Monday, June 30, 2014

A little insight from the dog training front

Steve White: Your dog ain’t so special! | Stale Cheerios Blog

And your horse ain't much either.

Only joking.  Animal training is a complex endeavor with a lot of science and a lot of emotion behind it.  Whether your trainee of choice is canine, feline, avian, equine, human or "other", the steps to learning remain the same but current trends differ.  Sometimes the difference is huge.  Sometimes it's minor.
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In the blog post by Mary Hunter relating a lecture by Steve White (linked above), there is a passage explaining a study on the application of positive training methods by The Seeing Eye for their guide dogs, and the Police for their K-9 partners.  Both used positive methods (reward for producing the requested behavior).  One taught a few skills to some of the dogs.  The other taught most of the dogs a few skills.   Both found increased success in terms of speed of training and replication of trained behaviors using the positive methods compared to other (negative reinforcement or punishment) methods.  The change in training methods was relatively small (neither group had been engaging in punishment as a method), but the difference in results was measurably large.

And so it goes with all training.

A correspondent and I engaged in a discussion recently about our personal experiences in how small things make such a large difference.  In her case, it was something she did (or didn't) do or say to a frightened adult beginner rider that got the woman on a horse and moving.  In my case it was an interaction I'd once had with a student that (unbeknownst to me until later--I'm not psychic) thwarted his suicide plan.  That a difference was made was obvious.  What made the difference, not so much so.

If it's hard to figure out how your behavior impacted another human who can tell you in words what he or she is feeling or thinking, it's nearly impossible to do the same with a non-verbal critter like a dog, cat, horse, gerbil, teenager, monkey, earthworm....whatever floats your training boat.  We can guess like crazy and postulate and hypothesize and get nowhere.  Our only source of data is experiential.  We need to do it and see how it works out.

To that end, I'm going to suggest that if you're serious about improving the outcome of your training, you should start keeping some sort of records.  A calendar with notations is lovely and makes a fine wall-hanging.  There are nifty training record books available for all sorts of activities from gym work for humans to riding experiences for horsemen and everything in between.  There's an app for that.

Whatever your choice, if you can follow what I've written about in many (many) previous posts about task analysis , and you can find a format that works for you for note-making, then you can start to figure out what you're doing that works and what doesn't.
Jess and Dolly prove that baby steps
add up quickly.

It's important to note that no two people will have exactly the same experience using the same method.  If you tend to be high-strung and testy or loud and aggressive, or if you're the quintessential Cool Cucumber, quiet and focused, your results will reflect your personality and how the trainee's personality reacts to it.  If you are aggressive and the trainee is nervous and passive, the results aren't going to be anything to write home about.  It would be best if, in the process of breaking down the training into baby steps, you took a moment to assess your mood and approach and broke that down as well.  Most people can be calm and focused for a few minutes at a time even under stress.  So cut your training efforts down to a few minutes to start.

This is training for you, too.  I've often said that my training and riding improved by giant steps when my doctor prescribed a Beta blocker for my high blood pressure.  It's a class of drug that works by blocking the signals that increase heart rate. While it seriously impaired my aerobic efforts because I couldn't get my heart rate up over 100 no matter what I did on the damned treadmill, it made my heart rate so stable that even the flightiest of my horses (Zip, yes, that's you) was less reactive.  Bingo!  An accidental coup.

I'm not advocating drug use. I'm using that example to indicate that your level of reactivity can directly impact on the level of reactivity of your trainee.  So crank it back a notch and start over.

Training is complex but it's also exciting, even if only for us control freaks who love to see our trainees bounce like puppets on our strings.  Have at it, and see if you can find the small changes that make the big differences.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Who's in charge here?

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My  new barn hand has a real-life job at Wild West City, a live-action western recreation village not far from here.  The workers (actors) there ride horses for the entertainment of the crowds who love reliving that time in history when cowboys ruled.   I spent many a happy hour there over the years, so I've been delighting in his stories about the horses, who they are, how they're kept, and what fun the riders have with them.

What tickled me most was an offhand remark he made about one horse and rider pair.  The horse obviously was the better-equipped of the two, and there was much razzing going on from the rest of the crew.  "Are you riding that horse, or is he riding you?"  That's what they say when a horse obviously is getting control of the situation.
"Don't say a word!"

I loved that image, and it got me thinking about what the words describe.  I've been on both ends of that ride.  I'd love to believe that the majority of the time, I'm doing the riding.  I know it happens more often now that I'm older and have spent decades in the saddle.  But then there are also those times, even now, when the horse is in control and I'm just along as a witless passenger.

When my horse gets antsy and a little nervous, and I tighten my stomach and wish for a calm moment...

