Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Be Careful What You Teach (and you're always teaching something)

Understanding behavioral momentum and its applications | Stale Cheerios

You know all about behavioral momentum.  Really.  If you have children, you're practically a certified expert.  If you live with animals, you've seen it in action and developed whole, often rude vocabularies around it.  And you've stunned family and friends with the amazing tricks you've taught to whatever species surround you.

Behavioral momentum is also called "habit strength", and the bottom line is that learning is the instillation of habits, good, bad, and indifferent.  That makes it pretty dull, doesn't it?  When you watch a demo on TV or at a horse conference by a trainer who has managed to instill in an equine some habits that are so unnatural that you gasp in awe that he even thought of doing that, you're witnessing the artful application of reinforcement in service to habit strength development.

I was crossing the lawn on the way to the pasture to nab my equine du jour for a ride, and in the pen next to me, the mini, Duke came trotting to the fence with a smile. He was hoping for a cookie, and he got one, because that's how I roll.  They don't call me Cookie Pockets for nothing.  The reason I'm bringing this up is that he will do that identical behavior every time I cross the lawn whether or not he gets a cookie.  And it's not just the trot to the fence.  He first walks to a spot where his pen adjoins the riding ring.  He'll look at the horses in the pasture.  He'll make a quick, curving left turn.  And he'll wind up in exactly the same spot every time with the same nicker, head toss, and smile as punctuation.

Obviously, I taught him that he'd get a cookie if he approached me politely.  The rest of the routine he created on his own, and that's what we need to discuss.
Two Learners Learning

I didn't teach him where to stand, how fast to trot, where to turn, or which behaviors I consider polite.  He figured those out on his own.  In fact, I'm not actively rewarding anything other than his appearance at the fence and the smile, which I did teach him.  The rest is all him.

When we teach an animal (of any species) to learn, we also teach them to freelance a little.  We teach them to chain behaviors in a string that, because reinforcement (reward) follows the entire chain, will continue to be linked as one behavior in their minds.  Reward a toddler for picking up his blocks and putting them in a bin, and he'll eventually do that with a fair amount of certainty.  You may or may not notice that somewhere along the line he started dragging his blanket (or bottle, or the cat) behind him on this journey.  Or that he makes the same vocalizations every time he performs the task.  But because the reward ("That was awesome, Billy!  Good job!") follows the entire chain, he doesn't discriminate among the pieces of the process.

So it is with horses.  In the Stale Cheerios blog linked above, Mary mentions learning about superstitious behavior.  This has nothing to do with hauntings or throwing a handful of grain over your horse's shoulder when you spill his ration.  It has to do with his ("the learner's") belief that things that occur together are related in a causal fashion.  The learner will see and hear and sense things that the teacher may not be attending to.  When synchronicity comes into play, the learner attaches meaning to meaningless coincidence, and adds that to the behavior chain.  You didn't intentionally teach Furball to side pass away from the gate.  The gate did that when the wind made it rattle on one pass.  Furball firmly believes that it was his proximity to the gate that made it rattle.  So a proximal behavior was born!

Your best efforts to teach Fuzz Butt to side pass will be thwarted at every turn if you allow too many distractions to be introduced into the instructional setting before the habit strength of that behavior is set in stone.  With humans (even wee, little ones), it may take only one or two trials for the behavior to become permanent.  Just watch a parent-child interaction in the toy aisle during the holidays when the displays are attention-grabbing in the extreme to see how fast a kid can develop an overwhelming behavior pattern heretofore untried.  With some animals it can take ten or twenty trials.  With horses the rule of thumb is more like 100 perfect repetitions in a distraction-free setting before we can say learning has, indeed, taken place.

The good news is that those superstitious behaviors are easier to unteach.  The bad news is you can't actually "unteach" anything.  You can only replace unwanted behaviors with entirely new ones that, by their very nature, eliminate the possibility of performing the original obnoxiousness.  The baby can't throw cereal on the dog if the baby's hands are full of Magic Blanket.
This behavior is in Zip's
bag like flies on manure.

As you work with your animals and your humans, try to avoid "losing your bird".  If the behavior isn't being repeated with 100% certainty over time, then don't let the learner try his wings in public with lots of noise and other intervening stimuli that may suddenly become part of the behavior chain, embarrassing you and frustrating your attempts to look cool in front of the rest of the humans. Clicker training is best begun with the horse in his stall with only the top of the door open, no halter, no other horses, and you alone standing in front of the stall with the target and the treat bag.  You don't want to start in the middle of the warm-up pen before a beginner costume class.  You don't try to teach your child to spell  standing in the cereal aisle at the supermarket for the same reason.

