Goat Diaries: Day 1 Continued – Dress Rehearsals and Trial Runs

Testing The Waters

In my previous session I had tested the waters by sitting down in a chair and trying to introduce targeting to a pair of young, very food motivated goats. Data collection is an important part of training. What was the data I had collected so far?

I discovered that I needed to change my treat delivery.  I was so used to my horses who wait patiently while I get their treats that I hadn’t factored in the quickness of these young goats. Getting treats out of my pocket while sitting in a chair was too slow.  I normally start horses in a stall or a small paddock so there’s a barrier between us.  I’m standing so I can move as needed which means getting a treat out promptly isn’t a factor.  Sitting down changed everything.

With horses I recommend to people that they do a practice run first without their animal learner. Go through the handling skills you’re going to be using BEFORE you’re with your horse. Can you manage the target and the treats? What can you do to streamline the process?

Remember: Clean handling in helps to get clean training results out.

The more you are bumbling and fumbling your way through the process, the more mistakes you’ll accumulate. Your animal learner may even get so frustrated by the inconsistencies that he simply quits and gives up trying. That’s when people start to say their animal got bored. He didn’t get bored. He got confused.

The way to avoid this is to run through a pretend session, something I had failed to do. But I was learning fast.

Already I had learned that whether it’s a goat or a horse, the starting point is the same. Go spend some time just quietly getting to know the individual you are going to train. Then find something your learner wants. That was easy with these goats. They wanted peanuts! The ice had been broken, and they were ready to train.

Our first targeting session at 8 am showed me the things I needed to change. In the next session I made some adjustments in my food delivery. With two goats vying for peanuts, I couldn’t afford a long time lag between the click and the delivery of the treats – not if I wanted them to connect the training dots.  I wanted the click to mean something to them and not to be so overshadowed by everything else that was going on that it became just background noise.

Session 4: 11 am
This session was very similar to the 9:30 session, except this time when I sat down in my chair the goats came right over. I had learned I needed to pre-load my hand. Reaching into my pocket took longer than I had. I was using whole peanuts still in their shell. That helped keep this session from disintegrating into chaos. It took a moment for the goats to chew the peanut hulls. While one was still chewing, I had time to offer the other the target.

Goat Diaries Day 1 targeting panel 1aThe placement of the target helped make it clear which goat I was focusing on.  The yellow bucket also helped to keep them separated and out of my lap.

Goat Diaries Day 1 targeting panel 1b

Photos taken from video: Goat Diaries: Day 1 Targeting.mov

The total time on this session was 6.2 minutes.

Coming Next: Day 1 Continued: Cups of Tea


Goat Diaries: Day 1 – Begin By Breaking the Rules

Goats Not Horses
I’m a horse trainer.  That’s what I know, but here I was with two young goats trying to stay as far away from me as was possible in the space of a stall.   The goats belonged to St Mary’s Convent.  They were raised both for their beautiful cashmere fiber and to be part of a 4-H program.   They had grown up being held in the laps of young children.

The rest of their experience with people was very conventional farm handling. When you needed to move a particular goat into another pen, you grabbed the collar around his neck and propelled him forward as best you could. No wonder they were suspicious of me! They clearly expected to be grabbed and held. The Sister who had raised them very much loved her goats and was wonderfully kind to them. But the handling was done within the constraints of traditional farm management.

These goats had also grown up being fed peanuts and pretzels by children.  No safety rules attached. The herd had gained the nickname of Piranha Goats. That tells it all. Apparently, the children loved having the baby goats jump up and take pretzels out of their mouths. Cute maybe, but these weren’t babies anymore.

I had just discovered that the goats were willing to set aside their suspicion of me for the prize of peanuts.  Gone was their shyness around me.  Suddenly, I had two goats all but in my lap eagerly taking the peanuts from me.  Okay.  That was one hurdle crossed.  Now what?

With horses I would normally begin with targeting. Now that the goats knew food was involved it seemed a reasonable starting point for them, as well. I would also normally begin with protective contact. I would be on one side of a barrier with the horse on the other. And I would be working with only one horse at a time.

Nick target in stall 2.png

I often get emails from people asking for help getting started.  They’ve gone out into the only work space they have – their paddock – and tried to clicker train several horses at once.  That’s a recipe for disaster.  We’ve all seen one horse run another off a hay pile. Now the handler has essentially become the “hay pile” – a hay pile with a particularly tempting stash of carrots hidden in it’s pockets.

If the handler doesn’t get kicked or run over, she runs a high risk of getting one of her horses kicked.  And even if the herd gets along beautifully and doesn’t quarrel over a scarce resource, there’s the problem of sorting out what to do after you click.

Do you feed everybody, even the horse who was doing completely the opposite of what you wanted?  Or do you just feed the horses who were good?  What kind of confusion and frustration are you weaving into your first clicker lessons?

It’s so much better to work one horse at a time.  There are lots of ways to do this.  You may not be able to afford metal round pen panels, but you can make inexpensive wooden panels to create a safe work space for your horse.  You can set these panels up in your paddock, so all the other horses can watch.  A horse who worries about being away from the herd will still have his family nearby.

Maggie in round pen panels.png

These wooden panels are both inexpensive and easy to make.  They provide a good safety barrier for you and your horse.  Note the horse is on the outside.  This gives her more power of choice.  She’s free to leave at any time.  The handler has to become more creative to keep her horse engaged with her.  If her horse does leave, the panels keep her from chasing after her to get her back.

I didn’t do this with the goats.  I began by breaking my own rules.  My work space was their stall.  I had no barrier and two goats – with horns – who were jostling one another to get to the treats. That’s a recipe for chaos, but I didn’t want to stress the goats by separating them.

Instead I took my chair into the stall, set a bucket of hay down in front of it and began. The chair served one of the functions of protective contact. While it didn’t provide me with any protection from them, it did give the goats a sense of safety. They could stay on their platform as far from me as they could get, or they could come see what I had to offer.  I was planted in my chair.  They could see that I wasn’t going to to chase them into a corner or make a sudden move to grab them.

Goat diaries day 1 goats on platform.png

While I watched the goats, they were watching me.


Session 3: 9:30 am




I sat in my chair shelling peanuts (and eating some, as well.) It took almost five minutes for the goats to decide it was safe to check me out. In the end their curiosity coupled with lure of the peanuts proved too much for them. They came over to see what I was doing. Once they realized treats were involved, they were eager to play. And just as it does with horses, their curiosity helped me out. When I held my target (a colored baton that rattled when I shook it) out to them, they reached out to sniff it.

goat diaries day 1 baton2.png

My Target Stick

I was sitting in a chair so I could be at their level. That made it hard for me to get at my pocket after I clicked. Too slow. I didn’t like the lack of a smooth connection between the click and the treats. I’m so used to working with horses I hadn’t factored in the challenge of getting to my pocket.

I was accumulating too many errors – not good, so I ended the session after just a few rounds of targeting. I wanted us all to have a chance to think.

goat diaries day 1 targeting intro Taking Turns.png

Taking Turns: The photos make it seem as though this was a very orderly session, but it felt like chaos to me.  I’m used to introducing one animal at a time to the basics of clicker training.  I was reluctant to separate the goats, so I started with a less than ideal situation.  I quickly realized I needed to change my set up or I was going to accumulate a lot of unwanted behavior along with the target touches.  It was time to stop and rethink what I was doing.  Testing the waters is fine, as long as you don’t stay too long once you realize a change is needed.

Coming Next: Testing the Waters: Dress Rehearsals and Trial Runs

Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Begins

Day 1: Goats are Not Horses

IMG_1569 Fengur looking at the goats

I train horses. That’s the species that has captured my heart and my training focus. Hand me a horse, and I know how to start. I may not know right away how to unravel a particular training puzzle, but at least I know how to begin sorting out the pieces. Or to borrow another metaphor – with horses I have a road map. I don’t always know where I’m going to end up, but at least I know how to get started.

With goats I had no road map. I knew they were sort of like horses – only not really.

The “not really” parts were what I was most looking forward to discovering. One way to stretch yourself as a trainer is to step outside the comfort zone of the species you are most familiar with. What were these goats going to teach me about horse training? And what were they going to teach me about goats? I was finding out fast.

Clicker Training Day 1: 6 am – Session 1

IMG_2793 Goats on platform

Now What? I had a pair of goats living in the end stall – goats who wanted nothing to do with me. At 6:00 I cleaned their stall, gave them fresh hay and then went in to sit with them. While I worked on my computer, the goats stood opposite me on their platform. Hmm. First contact might take a while.






Session 2: 8:30

At 8:30 the peanuts and pretzels arrived. Party time! They weren’t at all shy about coming to me for peanuts. Suddenly, I had two goats eagerly pushing into my lap trying to get to the peanuts stashed in my pocket.

At this point it was just feed, feed, feed. I wasn’t trying to link getting a peanut to a specific behavior. The connection I needed was being made: I am a provider of things you like. They were clearly eager – really too eager for the treats. It was time to think about how best to proceed. This is when I tell people to go have a cup of tea. It was too hot for tea, but it was definitely time to withdraw and consider the next step.

tea cup.png

Coming Next: Begin By Breaking the Rules

Goat Diaries: Arrival Day


They are small like dogs, eat hay like horses and behave like goats – which is exactly what they are.

goats in stall Day 1

But these weren’t just any goats. They were Cashmere goats, producers of that most luxurious of fibers. They belonged to St. Mary’s Convent. Long story short the Sister in charge of the herd had offered to let me have the pair for a couple of weeks. How could I say no? It was going to be fun to train something other than horses.

So here they were in the back of a covered pickup truck, two yearlings huddled together in a bed of hay, trying to stay as far away from us as they could get. The Sister crawled into the back of the truck and pulled out the smaller of the two.  She sat on the tailgate holding him in her lap.  These goats were used in a 4H program. They had been cradled in children’s laps since the time they were born.

This goat, Sir Elyan, was incredibly cute. The first cashmere goat I saw was a beautiful silver doe with long, flowing guard hairs. This little one was going to have a coat like hers. How perfect!

He was tiny for his age. He weighed only about thirty pounds. The Sister could easily lift him down from the back of the van. The other goat was his full brother, but they looked nothing alike. He was much bigger and had short guard hairs instead of the long coat of his brother. Good, I thought. I won’t have any trouble telling the two of them apart.

The Sister handed me Elyan’s lead and climbed back into the van for his brother. He was too big to easily lift out. The Sister managed to pull him to the back of the truck. He stood on the tailgate of the van surveying his new surroundings.

“Now what do we do?  How do you get a goat down?” I wondered, but I didn’t say anything out loud.

Not to worry. He took care of that for us. He jumped nimbly down from the truck and joined his brother. We pointed them in the direction of the barn, and off they went!

“Great!” I thought, “they pull like sled dogs!” Leading was definitely going to be high on my training priority list.

sled dog 4.png

We got them headed into the stall I had prepared for them and turned them loose to explore. I had lots of questions to ask. What could they eat? What mustn’t they eat? Apparently they were picky eaters, but they did like peanuts and pretzels. That’s what the children had taught them. I had neither at the barn. Oh well. Surely they would like hay stretcher pellets.

No, the goats told me after giving these treats the briefest of sniffs. That is not something goats eat. Nor will we take the grass you are offering us, or the hay. We will eat the hay, but only if you go away.

I brought a chair into the stall and sat down. I was not unfamiliar with goats. I’ve had clients who had goats, and there were goats at the barn where I boarded my horses. I’ve been around goats enough to know that they are perfect candidates for clicker training. They are agile, greedy, and very smart.

These goats were also very afraid. They did NOT want to be touched. They may have curled up in the laps of the small children they knew, but they were making it very clear that they wanted nothing to do with me.

I was still enchanted. Talk about cute! I spent the evening sitting with them, observing their behavior and letting them observe me. In my on-line course this is how I have people begin with their horses. Before you start introducing the clicker and making it contingent on behavior, spend time just getting to know the animal you’ll be training.

(It is worth noting that I am writing this sitting in a chair next to Robin.  I enjoy spending time with the animals I train.  He is having a snooze. His chin is resting on the top of my head. It is perhaps the most charming way in which to work. The only thing that would make it better would be the absence of flies.)

Spending time with our animals is a luxury. That’s especially true of our horses. We groom them, we ride them, but do we spend time just being with them, sharing quiet moments like this together?  For many of us the answer is no.  There are too many pulls on our time, and often barns are not set up for quiet visiting.  Certainly many of the boarding barns I visit aren’t.  You groom, you ride, you go away.  That’s the expectation.  If you want to spend time just hanging out with your horse, that’s something you have to create on your own.

I knew with the goats food would get me a long way forward, but fear could also pull me back even further. I wanted them to want to be with me, just as Robin wants to stand here by my side. We are all social animals. Once you remove the fear, the pull to be together is a strong one.

So I sat and watched, enchanted. Sometimes good training is as simple as sitting in a chair.  At least that’s how it begins.

The goats settle in:

IMG_1563 goats who are you.jpg

Do I know you?

goats with hay bucket

Happiness is a bucket filled with hay.

IMG_1582 goats rabbit in stall.jpg

All the neighbors came to check out the new arrivals.

goats on platform 3 photos

Inspecting the “hotel room”.  It looks as though they found everything to their liking.

Coming Next: Goat Diaries – Training Day 1

What Has Knitting Got To Do With Training?


I like to knit. I’m not a good knitter. I don’t know how to do any fancy patterns. What I knit are blankets, warm, soft blankets. You may be wondering what this has to do with training. Well, for starters I knit these blankets while I am editing video. All the videos I have produced for the DVDs and my on-line course have required hundreds of hours of editing time. I can only sit for so long before I need something to do with my hands. That something is knitting.

I also knit because I can’t resist beautiful, hand spun yarn. I visit the local farmer’s markets not so much for the fresh produce, but to see what yarn the spinners have brought.  As I make my selection, I feel like a cat luxuriously kneading the wonderfully soft yarn.  The spinners have yarn made from alpaca wool, and my favorite, sheep’s wool blended with mohair. How can anyone resist?

I don’t necessarily need to do anything with the wool I buy.  It’s beautiful just to look at, but I have mice in the house so a while ago all the yarn had to be put away in rodent proof containers.  Sad.  There’s no point in having beautiful yarn if you don’t put it to use, so last fall I made myself a promise. I would not buy any more yarn until I had used up everything that I had. So over the winter I went on a knitting spree. I knit a beautiful grey and white blanket that is made from alpaca roving a friend gave me years ago.  And I knit a second blanket that is made from a blend of Lancashire sheep wool and mohair.

Mohair comes from goats, and goats can be fun to train. And there you have the next connection to training. While I was knitting and editing video, I was thinking that it might be fun to get a pair of goats. But I wouldn’t want just any goats.  I’d want angoras. What fun to have goats that could produce the fiber I was so very much enjoying. So I got on the internet and began reading about Angora goats.

That was in late March. In early April I was listening to a program on the radio about upcoming art and entertainment events in the area.  The featured event was a fiber tour. Farmers in a neighboring county who raise sheep and other animals for their fiber had banded together to promote their farms. One of the representatives was a Sister from Saint Mary’s Convent who raises cashmere goats. Cashmere! I hadn’t even considered that most luxurious of fibers. I was on the internet immediately. What did cashmere goats look like?

I was in town the weekend of the fiber tour so off I went. I took a friend with me, and we drove around Washington County looking at sheep, goats, and even rabbits. The first stop was a farm that raised Angora goats. The farm was built on the side of a steep hill. The goats were at the bottom of the hill, at a distance, protected by their guard dog. We could sort of see them from the top of the hill, but that was as close as the farmer wanted us to go.

The next farm had Icelandic sheep. That was fun for me since I have Icelandic horses. Next we saw angora rabbits. They were more like tribbles than rabbits. Somewhere under all that fur we were assured there was indeed a rabbit.

We visited a factory that spun specialty yarns from the wool these growers provided.  I yielded to temptation. I had indeed used up my supply of yarn, and here was the perfect excuse to begin again.

The last stop of the day was to Saint Mary’s Convent, home of the cashmere goats.

Now at the outset I should say that one of the reasons I love horses is for their physical beauty.  “There is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.”  This may be an over-used cliche, but it is very true. Horses are aesthetically pleasing. So one of my many hesitations over adding goats to our little clicker family is – how should I put this politely – many goats really aren’t very pretty. The goats I’m used to seeing have been bred for their milk and their (sad to say) meat. Pretty was not an important criterion. So imagine my delight when the first cashmere goat I met was a stunner. I won’t try to describe her. Instead here is her picture.

cashmere doe at fiber festival

Regal would be a good word for her.  What a classic goat face she had, and that wonderful long silver coat. Never mind angoras. Cashmeres were the goats for me!

I spent a delightful hour watching goats and talking to the Sister who managed them. In addition to breeding them for their fiber, she also ran a 4-H program. Her young goats were leased out to children in that program. They were all there that day, proudly showing off this year’s kids. They sat on benches outside the barn, cradling the goats in their arms. One thing was for sure, these were goats who were going to grow up being used to handling!

I left enchanted, but still very much on the fence about adding goats. It would mean new fencing. It would mean taking time away from Robin. But it would also mean I would have animals who would make great teachers for people coming to the barn. I straddled the metaphorical fence all the way home.

The following day I sent the Sister an email introducing myself. It was a step. I wasn’t yet committing myself to getting goats, but I was pushing the door open a bit.

The Sister responded. She was very excited about the clicker training. Her neighbor next farm over was an agility trainer. They’d been over to watch her dogs. She was intrigued. Could clicker training really be used with her goats? Would I be interested in doing a program in the summer for her 4-H group?

Well, that was a way to take one more exploratory step. I could get to know her goats a little bit better, so I said yes.

More emails passed between us. Sister Mary Elizabeth asked if I would be interested in having a couple of the goats for a week or so before the 4-H program.

My first reaction was to say no. I didn’t have fencing for goats. I wasn’t ready for them. But then I remembered my deer fencing. We have one open stall in the barn. At the moment we use it as a grooming stall for our Icelandic, Fengur.   He sheds literally bucket loads of hair practically year round. If Ann grooms him in the stall, it’s much easier to keep his hair from flying around everywhere. But it was summer. He was taking a brief hiatus from shedding. We could use the stall for the goats and line the outside run with the deer fencing. That ought to keep them contained.

So it was decided. Right after I got back from my trip to England at the end of June my adventure in goat training would begin.

Coming in October: The Goat Diaries

Impatient to read the Goat Diaries?  Great!  You can have a sneak preview of my adventures in goat training at the Training Thoughtfully Conference in Milwaukee WI Oct. 20-22, 2017.  I’ll be sharing a brand new program: “Lessons From A Goat” which will draw on the Goat Diaries posts.  I’ll begin posting the Goat Diaries after the conference.

Registration for the conference will remain open until Oct. 15 so there’s still time to reserve your spot.

This conference is the creation of Kay Laurence.  Those of you who follow my work know that Kay is a trainer whose work I greatly admire.  Any chance I get to collaborate with her, I jump at.  I know good things for the horses will always come from the time I spend with her.  You can learn more about the program at: TrainingThoughtfullyMilwaukee.com

P.P.S.: My original plan was to begin posting the Goat Diaries in August or September, but they have taken considerably more time to prepare than I had anticipated.  Now that my fall travel schedule has kicked into high gear, I find that it is better to wait until after the Training Thoughtfully conference to begin posting this new series.  Anticipation is part of the fun!  (I will share this statistic – my venture into goat training has produced over 80 new videos so I have lots to share and lots to say about how goats can help us to be better horse trainers.