Lies, damn lies, and weather forecasts: 25 at Red Rocks

Yesterday, C and I touched base and agreed to meet at Red Rocks (Rides of March ridecamp) at 10 am today. When I woke up it was a very inauspicious 11 degrees out, but by the time I hitched the trailer it was a balmy 27.

Yesterday, the weather forecast had promised “Partly sunny, with a high near 45. East wind between 5 and 10 mph.” I convinced myself that “partly sunny” == “mostly sunny,” and that 45 is just a bit cooler than 50. This morning, they’d hedged it down to a high of 42. I am not real sure it ever got above freezing, I saw the sun maybe twice, and the wind was bitter! 27* at 10 am at Red Rocks. 30* at 5 pm. Brrrr!

C and I were so unhappy about being there that we didn’t even say hi, we just set to work on our horses and didn’t say a word til we were headed out to the trail. But once we got moving and talking, the day just flew by. We didn’t push the horses too hard; the trail was plenty long and hard on its own.

25 miles in 6:30 total time, 5:49 moving. 4000 feet of elevation gain – we climbed a big mountain! It’s Nevada in February, so there was nothing much for the horses to snack on, which I think was their biggest problem in the last half of the ride. There was plenty of water, and as usual, Dixie drank great once she finally started to drink.

Here are some pictures! According to the very small sign, this is a wildlife habitat area. Under the big horizontal thing I could see two concrete pipes, mostly buried but sticking out of the ground. The pipes had openings at the top/end, and the openings were filled with rocks.

What the hell kind of wildlife a) needs that habitat and b) cannot find it in the tens of square miles of uninhabited rocky hills?

Gratuitous Dixie shot.

We rode across the valley and up to the top of that there mountain.

Immense cottonwood. It was easily 6′ across at the base. I got distracted and forgot to take more pictures.

Res ispa loquitur.

Merri! Do you see what we saw? There’s a HUGE NEST, made of sticks, in that boulder. Looks fairly old, but I think the golden eagles raised at least one batch of babies there.

We climbed the north side of the mountain, and the trail was pretty snowy. Just patches at first, but the drifts were over a foot deep near the peak.

In this cloudy blurry camera-phone photograph, you can (not) see many major landmarks! Peavine (“my” mountain) is in the center-back, Mt. Rose is the tallest peak in the back line, and Slide Mountain is the one with visible ski slopes toward the left. The trailers are behind the dark juniper hills on the right in the middle. My house is behind some hills, off camera to the left.

Anyway, horse stuff: we went slow, but the horses didn’t have any problems. I am quite sure that if there’d been a vet check in the middle of the ride, they’d have chowed down and perked right up. As it was, they were pretty hungry and a little tired when we made it back to the trailers – they both dove right into their hay, but neither one had that “tired eye.”

Baby needs new shoes! Dixie’s starting to wear out the toes of her front Renegades. The holes are pretty teeny right now, so I think they’ve got at least another 100 miles in them, but I might get replacements at convention.

If she handles the NEDA Washoe ride at least this well, I think I will bump up to the 50 at ROM. I mean, we just did an LD, with no vet check/food break, without the high-energy hoopla of all those other horses, and we pretty much made time.

Yea, get negative on that horse!

The previous post has some fantastic comments that have influenced what I’m going to say here – if you’re finding this topic interesting, make sure you read the comments on the last post!

Shannon said something that really piqued my interest:

I don’t really like the article on positive reinforcement that you linked. It relies far too heavily on B.F. Skinners original 1950 work. We have made great progress in the study of behavior since then, particularly in identifying the neurologic pathways involved in operant conditioning. There is little evidence that negative and positive reinforcement are any different from a neurologic perspective. Many behaviorists are actually pushing to drop the words “negative” and “positive” completely and simply go with “reinforcement”. Both negative and positive reinforcement are reward based. The only difference in the two is the application of the stimulus: Negative = stimulus removed to gain desired behavior, positive = stimulus applied to gain desired behavior. Realistically, arguing negative vs. positive reinforcement is arguing semantics.

Both negative and positive reinforcement are part of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a method by which a behavior is “shaped” (trained) to a stimulus which is irrelevant to the behavior. So, a rat running on a wheel when he hears a bell and a horse knowing to stop when he hears the word “whoa” are both examples of operant conditioning and have been trained by reinforcement, either positive or negative.

Clicker training is the use of a “click” as a stimulus. Whether or not it is positive or negative reinforcement is a matter of semantics. In the end, the “click” is no different from the “aids” that conventional trainers use. We are all using a stimulus and a reward to shape a desired behavior.

So – I acknowledge that it may be outmoded for me to differentiate between positive and negative reinforcement. I definitely see the point, that biochemically there might not be a difference between a click followed by a reward versus a release of pressure, but I don’t think that totally invalidates what I wanted to talk about today.

Negative reinforcement definitely has an image problem, that’s for sure. It just sounds mean, and many horse owners don’t want to be mean. I mean, hell, I don’t want to be mean! As firm as necessary, and fair, yes, but I don’t want to be the mean hateful human. So let’s call it -R (as opposed to +R, usually but not exclusively clicker training).

Still, I think -R is the most natural way to train horses. (Oh man I’m gonna get some hate mail for saying that!) Hear me out, though – we touch our horses more than we touch any other being aside from human family members. How often do you touch a stranger? Almost never. How often do you touch your dog or cat – and you can’t count “the cat climbs on my lap every night” in this instance? You pet them, yes, and pick them up as necessary, but I bet you hardly ever lay hands on your house pets like you do your horse. Horses are one of the few creatures that we manipulate with our hands every single time we interact with them. The most intuitive, even “natural” way we have to communicate with horses is through direct contact.

Direct contact is -R. It can also be +R: scratching an itchy spot or massaging a tight muscle feels immediately good to a horse. And it can even be a form of clicker training – if your horse has learned to associate a pat on the neck with positive feelings, that’s +R in my book (but just like the clicker noise, it’s a learned association). But most of the time, when we touch our horses, it falls in two camps: “don’t move, let me do this to you” or “move away from my pressure.” Almost everybody indicates “move from pressure” with, well, pressure, repeated as necessary.

Here’s where I think -R training diverges from clicker training. All the c/t stuff I’ve read says “don’t nag.” Ask (verbally or physically) and wait, and eventually, when the behavior happens, reward. -R behavior teaches your horse new behaviors (or reinforces old ones) by, in essence, nagging. If I want my horse to back up from the ground, I give her the verbal cue (“shhhhh”), the body language, and the physical cue (jiggling her halter backwards) – and I keep that up, escalating the physical cue, til I get the response I want. I start with a cue that’s as subtle as I can manage, because I want to train her to respond to the lightest touch, but I ramp it up geometrically if she’s balky or not paying attention. For some behaviors (i.e. moving the hindquarters at a tap), I don’t ramp up the intensity of my request, but I keep asking over and over til I get what I want.

Clicker people: Is there a way to ramp up the request? Because if there is, I’ll buy the “C/T is equivalent to -R training” argument.

So, back to my main point: the easiest way for me to ask my horse to do something is physically. I reach out and literally touch her and indicate “please move away from this pressure.” She’ll try different things to get a release from that pressure, and when she tries the right thing, I release to reward her. Sometimes, she doesn’t get it and gets frustrated, so I go to my #1 Plan B: clicker training.

(I might write yet another long post about why I like clicker training, which will no doubt piss off both the hardcore c/t’ers and the traditional horsepeople. We’ll see how tired I am tomorrow night!)

+R behavior modification – clicker training – is the only way to work with animals that you cannot regularly touch, like captive elephants or dolphins or even chickens (god bless all four brain cells). It’s fabulous for working with animals that you do not want to touch all the time, like dogs doing liberty work (agility, off-leash training, etc.) It even works for horses – but why start there? We touch horses more than we touch any other creatures, so why not start with the intuitive -R pressure and release method? Sometimes it’s ok to be negative.

