This is Part 2 in this series. The horse I am featuring was one of the horses at the November 2015 Arkansas clinic. He had no clicker training experience prior to the clinic. We tracked his progress via video over a three day period.
If you have not already read Part 1, I suggest you begin there. Part 1 covers the morning sessions of Day 1. This article covers the afternoon sessions of Day 1.
Afternoon Targeting Sessions
Just when you think you have that rare thing, a complete video record of a horse’s introduction to clicker training, you discover that several sessions are missing. For the first two rounds of Nick’s afternoon session the record button wasn’t on.
In both sets he was at the door waiting for me and began with three very definite target touches. He came forward promptly, touched the target and backed up easily for the treat delivery. He came out further over the stall guard than he had been in the morning. His interest in the game was growing. That was encouraging progress, but it was also that’s something needed to be monitored. I wanted to make sure that this new found confidence remained in balance with his general good manners.
In both rounds he showed the same cycle. He began by touching the target promptly with none of the hesitation that he had shown in the morning. He gave three solid touches, and then his response rate dipped down. That was also something to monitor.
As usual we discussed what to do with the next round of treats. Everything about his behavior suggested that he would be fine if I went into the stall with him. He was backing easily out of my space. He was taking the treats politely without any excessive mugging behavior.
Because he was now showing me that he would back away from me, I felt comfortable going into the stall with him. But that didn’t mean I had to go in. I could stay outside the stall and continue with the targeting. Or I could introduce one of the other foundation lessons. The consensus from the group was to continue with the targeting to get the come-forward-to-the-target-back-up-to-get-the-treat loop cleaner.
Again there is no right or wrong to this. We could have made some other choice. Nick’s behavior would tell us if the choices we made were heading us in a good direction.
Video: An Introduction To Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 3rd Session
Data Collected. Now It’s Assessment Time
People felt this was his best round yet. I kept this session very short. I got three good touches and then ended the session. This avoided the dip in behavior that we had seen earlier. Nick was clearly still very cautious in his responses. This is a process that has to unfold in it’s own time.
Several of the clinic participants wondered if we should change targets or change treats. It’s always a possibility. One of the huge advantages of clicker training is there is always more than one way to train every behavior. There isn’t one and only one right way that you have to follow. That’s what makes these discussions so valuable. We could certainly try a different target, or introduce a different foundation lesson, but it was also okay to stay with what we were doing.
With Nick, I was still working with simple targeting, but in each round there had been significant changes. I began by offering him the food approximately where the target had been. Now I could move him back to get his treat which meant he then had to step forward to touch the target. The shaping of more complex behavior was occurring almost without his noticing. In the morning he started out much more on the forehand. I made a point of feeding him in a way that shifted his balance back slightly which brought him off his front end. That then allowed me to feed him so he moved back even more. You are now seeing in the video clip how he is moving back well out of my way to get the treat.
Because I can feed him so he steps back, the dynamic of touching the target changes. I will often see people moving the target around through big changes. They’ll hold it high, then low, then out to the side. Most horses can follow these changes and continue to touch the target. Essentially the handler is being reinforced for changing criterion in big stair steps. We call that lumping. It works for a simple behavior like targeting, but I would rather see the handler learn to build behaviors more smoothly, so a response is already happening consistently before it becomes the criterion that earns the click.
Training must always take into consideration any health concerns. One of the questions I had concerned Nick’s teeth. I wondered how long ago they had been checked. Nick not only took a long time to eat the hay stretcher pellets, I never heard him take them up onto his back molars to chew. So I wondered if he might have some sharp points or some other issues that were contributing to his overall caution. His owner said he had very recently been done by a good dentist. That’s good to hear, but it doesn’t completely eliminate my question.
It’s so hard to judge how well an equine dentist is doing. We can look at our horse’s feet to see if a farrier is leaving flare and other obvious signs that perhaps we need to question the job he’s doing. But with teeth it’s much harder to evaluate the job a dentist has done. Reaching in to check for points isn’t something we’re trained to do.
