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!

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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!)