Thursday, September 17, 2009

Potent carrier of the happiness virus


A recent article in the New York Times' magazine discussed the findings of happiness researchers who report that happiness is contagious. I immediately knew their findings to be true because I live in a house with a creature who spreads happiness like frequent fliers spread swine flu.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Darby Diaries - "Pick me, pick me!"

I hope Darby's yearning intensity comes through in this photo. When I go to the barn at training time (the middle of the afternoon) he leans across the gate with the most earnest expression, saying, "Pick me! Pick me!"


This is the expression of a clicker-trained horse. I'm not dumb or naive; I know he wants the treats. But he knows we're going to play a game in which finding the correct answers to my questions is what gets him the treats. He knows there are treats and he knows there is a game that he always wins; it is a total win/win situation. And for me, in every session, I have an earnest student who is thinking and who is learning to understand what I want from him and who, without realizing it, is building up trust upon trust upon trust in every encounter because they all go well.

Well, almost all. The other day, Darby decided I was no longer allowed to pick up his right hind foot. Which, for the record, I have picked up nearly every day for the past five weeks with no problem. Not only would he not give me his foot, he also did an irritated little cow-kick when I tried. (This needs a post of its own called "Testing Boundaries" or "I Wonder What Happens When I Say No?") Not knowing what else to do, I unhooked the cross ties, put him in his stall, and took a couple of deep breaths while thinking how I should handle this situation. Then I remembered that Darby loves his training sessions. How better to "punish" him than to train someone else?

I got my beloved old Buckles out, put him in cross ties, and began grooming him. Buckles thought he'd died and gone to heaven and I was the Boss Angel in God's Heavenly Stable. I brushed and cooed and clicked loudly and often and made a huge show of giving treats and patting Buckles and telling him what a good boy he was. Now Buckles surely was surprised by this; it's no secret that Darby is the one in training and Buckles is maybe a bit neglected in the grooming department. However, my old guy rose to the occasion like it was his Broadway debut. He gobbled up the treats and the attention - at one point I think he purred - and was the perfect foil to help me bug Darby.

So, was Darby bugged? Well, at first he tugged on the cross tie he could reach from his stall (something he had never done before or since). This cross tie was one of two Buckles was tied to but Buckles and I ignored Darby. Seeing this had no effect, he began banging his water bucket (another thing I'd never seen him do; it was impressively noisy) and then he pawed for awhile. He was throwing a little tantrum; I smiled to myself.

I finished with Buckles, brought Darby back out and hooked him to the cross ties. He resisted my first attempt to pick up his right hind foot. I thought, "Okay, buddy. Last chance." Which must have taken just enough time for a light bulb to go on in his brain because the second try was easy, there was his foot and there were his ears going, "Oh, is this what you wanted?" in the most sweet and innocent way. I clicked, gave him a treat (or two), then finished up the session on a great note.

It is fair, though, and important, I think, to back up here and say, well, what if Darby had not been bugged by my working with Buckles instead of him? Certainly, this could have happened. One of the important things I've learned is to keep stopping and thinking.

If Darby had gone into his stall and started eating hay as if he were relieved to be off the hook, then I would have a lot of thinking to do. In any training situation, ten different trainers might come up with ten different solutions. So how do we know if the solution we have come up with is a good (or even great) solution? Here is what I think is the only criteria that makes sense: If the solution does nothing to destroy the trust, the confidence, and the enthusiasm that has been built up between the trainee and the trainer, it would be a good solution. Furthermore, I say, if the solution strengthens the trust, the confidence, and the enthusiasm between the trainee and trainer, that is a great solution.

I never want to lose that yearning intensity of my horse leaning over the gate, saying, "Pick me."

Seems like old times

Somehow, while Luke was home last weekend, he and Logan started talking about the good old days when they battled each other with their Pokemon cards. A search ensued, the cards were located (in a box in the basement), and the building of killer decks commenced.


In short order, the first battle was under way.


I would like to say I'm posting this here to embarrass them, but the reality is that I like it when my almost-adult sons act like kids again for a little while. It makes me feel not quite so obsolete.

(And Joanie, remember, Barbie and her amazing wardrobe are all mine!)

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Darby Diaries - Walking on the trailer

Darby rode ten hours on a trailer from North Carolina to Ohio so it's not like he's never been on a trailer before but I want Darby's trailer experiences to be more than a nerve-wracking trip from point A to point B. I want him to walk into a trailer like he walks into or out of his stall. In fact, I want him to consider the trailer his barn away from barn. To get to that point, he has to spend a lot of time in and around the trailer.
loading Darby 1
Ideally, my horses should walk into the trailer without needing me to walk in first. I'm glad Darby is a yearling. Before he is full grown and takes up most of the trailer space, I want him to be comfortable going in and out without me squeezing in there too. I feel unsafe when I am in a trailer with a horse because the space is so crowded.
loading Darby 2
In training, you never start at your goal. You start way before that and you find ways to break the training down into little bits that are easy for the horse to grasp. Darby already targets on my hand and leads well, so I led him, slowly and snorting, up to the scary open trailer door. He stopped at the step so I went in ahead of him and I gave little tugs on the lead rope. When he stuck his head in the door, reaching toward me, I clicked my tongue and gave him a treat. Right then, I could see his focus change from being scared to thinking, "Hey! Peppermint! I want some more." So he sticks his head in a bit further and even picks up a front foot. Click, treat.

He's on to the game now. One foot in the trailer, click, treat. He backs up, puts his foot back on the ground. But I note that he moves his hind legs further underneath his barrel, making it easier for him to lift up his front end. He stands and thinks about it. He sticks his head toward me, I put out my target hand, he leans in even further to touch my fist. There is very little going on, physically, but Darby's mental wheels are churning as he tries to reconcile his unease about the trailer with his strong desire for a treat.
loading Darby 3
The first day I practiced loading Darby, he got on and off the trailer twice in about fifteen minutes. Using clicks and treats, he edged his way into the trailer, stayed in there with me for about twenty seconds, then got scared by the hollow sound his feet made against the floor so he quickly backed out and off the trailer. He stood outside the trailer for a second, collected his cool, and when I resumed my tugs on the lead rope, he came right up into the trailer again. I clicked, he ate his treat, and he backed back off the trailer. Both times he began backing, I said, "back," because I want him to learn to wait for me to tell him to back - but that is the end goal. First he has to learn that the word back in this situation is the same as the word back when he's in his stall or in cross ties.

The other long term goal is to get Darby to be comfortable staying on the trailer. Eventually, he needs to learn that he can't just get on the trailer and back off; he has to stay on the trailer. To do this, once he was loading calmly and reliably, I began putting his jackpot of sweetfeed in the trailer. Since he was now loading so quickly, I didn't need the treats during the loading. The next thing I wanted him to learn was staying in the trailer so I put something in there that made him want to stay.
rewarding Darby
It is so important that anyone training a horse (or a child) remember that in every single thing you teach there is always a background element of self-control. I am so grateful to be working with Darby while he is a yearling because self-control is a subject like math - what you learn today is built upon what you learned yesterday. Self-control has to be built up day by day until you end up with a horse who has learned to control himself. This is the difference between a horse in the wild and a horse who is expected to get along and thrive in a training situation - the horse in training (or the kid in school) will only be successful if they have learned to have control over themselves.

Control imposed from the outside will always show itself - usually in the worst possible time and place. The only reliable control for anyone, human or not, is self-control. When you create situations over a period of time where your "student" has to practice self-control, you will develop a mature partner rather than an underling who requires constant monitoring. This is true of horses or teenagers-- but it's easier with horses.