Even if you’ve had the teeth checked recently, it’s always possible that something has happened since to cause a problem. Nick’s owner reported that he is very tight in his jaw and his poll. That’s consistent with the way he was eating his treats. This is all part of this early data collecting phase of the training. Many of the concerns and questions that these early sessions raise may well simply disappear as Nick figures out the game. What remains needs to be looked at with the possibility that there is a physical issue interfering with his ability to respond well. For now we were very much still in an exploratory stage, so I continued on with another targeting session, the fourth of the afternoon:
Video An Introduction To Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 4th Session
The Grown-up Are Talking, Please Don’t Interrupt
In the discussion that followed this set, we decided that it would be interesting to shift gears and introduce Nick to an exercise which I refer to as: the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt. At it’s most basic this exercise is asking if the horse can keep his nose away from my treat pocket when I’m standing in close to him. Initially I free shape this lesson, meaning I am not prompting or triggering the correct response through my behavior. I am simply observing Nick and reinforcing him for approximations that move him closer to my overall goal.
If he comes into my space or nudges at my arm, I’ll let him explore. It’s important that he feels safe experimenting. If I correct him for nuzzling my pockets, I can’t expect him to feel safe offering behavior in other ways. If I don’t feel comfortable letting him nuzzle my pockets, I can always step back out of range.
When he moves his nose away from my body, click, I’ll give him a treat. I’ll feed him out away from my body where the perfect horse would be. That means he’ll have his head between his shoulders and at a height that puts him into good balance.
In this first round of grown-ups you will see that he spends over a minute investigating my pockets. I let him explore. This is such an important part of the process. He isn’t being punished for coming into my space or nuzzling at my vest. It isn’t dangerous for him to check out this option, but it also doesn’t get him any treats.
If you’ve been taught that you should never let a horse into your space like this, it can be really hard to watch him nuzzling at my pockets. During this process his owner told us that he often mugs for treats. It’s a behavior his previous owners allowed, which may account for his persistence. But watch how quickly he catches on to this new game. Moving his nose away from me is the way to get treats!
Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 5th Session – the First Asking for Grown-Ups
In the discussion that followed this session I again emphasized how systematic the unfolding of clicker training is. The behaviors I work on are very connected one to another. Even though I haven’t perfected targeting, I can still move on and introduce other behaviors. In the targeting he was learning that moving his head away from me to touch the blue end of the target stick produced goodies. In grown-ups he was discovering that moving his head into that same position, even when a target wasn’t present, also produced treats.
I think it’s important early on for horses to discover that there is more than one way for them to earn a click and a treat. If you work too long on targeting or some other behavior, a horse can get too narrow in his understanding of how the process works. He will think that there is one and only one behavior that produces treats. He can become very locked in. When you try and do something else, he’ll get very frustrated because he feels as though he is being blocked from the one thing that he knows works. So it’s good to experiment and introduce other behaviors early on in the process.
Remember there is no one and only one right answer. If we had stayed with another round of targeting, would that have been wrong? No. If we had moved from targeting sooner, would we have been wrong? No. If we had switched to a different target or to different treats, would we have been wrong? No.
Nick is definitely cautious in his approach to the target, but at this stage that isn’t a bad thing. We’re at the beginning of a huge paradigm shift. I’m letting him come into my space and sniff at my hands and explore my pockets. He has to do that in order to discover that that’s not what works. What works is taking his nose away from me. I’m not going to correct him for nuzzling at me. I don’t want to punish him for it. I want him to make that choice on his own with minimal prompting from me.
If I thought he was dangerous, if I thought he was going to bite me, I would step away. I might even have a different kind of barrier. Or I might wait to work on this particular lesson. In other words, I would set it up so I felt safe. He’s exploring. He’s experimenting. While he’s doing so, it’s important that we both feel safe.
If I said to you: I want you to experiment, but recognize that there are sharks in the water. And now go dip your toe in the water, you’d say to me: “I’d rather not.”