When my horse refuses to be go somewhere that for some reason bothers him, and I opt to change direction and pretend it's my idea...

When I don't get on the horse at all because he's wide-eyed and prick-eared and I guess he'd be better off in the pasture....

I'm going to guess that most riders have these moments, just as most humans have out-of-control experiences in every phase of our lives.  We can't control everything.

What we can do is reframe our reality.

Here's something to ponder.  This quote [thanks to Lifehacker.com] is by David Eagleman, neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine and author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain:


We open our eyes and we think we're seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 Billionth of the information that's riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us.
Even though we accept the reality that's presented to us, we're really only seeing a little window of what's happening. There's so many examples of this, but one that's interesting to third-graders, but also neuroscience is optical illusions. [Illusions demonstrate] that these really simple things that you think are going on in front of you are not actually representing physical reality but instead your brain is constructing something.

"Uh...no.  I don't think I want to do that."
If we can't even see the barest edge of reality, how can we expect to control anything or make good decisions?  We frame our own reality.  We create stories to explain it. We act based on our beliefs about the stories we created.  We are mere neophytes in a world so complex we can't imagine it.  So we wind up in situations like the photo to the left, where it's obvious that I'm not doing the riding in any way.  Reality that day was framed by my assumption that a horse advertised as a Western Pleasure Show Horse actually was, and by the horse's assumption that I had a few functioning brain cells.

Perhaps the biggest downfall of our lack of contact with reality is that each of us believes in our own so strongly that we go on happily ignoring the ones created by others.  My way or the highway.  When the "other" is a 1200 lb animal with teeth and hooves and an attitude, the highway starts to look like a better option.

So let's try reframing our viewpoint, not of who's in control, but of our disappointment in ourselves when we're not.  We can only work with what we have on hand (or in brain, as the case may be), and we can narrow our sights, redefine success, and check our emotions at the gate, because getting angry at ourselves or our mounts (or anything else, for that matter) is a rather fettle-less venting of something very human.  Get off; step back; try again with a new framework in place.

That's what we've got, so run with it!

Monday, June 16, 2014

A near miss is as good as a win

Sarah Lewis: Embrace the Near Win

Let's define terms.  A "near win" or a "near miss" can look quite different depending on perspective, and this is where learning what success looks like is crucial.  So we'll start with "what is success?"

Success is a personal achievement, right?  It's making the grade.  It's getting the Big Break.  It's winning the blue ribbon.  It's seeing your name in lights.

Or is it?
"Nice effort!  Next time let's try going over the jump together."

Success is also doing better this time than the last.  And it's getting to the finish line in the best possible way, win, lose, or draw.

An article on Success Criteria by William R. Duncan puts out some very clear standards for determining success.  In fact, most erudite writings on the subject offer the same standards.  To wit:

1.  Was the project completed?

2.  Was the project well-managed?

You may not see your work with your equine partner as a project, but it most certainly is. There's a goal, a plan, a starting point, and an endpoint, and there's a product that will result. If that isn't a project, then butter me up and call me a biscuit.  And like most projects, it's ongoing.  There is not just one endpoint.  There are a series of them leading up to the cessation of the project when there simply is nothing more to be achieved or one of the partners ceases to exist.  That's a pretty definitive endpoint.

If you want success, you need a plan.  I don't recall who said it first, but the statement that "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail" holds true in almost every situation, and equestrian activities are not an exception.  Sure, it's dandy to just go hang out with your horse, but if you're astute, you'll note than even your hangout time has small goals involved.  The goal may be a small as teaching Buddy Boy not to frisk you for treats when you enter his space.  Or it may be as large as teaching him to walk off with you by watching your feet and matching his steps to yours.  It may be small like dropping his head so you can apply halter, fly mask, or bridle or as large and complex as the fine movements of a passage in time to music.

Each of those will go better if it's planned in advance, but spur-of-the moment teaching works as well, simply because we are hard-wired to put a frame around behaviors.  We may not have a conscious thought (in fact, I've known horsemen who haven't had a conscious thought in decades) about the way we intend to get Fluffer Nut to step back one stride to get off our foot, but our logical minds usually come up with one in the blink of an eye.  It's those who are not very logically-based, the ones who approach a situation with hand-wringing and screaming hysteria, who probably should find something to do that doesn't involved animals who are, by nature, reactive.  Nothing says "Chaos" like a screeching, flailing human toe-to-toe with a prey animal ready to turn and bolt at the gentle rustling of a squirrel in a tree.

So name your project.  Pick just one at a time, if possible.  We've done Task Analysis to death, so I won't recap here.  Find your start point and define at least a short-term endpoint and drive for that.


