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.


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.

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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:

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Do I know you?

goats with hay bucket

Happiness is a bucket filled with hay.

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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:

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.