Monday, July 11, 2011

Zips Mood Swings Meet Cowboy Wisdom

Why it's worth the effort
 
A  few  posts ago, I mentioned an audio book I’d been reading and suggested it was a great book for anyone experiencing the imminent demise of his or her relationship with the big, furry tank standing glaring in the pasture.  I thought it might be a good idea to spread the word while I took the author’s experiences to heart and put some repair effort into my big Paint, Zips Moodswings.  The book is Healing Shine: A Spiritual Assignment, by Michael Johnson, and at that point I was just happy to hear that there was someone else out there having the same (okay, “similar”…we never roped anything in our lives and cows scare the crap out of us) problems .  Misery loves company, and whining is better with permission from a higher power, namely someone who knows something.

As it turns out, I was wrong.  I didn’t just need permission; I actually needed the details.  I am here now to touch up my recommendation with a big, gold star.  A bullet.  A little “I heart this book” thing in the margin.  This is truly one of the most powerful books on my shelf.

"Give us a hug"
 Back when I posted all that stuff, I hadn’t really  made the mental connection that came with the philosophy.  Sure, it was great to hear that I was allowed to have bad feelings about my horse, to rant and rave in the silent barn while the horses watched wide-eyed and twitchy-eared.  And it was a plus to know that someone else had been brought to tears by their bestest buddy in a setting outside of a college fraternity party or a prom-night dumpage.  And I immediately went about mending fences with the Zipper. 
 
But, see, I really wasn’t doing anything different.  I was simply not.  I was not-yelling, not-smacking, not-using negative language, not-discouraging.  I was, I thought, accepting the situation and letting Zip be Zip.  Something, however, seemed terribly wrong.  That something was my attitude.  

So I listened to a couple of chapters over again.  Now, Mr. Johnson is not writing as a trainer.  This isn’t a how-to manual  for turning a knock-kneed, twisted-brained creature into a blue ribbon show-pen star.  It’s about sadness and frustration and motivation and making connections.  That was the part I missed.  I was all about sadness and frustration without adding the motivation and connection piece.  

The next day I started again, but first I did what I always tell my readers to do:  I got the “should” out.  Zip, for reasons all his own, had decided he wanted to be nothing more nor less than a trick pony.  And he was (and is) a good one as far as my limited training ability has taken him.  I was using his love of tricks (nice line-dancer, that big guy is!) as a reward for good behavior by letting him perform before and after our miserable riding experiences.  If he so much as seemed  like he might think about cooperating, I praised him and treated him to some trick time.  

That was fine, and he was much happier with me overall.  But the riding part wasn’t moving forward.  Meaning Zip wasn’t moving forward.  Three walking steps followed by ten minutes of arguing doesn’t constitute forward motion in my book.    Then it came to me.  All the stuff I’d written about stimulus-response and positive reinforcement came flooding back, and I realized the reward wasn’t timely enough and there was no pre-cue, no primary and secondary reinforcer set-up, nothing but chaos in my mind and his.  

The next day, we started over.  I am sure that the neighbor who watches me from behind her curtains had a good laugh when I climbed aboard with my handy Hoofprints.com leather treat pouch around my waist and a clicker dangling from my wrist, but honestly, horse folks, at this point I don’t care anymore.  Retraining from the bottom up seemed like a plan. 
The t-shirt is supposed to fool him
That first day was nothing to write home about.  The first half of the session was devoted to mounting block etiquette.  A few strides were made, and I opted to move on.  Aboard the horse, getting forward motion was the next obstacle.  For that day he got a click for every step he made.  He got a treat after every few steps.  Between times, he thought, and I let him do that.   

ZIP:  “Huh?  You clicked me.  I didn’t do anything.”
ME:  “Yeah, you did.   You moved.”
ZIP:  “You should see a doctor.  You’re losing it.  What if I do this?”
ME:  “Nope.  I just want you to walk.  Spinning around isn’t on the agenda.”
ZIP:  “It’s harder, though.  Can we substitute?”

And so it went, with long discussions and a lot of wondering on both sides of the saddle.  

The next week or three presented a problem, as haying intervened.  Our efforts were cut drastically to a few minutes whenever I wasn’t on the tractor or too tired to move.  But the intermittent reinforcement effect was in full swing, and the changes were obvious.  

The Good Ol' Days
Yesterday I hopped aboard with minimal fuss at the mounting block and we had a lovely workout session capped by a ride to “get the mail” (down the driveway).  There was clicking and there were cookies, but there was almost no balking and considerable effort at lateral work, round circles, straight-horse-going-straight and the rest of the beginner business.  It was almost like the good old days.  Almost.  

No, I was never as good as Jess, and I'm okay with that.
Now, we might never get back there to those sunny times when a jump course was his favorite thing to see in the ring and trees falling alongside him in the woods didn’t make him turn an ear.  Fortunately I have two other horses to ride, at least one of which is a dream all the time without a mood swing in his repertoire.  But I’m seeing the problem through fresh eyes, and Zip seems to be enjoying learning his new “tricks”, and I don’t care how silly it looks to have the treat bag and clicker dangling because it’s working, and that’s the bottom line for every training method, isn’t it?

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