JOYFull Horses: Cue Communication Part 5: Grand Prix Behaviors

Pre-Ride Safety Check List
In the previous article I described in detail how to teach your horse to line himself up next to a mounting block using the “Capture the Saddle” lesson.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 44

I know there are many ways to get to this end behavior that do not use the reins, but remember this lesson is part of your “preflight safety check”.  Just as an airplane pilot inspects his plane before takeoff, the rider is “inspecting” her horse.  She’s making sure that the connection to the reins works.

At clinics I don’t always know the riding skills of the people I’m working with.  I want to see the handler teach the “capture the saddle” lesson in this way so I know she understands how to use the rein to connect to her horse’s hindquarters.  If something spooks him and he starts to jump forward, building this in as an automatic reaction can redirect him out of what might otherwise turn into a bolt or a buck.

“Grand Prix” Mounting Block Behavior
Getting on safely at the mounting block is only step one in this lesson.  In the next phase the handler leaves her horse a few steps away from the mounting block.  He is to wait there until she calls him over to line up next to the mounting block.  This is normally taught with backchaining.  Gradually the step or two turns into greater and greater distances.  The “Grand Prix” version of this behavior is the horse comes at a canter, ignoring all distractions, and lines himself up.

Grand Prix behaviors
Most of us have seen Grand Prix horses, perhaps not in person, but certainly on video.  We’ve watched them at the Olympics, in dressage and jumping competitions.  We can all admire those horses. Perhaps you even dream of being the rider on one of these magnificent horses.  Or maybe you think, I could never do that. “I’m just a recreational rider”.  You might not dream of having a Grand Prix dressage horse, but you can certainly have “Grand Prix” behaviors.  That’s a goal that is well worth pursuing, especially when it is done playfully.

A horse who stands beautifully for grooming, and then picks each foot up for cleaning when you just point to it is showing you beautiful “Grand Prix” behavior.  When he canters over from the center of the arena and lines himself up next to the mounting block, that’s most definitely “Grand Prix” behavior.

Robin target knee 2016-06-18 at 3.48.33 PM

Robin is showing beautiful, beyond-the-ordinary foot care manners. He is targeting his knee into my waiting hand.  This makes it so very easy for me to clean his foot.

 

Think about your own horses.  What “Grand Prix” behaviors could you teach them?  Excellence comes in many forms.  It doesn’t have to be a competition-oriented behavior to be impressive training.  In my barn a favorite summertime activity is our nightly watermelon party.   It may not seem like much of a “Grand Prix” behavior, but waiting patiently while a favorite treat is passed out shows impressive self-control.  Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary is the fun of clicker training!

Have Fun!

Coming Next: Cue Communication Part 6: Just Tell Me How you Feel

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

 

JOYFULL HORSES: TRANSFORMING HORSE TRAINING INTO PLAY

In the previous sections I used the image of a runway to teach a horse to step on a mat.  The point of using this image is to get you thinking creatively, with imagination.  That’s what takes you far, far away from the mind set of do-it-or-else training.

Transforming Horse Training Into Play
We’ve all watched skilled trainers, whether in person or on video.  I’m sure you’ve taken in a variety of images of how things are done.  Now suppose you’re handed a horse who is pushy, or won’t stand still for saddling.  You’ve seen how professional horse trainers deal with this in what often seems like no time at all.

It’s so easy to put on their “hat” and fall into the same-old, same-old of traditional horse training solutions.  But remember – when you are watching one of those skilled trainers, you aren’t just watching fifteen minutes of training.  You are watching fifteen minutes plus fifteen years.  That’s a lot of experience – and a lot of mistakes made and lessons learned – to get to the point where things look easy.

Easy isn’t the only criterion we’re looking for.  I remember watching a video of a trainer who was working with what was described as a “lazy” horse.  The owner wanted to be able to lunge the horse, but her horse stayed in close to her and wouldn’t move out.  There are all kinds of reasons why a horse would lock in close to a handler.  One might be that the horse has learned that staying in close is the safest place to be.  If that was the case for this horse, the trainer took his safety away.  He charged into the horse with his lunge whip, sending the horse leaping away to the side.

The trainer was using negative reinforcement.  His timing was excellent.  As soon as the horse was in motion, he stopped cracking the whip.  But the instant the horse slowed down, he was on the attack again.  It took just a couple of turns around the circle to convince that horse that he needed to keep moving.  Easy.  The battle was over in just a few minutes.

The trainer stood in the middle of the lunge circle touting the virtues of his technique.  The horse continued to trot around him the whole time he was talking to the audience.  He no longer even needed to lift his whip.  It was an impressive result.

But I was thinking about the lesson from the horse’s perspective.  If one of us were trapped in a round pen with someone peppering bullets at our feet, wouldn’t we run?  And we’d keep on running until we dropped from exhaustion.  If we slowed down, the person in the middle would just need to gesture with the gun to get us running again.

It is the same thing.  So easy isn’t enough.  I can look at the behavior that emerges – a horse moving at a steady pace around me at liberty and think that’s a fun result.  The question becomes: how can I get to that behavior but in a more learner-friendly way?  How can I take this, or any other lesson, and turn it into true play for both myself and my horse?

One of the principles that is common to ALL good training methods is this:

There is ALWAYS more than one way to teach every behavior.

If you really believe that and know how to put this principle into practice then this leads you to the answer.

You’re going to break the task down into smaller components so your horse understands what is wanted in each step.  You want him to be more than just comfortable with what is being asked.  You want him to be eager to play.

Using Props
To teach horses to step on mats, I set out the V runway pattern.   The cones help handlers line their horses up with the mat so they have room to come to it on a straight line.  When I first taught mats, I didn’t put the cones out.  But then I saw that handlers would leave the mat and cut back around on such a tight turn that the horse had no chance to line himself up again straight to it.

They did the same thing at mounting blocks.  If the horse shifted away from the mounting block, they would walk off on a tight circle that gave the horse little opportunity to come in straight.  The missing step was the handler’s ability to visualize the path she needed to take to give her horse the most success.

So I set out the V shaped line of cones.  The length of the “runway” obliged the handler to go out far enough so that she had room to line her horse up to the mat.

I could have set the mats out in a parallel lines.  Then I would have had a different kind of runway, and I would have used different images to describe it.  It might have become the catwalk for a fashion show.  The horse would be a model sashaying her way down the runway – stopping periodically to show off her costume.

Instead I set them out in a V so the handler would have a wide funnel entrance and a better chance of getting the horse into the top of the runway.  It’s only experienced pilots and co-pilots who can successfully enter into the top of a narrow runway.  Novice teams need the wider opening.

Playing with Images
Playing with images takes you away from relying solely on the standard-issue horse training approaches you may already know.  It puts you into a creative place where you can come up with your own patterns, images, and techniques that work for your horse.

People often feel that they have to follow exactly the instructions given by a clinician or riding instructor.  I offer the runway as a starting point.  I suggest that you begin with my image.  Understand how this process works; learn the basics of good rope handling; see what it gives you when you have a horse who welcomes the information the lead provides; and then become creative.  Invent your own images to help teach the skills your horse needs to meet your personal training goals.

Creativity
For me, there’s no better indicator of success than hearing from someone that they have found a new way of teaching a familiar lesson.  They don’t go about it exactly the same way I do.  Their horse has shown them a different way, just as my horses often show me new ways to teach old things.

Creativity is at the core of our being.  When a handler clutters up her work space with cones, empty supplement containers, bags of shavings, and who knows what else, and sees in that clutter a better way to teach a lesson, I know she has understood the greater game.  She is becoming creative and inventive.  She is creating new games.  For both horse and handler it has become true play.

Robin with shavings 2016-06-22 at 5.54.53 PM

You might not want to put quite so many shavings bags into your “play ground”, but clutter can definitely contribute to creative ideas.

Coming Next: Unit 4: Cue Communication

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 “Joyful 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

JOYFULL Horses: Mat Manners

In the previous installment I introduced you to constructional training.  I used the runway lesson to teach your horse to step on a mat.  Instead of going directly to the mat, you first taught your horse the skills he’d need to make this an easy lesson.

So now you have a horse who is eager to get to his mat.  He isn’t just gingerly stepping a toe onto the edge of the mat, he’s rushing ahead to get to it.  Hurray!  You’re part way through this lesson.

For every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance. 

The mat lesson helps you understand the importance of this statement.  You’ve got a horse who is eager to get to the mat.  Now you need to explain that you’d like him to walk with you to the mat.

Robin runway walk casually to it 2016-06-22 at 2.34.16 PM

Robin shows his great mat manners, walking with me to the mat.

Robin halt on mat 2016-06-22 at 2.34.39 PM

He lands on the mat in beautiful balance.  He’s going to continue to be our equine teacher for this lesson.  In the following photos you’ll see how to build great mat manners.

Mat Manners
You’re now ready for the next level in this “runway” game.

You want a horse who is eager to get to the mat, who regards it as a fun place to be, a place where lots of good things happen, but you also want a horse who walks with you to the mat.  You don’t want your co-pilot taking over complete control.  You still want to make some of the decisions.   So now if he starts to grab the throttle stick from you, you can use your “needle point” skills to ask him to stop and back up.

I know that’s mixing a lot of metaphors.  Let’s see how this works.

Robin mat back one step 2 2016-06-22 at 4.16.26 PM

Robin and I are practicing our “needlepoint”.  I’m asking for a single step back. (Refer to the previous post: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/06/21)

Rushing doesn’t lead to the mat.  It leads to needle point.  But needle point is not a bad thing.  Your co-pilot understands what is wanted.  I tend not to click for course corrections.  So that first backing step won’t be rewarded with a click and a treat.  But when we’re back on pattern, and I ask for the next step, perhaps asking now for one green stitch forward – that I’ll click and treat.

Robin walk one step to mat 2016-06-22 at 4.18.01 PM

In the “needlepoint” part of the runway lesson I’m asking Robin for one step forward.

Robin walk off to mat 2016-06-22 at 4.18.14 PM

After a click and a treat, I release him to the mat.

We’re back in sync with one another, still a few steps away from our landing pad.  I’ll release the controls to my co-pilot, and we’ll walk together with slack in the lead.  I won’t need to help him get to the mat.  He knows how to land our little craft.  He stops, perhaps not perfectly square yet, but with both feet on the mat.  Click and treat!

Robin on mat grups 2016-06-22 at 2.56.18 PM

Again, he lands beautifully on the mat.

And now the game changes yet again.  I want the mat to be a versatile tool.  I want my horse to remain on the mat while I move around him, or even away from him.  The mat provides the foundation for what is referred to in the horse world as ground tying – the horse stays on the spot where you left him as though he was tied.

Robin on mat grups at distance 2016-06-22 at 2.56.57 PM

The mat is a great tool for teaching ground tying.

101 Things
So the new game becomes “101 things a handler can do while a horse stays on a mat.”

This is a variation on the theme of a game which many canine clicker trainers play with their dogs.  It’s called “101 Things a Dog Can Do With A Box”. The handler presents a dog with a box.  Each novel behavior the dog offers gets clicked.  So if the dog sniffs the box, he gets clicked.   If he sniffs it again, he doesn’t get reinforced.  But if he paws the box with his right front foot, he does.  Now if he sniffs the box or paws it with his right front – nothing.  But if he changes and paws with his left front, click and treat.