The good management piece comes in when you actually apply task analysis and keep your wits about you and your nerves calm while you handle the problems that crop up.

But I started here with the assumption that your goal may not be reached.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  The effort is never wasted.  That "near miss" or "near win" teaches us a lot.  It's about toning down expectations.  Keeping our dreams tethered to reality and enjoying the process as much as the victory will go a long way to making our interactions with our animals (and each other) productive and as stress-free as possible.

So go forth and Near Win!  You'll feel better for the effort.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Why so emotional? It's only a horse race.

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In case you didn't notice, this weekend's Belmont Stakes created quite the hubbub.  The fuss leading up to the Kentucky Derby is always stunning.  My mailbox fills weeks in advance with ads from companies selling Derby-related goodies, from Official Collectible Derby Mint Julep Glasses to after-dinner mints with horses on the wrappers.  I had a Derby party twice, and ordered some items, and the annual flood has increased exponentially every year since.  The Preakness seems a bit of an afterthought by comparison.  I've never once been offered an apron with "Preakness" printed in fancy script across the pocket.

Then there's the Belmont Stakes, the third "jewel" in racing's vaunted Triple Crown.  This year's race looked to be a done deal with California Chrome, one of those storybook underdog horses we love to love, a likely shoe-in for the first triple in 40 years.  But it was not to be.  Chrome came in fourth and the crowd (and his owner) went completely whack-a-doodle.

Why is this so important to us?  I have friends who wouldn't know a horse from a sofa who are hysterical over the outcome.  Why do they care? Why do any of us who aren't in the racing industry care?

There are a few reasons, and they're all related to our ability to pretend to be what we're not.  We humans are a squirrelly bunch.  Yes, we relate to squirrels as well as we do to horses or emus or trees or each other.  Part of it is Biophilia Hypothesis in action.  I've covered that in the past, so I won't recap.  Part of it is our desperate need to write our personal stories in ways that make us look much better than we actually are.  Part is our desire to belong.  We are, after all, pack animals who prefer groups of around seven fellow humans with two leaders.

Then there's the underlying factor:  Vicarious Experience

When we watch someone do something and we accept it as our own experience, that's vicarious.  When we get emotional over someone else's happenstance, that's us absorbing their experience as if it were our own.  Education is a vicarious experience.

This is not the same, necessarily, as empathy or sympathy.  Those are pure emotion.  When we can feel someone else's pain and understand how they're feeling, that's empathy.  When we see someone else's pain and try to understand how they're feeling but don't quite, that's sympathy.  When we absorb it as if it were our own, that's vicarious experience.
Belmont Stakes courtesy of NY Times
 WinnerTonalist in the center, Commissioner on the right

So the emotion felt by race fans (or football fans, or viewers of porn or romantic comedies or action movies or what have you), we are actually putting ourselves into the action as if it were our own.  We horse people borrow excitement from our horses and from competitive riders above our levels. We learn from watching them.  We run afoul of our own craziness when we become so overly-involved that we act out in bad ways, but most of us are more reasonable than that and control those impulses.  It takes a hard-core wing nut to injure a horse in the night in order to insure that our favorite will win.  Not that it doesn't happen, but those instances make news for a reason.

What social media has done is notable.  We now have the opportunity to not only vicariously experience things we're seeing in front of our faces, but to experience things other people are seeing and sending into our spheres from afar.  This can be a good thing when it's a learning experience. It's a very bad thing when the experience is pure emotion with no fabric behind it to give us something to mediate the rawness.  It's from those experiences that we reap such news items as the couple in Las Vegas who took their crazy to a new level in declaring "Revolution!" and shooting cops, a bystander, and each other.  We can do our best to create our own fabric of reality behind the experience, or we can lessen our exposure by keeping ourselves to ourselves more and sopping up the public insanity less.  It's a call each of us makes.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Caring for the Elderly Horse(man)

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Here's a little shout out to all of my fellow aging horse peeps:

You ain't dead yet!  

Believe me, I'll be the first to let you know when you are.  But for now, if you can feel a breeze on your skin, I pretty much guarantee it's not coming from flapping angel wings.

What brought this subject up this week was an article in one of the horse mags about keeping equine athletes healthy through their senior years.  The key, the author said, is to keep them doing what they've been doing.  If they've been jumping, let them jump.   You  may want to lower the height as time goes by, but if they were fit enough to do it before, and they haven't suffered a career-ending injury, then let them have at it.   If they've been competitive trail horses, ride on trails, just aim for the shorter distances when you notice a decline in energy or endurance. They'll feel better, stay fitter, and generally be happier campers than if they are relegated to the back pasture while you ride your new horse past them.  I've seen horses have total meltdowns out of what is something akin to jealousy under those circumstances.  One quit eating entirely.  And you'll feel better knowing you're giving your equine buddy something to look forward to.  Yeah, they do like standing around eating, but those who have been working and liked it will miss it when it's gone.

