Djinn: week seven

Day 46-52

This week I felt Djinn and I had built up enough of a repertoire to start working without protective contact. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. As an experienced trainer I know when you change your criteria you should expect some behavior to deteriorate. I knew no matter how well I laid out my training plan,  some of Djinn’s behaviors would be harder for her to access than others. The only problem was I wouldn’t know which behaviors would fall apart until I was in the moment with her.  I also wanted to guard against making all of her behaviors too finished and perfect outside the pen and then disappointing myself when I finally went in and lost some ground, so I decided this week would be the week. Since I have never trained a horse largely through protective contact this process is as new to me as to her.

I am pleased to report that she was lovely and almost all of her learned behaviors transferred almost immediately. Success!

To begin I had her station at her target for something to focus on while I entered the pen, and hopefully, to stay focused on for a high rate of reinforcement. The target was not interesting compared to the fun new lady (me!) who was suddenly in the pen with her so it briefly left her radar. Luckily I had put back up off of soft lead pressure on cue so I was able to ask for for backing which she offered easily. We basically have been working within three loops, back up, walk and target, as we get to know each other up close and personal.

Loops are important because they allow the training to flow so that the learner doesn’t get frustrated . In addition, once your behavior loop is clean (meaning no unwanted  or extraneous behavior is included in the loop) you know it’s time to move on or raise your criteria. For more information about “Loopy Training” as Alexandra Kurland calls it, click here. In the video below you will see we are working within three behaviors. Djinn is either standing and touching her target, actively backing up off a light pressure cue (installed with a target originally, not pressure), or walking forward off of my body language or very light pressure ( taught through hand target).

The video shows our fourth session working together in the pen. We are nearly at 60 days of work and our list of skills is: will self-halter, can stand quietly for fly-spray over entire body, can stand quietly at target for curry comb, hard brush and all over body handling, will stand while I enter pen, allows rope to be clipped on halter willingly, can back up off of light lead rope pressure, can move forward off of light lead rope pressure, can stand quietly at target while being touched all over body, can back off of a chest touch or nose touch, can target an open hand or physical target. All of these things were taught through the panels – it’s just this week that I will be making bigger loops for back up (asking for more steps) and refining her leading so she can start to go out and play in the pasture with our other mares. To me, the most beautiful part of all of these skills is that Djinn is a willing participant. Instead of learning how to let things be done to her, she has learned how to place her head into her halter, to touch her target with her nose while being groomed, to back up off of a light suggestion. She collaborates with me in the process and demonstrates her understanding with measurable behaviors.

I can’t believe we are only at sixty days. One hundred days is  much deeper than I initially imagined when I started out on this journey. I am so deeply in love with this horse already, her bright eye and eagerness and coat like the night sky. I like to think of training as a series of individual spells: charms that I work on with my horses and through them both of us are transformed. The end goal, the final spell, is complete, effortless and joyful communication with your horse. The dream of a common language.

Aesop’s first hose bath

My mustang gelding, Aesop, had his first bath on Tuesday. This time last year he had just come home to the farm and was as yet untouched. You can see from the video that he is now trusting and relaxed even when completely new stimulus are introduced. The only time he has ever seen a hose before this is in his water trough, submerged. I was going to title this post: Here is the reason clicker trainers don’t have tv shows. The video is completely boring because he has no conflict whatsoever, which is, of course, the goal.



Teaching Aesop to love hoof care

I’ve had a few conversations lately with several different friends about the range of experiences their animals have had with animal professionals like veterinarians and hoof care specialists. Even as an animal professional myself it can feel scary to trust my horse or dog to someone else’s care who might not have the same ethics or awareness of body language that I do. Both the horse and dog world are still works in progress.  Empathetic handling is not always a consideration. Behavioral health often takes a back seat to “getting the job done.” This is a particular concern when it comes to mustangs. Aesop was wild until he was four years old. He’s only known a few humans, and the first few chased him around with flags and acted unpredictably. There wasn’t time for a relationship. Unlike many domestic horses, he is not automatically trusting of new humans. It is critical that he forms a positive opinion of as many new people as possible. It is critical that he views humans as safe, since he’s known so few. It’s my job to advocate for him.

The first step in advocating for your horse (dog, bird, newt) is teaching them the skill set they will need for their procedure ahead of time. You don’t want the first time the equine podiatrist comes out to be the first time your horse has their feet picked up and held for longer periods of time. Alexandra Kurland has a saying: ” If you haven’t gone through an active teaching process to teach your animal a behavior, don’t expect to get it on a consistent basis. ” Basically, don’t leave it up to luck;) Making sure your horse is comfortable in the cross ties, can lift all four feet and hold them in different positions, is comfortable with a rasp and is comfortable with a “new” person handling him is the bare minimum for a hoof trim. Standing still and balancing on three legs are skills too, passive though they might seem.

When my  new trimmer, Autumn, came out the first time I completely underestimated how afraid Aesop would be of someone new. He and I work together a lot but  since we aren’t at a boarding barn there’s not many new people to get to know. Aesop was terrified of being touched by anyone at all, including me,  with the new strange people in his barn. Oops! Autumn was kind enough to set up appointments with me every Monday so she could come out and handle Aesop and he could get used to her at his own pace. She’s been out three times now and he is getting really comfortable with her. It helps immensely that Autumn is relaxed and open to new ideas and has learned the “clicker game” very quickly. Here’s a (long) video of Autumn and Aesop working together today:

The video is a little bit like watching paint dry and that’s the point. If we go slowly, listen to our horses and progress only when their body language indicates comfort, the whole process of introducing new people and procedures can be relatively stress free. Once or twice in the video you will see Aesop raise his head, stiffen or just turn away toward the windows. Those are micro-expressions of stress/fear in him. When he expresses those signals, Autumn moves back to the last point in the procedure where he was comfortable. Once his muscles are soft again and his head is straight and low, we know we have the green light to move on to the next step. He even starts to offer his foot once he is sure of what we want.

It’s a new concept for animals to participate in their own care. In the past, the definition of success was “nothing happened”. But I don’t want horses who don’t move a muscle because they are terrified of the consequences. I want horses who show me through a drop of their head, offering of their foot or nice deep sigh how complicit they are in their handling. Aesop didn’t ask to be rounded up and brought into my world; it’s my responsibility to make his experience comfortable, safe and fun.

Aesop’s second lesson in foot handling

Here’s Aesop’s second lesson in lifting his feet. He’s getting the hang of the front feet. One or two more times and he should have back feet down just as well. I want to document each step so people have a realistic idea of what it looks like to work through this skill set using positive reinforcement. As far as the back feet, I’m clicking for him lifting them early in the action so that he is reinforced when he just starts to lift the foot, not when the leg is at it’s highest point. This should help him lift it slower and in a more relaxed fashion. When the lift is more relaxed I will start to hold the fetlock hair through the lift like I did initially with the front feet. Eventually we will work through to picking his hoofs, then rasping them in preparation for the farrier.

Aesop shows off his grooming skills

I’ve been working hard on finishing Aesop’s basic handling so he can be cared for without any stress and enjoy a relaxing winter. We’ve been working in the barn, where we’ll have to work when there’s snow. Although I have him in the cross-tie area, I don’t have him tied yet. I want to make sure he feels free to move if something overfaces him, rather than have him feel trapped which could really escalate any anxiety over handling that may come up. He is generally really relaxed about new things which could make it easy to push him too far. I’ve taught him to ground-tie so when his lead-rope is on the ground he understands he will get reinforced for standing still.

The video below shows body brushing on both sides. I click him for him standing still and a slight bend toward me. When I feed, you see me hold the food up a bit and wait for him to bring his head up to retrieve it. I like that he is relaxed enough to have a low head but I don’t want him practicing being so out of balance for long periods of time.

Aesop’s first foot handling

Here’s a short video of Aesop’s first hoof handling. This is also his first time in the barn. As you can see from his behavior in the video, he is pretty much a “low conflict” animal. He is not one to worry too much or expend a lot of extra energy.

Since we are using positive reinforcement, if he pulls away I just let his foot go. I don’t want him to feel trapped or elicit or build an opposition reflex. We just try again and when he is able to accept the hold and lift his foot without pulling he gets a click and a release. I know it isn’t a very dramatic video, but this is truly his FIRST hoof care lesson.