If I’m correcting him for nuzzling, then experimenting in general is a bad idea. Trying things has become unsafe. He’d be right to say the same thing to me. “I’m not going to reach out and touch that target, because I might get smacked. You may be giving me treats this time, but next time you just might hit me instead.”
This is why I set up the training in this very structured way, and why I begin with protective contact. I want him to learn that he can experiment safely.
In this next round you’ll see how well this strategy is paying off. Nick spent most of the previous round mugging my pockets. Now in this set you’ll see him very deliberately moving his head away from me.
Video: Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 6th Session – 2nd Grown-ups.
Nick is showing us why clicker training is so much fun. With every round we’ve seen a shift, a change in his understanding. Grown-ups produced for him a real “lightbulb” moment. Shifting from targeting to grown-ups has helped him “connect the dots”.
It also shows again the value of using these short rounds of training. You may be thinking: that’s easy to do in a clinic. You have to stop to talk to the participants and explain what you’re doing. How am I supposed to do this the the real world of my barn?
It’s really easy to do these short rounds of training in your home environment. You might do a quick round of targeting and then fill a couple water buckets. You’d do another short round of targeting and then throw down some hay, or turn out a horse. You’d do another round, and then sweep the barn aisle. In other words, in between doing your normal barn chores, you can get in a lot of short sets of training.
After you’ve got your chores done, you might want to have a more “normal” visit with your horse. You want to do more with him than just targeting in a stall. All your previous training says you need to “work” with your horse.
You can begin to expand your clicker training into all the everyday tasks he already knows. If he’s a horse like Nick who is safe to handle, by all means bring him out and groom him. In that grooming session, you’ll be looking for opportunities to click and reinforce him. If he normally fusses and moves about while you groom him, but right now he’s standing still, click and reinforce him. When you ask him to move his hips over so you can get by, as he responds, click and reinforce him.
You will now be paying attention to all those little requests that we often take for granted when we groom. You’ll be finding excuses to click and reinforce him, and in the process you’ll be discovering how much better he can be. You will still have your “formal” clicker sessions where you focus specifically on targeting and the other foundation lessons. But you can also begin to incorporate the clicker into the “real world” of everyday tasks and expectations.
Business can continue as usual, but now you have this added communication tool that says: “thank you for a job well done.”
You’ll be doing this, and you’ll also be continuing with the formal process of introducing him to the six foundation lessons of clicker training. As your horse masters those lessons, you can use them to make daily husbandry and the rest of your training even better.
Now, if your horse were showing you dangerous behaviors, I wouldn’t be encouraging you to bring him out to groom him. While he learns how to learn, I would be recommending that you stay with protective contact. He can be dirty for a while. If you’re dodging his teeth, there’s nothing that says you have to groom him every day. If you are seeing behaviors that raise safety concerns, I would teach him the learning-how-to-learn emotional-control aspect of his training with a barrier between you.
After this discussion I decided to finish up with one more round that would include both targeting and the grown-ups are talking lesson.
Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 7th Session- Targeting & Grown-ups
This was the final round of the day. In the afternoon we spent approximately fifty minutes focused on Nick. About 17 minutes of that time was spent working directly with him. The rest was spent in discussion. That’s a good ratio, especially at this stage of the training.
One of the things we were discussing were all the changes we were seeing. You have a huge advantage because you can go back and review the earlier video clips. Think about all the changes you’ve seen in these clips. We began in the morning with his first tentative exploration of the target, and now in the afternoon he will step forward to touch a target, and I can move him back with the food delivery. I can stand next to him with my pockets filled with treats, and he will deliberately take his head away from me. I can combine targeting and grown-ups in one work session. That means I am beginning to introduce him to two important concepts: cues and chaining. Chaining refers to linking behaviors together via cues to create long sequences of behaviors.
At the beginning of the afternoon session, Nick was starting out with three strong responses and then his rate of response would drop off. In this final set of the afternoon he was maintaining a high response rate through a long training set.
Throughout each of these training sets I was making choices. In that very first round, I was deciding what does “orient to the target” look like? Can he just sniff the target to get clicked, or does he actually have to touch it. These are all choices that have to be made. Remember there are no rights or wrongs. With every click I am assessing the horse’s progress. Have I made a good choice, or do I need to adjust my criterion slightly?
When you are training, it is good to remember this wonderful quote: “It is always go to people for opinions and horses for answers.” Through his behavior your horse will tell you if you are making good choices. He will also be telling you if your basic handling skills are clean. If you are fumbling around in your pocket trying to get out a treat, you’re giving him extra time to mug you. You don’t want to be collecting unwanted behavior even as you’re reinforcing other things that you want. The steady progress Nick made through the day told us that on balance the choices were good ones, and the game was making sense to him. It was time to let him process what he was learning.
One of the expressions I use often in clinics is you never know what you have taught. You only know what you have presented. We would be finding out what he was learning by returning the next morning with another round of training.
That last video marked the end of day 1 of Nick’s introduction to clicker training. But this wasn’t the end of the day’s training for Nick’s owner. We spent another fifty minutes working with her on her clicker training skills. Just as we did with Nick, we began in a stall with “protective contact”. She was on one side practicing her handling skills while another clinic participant played the part of her horse.
I like beginning with these rehearsals. If you are new to clicker training this is a must-do step. What you just watched can look so easy. You are probably thinking: “What can be so hard about holding up a target?” Until you try it, you won’t know, but better that you find out all the little places where you’re fumbling around trying to get coordinated BEFORE you go to your horse. If you can’t find a friend to help you, you can always pretend you have a partner. Video tape yourself or practicing in front of a mirror to give yourself visual feedback.
I know many people fuss at having to go through these steps. They want to go directly to their horses. They have told themselves that they are hands-on learners. They need to be doing in order to learn. These rehearsals give them the “hands-on” learning experience they are looking for.
I am very protective of horses. If you are learning something new by going straight to your horse, your horse is going to have to withstand your learning curve of making mistakes, fumbling with the clicker, not getting the target up, etc. etc.. That can be hard on a new learner. When someone runs into trouble in the first stages of the clicker training, its often because they didn’t do enough dress rehearsals. This show up in inconsistent handling, timing that’s off, unclear criteria, and other issues that result in a horse being equally inconsistent. The result is a lot of unwanted behavior as the horse expresses his frustration.
Watching someone else training with clean, consistent handling doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to do it yourself. The dress rehearsal is the step you put in between. The handler will be going through all the training steps first with a “human horse”. Her partner will hold her hands together to represent a horse’s muzzle. When she reaches out and bumps the target with her hands, her “trainer” will click and give her a treat. The “human horse” will adjust her behavior to meet the needs of her learner. If someone simply needs to practice clicking and getting the food out of her pocket, the “horse” will cooperate by touching the target directly. She won’t present any behavioral challenges until her “handler” is ready to work on that step.
One of the huge advantages of this process is the “horse”can give her “handler” verbal feedback. By the time you’re ready to go to your horse, you can focus on what he’s doing instead of focusing on your own skills.
Once your “human horse” gives you the “all clear”, you’re ready to ask your horse how you’re doing. In this case we had a barnful of clicker-wise horses, so Nick’s owner was able to practice her new clicker skills with an experienced horse. This was a real luxury that prepared her even more for her first clicker lessons with Nick.
This is Puffin checking on Wendy’s “homework”. Puffin was a rescue pony who is becoming a clicker star under the guidance of his person, Karen Quirk.
The clinic participants had to wait overnight to see how Nick processed his first day’s lessons. I will make you do the same. I’ll share Day 2 in the next installment of this report.
This is Part 2 of a 4 Part series on introducing a horse to the clicker.
My thanks to Cindy Martin for organizing and hosting the November clinic, and to all the clinic participants, especially Wendy Stephens and her beautiful Nick.
Please note: This article gives you wonderful details to get you started with the clicker, but it is not intended as complete instruction. 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: