What to Leave Behind and What To Take With You: Part 5

Teaching Creativity Creatively

This is the last installment of a five part article.  If you have not read the previous articles, I suggest you begin with those.  Part 1 was posted on September 9.  The article was originally written for the discussion group for my on-line course.

Lots of Questions
We began with one of the on-line course participants asking a question.  How should she respond to her young horse bolting off when she was trying to turn him out.  I haven’t given her a “recipe” answer.  Rather I am asking everyone to think about their own training principles.  What techniques are okay to use?  What parts of your previous horse training tool kit do you want to bring with you into clicker training, and what parts do you want to leave behind?

There are no right and wrong answers in this.  It depends so much upon what you are looking for in your relationship.  What are your performance goals?  How do you balance those with the relationship you also want?  Does your training support both or are they in conflict?  How much does traditional make-it-happen horse training influence your choices?  Do you consider this to be a good thing or is this something you want to move away from.  I have lots of questions. I’ll leave it to each of you to find your own answers.

Let me end this series of articles with a story from a recent clinic.

One of the attendees brought her charmer of an Icelandic.   She had done a lot of natural horsemanship with him.  The result was a polite horse who was very easy to be around.  Space management was definitely not an issue.  But he was drab.  She wanted more sparkle.  She didn’t want him simply saying: “Whatever you want is fine with me.”  She wanted him to engage actively in their relationship, not simply passively follow directions.

The first day of the course is what I always think of as the data collecting day.  I want to see what the horse knows and where he is emotionally.  What carries over from the work someone has done at home to this unfamiliar environment?  Is this the horse you have at home, or does his worry or excitement over being in a new place bring out issues you don’t normally have to deal with?  In other words what is our starting point and what “tools” in terms of the behaviors the horse knows do we have to work with?

The Icey’s owner set out a pattern of mats and cones, and he followed her through them, stopping on cue, backing, coming forward again, even picking up a cone when requested.  This can be one of the hardest types of clinic horse to work with.  You can so easily say what’s wrong with this picture?  What is there to change?  He was doing everything that was being asked of him politely and willingly.  The horse that is falling apart emotionally or pushing through the handler to grab for treats is a much easier clinic project.  There’s so much that needs sorting, it’s easy to come up with things to work on.

But this horse was already polite.  He was coping well emotionally.  The big hole was his balance.  He tended to stand all higgledy-piggledy with his legs going every which way.  Overall his balance was down, forward and leaning on his inside shoulder.  This really matters for small horses, even strong small horses like an Icelandic.   The more he learns to carry himself up in good balance, the easier it will be to carry a rider, the sounder he will remain, and the better he will gait for her.

Following Directions Versus Initiating Behavior
Now I could have approached this conventionally.  I could have set out a circle of cones and gone straight to work on lateral flexions, but if I did that, I risked falling through the trap door of obliging a response.  He would not have been solving a puzzle and offering behavior.  He would not have been becoming increasingly body aware.  He would simply have been following directions as he had been doing for years.

I always use the analogy of following the car in front of you back to the hotel you’re both staying at.  The first night you follow the the car in front of you from the clinic barn to the hotel.  The second night you follow again.  On the third night that person has to stay behind to check on something.  You head out on your own, but you end up sleeping in your car because you never do find the hotel.  You were relying on the car in front of you to get you there.  You weren’t paying attention to any of the turns or landmarks you passed.

Adding “Stuff” to Become Creative
This horse could follow direction, but he wasn’t used to initiating behavior.  That’s what his person wanted him to explore.  So we changed course.  I had her get lots of horse-safe stuff and scatter it around the arena.  In addition to the usual mats and cones, she added some dog toys, a beach ball, several hula hoops, a jacket, a bandana, and her rubber rain boots.  In general the more stuff you have the better.  This isn’t so much for the horse as it is for you.  More stuff helps you to be more creative.

What can you and your horse do with a hula hoop?  What can you do with a beach ball?  Each item separately will produce a list of behaviors you could go after.  Take a moment to think about what would be on your list.

Now what can you do if you have both a beach ball and a hula hoop?  The options and possibilities just expanded.  Put two objects together that you haven’t combined before, and you may see even more new things popping out.

Teaching Creativity Creatively
So here’s what happened: The first day the Icey was hesitant.  He pushed the ball ever so politely.  “Am I really supposed to be doing this?  Is this really what you want?”

Years ago another of our Click That Teaches coaches, Debra Olson, demonstrated for a clinic group how she teaches creativity.  She was working with another of these very polite, but very drab horses.  Her prop was a large beach ball.  Now most of us would have no trouble teaching a horse to push a ball.  We would set it down near the horse.  If the horse sniffed at it, click, we’d offer him a treat.  It wouldn’t be long before he would be nudging it to get a goody.

That’s not what Debra did.  Debra is a professional artist.  When she was first getting herself established, she taught art to young children – not the tedious draw-inside-the-lines type of art class I endured in school, but real creative work.  She used some of the same techniques with this horse that she had developed for the children.  Instead of plunking the ball down and going through the standard clicker approach, she first rolled the ball back and forth.  Then she very deliberately set the ball down in front of the horse.

The horse sniffed it.  Click and treat.  She nudged it tentatively a couple of times, click and treat.

Then Debra took the ball away and sat on it.  She bounced it a time or two and then again very deliberately set it down in front of the horse.  It was as if she was saying: “This is what I can think of to do with this ball.  What can you do?”

If we had filmed just the mare’s interactions with the ball and compared them to that of a more conventionally-trained horse, they would not have looked that different.  (By the way I love the idea that we have been clicker training long enough to call something conventional!  When we were first figuring out how to teach behaviors with the clicker, this simple teaching strategy would have been considered ground breaking.)

In that one session Debra had with this mare you could not say for sure that anything life changing had occurred, but I know Debra’s horse, Magic.  I know that this approach creates a horse that is exactly what his name suggests – magical.

So this was my approach with the Icey.  We first let him explore the objects at liberty to see if he had any preferences.  He passed by the dog toys and showed some mild curiosity about the rubber boot.  It wasn’t enough to sustain any real interest.  He was waiting to be told what to do.  Instead of going down the conventional route, I picked up the boot and tossed it to his person.  Click and treat as it landed in her arms.

The game was on!  In that first session he was tentative, polite, unsure if he was really meant to nudge the boot.  On the second day he was much more engaged.  He had picked out his favorite toys, the hula hoop,  the beach ball and the rubber boots.  He was doing his best to imitate tossing the boot forward.  He couldn’t quite get the coordination down, but with a little more practice I think he would be able to toss the boot to us.

On the third day we continued to play with the toys, but now I added a new element.  We played for a bit, then I held my hands gently around his face.  I waited at the point of contact.  I wasn’t forcing or telling.  I was waiting.  It was up to him to experiment and offer.  He found the first tiny give, click and treat.  Within just a few more attempts he was presenting me with clean, clear, consistent, self-mobilized gives of the jaw.  That’s the first rung on the ladder that leads to brilliant performance.

Find the Other Way
We were back to performance work, but we had gotten there in a very round about way.  If I had gone there directly, whatever I got from him would have been false because it would not have come as an offered behavior.  He had to play with the toys first to discover that offering was safe, offering was even fun, before we could move into performance-related requests.

People sometimes say that clicker training is too slow.  I would say it only seems slow because we want so much more.  And because we want more, we put in more steps.  Someone watching these sessions might have thought his owner was wasting her time.  She could be riding!  And instead she was playing catch with a rubber boot and watching her horse push a beach ball.  But she understood what we were after.  She loves to laugh.  It was a joy spending the weekend with her.  She was always bubbly, always smiling.

She could always ride.  She wanted something more precious.  She wanted her horse to be able to laugh with her.  What a great gift to give to the horse she so clearly loved.

In shaping we know that there is always another way to train everything.  The challenge we all have is finding the other way.  The gift we give ourselves and our horses is finding the other way.

When we figure that out for our horses, perhaps we will have the skills to apply it to people.  Around the planet, it is certainly something we need to figure out how to do.

Alexandra Kurland