Dial back the enthusiasm and the distractions, resort to the most detailed task analysis you can muster, and go forth and teach!
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Monday, November 17, 2014

Derangement of the Equine Kind

When Horses Act Dangerously

I'm sure this article [By Brenda Forsythe Sappington, M.S., Ph.D | October 2001]  will trigger some discussions in barn lounges and owners' kitchens.  Be sure to read the entire thing before you launch a diatribe.  Yes, it's an old article, but the reprinting is worthy of note.

The worthiness lies in this sentence:

 And unfortunately, these horses often end up with novices in search of affordable horses, who don't yet know how to evaluate a horse's training.

 I get chills whenever someone sends me pictures or articles about rescued horses or horses seen at auction in dire need of a home.  The most frightening are the ones with long, sobby descriptions of how beautiful and lovely and warm and friendly the needy horse appears to be.  Having been caught up myself in the Facebook Rescue Mania of 2008-2011, I'm familiar with the distant sound of sanity breathing its last.
A rescue horse properly handled by volunteers at
Mylestone Equine Rescue in NJ.

There are many thousands of horses in need of homes, of that there is no doubt.  There are far more of them than there are homes to house them.  That's the sad truth of our Boomer obsession with making horses our lives without an endgame for when our numbers dwindled and the economy could no longer foot the bill.  There are many, many legitimate, reliable, trustworthy rescues (see the photos on this page for examples) doing their best to cull the herd and re-home the horses that can be re-homed without causing trauma to their new owners.  Many of them charge little or nothing for the horses in their care once they have assured themselves that the new home is suitable.  The best offer a return policy either limited or permanent.

But there will always be horse folks who think they know how to fix a horse that has been damaged either by nature or by unhappy contact with Humanity.  I'm talking to those people.

I've seen more than I'd like of commentors on discussion forums who castigate some poor horse owner who is housing a troubled equine and having problems serious enough to warrant asking a bunch of nut-job strangers for help.  That the person is asking is to their credit.  That they're asking strangers leaves their sanity open to question.  That the last thing they need to hear is "You can fix this poor furbaby if you will just..."

Sorry, but most damaged equines are well beyond the ability of a backyard amateur to fix.  Biophilia gives us the "wanna" without the "how to" piece.  

Yes, there are success stories even in that setting.  The right combination of horse and owner can be magical, flying in the face of conventional wisdom (and every other kind).  But the fact that those stories are shared repeatedly only points out how rare they are.  

Once upon a time, my daughter, an experienced horseman with trainer training under her belt, got hold of a horse with an issue. The issue didn't appear immediately.  It waited seven months.  The horse arrived in September, and he was a gem all winter.  It wasn't till spring that he lost his mind.  

Now, neither of us had anything to prove, so we agreed that the horse needed 1) a solid vet check to rule out pain or illness, and 2) passing that, he needed to go back to the dealer whence he came.  Long story short, the horse turned out to have a sensitivity to the spring grass here.  We didn't have a dry paddock for him.  He was sold twice more only to be returned after injuring an owner.  The dealer finally kept him, as he loved her and she could house him safely.  

This brief episode cost my daughter a jaw broken in three places and two very expensive reconstructive surgeries that will keep her seeking pain management forever.  Imagine if a beginner had gotten that horse.
Radiohead, an OTTB, received Tildren therapy courtesy of
Rerun Thoroughbred Rescue.
[photo via by Rerun via Facebook]
That was still a better situation than the girl who brought a young mare for training, having purchased her online with only a video (and a price in three digits) to her credit.  The girl was clueless, had already suffered a broken collarbone from her effort to do-it-herself, and even after training was injured by the horse shortly after they left here.

Or the beginner riders who were sold a truly loose cannon of a horse of whom we were all afraid for the brief period she was here.  Those girls survived, but the horse had to be moved from farm to farm because of the damage she did before she was finally put down.

My point today is not to belabor that horses can be very dangerous or to suggest that every dangerous horse needs to be put down immediately without benefit of professional assessment.  I'm not here to suggest that all horses found at auction or at rescues are a hazard.  I'm here to belabor the professional assessment idea.  There are lots of pros around who specialize in this sort of thing.  I know one lovely, tiny woman who can take one look at a horse, know immediately what he needs, and be merciless in sharing with the owner the errors of his/her ways regarding management.  I know a young man and his mom who are amazing at dealing with horses other folks would consider hopeless.  And I've watched Buck, the Buck Brannaman documentary, and seen that brilliant horseman ask that a horse be destroyed because his mishandling had rendered him beyond help and too dangerous for human contact.  Watching that stallion attack Brannaman's assistant with teeth bared and raking across the man's skull was a mind-blower.  This wasn't staged.  This wasn't a movie like The Horse Whisperer.  This was a raging, spoiled, ruined horse trying to kill any human in his reach.