This was a popular game early on amongst canine clicker trainers, but for a lot of reasons I never played an equine version of it.  One of the more fuddy-duddy reasons was I really didn’t want my horses learning all the creative things they can do either with their bodies or with things.  I didn’t want them thinking they can do fancy leaps into the air with me on their backs or open their stall door latches whenever it pleased them.  If they discovered these talents on their own, so be it, but I didn’t need to be an accomplice in this kind of cleverness. (That’s especially true when it comes to stall latches!)

So 101 things was out for my horses, but it is very much in for the handlers.  I need them to be creative.  So the game becomes – every time your horse lands back on the mat, you have to come up with a new behavior a handler can do while a horse stands on a mat.

At first this is easy.  Your horse lands on the mat, and you might ask him questions about handling his mane.  Will he continue to stand on the mat while you run your fingers through his mane?  Yes.  Click and treat.  Repeat this several times and then walk off casually back around to the top of the runway.

Robin toss rope 2016-06-22 at 2.38.14 PM

I begin by “parking” Robin by tossing the lead over his neck.  Draping the lead over his neck quickly becomes a cue to stand.

Robin on mat play with mane 2016-06-22 at 2.57.44 PM

With Robin “parked” on the mat, I can begin the “101 things a handler can do while a horse stands on a mat” lesson. In this round of the game I am stroking his mane.  The lead rests over his neck in the “parked” position.  I’m not holding on to it, but I can easily pick it up should he walk off.

Next time you get back to the mat, you have to think of something else to do.  It could be you simply expand running your fingers through his mane to stroking down his neck and along his shoulder.  Or you could decide to play the game more like “101 things you can do with a box”.  You stroked his mane in the last round, so now you’re going to think up a completely different sort of behavior.  “Will you stand on the mat while I bend down to tie my shoe?  Oh, I don’t have shoe laces!  Never mind my shoe still needs to be checked.”

Robin on mat tie shoes 2016-06-22 at 3.00.36 PM

“Will you stand still while I tie my shoe?”  Yes, click then feed.

Most people can easily play a couple rounds of this game but then they begin to get stuck for ideas.  They are too much in their “horse-training” head.   They’ve already stroked their horse from head to tail and picked up all four feet. What else can they do?  They are running out of ideas.

The Opposite of Flooding
Time to channel their inner child or their inner kindergarten teacher.  You can ask your horse for horsey things like dropping his head, or putting his ears forward, or letting you walk behind him and groom his tail.

Robin on mat ask for foot 2 2016-06-22 at 2.39.13 PM

While Robin stands on a mat, I can ask for horsey things. In this case I am touching him at his elbow as a cue for him to lift his foot.

Robin on mat knee target 2016-06-22 at 2.39.27 PM

As Robin lifts his foot, I have him target his knee to my hand.

Robin on mat take foot 2016-06-22 at 2.41.41 PM

From here it is easy to ask him to target his foot to my hand.  (This is an easy way to teach a horse to pick up his feet.)

You can play silly games with your horse.  Can he stand still while you run around pretending to be an airplane?  Bzzzz, Bzzz – coming in for a crash landing into the mountain (horse).  Click and treat.

Robin on mat airplane 1 2016-06-22 at 3.03.26 PM

When you run out of “horse training” games, you can play silly ones.  In this case I’m pretending to be an airplane.  I even include the sound effects of a buzzing  engine.

Robin on mat hug 1 2016-06-22 at 3.04.16 PM

My favorite kind of “crash landing”.

I love watching the horses watch the people.  This is the best entertainment they’ve had in years!  What will their human do next!?

Robin on mat airplane rgt side 2016-06-22 at 3.03.56 PM

Robin isn’t sure what to make of my behavior.  What a very strange human!

 

This type of training is done routinely when you are prepping a youngster for riding.  The handler waves things around and jumps up and down.  The goal is to desensitize the horse so he doesn’t spook at unexpected movement.  But instead of creating an entertaining game for the horse, it is often done with flooding.

Here’s an example of how flooding works.  Suppose a horse is afraid of flapping saddle blankets.  He scoots away.  The blanket pursues him, matching him move for move until finally he gives up and stands still.  Next comes another scare, this time it might be an umbrella opening and closing in his face.  The horse learns he can’t escape.  The best he can do is stop.  That makes the umbrella go away  – for the moment, but it is back again in the next instant.  He learns finally that no matter what happens, no matter how afraid he is, he can’t get away.  He gives up and stands still while the handler flaps tarps around his body, and up over his head, covering his eyes so he cannot see to run even if he wanted to.  He’s given up flight because he has given up.

The handler isn’t playing, except maybe at being a “horse trainer”.  And this most certainly is not a game for the horse.

I want to create something very different for the horses I interact with.  It needs to be play for both of us.  I want my horse to know that he does have a choice.  His voice most certainly counts.

Teaching the skills you need before you use them; building success and confidence through patterned exercises; and – most important – really listening to your horse helps transform these lessons into true play for both of you.

Playing with Language
I’ve written about mats many times.  I’ve described in detail the rope handling techniques that are used.  I’ve referred to the runway image.  (I definitely spend too much time in airports.  I can rarely teach a weekend clinic without making some reference to airplane travel.)  I’ve also referenced the needle point image because to me this section of the lesson always makes me think of the fine, detailed work that needle point represents.

What I haven’t done before is used quite so much of this type of imagery in describing the lesson.  My point is not to force you into a mold where you have to be thinking – okay what colour thread am I supposed to be picking up and why?  If you’ve never done needle point or other fine detailed handiwork, this image will feel foreign and forced.  If you haven’t traveled on as many airplanes as I have over the last few years, the runway image may not jump out at you as you set your cones out in a V.

My point is not to get you using these images.  My point is to get you thinking creatively, with imagination.  That’s what takes you far, far away from the mind set of do-it-or-else training.

airplane landing.png

Coming Next: Transforming Horse Training Into Play

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 “Joyful 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

JOYFULL Horses: The Runway Lesson

I ended the previous section by saying the lead tells a story.  I want my lead rope to be a welcome tool, one my clicker-trained horse is completely comfortable with.  That’s the goal, but it’s often not where we begin.  Often when I first attach a lead to a horse, what I encounter is resistance and concern.  Lead ropes have been used for correction and punishment – so the horse is defensive.  He’s telling me about is history, and I need to listen.  I also need to respond in a way that doesn’t prove to him that he was right to be guarded.

I want to show him that the defenses he’s thrown up aren’t necessary.  The castle walls, the moat with the sharks, the draw bridge, the boiling oil, the iron portcullis, and all the armored men lined up behind can all vanish, whisked away not through force, but through play. Mats are going to be the training tool I use.

To introduce a horse and handler to clicker training I focus on six foundation lessons.  Teaching a horse to stand on a mat is one of those lessons. The mat is what the word implies.  Think door mat, and you’ll have the right sort of size.  You can use plywood, carpet squares, rubber mats.  They all work as long as they contrast well with the surface they are on.

They are lots of different ways that you can teach a horse to step on a mat.  Over the years I have used a variety of approaches, tailoring the choice to the needs of the team.  But my favorite way, and the way I generally choose first is to imagine that the mat sits at the end of a runway of cones.   I am trying to line up straight to my runway so I can bring my horse to a safe landing on the mat in the same way a plane would line up to a real runway. Here’s the lesson:

The Runway
Instead of castle walls with the mat as a drawbridge, I imagine an airplane runway.  The sides of the runway are lined with cones that form an open V, funneling us down towards the mat at the end.

Robin waiting for me in runway 2016-06-18 at 6.05.54 PM

My horse, Robin is going to be our equine teacher for this lesson.  He’s going to show you what the lesson looks like with an experienced “copilot”.  I’ll also be describing what the lesson is like when you’re working with an inexperienced horse.  I’ll be taking you from the first wobbly “flights” down the runway to the finessed balance that evolves over time. For now Robin is waiting expectantly for the game to begin.

If Robin is one of our equine teachers, let’s suppose the other is a pushy, somewhat nervous horse who has gotten into the habit over several years of dragging his person pretty much wherever he wants to go. In this lesson the pilot (me) is approaching in her single engine little plane (the horse).  I’m being buffeted by strong winds.  The plane (my horse) is rocking from side to side, trying to drag me off course.  Can I even make the top of the runway?  No!  I abort to try again.  I circle around, and this time I manage to get the nose of the plane, i.e. this horse, pointing into the open V of the runway.  Click and treat.  The wide end of the funnel helps me to be successful.  I want to find ways to say ‘yes” to this horse, so I make the lesson as easy as possible by making the opening of the funnel extra wide.  I’m setting up the environment to help ensure success.  A narrow funnel would be much harder to get to with my determinedly pushy horse.

I had originally wanted to show a video of an inexperienced horse using the runway lesson, but computers being computers my editing program isn’t cooperating with that intent.  So instead I enlisted Robin’s help.  He’s my “dance partner”, or to stick with my metaphor of the runway, my copilot.  I filmed him going through the pattern, and I’ve pulled still photos from the video to describe some of the key elements of this lesson.

It’s been a very long time since I have worked Robin through this foundation lesson.  As always, I found it was worth revisiting the basics with him.  No matter how skilled a horse becomes, the basics always reveal details that need polishing.  So whether you and your horse are a novice team or one that is very experienced, the runway is a great lesson to explore.

Please note: This is not a stand alone lesson, nor is this JOYFULL Horses book intended as a clicker training how-to instruction manual.  The prerequisites and a description of the handling skills needed for this lesson are presented in my DVD lesson series and in the on-line course. I am describing this lesson in detail here not not so much to teach you how to use it, but to illustrate some important concepts that are relevant to all good clicker lessons.

I’ll start with a short video which will give you a quick overview of the lesson.

 

There are a lot of important details in this 3 minute clip.  I’m going to take the lesson apart literally frame by frame.  I’ll be using stills pulled from the video to point out the key elements of this lesson.  Enjoy!

Robin Runway reenter runway 2016-06-18 at 6.11.50 PM

The runway is part of a larger loop.  There’s no beginning, middle, and end.  A horse that is familiar with mats might begin, as Robin did, on the mat.  The pushy horse I am starting with has never stepped on a mat and is worried by them. I would begin with that horse where we are picking up the pattern here, with Robin turning with me into the top of the runway.  Note the slack in the lead.  I probably would not be giving this much freedom to my pushy horse.  he wouldn’t yet know how to read and respond to the subtle signals from my lead and body language.  I would need to slide up the lead to signal my intent to turn.  I would click and reinforce the horse as he responded to my request.  This would bring him to a halt, ready for the next phase of the lesson.

Robin Runway turn to a stop 2016-06-18 at 6.12.10 PM

Note how I have brought Robin into the runway.  I’ve been mindful of the placement of the V. I’ve given us enough room to turn so Robin ends up in line with the mat.  This exercise is about straightness.  It is a wonderful lesson for helping crooked, pushy, unbalanced, nervous, or just plain wiggly horses.

