JOYFULL Horses: Unit 4: Cue Communication

Everything  You Need to Know About Cues
At the end of Part 1 I asked: What are ten things you would want a beginner to know about cues?  That seemed like a simple enough question, but look where it has taken us – to neuroscience and the affective emotional systems, to habits and what maintains them, to TAGteaching and the focus funnel, to guide training for horses, to Feldenkrais work and asking questions, to the Premack principle and the creative use of imagery in training.

All that and we still have only three things on our list:

1.) Cues and commands are not synonyms.
2.) Cues are not just verbal signals.  They can include weight shifts, hand gestures and other body language signals.  
3.) Cues can come from the environment.

And now here’s number 4.) Cue Communication

Icky mounting block - hands up

Cue Communication
We tend to think of cues as coming from us, but cues can also be given by our animals.  The behaviors we teach them can be turned around and used by them to communicate back to us.

When we recognize that cues are a two way street, we become much more aware of what are animals are trying to communicate to us.

Panda was the poster child for environmental cues.  She can serve the same function for cue communication.  Guide work is dependent upon the back and forth exchange of cues.  I described earlier Panda’s traffic checks.  That’s a great example both of environmental cues and cue communication.  The moving car is the signal for Panda to stop and back up.  Her actions cue Ann.  Ann must interpret Panda’s sudden change of behavior correctly and allow her to move her out of harm’s way.

 

Everyday Conversations
Good training is about cue communication.  It’s a two way street.

When novice trainers first encounter cues, they often think that they are something only they give.  Most of us have spent time around dogs, either our own or a friend’s.  We’re used to telling dogs to sit, to lie down, to come, to leave it!  These are all cues (or possibly commands – depending upon how they were taught) that we’re giving to the dog.

But what about that sad-eyed look the dog is giving you that gets you to stop working on the computer, get up, walk to the coat closet, put on your jacket and your outside shoes, take the leash off the hook where it’s hanging, attach it to your dog’s collar, open the back door and take him out for a walk.  That was quite the complex chain the dog set in motion just by raising his eyebrows and giving you “that look”.

He probably further cued the internal components of the chain by jumping up, wagging his tail, running to the back door, sitting quietly while you put on shoes and jacket and attached the lead.

Back and forth throughout this sequence there was a dance of cues.  Some were given by you, some by the dog.  It is so like talking on the phone.  You have a long story to tell.  What maintains the conversation?  The little interjections your listener gives you that tell you she’s still on the line, still listening to you.  The call hasn’t been dropped by your cell phone network, nor has she gone off to feed her horses.  Without those little sounds cueing you that the connection is still active, and she’s still on the other end of the line, your story would stutter to a stop.

“Are you still there?” You may find yourself asking this as you talk on the cell phone.

“Are you still walking to the door?”  Your dog wags  his tail, or goes into a play bow.  Yes!  That just redirected the human from the kitchen back on track to the door.

We tend to think of cues as coming from us, but cues can also be given by our animals. When you live with animals, you become as much cued by their behavior as they are cued by you.  We know the look our cats give us when they want to be picked up for a cuddle, when they want to be set down again, or let out, or fed.  We become well-trained humans.

Animal Trainers – The Ones to Really Learn From!
I have always known how much my behavior is being cued by my animals.  I know those “looks”.  I have learned to interpret them and respond appropriately to them.  It’s no good picking your cat up for a cuddle when what she wants is to go out.  She’ll simply squirm out of your arms to repeat – louder – her cue.  She knows what many people who travel in foreign countries also believe.  If the foreigner doesn’t understand your language, repeat what you just said, only louder.  In the cat’s case, this often works!

Cats are superb trainers.  They are experts at arranging their households to their liking.  If you want to learn about training – watch your cats.  You don’t need to go any further to find a master trainer!

A Well-Trained Human
Cats are very good at taking the behaviors we have taught them, and turning them around to cue us.  I became very aware of this when one of my cats was a small kitten.  She wanted to see what I was having for breakfast and perhaps share it with me.  I didn’t want to encourage this behavior, so I took advantage of her interest to teach her to sit.  I followed the same procedure I had seen dog trainers use.  I held a small tidbit over her head.  As she looked up to see what was in my fingers, her hindquarters sank towards the floor.  Click!  I gave her a tiny bit of the buttered toast she was so interested in.

Two or three reps were usually enough to satisfy her curiosity. She would go off and leave me alone to enjoy my breakfast without the constant interruption of a too inquisitive paw pushing its way onto my plate.

Over the course of several days the sit began to evolve.  Now we had a proper down on your rump sit.  Click and treat.

One morning she added a slight paw lift.  I grew that from a slight lift of her front foot into a “high five” wave.   It was very cute.

And that’s when she turned the tables on me.  I was in the kitchen not far from the refrigerator.  She very deliberately sat down, lifted her paw and gave me my cue.  It was so like the dog handlers who cue “sit” and “down” with a hand signal, only in my case the cue set in motion a much more complex chain.  I walked to the refrigerator, opened the door, reached in, lifted out the tub of margarine, took off the lid, put a small dollop on the tip of my finger, reached down and let her lick it off my finger.

I had to laugh.  I knew exactly what had just happened.  She had turned everything around, and she was cueing me!

I also understood more clearly than I ever had before that the behaviors we teach our animals can be used by them to cue us.

JOYFULL HORSES: TRANSFORMING HORSE TRAINING INTO PLAY

In the previous sections I used the image of a runway to teach a horse to step on a mat.  The point of using this image is to get you thinking creatively, with imagination.  That’s what takes you far, far away from the mind set of do-it-or-else training.

Transforming Horse Training Into Play
We’ve all watched skilled trainers, whether in person or on video.  I’m sure you’ve taken in a variety of images of how things are done.  Now suppose you’re handed a horse who is pushy, or won’t stand still for saddling.  You’ve seen how professional horse trainers deal with this in what often seems like no time at all.

It’s so easy to put on their “hat” and fall into the same-old, same-old of traditional horse training solutions.  But remember – when you are watching one of those skilled trainers, you aren’t just watching fifteen minutes of training.  You are watching fifteen minutes plus fifteen years.  That’s a lot of experience – and a lot of mistakes made and lessons learned – to get to the point where things look easy.

Easy isn’t the only criterion we’re looking for.  I remember watching a video of a trainer who was working with what was described as a “lazy” horse.  The owner wanted to be able to lunge the horse, but her horse stayed in close to her and wouldn’t move out.  There are all kinds of reasons why a horse would lock in close to a handler.  One might be that the horse has learned that staying in close is the safest place to be.  If that was the case for this horse, the trainer took his safety away.  He charged into the horse with his lunge whip, sending the horse leaping away to the side.

The trainer was using negative reinforcement.  His timing was excellent.  As soon as the horse was in motion, he stopped cracking the whip.  But the instant the horse slowed down, he was on the attack again.  It took just a couple of turns around the circle to convince that horse that he needed to keep moving.  Easy.  The battle was over in just a few minutes.

The trainer stood in the middle of the lunge circle touting the virtues of his technique.  The horse continued to trot around him the whole time he was talking to the audience.  He no longer even needed to lift his whip.  It was an impressive result.

But I was thinking about the lesson from the horse’s perspective.  If one of us were trapped in a round pen with someone peppering bullets at our feet, wouldn’t we run?  And we’d keep on running until we dropped from exhaustion.  If we slowed down, the person in the middle would just need to gesture with the gun to get us running again.

It is the same thing.  So easy isn’t enough.  I can look at the behavior that emerges – a horse moving at a steady pace around me at liberty and think that’s a fun result.  The question becomes: how can I get to that behavior but in a more learner-friendly way?  How can I take this, or any other lesson, and turn it into true play for both myself and my horse?

One of the principles that is common to ALL good training methods is this:

There is ALWAYS more than one way to teach every behavior.

If you really believe that and know how to put this principle into practice then this leads you to the answer.

You’re going to break the task down into smaller components so your horse understands what is wanted in each step.  You want him to be more than just comfortable with what is being asked.  You want him to be eager to play.

Using Props
To teach horses to step on mats, I set out the V runway pattern.   The cones help handlers line their horses up with the mat so they have room to come to it on a straight line.  When I first taught mats, I didn’t put the cones out.  But then I saw that handlers would leave the mat and cut back around on such a tight turn that the horse had no chance to line himself up again straight to it.

They did the same thing at mounting blocks.  If the horse shifted away from the mounting block, they would walk off on a tight circle that gave the horse little opportunity to come in straight.  The missing step was the handler’s ability to visualize the path she needed to take to give her horse the most success.

