Even Play Has Rules

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 7: Stimulus Control and Teaching Cues in Pairs

The rules surrounding play grow out of a core understanding of cues.  Again 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.
5.) Cues evolve out of the shaping process.
6.) You need to be able to get what you want, when you want it, and only when you want it.  In other words, you need stimulus control.

This brings us to:

7.) You can build great stimulus control by teaching behavior in pairs.

Balancing Cues
At first glance stimulus control is the opposite of play.  The very name itself is anti-play.  Control and play don’t seem to belong together in the same sentence.  And yet even play has rules.  Watch two dogs rough housing together.  If one gets too rough and keeps pinning his partner to the ground or is forever grabbing the tug toy away, the second dog will quit playing.  The game isn’t fun any more.  It just became a little too much like real life.  So play has rules.

Stimulus control certainly implies rules.  The structure of stimulus control can feel very rigid.   That doesn’t sound like fun. But remember: play stops being play when it begins to feel unsafe.  Stimulus control – taught playfully – is part of play.

So how do you teach the balance of cues without turning into a strict disciplinarian?  You don’t want to turn into an old-fashioned teacher standing over her pupils with a ruler in one hand ready to smack the wrists of anyone who gets out of line. That would take you a long way from the playful state that clicker training represents.

Playing with stimulus control comes from remembering everything we have covered so far: cues can be all sorts of different signals; cues evolve out of the shaping process; cues are a two way street.  This brings us to another important concept: building a full understanding of cues works best when you use behaviors your horse enjoys.

Building a Repertoire of Behaviors
One of the horses I’ve gotten to know well is a charmer of a lusitano named Zatcho.  He makes me laugh which is always a good thing.   He stands well over 16 hands which is tall for a lusitano.  One of the things I love most about him is the way he looks down at me.  It’s as though he’s saying: “You’re a very entertaining little person.”

For many years he was a very successful dressage horse, but his life path was derailed by a tendon injury.  With me he is learning a different sort of performance work.

Early on in our relationship I introduced him to mats.  By mats I mean doormat-size pieces of plywood.  Most horse regard such unfamiliar surfaces as things to be avoided.  But once they understand that mats are perfectly safe to step on, and standing on them generates lots of reinforcement, they are eager to go to a mat.

When Zatcho started out, he thought mats were indeed very odd.  They certainly weren’t something to stand on!  It took him a long time to warm up to the idea of mats as foot targets.

Lots of horses will take one tentative step at a time onto the mat.  Zatcho had his own distinctive style.  He would lift a front foot high into the air and stand posed like that.   He looked like a statue.  All he needed was a European King or conquering hero sitting on his back to complete the picture.

Staue of a horse with caption

I reinforced Zatcho’s eccentric approach to the mat.  A leg that goes up must eventually come down.  Zatcho pieced together enough of these legs lifts to creep himself to the edge of the mat.  Ever so gingerly he let one foot come down so it just barely touched the mat.  As he kept his toe balanced there, I clicked and treated in rapid fire succession.

I could imagine him thinking: “Hmm.  Curiouser and curiouser.  What funny creatures these humans are that this makes them happy!”

Eventually Zatcho fell in love with mats.  He also fell in love with leg lifts.  He would stand on the mat with one front leg elevated high in the air.  He did look grand, but I knew this was a behavior that could easily get out of control.

For every behavior you teach there is an opposite behavior you must teach to keep things in balance.

Actually, it might be more accurate to say there are three behaviors you need to teach: the original behavior; an opposite behavior; and a neutral behavior that sits between these two.

Base Behaviors
This is an area where people often trip up.  I’ve seen dog owners spend huge amounts of time teaching a dog to wave first the left front paw and then the right.  They leave out the middle step which is keep both front feet on the ground.  It’s easy to see how that can happen.  That’s the base behavior they started with.  It doesn’t seem as though you need to teach it in conjunction with the paw lifts.

They are forgetting that training is not just about teaching new skills.  Even more important is teaching your learner when to perform those skills.

I wasn’t teaching Zatcho how to lift up a front leg.  This was something he already knew well.  What I was showing him was WHEN offering that behavior would pay off.

This is really what it means when you say:

You can’t ask for something and expect to get it on a consistent basis unless you have gone through a teaching process to teach it to your horse.

Zatcho already knew how to stand still, how to lift up a front leg, how to do most of the things I wanted him to do.  The question was would he do them when I asked?  That’s what training is really about.  Getting the behavior is just the first small step.  If I wasn’t asking for it, would he still be throwing the behavior at me in the hopes that it would pay off?

So Zatcho needed to be reinforced for “down” as well as for up. He needed to be reinforced at least as much for having two feet on the ground as he was for the more flamboyant leg lifts.  Teaching these behaviors as a pair kept them in balance.

But then I added in a third behavior – a hug.  Zatcho was enchanted.  He loved hugging.  He loved swinging his enormous head into my waiting arms and letting me engulf him in a hug.

