Monday, April 25, 2011

Turning Burnout into Engagement

n article on education in a recent Science Daily  really set my mind a-flurry.  The author of the study report, which was borrowed from the Academy of Finland, analyzed secondary school students for their level of burnout versus their level of engagement with very interesting results.  What was interesting to me was how easily the results could be applied to training animals as well as humans.
Zip, totally Cliff

According to the Academy, vocational students (Yay for Shop Class!) experience roughly 13% more engagement than do academic students.  The average upper secondary academic student in the study was engaged 20% of the time, while the average vocational student was engaged roughly 33% of the time.  How exciting!  Given my own secondary educational experience (as a student, that is…we all know I was 100% engaging as a teacher), I’m guessing both numbers are higher in Finland than in the US for reasons having to do with endless winters and a shortage of iPhones, but that’s neither here nor there.

What is engagement?  Well, it’s not about hindquarters and frames.  It’s a psychological construct which, for our purposes, is the opposite of burnout, for one thing.  Burnout happens when the student [enter Fuzzbutt, stage left, trotting] isn’t feeling the love in either direction.  He’s not liking the subject matter at hand or the presentation, and he’s feeling unloved and under-appreciated himself.  The engaged student is one who is happy, fully involved in the learning process, and feeling as if the teacher actually sees and hears him and wants him to succeed.

[Fuzzbutt frisks the closest human for cookies.  Cookies = love.]

The Finnish researchers concluded that burnout can be turned into engagement by applying this set of parameters:
  • Study guidance should be provided on all educational levels.
  • Resources and strengths should be emphasized.
  • Study skills should be taught on all educational levels.
  • The competence, coping facilities and motivation of the youth, parents and teachers should be nurtured.
  • The sense of community should be cultivated.
Starting at the top, how can we guide the study of our students?  Well, first we have to stop bullying them and get a grip on “guidance”.  This means demonstrating the lesson to be learned in a way that the student understands and correcting, not punishing, errors along the way.  Fuzzbutt understands that if he stands quietly without chewing my sleeve, he will earn praise and maybe a cookie, depending on the difficulty level of the achievement.  Maybe he’s not nearly so clear on the under-saddle part, but that will come with time and patience.  If he’s worried about incurring my wrath for screwing up, he’s not feeling “guided” so much as “intimidated”.  

The second rule suggests that we offer positive reinforcement for even the smallest success and try to ignore some of the less attractive behaviors that accompany said achievement.  Fuzzbutt gets props for not chewing on me, and I’ll overlook his ears-laid-back glare at the cat making a bed on his hindquarters.  We want him to feel good about himself and his abilities.  If the errant behavior isn’t interfering with the learning process, then it doesn’t count.

Third…clicker training!  Yes, I can work that in almost anywhere.  It actually applies here, though.  The best attribute of the clicker-training process is that it teaches the animal how to learn.  With human students we can tell them about making note cards and using post-its and turning off the iPod while they write.  It’s less clear-cut with equines.  But once the horse has been introduced to the clicker (or any other stimulus-response) routine, he has the concept needed to move forward with his studies.  He can go from touching the cone to macramé with baler twine in a few short sessions.

Everybody wants to be nurtured, and the trainer needs that as much as the trainee, hence the fourth suggestion.  The trainer needs to feel good about the process.  Feeling good is very motivating.  It makes the trainer feel all tingly and want to come back to train another day.  S/he doesn’t want to feel as if there’s abuse involved or frustration or anger, just lots of good vibing.  Fuzzbutt also needs motivation in the form of feeling as if his competence, sketchy though it might be in the larger framework of the experience, is appreciated and approved of.  This is where the “end on a good note” meme originated.  Even if it means setting up the situation so that success is guaranteed.  Fuzzbutt is excellent at lowering his head to sniff the cat’s butt.  He does it with 100% accuracy.  Knowing this, I can make sure the last thing that happens before I turn him out and grab the cocktail shaker is that the cat finds its way into the barn, or that I train Fuzzbutt to lower his head in response to some actual non-cat-related cue and praise the heck out of him for it.  It’s his best thing; who am I to tell him it’s not prize-worthy?

Finally, there’s the “sense of community” in need of cultivation.  You’re thinking, “He’s got community.  He’s out with his buds 10 hours a day.”  Right.  But he also needs to see the learning process as part of the community activity.  You are community.  His horse and human friends who are “not-you” are community.  Every living thing and every activity attached to his daily life is part of his community.  The Thinking Horseman can clearly see that when training becomes a community event, something everyone takes part in and which happens on a regular basis without onus and with lots of pleasant fanfare, then learning goes from project to process and burnout is averted.  It’s the difference between a hostile work environment with a boss and coworkers that don’t share anything but animosity and one where coworkers and admin are all moving as one toward a common goal with lots of coffee and donuts and funny e-cards to keep thing copasetic.

So it happens that the ongoing plan to work with my personal burnout case finds support once again in the literature.  A few weeks ago I took “No” and “Stop that!” and “You son of a bitch!”  out of my training lexicon when working with Zip.  Risking muddying the waters with an additional variable, I also began using PAX horse to give Zip that warm-fuzzy that he seemed to be lacking and get him focused on me as Community Member instead of me as Harbinger of Doom.  I won’t jump the gun (as I am wont to do) and say outright that success is ours, but I can definitely attest to the fact that my student who, delinquent-like, was in the habit of making himself scarce at training time and filling the air with his bluff and bravado while he shook in his shoes, is a quiet, calm learner again who comes at a trot when called.  We’ve got a long way to go, but the experiment is proving well worth the time spent as the entire community is calmer, happier, and more focused.  I have engaged Zip, and all his base are belong to me! 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Memetics and the Thinking Horseman

It makes us dress like this

emetics:  The study of thought contagion

Years ago, Richard Dawkins wrote a treatise (The Selfish Gene) based on Daniel Dennett’s theory of thought as a living thing that could be transmitted from mind to mind without the active participation of the thinkers involved.  Like a virus, the theory states, thoughts can migrate and become a social force that requires the creation of additional “memes” (units of contagious thought) to destroy or derail or disenfranchise.  Many, many books and articles on the subject are available, so feel free to chase this philosophy until it’s fully fleshed out in your mind.  This site is a good starting place.  

What does this have to do with you and your horse life?  Pretty much everything.  Breathes there a horse owner with soul so strong that never has been dragged along by a viral thought?  

Do you subscribe to the idea that you, as owner, are also herd leader?  That’s a meme created by one of the many Famous Trainers that have touched your brain (and possibly your wallet) with sets of instructions, and I bet you don’t remember which or when.

Do you stand at the rail at a show (or planted safely on the sofa in front of the TV) and opine on the style and ability of the riders as they sweat past?  Where did you get the information you’re using?  Has George Morris crept silently into your belief system until anyone not wearing full-dress English suitage is somehow automatically unacceptable to you?  Have you ridden with a trainer (or would-be, fake-trainer-know-it-all at your boarding barn) who has repeated some mantra that had embedded itself in your reality?  Is it really wrong in some elemental way for the rider in question to be humming the theme from Star Trek as she rides by?  

Are you someone who changes feeds/saddles/boots/styles/management techniques/catch phrases based on actual research gleaned from reputable sources, or do you find yourself subject to sudden urges—fugue states during which you are incapable of using your own brain—to make changes?  Do the urges keep you awake at night until you fulfill them?

Do you believe that you “can’t be too thin or own too many silk blouses”?

Okay, that last one is actually true, but that’s all memetics in action.  If your preference for a particular horse breed or discipline can be traced to a friend or a local organization or an ad in a magazine, or a TV commercial that includes the words “Now I’m on a horse”, then someone else inhabits your brain, right there alongside your mother and the teacher who told you you’d never be fully functional as a human if you didn’t learn to love Shakespeare.  That someone is contagious, so you’ll need to isolate the infection and hurry and find a cure before you pass the disease on to someone else.

Where this is leading in the horse world is through another door to unhappiness.  Sure, many memes are what might be considered “Good Infections” by their originators.  In the Old Days, Mom exposed me to my brother at the height of his chicken poxiness in hope that I’d catch it and become immune.  That was standard practice before pox vaccinations became commonplace.  If you drag the worst horse-keeper you know to an event like Equine Affaire so that perhaps s/he will pick up something in the way of common sense to apply later, you are consciously spreading what you consider a positive infestation.  A “Good Infection”.  A positive meme.

How sure are you?

How sure are you that your chosen infection is a good one?  Have all of your friends become bored with your endless paean to your Chosen Breed?  Are you one of those people who can name your favorite saddle maker and do so whether or not anyone has asked (like muttering down the aisle at Wal Mart)?  Are you sure what you know is a real rule and not just something you picked up and couldn’t put down?

Unhappy owners make unhappy horses and vice-versa.  Bad information makes unhappy owners and unhappy horses.  Ergo and ipso facto, you are not helping the situation if you are passing bad vibes through the neurotic network.  Meme-based eating disorders have nothing on meme-based horse-owner craziness, I assure you. 

Here’s a meme that I’m going to attempt to infect you with:  It is best to preface every unsubstantiated horse-related statement you make for the next week with, “I don’t know where I heard this, but…” and answer at least half of the questions you’re asked with “I have no idea”.  You will become the sanest horse owner in your coffee klatch.   Trust me.  I’m the Meme Queen, and I wouldn’t lie to you.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Ins and Exes of Value

ow much do you value your horse?  Better question, how do you put a value on him?  When I got my license as an equine appraiser, I learned the math and got the software to apply it.  I had to do “comps”—comparisons—as part of the licensing exam.  It all seemed pretty cut-and-dried.  

But then the bottom fell out of the market.  Within months, the Unwanted Horse Coalition became a hot topic.  Don’t blame me.  I’ve been known to have a black thumb, kiss of death and all that, but I didn’t cause the crash.  Not this time, I swear.

My Pretty Money Pit, worth a lot to me, but to you... Eh.
This rapid recognition of equine overpopulation created a whole new learning experience for everyone in the horse biz.  First, there was an introduction to the “intrinsic” vs “extrinsic” valuation story.  Intrinsic value is the value something has by its very nature.  It's a totally Existentialist concept.  The degree to which something makes life possible (or bearable, if you slip another step away from the hard line) is its intrinsic value.  Children, flowers, earthworms all have intrinsic value to one degree or another.  Extrinsic value is value that is created by the market. Unless you plan on selling your children, flowers, or earthworms, they probably have no extrinsic value. 

Arguably, and demonstrably in the case at hand (horses), they’re pretty much the same thing.  Monetary value is a totally human invention; so, all of its combinations and permutations and appearances on reality shows notwithstanding, it really has no meaning beyond what we give it.  

Take a moment to absorb that.

Back in the day, everyone who was anyone needed a horse, a house, a suit of clothes or whatever.  Those needs put value on those items.  The degree to which a human needed a horse depended greatly on that human’s chosen lifestyle.  A farmer might have a far greater need for a plow horse than your average non-farmer human.  An explorer might need several horses for traveling great distances.  A warrior would need a big, brave horse.  The needs were met by bartering.  “Give me your big, brave horse, and I won’t kill your family” was a popular exchange rate.  So was “a pig and three goats for your plow horse and I’ll supply you with all the corn for your barbecues for the rest of the year”.   So it went.  Value was in the mind of the negotiating teams.  Even children were bartered away.  So much for the CQ (Cuteness Quotient) valuation.

Then money happened and, as always, things got complicated.  Cash value of anything has to be put into perspective based on the buyer’s level of wealth and where on his spectrum of “must-haves” the item might fall.  A human for whom dinner is a major expense in relation to his level of wealth is unlikely to put a horse, for example, higher on the list than potatoes.  

So here we are now in the chaotic up-and-down swinging of economic failure and recovery, and we need to find a way to valuate our horses along with our other stuff.  Where do we go with that? 

In a balanced market, all prices would be stable across the board, but that’s not happening because we humans also created economic market theory, and it’s full of holes because we did not account for mass hysteria and the ability of humans to overlook the obvious in the face of, say, Charlie Sheen.  The same horse may sell on one coast for twice what it will on the other.  In the middle of the country, that horse may have no value at all since breeders tend to live near open spaces more than near urban centers and seaside resorts.  Where there’s more to be had, the price tends to be lower.  The value will reflect the situation in both space and time that the specific buyer and seller are currently occupying.  In other words, it’s a free-for-all.

Uncle Mo, a fave in Derby 137
...Value galore till he loses
Much has been written about the crazy prices currently being paid at both ends of the spectrum.  Racehorses are likely to go for much higher prices if they are successful because they earn money both in their racing careers and afterwards in stud fees and foal sales and as advertising logos for their owners.  High-end show horses also have income-production in their favor, so valuation has to include their ability to reimburse their new owners for all that hay and grain and billable vet hours they’re consuming.   

At the bottom end are the horses collected at the various auctions and sold at prices that range from $10 (and less)/head to upwards of $1000 (sometimes for the same horse on different days).  Sometimes these animals have issues that lower the price.  If a racehorse’s income-earning potential is in the plus column, then a knock-kneed pony with heaves and a bad attitude has all that in the negative column.
Perhaps the best cost basis is the going price of slaughter-bound horses per pound.  Start there, which is a fairly rational proximal of intrinsic value; add on for pluses like sanity, good health, training, attractiveness (which, by the way, is way at the top of the comps program for increasing value—cuteness rules!), relative youth, and usefulness in the area in which the animal is being sold.  A ranch horse won’t be in big demand in Manhattan, for instance, and few cowboys will plunk down big bucks for a fourth level dressage star, so deduct for sheer bad luck.  Then find another horse like the one you’re assessing that has recently sold in the same locality, double-check for odd situations that skew the results, and BAM!  You’ve got a price.

Or not, because at this point in time most owners will be lucky just to find a good home for Old Lucky, and that has to be worth something.  If you bought your current horse as an investment, count yourself fortunate that Bernie Madoff didn’t have you on his to-do list as well.  If you have to sell, look for a safe buyer regardless of the price you’ll get.  Consider how much the horse is going to cost the buyer over the long haul, and be grateful he’s not charging you for him to take the horse.  We’ve reached a point in human history (not unlike the cavemen) when peace of mind has an intrinsic value all its own.   There’s no program for that.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Is Your Horse Learning Disabled or Just Disenfranchised?

ears ago, back when learning-disabled and emotionally-disturbed kids were my stock-in-trade, my daughter was given a horse with…uh…”training issues”.  It didn’t help that the story that came with the five-year-old TB mare was missing a few cogent details, like that she’d never actually been saddle-broke, but as time went by it became obvious that the mare had one or two misfiring cylinders.  

With great glee at having an excuse to do so, I called a psychic (that would be my friend—real and Facebook—Ginny Palmieri) who informed me that Dolly was a SpEd horse.  This awesomest of animal communicators explained that we needed to treat the horse as if she were one of my students because she had a raging case of ADD.  In a trice (that’s the time span that comes after the doubled-over laughing part), I made the suggestion to my daughter (no mention of psychic intervention at that point as she was already referring to me as “Weirdo Magnet” in the loving way daughters will) that the horse might learn to make a circle, which till then had been more of a loopy-meander kind of thing, into an actual round shape if only Jess made the concept concrete by putting a cone in the middle.  Thereafter followed some truly intriguing training episodes as the circle-center cone gave birth to jump-line cones and center-line cones and stop-cones and go-cones, and learning went on at top speed.  It didn’t stop the mare from having odd, terror-filled moments in the pasture when she would round up the herd and make them run laps to escape from something only she could see, but under saddle she was quite the nearly-normal horse. 

Honestly, I would never have bought into the idea that my students had any more in common with my horses than the ability to ignore my instructions.  What a revelation it was to watch Dolly go from confused sluggard to winning show horse with just a little change of approach.  

If you aren’t wondering if there’s actual scientist-induced research to back up my wild musings, you should be, and there is.  Naturally most of the research involves mice.  In fact, all of it does.  They’re a lot easier to pick up and stick in a maze and paste electrodes on, so they tend to be the bottom line for most studies.  I spent four happy years poking at mice in the “Rat Lab” at my college to earn my psych degree.  The college was happy to spring for hundreds of rodents each semester where hundreds of horses might have been over budget.  

Still, there is no mention of equine studies in this realm, so I will leave the conclusion in limbo.  Having seen what I have seen, I find it difficult to say there’s no basis for this idea.  Equine intelligence research is still in its infancy, with recent studies focusing more on learning ability, memory, color discrimination and other rudimentary learning theory basics than disability.  My advice is to keep an open mind.  If a brain can be damaged, it will be.  If genetics can run foul, they will.  If you have a horse that seems to have a mental blockade against what you’re trying to teach him, it may not be stubbornness (on either side of the clicker) or bad attitude.  It could be that he’s just not quite average in information processing or some other aspect of learning.  Don’t beat him or chain him to a cot in the attic like that weird uncle your mother told you about.  Try a new approach.  

Concrete is always best when you are working with a horse.  Given that English (or whatever Human tongue you practice) is a second language for him, pictures and examples will have more impact than yelling and screaming.  When he hears, “Blah BLAH blahblahblah cookie? Blah blah blah DAMNYOU! Blah”, he isn’t going to learn much.  When you show him what you want, even if it means gentle use of mechanical devices like side reins or dragging him behind you over cross-rails, and give him time to absorb the concept, you’re on safer ground.  

Always remember that no learning can happen without mistakes.  If he does the Samba once on command, it could have been an accident.  If he does it twice, it could be coincidence.  When, on the third try, he switches to Cotton-Eyed Joe, you can correct him and let him know that the Samba is what you wanted.  And thus, Learning happens!

The Disenfranchised Horse
[and a plug for someone other than me]

Go forth and remediate!  

But while you’re investigating the possibility that your equine buddy rides the short trailer, consider another variable.  Have you taken away his voice?  Not the one that screams to his femme du jour while you’re asking for a shoulder-in.  The one that tells you openly and honestly that whatever you’ve asked for is not his cup of tea.  The one that shouts opinion after opinion, confusion upon confusion, and fear upon fear which you studiously ignore.  That voice.
"Hello!  Can you hear me?"

I’m sure like all of us you were taught that you’re in charge and it’s up to you to make the horse do whatever it is that’s required for whichever discipline you’ve chosen.  When he doesn’t measure up, you add a smidge of force or a lot of four-letter descriptions of his ability level.  But according to three excellent books I recently read, taking that voice away leads to a loss of confidence—yours in the horse, his in you, and his in himself—that spells disaster for training.

The books are Empowered Horses by Imke Spilker (Trafalgar Square, 2008), What Every Horse Should Know by Cherry Hill (Storey, 2011), and The Horse Seeks Me by Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling (Cadmos, 2010).  Regular readers know I don’t make a habit of recommending other authors’ books, so you can take this to the bank:  Buy these books!
A chapter from the Cherry Hill book was reprinted in one of the horse mags, and that’s what got me thinking.  The chapter was on the subject of “Attitude and Attention”.  It might as well have been titled “How to Repair the Damage You’ve Done” and could have mentioned Zip and me by name.  The Sour Horse can so easily tell his trainer what the problem is if only the trainer would shut up and listen.  Searching for more approaches to the same situation, I ordered the other two books.  If you already have Horses Behavin’ Badly by the McCalls, the four together are all you need for a training library that will sort you out and relieve your horse of his owner-induced learning disability.

The awesome part (for me—and that’s not the good “awesome”) is that I’d read the McCall’s book and thoroughly got that convincing a horse that you’re an idiot is easy to do and hard to fix.  I thought I was doing okay.  Shit happens.  I screwed up, and the unscrewing is going to take some effort and patience on my part and a leap of faith from Zips Gotyournumber.  I did, by the way, enlist communicator Ginny’s aid again on this one, and she found the usually laid-back horse to be in such confusion even she couldn’t translate his questions.  That’s some major screwage!

You don’t have to abdicate your position of seniority to hear your horse.  You need to be a tad humble.  That’s hard for humans.  We don’t do humble well.  Today I started humbling myself, and I must say I feel better.  So does Zip.  We shared a Diet Sierra Mist to celebrate.  If this goes according to plan and along Zip’s and my normal learning curve, by 2028, we’ll be back in the groove.  

I can hardly wait!

But there's a very good chance that the groove we'll be in won't be the one I've been aiming for.  This time around Zip gets a say.  Some horses have "cow sense" and are great at roping and team penning.  Some have very level heads and lots of enthusiasm and are great for dressage.  Some are quiet and unassuming and make great lesson ponies.  Zip is none of the above, but he's awesome at Zip-ness, so that's where we'll start.