August 1, 2005
If you've been reading this blog for any period of time, you know that though it's titled "A foray into clicker training horses," there really hasn't been a lot of clicker training happening. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that I'm still on a pretty darn steep learning curve about horses, and without direct help, I feel pretty awkward trying to train behaviors without really understanding the whys and hows. It's not the clicker aspect that's hard for me -- it's the horse part. The second reason is that I find it really hard to stay motivated to train when I'm working by myself.
I'd like to try to get back to it though. My friend Neil has approached me about working together on a special project (which I'll write more about when it becomes a done deal). The project will likely include a lot of research into positive reinforcement-based methods of horse training. I'm super excited about it!
Part of it will include keeping data and making (recorded) observations during training. With that in mind, I dug out my old record-keeping sheets today, reviewed Alex's progression, and made a semblence of a training plan for Blue and Guin. I'm going to start with seven behaviors: targeting, head lowering, backing, standing on a mat / "Grownups are Talking," lunging, give to the bit, and "Why Would You Leave Me."Both horses need to go through the whole progression, and so I'm going to start from scratch and pretend we haven't played with some of these behaviors. I'm going to try to figure out R+ ways to teach as much of this as I can.
Guin, of course, I'm already riding. I haven't decided what to do about that. I have a saddle, but I haven't fit it to her yet. So I've been riding bareback -- badly. I'm not sure anything positive is coming out of that for either of us. I think I need to accept that I need to lose weight and improve my core strength before I try to do much more riding. I also need to find an easier way to deliver reinforcers from horseback.
August 2, 2005
It was a lovely day outside today, so I popped out a couple of times and did some training. Each time I put one horse in a stall and left the other in the aisle. That way I could switch back and forth between them, but they were separate enough that the one not working couldn't interfere in the other's session.
I'm keeping records and defining precise criteria for each session. In the past I have found that this makes my training much faster and more efficient. I'm not going to transcribe the full record here, but I will summarize. Today we worked on...
Targeting. This went fast, because the horses done a fair amount of targeting before. I held the target about 9 inches away and did ten reps to the left, right, top, bottom, and front. The rate of emitted behavior was strong, with them touching the target as soon as it was presented, even while still chewing their treat.
Backing. I bobbled a bit here, not sure how I wanted to get the behavior. It's an easy behavior to get using pressure (R-), but I wanted to do it using positive reinforcement. First I tried using targeting. I stood besidethem, and moved the target into their chests. It worked, but I wasn't happy with it. I was afraid my body language was having too much (R-) influence.
So I switched to free shaping. That went slowly at first. The horses were too interested in trying to get treats from me to consider moving away. The rate of reinforcement was very low, and we were all frustrated. So I made some changes in the environment, using saw horses to make a barrier in the barn aisle. This enabled me to separate myself from them enough that they couldn't occupy themselves playing with my pockets, but I wasn't so far away that they lost interest in the game. It also set them up to succeed, because they started by moving up close to the barrier, which gave them nowhere to go but back.
Once I switched to using the barrier, the session went well for both horses. By the end of their respective sessions, each horse was taking a step backwards within a few seconds of receiving his last treat.
Stand on a mat. This is another behavior that I prefer to shape. I've seen trainers just lead their horses onto the mat, but I didn't want to do that. They've had experience with this, so it wasn't difficult to get started. I stood on the far side of the mat -- I use a square of thick plywood -- and clicked first for a sniff, then one hoof, then two hooves. Once the horses were putting both feet on the board, I stayed at that criterion for ten reps.
My plan then was to move to the horse's left shoulder and repeat the session. I started with Guin and found that instead of going forward onto the mat, she tried to turn to me. Oops. So I backed up a bit. If we had been on a clock face, Guin was standing at 12:00, and I was originally at 6:00. Moving to 3:00 was too much, so I moved to 4:30. This was more successful, especially when I made a point to feed at 6:00, which encouraged her to stay forward.
I did this same progression with Blue, and it was equally successful. He was a lot more active with his feet than Guin. He stomped and pawed at the plywood board. He also explored more with his feet and seemed to make more progress at figuring out the middle of the board. (The 3:00 and 9:00 edges of this plywood have a riaded edge on them.) He also seemed to do better with the second criterion when I moved further around toward his shoulder.
August 10, 2005
Sorry I haven't updated lately. I was gone this weekend to another Alex Kurland clinic down in Toutle. Unfortunately, I got neither the quality of notes or pictures that I usually get, so I haven't bothered to get them on the Web. I may still write something up, but I doubt I'll rush. We learned tons, and it was a great clinic... I just didn't get the notes taken. Bad me.
I finally got Guin's saddle fitted today. Hooray! I don't know how well I did, but she was okay when I mounted and rode her. I'll keep an eye out for signs of discomfort, and I'll watch the sweat marks to be sure they're even.
We did just a short ride out on the road. Miss Guin is brave when she is in a group, but she was less certain when we ventured out on our own. She spooks "nicely," meaning little spooks in place, so I felt okay riding her out. She would go a few steps and stop to look at something, then another step and stop, repeat, repeat, repeat. So cute. We didn't go far, but it was fun.
