JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 10 of 12
More To Learn
In the previous section I described the profound difference TTEAM training made for Peregrine’s mother. Peregrine, on the other hand, didn’t like TTEAM body work. I remember feeling so frustrated with him. Here he was with his own private body worker, and he wasn’t interested. There were so many horses who loved and benefited from the sessions I gave them. Peregrine fussed and refused to participate.
So I put my antennae up and went looking for solutions that he liked better. I didn’t reject TTEAM work. I didn’t say it was wrong or it didn’t work. It had given me far too much to ever turn my back on it. Peregrine was simply telling me there was more I needed to learn.
I think of all the elements that have gone into my horse education as stepping stones. I’m never regretful of any of my stepping stones. There may be things I don’t use any more, techniques I disagree with now that I have more experience, but each of those stepping stones gave me something of value. When you are finding your way over uncertain ground, you don’t always find the clear path right away. Learning where you don’t want to step – and why – helps guide you to the secure footing of a path that’s worth following. TTEAM was definitely a path worth following. Because I stepped on that stone, I found all the others that set me in the direction of clicker training.
Today if you watched me working with horses you wouldn’t see very much that would jump out at you as TTEAM work. But every now and then I’ll have a horse who brings out my TTEAM background. Poco was one of those horses.
I introduced you to Poco earlier. He’s the ear shy buckskin who I had been watching over a period of several months progress from being a completely don’t-touch-me horse to one who could tolerate being bridled and handled around his head. But tolerate was the key word. He was by no means comfortable, especially with people he didn’t know.
I was itching to play with him. I’d watched his handler give him some great work sessions, but that’s not what he needed. He didn’t need to work. He needed to play. Or more to the point, he needed US to play.
When you play, you become creative. You take elements from different parts of your life, and you combine them in new ways to come up with solutions you haven’t tried before. Your stepping stones become important.
Getting “Yes” Answers
During one of his work sessions, Poco’s handler was called away to check on something in the barn.
“Would you mind holding him for me?” she asked.
You never want to hand me a horse – not if you want to get him back any time soon.
I began in a round about way with Poco. I knew I wanted him to target his ear to my hand, but I also knew I couldn’t begin there.
Never start with your goal.
That’s one of the rules of good training.
I couldn’t go directly to his ears, but I could teach him the overall concept of body part targeting. There wasn’t much I could get a consistent “yes” answer to, so I began by simply grabbing his nose firmly between my hands and squeezing tight for the briefest of brief seconds. Click and treat.
Now that last sentence doesn’t sound very clicker compatible. Grabbing his nose between my hands sounds rather rude and abrupt, but I’ve found that this is often an effective way to begin. I am in effect saying to the horse: “This is what I want to do. This is what it will feel like. There’s nothing else that I’m going to do, just this.”
I could have gone through a shaping process to teach Poco to bring his nose to my hands. That’s another, very valid approach. With Poco I went the more direct route. Sometimes it is important to show the horse that what he’s worried about really isn’t all that bad.
If I shaped him to bring his nose towards me, I might have been bringing all his worry and concern right along with the rest. “Yes, I’ll bring my nose closer to you because I want the treat, but I really am still afraid.”
Sometimes what the horse discovers through the shaping process is he really doesn’t have anything to worry about and his fear melts away. But sometimes the worry stays locked in. It twists its way around each reinforcer just as surely as a vine twists around the tree that supports it.
With Poco I also knew I didn’t have much time with him. I needed to explain to him fast what I was going to be asking him to do. So I reached up and held his nose firmly between my hands. I gave him a solid squeeze. I clicked as I released the pressure.
I thought of Temple Grandin and her description of the comfort she felt from being squeezed tight in an enclosed space.
Who knows how horses experience this, but I have found that a firm squeeze around the nose helps to settle many anxious horses.
This quickly evolved into my asking Poco to target his nose to my hand. The first couple of times it was more a matter of my bringing my hand to his nose than the other way around.
It was touch his nose, click fast before he could pull away. Treat. Touch his nose again.
I used a verbal cue. “Nose” It began as a signal of my intent. It meant: I am going to reach out and touch your nose.
Telling him in advance what I was going to do gave him time to prepare. I wasn’t sneaking up on him so it actually helped him to accept the contact more calmly. He knew exactly what I was going to do, and he also knew it wasn’t going to last long and the contact would be followed by a treat.
Very quickly I could hold my hand ever so slightly away from his nostril and wait for him to come that last little bit to me. Click and treat.
Building Clean Loops
I progressed towards this in tight clean loops.
