JOY Full Horses: Part 2: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, JOY Full Horses.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

In the preceding section I talked about why it is so important to be in a PLAY Full mindset when you go out to the barn.  I ended with this:

You want to build a conditioned response for yourself.  No matter what sort of a day you’ve had, as soon as you head out to the barn – your mood shifts.  The good news is you really can build triggers for yourself that turn this into a habit.  In this section I’ll be explaining how.

Number 2: Non-Verbal Cues, continued

Chapter 2: Turning being PLAY FULL into a Habit

Power of habit book cover

The Power of Habits
It’s all well and good to say we want to be PLAY FULL.  Your intentions may be good, but what is the reality?  What are your emotional patterns?  Is it your habit to be cheerful, or do you let the stresses of the day get the better of you?  How do you develop the habit of being PLAY FULL so that’s always how you are when you’re with your horse?

In his excellent book, “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg talks about how to alter existing habits and how to build new, desirable ones.

Without knowing it he was describing a process we use in clicker training to build clean sequences of behavior.  Clean means the sequences are made up only of the behaviors you want.  There are no unwanted behaviors messing up the progression from one behavior to the next or attaching themselves tight as a tick onto existing behaviors.

I refer to this teaching process as Loopy Training. You begin with a tight, small loop.  We often write this as:

click to reward

Reward is the short hand that’s often used, but it’s not the best word to choose.  Rewards certainly imply something good has been presented, but they aren’t necessarily directly linked to the behavior you’re trying to say “yes” to.  Getting a Christmas bonus may make you look forward even more to the Holidays, but it’s a clumsy way to reinforce you for a job well done in September. If the reward was linked to the task, it would serve as a much better reinforcer.

To remind us that we want to maintain the “ABC” tight connection between the behavior and it’s consequences, it is better to write this phrase out as:

click to reinforcement

Reinforce means to strengthen.  You reinforce a bridge or concrete.  You reinforce relationships.  If our actions reinforce a behavior, we should see more of that behavior.

When we write out this single phrase, it’s easy for our brains to end the sequence there and not see this as an on-going process.  We really should be writing this as:

loopy training diagram
As Duhigg describes them, habits are very much like that training loop.  They begin with a cue that triggers them, then the response, followed by the reward (or to use the language of animal trainers – followed by reinforcement.)

We all know we have habits – good and bad.  We are in the habit of always closing pasture gates once we’ve gone through them, of latching stall doors, turning off the barn lights when we go out.  Those are good habits to be in, but you might also have bad habits such as saying “you know” too often when you talk, or stopping at Starbucks on your way home for that extra sweet cup of coffee and sugar.

What the research makes us aware of is just how much of our lives are run by habits.  Going to the barn is one of my habits.  (And a very good one.)  Before the horses moved to the new barn, I would see them in the evening.  My schedule was dictated by the evening chores.  At the boarding barn stalls were cleaned only once a day in the morning.  If I wanted my horses to go overnight on a clean bed, I had to be there in the evening to do it.  And if I wanted to leave them with a warm mash and a late night snack of hay, again I had to be there to pass it out.  The last feed done by the barn staff was at 4 pm, and that’s too long a stretch to go until morning for a horse’s digestive system.

So my days revolved around the need to be at the barn to do evening chores.  Often I’d get to the barn feeling completely wiped out from a long day. At the start of the evening I’d be thinking this really is not going to be a riding night, but by the time I was cleaning the last of our stalls, I’d be itching to get my saddle out.  What had changed?

I was in a behavior chain.  I did the stalls in a consistent pattern.  Completing one stall became the cue to move on to the next.  I was moving from one conditioned response to the next.  By the time I got to the last stall, the triggers for riding were cued.  It happened every night.

cue:trigger loop
The Effect of Cues
The reinforcement in this case was the cue for the next link in the chain.  Confused?  Here’s an easy way to think of this.  Suppose you’re teaching a puppy to sit.  You say “sit”, and as he does, you click and give him a bit of hot dog.  The word “sit” will fast become a predictor of hot dogs.  Your puppy loves hot dogs, and he loves all the social attention sitting brings him, so he’ll be eager to hear you give the cue.  In fact he’ll be on the lookout for ways to get you to say “sit”.

If he jumps up on you and you say “sit”, and then you give him a bit of hot dog for listening so well to you, what have you in fact just reinforced?  What behavior are you going to see more of?

Jumping up.

Why?

Because jumping up led to the cue “sit” which reliably produces hot dogs.

This may not be what you intended, but this is the habit pattern you are inadvertently creating.

In my case I was reinforcing good habits.  Each little habit led me predictably through my evening.  The last step in this long sequence brought me to the last ride of the night which was always reserved for Peregrine.  I always saved his session for the end.  Why? Why do we save desert for the end of the meal? Because we want to leave our favorite, best reward for the end.

Unexpected Habits
When we moved the horses to the new barn, my day flipped upside down.  Instead of going out to the barn in the evening, I was now going first thing in the morning.  I had been looking forward to being able to ride whenever I wanted.  In a boarding barn you are always working around other people’s schedules.  Here in my own barn I could ride at any time.  At least, that was the theory.  The reality was my habits got in the way.

Mornings were for working on the computer.  I would finish the last of the stalls, and then head into the tack room but not to get my saddle.  The tack room also served as a temporary office.  That’s where my computer was.  Riding the horses in the morning felt decadent.  The pull to the computer trumped playing with the horses.  That was the stronger morning habit.

Most of what we do through the course of our day is really the result of one habit piled on top of another.  I’m not talking here about the big, noticeable habits that we are probably aware of, but lots of tiny microhabits that go into forming the routine of our day.

Emotional Habits
It’s not just what we do that are determined by these habits.  It’s also how we feel about what we do.  I became very aware of this because of all the traveling that I do.  At home my day follows routines.  Not every day is the same, but it is made up of familiar segments.  Some days include a trip to the post office. That forms a distinct loop inside the larger flow of my day.  Once I enter that habit loop, it unfolds in familiar sequences with emotions attached to it that are the product of classical conditioning.

There’s the feeling of annoyance while I stand waiting in line.  I don’t mind lines in and of themselves.  I stand in lots of other lines, even other post office lines, without this feeling of grumpiness descending upon me.  It’s the inefficiency of the way this particular post office branch is run that triggered the original grump.  Now whenever I walk up the steps towards the front doors, I can feel my mood shift.  There might not be any line at all, or maybe one of the more efficient clerks is at the window.  It doesn’t matter.  I was in a good mood as I drove to the post office, but now as I walk up the steps, I can feel my mood shifting as I am drawn into the “post office habit loop”.

Traveling Outside Your Habits
When I travel, I step outside of all of these classically conditioned triggers.  I get to experience “me”, not the “me” of my daily habits.  I think this is why people enjoy traveling on their vacations.  They could stay home and spend time in their own backyards, but that doesn’t give them a break from their habits.  Traveling may not be more restful, but it certainly creates more of a change when you can step outside not just of familiar landscapes but also of familiar habits.

I’ll let you mull this over as you think about your own traveling experiences, and I’ll pick up next time with a continued discussion of micro-habits.

Coming next: Chapter 2 continued: Micro-habits

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

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