How to watch a training session

Female animal trainer and leopard.

When people watch an animal trainer work it is normal for them to focus on the end result rather than the training process. We’re not taught animal training in school except on a very abstract level, maybe in psychology class, so most humans can watch an entire training session without understanding what they are really seeing. We get so caught up in the transformation from untouched to under saddle in the horse, or the calm of the trainer in the face of flying hooves that we don’t notice what the trainer is doing to get behavior change. We’re often impressed with a trainer’s bravery in the face of possible physical harm – so impressed that we value the trainer just for the spectacle and drama of their work. But when we identify just with the human component of the equation or the spectacle, we can forget to check in and see if the animal is happy and relaxed. We can forget the animal has valid feelings too and didn’t choose to be trained. The way a trainer achieves behavior change matters, especially if we put ourselves in the animal’s place. We now know animals experience emotion much the same as humans do. We are wholly responsible for the emotions we elicit in our horses through training. To me, a trainer’s oath  should be the same as a physician: First, do no harm: physically or emotionally.

There’s been a video circulating lately of some Argentinian trainers working with  unhandled horses. They’re using an unusual technique that we don’t see here in America and it’s causing all sorts of speculation about what might be going on between trainer and animal. If you look up the man, his son and the method online you can find a description of it here. To sum up:  The method is a unique approach to tame horses in the most natural manner with avoiding punishment and cruelty on these beautiful animals. It focuses on gaining the horse’s trust and loyalty. The basics of the training are to learn about the horse’s nature, behavior and psychology; the goal is to persuade the horse to do something in order for it to learn. In this type of breeding it’s not necessary to be strong, or have special skills; it is all about knowledge and patience. It sounds like a wonderful way to teach a horse, noble, even. Below is a video clip of the method in action. I want you to watch it and imagine you are a 1-2 year old horse learning about humans for the first time in your life: 

How would you feel? Would you feel like the humans in this video were trying to actively gain your trust? Your loyalty? Do you think this looks like a method that avoids punishment? Can fear or confusion be just as punishing as pain?

Here’s another video. Again, imagine yourself as the young horse involved in this training. I would recommend listening without sound as it’s hard for humans not to be influenced by verbal “explanations” of training even when they don’t match the reality presented observationally:

How would you feel as this young horse? Would this feel like a positive experience to you? Does the pen seem to offer freedom or restriction? How would you feel having a rope continually tossed at you? How would you feel being allowed to run off but made to run farther and faster for your caution as a flight animal?

One last video to review:

How would you feel as this young horse? Does he look trusting already? Does he look ready to be ridden? How stressed does he look once his owner/trainer gets on his back? Does this look like a positive experience?

If I had one gift I could give  horse owners, it would be to learn to watch training sessions with a good critical eye. If a trainer uses a method you aren’t familiar with, observe what they are doing to the animal and imagine how it would make you feel in their place. If that is hard for you, ask a friend to “train” you the same way you observed. That will clarify VERY fast how you feel about the method. It sounds funny but you’ll be amazed at the different emotions you feel as long as you take it seriously.

You don’t have to be an experienced trainer to know if certain training methods utilize discomfort, fear or threat to achieve results.  If we suspend our human-ness for a moment and imagine ourselves as the animals in these videos it’s easy to make decisions about how we would like to be treated. All animals, humans included, enjoy choice, rewards and low stress learning environments. The emotions an animal feels while being trained aren’t just fleeting things that disappear like smoke once the training session is over. They get attached to certain predictors like the sight of the trainer, the equipment used or the space used for training. This is Pavlovian conditioning and it happens whether we want it to or not. While you train your horse in what to do you are also training your horse how to feel. So learn to watch a training session not just for the results but for the emotion it brings up in the horse.

