Learning! That’s what we’re born ready to do. That’s what the baby goats are showing me.
Thanzi’s twins were born on Wednesday, March 21. On Friday, March 23 I was on a plane heading to the Art and Science of Animal Training conference so I barely got to say more than hello to them.
At the conference I presented a new program on a very familiar topic – balance. I had some great before and after photos showing how much a horse’s balance can be transformed just using the foundation lessons. I also had some new videos showing how those changes were made. You don’t need advanced skills and complex lessons. You just need to direct your attention to your horse’s balance to make a huge difference for him.
By the time I got home, Thanzi’s twins had met Trixie’s triplets. The two family groups were living and playing together in the front pen. And it was still cold. In fact it has continued to be cold even into April. This morning when I looked out there was fresh snow on the ground! Not much, but still it snowed overnight – and it’s April. The cold limits how adventurous I want to be getting them out. But it doesn’t limit their need for enrichment. So every morning I have been building a new play ground for them to explore.
For Trixie’s triplets, their very first obstacles had been my outstretched legs as I sat with them in the hay. They were determined to master climbing up and over. And they delighted in trying to climb up onto my shoulder. Patience, in particular, was determined to get to the top of the “mountain”, even if it meant stepping on Felicity who preferred to curl up in my lap.
Their next obstacles were blocks of wood, and then plastic jump blocks. Every day I gave them something new to explore, so for them novelty is something you play with, not run from.
When I got back from the Art and Science conference, both sets of babies were clearly ready for even greater challenges so their playground expanded. My raw materials were a couple of two by fours, six plastic jump blocks, some odds and ends of wood, and three pieces of plywood. It is amazing how many different ways you can set up these elements to create a fresh challenge every day.
I began with the two by fours elevated just a little way off the ground. The goats were immediately testing out their balance. They wobbled a couple steps along the boards, fell off, got back on again, got bumped off by another goat, fell off, got back on again. A day later they weren’t wobbling any more. They could very nimbly walk the plank.
The next morning I added the plywood, but I set it so it sloped from the two by fours to the ground. The goats slipped and slid down the plywood. The two by fours were yesterday’s game. This new challenge had them crowding onto the plywood. One would be trying to go up the down escalator. Her feet would be scrambling as she slid inexorably back down the plywood. Another would be sliding towards her. They’d collide mid-way, fall off and be right back for another turn. What resilient, eager learners!
As their skills increased, I raised the two by fours, and added a couple more props. One day I made a loop so they could run along the two by fours, slide down to a lower level, bounce from there across a plywood plank to another jump block and from there scramble up another slide back to the two by fours. They made lap after lap, always with the obstacle of another goat wanting to go in the opposite direction. Head butting on the slide was the best. The mornings routinely begin with laughter as we watch the goats play.
Last weekend I shared the laughter with Caeli Collins, the organizer of the up-coming clinic in Half Moon Bay, California. What a treat it was having Caeli visiting. She attended the Art and Science conference then flew out last Wednesday to spend a few days enjoying goats and horses.
Caeli is an experienced clicker trainer. When you are meeting a new group of animals, it is never clear what you’re going to work on. Will they settle right in and show you the leading edge of what they know, or will they ask for some other lesson? With the baby goats the goal was laughter. That was easily provided.
With the older Clicker Center residents there were other important lessons to be explored. Caeli was learning how to transfer her clicker training skills to animals (and species) she didn’t know. And I was learning how to introduce the goats to someone new.
On the first day I opened the back gate into the boy’s section to let them out into the hallway while I fed. They all poured out and raced to their stations. That was before they realized there was someone new in the hallway. I filled the hay feeders and then gave Caeli some hay stretcher pellets. Pellias was willing to take a treat from Caeli, but not Elyan. When I called the goats back into their enclosure, he scooted past her as fast as he could. That was our baseline.
Day one was spent quietly letting the goats get to know Caeli. She interacted with Elyan through the fence. “Hmm. This person knows how to play the clicker game. Maybe she isn’t quite so scary after all!”
On day two they could both engage with her a little, and by day three I could step outside their pen and let Caeli train the goats on her own. She worked with each one on targeting and platform training. Pellias surprised her by deciding that after he got his treat from her, he should back up to the platform that was behind him. And Elyan wanted to offer her his foot, something I had been working on a lot with both goats.
In addition to training time in the hallway, we took them into the arena so they could run around and play on the mounting block. And we went out for walks with them. We took advantage of one sunny, almost warm day to venture out on their longest walk yet, out into the back field.
And then there were the babies. Every morning we set up a new playground for them. As soon as we started moving pieces into place, they would be climbing all over them. There was no worry, no concern over some new element we’d introduced. These are confident, eager puzzle solvers, exactly what I want. So our mornings started always with laughter. Mixed into that was amazement over how fast they were learning.
Caeli also got to play with horses. Robin and Fengur thought she was an entertaining guest, but mostly Caeli worked with the newest equine resident in the barn. His name is Tonnerre. He’s an eighteen year old, very pretty paint. In his previous life he worked hard, and he has the stiffnesses and on-again-off-again lameness to show for it.
Through the winter the lameness has been more off than on, so I am hopeful that the microshaping gymnastics will help keep him comfortable. That’s my main interest in having him at the barn. I want to document the change in his body over time as he works more consistently with these lessons.
Last fall when he arrived, he really struggled to settle in. For the first month or more the sessions were all about helping him not to panic when Marla took her mare into the arena. For the first couple of weeks Marla had to spend most of her training time keeping Maggie in the barn aisle or just going into the arena briefly and then coming right back out again. Thank goodness Marla was willing to play this game and had the skill to know how far and how fast to take Maggie out of sight. Both horses were latching on to each other. If we hadn’t spent the time to build their confidence that the other could go out of sight, we would today have two horses joined at the hip instead of two independent workers.
During those sessions Tonnerre was always loose. He had his stall, outside run and part of the barnyard to move around in. I had just pulled his shoes, and I didn’t want him doing a lot of frantic running back and forth. So I stayed with him whenever Maggie was out and offered him the opportunity to target, to drop his head, and to back up, three very familiar behaviors. He was able to stay with me, playing the clicker training game and only occasionally would he feel the need to break away and check on where she was.
Gradually, I was able to move away, engage with him less, and Marla was able to work her horse more normally. It was very time intensive in the beginning, but definitely worth it to have both horses comfortable being out of sight of the other and able to work independently in the arena.
Tonnerre is proving to be an excellent student. He’s always eager for his training sessions, but he’s not so sure about the goats. He hasn’t quite come to terms with the strange sounds that come from that side of the arena. When they are playing, goats make a lot of noise!
The first time he was in the arena with Caeli, they were just making the occasional banging sounds, but the wind was blowing hard. And of all things a squirrel decided to jump into the arena and run up a post into the rafters.
Tonnerre didn’t know Caeli, but he did know this was a scary day. He wanted back into the barn away from all these strange noises and alarming creatures. He was at liberty. The door back to the barn aisle was open, so that’s where he went. We had our baseline. Relationship matters.
So we back tracked through his training, letting Caeli and Tonnerre get to know one another through the structure of the foundation lessons and in an environment where he was more comfortable. It is always: “Train where you can, not where you can’t.”
And it is: “Go to a place in the training where you can get a consistent yes answer and proceed from there.”
Caeli could get a consistent yes answer in the barn aisle which then became a consistent and much more relaxed yes answer when she returned to the arena. Often the most important lessons come not from the fancy “stuff” a horse can show you, but from the simple things applied well.
At the Art and Science conference I talked about balance. The baby goats are learning fast about physical balance. When I turned the older goats and Tonnerre over to Caeli, the focus was very much on emotional balance. Both are part of a complete picture.
I’d like Tonnerre and the goats to be good teachers even for novice clicker trainers. Caeli was helping them make that leap to being comfortable with people they don’t know. Her visit showed me that they will all be great co-teachers for anyone who wants to sharpen their clicker training skills – and enjoy some laughter along with it.
I made a short video of our daily play ground for the youngsters. Enjoy!
Caeli wrote a wonderful post about her visit which I am including here. It is fun to read about the same event from two different perspectives. And Caeli added in her visit to Ann and Panda – always a treat.
A visit to Alex’s (long) – written by Caeli Collins and posted in The Click That Teaches facebook group April 7, 2018.
I spent four wonderful days with Alexandra Kurland at her barn in Albany just about a week ago. The goat babies were better than a movie, providing endless entertainment as they bounced around. Alex and Marla Foreman built new puzzles for them on a daily basis and they just kept bouncing to the challenge – walking a 2×4, turning a slanted board into a sliding contest, and chewing any clothing we didn’t quickly redirect. We decided a YouTube channel streaming baby goat antics would be a huge stress buster. Trixie and Thanzi are good moms and have amazing patience with them.
