Oct. 2004 -- Building a foundation

October 19, 2004

Jay got home late tonight, and he wanted to go out to dinner, so I tackled soaking Guin's foot on my own. The first thing she did was kick over the bucket. Actually, she didn't kick it -- she just dragged her foot forward, which knocked it over. So I had to trudge up to the house to mix up another bucket of hot water and epsom salts. (And I had to call Jay and ask him to pick up more epsom salts on his way home!)

Quincy was very careful with the second bucket. Honestly, I don't think she meant to knock over the first one. Forgive the anthropomorphizing, but I think she realized what she'd done and took care not to do it again.

I spent the 20 minutes clicking her for head down. By the end of the session, she was holding her head down (nose all the way down, targeting the ground) for a solid count of three. Wonderful for such a busy girl. It was a completely free-shaped behavior too.

On the way to dinner, Jay asked why I was teaching head down. I explained that it's a calming behavior, very handy to have on cue when you're in a situation where your horse may spook or is ancy. Also, it takes a lot of trust for your horse (a prey animal) to maintain heads down, so it's a relationship building behavior. Heads down and backing are two behaviors that the horse should practice consistently for the rest of his life.

Speaking of backing, that brings us to Blue. We worked first on backing straight in his stall, and he was so light, that I went ahead and moved to backing around corners. He did this pretty easily, but seemed a bit uncomfortable -- high headed -- about it. I also had a problem with him swinging too much, so he wasn't backing straight along the edge of the stall, but more at odd angles within it, if that makes any sense. Also, I htink I need to make sure to practice moving forward at the same time, so he doesn't get "stuck" with just one answer to my hand on his lead rope. All in all, I was pleased with him first backing-around-corners lesson.

I didn't work with Quincy again today. She takes a long time to eat. I'm going to have the vet look at her mouth again when he comes out to recheck Guin's hoof. She was chewing really oddly today. That may be because her mouth was sore -- Lord knows, mine would be -- or because she isn't yet used to having more surface area with which to grind her food. If either of those, her eating should improve before the vet comes back around. I've decided, regardless, I'm going to try some alfalfa pellets. They'll be easier for her to chew.

October 20, 2004

We had a break in the rain today, so Jay took the day off and built a manure bin. He measured and drilled and built the foundation in the morning, and then after we took a trip to Monroe for lunch and horse food, we spent the afternoon assembling it. Dang those landscape timbers are HEAVY!

By the time dinner rolled around, we were pretty tired. Jay picked out the paddock, and moved the timbers he bought for a second bin, and I fed the horses and soaked Guin's foot. Again we worked on head down during the foot soak. Jay was moving the landscape timbers and making all sorts of really strange sounds, so I didn't make a whole lot of progress on duration. Three, four, and a few five counts. Lots of times her head jerked up though, because of the weird noises.

I didn't work with Blue or Quincy. Too tired.

October 21, 2004

Goofy me forgot to close the gate from the paddock to the pasture today after bringing the horses back in. They stayed in the paddock for a long time eating their alfalfa. But then they weren't there. I thought they must simply be out of sight, but I finally realized they weren't in the paddock at all. I had to laugh at myself. Hey, at least it wasn't the outside gate! (Actually, I've done that once too.)

Guin was a sweetie tonight about soaking her hoof, and she's doing well with head down. I started adding a verbal cue to the behavior, instead of trying to add more duration. She never even shifted her feet -- she just kept putting her head to the floor. She also searched my pockets a lot. She needs "The Grownups are Talking," but there's time for that later, after this is on cue.

I worked with Blue on backing in his stall. He's not comfortable working close to the wall or deep in corners, whether moving forward or backwards. He also swings without bending at all -- he doesn't feel very... supple. I'm not sure that this lesson is the time to work on either of those things though. (I'll ask Alex.)

I have to say he's very, very light moving both forward and back and shifting his hindquarters. His previous owner did SUCH a good job with that!

On an unrelated issue, I got into a discussion about dominance on a horse clicker list today. I was really shocked when I returned to the horse world and found out how prevalent dominance theory is. It seems everyone is concerned about being herd boss and establishing dominance.

In the dog world, dominance has fallen out of favor with dog trainers. There was a time when most any problem -- truly nearly any behavior initiated by the dog, including ones that are actually submissive such as leaning and pawing -- was labeled as "dominant." The result was an "us versus them" philosophy. They were fighting for dominance, so we had to fight back to maintain it. In a fight, there's a winner and a loser -- not really a productive relationship-building model.

Does dominance/social hierarchy exist in the dog world? Yep. It exists in the horse world too. And in the human world. Want to see social hierarchy in action? Visit an American high school. Or a corporate office. Or, heck, just look at a family unit. When my husband and I are in the grocery store and see a child throwing a tantrum to get the candy he wants, we laugh about the dominant child and wonder why no one suggests alpha-rolling. That's sarcasm, by the way. The last thing in the world the parents need to do is get into a power struggle. It's a heck of a lot easier to deal with the behavior proactively in a more "clickerly" way, and then the struggle never occurs.

So dominance/social hierarchy exists between members of the same species, but that doesn't mean the same rules apply between horses and humans or dogs and humans. Humans keep trying to mimic the other species to establish themselves as dominant, and that just backfires. We are not dogs or horses. We do not speak the language fluently. We see and mimic the overt aggressive behaviors, but we don't know how to acquiesce or accept surrender. We don't know the language of peace. We make GROSS errors when we try to meet them at their level.

With dogs, it was pretty easy to get away from dominance. It was easy to show how management and proactive planning by the owner could avoid any need to use force or to punish. And it was very easy to see the differences in the dogs! (I shudder to think how many stable dogs were put to sleep for "aggression" directly caused by the "attacks" of their owners in the name of dominance.)

It's less easy in the horse world, because the horses are so large. We can train behind a stall guard, but at some point we have to interact with our horses. We have to move around the paddock. We have to move them from point A to point B. Management can take you only so far. It *can* be done, but it requires a lot more forethought that most people want to put into it.

When I was first getting used to my horses, I was pretty intimidated. Their ear pinning and lunging toward each other really worried me, especially if I needed to walk a horse past another. A clicker friend gave me some great tips she developed when working in a breeding barn:

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If necessary, use good management while moving one horse past another's stall. Give the horse you just put IN the stall first something to do--some type of kong-type toy for horses that is suspended from ceiling with a goodie in it for the horse to interact with and get some grain out of. I'm sure there must already be something like this in existence. I'd want to keep the horse in the stall distracted enough that the reaching out, ears back, lunging stuff doesn't get constantly reinforced each time you bring another horse past.

If you have one horse who finds this behavior more reinforcing than anything you have to offer as a distraction, at least put up a rubber stretch mesh over the open part above the stall door, so the horse can't reach the one you are leading past.

Have Jay in the stall with the first horse--perhaps the one who is most prone to offering the "get outta my space" behavior, clicking and feeding apples, carrots or grain or just chucking the food while you lead your next horse past. Horses catch on to classical conditioning pretty quickly. I have had confirmed lunger-biters learn to offer quiet behaviors in this manner. Of course, this has nothing to do with what happens in other areas, but at least, during stall exit-entry time, it can and does work very well on many horses.

You can also do this on your own by chucking in bits of carrot and apple just as you are approaching, and also give a piece to the horse you are leading. If you chuck the treats in to the back of the stall, the horse will have to turn around, go find them, and that buys you time to get past that stall, plus starts the extinction process.

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These are clicker tips. They would require a lot more from me, but they would indeed work. No force. No aggression.

Dominance, as humans do it, is aggression. It may be necessary for safety, but don't sugar coat. It's aggression, and it will have the same fallout as any other aggressive act.

October 22, 2004

Blue was in such a wonderful mood this morning. During the time when I had the gate from the paddock into the pasture open, he spent several minutes galloping and bucking and leaping and twisting, and just having an altogether good time. At first Guin just stayed out of his way, but she finally caught the excitement and did a little cantering and bucking herself. Even Quincy got in the game, though she stuck to trotting and striking with her front feet. It was really fun to watch -- wish it hadn't been raining, so I could have run and gotten my camera.

When I first called Blue's previous owner in answer to his ad, she mentioned that she thought he might be a good barrel racing prospect. That made me think he was probably going to be too much horse for me -- all the barrel racing horses I've seen are pretty hot! But when I met him, he was really calm, and I just couldn't understand why she thought he'd be a good barrel racer. Today I finally understand. He would go from a complete stand-still to full gallop, race to the other end, and stop almost as fast. Then he'd whirl and do it again! Too cool.

I went out in the middle of the afternoon and took Blue into the barn aisle for a backing session. After rereading the section in Alex's "Step-by-Step" book, I decided that the goal of the lesson was just to be able to back him (straight and around corners) with a light cue. I felt pretty confident about being able to do this -- thanks to his previous training, not necessarily because of anything I've done -- so I tested it in the barn aisle. I was able to serpentine him, more or less, backwards down the aisle. I wouldn't say it was graceful or balanced, but he responded to the requests to turn.

Once he didn't turn and bumped into a stall, startling himself. He froze, head up, very tense. I waited until he relaxed a bit and lowered his head, and I clicked that. We were talking about calming signals on Clickryder just today. I watched him lower his head and blow and then shake himself. He visibly calmed. It was cool.

After the backing, we did some targeting. Just for fun, I put the target on the ground and stepped away from it. It's a one-liter plastic water bottle, so it can roll. He touched it, rolled it, even bit it and played with it. He did it correctly immediately and for a few reps, and then he really seemed to lose interest. Just to be sure he wasn't confused, I picked the target up. He gave a couple of half-hearted touches, and then turned his attention to playing with my pockets. So I took the hint and ended the session.

After dinner, I soaked Guin's foot and did another head lowering session with her. Man, she's really got this. I noticed today that the strength of the behavior really increased -- she would get her treat, and immediately offer the behavior again. Duration was more consistent too. Good girl.

I'm probably going to stick to this behavior until I'm through soaking her foot. If it were a longer process, I'd look for more creative things -- like playing a child's keyboard or something -- but I can live with just this one behavior for a few more days.

October 26, 2004

No training this past weekend, I'm afraid. Saturday I did non-horse things -- had a delightful, unexpected Girl's Day Out. On Sunday, the hoof trimmer came out. It was the first time the horses had been trimmed since I bought them. They were wonderful, thank goodness. Guin was difficult because she was a leaner (and she's really heavy!), but they were all pretty calm about it. Even Blue! In fact, the trimmer said he was amazingly well-behaved and settled for a three-year-old.

Monday, I... hmmm. What did I do yesterday? Really not so much that I shouldn't have been able to get some training in, but the day just seemed to fly by. And that brings us up to today.

Today Guin bucked me off.

I decided that since it was probably the last nice day of the season, I would take her for a walk around the pasture. So I led her around my yard until I found a place where I could slide a leg over her back. She started walking before I got on well... then she started trotting. I probably could have handled the walk, but I was pretty sure I was going to slide off at the trot -- and then she lowered her head and gave a little buck.

I never had a chance. (And I'm snickering even as I write this.) She's so wide... It was like trying to wrap my legs around a sofa. I popped into the air and landed kind of on my hands and knees. I'm not hurt beyond a sore calf. If you're going toget bucked off, you really couldn't pick a nicer landing than our yard. It didn't even hurt really. (And I was really afraid it would.)

Lesson learned: Have someone hold her head. The lesson ought to be: Wait until you've done all the appropriate groundwork. But I'll probably be dumb enough to try this again anyway at some point. If it makes you feel any better, I'm not going to try it on Blue.

Anyway, after that fiasco, I took Guin (who looked really surprised) back to the paddock, and I spent a little time playing iwth Blue. I clicked and treated him for letting me hug him. I really want him to tolerate -- and even learn to enjoy -- being hugged and kissed. (Hey, I'm a girl!)

October 31, 2004

I swear I haven't slacked off. There just hasn't been anything really to write about for the last week. We had some people in to do some work for us -- clearing and mud control. Man, the place looks so much better!! If you want to know more, check out the pictures and commentary here.

Anyway, I couldn't really work with the horses this week. The heavy equipment had them really fractious. They weren't really scared, but nor did I feel confident working really close to them. I made sure to put them in the barn or in the pasture when I was working in the paddock... mostly anyway.

A couple of recollections from the week...

Blue and I are bonding. He's becoming much more affectionate and attentive, and he has taken to running interference for me. By that I mean that if one of the other horses is crowding me or behaving less-than-politely, he makes her leave. Now, before you attribute this to resource guarding behavior, let me add that he doesn't do it when the others are being well-mannered, even when there are treats or other food present.

Guin got out one day. I opened the gate to take the wheelbarrow out, and she walked right through it -- and then she didn't want to be caught, even with grain. She had a grand old time, galloping around the big pasture in the back. As long as she stays on our property, it's really not a big deal. However, a couple of times she ran right to the edge of the road. I don't know what I would have done had she left the property. I can't move fast enough to really "chase" her. Lord knows what kind of trouble she might have gotten into!

How'd I get her back? Blue, of course. He called her back to the pasture. I opened the gate and lured her in with grain. I think the grain was secondary -- she really wanted to be back with him.

Guin is looking really good. There was one point where I really wished I had a camera. She was stading at just the right angle to emphasize her lean body, her long mane, and the gorgeous crescent moon on her forehead. She looked amazing. Hopefully I can get that picture at some point.

I did get a couple of nice pictures this week though. One morning I came out, and Blue and Guin were still curled up in the paddock. It was so cute I couldn't help but snap a picture. (Yes, Guin desperately needs to be trimmed.)

At the same time I got a nice head shot of Quincy. She had such a soft expression... it's nice to see. Usually she's too concerned about her food to be this soft.

Tonight I groomed Blue while he was "at liberty" in his stall. This is the first time I've done that when he wasn't haltered and tied. I reinforced him for standing still and looking forward. Then we did a little backing and moving forward in the stall. I hadn't tried to back him without a halter and lead rope. I was successful (even around a couple of corners), but he wasn't as light... I think I'll do more of that.


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