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The Panda Project

A Guide Horse for the Blind

Report 4: Climbing to New Heights!

Written by Alexandra Kurland

April was a month filled with superlatives for Panda. It began with a trip to Ohio for the Equine Affaire, and it ended with a visit from a Japanese television crew. Panda was awesome! I find myself wanting to say that at the start of each one of these reports, but she truly was.


For those who haven't met Panda yet, she is a mini I am training to be a guide for a client of mine who is blind. Panda is now fifteen months old, and she has been in training with me since the middle of Sept. 2001. For more information on Panda, see the previous Panda Reports.

The Equine Affaire


I drove out to Ohio for the Equine Affaire on Tuesday, April 9. I should be more accurate. One of my clients, Dolores Arste drove, and I enjoyed the luxury of being chauffeured. The Equine Affaire is a huge expo and trade show. This year the list of clinicians included John Lyons, Al Dunning, Nicole Uphoff, Pat Parelli, and Clinton Anderson, among others, so the place was packed.


Wednesday morning we unloaded all the stock for the trade booth, and I went to work setting everything up. I finished around three, a record for me, which left the rest of the afternoon for the three of us to explore and enjoy the sights.


To get you oriented: the stabling for the several hundred horses that participant in the Equine Affaire is in the Gilligan Complex. That's a long building that runs along the backside of the fairgrounds. It must hold close to a thousand stalls. Directly in front of the Gilligan Complex is the Bricker Building which is home to the main part of the trade show. On the far side of that building is the Celeste Center, another building for trade booths and demo rings. That's where I gave my presentation with Panda on Thursday.


The most direct way to get to the Celeste Center was to turn left out of the Gilligan Complex and walk along the far side of the Bricker Building. If you went right instead, that would take you to the Covered Paddock, the Coliseum, the Cooper Arena, and the Voinovich Complex. The Voinovich Complex has a large demo ring with seating for a thousand plus people in it. The rest of the building is used for trailer displays and the John Lyons' sales area.


As you can gather from this, the fairgrounds is a huge complex. During the Equine Affaire the roadways are turned into pedestrian walkways. Food vending stands, trailer displays, and service vehicles create a complex obstacle course for a guide to navigate. On our first venture out both Panda and I felt more than a little disoriented. Neither one of us quite knew how to find the best route in an environment where there was no clear shoreline. Panda did her best to go from landmark to landmark. She'd find a section of sidewalk and follow that until it disappeared into a parking lot. Then she'd take the most direct route possible to another stretch of recognizable shoreline. She was very focused, but very relaxed, even in the midst of all the moving-in activity.


At the entrance to the Celeste Building she marched me right up to the doors. Click and treat. Inside the place was in chaos. Cartons and half-assembled display racks blocked the aisles. I pointed Panda in the general direction of the demo ring, and left her alone to do her job.


I love watching her work her way through a situation like this. She is so aware, so clearly thinking ahead. I asked her to go down an aisle that was jammed with stuff. She very deliberately detoured me past my selection and took a less crowded route around. I never force her to go my way if her choice is better. She doesn't need to get right up on top of an obstacle to see that she can't get through. If the path seems too crowded, she finds a detour around. Exactly right: click and treat.


The demo ring was empty, so I turned her loose to play. All she wanted to do was roll and roll, and roll some more. She's in the process of shedding her winter coat so she feels extra itchy. When she got up from her roll, she left layers of soft Panda fur on the mats.


Panda wasn't interested in staying in the demo ring. She wanted to go exploring, so I put her harness back on her and let her "find outside". She retraced her steps back to the exit and walked me right up to the door handle. Click and treat!


Our next stop was the Cooper arena where we watched Clinton Anderson schooling a horse. Panda disgraced herself by rolling again, this time in the dirt. She got up from her dust bath looking like a poor unwanted refugee, so back we went to the Gilligan complex for some intensive grooming. After that we headed to the Voinovich Center.


We went in on the lower level. The main trade show area was on the second floor. We could have taken the handicap access ramp up, but the inside stairs looked like a great training opportunity. Panda climbed them without any hesitation. We visited with John Lyons' road manager, then headed back down the stairs. In the hallway we were offered several choices. We could have gone into the main hall to walk through the trailer displays. Or we could be very bold and daring and go up a long flight of stairs into the stands of the main arena.


The stairs were longer than anything I had asked Panda to go up. I knew she could climb them all right, but could she get down? I spotted a sign for an elevator on the second floor. If we got stuck, we would have a way to get down.


So up we went. The first floor was easy, so we just kept going. We ended up at the very top of the spectator stands, three tiers up. Panda said: "Ho hum. What's the big deal?"


I was going to take her back down the way we had come, but it was just too tempting to take her straight down the steps of the stands. So down we went, no hesitation, no worry. She went down with all the confidence of a mountain goat!


At the bottom I looked back up to where we had just been standing. I suppose I will eventually get used to Panda going everywhere and anywhere I go. Climbing stairs, riding in cars, going shopping will become common place events. I'll no longer add exclamation marks after each new adventure, but for now I couldn't help it. We had just been in standing in the top row of a thousand seat auditorium with a HORSE! Amazing!


Thursday night we had another stair climbing adventure. Dolores and I stayed late to watch the dress rehearsals for the Pfizer Fantasia, a riding exhibition held on Friday and Saturday evening. We got Panda and brought her with us over to the Coliseum. The kick boards surrounding the arena were too high for us to see over. If we wanted to watch, we would have to go up into the stands. So that's what we did. The stairs going up into the first tier of seats were narrow and steep, exactly the kind of steps I had been avoiding with Panda. But they didn't look slippery so I asked Panda what she thought of them.


"These are nothing" she responded by climbing up them.


We found seats in an empty section of the stands and settled in to enjoy the show. I'd been on my feet all day talking to people at the booth, so it felt good to sit for a while and just relax. I was pleased to discover that I had plenty of room for both Panda and my knees. That had been one of our questions about using a horse as a guide. Could you comfortably attend concerts and sporting events? The answer at least for this Coliseum was yes.


A couple of people came over to ask about Panda. When I told them she was in training to be a guide, they said in astonishment, "You're serious! We'd heard about minis being used as guides and we thought it was a joke."


Since Panda was there with us, they had to admit it wasn't a joke, especially since she was being such a well behaved little girl. When the house lights went down, she leaned her chin on my knee and gave a contented sigh. She was ready for a nap. Not even the blaring music from the loud speakers was enough to disturb her.


The music announced the arrival of the Icelandic drill team. They raced into the darkened arena, ten Icelandics with red reflector bands on their legs.


Panda continued to doze with her chin on my knee.


The house lights came back up. The Iceys ripped past us at top speed.


Panda was unimpressed. Even when they came charging straight down the long side, ten Icelandics riding stirrup to stirrup, Panda seemed totally oblivious to their presence.


I watched two more acts, then decided it was time to go. I thought Panda might not be as at ease going down the stairs as she had been going up them. I didn't want to be caught in the stands when the management was ready to close up for the night.


My concern was well founded. Panda stuck at the top step. Up, she was telling me, was easy. Down was scary.


"I can't do this," she said by digging her heels in and refusing to budge.


"But Panda", I told her, "What goes up, must go down."


"This is too scary." she responded with a worried look. "I can't do it."


So there we were, stuck at the top of eight narrow and admittedly daunting-looking steps. I had visions of some cowboy trainer having to come rescue her and carry her down. That would never do!


Dolores went off scouting to find another way down. She came back a few minutes later to report that there was another wider set of stairs at the back of the Coliseum. To get to them we would have to go all the way up to the top of the stands. What went up would really have to go down in that case, but it was worth investigating. These eight steps had all the elements Panda finds most challenging. They were narrow side to side, shallow and steep. The steps Dolores had found were wider, more like the stairs Panda was used to.


