Archive for the ‘The Post of Don Sam Incognito’ Category

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

June 1, 2009

The other day, I met a woman walking her dog and baby stroller along our road. They stopped to let the dog, a curly coated Chesapeake, play with Jeter.

“So you own the white horse?” she asked. “My daughter thinks he’s a magical horse.”

“That’s Sam,” I said, “and he is a magical horse.”

Sam and Mattie came through the winter in fine form and are now sleek coated and getting some muscle definition—at least Sam is. After a long stretch of clicker training, both horses seem to have responded in ways I hoped them to—especially Sam. He hasn’t been head butting—except for the occasional slip up—and he knows the command “stand” and remembers to use his lips, not his teeth to take a treat. Mattie has her ears up more, but she and I need to go back to the clicker now that I’m saddling and mounting—both things she has lots of anxiety about.

Life is great for Sam, however, since he met Casey, who is part of a campus horse club. She’s an experienced rider without a horse and she’s coming out twice a week to work with and ride Sam. It’s great to see him respond to her. He’s bonded with her quickly—I have to remind him that I’m his person, too, sometimes—and he comes up to her and behaves like a gentleman for her, mostly. Because she’s willing to come twice a week to ride him, I can concentrate on solving some long standing issues with Mattie, including mounting and saddling.

It’s summer, summer, summer. The days are warm, the horses gleam in the corral, the garden is slowly getting planted on schedule (today’s our last frost date, so traditional planting day). Except for the earthquakes and tremors we’ve been experiencing the past few days, this is the best time of year here or anywhere.

Need to get back to the greenhouse, now.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

April 23, 2009

Not much to report on the training scene right now as we wait for the corral to clear of packed ice and snow melt. Sam and Mattie are responding to the clicker training, but I’m not sure I’ve been trained well enough to make it stick at this point. When I click the clicker, Sam arches his neck down, knowing that a treat will follow. But he’s so smart and has been able to push people around for so long, that he eventually tries to get around me to get the treat without the work.

I spent some time on You Tube the other night watching videos of Andalusians doing high school tricks and movements. These were Mexican Andalusians, mostly, broad-backed, high strung, athletic. I watched the passage and piaffe to see what the riders did with their aids and whips. Some of the riders weren’t trying to be subtle, so I could see how they shifted their weight at each step and even cued the horses’ shoulders during the Spanish Walk. One horse crouched down in piaffe to launch into cabriole, leaping up and kicking his hind legs straight behind him.

I watched horses at liberty and under saddle; some were Spanish, some French, some German. Many of them did tricks, as well, bowing, lying down with the rider then getting up again. None of this is usual dressage arena fare, but it gave me some ideas of how Sam may have been trained at one point and why he’s so excitable about being asked to work.

Today, I decided to get back to working with them, despite the moonscape quality of the corral. Both horses are a bit too fat right now, in spite of my care in how much hay they get at each feeding. I’ve decided that the hay–from two different growers–has two different levels of sugar content. I’m feeding mostly from one side of the hay barn now, trying to empty out that bay so I can clean under the pallets and fill it up again with the first cutting of summer. But they’re doing too well on it, and now we need to cut back a bit and step up the exercise a bit.

Which brings me to today. Monday, I was in the corral with Sam trying to scrape some of the manure layer off the packed snow/ice layer. It was a lovely warm afternoon, and Sam wanted to play gelding games with me. I wanted him to be a cuddly horse, one that I could lean against, forehead to forehead, as I had once done with my childhood horse, Bambi. Sam is a trickster, and I knew better, but I was off my guard, and busy with the rake and shovel. He came over and put his face near mine and swung it toward me as I moved, catching me on the mouth. I got a split lip and more determination to follow through with the clicker work. I’ve gotten too casual with it.

Today, I had him on a lead rope, standing in the middle of the corral. I had the clicker and gave the command, “Stand” and clicked and treated only when he stood still with his head straight in front of him and not at my pocket or near my face. He tried backing up–no treat. He tried holding his head sideways the way I taught him to at the command, “Wait”–no treat. Eventually he got it, though it’s still a pose for him.