Robin Runway lined up for approach 2016-06-18 at 6.12.22 PM

Here Robin is beautifully lined up to the mat as he completes his turn into the runway.

 

Robin runway off sides 2016-06-19 at 9.36.47 AM

In contrast here I’ve made my turn too early so there isn’t time to line Robin up straight to the runway.  I originally taught the mat lesson without any cones for markers.  People would walk their horses off from the mat and then come back around in too tight of a turn.   There was no way their horses could line up to the mat and approach it on a straight path.  These handlers were setting their horses up for a wiggly, crooked approach.  The mat is about lining up straight to a mounting block, approaching the center of a jump on a straight path, crossing streams and other obstacles, stopping square at X in a dressage test, and performing any other task where precision and accuracy in the approach are needed.  A novice horse needs the extra help that a long runway approach gives him.  I set the cones out as guides for the handlers.  They have to take their horses back to the mat by walking all the way out and around the line of cones.  Targets aren’t just for our horses.  Sometimes they are for us, as well.

 

You’re in the runway.  Now what? This lesson is like a dream where you drift from one scene to another – never questioning the odd juxtaposition of images.  In this part of the lesson I am doing “needlepoint” with this horse.  That’s the image.

needle point pillow

Needlepoint may not seem relevant to horse training, but the individual balance shifts we teach in the runway always make me think of the intricate stitches in a needlepoint tapestry.

Each stitch is an individual action.  Each stitch must be carefully thought through before beginning the next. I may have to change colour often.  I may only want one or two stitches of green before I switch to red. That’s how this part of the lesson feels to me.  I will be asking for tiny shifts of weight.  Each balance shift forms one stitch in this larger tapestry.

When I ask my horse for one tiny step forward, that’s one green stitch.  If I’m working with a poorly balanced or pushy horse, I don’t want to take a step and then follow it with many more.  Instead, just as this horse begins to lift his leg, I’m going to click.  The click interrupts one thought – move forward – and replaces it with another – get your reinforcer.  Before he has even really begun to move, he’s at a standstill again waiting for his treat  He was thinking of barging past me, but that would have crashed our little “plane”.  Instead disaster has been averted.  He has taken a half step forward, and now he’s shifted his weight back slightly to get his treat.

He’s beautifully set up for the next stitch in our tapestry.  I ask for another forward step.  Click!  Again, the power of the click interrupts him before he can charge forward.  He is learning patience.  He is learning self-control.  He is learning to control his movements.  He began with a throttle that was either at full power or completely turned off.  Now we are gaining some adjustability.  I can ask for a tiny amount of energy, and he can give me a soft, half step forward.  Click and treat.

He is doing so well, it is time to land “the plane”.  I put aside one image – the needle point – and we walk casually forward down the rest of the runway.  As we approach the mat, I realize my co-pilot isn’t ready to stop.  I walk over the mat myself and keep going, letting my co-pilot walk beside me.

We circle around back to the top of the runway.  My co-pilot learns fast.  The little plane is steadier now as we bank around the turn and face into the top of the V.  Click and treat.  This time I put red thread into my needle. I ask for backing.  Again, I click on that single stitch.  The plane wobbles a bit and goes off course.  We are no longer pointing straight down the runway.  It doesn’t matter.  The pattern allows for many stitches of red.

Click by click we lay down a line of red stitches.  The backing is smoother now, less hesitant, less wobbly.  We have backed ourselves in a squarish turn that takes us out of the top part of the runway.  I am using skills learned in previous lessons.  My “copilot” may not be able to back straight yet, but I can still keep us in the vicinity of the runway by having him back in a square pattern.  Straight will emerge as he learns how to handle these larger course corrections.

When you put enough of these fine needlepoint stitches together, you get a picture that looks like the one Robin is illustrating for us in this series of photos:

Robin Runway backing in runway 2 2016-06-18 at 6.12.54 PM

Robin’s adjustability and good balance has allowed him to come in straight to the mat.  I’ve turned toward him to ask for one step back with his right front foot.

Robin Runway backing con't  2016-06-18 at 6.13.17 PM

Robin has initiated a step back. As he does, I click and prepare to release the lead.

Robin Runway backing done 2016-06-18 at 6.13.29 PM

Robin has completed the single step back.  You can’t see it, but my hand is opening on the lead even before his foot lands.  What goes up must come down.  It’s important to let go as I click and not to wait for the foot to land.  If I stay on the line, I would be holding on way too long, giving my horse something annoying that he would need to push against.  The timing needed to release a horse into the action you want takes deep practice focus.  If you aren’t sure what I mean by deep practice, read my blog on this subject. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16/)

Robin Runway feed after backing 2016-06-18 at 6.13.44 PM

I’ve already clicked.  Now it’s time to reinforce Robin with some hay stretcher pellets.

Robin Runway 2nd back 2016-06-18 at 6.14.13 PM

My “needlepoint tapestry” is made up of many stitches.  I’ll ask Robin for another, single step back.

Robin Runway 2nd back con't 2 2016-06-18 at 6.14.22 PM

It may not look as though anything has changed, but Robin has unweighted his right front in preparation for backing.  That’s my cue to be ready to click.

Robin Runway backing step good 2016-06-18 at 6.15.31 PM

Robin has begun to take a step back – Click! Remember it’s important to click as he initiates movement.  I’m not waiting to see the outcome of the weight shift (meaning the completed step back.)  If I click as he initiates a movement, I am saying “yes” to that movement.  This lesson is not about blocking or shutting down energy.  I want energy.  I want behavior.  I want to say “yes” to moving even if the moving is being done by a pushy, inexperienced horse.  When I click as he begins to take a step, I am saying “yes” to movement that in the past someone else may have punished.  An inexperienced horse is expecting a “no”.  Part of his pushiness comes from trying to rush past the obstacles he’s expecting me to throw in his path.  Instead he hears a click!  Surprise, surprise!  He brings himself to a stop to get his treat.  Self control and good balance will emerge out of saying “yes” when what his history tells him to expect is a “no”.    

Robin Runway feed after back 3 2016-06-18 at 6.15.47 PM

I’ve clicked Robin as he began to take a step back.  The click is a cue to me to begin my reinforcement cycle.  I’m reaching into my pocket to get a treat.  But note also what my right hand is doing.  I have moved it forward so the snap hangs straight down.  I am giving Robin the full freedom of the lead.  This is an important part of this lesson and one many people struggle with so I’ll be pointing it out again in other photos.  The snap on my lead is going to become a tactile target for my horse to orient to.  Moving my right hand towards Robin as I get the treat with my left is part of the teaching process that helps Robin tune in to the significance of the snap and it’s orientation.

 

Robin runway tai chi wall 1 2016-06-18 at 9.37.29 PM

Here’s the contrast.  As I ask Robin to take a step, I’m using my right hand more actively on the lead.  If he were a more inexperienced horse, I might need my hand here to help him maintain his balance as he takes a step forward.  Otherwise, he might be falling into me with his left shoulder. (Note: if I were on Robin’s right side, things would be reversed.  I would be feeding with my right hand and releasing the lead fully with my left.)

Robin runway tai chi wall 2 2016-06-18 at 9.37.39 PM

Here’s a common mistake.  I’ve released with my left hand, but I’ve kept my right hand in place on his neck.

Robin runway tai chi wall 3 2016-06-18 at 9.37.48 PM

Even while I am reaching for the food, I am keeping my right hand in place.  I refer to this as driving down a motorway with your emergency brake on.  When a horse is unbalanced and pushing through you, it can feel as though you can’t let go completely.  It takes focus to remember to release the lead completely with your right as well as your left hand.  This is where you learn to truly let go. This is the beginning of floating on a point of contact – a heavenly feel for both horse and handler.

Robin runway tai chi wall feed 2016-06-19 at 11.48.13 AM

After all, you’ve got treats in your hand.  Where is your horse going to go?  This is the perfect time to experience letting go of him.

Robin Runway prepared for next step 2016-06-18 at 6.16.03 PM

The runway lesson teaches the handler to be an agile thinker.  Depending upon what happens with my horse’s balance, I may need to change in an instant the direction I want him to go.  So while I am giving him his treat, I am already thinking about what I am going to do next.  I don’t wait for him to fill in the “dance card” through my indecision.  My body language is signaling the next clear intent.  Can you tell what I’m going to ask him to do next? Answer: walk forward with me to the mat.

Robin Runway release to mat 2016-06-18 at 6.16.14 PM

Robin has done a nice unit of “needlepoint stitches”. Now it’s time to let him move.  I am releasing him to the mat.

In the photos it was time to release Robin to the mat.  It is time to do the same for my less experienced horse.  Once again, I’ll set the needle work image aside.  I have asked this horse to stay focused with me through several steps.  We have put down enough concentrated stitches.  Now it’s time to move.  We’ll walk casually towards the tip of the V and the mat.  This time instead of walking over the mat, I may choose to stop on it.  My co-pilot misses the stop and over swings past me.  No problem.  It’s a sloppy landing, but it won’t bring out the fire brigade, at least not this time.  I am standing on the mat, clicking and treating my horse for standing quietly beside me.  He can see that the mat did not swallow me up. Instead standing next to it produces lots of clicks and treats.

In contrast to a green horse Robin shows us a beautifully on-the-spot landing on the mat.

Robin Runway walk to mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.07.24 PM

Robin is showing perfect mat manners.  Even though he is eager to get to the mat because it represents an opportunity for reinforcement, he is walking with me on a slack lead.  Mats are a great tool for teaching horses the emotional control they need to walk politely out to turnout and other exciting places.  If your horse pulls or dances around you when you lead him, working with mats is a great lesson to teach.

Robin Runway one foot landing on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.07.43 PM

Robin knows how to land on a mat.  First, one foot . . .

Robin Runway 2nd foot landing on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.07.53 PM

Then a second foot . . .

Robin Runway both feet on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.08.11 PM

Both front feet on the mat.  Click! and . . .

 

Robin Runway release hand as feed 2016-06-18 at 6.08.21 PM

. . . and initiate the reinforcement process.  Note how I release the lead fully to Robin WHILE I reach into my pocket with my left hand to get the treat.  Coordinating these two actions takes deep practice concentration. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16)

Robin Runway feed 1 2016-06-18 at 6.06.59 PM

. . .  Feed. Note how balanced we both are.  I am encouraging good balance in Robin, AND I am also building a feel for good riding balance for myself.  The mantra is: feed where the perfect horse would be.  In this case that means Robin’s head is in line with his shoulders – not pulled off to the side towards me.  I feed at a height that encourages him to lift up from the base of his neck.  I want to feel him lifting up, supporting his own weight as I feed him.  As he takes his treat, if I feel him leaning down onto my hand, that should signal to me that I need to change what I’m doing to encourage better balance in both of us.

Robin runway on mat grown ups 2016-06-18 at 6.08.50 PM

I want to turn the mat into a conditioned reinforcer.  If it becomes a predictor of good things, my horse will want to go to the mat.  He’ll enjoy being on the mat.  That means I’ll be able to reinforce other activities with an opportunity to return to the mat.  So before we head back to the top of the runway, I cue Robin to give me a very familiar behavior, one I call: “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”.  Than means Robin is standing in his own space.  My pockets are full of treats, but I am not being mugged.  Robin adds the extra flourish of his beautifully calm focus and good balance to this important base behavior.

 

Robin Runway feed 2016-06-18 at 6.08.37 PM

It’s click then feed for beautiful grown-ups, and then . . .

Robin Runway invite walk off 2016-06-18 at 6.09.44 PM

I invite Robin to leave the mat and walk off casually with me back to the top of the runway.

My green horse has also been standing beside me practicing good grown-ups.  It’s time to walk off again and head back to the top of the runway.  This time our entry into the V comes out perfectly.  Click!  That brings him to a halt so he can get his treat.  I don’t have to actively stop him, cues he may not yet understand.  That’s what the runway is going to teach him – whoa and go.   As I give him his treat, I am deciding which colour thread to pick up, meaning should I ask him to go forward or back?  I may decide to ask for a couple of green stitches, and then I’ll switch to red.  It all depends upon the response I get from my “co-pilot” and where we are in the runway.

As my co-pilot becomes steadier and better balanced, we can work on an intricate pattern – one stitch forward, one stitch back, each one separated by a click and a treat.  We are building control – not the force-based control of do-it-or-else, but the self-control of good balance.  He is gaining the ability to change his balance – forward or back within a single stride.  He doesn’t have to barge past me any more because he can regulate both his emotions and his balance.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.57.51 PM

So far I’ve asked Robin for a lot of backing.  I need to balance that with requests to go forward – but remember, in the “needlepoint” phase of this pattern I am asking for only one step at a time.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.15 PM

As soon as he begins to initiate a step, it’s click . . .

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.31 PM

. . . release the lead and begin the reinforcement process.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.41 PM

Again note how my right hand moves towards Robin releasing the lead fully to him.  I have pointed this out before because it is a detail many find very difficult to coordinate.  Their focus is on getting the food.  It takes focused practice to coordinate the separate tasks both hands are doing. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16)

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.59 PM

Many people push against the use of food during training, but clicker trainers have such an advantage because we feed treats.  In this photo series you’ve seen how I can use the food delivery to help my horse become better balanced.  Here I’ve drawn Robin slightly forward with my food delivery.  This sets me up well to be able to turn into him to ask for my next request – backing.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.18 PM

As he begins to lift his left front foot, I am ready to click and release the lead.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.44 PM

Again, my right hand moves towards Robin to release the lead AS my left hand gets the food.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.58 PM

Even as he is taking the food from my hand, I am setting up my next request.  Can you tell which direction we’ll be heading?  Forward or back?

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 7.00.19 PM

As soon as I’ve given him his treat, I release him to the mat.  Note: this release to the mat is an important element.  I don’t ask him to keep doing “needlepoint” all the way to the mat.  I want to reinforce the concentrated work with an opportunity to move forward freely.  The mat gives us a destination that offers even more reinforcement opportunities.

Give Them What They Want
For the horse who prefers nothing better than to nap under a tree, all this slow, step by step work is easy-peasy.  It’s all that walking forward stuff to get to the top of the runway that this horse finds wearisome.  So what this game sets up is a bargain.  I’ll let him get all these easy clicks and treats for walking one step at a time provided he will walk with me when I ask him to head back to the top of the runway.

Remember the Premack principle from the previous article? (https://theclickercenterblog/2016/06/09) I’m reinforcing a lower valued behavior – marching on around the outside of my pattern – with a higher valued behavior – getting loads of clicks and treats for taking one small, low energy step after another followed by a chance to stand still at the mat.  What could be better!

For the high-energy, foot moving, impatient horse Premack also works.  I’m saying to this horse: if you will indulge me by giving me a couple of needlepoint stitches, I will not only make it worth your while by clicking and treating each one (thereby upping their value), I will also let you march forward down the rest of the runway.  And if you will further indulge me by standing still on the mat where again I pay really well, I will let you march on, uninterrupted back to the top of the mat.

In both cases the Premack principle is at work.  And in both cases I am turning all the segments of the loop into activities that gain value.  Pretty soon, my slow-moving horse will be looking forward to the march back to the top of the runway, and my impatient horse will be showing me how softly and with such delicate control he can creep down the runway.

Stopping on Mats
For my inexperienced horse it’s time for the game to change again.  I’m going to start using the skills he’s been learning in the runway.
When we get to the mat, instead of stopping so my feet are on the mat, now I’ll change course slightly in the runway so the mat is in line with my horse.  If he steps over it the first time or two so his feet never touch it, that’s all right.  We aren’t yet ready to land.  But eventually, on one of the passes, I’ll do a test run.  As we approach the mat, I’ll rotate slightly towards him as I slide up the lead.  I’m indicating that we will be stopping.  Our needle point has taught him how to listen to these signals.  He’ll stop with his front feet just shy of the mat.  Click and treat.

Here is Robin again showing us how much control and refinement the runway can help us build into leading:

 

Robin Runway walk to runway 2016-06-18 at 6.16.26 PM

I’ve released Robin to the mat.  Note the slack in the lead.  There’s no pulling to the mat, no forging ahead of me.  We are walking together towards the mat.  Exactly right.

Robin Runway stop before mat 2016-06-18 at 6.16.40 PM

I’ve brought Robin up to the mat, but I am deliberately asking him to stop just shy of it.

Robin Runway stop before mat 2 2016-06-18 at 6.16.50 PM

Frame 1: His front end stops beautifully, but . . .

Robin Runway stop before mat hind leg out2016-06-18 at 6.17.20 PM

Frame 2: Robin wasn’t expecting to stop before the mat.  His front end stopped in response to my request, but his hind end took an extra moment to catch up to the change in the pattern.  It’s a bit like a rear end collision at a traffic light.  The first car stopped, but the second one didn’t.  The result: Robin has stepped out to the side with his right hind.  He could have plowed past me to continue on to the mat, but instead he has managed to stop his front end in response to my request.  It’s only his back end that couldn’t quite stop in time.

Robin Runway stop before mat click2016-06-18 at 6.17.32 PM

He may have landed slightly out of balance, but he still responded perfectly to my request to stop his right front and then his left front foot, so he gets clicked.  That’s my cue to begin the reinforcement process. I surprised him with a sudden change in pattern.  That resulted in less than perfect balance in the stop, but he still gets reinforced for a correct response to my cues.

Robin Runway stop before mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.17.47 PM

Feed so his head stays lined up with the rest of his body.

Robin runway ask to step on mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.18.09 PM

Now I’ll use his “needlepoint” skills to bring him the rest of the way onto the mat. That was the point of my abrupt halt.  I wanted  to create an opportunity to show you how these skills work.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 2 2016-06-18 at 6.18.26 PM

Robin responds to very light cues on the lead.  A very small change in my hand position is  all that is needed to request a single, forward step with the right front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 3 2016-06-18 at 6.18.33 PM

Job done with the right front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 4 2016-06-18 at 6.18.43 PM

Now I ask for one step forward with the left front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 52016-06-18 at 6.18.54 PM

Job done again. With a very inexperienced horse I would have clicked and reinforced each footfall.  With Robin I can connect these requests together via cues.  Cues act as both prompts and reinforcers.  I am only clicking after he has both feet on the mat, but I am still giving him plenty of “yes” information via the cues from the lead.  Those cues contain an additional “yes” every time I release the lead. 

Robin Runway ask to step on mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.19.10 PM

I’ve clicked so now it’s time to feed.

 

Robin Runway ask to step on mat grups 2016-06-18 at 6.19.26 PM

I’ll further reinforce his good efforts to get on the mat by asking for “grown-ups”, a well known and highly reinforced behavior.  Note how beautifully he maintains his balance, and his very calm, focused demeanor even though he is just inches away from the treats in my pockets.

Robin Runway back off mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.20.14 PM

I continue to use his “needlepoint skills” to ask him to take one step back off the mat.

Robin Runway back off mat 2  2016-06-18 at 6.20.29 PM

Once he’s stepped back off the mat, I can ask him to come forward again. An inexperienced horse might become frustrated by all this toing and froing.  He might be wanting me to make up my mind and decide which way I want him to go.  But the “needlepoint” lesson in the runway has familiarized Robin with this type of request.  They are just a series of changing dance steps.  They were never taught as corrections.  I want him to see them as a path towards reinforcement – never as a way to avoid punishment.

Robin Runway return to mat 1 mat  2016-06-18 at 6.20.53 PM

His front feet are back on the mat.  Now I’m asking him to step up with his left hind. Click as the leg begins to lift.

Robin Runway return to mat release hand 2016-06-18 at 6.21.09 PM

Again the reminder to release with right hand as well as the left.

Robin Runway return to mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.21.26 PM

Feed for a job well done.

Robin Runway return to mat grups 2016-06-18 at 6.21.41 PM

Ask for grown-ups to create added value for landing on the mat.  Why go through all of this? Compare this photo with the one taken just moments before I asked Robin to step off the mat. 

Robin grups comaprison 2016-06-19 at 3.26.11 PM

In both photos Robin is in grown-ups.  He’s showing the calm focus and good balance that has been consistent throughout this session.  But in the photo on the right Robin shows slightly more lift from the base of his neck.  The difference is subtle, but it is there.  It was created out of the rebalancing steps he took to back off and then, weight shift by weight shift, return to the mat.  The control he has over his footfalls leads to the consistency we see throughout this lesson in his balance.

These photos were all pulled from a video.  Now that we’ve gone through the details of this lesson, let’s have you watch the video again.  How many of the photos you’ve been studying can you spot?  They are just still frames taken from the video.  How much more detail are you seeing now than you did when you  watched this video the first time through at the beginning of the article?  How many of the points that I covered are you spotting?  I’ll bet you’re seeing the very deliberate release of my right hand and the use of the food delivery to help build good balance.  What else pops out at you now that I’ve been pointing out the details of this lesson?

Constructional Training
For the inexperienced horse, as well as for Robin, the work in the runway builds the skills that are needed for the mat.  That’s the strength of this approach.  I haven’t started with the mat where a horse’s concern over stepping on an unknown surface might create problems.  The focus of this lesson is to teach the horse to step on the mat, but that isn’t my end goal.  The mat is a tool. Stepping on the mat is a way to get that energetic walk and those “needle point” skills that I’ll be using elsewhere in his training.  And once my horse is comfortable with the mat, I can use it throughout his training as a reinforcer.

When I first introduced my horse to the overall game which we call clicker training, I had to deal with the food.  It started out as a distraction.  I held a target up for my horse to touch –  which he did, eagerly enough.  His curiosity served me well.  Click and treat.  Treat!  You have food in your pockets.  Never mind the target, I’ll have more of those!

The initial stages of clicker training are really a teaching process that transforms the food from a distraction into a useful tool.  Once my horse understands that he gets the treats by taking his focus off my pockets and offering instead other behaviors that I like, then the game can really expand.  It truly does become a game, a treasure hunt where solving the puzzle becomes even more reinforcing than the treat itself.

The mat works in a similar way.  At first it is something to be avoided – stepped over or around, but never actually on.  Then it becomes something to put a tentative, testing toe on.  Clicks and treats!  This isn’t so bad.  What was all the fuss about!

Pretty soon you’ll have a horse who isn’t just stepping gingerly onto the mat, he’s rushing down the runway to get to it.  Hurray!

Coming Next: Mat Manners. For every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.  The mat lesson helps you understand the importance of this statement.  The runway lesson has helped create a horse who is eager to get to the mat.  Now you need to explain that you’d like him to walk with you to the mat.

 

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 “Joyful 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

 

JOY Full Horses Pt 1. Ch 7: Training Playfully Mixed with a Little Science

When I think about playing with my horses, I don’t mean trick training.  I’m not asking them to bow or to lie down.  I’m not dressing them in clown costumes and having them retrieve my hat – or maybe I am (at least the hat retrieving part).  The behaviors I’m asking for are not as important as how I train them.  Ideally whenever I am with my horses, I want to be in a PLAY FULL state.

That’s easier said than done.  If you’re used to training in a very formal, structured way, being PLAY FULL may feel very foreign.  The good news is clicker training provides us with a clear road map for discovering PLAY.  It begins appropriately enough with the ABC’s.  In this case ABC stands for:

ABC of training
Behavior is obvious.  That’s what you want your horse to do.

Often people think it is the Antecedent that makes a behavior happen.  That’s how it looks.  You call your dog, and your dog comes.  A came before B so it appears to be the cause of the behavior.  But what really determines whether or not the dog comes is all the learning history associated with that behavior. When he responded in the past to the cue, what happened?

The reason that behavior is likely to occur again – or not – is because of the consequences. Good consequences make the behavior more likely to happen again.  If you put a heating pad on your back after you’ve strained it lifting too many hay bales into your loft and your back begins to feel better, you’re likely to use the heating pad the next time you over do the barn chores. Good consequences make the behavior more likely to occur again.  They are a predictor of future behavior.

Unpleasant consequences mean the behavior will be less likely.  Instead of loading all the hay into the loft yourself, you may decide you’ve learned your lesson.  Next time you’ll hire some strong teenagers and spare the strain to your back.

Antecedents obviously occur before the behavior.  When you give your horse a cue, you’re telling your horse which behavior is most likely to earn reinforcement.

So the ABC’s can be written as:
ABC of training with arrows
If you’re familiar with clicker training, you’ve no doubt seen this phrase written out many times before.

In clicker training we focus a lot of attention on the consequences.  It’s click and reinforce.  One of the many questions good trainers ask is: how can we expand the ways in which we reinforce our learners?

Reinforcement Variety
Trainers of other species inform us that we want to use reinforcement variety to maximize performance.  For a dog it’s easy to come up with a long list of different reinforcers.  Think of all the goodies dogs will happily (and safely) wolf down.  And then there are the chase, kill and dismember games that make this lifelong vegetarian appreciate her horses all the more.

While it may make me cringe as you play tug with a squeaky toy that mimics the screams of a dying rabbit, the underlying concept is a good one.  We want reinforcement variety.  For our horses food is a primary reinforcer in more ways than one.  It is primary in the technical sense in that it is needed for survival.

And it is primary in that it is of first order usefulness.  Food is both something that horses want, and it is easy to use in a training session.  In fact it is such a powerful motivator that many people have shied away from using it because they have not known how to manage their horse’s heightened emotional response to food.

Clicker training changes that by introducing an organized process for teaching horses emotional self-regulation around food.  The process transforms food treats from a distraction into a useful training tool.

Food is not our only reinforcer, but it is the most convenient to use, especially in a training environment.  My horses may love to roll in a sand pit – but not with my good saddle on their backs, thank you very much.

Antecedents
Peregrine Robin sleeping in arenaI’m writing this section about the ABCs of training sitting on the inner deck of my barn.  From my vantage point I can see Peregrine and Robin lying down in the arena enjoying a morning nap.
They’ve had a busy morning “helping” me with the chores, and now it is time to rest.  Again, this is clearly something they enjoy.  It is part of their daily ritual.  Today is especially pleasant.  It’s late May.  The temperature could not be more perfect, and as yet the flies are not out.  The horses can indulge in a long nap.  Peregrine is stretched out on his side, clearly dreaming.  His hind legs are cantering and every now and then he gives a deep throated nicker.

Robin sleeping cin in sawdustRobin is resting more upright, his nose buried in the shavings as he falls into a deep sleep.

I don’t know why watching horses sleep is so very reinforcing.   I treasure these quiet times we have together.  While I watch over them, I can work on the computer.  It is family time we all enjoy, but this is not something that I can use in a practical way during a training session.  That’s true of most of my horse’s favorite activities.  So if I want to vary their reinforcers, I need to shift my focus from the consequences and look more at antecedents.  I need to learn about cues and how they glue behaviors together.

Understanding cues unlocks a lot of “doors to the kingdom”.  In particular this key component opens the door to PLAY.  That’s what we’ll be exploring in the next section.

Peregrine Robin family time

Family Time

Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 8: Cues and Their Connection to Play

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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

JOY Full Horses

IMG_0218 Fengur snow great

In 2014 I surprised myself by writing a book.  This is by no means the first book I have written, so perhaps some of you will be surprised that I was surprised, but I had just finished the monster-sized project of writing and launching my new on-line course.  I wasn’t expecting to take on another big project quite so soon on the heels of that endeavor.

But books are funny things.  You don’t so much write them as they write themselves. When a book wants to pop out, if I am anywhere near a computer or a pad of paper with a pen in my hand, that’s what is going to happen.

Once the book was written, there remained the question of what to do with it. The normal answer is you publish it as a hold-in-your-hand actual book, but somehow that didn’t seem the right answer for this particular project. I sat with it for a year while I considered what I wanted to do.  In the end I have decided that what I wanted was to share it here.

I’m going to publish my book in this blog, section by section.  I hope you enjoy it.  It was written first and foremost for my horses, perhaps you could even say by my horses.  It is a gift from them to you.

Happy New Year 2016

Alexandra Kurland

Robin in box purple JOY FULL

 

Before I begin the book, let me share with you why it was written.

2014 was a dreadful year for me.  It’s astounding how fast your world can be turned upside down and inside out.  I arrived at the barn on Feb 10, 2014, as usual.  Robin and Peregrine greeted me at the paddock gate, as usual.  Robin bowed, stretching both front feet out in front of him and crossing one leg over the other – again as usual.

robin stretch bow copy

The bow is part of a favorite morning game. It’s his cue to me to open my car door.  I always feel like a jack-in-the-box popping out of my car on his signal.   I opened my car door, as usual, and gave both Peregrine and Robin good-morning-greeting treats from my pocket.

I got my backpack out of the car and headed up to the barn. Fengur and Sindri, our two Icelandics, were there to greet me as I reached their section of the barnyard.  Robin and Peregrine were already inside the barn, waiting for me in the aisle.

I went through my morning routine.  I fixed Peregrine’s mash, passed out hay for everyone, put Robin into his stall, closed the back gate to his “sun room” so he couldn’t help himself to Peregrine’s breakfast, gave Peregrine his mash and had just started on Sindri’s stall when I heard Robin banging against his stall wall.  I love the open design of the stalls in the new barn.  I could look down the line of stalls and see all the horses.  Robin looked as though he was trying to stretch out in a bow but there wasn’t quite enough room.

Robin in stall long view

“That’s interesting,” I thought.  “He’s transferring the bow up to the barn.”  I wanted to capture the moment, but I was too far away.  I continued on with Sindri’s stall, but I was listening now, on the alert for a repeat performance.  Sure enough Robin bowed again.  This time I was prepared.  I rushed over, but not in time to capture the bow.  Robin had gone outside into the small run directly outside his stall.  A quick glance told me something was wrong.

It took no more than an instant to switch from the playfulness of clicker training to the dread of a colic alert.  This wasn’t his normal bow inviting me to come play.  The stretch that I was seeing was something entirely different.  In the space of no time at all Robin’s gut had seized up into full colic pain.

Thank goodness for cell phones.  I never thought I would hear myself say that, but it meant I didn’t have to leave Robin to call the vet.  I got him out of the stall and into the arena.  Less than an hour later the vet was there, not my usual vet, but one of the younger members of the practice.

Robin blew through all the pain meds she gave him.  Suddenly we were talking about surgery.  “If you think it’s an option, you should ship him now.”

I couldn’t believe I was hearing those words, not for Robin.  He was my healthy horse.  He was never sick.  He’d never even had a lameness exam.  He’d certainly never coliced, and he had none of the common risk factors for colic.  He wasn’t confined to a stall.  Yes, the pastures were closed for the winter, but he and Peregrine had free run through the barn, the indoor arena, and their outside paddock area.  He drank a lot.  His weight was good.  He had none of the signs of metabolic disease that has become so common in older horses.  Given all the horses I know, Robin would be the last one I would expect to colic – and yet here we were talking about surgery.

I knew from clients who had gone through this experience that colic surgery was survivable, but you needed to ship early.  The longer you waited, the lower the chances were for a good outcome.

But surgery.  For Robin.

He was my healthy horse.  I didn’t want him to become an invalid.  That wasn’t the kind of life he would enjoy.

And then there was his shadow, Peregrine.  Peregrine is my elderly thoroughbred.  In the last couple of years he had become completely dependent upon Robin for security.  I’m not sure Robin appreciated having a constant shadow, but Peregrine didn’t really give him any choice.  In 2011 when I moved the horses to their new home, Peregrine coped with the change by attaching himself completely to Robin.  Fierce Robin, who had never really buddied up with anyone,  slowly discovered that he liked having someone to hang out with and take naps with.  They had become a pair, sharing everything including training time with me.

But now Robin was in the arena, filled with drugs that didn’t even dull his distress.  Peregrine was hovering nearby.  He clearly knew something was terribly wrong.    What was I to do?  If I kept Robin here, I was going to lose him.  And then what would Peregrine do?  The unthinkable was happening.  It was never supposed to be this way.  Robin was so much younger than Peregrine and he had ALWAYS been so healthy.  How could he be colicing?

If you’re going to ship them, ship them sooner rather than later.

I knew this truth.  I knew I had to make a decision, but how was I going to trailer Robin anywhere?  This was February.  The only available trailer on the property was snowed in.  And how could I leave Peregrine?  I wouldn’t be able to go with Robin.

I started making phone calls.  It took another hour to get everything organized, to get a driver for the trailer, to get the trailer dug out, the truck hitched up.

If you’re going to ship them, ship them sooner rather than later.  The day had begun so normally.  And now just a few hours later, I was leading Robin out to the trailer and shipping him off without me.

Bob Viviano, one of my long term clients and good friends, drove Robin for me.  We are lucky in this area to have an excellent hospital within an hour’s drive.  We gave Peregrine a sedative which bought me the time I needed to get Robin on the trailer.  He loaded without hesitation and I sent Bob off.  It was then a little after noon.

Half way to the hospital the snow started. Bob drove through white out conditions from a storm that was moving in from the coast.  If I had known there was snow to our south, I would never have risked his safety to drive Robin. Instead of an hour’s drive, it took him closer to two to reach the hospital.

I was waiting in the barn for news. At two thirty I heard that Robin had arrived safely and was being examined by the vets. Bob was heading back.