So up we went. The stairs going up into the top part of the stands were easy, two steps, then a level section, then two more steps, repeating all the way to the top. Panda had no problem going up, but she didn't like the back stairs any more than the narrow front ones. These steps looked slippery. And they wound down out of sight into a darkened stairwell. It felt as though we would be descending into a medieval dungeon, not the most inviting space for a horse who was already having a confidence problem.


So Panda and I turned around and headed back down the stands. Two steps then a level. Two steps then a level. Panda went down these steps just fine. "Great", I thought. "I'll treat this just like trailer loading and keep going. Maybe she'll follow me right down to the bottom."


No such luck. Panda stuck again at the top step of this final tier of stairs. So now it really was trailer loading.



Whether it is a trailer a horse is afraid to load into, or stairs they are reluctant to go down, the teaching process is essentially the same. She didn't yet know how to go down such steep stairs. She had to build her confidence through small stages. If I pushed her, or rushed her, the risk was huge that she would start scrambling and take a tumble. Panda was scared, and rightfully so. I had a huge responsibility to keep her safe and build her confidence. Thank goodness for targeting and the clicker.


I asked Panda to stretch down to touch my hand. "I'm afraid," Panda's tense body said, but she stretched her nose forward and bumped my closed fist. Click and treat!


I kept inviting her to stretch down. I took the slack out of the lead so she felt pressure from the halter on her face. The lead helped focus her on the stairs. I was most definitely NOT trying to pull her down. If I tried to force her before she was ready, she could get scrambly and slide. These steps were steep. We needed to take our time to teach her how to step down them safely.


The first part of this process was simply getting her comfortable stepping down with her front feet. This she could do, but that's as far as she could go. She clearly felt so disoriented with her rear end stuck way up in the air that she didn't know what to do next.


I let her hop back up onto the level footing of the top landing. We practiced stepping down with just her front feet until she seemed comfortable standing at a steep angle. That was okay. She was willing to stay like that, both front feet down one step and her rear end up in the air.


She just didn't know what to do next. I could certainly sympathize. I remember back in the days when I went rock climbing how disorienting that could be. I've been in situations where I felt as though there was no way I could move without falling.


"I'm afraid," Panda's worried little face told me.


"I know" I told her back. "We'll figure this out together. I won't rush you."


By this time the Fantasia dress rehearsal was well underway. The riding horses had left and now it was time for a parade of carriages. The first team in was a pair of miniature donkeys, then came the a six hitch team of minis, a pair of fjords, and some gorgeous haflingers. They were followed by the big draft horses. A six horse hitch of Belgiums and another of Clydesdales shared centered stage for pas de deux of carriages. Very impressive!


Panda ignored them all. Her focus was entirely on the stairs. It was as though we were off in our own dimension and none of this other activity even existed. Her focus was truly amazing. Often when horses are afraid, everything around them becomes supercharged. They'll spook and jump at things that don't normally disturb them. Not Panda. It didn't matter what was going on. She ignored it all. As did I. It wasn't until I watched the Fantasia the following night that I saw what had been going on in the ring below us.


That kind of focus is essential when a horse is having trouble. Panda needed me to be here with her, not sight seeing. She needed help to get down those stairs. She had trusted me and gone up them. Now I was asking her to trust me again to get down them.


The stairs descended down into a well. At the level of the top step the side wall was still low enough so that Panda could turn sideways on the step and get her head over the top of it. With her front feet down on the first step, I asked her to inch her way sideways.


This she could do. This was how she had originally learned to go up and down stairs. With her head over the wall there was now room for her to step down sideways with her hind end. I put my hand on her hip and encouraged her to take a step down. She offered no resistance. This she knew how to do. Going straight down was too scary, but she could sidestep crab-like down onto this step. Click and jackpot. I fished a peppermint out of my pocket.


One step, seven more to go. But now that we had a strategy, I knew she could do it.


I again used my hand to target her front end down to the next step. Click and treat. She could still get her head over the side wall, so I inched her sideways, and she stepped down with her hind feet. Click and jackpot. She got another peppermint.


By the third step down, the side wall was almost too high for her, but she was gaining confidence. She knew what she had to do, and the ground was a lot closer. She stepped down, still managing to keep herself sideways.


By the fourth step she couldn't turn sideways anymore. She had to step straight down, but she had her confidence back. She could do it!


The last couple of steps were easy. As she made the last one, a round of applause burst out from the spectators. They were sitting clustered in the center of the Coliseum, away from where were, but we had definitely been part of the show!


The "Clever Hans" Effect

When I'm letting Panda "guide" me, I often wonder just how much is she doing, and how much I'm signaling. When she stops at a curb, is it because she recognizes that's what she's supposed to do? Or am I somehow signaling her as I see the curb approaching? That's the "Clever Hans" effect. Clever Hans was said to be able to count, but the reality was he was simply very good at reading body language. That was my question with Panda. Was she guiding or simply responding to my signals? I got a clear answer to this early on at the Equine Affaire.


Wednesday morning I gave the assignment of getting Panda settled into her stall to Dolores. The stalls hadn't yet been cleaned from the previous event, so there was a delay getting Panda moved in. Dolores was worried about leaving me to set up the booth by myself, so when she was finally able to get Panda, she was in a rush. She started to whisk her in, just like she would her own horses.


Panda had other ideas. She stopped at the first curb they came to and planted herself firmly against Dolores' side as an added reminder that that wasn't how SHE did things!


Dolores did a double take, and after that let Panda guide her. Panda stopped at the barn entrance. She steered Dolores around the tack trunks blocking the aisles, and took her neatly around a pile of straw. Dolores knows Panda does this, but she wasn't expecting her to be "on duty" with the guide work. The deliberateness of her actions took her by surprise.


In the training I am very aware of the "Clever Hans" phenomenon. I may think Panda is initiating some action. It may look as though she's choosing to stop at the curbs, or go around an obstacle when in reality she is just following subtle body cues. But Dolores was hurrying along. She wasn't thinking about the curbs, and Panda still stopped. Good girl! That was not "Clever Hans". That was smart Panda doing her job.


Clicker Demos

On Thursday Panda and I headed out through the crowds to the Celeste Building where we were to give a general clicker training demo. The demo ring was littered with loose hay. I had just taken Panda from a late lunch, so the hay was a definite temptation. My plan was to turn Panda loose, but I didn't want the demo to be of a clicker-trained horse ignoring her handler, so I began the program by giving her a very familiar task. I set a piece of plywood down in the center of the arena, away from the hay.


Panda came over to investigate. She put a front foot on the plywood. Click and treat. She stepped both feet on the plywood. Click and treat.


She moved off the plywood. I waited, and within seconds she was back. Click and treat.


She grew roots on the plywood and began posing. Click and treat.


One of the rules of shaping states that when behavior deteriorates you should go back to a simpler step in the training. That's what I was doing. By starting with a simple behavior I was rebuilding the solid connection I normally had with Panda. Standing on a target is something she knows well, but in this new environment it helped her to lower my expectations and click and treat small successes. As her roots grew deeper, I could step away from her. I moved off to the side. Click and treat. I stepped two, three, then eventually ten feet away.


All the while I was doing this I was addressing the audience. I had decided to start my program by reading from an internet post in which the author spoke eloquently about why she clicker trained. It was an interesting exercise in parallel processing, like walking and chewing gum. Could I read and train a horse at the same time? With Panda the answer was an easy yes.


From targeting on a stationary platform we shifted to following a moving target. Panda demonstrated "clicker basics". She showed off her dressage-horse lateral work and played "Panda catch" with a member of the audience. We finished the program with some obstacle work, but I discovered that I could only show people the end result of that process. I couldn't demonstrate how you teach obstacle avoidance.


Panda would not let me run into anything. I didn't want to compromise her training by forcing her into an obstacle. That wouldn't be fair. So instead Panda showed off what a great guide she is. She steered me expertly around the improvised obstacle course I created from a push boom, a chair, and a trash can.