The dream of a common language

Today our new barefoot trimmer, I’ll call him Bob, came to trim hooves and meet our horses for the first time. It’s always nerve- wracking for me, mainly because there is no common language with which to discuss horse behavior and training. It is a delicate dance to meet someone for the first time, respect their learning and experience while also setting out boundaries for how you want your own animals to be treated.

I was particularly worried about this in the case of Tarot, who is untrusting of anyone new. I had already planned to have him sedated for his first few farrier appointments so that he can enjoy the anti-anxiety properties of the sedatives, and not become even less trusting of people than he already is. He does let me near his body, and allows me to handle his legs, but it’s a skill he will need to learn to transfer to someone new. It takes time, whatever time he decides, not the minutes or hours that humans tend to offer. Last night at dinner, I was dreaming about a trimmer who I could call up and say, “I have a mustang who I’m still working on body handling with. We work at liberty so I know he is truly relaxed and choosing to be a part of this handling. I can work around his entire left side and handle down to his fetlocks, but I’m still working on handling past his withers on his right side. Since he is still not completely ready for handling by me, I’m choosing sedation initially to reduce anxiety and avoid losing ground on the training we’ve already accomplished.”  Simple, right?

It would be simple if the real issue in the horse world was only that we use different jargon to explain the same techniques. But the real issue is that misconceptions about horse behavior abound and the science of learning is not common knowledge. I am a bridge-builder and a peacemaker by nature but I am also unalterably firm about protecting my animals from un-needed stress or bad handling. So how to navigate the line between making people feel comfortable and valued while advocating for my horse who does not deserve one more confusing or fear-inducing interaction with any human?

I made a deal with myself: I would let the trimmer go in the pasture and meet Tarot with Tarot loose. If he could get Tarot to stand quietly and accept his being near, I would halter him. Now, I didn’t expect Tarot to stand there at all, but I thought it would at least give Bob a chance to meet him and make a judgement call on his own.

I should mention Bob ended up doing a great job with our other horses. He was relaxed, easy-going and comfortable with all of them. He did a lovely job trimming their feet, no one was stressed and I was really happy with the entire process. He is a patient man, comfortable in his skin with clean clear energy. I was not worried about letting him meet Tarot.

I offered Bob a few treats to take in to Tarot, but  he only wanted to use his body and space, ” just like another horse would.” I pointed out that it was likely Tarot didn’t think he was a horse, especially with the walking on two legs. He laughed but I couldn’t convince him to use the food. Tarot did reach his nose out to sniff his hand, I gesture I promptly clicked and treated, but nothing beyond that cursory investigation. Tarot was careful to stay frontal to Bob and to put his body behind mine when possible. No surprise. Bob then asked if I would halter him up so he could move him around a little and see what he could do.  I explained to Bob that I had just re-trained the halter behavior and it would be a betrayal for me to take this behavior I had built, then use it to hand Tarot over into a situation where he felt unsafe and fearful. He looked honestly surprised but then quickly recovered and said, “Ok, that sounds reasonable, we’ll just find a time where we can get the vet out and use the sedative then.”  Lots of points in my book!

Bob IS unusual in how relaxed and easy he is with horses, but he is not unusual in the belief system he has about training. The common wisdom of Pat Parelli which seems to have saturated the entire horse world, that the only way to communicate with horses is through taking up their space and rewarding them through rest, “just like another horse” has become a near religion. Of course it’s good training to use modes of communication that are ethologically appropriate for the species you are teaching, but it’s not the same as them actually believing you are of a different species. That takes it too far.  Tarot, who grew up wild, has no illusions about any human being a horse, no matter how savvy.  These systems people use are made up negative reinforcement,  positive punishment, and poisoned cues. But none of the horse whisperers are teaching the science, they’re only selling the magic. It’s a disservice and a cause for much misunderstanding. Learning can feel like magic – but if you are going to wield a spell you better understand it’s scope AND it’s limitation.

As for Tarot, he’ll be re-introduced to hoof care with the benefit of some sedation. Of course we are constantly working toward him accepting handling and new things, but I promised him I would honor his body language and his emotions, and through that, his soul. It’s the only road to trust.