distracting vs. counter-conditioning

Austen posted something on Insta several months ago about the futility of distracting big dogs in city parks when they get hyperaroused. It made me think pretty critically about my own training paradigm. I didn’t totally agree with her premise because I’ve known a lot of really quality dog trainers to successfully train dogs to walk quietly and calmly on leash around things that used to simulate the CRAP out of them. But on the other hand I kinda really agreed* because I’ve seen a lot of people (and been the person) frantically trying to stuff my their animal’s mouth with treats in a desperate attempt to “distract” them.

(*edited for clarity after I posted this)

if at first you don’t succeed in training your dog to walk on a loose leash
give up and just take her places she can be off-leash

Both counter conditioning and distraction have been major parts of my clicker training program with the Murr-man this last year. And they will definitely both have their place in my training program. But the two aren’t exactly mutually exclusive, and I think that a lot of people accidentally blur the lines between them. This leads to poorly trained animals (and people), and at least one of the misconceptions around clicker training with horses.

Distraction is directing an individual’s attention away from something else (loosely adapted from here — not actually a training term, I don’t think).

Counter-conditioning is training based in classical conditioning that attempts to replace a bad or unpleasant behavioral response with more adaptive or desired behavioral responses (adapted from this definition).

This Facebook post from my friend, a trainer whom I respect deeply for her work with many species and some seriously challenging training tasks (train a giraffe to hold her foot on a radiograph place for ringbone rads, anyone?), added to this thought process and really clarified things for me.

I was like Oh. Shit. The piece I’ve been missing this whole time is high reinforcement for incompatible activities.

To run with the dog example a little more: when I first started R+ training with animals, a friend of mine had a dachshund who barked at nothing, for no reason. Pretty typical dachshund behavior, but this particular dog’s barking was a little more off-the-charts than the other dogs. And I think it was shrill and irritating.

My training approach to this particular behavior was to interrupt the behavior (yelling, stomping, picking the dog up and moving her to a different place) and then start a training session. Which didn’t work. And because I never trained a “quiet” behavior or specifically focused on incompatible behaviors, potentially even encouraged her to bark more. When she barked, I grabbed her and stuffed treats in her face. What’s not to like? In contrast, my trainer friend allows her dogs to give off a couple of alarms and then rewards them for longer bursts of incompatible behavior, like settling on their bed or laying on the floor with her. The dog I mentioned above would never have been able to voluntarily do either of those things, because she was too over-stimulated to think about laying down, unless I physically picked her up and moved her.

i give him a 10/10 for settling and laying down on the — oh crap I don’t want him laying down out here

There’s a superb video of the late Dr. Sophia Yin training a dog to change his association with a stimulus he really hated. This also informed the way I thought about counter-conditioning. Your horse doesn’t have to go from 100 to 0 in order to earn a reward. Any movement of the needle over toward the behavior you want is good. And sometimes — as you see Dr. Yin doing in the video — you do just “distract” the training subject. Dr. Yin also states one concern people have about treating during aggressive events, and a major reason that many people don’t clicker train their horses: they are worried that they will be reinforcing the aggression (or in the case of horses, rude behavior).

(I just watched the video through again and have to profess my love of Dr. Yin. The world lost a bright light when she died.)

scrolling through old pictures I found this one of Murray treating himself to his neighbor’s personal space. because why not?

To bring this back around to Murray, understanding the incompatible behavior part of counter conditioning made a huge difference in our tacking-up training. For Murray, tacking up went like this.

  1. dislike the girth, get roller-skate-y and fling head in air
  2. skitter/run away
  3. girth goes away, yay! instant reward
  4. if not 3, then do more of 2 and/or other things until 3 is achieved

To change his association with tacking up, I tackled the problem from both ends. I rewarded him heavily for a behavior incompatible with running away that is also a common physiological marker of relaxation: putting his head down. (I learned this trick from my dressage trainer a long time ago — to kindof fake it til we make it with the head-down thing. It will probably take more to explain than I want to in this post, so perhaps I’ll get back to it some day.)  Murray couldn’t relax enough to get his head below the point of his shoulder at first, but I just kept at it day after day. I kept the girth stimulus mostly below threshold, and then rewarded him heavily for putting his head down as low as he could get it. Now, if I mess up and Murray gets a little anxious while we’re tacking up I keep doing whatever it is I’m doing (holding the girth on his belly or doing up one buckle, for example) and then calmly wait until he settles and puts his head down low. Then I click and reward him.

The same thing goes for giraffing his way around new stuff. I know he’s scared of this stuff. A carefully misplaced leaf scares him. And that’s okay. But instead of patting and soothing and treating Murray for looking at that scary stuff (potentially valid options if he were a different creature), I ask him to perform an incompatible behavior and reward him for doing that. Usually it’s a low-placed hand target, but sometimes I’ll ask him to take a step or two forward with me toward the stuff and reward him a lot for that.

On the other hand, if I were just distracting Murray I’d be letting him do his own thing (more realistically tugging on the reins and trying to get him to walk with me) and simultaneously stuffing carrots in his face. Which would be pointedly not helping the situation, since it is rewarding behaviors I don’t want (ignoring me, staring at scary stuff without moving, being alert) without asking him to give me any of those behaviors I do want (listening to me, putting his head down, walking past scary stuff).

excuse me you want me to do what?!

It’s a fine line, and counter conditioning and distraction aren’t mutually exclusive. And I’ll absolutely use distraction to break through the haze of NOPE that Murray sometimes gets when we’ve grossly surpassed his stimulus threshold. But I do think it’s an important distinction for us to understand, since as riders we are effectively training an animal (or animals) every day.