Peregrine had woken up by this time and had begun to pace.  I closed the outer stall doors to try to keep things a little warmer for him.  There was nothing I could do to ease his distress except to give him back Robin.  I had to hope that was going to be possible.

The news from the clinic didn’t sound good.  They were recommending surgery.  Was that an option?

I talked to the surgeon about what I wanted for Robin.  If it meant he would be left in chronic pain with a disabled life, then no, I didn’t want to operate.

She thought there was still a good chance for him.  How can you say no?  I said yes to the surgery.

I waited.  The hours passed.  There was another horse in surgery ahead of Robin. As soon as that horse was in recovery, Robin’s operation would begin.

At six I got another call.  Robin was being prepped for surgery.

Peregrine continued to pace.  He walked through the night, unable to settle.  I stayed with him, but it was Robin he needed.

At midnight I got the call, the call we all dread.  I had another decision to make.  They had found a twist. A full twist with dead small intestine.

I had learned from my clients that if you are going to ship them, ship them sooner rather than later.  I had also learned that cutting out intestine was the deal breaker.  That’s where you stopped.

So he’s a dead horse.  That’s what I thought as I heard the news.

But the surgeon thought there was still a chance.  The twist put him into the category of worst case scenario, but given that, he was in better shape than many horses who had twists.  He still had a good chance.  My world had flipped and flipped again.  What was she saying?  What decision should I make?  How could I say no? How could I stop now?

I told her again what I wanted for Robin.  I wanted him to live, but not if it meant he would be left in a state of chronic pain.  I told her it was okay to continue, and it was also okay to stop.

I wish I could have been there.  I don’t know what decision I would have made if I had seen the pain Robin was in.  But in the barn with Peregrine continuing to pace, I gave permission to continue.

At 2:30 in the morning the call came.  Robin was in recovery.

Peregrine continued to pace.  At dawn I opened up the outside stall door and let him out into the barnyard.  Peregrine liked to sunbath.  I hoped the warmth from the early morning sun would help him to settle.  He went out into the snow and rolled.  All very normal, and then he got cast.

I never knew it was possible for a horse to get cast in snow, but the conditions were just right for this calamity.  The weight of his body packed the snow into ice.  It formed a perfect cast along his backside.  The ridge line of ice kept him from rolling back onto his side.  He was trapped on his back, his feet waving helplessly in the air.  After a night of constant walking, he didn’t have the strength left to get up.  I could see in his eyes that he was giving up.

I couldn’t get him up by myself.  I made frantic phone calls.  I put in a call to the vets.  They were only ten minutes away.  Someone would be there at this hour who could get here fast.

While I waited, I dug away at the frozen snow.  I cleared enough to tip Peregrine more onto his side.  He struggled, found a bit of purchase, and was on his feet just as the vet arrived.

Disaster averted, but I couldn’t help but think how close I had come to losing both my horses in the space of twenty-four hours.

I stayed with Peregrine throughout the day.  I wanted to see Robin, but I knew he was getting the full care he needed.  Peregrine needed me more.

By evening he was settled enough that I could leave him in the care of others.   I drove down to see Robin.

Robin greeted me with a nicker.  I don’t know what I had expected, but not this.  He looked so healthy, so very bright.  He posed for me.  “Oh don’t do that, Robin, you’ll hurt your stitches.”

The surgeon and intern stopped by and stayed for a long time answering questions and just visiting.

I stayed with Robin.  His surgery was rapidly emptying my bank balance and putting me deep in debt, but that evening, when he rested his head against me, I knew I had made the right decisions.

I finally had to leave.  I slipped out of his stall, but before I could leave, Robin posed – his sure cue to me for attention.  The pose was a behavior he had learned when he was two. It had been the cornerstone of his training – helping him to develop the most glorious gaits and also giving him a sure-fire way of engaging me in clicker games.

So soon after surgery he wasn’t allowed anything to eat.  I couldn’t give him any treats, but that’s not what he wanted.  He wanted me to stay with him.  I opened his stall door and went back inside to hug his face – another favorite behavior.

I tried to leave again, again he posed.  I laughed.  He was turning my leaving into a game.  I went in and out a few more times for him, and then I slipped away.

The following afternoon I went down again.  The brightness was gone.  Robin was crashing.  He was in terrible pain.  The vets did an ultrasound looking for gut motility, looking for signs of more damage, or worse, more dead intestine or another twist.  What they could see encouraged them.  There were no obvious signs of further damage.

Robin in hospital

Over the next couple of days Robin’s temperature shot up.  What little manure he passed came out as liquid diarrhea.  He was put into an isolation stall.  When I visited him, I had to don protective gear – gown, gloves and boots before going into his stall.

My days took on a pattern.  I slept at the barn, so I could keep an eye on Peregrine.  I made a bed for myself in the tack room by stacking bags of shavings together.  In the morning I would wake up early and do the morning chores.  Then I would wait for the call that would tell me if Robin had made it through the night.

While I waited, I wrote.  I worked on a book.  It was originally supposed to be a series of articles for my on-line course, but day by day as I waited for news of Robin, it grew into a book.

Robin continued to fail.  To protect his feet from laminitis they kept him wrapped up round the clock in ice boots. He hated the boots.  He was in constant colic pain in spite of the pain killers he was on.  Every afternoon, all afternoon I stayed with him in his stall.  Some days all I could do was lean against the wall and watch as his muscles quivered in spasms with the pain and the fever. Other days he would lie down and sleep with his head resting in my lap.  I sat in the deep shavings and kept a vigil, monitoring every little change.

Robin 2 sleeping in hospital

The days passed.  The money poured out.  While I worried how I was going to afford all of this, I wrote a book about Play.  Odd how things evolve.

I knew always Robin might not come home.  He was so very sick.  The vets suggested that we give him platelets, but they wanted to check with me first.  The platelets were $500 a bag.  Ah well, I thought, so much for getting the new computer I so very much needed.

A week went by, then another.  I watched some horses go home.  Others came in, most for colic surgery, most were thoroughbred mares with newborn foals at their side.

I watched the staff give all the horses superb care.  Never was there any concern about leaving Robin with them.  There was no rough handling, no yelling, no treating any of the horses like livestock.  It was careful, caring, gentle handling.

During the second week Robin began to show more interest in eating.  At first, he was offered only small handfuls of hay several hours apart.  Then he was given a bowl of hay and finally a hay net.  At first all this did was make the diarrhea and the pain worse, but then on his second Saturday in hospital he started to look brighter.  His temperature finally dropped, and he began to eat more normally.  When I arrived in the afternoon, I was greeted by the welcome sight of a full hay net hanging in his stall.  The following day he continued to do well, so on the Monday, two weeks to the day of his arrival, he was cleared to go home.

I continued to live in the barn through the winter, huddled near a space heater in the tack room so I could keep an eye on Robin.  He was confined to his stall for a couple of weeks, then he was allowed out into his small outside run.

Peregrine helped me watch over him at night.  I always knew when Robin was lying down.  Peregrine would begin to pace.  The tack room is directly opposite Robin’s stall so Peregrine’s pacing would wake me in the middle of the night.  I’d slip out to check on Robin.  Always he looked comfortable, just resting, but I often had to get him up or Peregrine would continue to fret.  After about two weeks, Peregrine relaxed and let Robin – and me – sleep as needed.

Two months on from the surgery, Robin was allowed the freedom of the barn plus the arena, and then another month on from that he was allowed normal turnout.

As he got better, my writing time disappeared, and the book project went on hold.  Now that spring was here, there were more pressing outside jobs to do, plus my travel schedule was back in full swing.

In June the nightmare repeated itself – this time with Sindri, Ann Edie’s Icelandic stallion. He went off his feed, and he had a low grade temperature.  We had the vet out right away.  The diagnosis – anaplasmosis, one of the tick-borne fevers.  Apparently, this was hitting our area hard this year, and they were being run ragged getting to all the horses who were showing similar symptoms.

Sindri had had Potomac Horse fever eight years previously.  He’d had a bad reaction to the tetracycline, the antibiotic that is used to treat it.  His kidneys shut down, and we came very close to losing him.  Tetracycline is the drug of choice for anaplasmosis, but given his previous reaction, the vet chose an antibiotic from a different family of drugs.

This was on Saturday.  Sindri’s temperature dropped back to normal, and by Sunday he was back to eating and drinking normally.

Monday morning as I was turning him out, I saw a slight misstep as he came out of his stall.  Alarm bells started ringing.  The vet was out doing a recheck on Robin.

As we were finishing up with Robin, I mentioned that Sindri hadn’t looked right that morning.  He’d been a little off, and I was worried about laminitis.  We walked out to look at him.  Sindri walked up to us.  He looked fine.  There was no obvious lameness, no heat or pulses in his feet.

The vet left.  I busied myself about the barn where I could keep an eye on the horses.  When I checked Sindri again a short time later, he could no longer walk. The tinge that I had seen had grown into full blown laminitis.

I called the vet out again.  This time there was no mistaking what was happening.  The anaplasmosis had tipped him into laminitis.  My vet wanted us to keep his feet wrapped in ice boots and to stand him on sand to try to support his feet.  There was no way could get a load of sand delivered on such short notice, so Ann’s husband went off instead to Lowes to bring back bags of builders sand.

He brought us bags of ice and fifteen bags of sand.  That didn’t even begin to give us the coverage we needed.  Three trips later we had enough sand to get Sindri through the night.

The following day, Sindri looked so much better.  I thought with relief that we had dodged that bullet.  He was going to be all right. But the following day he crashed again.  Laminitis is like that.  You think you’re making head way, and then cruelly it flares up again with crippling pain.  The only good news was the x-rays showed no rotation of the coffin bone.

Sindri was on painkillers and other medications to try to control the inflammation.  He seemed to stabilize, but he was still sore.  And we had to keep his feet in ice boots round the clock.  Every two hours I repacked his boots with ice.  I could feel my brain turning to mush as the sleep deprivation set in.

Sindri seemed to stabilize.  He was allowed five minutes in the arena.  Turning he was very sore, but on a straight away he walked out in big reaching strides.  I turned him loose in the arena so he could choose what he wanted to do.  What he wanted was to trot up to me as I cleaned manure piles out of the arena.  That was an encouraging sign.  We were still hopeful he might recover with only minimal long-term damage to his feet.

Two weeks in we stopped icing his feet.  Hurray!  I still had to get up a couple of times during the night to give him his next round of meds, but at least I didn’t have to wrestle with the repacking of the ice boots.  We tried to reduce the level of painkillers.  The result: he could barely walk.  We changed meds and got him stabilized back to where he had been, but he continued to be a mystery.  The x-rays simply weren’t that bad.  Why was he continuing to show this degree of pain?

After two months he was no better, but he was also no worse.  I was scheduled to be out of the country for a week. I left on a Wednesday.  Friday I got an email from Ann.  She had tried to reach me by phone, but the contact number wasn’t working.  Sindri was colicing.

More nightmare.

I borrowed a cell phone and made the overseas call.  It was the middle of the night for Ann, but I knew she would be up.  She told me they weren’t sure what was going on, and she didn’t know what to do.

