Sunday, May 23, 2010

On learning

You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives. ~Clay P. Bedford

A friend of mine recently bought me a book on clicker training. I was a fan of clicker training before, but after reading this book, Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor, I was sold. And not just sold, but convinced to the point of being a religious follower.
So what’s the big deal?

In two words: positive reinforcement. I didn’t truly understand what a difference clicker training makes on the animal mind until I got a new Jack Russell puppy and tried it with her. It works like a dream! Chai, the puppy, is only three months old, but she has learned a host of things with enthusiasm. Despite her instant dislike of water, she loves to go into the shower; despite her very energetic puppy self, she sits still for nail clipping. Not to mention all the other stuff she can do.

Chai, in all her youth and enthusiasm is endearing, but she is also a clean slate: a dog with no baggage.  Watching her try new things, offer new behaviors with creativity and absolute abandonment is mind-boggling.  Why?  Because I have never seen such ingenuity in an animal.

We have another dog, too, she is three years old. Chili has never been trained with intimidation or punishment; we have given her treats as rewards and guided her behavior gently. She also doesn’t like the shower, but endures it because, well, because she has been told to endure it. She also lets us clip her nails, but when she does, every cell in her body demonstrates how much she hates it.

Chili can do everything Chai does, but the difference is in her attitude. Where Chai says “YES! Can’t wait to do that!”, Chili merely gives you a half-hearted “Okay. I’ll do it because you said so.”

It’s not the positive reinforcement part that surprised me, it is the realization that although I have tried to be positive with our first dog, her learning has obviously not been as much fun as it could have been. Somewhere along the line I have probably also scared her and even forced her against her will. And undoubtedly I have not been clear enough in my feedback.  This has had an effect on her personality, her thinking and her behavior.

So what does this mean when we talk about horses?

Traditional horse training is primarily based on the use of pressure. We apply lots of pressure to the horse and when the horse responds with the desired behavior, we take the pressure away. This method is often combined with correction of bad behavior. This means that bad things happen when a horse does the wrong thing/makes a mistake. This ideology is the polar opposite of clicker training where good things happen when you do the correct thing (and nothing happens when you make a mistake).  Of course, the problem is also the inaccurancy of such a method.  Half the time the horse has no idea why it is getting punished. 

Imagine yourself trying to learn a foreign language with the negative method. First lesson your teacher introduces a noose that you will be wearing tightly around your neck. You can breathe, but it’s very uncomfortable. “Don’t worry,” your teacher says, “I’ll loosen it for a moment every time you learn a new word.” He will then proceed to graciously loosen the noose when you get it right. Of course, he has failed to inform you that every time you give the wrong answer, he will hit you over the head with a stick. And not only that, you soon realize that you have no clue of what your teacher wants; his communication skills are non-existent.

How well do you think you would learn under such circumstances? How willingly would you try? And how would all this affect your attitude towards this foreign language?

Unfortunately, in the animal world this sort of negative training actually works; it gets you a very obedient animal. In fact, often the animal is so obedient that you could call it passive. And that is exactly what most people want. They don’t want a horse that expresses its opinion or tries new things. And god forbid it from thinking on its own. Humans value a bombproof horse.

This sort of training is the reason many people don’t think horses are particularly intelligent; when punishment is the main tool in training, it slows down the learning process. It seems like the animal is “not getting it” when in fact it is merely afraid to try. This “stupidity” for some reason makes it even easier for people to abuse their horses.
I recently engaged in a conversation with my neighbor who also has two dogs. She informed me that she had figured out a way to train her older dog, who before had no obedience or respect towards her and would simply run off if she let him off the leash. Her new secret weapon was a “bark collar” that would squirt citric acid at the dog every time the dog barked. Except that this collar had been taken a step further and actually operated on a remote control. My neighbor couldn’t contain her excitement. She said that for the first time in her life, her dog wouldn’t disobey, because if he did, she was able to punish him with the citric acid. If he strayed too far, she simply had to use the remote control collar and voilĂ , he would return. She said he had taken to sticking very close to her and now she was working on teaching him and her younger dog heeling using the same method.

I was appalled. I tried to explain to the lady what training with the use of only negative reinforcement would do to the animal’s psyche, but she looked at me with a blank look on her face.

“No, no, you don’t understand, it works great,” she said.

I’m sure it does. I’m sure that if she continues this method, in a few months she will have dogs that never bark, never leave her side, never play, never run and never cause any disturbance. She will have passive companions that look like dogs, but don’t act like ones. But it seems like that is exactly what she is looking for. And this is what many people are looking for in a horse, as well. A calm horse that will do as it’s told, no matter what the circumstances.

Sometimes when I walk down the aisles of any given sport horse barn, I am filled with the sense of sadness and loss. I wonder how many of the horses I am seeing standing behind bars in their small boxes are truly expressing themselves as who they are. How many of them are balanced and happy, I mean REALLY balanced and happy by horse standards? To what degree am I looking at live robots that have been oppressed into acting and moving a certain way; horses that have long forgotten how to be horses; human creations: physically functional, but emotionally absent?

Unfortunately I am seldom exposed to truly happy horses. I know there are horses like that out there, even horses that have been trained using only positive reinforcement. Horses with no baggage. Creative and enthusiastic horses.  Sometimes such a thing is hard for me to imagine.  But, I try my best to hold on to that dream tooth and nail.