If you honestly think you can rehab a seriously damaged horse on your own, watch that movie first.  If you still think you can handle it, check your health insurance, life insurance, and check in with your ICE person.  Sign up for Long-Term Care Insurance, and then have at it.  

Or you can call a pro before you even get that horse into your barn.  Have the animal assessed medically, physiologically, and psychologically, and then reconsider what you can do.  Just a handful of cookies isn't going to make a pocket pony out of a horse out for vengeance.  

Be sane out there.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Whose Job is This?

Not All Horses Are Created Equal



I love Denny Emerson.  If he were a horse, I'd have already bought him and bred him to some spectacular mare.  But now and then I have a bone to pick with him, and this is one of those times.

When did competition--any athletic competition--become a "job"?  And why does "athlete" have to mean top-echelon competitor?  I'm an athlete in all my saggy, aging glory.  My horses are athletes despite not all being blue-ribbon stars.  Riding isn't our "job", it's our sport.  That's all it is and that's enough.

It definitely happened.  As far back as I can remember, there have been professional whatevers in the sports arena for whom a sport was their raison d'etre, their career and lifeblood.  Anyone with an ear and at least one eye knows that pro sports figures are the idols young children want to emulate and old children want to pretend they could have been (if only...).  It's a nice source of pride and entertainment, the whole pro sports thing.  But a job..?

So you decided to go pro as a horse rider (I'm excluding trainers, breeders, and other support professionals), and naturally your horse, without a vote in the deal, had to go pro with you.  Now you've got a job you love, and he's got...well...a job.  Love it or not, you've handed it to him as a fait accompli.  A done deal.  Your choice, not his.
If anything could be wrong about a horse's
conformation, Fancy embraced it.  But
she loved her job as a low-level show horse.

To add insult to injury, you might also, by default, be on board with the idea that breeding for additional subjugated athletes is not only a good thing, but a must, an absolute imperative, because without suitable equine athlete partners, the human athlete who's chosen riding as his career, has no career.  At least not at the current levels of expectation.

I agree to the extent that careful breeding (since we humans can't resist monkeying with nature) is a good thing no matter the type of horse being bred.  I've seen in person some particularly bizarre offspring of backyard horse pairings that would never have survived in their natural environment.  Choosing stallions and mares wisely before allowing them dinner and drinks and privacy is always preferable to throwing caution to the wind just to make a few dollars or to maintain farm status for your property or out of some emotional blinding of the sense of reality.  But to say that finding homes for horses that are never going to be top-flight competitors is a waste of time and money, and that breeding for the competitive qualities somehow makes right the throwaways that happen as a by-product is to toss aspersions on an entire, huge segment of the equine and equestrian populations.

Should a horse have a "job"?  Sure.  It behooves all of us to find something for our horses to do to earn the ridiculous cost of their upkeep, even if their job is to be petted by the neighborhood kids.  And the more horses we give jobs to, the fewer unwanted horses there will be.  But does a horse have to be perfect in every way in order to be of value?  And does that value have to include the by-product horses that are "probably only good for, say, a 4-H kid's project"?  I hate hearing equestrisnobs say, that, but there it is.

Sorry, but no.  All kids can learn to love a horse with a hinky gallop or the one with the head that isn't quite the model of its breed, and so can 90% of the riding class of adult folks.  Most of us can enjoy a nice hack along a gorgeous road without having to feel that we're less than worthy because our mount isn't papered.  I definitely believe that when we stop trying to force animals without innate ability to try disciplines at which they'll fail and which  might be injurious to their bodies, we're making Mr. Emerson's point in spades.  Horses are not created equal.  They're created horses.

Mr. Emerson needs a high-end, hyper-talented mount.  No doubt.  He gets paid to need that.  His horse doesn't get anything other than the same rations the rest of us feed and maybe a little better vet care. As far as I know, horses aren't impressed by brass finials on their stall doors, not nearly as much as they are by having play time with their buddies whenever they want it.

Working horses
deserve respect

To those of you aspiring to go pro, good luck with that.  I wish you great horses and all the ribbons you can find room to hang.  And if you're lucky, you'll take in some hefty purses along the way to justify giving up your day job.  Or, like some of my favorites, you'll pocket those purses on the weekends and keep your day job to keep you grounded.  I hope it all turns out the way you expected and your dreams are fulfilled.

Your horses, meanwhile, no matter who their Daddy was, want nothing more than a good scratch under the chin (even Olypians get fly bites) and maybe a flake of that expensive alfalfa mix. Mostly they want to be out running around, not breeding, not working, not facing a hefty regimen of exercise when they're not stall-bound.

