Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Taking a Ride on Dante


Taking a Ride on Dante

Kevin wanted to go riding with me, but Cole really needed a day off.  Ellen wasn't able to ride, so she suggested I ride Dante instead of Cole.  It was a perfect solution!  She didn't have to ask me twice.

She likes when I ride Dante because it gives her insight into how she can improve his training.  He is a good horse, but he really has her number.  We really don't know if he senses her anxieties and acts accordingly to help her, or if he is simply taking advantage of her.  For example, she worries about crossing the river, so he says, "Fine.  Lets just stand at the water and look at it.  Ellen is safer over here."  Or is he saying, "She is afraid to cross, so I just won't because I prefer standing."  Honestly, after riding him, I still don't know the answer.  What I do know is that there is a very good horse in there.  I can easily get him to express himself.  Ellen cannot.

There are some things that are an easy fix for me.  Dante is a notorious branch grabber.  All I need to do is yell at him in a mean voice and keep him from getting anything, and the constant urge to grab branches goes away.  Ellen doesn't have much of a mean voice.  It just isn't in her.  Just the same, after I take Dante on a ride, he is much better for her for quite a while.  I have a really good mean voice.  (It doesn't work on Cole.)

Dante gives me no real trouble with the river crossings.  This day, it had just rained and the water was higher than Ellen would have crossed it.  He went right in, walked carefully and emerged on the other side nearly as well as Cole.  I swear the water was going up as I was crossing, and when we came back to cross the river to go home, it was higher.  In fact, it was higher than he has ever crossed it with Ellen--to the top of his knees; with a strong current.  He crossed it like a dream for me.

Dante is a naturally slow horse, and that really aggravates Ellen.  I know what she feels like, because that is how my horse, Mingo, was.  He had a decent canter, but his trot and walk were caterpillar speed.  Dante is a little better, but his problem is stalling out, and he is very slow on his upward transitions.  We are often way down the trail before Dante gets trotting.  With his slower gait, he ends up getting far behind us.  I don't complain.  Ellen used to have to wait for me when I was riding Mingo, and she was riding Ranger.  Still, it bothers Ellen.

I was going to work on that on my ride, but the problem was nonexistent for me.  Could it have just been the excitement of having a different rider?  The trails were soft, too.  That helped, I'm sure.  Dante hates the harder trail.  I'm afraid I couldn't discover any insight to help Ellen with this problem.  He never stalled, and his transitions were very prompt.

Dante occasionally spooks at airplanes.  It is only the low planes that are landing.  (We ride very close to Cleveland Hopkins Airport.)  This really bothers Ellen and causes her much anxiety.  She taught him to stop for the airplanes whether they are likely to spook him or not--figuring that he will then stop and stand for the scary ones.  This usually works, but he doesn't always start walking promptly after she stops him.  Also, as soon as he hears a far off plane, he stops on his own.  This whole procedure really slows down the already slow horse.  I thought it would be nice if he only stopped for it when the plane was right overhead.

The first plane came over and he didn't stop on his own, so I waited until it got loud to stop him.  When it did, I decided to see what happens if I don't ask him to stop.  He just kept walking--something he would never do with Ellen.  I told him he was a good boy, and we just kept going.  After that, he didn't stop for any of the planes.  He wasn't afraid of them, either.  They were taking off--not landing--so he had no reason to be afraid.  If they were landing, I would have told him to stop.  Sometimes they are so low, it looks like they are going to hit the trees--plus the shadows look like they are going to attack. 

The second river crossing was too high to cross, so we crossed on the ford, instead.  I led him across, just like Ellen always does.  He is actually very good on the ford.  A few years ago, he had a very bad incident, but from that day on, he has been perfect.

Kevin and I trotted the Sewer Plant Trail, turned around and headed home.  It was very humid and the mosquitoes were terrible.  Starry was in a hurry, because he gets frantic when there are bugs.  While he pranced, danced and rushed, I enjoyed Dante's slow trot to keep up with him.  There are times when a slow trot is just lovely.  Cole struggles to go that slow, so I was really enjoying it on Dante.

Once we got back across the ford, we decided we should both do some trotting.  Starry took off at a nice speed.  There is one thing that Ellen has been trying to teach Dante with varying success, and that is to speed up his trot on command.  She tries it on the way home when he is the most likely to want to go faster.  (He will trot pretty fast on the way out on the parts of the trail where they sometimes canter, but she doesn't canter him on the way home, so he isn't hyper.)

It isn't often that I have to tell Cole to go faster.  He is the opposite of Dante.  I work on slowing him down, instead.  When I do want to go faster, I remove my legs from his side, then close them around him and squeeze.  It isn't a kick or a strong squeeze, but it is a very definitive, purposeful contact.  It is like squeezing toothpaste from a tube.  You don't want to do it hard and fast or you will squirt the toothpaste all over.  Well, that is what would happen if you signaled Cole too hard.  You have to squeeze just so you get enough pressure to get the toothpaste on your brush--and just the right amount of toothpaste.

Now, I have to be honest--I never thought much about what I was doing with Dante--it's just that when I thought of asking for more speed--I just did it the way I am used to doing it with Cole.  It just so happens that I never thought to tell Ellen to try it.  I always do it this way so I don't get too much speed, and that isn't a problem for Ellen.

Much to my surprise, Dante sped up measurably.  I praised him and let him keep going as a reward.  (This was a gamble, because I didn't know if he would really think of it as a reward.)  About 30 seconds later, I repeated it--and got more speed.  I praised and repeated it.  By the end of the trail, we were keeping up with Starry.  Kevin stopped to let us catch up, and I think I surprised him when I was right behind him.  We stopped at the corner, and then started trotting again.  It worked again.  Dante was very enthusiastic about the game.  

The rest of the ride was mostly at a walk to cool down with a little trotting to catch up with Starry and Kevin.  I continued to walk through the planes, we crossed the river, rode up the hill, and I was so tempted to ride him home on the street--something Ellen never does--but I thought I might be pushing my luck.

I hope I didn't mess him up for her, and she will still let me ride him in the future.  That is something I should do much more often.  We had fun.  Maybe Dante didn't try any of his games because he knew they wouldn't work with me, or maybe he was just happy to have a rider he didn't have to take care of.  I got back from the ride with no new understanding on how he thinks.  I guess I will just leave that job to Ellen.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Someone Really Likes Clicker Training


Thunder sitting in the middle of his hoop.

Someone Really Likes Clicker Training

The first animal I ever tried clicker training with was my cat, Thunder.  He learned how to follow a target, jump obstacles, jump on boxes, go through tunnels and walk through a hoop.  He seemed to enjoy the games, but once his belly got full, he walked away.  With a tiny cat belly, that didn't take very long.

I then started to use clicker training with my horses.  Anything that can work so well with cats has to be good for horses.  I often recommend that people practice training their cats before trying clicker training with horses.

When I got my dog, Maggie, I used clicker training with her.  She was such a very bad dog in the beginning, that without clicker, I probably would have sent her out to live with the coyotes.  Clicker training was the only way I could reach her.  She was a rescue dog, so I have no idea how she began her life.  I do know where she was found, though.  Years later, I figured out why she may have been so clueless to everything--she came from a neighborhood that had a lot of Puerto Ricans.  I think I may have been talking the wrong language, and she was just very confused.  She must have come from a Spanish-speaking household.

She learned the language of clicker very quickly.

The problem was that when I would try to play it with Thunder, she wanted to be involved.  If I put her outside, she would just bark at the door.  I tried to do it with both at the same time, but Thunder kept getting distracted by Maggie.  Eventually, I gave up.  There were a lot of other games that Thunder liked to play that Maggie didn't.

Fast forward many years later, I remembered how much Thunder seemed to like to play clicker.  He was going through a phase where he wanted to spend a lot of time upstairs where Maggie isn't allowed to go.  Maggie doesn't hear as well as she used to, so I thought that maybe we could play up there.

I use a tongue click with Maggie; just like I do with the horses.  I lost my real clicker long ago.  I asked my sister if she had an extra one, and she gave it to me.  

I got out Thunder's old target toy with a handful of treats, and I was ready to go.  He touched the target, I clicked--and he got scared of the sound!  This never happened before!  I quit and went back to the drawing board.  I decided to try and muffle the sound of the clicker in a sock.  It didn't work.  He was still getting startled by it.

A few days later, I read online that some cats are afraid of the sound, and they recommended using the clicker from a ballpoint pen.  Thunder was downstairs when I tried it, but since the click was so quiet, Maggie couldn't hear it!  

It worked.  I started some simple targeting--and Thunder burst out into purrs!  He never used to purr during our clicker sessions in the past.

We practiced every day for about a week.  I gradually added in more and more of his old tricks.  He was sitting up, doing slow spins, going through his hoop and his tunnel, jumping over his tunnel and going from box to box.  Each time, he would purr the whole time--talk about positive reinforcement for humans--I'll do anything to make him purr--the greatest sound in the world.

One morning, he was sitting in the area of the living room that we use for our clicking, and he started to roll around to get my attention.  I went to see him and told him how cute he was and walked away.  I was watching him.  He started going from box to box.  I thought it probably meant nothing.  Maggie went to see him, and he pounced her, turned around and jumped his tunnel.  He ran about, came back, pounced Maggie again and ran through his tunnel. 

It wasn't my imagination.  Other than the Maggie part, he was doing the tricks we were had been practicing.  I grabbed his target toy, the pen and a handful a treats--and he burst into purrs.  He got his way.  How could I resist?  We played a session of clicker.

The following morning, I had a few minutes before I had to leave the house so I went to talk to him in the living room.  He got up and went through his tunnel.  I went to get his treats, the pen and his target.  He burst into purrs.  He now has me completely trained.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

A gorgeous day for a ride.

  A gorgeous day for a ride.