Still dreaming,

~ K

Monday, May 10, 2010

Lesson from Little Love # 137: Letting go (again)

Two weeks ago when I was riding dressage in the arena, I kicked Little Love fairly hard. I kicked her because she didn’t want to move and I got angry and frustrated because I wanted to ride. She pinned her ears back and started trotting with more power. This didn’t last very long. I had to kick her again. And then again. By then I felt so bad that I was nearly in tears. I asked for the canter, she obliged but only grudgingly, barely moving forward. “Are you going to kick me again?” she seemed to be saying.

I claim to be pro horse – no force, but there I was, kicking my horse. What a hypocrite. I stopped, came off her back and felt like an utter failure. And not for the first time, mind you.

Two years ago Little Love hated everything that involved working with a human. She still doesn’t love humans, but she tolerates me. I could even say that there are moments that she enjoys my company. These are mere moments, but I take them with gratitude for it is those moments that encourage me to search further, to understand her better.

But, of course, the myopic human that I am, I sometimes manage to abuse those moments, without really realizing what I am doing.

I have mostly been able to let go of the image of myself as a dressage rider, and it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I used to work in the arena several times a week, but now it’s more of a miracle to see me riding in the arena. But it does happen, about once or twice every two weeks. But I’m starting to realize that it may be once or twice every two weeks too often. Not because of me, but because of Little Love.

She absolutely loathes ridden work in the arena. Loathes. There are of course exceptions to this rule, and I think she actually endures the ridden work better with her owner than with me. With me she feels comfortable enough to express her opinion loud and clear. Or perhaps she knows I am trying to listen to her more attentively than I was before. I have to admit that my listening skills have definitely improved. I do believe, however, that my comprehension skills still need a lot of work.

Despite my decision to let go of the dressage riding there are days when I get obsessed with the idea of riding in the arena. I feel like I have to. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps I’m afraid I’ll forget how to do it. Or I feel like I need to do it for the horse (or her owner). Or I’m just plain selfish and want to do it for myself. Because I used to love riding dressage and somewhere deep down inside I still do – just a little. Because isn’t that what you are supposed to do with your horse? Obviously I am still working on letting go completely.

This really wouldn’t be an issue if Little Love shared my interest. Some horses apparently do. But she doesn’t. Sometimes she lets you know this already when you are tacking up; she pins her ears back at the sight of the saddle. If I am smart enough, I choose to go on the trails or not ride at all.

But then there are the days when we actually get into the arena without a single hiccup beforehand. Little Love accepts the saddle, she seems energetic. Hopeful, I start riding in the arena, but discover ten minutes into it that Little Love is done. It’s not that she stops, she is moving reluctantly, but when she trots it is as if her feet were made out of lead. Which is undoubtedly what she feels like, too.

Under ordinary circumstances, a horse like this would get whipped. And she has faced similar consequences before. I used to do that; make sure my horse was listening to my aids by giving a small squeeze with my leg and if the horse didn’t react, I would use the whip. A few well-timed smacks and the horse was up and going. I was proud that my horses were moving from the slightest leg aid.

But, I have changed. I now believe that to achieve true connection we must abandon the use of force. We have no right to force another living being into doing something they don’t want to do simply to please our own desires to “have fun”. That all said… What am I doing kicking my friend? Perhaps I shouldn’t even be in the arena trying to ride?

Little Love teaches me the art of letting go. I’m not always a very good student, but she is patient and kind and above all, she is forgiving. I don’t deserve her as my teacher. I try my best, but unfortunately I have to admit that I am only human. And us humans, we like to be in control, we like to have goals, we like to be doing instead of being – all things my horse teacher does not understand or even appreciate. We are also very, very slow to learn what life is really about.

Every time I make a little progress, Little Love takes me to another level. I have no idea where this will end, but I’m starting to get a faint idea. She may not be done with me until I have truly let go of everything I ever believed in. But one thing I know for sure; the more I let go, the more I gain in trust, friendship and respect. And not just that, I learn to be surprised by the generosity of a horse. Because, despite my mistakes, my butt headedness, my inability to let go fast enough, and the preconceived notions of equestrianism that still haunt me time to time, she manages to somehow meet me half way.

Yesterday, after a particularly good session or in-hand work, Little Love and I were walking in the indoor when I suddenly hear her think out loud: “Ride me bareback!”

What? I looked at Little Love and I swore she was smiling from ear to ear.

“Come on,” she seemed to say, “try it.”

I looked at the bench in the corner and thought: “Fine, if you let me get on, then I’ll do it.” I walked Little Love to the bench and she stood stock still while I climbed on. I guess it was meant to be.

It certainly was. I haven’t had such a great arena ride for months. There I was, riding bareback with a rope halter and Little Love was round and light and energetic and collected – just like that. I even managed to sit her enormous trot without falling off. What the heck? After ten minutes I got off with a smile on my face and thanked her. She licked and chewed as if to say: “Bet you didn’t expect it to be that good.”

No I didn’t. Now I just have to control my human brain and let go of the image it immediately created of me riding Little Love bareback in a rope halter all the way up to FEI level.

~ K
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it, and live along some distant day into the answer. ~Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet