Aesop’s third ride

Natalie and Aesop in the snowLast week Natalie was able to come out and help me with Aesop a few times, so he had his first two “walk-offs” under a rider. He had a bit of trouble at first bringing his hind legs along with the front of  him but he learned how to organize his body fairly quickly. He even had a training session in the snow last Sunday. It was a little slippery but very beautiful. He was relaxed, too, despite the drastic change in scenery and change in footing. Here’s a short clip of our ride in the snow:

You might notice that we spend just as much time standing still as we do walking. Whatever you reinforce over and over in a session becomes a “hot” behavior or a target behavior for the learner. It’s important  Aesop learns from the very beginning that both walking with a rider and standing quietly with a rider is clickable. To make this easy for him, Natalie asks Aesop for “the grown ups are talking” after each click and treat for quiet, balanced walk-offs. “Grown ups” is one of Alex’s six foundation exercises and something Aesop has known from very early on in his clicker education. This way his training remains balanced and he is not eagerly rushing off without checking in to see what his handler/rider wants. It makes for safe, relaxed horses.

Today we were able to have our third session and in good weather so we worked for longer and refined some of the pieces. Here’s the complete video of our second trial today. Our first one was good, this one is just a bit better:

In this video Aesop is doing a pattern that already familiar to him. He is working “Why would you leave me?” or WWYLM on a cone circle. In WWYLM you ask the horse to walk with you on a circle and to stay bent to you. In the beginning it’s basically loose lead walking for a horse. But it also teaches them about the beginning of bend and how to hold their shoulders upright and eventually, lateral work. Each time he is clicked for walking next to Natalie bent on the circle we stop and she folds her hands to cue him for “grown ups”. We stay in this pattern until the third click for being on the circle at which point Natalie uses her food delivery to turn him around. This way he gets to practice walking in both directions as well as turning under the weight of a rider. Aesop is relaxed and able to offer as good of work under a rider as without which means his training is going at an appropriate pace.

Just because Aesop is doing so well with Natalie at his head and me on doesn’t mean he is ready to be ridden without her. What we are doing right now is essentially habituating him to the feel of a rider while he does familiar work with a ground person. Getting used to the feel of weight. Before we ride off without a header, I still need to transfer the visual cues I have on the ground to tactile cues to be used in the saddle. Most importantly: go forward and stop or whoa. I also need to make sure that Aesop knows how to stretch backward to get food from me when I am on his back. Once I have all of those pieces in place we will be able to ride off without a ground person. Transferring those cues will make up the bulk of our winter lessons and by spring he will have the component pieces of a real riding horse.
I am deeply pleased with how easy this transition has been for him and how operant he has remained throughout this whole process. He’s the kind of horse that feels like a gift from the horse gods – an animal who is calm and relaxed and engaged in all of the puzzles I set out for him.

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.

Djinn: week three

 

Day 16-22

This week I didn’t get as much done as I hoped between the searing heat outside and injuring my foot. My Friesian cross gelding, Dragon, “spooked in place” and just onto my foot while leading him from his pasture to the barn in the dark. In sandals. I know it is a cardinal rule to always wear boots around horses. I got lazy:  it was late at night and the toe protectors on my sandals lulled me into a false sense of security. Lesson learned.

Djinn and I had some wonderful training sessions and then a few harder ones. Towards the beginning of the week I had a man come out to pull some sand out of our arena so the footing would be a bit firmer. Djinn worked on targeting while he drove the equipment and she had beautiful concentration  and great duration. I was amazed at how easily she focused and how well she handled the noise which has upset her in her past. Her emotional control was seeming of a different order and I felt sure we had moved into new territory. A new place where I could ask more of her and she could handle more environmental stress without it affecting her response.

Then, on Saturday when we trained it was starting to get dark and people’s voices were carrying through the fields as well as some unfamiliar barking dogs. Someone was shooting a loud gun in the distance and overall the farm felt rather unsafe. Normally it’s perfectly quiet here.

I worked with Djinn anyway despite the stressful environment because I thought her behaviors would hold up and I had committed to working with her daily. I thought working on her target behavior would give her something to focus on and settle her down. While she was able to touch her target, she was stressed and ended up biting the target a lot. I lowered my criteria to just nose touches and ended on a good note.

When I went out to train her on Monday, I got this:

You can see in the video how Djinn is a bit frantic about getting to her target and opens her mouth wide to bite it as her first behavior. Yikes! This is not the emotional state I am looking to get out of this behavior. Instead of settling in and focusing on touching her target, she gets more and more frustrated, biting and finally cantering off . It’s up to me as the trainer to help Djinn calm down. I decided to go back to the first thing I taught her, head down, and reinforce her heavily for maintaining the position. There’s not a lot of research behind it, but theoretically, since horses have their head on the ground when grazing and grazing is relaxing, putting their head down helps them access a more relaxed, calm emotional state. Here’s Djinn doing her head down:

This video starts when we’ve been doing head down already for about a minute. It’s boring, so I edited that part out. (If you really want to see it, I have the footage in my computer.) The reason I included this clip is at about  :17 seconds you see Djinn raise her head to look off to her right. She is concerned, but lowers her head uncued and then and :23 gives a blow through her nose which indicates relaxation. From there I take here through walking forward and back so she can practice moving in a controlled way. She blows again at :31 and is more relaxed from then on. This is a good thing! I want a horse who understands how to self-calm when nervous. Lowering your head is much better than rushing off or biting.