That was the several-times-a-day funfest. I also got to meet Ann and Panda, and go for a walk with them. Ann and Panda walk out! They walk faster than Sebastian and I doing in-hand trot work. But what I was really, really blown away by was Panda’s decision-making abilities. She watches for unevenness in the road, driveways, changes in slope, finds the crosswalk buttons, moves over for cars and more. It’s one thing to read about it, it’s another thing to see it in person. They are an amazing pair.
All of this was wonderful, but I was really there to expand my training knowledge and practice, which was so much fun. The boy goats (Pellias, Galahad and Elyan) and a horse named Tonnerre contributed to my education. Tonnerre is new to Alex’s barn since the fall, and is in long-term training with her to be a clicker training school horse (he’s the very good looking paint in the pictures). Alex has been working with him for some time.
My breadth of training is not wide – I work with my horse, Sebastian, and my dogs, but I’ve been a practicing and committed clicker trainer for about seven or eight years. I’m not a novice, but I’m also not a professional. For those of you who don’t know me, I organize and host Alex’s clinic in Half Moon Bay, CA, which is coming in three short weeks.
I learned so much. More than I ever hoped for. For me, it wasn’t about how do I teach shoulder-in or half-pass, it was how can I take what I know and use it with other animals as well as do better with my own. How do I make good decisions about what to work on with a different horse, or a different species. And with the help of Alex and the kindly animals at the barn, I have started on the building blocks to do this.
Here are some of the things I learned:
• Training begins with a relationship. If you are working with an animal you don’t know, you have to get to know each other. It’s that first date feeling, where everything feels a little (or a lot) awkward. And the less experience you have with the species the longer that might take
• Species appropriate foundation lessons are so important. The ones we use with the horses help them establish self-control and give them a measure of control over their learning. All animals deserve that
• Goats are really, really fast. Their heads can go in circles, and it’s very distracting. If I focused on what I was working on, and ignored the bits that don’t contribute I could get past this, but it was sooooo easy to get drawn in. I can see where this is true for my dog and my horse as well.
• Unexpected things happen. Really, they do! Can I be flexible enough to make the learner right? Pellias hit me with one – we were doing a bit of off leash practice and I was feeding where I wanted him to be (by my side) and he turned that into backing to the mat! It was funny and clickable and oh so not what I was thinking, but worth every bit of the click. And that became our routine in that spot, and I learned to take what was offered
• Food delivery is so, so important. The poor goats. Until I got consistent at putting the food where the perfect goat would be, the heads were twisting sideways to get it. But very much like the horses, the right food delivery moved them out of my space and set up the next cue, and calmed some of the frenetic activity down. The food delivery was predictable. It was very cool, and helped establish rhythm and stability
Tonnerre really helped me understand the importance of relationships. He was part of all that I learned, but deserves a few words of his own. Tonnerre can be safely handled, but he was pretty indifferent to anyone but Alex when we started. Alex suggested just grooming him while we got to know each other. There was no ear pinning or any overt aggression but he did grind his teeth. That became my cue that whatever we were currently doing was too much for him. So move to something else, or stop. Mats in the aisle, targets, the pose, walking from mat to mat, targeting while working in protective contact, mats and cones in the arena were all available. Working in the arena was too much, too early, and between a squirrel and noise from the goats he left – back to his stall. But the good news is that he had the choice to leave. Isn’t that cool? How often are our learners given the ability to say “sessions over, I’m done?”
Tonnerre reminds me of Sebastian, only kinder. He responded to short sessions of things he knew and we could expand on those. Alex could coach me on how to work with him, and we both could learn to work with someone new. Since Sebastian started out similar to Tonnere in his opinion of people, only more overt in expressing it, it wasn’t unfamiliar territory to either of us. And now I have better skills to deal with it (however did Sebastian and I survive those early days of clicker training?) and I had Alex there every day to help. And nothing but admiration for how Alex deals with the strange horses she’s presented with at every clinic.
And there you have it. Sorry for the length but it was an amazing, wonderful experience. This write-up was very worthwhile for me – it helped imprint the four days. And there is one other great thing – sitting there with Alex dissecting things over tea, while we took a break.
If you are interested in exploring this for yourself, Alex is doing private/small group sessions at the barn, so please contact her directly. It is amazing, and I highly, highly recommend it. And I can’t thank Alex enough for the opportunity. If I can figure out a way, I will be back.