That brought us to the end of the demo, but not to the end of Panda's work. She still had to get us back to the barn. I picked up the handle of her harness and followed her, curious to see what she would do. She found a path through the crowds, and retraced the route we had used to come into the building. The aisles were packed, but that didn't bother her. When we came within sight of the outside doors, she marched me straight over to them.


That's been one of my questions. Was Panda understanding that she was to take me to a door, or was I guiding her? At the Equine Affaire it became very clear that she has generalized the concept of doors. She recognizes them as entrances, and she will detour off a straight path to take me to a door. At this stage she is pointing out all doors. She has not yet learned that we use only some entrances and the rest can be ignored. That will come later as she gains more experience in following known routes.


As we made our way back to the barn, she pointed out every entrance to the Bricker Building. My ever hopeful little shopper wanted me to take her inside. Panda loves going up and down store aisles, and here was a whole building devoted entirely to horsey things, the perfect place for an eager equine shopper! But I was a spoil sport. I looked in at the jam-packed aisles, and thought that shopping adventure was best left for another day.


That's been one of my questions. Was Panda understanding that she was to take me to a door, or was I guiding her? At the Equine Affaire it became very clear that she has generalized the concept of doors. She recognizes them as entrances, and she will detour off a straight path to take me to a door. At this stage she is pointing out all doors. She has not yet learned that we use only some entrances and the rest can be ignored. That will come later as she gains more experience in following known routes.


As we made our way back to the barn, she pointed out every entrance to the Bricker Building. My ever hopeful little shopper wanted me to take her inside. Panda loves going up and down store aisles, and here was a whole building devoted entirely to horsey things, the perfect place for an eager equine shopper! But I was a spoil sport. I looked in at the jam-packed aisles, and thought that shopping adventure was best left for another day.


Outside the side entrance to the Coliseum the brick walkway changed pattern. Panda stopped. She was marking the change! Furthermore, this was not a fluke. We retraced this route many more times over the weekend and every time Panda stopped at the change of pattern in the bricks.


This ability to stop for changes in footing and other subtle landmarks will be wonderfully useful to a blind handler. It becomes information her owner can use to navigate. For example, the sidewalks near the high school where her owner works have no curb cuts. They are level with the parking lots. Ann has taught her current guide dog to stop at these non-existent curbs by targeting them using food. After a number of repetitions he has caught on to the idea that he is to stop at these spots.


Panda needed no such lessons. On her first walk along this section she nailed every one of these flat curb stops. She noticed the change in pavement and stopped at the beginning of each roadway. Clever horse!


At the Equine Affaire, Ann could have found her way to the Coliseum using the landmarks Panda was stopping at. They were perfect navigational markers. I could have told her to go straight once she got to the bricks, and then to turn left when they changed pattern. That would have taken her right to the doors of the Coliseum. I was amazed that Panda had already reached this degree of generalization in her training.


Choosing a Path

The brick walkway took us to the front side of the Coliseum. Panda guided me through a set of traffic barriers and around another cluster of horse trailers. We were cutting across a parking lot towards the Covered Paddock and the front of the Bricker Building. Panda suddenly stopped. I looked down. She was standing on the edge of a patched section of pavement. She was marking the change in texture!


Panda wasn't stopping because she was afraid. I know plenty of horses who balk at changes in footing. Panda was stopping because she'd generalized that stopping for changes earns a click and a treat. She stopped for every change in footing we came to. Eventually this will be too much information, but for now I want to encourage this kind of landmarking, especially in such a complex environment.


The roadway in front of the Bricker Building had been turned into a giant food court. Even at this early hour the place was packed with people. What a great opportunity to expose her to crowds. I told Panda to go forward. She balked. I told her forward again. She pressed in against my leg, clearly reluctant to go through the crowds. I gave her the cue a third time.


This time she went forward, but not in the direction I had indicated. Instead she veered to the right and took me down the less crowded back side of the food stands. I might have wanted to test her crowd skills, but she had actually chosen the safer, better option. Intelligent disobedience; that's what she was demonstrating. Click and treat!


At the far side of the food stands she had to find her way across a confusing maze of traffic barriers. I did as little as possible to influence her choice. Again, I wanted to see what she would do. Each time she stopped to mark a change in footing or some other landmark, I would pretend I couldn't see. I would fish around with my foot feeling for curbs or other unseen hazards. Once I identified by feel the reason for the stop, click, she got her reward.


Following Routes

Panda had only been in this section once before, but she made all the right turns to take us back to the Gilligan Complex. She led me expertly along the edge of the Bricker Building back towards the barn area. She acted as though she had constructed a map of the fairgrounds out of the individual segments we had walked on Wednesday and Thursday, piecing them together to create the loop we were on. Perhaps I was reading too much into what she had just done, but as we repeated this walk over the next three days it became clear she was following a route. She headed out consistently in the same direction, chose the same course, stopped at the same landmarks. It was quite remarkable. And it is an essential skill a guide animal must have.


I've watched Ann teach her dogs a route, reinforcing them at critical intersections so that they will find the landmarks for her again. Dogs are good at this, and so are horses. Any one who trail rides knows how easily horses learn routes. All you have to do is ride a course once, and most horses can follow it on their own. But what Panda seemed to be showing me was an ability to piece together an overall map from individual segments of a route. If that's indeed the case, that will be a valuable asset when we start teaching her routes with Ann.


Patience and Pioneers

Our walk took close to two hours to complete, not because we went such a huge distance, but because we couldn't go more than a few feet without being stopped by curious on-lookers. Panda not only had to demonstrate her guiding skills, she also had to practice a good deal of patience. We were sometimes stopped for ten minutes at a time answering questions. Panda stood by my side, glued to me in her heel position.


The reaction of the crowd impressed me. As people noticed her, there would be a wave of silence. They would watch her take me down a series of steps or bring me to a curb. Then I would hear them say to one another: "That's the guide horse." They weren't saying: "Oh look at that cute little horse." They were saying: 'That's the guide horse." And they said it with such respect.


I feel so privileged to be able to work with Panda. She is so awesome! She is a pioneer, blazing a trail. And it's not just a trail for little horses to follow. Panda changes the way you look at all horses. She is showing us what happens when you truly acknowledge the horse as a working partner.


This is what clicker training gives you. I see it every night when Ann and I ride our big horses. Panda isn't Ann's only horse. She also owns an Arabian and two Icelandics. Her Arabian, Magnat, is twenty-three years old. He and Ann have been together now for seven years. He came out of a working ranch horse background. He was athletic, talented, but emotionally reactive. She began as an understandably cautious rider with a stiff left side from handling her guide dog. They are now a dance team, and every night he offers her something wonderful. Just last night they had a spectacular ride. Everything was there: a piaffe that would knock your socks off it was so beautiful; a magnificent trot; and a collected canter that was beyond perfect. I wish we'd had the video camera running.


Ann's comment afterwards was that she felt as though he was doing it all. And in a sense he was. A good rider knows how to set the horse up, and then get out of its way. We don't have to micro-manage every little detail. That's one of the things I learned very early on in my clicker training experience. Our clicker-trained horses not only understand what we want, they are eager to show us just how spectacular they can be. That's what drew me to clicker training. It wasn't that I could get a pushy horse to stop running over the top of me, or a fussy horse to stand still. There are lots of training methods out there that can teach basic manners. What clicker training adds is a layer of understanding and communication that goes beyond basic obedience. Look in the eyes of a clicker-trained horse and you'll see it. These are bright, tuned-in, aware individuals.


Our horses are showing us that they can understand very complex tasks. We don't have to dictate every little detail. That's what Panda is teaching us and it's a great gift she is bringing to the horse world. Little Panda is rewriting the definition of equine partner. When I listened to the murmur through the crowd as they watched her work, it was clear they were understanding this.

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