Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Baby Steps: Task Analysis and Horse Sense

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




A
 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. 

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