Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Word About Clicker Training and Treats

This will be a quick post but I wanted to answer some questions and respond to a few comments that I've received about treating during training.  To start, if you listen to the video I posted of Marley laying down, you can faintly hear the sound of the clicker I use, called the "bridge", as it bridges the behavior and the reward.  Marley knows that if he hears that sound, he has done something correctly.  Immediately after I bridge a few times, Marley starts nickering, a lot!  He knows he is going to get rewarded, but there is also something else going on here. 

Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
I do not treat every time I train.  I use random interrupted reinforcement, which means that Marley never knows if he is going to get a small amount of grain, his favorite carrots, or a pat and "good boy".  He also never knows the amount of reward, as I vary it.  This keeps Marley from expecting a reward, or only wanting to work for larger rewards.  It is the same system used for gambling, if you sit at a slot machine you never know what you'll get, how much you'll win, or when you will win.  This keeps people sitting for hours, because when you do win, even a little bit, it is rewarding and you want to stay for more.  In this particular video I have given Marley a "bingo" or "jackpot" reward.  This is especially effective when training a new behavior, which Marley's "lay down" is.  I essentially gave him everything I had in my pouch for laying down, letting me sit on him, and then staying down until I asked him to stand up.  Marley usually nickers a lot, but the reason Marley continues to nicker and look back at me in this video for rewards is because I continue to  reward my entire allotment of grain and carrots for that particular session.  He is not expecting a reward until he knows he is getting one, which is marked by the bridge.  I end the session here because I want that to be the last thing Marley remembers about training that day.

One more thing, I do not feed cookies as a reward.  I use his daily ration of grain spread out over the day, and I'll add some carrots into the mix to give him occasionally to keep him interested.  Many times, especially in dog training, trainers will treat a behavior every time. I have found though that the random reinforcement schedules we used with the dolphins is much more effective, fun for the animal, and you will generally keep their attention for a longer period of time..

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Enjoying our New Found Freedom

I've said it before but I'll say it again.  It is so nice to not be training for something, but rather going wherever our sessions take us.  I have been focusing on details in Marley's training that weren't important for the Extreme Mustang Makeover, but that I personally want in a future competition partner.  More than anything though, we have been doing so much ground work!  We are refining a lot of the clicker behaviors and going backwards a little bit in order to move forward onto more advanced clicker work.  My goal for this summer is to teach Marley to actually come up into a frame solely using shaping.  That is a tall order for the summer, but even if we can get that behavior started, so many amazing doors will open in terms of training in dressage and even over fences. 

You see, clicker training is good for more than just tricks!  For those of you that have read our entire history, it is how I introduced the bit, bending, turning, leading, backing, trailer-loading, lead changes, etc.  With the pressure of the 90 days breathing down our neck constantly however, I was previously satisfied with "good enough" in order to get us moving onto the next order of business.  Now with time, I am really raising my standards and hope to demonstrate that positive reinforcement training can yield more than just a back yard, trustworthy pony (but lets be honest, is there really anything better than that?).  The great part about this is that I've never trained upper level maneuvers with a clicker, so you will all get to see the trial and error version.  Sorry for this, but then again, it may also end up being really interesting for all of us training geeks out there.

So, back to Marley.  It has been hot as heck, which I'll take if my other option is wind, rain, and mud!  Mike and I are planning a hiking trip up to my absolute favorite Colorado hidden gem, Chicago Lakes (3 beautiful natural mountain lakes close to the base of mount evens and require a long hike in so no one is ever there), and I would love to bring Marley, just leading him, as horses are allowed on the trail.  I don't think it is going to happen this early in the summer unfortunately, as we are still sans trailer, but I look forward to getting him out into the mountains, where I know he is probably the most comfortable.  I still can't believe my horse used to be wild, I think about it a lot.

Marley's lay down behavior has gotten so good, check out the video Katherine took, along with a few stills.  I just love how freely and happily he lays down, and I never once used a rope to tie up his leg or lean him over.

Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
Photo by Katherine Payne Photography

Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
Isn't he the cutest?  Mike and I were looking at photos last night of him from the beginning, he doesn't even look like the same horse.  Check out this photo from day 2.  What a fuzzy monster!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Day.... Who's counting anyway?

It sure feels great to not be counting days any longer.  I'm sorry for the delay in posts, however I was unsure of how I wanted to continue the blog.  I thought about starting a new site, so as to leave the 90 days of Extreme Mustang Makeover its own story.  I realized though that without the EMM opportunity, I wouldn't have met Marley and none of this would have come to be, and so here this story continues...

 Mike getting Marley out for some sunshine after his bath.  They thought they would do a little rock climbing while they were out.
Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
   Our bidder number                             "Really? You guys are always
   at the EMM auction                                 doing stupid stuff to me"
Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
Our turn on the auction block
Photo by Katherine Payne Photography

The past two weeks have slowed down tremendously.  It was apparent immediately after the excitement from the auction wore off that Marley, Mike and I were all completely exhausted.  Not only had we all worked really hard to make sure we turned out a safe, reliable horse for anyone to adopt, but we were also really nervous that someone else would agree and we would have had to say goodbye to our amazing little horse.  Luckily, none of that happened, but the stress it caused leading up to the auction definitely took a couple of years off my life.  Needless to say, we all took some time off of training and relaxed a little lot.  For an entire week I either rode Marley with only a halter or I didn't ride at all.  We had a lot of play time in the arena and after a few days of rest, Marley's energy was way up again.  He is back to tearing around the arena with his tail in the air and chasing after Mike with much enthusiasm.

Marley continuing his clicker training and down behavior, no need to hose him down anymore! He gets it!

Yesterday we started back to work under saddle.  My plan is to take a few days to get him back to where we were prior to the event as we not only have all the time in the world, but I also want to really focus on some of the minor details that 90 days just simply doesn't allow for.  Additionally, we will be doing a lot of ground work.  I have so many plans with the clicker, and I'm really excited to start putting everything together.  While we were in Fort Collins, we met Mary Kitzmiller who also trains with a clicker.  She gave me a lot of great ideas and I am just so excited to show the world what great things positive reinforcement training can do for any animal. 

Lastly, I want to share a really great story from last weekend at the Extreme Mustang Makeover.  Many of you may know having been there that the auction was simply not as great as it apparently had been in the past.  Many wonderful horses weren't selling for much, if at all.  Perhaps it was the economy, perhaps the EHV-1 outbreak that left people unsure if the event would even happen, but there weren't enough adopters to bring everyone home.  By the end of the event, the amazing staff at Mustang Heritage Foundation had adopted out all of the horses, except one.  Mike and I were already ecstatic to be bringing Marley home, but it was hard to stay enthusiastic as we learned that one little horse wasn't going to get a home.  Before too many of you jump to conclusions here, let me first say it was Mike's idea (that I went gladly along with obviously) that we adopt the last horse and just figure it out later.  We didn't even know his name and ran over to the barn with only 15 minutes to go before we had to give a definite "yes" or "no" on whether we would bring him home.  We breathlessly explained to the trainer that we were interested in his horse and asked if we could please try him, and within minutes I had my English saddle (on a western trained horse) and a rope halter as a bridle.  He stood calmly, though a little confused, as I climbed up onto his back.  It didn't take me long to realize he was just as sweet as could be, and that's all it took.  We ran back to the BLM table, signed his papers, and just like that we now had two horses.  After we signed his papers, we learned his name; Karma.

Our plan for Karma was loosely formed to say the least.  I made a few calls, thought about keeping him as a project horse to later find a home, or if all else failed I knew my Mom wouldn't let him be homeless, and her and Tom have yet to tear down that pasture fence.  The day after Karma came home, Joy Kramer of Bibber Creek came to take a look at him, immediately fell in love (how could you not!) and the rest is history!  Karma's future is brighter than ever and I'm so excited to follow his progress. 

Karma - such a little cutie!
Karma exploring his new home with Joy at Bibber Creek!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Welcome Home Marley

Marley has officially come home.  Thank you to everyone who made it possible, there are literally no words that describe how happy I was when the auctioneer said "Sold to his trainer, Lauren Kolker!".

When I started this project, I thought it would be a great opportunity to change a horse's life and make a small dent in the thousands of mustangs who need to be adopted.  I didn't expect for that little horse to come in and change my life.  Mike was joking to the Mustang Heritage Foundation staff today that on day 4 I cried (which I actually did) and said "we only have 86 more days with him!" but thankfully, I was wrong.

I now plan to slow Marley's training down a bit, he is only 4 after all.  We will keep riding, playing, clicking, and growing, but without the pressure of a time line.  We will continue to build a solid foundation, and Mike will be taking weekly riding lessons on Marley.  There is so much in our future, but for right now, I just want to enjoy this moment.  When Mike and I said "Marley! You're officially ours!" he looked at us and I could have sworn he was saying "wasn't I already?"

Photo by Katherine Payne Photography

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Extreme Mustang Makeover

What a weekend!  We did all kinds of stuff that we have never done before, and considering everything, I'm so proud of Marley.  We had great practice runs it was so nice to be able to work in the arena before the event started each day.  Marley is still a little unsure of that big indoor arena with all of it's sights and sounds, but considering he has never even seen an indoor arena, I think he did great.  My nerves didn't help much either of course, it's intimidating riding out there with a whole bunch of cowboys who I know have their opinions (I overheard). 

We did improve though, which is what it was all about for us.  Even with me forgetting the reining pattern and missing the roll back (don't worry, I turned around and completed it) we still got a pretty decent score in the reining.  Perhaps the most hilarious part of today was that our best class (the one we thought we would do terrible in) was the cow class!  Marley was much less afraid of the people in the stands, and only balked at them as we first trotted in.  We even got a canter transition from a standstill!  This is huge for us as our canter work in the arena has been a struggle.  Once it was time to let the cow out, all of those games of chase we play in the arena must have kicked in... and I thought he was going to be afraid of the cow!

After letting Marley eat and relax for a while, we got to show off Marley's clicker training to some family friends and anyone else who happened to be in the barn.  Marley was really cute, and even though he still wont do all of his tricks here, he has relaxed enough to stay pretty focused without a lead on and did quite a few of them. 

Thank you so much to everyone who has been watching, reading, listening, supporting, and cheering for us.  You've all made this experience even more memorable, and we've met some really great people here this weekend.  Oh, and I forgot... of all horses Marley would be stabled next to, he is next door neighbors with Okie!  The only other clicker trained horse in the competition!  It was really fun to meet him and his trainer Mary, and it was great to swap stories and learn more about clicker training with horses. 

Now, we just have to get through tomorrow.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Day 90 - No turning back now!

Marley and I arrived safe and sound in Fort Collins around 1:00 today for our 90th and final day of training before it all begins.  We spent the entire day settling in and getting used to all of the sights and sounds.  For starters, Marley was really unsure about even going into the barn when we arrived.  We immediately had to check in with the EMM staff and get temperature readings and turn in our paper work.  Even though Marley was nervous, he stood still while the staff painted his hip number on (24) all while loud noises from horses, riders, and a tractor were echoing through the barn.

Our stall is in a great place for allowing Marley to take it all in.  It is right next to a warm up arena and there is all kinds of commotion.  I'm hoping this will help him habituate to all of the excitement by tomorrow.

After letting Marley settle in and eat some lunch, I decided to take him into the arena for a ride.  I was hoping to practice some of what we would need to do tomorrow, but I ended up not asking him for much of anything except to relax.  The indoor arena is HUGE and it has stadium seating above the horses head level.  There was music playing, funny lighting, tons of horses ripping around, and Marley was overwhelmed.  We probably spent a good hour walking and trotting around just looking at everything.  We had to specifically visit each sponsor sign because once he realized one of them wasn't going to eat him, he was sure the next one would.  He did calm down though, and I was happy with his progress so I left it at that.
"Well, THIS is different!!"

Later in the evening after our trainer meeting, most of the riders went back in to the arena for a second ride.  I decided that with at least three rides tomorrow I would just hand walk Marley through the arena again.  Some of these horses here are in much better condition than Marley, and I just know that if I rode him twice today, three times tomorrow, and then three times on Saturday he would be absolutely pooped.  Besides, I think after a night of being in this new place he will have settled down and probably come out better tomorrow.  At least lets hope!

I'll keep updating the blog while we are here, so check back if you want to read about it!  I'm not expecting much tomorrow in all honesty, so my plan is to just go out there, do our best, and hopefully learn something in the process.

I can't believe we have completed our 90 days, it's absolutely unreal how quickly it went.  I hope to see some of you out this weekend and I'm looking forward to introducing Marley to everyone who has spent time following him on our blog.  Thank you all for your encouragement and support, and for thinking Marley is awesome, because I think he is too.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Day 89

Once again, a short update because well, there just isn't much to say.  Marley and I had a really nice ride this evening and enjoyed our time together.  I realized that he has never drug anything before and that is one of the requirements which I have overlooked, so, I tied my lunge line to a pole and off we went.  It was a little scary at first, but we took baby steps, and pretty soon Marley was dragging that thing all over the arena without a care.  I'm not really sure if that's what the judges are looking for, but at least our last minute training session will hopefully take the scary aspect out of it.

Photo by Steve Heller

I'm so excited to meet all of the other mustang trainers, everyone has been so helpful and supportive of each other throughout this competition, that it really doesn't even seem like a competition.  These horses really are the stars of this show, and the respect and love shown to them has been really heart warming.  I'm lucky to have had this opportunity.

I plan to ride at the arena in Fort Collins tomorrow to give Marley a chance to see an indoor for his first time ever, and get to meet some of the other horses.  I have the trailer packed, the tack cleaned, his health certificate, and a record of his temperature from the last few days... Fort Collins, CO here we come!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Day 88

Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
Marley got his health certificate today and is all ready to travel to Fort Collins for the makeover.  We had a nice ride today and took it pretty easy, I don't want to tire him out so close to an event where we will be riding 3 or more times a day.

I have to say, our cater work is still pretty atrocious, even though it has gotten so much better from when we started.  I have decided that for the makeover I'll just let him canter on a light rein, maybe even a loose rein if we are having trouble.  We did however get some really nice leg yields today, and I quit on that note as I was really happy with how quiet, willing, and responsive Marley was being.

Only two days to go.  Light riding from here on out and a workout at the CSU arena on Thursday afternoon for our final training session before the event.  Gulp.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Day 85, 86, and 87

Day 85 and 86

Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
It was a crazy weekend so Marley got a couple days to chill out a little.  My best friend since I was 2 years old got married and we spent the weekend celebrating with her and her husband.  They are moving to Greece to start their life together with a little bit of adventure, and we are going to miss them dearly. 

Since the weekend was all about the Hellers, Marley enjoyed light work and play time.  I worked a little bit on our required movements and lateral work, and then a lot of loose rein circles and canter work.  Jake gave me a new western saddle that is a little bit lighter for me, so I have be riding in it to get used to it a little bit before we go this weekend.

Also, while Stephanie (my girlfriend who just got married) and I were running around doing last minute errands, Mike came out with a couple of his friends to bring Marley out for some play time.  Each one of the guys took turns walking up to him and haltering him and leading him around which was great for Marley.  Mike said he was unsure a little unsure at first, but the last time I left Mike alone with Marley on day twenty something it didn't work out too well, so this was great news. 

Day 87

Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
It was a really beautiful evening tonight when I went out to the barn to ride Marley.  Again I didn't work him really hard as at this point I would rather just go with what we've got than stress out over what we haven't gotten to yet.  After my minor panic attack on day 84 with the regression of our turn on the haunches, I was reminded to not try to fit too much into these final sessions and just try to stay relaxed and have fun.  Well, I'll sure try! Though I'm definitely far from feeling relaxed.

I would like to know that on Sunday I'm bringing my horse home with me, but I just don't know.  We are far from our wish list goal and I don't know what Marley will go for on Sunday, so we might just flat out be outbid.  Uuuugggghhhh, I can't take the suspense any longer.  Only 3 more days to go.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Day 84 - 6 days and counting

I am exhausted!  Marley was a very good boy under saddle today.  We had some trouble with our turn on the haunches, which normally isn't a really big deal but I think Marley was getting confused.  I left it alone for a while and came back to it, and when we got a few good steps I left it at that.  At this point, I don't think I am going to try to make any forward progress with our training under saddle even though we aren't where we should be, rather I will work on what we have to refine it the best I can. 

After a good ride I worked on Marley's "down" behavior again.  I don't know if I'll be able to use it or not at the EMM, but it's still really fun to train, and I'll hopefully have him for longer than another week.  He went down several times on cue, and rolled twice off cue, but I gave him a "jackpot" (the rest of my carrots) when I gave him the cue and he immediately put his head down and dropped to the ground.  It was his best approximation yet, and now that he is laying down, I will have to shape it so that he knows that if it is cued, he doesn't roll, and he stays down until I ask him to stand up.  Not sure how long that will take as shaping usually takes longer than simply catching a behavior and rewarding it (this simply increases the frequency of the behavior). 

Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
Can it please be the 13th?  I just want this to be over.  It's hard to not look at other trainer's blogs and progress reports, and each blog update I write is harder and harder as the event gets closer.  I can't believe how quickly 90 days goes, but one thing I am thankful for is that before EMM I never would have thought that in 90 days I could do what Marley and I have done, regardless of how we measure up to any of the other horses and trainers.  My goal was to have a sound, safe horse by the end of the 90 days, and to demonstrate the effectiveness of positive reinforcement training.  I never thought we would would/could get as far as we have because I had never seen any of the Extreme Mustang Makeovers in the past. 

Going into this blind was actually a huge blessing because I didn't have expectations going in that I find myself fighting with as we near the end, now that I know what trainers are capable of accomplishing with their horses.  If anything, I think it really does go to show that with some knowledge, patience, and an open mind, anyone can do this.  You don't have to be some big time trainer to make it work, and I think that's what this whole thing is about anyway.  These horses need good homes and so many of them will live out their lives in holding for no good reason.  Not one horse I have seen in this has walked onto the trailer looking like anything extraordinary, but now I don't think anyone would argue that every single one of them is.  It's really cool, and I would absolutely do it again.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Day 83

I had a short day of training with Marley today, not because I planned it that way, but because the wind was practically unbearable.  Even Marley who is usually not phased by wind was irritated with the sand blasting in our faces as we attempted to ride.  I dumped my training plan and got some good canter work in both directions then called it quits.  

Photo by Katherine Payne Photography

Outside of the arena it didn't feel as bad because we weren't being pelted with sand.  I decided to see if I could get Marley to lie down again and progress with his "down" behavior.  As soon as he went to roll and I clicked and rewarded him, you could practically see the light blub go off.  He started nickering and didn't roll, so I rewarded him a few times and then asked him to stand up.  He definitely knew what he had been rewarded for, and sure enough he went to lay down again.  He gladly accepted the carrots and was pretty pleased with himself.  But then instead of getting up, he figured he would have a nice roll first.  What a goof. 

Marley's "ah ha!" moment
Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
 It's important for Marley to be comfortable while lying down, so I rewarded him for staying down and being calm
Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
 Marley Hugs
Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
Start to accepting me on his back while lying down, both hands in rein position and body over his back
Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
 "Hey, what are you doing?"
Photo by Katherine Payne Photography
"What do you mean stand up?  I think I'll have a nice roll first."
Photo by Katherine Payne Photography

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Day 82

Another beautiful, rain free day of training.  There will be some great photos from today, but it will take a couple of days to get them up.  In the meantime, here's the update!

Since this is my last week off of school before Summer session starts (yeah I know, who takes summer classes anyway?  Doesn't that defeat the purpose of summer!?) I have been spending long days with Marley.  Between ground work, play time, and relaxing together, I spent about 5+ hours with him today.  I'm loving it though, especially because while I don't want to think about it, I might have to say goodbye to him in a week and I'm thankful I have all of this time to play with him between semesters. 

Marley was excellent with the tarp today and was actually playful when I brought it out.  When I opened it up to place it on the ground and shook it a little bit, Marley came over with his ears perked like "oh I know what to do now!".  He couldn't be less nervous about it, so I decided that when I would ride him later I would bring the tarp out and leave it on a barrel for something new. 

After working on some of our in hand maneuvers and round pen work, I tacked Marley up to ride. Today I wanted to work on him moving forward without pressure (something I'm working in with my own body) and continue where we left off with our transitions.  Again, I feel like it's going to be impossible for me to get to everything we are supposed to be prepared for in the competition, but you know, I've kind of come to terms with that.  I think Marley is pretty great, and if I bring him home, then I guess that's all that really matters.  If I don't bring him home, I hope whoever does will take their time and be patient with him, because that is what he knows.

My stirrups are feeling more comfortable every day, and my goal is to lower them one more hole before the competition.  I'm constantly reminding myself to relax my legs, and then when I do, I have to remind myself to relax my core, but it is helping and we have gotten some great moments of sitting trot.

After a great ride I hosed Marley down and decided to start something new with the clicker.  I have been trying to decide how I was going to teach Marley to lay down.  Traditionally, people will use ropes to teach the horse to lay down, and while many people are comfortable with this technique, I have never done it so I was afraid of damaging any trust I've built up.  I've seen it trained when horses offer to paw at the ground and then the behavior is shaped from there, but that takes a very long time and Marley doesn't lay down a whole lot so I don't know that he would think to offer it easily.  He does however love to get a good roll in every time he gets a bath, so I decided I would try to capture the roll by hosing him down, taking him to the paddock, then clicking and rewarding as soon as he lays down to roll.  He did roll, just as I had suspected and when I clicked I also said "Down".  For now, he has no idea what it means, but I'm hoping if he can associate that word with laying down, then I will be able to shape a captured behavior into something a little bit more refined that I could hopefully one day get under saddle even.  Once he was down and I rewarded him, he was surprised and didn't try to get back up.  I started petting him and moving his neck and head around, touching his legs and his back, and generally just tried to make this whole new experience fun for him.  I have sat with Marley while he was laying down before, but never in a training session or in the middle of his paddock, and never had he been rewarded for it, so he was a little shocked.  My plan is to repeat this (bath and then paddock) for the next few days to see if I'm able to get the behavior on cue.  I have no idea what to expect.

Kisses on day 23