Distracting a horse without a plan or any consideration of the desired outcome of the behavior may very well lead to worse behaviors. When I was standing around shoving a steady stream of carrots into my horse’s mouth for just tolerating the farrier, I wasn’t paying attention to Murray’s body language or what he was doing to the farrier. I could easily have been rewarding him for subtly kneeing her in the guts.

On the other hand, a carefully thought out counter-conditioning strategy has worked very well for us in a number of areas.

Any thoughts or additions to this? Was this something I was really late to realizing? My understanding of training is constantly evolving, so I’m sure there is a lot that I’m missing here, and a lot for me to learn still!

finding balance

Murray and I have really been struggling with finding some balance lately.  And not just literally, though as he comes back into work and the world of derpssage it’s clear that his lateral and longitudinal balance are not what they once were.

We seem to ping-pong back and forth between states — not necessarily extremes, but not close enough to anything consistent that there is any kind of meaningful stability there.  It seems to be the case in all aspects of our relationship too; not just work under saddle.

in the meantime, I will appreciate this accidental super-square halt on the lunge line

After a really good run of fantastic behavior on the ground (with a little blip around clipping), Murray decided to throw down regarding bridling, of all things.  He’s been getting fussy and punky about bridling, and I changed his bit to a flexible (but thick) rubber mullen over the weekend.  Murray spent most of the time in that bridle gagging on the bit and attempting to spit it out, though he would happily stop long enough to chew, and seemed quiet enough in it when was were walking and trotting under saddle.

On Monday, he girthed up fantastically. We’ve been making great, incremental improvements day by day with the girthing up post-clipping. We’re actually back to where we were pre-clip: we can do the girth up to the second hole on each side (very light pressure, but not literally hanging loose below his belly) while tied, then take a short and well-behaved walk to loosen up.  We returned to the tie, and after putzing around over a few things I held the reins up for Murray to put his head through.  He fussed and procrastinated but eventually complied (click and treat).  But when I took his halter off and tried to slide the bridle up over his face, he pulled his head back and shifted his feet around uncomfortably.  I waited for the shifting to stop and for Murray to settle (click, treat) then came over to his head to try again.  It went on like this for a few more minutes, so I put his halter back on and tied him up, walked away for a few minutes as a time out, then tried again.

I tried again, taking the bridling much more incrementally: click for standing still, click for letting me put the bridle to your face, click for letting me hold on to your face, etc.  Murray just was not playing ball, and his objections got louder (jerking his head away) and ruder (pushing through me and into me).  I threw in a mild correction (jerked the lead rope once) in response to him jerking away and tried again.  No dice.  I tried to disengage his hind end (risky in the barn, as he tends to slip on the asphalt) when he pushed into me, but that also did not result in any less pushiness.  Eventually we had to take it outside.  It was not pretty.

I truly could not understand what precipitated this.  We went from listening, thinking, and learning to nopenopenopenopenope in less than a minute. Was it about the bit (which he now seems to like?!)?  Was it about his desire for an extra long walk after saddling? Was it because someone had pulled up in a trailer and he wanted to watch?  Was he mentally over it after a week of solid work (but he got Sunday off, and Saturday was pretty mellow)?

Because we have been working.  Mostly at the walk and trot, with a few cancer circles thrown in for good measure and fitness.  Lots of walk poles, a few trot poles.  On the one hand, the work is easy — we’re walking 75% of the time and working on quiet, balanced trot transitions and a steady trot for the rest of it.  It’s not physically demanding work.  On the other hand, I’m literally trying to re-engineer the way Murray thinks, learns, and goes from the ground up.  And that is mentally quite tiring — at least, it is for me.

hand me sci-fi GIF by MANGOTEETH
we can rebuild him! make him faster! stronger!

Part of the reason the work has stayed so low key is that Murray is still vacillating between “pretty sound for a horse who hasn’t done fuck all since September” and “holy shit why does that leg move like that”.  Is it muscular?  Maybe.  He works out of it a lot.  Is it inherent imbalance and tendency?  Probably.  He’s always taken a shorter step with his right front, and I’ve always overcompensated to even him out (or maybe just made it way worse with my incorrect turning?).  Is it because it’s winter?  Maybe.  My horse always seems to go like crap in winter.

After the whole leg hole situation, I find myself less resilient to the little physical-ailment-type bobbles that horsey life throws my way.  Watching Murray be a little short on the right front or dig he toes into the footing instead of step heel-to-toe makes me much more worried that something serious is going on than it ever used to.  Where once I could brush off his winter funk as just stiffness and general malaise, I’m wondering if maybe I should turn him out in a pasture and leave him for a month or two.  Is his right hind still bothering him, causing him to favor his other limbs even more?  The wound is completely closed, but his leg is still reforming, reshaping — tightening up and dissolving scar tissue.  Maybe he just needs more time?  Or maybe Murray will feel much better once he gets into regular, full work, using all of his muscles in better balance.  That’s an option too.

I just can’t seem to pick a path and stick with it.

I’m trying to find a middle ground here — somewhere that I’m not either treating my horse with kid gloves or ignoring what he’s trying to tell me or letting him walk all over me or driving us both insane with the monotony of walk-trot-walk-trot-walk-halt-walk-halt-walk-trot purgatory.  It’s hard when things change so wildly day to day.  It’s like I’m wobbling on a bicycle and I can’t fix it by moving my feet or the handlebars one direction or the other; the only thing that will fix it is picking up speed.