I'm sure some of my readers are seething right now with anger at my ignorance and my ability to overlook how vitally important it is for our kids to have someone to look up to and goals to which to aspire.  How about giving them that?  Show them that kindness and mercy and hard work and realistic expectations are what makes the world go 'round.  If the high-end competitions were to stop dead tomorrow, we'd still have a fine crop up humans around us to fill the space with joy and compassion.
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Saturday, November 01, 2014

There's Connection and there's connection

Lately I've been a little taken aback--nonplussed, as it were--by how many otherwise rational (one hopes) horse owners feel comfy taking to the Interwebs and all their Wikiness for advice on subjects that would be better addressed with a professional.  In person. In the Real World (IRL, for you trendy geeks).  On the [choke!] telephone or face-to-face.

I'm going to gloss over the folks on one particular site who feel completely at ease asking strangers to diagnose their own, sometimes frightening, symptoms of disease and offer cures.  Legal advice when the cops are dragging you out the door falls into the same category.  I'm going to stick to the horse world, which is curious enough by itself.
"You promised me internet in the barn.
You lied."

I was particularly intrigued by some of the queries on a particular social networking platform (I'm on nearly all of them, including one no one has ever heard of, so don't bother guessing).  Somewhere along the way, we horse folks stopped embracing the fresh-air, fuzzy-noses, real world of our animals and moved indoors to our lairs.  There we put together videos and long, complicated explanations and questions about our horses' conditions and issues, real or imagined.  Then we push them out through the mysterious cyber-place to where other horse folks are sitting around waiting to jump all over us for our silliness.  We do this over, and over, and over.

The ones that strike me as oddest are the queries in which the problem being studied is so odd and complicated that even an in-person, on-site vet, dentist, shoer, or psychic experience would likely come up empty.  So why in the world, when an animal's (and often a human's) life may be at stake would anyone take to the Web for advice from a gaggle of strangers whose credentials are only hearsay?

Take a moment and read this article about real connection, the kind between a human and his equine partner, then we'll move on.

Some Horses and Riders Have Co-Being Relationships

This became particularly weird when I found that some horse people of my acquaintance have been not only going high-tech and distant with their horsiness, but have been triangulating their horse pros into the relationship.

At what point does it become okay to email, or text or PM (that's "private message" for my less-techy readers),  or attempt a "Hangout" (Googlespeak for "annoying group exercise in non-communication akin to a family funeral gathering") with one's equine professional?  Huh?  When did that happen?

I know the answer.  The answer is NEVER!  No matter how much you love your equine pros, their probably not vitally interested in what shows you're planning to attend, or the details of the costume your kid and her pony will be donning for the Fair.  They're certainly not interested enough to enjoy your interruption of their private time to share that.  The Internet has made us all feel communal.  We're not.  We could stand to regain a little of that professional/client distance.

Here's the thing.  If you've got a problem with your horse, you've got a bunch of options.  It it's a health issue, a hoof issue, or a mouth issue, picking up the phone and calling the vet, dentist, or farrier makes perfect sense.  Many of them have emergency numbers.  You can leave a message, and about 90% of them will call back as soon as they're finished with the emergency they're working on at the moment.  Many have alternate numbers where there are people who will pick up the phone immediately.  It's amazing!  They are actually willing to talk to you, and might even have the solution to your problem at hand!  Whoa!
Duke and Dillon, co-being ridiculously cute

If it's a training issue, it's most likely an emergency only in your mind, so call and make an appointment with your trainer or one you think might be willing to work with you.  Or ask the best horseman in your barn for help.  Even these folks can't possibly do you any good via text, believe me.

And to take it one step farther, at what point is any level of non-emergency contact welcome by most professionals during their dinner hour or while they're on vacation?  I know the answer to that one, too:  If the horse is in danger of dying right this minute.  Not if you think there might be a problem soon. Not if there's been an ongoing problem for a few days and you just now got around to doing something about it.  Not if someone happened to see your horse and told you s/he might or might not be suffering from some exotic ailment.  Call; don't text.

When is the time to go online and open your discussion to a bunch of strangers with a huge array of agendas none of which are yours?  When you have nothing better to do for an hour and only if you can control your urge to scream at the monitor.

Recently on one of the less crazy of the question-and-answer sites, someone asked me why trolls troll.  The answer to that is about the same as the answer to why people feel at ease among anonymous strangers whose qualifications are obvious only to themselves.  Here's a good synopsis:

Why We Love Social Media

We've been lured into believing that strangers are our community.  We develop relationships with them that would never exist in the real world, and we cut through red tape and save time (and money) by just throwing our stuff out there for a free consult.  It's something to think about the next time you need advice about your horse.  If all you want is to chat with fellow sufferers, then have at it.  But if you want real advice and help, pick up the phone.  It's a much better option.