So I set out the V shaped line of cones.  The length of the “runway” obliged the handler to go out far enough so that she had room to line her horse up to the mat.

I could have set the mats out in a parallel lines.  Then I would have had a different kind of runway, and I would have used different images to describe it.  It might have become the catwalk for a fashion show.  The horse would be a model sashaying her way down the runway – stopping periodically to show off her costume.

Instead I set them out in a V so the handler would have a wide funnel entrance and a better chance of getting the horse into the top of the runway.  It’s only experienced pilots and co-pilots who can successfully enter into the top of a narrow runway.  Novice teams need the wider opening.

Playing with Images
Playing with images takes you away from relying solely on the standard-issue horse training approaches you may already know.  It puts you into a creative place where you can come up with your own patterns, images, and techniques that work for your horse.

People often feel that they have to follow exactly the instructions given by a clinician or riding instructor.  I offer the runway as a starting point.  I suggest that you begin with my image.  Understand how this process works; learn the basics of good rope handling; see what it gives you when you have a horse who welcomes the information the lead provides; and then become creative.  Invent your own images to help teach the skills your horse needs to meet your personal training goals.

Creativity
For me, there’s no better indicator of success than hearing from someone that they have found a new way of teaching a familiar lesson.  They don’t go about it exactly the same way I do.  Their horse has shown them a different way, just as my horses often show me new ways to teach old things.

Creativity is at the core of our being.  When a handler clutters up her work space with cones, empty supplement containers, bags of shavings, and who knows what else, and sees in that clutter a better way to teach a lesson, I know she has understood the greater game.  She is becoming creative and inventive.  She is creating new games.  For both horse and handler it has become true play.

Robin with shavings 2016-06-22 at 5.54.53 PM

You might not want to put quite so many shavings bags into your “play ground”, but clutter can definitely contribute to creative ideas.

Coming Next: Unit 4: Cue Communication

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFULL Horses: Mat Manners

In the previous installment I introduced you to constructional training.  I used the runway lesson to teach your horse to step on a mat.  Instead of going directly to the mat, you first taught your horse the skills he’d need to make this an easy lesson.

So now you have a horse who is eager to get to his mat.  He isn’t just gingerly stepping a toe onto the edge of the mat, he’s rushing ahead to get to it.  Hurray!  You’re part way through this lesson.

For every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance. 

The mat lesson helps you understand the importance of this statement.  You’ve got a horse who is eager to get to the mat.  Now you need to explain that you’d like him to walk with you to the mat.

Robin runway walk casually to it 2016-06-22 at 2.34.16 PM

Robin shows his great mat manners, walking with me to the mat.

Robin halt on mat 2016-06-22 at 2.34.39 PM

He lands on the mat in beautiful balance.  He’s going to continue to be our equine teacher for this lesson.  In the following photos you’ll see how to build great mat manners.

Mat Manners
You’re now ready for the next level in this “runway” game.

You want a horse who is eager to get to the mat, who regards it as a fun place to be, a place where lots of good things happen, but you also want a horse who walks with you to the mat.  You don’t want your co-pilot taking over complete control.  You still want to make some of the decisions.   So now if he starts to grab the throttle stick from you, you can use your “needle point” skills to ask him to stop and back up.

I know that’s mixing a lot of metaphors.  Let’s see how this works.

Robin mat back one step 2 2016-06-22 at 4.16.26 PM

Robin and I are practicing our “needlepoint”.  I’m asking for a single step back. (Refer to the previous post: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/06/21)

Rushing doesn’t lead to the mat.  It leads to needle point.  But needle point is not a bad thing.  Your co-pilot understands what is wanted.  I tend not to click for course corrections.  So that first backing step won’t be rewarded with a click and a treat.  But when we’re back on pattern, and I ask for the next step, perhaps asking now for one green stitch forward – that I’ll click and treat.

Robin walk one step to mat 2016-06-22 at 4.18.01 PM

In the “needlepoint” part of the runway lesson I’m asking Robin for one step forward.

Robin walk off to mat 2016-06-22 at 4.18.14 PM

After a click and a treat, I release him to the mat.

We’re back in sync with one another, still a few steps away from our landing pad.  I’ll release the controls to my co-pilot, and we’ll walk together with slack in the lead.  I won’t need to help him get to the mat.  He knows how to land our little craft.  He stops, perhaps not perfectly square yet, but with both feet on the mat.  Click and treat!

Robin on mat grups 2016-06-22 at 2.56.18 PM

Again, he lands beautifully on the mat.

And now the game changes yet again.  I want the mat to be a versatile tool.  I want my horse to remain on the mat while I move around him, or even away from him.  The mat provides the foundation for what is referred to in the horse world as ground tying – the horse stays on the spot where you left him as though he was tied.

Robin on mat grups at distance 2016-06-22 at 2.56.57 PM

The mat is a great tool for teaching ground tying.

101 Things
So the new game becomes “101 things a handler can do while a horse stays on a mat.”

This is a variation on the theme of a game which many canine clicker trainers play with their dogs.  It’s called “101 Things a Dog Can Do With A Box”. The handler presents a dog with a box.  Each novel behavior the dog offers gets clicked.  So if the dog sniffs the box, he gets clicked.   If he sniffs it again, he doesn’t get reinforced.  But if he paws the box with his right front foot, he does.  Now if he sniffs the box or paws it with his right front – nothing.  But if he changes and paws with his left front, click and treat.

This was a popular game early on amongst canine clicker trainers, but for a lot of reasons I never played an equine version of it.  One of the more fuddy-duddy reasons was I really didn’t want my horses learning all the creative things they can do either with their bodies or with things.  I didn’t want them thinking they can do fancy leaps into the air with me on their backs or open their stall door latches whenever it pleased them.  If they discovered these talents on their own, so be it, but I didn’t need to be an accomplice in this kind of cleverness. (That’s especially true when it comes to stall latches!)

So 101 things was out for my horses, but it is very much in for the handlers.  I need them to be creative.  So the game becomes – every time your horse lands back on the mat, you have to come up with a new behavior a handler can do while a horse stands on a mat.

At first this is easy.  Your horse lands on the mat, and you might ask him questions about handling his mane.  Will he continue to stand on the mat while you run your fingers through his mane?  Yes.  Click and treat.  Repeat this several times and then walk off casually back around to the top of the runway.

Robin toss rope 2016-06-22 at 2.38.14 PM

I begin by “parking” Robin by tossing the lead over his neck.  Draping the lead over his neck quickly becomes a cue to stand.

Robin on mat play with mane 2016-06-22 at 2.57.44 PM

With Robin “parked” on the mat, I can begin the “101 things a handler can do while a horse stands on a mat” lesson. In this round of the game I am stroking his mane.  The lead rests over his neck in the “parked” position.  I’m not holding on to it, but I can easily pick it up should he walk off.

Next time you get back to the mat, you have to think of something else to do.  It could be you simply expand running your fingers through his mane to stroking down his neck and along his shoulder.  Or you could decide to play the game more like “101 things you can do with a box”.  You stroked his mane in the last round, so now you’re going to think up a completely different sort of behavior.  “Will you stand on the mat while I bend down to tie my shoe?  Oh, I don’t have shoe laces!  Never mind my shoe still needs to be checked.”

Robin on mat tie shoes 2016-06-22 at 3.00.36 PM

“Will you stand still while I tie my shoe?”  Yes, click then feed.

Most people can easily play a couple rounds of this game but then they begin to get stuck for ideas.  They are too much in their “horse-training” head.   They’ve already stroked their horse from head to tail and picked up all four feet. What else can they do?  They are running out of ideas.

The Opposite of Flooding
Time to channel their inner child or their inner kindergarten teacher.  You can ask your horse for horsey things like dropping his head, or putting his ears forward, or letting you walk behind him and groom his tail.

Robin on mat ask for foot 2 2016-06-22 at 2.39.13 PM

While Robin stands on a mat, I can ask for horsey things. In this case I am touching him at his elbow as a cue for him to lift his foot.

Robin on mat knee target 2016-06-22 at 2.39.27 PM

As Robin lifts his foot, I have him target his knee to my hand.

Robin on mat take foot 2016-06-22 at 2.41.41 PM

From here it is easy to ask him to target his foot to my hand.  (This is an easy way to teach a horse to pick up his feet.)

You can play silly games with your horse.  Can he stand still while you run around pretending to be an airplane?  Bzzzz, Bzzz – coming in for a crash landing into the mountain (horse).  Click and treat.

Robin on mat airplane 1 2016-06-22 at 3.03.26 PM

When you run out of “horse training” games, you can play silly ones.  In this case I’m pretending to be an airplane.  I even include the sound effects of a buzzing  engine.