It is me, so I have a bit of a plan.  I should probably write it out and have targets to measure it by — otherwise I seem to get stuck in those death spirals (of nag, of walk-trot forever, of clicking my horse into awful behavior). Hopefully that will help us find that balanced place in the coming weeks.  How do you do it, when you’re seeking balance?  Any hints for a wayward traveler and her meandering steed?  I’ll use any toolkits you can give me.

spiral of nag

I’ve been trying to be very conscious about correctness while bringing Murray back into work this year.  Part of it is trying to maximize the relationship and learning mentality that we’re creating through clicker training, and part of it is an attempt to undo all of the bad habits and ingrained reactions that the two of us have developed to one another over the last few years.  It’s been a lot of work at the walk, since we’re still building up fitness and hoof health, which has been the perfect opportunity to integrate the clicker into our sessions.  It’s also been an excellent opportunity for us to work on Murray’s walk, which is inarguably his weakest gait.

such challenge

A lot of what I’ve been focusing on is developing a positive relationship with contact, which has always been such a struggle for us.  I seem to be as afraid of contact as Murray is — I seem to desperately fear having to hold up anything more than the weight of the reins, and will consciously and subconsciously wiggle, shake, or bump horses out of my hands.  It’s no wonder that Murray wants to duck behind the bridle.  So focusing on rewarding Murray for actually moving into the contact is doing a lot for me too.

I’ve also been working a lot on our walk-trot transitions.  These have been a weak point for Murray and I since time immemorial (okay, so what isn’t a weak point for us?!), so rebuilding these from the ground up with the clicker has been priceless.  I actually started these with in-hand work, clicking first for a long-and-low walk, then asking for the trot and clicking for a similarly long-and-low trot. I chained the two behavior by asking for the trot and clicking specifically when Murray made the transition without hurling his head in the air or leaning on his underneck.  (It would probably be ideal if I clicked when he actually pushed from behind properly in a transition, but it’s all about the baby steps here.)

ugh I miss summer

On Monday we did a lot of walk-halt-walk, walk-trot, and trot-walk transitions under saddle.  It’s a long way from perfect, but the frequency with which Murray trots forward in a quiet and reasonable way is steadily increasing, and the frequency of flailing-inverted-on-the-forehand transitions is steadily decreasing.

The problem with playing the walk-halt-walk-trot-walk-trot-walk-halt-walk game is that it is boring.  So I thought I’d work on making my cues for the trot quieter, since Murray seems to prefer a quieter cue over one that involves actual leg pressure.  I decreased the pressure I put on with my legs when I asked, and tried to “think trot” with my seat. A couple of times I caught myself pitching forward an lightening my seat as if to avoid getting left behind through the transition, and verbally scolded myself. Of course, pitching oneself forward and picking one’s seat up means the transition isn’t happening, soooo yeah.

When the lighter cues weren’t working, I went back to squeezing slightly harder, and then a little more and a little more until I got something resembling a transition out of Murray.  And I realized I’d worked myself into a nag spiral.  Instead of making Murray responsive to my lighter “aids” I’d somehow made it even easier for him to ignore my ever-increasing ones.

lalalala I can’t hear you

Which was nice.  And totally my goal.

I went back to trot cue = trot forward no matter what, and clicked for that a few times in a row.  Then we took a walk break.  Megan later pointed out that as long as I kept pairing the quiet cue with a cue that Murray knows means “trot right meow!”, it would work. Which revealed to me my problem: I had just been turning the volume down on the old leg-based cues (already not Murray’s favourite thing to listen to), without including any kind of link to the behavior I actually wanted.

Learning theory suggests you present new cue – old cue – behavior – reward.  But instead I was just going new cue – no behavior – wtf?!  As if Murray would think “well, when Nicole does this with her legs only bigger, what she means is trot… so I should try trotting here”.  Shockingly, my horse is not capable of such cognitive leaps.

Murray asked to stretch down at the walk during our break, so I obliged and we worked on stretchy walk for a few circles.  While he was stretching down, I asked Murray to trot, and he gave me a pretty good stretchy transition that led into a nice long and low trot circle.  So I stuffed his face with the remainder of our grain and called it good.  Clearly, all is not lost on the learning front.  I just need to remember which one of us actually has access to the texts on training and learning theory.

the downside to clicker training

alternate title: when you fuck up the clicker training

Don’t clicker train your horse, they said. You will make him mouthy, they said. You will make him beg, they said. You will teach him bad behaviors, they said. You can’t change his nature, they said.

Psh, I said.

look how good at standing still this clicker trained horse is

Then it rained.

Then I clipped.

I’ve made a terrible mistake.

have been getting real familiar with this view

So let’s back up just a skosh.

I knew I had to clip last weekend. Murray is getting back into real work, and he’s not really in shape, so he sweats. But he won’t be rid of all that hair until May-ish (when he is usually done shedding out), and I don’t have the time to deal with a fully-haired horse in full work in hot-AF-California weather. It’s just… not going to work for us.  So I sharpened my blades, girded my loins, and prepared to clip.

As in past years, Murray was not totally down with the clipping thing, but he was relatively good. Because I kept a relatively steady stream of small handfuls of his favourite grain headed straight from my fanny-pack-full-of-treats to his mouth.  For some reason, he never really settled down.  Maybe it’s because I was too absorbed listening to Oathbringer on audiobook to pay full attention to him and click for good behavior instead of not-bad behavior (probably should have learned by now not to multitask my training). Maybe it’s because there was a huge storm system coming in and the barometer was plummeting.  Maybe he felt like being a punk.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I get it. It’s hard having such an incompetent clown for an owner. But we got it done.

It was the day after we clipped that the shit hit the fan.

First, Murray had his first tacking up incident since we started clicker training. I couldn’t really blame him… everything was wet and slick, and I wasn’t being considerate of the fact that he was newly nudified.  On top of it, however, he was a cookie-demanding monster.  Kiddo could not stand still to save his life, he just hit me with an onslaught of various behaviors in an attempt to acquire rewards.

This continued when we headed out to the arena, where Murray started digging at the footing almost immediately. I kept him walking so he wouldn’t roll (in the hopes that his desire to roll would dissipate), but there was absolutely no regard for either my personal space or (what I thought were) the firmly established rules of walking and clicker training. Murray was barging past me, cutting in toward me, pushing me over with his shoulders, and then snaking his head around to grab his reward for this excellent behavior from me.

Um, no. It does not work that way.

opinions, opinions, opinions

I stopped giving him treats at this point, instead focusing on the “do not fucking climb on me you horrendous beast” aspect of groundwork.  In response, Murray upped his desperate attempts to acquire any kind of grain reward from him.  When we walked over a ground pole he stopped after putting two feet over, then immediately walked backward over it without prompting. He never wants to walk backward over poles without prompting.  I tested this out again and approached another single ground pole, and he walked forward and backward over it and then looked expectantly at me.  When no treat revealed itself, he threw his head to the ground and started pawing.

It was around this point that I realized we’d not be riding that day, and I needed to take a different approach. I took off his saddle (for which he was really unreasonable and awful), and Murray immediately threw himself on the ground to roll.  He got up, took two drunken steps, then threw himself down again for another go.

After this, we worked on basic ground manner and basics. You don’t walk on top of me, you don’t shove into me with your shoulders, and you definitely don’t run past me and then walk around me in a circle. In fact, all of our sessions since then have been heavily focused on calming the fuck down and listening, instead of wildly offering any and all behaviors in a desperate attempt to see them rewarded.

murray’s spook level post clipping

And this, my friends, is what you get when you fork up your clicker training. I’m fairly certain that my unconscious clicking while clipping led to Murray being rewarded for a lot of crappy behaviors, and his expectation of a lot of rewards in a short amount of time. So I will need to take a new, more self-conscious approach when tackling training during challenging tasks in the future.

This has also highlighted some holes in my clicker training program. Patience and behavior duration, to name a few.  That’s what we’ll be focusing on for the next few weeks as we get back into serious training.  Hopefully I will suffer a minimal number of days when Murray desperately needs to throw himself on the ground instead of being ridden.

just keep clicking

I’ve mentioned this several times already, but in case you somehow missed the memo, I can now tack up my horse!!!!  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you read that correctly.  I can now do with my 9 (nine!!! how did that happen?) year old a task that many three-year-olds — and even two-year-olds on the track — perform daily with almost no fuss.

I. Am. So. Proud.

murray models a medieval pony torture device

We’re just about a year out from our last Major Malfunction, but that wasn’t the last time we struggled with tacking up. That day was a major outlier, but Murray’s never been an easy tack up.  And there have been days when I lost hold of the girth or the billets or the horse or some piece of tack or whatnot in the wiggling.  He’s just never been good at it. Never.

So, how did we accomplish this thing? Hippy granola shit with a big side of voodoo magic, that’s how.

When I last blogged about re-training tacking up, I was still working with Murray in his paddock at liberty. I was using the jollyball to indicate a target where he should stand still (with his nose placed on the ball), and was putting a variety of things on him (girth over the back, saddle pad, surcingle, etc.) and clicking and treating when he returned to the jollyball.  The idea behind this was that he was allowed to be scared, but being with me was to be more reinforcing than being scared.

side benefit of training your horse to stand: he can now be trusted in the hay/grain barn while you scoop things!

Stupidly, I didn’t write about the process at all between then and now. Before working with the saddle at all, I started practicing standing still at the tie rings in the barn aisle.  As with most new behaviors I clicked and treated a lot in the beginning for anything resembling standing still.  Now I intermittently reinforce Murray for not wiggling around.

I do remember that I decided not to risk one of my saddles by tacking up for the first time in his paddock.  What I really did not want was for Murray to freak out and the saddle to get thrown into the gravel and then trampled while I watched in horror.

One day I decided to just bite the bullet and go for it.  At some point during our clicker session I brought Murray out into the barn aisle and just started tacking him up like it was no big deal.  I made sure to work slowly and smoothly with lots of clicking and treating as he stood still through each step of the process (saddle pad on, half pad on, saddle on, etc.).  When we got to the girth I buckled the right side (click-treat) then moved over to the left and grabbed the girth and just held it against his belly and instantly clicked and treated. I literally did not give him a chance to think about it before I was stuffing grain in his mouth.  I did this again and held the girth for a moment longer before I rewarded him once more.  Finally, I held the girth against Murray’s belly and went for the buckle… only to discover that I had buckled the damn thing too high on the right and I couldn’t reach any buckles on the left.

i see no reason that my pony shouldn’t perform (most) of the behaviors of a dog in obedience classes
(also, is his little jumping-horse-shaped star not the greatest?!)

At this point Murray got a little agitated, so I quickly clicked and treated with a big handful of grain because he hadn’t gone anywhere (yet), and moved around to the other side. I lowered the girth (click-treat), moved back to the left side (click-treat), and held the girth up against his tummy again (click-treat).  I then managed to get the girth buckled on a pretty low hole on both billets, gave Murray a huge pile of treats, and promptly walked him away from the tie ring.

And the whole time he did nothing more serious than shift his feet around a bit.

It was pretty astonishing, frankly.

Since then, we’ve moved pretty quickly from tacking up while totally untied (I would loop the leadrope over his neck), to tacking up while tied on the blocker ring, to tacking up and tightening the girth (modestly) while tied.  And through all of it he has been totally reasonable.  He’s seriously a totally different horse about tacking up now.  I’ve way decreased my click-treat frequency so that I can get both sides buckled before breaking to reward him.  We still walk away after girthing as has always helped him kinda stretch out his pecs and get used to the idea of a saddle, but I have been gradually increasing the duration that he stands quiet and still before we do this.

With a couple of weeks of thoughtful, dedicated training, I eliminated a behavioral problem I’ve had for four years. I mean, I like clicker training. But I did not expect this to go that fast.

I absolutely do not expect other behaviors to solidify this quickly.  In fact, there are other things I’m working on that are stubbornly not solidifying like this.  But I’m pretty happy with where we have managed to get with our clicker training!  The behavior even stuck over our 2+ week break, which is also quite impressive for the Murr Man.

I’ll have to sit down and think out some distinct clicker goals for us this year, and make some proper training plans. Beyond this behavior, I haven’t really thought out the clicker training in a cohesive manner, and having a plan will definitely benefit us in the long run.


intended & unintended consequences of the clicker game

I started clicker training Murray with some specific goals in mind, one of them being his general attention to and engagement with me.  I also wanted to provide him with mental stimulation while he was stuck in his stall, hopefully change his ability to think and learn, and make his life a little more interesting.  The clicker training has definitely done that, but there have been some unintended consequences too.  Both good and bad.

now-Murray: hello Nicole! being with you is interesting and rewarding!

Intended: Murray is more attentive to me
To be honest, the number of shits Murray has ever given about me has been limited. He’s much more motivated by food and other horses. I’m a distant second to his first favourite person, a fact that is only tolerable because I know that the rest of humanity doesn’t even make the list. The only time Murray consistently shows any interest in me outside of when he is forced to (e.g. I’m holding him, he’s tied up with me) is when I’m the sole deliverer of food and/or comfort.

Now Murray is very interested in me.  He’s more interested even than he was when I was the one just bringing his buckets to his stall daily. In some ways, this makes no sense: he’s getting the same amount of food, so why care more when he has to work for it? On the other hand, it makes perfect sense: clicker training him literally rewards him for paying attention to me.

He neighs and whinnies at me as soon as my car pulls in the driveway, and any time I appear in his field of view, I typically get an earful.  When I come to his stall door he doesn’t immediately stomp out into his paddock (although he still does when I bring the wrapping supplies in), he walks up to me and asks to have his halter put on. It’s quite nice actually.

before-times Murray: why are you here, human?

Unintended: Murray is too attentive to me
Unfortunately, Murray now also bucks in his paddock when we are about to start training, or if I walk away from him with the grain bucket, regardless of whether it’s full or empty. Because he is obsessed with this training game, both the opportunity to play the game and the thought that the game has been taken away are cause for major celebration/major concern.

Intended: Alleviated boredom
Obviously, training my horse is alleviating the boredom he feels standing around in his stall.  Normally he would be able to spend 10-12 hours a day (night, actually) outside with his friends, doing social horsey things. Murray loves social horsey things. I can’t replicated 10 hours of social, horsey things in 1-2 hours with the clicker, but at least I can make his brain work a bit more.  He loves clicker training! And that means I did my job right (kinda).

Unintended: Created stupid, borderline dangerous anticipatory behaviors
You know how when someone posts on OTTB connect about their horse bucking and the keyboard warriors immediately jump in with “he’s clearly unhappy about something! something must be terribly wrong!”  Yeah, well my horse bucks when he’s happy. Or annoyed. Or joyful. Or excited. Or frustrated. Or has any feelings, really. These are showing up more now because the overall quality of his life has decreased (no turnout) so the few awesome things that do happen have more value.  Hopefully this will go away, but I bet it will come back any time he’s on stall rest (sigh).

it will not shock you to learn that this behavior is not appreciated in his stall or paddock

Intended: Increased learning ability
Murray actually thinks about what he’s doing now, and doesn’t go straight to lizard-brain instincts. For example: I train my horse with a big pink bucket full of grain. When we first started, he would take any opportunity to dart into the bucket and just stuff his face.  Now, I can leave the bucket unattended for a minute or so without Murray changing what he’s doing. He might look at it, but when I say “no” he goes back to what he was doing before (usually touching his target).

This was literally not a thing my horse could think of in the past. To not take the food and shove it in his chipmunk cheeks was unthinkable. But now he knows that if he just waits, and has a tiny bit of patience, the food will come to him.  This is really cool.

Unintended: Rearing
Maybe this has more to do with hand walking a stall-rested horse than it does with clicker training, but the timing is uncanny. This horse had reared maybe three times in the four years I’ve known him. In the last three weeks he’s reared a handful of times. Never anything aggressive or dangerous (beyond the inherent danger of rearing), but if he’s surprised by a stiff wind peeking between his butt cheeks or some other horse shifting in the gravel, he’s much freer about standing on his hind legs.

Unintended (unexpected?): I feel more comfortable around him
I didn’t necessarily feel uncomortable with Murray before. Especially not in his stall or tied up or in the trailer. But when we would play around at liberty or I had to do something that I knew he doesn’t love (bandage changes! standing wraps!), I was always on edge.  At liberty, he could easily, accidentally squash me without even thinking about it and it would completely be my fault. Since he’s actually paying more attention to me and where my body is and what I’m doing in order to do the right thing to get treats, Murray is way more considerate of my personal space now.  I ran around with him trotting behind me the other day, and I didn’t at all worry that he might run me down or run off with me by accident.  It was pretty cool.

practicing his sliding stops for when we change careers

Unintended: Food aggression
Er, yeah. So my horse suddenly became super food aggressive to his neighbor, who obviously watches us clicker train with great interest because there’s nothing else to do all day. Not exactly sure how I’m going to undo that one.


re-training tacking up

Though it’s less fun than training my pony to perform like we are in Cavalia, I’ve focused on several functional and important behaviors in Murray’s clicker education.  There are a couple of really important, glaring behaviors that anyone familiar with this horse will know we need to address.

Image result for circus horse
but… tell me why this is a bad idea?

The list goes a little like this:

1. Tacking up
2. Tacking up
3. Eat cookies Tacking up
4. Tacking up
5. Tacking up

More specifically, homeboy really needs to be able to tolerate the sensation of a girth being buckled up without melting down to the point of breaking halters or himself.  We’ve made HUGE progress on this with consistency, bribery, strategy, well-fitting saddles, fuzzy girths, and me paying a ton of attention to Murray and the environment during our whole grooming-tacking routine so I know kind of mood he’s in.

this is the approximate size of one “reward” for one click for Murray

There’s a lot of stimulus that goes on during tacking up, especially for a sissy sensitive boy like the Mu-ray.  There’s flapping fabrics and leathers, clinking buckles, great leather torture devices being slapped over his body… really, the fact that he tolerates it at all is a minor miracle.  And that is, at best, what he does —  he tolerates it.  But the whole point of this clicker training adventure is to change his feelings (and maybe thinkings) about it.  I get that for some clear-only-to-him reason he hates the initial feeling of having the girth put on.  But right now he sticks around and wiggles minimally* because he knows that it’s harder work/less pleasant not to do so.  I want him to stand still because he wants to do the right thing to get delicious, delicious candy.

(*Minimally for him, depending on the day.)

I’ve already started working on this.  The first step was teaching my horse what “the right thing” even was.  I’ve known for a while that he doesn’t actually have a solid idea of what I want him to be doing when tacking up.  He seems to understand that running away is not the thing, but there are a lot of things that aren’t technically “running away” but still aren’t the right thing (a problem with punishment-based training methods).

behold: the thing i want him to do! ideally with that bored expression on his face also

Fortunately, station/target training is a great placeholder for “stand still” right now. (“Stand still” is a very hard behavior to teach also, because it’s the absence of everything else.  And many learners think of doing to earn rewards, not not-doing, so then you have to teach them that not-doing is also a thing. But I digress.) I’m happy to tack him up with the station in front of him for the rest of time if that’s what needs to happen.  I don’t think it will be, but we’ll see. A lot of what goes on during the station training sessions is clicking and treating Murray for standing at the station for increasing amounts of time, and while I’m doing other things around him.  This includes touching him all over his body, picking out his feet, basic grooming stuff, etc. but also me walking away from him or standing in different locations.  Once Murray understands that standing at the ball is what I want, and is habitually rewarded, then I will have a huge tool in my kit for all kinds of future development (think: what if the station is by the trailer when we’re away from home, and suddenly it’s not such a great thing to break away from the trailer any more?!).

To get to work on the rest of it, I started with an interesting idea from Jen Digate of Spellbound horses: using flight to reinforce staying still.  It’s an interesting idea, and one that would definitely not work when you are working with a horse in hand (too dangerous), but in a paddock situation, it was something I could work with.

paddock large enough for some controlled flight — and look! the inherited blue jolly ball abandoned in the corner!!

I specifically started flapping a girth around while asking Murray to station at his jolly ball, and rewarding him for coming back to me and the jolly ball even if he did run away.  We pretty quickly got to a point where Murray didn’t run away from the girth any more, but he did flinch and step away slightly whenever I raised it, as if unsure about what my plan was for the girth.  I couldn’t click his behavior of standing still quickly enough, because he wasn’t really offering it.

One of the tracks that a lot of R+ based trainers get stuck in that shaping a behavior (clicking spontaneous offerings of something like the behavior you want and then only clicking for successive, more accurate iterations) is the best way to train a behavior. And maybe it is. But my experience with animal learners is that sometimes you get to a place where you have to push the established paradigm a little bit to get to the next step of learning — by luring a behavior, or in my case, forcing the issue with the girth.  So I offered Murray some grain in my left hand, and gently placed the girth over his back with the other.

Interestingly, this did the trick. Murray didn’t love it at first, but he habituated to the feeling of the girth really quickly.  After I pulled it of his back, Murray no longer flinched or stepped away from me when I raised the girth.  It was as if he better understood my intentions and was more comfortable with what I was asking.  I got to move back to clicking and treating for him stationing at his jolly ball (with a very high rate of reward for this challenging behavior) while I took the girth on and off of his back and moved it around up there.

Since that session, I’ve put a saddle pad and surcingle on him with similar success.  There was for sure a little flight when I did that first surcingle buckle up, but after two iterations he was more than happy to stand still.  I’m not quite brave enough to try this with one of my hard-won saddles yet, but we’ll get there.

celebratory gallops to follow

Obviously, this will need to be adapted for tacking up in the cross ties or barn aisle.  It’s not going to work for Murray to run away even a little bit in those areas, especially not if other horses are about.  I also know that he’s less comfortable on the asphalt surface of our barn aisle (crummy traction maybe?), so I imagine we’ll need to repeat this process ad nauseum in there as well.  But there are a ton of great building blocks in what we’ve worked on so far!  (And we haven’t even gotten to the twitching/braiding/face holding stuff yet!)

click or treat

Mu-ray and I have been hitting the clicker training hard the last week or so.  I know that I professed that I would be doing training like crazy, but I avoided it for a few weeks.  To be honest, a big part of it is the judgement I receive at my barn about clicker training.  Some people are just curious and ask a lot of questions.  Some people don’t believe that it can be used to practically train horses to do anything other than “tricks”, and have told me that enough times that I just get a little… self conscious.

But enough people have heard me mope and whine about Murray’s leg hole that they’ve stopped asking, so I don’t need to keep explaining myself! Hooray, leg hole persistence.

The other reason I was avoiding training is that Murray wasn’t actually being very… cooperative. Pre-masticating several carrots just to have Murray crawl all over me to get his treats and not really pay attention to the click-treat paradigm is a waste of time and, quite frankly, not fun.  But then I had a little breakthrough with the treats.  Carrots are too high value right now.  Maybe because he’s on stall rest and needs enrichment in general, but carrots were just way too over-stimulating.  But a tiny handful of stable mix and rolled barley (a portion of his standard grain ration)?  Perfect.  He was willing to work for it, but his brain wasn’t shut down by the OMG SO GOOD desirability of the treat.

Pop quiz time! Which of the following things is Murray not known for?

a) his politeness and reasonable spatial awareness while hand walking
b) his attention to his handler’s stop/go motion while hand walking
c) his ability to control his feelings and not rear or buck at passing trucks while hand walking
d) all of the above

It is as Digital Underground said: the answer is D, all of the above.

when Murray bucks in-hand it’s actually weirdly polite: directed away from me (though not necessarily from other humans/animals) and he never pulls on me — once he hits the end of the lead rope he stops

We started re-establishing the basic click-treat connection while hand-walking.  Despite what my title says, if you click, you must treat.  Otherwise the relationship of the bridge breaks down.  When I stop, you stop.  When I go, you go.  When I say back, you go back.  This really helped me figure out how little food I could use as an effective reinforcer.  I started with my cupped hand full of grain — this was too much.  First, it took too long for Murray to hoover it out of my hand.  Second, with a high rate of reinforcement he ended up with too much food is his mouth and couldn’t keep accepting rewards.

Eventually, I realised that as few as five or six pellets of stable mix or about a tablespoon of rolled barley (or a combination thereof, as I mix the two together in a bucket) worked really well.  It was enough that Murray was satisfied, small enough that I could move my hand around for different positioning quite easily, and little enough that even with a really high rate of reinforcement Murray never had a bunch of food left in his mouth. I should have taken a picture of this amount, it’s smaller than you’d think.  And bonus: I no longer had to pre-masticate carrots.

To you this is a picture of a horse totally normally playing with a toy. To me, this is my horse performing a learned behavior that he literally did not know until today.  This jolly ball has sat in his paddock for a year.  He’s never touched it until today (some other horse threw it in there and his owner never reclaimed it).

Since last week, I’ve worked on a combo of stationary and in-motion behaviors.  When we’re walking I really want Murray to maintain a polite distance (at least one elbow’s-width from me) and not step into my bubble.  This definitely involves me throwing some elbows to remind him as well as clicking and treating.  On the ground there’s a whole suite of behaviors I’m excited to work on!  Like, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to touch my horse all over his body without having to use my entire body weight to hold his head down?  He doesn’t have to like it, I will happily take resigned but stationary annoyance when I clean out his nostrils and wipe down his face.  Even brushing his forelock is more dramatic than it needs to be — he doesn’t even dislike it, he just has to lift his head as high as he can when I lift up my arm, just in case I’m planning something awful.

So I trained it away. I lifted my hand up, and when Murray put his head down, I clicked and treated. Now when I lift my hand up he puts his head down and I can — gasp — put my hand on top of his head even though he’s way way way way way taller than I am.

I’ve been pretty impressed with how quickly this is coming along.  Not even just the behaviors (some are moving faster than others), but Murray’s ability to learn has improved in the last week.  For example, the other day, for the first time ever, Murray let me spray him in the face with fly spray.  Yes, not a spray on a brush and then tolerate putting it on his face.  He stood there, I sprayed him in the face (albeit from relatively far away so the drops that got to him were very small), and he didn’t run away,  break his halter, or break me.  That took a bunch of repetitions of me spraying fly spray on and around him with lots of reward for standing still, then quietly creeping the spray higher up his neck.  But it happened, and in about ten minutes too.

Now we’re working on station training so I can get pone to stand still while I mess with his body or do other things (coughtackupcough).  It’s going… okay.  Right now it’s more of target training, because Murray is only just learning that interacting with the jolly ball = treat.  What I really like about this video is that you can see his ears perk forward when he hears the click — it’s such a good demonstration of the value of the bridge. (Although I did commit the original sin of shooting in portrait.)

Here’s the last minute — literally — of our training session on Wednesday.  I changed the context up a little bit and stepped into his paddock (I’d done most of the work from the outside, as you can see in the first pic), and then moved further away from the ball.  Murray was torn between sticking close to me (holder of the pink bucket, giver of goodness).  Once I repositioned myself in relation to the ball, he was able to get back to the task at hand.

Hopefully I’ll have some fun clicker training updates in the future!  Our hand walking has to be cut back a bit because Murray got a rub under his bandage, so I think I can only really walk extensively if the bandage is off.  And that only happens every four days.  So there will definitely be more in-stall/paddock training sessions in our future.



Poor old Murray has been locked inside since the FrankenFace incident, as we didn’t want to give him the opportunity to open up his injury again or irritate it by rubbing it on any fencelines (protected though it was by a fly mask).  After seven days of this he was becoming… unpleasant to tack up.  After ten days he was downright miserable, and one day when I was working with him on the lunge just exploded in a fit of “MUST RUN MUST PLAY”.  And I was like “oh… duh… you would probably appreciate a chance to run around.”  So I turned him out in the outdoor arena and let him buck and kick to his heart’s content, and that’s what I’ve been doing for ten minutes or so before every ride since.  It has vastly improved our tacking up, and Murray’s overall mood.

IMG_8525Not from this week, but a pretty accurate depiction of at least the first 15 minutes of turnout.

Today I decided to go and play around with Murray while he was turned out, because I wanted to charge the clicker up a bit and get him in a learning mood.  Specifically, I wanted him to learn to weight his right hind more.  He’s a bit weak on that right hind, and the endless repetitions of leg yields and shoulder in is starting to get to me.  Plus, I don’t know that Murray really understands what it is I’m asking for when I ask him to yield to the left, so he can shittily just drag that right hind and not really cross it under, and defeat the exercise (because I’m not a major DQ, yo).  So to combat that, I thought I’d star him with some of the basics in-hand work to access that hind leg, and simply click and treat him for the movement/cross over of the inside hind.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  First we played around in the arena.  When Murray realised I was out there with carrots and the clicker he happily played along, and when I clucked and ran forward he actually trotted after me!  I was absolutely delighted.  It was like, all my free-work dreams, yo.

Yeah it was basically totally exactly like this.

And, because of course I’ve seen Piper the motherfucking wonder horse I was like “Oh maybe I can trick Murray into jumping!”  Murray has never really been interested in jumps at liberty, except as something to nibble upon or perhaps shit upon.  So after walking back and forth across a pile of poles a few times, I trotted towards them and lo and behold, Murray trotted with me!  Then I put up one side and BOOM.  Jumps.  Unfortunately, at this point Murray realised that our little game was turning into something that looked suspiciously like work and decided he would no longer trot after me when I asked.  But we got somewhere!!  And I figure, it can’t hurt to improve Murray’s relationship with jumping, can it?

Murray was extremely pleasant for tacking up, which was a lovely change from his recent behavior.  However, I kept clicking and treating through tacking up for him standing still.  I tried to go as long as I could without clicking, but Murray’s internal “moar treatz please” dispenser isn’t very long.  This did, however, reveal to me that Murray understands what I want from him during tack up (stand still), but that he also is willing to do whatever it takes to get treats from me during that time.  And he firmly, firmly believes that if I don’t treat him for standing still, I must want him to move around.  So that’s the next behavior he offers.  Unfortunately, he kinda wins either way — if he stands still, he gets treats, but if he wiggles, he doesn’t get the girth done up.  I will need to work out a way to extinguish the wiggling while still reinforcing the standing still.  Winter puzzles.

I did some of my actual goal of in-hand work — some nice turns on the forehand with Murray really stepping under.  Next will be to isolate the movement to his hind legs a little more (he still does small circles, but if I don’t have a little forward movement he will drag his inside hind around instead of stepping it under) and ask for a little more cross over.  Then perhaps we can work on some lateral movement in hand, though I have literally no idea of how to do that.

5-21 dressage 9I got on and our actual ride was borderline terrible.  Murray decided he was done and since all I wanted to do was some basic walk/trot/bend/give me your shoulders, I let him be done after he pitched a fit.  Which is a post for another time.

(No is his favourite word.)

More at liberty work is to come with the monster.  I’m actually crazy jealous of Piper and her person — she has another video of a young horse, Murray gives fewer fucks about  me than this foal does about her human!

clipping your intractable horse 101

This weekend I accomplished something that I’ve been dreaming of for a solid two years.

nodrugsArtistic style inspired by Emma.

Yep, that’s right friends.  Full body clip, NO DRUGS, NO TWITCH.  I know he looks like he’s drugged, but I swear he’s just tired/lazy/grazing.

For those of you that weren’t around last year, and since I didn’t blog in 2013, let’s briefly recap the last two years’ clipping adventures.

2013 — I hired my friend who clips beautifully and knows Murray really well (because our horses are turned out together).  Murray dances away from her, spooks at the extension cord, gets tangled in it, headbutts me, and generally behaves like his intractable, unpleasant self.  We give him 1.5 mL of Ace and it does next to nothing for the ticklish, flinchy dancing.  Clipper puts her humane twitch on him and Murray goes to his happy place and we get it done with minimal additional dancing

2014 — I hired my barn manager’s daughter, because I figured it would get my barn manager as well, which is the Murray Whisperer.  Murray steps out of his stall just having a No Good Very Bad Horrible Day.  He is spooky and horrendous and to even get the lip twitch on him requires several trips backwards down the barn aisle.  Once he’s twitched he’s fairly reasonable, but at some point he rears higher than I’ve ever seen a horse rear in person.  2 mL of Ace and more lip twitch later, we get a passable job done.

My goal this year was to clip Murray as much as I possibly could without drugging him.  To that end, I’ve been practicing.  But there’s only so much of rubbing vibrating clippers over your horse’s body you can do before you are basically done practicing, or you might as well just start clipping.  So on Saturday, I started clipping.


It wasn’t pretty in the beginning.  Despite all of our practice, Murray was like “This is garbage. There’s no way I’m doing this.  Nope.  No way.  Nothing is worth this torture.  I’m leaving.”  After about thirty minutes of this I was just about ready to resort to drugs.  I clipped all around his jugular vein, so I figured at least the injection site would be nice and clear.  But then I decided that Murray wouldn’t get away with being naughty and completely ignoring his training and what I was asking him to do.  Once I would turn on the clippers, Murray would dance away a little bit, jiggle around, and then turn around to me expecting a cookie.  Um, I don’t think so.  There was something wrong with our communication there, so I unhooked Murray from the blocker ring, and held on to his halter while I ran the clippers over his body.  I persisted beyond his jigging, kept the clippers on his body despite his wandering, and when he stopped wiggling I gave him a treat.  He stood still the next time I asked him to do so.  And the next time.  And then it seemed that we had crested the anxiety hump and Murray was, at least, resigned to his fate and willing to play my game.


One of my friends showed up and offered to help, and I thought it would be a great way to get some of the trickier spots done — belly, armpits, etc.  I slowly fed Murray carrots while she clipped the tricky bits, and we managed to get all of his belly done with only two real kicks.  I managed to do Murray’s butt pretty much on my own (the art came later), he just stood there, still and tied, while I clipped in his butt cheeks.  IN HIS BUTT CHEEKS.  That is not the horse I used to know.

I have to say, it’s pretty gratifying feeling to see the thick, fluffy hair falling away from your horse’s body!  I somehow managed to not even get that much caught in my clothes, which was awesome.

So there we have it.  A fully clipped horse who, the first time he encountered a pair of scissors, reared, snapped the cross ties, threw his body on the ground, and ended up lying underneath a stair well pretending to be dead.  Pride.  We has it.

IMG_20151108_120010~2Velociraptor by my RBF!