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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: