a treat from Ann and then walks off with me.  Click!  (Fig. 1 – 4)  We return to Ann.  (Fig. 5-8)  But now when I ask E to leave, he’s conflicted.  Ann has the treats!  Here again the rope handling becomes important.  It would be so easy to pull him into motion.  The learning for him in that case would be follow or be dragged.  That’s not what I want him to learn.

Instead I wait for him to make his own choice. (Fig. 9-13)  E walks off with me. Click. (Fig. 14)  E watches me hand the treat to Ann and walks with me so he can get to her. (Fig. 15-17)  This time when I ask E to follow me, he backs with me away from Ann.  (Fig. 18-19)  We walk back to Ann.

Walking back to Ann gives E more practice walking with me.  That’s one of the great benefits of this process. (Fig. 20-22).  E is becoming comfortable enough with Ann for her to be able to stroke him.  (Fig. 23) This time when I ask him to walk off with me, he leaves readily and we walk a large circle past Ann.  Click!  (Fig. 24-27)  We return to Ann for a treat. (Fig. 28-30)  That’s a lot of progress from sequence to sequence

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When we left the arena, E was in a hurry to get back to the stall. I did a lot of stopping and asking him to come back to me.  As he came off the pressure of the lead, click, I gave him a treat and we continued on.  We hadn’t gone half way down the aisle before he was walking beside me keeping slack in the lead.  These goats are such fast learners.  He was becoming a pleasure to lead.  Gone was the sled dog impersonation we had started with.

The Goat Palace – Current Training

In my previous post I shared a story about Thanzi and Trixie dating back to the end of December.   January was a brutally cold month here in the Northeast.  The temperatures stayed in the single digits often dipping well below zero (Fahrenheit).  Training sessions shrunk down to the bare minimum.  It’s so easy to think that you aren’t getting anything done during these long stretches when the weather is against you, but the reality is good things emerge out of little steps.

So I described in the previous post how I reinforced Thanzi and Trixie for staying on their platforms and waiting patiently for their treats.  Every time I fed them, I would open their gate and let them out into the hallway.  While I was filling their hay feeders, they were waiting for me on their platforms.  It was bitter cold, but how could I resist?  So I would spend a couple of minutes clicking and reinforcing first one, then the other.  I wanted them to learn to take turns.

We are now in February, and it is shedding season.  This is very relevant because these are cashmere goats.  Their fleece has to be combed out of their coat and collected.  I was not looking forward to this, especially for Trixie who has been so body shy.

Sister Mary Elizabeth came out last week to check on their coats.  They weren’t yet starting to shed, so we sat and visited with them instead.  As she told me about Trixie’s background, she remembered that she had been one of three goats who were attacked by a dog last summer.  She wondered if this contributed to the fear Trixie often showed.  It is certainly possible.

A couple of days later Trixie started to let go of her coat.  She and Thanzi were on their platforms.  I started to comb across her back.  She stayed on her platform!

Thanzi has just started to shed as well.  Yesterday both goats took turns.  I would comb Thanzi while Trixie waited on her platform.  Then I would comb Trixie while Thanzi waited.

This was a huge step for both of these goats – to let me comb them without any restraint was an enormous gift.  To have it completely volunteered turned what could have been a horrible struggle into something all three of us can look forward to.  Instead of destroying the good work I had been doing with them, the combing was building trust.

This is what I love about positive reinforcement training.  You ALWAYS get more good things than just the one thing you are focused on.

These two photos tell the story.  I love how patiently each goat waits while the other is groomed.  And I am delighted that I can lean over them to comb out their fleece.  All that patient prep was paying off!

And by the way, not only do I not want to stress them.  I don’t want to stress their babies.  Both goats are due in March.  It won’t be long now before we have baby goats in the barn!

Coming Next: The Goat Diaries: Day 11 – A Walk in the Park

Please Note: if you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order.  The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd.  I suggest you begin there:   Two of the goats I write about originally came for a twelve day stay in July.  The July Goat Diaries track their training during this period.  In November these two goats, plus three others returned.  They will be with me through the winter.  The “Goat Palace” reports track their current training.  I wish to thank Sister Mary Elizabeth from the Community of St. Mary in upstate NY for the generous loan of her beautiful cashmere goats.