Saturday, April 24, 2010

Horses, Lies, and Videotape

In my last post I mentioned (glossed over) the "horses never lie" concept and realized at the time that head-shaking and denials would follow.  It's time for another shot at explaining what that means and how it looks in your everyday horse life.

"Can I play?"  Most training starts by accident.
Training works like this:

Trainer A wishes to elicit behavior X from trainee C.

Trainer A, being astute and highly intuitive finds a way to trick, cajole, or accidentally force trainee C's performance of behavior X.  (Example:  I trip over the crop I left in the ring, causing Zip to shake his head in laughter--X = head-shaking)

Trainee C, having no clue that anything other than humor is afoot, is delighted when Trainer A clicks a clicker (or makes a kissy noise, or whatever floats A's boat) and hands over a cookie.  Stimulus-response follows as the night the day and is always perfectly in tune.

Trainer A, wishing to elicit X without the pratfall, waves an arm with the errant crop at the end of it.  If she waves hard enough, C will once again see the humor in the situation and shake his head.  Click (kiss/whatever)-treat, and the deal is sealed.

What does this have to do with lying?  Well, how many times have you heard "Bronze Bomber is only pretending to be lame to get out of working!"  It looks sillier in print than in sounds in your head, doesn't it?  Bronzo isn't lying to you.  He's training you.  He's figured out (faster than you have) that when he does a passable Chaplin walk, you will bring out the soaking tub, warm water, Epsom salts, spa robe and carrots and fuss over whichever foot you perceive to be the culprit.  He never actually said he was lame; he just performed a behavior he knew would cue something he wanted from you.  Your brain and your tendency to anthropomorphize turned it into "He's a lying sack of manure!"

You may be accurate in guessing that he's not in the mood to work.  He never said he was. But the whole idea of lying isn't in his repertoire.  What is  there is enjoyment of the moments you spend together with his foot in a warm tub and his mouth full of carrots while you croon love songs to him in an attempt to salve his misery.  That, for whatever in explicable reason, sounds as good to him as the hour-long lesson in tempi changes you'd planned sounded to you.  The thing is, he's a better trainer than you are, and you're a pretty sappy student.  Face it:  if you could get your boss to give you a cake break every time you sighed and flapped your hand as if your wrist was broken, wouldn't you be a flapping fool in no time?

Stimulus-response works for everybody, not just human trainers.  Your horse, your dog, your cat, your gerbil, even your goldfish are adept at seeing the connection and rewarding behavior they wish to see repeated.  No lies involved.  You're not lying to your horse when you ask him to bow in exchange for a cookie.  It doesn't have to make sense or have a purpose to be honest.  You know what you want, and you're going to pay to get it.  That's the way the world works.

Humans lie to each other, but they can't lie to their animals because animals always know the truth.  You think you've tricked Tizzy into entering her stall without a fuss by throwing a carrot chunk in her bucket.  What a smarty you are!  But in reality, you and she have each other trained.  She hangs back, you chunk the carrot, she does what she knows you want her to do.  Win-win!

It's about being in the moment (do you hate that phrase yet?) and simply looking at behaviors as nothing more than behaviors.  Know that everything you do, everything your animals do, even the bizarre things your spouse and children do are responses to some sort of stimulus and are geared to earn some level of reinforcement.  No, you didn't give your 16 year-old son a cookie when he came home with Sponge Bob tattooed on his bicep.  Think about it for a minute and you'll know precisely how you (or someone's not always about you, you know) rewarded that behavior.  Or you'll recognize it as the same kind of trial-and-error effort that you used when you tried to find a way to get Bronzo to come to you in the pasture.  Whatever it is, it's on the training spectrum.

No lie.

You're wondering where the "videotape" comes in, right?  If you're unconvinced that you've been trained and that your horse is being painfully honest, set up a video camera (Flip video makes a neat one that, with the addition of a Gorillapod tripod, can be stuck on a fence, a ladder, the stall bars, or anywhere else handy to the action) and just let it run while you mess with your horse.  I promise you'll see expressions and reactions you didn't notice when you were embroiled in the interaction.  You'll also see how unflattering your favorite barn outfit really is, so you might want to pour a drink before you watch the replay.

Want more training insight..?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Calming the Willies and Derby Day Cometh!

Funny noises!  Do we get something if we don't run away?
With spring comes the overwhelming desire to get outdoors and do stuff.  We horse people tend to focus our "stuff" around the horses, so this is a good time to address what happens when horses have stood around all winter (or longer) idling away in their familiar setting.

