Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Baby Steps: Task Analysis and Horse Sense

Me, communing...Dakota, ignoring and hoping I'll go away

 horse trainer can spend many an hour in the pasture being with his animal, communing with him, and trying to imagine what horse-ness must feel like and still get nowhere fast with his attempts to alter the horse’s behavior.  All the Natural Horsemanship videos and books and magazine articles in the world won’t help if the trainer has not mastered task analysis—the breaking down of a desired behavioral result into its parts.  Spend all day yelling at Happy Fuzzbutt to move his hindquarters under him and you’ll have a very amused horse and neighbors who are hoping their video of your antics will win them a big prize on TV.  Fuzzbutt’s hindquarters will be firmly where he wants them to be, stretched out behind him in all their glory.  Pick up the inside rein, apply your leg; hum a Bach concerto, and nothing will change. 

First understand that you are a horse trainer.  Just as you inadvertently taught your kids to curse, you teach your horse something every time you interact with him.  That makes you a trainer.  That also makes you responsible for most of his behavior, socially acceptable and otherwise.

It’s important, then, to have a goal all the time so that what the horse learns is what you intended to teach him.  The goal can be very simple:  You want your horse to stand still while you brush him.  The target behavior is the standing still.  An analysis of the goal tells us that there is more here than meets the eye.  What you’re really asking the horse to do is:

  1.   Walk quietly on the lead to the spot you’ve chosen for the affair
  2.   Stop walking when you get to that spot
  3.   Accept standing tied for a period of time
  4.   Not move his feet while you’re touching him
  5.   Not shift his hindquarters away from you
  6.   Not shift his hindquarters toward you
  7.   Not nip at your hindquarters while your back is turned to face his
  8.   Not frisk you for treats when you are working on his head

More complex than you thought?  It gets worse.  Each of those individual behaviors has a subset of its own.  Walking quietly to the grooming area without running you down involves his respecting your space and your person and knowing that you want him to stand still in a particular spot.  There's a "go" cue and a "stop" cue and a speed correction cue among others.  Accepting standing tied means he has to have learned that you are not a threat and that he will be freed eventually, and so on.

Does this mean that every time you want to ride old Fuzzbutt you have to go through a lengthy training process?  Of course not.  If it did, I’d be playing golf instead of learning dressage.  What it does mean is that the fact that your horse stood quietly once does not necessarily mean he’ll do it every time unless all of the behaviors leading to that goal have been successfully mastered.  Some horses are quicker to learn than others.  Some are intuitive enough to figure out what you want and what they’ll get if they cooperate.  Some just like people and will do whatever they can to please. Some are just like teenagers and will avoid cooperating strictly for the giggle value.
Duke and Cliff perfect the Pony Pretzel

Task analysis is most important when you are faced with an animal who is not cooperative or whose basic training is a little sketchy.  It’s also vital when you are trying to teach a brand-new behavior that is not natural to horses, like a trick or a complex pattern of actions such as the movements of classical dressage.  Something as obvious as getting the horse to side-step with his back end as a precursor to spinning or doing turns on the forehand requires that you recognize that there is a first step and start there. 

This is where clicker training really shines, but let’s look at even the clicker process as a series of tasks.  You want to use the clicker to help the horse identify correct answers to your requests.  You stand the horse in the cross-ties, point the whip at his foot and say, “Pick it up”.  He does, because he’s used to doing that for you, and you click.  The sound scares the wits out of him, he rears, breaks the ties, and you’ve got a whole new training project.

What would have worked better would have been to start at square one with an explanation, in horse terms, of the clicker thing.  Clicking it nearby a few dozen times so he gets used to the sound is step one.  Picking a simple targeting task like touching your crop with his nose so that you can click and treat is the second step.  Once he’s got the idea that every click will be followed by a reward, the rest follows as the night the day.  Before you know it, he’s learning pretty much anything you can think of to teach him . . . as long as you break it down into individual tasks.

Task analysis is the key to every training program for horse and for rider.  Become an ace at breaking down behaviors into the parts that comprise them, and you’ll be on your way to a better horsemanship all around.

Speaking of horsemanship

This article from Chronicle of the Horse   is a must-read if only because someone other than myself is espousing my favorite cause:  Horsemanship.  Most of the current month's mags are loaded with training tips aimed at competition.  That's fine.   Without competition, there would be an even bigger sink hole in the middle of the horse business.  Though I do not believe it should be the purpose of horse ownership, it does help justify to the spouse and non-horsey family members the huge outlay of cash each month and the horrific smell in the laundry room.  Though I've noticed in my own case that dropping out of the competitive field (not that I was ever far enough into it to make a ripple in the grass, still...) saved me a lot of money in entrance fees, grooming supplies, expensive outfits not suitable for anything other than sitting on my horse and sustaining the local dry cleaning establishment, and fuel and maintenance on my vehicle and trailer.  It wouldn't hurt to run the numbers occasionally and see how logical your explanation truly is.