We did a cycle of squeezing his nose – click treat, repeat. Then I’d walk off causally with Poco following behind me on a loose lead. That gave him a break and set us up for a change in the next cycle.
So now it might be place my hand over his nostril – click treat. Again, repeat this several times and then walk off casually.
The next cycle was bring your nose to my hand – click treat.
Then it was target my cupped hand to your chin – click treat.
The treat was so much more than just the piece of carrot I was offering him. The treat included lots of verbal praise – “Aren’t you great! You’re so smart” – together with lots of scritching.
Scritching is my word. It isn’t petting or stroking. It’s a get-your-fingernails-dirty, deep kneading of a horse’s neck and back. Think about how horses socially groom one another. That’s what you are imitating so get in there and get your fingers dirty! There’s nothing soft or diffident about it. If your hands are clean after one of these sessions, either you are a superb groomer, or you aren’t doing it right.
I’ve had people tell me I need to come up with a name for the training I do. Here’s a suggestion: The Dirty Fingernails Club! Somehow, it’s never caught on.
In clicker training we’re used to hearing that timing matters. The sequence in which you do things matters, as well.
Poco’s handler had done a lot of rubbing on his neck, but she had put it BEFORE the click. I was putting it AFTER.
Before the click, there was always the question: what more are you going to do? There was always a bit of guardedness in Poco’s emotional response.
After the click, it was all celebration. You’re so good! I wasn’t trying to see how much closer to his ears I could get. I was simply rubbing and scritching him and telling him he was wonderful. There was no agenda other than to celebrate the previous clickable moment. Poco let his guard down. He melted. Panksepp could tell us about the dopamine that was being released in his brain. What I could observe was a softening around the eyes, a dramatic change in muscle tone, an increase in responsiveness towards me.
I wish I had filmed that first session to share with you the change in Poco. I was opening a dialog. Because I was in a play state he could stay to listen and begin to let me in past his guard.
You Never Know What You’ve Taught. You Only Know What You’ve Presented
The next day I did a follow up session with Poco. I was still a long way from being able to handle his ears so I wanted to continue the conversation I had started.
In this next session Poco was much more accepting of my hands around his muzzle. I built a small chain.
“Nose” The cue initially simply told him what I was about to do. I was going to cup my hand over his nostril. It grew into Poco actively seeking out my hand.
As soon as my left hand was cupped over his nostril, I said “Chin”.
Poco responded by dropping his head so his chin rested in the cup of my right hand.
Click and treat.
Using Your Head
I wanted to get to his ears, but I had run out of hands, so I used my head – literally.
“Nose.” He brought his head into position to meet my hand.
“Chin.” He gave at the poll so his chin dropped into the cup of my hand.
As I supported his muzzle between my hands, I leaned in closer to him until I could rest my forehead between his eyes. Click and treat!
“I almost got a kiss!” I told him as I rubbed his neck and exclaimed to him that “He was so good!”
Building duration was next. As I cupped my hands around his muzzle, I waited. I was feeling for the exhale of his breath.
If you want to keep your rates of reinforcement high, this is a great behavior to go after. We want our horses to relax so we like to click behaviors we read as signs that they are “happy” and “at ease”. So we like to click for things like ears forward, but if the horse is concentrating or listening to activity behind him, you can wait a long time for his ears to move. And if you withhold the click too long, your horse may begin to feel frustrated. You’ve suddenly put him into an extinction process that you hadn’t intended.
If a horse has been earning clicks pretty consistently and now suddenly he isn’t, he’s going to become frustrated. That’s a predictable outcome of extinction. The more frustrated a horse becomes, the less likely he is to put his ears forward. So now you’re stuck.
What do you do? If you wait it out, you could be unraveling all those good dopamine-propelled feelings of relaxation. You could end up with a frustrated, angry horse who is convinced that he doesn’t want anyone touching him anywhere.
Or maybe in desperation you click him for something, anything to get yourself out of this muddle. I’m going to come back in a later section to desperation clicks and their fallout.
For now I’ll offer a different approach. Instead of focusing on his ears – go for his breath. Unless you are working with a sperm whale, you know he’s going to be exhaling on a regular, easily clickable basis. So click as he exhales, and you’ll very quickly feel your horse melt even further into your hands.
Now wait for the deep exhale that truly signals a letting go of tension. He is well on his way to letting his guard down and inviting you in.
Poco would now cradle his nose in my hands. I could lean into his space, something that would have worried him previously. And because I could lean in, I could steal a kiss.
Press my forehead against his. Click. Treat. Celebrate!
Coming Next: Moving On
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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