Djinn’s hoof handling

snowflakeIt’s been a cold and snowy winter so I’ve been locked in the house doing far less horse training than I wish. Today alone the temperature might not climb above 0. I have to content myself with short sessions when it’s warm enough to train without freezing but I’m dreaming of green, long grass and daylight that stretches well into the evening hours. When it’s been warm enough I’ve continued to work on hoof handling with Djinn so we can get that skill set mastered this winter. Then, in spring we can move on to more exciting things like introducing her to the arena, walks on property and starting balance work.

Djinn isn’t a horse who has ever worried about her body being touched, which is a nice change of pace for me from my other mustangs. She has yet to be reactive to any touch, grooming or space. She likes touch and she feels generally safe around people. She came to me this way, likely because she was captured as a yearling, and spent so much time in close proximity to humans who fed her vast quantities of alfalfa and carrots. In fact, she was so trusting that she might push you right over on her way to do something else. So, we’ve done a lot of work around moving forward and back on the lead, keeping her head to herself and how to stand quietly. She has done beautifully with that work and it was time to move on to hoof care.

Most humans don’t properly understand how vulnerable a horse is when they offer their foot to you. As a prey animal flight is their safety. A held foot is a trap on a very basic level. As humans who think conceptually and big picture we instinctively scoff at this idea. We know that we are only picking up our horses feet to clean them out or teach them how to be relaxed for a trim. But how many of you have seen a horse with a leg trapped in a fence thrash and fight like their life depended on it? Relaxed foot handling is learned. It’s not natural but it can be taught fairly easily. The video below shows Djinn’s third session with her feet being held:

I had already taught Djinn to pick up her foot off a soft touch of the whip on her leg and to hold it up in the air with duration on her own. She could do this on a verbal cue “foot” so I felt confident changing to my hand cupping her foot instead of my whip against her fetlock. She didn’t seem too nervous about me holding her foot, but she did take her face off to the outside, which is a low level sign of discomfort. I hold the foot quietly, make sure I’m not adding tension to the situation by making sure I have a loose lead rope and I click her AND release her foot when she brings her face back to the center of her chest. There are two rewards here: the food – which is a bonus reward –  and giving her back her foot- which is a  functional reward. A good trainer is always aware of both. After several good repetitions I let her walk off and move her feet. Standing still is hard, especially for a young horse so I don’t want to take advantage of  her good behavior by asking for too many repetitions.
I stop her in the same place to work on her right side. She is less confident on her right and needs a gentle tactile cue of my sliding my hand down her leg to give her the idea of lifting her hoof. Since just getting her to lift the hoof was more difficult, I’m not going to be greedy and hold onto it too. Once her lift on the right is as immediate and easy as her lift on the left, I’ll raise my criteria and hold onto the hoof.

Djinn is a far cry from the emotional, barging, biting mare she was when she first arrived here from the BLM last summer. She came here unafraid of people but also unable to receive information from people. She didn’t know how to be directed. She was always frustrated and impatient and pushing for what she wanted. She has relaxed and become quite calm now that she understands how to look to her human training partner for cues. She’s starting to seem much more like the grown-up 4 year old she soon will be than the immature 3 year old she was when she arrived here.

New habits for an older mustang

Tarot's eyeWhen I decided to purchase my mustang stallion, Tarot, I knew I had a long road in front of me. He had been in one home for each year he was captive. That made for six different homes before he finally made it to our farm. I knew he was what most people call a project and I wanted what he had to teach me. He was eleven years old and had yet to meet a human who could teach him what they wanted him to learn.

Things like walking up to be haltered, being fly sprayed in the summer, accepting a saddle without exploding and being led without bolting. But Tarot’s biggest issue from his past is allowing foot handling. He has a long history of kicking people that picked up his back feet but also of pulling away and being very uncomfortable with any of his feet being picked up, cleaned or trimmed. Most people just gave up and let them grow because he was dangerous or unpredictable when his feet were handled. It was uncomfortable for everyone. One of his past homes had a trainer out to help him learn to be handled but he took the “cooperate or run” approach. If Tarot kicked he made him run. Eventually Tarot would give in out of sheer exhaustion and they would get a few feet done, not always all four on the same day. It worked as a method outwardly,  he did  surrender his foot, but  Tarot never learned to be more open to having his feet handled. Instead he learned when a human reaches for your hoof they are likely to turn unpredictable, demanding and obsessive. Hoof care for Tarot is deeply poisoned. It’s also our winter project.

It is infinitely easier to teach a behavior correctly from the beginning than to teach a new response in place of an undesirable one. Once a neural pathway has been mapped it can’t be erased. You can only build a new one and help the learner choose it over and over and over until that pathway becomes the habit. It sounds kind of simple but in practice it’s not so easy. That’s why I love my untouched mustangs so much, they are blank slates waiting for good information. Tarot has already been “programmed”, so to speak, and it is up to me to avoid the expression of those old responses while teaching something new. Learning can be bound up in a tactile sensation, which is unfortunate, because picking up feet can’t happen without some touch at least once you get down to cleaning out feet or actually trimming them. So how to approach the subject with him?

One of my favorite writers, Jeanette Winterson, writes, “Jung argued that a conflict can never be resolved on the level at which it arises – at that level there is only a winner and loser, not a reconciliation. The conflict must be got above – like seeing a storm from higher ground.”

I started out by teaching Tarot to target his knee to the end of a whip. Whips are something he isn’t afraid of – I guess there aren’t a lot of cowboys with whips – and more importantly, whips aren’t hands. I wanted to teach him to pick up his own foot and hold it up with a verbal cue. I wanted to split out the layers for him and just start with the subject, “Can you pick up your foot with a human near you?” instead of, “can you pick up your foot and surrender control of it to me?”  Staying outside the depth of the conflict and above the storm. Here’s a video of where we are starting from today:

I have already faded the whip to just a finger point, mostly because I am incredibly clumsy walking with it by my side in the slippery snow. So my cue for the foot lift is to say the word “foot”, switch my lead to my left hand and point to his knee. When he raises his foot I drop my hand and I click when he seems relaxed. I’m not working on teaching him to pick up his feet, he knows how to do that now. I’m working on building relaxation like bedrock into the skill. The foot lift is the motion but the relaxation within it is the goal.

How do you speak to a horse about relaxation? You need both a clear training language and good listening skills. Tarot has to have the freedom to refuse my requests and the safety to express his conflict or anger without punishment. I have to know how to stay safe and non-reactive myself when he is upset. I need to be able to read small expressions of conflict/tension so I can see how well he is handling the work and make adjustments accordingly. I also need not just a “yes” answer (the click), but a “that was spectacular” answer so he can more easily understand the work. Right now, any foot offer without any tail swish or head raise is clickable. But sometimes he kicks his foot backs when he goes to set it down because he is tense and frustrated. I have already clicked so I am going to feed him because I don’t want to seem unreliable. But, when he softly offers his foot and lowers his head and sets it down softly he gets a click and treat and a chance to do a few nose targets. The nose targets are an easy behavior where he is sure to earn reinforcers and they offer the functional reward of a break from focusing on his feet.

Here’s a video of his right side where he is significantly less comfortable:


Here you see he is unable to lift his foot without extreme tail swishing/tail wringing. This tail movement shows how conflicted he is about me being on his right side and asking for his feet. He also leans his head and neck off to the left which is another conflict behavior he offers when he is uncomfortable and thinking about leaving. In it’s extreme form Tarot would spin away and present his hindquarters to me in a kick threat. He also is hurriedly offering me feet over and over even though I haven’t even said the cue or changed my lead rope to my inside hand. I’ve found with my mustangs when they are still nervous about their feet they offer them quickly and often instead of waiting to be cued. I’m not going to fuss about stimulus control when I am working on relaxation. So what to do? My rule of thumb is if he can’t offer a quiet response I will feed him for any foot lifting response despite the conflict he is showing. If he can eat he will begin to relax. So even though he is full of angst I feed him for each and every time his foot is in the air regardless of his emotional state. I do make a few mistakes because I was surprised at the level of conflict he displayed and had to change my plan on the spot. I should have just reached in my pouch and began feeding him immediately, sans click, the moment his foot left the ground. This is called counter-conditioning. Once he is able to offer a more relaxed response, then I will click that response and ask him to target as a reward. That response will become my new criteria. He raises the bar on his own at his own pace. By the seventh(!) repetition he offers a relaxed foot lift with no tail swish. I click, reward him with an opportunity to target my hand, and go back to his left side to give him the ultimate functional reward of leaving his right side.

You can’t force relaxation, you have to draw it out like a shy animal. You create the conditions for it to exist.

Djinn: early winter update

Djinn and FIgSince Djinn has joined the other mares in their pasture I have been giving her time just to be a horse and  to enjoy getting to know her new equine friends. I was a little worried about how she would acclimate given the “discerning” temperaments of her pasture mates, but her social skills proved so charming that our head mare, Fig, actually grooms her.
Now that she has settled in I’m going back in to refine what we worked on over the summer and add in some new pieces.

Djinn is very claustrophobic in any indoor space and tends to panic and race around. Instead of forcing her over threshold and into a flight response, I’m working on the foundation leading skills she needs to stay calm outside so they are available to us once we go inside. It is a learned skill to be able to identify what skill set your horse needs to cope with a new situation. In this case, Djinn and I need a few skills available to us to help her calm down inside. Most crucial are: 1) back up, 2) the grown-ups are talking, 3) head-down and 4) giving her hip. All of these skills involve slowing down her energy and allowing me to direct her energy into a still, relaxed place. Once these skills feel fluid and 100% available to me outside we will start walking into the lean-to for short sessions and walking back out. Here’s a short video showing us moving between walking forward, asking for the hip, backing up and head down:

In the video you’ll see she is still not completely light and responsive about giving her hip and we both pull on each other a little as she tries to adjust to the request. Ideally my requests will be light as a feather before we go inside. She does a good job offering her hip, though, and I am able to release and click. I only ask for one step of her hip right now and then move on to other skills since it is hard for her. In a few weeks it will be more smooth and I will be able to ask for more steps. Even though I only need it as a last resort if she gets really excited, I still want her to have an active understanding of the behavior so I don’t scare her by changing her balance. People take the hip forcibly all the time. It’s not what I want to do with my horse and especially this horse.

In the rest of the video you see me moving between a few steps of back up and refining her head-down behavior. She’s a bit of a ‘yo-yo” on her head down but it’s almost stabilized to a true head lowering after just a few sessions. Overall, a nice start.

Another skill we are working on is ground-tieing when being groomed. When I first take my horses into the barn, I like for them to understand that they should stand totally still when grooming. It’s safer than using the cross-ties right away and once they are ready for the cross-ties they have already been standing still so long that it’s really not a big deal. Djinn’s cue for ground-tieing is her lead rope draped over her back. Below is a short video showing how relaxed and still she is now:

She does great but at the end of the video you get to see me make a huge mistake! What is it? I invite her to walk off without first removing her lead rope from her back. Oops.
Djinn is doing a good job learning her lessons and settling in. She’s a young horse so I don’t expect too much of her. We have time to establish her foundation and ages before I’m worried about riding her. What matters is that she is relaxed, content and properly educated. So far, so good!

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.

Djinn: week five and six

Day 35-45

These last ten days Djinn has moved forward in leaps and bounds. Her behaviors are becoming more and more finished and she is starting to understand that she can always find a yes answer if she experiments. We finished her self-haltering in the middle of last week. Here’s two videos. The first one shows her accepting the crown piece over her head and the second shows her accepting the halter being buckled.