I heard myself saying if you think surgery is an option, ship him sooner rather than later.  Already, by waiting it might be too late.

I also heard myself telling her in more detail about Robin, about the cost of the surgery and the aftercare, about the risk to the feet in any horse, and the increased risk in a horse who already had laminitis.

I heard myself saying she should call Bob and get the trailer hooked up.  I knew it was the middle of the night, but he wouldn’t mind.  If she thought she wanted to go forward with treatment, the sooner they got to a hospital the better.  She should ship him while he was still able to go.

We talked for a few more minutes.  We both wanted the same thing for Sindri.  We wanted to give him a chance, but not if it meant condemning him to a lifetime of chronic pain.

I hung up, and pretended that everything was normal while I taught the morning sessions.  When it was eight o’clock back home, I called again.  The vets had recommended that Ann send him to our local clinic.  It looked as though the colic would resolve medically, but they wanted to be able to support him with fluids and monitor him more closely.  They had trailered Sindri over mid-morning to the clinic.  I kept checking my emails waiting for word of what was going on.

Sometime overnight things changed dramatically.  He began to reflux, a sign that there was a blockage somewhere.  Then the reflux slowed, but he became very painful, bucking and spinning in his stall.

His condition had shifted from a medical colic to an emergency surgery, but he was still an hour from the hospital.  Ann and I talked on the phone.  We both decided to send him for surgery.  It was so hard being so far away.  I knew the risks far better than Ann.  I had seen foundered horses.  What were we doing?  But we had to give him a chance.

Sindri made it to the hospital, but like Robin, he had to wait for another horse to come out of surgery.  He seemed to stabilize, and it was looking as though he might resolve medically, but then the reflux started again, and the decision had to be made.  Ann got the call and gave her permission to go ahead.

On the other side of the ocean I waited for news.

Sindri’s surgery was shorter than Robin’s and had a better outcome.  His intestine was inflamed.  They found signs of what might have been constrictions, but if there had been a blockage, it had resolved.

I flew home on Monday.  I was anxious to get in and get down to see Sindri.  I was hoping he would still be alive, that I wasn’t flying home to a dead horse.  United Airlines let me down.  The last leg of my trip was cancelled, and I had to spend the night in Newark.  I didn’t get home until mid-day on Tuesday.

Sindri waited for me.

He was in the same stall that Robin had started out in.  I almost didn’t recognize him as I walked up to his stall.  Unlike Robin, he looked like the very sick horse that he was.  His thick mane and forelock were braided to keep them out of the way of the catheter and fluid lines.  It was like looking at someone who you’ve only known with a beard.  Oh, that’s what you look like!

Sindri head shot in hospital

All four feet were in ice boots.  He was clearly in a lot of pain, both from the surgery and his feet.  The surgeon stopped by to update me on what they had found.  He sounded hopeful that Sindri would recover well from the surgery.  I looked at the way he was standing and wondered.

Over the next few days Sindri took us on a downward spiral.  He wasn’t eating.  Fresh x-rays showed us that we were now dealing with a rotation of his coffin bone, and his blood work was pointing us in the direction of liver damage.

Sindri lying down in hospital

I had stopped working on my book when Robin had gotten better.  Now I brought it out again.  Every morning I worked on it, and every afternoon Ann and I drove down to visit with Sindri.  The vets started him on IV nutrition to try to reverse the liver damage.  Slowly he began to eat a little on his own.  Now instead of rejecting the handfuls of hay that he was offered, he was asking for more.

Mid-week a mini donkey moved in to the stall directly across from Sindri.  While Sindri’s condition slowly improved, the donkey’s declined.  He was clearly much loved.  His family came often to see him.  His liver was failing, but he wasn’t as lucky as Sindri.  The vets weren’t able to stop the progression of his disease.  I heard the vets discussing  the possibilities with his owners.  Epm had been ruled out, along with West Nile.  They weren’t sure what they were dealing with, or what more they could do.

It was hard to celebrate Sindri’s growing appetite knowing that across the hall there were only tears.

The vets began to talk about Sindri going home.  If he meets this milestone, maybe by Wednesday.  Then it was Thursday, then Friday.  Finally the call came early Saturday morning.  Sindri had been cleared, we could take him home.

When we arrived the mini donkey was on his side resting on a thick mat.  He was having a seizure.

Across the hall Sindri was looking bright and very much ready to go home.  We were using a borrowed stock trailer that didn’t have a ramp.  I was concerned that Sindri might be reluctant to step up into the trailer.  I needn’t have worried.  Sindri was ready to go home.  One of the interns took him out before I realized he was even out of his stall.  He was already on the trailer by the time I got outside.  Good Sindri!

He got off just as easily and walked surprisingly well up to the barn.  But over the next couple of days that changed.  Walking was reduced to a slow hobble.

I’ve been trimming my horses feet for the last couple of years.  That means when something like this happens, you don’t have a farrier available to help you.  My vet called in a favor and arranged for one of the best farriers in the area to come help us.  Together they decided that the best option for Sindri were wooden clogs.  The clogs are built up of layers of wood laminated together.  They let the horse’s foot roll over in any direction that is comfortable, and apparently they can provide almost instant relief to some laminitic horses.

The farrier and my vet came out together to put the clogs on. They took x-rays first.  The x-rays showed clearly why Sindri’s feet had become so much more painful.  The last set of x-rays taken at the hospital had indicated that he still had good depth of sole.  On the new x-rays the coffin bone on both front feet had rotated even more and was now pressing down on the sole.  We had run out of foot.

I’m glad it was an experienced farrier who trimmed Sindri’s  foot that day and not me.  The sole was separating at the toe leaving a long line of exposed soft tissue.  There was no possibility of putting the clogs on.  The farrier made some temporary pads to protect his feet.  Sindri was so good to stand for the trimming and for all the fussing with his feet.

We had been keeping him on a sand stall, but with his feet so open, the sand had to go.  We put Sindri temporarily in one of the other stalls, while I dug out load after load of sand.  Sand is amazing how it gets into all the cracks and crevasses and refuses to come out.  I swept until sweeping was doing no good.  Then I got out my vacuum – yes the barn has a vacuum.  I bought it originally for my house, but somehow it ended up at the barn instead.  When the vacuum wasn’t getting anything more, I washed the mats.  I had just spent two weeks in a vet hospital.  They had set the bar high for cleaning a stall!

Finally it was ready for shavings – four bags to create a wonderfully deep, soft bed.  Sindri was going into a luxury apartment!  Once he had hobbled from Fengur’s stall to his own, he lay flat out on this new thick mattress and fell into an exhausted sleep.

We ordered boots for Sindri.  They came by overnight express the following day, and we transferred him from the styrofoam pads he had been in to the protective and much more supportive boot.  Every day Ann helped me change his wraps and reapply a sugar and betadine mix to the soles of his feet.

A week later Sindri’s feet were less painful.  The soles were beginning to grow in and cover up the exposed soft tissue, but I knew we still had a long road ahead of us.  The goal was to make him comfortable.  He was still bright eyed, and engaged with us.  He was telling us it was okay to keep going.  As long as his eyes were bright, we would keep going on.  Ann couldn’t say no to the surgery, anymore than I could say no to Robin’s.  So here we were in a place we never wanted to be with any of our beloved horses.

I always wanted to live in a barn with my horses.  I never expected I would be doing so under such circumstances.  Once again, I turned the tack room into my full time office and living quarters.  While I worked on the computer, I could keep an eye on Sindri.  Each afternoon Peregrine and Robin would have a nap standing side by side in the aisle next to Sindri’s stall.  Fengur, our other Icelandic, was generally outside having a sunbath in the barn yard.  And I was in my “stall”, keeping watch.

Sindri’s coffin bones stabilized.  With good care, a good farrier, and a lot of luck, his feet began to heal.  I kept writing throughout all of this.

Some people take up drinking when times are rough.  Other people go shopping or remodel their homes.  I, apparently, write books.  The first draft of the book was begun during Robin’s stay in hospital.  And it was finished during Sindri’s.

The book has been finished for a long time, but I have been undecided what I want to do with it.  Robin is still doing well, but we lost Sindri the day after Christmas 2014.  He coliced again, and this time it was clear it was the end.  When I led him for the last time out of the barn, he walked sound.  We had beaten the founder, but we couldn’t beat the colics. Perhaps six months of pain killers and other medications had just been too much for him.

I set the book aside. It’s been sitting in my computer, waiting.  I wasn’t sure for what.  I really haven’t wanted to publish it as a book, but if not that, what?  The book I have written was given to me by my horses.  It has grown out of lessons Peregrine and the others have been teaching me.   I wanted to share it, but I wasn’t sure how.

My decision has been to do something very old fashioned with it, but with a modern twist.  I’m borrowing an idea from the nineteenth century.  Charles Dickens published his books in serial form. Before they were turned into books that could be read cover to cover, they came out in weekly installments in inexpensive periodicals.  That meant his stories could be more widely read, but imagine having to wait a whole week to find out what twist the next chapter would bring.

I’m going to do something similar, but instead of using a printed magazine, I’m going to publish my book here on this blog, section by section.  I know we all live busy lives so I’ll space the publishing of these articles out so they don’t become overwhelming.

So what is this book about?  The simplest answer is play.

I have always played with training.  I have always told people to go “play” with an exercise.  I send them home to “play with ideas”, not to “work on a lesson.”  Play has been central to my life, but work can overcome that.  It has taken a lot of work to bring clicker training into the horse community.  My horses were always there reminding me that play is more powerful.

So it was right that a book about play would emerge at a time when I was most focused on my horses. It was written first and foremost for my horses, perhaps you could even say by my horses.  It is a gift from them to you.  I hope you enjoy it.

Alexandra Kurland
January 2 2016

Before I begin, I want to extend my great thanks to Dr. Naile and all the vets and staff at Oakencroft Veterinary clinic, and to the surgeons and staff at Rhinebeck Equine Hospital for the good care they gave to Robin and Sindri.

Also, a very great thanks to Mary Arena, who helped us enormously in caring for the horses, especially when I was away.  I would not have been able to travel if Mary had not been willing to step in and help.  Her contribution has always been greatly appreciated and always will be.  You never say thank you enough to people, but, Mary, I get to say thank you here.

Note:  What this book is, and what it is not.  In clicker training we learn to shift our focus from the unwanted behavior.  We want to focus on what we want the learner TO DO.  So it seems odd to be saying what this book is not.  It is not a “how-to” guide to clicker training.  I’ve written those books, produced those DVDS, written that on-line course.  If you are new to clicker training and need the nuts and bolts of how to get started, I will direct you to those resources.  You can find them all via my web site: theclickercenter.com.

So what is this book?  And who is it for?  The second question is easy to answer.  It’s for you – especially if you have animals in your life, and you’re interested in training.

Over the past twenty plus years I’ve been pushing the boundaries of what can be done with clicker training.  How do we use it?  How do we think about it?  What is our current understanding of cues, chains, reinforcement schedules, etc., and how has that changed over the years?

This book explores some of the areas that exploration has taken me.  We’ll be going well beyond the basics of clicker training.  I want to share with you the differences that make a difference – that transform you from a follower of recipes into a creative, inventive trainer.  Play is the transformer.  In the articles that follow you’ll discover what I mean by that.