In traditional horse training, we seek to make the horse obey regardless of internal states. In progressive horse training, we use internal states as a guide in our training. I don’t want my horses to suppress their fear because what is suppressed tends to reappear at the most inopportune times. I want my horses to express their emotions so I can teach them a million roads out of their fear and frustration. Roads we can walk together.

You can see when we go back to targeting she is less frantic and more focused. Still not as good as the days before, but much improved. For my part, I lowered the target so that she can keep her head lower when touching the ball. It will keep her back from inverting and tensing up. I also kept the target closer to her so she wouldn’t feel any frustration about the target “getting away” which could also lead to the biting behavior. With these two changes, plus the break for head lowering Djinn does much better!

I love that this whole sequence is on video. So many trainers just show finished behaviors and it can feel so frustrating when your horse isn’t “textbook”. Here you can see that Djinn is having an emotional day and I am getting all sorts of behavior I don’t think is useful for a relaxed horse/human relationship. We just go back to basics, make her job easier, and find a way to allow her to be right. As my mentor Alexandra Kurland says,” You don’t know what the horse has learned, we only know what we’ve presented.” I think I did a good job taking Djinn back to basics. She’ll tell me this week through her behavior. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

Djinn: week two

Day 8-15:

I had suspected from the beginning that Djinn had been frequently hand -fed without any rules. My hauler, Rick, warned me she uses her mouth a lot. She hadn’t bit him, but she was grabby.  In the beginning, she reminded me of a petting zoo goat. Constantly craning her neck through the bars of her pen with a active mouth and even grabbing unsuspecting people’s pants who were within reach. I was annoyed that she had been allowed to learn these habits and a little perplexed too. Who had hand-fed her? I called my adoption contact at the BLM this week to let her know Djinn was doing well and to hunt down some more information. It turns out when the public comes to tour the BLM facility in California they keep carrots on hand for people to feed the horses. From their point of view it helps make the horses more tame and it’s fun for the humans too. Djinn, however, learned to grab at people to make them dispense food quickly.  Multiply that by the two years Djinn spent there and that’s a whole lot of practice! Luckily, I know how to teach her new rules around food, but a different owner likely wouldn’t.

For this reason, all of our lessons are centered around what to do with your muzzle when a human is interacting with you. I need multiple ways to request Djinn keeps her lips and teeth to herself, by asking her to perform learned behaviors she enjoys and understands. It’s easy right now while I’m on the outside of the pen. If she goes to grab me I can just back away. But I need to be thinking about when I am inside the pen beside her. If I am going to be safe then I need to be sure Djinn understands exactly what I want from her. The easiest way to give Djinn something to do was to teach her a nose target to an object I can hang in her pen. She will receive reinforcers for stationing quietly with her nose touching her target. In this case I chose a jolly ball since it is large and mostly indestructible. When I am grooming her, instead of her being bored and thinking about nibbling me, she can concentrate on keeping her head straight and touching her ball. But before she can station quietly she needs to understand how to touch a target with her nose. Here’s a video of one of her first sessions:

You can see in the beginning what a good job she’s done learning the default leave-it. Everytime she reaches me she offers her head down, barely noticing the giant blue ball in my hand. I am sliding it along the fence so she has to walk forward to follow me. The forward motion makes her much more likely to to bump the ball with her nose, even by mistake. It takes a few tries but she starts to get it in about a minute or so. It’s a wonderful first attempt. It’s a good thing I introduced a new behavior, too, because she was starting to think head down would be the right answer to my every request and I have bigger plans for us! She is a new learner but not too new to learn that the right answer changes. Here’s a video of her four days later showing how much more she understands about keeping her nose on the blue ball:

Good horse!

In a few days I’ll put the ball touch/station on a verbal cue and then introduce touching her neck while she remains at her station. She already allows me to touch her whole body through the fence, so the neck touch won’t be new, just new while she’s touching a target. From there I’ll build to handling her whole body while she stations.

Since we also have back up on cue I can use that to move her cleanly away from the target without having to fuss near her face or mouth in the beginning. I can ask for head-down after she backs as a balancer and a moment of quiet and then I can send her back to her target for some more stationing. Station, back-up and head-down will form the foundation of our very early work together. With those behaviors I will be able to introduce grooming, giving to pressure, leading and staying quietly out of my space. I want to teach her these things both so I can be safe and so she feels like she is right in her choices. I don’t want training to be poisoned with frustration or conflict.

Djinn has pushed me to be more creative and thoughtful in my training. She has changed already from a grabby, frustrated horse to a more thoughtful mare that understands certain behaviors earn rewards at certain times. I am seeing glimpses of the educated horse she will become: engaged, intelligent and responsive.