In a nutshell, they get comfortable.  The horse that last fall was as bold as brass after a season of hauling hither and thither may be a little less so.  Not all horses lose their nerve over time, but enough do to make this a chronic spring issue

So where to begin?  Here the herd is considering their fight-or-flight-or-sniff options in the face of Cliff's beeping metal detector.  Note how close Zip is to the offender.  Note how not-so-close his mom, Pokey, is standing.  Note how far away big, brave mounted-orienteering horse Dakota is standing.  Someone needs a refresher course, and ironically, it's me.

Desensitizing is a tough job.  Key, of course, is patience.  Equally important is an unbiased analysis to figure out what category of bugaboo each animal is most sensitive to.  Zip, who appears here to be the bravest horse in the bunch, is terrified of anything moving in the woods.  Rolling exercise balls at his legs and putting a mattress under his feet would be a waste of time and energy because unlabeled sounds are his bogey.  Pokey isn't afraid of much, but anything new takes a few tries for acclimation.  Her Big Bad Thing is losing herd mates from sight, even briefly.  There is much to be said for a mobile herd, but that's not my situation, so we cope, and we just understand when Pokey is very vocal when the boys leave on a trail ride.  A little worry won't hurt her, and after 23 years, she should pretty much know they're coming back eventually.  Habit is something much harder to overcome than true fear.

Come near me with that thing again...I dare you

Dakota, who should be immune to most things after his years of orienteering, can't handle anything new.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.  Move something on the trail, and he'll take days to work up to looking at it, let alone sniffing it.  Meanwhile his rider will receive ample core-strength training, so it's a strange kind of win-win by the time Dakota settles.

So the work begins with identifying the problem and coming up with creative ways of letting the animals experience what scares them without scaring them.  But above all else, the re-trainer (me) has to keep in mind always (ALWAYS!), that horses, like all of the non-primates, are incapable of lying.  If Dakota's body language appears to scream, "Stop that!", he's reflecting his deep-seated belief that he's in immediate danger of at very least a shot from the vet.  His exposure to beeping things is pretty limited. 

Ducks in a row lining up in order of fearlessness
There are lots of books available on bomb-proofing horses, including the one called Bomb-Proofing Your Horse.  They all have one concept in common:  Exposure.  The more craziness you can put in your horses world, the less likely he is to be overwhelmed by the next new thing.  You can't possibly cover all the bases.  You can't imagine on your worst day what is going to pop out of the woodwork to take your horse by surprise.  But you can make him less sensitive overall by not keeping him bubble-wrapped.  Got cows nearby?  Lead him by them until his hysteria disappears.  Got loud motors and strange flapping tarps?  Don't get yourself in an uproar tying things down and muffling the scary noises.  Let him stand where he can see, smell, hear, and, yes, taste the offending bogies to his heart's content.  You might want to stay off him during this experiential overload period, but you'll both be stronger for it afterward. 

Derby Day, May 1st! 

Whether or not you're a race fan, there's something special about the Kentucky Derby.  As I recently explained to a non-horse person, it's the Superbowl with flowered hats.  This year's field will probably be narrowed from the 20 horses that were on the roster the last time I checked, but the magnetism of the equine athletes no matter how many are running is undeniable.  

Yes, there are problems in the race world, and we're all aware of them.  But we also have to accept that without racing, the horse business would be dead where it stands.  Changes for the better are being made.  Know that and be happy.  Meanwhile, get that the infusion of cash into the business that is derived from racing is vital.  Strong breeding practices are vital.  Efforts to re-home retired race horses are vital.  
Most vital of all that follows in racing's hoofprints are the veterinary medical advances that are directly dependent on the fact that race horses are valuable and their owners and trainers are forever in search of better options, more research, better medications, new training concepts, and all the other goodies that eventually filter down to our hairy backyard buddies.  Like the technology we so blithely accept as our trickle-down due from the military, these improvements are of utmost importance.  You and your solitary trail horse are not going to fund the next great advance in horse care practices, so be careful who you bad-mouth and be supportive of the money-maker in our midst.

Coverage of the race will begin in the early morning hours on ESPN, so you have all day to get your fill of pretty horses and videos of their workouts and the people who work with them.  Direct race coverage begins at 4 on NBC.  Put on your flowered hat and sundress (okay, can wear you cowboy hat if you  promise not to yell "Yee-HAH!"), and join the fun of the 136th Run for the Roses!   

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Little Things and Fearing the Fear of Fear

Horse training is all about baby steps...
The title is not a typo.  It's just a reflection of how convoluted my brain becomes when I try to approach an old problem with the same old eyes.

The little steps....  
Last week I spent a sunny hour or so with Dakota, my oddly murky App.  This is a horse who will march down the road amidst honking cars and fuming school buses then lose his mind when the SO's metal detector beeps about another piece of buried aluminum siding.  But for the most part, he's a good horse and fun to hang out with.  So off we went for another post-winter muscle-up in the ring followed by a lazy walk around the hayfield and down the driveway to commune with the neighbors.  

All was well until the neighbor kid fired up the Big Allis tractor in the field with the beef cows.  
Now, 'Kota knows that tractor well.  He sort-of knows the cows, though the population changes every year.  As long as they smell like cows, they're the same in his book.  But the cows don't know the tractor.  So when that muffler-free engine roared into life, they spun and backed up....and so did Dakota.  He followed with a bit of a ballet on tip-toe though no respectable spooking or shying or dumpage of my sad butt.  After a few seconds of heavy breathing (mostly mine) we settled down, the kid apologized, and I dismounted and led my horse not to the tractor (like I said, he knows the tractor) but to the cows.  We stood across the narrow road first until he decided he needed a nose-to-nose confab.  "What was wrong with that tractor?"  He snorted.  They snuffled.  Everyone discussed the muffler issue.  I dangled my fingers over the wire fence, and the cows backed up a step, which delighted Dakota.  "Do that again!"  I did.  They did.  He smiled.

The natural temptation was to just head back to the barn, but I figured we hadn't had a teachable moment in a while, so we walked fifty feet away, then went back to the cows from the other direction--different eye; different cows.  The third visit was head-on.   THEN we went back to the barn, but not for turnout, only to find the mounting block so I could remount without looking like an idiot jumping on one foot to reach the stirrup, and down the driveway we rode again without incident.
I tell this part of the story in explanation of the next part, where I sat in my lawn chair with my iced tea ('Kota loves to share a diet iced tea with me) and with Dakota loose on the lawn beside me... not grazing, not moving around, just standing next to me.  He's never done that before.  I've never listened to him so well before.  We both had a happy day and thanked each other profusely, I with shared iced tea, and he with his whiskers against my upper arm till I chased him away to eat his well-earned grass.

Little things.  Baby steps.  Don't overlook them; they're priceless!
Fear of Fear
Which brings us to Zip.

Have you ever been so afraid that you were afraid of your own fear?  Did you sooooo not want to feel the fear that you simply opted out of the experience?  That's where I was with Zip yesterday.  
Zip doesn't buck, kick, bite, or run me down.  He doesn't jerk the line, pull the reins, or steal my diet lemonade (his preferred libation).  It's not that kind of fear.  I don't fear for my life and limb.  I fear for my spirit.  He's got a problem.  He had a locked rib.  He's had chiropractic and every kind of retraining to make him forget the pain (and my refusal to believe it wasn't stubbornness) and move on with his life.  But he has steadfastly held onto that rib and his belief that it would hurt forever.

Four months of awful winter with no indoor was the most time he's had off ever, and my own fear that our new season would start where the old one left off just fed on itself...and fed....and fed, until I was paralyzed.  Silly, right?  Still, there it was.  Zip, the Grand.  Zip, the Magnificent. Zip, the Impaired.  I didn't want to hear the Horse Study Team's report that he was still as learning disabled as he had been before.  Zip had been my favorite ride prior to his little trailering incident and the three years of chaos that followed.  He's still amazing in his own right, but riding him has become a chore.  Will he make it past 20 minutes today?  Can we get through a tight turn without his trying to remove the girth with his hind leg?  Will he walk at all, or are we going to stand at the mounting block, my legs flapping and his stock-still?
Little things.  Baby steps.  

My instinct was to use the wind (or the color of the footing, or the phase of the moon) as an excuse to blow off his day in the rotation, but waiting in line at Shop Rite, the afternoon with Dakota came back to me.  Home again and renewed (sure it can happen at Shop Rite!), I opted for an intermediate step.  Last week we longed, and we did so with great flair and perfect cadence...and no saddle.  This time we'd just add the saddle.
I'm not going out on a limb here to say everything is right in Zip's world again, but his desire to remove the girth was not in evidence.  There was a bit of a bucking spree when the wind caught the English saddle's flaps and started the whole apparatus bouncing and smacking, stirrups flying off their hooks, but we settled.  And we trotted, and we cantered, and we talked about how we can stand the noise and irritation of all that flapping if we focus on the job at hand....and we did.  

I haven't seen that big Paint in such a good mood in probably two years!  He got his lemonade and I got hugs, and we hung out on the lawn without so much as a whinny for our friends.  And suddenly the little thing was a Really Big Thing for both of us, and the fear of fear just slipped away for now.  

Doesn't get much bigger than that.