In a more recent article ("Fitness: Good for the Gut", p74, Practical Horseman June 2014), the point is made and well worth taking that exercise makes the gut work better.  This was the upshot of a French research study of a group of eight untrained Standardbreds whose digestive efficiency was tested before training and after a five-week training period.  The tests involved the usual cool horse stuff like inspecting manure and checking hindgut VFA (volatile fatty acid) production.  They were better after the five weeks of training than before.

Yes, I am the one who was ranting about studies with a very limited N(umber of subjects), but in this case the results nearly duplicated those of an earlier study of Arabian horses training for endurance competition over a two-year period.  Replication of results is how we test for the validity of what we found.  This is valid stuff.

So now we have in our arsenal the knowledge that exercise is important no matter the age of the horse.  But you didn't come to this post to learn that.  I lured you here with the idea that I'd be sharing how older-than-dirt riders need to be coddled and talked to loudly but gently.  Are you surprised to learn the advice is the same?

If you've reached your dotage without breaking a sweat, you may find it very difficult to get into shape for the first time, let alone take on an extreme sport like riding horses.  It can be done, and I highly recommend that you start right now, today, by finding a "gentle yoga" class or something similar so you don't shock your system with perspiration or your family with a new Schwarzenegger-esque physique tomorrow.

On the other hand, if you've been a rider or athlete of any kind for the better part of your life (and it really was the better part, happy hour notwithstanding), there is no reason for you to shy away from trying to keep the old juices flowing a bit longer.  A personal trainer may be needed if you, like I, are a little low on the enthusiasm part.  You don't just fall out of shape.  It takes time and effort for those muscles to lose their tone.  And you don't just fall back into it.

If there's one thing that will make you feel younger than you have in months, it's finding out that you can still sit a horse, ride a trail, jump, spin some dirt around barrels, or just play Dime Store Cowboy around the hay field on your trusty old horse.
Leo after his semi-weekly ride including pole bending, barrel racing,
and a little dressage is looking good at 29.  He looks good primarily
because he still has a top line thanks to carrying a saddle and my
chunky monkey butt without much time off for the past 15 years.

The first time I was laid up to the point of actual decline was 2001.  Detached retina.  No riding for almost 9 months and walking around looking at people's shoes in that awful head-positioning regimen does nothing for the morale or the body, but I was considerably younger than dirt at that point.  My first ride was a little overly-cautious, and I found that I couldn't find my legs.  I mean, they were there dangling from my hips, but I couldn't find them on the horse.  I kept trying, and eventually they turned up.

Time passed, and the next long layup was 2006.  Another 9 months of languishment passed, an older me doing the languishing, and a much longer time recovering, though that time I was able to do some minor exercising with hand weights while I waited to get back in the saddle.  It took about six months to find my legs that time.

This year it wasn't so much a layup as a whiteout.  I always thought shoveling snow and shivering like a leaf in the sub-zero winds would be a positive body-building experience.  And being pretty tired after mucking, shoveling, and bullying the busted snow thrower through 48 inches of ice, hopping on the treadmill or grabbing the grips on the recoil machine....well, not quite my idea of relaxation.  We started this winter back in October with the freeze that cost me my birdbath,  half my garlic harvest and most of my motivation.  Come January, I was shocked when I stepped onto my electronic balance board (trust me, you need this) and fell off.  I'm really good at balance.  It's kind of my thing.  A month earlier I could not only stand on the board through its random gyrations, but even touch my toes, pick up  my phone from the floor, and do a series of exercises with hand weights aboard the machine while it ran through its random routine under me.  Falling off did not make me happy.

But getting back on and forcing myself to use it daily for a while helped.  I still lost muscle tone, however, so I'd looked into a local personal trainer's business and then got started getting in good enough shape to even go to his gym without having to be carried out.  Now, I can say with confidence, I'm in better shape than I have been in a couple of years.  And I'm old.  Older than dirt.  And I have arthritis and other crappiness within my loosely-draped skin.

If I can do it, then anyone who has been active before can, within reason and barring severe handicaps, continue to be active. I happily report that my doctors have consistently been impressed by my quick healing, and to a man, they attribute the success to my body condition.

So go ride that old horse, pick up a couple of weights (even soda cans--full ones, no cheating) and get started today.  You might need to diet a smidge, and so might your horse if he's been standing around chewing for a living.  This article is very important for his health, so I suggest you read it and heed it.  But don't give up.  You'll quickly regain the confidence you thought you'd seen the last of.