I won’t be posting every day.  That would be overwhelming to you and to me.  Tomorrow is a travel day, so I’m not sure when I’ll be posting the next blog.  It will depend in part upon my internet access.  I will be putting you instead on an intermittent reinforcement schedule.  If you want to be notified when new posts are published, please sign up to follow this blog.

Coming soon: Part 1: Why Play?

Copyright  2016 All Rights Reserved.  I know on the internet how easy it is to pass posts around.  I certainly wrote this to share, and I hope you will share the link to these posts with others, but please respect the copyright restrictions on these articles.  If you wish to reprint them, please contact me for permission. (kurlanda@crisny.org)

 

Independence Day!

Peregrine in barn door 5:17:12

While others celebrate July 4th as a national holiday, for me it marks a much more personal anniversary.  July 4 is truly Independence Day for me.

July 4, 2011 is the day I moved my horses out of the boarding barn to their very own home.

I spent the better part of yesterday going through photos.  Things have changed so much for the horses.  The first nine months living in a construction site was hard, but now they have what I wanted for them, a good life.

Enjoy the photos.

Indy day 1

Indy 2 mud into level siteIndy 2a contractors framing

 Indy 4 roofing

Indy 5 June barn
Indy 6 Stone dust spreadIndy 7 redone move inIndy 4 deep trenches outside

Indy 7c barn mess

 

Indy 9 Fengus in arenaIndy 10 barn in Sept

Indy 11 hay loft

Indy 12 Pg looking

Indy 13 hay loft winter comingIndy 14 barn mess OctIndy 15 cement truckIndy cement pour

Indy 17 tack room viewIndy 18 walls going upIndy 19 tongue groove

Indy town water

Indy 21 composterIndy 22 barn interior Dec 18

Indy 25 stalls designIndy 26 upstairs loftIndy 27 winter workIndy 28 outside runs

Indy 29 Peregrine napping

Indy barn transformed

Indy 31 horses moved in

Indy 32 Horses in filed

Indy 33 Peregrine choiceIndy 34 Choice Pg by door

Indy 35 Iceys play

Indy 36 Flowers

Indy 37 Peregrine window

Indy 38 shavings bags

Indy 39 Pg content

Indy 40 home

Indy 41 land reclaimed

Indy 42 more home

Indy 43 playtimeIndy 45 naptime 2 images

Indy 46 friends tog

Today’s Peregrine Story: #14 Peregrine Today

Peregrine and Robin asleep in arenaIt is 5 am.  I have just begun my day by switching on the computer.  Peregrine and Robin are asleep in the indoor arena.  That’s where they hang out at night.  I peeked in a few minutes ago.  They are both still lying down so I tiptoed past the arena door.

Some mornings I like to go in and sit with them, but today it is too cold.  Two days ago we had snow!  It didn’t stick, but even so!  This winter just does not want to let go.  I’m looking forward to the warm spring weather when I can take my computer out and sit with the horses while I work.

Peregrine Robin in aislePeregrine and Robin have free range of the barn.  They can wander in from the barnyard, through their open stalls into the barn aisle and the arena beyond.  My current task is getting them adjusted to spring grass so they can also go back out onto the fields to graze.  To that end tomorrow’s birthday cake will be “iced” with fresh picked grass.

I’ve just heard them come in from the arena.  Peregrine has gone down to the wash stall, probably to get a drink, and Robin has gone into the end stall and is eating hay from the hay bag that hangs in there.  He’ll come get me soon to tell me that he wants fresh hay – none of this already picked over stuff!

Sharing their "ice cream cone" of a hay bag.

Sharing their “ice cream cone” of a hay bag.

When I fill the hay bag, Peregrine and Robin stand on either side of the stall wall and share the hay that pokes out the top like a giant scoop of ice cream on a cone.  It is good to see that Robin can share his hay so peacefully.  That wasn’t how their relationship began.  Robin was a fierce companion who shared his hay and his person with no one!

One of the main reasons I brought Robin into the family was to be a companion for Peregrine.  When you board, you have no control over what happens to the other horses that live there.  If your horse’s best friend belongs to someone else, and they decide to leave, your horse is out of luck.  He’s just lost friend, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  I didn’t want that to happen to Peregrine, so I got him Robin.

There’s no guarantee that two horses are going to like one another – or even tolerate one another.  As a young horse, Robin was both very independent and very fierce.  What Robin wanted, Robin took.  The other horses all gave him a wide berth.  They knew better than to mess with him.  So that was Peregrine’s main turnout companion.

If I hadn’t formed the third partner in the relationship, I’m not sure they would ever have become friends, but through training I could mediate the relationship.  Robin learned that he got reinforced when he let Peregrine into his space.  If he backed up and made room for Peregrine at the gate, he got reinforced.  If he maintained his place and let Peregrine get his own treat, he got a treat as well.  But if he snapped at Peregrine, if he tried to drive him away, all the focus and attention went to Peregrine.  Peregrine learned that I would protect him.  I would always keep him safe from fierce Robin.

Peregrine touching cone robin looks on

While Robin looks on, Peregrine correctly identifies the green cone.

One of my favorite videos from the on-line course shows me working on color discrimination with Peregrine and Robin.  I start out with two cones hidden behind my back.  I ask one of them to target the blue cone or the green cone, or it might be the one that is bigger, or smaller.  When people watch the video, they tend to focus on this task.  What I see is how well the two horses are taking turns.

When we moved to the new barn, Peregrine had a hard time adjusting.  He’s never been a good traveler, and this marked a huge change for him.  He’d lived at the boarding barn since 1993.  While the construction on the new barn went on around them, the horses lived in the indoor arena.  Peregrine latched onto Robin.  Wherever Robin went, there was Peregrine.  I’m not sure Robin really wanted a shadow, but Peregrine didn’t give him much choice.

Sharing an afternoon nap.

Sharing an afternoon nap.

Gradually Robin became accustomed to having Peregrine share in everything he did.  Afternoon naps were taken together on the big pile of shavings I had put down for that purpose.  I often joined them, sitting beside Robin while Peregrine stood over both of us.

When we moved into the new barn, I left their stall doors open and let them wander about as they pleased.  I often found both horses sharing one stall.  When I wanted to work with Robin in the arena, Peregrine always accompanied us, tagging along beside us and getting reinforced together with Robin.

I'm ground driving Robin with invisible drive lines while Peregrine accompanies us.

I’m ground driving Robin with invisible drive lines. I’m asking Robin to back, and Peregrine is backing with us.

–   I have to interrupt myself here.  Robin is trying to tell me that it is time for breakfast!  –

The morning chores are done.  I’m back at the computer.  Peregrine and Robin are out in the barnyard having sun bathes.  It’s cold.  According to the thermometer it’s just above freezing, but the sun feels warm on their backs.  They’ll doze out there most of the morning while I get work done in the tack room.

I was away this past week teaching at the home farm of Cavalia.  When I got back to the barn on Thursday, Peregrine had decided that Spanish walk was the  “flavor of the month”.  He followed me up and down the barn aisle, lifting his front legs up in the exaggerated extension that is Spanish walk.  This morning has been no exception.  As he “helped” me with the morning chores, he marched around the wheel barrow in his thirty year old’s version of Spanish walk.

I like seeing that he has the balance and the strength to make this the behavior he offers.  I use these offered behaviors as a barometer to gauge how well he is doing.  It’s not a great Spanish walk, but the fact that he wants to offer it at all pleases me.

When I built the barn, I said I wasn’t sure how we would use it.  I would let it evolve, and evolve it has.  The barn has very much become Peregrine’s retirement home.  The footing in the arena is the same deep shavings that we use to bed the stalls.  The arena has become one giant stall in which Peregrine and Robin can take naps.  Many old horses have trouble getting up, especially in the cramped quarters of a stall.  Peregrine has plenty of room to roll, to take naps, to stand with his friend and doze.  They can move from one area of the barn into another.  In another couple of days, the fields will be dry enough, and they’ll be able to go out and graze.

Peregrine is checking to make sure I am in my "stall".

Peregrine is checking to make sure I am in my “stall”.

The barn has become a shared space for all of us.  I can work in the tack room and watch the horses through the big window that looks out into the barn aisle and the barnyard beyond.  Whenever I go out into the aisle, Peregrine and Robin come to see me.  They are always eager for a visit and a game.

They have just come in from outside.  Robin led the way into the arena.  If I go out now, I’ll find them in the near corner catching the last bit of early morning sun.  It’s a good life for them.  Later today I’ll trim their feet.  They are a bit overdue because of all my traveling.  And then they’ll get a good grooming.  They have to look presentable for tomorrow’s birthday party.

And speaking of that – remember you are all invited.  There is still room in my virtual tack room for a few more guests.

The times are 1 pm, 5 pm and 9 pm (eastern standard time).  I’ll be hosting an on-line party at those times.  If you send me an email with the time you can join us, I’ll send you the log in information for the gathering.

I look forward to welcoming you to my barn and sharing Peregrine’s 30th Birthday celebration with you.

Peregrine Robin lying down hug cropped

A favorite shared moment with Peregrine and Robin.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  Thirty years tomorrow!

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercenterblog.com
theclickercentercourse.com

Horse Company

 

RobinOkay.  I have a problem.  My horses don’t want to stay out on grass.  They would rather spend their mornings with me helping with barn chores! So much for the naysayers who tell us our clicker-trained horses only work for the food!

I opened the gate to their field just after 6 this morning.  Peregrine and Robin went right out, but then they turned around and followed me back into the barn.

“Aren’t you coming with us?”

“Okay, I’ll walk part way out.  But I have chores to do.”  I left them at the top of the hill.  Within minutes they were both back looking for me.   This time we walked together to the bottom of the field.  I stayed out for a bit, but even at this early hour the sun was becoming unpleasantly hot. I went back up to the barn.  They both followed.

I got my hat, a book and went back out.  I sat in the grass and read while they grazed near by.  But I did want to get the barn chores finished, so I tried sneaking back up, thinking now that they had settled into grazing they would stay down.  No such luck.  They followed me back up and helped me tidy up the arena.  It was quite the process.  They wanted hugs.  First I’d hug Robin, then Peregrine, then pick a pile of manure.  Then Robin was wanting another hug.

“There’s grass, guys.  And no bugs!  Go eat.”

“We want to be with you.  Another hug, please.”

It was only when I disappeared to empty the manure cart, that they finally went down on their own for grass.  But then I made the mistake of peaking out to see where they were.

“You’re back!  Good.  We were waiting for you!”

They are now both up keeping me company in the barn while I type out this post.  I’m sitting on the middle landing overlooking both the barn aisle and the arena.  (Jane, you know it well.  This was your sentry post when you visited with Percy.)  There’s a light spring breeze keeping me comfortable.  The arena sounds like an aviary.  I need to get a birder here to identify all the morning calls I’m hearing.  The gate to their field is open.  At some point I know Robin and Peregrine will wander back out, but for now it is good to have their company.  This is the kind of “problem” that I love to have.  My horses would rather be with me than go out to their field for spring grass!

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com

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