Robin on mat hug 1 2016-06-22 at 3.04.16 PM

My favorite kind of “crash landing”.

I love watching the horses watch the people.  This is the best entertainment they’ve had in years!  What will their human do next!?

Robin on mat airplane rgt side 2016-06-22 at 3.03.56 PM

Robin isn’t sure what to make of my behavior.  What a very strange human!

 

This type of training is done routinely when you are prepping a youngster for riding.  The handler waves things around and jumps up and down.  The goal is to desensitize the horse so he doesn’t spook at unexpected movement.  But instead of creating an entertaining game for the horse, it is often done with flooding.

Here’s an example of how flooding works.  Suppose a horse is afraid of flapping saddle blankets.  He scoots away.  The blanket pursues him, matching him move for move until finally he gives up and stands still.  Next comes another scare, this time it might be an umbrella opening and closing in his face.  The horse learns he can’t escape.  The best he can do is stop.  That makes the umbrella go away  – for the moment, but it is back again in the next instant.  He learns finally that no matter what happens, no matter how afraid he is, he can’t get away.  He gives up and stands still while the handler flaps tarps around his body, and up over his head, covering his eyes so he cannot see to run even if he wanted to.  He’s given up flight because he has given up.

The handler isn’t playing, except maybe at being a “horse trainer”.  And this most certainly is not a game for the horse.

I want to create something very different for the horses I interact with.  It needs to be play for both of us.  I want my horse to know that he does have a choice.  His voice most certainly counts.

Teaching the skills you need before you use them; building success and confidence through patterned exercises; and – most important – really listening to your horse helps transform these lessons into true play for both of you.

Playing with Language
I’ve written about mats many times.  I’ve described in detail the rope handling techniques that are used.  I’ve referred to the runway image.  (I definitely spend too much time in airports.  I can rarely teach a weekend clinic without making some reference to airplane travel.)  I’ve also referenced the needle point image because to me this section of the lesson always makes me think of the fine, detailed work that needle point represents.

What I haven’t done before is used quite so much of this type of imagery in describing the lesson.  My point is not to force you into a mold where you have to be thinking – okay what colour thread am I supposed to be picking up and why?  If you’ve never done needle point or other fine detailed handiwork, this image will feel foreign and forced.  If you haven’t traveled on as many airplanes as I have over the last few years, the runway image may not jump out at you as you set your cones out in a V.

My point is not to get you using these images.  My point is to get you thinking creatively, with imagination.  That’s what takes you far, far away from the mind set of do-it-or-else training.

airplane landing.png

Coming Next: Transforming Horse Training Into Play

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFULL Horses: The Runway Lesson

I ended the previous section by saying the lead tells a story.  I want my lead rope to be a welcome tool, one my clicker-trained horse is completely comfortable with.  That’s the goal, but it’s often not where we begin.  Often when I first attach a lead to a horse, what I encounter is resistance and concern.  Lead ropes have been used for correction and punishment – so the horse is defensive.  He’s telling me about is history, and I need to listen.  I also need to respond in a way that doesn’t prove to him that he was right to be guarded.

I want to show him that the defenses he’s thrown up aren’t necessary.  The castle walls, the moat with the sharks, the draw bridge, the boiling oil, the iron portcullis, and all the armored men lined up behind can all vanish, whisked away not through force, but through play. Mats are going to be the training tool I use.

To introduce a horse and handler to clicker training I focus on six foundation lessons.  Teaching a horse to stand on a mat is one of those lessons. The mat is what the word implies.  Think door mat, and you’ll have the right sort of size.  You can use plywood, carpet squares, rubber mats.  They all work as long as they contrast well with the surface they are on.

They are lots of different ways that you can teach a horse to step on a mat.  Over the years I have used a variety of approaches, tailoring the choice to the needs of the team.  But my favorite way, and the way I generally choose first is to imagine that the mat sits at the end of a runway of cones.   I am trying to line up straight to my runway so I can bring my horse to a safe landing on the mat in the same way a plane would line up to a real runway. Here’s the lesson:

The Runway
Instead of castle walls with the mat as a drawbridge, I imagine an airplane runway.  The sides of the runway are lined with cones that form an open V, funneling us down towards the mat at the end.

Robin waiting for me in runway 2016-06-18 at 6.05.54 PM

My horse, Robin is going to be our equine teacher for this lesson.  He’s going to show you what the lesson looks like with an experienced “copilot”.  I’ll also be describing what the lesson is like when you’re working with an inexperienced horse.  I’ll be taking you from the first wobbly “flights” down the runway to the finessed balance that evolves over time. For now Robin is waiting expectantly for the game to begin.

If Robin is one of our equine teachers, let’s suppose the other is a pushy, somewhat nervous horse who has gotten into the habit over several years of dragging his person pretty much wherever he wants to go. In this lesson the pilot (me) is approaching in her single engine little plane (the horse).  I’m being buffeted by strong winds.  The plane (my horse) is rocking from side to side, trying to drag me off course.  Can I even make the top of the runway?  No!  I abort to try again.  I circle around, and this time I manage to get the nose of the plane, i.e. this horse, pointing into the open V of the runway.  Click and treat.  The wide end of the funnel helps me to be successful.  I want to find ways to say ‘yes” to this horse, so I make the lesson as easy as possible by making the opening of the funnel extra wide.  I’m setting up the environment to help ensure success.  A narrow funnel would be much harder to get to with my determinedly pushy horse.

I had originally wanted to show a video of an inexperienced horse using the runway lesson, but computers being computers my editing program isn’t cooperating with that intent.  So instead I enlisted Robin’s help.  He’s my “dance partner”, or to stick with my metaphor of the runway, my copilot.  I filmed him going through the pattern, and I’ve pulled still photos from the video to describe some of the key elements of this lesson.

It’s been a very long time since I have worked Robin through this foundation lesson.  As always, I found it was worth revisiting the basics with him.  No matter how skilled a horse becomes, the basics always reveal details that need polishing.  So whether you and your horse are a novice team or one that is very experienced, the runway is a great lesson to explore.

Please note: This is not a stand alone lesson, nor is this JOYFULL Horses book intended as a clicker training how-to instruction manual.  The prerequisites and a description of the handling skills needed for this lesson are presented in my DVD lesson series and in the on-line course. I am describing this lesson in detail here not not so much to teach you how to use it, but to illustrate some important concepts that are relevant to all good clicker lessons.

I’ll start with a short video which will give you a quick overview of the lesson.

 

There are a lot of important details in this 3 minute clip.  I’m going to take the lesson apart literally frame by frame.  I’ll be using stills pulled from the video to point out the key elements of this lesson.  Enjoy!

Robin Runway reenter runway 2016-06-18 at 6.11.50 PM

The runway is part of a larger loop.  There’s no beginning, middle, and end.  A horse that is familiar with mats might begin, as Robin did, on the mat.  The pushy horse I am starting with has never stepped on a mat and is worried by them. I would begin with that horse where we are picking up the pattern here, with Robin turning with me into the top of the runway.  Note the slack in the lead.  I probably would not be giving this much freedom to my pushy horse.  he wouldn’t yet know how to read and respond to the subtle signals from my lead and body language.  I would need to slide up the lead to signal my intent to turn.  I would click and reinforce the horse as he responded to my request.  This would bring him to a halt, ready for the next phase of the lesson.

Robin Runway turn to a stop 2016-06-18 at 6.12.10 PM

Note how I have brought Robin into the runway.  I’ve been mindful of the placement of the V. I’ve given us enough room to turn so Robin ends up in line with the mat.  This exercise is about straightness.  It is a wonderful lesson for helping crooked, pushy, unbalanced, nervous, or just plain wiggly horses.

Robin Runway lined up for approach 2016-06-18 at 6.12.22 PM

Here Robin is beautifully lined up to the mat as he completes his turn into the runway.

 

Robin runway off sides 2016-06-19 at 9.36.47 AM

In contrast here I’ve made my turn too early so there isn’t time to line Robin up straight to the runway.  I originally taught the mat lesson without any cones for markers.  People would walk their horses off from the mat and then come back around in too tight of a turn.   There was no way their horses could line up to the mat and approach it on a straight path.  These handlers were setting their horses up for a wiggly, crooked approach.  The mat is about lining up straight to a mounting block, approaching the center of a jump on a straight path, crossing streams and other obstacles, stopping square at X in a dressage test, and performing any other task where precision and accuracy in the approach are needed.  A novice horse needs the extra help that a long runway approach gives him.  I set the cones out as guides for the handlers.  They have to take their horses back to the mat by walking all the way out and around the line of cones.  Targets aren’t just for our horses.  Sometimes they are for us, as well.

 

You’re in the runway.  Now what? This lesson is like a dream where you drift from one scene to another – never questioning the odd juxtaposition of images.  In this part of the lesson I am doing “needlepoint” with this horse.  That’s the image.

needle point pillow

Needlepoint may not seem relevant to horse training, but the individual balance shifts we teach in the runway always make me think of the intricate stitches in a needlepoint tapestry.

Each stitch is an individual action.  Each stitch must be carefully thought through before beginning the next. I may have to change colour often.  I may only want one or two stitches of green before I switch to red. That’s how this part of the lesson feels to me.  I will be asking for tiny shifts of weight.  Each balance shift forms one stitch in this larger tapestry.

When I ask my horse for one tiny step forward, that’s one green stitch.  If I’m working with a poorly balanced or pushy horse, I don’t want to take a step and then follow it with many more.  Instead, just as this horse begins to lift his leg, I’m going to click.  The click interrupts one thought – move forward – and replaces it with another – get your reinforcer.  Before he has even really begun to move, he’s at a standstill again waiting for his treat  He was thinking of barging past me, but that would have crashed our little “plane”.  Instead disaster has been averted.  He has taken a half step forward, and now he’s shifted his weight back slightly to get his treat.

He’s beautifully set up for the next stitch in our tapestry.  I ask for another forward step.  Click!  Again, the power of the click interrupts him before he can charge forward.  He is learning patience.  He is learning self-control.  He is learning to control his movements.  He began with a throttle that was either at full power or completely turned off.  Now we are gaining some adjustability.  I can ask for a tiny amount of energy, and he can give me a soft, half step forward.  Click and treat.

He is doing so well, it is time to land “the plane”.  I put aside one image – the needle point – and we walk casually forward down the rest of the runway.  As we approach the mat, I realize my co-pilot isn’t ready to stop.  I walk over the mat myself and keep going, letting my co-pilot walk beside me.

We circle around back to the top of the runway.  My co-pilot learns fast.  The little plane is steadier now as we bank around the turn and face into the top of the V.  Click and treat.  This time I put red thread into my needle. I ask for backing.  Again, I click on that single stitch.  The plane wobbles a bit and goes off course.  We are no longer pointing straight down the runway.  It doesn’t matter.  The pattern allows for many stitches of red.

Click by click we lay down a line of red stitches.  The backing is smoother now, less hesitant, less wobbly.  We have backed ourselves in a squarish turn that takes us out of the top part of the runway.  I am using skills learned in previous lessons.  My “copilot” may not be able to back straight yet, but I can still keep us in the vicinity of the runway by having him back in a square pattern.  Straight will emerge as he learns how to handle these larger course corrections.

When you put enough of these fine needlepoint stitches together, you get a picture that looks like the one Robin is illustrating for us in this series of photos:

Robin Runway backing in runway 2 2016-06-18 at 6.12.54 PM

Robin’s adjustability and good balance has allowed him to come in straight to the mat.  I’ve turned toward him to ask for one step back with his right front foot.

Robin Runway backing con't  2016-06-18 at 6.13.17 PM

Robin has initiated a step back. As he does, I click and prepare to release the lead.

Robin Runway backing done 2016-06-18 at 6.13.29 PM

Robin has completed the single step back.  You can’t see it, but my hand is opening on the lead even before his foot lands.  What goes up must come down.  It’s important to let go as I click and not to wait for the foot to land.  If I stay on the line, I would be holding on way too long, giving my horse something annoying that he would need to push against.  The timing needed to release a horse into the action you want takes deep practice focus.  If you aren’t sure what I mean by deep practice, read my blog on this subject. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16/)

Robin Runway feed after backing 2016-06-18 at 6.13.44 PM

I’ve already clicked.  Now it’s time to reinforce Robin with some hay stretcher pellets.

Robin Runway 2nd back 2016-06-18 at 6.14.13 PM

My “needlepoint tapestry” is made up of many stitches.  I’ll ask Robin for another, single step back.

Robin Runway 2nd back con't 2 2016-06-18 at 6.14.22 PM

It may not look as though anything has changed, but Robin has unweighted his right front in preparation for backing.  That’s my cue to be ready to click.

Robin Runway backing step good 2016-06-18 at 6.15.31 PM

Robin has begun to take a step back – Click! Remember it’s important to click as he initiates movement.  I’m not waiting to see the outcome of the weight shift (meaning the completed step back.)  If I click as he initiates a movement, I am saying “yes” to that movement.  This lesson is not about blocking or shutting down energy.  I want energy.  I want behavior.  I want to say “yes” to moving even if the moving is being done by a pushy, inexperienced horse.  When I click as he begins to take a step, I am saying “yes” to movement that in the past someone else may have punished.  An inexperienced horse is expecting a “no”.  Part of his pushiness comes from trying to rush past the obstacles he’s expecting me to throw in his path.  Instead he hears a click!  Surprise, surprise!  He brings himself to a stop to get his treat.  Self control and good balance will emerge out of saying “yes” when what his history tells him to expect is a “no”.    

Robin Runway feed after back 3 2016-06-18 at 6.15.47 PM

I’ve clicked Robin as he began to take a step back.  The click is a cue to me to begin my reinforcement cycle.  I’m reaching into my pocket to get a treat.  But note also what my right hand is doing.  I have moved it forward so the snap hangs straight down.  I am giving Robin the full freedom of the lead.  This is an important part of this lesson and one many people struggle with so I’ll be pointing it out again in other photos.  The snap on my lead is going to become a tactile target for my horse to orient to.  Moving my right hand towards Robin as I get the treat with my left is part of the teaching process that helps Robin tune in to the significance of the snap and it’s orientation.

 

Robin runway tai chi wall 1 2016-06-18 at 9.37.29 PM

Here’s the contrast.  As I ask Robin to take a step, I’m using my right hand more actively on the lead.  If he were a more inexperienced horse, I might need my hand here to help him maintain his balance as he takes a step forward.  Otherwise, he might be falling into me with his left shoulder. (Note: if I were on Robin’s right side, things would be reversed.  I would be feeding with my right hand and releasing the lead fully with my left.)

Robin runway tai chi wall 2 2016-06-18 at 9.37.39 PM

Here’s a common mistake.  I’ve released with my left hand, but I’ve kept my right hand in place on his neck.

Robin runway tai chi wall 3 2016-06-18 at 9.37.48 PM

Even while I am reaching for the food, I am keeping my right hand in place.  I refer to this as driving down a motorway with your emergency brake on.  When a horse is unbalanced and pushing through you, it can feel as though you can’t let go completely.  It takes focus to remember to release the lead completely with your right as well as your left hand.  This is where you learn to truly let go. This is the beginning of floating on a point of contact – a heavenly feel for both horse and handler.

Robin runway tai chi wall feed 2016-06-19 at 11.48.13 AM

After all, you’ve got treats in your hand.  Where is your horse going to go?  This is the perfect time to experience letting go of him.

Robin Runway prepared for next step 2016-06-18 at 6.16.03 PM

The runway lesson teaches the handler to be an agile thinker.  Depending upon what happens with my horse’s balance, I may need to change in an instant the direction I want him to go.  So while I am giving him his treat, I am already thinking about what I am going to do next.  I don’t wait for him to fill in the “dance card” through my indecision.  My body language is signaling the next clear intent.  Can you tell what I’m going to ask him to do next? Answer: walk forward with me to the mat.

Robin Runway release to mat 2016-06-18 at 6.16.14 PM

Robin has done a nice unit of “needlepoint stitches”. Now it’s time to let him move.  I am releasing him to the mat.

In the photos it was time to release Robin to the mat.  It is time to do the same for my less experienced horse.  Once again, I’ll set the needle work image aside.  I have asked this horse to stay focused with me through several steps.  We have put down enough concentrated stitches.  Now it’s time to move.  We’ll walk casually towards the tip of the V and the mat.  This time instead of walking over the mat, I may choose to stop on it.  My co-pilot misses the stop and over swings past me.  No problem.  It’s a sloppy landing, but it won’t bring out the fire brigade, at least not this time.  I am standing on the mat, clicking and treating my horse for standing quietly beside me.  He can see that the mat did not swallow me up. Instead standing next to it produces lots of clicks and treats.

In contrast to a green horse Robin shows us a beautifully on-the-spot landing on the mat.

Robin Runway walk to mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.07.24 PM

Robin is showing perfect mat manners.  Even though he is eager to get to the mat because it represents an opportunity for reinforcement, he is walking with me on a slack lead.  Mats are a great tool for teaching horses the emotional control they need to walk politely out to turnout and other exciting places.  If your horse pulls or dances around you when you lead him, working with mats is a great lesson to teach.

Robin Runway one foot landing on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.07.43 PM

Robin knows how to land on a mat.  First, one foot . . .

Robin Runway 2nd foot landing on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.07.53 PM

Then a second foot . . .

Robin Runway both feet on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.08.11 PM

Both front feet on the mat.  Click! and . . .

 

Robin Runway release hand as feed 2016-06-18 at 6.08.21 PM

. . . and initiate the reinforcement process.  Note how I release the lead fully to Robin WHILE I reach into my pocket with my left hand to get the treat.  Coordinating these two actions takes deep practice concentration. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16)

Robin Runway feed 1 2016-06-18 at 6.06.59 PM

. . .  Feed. Note how balanced we both are.  I am encouraging good balance in Robin, AND I am also building a feel for good riding balance for myself.  The mantra is: feed where the perfect horse would be.  In this case that means Robin’s head is in line with his shoulders – not pulled off to the side towards me.  I feed at a height that encourages him to lift up from the base of his neck.  I want to feel him lifting up, supporting his own weight as I feed him.  As he takes his treat, if I feel him leaning down onto my hand, that should signal to me that I need to change what I’m doing to encourage better balance in both of us.

Robin runway on mat grown ups 2016-06-18 at 6.08.50 PM

I want to turn the mat into a conditioned reinforcer.  If it becomes a predictor of good things, my horse will want to go to the mat.  He’ll enjoy being on the mat.  That means I’ll be able to reinforce other activities with an opportunity to return to the mat.  So before we head back to the top of the runway, I cue Robin to give me a very familiar behavior, one I call: “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”.  Than means Robin is standing in his own space.  My pockets are full of treats, but I am not being mugged.  Robin adds the extra flourish of his beautifully calm focus and good balance to this important base behavior.

 

Robin Runway feed 2016-06-18 at 6.08.37 PM

It’s click then feed for beautiful grown-ups, and then . . .

Robin Runway invite walk off 2016-06-18 at 6.09.44 PM

I invite Robin to leave the mat and walk off casually with me back to the top of the runway.

My green horse has also been standing beside me practicing good grown-ups.  It’s time to walk off again and head back to the top of the runway.  This time our entry into the V comes out perfectly.  Click!  That brings him to a halt so he can get his treat.  I don’t have to actively stop him, cues he may not yet understand.  That’s what the runway is going to teach him – whoa and go.   As I give him his treat, I am deciding which colour thread to pick up, meaning should I ask him to go forward or back?  I may decide to ask for a couple of green stitches, and then I’ll switch to red.  It all depends upon the response I get from my “co-pilot” and where we are in the runway.

As my co-pilot becomes steadier and better balanced, we can work on an intricate pattern – one stitch forward, one stitch back, each one separated by a click and a treat.  We are building control – not the force-based control of do-it-or-else, but the self-control of good balance.  He is gaining the ability to change his balance – forward or back within a single stride.  He doesn’t have to barge past me any more because he can regulate both his emotions and his balance.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.57.51 PM

So far I’ve asked Robin for a lot of backing.  I need to balance that with requests to go forward – but remember, in the “needlepoint” phase of this pattern I am asking for only one step at a time.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.15 PM

As soon as he begins to initiate a step, it’s click . . .

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.31 PM

. . . release the lead and begin the reinforcement process.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.41 PM

Again note how my right hand moves towards Robin releasing the lead fully to him.  I have pointed this out before because it is a detail many find very difficult to coordinate.  Their focus is on getting the food.  It takes focused practice to coordinate the separate tasks both hands are doing. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16)

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.59 PM

Many people push against the use of food during training, but clicker trainers have such an advantage because we feed treats.  In this photo series you’ve seen how I can use the food delivery to help my horse become better balanced.  Here I’ve drawn Robin slightly forward with my food delivery.  This sets me up well to be able to turn into him to ask for my next request – backing.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.18 PM

As he begins to lift his left front foot, I am ready to click and release the lead.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.44 PM

Again, my right hand moves towards Robin to release the lead AS my left hand gets the food.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.58 PM

Even as he is taking the food from my hand, I am setting up my next request.  Can you tell which direction we’ll be heading?  Forward or back?

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 7.00.19 PM

As soon as I’ve given him his treat, I release him to the mat.  Note: this release to the mat is an important element.  I don’t ask him to keep doing “needlepoint” all the way to the mat.  I want to reinforce the concentrated work with an opportunity to move forward freely.  The mat gives us a destination that offers even more reinforcement opportunities.

Give Them What They Want
For the horse who prefers nothing better than to nap under a tree, all this slow, step by step work is easy-peasy.  It’s all that walking forward stuff to get to the top of the runway that this horse finds wearisome.  So what this game sets up is a bargain.  I’ll let him get all these easy clicks and treats for walking one step at a time provided he will walk with me when I ask him to head back to the top of the runway.

Remember the Premack principle from the previous article? (https://theclickercenterblog/2016/06/09) I’m reinforcing a lower valued behavior – marching on around the outside of my pattern – with a higher valued behavior – getting loads of clicks and treats for taking one small, low energy step after another followed by a chance to stand still at the mat.  What could be better!

For the high-energy, foot moving, impatient horse Premack also works.  I’m saying to this horse: if you will indulge me by giving me a couple of needlepoint stitches, I will not only make it worth your while by clicking and treating each one (thereby upping their value), I will also let you march forward down the rest of the runway.  And if you will further indulge me by standing still on the mat where again I pay really well, I will let you march on, uninterrupted back to the top of the mat.

In both cases the Premack principle is at work.  And in both cases I am turning all the segments of the loop into activities that gain value.  Pretty soon, my slow-moving horse will be looking forward to the march back to the top of the runway, and my impatient horse will be showing me how softly and with such delicate control he can creep down the runway.

Stopping on Mats
For my inexperienced horse it’s time for the game to change again.  I’m going to start using the skills he’s been learning in the runway.
When we get to the mat, instead of stopping so my feet are on the mat, now I’ll change course slightly in the runway so the mat is in line with my horse.  If he steps over it the first time or two so his feet never touch it, that’s all right.  We aren’t yet ready to land.  But eventually, on one of the passes, I’ll do a test run.  As we approach the mat, I’ll rotate slightly towards him as I slide up the lead.  I’m indicating that we will be stopping.  Our needle point has taught him how to listen to these signals.  He’ll stop with his front feet just shy of the mat.  Click and treat.

Here is Robin again showing us how much control and refinement the runway can help us build into leading:

 

Robin Runway walk to runway 2016-06-18 at 6.16.26 PM

I’ve released Robin to the mat.  Note the slack in the lead.  There’s no pulling to the mat, no forging ahead of me.  We are walking together towards the mat.  Exactly right.

Robin Runway stop before mat 2016-06-18 at 6.16.40 PM

I’ve brought Robin up to the mat, but I am deliberately asking him to stop just shy of it.

Robin Runway stop before mat 2 2016-06-18 at 6.16.50 PM

Frame 1: His front end stops beautifully, but . . .

Robin Runway stop before mat hind leg out2016-06-18 at 6.17.20 PM

Frame 2: Robin wasn’t expecting to stop before the mat.  His front end stopped in response to my request, but his hind end took an extra moment to catch up to the change in the pattern.  It’s a bit like a rear end collision at a traffic light.  The first car stopped, but the second one didn’t.  The result: Robin has stepped out to the side with his right hind.  He could have plowed past me to continue on to the mat, but instead he has managed to stop his front end in response to my request.  It’s only his back end that couldn’t quite stop in time.

Robin Runway stop before mat click2016-06-18 at 6.17.32 PM

He may have landed slightly out of balance, but he still responded perfectly to my request to stop his right front and then his left front foot, so he gets clicked.  That’s my cue to begin the reinforcement process. I surprised him with a sudden change in pattern.  That resulted in less than perfect balance in the stop, but he still gets reinforced for a correct response to my cues.

Robin Runway stop before mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.17.47 PM

Feed so his head stays lined up with the rest of his body.

Robin runway ask to step on mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.18.09 PM

Now I’ll use his “needlepoint” skills to bring him the rest of the way onto the mat. That was the point of my abrupt halt.  I wanted  to create an opportunity to show you how these skills work.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 2 2016-06-18 at 6.18.26 PM

Robin responds to very light cues on the lead.  A very small change in my hand position is  all that is needed to request a single, forward step with the right front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 3 2016-06-18 at 6.18.33 PM

Job done with the right front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 4 2016-06-18 at 6.18.43 PM

Now I ask for one step forward with the left front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 52016-06-18 at 6.18.54 PM

Job done again. With a very inexperienced horse I would have clicked and reinforced each footfall.  With Robin I can connect these requests together via cues.  Cues act as both prompts and reinforcers.  I am only clicking after he has both feet on the mat, but I am still giving him plenty of “yes” information via the cues from the lead.  Those cues contain an additional “yes” every time I release the lead. 

Robin Runway ask to step on mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.19.10 PM

I’ve clicked so now it’s time to feed.

 

Robin Runway ask to step on mat grups 2016-06-18 at 6.19.26 PM

I’ll further reinforce his good efforts to get on the mat by asking for “grown-ups”, a well known and highly reinforced behavior.  Note how beautifully he maintains his balance, and his very calm, focused demeanor even though he is just inches away from the treats in my pockets.

Robin Runway back off mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.20.14 PM

I continue to use his “needlepoint skills” to ask him to take one step back off the mat.

Robin Runway back off mat 2  2016-06-18 at 6.20.29 PM

Once he’s stepped back off the mat, I can ask him to come forward again. An inexperienced horse might become frustrated by all this toing and froing.  He might be wanting me to make up my mind and decide which way I want him to go.  But the “needlepoint” lesson in the runway has familiarized Robin with this type of request.  They are just a series of changing dance steps.  They were never taught as corrections.  I want him to see them as a path towards reinforcement – never as a way to avoid punishment.

Robin Runway return to mat 1 mat  2016-06-18 at 6.20.53 PM

His front feet are back on the mat.  Now I’m asking him to step up with his left hind. Click as the leg begins to lift.

Robin Runway return to mat release hand 2016-06-18 at 6.21.09 PM

Again the reminder to release with right hand as well as the left.

Robin Runway return to mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.21.26 PM

Feed for a job well done.

Robin Runway return to mat grups 2016-06-18 at 6.21.41 PM

Ask for grown-ups to create added value for landing on the mat.  Why go through all of this? Compare this photo with the one taken just moments before I asked Robin to step off the mat. 

Robin grups comaprison 2016-06-19 at 3.26.11 PM

In both photos Robin is in grown-ups.  He’s showing the calm focus and good balance that has been consistent throughout this session.  But in the photo on the right Robin shows slightly more lift from the base of his neck.  The difference is subtle, but it is there.  It was created out of the rebalancing steps he took to back off and then, weight shift by weight shift, return to the mat.  The control he has over his footfalls leads to the consistency we see throughout this lesson in his balance.

These photos were all pulled from a video.  Now that we’ve gone through the details of this lesson, let’s have you watch the video again.  How many of the photos you’ve been studying can you spot?  They are just still frames taken from the video.  How much more detail are you seeing now than you did when you  watched this video the first time through at the beginning of the article?  How many of the points that I covered are you spotting?  I’ll bet you’re seeing the very deliberate release of my right hand and the use of the food delivery to help build good balance.  What else pops out at you now that I’ve been pointing out the details of this lesson?

Constructional Training
For the inexperienced horse, as well as for Robin, the work in the runway builds the skills that are needed for the mat.  That’s the strength of this approach.  I haven’t started with the mat where a horse’s concern over stepping on an unknown surface might create problems.  The focus of this lesson is to teach the horse to step on the mat, but that isn’t my end goal.  The mat is a tool. Stepping on the mat is a way to get that energetic walk and those “needle point” skills that I’ll be using elsewhere in his training.  And once my horse is comfortable with the mat, I can use it throughout his training as a reinforcer.

When I first introduced my horse to the overall game which we call clicker training, I had to deal with the food.  It started out as a distraction.  I held a target up for my horse to touch –  which he did, eagerly enough.  His curiosity served me well.  Click and treat.  Treat!  You have food in your pockets.  Never mind the target, I’ll have more of those!

The initial stages of clicker training are really a teaching process that transforms the food from a distraction into a useful tool.  Once my horse understands that he gets the treats by taking his focus off my pockets and offering instead other behaviors that I like, then the game can really expand.  It truly does become a game, a treasure hunt where solving the puzzle becomes even more reinforcing than the treat itself.

The mat works in a similar way.  At first it is something to be avoided – stepped over or around, but never actually on.  Then it becomes something to put a tentative, testing toe on.  Clicks and treats!  This isn’t so bad.  What was all the fuss about!

Pretty soon you’ll have a horse who isn’t just stepping gingerly onto the mat, he’s rushing down the runway to get to it.  Hurray!

Coming Next: Mat Manners. For every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.  The mat lesson helps you understand the importance of this statement.  The runway lesson has helped create a horse who is eager to get to the mat.  Now you need to explain that you’d like him to walk with you to the mat.

 

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

JOYFull Horses: Chapter 3: The Time Has Come . . .

The Time Has Come the Walrus Said To Talk of Many Things

“The time has come,” the walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax
Of cabbages and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings.”
Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking Glass

In Chapter One of this section I shared some examples of how the environment can cue behavior.  Panda, the mini I trained to be a guide, provided us with many examples of environmental cues.  In the previous Chapter I showed how a combination of mats and strategic food delivery can be used to teach basic leading.

We’ll be building on that lesson is this next unit. Which means the time has come to talk about Premack, Feldenkrais work, asking questions, mats, airplane runways, needlepoint, and creativity.  If you’re not sure what some of these mean or what the link is between them, read on.  And yes, we will be getting back to play and our list of ten things a beginner needs to know about cues, but first let’s set the stage with a discussion of the Premack Principle.

Behaviors as Reinforcers
One of the things that quickly becomes apparent when you start turning training into play is how quickly the behaviors you teach your horse can be turned around and used as reinforcers for other things.

This is not a new understanding. In the late 1950s primatologist, David Premack developed his relativity theory of reinforcement which is better know as the Premack Principle.  Simply put this means that a higher valued, more probable behavior can be used to reinforce a lesser valued, less probable behavior.

If you hate to sweep your barn aisle, but love to ride, don’t put sweeping after riding.  Let riding serve as a reinforcer for sweeping up.  When you finish grooming and reach for the broom before you reach for your hard hat, that puts you on a habit path that’s going to culminate not just in a great ride, but also in a love for barn chores. Clicks for you!

That’s something I discovered when I changed the sequence in which I did my barn chores.  I’ve always disliked sweeping.  When I was boarding my horses, it never made any sense to me that we were sweeping the barn aisle last thing at night.  The only person who was going to see our beautifully swept aisle was the morning stall cleaner, and she was going to begin the day by making a mess.

It would have been much better to sweep up when we first arrived so we could enjoy the clean aisle all evening, but that wasn’t how things were done.  In my own barn I sweep the aisle first and then follow that with cleaning the stalls and paddocks – something I enjoy.  After the barn chores are done, I get to play with the horses.  The result?  I now look forward to sweeping the aisle. It’s a great way to begin my day.

Panda helping me sweep 3

Panda is “helping” me sweep my barn aisle during a visit to the barn.

The same kind of sequencing becomes important when you train your horse.  Think about the order in which you ask for things.  If you’ve taught a behavior well, it can serve as a reinforcer for a newer behavior you’re working on.  Ideally every behavior you add into your training loops should function as a reinforcer for all the other behaviors.  The result: every behavior you ask for will become something your horse enjoys doing.

That’s ideally.  How can you make that a reality for the behaviors you teach your horses?

Turning Mats Into Tractor Beams
For a horse who likes to be actively doing something, what could be more tedious than standing on a mat?  And yet, that’s definitely not how our eager clicker horses view mats.

Mats become like tractor beams drawing the horse in.  They are where good things happen.  You get treats on a mat.  You get lots of attention.  And when you leave one mat, you get to head off to another.  More treats!  Yeah!!

Harrison on mat hug cropped

Mats are where good things happen.

If I teach mats well, they are a source of play not tedium. When I am first teaching mats, I keep the Premack principle very much in mind.  Most horses initially view a mat as something to avoid.  They will step over it, around it, slam on the brakes in front of it, anything but actually step on it.

I’ve taught mats in lots of different ways.  You can freeshape stepping on a mat, but I prefer to put the horse on a lead and turn this into a more directed-learning process.  The reason I do this is because it’s a great opportunity for the horse and handler to become more familiar with good rope handling techniques.

In the horse world the lead is often used as an enforcement tool.  “Do what I say – or else!” If a horse pushes past the handler, the lead is there to give him a quick reprimand.  The handler jerks the lead so the horse feels a sharp bump from the halter.

If a horse doesn’t back fast enough, he knows the lead will be there again swinging threateningly in his face.

That kind of expectation is not clicker compatible.  We need to take the “do it or else” threat out of the lead.  The lead is there to ask questions – not to tell or demand.

What does this mean – the lead is there to ask questions?  One of the best ways to describe this came from a youtube video clip of Mia Segal.  Segal is a Feldenkrais practitioner.  Developed by Moshe Feldenkrais in the mid-1900s Feldenkrais work eases pain or restrictions to movement by increasing an individual’s awareness of small movements.

Feldenkrais Work
Unlike a massage and other manipulative therapies, Feldenkrais work is experienced through self-observation.  You learn how to move with attention.  You become aware of how you move; what parts of your body you mobilize to create an intended movement; how far the movement flows through your body; where it stops; where it is blocked; and what can be released to extend the movement.  It is an exploration of movement in which an individual is guided via questions towards greater self-awareness and well being.

The expression “Where there is no fear or pain, learning can take place in a single lesson.” lies at the core of this training.  Like many in the horse world I was first introduced to Feldenkrais work via Linda Tellington-Jones.  Her TTEAM training evolved out of this work.  Later I was fortunate to have a client who was an Alexander Practitioner and who had also studied the Feldenkrais work.  We did trades, sharing back and forth the new things we were exploring. Through her I learned even more about the art of asking questions.

Asking Questions
Recently a friend sent me a link to a youtube clip of Mia Segal teaching a workshop  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prGxrhXDEgQ).  My friend said it reminded her a lot of my work.  As I watched it, I thought, she’s right.  Mia Segal might have been talking about working with people, but she was describing perfectly my approach to horse training.  Segal was sitting on the floor with one of the workshop participants.  She was clearly in the middle of a session.  Her student was lying on her back, knees up in the air, with Segal comfortably supporting her head in her hands.

Segal was talking about the first time she saw Moshe Feldenkrais working.  It was 1957.  After the session he asked her if she had any questions.  She had so many, but she knew there were other people waiting.  How could he have time for all of her questions?

Feldenkrais answered her – “If you know the question – it will take but a minute.”

The art of training is knowing the questions to ask.  That is as true for our horses as it is for people.

Segal went on to say:

Someone recently asked the question: ‘What is the difference between this work and pilates, yoga, and other physical therapies. Isn’t it all the same?  So you have another method.’  And I thought the biggest difference is this is a method of questions. I don’t have answers, and I don’t want answers.

You ask a person to move in a certain way.  Bend your knees to the right and you ask – ‘How is she doing it?  Is it anything to do with what I feel under my hands?’

How do I feel it in my hands?  How is she coming back?  Does this change anything under my hands?  And do it to the other side – How is she doing it, and does this feel different?

So rather than thinking – Here it stops.  Here it goes.  Instead I just keep putting a little question mark at the end.  HOW does it go?  HOW does it stop?  WHERE does it stop?  WHEN does it stop?  Is it the same on both sides?  And then I have the whole lesson.”

The Translation to Horses
When I slide down a lead to a point of contact, I am listening through my hands.  And I am asking questions.

Merenaro with alex

This horse and I are deep in conversation.  I am asking many questions through my hands.

When I meet horses for the first time, most aren’t used to being asked anything.  They expect to be ordered about.  Some horses are very compliant.  They have learned that the best way to stay out of trouble is to do what they’re told.  They will follow the feel of a rope.  They will be responsive, and light in your hands. They may even seem happy or at least content.

Light we can measure in terms of how much pressure we need to apply to get a response; how quickly the horse responds; how much weight we feel in the rope as he moves.  Does he move with us, or does he hang back leaving pressure on the lead?  These are all measurable.

But happy.  Who knows. How do I know if you or anyone else is happy?

The “Black Box” of Emotions
How do I know if another person is happy?  I may see behaviors that I associate with times when I have felt happy, but I don’t really know how anyone else feels.  When you say you love your horse, I believe you.  But what does that really mean?  If you tell me you love your horse, but then you sell him so you can buy another horse who jumps higher, I have to believe that that word means something very different to you than it does to me.

So I can say that a horse is responsive – that’s measurable.  I can describe other behaviors that I like to see – his ears are relaxed so they flop back and forth in time with his walk.   Or I might see the opposite.  He has his ears pinned flat, he’s grinding his teeth, and the muscles around his eyes are tight.  These behaviors tell a different story.  I wouldn’t say that’s a horse who is happy.

The Lead Tells A Story
Often when I first attach a lead to a horse, what I encounter is resistance and concern.  Leads have been used for corrections – so the horse is defensive.  He may throw his head up as I slide down the lead, or punch my hand with his mouth.  He might even bite at the lead or at me.  He’s telling me about his history, and I need to listen.  I also need to respond in a way that doesn’t prove to him that he was right to be guarded.

The mats are going to help me.  I was about to add the phrase: get past his defenses, but that’s not exactly right.  That would imply that the castle walls are still there, and all I’ve done is found a way to scale them.

castle walls 1.png

Instead, I want to show him that the castle walls, the moat with the sharks, the draw bridge, the boiling oil, the iron portcullis, and all the armored men lined up behind it aren’t necessary.  They can all vanish, whisked away not through force, but through play.  In the next installment I’ll describe a lesson that replaces castle walls with airplane runways, and you’ll see how the Premack Principle can be applied to training loops.

Coming next: The Runway

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

JOYFull Horses: Using Environmental Cues

In the previous post I shared many examples of using environmental cues.  For one example I wrote:

“When you have a training challenge, instead of tackling it head on with your normal “horse training” solutions, think instead about how you might use props.  If your horse has trouble turning to move out of your space, how could you use mats to help with this?”

One of the reasons I wanted to share the JOYFull Horses book on line was I knew I wanted to include video along with the text.  That’s what I’ll be doing in today’s post.  To illustrate just how useful environmental cues can be in training, I’m going to explain more fully how you can use mats to teach basic balance and leading skills.  I’ll be combining the draw of  the mats with the set up for a turn that can be created out of food delivery.

These videos were taken during the spring 2015 Arkansas clinic at Cindy Martin’s farm.  Cindy is one of the coaches for my on-line course.  The video features her beautiful draft cross mare, Scout.  Scout is a fairly new arrival in Cindy’s family.  When she first started riding her, Cindy discovered two things.  First, Scout’s idea of steering meant going where she wanted to go regardless of the rider’s wishes.  And second, if you asked for forward, you were just as likely to trigger rearing as any forward impulsion.  These riding issues meant it was time to go back to ground work and teach Scout the basics of leading.

By the time these videos were taken, Scout was well versed in the foundation skills of clicker training.  She had become a mannerly, very pleasant horse to be around, but her tank-like qualities were still in evidence.  This was in part due to a lack of balance.  During the spring 2015 clinic, I introduced Cindy to a simple lesson in which food delivery was combined with the use of multiple mats to teach better leading skills.

These videos take you step by step through the process.

Part 1 establishes a baseline.  Cindy is asking for Scout to turn away out of her space.  In this short video you’ll see Scout push forward through Cindy’s request.  In many traditional forms of horse training we would have dealt with this push-through by getting after Scout.  We would have punished the forward push, but punishment brings with it many unwanted consequences.  Obviously, we used a very different approach, one that used positive reinforcement to teach Scout what was wanted.

In Part 2 you’ll see how Cindy begins to use food delivery to set up the balance shifts she wants.  If you aren’t familiar with clicker training, this can look as though Cindy is simply feeding Scout out to the side.  That’s only part of what is happening.

In the video you’ll hear me refer many times to “grown-ups”.  This is a short hand expression for a lesson which I call: “The grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”. This is one of the foundation lessons of clicker training, one of the very first things we teach the horses when we introduce them to clicker training.  It’s a long name for a simple lesson.  What it means is the handler is able to stand next to her horse with her pockets full of treats, and her horse will stand quietly beside her.  I gave it this very long name because I wanted to emphasize that at the core of clicker training sits good manners.

Having a horse who is mugging you for treats takes the fun out clicker training.  I don’t want the mugging behavior.  And I also don’t want the horses to be anxious about the treats, so early on we teach them this foundation behavior.  Moving away from the treat pouch is what earns clicks and treats.

So many people avoid using food in training because they see it as a distraction.  They want the horse working for them, not any goodies in their pockets.  I ask a lot of my horses, and I want to reinforce their good behavior generously with something they really enjoy.  Being able to offer something they will actively work for adds enormously to my training. Plus, I find it reinforcing for myself to be able to say thank you for a job well done.