In any case, the intriguing Chronicle article by USPC Board meber Eric G. Dierks suggests that if we all joined Pony Club (or at least adhered to the standards of learning horsemanship by the numbers), we might enjoy our horses more and abandon fewer of them out of frustration or because they no longer fit into our Olympic dreams.  He points out justifiably that with the current focus on competition, there is often a choice to be made between spending one's time in clubs and associations that are competition-oriented or joining something like Pony Club, which is horsemanship-focused with only minimal attention to showing.  PC kids compete against themselves as they work their way up the levels, passing tests and gaining knowledge as they go. 

My favorite line in the article is on page 2, to wit: 

"The next wave of American horsemen and women can reverse the trend of hands-off horse care and stand as an example of accountable horsemen and women of the future."
Accountability!  I love the sound of that word.   It's being bandied about the rescue world as if it were a stand-alone concept, but in reality it is just as complex a constellation of behaviors as any task we're trying to teach our horses.  First and foremost it requires a mindset that owning a horse isn't like buying a dirt bike to race on weekends.  Then there's the part about the justification of the expense and realistic budget assessment by the prospective owner.  Finally, when all of that is in place, there's the commitment.  But above all there is a system for holding people accountable, which at this point is seriously lacking.  
I'm not going to try to solve that problem in a blog post.  It will take years.  I've written before about the need for owner education and slowing down breeding until need catches up with supply.  And there are still many, many horses to be dealt with that are in the crack and sinking fast.  According to some reports,  it's 170,000 per year.  The race industry accounts for a large number of those but not all.  It's easier to hold racing accountable since their horses are registered and the trainers are licensed as well.  Authorities can find the owner of an abandoned or abused race horse far more easily than they can find a backyard breeder who is foisting "cute" but useless foals on the world in an effort to make ends meet or meet the standard required in his state for "agriculture".

We can't solve it all at once, but task analysis can break it down into manageable chunks which can be addressed and mastered with time and lots of cookies. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Broken Operating Systems Aren't Just For Bulgaria Anymore


es, he's talking about Bulgaria. 
He's talking about Communist countries.  Did you keep forgetting that as you listened?  Personally, I found it really hard to keep that in my mind.  This could so easily apply to the US overall and to us in our horse lives more particularly.  We have adopted the "Serious Meme" in spades!  We're a full generation out of step with ourselves, living by our (and by "our", I mean "my", so that's turn-of-the-century) grandparents' standards.

If you opted not to listen to the whole lecture, let me assure you there's good reason to go back and finish.  Mr. Kell is concerned about creating mindless, robotic workers.  I'm concerned about creating mindless, robotic horsemen and frustrated, dull horses by reflection.  We don't value play. 

Maybe if you hear again the part where he says that the biggest brains belong to the most playful creatures, you'll see more value in indulging a bit.  We all want to be the best, biggest-brained, smartest kids on the planet, right?  Rats who play have bigger brains than rats who don't.  Kittens deprived of play lose their ability to interact socially.  People without the Play Gene are just depressing to be around. 

Oh, we value sport.  Don't confuse the two.  Play is not always sport.  Sport is usually organized, ruled and regulated.  There's winning and losing and a warlike attitude of wanting to best the enemy.  Little kids engage in little-kid war sports run by adults.  Pony kids are dedicated from the age of three to showing their ponies in lead-line classes and bringing home the blue.  The ponies play in the pasture if they're allowed.  We don't really value play for them either, so some of us keep them cooped up in boxes except when they're being worked.  Working is in; playing is out. 

"We're designed by nature to play from birth old age."

Hey!  How about a game of Fetch?

 Feed Your Inner Neotenist!  Put on your grubby but sooooo comfy jeans or breeches and go play in the pasture with your horse.  Forget the lesson you had in mind for today and set up a completely alien experience.  Turn off your cell phone.  Put your dressage horse around a barrel pattern.  Do it bareback!  Let your Western Pleasure horse try a cross-rail or two.  Once he gets over the shock, he might surprise you with his enthusiasm.  Do it all with a friend who's equally in need of a mental health day and keep score aloud.  It doesn't matter what you're scoring; it's the giggles that come with being first to get the rock onto the barrel or get your horse to walk backwards through the pattern that counts.  Make stuff up. Creativity is key.

More than twenty years ago, my daughter (and I, since I was standing there being Mommy at the time) got the best advice from a trainer I've ever heard, and I've never forgotten it (though I occasionally forget to implement it).  Hector Carmona, Jr, in a dressage lesson with my then-twelve-year-old child and her awesomely vigorous buddy, Grady, said, "Don't do dressage with him every day.  Do it no more than three times a week.  Jump him a couple of times; take him out on trails....No horse needs to do dressage five days a week."  No rider does, either.  Or any other discipline.  Mix it up.  Add a little fun and stir well.  My QH mare got her flying changes by doing poles bareback after our lesson, not by working hard at it during.  And it gave us another sport to boot! 

This is in no way permission for carelessness.  We do have plenty of that.  It is possible to have fun without causing chaos.  Perhaps that's the challenge we're not willing to take on.  It's easier to be overly-cautious and driven by a straight path ahead with no thought required.  It's taken me six years to convince my Appy buddy Dakota that it's okay to walk off the line, run instead of trot.  He still chooses the obvious path if he's allowed, but he's learned to relax and take the world as it comes.  He's a lot more fun now, and far less likely to wind up an "unsuitable", one-trick pony.  

We need more laughter overall, and we can certainly use some in the horse world.  We need less work and less competitiveness and more creativity and joy.  Play Time is officially ON!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Success By Any Other Name....

  don't even have to write a blog post this week.  This video should be sufficient.  Not only is it a marvelously on-target self-help piece, but it's also got a few good laughs incorporated.

But, lest it be said that I can't find something marginal to say about anything ever, I'm going to hark back for a moment to the last post where I mentioned Michael Johnson's Healing Shine  and suggested it would be a truly important book in anyone's library, horseman or normal, sane being.  One of the best things Mr. Johnson did for me as I listened to the audio version of that brilliant piece of philosophy and self-help was to force me to say to myself, "I did this".  "I screwed up."  I screwed up myself and the horse all by my very own self.  It's a very freeing  passage, I assure you.  If you did it, you can probably undo it, and that's the beginning of a new challenge and a learning experience.

That's a hard thing to admit, particularly for someone like me for whom success in many areas has not only come easily but who doesn't mind flaunting it (and who has no problem lowering the bar until "success" is assured).  Admitting that I did that wasn't easy.  The video above explains why.  In case you didn't watch all the way to the end (I certainly appreciate your dedication to getting to my unforgettable post, but that was mandatory), he points out that we humans worship ourselves.  What a concept!  We hold nothing more sacred than us.

Before you have a fit over the use of "sacred" there, in particular in the face of Mr. de Botton's contention that historically we worshiped something "transcendent" as opposed to our current structured self-importance, this is where I have to disagree with him.   Even our Sacred stuff is historically all about us.  Think about it.  Believers in a Higher Power of whatever description are convinced that there's a Presence that cares deeply about our personal preferences, behavior, needs and wishes.  Does it get more self-serving than that?  We not only adore ourselves, we believe even an all-powerful Creator has the same deep-seated interest in us! 
No worry about success here....just sunshine and cookies.

So knowing that, the fact that we can't admit being wrong just follows along like a kid dragged through the pasture muck by his pony.  It can't be anything we did.  Someone, somewhere screwed it up, but it sure as heck-fire wasn't us.  Nuh-uh!  No way!   And as long as our vision of success includes never being wrong (and hedging on the rare occasion when someone else is equally right), we can't succeed.  We can't succeed personally, and we sure as manure balls can't succeed with our horses. 

I also take issue with Mr. de Botton's contention that we are drawn to Nature because it takes us away from our own drama.  I like the thought, and I'm sure it's true to an extent.  Sorry, but what I see is us bringing our drama with us, making vast efforts to control Nature, and when we fail, smacking Nature around in our frustration.  Looking at glaciers may make us feel peaceful for a time, but before long we want to climb them, leave flags stuck in them, have a picnic atop them, and eventually melt them down.   The Human Touch.

So it is in our horse life.  We love the feeling of being closer to Nature that our contact with horses brings us, but how often to we just luxuriate in the moment, and how often are we thinking ahead to the next training step or how we can get the horse to poop in only one corner of his stall for easier cleanup?  How often are we disgusted with our own inability to get past a training roadblock?  How much frustration is in our riding?  And why can't we ever let the horse just be right?

I suggest that success can only be measured by the cessation of all of that directional thinking.  When the horseman stops considering changing the horse's behavior and accepts that horses just behave without adding a quality judgment, maybe that's success.  And how many of us will ever really get there?

De Botton states (and I couldn't agree more) that we are highly suggestible.  We have notions of success and failure that are strictly memetic in origin, and many of them don't actually work for us as individuals.  That certainly holds true in the horse world.  "Justice", he says, "is impossible."  I believe he's right.  It will continue to elude us as long as we ignore our relationship with the world around us outside the human element.  Be a failure!  Be a  happy failure!  Be happy that you found your favorite t-shirt today!  Success!  Love the fact that you and your horse have gotten through another ten minutes without mayhem!  Success!  A new view of success might be the best thing for you and your horse.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Mute Button

  Bet your first thought was, "Damn!  I wish I had one of those!  I could shut up that bi-atch in the next cubicle without resorting to duct tape and maybe have some peace for a few minutes.  Bwaaaahahahaha!"

Maybe you didn't think all of that, but you can't not react to the cessation of unwanted sound.  Nor can you avoid feeling irritated when the mute goes off and you can once again hear all the noise.  All animals, humans included, are pre-programmed to enjoy silence.  We hunter-gatherers need to be able to hear the prey in the woods and sniff out the best watering holes based on where other thirsty critters are gathering to dish and sip.  We don't really need the endless stream of sound that we have learned to live with.  Noise pollution is an acknowledged stressor in our modern society.  People kill each other over noise. 
I know I heard a cookie....

How much noise did you make?  Do you keep a radio on in the barn?  Do your ears sprout buds the instant you step out of the car?  Do you feel lost in your living room without the TV muttering?  When you talk, are you loud?  How about on your cell phone?  Ha!  Gotcha there.  Even though most cells have decent built-in noise canceling, most users can't help yelling over the background noise that the listener on the other end can't generally hear. 

Now, think about horses in the pasture.  Go there if you have to.  Listen.  How much noise do they make?  Except for the occasional whinny of a mare calling to her foal or a gelding announcing his state of mind (boys are like that) to every other male in the county, they're pretty quiet.  They have to be.  They're prey.  It's not in their best interests to let the predators track them by the trail of noise from their iPods, and they need to hear the sneak of paws in the shrubbery to avoid becoming dinner for a horse-eating squirrel. 

Are you beeping something bad about me?
Put this all together, and your horse probably wishes even more sincerely that he had a mute button to shut you up.  Oh, they do learn to recognize our voices, and some seem to like it when we sing to them or hum a little happy tune or read aloud from the latest training handbook, but I posit here that it's not that they like the sound but that our presence and our vibrations can have a calming effect on them.  If we're happy, then there must not be anything to fear.  If we're singing and laughing and vibing all over the place, then it's party time and everyone can relax.  Some animals are better than others at letting human noise wash over them without causing them to get all flinchy in their hope that it will stop soon.  So why not try a little quiet with your animals?  If you haven't done it before, you might be surprised to find that you saying, "Goooooood booooooooy" over and over (and over and over) while you go through your jump course may not be having the positive effect you thought it was.  What could it hurt to try toning it down a notch? 

My old Quarter Horse, Leo, is immune to pretty much anything.  Know what irritates him?  My cell phone.  Not the sound of it, but my talking into it.  He doesn't buck or fuss or attack me; he just glares at me.  He stops what he's doing, snorts, and glares.  If I'm on him, he quits and heads for the gate if we're in the ring, and drops his head to graze if we're on the grass.  It changes the dynamic between us.  Those things don't happen if I'm not distracted and talking.  If I answer the phone while I'm grooming Zip (I'd never be stoopid enough to let the cell ring in my pocket when I'm on his back as I'm fond of my current body-part arrangement), his ears flick around like radar antennae, and he follows me with his eyes, probably (since he can't hear the other end of the convo) because he can't figure out what I'm saying to him.  It's always about him, you know. 

According to several books I've read about horse behavior, the less said, the better.  I know my chatter doesn't improve anyone's performance, and I'm doing my best to control it.  Sometimes in certain circumstances, a word to the wise can distract the horse long enough to let me regain control of his mind before he loses it to the deadly fawn sleeping next to the riding ring or to the patch of light that he honestly thinks is a disintegrator ray waiting to shred him where he stands if he touches it, but the rest of the time he's focused on every small move my body makes.  What am I focused on?  Well, if I'm on the phone, it sure isn't the fine movements of my feet or subtle pressure from my inner thigh muscles. 

Years ago when I was teaching high school, I taught a first-day lesson on the difference between hearing and listening.  Try it.  For a moment, be thoughtful and notice every sound you can hear and write them all down.  You will probably be startled at what you didn't "hear" two seconds earlier.  In reality, we all--horses included--hear all the time, 24/7.  It's a neurological response and we can't control it.  There's no "off" switch on our ears.  But listening....ah, that's different!  That's attentional and intentional.  If you want your horse to listen when you have something important to say, maybe you should stop flooding his hearing with unwarranted stimulation that makes him numb when you actually want him to pay attention.  

Try shutting up and being present in the moment with your animal.  It might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.