Deer Fencing – A Great Example of Everything is Connected

 

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The view in winter out my window

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

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

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

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

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

Frames contain things

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

Frames both include and exclude facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paddy leading on grass 2

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

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

On the search for good grass

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

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

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

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

Happy grazing everyone!

Whisper walking away

What Did You Mean – Not What Did You Say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the contrast:

Robin hug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

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

New Years Greetings!

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

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

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

Alexandra Kurland – January 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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