Play evolves out of success. Play evolves when both learner and teacher are relaxed and confident in the process. Good technique, attention to detail, attention to your learner’s emotional needs are the breeding ground for play.
In the previous section I talked about base positions and movement cycles, and how they can be used to create high success rates. These create repeating patterns. You are doing the same sequence of behaviors over and over again. I’ve heard people say they don’t like drilling patterns. Their animals get bored. They get bored. Patterns, they will tell you, are the death knell to good training.
All I can say is that’s not been my experience. Horses thrive on patterns. They like the predictability of knowing what is coming next. They like being successful.
They aren’t the only ones. We thrive on patterns. Want proof. Look at how easily we fall into them. We are creatures of habit, which means we are creatures of patterns. Rather than fighting against this tendency, I’m going to use it to my advantage.
I’m going to create tight, clean, repeatable loops. I’ll follow the mantra of loopy training. When a loop is clean, I get to move on. And not only do I get to move on, I should move on.
When my whole behavior cycle is clean, I’ll change my criteria slightly. Maybe I’m teaching my horse to back up through a corner. I’ll begin by getting just a step or two of backing. I’ll ask for this well away from the corner. I’ll start out very micro in my requests. I’ll be satisfied at first with just slight shifts of his balance. I don’t need a full step back to get the process started. Even a slight rock back is enough. Click. I’ll feed him so he rocks forward to the starting point. I have a movement cycle. He is in position to begin again.
When the loop is clean, it’s time to move on. That’s what keeps the use of patterns from becoming boring. They are changing, growing, becoming more complex, more interesting at such a rapid pace. I am reinforced by the progress I experience in every session. I don’t stay stuck on one criterion, drilling away at it until it feels stale and begins to fall apart. My steps are small, my criterion precise, and that means my horse and I experience tremendous success.
The process reminds me of bending a coat hanger. The more you bend it, the softer it gets. So, as my horse rocks back and forth between the ask and the food the delivery, he will be getting softer and softer. The clickable point will shift seamlessly. I’ll ask him to rock back a little more, click, feed forward. A couple of clicks later, I can ask him to take a full step back, click, feed forward. I’ll build that loop, let it stabilize briefly, and then move on to the next small shift in criterion. As my loop expands, my pattern will grow increasingly complex, but always I am expanding it one very achievable, small step at a time.
My pattern will become a large, predictable, repeatable loop. My learner won’t be worrying about what is coming next. He knows the pattern well. It’s click, check in with the handler to see where the food is going to be delivered, retrieve your treat, and then continue on to the next well-rehearsed step in the pattern. Because every element in the pattern has been taught with such clarity and with positive reinforcement, every element can serve as a reinforcer for the behaviors that precede it.
That’s another benefit of this process. The behaviors that I have taught through my clean loops can now be used to reinforce other elements in my ever-growing pattern. I can place the click and treat at strategic points wherever I feel the added information they provide is needed. Adding to their motivating value, every behavior in a well-constructed pattern also serves as a reinforcer. If you want to understand how to teach patterns as complex as a dressage test using the clicker, this is the key that will unlock that puzzle. Going micro creates the macro.
This is a game that’s fun to play because it is so easy for you both to win. Isn’t that one of the characteristics of play? You’re both winners.
Coming Next: How Clicker Trainers Play
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