I managed to get piles of white hair out of his winter coat using the shedding blade and got him to stand untied while I picked his feet–even the hind, which he likes to feint cow-kick when I go to pick them up. After we did this, I tacked him up in longe gear: a nylon surcingle, cavesson, a longeing headstall and bit, sidereins. We’ve gotten a bit stuck in our longeing, something he used to do like a champ. Now he just wants to circle his hindquarters around to face me. I know I’ve done something to give him this idea, but don’t know what.

Instead of longeing, and in spite of being all tacked up, I just walked him around the corral with my hand on his neck, companionable, but maintaining the space between us. When we did this, he seemed relaxed and interested. When I tried backing off and moving him forward with the longe whip, he got the old doubtful look in his eye. So, I put the whip away and walked with him, but a little farther away, marking the space with a pointed finger rather than the longe whip. At one point he was far enough out on the line that he began to trot. He wouldn’t do this to the other side, but I decided that, given the ice and muck in the corral–not good conditions for going faster than a walk–that this was good enough. I ended the session by scratching him on the withers and down the groove in his back over his spine. He stool high headed, twisting his upper lip in pleasure. I don’t remember him liking to be scratched so much, but maybe he’s only now trusting me enough to let me find the spot. He was pretty shut down three years ago when he first came to us.

Then I worked with Mattie on “Ears up” and groomed her and worked with her at liberty–a trust exercise for her and for me. She didn’t trot, but walked well away from me at the pointing of the driving whip. Mattie is less of a puzzle to me because I know what she doesn’t know and she’s very clear–sometimes threateningly so–when she’s confused or worried about what I’m asking. Then I back off a little and try again in another way. In spite of this, she really does trust me and will let me lean against her and will rest her head on me in a way Sam won’t.

Lots of preliminary work, still, before the corral is in good enough shape to ride, but all in all, a good day with horses.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

March 3, 2009

Sam’s Dream

This afternoon, I went out to work with Mattie to reinforce some of the clicker training I’ve been doing with her. Now that it’s March, the sun is higher in the sky and stays out longer so that, at 2 in the afternoon, both horses are dozy and take naps in the sun.

When I got to the corral, Mattie’s halter slung over my shoulder, brushes in the grooming bag in one hand, clicker and beet pellets in my pocket, I noticed Sam stretched out flat, a white horse sleeping in the snow. He lay completely still; a thin cirrus of breath rose from his nose. Every time I see the horses sleeping like this, I have a moment of panic. As a child, I read that horses sleep standing up, which they can, and I saw horses sleeping with their legs tucked under them and chins resting on the ground. But it wasn’t till I had these two in a corral so close that it seems like part of my living room that I realized that, like us, horses need periods of deep REM sleep, totally relaxed. It’s a sign of how safe they feel in my corral, I guess, that they can sleep so vulnerably as this, though I notice that they do it one at a time, with the other usually standing watch.

I stood watching him for at least five minutes, maybe more. His breath was slow and long and I could see it rise in a mist around his head at regular intervals. His ears swiveled forward and back, as if he were listening to a rider he respected. His hooves twitched, first the back, then the front. Once, I saw his legs move as if pushing off into a collected canter. Sometimes he bobbed his head up and down slightly. Sometimes he wobbled his lips as if taking a treat or working his mouth on a bit. His eyes flickered, too; they seemed to open and close. He switched his tail.

I wondered what I was watching. I imagined he was dreaming of his former life, the training he had, the shows or exhibitions. I imagine that Sam loved his training and worked with an exacting trainer who taught him things I’ll never know about. I imagine that he misses this work, and has only tolerated those of us who’ve had him in our lives since them. Sam doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and in his eyes, we all may be fools.

I have to go through a pass-through between Sam’s and Mattie’s sides of the corral to get to Mattie, so I waited for Sam to wake up. I could have walked right by him, but he would have heard me coming and sprung to his feet. Eventually, he opened his eyes and rolled to his belly, feet tucked under him, head up to see me. I held my hand up, in the “stand” gesture, and he lay there, still drowsy, and let me walk up to him and scratch his forehead-something he usually resists. I talked to him and rubbed him on the neck, then left him, still resting, and went to see Mattie.

