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MULE CROSSING: Equine Behavior: Look Who’s Talking! Part 3

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By Meredith Hodges

In Part 1 of Equine Behavior: Look Who’s Talking, we discussed the evolution of man’s self-discovery and how he applied this to his approach to equines. If we want to manage our equines in a healthy way and accomplish even the most basic performance with them, there is much to consider during the training process. In Part 2 of Look Who’s Talking, we learned that equines are honest in nature and produce quick and honest reactions to a stimulus. Therapeutic Riding provides an exemplary teaching experience for both human and equine, and those of us with our own equines can now derive much more from the relationship than we ever thought possible.

During centuries of use, equines have been asked to perform many tasks, as they have always been essential tools in agriculture, for transportation in cities and as a fighting partner in the military. People who worked regularly with these animals had an appreciation for their general health and longevity. Although people were limited by their own experience, they would generally provide the best possible care because the equine was an integral part of their economy. Many horses and most mules and donkeys worked hard to build this world and support people in their endeavors. It is always amazing when one realizes just how much these animals have contributed to our wealth and welfare.

Original dressage training was concerned with the systematic conditioning of the body of the horse in a way that would make him a durable and viable war partner for soldiers. The horse was revered and allowed time for his body to mature and grow slowly. The training followed suit, yielding a healthy and formidable opponent in any competition. This goal was achieved only when the animal was trained in correct posture, and given adequate time to complete each stage of training as his own potential dictated.

When attention is given to the development of core muscle strength from the very beginning, the equine develops strength evenly throughout his body as he grows. Muscles are stressed and rested at critical intervals, allowing for healthy mental, physical and emotional growth. When the equine feels good in his body, it clears his mind to concentrate on his performance, and the result is an equine that is happy in his work and his world.

Colonel Alois Podhajsky (1898–1973), former head of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, said, “I’ve got time!…We only can achieve the highest goals in the art of riding only when we increase our demands on the horse in a systematic manner.”1

The same holds true with any athlete. No animal can perform at their highest level and remain healthy without building up the body correctly over a significant period of time. Forcing and moving too fast through training levels does not allow healthy athletic conditioning to take place. This conditioning art is becoming lost in the economic world of today, as equines are no longer used for necessity. They have become a hobby or a sport in more developed countries, and are an economic necessity only in Third World countries that are not equipped to provide the extensive care that a healthy equine demands.

Dressage training has evolved from a useful tool to strengthen a useful horse to just another name in big business. Today, animals are thought of as economic “material” or a “breeding investment,” and are used in events such as Reining, Cutting, Stadium Jumping, racing, Steeple Chases, Eventing, hunting, Dressage and just-for-pleasure riding. Monetary investment is high, and never was the old adage “horse poor” more prevalent than now.

Owners can expect to spend thousands of dollars in a year for no more than a pleasure-riding equine, and the cost increases with the status of activities. The cost of supporting an equine provides economic success to a multitude of businesses, such as feed, tack and equipment, truck and trailer sales, drug companies, motels, gas stations, county fairgrounds, breed registrars, brand inspectors, clothing stores, veterinarians, farriers, and the list goes on.

In any business, moving product faster is always better because it decreases overhead costs. Anything long lasting takes more expense to produce and does not afford repeat customers as often for the same product and is, therefore, less valued. But good business sense is in direct opposition to what is actually good and healthy for the equine. Good business sense is what drives people to train equines faster, and why people ask young equines to perform way beyond their level of capability to promote a faster sale of the equine, which ultimately results in the untimely demise of that equine.

Breeding for bigger, better and faster equines has given people the false idea that these horses perform almost solely from their heredity. This has changed how they are being trained and judged. Today, many equine competitions are no longer judged by an expert who knows the definition of correct movement. We are inundated with terminology from the masters that is most often misunderstood and distorted.

For instance, “collection” is defined by the United States Equestrian Federation as, “a. to further develop and improve the balance and equilibrium of the horse which has been more or less displaced by the additional weight of the rider, b. to develop and increase the horse’s ability to lower and engage his hindquarters for the benefit of lightness and mobility of his forehand, and c. to add the ‘ease and carriage’ of the horse and to make him more pleasurable to ride.” To those who are not schooled in Dressage, collection can mean a lot of things that are contrary to the actual definition, including the belief that it means to merely break at the poll and arc the head and neck.

People also believe that an equine is “on the bit” if he arcs the head and neck and “flexes” at the poll, when this actually means that the equine has taken contact with the bit and can feel the hands of the rider through the reins and responds lightly and obediently whether his head and neck are arched or not. “Vertical flexion” is the result of correct “collection,” where the equine is flexible from head to tail with the hindquarters properly engaged. It is not the act of bringing the equine’s chin to his chest. “Lateral flexion” is when the equine bends his body, including his rib cage, to the arc of a circle, and is not just bending his head and neck to your knee.

All of these movements take many years to cultivate if they are to be done correctly, and there are specific exercises to do at every stage to make sure the equine is developing properly and executing these movements on his own, with only the most subliminal support from the rider. Most equines that are shown today are not engaged sufficiently behind and are doing “high school” movements out of good posture. They are clearly on the forehand and unbalanced.

If one is to develop the equine in a sound manner, then one must learn to appreciate the smaller victories at each stage of training and during each new lesson. One needs to learn to appreciate the incredible ways one can affect balance and movement during leading training. Leading training can teach the equine good balance, proprioception (body awareness) and regularity of the footfall patterns. The equine will become strong and balanced in his core muscles using these simple tasks and, when led over obstacles, coordination will be added to the mix. Only after your equine is able to take responsibility for his own balance and negotiation of these movements should he be asked to go to a round pen to learn to balance on the circle.

Only after he is able to sustain his own balance on the circle through all three gaits (walk, trot, canter)— stop, back and reverse— and has been ground driven long enough to submit to the bit through these same movements, should he be mounted and asked to carry a rider. Even lunging on a lunge line should first be taught in the round pen, so when you do take him in the open, he knows how to balance himself and can physically balance on the circle without tugging on the lunge line at all. The equine that has had the benefit of this core training will be safer on the trail and flawless at the shows. If you take the time to develop your equine properly—during all of these seemingly boring tasks—you might very well discover a healthier and happier you!

It is difficult for judges without roots in agriculture to have a conflict with the roar of the audience, as they see pretty equines with fancy moves. But if the judges do not hold true to what is correct and allow themselves to be swayed by the audience, the integrity of the equine industry is lost. Our equines will continue to be used and abused for profit and gain, and many equines will continue to suffer at the hands of the ignorant because there are no clear standards to educate people. The equine that is properly trained should appear to be performing by his volition. If he does not appear this way and is constrained or forced, he is not in correct posture or balance and cannot perform correctly. The integrity of his movement is lost and the longevity of his life is compromised.

When you take the time to feed, care for and train your equine as he should be trained as an athlete, his personality will begin to emerge. You will be surprised at the relationship you will have with him and the wondrous sensations you can feel when you are in real harmony with him. You will no longer be an observer but, rather, a friend and a partner in performance and in life. You will have laid the foundation for your personality and the personality of your equine to grow in the most positive way and meld with each other. The conversations you now have with your equine become a two-way street that will continue to inspire for all time, and will produce a “high” like no other!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2011, 2016, 2017, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All rights reserved.

1Tug of War: Classical vs. Modern Dressage by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, pg. 38, Copyright © 2006 Wu Wei Verlag, Schondorf, Germany, English translation Published by Trafalgar Square Books, North Pomfret, Vermont, 05053, USA 2007 (Footnote: Podhasky, Alois, ibid: Mossdorf, Carl Friedrich (1989), p. 142)

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MULE CROSSING: Training Longears: What’s the Difference? Part 1

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By Meredith Hodges

At first glance, it seems those of us who train equines have very similar methods. This is not unusual considering we build our programs on time tested techniques and only make changes in approach when certain things are not working well. We often begin to interact with equines at a very young age and are the product of what we learn from others, and from our own mistakes. The things we learn shape our attitude and approach to riding equines, and riding is first and foremost in our minds right from the beginning. Growing up, we rarely hear anything about groundwork training and when we do, we don’t usually want to spend too much time with it.

Our youthful exposure is limited to the equine trend of the decade and popular breeds of horses unless we are fortunate enough to be the son, daughter or friend of a diverse trainer…and the first thing most people learn about mules is usually negative. Mules have taught me to be kind, respectful, patient and logical in my approach to elicit the best response. When problems arise, I don’t need to fix them, only myself! And when I do, they do the right thing.

When working with horses, we get away with shortcuts in training because the horse is more easily manipulated than the mule or donkey. After training horses for many years before riding Longears I really thought I knew how to ride and train. Much to my chagrin, my introduction to mules showed me just how much more I had to learn to be a truly competent and humane equestrian! I could get a lot from mules and donkeys with horse training techniques, but they did not seem to be as energetic, engaged and consistent. As the level of difficulty increased, I got less and less compliance with my “horse” approach and in time, I was truly humbled! I knew I had to modify my techniques!

I realized that if I wanted to improve my skills and get a better response from my long-eared equine partners, I had to go back to the beginning, start over and pay closer attention to what they needed from me in order to do what I asked. They say there are multiple ways available to the same end, which is true, but what I discovered in my years of training mules and donkeys is that there really is only one BEST way for the best results…their way! This applies to all my equines though my horses tend to be less confident and assertive than the Longears.

Training begins with nutrition and the way your equine is fed. An equine that is fed at a specific time each day is far less stressed than those with inconsistent feeding times and will learn easier. What you feed and how is critical. Equines should be fed in stalls and runs, or in dirt pens and then have monitored turnout times during the day for good health. There are various feeds today designed for the performance equine, researched by scientists in laboratories who seldom see the long-term results of these feeds. These feeds often produce faster growth and give the young equine an appearance of adulthood. When they are not allowed to grow at their natural pace (phases that often make them look awkward and gangly) the bones grow too fast and do not have the chance to harden the way they should.

For optimum bone growth, they need to grow a little and be stressed for awhile before the next burst of growth to become hard. The most obvious example of this can be witnessed in yearling halter classes at today’s shows. Equines used to exhibit very high haunches and low withers as yearlings, lacked muscle tone and were quite awkward looking. They did eventually evolve into beautiful animals, but it took time. These days, you generally see what appears to be a young, but very adult-looking horse with relatively even growth front and back and unusual muscle tone. As they age, bones and soft tissue are not as easily sustained, they become arthritic or have other old-age problems and their longevity of use is compromised. Those equines whose growth has not been artificially accelerated tend to do better and live longer.

Many of today’s feeds can cause hypertension, an inability to concentrate on their job and more frequent occurrences of colic and founder. This is why we feed a crimped oats mixture and good quality grass hay only. Any elaborated products and alfalfa hay can create problems later.

Why feed the oats in the evening? In the spring, your equines should be introduced to new pasture grass slowly. This means you feed in a dry area or small pen and let them out for limited periods of time. For instance, if they were going to be fed at 5P.M., you would only let them out at 3-4P.M. to start. When they know they will have oats, they will come back much easier.

Can I leave my longears on pasture? The answer is no, you really shouldn’t. Donkeys are desert animals and can subsist on practically nothing. The mule is half donkey and has the same trait. If left on pasture, Longears gain weight quickly that can lead to obesity and eventually colic or founder. This is also true of horses that are easy keepers. It’s better to be safe than sorry and monitor feeding more carefully. This includes where you place their feed. If multiple animals are together in a dry pen, use feed buckets or pans and keep them at least 16 feet apart to avoid fighting and possible injury. Don’t feed on the ground. Keep hay in bunks, racks or over matted or other clean, hard surface areas to minimize ingestion of sand and dirt.

What do I use for rewards during training? I wear a fanny pack of crimped oats and dispense them as rewards. Crimped oats are healthy, they get the additional energy they need while they are working and above all else, they will not get sated on them like they will on carrots, apples, horse treats, etc. Diversity in the rewards will cause diversity in their behavioral responses. I strive for confidence, obedience and consistency in my equines.

What if he becomes aggressive toward the rewards? Isn’t it better to avoid this by no food rewards? The equine will give you his best if he is “paid well.” Good behaviors that are rewarded with a food reward will be more likely to be repeated. There is a very specific correction for those who become too aggressive for the oats: Say “No” very loudly. Use the flat of your hand with a well-placed slap on the side of the mouth and put your hand in front of his face like a stop sign. He will fling his head up and to the side to avoid you and start to step back at which time you take oats from the fanny pack, quickly step forward and offer the reward while saying “Thank you for giving me my space.” The next time he tests you, you will only need to put your hand up like a stop sign and say “No!” He will then step back and wait for his reward.

The equine that receives food rewards will not only offer more during training, but he will learn how to take things from a human’s hand safely. When they are regularly given rewards, equines learn how to be gentle and careful about receiving those rewards. They will avoid biting down on your hand or fingers. Those who do not get this practice are more apt to accidently bite your fingers…or the fingers of some poor unsuspecting person who naively wanted to stop and feed your animal.

What is the difference between my methods and Clicker Training? Both are based on Behavior Modification where good behaviors are rewarded and the reward used is the same healthy crimped oats that they are normally fed. Clicker Training lets the animal know by the clicker that a reward is coming before the reward is dispensed. You might use the same reward, but using your voice instead of the clicker is much more personal and communicative.

I prefer to use my voice because it is far more enticing and engaging. If you learn how to respond verbally to your equine’s good and bad behaviors instead of using a device, you will invite an intimate bond between you that is more mutually satisfying. Over time, the verbal language will continue to grow from short commands to actual conversations, very much like children learn language. Equines may not be able to learn to speak English, but if you are a good listener, calculated and consistent in your approach, they can certainly learn to understand it!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

© 2010, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Understanding Behavior Modification

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By Meredith Hodges

When people think of Behavior Modification, most people think of the most basic idea of rewarding good behaviors with treats, which is called positive reinforcement. A common misconception is that if the positive behaviors are rewarded, then negative behaviors should not occur, but in reality, they do. Negative behaviors need to be negatively reinforced, but negative reinforcement should not be abusive. Learning how to employ Behavior Modification can be easy and fun.

Scientifically speaking, Behavior Modification is a direct and literal translation of stimulus and response. Given a certain stimulus, a living being will respond in a predictable manner. This is the essence of communication. Communication is comprised of a lot of elements that all play an important part in the receiver’s ability to understand. When trying to communicate, one needs to realize the many different perceptions that can arise from the receiver’s ability to comprehend. They may perceive from a purely technical level, a scientific level, an emotional level, a physical level, or any combination of a multitude of perceptions depending on their life experience. It is the same for all living creatures. Finding the right stimulus for each individual and implementing it properly is the key to good communication and a satisfying response.

When using Behavior Modification, one needs to take into account all the things that can make that individual a comfortable and happy individual. In the case of equines, we need to take into account the feeding and nutritional programs we use. Certain feeds can actually cause problems like nervousness, anxiety and hypertension that result in an inability to be calm and receptive to incoming information. From this evolves negative behaviors that further block the learning process.

In addition to feeds and nutrition, we need to take into account the anatomical ramifications of the way we are physically conditioning the animal. The healthiest way to condition an animal is slowly, and in an order that builds muscles layer by layer, beginning with core muscles. If you take the time and effort to approach training in that way, it promotes healthy organ function and a happy mental attitude. When doing this, one should allow the animal to perform freely, without constraint. When they feel good physically, they are more than halfway to a good mental attitude. A program of physical exercise that is taxing and stressful may produce the appearance of the right results, but there are deeper problems that can surface at a later date.

This is easy for natural athletes, but as I said, we are dealing with individuals. Not all individuals are physically able to carry their bodies in good equine posture and perform athletic movements correctly without guidance. When they do not carry themselves in the correct posture, certain muscle groups are not conditioned symmetrically throughout the body, causing compensation from other muscle groups that will eventually become over stressed and will give way to soreness, lameness or worse. The uncomfortable individual will begin to exhibit negative behaviors.

Herein lays the value of using certain kinds of restraints, such as the “Elbow Pull” that we use in DVD #2 of my resistance-free training series. This restraint is used to keep the equine in good posture while exercising, so that all muscle groups are worked symmetrically throughout the body. Of course, it is the trainer’s responsibility to make sure that they are also worked evenly on both sides of the body, forward and backward, since the restraint is only addressing the posture and not the directional movement of the muscles. The “Elbow Pull” is not in the hands of the trainer, but rather a self-correcting device so that the animal himself makes the corrections toward good posture during basic foundation work. An animal that does not have naturally good posture will soon give to the device because he will feel more comfortable than he has ever been in the incorrect posture. Restraints play an important role in the hands of competent trainers, but they should only be used to “suggest” certain behaviors, and then should be “faded or phased out” over time.

There are certain individuals who are not all that coordinated and have difficulty attaining balance in good equine posture. For this reason, it is important to start slow and gradually ask for more speed and more difficult movements only as they are able to perform. First, the equine’s balance needs to be attained at the slower gaits and with simple movements in order for the coordination to become repetitive, habitual and comfortable. This not only pertains to the animal in training, but to the trainer as well.

Verbal communication is not exclusively for the animal to learn commands. It has a two-fold purpose. For the animal, it is a way for the animal to understand what the trainer is asking when the body language is unclear. For the trainer, it is a reminder to synchronize his own body language with what he is asking from the animal so his signals are clear. This is especially important for novice trainers and animals.

In Behavior Modification, we use the animal’s natural instincts and movement to assimilate the things we wish them to do so that they can be rewarded. The reward needs to be something for which the animal is willing to work for long periods of time, something of which he will never tire and something that will not cause adverse, negative behaviors. In the case of equines, this is crimped oats. Equines that are “overindulged” or bribed will not respond the same way.

Horses have a very strong flight reflex, donkeys have a strong freeze reflex, and mules are a combination of both. All three have a strong sense of self-preservation that drives their behaviors. If you want to have an equine that enjoys his work, it is important to bolster his confidence and trust in you. This requires setting up the training environment in a safe and non-threatening manner. For instance, if you begin training a foal, or have a new equine, it would be practical to approach the animal at a time when the flight reflex is at its lowest…feeding time!

Of course, this is only practical when it comes to imprinting, haltering and simple tasks like brushing and picking up the feet. This also sets up the foundation for reward system training. When he has finished his oats mix, he will be happy to know there is an easy way to get a little bit more and will appreciate, perform and bond to the person who gives it. Chasing the equine is not an option at any time. We want him to want to come to us of his own free will. When this is done correctly, you should never have to chase your animal to catch him. He will always look forward to being with you.

During this time, your equine’s ground manners will begin to develop. If you are consistent with what you ask and the rewards are promptly and appropriately given, you should experience minimal adverse behaviors.

As he gains confidence, it is the equine’s natural instinct to become playful. In this controlled environment, you are able to set limits to these negative behaviors in the form of non-abusive punishment. The most common expression of playfulness is to turn, buck, and kick at the trainer. If a foal does this, you would simply give him a smart slap to the rump, step back and say, “No!” He might be startled, but he will turn and look at you, displaying curiosity, and when he does, you would say, “Good boy (or girl),” and then offer a reward (for paying attention) and give it to him when he approaches again. We want to encourage this curiosity.

If an adult equine turns his haunches to you and threatens to kick, you would say “No,” and use a whip (as an extension of your arm), and strike him smartly on the fetlocks only once for each kick, pausing afterwards to give him a chance to turn his head to you so you can then offer the reward the same way as you would with the foal. The strike of the whip on the fetlocks will not hurt him. It will only startle him, as will your voice when you say, “No,” and will cause a behavior in him (the turning of his head to you) that can be rewarded. Biting is handled the same way with a slap of the hand smartly to the side of the mouth, a loud “NO!” and then put your hand up like a stop sign in front of his face. He will then raise and turn his head to flee at which time you simply step forward and offer the oats reward for giving you your space. The next time he becomes aggressive (and he will), you will only have to put up you hand as the stop sign and he should step back to receive his reward. The first-time slap applied smartly was simply to clearly set boundaries. So, if you do not want to slap him again, it must make an impression the first time. It is well worth the few minutes of training that it takes in the beginning to assure that your animal will not become dangerous later. This may literally make the difference between life and death.

The result of this early limiting of the negative behaviors of biting and kicking will pave the way for you to set boundaries to any other bad behaviors that may arise in the future with a raising of the hand and a firm, “No.” It teaches the equine to think before he acts, and in the case of mules, it might mean the difference between a real bite and a soft nudge, or a kick and a soft shove with the hind foot if he experiences discomfort. Early negotiation of obstacles on the lead line will also help to engage his curiosity, help to solidify his responses for reward, passively build and condition muscles closest to the bone, and will encourage trust in the trainer. Now we can safely proceed to a more open area to play and learn with our equine.

In the round pen, we will begin to use the flight reflex as a platform for reward. The equine is already comfortable with you and knows you mean him no real harm. In the round pen, he may be averse to circling and may want to just stand. If he does, raise the whip and strike the ground behind him, or even his rump. If he still won’t move, back up, lower your body and shuffle your feet on the ground as you approach again, and he should take off. If he is the type to take off alone, just stand in the middle and wait until he slows and stops. When he does, say “Whoa,” and offer the reward.

The same goes for the equine that had problems getting started. Send him back to the rail again and build the number of rotations slowly and over time, being consistent with your rewards for the “Whoa.”  Learning a consistent “Whoa” will give you a safe zone from which to work and play. This will translate to trust and confidence, and will temper the flight reflex to a controllable level. It can make the difference between freeze and flight reflex if they are spooked under saddle.

The equine that is brought along with this kind of training will pause and give his attention to the rider for guidance before reacting to a “spook.” Any bucking and kicking while circling in the round pen should be ignored and the reward should be postponed until he has regained his composure and has done what was expected. Bucking and kicking should be allowed because many times it is merely a moment of confusion, or the need for a physical adjustment on the part of the equine at this stage of training. It is rarely an exhibition of meanness. Once they sort this all out, they will want to be with you and will use their good manners because it is the best place to be!

Whether they realize it or not, most trainers use some form of Behavior Modification in their training programs. There is so much to learn about communication to achieve balance and harmony that one person could not possibly know it all. For this reason, it is important to know and appreciate the work of others who are giving of their knowledge and assess the techniques they offer that might fit in your training program. As they say, “You can learn something from everyone.” It is our job to sort through what only works for the short term and what really works best for long term success. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s just another way to learn. The more we know, the more we learn that there is so much more to learn.

Behavior Modification is an ongoing, careful balance of communication between living creatures. It works because both parties opt to listen and learn from each other. At each stage, there are tasks to perform that need to be balanced and refined by both the trainer and the trainee. Behavior Modification is not controlling. Rather, it is a guidance system by which positive behaviors are rewarded and thus, more likely to be repeated and become habitual. The parties involved are both rewarded each time they are together because each time they are together, they learn a little more about each other in an enjoyable and appreciative manner.

Over time, with practice and this kind of understanding comes harmony and mutually satisfying performance. In the beginning, it may seem overly simple, but as you practice and learn more, your proficiency will increase gradually over time, and the results you will witness are amazing! This is why Behavior Modification is so successful not only with people and equines, but is also the method of choice in the training and treatment of zoo animals and aquatic mammals.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2005, 2016, 2020, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Introduction to Behavior Modification, Part 2

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By Meredith Hodges

In Part 1 of Introduction to Behavior Modification, we addressed the steps involved in employing the reward system of training properly whereby desired behaviors are rewarded promptly and negative reinforcement is quick, fair and used sparingly. In Part 2, I will explain how to break down more complex movements into smaller steps that are simple and easy to accomplish, and then how to string them together in order to get the desired response from your equine.

Shaping Behaviors

Shaping behaviors takes reinforcement to the next level. Now you are working with the tendency of an animal to perform in the right way and guiding that performance toward your ultimate goal. This is called successive approximation. For example, if you are teaching a turn on the haunches on the lead line, you must first ask for one step forward. Then walk toward your animal’s shoulder and ask for the turn. In order to teach him to plant his rear pivot foot before the turn, the process must be broken down into smaller steps. First, ask for the step forward and reward him immediately when he complies. Then move on and ask for one step forward and one to the side, rewarding him again when he’s successful. Then ask for one step forward and two to the side and reward, and so forth.

Eventually, your animal will complete as many steps as you desire and, at the same time, learn to cross one foot over the other and only do as many steps as you ask. B.F. Skinner describes shaping behavior as a response that must first occur for other reasons before it is reinforced with a reward and becomes an operant or “action of choice.” A complex response such as executing the entire turn all at once would never occur naturally correct to be reinforced if you simply “turned the animal around.” He could not possibly understand that he must place the pivot foot before the turn is executed, and would most likely just “swap ends,” with no pivot foot placement and no finesse to the turn. However complex responses can be shaped by separately reinforcing their component parts. Then these parts can be put together in the final form of the operant or “desired action.”

An example of shaping a behavior by breaking it down into a string of very small steps is how I taught my donkey, Little Jack Hornerto canter. Although many people tried to tell me that donkeys don’t canter, I had seen donkeys canter when they ran free, so I knew it was possible. First, I set the goal of cantering a circle. No one could run ahead of my donkey fast enough to reward him with oats and negative reinforcement such as the crop didn’t work well at all, so I had to find another kind of reinforcement. Using the pleasure principle of finding the best motivation for an action, I put my cycling broodmares into a pen at one end of our hayfield and I took my jack to the other end. When asked to canter toward those mares, he did so eagerly. He first learned to canter in a straight line. I reinforced the action verbally with, “Good, good,” while we cantered, and then I gave him a food reward once we reached the pen.

The next time I did the same thing, but this time I turned my donkey in a large half-circle route to the pen, and I rewarded him again the same way. The third time, I asked for a little more of a circle and I got it. Several times later, I was able to get an entire circle before we ran the line to the pen with the mares in it. Once my donkey learned that he could canter easily with me on his back, I didn’t need the mares anymore.

I took Little Jack Hornerinto the arena and tried to canter the perimeter with him. At first he cantered a few strides and then dropped to trot. Each time he cantered, I praised him verbally, and when he broke to trot, I would finish the circle, stop him and praise him with the food reward. It was slow going the first few tries, until I started counting strides and realized the jack was adding one more stride at canter with each attempt. Before long, he was cantering the full circle with ease on command.

With training like this, my donkey jack, Little Jack Horner, has performed successfully in Trail, Reining (with spins, slides and flying lead changes), Second Level Dressage and even performed at Bishop Mule Days where he jumped four feet in exhibition —quite remarkable for a 13-hand equine, and a donkey no less!

The Ten Principles of Behavior Shaping

1) Establish and raise your performance criteria in increments small enough to give your animal a reasonable chance of success and create an opportunity for positive reinforcement. If the criteria are too challenging, the animal may fail and give up.

2) Train for one aspect of a behavior at a time. Do not try to teach several skills at once. When training for a dressage test, for example, do not practice the whole test every day. Take a few sections of the test and work on those. Practice going up and down the centerline in straight lines. Practice 20-meter circles. Practice going deep into the corners of the arena with the right amount of bend. Shape the ultimate result by gradually linking the components, and they’ll fit together nicely. Ride the test as a whole, and the quality of the smaller components will suffer.

3) Before you move to a new skill, put the current skill or behavior on a variable level of reinforcement. Use a fixed schedule of reinforcement on any new behaviors, rewarding verbally and with oats each time the behavior is performed, but once the animal “gets it,” reward less often and randomly. Then, as you add a new behavior, reinforce that behavior on a fixed schedule, while randomly rewarding learned behaviors.

4) When introducing new behaviors, relax expectations on the old ones. What was once learned is not forgotten, but under the pressure of assimilating new behaviors, the old behaviors sometimes temporarily fall apart.

5) Stay ahead of your trainee. Be prepared with what you will ask next, in case your animal has a sudden breakthrough and easily performs the next step. You must keep your equine challenged in order to maintain his interest.

6) Avoid changing trainers in midstream. The animal/trainer relationship is an integral part of the training. Changing trainers disrupts the training process until a new bonded relationship is formed. The owner should be doing the training with only guidance from a professional trainer as the animal will bond to the person who actually does the training.

7) If one shaping process is not working, try another. Individuals, whether animal or human, learn in different ways. Continue with the premise of reinforcement, but find what works best for your animal at any given stage. For example, if you cannot get your equine to back through barrels in a figure eight, simply begin by going forward and always start between the barrels to allay any fears he might have of them.

8) Do not interrupt the training process without cause—this constitutes a punishment. When you are training, try to avoid interruptions. When you train using the methods of behavior modification, you are obliged to reinforce the good behaviors. If you aren’t paying attention, you may inadvertently punish a desired behavior if you interrupt it. The most common example of an infringement would be talking to someone while you are training the animal. If you must talk to someone, simply include the equine in the conversation.

9) If a learned behavior begins to deteriorate, simply review and use fixed reinforcement until it is re-established. Sometimes side effects from negative reinforcement can cause this to occur, but if you remain calm and patient, the animal should relearn quickly.

10) Quit while you’re ahead. At the beginning of the each session, you will likely see improvement from where you were at the end of the session before. Drilling on a desired behavior will make the animal tired and less willing to perform. Better to quit with a good assimilation of the requested behavior, and work to refine it in subsequent sessions.

The Road to Success for You and Your Equine

As you begin to understand the principles of shaping and modifying behaviors, it is important to realize that it is a lot like dancing, cooking or any other learned skill—the only way forward is with practice. The more you practice, the better trainer you will become. You have the opportunity to practice positive reinforcement every moment of your life, reinforcing behaviors in everyone—the cat, the dog, your husband or wife, your children. It becomes a game of noticing and praising positive accomplishments while setting clear boundaries to all behaviors, large or small. With practice, you will increase your awareness and, thus, your skill. The success or failure of your efforts to shape behavior in any animal does not depend upon your expertise, but on your patience, respect, consideration and consistency during the process. This may not be the easiest way, but it is extremely effective—and it’s fun!

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2005, 2011, 2016, 2018, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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MULE CROSSING: Introduction to Behavior Modification, Part 1

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By Meredith Hodges

“Throughout history, mules and donkeys have been pegged as being stubborn and therefore stupid, but I have found just the opposite to be true. They are intelligent, sensitive animals, and they have a particularly strong survival instinct. They’ll go to great lengths to avoid danger or what they perceive as danger, and the process of training a mule or donkey is the process of earning their trust.”

—Meredith Hodges, internationally recognized mule and donkey training expert

When I began working with mules and donkeys, I quickly realized there would be no shortcuts to successful training. I steered clear of fads, trends and shortcuts and, instead, based my training program on Behavior Modification techniques developed by world-famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner over a century ago. For many years now, I have used these techniques to successfully train my own champion mules and donkeys, and I continue to share my method with millions of people through my books, an award-winning DVD series, multiple television shows, my comprehensive website and on Social Media.

The techniques presented here work well with not only mules and donkeys, but also with horses and any other trainable animals (and even humans). The program is designed to be resistance free, and the goal is—and always has been—to help people get the best performance and most enjoyment from their animals and to insure that the animal receives the best treatment possible.

 Behavior Modification Basics

As a young adult I worked as a psychiatric technician at Sonoma and Napa State Hospitals in California, and the Behavior Modification techniques I learned at that time proved ideal for my later equine training purposes for two major reasons:

˚The system in which the trainer sets performance goals and rewards positive behavior leading to achievement of those goals encourages “good” behavior instead of using fear-inducing punishment to suppress “bad” behavior.

˚The step-by-step approach that builds gradually on learned skills gives the animal a sense of security and achievement that encourages trust and helps minimize resistance.

Animals, like humans, need a predictable routine in order to learn. Just as children progress through grade school, building on their knowledge with each successive grade, animals learn best when a solid foundation is laid for each new skill. By creating a logical program from the outset, we avoid the confusion that can lead to resistance.

These levels of achievement are at the heart of Behavior Modification as a training tool. Acceptable levels of behavior must be defined at each level of training, beginning with the simplest of expectations and working forward. At each level the animal must accomplish certain tasks, and each accomplishment must be acknowledged and reinforced. Also note that it is critical—especially if you are working with a mule or donkey—that you, the owner, participate in the training process. Mules and donkeys develop a strong bond with their trainer, and if they’ve learned from someone else, their performance for you may suffer in the long run. It is also advisable to consult with an experienced trainer in your area, and if you are working with my Training Mules and Donkeys training series, I am just a phone call away.

Reinforcing Behaviors

Everything we do, every behavior we choose, is based on an instinctual desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain. Our choices reflect our experience. They are “reinforced” by the pain or pleasure they have given us in the past. Behavior Modification uses the same principles of positive and negative reinforcement with an emphasis on positive reinforcement.

In training, positive reinforcementis delivered in the form of rewards. We know that an equine, when rewarded for performing a certain task, will be willing to perform it again in anticipation of another reward. Note, however, that positive reinforcement is not bribery. The reward is not given as an inducement to perform the task, but as a reward for a task completed. The reward should be something the animal loves and will consistently work for, yet something that is nutritionally sound. In the case of equines, rolled or crimped oats work far better than rich snacks full of empty calories and are healthier for your equine.

Positive reinforcement also takes the form of verbal cues. When your animal performs the desired behavior, you should, simultaneously and with appropriate enthusiasm, say the word, “Good!” This works well when it isn’t possible to give a food reward right away. Clicker training, which has become a popular and effective means of audible reinforcement, is similar and applies the same concept. It’s immediate, it’s consistent, and it can be used with all mules, donkeys and horses to reinforce behavior. However, I feel that it is better to use your voice than a clicker, as the sound of your voice promotes engagement with your equine on a more intimate level, so your voice will yield better results than clicker training.

Negative reinforcement is used not to punish the animal but to encourage them to make a better choice. Negative reinforcement should be brief, to the point and used sparingly. It should never be of long duration or given arbitrarily. Negative reinforcement, such as a slap or a loud “No!” shouldn’t be used so often that it makes the animal unresponsive altogether. Remember that reinforcement by its very definition always strengthens behavior. Punishment is used to suppress behavior and may trigger other undesirable behaviors. B.F. Skinner himself said that positive reinforcement may take more patience, because the effect is slightly deferred, yet it can be as effective as negative reinforcement and has fewer unwanted residual behaviors. When you begin training, you will have to give a verbal and food reward every time the animal performs a desired response. Still, negative reinforcement is necessary to define boundaries.

As your equine learns certain behaviors, you can reinforce the learned behaviors less frequently and focus on frequently rewarding new achievements. Gradually, your animal will become satisfied with a verbal reinforcement for established behaviors, and he will comply for longer periods between food rewards. This shift from a predictable, or fixed, schedule of reinforcement to a variableschedule helps with skill progression. For example, in the transition from lunging when your animal was initially given a reward after each set of rotations in the round pen, to riding, he can eventually be ridden through his entire 30 to 40 minute session before receiving a reward.

Beware of the “delayed gratification” phenomenon, however. If your animal suspects that it will be too long before he receives a reward, he may be reluctant to even begin. Often a quick reward for a simple task at the beginning of a lesson is incentive enough to get him started. Also keep in mind that reinforcing too soon is ineffective. Your animal should be rewarded immediately after the correct behavior, not before. An animal rewarded too soon or too often can become aggressive and/or resistant to training. Remember, each of your own behaviors elicits a response from your animal. You must be meticulous in the way you ask your animal to perform, and always be aware of your own actions. In Part 2 of Introduction to Behavior Modification, I will explain how to break complex behaviors into small and simple steps to achieve the best results.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2005, 2011, 2016, 2018, 2020 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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CHASITY’S CHALLENGES: Hot to Trot: 6-30-20

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It was a rainy day, so I decided to have Chasity and Wrangler’s workout take place in the indoor arena Round Pen. I had not planned to film this workout, but since the Round Pen was a lot further from the Tack Barn than my outdoor Round Pen, I decided to take my chances and try to lead Chasity and Wrangler together! I thought that would be film-worthy for sure. Those of you that have tried to lead ONE donkey around puddles in the road and other such “scary things” know that you cannot count on their compliance. All you can do is HOPE for it! As it turned out, Chasity and Wrangler were very good all the way to the Round Pen, but there were still surprises to come!

They both stood quietly while I unlatched the gate as they had done dozens of times before, then waited patiently as I opened it.

They executed the gate perfectly together. This is a testament to my belief that when these kinds of movements are consistently done exactly the same way, it eliminates confusion and promotes compliance. They happily received their rewards of crimped oats from my fanny pack.

I then tied Wrangler to the fence with the “Elbow Pull” where he would wait while I adjusted Chasity’s “Elbow Pull.” Chasity checked out the new work space.

First I adjusted Chasity’s “Elbow Pull” and then I adjusted Wrangler’s to keep them from raising their heads too high and inverting their neck and back.

They both walked casually with no pressure from the “Elbow Pull” at all. When asked to trot, Chasity was “up against” the “Elbow Pull” at first, but was still stepping well underneath her body and striking her hind feet directly under the center of balance.

It was after the reverse that I discovered that Chasity was in heat and Wrangler decided he would like to mount her! So, I deliberately and quietly took him from the Round Pen and tied him up outside the fence. Chasity resumed her workout alone. She did lovely at the walk and kept the “Elbow Pull” loose, even throughout the reverse!

When I finally asked for trot, she was hot to trot! Chasity was definitely improving her ability to maintain her self-carriage and good posture. When the “Elbow Pull” is properly adjusted, it will encourage each individual equine’s BEST posture. It should NOT force their head down.

When asked to “Whoa,” Chasity happily complied and then turned to me for her next command. I asked for the “Reverse” and she was prompt in her response.

Then Chasity resumed her calm forward motion at the working walk, maintaining a loose “Elbow Pull.”She has made marked improvement in just 4 short weeks of Round Pen work after 3 months of leading for core strength and balance in the “Hourglass Pattern.”

When I asked for trot, she showed me she was a bit tired and was back up against the “Elbow Pull,” but she was still tracking well underneath her body and holding an acceptable posture.

When my female equines are in heat, I lighten the pressure on them and quit when I see they are tiring. This keeps them from getting “grumpy” and helps them to maintain a happy attitude toward me and the training.

Chasity and I exited the Round Pen in perfect form and then went to get Wrangler. Building a good relationship with your equine makes EVERYTHING easier!

Wrangler was standing sideways to the fence, but moved over promptly upon command. I wanted him on my right. He was still mesmerized by Chasity in heat, but he was still a gentleman and complied with my wishes! I love it when they behave so well!

Chasity flirted with Wrangler and he reciprocated while I untied his “Elbow Pull” and released him. Then we all marched together to the Tack Barn where they were untacked, then returned to the barn yard for turnout and more intense flirtation! Love was in the air!

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Chasity’s Challenges: Learning to Come to Be Haltered: 4-14-20

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4-14-20

We determined that Chasity had cataracts in both eyes, worse in the right eye than in the left. This made her hesitant to come to me at the stall door to be haltered. She wanted to come to me, but she just wasn’t sure. I insist that ALL my equines come to the stall door or gate to be haltered, so I knew I would have to train her and win her trust to get her to do it like all the others.

When she went away from the door, I simply stepped to the inside door of her stall and encougraged her to come to me from there, but she was still suspicious and ran to the far side of the pen. I just walked toward her and spoke in a calming fashion telling her to “Whoa.”

She began to get nervous and started to weave away from my approach, but before she could suck me into the back and forth along the fence, I stepped to the side, waved her into the stall and shut the door behind her.

She knew she was confined and went to the corner of the stall. I knew she could not see me very well with her right eye, so I opted to walk along the wall to her left side and approached her from the left side. Before attempting to put on her halter, I told her what a good girl she was and offered a handful of oats. I allowed her to finish chewing them before I put on the halter.

I was careful about putting on the halter slowly so I would not startle her and then gave her a reward of more oats for standing still. She was grateful and again, I waited until she was finished chewing before asking anything more from her.

Then I asked her to square up with equal weight over all four feet. This would become the protocol EVERY time she stops. I want to change her posture and begin to increase her core strength in good postural balance. The repetition of this movement will change her habitual way of standing.

I rewarded her again and then took off the halter while standing by the open door and watched her chew.

I rewarded her for NOT forging through the door, waited for her to finish chewing and then put the halter back on.

We then turned around and walked to the back of the stall to open the door I had closed, did another turn and exited the stall. She will soon tire of me going into the pen and chasing her into the stall. One thing that is also VERY important in halter training is the type of halter that you use. Although they do provide leverage, rope halters have pressure points everywhere there is a knot and the biggest knot is right underneath their ear. Try putting your index finger underneath your ear and ask yourself how long you could stand it just being there? Now put the palm of your hand under your ear. How does that feel? Nylon webbed halters lay flat against their face and do not cause distractions like rope halters will. The equine can focus their attention 100% on YOU and not be distracted by subtle pressure points!

I would much rather encourage my animals to comply happily and willingly than try to use any kind of forcible leverage with them. I have found it to be unnecessary. Building a willing bond between you prevents them from becoming herdbound and being sour about leaving their friends. It enhances the relationship between you so they really WANT to go with you. This particular routine gave Chasity an idea of what to expect and resulted in her coming to the stall door willingly when I call her after only two times of having to proceed this way…completely resistance free. She is a very intelligent girl and learns quickly despite the disadvantage of cataracts. I have other equines with eyesight issues that have been successfully trained the same way. The key is patience, understanding and a careful, respectful and sensible approach.

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What’s New with Roll? Happiness is a Fanny Pack Full of Oats!

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Roll is standing quietly as he usually does while I was speaking to a tour group with the gate wide open, but this was not always the case with him. He used to hide behind Rock and snort at me when he first arrived with Rock in December of 2010.

Behavior Modification is a reward system of training that requires that the trainer has the ability to distinguish between good and bad behaviors, to reward them promptly and appropriately…and, to do it politely with respect for the animal. The oats are a reward that is both safe and enjoyable for equines, and is something that they will continue to work for.

When dealing with an equine that is easily ten times your own weight, it is hard to imagine that the way we talk, touch and interact with our equine would really need to be ultra considerate, light and reassuring. However, if you want their complete cooperation, that is exactly what needs to happen. For instance, when applying fly spray talk gently and calmly, and be careful not to get the spray in their eyes…or it will burn and they will be less likely to comply the next time!

The same consideration hold true when bathing. Be careful not to get water in the ears, eyes and nostrils…and accustom the equine to cold water by spraying the feet and front legs first and work your way up to the face.

When you are kind and considerate, and give the equine time to adjust, even mechanical equipment like a massage thumper for muscle relaxation, or an equine vacuum cleaner used not only to clean but also to promote better circulation, can become a real source of pleasure and enjoyment for your equine.

When the equine is relaxed and accepting of the equine chiropractor, veterinarian and farrier, they are better able to do their jobs with maximum efficiency and successful outcomes.

And jobs you have to do like clipping, bridling and taking off the bridle all get much easier, preserving the trust between you. Now at 26 years old, Roll is a NEW draft mule!