Wednesday, September 03, 2014

It's all in the timing

There is nothing about horses in the linked article.  It's just something a little intriguing for us older types who remember the lyrics to "Dark Side of the Moon" because it was sort of an anthem back in the day.  But the part about synchronicity is meaningful.  This is not the synchronicity of the folks with a religious bent who like to connect unconnected events as proof of divine intervention.  This is the synchronicity of math and science and psychology that suggests that sometimes two unrelated events happen at the same time and merely give the appearance of being connected.

Carl Jung, Father of Psychoanalysis of the Jungian variety, coined the term to describe events that are connected only because we humans can't help making connections and trying to explain the world around us.  And if it pertains anywhere at all, it most certainly pertains to our work with our equine partners.

And we're not alone in this craziness.  The horses are just as willing to suspend disbelief.  Just come to my barn and watch Zip run through four different tricks before he backs up to let me into his stall for morning grooming.  I reinforced the backup after he'd done all those other things, and now he thinks the whole mess is one long behavior chain required for reward.

Fussbutt will hear that rustle in the tree at the south corner of the arena and be distracted.  You'll sense the distraction and maybe give a boot with your heels, startling him.  He'll jump forward and perhaps stumble a bit.  No biggie, right?  Right.  Except that next time he passes that corner,  he'll expect something unpleasant to happen and shy away, probably with his nose to the ground looking for the hole he thinks he stepped in or staring into the trees for the squirrel that threw him.  He's connected the location to the rustling sound to the stumble in a causative relationship instead of the coincidence it actually was.  The connection was actually between his distraction and your pushing him, not between that corner, the rustling sound, and the stumble, but he's not going to buy that until you convince him by working him closer and closer to that corner until the fear has abated.

The same goes in a positive direction.  You are looking for a forward intention during a trailer-loading training episode.  He happens to duck his head because his nose itches, taking weight off his forefoot at the same time.  You, focused on the leg and anxious to make progress, are elated, fuss over him, feed him a cookie, and start again.  Next time he proudly and enthusiastically ducks his head.  He's made the wrong connection.  Their proximity in time was sufficient for him to guess that it was the head-ducking that got him the reward, and convincing him otherwise will take a bit of time and a lot of confusion and hurt feelings as he's sure he's doing what you want, and you're sure he isn't.  It's this effect that creates the endless two-steps-forward-one-back of training that is so frustrating.

This is why I like clicker training.  It's a little more precise in timing.  It doesn't completely eliminate the crossed wires of synchronous events, but it does limit their frequency.
Synchronicity at work!  Dillon is
convinced that it's something he's doing
that's making the water turn on and off.
Of course it's evil Cliff manning the hydrant
doing the deed.  Bwahahaha!

There's not a whole lot you can do as a trainer to avoid these often hilarious episodes.  You can be aware that this is what is happening.  That's a plus because it will help you maintain your composure and your sense of humor so you can start over without feeling irritated.  And you can try to maintain a level head on your end of the process as well.  Just because your horse bucked you off just as you touched him with your heel doesn't necessarily mean that your heel was the causative factor.  It could have been a horse fly.  Or a squirrel in the tree in that blighted corner of the arena.  Or the phase of the moon.

You can check your variables by trying the same maneuver again with total attention every step of the way.  Does he tighten up when your heel touches him in another location in the arena or in the field or on the trail?  If so, then you might actually have found a connection.  If not, then you can relax and feel free to continue urging him forward while you look for other causes for the moment of reactivity.  What you do not want to do is reinforce whatever connection he's created in his mind.  If after that one event you are overly cautious, tense, anxious, or frightened every time you reach that moment in your routine or that spot in the work space, he will begin to think there's something wrong as well, and he might just repeat his performance because that's how he solved the original problem.

Are you confused?  You should be.  This is an easy concept to understand but not an easy set of reactions to sort out and work through.  Be patient and keep you mind as clear as you can.  If an event confuses you greatly, don't rush right back to that same spot and try again until you are calm and in control.  Adding fuel to the synchronous fire will only create a longer string of connections that you'll have to sort through later.

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