Things went well with Mattie. I worked on clicker training to reinforce the “ears up” command and “stand” as I groomed her with the rope slung over her withers. She was drowsy, too, a black mare in the sun. When I brushed the sun side of her, her coat felt so warm that I didn’t need my gloves. I finished by picking out her tail, using detangler, while she stood, head half-lowered, eyes half closed.

All in all a good day to be with horses.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

February 26, 2009

Spring Training: Clicking Back, Stand, Ears Up

Another clicker training session with Sam and Mattie this afternoon. I’ve been down with a sore throat and sinus lately–not good for working with horses in the cold. But today, energy back, I worked with Sam and Mattie and the clicker again.

Sam is really picking up on this game. When I went into the corral with the halter and yogurt container, he came up to me, interested. He now will bump the container with his nose wherever I put it. We played a game where I put the container on the ground and told him to stand then moved it and told him “touch” and he walked over to it and bumped it, then looked at me. I then tried adding the clicker to commands Sam already knows, hoping to reinforce them.

Sam is a horse who thinks he knows better than any human and is always testing to see what he can get away with. I’m hoping to refine some basic “manners” with him and build on these to reshape his attitude a bit. I don’t know if this can be done, but I’ve seen Mattie change over time from my teaching her “ears up,” so maybe Sam can change, too.

We started with the command, “Back,” which he already knows, supported by my walking towards him and shaking the lead rope. He will often push me with his head (or try to), and he doesn’t like me to be positioned anywhere but on his left side. I’m hoping to get him to step backwards at a verbal command. I started by saying “back” and stepping toward him. When he stepped back, I clicked the clicker and gave him a beet pellet. We did it again, three times. Then I said, “Back” and waited till he moved his feet backward on his own. Then I clicked the clicker and gave him the treat. We did this a few times, till he was taking several steps back on his own. Then we did the same thing with the command, “stand,” which he knows, but isn’t as patient with as Mattie. I was able to give him the command, “stand” and step away from him to the front and to both sides. Then, because I couldn’t reach him to offer the reward when he was standing away from me, I added “step up,” which they both know and do, mostly. We did this from the front and both sides, then went back to “back.”

Doing clicker training with Sam convinces me even more that someone has trick-trained Sam in the past, possibly with a clicker. Not only did he pick all this up quickly, but he seemed engaged and, if I can say this, amused. I’ve read that this type of training can improve the relationship between horse and human, and that would be a great outcome.

As for Mattie, she’s a bit gentler about touching the yogurt container, as if she really doesn’t believe I want her to touch it. Still, she caught on to the move-the-container game and would walk over to it and touch it at the command “touch.” An added benefit was, since I have taught her to put her ears up to get a treat, she put her ears up, then touched the container. Mattie’s already a good backer, so we worked on “stand” and “step up.” Then I tried walking with her, using the command “ears up” to see if I could get her to walk with her ears up (like a normal horse!). This is difficult for her. Whatever happened to her in the pack/trail string involved being led-maybe tied to another horse-and from the first, she has held her ears back, not pinned, when I lead her at the walk. I don’t know that if I train her to keep her ears up at certain times it will train the anxiety out of her, but it will ease my anxiety to see her ears up. Plus she shows off her proud Tennessee Walking Horse neck better when she has her ears up.

I used the Helen Keller metaphor to describe this process in a former post, but, truly, it feels like we’re communicating more precisely with this method. I’m eager to keep on with it.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

February 18, 2009

Spring Training: Beginning Clicker

I had been taking our young dog to clicker training classes in the fall, and decided that it was time to try this method out on Mattie and Sam. I’ve been reading about it in horse books and on the web for some time now. It’s a form of classical conditioning–like Pavlov’s dogs, who were conditioned to respond to a bell. When I first heard about it, I felt that this was a method to take the art out of horse training, that it would make the horse’s response too mechanical, but three things have made me more open to trying it: taking Jeter to clicker class and seeing it work on dogs, learning that this method is used to train zoo animals to be handled for routine care, and, well, Mattie and Sam’s annoying habits.

I’ve done a little conditioning with them and find that they do respond to rewards better than other types of training. This seems obvious when I reflect on it–pleasure rewards more than pain. Last spring, Janet Zadina, the Brain Lady, who has branched out from her own neurological research to offer a synthesis of brain research applied to learning, came to Fairbanks to give a workshop. One thing I remember her telling us was that the brain functions better in pleasure than pain–in other words students learn more when they’re having fun and are engaged than when they’re anxious. This has profound implications for all levels of teaching, and it applies to horses as well.

Take Mattie, for example. When she arrived here, she was so anxious about simple things that she would pin her ears back and snake her neck at me when I brought hay. When working with her, I’m always reading her anxiety level and backing off a little when I seen her stressed nearly to the reaction point. Using pressure or pain to communicate with her is not only counterproductive but it’s dangerous. But with a pocketful of beet pellets–the reward is as much the crunchy sound they make as their food value–I can persuade her to do things she is worried about doing. In fact the first thing I taught her was to put her ears up on command, something I didn’t know I could teach her, like retraining an attitude. There are a few things we just haven’t really worked out yet, though, such as standing still at the mounting block. I’m hoping clicker training will help with this.

The first session with Sam went well. Nina was out for a “mentorship” opportunity, so she helped me with all the details. According to the clicker training website, it helps if you start with a target, training the horse not only to associate the clicker with a treat, but with an activity to complete before the treat is delivered. Ultimately this generalizes into a request for any activity that can be paired with the clicker.

That day, a week ago, it had warmed to 20 above; Nina and I stood in the snow, across the gate from Sam, who was haltered and on a lead rope. We showed him the clicker and he drew back, especially once we had clicked it. But we had beet pellets, so we clicked the clicker and offered the beet pellets and soon the click didn’t bother him. Then we introduced the Nancy’s Yogurt container. Nancy suggests right on the container that we should reuse it in some way, so we took her suggestion. We held it up to his nose and, when he had accidentally bumped the container, clicked the clicker and gave him a treat. He was a bit surprised to get a treat for nothing, and tried a number of things to get us to give him another one. He’s been taught to beg by turning his head away at the command, “wait,” so he tried that. He tried bumping us with his nose. We held the yogurt container up so he would bump it again, and, after a few tries, he was clearly bumping it deliberately to get the treat. Then we noticed that he would turn toward my coat pocket when I clicked the clicker–he knew where I kept the beet pellets.

We tried moving the container around and finally putting it on the ground, and he learned to bump it with his nose each time. He learned it so quickly that, as always with Sam, I had the sense that he’d done all this before. We stopped after about ten or fifteen minutes, so not to burn him out on the first attempt. When I tried it again a few days later, he remembered, and I could move the container around on the ground and he’d bump it and look at me. A good start. Now to figure out how to teach him something useful, like not bumping me with his nose while I’m leading or grooming him!

I tried this with Mattie today. She picked it up quickly, too, and would touch the container anywhere I put it. She clearly got that it was an action to get a treat, too, because she would do the behavior I’d already taught her, “ears up,” at the same time she was bumping the container. The clicker training people write about this process as like learning a mutual language that allows humans and animals to communicate. It did seem like Mattie, Sam, and I were doing something akin to Helen Keller’s first experience of connecting finger language with the meaning of water, opening the possibility of communicating her experience to others and vice versa.

More on this as spring training progresses.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

February 9, 2009

About  Sam

Don Sam Incognito

Don Sam Incognito

Sam complains that Mattie gets all the glory on this blog–her face is on the masthead, Mattie’s Pillow is named after her, etc.–so I am giving him his own section to report on activities around the corral. Sam is an Andalusian, now in his twenties, who was brought to Alaska for reasons that are still a bit fuzzy to me. Perhaps someone from the Palmer area will read this and recognize him and help fill in the story. He came to our house as a rescue, lame in both front feet. Kathy, who had originally taken him in, didn’t have the right footing for a laminitic horse, and Mattie needed a pal, so we agreed to take him, even if we could never ride him.

When Kathy brought him to the house, he was walking on three legs, but was so strong in the back and haunches that he literally hopped, mostly on his hind legs, across the corral. We spent six weeks as fall drew on, soaking and packing his feet to draw out abscesses, cutting up blue foam insulation to the shape of his feet, and taping it to them with duct tape. We took a series of radiographs and trimmed his feet every week to ten days.

By spring, he was moving out on the lunge line and I was riding him lightly. By last summer-after fixing his digestive problems and pulling a broken tooth and floating the rest-he was fully himself: cranky, not suffering fools gladly, full of high spirits, and showing hints of the glorious Spanish-walking horse he probably once was. I’ve seen him do the Spanish walk–a goose-stepping walk where he throws one front leg forward, then another. It takes training and conditioning to reach this level; he does it for fun in the corral. When we first let him out of the smaller pen once his feet began to heal, he galloped around then came up to us and reared with his front legs neatly tucked and hopped toward us-three women with our mouths hanging open-taking three steps on his hind legs like a Lipizzaner in levade.

I call him Don Sam Incognito–a Spanish Don fallen on hard times who clearly thinks we’re all below him. This is his page.

Spring Training: Walk and Whoa

Yesterday, it warmed to above zero and the sun was bright. I went out with the Cowboy Magic detangler and spent some quality time detangling Sam’s mane, which hung in two long ropy tangles. Sam’s mane is nearly as fine as human hair, and tangles easily. It grows long and hangs down both sides of his neck. When I detangle it, rubbing the slippery gel into the tangles and meticulously picking the hairs apart one by one, he stands patiently, his head slightly bowed, not playing Nudge or the gelding game Nip You/Nip Me (the horse equivalent of slap hands).

Afterwards, with this mane hanging in waves, and his attention back on teasing me, we started spring training with Walk and Whoa. I walked with him on a loose line, then stopped abruptly (Whoa) and stood still from time to time. We did this all around the corral with a few chin bumps from the brass lead clip when Sam decided it was more fun to bump me on the shoulder or see if he could touch me with his teeth. Sam doesn’t try to bite; it’s all a game with him, and, if he ever touches me with his teeth, he quickly turns his head away. Still, I have been working on discouraging from this game, and he’s doing it less. From time to time, we backed up–or I made him back away from me. Then we moved forward. After we did this for a short time, I gave him a few beet pellets and let him go. Then I did the same with Mattie.

Mattie does not play games like Sam does. While he always seems to have mischief in his eyes, she often just looks nervous. Whatever happened to her when she was young (she was seven when we got her), she can become quite defensive when she anticipates pain; she has her ears cocked back nearly all the time. The first command we worked on was “ears up,” a cue for a behavior that most horses do naturally. For Mattie, ears up for a treat is a pose, a trick for begging. She will stand at the corner of the corral nearest the hay barn pointing her ears toward the hay, then looking over at me to be sure I’ve gotten the hint.

So Walk and Whoa with Mattie involves always reading her attitude. She walks beside me with her ears back. When we Whoa, she shows a bit of white at the eye. As long as she keeps a polite distance from me (2-3 feet), we are dong well. She is tuned in to me more than Sam–or differently. When I stop, she brakes and stops instantly. When we’ve been practicing this for a while, she’ll put her ears up for beet pellets at the Whoa. That’s progress.

Snow will be thick and packed down to ice in the corral for a couple of months now, and I don’t like to ride till we’re on dirt–late April early May. February is the time when I try new things in ground work and start longe work for fitness–theirs and mine as I walk an inner circle to their wider trotting circle. Sam longes like the pro he is. Mattie still gets confused. Last year we started her on long lining–two long reins , one looping under her tail, so I can hold both and walk a little behind and to the side of her, driving her from the ground. We got tangled up a lot last year.

This was a long post. I’ll post more of these, marking the progress or lack of progress as we move toward riding season. If you have thoughts or helpful hints on what I’m doing, please post a comment. I’m working with some experienced horse people here, but most of this I’m trying out on my own.

Tomorrow we start clicker training.

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