All right, smart readers: rip it apart!

We’re all clicker trainers?

A committed clicker trainer friend posted this (not her content, just a link she liked) on Facebook this morning.
An Open Letter to Buck Brannaman

I really encourage yall to go read it if you have time. It’s long, but it’s really good – I especially like the point she makes about using clicker-type training to teach riders how to ride. In her open letter to Buck, she suggests that he break down the rider’s movements and mark when they’re doing it right.

For example (I’m making this one up): tell the rider that to steer the horse to the left, she should turn her head left, pick up contact on the left rein, support the horse with the right rein, and use her legs to ask the horse to walk. Then have the rider just concentrate on the head movement, and say “there” whenever she remembers to turn her head. Then add in the inside rein, then the outside rein, etc. “There” is the marker sound to reinforce the behavior, and by breaking it down into component body movements it should be easier for the rider to piece it together.

Sounds familiar, yes? It’s similar to how we teach horses. We ask for some component and keep asking til we get it, then we ask for more. Trot in a circle. Ok, good, now trot in a circle with a little actual bend. Good! Now slow that trot down (or extend it, or collect it – whatever you’re looking for in your discipline).

Now, the two points I think Gretchen, the blog author, got totally wrong:


The practice [of clicker training] is relatively simple in broad outline, but in detail as complex as the teacher’s knowledge and creativity can make it. Mark and reward what you want, block/ignore/wait out what you don’t. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat again. If you’ve ever shaped another creature’s behavior using those simple steps, you’re a clicker trainer, whether or not you’ve ever touched a clicker. Whether or not you’ve ever given an animal a food treat. Guess what, Buck. You’re a clicker trainer, insulting as that might be for you to hear.

When you artfully channel your green filly’s longing for peace, when you dole it out to her in tiny sips with every well-timed release, would you call that exploitive? I wouldn’t.

Clicker training, by every definition I’ve ever read, uses positive reinforcement. (Click that link – I go back to it several times.) Positive reinforcement means that the trainer gives something to the subject in order to increase the frequency of a behavior. You give the dog a bit of kibble when she sits. You give your husband a kiss when he loads the dishwasher. You give the horse a treat when she walks calmly past the scary trash can. That’s a great tool, and it’s extremely effective in all kinds of situations if you use it right, but it’s not what most horse owners do most of the time when we interact with our animals.

I might get this wrong – and if so, I hope the clicker nerds who read this will correct me – but I think most human/horse interaction is negative reinforcement (“the taking away of an aversive stimulus to increase certain behavior or response.”) An aversive stimulus doesn’t have to be harsh to be effective – it just means pressure and release. We all know to release the pressure as soon as the horse does what we want, right? I think that’s pretty fundamental to every effective non-clicker form of horsemanship. If you’re tapping your horse’s butt with a lunge whip to encourage her to load in a trailer, you stop tapping as soon as she starts moving toward the trailer. By taking away that aversive whip stimulus, you’ve showed her that yes, that’s what I want.

Now, look back up at that quote. “When you artfully channel your green filly’s longing for peace, when you dole it out to her in tiny sips with every well-timed release…” Release is not a reward. Rewards are positive reinforcement; releases are negative reinforcement. I’m a big fan of negative reinforcement – but it’s not clicker training.

Two. (Emphasis in original.)

The moment in your brief anti-clicker tirade when your ignorance was most glaringly exposed was when you scoffed that a clicker trainer “couldn’t click fast enough” if you put her in a dangerous situation. It would make as little sense to say of one of your students that she couldn’t yank on the bit often or hard enough to survive such a test. The problem wouldn’t lie with the bit, it would lie with the unprepared rider and horse. A clicker trainer uses the clicker to nurture a feel and to establish, refine, and then occasionally maintain specific cued behaviors. If a trainer hadn’t worked hard and long (possibly with the help of a clicker) to get the feel of her horse and to get the behaviors she would need in such a situation solidly on cue, if she hadn’t already established that she could bet her life on her horse responding as he needed to in order to keep them both safe, she would be a suicidal idiot to get the two of them willingly into such a fix. As would any student using your methods.

Um, I actually can’t ask for a behavior that’s incompatible with the horse trompling me (such as “head down” or “feet still”) and click to reward it faster than the horse can run over me (or buck me off, or spin and bolt). Especially if I’ve only used clicker training – meaning, I’ve only used positive reinforcement of the behaviors I want to see. I haven’t yet met a horse that was exclusively trained using positive reinforcement – and to be honest, I don’t ever want to be on the same side of a fence as that horse.

You know what I can do? Scream and wave my fists, for trompling on the ground. Yank the horse’s nose to my knee with my instruments of oppression reins. It might not save me – horses are dangerous! – but it’s more likely to save me than asking for a behavior that’s incompatible with splattering me.

Let’s go back to operant conditioning terms for a second. My panic reactions to my horse trying, inadvertently, to kill me are all positive punishment methods: the adding of an aversive stimulus to decrease a certain behavior or response. If my horse walks right into my bubble like she’s forgotten I exist, I will absolutely add an aversive stimulus (yelling, thrashing about with the lead rope, flailing with my arms) to decrease that behavior.

In contrast, if I’m trying to train her to stand in a slightly different spot, I might use pressure/release negative reinforcement: jiggle the lead rope til she backs up with her head at my shoulder. Or I might use clicker training positive reinforcement: when she’s standing exactly where I want, make a marker sound that she associates with something pleasant, to indicate that that’s where I want her to stand. Both of those methods take repetition, and they’ll both get you a horse that’s interested in leading and standing in exactly the way you’ve trained – but I just don’t know if that horse wouldn’t leap into you to get away from a plastic bag blowing across the yard. That’s what positive punishment is for.

Additionally: you only become prepared for your horse by doing shit with your horse. I do not know how to get behaviors on cue 100% of the time without exposure to different scenarios, and no one else does either. That’s why endurance riders are prepared to eat dirt at the first start line. It’s why your barrel horse runs differently away from home. It’s why dressage people start out at lower levels than what they train at home. It’s why eventers practice jumping so many types of jump – it takes exposure to get the cues right, whether you’re using positive or negative reinforcement. Yes, I’m sure a committed and gifted clicker trainer could get the cues right to perform well in any of those scenarios – but positive punishment is there to save you from a world of hurt if it all goes sideways.

What do you think, clicker and traditional people?

I am the worst endurance rider ever

I didn’t ride again. And it was in the low 60s! My uterus declared today to be a non-riding day, and lobbied hard for it to be a couch-day, but I did manage to strip the den floor at least. Getting the carpet up was pretty easy, and then I just alternated sitting on the couch feeling sorry for myself with crawling on the floor prying up staples.

Tomorrow. I ride. Swear to god, no matter what, I ride that horse.

Word verification PSA

Hey, do you hate the new two-word word verification like I do? GOOD. Let’s turn it off. Blogger has made it very hard to turn off WV, but I have used the awesome powers of my new favorite search engine to figure out how to turn off the two impossible to read words.

I mean, assuming you’re willing to turn on comment moderation – you will probably get Russian spammers if you turn off WV and don’t have comment moderation on. It’s not that big a deal to approve comments once a day (or every couple of days) – let me be your low-standards leader. Sometimes I approve them immediately, sometimes I forget for days at a time. Ain’t no thang. Don’t fear the comment moderation.

So! My persuasive skills have swayed you and you want to turn off the horrible word verification. Here’s a blog post explaining how.

If that post gets deleted:
Go to your new blogger dashboard thing. Look for your name in the top right. Click the little gear under it. Go to Old Blogger Interface. Click on your blog name, then Settings, then Comments. Scroll down to Show Word Verification for Comments, and click No.

I am this close to migrating four years’ worth of posts to WordPress. I do not like the new interface; I am not real fond of Google right now, and now the stupid impossible to solve captcha? fffffffffffffddd