An Equine Ostrich
Zatcho it turned out was really an ostrich at heart. He loved “burying his head in the sand.”  He had always been a little nervous when he was in the far end of the arena.  If he could bury his head in my arms, it seemed his worries vanished.  Instead of trying to rush back to the security of the near end, he was now happy to linger in the far end.  What curious creatures these horses are!  They are supposed to be flight reaction animals, but Zatcho found comfort in standing on a mat with his head buried in my arms!

I was equally enchanted by the hugs, but this behavior, even more than the leg lifts, needed to be kept in balance.  No one would thank me for training this horse to fling his head into their torso any time he felt a little nervous or he wanted a treat.  This was absolutely a behavior that had to have clear rules attached to it.

So we developed a game.  I set out a whole series of mats scattered around the arena.  Zatcho would land on one, and we’d play a game of “Simon says”.  I had three behaviors I was working with: leg lifts, four on the floor, and the hugs.

Zatcho was learning about cues and stimulus control.  There was a serious intent behind these lessons, but he was learning about them playing a fun game.  I was using the behaviors he enjoyed most to explain this so very important concept.

Zatcho loved giving hugs.

He loved jacking his knees up to his eyebrows.

Four on the floor added an extra twist to the game which meant he had to pay close attention to my cues.  But it was easy to be right when all the behaviors were so well understood and equally rewarding.

Clicker “Drill Sergeants”
So what has this got to do with play?  When you’re working on stimulus control, it’s easy to become a clicker drill sergeant.








You can begin to feel as though you’re just barking orders, or every repeated cue is just another question on a test.  How many errors did your animal make today?  What’s the grade?

That’s not play.

But how can you not laugh when one of the behaviors is an enormous hug which your horse flings himself into.  How can you not laugh when your horse find such obvious delight in lifting his knees up past his elbows?

Laughing with our Horses
My attitude is what determined whether this was a school drill or recess.  Zatcho loved the behaviors not simply because they paid well, but because they made me laugh.  He’s a social animal.  Engaging with an uptight, rigid disciplinarian might earn lots of treats, but he’s going to feel a lot safer with someone who is relaxed and laughing.

Neuroscientist, Jaak Pansepp, has established that rats laugh.  We don’t know yet if horses do as well, but I think it’s safe to say a horse would rather be around a light-hearted handler who is in a playful mood rather than one who is simply enforcing the rules.

Play helped Zatcho learn.  It also made the lessons more fun for me.  I looked forward to our sessions together because they were Play Full.

The Bottom Line Summary
So what is the bottom line?

1.) Play stops being play when things feel unsafe.  Stimulus control is a critical step in the teaching process.You can have a cue attached to a behavior, but without the additional understanding of when that behavior is appropriate, you can easily feel out of control.

2.) Not all behaviors have to be under the same degree of stimulus control.  If you are riding a dressage test, it matters very much that your horse canters when you say canter, and not at other times.  But out on a trail, another rider might not care if her horse picked up a trot instead.  What is much more important to her is that her horse comes in when called out of his twenty acre pasture.

You may also want some behaviors that your horse feels comfortable offering when he wants to ask for attention or when he’s not sure.  I use the “pose” in this way.

Robin was my first “poser”. It became an important behavior for him because he’s such an eager clicker horse.  For years I had to keep him at a large boarding barn that had limited turnout.  As soon as I arrived at the barn, he was wanting my attention. While I was busy with the evening chores, I didn’t want him to feel frustrated or left out.  I certainly didn’t want the proverbial toddler banging the kitchen pots and pans to get attention.

So I gave him default behaviors which cued me to click and treat.  Essentially I was under excellent stimulus control.  Every time he cued me with the pose, I responded promptly by clicking and reaching into my pocket for a treat.  I believe very much in being a well-trained human!

If Robin wanted to eat his hay or doze in the back corner of his stall, that was fine with me.   It meant I could get through my chores without interruption.  But if he wanted to play, all he had to do was pose, and – click! – I would detour over to give him a treat.  I was the one under stimulus control!   The pose may have begun as a behavior which I taught to Robin.  It became a cue which he could use to get my attention.  However you view it, it worked out great for both of us.

3.) For every behavior you teach there is an opposite behavior you must teach to keep things in balance.

4.) Teaching behaviors in pairs is a great way to build cues and establish stimulus control.  It means you can avoid using an extinction process and the frustration that goes along with it.

5.) You can easily become a clicker “drill sergeant”.  You avoid this by turning the whole process into a game.

It’s important that you understand the underlying concept.   I don’t want you to treat Zatcho’s story as a strict recipe for training.   You want to pick behaviors that your horse has shown you he enjoys.  If you try to copy exactly what I did with Zatcho, you could end up with a muddle.  If your horse isn’t good at leg lifts and doesn’t particularly enjoy hugs, you won’t get the same good result.  If he loves head lowering and targeting, those would be the behaviors you’d use.

6.) Remember to laugh.  It doesn’t matter what the behaviors are.  It is the delight you take in seeing your horse succeed that is what really keeps these lessons full of play.

Coming Next: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com