What Has Knitting Got To Do With Training?

knitting

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.

 

 

Summer Pleasures – Watermelon Parties and The Two Sides of Freedom

Watermelon Parties

watermelon

Summer means watermelon parties for the horses.  They are always a surprise.  As I walk through the barn, bowl in hand, I’ll announce: “It’s party time!”

Watermelon parties are held outside. That was quick learning on my part. It’s astounding the amount of happy drool even a few pieces of watermelon can produce.

Robin and Fengur follow me outside.  While I pass out chunks of watermelon, they stand waiting, one on either side of me.  There’s no pushing, no trying to jump the queue, no grumbling at the other horse. We have a happy time together. The horses get to enjoy one of their favorite treats, and I get to enjoy their obvious pleasure.

Summer also means sharing an afternoon nap with Robin. I’ve just come in from mowing the lower pasture. It’s time for a cool down. I’m sitting in a chair in the barn aisle, cold drink by my side, computer on my lap, and Robin dozing beside me. Fengur has wandered off to the hay box to snack. He’ll join us in a little while.

Robin asleep lip drooping

The view from my chair – Robin’s lower lip droops while he naps beside me.

Why am I writing about these simple summer pleasures? My horses live in a world of yes. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what this means. Living in a world of yes gives me the freedom to enjoy these simple pleasures. But the freedom isn’t one-sided. Living in a world of yes gives my horses just as much freedom.

We often think of training in terms of what we need from our animals. When I walk down the barn aisle, I need you, horse, to move out of my space. When the door bell rings, I need you, dog, to go sit on your mat. I’ll teach these things using clicks and treats, but the behaviors are for my benefit more than my animal companions. The freedom to ask is all on my side.

That’s not how things are in my barn. It’s set up to maximize choice for the horses. Doors are left open so they are free to go where they want. Right now what Robin wants is to nap in the barn aisle. I couldn’t give Robin this luxury of choice if I hadn’t also given him behaviors that let us share space amiably.

When I walk down the barn aisle, Robin will often pose. It’s a simple gesture, a slight arch of the neck is all that’s needed. If he thinks I’m not paying attention, he’ll give a low rumble of a nicker. I’ll click, and give him a treat. Often I’ll get a hug in return.  That’s good reinforcement for me.

The pose is a guaranteed way to get attention from me. If Robin wants to interact, he knows how to cue me. And I am under excellent stimulus control! That’s how cues should work. They create a give and take, a back and forth dialog. They erase hierarchy and create instead the three C’s of clicker training. Those three C’s lead in turn to the freedom my horses and I enjoy sharing the barn together.

Before I can tell you what the three C’s are, we have to go back a few steps to commands.  It’s not just in horse training that commands rule. They control most of our interactions from early childhood on.  Commands have a “do it or else” threat backing them up. Parents tell children what to do.  In school it is obey your teachers or face the penalties. In our communities it’s stop at red lights or get a ticket. Pay your taxes or go to jail. We all know the underlying threat is there. Stay within the rules and stay safe. Stray too far over the line and you risk punishment.

This is how we govern ourselves, so it is little wonder that it is also how we interact with our animals. With both horses and dogs – commands have been the norm. We tell our dogs to “sit”. When it is a true command, it is expected that the dog will obey – or else! The command is hierarchical which means it is also unidirectional. A sergeant gives a command to a private. The private does what he’s told.  He doesn’t turn things around give a command back to the sergeant.

We give commands to our horses, to our dogs – never the reverse. We expect our commands to be obeyed. We say “sit”, and the dog sits. I tell. You obey. Because they are hierarchical, commands exclude dialog. The conversation is all one-sided. Commands put us in a frame that keeps us from seeing deep into the intelligence and personality of the individual we’re directing.

Cues are different. Cues are taught with positive reinforcement. At first, this sounds like a huge difference, but for many handlers it represents a change in procedure, but not yet of mind set. The handler may be using treats as reinforcement, but the cues are still taught with an element of coercion.  How can this be? It’s not until you scratch below the surface, that you’ll begin to understand the ever widening gulf that the use of cues versus commands creates.

dog touching a targetTo help you see the coercive element, let’s look at how twenty plus years ago we were originally instructed how to teach cues.  You used your shaping skills to get a behavior to happen. It might be something as simple as touching a target. Cues evolve out of the shaping process. The appearance of the target quickly becomes the cue to orient to it.  But this cue is often not fully recognized by a novice handler.  We’re such a verbal species, this handler wants her animal to wait until she says “touch”.  As she understand it, that’s the cue.  So what does she do? She begins by saying “touch” and clicking and reinforcing her learner for orienting to the target.

This part is easy. Whether she had said anything or not, her learner was going to touch the target. She’s ready to make a discrimination. Now she presents the target, but she says nothing. What does her learner do? He orients to the target, just as he’s been doing in all the previous trials. He expects to hear the click and be given a treat, but nothing happens. His person just changed the rules which has plunged him into a frustrating puzzle.

He’s in an extinction process. He’s no longer being reinforced for a behavior that has worked for him in the past. He’ll go through the normal trajectory of an extinction process. That means he’ll try harder. He’ll try behaviors that worked in the past, and he’ll become frustrated, anxious, even angry, before he’ll give up for a moment. In that moment of giving up, his person will say “touch” and present the target again.

She wants him to learn the distinction. In the presence of the cue perform the behavior – click and treat. In the absence do nothing.

The problem with this approach is she never taught her learner what “do nothing” looks like. She stepped from the world of commands into what she thinks of as a kinder world of cues, but she didn’t entirely shed the mantle of “do it or else”. With cues the threat of punishment may not be there, but extinction is still an unpleasant and frustrating experience. Why isn’t this key on my computer which was just working now locked up and frozen?!! Until you can find your way out of the puzzle, you can feel very trapped and helpless. A good trainer doesn’t leave her learner there very long. She’s looking for any hesitation that let’s her explain to her learner the on-off nature of cues.

There’s another way to teach this that doesn’t put the learner into this extinction bind.  This other way recognizes that cues create a dialog, a back and forth conversation.  I want my learner to wait for a specific signal before moving towards the target.  Let’s begin by creating a base behavior, a starting point.  For my horses this is the behavior I refer to as: “the grown-ups are talking please don’t interrupt”.  I will reinforce my horse for standing beside me with his head looking forward.  He’ll earn lots of clicks and treats for this behavior.  And he’ll begin to associate a very specific stance that I’m in with this behavior.  When I am standing with my hands folded in front of me, it’s a good bet to try looking straight ahead – click and treat.

Ruth Scilla grown ups.png

“Grown-ups”

In separate sessions he’ll also be reinforced for orienting to a target.  When both behaviors are well established, I’ll combine them.  Now I’ll look for grown-ups.  I’ll fold my hands in front of me, knowing I’ll get the response I’m looking for.  Only now, instead of clicking and reinforcing him, I’ll hold out the target to touch.  Click the quick response and treat.

The message is so much more interesting than the one created by using an extinction procedure to introduce cues.  Cues have just become reinforcers which means they have become part of a conversation.  If you want to interact with the target, here’s an easy way to get me to produce it – just shift into grown-ups.  That will cue me to lift the target up.  A conversation has begun.  We’re at the very elementary stage of “See spot run”.  I’m teaching my horses the behaviors they can use to communicate with me, and I am showing them how the process works.  You can be heard.  You WILL be heard.  Let’s talk!

The conversation that emerges over time comes from looking more deeply at what cues really are. We can think of them as a softer form of commands, but that doesn’t oblige us to step out of our hierarchical mindset. It is still I give a signal. You – my animal companion – respond. Click and treat. Diagram this out. The arrows all point in one direction.

Signal from human leads to response from animal

Peel another layer of understanding about how cues work and you come to this:

It isn’t just that cues are taught with positive reinforcement. Cues can be given by anyone or anything. A curtain going up cues an actor to begin speaking his lines. We would never say the curtain commanded the actor.

If cues can be given by anyone or anything, that means they are not hierarchical. We cue our animals, and they cue us. Cues create a back and forth exchange. They lead to conversation – to a real listening to our animals. We adjust our behavior based on their response. Cues lead to the three C’s of clicker training which I can now say are: communication, choice, and connection. And in my barn that in turn creates opportunities for more freedom. It means doors can be left open. It means I can have watermelon parties and sit with my horses while we both enjoy the afternoon breeze through the barn aisle.

Let’s parse this some more.

The mindset that commands create is very much centered around stopping behavior. Other training options won’t make sense. They won’t work.

Cue-based training makes it easier for you to see your horse’s behavior as communication, as a bid for attention. That makes it easier for you to look for solutions that satisfy his needs.

Let’s see how these differences play out in a typical boarding barn scenario. Your horse is hungry. His initial whicker has been ignored. In frustration he’s escalated into banging on his stall door. His human caretakers see this as “demanding” hay. In a command-based frame demanding hay equal rebellious behavior which can’t be tolerated. The behavior must be stopped.

Within this frame the only training options you can think of are those centered around stopping the unwanted behavior. Other options don’t make sense and won’t work. The command-based frame narrows your field of view. It’s as though you have a tight beam focused on the problem behavior. Everything within that beam is crystal clear, but everything outside the beam might as well not exist. You can’t even begin to think about other solutions. You are targeted on the unwanted behavior.  Banging on the stall door must be addressed and addressed directly.

Now let’s look at the contrast that a cue-based frame creates. Your horse is hungry. His initial whicker to you is noticed and responded to. You appreciate his alerting you to the lack of hay. You have read how important gut fill is in preventing ulcers. You attend to your horse’s needs. Within this frame many options become available including hanging a slow feeder in his stall so he doesn’t have to become anxious about his hay.

Which training options make sense will depend upon which frame you are in. If you are a teacher and you want your instructions to be effective, you need to help your students open a frame that matches what you are trying to teach.

In her presentations Dr. Susan Friedman uses a graphic showing a hierarchy of behavior change procedures beginning with the most positive, least intrusive procedures.

Dr. Susan Friedman's Hierarchy of interventions

You begin by looking at health and nutritional considerations and then move to antecedent arrangements. Hanging a hay net for our hungry horse would fit in here. Her graphic pictures a car moving along a highway. As you begin to approach more invasive procedures, there are speed bumps blocking the way. They are there to slow you down, to make you think about other approaches before you bring in the heavy guns of positive punishment. The hierarchy doesn’t exclude positive punishment as a possible solution, but it does say you would use this only when everything else has first been tried.

This hierarchy makes sense when you are looking at behavior from a cue-based perspective. From a command-based frame, the car enters not at the bottom of the roadway, but at the top.

My Changes To Procedural Changes slide

The first intervention is positive punishment. The barriers are still there, but now they act to keep you from seeing other options. It is only when punishment fails, that you are dragged, kicking and screaming, to consider other ways of changing behavior.  I’ve heard these stories so many times from people who are attending their first clicker training clinic. They’ve been brought there by “that horse” – the one who challenges everything they thought they knew about training. Nothing else worked, but then they tried, as a last resort, a bit of clicker training and everything changed! So here they are, ready to learn more.

They don’t yet know what an exciting world they are entering. Everything they have thought about training is about to be turned truly upside down and inside out. That’s all right. They have the fun of watermelon parties ahead of them.

Live in a World of Yes.png

If you want to learn more about living in a world of yes and the freedom that creates for both you and your animal companions, come join us in Milwaukee for the Training Thoughtfully conference.  https://www.trainingthoughtfullymilwaukee.com/

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.

Simple versus coiled grip.png

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.

Panda in grown-ups not grazing.png

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.

you-dont-understand-me-1-8-17

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