Cues Evolve Out Of The Shaping Process
It’s time again to add to our list of things I would want a beginner to know about cues. So far we have:
1.) Cues and commands are not the same.
2.) Not all cues are verbal.
3.) Cues can come from inanimate objects. You can have environmental cues.
4.) Our animals can cue us.
Here’s number 5: Cues evolve out of the shaping process.
The way in which cues evolve as we teach new skills leads us straight to play. That makes this a very important concept to understand.
A common question people ask when they are teaching a new behavior is: when do I get to add a cue? This is really the wrong question. At least when you are working with horses, the cues are already there. In fact you really can’t NOT cue.
If you are reinforcing your horse for putting his ears forward, where are you looking? At his ears, of course. When you want him to take a step back, your eyes shift down to his feet. Your horse is going to notice these difference. For him these are clues that will morph into cues. Even if you aren’t aware of them, they are still functioning to let him know what to do next to earn reinforcement. So it isn’t a question of when you do you get to introduce a cue, but how do you transfer from the cue that is currently working to a new cue? But before we can get to that question, we need to look in more detail at how those cues evolve in the first place That’s what we’ll be exploring in this section.
Bear with me. I’m going to be traveling through several different lessons, connecting up the dots of evolving cues as we go.
To understand how cues evolve, let’s begin with this example: suppose I want to teach my horse to drop his head. There are a number of reasons why I might want this behavior.
The first begins with safety. A horse cannot simultaneously rear and drop his nose to the dirt. If I can ask for head lowering, I can interrupt a potentially dangerous behavior.
Head lowering is also practical. Even a short horse can become very tall when you’re trying to get a bridle or a halter on. Asking him first to lower his head makes the task easier for you and more comfortable for him.
Head lowering leads to calmness. This is not automatic. The first time you ask a horse to drop his head, he’s not going to magically and instantaneously calm down. In fact, a nervous horse can actually be made more nervous by being asked to lower his head. With his head up he can scan the horizon line for predators more effectively. So when you ask this anxious, on-guard horse to lower his head, he’s going to want to pop it right back up again.
Should you quit and ask for something else? No. The answer is to keep working on head lowering, but, if you can, change the environment so he feels more at ease. Ask for it again and again over many training sessions. As you begin to build some duration into the behavior, you will begin to see a different emotional state linking up with it.
Horses living in the wild spend twelve plus hours every day grazing. Even horses living in stalls spend several hours a day eating. That means they are spending a huge amount of time every day feeling relaxed enough to drop their heads and eat. The classically conditioned link between head lowering while grazing and an emotional state of calm relaxation is huge. If we can tap into that same state by asking for head lowering, we’ve just created a powerful link between clicker training and a calm emotional state. That will serve us well as we progress forward in training.
Linking head lowering to calmness is something most people are familiar with. Something you might not think about as much is this: head lowering is the counter balance to collection. This is perhaps one of the most important reasons to teach head lowering because it takes you into riding excellence.
Keeping Things in Balance
One of the training mantras you want to always keep in mind is:
For every exercise you teach, there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.
If you ask a horse to engage and collect, you also need to ask him to lengthen and stretch out. If you focus too much attention on collection, you may not have a way to tell him he can just relax and lengthen. As a rider is learning about collecting, if she ends up compressing her horse, she will need a way to lengthen him back out so she can try again. Asking a horse to stretch out in head lowering provides a powerful, and very important counter-balance both physically and emotionally to collection.
There’s Always More Than One Way To Teach A Behavior
I teach head lowering in many different ways. The first, easiest way is through targeting. I will simply have the horse follow a target down to the ground. Click and treat.
That’s a good start, but just because you can get head lowering one way doesn’t mean your job is done. The more different ways I can trigger the behavior, the better.
In the next installment I’ll look at one of the most powerful ways you can teach head lowering: via backing in a square.
Coming next: Backing in a square
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