How do you know what your horse will actively work for?  Ask yourself what will he mug you to get.  At the top of the list for most horses is food.  I’m going to take that information and transform food from a distraction into a powerful teaching aid.  I do this by teaching the “grown-ups are talking” lesson.  Once a horse understands that treats come when he shows me good emotional self-control, I can use food as a reinforcer to help teach other things.  That’s what you’re seeing in this series of videos.

In Part 2 Cindy is using grown-ups.  First, she asks Scout to look straight ahead so her head is out of Cindy’s space. Click.  Normally, Cindy would feed Scout so her head continues to be centered between her shoulders.  But to teach her how to turn so she doesn’t crowd forward into Cindy’s space, Cindy is instead stepping into her and extending her arm out so Scout has to look to the right to get her treat.

Once she does, Cindy again asks for grown-ups.  Scout’s head is still bent to the side.  To earn a click and a treat, she needs to keep her head away from Cindy.  When she does – click! – she earns another treat.  Again, Cindy extends her arm out to the side so Scout has to bend her head even more.  As she does, she discovers that she can move her feet.  That simple realization lets her straighten out into a more comfortable position.

So, while it might look as though Cindy is simply feeding Scout treats, and that’s how she is getting her to turn, the treats are in fact reinforcers that come after Scout has been clicked for keeping her head away from Cindy in the “grown-ups are talking” lesson.

When she does, she not only gets clicked and given a treat, she also gets to walk forward to a mat.  In previous lessons Scout has been introduced to mats.  She’s not only comfortable standing on them, the mats have become conditioned reinforcers.

This means that there is such a deep history of reinforcement that’s been built up around the mats, Scout regards them as a great place to be.  They are a predictor of good things – easy requests and lost of treats.  So Scout likes going to mats.  We can use them to reinforce previous behavior. We’re going combine the strategic use of the food delivery with her eagerness to go to mats to help her find her own balance through these leading turns.

Part 3 continues to develop Scout’s balance.  Not only will this teach great leading manners, but it also opens the door to lateral work.  So many good things come out of lessons that are taught with positive reinforcement.

Part 4 begins to introduce the lead back into the equation.  We don’t want to have to rely forevermore on food delivery to get turns.  Now that Scout understands the pattern we want, Cindy can begin to ask for the turns from the lead.  She may encounter some old history when she slides down the lead.  Scout’s old pattern was to push through pressure, so Cindy goes back and forth between the food delivery and the lead to set up the turns and and change Scout’s expectations.

You’ll see some beautiful rope handling in these videos.  Cindy is very light and tactful on the lead.   She is familiar with the rope handling techniques which I teach in my books, DVDs and on-line course.  If you aren’t familiar with this type of rope handling, refer to my web sites: theclickercenter.com and theclickercentercourse.com.

The lessons I am presenting here are built around this style of rope handling.  The lead is taught as a clicker-compatible tool.  The horses trust the information it gives them.  It is not used as a correction tool.  I don’t want my horses to be afraid of the lead or to be worrying about what might happen if they make a mistake.  That would poison the cues the lead is giving.  If you are using a style of rope handling in which escalating pressure is at times used to enforce behavior, you will undermine the intent and the power of this lesson.

Part 5 takes us into the second day of the clinic and shows us steady progress in this lesson.  You might want to refer back to Part 1 as a reminder of the starting point.

Up to this point Cindy has just asked Scout to turn away from her.  In this lesson I have her ask her to turn in her direction, as well.  We’re following a basic principle of training: For every exercise you teach, there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.  These two turns are part of creating beautiful leading balance.

Part 6 continues the process of adding in the lead.  Again, I’ll refer you to my books, DVDs, clinics and on-line course for details on this rope handling technique.

Cindy and Scout are learning how to dance together.  Each small step is part of a larger flow that will let them move in balance one with the other.  This is the final video of this particular lesson.  Scout had been doing wonderfully well, but she was beginning to get a little slower in her responses.  That’s a good indicator that she might be getting tired.  So rather than push beyond what she could do, we noted this early sign of fatigue and brought the day’s lesson to a close.  Both Scout and Cindy had learned a lot.

This is a glimpse into the future.  This clip was taken during the fall 2015 clinic.  Scout and Cindy have made great progress in their dance together.  Lateral work is one of the many good results that comes out of teaching good balance.

The fun of teaching in this way is you always get so many good things popping out of simple lessons!

Have Fun!

Coming Next: Chapter 3: The Time Has Come the Walrus Said To Talk of Many Things: Premack, Asking Questions, Mats, Airplane Runways and Creativity

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via kurlanda@crisny.org

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

 theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

 

 

 

 

JOYFull Horses: Using Environmental Cues

Using Environmental Cues

Spring is clinic season which means a lot of traveling for me.  I haven’t been able to post anything since the beginning of April which also means some of you may have lost track of where we are in the book.  At the end of Part One I asked the question: what are ten things you would want a novice trainer to know about cues?  In Part Two I began to answer that question.  So far my list includes:

1.) Cues are not Commands.

2.) Cues can be non-verbal.

3.) The environment can be a cue. 

In the first chapter of this section on environmental cues I shared some stories about Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide.  Her work illustrates well the many ways in which the environment can cue behavior.  

IMG_1994_1 Panda Ann great walk

Now in this post I’ll be looking at ways we can all use environmental cues in our training.

Every Day Environmental Cues
Panda’s training shows how much inanimate objects can cue behavior.  You may never ask your horse for the kind of work that is expected of a guide, but you can still make effective use of environmental cues.  They can help turn a frustrating or even dangerous situation into play.

Here are a few examples:

For a horse who rushes out to turnout – even to the point of rearing if you try to slow him down – teach him to stand on a mat.  Then put out a series of mats on his way out to turnout.  Now instead of trying to keep things calm over the long stretch to turnout, all he has to do is walk a couple steps to the next mat – click and treat!  Turn each mat into a station where he can engage in some favorite game.  That takes the focus off the turnout.  In fact when you do finally get to the paddock, you may find your horse doesn’t want you to leave.

“Must I go eat grass?  This is so much more fun!”

Shannon mat series

For the barn-sour, herd-bound horse who doesn’t want to leave the comfort zone of his friends, hang targets at strategic points around the barnyard and along the driveway.  Click and reinforce him for walking to the target.

For the horse who worries out on trails, take his toys out with him so he can play familiar games.

Magic with ball
Combine mats with a circle of cones to teach a horse how to trot around a circle.  Lay out a small circle made up of cones and one mat.  Your horse will begin on the mat and end up back at the mat – click and treat.  As you gradually expand the circle, he’ll understand that his job is to stay out around the the outside of the cones.

 

For the horse who fidgets and fusses to be groomed, hang a stationary target or give him a mat to stand on.

Mounting blocks become wonderful environmental cues.  Teach your horse to bring himself over to your mounting block and line himself up so it is easy to get on.  It’s not only a fun behavior to “show off”, it’s also a great way to measure how ready – or not – he is to ride.

(Note: This video features Michaela Hempen, one of my coaches for the on-line course.  I almost didn’t use this video because she wasn’t wearing a hard hat. When I mentioned it to her, she said she normally wears a hard hat.  She just couldn’t resist getting on.  I decided to use the clip after all because it is a great example of the joy this training brings to both horses and handlers.  And it also gives me an opportunity to say safety always comes first.  Certainly good preparation contributes to safety, but hard hats are still important.)

These are just a few training suggestions.   The more creative you are, the more playful you can be with your horse.

When you have a training challenge, instead of tackling it head on with your normal “horse training” solutions, think instead about how you might use props.  If your horse has trouble turning to move out of your space, how could you use mats to help with this?

Maybe you have large cones or temporary fence posts that can be used like gates on a slalom course.  How could you use them to explain the patterns you want to your horse?

If forward is an issue, teach him to retrieve, and then toss a cone out in front of his path.

If stopping is the problem, set out lots of mats.  Give him a positive reason to stop.  That’s a lot better than the “horse training” solutions of harsher bits and running horses into fences.

If you want your horse to get more exercise, but for some reason you can’t ride, use targets to teach your horse to go from person to person.  This can easily be turned into a game Panda would say she invented and which we named after her: “Panda catch”.  She “taught” us this game when she was a yearling.  At thirteen she plays it with every bit as much gusto as she did then.

 

As you can see from this article, teaching your horse to stand quietly on a mat has many uses.  What I haven’t included here are the how-to instructions for introducing your horse to mats.  You can find detailed instructions for teaching this lesson in my books and DVDs and in my on-line course.  Visit my web sites to learn more:

 theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

 theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com