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The Panda Project

A Guide Horse for the Blind

Panda is Guiding! Continued

I used the Virginia clinic to work on a stepping stone to that goal. I limited all direct contact with Panda. Now it was the humans turn to be frustrated! If ever there was an animal that looked as though she belonged on the toy shelf of FAO Swartz, it was Panda. I had a room full of ladies who wanted to hug her, and I was saying she was off limits.


I let Panda get increasingly solid in her heel position, then one at a time I allowed people to come up to her shoulder and pet her. Panda could press up against my leg, a now very familiar and highly reinforced position while they scratched her on the shoulder, her favorite spot. All the while she was accepting their contact I was clicking and reinforcing her.


When people came at her head on, Panda tended to draw back. I reinforced this as part of the leave-it game. We were beginning to develop a consistent pattern. If people wanted to pet her, they could approach from the side which became a cue for Panda to lock in closer to me. That meant there was no inappropriate swinging of her hindquarters into somebody's space. If someone approached from the front and put their hand out to her, Panda was starting to draw back. What was developing was a way for her to signal to her handler that somebody was trying to pet her.


This behavior would alert her blind handler to the situation and allow her to control access to Panda. And at the same time, it removed Panda from the temptation of licking somebody's outstretched fingers.


I never corrected Panda for grumping at people. I simply controlled access to her and worked on making all contact a pleasant experience. My assessment at the end of the clinic was we still had a long way to go. In the barn Panda was beginning to accept people coming up on her, but not in the tight quarters of the house. She was still expressing her displeasure with a display of pinned ears and a grumpy face.


So that's where we were at the end of the clinic. I was seeing progress on many fronts. Her liberty training, leading, and in-house manners had all taken another huge step forward. Her biggest hurdle was clearly going to be her acceptance of people.

Panda is enjoying a quiet visit with a friend.

Signs of Progress

On Monday we drove home to New York, and then for the next couple of days she had a light training schedule. I was running a marathon against time to get ready for the Equine Affaire. I did manage to take Panda with me on a couple of short trips, one to the post office and another to the local pharmacy.


The pharmacy was an interesting test. The aisles were narrow and crowded with people. Panda showed no tension whatsoever around them. Several people asked to pet her. I set her up in heel position and let them scratch her shoulder. Panda accepted their contact without even a flicker of an ear. Progress!


On the following Wednesday, I packed up my trailer, and Panda and I headed over to Springfield MA for the Equine Affaire. The Equine Affaire provided a goldmine of training opportunities. We were confronted with a huge variety of training obstacles and distractions: Traffic, people, horses, and barriers of every possible configuration. It was a training paradise, a playground of puzzles and training opportunities.


My first training test was a set of steps in front of the fairgrounds. There were two tiers of wide steps leading up to a circle of flag poles. I couldn't resist letting Panda play "mountain goat" on them, though I did wonder if the flags would worry her.


Panda ignored the flags and headed straight up the steps. I wish we had had a camera handy. It would have made a great shot, tiny Panda standing at the top of all these steps with the flags flapping overhead.



My major concern with Panda coming into the Equine Affaire was that she would be overwhelmed by all the activity, especially that of the other horses. While others were moving in, Panda and I wandered up and down the aisles taking in the sites. There were bags of shaving, tack trunks, wheel barrows, pots of flowers, carriages, all manner of obstacles clogging the aisles.


I set up a little game with Panda. As we headed down each row, I would pick a line that would run me into the most obstacles. I then let Panda guide us down the aisle. Throughout the weekend, I never bumped into anything. Panda steered us around every obstruction. She slowed down and avoided people. She was sensible around the other horses. She made room for me around all the obstacles. If I had been impressed with her level-headedness during our trip to Boston, I was even more astounded by it now.

Panda is guiding me around obstacles in the barn aisle.

Overhead Obstacles

But the barn was just the beginning. On Thurs. Panda was my teaching partner during a one hour clicker-training demonstration. We had a small space to work in, roughly a thirty foot square arena surrounded by white temporary fencing, and no gate. I turned Panda loose and spent a fun hour shaping behavior. Panda showed off her heel position, her off-leash heeling skills, her lateral work, and her obstacle avoidance.


At one point I had two people hold a lead rope up about waist height. I put the lead on her and gave her the cue to go forward. She walked straight under the rope. I, of course, ran smack into it, said whoops! and backed her out. On our second approach I said forward, and she took a step forward, stopped and targeted the rope with her nose. Click and treat. On our third approach I said forward. She hesitated, looked at the rope, and then turned and took me around it to the left. Click and jackpot! What a smart horse!


Outside behind the stabling area there was a wide lawn that was fenced off by chains to protect it from the horses. Friday morning we went out early for a walk. I walked Panda up to the chains, and told her forward. The grass was infront of her. She could easily have gone under the chain to get to it. Instead she stopped, and just as she had the day before with the rope, she targeted the chain with her nose. When I again asked her to go forward, she turned to the side and took me around the barrier.


This was only her third exposure to overhead obstacles. The first had been over a month ago in Boston, and then the rope during my presentation the day before, and now this. Each obstacle had been different, but already she was generalizing and avoiding things I could not go under.


Traffic Barriers

The metal traffic barriers blocking off sections of the parking lot provided another great training opportunity. At home most of her experiences with obstacles involved walking around a parked car or a trash can. She passed between me and the barrier. Providing enough clearance for me had never been an issue. With the traffic barriers it was.


Some extra barriers had been left just outside the stabling area. They were set up in a maze of turns, and narrow gaps. The gaps were wide enough for Panda to pass through, but not for both of us. Perfect!


As Panda reached the first barrier, she followed along beside it, just as she would any edge. At the first gap, she turned and walked through while I banged into the adjacent barrier. Whoops!


I backed Panda up and we tried again. This time she stopped at the gap. Click and treat. I said "forward" again. She hesitated, and then continued straight on past past the gap to an opening that was wide enough for both of us. Smart horse!

Panda is guiding me towards a gap between traffic barriers.


Everywhere we went Panda attracted a crowd. We couldn't take two steps out of her stall without being surrounded by people wanting to pet her. Whenever I took her out she was always wearing her harness identifying her as a guide horse in training. When a guide is working, especially when it is with its blind handler, it's important to leave it alone. You don't want to distract the animal from its job. That gave me a polite and understandable way to restrict the amount of handling Panda had to deal with. When I did let people come up to her, I put her first in heel position and asked them to approach her from the side.


Panda responded to the attention with a pleasant expression, and sometimes even a wiggling of her nose as they found her itchy spots. That was a huge shift from her earlier outings where she had been warning people off. I was also pleased to see that Panda was responding to people who crouched down infront of her by drawing back.


Now this can sound awful. It sounds as though I was teaching her to be afraid of people, when in reality I was just turning them into a cue. Draw back when a hand is outstretched to you, and click!, you get a treat! This was a game Panda was understanding, and it kept her from nibbling on people's outstretched fingers.



Panda had yet another breakthrough Friday evening. I was settling her in for the night, giving her her late evening snack. Like everything else I treat meal times as training sessions. Panda has learned that fussing at her door, demanding food, makes both me and the food disappear. To get me to bring her food into the stall she has to hold herself still. Once I'm in the stall she has to line herself up next to me in heel position. Click! At that point I'll put her dish down.


While she's eating, I usually spend some time leaning over her, rubbing on her, just to habituate her to more contact. Panda generally didn't mind this, so long as I didn't reach under her belly. At home that would make her wiggle and squirm away like a little kid being smothered by a bear hug.


Friday when I put my arms around her, I didn't feel the usual drawing into herself. I gave her a squeeze, remembering what I've heard about autistic children finding comfort in a full body squeeze and the speculation that animals have the same response.


I pressed my arms around Panda and felt her whole body relax. Click, she got a treat. At the same instant, I released her from the bear hug, so two things marked her acceptance of the hug: the click, and the release of pressure. I squeezed her again, and again she responded back. Instead of drawing into herself, she relaxed and melted into my arms. Finally! I wasn't the predator grabbing her around the neck and pulling her down. I was a trusted friend embracing her with an affection she could return.


This opened the door to another important lesson. I could now sack her out. As I leaned over her, I reached up and tousled her forelock. No problem. Click and treat, plus the immediate withdrawal of my hands. I repeated this, rubbing her all over, playing with her ears, her muzzle, doing all the things she normally found annoying, but now accepted with good grace.


I hope I'm clear here about what was happening, and why I had not done this sooner. When I say that Panda up to this point had not been comfortable being touched, I don't want you to picture a horse who was quivering in fear or throwing herself on the ground every time a human came near her. I could certainly handle her, groom her, pick out her feet, etc. but her initial reaction was always to draw back from any approach. This is totally understandable, especially given her size. It is all too easy to "make" a horse behave, especially one that weighs less than 100 pounds. It's so natural to force compliance instead of teaching the animal cooperation.


Panda's early handling was clearly very kind, but in any breeding program that produces over forty foals a year, there's bound to be a certain amount of "just get the job done" handling. Panda liked people. She was incredibly sweet, loved being scratched and fussed over. She just didn't feel comfortable with grabby behavior.


I could have sacked her out in the early stages of her training, but the principles of training made me postpone that lesson. "You can not ask for something you have not taught your horse." I had not taught Panda to stand still. Until that layer was in place, the sacking out needed to wait.


If I had done it earlier, yes, I could have habituated her to my hand, but I would have been forcing a lesson on her that she was not ready for. I would have seen the life go out of her eyes. I don't want to teach her that she's "just a horse" and she has to put up with anything I choose to do with her. That's not the kind of relationship I'm interested in developing. I'm not a production trainer. I don't have a set time in which I have to have Panda trained and ready to work. I have the luxury of being able to take my time, and wait for each lesson to emerge.


Think of training like peeling an onion. To get to the layers underneath, you have to remove the outer layers. You can do so in big clumps, but with most horses it's so much more effective if you peel back one thin layer at a time. You can see the layers underneath. You know where you're headed, you just have to be patient and peel back the training one step at a time.


That's why it is so important to focus on the principles of training, and to understand the emotional component of the learning process. That's what keeps you from being distracted and focusing prematurely on issues that over time are going to melt away on their own. At Tufts Panda was pinning her ears at people. At the Equine Affaire, that behavior was gone. Focus on what you want, not the unwanted behavior. Find one small thing you can ask for and get on a consistent basis as your starting point. Train in small steps so your horse continues to be successful. And most of all enjoy the process. Panda was reinforcing for me the importance of all these fundamental training principles.


In case you haven't figured it out by now, this is why I am sharing in such detail her training. It is not to teach you how to be a guide horse trainer. No pun intended, but that would be the blind leading the blind. But I know many of you reading this are new to training. You're struggling to understand your horse, and you're probably surrounded by people all giving advice, much of it conflicting.


Who do you listen to?

When your horse acts out, offering behavior you don't like, do you clobber him, or feed him carrots?


For me the answer is always "go to people for opinions and horses for answers." The horses tell us so clearly what their issues are. And they also tell us when they are ready to work on them. If you just keep saying to yourself "I can't ask my horse to do something I haven't taught him to do", you'll come out right. That applies to every component of behavior. So for Panda I could not work on the handling issues until she was comfortable with all the components of standing still. This may seem like a slow way to train, but consider all the things she had learned in less than two months of training. Think of all the extra goodies I had accumulated by working in this slow, systematic fashion. And remember also, Panda is just ten months old, so we have all the time in the world to get things done.


Head Lowering

On Saturday Panda had another opportunity to show off her training. I gave another presentation. This time we were joined by one of my clients, Bob Viviano and his horse, Crackers. My original plan was to start with Panda, spend just a few minutes with her and then let Bob show off his horse. That was the plan, but if there's one thing you learn fast at these big expos is you have to be prepared for anything.


I had just started my presentation. Panda was with me in the ring, and Bob was waiting with Crackers. All was well, or would have been except for an over-eager volunteer who lowered the big overhead door a little too soon. It came down smack on Crackers' rear end. He could cope with all kinds of things, crowds of people, other horses, the lights and sounds of the arena, but he couldn't cope with the sky falling on top of him!


Out of the corner of my eye I saw Crackers fussing. Bob was doing his best to calm him down, but he was forgetting his tool box. One of the huge advantages to teaching and working with a variety of horses is it keeps your tool box fresh in your mind. Bob was used to Crackers being a calm, stable horse. Crackers hadn't always been that way. It used to be he couldn't walk down the driveway at home without finding something to worry about.


Bob had done such a good job training his horse, he'd forgotten how he had created this calm, level-headed attitude. With Crackers fretting over the door and what all of a sudden felt like very close quarters in the demo ring, he needed to go back and enforce the head-down cue. Under the pressure of the performance, Bob was forgetting how.


So I tossed Panda's lead to another client, Dolores Arste, and took Crackers from Bob. I wish I had had a stall where I could have put Crackers for a few minutes while I explained to people what I was going to do. That's one of the frustrations of these small demo rings. Crackers needed my full attention. He couldn't just stand quietly while I talked for ten minutes about head lowering and how you teach it. If he'd been able to do that, he wouldn't have needed the lesson. I had to work him, and hope people could sort of, maybe, follow what I was doing. It was a frustrating position to be in because while he was the perfect demo horse for this lesson, but we weren't in the perfect demo space.


I got Crackers settled enough to take the edge off his panic, and then made the decision to send him back to his stall. I felt badly for Bob in that he wasn't able to show off all the fun things he had taught his horse. On the other hand, it clearly showed how clicker training can be paired with pressure-and-release-of-pressure exercises to help horses out of their emotional meltdown moments.


"Trailer Loading"

While all this was going on, Panda had gone through an interesting meltdown of her own. She wasn't used to being left. For the past two months she had been my shadow, following me everywhere I went, and now without any warning I had tossed her off to someone else. Dolores told me later that she fretted, fussed, and even tried rearing.


Dolores stayed very focused and reinforced her for heel position. At first Panda ignored her, and then all of a sudden the light bulb went on. She locked into this secure position and became just as focused on Dolores as she is with me. And that, of course, is exactly the kind of emotional stability you want these base behaviors to create. That's why I put them on such a high rate of reinforcement. Robin has his "pose". Panda has "heel position". Both behaviors become emotional anchors for the horse and the foundation for all their performance work.


After Crackers left, I took Panda back. We had a couple of new things to add to the behaviors we'd demonstrated on Thurs.. One was the sacking out, and the other was free-shaping Panda to go into an over-sized dog crate. We set the crate up in the middle of the arena, then turned Panda loose to investigate it. Panda looked inside. Click and treat! Three clicks later, and she was in the crate! I wish all "trailer loading" could be this easy.


Panda is Guiding!

As we left the building after the presentation, I picked up Panda's harness and told her "forward". We were pointed across the parking lot, headed for the opposite side and the long walk back to the stables. Panda navigated me in a straight line across the street and stopped at the edge of the road. Click and treat. I gave her a right turn signal, picked up the handle of the harness, and waited to see what she would do. Panda turned to the right and guided me back to the stables.


Now it's not at all surprising that she would know where the stabling area was, or that she would head in that direction given the chance. Any self-respecting horse would do that. But what stunned me was the path she chose.


In our walks at home I always stayed on the edge of the road. We never wandered off the "shoreline" as it is called, except to go around obstacles, and then we always returned to the edge as soon as possible. Panda showed me that she has generalized this to you find an edge and follow it. Instead of cutting diagonally across the parking lot on the direct route back to the barn, she hugged the line of the buildings.


I followed behind her, offering as few navigational signals as possible. I was fascinated by the accuracy of her course. At each obstacle we came to she made exactly the right choice. What really amazed me was that at many places I would not have followed the path she chose. That's what told me she was truly guiding, and not just reading my subtle signals. For example, as we wrapped around the first building, we entered the front entranceway. I would have cut straight across. Panda went into the alcove and followed the line of the building exactly.

Panda is guiding me along the closed-off entrance of a building. This was one of the areas that convinced me that she was truly guiding, and not just following my subtle signals. I would have cut across the entrance, but Panda took me right along the edge of the building.

When we got to a line of traffic barriers, Panda avoided a narrow gap, wide enough for her, but not for me, and instead took a much longer route around. Once she got around the barriers, instead of cutting across the parking lot, she followed them back to the "shoreline" edge. I was astounded.


Sunday morning I took her out again and let her guide me around the perimeter of the parking lot. It was early, so there wasn't much traffic. She had a much easier "shoreline" to follow without all the people and parked cars to contend with. Once again, Panda picked a course and made all the right choices. As a sighted person, I would have cut corners. Panda stuck to her edge. Fascinating!


I wanted to document this huge leap she had made in her training, so later that afternoon I took her out again, this time with a friend video taping our progress. The environment had completely changed from that morning. Now there were horses out being ridden. There were people strolling by, and lots of traffic. But the biggest change were the parked cars. In the morning Panda had had an unobstructed shoreline to follow. That edge was now lined with cars.


We headed out and the first major obstacle we came to was a draft horse being bathed by the edge of the barn. Just beyond that was a gooseneck trailer, and under the goose neck was a jumble of traffic barriers. One was set up on edge, in a direct line with Panda. She could easily have walked under it, but that would have crashed me into it.

Panda could easily have taken another route around these barriers, but not without crashing me into them. She chose the longer route that gave us room for both of us.

Panda took us past the draft horse, alerted me to the puddle of water streaming across the parking lot by slowing her pace slightly, then navigated us both safely around the parking barriers. Our course then took a left hand turn as she followed the shoreline route between the stabling area and the coliseum next to it. A chain link fence separated pedestrians from the warm-up arena. In the corner was a golf cart and three bags of trash that had not been there that morning. Panda could have stuck to her edge, but not without tripping me up in the trash. She took us around them.

Panda paid no attention to the other horses around her. The same cannot be said of the other horses' responses to her! Other horses are fascinated by her.

In the main parking lot area we followed a retaining wall along the length of the coliseum until we got to two parked cars. Panda turned correctly and walked up past the first car. A gap separated the two cars. It would have been a tight squeeze for both of us.

Panda could easily have fit between these two cars, but she chose the correct option which was to lead me past the gap.

Panda didn't even hesitate. She walked us past the gap between cars, around the second car and back to the shoreline. That brought us up to the metal traffic barriers. We were stopped by a cluster of people who wanted to visit with Panda. One little boy positioned himself directly infront of Panda. She did what she was supposed to, she drew back and alerted me to his presence. Click and treat!


When they gave us room to go on, Panda successfully took me around the barriers, then waited patiently beside me until the traffic cleared and we could cross a roadway to our next shoreline. I think the segment that most fascinated and astounded me was a strip of roadway on the far side of the parking lot. It came up right after the metal traffic barriers as we were heading back to the barn.


In the morning there had been no cars parked there. Instead the edge was marked by posts with a metal chain hanging between them to keep people off the grass. Panda had come back to the edge, stopped and targeted on the chain. This was clearly a behavior she had a lot of confidence in. Chains and ropes hung like this were something you touched. Easy.


That was in the morning. In the afternoon the environment had changed. As she came around the barrier, she was confronted instead with a line of cars parked head in to the fence. This was a new configuration for her.


Panda showed no hesitation or confusion. She turned and took us along the back of the first car. The next parking space was empty. She paused, looked in at the chain fence. It was clear she was considering what to do. She liked touching the chain. It was a known reinforcer, but it was also a deadend. I waited, fascinated to see what she would do. I gave her no signals, no cues to move. Panda hesitated, then turned her head straight and kept walking. Exactly right!

Panda navigated her way around this truck  perfectly. If she hadn't moved out far enough, I would have bumped into the truck's extended mirror. Time will tell if this was just a "happy accident", or if Panda was taking into account overhead obstacles.

As we approached the barn we were confronted by a congestion of traffic. Several huge horse vans were pulling up to the back of the barn. They dwarfed little Panda, but she didn't care. She waited by my side until I signaled her to go forward, then she navigated us safely back to the barn. To say that I was astounded by her would have been an understatement. Somehow in the richness of this environment she had made a giant leap forward in her training. She had generalized going around individual obstacles to going around obstacles in general. She had shifted from being directed to directing.

If you can't find Panda in this picture, it's because she's on the other side of the trailer. Panda and I are waiting for the traffic to clear.

One of the concerns people have voiced about using horses as guides is their worry about horses spooking in traffic. Panda's total focus and calm demeanor indicate that this will not be a problem for her.

Panda's performance raised so many questions. How did this leap happen? And what is guiding? Panda was clearly making decisions. She had to choose between options, and often the correct choice was not the most obvious path. How had she understood that these decisions were now hers to make? This is truly a fascinating experience, and one that is only just beginning. Panda is by no means ready to hand over to her owner. She isn't even ready for her first blindfold test, but her performance at the Equine Affaire indicated that the job of guiding is one she can handle. From her steadiness and unflappability in a highly stimulating and distracting environment to an ability to follow a shoreline and avoid obstacles Panda is showing all the attributes of a good working guide.


The questions we began this project with are still there. The main one is still how practical is it to use a horse as a guide? What are the day to day accommodations that must be made to live in such a close association with a horse? But the other questions that center around the basic training Panda is answering at an astounding rate.


Of course, in a real sense I am not surprised at all by the abilities she is showing, but only at the maturity I'm seeing in a ten month old horse. The qualities of a good guide are things we take for granted in our working horses. A jumper finds the right spot at a fence. A good trail horse picks his way over rough terrain. His rider tells him where he wants to go, but not how to get there.


In arena work we dictate much more every move our horse makes. It's easy to forget that riding is supposed to be a partnership. As riding shifts from the complex demands of rough terrain and a task to perform, to the stylized riding that's geared for the show ring, we forget the abilities our horses have to offer. Perhaps Panda and other minis like her will remind us how intelligent and adaptable all of our horses are. As we learn more about guides, we will become more deliberate in the training of this function, to the benefit of all our horses.


At the Equine Affaire this year our theme was one of possibilities. "With clicker training there are no limits. If you can dream it, you can train it" Panda is showing us the truth of that statement.


Alexandra Kurland

Dec. 2001

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