In the previous post I used the process of teaching a horse to back in a square to illustrate several ways in which cues evolve out of the shaping process. I showed you how you can use food delivery to move your horse through a particular motor pattern. When you first teach a horse to come forward to touch a target, it’s easy to have him step back to get to his treat. Body language cues evolve easily out of the food delivery. Now if you turn into him to ask for backing, he’ll know what you want. The cue for backing evolved out of the shaping process.
Horses are masters at reading subtle changes in body language. They are good at seeing what comes before what comes before what you are asking for. In the wild a horse needs to be good at predicting the future to stay out of trouble, both within the herd and when a predator is on the hunt. So horses are good at spotting the little clues that tell them what you’ll be asking for next. After all, the better they learn to read you, the more successful they’ll be. Those clues help them to get to their reinforcers faster.
Starter Button and Constant-On Cues
In Part one of this section, I focused on teaching your horse to back in a square. That’s the precursor to teaching head lowering. So let’s continue on to that part of the lesson. Remember you’ve been asking your horse to back from the front of his stall a step or two toward the back wall. The stall may be his actual stall, or just a square marked out with cones or ground poles. Once these steps come easily, you can begin to build duration. You’ll need to decide if your cue is a starter button or a constant-on cue.
A starter button cue is exactly what it sounds like. Think about how you use your key to turn on your car’s ignition. You turn the key and as soon as you hear the engine start, you let go. You don’t keep turning the key. You assume that once your car starts it’s going to keep going until you turn it off. If it does stall out, you’ll restart it with the turn of the key.
Your backing cue can work in the same way. When you slide down the lead, you expect your horse to begin to back. But do you hold on to the lead the whole time he’s backing, or do you let go once he’s initiated the movement? The later would be a starter button cue.
If you hold on, you’re using the lead as a constant-on signal. You’re in effect saying: “As long as this signal is present, you’re to keep backing. When it goes away, you’re to stop.”
In her book, Lads Before the Wind, Karen Pryor described how she taught her dolphins to spin and to keep spinning as long they could hear a certain signal. It was an easy way to build duration in a behavior, especially working as she was with multiple animals.
The problem with using the lead as a constant-on signal is it can effect your horse’s balance. You can experience this yourself. You’re going to hold the snap end of the lead so you get the horse’s perspective of this lesson. Have a friend slide down the lead to ask for backing. First, she’s going to hold on until you have given her the number of backing steps she wants. That’s the constant-on cue.
Next have her slide down, but she’s to let go AS SOON AS you’re in motion. If you stall out, not sure what she wants, she’s to slide down again and restart the behavior. Once you are backing freely, she’s to let you back several steps before she clicks. That will bring you to a stop. Remember, as you are backing, she is NOT keeping an active hold of the lead.
So now you’ve sampled both constant-on and starter button cues.
Question: Which way did you prefer? If you are like most people, you’ll prefer the starter button. The other will feel heavier and more demanding. You’ll also notice that there was a difference in how you backed. With the starter button your steps will be longer, more even, better balanced.
The Horse’s Perspective
There’s a lovely expression that I refer to often in clinics: Go to people for opinions and horses for answers. In this case you were the horse. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can test out the two different versions of how you ask for backing and decide for yourself which one you prefer.
One of the things I like about clicker training is we can experience directly so many of the lessons we give to our horses. Holding on to the lead with a constant-on cue comes much more easily to most people. You have to make a conscious effort to let go. If there’s no difference, there’s no reason to change. But once you’ve experienced for yourself from the horse’s perspective the difference in the feel and the impact it has on your balance, it becomes a lot easier to pay attention to the detail of letting go.
Years ago at one of the big horse expos I had a trade booth set up directly across the aisle from a company that sells electronic shock collars for horses. All weekend long I got to watch their sales video. It featured a mare who had a foal at her side. The mare was a cribber. They were using the shock collar to discourage the cribbing.
Each time she reached out to the fence, they would zap her with the collar. Over and over again as the video played, I got to watch her jump back from the shock. That was hard enough to watch. What made this even worse, when they shocked her, her foal had just started to nurse. Think of the associations that was creating!
As part of their sales pitch they were letting people feel the shock the collar produced. Toward the end of the weekend when things were quieting down, I went over to have a feel. They had the collar set at the lowest setting. You didn’t get a jolt. Touching an electric fence is much worse, but even so it was exceedingly unpleasant. That was the lowest setting.
I asked to feel the setting the mare was given.
“Oh on. We don’t let people take that level of shock.”
Soap Box Time
It made me appreciate clicker training all the more. To the best of our ability to simulate experiences, there’s nothing we do to the animals that we do not also let people experience. I can slide down the lead and let you feel what the horse feels at his end of the lead. I can set up training games and let you go through the same puzzle solving process. I can click and feed – maybe not hay stretcher pellets, but something more to your liking.
We are confronted by so many different opinions about how best to train our horses. We can’t always know how something feels to a horse. I can’t wear a bit or carry a rider on my back, so I can’t replicate every experience, but here’s my standard. Your horse should not have to go through any training procedure which you are uncomfortable watching.
Note, I do not say which you are uncomfortable doing to your horse. You may not have the skill to take your horse through a particular lesson. You may be using a trainer to help teach your horse something that requires more experience than you currently have. But you should be able to watch everything that’s done to your horse. If something makes you squirm, it’s okay to speak up for your horse. There is always, ALWAYS another way to train everything you want to teach.
A good trainer will respect you more for standing up for your horse, and a good trainer will find another way to teach the lesson. A punitive trainer with a narrow tool box will tell you this way is for the good of the horse, and you have to let him finish. He’ll tell you if you let the horse get away with being disrespectful, you’ll ruin him.
These are red flags. Thank him very much for his opinion and take your horse home. You don’t have to be a clicker trainer to know how to break a lesson down into small steps. You don’t have to be a clicker trainer to be fair to a horse. You just have to be a good trainer. So take your horse out of harm’s way, and find someone to help you who is a true teacher not a bully.
Backing with Starter Button Cues
That’s enough standing on a soap box. Let me step down off of mine and get back to the backing in a square lesson. Hopefully, you got a friend to help you, and you were able to feel the difference between a starter button and a constant-on cue. You know for this lesson you want the lead to act as a starter button cue. Once your horse initiates backing, you’ll release the lead and walk back with him.
Now note, this means that there is a constant-on cue in this process. As he backs, you’re walking forward toward him. Walking toward him is your constant-on cue. You want him to keep backing out of your way as you walk into his space. That cue is evolving out of the shaping process.
Again, if he stalls out too soon, you’ll restart the “engine” by sliding down the lead.
You’ll ask him to back a couple of steps, being mindful that you are still in a stall and there’s a wall behind him.
After the click, you’ll use your food delivery to reposition him forward.
This begins a new movement cycle.
As you ask him to repeat the cycle, you’ll see him backing with more confidence. Not only does he understand what you want, he’s backing over ground he’s already stepped on. He knows now that it doesn’t contain any hidden traps. It’s safe to step back. Each time you ask him, it becomes easier and more fluid. That’s in part why you do this back and forth dance. It is like bending a metal coat hanger. At first the hanger is very stiff, but the more you bend it, the softer and easier it becomes.
A Change in the Game
Now that you have a horse backing easily, you’re going to change the game once again. Instead of feeding forward after the click, now you’re going to feed right where you clicked.
Again, this can trip people up. They spent so much mental energy figuring out how to feed forward, and now they have to change all that and keep their feet still.
Why the change? You’re ready to tackle the puzzle that the back corner of the stall presents. So many horses feel trapped in this kind of situation. They forget that they can just swing their hindquarters over. When they get in a corner, instead of simply stepping back and to the side, they panic and push forward into the handler.
You’re going to show your horse that he has another option. You have him at a halt with his rear end close to the back wall. You’re going to slide down the lead and ask him to turn his head away from you. Your body orientation is still saying back, but you ARE NOT pushing into him AT ALL with the lead. There is no backwards force on the lead. There doesn’t need to be.
If you add a feel of pushing him back before he has figured out how, he’ll just feel trapped. All the pressure will go down into his hocks. Especially if he has any arthritis in his hocks, this will make him feel even more anxious, and it will be harder yet for him to figure out what he’s to do.
More “Being the Horse”
Instead you are simply going to ask him to turn his head away from you. You can experience what this does simply by standing up for a moment. Put your hands on your hips so you can really feel the effect. Begin by looking straight ahead. Now turn your head to one side and look over your shoulder. What did your hips do? They counter balanced the movement by swinging in the opposite direction.
As you ask your horse to bend his nose more and more to the outside, he’ll become aware of the answer to the puzzle. All he has to do is follow the turn of his hips, and he can back up out of this corner. Putting him in the corner makes it easier for him to figure out the answer. The structure helps you. I just don’t want to put him prematurely in the corner before he’s comfortable enough with backing to be able to find the answer in a relaxed manner. That’s the reason for all the back and forth prep.
If your horse doesn’t understand your request to move his head away from you, there’s a simple way to prep this part of the lesson. Use food delivery to set up the response. Begin by asking him to stand next to you in the “grown-ups are talking” position.
When you click, instead of presenting the food so he continues to keep his head in this position, you’ll extend your arm past where his nose is so he has to turn his head to get his treat. As he moves, you’ll step forward, filling the space he’s vacating. You’ll repeat this until the food delivery has created the weight shift you need to ask him to turn his hip so he can back through the corner. This is an easy way to ask for what can be a very challenging maneuver for some horses. The goal is to make this as easy and understandable as possible so your horse is very comfortable being asked to back through turns. (For another view of how to use food delivery to set up the behavior you want refer to the May 6, 2016 post on Using Environmental Cues https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/05/06/)
Whichever approach you use, you now have him backing one step through the corner. Click and treat. You can ask for another step, or perhaps it is time to walk him forward again out of the stall to give him a break.
Once your horse is comfortably backing through all four the corners of the stall, it is time to change the game yet again. Now you’re going after head lowering.
Heating Up a Behavior
To get to this lesson, you’re going to take a little detour. You’re going to leave the stall for a few minutes while you make head lowering a “hot” behavior.
Coming Next: Priming the Pump
Author’s note: Once again, I want to remind people that I am using these lessons to illustrate some important concepts. These articles are not intended to give detailed, how-to instructions. For those resources refer to my web sites, and to my books, DVDs, and on-line course. In particular refer to my book, “The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures”, and the early DVDs in the DVD lesson series: Lesson 1: Getting Started with the Clicker, Lesson 2: Ground Manners, and Lesson 3: Head Lowering. My on-line course will also provide you with a very thorough introduction to clicker training.
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.
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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: