Friday, February 17, 2017

An interlude with a diabolic bike

I would like to request that you listen to the song below while reading this post. 

I'm not a particularly adventurous person, I'm coming to discover. For example, I recently helped a client see that her horse would be just fine on trails. I rode the horse out for a while as she biked alongside us. The horse was lovely, so I suggested that we switch. 

I couldn't tell you the last time I rode a bike, and I think the seat was a bit too high for me because I was stretching for the ground and struggling to find the pedals. It was a heavy bike, and I found it difficult to keep upright at first. But it was one of those neat electric bikes that help you pedal along, so it was pretty good once we got moving.

It had a lovely basket on the back tire and leather-padded handles. The client laughed a bit self-consciously when she referred to it as her "granny bike." As I biked and she rode, I admired the greenery and the view back over the ocean, casually rolling along with extremely little effort on my end. 

Imagine this, just all green

We started to near the end of the time we had available, so we decided I'd bike back to my car and leave her bike at the barn. 

"But wait," the client interjected, "you really should bike to the top here and see the view." 

"Well, alright," I agreed, thinking to myself that with an electrified bike it'd take me no time at all. 

No sooner had I rounded the corner into some woods than the trail became severely washed out and rocky. The bike had no shocks whatsoever, and my arms were shaking and vibrating as I struggled to hold onto the bike. Then halfway up a steep and arduous incline, my thighs already burning, the electric assistance gave out and I was left trying to heave this incredibly heavy not-meant-for-the-mountains bike up the hill. I awkwardly dismounted the bike (nearly crashing myself onto the ground in the process) and walked the bike the rest of the way up the hill, my arms tired from the ruts earlier. By the time I reached the top, I was dripping sweat. (It's possible I need to exercise more.) 

This is me, on the horse, before the terror show that was the bike ride

Phew! I told myself. I made it past the worst of it. The view was, in fact, gorgeous, so I admired the waves crashing onto the bluffs down below, the grassy plains of the hills, how minuscule the road gets when you peer down from far away. 

I turned the bike around, resettled myself on it's uncushioned and too-tall seat, and plunged down the hill. 

As I bounced off the first major rut and the back tire of the bike swung wildly to and fro, it dawned on me that I would rather ride any number of green or rank horses down this hill than this inanimate granny bike. 

A string of curse words strung together in creative ways kept me breathing as I bounced off ridge and rock until I finally managed to clutch the brakes fervently enough to slow down in a way that allowed me to leap off, shaking arms barely keeping the bike from clattering to the muddy trail. 

"We're gonna walk down this hill," I told the bike, but it didn't seem to care. 

I glanced at my riding boots as I began to crawl down the hill. Splattered with mud. So was the bike. I didn't pay enough attention to the trail for a moment and the front tire got stuck heavily in a rut, and when I wrenched it free, I accidentally hit the throttle of the bike and got dragged down the mountain, feet moving faster than I could really control, granny bike rattling and bouncing wildly as I stumbled after it. 

100% could have been me
The bike and I splashed through a deep puddle at the very bottom and I felt my socks start to squish as I finally slowed the bike enough to walk. After a while, I steeled my nerve, remounted the bike, and had an uneventful ride back to the barn despite tired arms and burning legs. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Operant Conditioning

I go through cycles in my teaching where I give lectures to all my students on similar riffs on a theme, and this week has been about operant conditioning.

Sometimes when I'm explaining these concepts to a nine-year-old, I wonder if it really as important as I think it is, for these kids to understand. My goal is to produce a thinking rider capable of assessing not only what they learn from me, but also from other trainers in the future. Foundationally, our effect on the horse underneath us is important.

I want to be cognizant of how I'm training the horse. We can get so lost in this miasma of 'legs here' and 'chin up' (which are of great and tremendous and vast importance) that we forget about the specifics of training the horse we're riding. And whether we're riding a schoolmaster or a green bean, we're training them. George Morriss has most recently made that a very popular truism.

Keep in mind that what I'm going to write is pretty simple. It does not encompass all the important pieces of operant conditioning (and I know some of you will cringe to realize I do not teach the difference between positive and negative punishment, merely deeming it 'punishment') but keep in mind my target audience is something like an eight-year-old who is struggling to keep a pony trotting.

1) Negative reinforcement... or: the horse learns when you release pressure

Horses don't speak English. What they experience most is the pressure we put on them. And there are a lot of pressure we want them to habituate to, or pretty much ignore. My dog running around the outside of the arena. The pressure of the saddle on them. The bit in their mouth. Your weight as a rider. The way the gait sounds as it opens and closes. Your weird trainer running around in the middle of the arena trying to demonstrate a leg yield with two legs.

All they know is that they don't like it when you pull on their face, or flap at them with your legs. What this means is that we can ask them nicely, then step the pressure up, and then release the pressure when they do what you want.

If the horse isn't turning, we will ask with the reins, and we keep the pressure on or increased until the horse turns.

If the horse isn't stopping nicely out of the trot, we will ask with the reins, and the moment the horse starts to walk, we soften the reins. Good timing both in the application and removal of the aids is very important, but hey, that's why we take lessons.

Ideally, the horse will soon learn that a gentle squeeze of the legs is followed by unpleasant kicking unless the horse chooses to trot. The biggest failure I see is when my kids get a little tired of bumping or clucking and sort of peter out. The horse sees this as a big win! And will subsequently habituate both to the rider's weight but also to their legs, voice, etc. Bad news for everyone.

That All-Ears app makes for some hilarious photos
2) Positive reinforcement.... or: ponies love cookies

I have taught my students quite a bit about clicker training over the years, and I'm excited to be bringing an expert in for a clinic later this year to teach the kids and myself even more about it!

I use the clicker as a bridge between the moment the horse does what I want, and the moment I can give them a snack.

This way, the horse's "YES" moment comes from the click, rather than me taking my legs away.

It gets a bit muddled under saddle, as I feel we're often combining negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement to create the yes, but the horses like it and learn well.

I'm saving the best for last I hope you're excited
3) Punishment

Punishment is an negative thing that we add to the horse after they've done something we don't like. Examples include if they bite us, we smack them. If they buck, they get an unpleasant one-rein stop. If they break from the canter to the trot without the aid, we might use the crop to get them back to the canter. We want to be sparing with punishment, as one of the tenets of negative reinforcement is that we teach the horse that they can escape pain and discomfort. This allows them to seek release and become more willing and creative in their work. Punishment tends to feel random to the horse.

I teach these three pieces of operant conditioning (with the added concept of habituation) to my students and regularly check in with them as we're working. What method of training was that? Can you think of a way to train this using a different aspect of operant conditioning?

Beyond priceless makes me laugh every bloody time

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Great Artists Steal

In my cursory research I cannot tell who, exactly, wrote that "good artists borrow, great artists steal."

Here are some sayings I've shamelessly stolen from other trainers in the last few months. (I remain in hot pursuit of artisanship.)
  • Try to help the bit feel the same to the horse in every part of every stride
  • Keep your hands still relative to the horse
  • Let's bring the elbow closer to the stifle as if the ribs are going to get closer to each other on the inside
  • Push the outside ear forward
  • Think about landing more softly -- if there was an eggshell on the saddle, I don't want you to break it
  • Spread your shoulders apart as if there were an angel one shoulder and a devil on the other and you don't want them to touch one another
  • We want him to stand up a little more on the inside side 
  • Let's bring our posting trot under a bit more tension so we aren't so loose in our mechanic
  • Think about sending the hips back and away from the shoulders as they come up in the canter

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Things I've worked on while hand-walking

Kat is currently getting walked 10 minutes a day, twice a day. It's going fine, all things considered. Here are some things I've worked on, since this is the sort of time one can use to really fine tune little details. 

1) She is very polite when I enter her stall now, she stays watching me but backs away from the door so I can easily get in.

2) I clicker trained her to hold her head exactly where I'd like it to slip the halter on her head

3) When I step onto the mounting block she sidles right up to it and stands like a rock, even when I get off the block and move all around her

4) I've trained "park" pretty well, though I have a bit more work on that one.

5) and this one is the least-worked-on because I'm worried it might aggravate any injury, I've done quite a bit of work on quietly turning on the forehand and on the hindquarters in hand.

Any other fun things I'm missing out on?