She is also much more quiet and calm at her stationary target. She understands to stand still with her nose on or near the ball in order to earn reinforcement. Here’s a video of her standing at her target (blue jolly ball) while being curried.

I introduced grooming to Djinn while she was at her station last week. She enjoys touch and doesn’t really have any qualms about being handled so you really would never have known she’s only been groomed about 3 or 4 times in her life.

I also started hand feeding Djinn this week instead of setting her food on the ground. It will be helpful for me to be able to hand feed her once I’m in the pen so I can influence her position with my treat delivery.

Djinn: week four

Day 23-34

This week with Djinn has been a lot of fun. We’ve been working together for a little over four weeks now and both of us have gained confidence in one another. There is no doubt that new relationships are exciting. Meeting Djinn for the first time, looking out the window and seeing her in the pasture and teaching her her first cooperative behavior  with a human was a rush. But it’s only now, once we have started to learn about one another, to trust one another, and to  lay the underpinnings of our own language, that we can sink more deeply into this conversation.

Djinn is developing a solid repertoire of behaviors that I will use to keep myself safe and her engaged and confident in her training.  My friend Mary Hunter, a student of behavior analysis in the University of North Texas’s Master’s program, has noticed that people seem to take unreasonable risks  with horses just because they are domestic animals. I don’t want to get in the round pen with Djinn  to find the only way I have to move her out of my space is by using avoidance, force or fear. As the trainer leading this relationship, I need to be aware of the range of behaviors she might offer once I climb into the pen and have ALREADY trained solid cues to use in those moments. That way Djinn won’t worry that I become very unpredictable once I enter her pen and I’ll be calm and relaxed.

I took off Djinn’s halter last week too. I’ve done this with all my mustangs because I want them to come to me out of a true desire to engage with me, not because I’m quick enough to clip a lead rope on and trap them. I am a purist and romantic at heart; a halter shoved on a struggling horse in a squeeze chute is not fair game to me. I want to earn the right to direct my horse. So we worked on self-haltering this week! Here’s our third session:

You can see that Djinn is getting the hang of pushing her nose through the loop. She’s an eager learner and the process is more about my ability to set up the halter so she can easily offer the behavior than anything else. Also to click quickly enough so she doesn’t think the game is to throw her head to the ground. So far so good.

This week I changed Djinn’s target to a stationary target now that she has a firm idea that I want her to hold her nose/lips on the ball. She still has “wiggle lips” as you’ll see, but she’s definitely MUCH more relaxed. Her ears even “lop out” in concentration like a dressage horse focusing completely on her rider or a relaxed horse resting. Her eye has softened considerably too. Here’s Djinn working on her stationary target:

I realized that I hadn’t been equally working Djinn on her left and right side. She is far more educated and focused on her left, so this week I am confirming all her behaviors to the right. You can see when I ask her for head down on her right side she has trouble offering the correct behavior. Once she does offer it she turns to face me and then brings her head off to her right to put me in her left eye. Smart of her! You’ll see that I ask her to walk forward and then just reinforce her for letting me be on the right side. It doesn’t take long for her to get comfortable.

She’s not skittish about her right side at all, I’ve just reinforced her heavily for giving me her other eye. Time to even it out!

Lastly, Djinn is working on her “following target”. I want a way for her to know where to walk in relation to me once she’s on a halter and lead. Eventually, I will switch her over to light pressure cues, like all my horses, but at first the target will help her be in the right place. Here’s a short clip:

Overall, everything is shaping up nicely. Djinn is relaxing into her work and offering fewer conflict behaviors. She is bright and engaged and one of the clearest horses I’ve ever worked with. If I change the game too fast, she gets confused, fly swipes at her side or throws her head down. When I explain things just right she offers calm, accurate work and lots of long snorting. She prefers carrots so she smells sweeter than any of my other horses like her skin itself is perfumed. I have heard before that when a mare gives you her heart, she will do anything for you. I don’t know if she is there yet, but I am completely smitten.