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.

 

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.

 

 

Djinn: week one

Last week Friday, Djinn, my new black mustang mare arrived from California. I had been in love with her since last October when I saw a picture of her in a BLM internet auction. She is solid black with no white markings. Something about her called to me and when I found myself still thinking of her this spring I decided to adopt her. This is the picture that I fell in love with:

  When I imagined working with her, I imagined an experience similar to  my other mustangs, Aesop and Tarot. Both were cautious horses who needed lots of time and incremental steps just to feel comfortable with approach and touch. I was looking forward to the exactness and subtlety of the work of taming. It’s work I really enjoy.

You can imagine my surprise when both my transporter, Rick, and the BLM contact who helped me through my adoption process called to let me know how friendly my mare was and that she approached and let both of them scratch her on the shoulder. I was a bit incredulous and double-checked with the BLM that no one works with the horses at the corrals and they assured me they do not. Regardless, Djinn is very social, actively interested in people and was obviously hand fed by someone.  She was also captured as a yearling so she was much younger than my other two when she left the wild. The work I have to do with her is completely different from what I pictured. She is open, curious, tactile, beautiful and intelligent. She is exactly the horse I needed at this moment in time.

Here’s a video showing her investigating our farm cats the first day she got here:

Djinn loves touch and lets you touch/scratch over her entire body while stretching out her neck and wiggling her lips around. It would be easy to assume because she feels so tame that she will also know how to cooperate and interpret human requests. But she is completely un-educated. It is up to me to teach her the skills she will need to be an extraordinary companion. I don’t want her just to get by. I want her to thrive.

I decided I would train her every day for the first hundred days in my own version of “Extreme Mustang Makeover”.  The mustang challenge or makeover is a contest where trainers receive an unhandled mustang and have 90 days to train the mustang for a competition to determine the best trained horse and win cash prizes. I’m not a fan of time limits in any training situation since the pressure often leads  goal-oriented humans to make bad choices for their animal. But I am interested to see exactly how far Djinn and I get together in a hundred days. A clicker trainer’s mustang challenge. I will update weekly on her progress with video.

I quickly realized I would need to be able to ask her to move back out of my space if I was going to go into her pen. She is curious and forward and I didn’t want to end up with a 900 lb untutored horse in my lap. So after teaching her to target on days 1 and 2, I taught her how to move forward and most importantly, back, on day three. Here’s a short video of Djinn learning to move forward and back using her target:

Smart girl! On day four Djinn started to get a little grabby and over-eager about the food so I decided to teach her a default leave-it when food was in my hand or on my body. This means if I am holding food she should take her head AWAY from the food and down to the ground and wait for me to dispense it to the ground. It’s one of her first lessons in impulse control and she does a really good job.

Djinn would be an easy horse to get in trouble with if you were just learning positive reinforcement as a method. She is motivated and brave and like all new learners is more easily frustrated. It’s really important that I go to her with a training plan that addresses all the behaviors that are likely to crop up. I need to anticipate what she needs to learn so she can offer clickable behaviors and feel like learning isn’t too stressful or hard. I don’t want either of us to feel confused or unsafe.

If you are wondering what on earth a Djinn is:

A Djinn is a supernatural being that, like humans, can be good, evil or benevolent. In myth, Djinn’s can take many forms, human or animal, and are created from smokeless fire. They are fabled to be the energy behind magic tricks and the spirit that gives information to the fortune teller. Djinns or Djinnis are also the spirits who were trapped in enchanted lamps or bottles by magicians and sorcerors. If you rubbed the lamp they would appear and grant you three wishes. If one of your wishes was to set them free, they would become yours alone.

I invite you to share my journey with this playful magical spirit, Djinn.

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.