August 11, 2005
I took Guin out for a longer ride today. We rode all the way to the mini horse farm and back. (Okay, that wasn't far, but it was further than we went yesterday.) A couple of trucks drove past us, and she handled that like a champ. We stopped and chatted with Stacey, the owner of the mini horse farm. Guin didn't like standing still for that. I'm not sure if it was impatience with standing still or just a manisfestation of her nervous energy out in the new surroundings.
On the way back, she reached a point she didn't want to go any further. Unfortunately, we were on the road home, so we had to continue. So I waited her out, and enouraged every step until she got "unstuck."
Blue was heartbroken. Not only was he upset that he got left behind, but I also got the impression that he was jealous that I had spent the time with her and not him. So later I saddled him up and did a mounting block lesson with him. I laid all the way over, and I put a pretty good amount of weight in the stirrup. I didn't swing a leg over though. I still think I need help for that.
August 20, 2005
So much has been happening -- I'm not even sure where to start.
First, an update on Guin and Blue. Guin needs hoof boots. She has awesome hooves but she has been living on soft ground, so the gravel roads are tough on her. Her feet will gradually toughen, but if I want to ride her any distance at all, she needs boots to be comfortable until then. My farrier offered to fit her to some Epics. If I have the money, I'll take her up on that in September. Blue has been doing great with his mounting block lessons. At his last lesson I was able to stand full-weight in the stirrups and lay most of my weight over his back. I think we're back to being ready to put a leg over him.
The work around the farm is going well too. We have three of the four quadrants fenced, and the fourth is nearly done. We're not going to finish it until mid-September, but it won't take much of a time or money investment when we do. This week we're mowing up near the house in anticipation of my mom's visit next week. Then we're going to take a weekend off, and then mowing, weed control, liming, and seeding will be on the agenda.
I got a job to tide us over until my freelance business gets established. It's a contract job at Microsoft and pays pretty well. I love the manager and the group, and it has some flexibility, so I'll be able to work from home some. That's handy when you live in the boonies and have critters.
I was initially bummed about having to go back to work in a corporate office. I haven't worked in an office since 2001 and I must admit, it would make me perfectly happy never to have to again. Going back to work to cover bills was pure negative reinforcement -- it was solely to escape the aversive of debt. Not a very happy way to go into a new phase of life. So I decided that I needed a positive reinforcer to work for... and what's more positive than another horse?
Last year when I was just getting back into horses, I wanted a weanling to raise and considered a PMU foal. Well, I was unanimously dissuaded from that, and rightly so. But now is different. I started thinking about getting a foal back in the spring when the 2005 crop was born, but when all the financial stuff hit this summer, I pretty much tossed that out the window. Well, this contract pays considerably more than I was making before -- more than enough to cover the increased monthly costs.
The downside is that weanlings are ready to go in early fall... but I don't start this new job until the day after Labor Day, and it'll take some time for us to get caught up, much less get ahead enough to buy a foal. So I talked to my mom, and she's going to advance me the money so I can buy the foal when it's ready. I'm soooo grateful to her for enabling my animal habits all these years. And to my poor husband who has to put up with it all.
In case you're wondering, though -- it worked. Once the foal came into the picture, my attitude about work did a complete 180. I went from depressed and resigned to truly excited and anxious to get started! Oh the power of a true positive reinforcer.
I did some research, and in the end, I chose not a PMU foal, but a foal from Flying W Farms. I've followed their Web page for years and years... this is truly my dream horse. The foal is a filly, out of Koning (one of their Friesian stallions) and a Perch mare. Here's a picture of her on the day she was born:
She'll be weaned in September, and I've arranged to have her shipped around the end of September/beginning of October. Her name is Tier, short for Tierrainney (pronounced "tyranny"). The story behind her name...
There's a Web site for bad baby names. What the person does read baby naming forums, pull excerpts and write sarcastic comments. Okay, that sounds terrible (and yes, I'm sure she broke all kinds of copyright laws), but the names are SO horrible and her comments so funny, that my friends and I read it over and over for the belly laughs. Deep, painful, tears-running-down-your-face, sore-muscles-the-next-day belly laughs.
"Alternative" spellings are very common (because we all know that an incomprehensible spelling of a name will make your baby special). After reading the posts from these boards, I decided my parents obviously did me a great disservice by giving me a boring name like Melissa. They didn't even change the spelling. I apparently would have been much more unique and interesting had I been named M'lysseh. (Rather than eh, it really ought to be a schwa e... you know, those upside down e's you see in dictionary pronunciations? But I don't know how to type it.)
Anyway, one woman wanted to name her baby Tierrainney. The Web page writer's comment was something along the lines of "and if you're going to give your kid a cool super-villain name like Tyranny, at least spell it right!" I just loved it. The spelling was so alternative, it was hysterical, as was the label "cool super-villain name."
So with great amusement, I determined that, although it goes completely against my rules for naming -- principally that you should name animals to reflect what you want them to BE -- I would name my next female animal Tierrainney.
Of course most people don't know the story, so I don't go into it. But when I mention the name to my friends or my husband, I get that "I can't believe you're doing that" shake of the head. It's so reinforcing and makes me laugh every time.
I won't tell Tier that her full name is Tierrainney, and hopefully, I'll avoid the name curse.
List and Site Owner: Melissa Alexander, mca @ clickersolutions.com