Summer Pleasures – Watermelon Parties and The Two Sides of Freedom

Watermelon Parties

watermelon

Summer means watermelon parties for the horses.  They are always a surprise.  As I walk through the barn, bowl in hand, I’ll announce: “It’s party time!”

Watermelon parties are held outside. That was quick learning on my part. It’s astounding the amount of happy drool even a few pieces of watermelon can produce.

Robin and Fengur follow me outside.  While I pass out chunks of watermelon, they stand waiting, one on either side of me.  There’s no pushing, no trying to jump the queue, no grumbling at the other horse. We have a happy time together. The horses get to enjoy one of their favorite treats, and I get to enjoy their obvious pleasure.

Summer also means sharing an afternoon nap with Robin. I’ve just come in from mowing the lower pasture. It’s time for a cool down. I’m sitting in a chair in the barn aisle, cold drink by my side, computer on my lap, and Robin dozing beside me. Fengur has wandered off to the hay box to snack. He’ll join us in a little while.

Robin asleep lip drooping

The view from my chair – Robin’s lower lip droops while he naps beside me.

Why am I writing about these simple summer pleasures? My horses live in a world of yes. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what this means. Living in a world of yes gives me the freedom to enjoy these simple pleasures. But the freedom isn’t one-sided. Living in a world of yes gives my horses just as much freedom.

We often think of training in terms of what we need from our animals. When I walk down the barn aisle, I need you, horse, to move out of my space. When the door bell rings, I need you, dog, to go sit on your mat. I’ll teach these things using clicks and treats, but the behaviors are for my benefit more than my animal companions. The freedom to ask is all on my side.

That’s not how things are in my barn. It’s set up to maximize choice for the horses. Doors are left open so they are free to go where they want. Right now what Robin wants is to nap in the barn aisle. I couldn’t give Robin this luxury of choice if I hadn’t also given him behaviors that let us share space amiably.

When I walk down the barn aisle, Robin will often pose. It’s a simple gesture, a slight arch of the neck is all that’s needed. If he thinks I’m not paying attention, he’ll give a low rumble of a nicker. I’ll click, and give him a treat. Often I’ll get a hug in return.  That’s good reinforcement for me.

The pose is a guaranteed way to get attention from me. If Robin wants to interact, he knows how to cue me. And I am under excellent stimulus control! That’s how cues should work. They create a give and take, a back and forth dialog. They erase hierarchy and create instead the three C’s of clicker training. Those three C’s lead in turn to the freedom my horses and I enjoy sharing the barn together.

Before I can tell you what the three C’s are, we have to go back a few steps to commands.  It’s not just in horse training that commands rule. They control most of our interactions from early childhood on.  Commands have a “do it or else” threat backing them up. Parents tell children what to do.  In school it is obey your teachers or face the penalties. In our communities it’s stop at red lights or get a ticket. Pay your taxes or go to jail. We all know the underlying threat is there. Stay within the rules and stay safe. Stray too far over the line and you risk punishment.

This is how we govern ourselves, so it is little wonder that it is also how we interact with our animals. With both horses and dogs – commands have been the norm. We tell our dogs to “sit”. When it is a true command, it is expected that the dog will obey – or else! The command is hierarchical which means it is also unidirectional. A sergeant gives a command to a private. The private does what he’s told.  He doesn’t turn things around give a command back to the sergeant.

We give commands to our horses, to our dogs – never the reverse. We expect our commands to be obeyed. We say “sit”, and the dog sits. I tell. You obey. Because they are hierarchical, commands exclude dialog. The conversation is all one-sided. Commands put us in a frame that keeps us from seeing deep into the intelligence and personality of the individual we’re directing.

Cues are different. Cues are taught with positive reinforcement. At first, this sounds like a huge difference, but for many handlers it represents a change in procedure, but not yet of mind set. The handler may be using treats as reinforcement, but the cues are still taught with an element of coercion.  How can this be? It’s not until you scratch below the surface, that you’ll begin to understand the ever widening gulf that the use of cues versus commands creates.

dog touching a targetTo help you see the coercive element, let’s look at how twenty plus years ago we were originally instructed how to teach cues.  You used your shaping skills to get a behavior to happen. It might be something as simple as touching a target. Cues evolve out of the shaping process. The appearance of the target quickly becomes the cue to orient to it.  But this cue is often not fully recognized by a novice handler.  We’re such a verbal species, this handler wants her animal to wait until she says “touch”.  As she understand it, that’s the cue.  So what does she do? She begins by saying “touch” and clicking and reinforcing her learner for orienting to the target.

This part is easy. Whether she had said anything or not, her learner was going to touch the target. She’s ready to make a discrimination. Now she presents the target, but she says nothing. What does her learner do? He orients to the target, just as he’s been doing in all the previous trials. He expects to hear the click and be given a treat, but nothing happens. His person just changed the rules which has plunged him into a frustrating puzzle.

He’s in an extinction process. He’s no longer being reinforced for a behavior that has worked for him in the past. He’ll go through the normal trajectory of an extinction process. That means he’ll try harder. He’ll try behaviors that worked in the past, and he’ll become frustrated, anxious, even angry, before he’ll give up for a moment. In that moment of giving up, his person will say “touch” and present the target again.

She wants him to learn the distinction. In the presence of the cue perform the behavior – click and treat. In the absence do nothing.

The problem with this approach is she never taught her learner what “do nothing” looks like. She stepped from the world of commands into what she thinks of as a kinder world of cues, but she didn’t entirely shed the mantle of “do it or else”. With cues the threat of punishment may not be there, but extinction is still an unpleasant and frustrating experience. Why isn’t this key on my computer which was just working now locked up and frozen?!! Until you can find your way out of the puzzle, you can feel very trapped and helpless. A good trainer doesn’t leave her learner there very long. She’s looking for any hesitation that let’s her explain to her learner the on-off nature of cues.

There’s another way to teach this that doesn’t put the learner into this extinction bind.  This other way recognizes that cues create a dialog, a back and forth conversation.  I want my learner to wait for a specific signal before moving towards the target.  Let’s begin by creating a base behavior, a starting point.  For my horses this is the behavior I refer to as: “the grown-ups are talking please don’t interrupt”.  I will reinforce my horse for standing beside me with his head looking forward.  He’ll earn lots of clicks and treats for this behavior.  And he’ll begin to associate a very specific stance that I’m in with this behavior.  When I am standing with my hands folded in front of me, it’s a good bet to try looking straight ahead – click and treat.

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“Grown-ups”

In separate sessions he’ll also be reinforced for orienting to a target.  When both behaviors are well established, I’ll combine them.  Now I’ll look for grown-ups.  I’ll fold my hands in front of me, knowing I’ll get the response I’m looking for.  Only now, instead of clicking and reinforcing him, I’ll hold out the target to touch.  Click the quick response and treat.

The message is so much more interesting than the one created by using an extinction procedure to introduce cues.  Cues have just become reinforcers which means they have become part of a conversation.  If you want to interact with the target, here’s an easy way to get me to produce it – just shift into grown-ups.  That will cue me to lift the target up.  A conversation has begun.  We’re at the very elementary stage of “See spot run”.  I’m teaching my horses the behaviors they can use to communicate with me, and I am showing them how the process works.  You can be heard.  You WILL be heard.  Let’s talk!

The conversation that emerges over time comes from looking more deeply at what cues really are. We can think of them as a softer form of commands, but that doesn’t oblige us to step out of our hierarchical mindset. It is still I give a signal. You – my animal companion – respond. Click and treat. Diagram this out. The arrows all point in one direction.

Signal from human leads to response from animal

Peel another layer of understanding about how cues work and you come to this:

It isn’t just that cues are taught with positive reinforcement. Cues can be given by anyone or anything. A curtain going up cues an actor to begin speaking his lines. We would never say the curtain commanded the actor.

If cues can be given by anyone or anything, that means they are not hierarchical. We cue our animals, and they cue us. Cues create a back and forth exchange. They lead to conversation – to a real listening to our animals. We adjust our behavior based on their response. Cues lead to the three C’s of clicker training which I can now say are: communication, choice, and connection. And in my barn that in turn creates opportunities for more freedom. It means doors can be left open. It means I can have watermelon parties and sit with my horses while we both enjoy the afternoon breeze through the barn aisle.

Let’s parse this some more.

The mindset that commands create is very much centered around stopping behavior. Other training options won’t make sense. They won’t work.

Cue-based training makes it easier for you to see your horse’s behavior as communication, as a bid for attention. That makes it easier for you to look for solutions that satisfy his needs.

Let’s see how these differences play out in a typical boarding barn scenario. Your horse is hungry. His initial whicker has been ignored. In frustration he’s escalated into banging on his stall door. His human caretakers see this as “demanding” hay. In a command-based frame demanding hay equal rebellious behavior which can’t be tolerated. The behavior must be stopped.

Within this frame the only training options you can think of are those centered around stopping the unwanted behavior. Other options don’t make sense and won’t work. The command-based frame narrows your field of view. It’s as though you have a tight beam focused on the problem behavior. Everything within that beam is crystal clear, but everything outside the beam might as well not exist. You can’t even begin to think about other solutions. You are targeted on the unwanted behavior.  Banging on the stall door must be addressed and addressed directly.

Now let’s look at the contrast that a cue-based frame creates. Your horse is hungry. His initial whicker to you is noticed and responded to. You appreciate his alerting you to the lack of hay. You have read how important gut fill is in preventing ulcers. You attend to your horse’s needs. Within this frame many options become available including hanging a slow feeder in his stall so he doesn’t have to become anxious about his hay.

Which training options make sense will depend upon which frame you are in. If you are a teacher and you want your instructions to be effective, you need to help your students open a frame that matches what you are trying to teach.

In her presentations Dr. Susan Friedman uses a graphic showing a hierarchy of behavior change procedures beginning with the most positive, least intrusive procedures.

Dr. Susan Friedman's Hierarchy of interventions

You begin by looking at health and nutritional considerations and then move to antecedent arrangements. Hanging a hay net for our hungry horse would fit in here. Her graphic pictures a car moving along a highway. As you begin to approach more invasive procedures, there are speed bumps blocking the way. They are there to slow you down, to make you think about other approaches before you bring in the heavy guns of positive punishment. The hierarchy doesn’t exclude positive punishment as a possible solution, but it does say you would use this only when everything else has first been tried.

This hierarchy makes sense when you are looking at behavior from a cue-based perspective. From a command-based frame, the car enters not at the bottom of the roadway, but at the top.

My Changes To Procedural Changes slide

The first intervention is positive punishment. The barriers are still there, but now they act to keep you from seeing other options. It is only when punishment fails, that you are dragged, kicking and screaming, to consider other ways of changing behavior.  I’ve heard these stories so many times from people who are attending their first clicker training clinic. They’ve been brought there by “that horse” – the one who challenges everything they thought they knew about training. Nothing else worked, but then they tried, as a last resort, a bit of clicker training and everything changed! So here they are, ready to learn more.

They don’t yet know what an exciting world they are entering. Everything they have thought about training is about to be turned truly upside down and inside out. That’s all right. They have the fun of watermelon parties ahead of them.

Live in a World of Yes.png

If you want to learn more about living in a world of yes and the freedom that creates for both you and your animal companions, come join us in Milwaukee for the Training Thoughtfully conference.  https://www.trainingthoughtfullymilwaukee.com/

Deer Fencing – A Great Example of Everything is Connected

 

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The view in winter out my window

I recently took the deer fencing down.  That may not sound like a horse training topic, but it turned out to be a perfect example of one of my favorite training mantras: everything is connected to everything else.

The deer fencing protects a sprawling, low-growing evergreen.  I let the deer eat most of my garden, but this tree I protect.  Every fall the fencing goes up.  And in the spring it comes down.  That means taking down the plastic fencing I use and then pulling the metal fence stakes out of the ground.  After I had rolled up and put away the fencing, I tackled the fence posts.  I took a firm hold of the first stake, expecting it to come easily out of the soft spring ground.  It didn’t move.  I changed my grip, and it slipped out of the ground.  The image of a warm knife cutting through butter came to mind.  What was the difference?  Simple answer – bone rotations.

As I pulled up the rest of the stakes, it occurred to me that this would be a great way to let people practice the rope handling technique that you use to get a horse to lift his head up from grass. ‘Tis the season when the grass is calling with a Siren’s song to our horses.  In traditional training we are taught to fight the grass.  The horse MUST NOT drag us to grass. This sometimes keeps clicker trainers from seeing grass for what it is  – a wonderfully convenient source of reinforcement.  Instead we struggle to keep our horses from plunging their heads down to graze.

No one enjoys being dragged to grass. So how do you change this picture? One answer is to change how you view the grass. Your horse wants it. Great! That means you can use it to reinforce behavior YOU want. Instead of trying to stop him from diving for the grass, you’ll be looking for opportunities to let him graze.

This lesson is connected to something else I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and that’s frames.  Here I’m not talking about picture frames, though that’s a good metaphor for them.  I’m referring to the mental constructs that George Lakoff describes in his books, “Your Brain’s Politics” and “Don’t Think of an Elephant”.

Frames contain things

Whether frames are the kind we hang on a wall or the kind we form around ideas, frames contain things.  According to Lakoff, we organize facts within a frame of reference.  Facts that fit within a given frame are easily processed.  Others bounce off these frames as though they don’t even exist.  Either that or we push back against them because they don’t fit comfortably within the frame.  There’s no structure, no way to relate to them so the new idea might just as well not exist.

Frames both include and exclude facts

If you’ve always resisted letting your horse have grass during training, the following lesson is a great opportunity to practice expanding your frame to let some new ideas in. The first step is to decide that you’re going to give this approach a try.  That’s a lot more inviting than facing another summer-long battle with your horse over access to grass.

You can’t just suddenly declare that the grass is a reinforcer and expect smooth sailing.  You need to go through a teaching process for your horse to understand how to behave on grass.  I’m going to assume a general understanding of clicker training.  If you haven’t yet introduced your horse to the basics of clicker training, you’ll want to do that first.  I’ll refer you to my web sites for details (theclickercenter.com and theclickercentercourse.com)

Many of us have to hand-graze our horses to acclimate them to spring grass.  This is the perfect opportunity for this lesson. (If you need an easier starting point, you can begin in a paddock and use small piles of hay.) The idea is that you are going to teach your horse to leave food in order to get food.

For this lesson on transforming grass into a useful reinforcer here are the steps:

Begin by taking your horse out to graze. Don’t try to keep him from the grass. (If you are using hay piles scattered around your training space, let him take you to the hay. Don’t resist.) Let him eat for a couple of minutes. As he begins to settle and relax, you can start the lesson.

1.) Use your lead to ask your horse to lift his head up. He may ignore you at first, but do the best you can. This is where the image of pulling fence posts out of the ground becomes handy.  If you pull straight up on the lead, you’ll feel as though you are playing tug of war against a team of football players.  Your horse’s head won’t budge. Remember when I tried to pull the fence post up with a simple grip, it stayed planted in the ground.  But when I coiled my arm around the post like a vine coiling itself around a stake, it came out easily.

So before you head out with your horse, go practice pulling some metal fence posts out of the ground. Test the effect.  Take a simple grip and see what happens.  If the stake is buried deep into the ground, you won’t be able to pull it out.

Simple versus coiled grip.png

Now coil your arm around the stake.  You’ll feel it lift out with very little effort.  This is the technique you’re going to use on the lead.  You’re going to stand directly over the snap so the lead is perpendicular to the ground.  As you slide your hand down the lead, let your arm coil around it.  You’re now in a position that matches the way you coiled your arm around the metal stake.  Think about how you pulled the stake out of the ground.  You’ll use the same action with your horse.

In the past you may have had to yank, tug, and plead to get your horse to “come up for air”. Now suddenly his head is popping up.  It can’t be this easy!

Even if your horse feels as though he’s one of those stakes that is well and truly cemented into the ground, you’ll still be able to pry his head up with considerably less effort than you would have had to use in the past.  As his head begins to lift, be ready for the next step in this lesson.

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2.) As soon as he starts to lift his head, click and offer him a treat.

3.) Keeping the lead fairly short, fold your hands together at your waist. This base position is part of a lesson I call  “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”.  With both hands folded together, if your horse tries to pull down to get to the grass, you’ll be able to anchor the lead to your body.   It’s surprising how solid you can be in this position.  From your horse’s point of view, it’s as though he’s tied to a well anchored post.

This only works if you have a fairly short lead so he can’t get too far down to the grass.  If your lead is too long, you’ll lose your leverage advantage.

Your horse is going to try and drop his head back down to the grass. With your hands anchoring the lead, you are essentially holding him as if he was tied to a post. As soon as he stops trying to pull down (even for an instant), click. Offer him a treat, and then anchor your hands again to your waist.

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Panda would love to keep eating.  The short lead tells her to go into “grown-ups” instead.

Repeat this several times and then, click, give him his treat and let him drop his head down to eat grass.

Let him graze a little, then again, standing directly over the snap, coil your arm around the lead.  When you’re in position, rotate your arm so the “stake pops out of the ground”. As your horse lifts his head up, click and treat, then anchor your lead by standing in “grown-ups”.  Remember that means you’ll have both hands held together at your waist, and the lead will be short.

As soon as he stops pulling down, again you’ll click and treat.  Repeat this part of the pattern several times.  Release him to the grass when you see a noticeable improvement in his behavior. The behavior you’re heading towards is his side of the “grown-ups” picture.  That means he’s standing beside you with slack in the lead.  His head is about level with his chest and he’s looking straight ahead.  In other words he looks like a settled, well-mannered horse standing politely beside you.  If a friend were with you, the “grown-ups” could talk, and your horse would be waiting patiently beside you.

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A lovely result: this horse can stand on her own over grass without needing any reminders from the lead. She’ll get a click and a treat for this desirable behavior.

Instead of fighting the grass, you are now using it to reinforce the behavior you want. When you ask him to lift his head, your horse will begin to come up faster.  Instead of trying to dive back down to eat grass, he’ll shift on his own into “grown-ups”.  He knows he’s going to get reinforced for standing beside you with his head up.  And he also knows you’re going to let him eat more grass.  Instead of being anxious about getting to the grass, now he can relax and stand beside you keeping slack in the lead.

Paddy leading on grass 2

Lots of temptation under foot, but note how relaxed this horse is leading over the grass.

Once he’s coming up readily, you can ask him to walk a few steps to get to another patch of grass. At first, just go a couple of steps, then stop. People tend to want to keep going once they have a horse in motion, but this can undo the good work you’ve been establishing.  Go too far and the Siren’s call of the grass may overwhelm your horse.  So go just a couple of steps, stop and ask for grown-ups. As soon as he settles, which means he’s able to keep slack in the line because he’s not trying to go down for the grass, click, and let him graze.

On the search for good grass

On the search for good grass. Note the slack in the lead. This horse isn’t anxious about getting to the grass because he knows he’ll be given the opportunity to graze.

You can turn this into a game in which you are helping him find the best grass. From his point of view, you’ll probably be an incompetent grass hunter.  We humans seem to be drawn to the grass that our horses don’t want to eat.  We pick the long, extra green grass.  They want the stubby weeds.  But even if we take them to less than ideal spots, they do seem to understand that we’re on their side.  We’re trying to find them good grass.  It’s a great way to build a deep connection with your equine partner.

As you expand this basic lesson, you’ll be able train on grass without it becoming a distraction. In fact, when your horse does something you especially like, you’ll be able to thank him by letting him graze. What was once a major distraction will be instead a handy reinforcer. Leaving the grass will no longer be a problem.  Your horse knows he’s going to be able to graze again.  When you’re ready to move on, he’ll come away from the grass without a fuss. Your horse will be relaxed and ready for more work, and you’ll have a great new way to say  you for a job well done!

You’ve learned how to do this because everything is connected to everything else. Pulling up garden stakes has taught you the skill needed for asking a horse to come away from grass.  You’ve also learned that you can change long-held habits of thought. Instead of pushing against the grass and fighting your horse over every mouthful he snatches, you’ve found a way to transform it into a reinforcer.  That’s a great way to begin transforming other habits of thought that get in the way of creating a positive connection with your horse.

Happy grazing everyone!

Whisper walking away

What Did You Mean – Not What Did You Say?

Be The Teacher Your Learner Needs 2 THM.pngThe Kentucky Derby was run this past Saturday.  Years and years ago I used to pay attention to the Triple Crown races.  How could anyone who loves horses not be captivated by Secretariat?  But the glamour wore off as I came to know many ex-race horses, including some of Secretariat’s offspring. Now, if it didn’t pop up on the national news coverage, I could easily forget that the first Saturday in May is Derby Day.  What brought it to mind today is a photo I use in my conference presentations.  I was skimming through the talks I gave this past winter. That’s when I spotted the photo.  It was in a talk connecting George Lakoff’s work with horse training.

American pharoah lip chainIt’s a photo that appeared in my local newspaper, as well as on the internet.  It shows our most recent Triple Crown winner, American Pharaoh, being cooled down after a workout.  It could have been a photo of any race horse, or really of any hard-working performance horse.  There was nothing particularly distinctive about this picture.  You can see the sweat and the steam rising off his coat.  And you also see the chain that runs through the halter ring and into his mouth.  You can’t really tell from the picture, but the chain is probably over his top gums, an area that is even more sensitive to pain than his tongue.  That’s how young, very fit thoroughbreds are controlled on the track.

Why was this photo of a thoroughbred race horse in a talk about George Lakoff’s work?  What’s the connection? Lakoff is a cognitive linguist who has studied the power of metaphors in shaping how we think.  He is particularly interested these days in American politics.  One of his central ideas is that the current divide in our politics can best be viewed through the metaphor of family.  Long before any of us were aware of national governments or political parties, we were aware of the authority of our parents.  They set the rules and modeled the behavior that became the template for how each of us thinks society as a whole should be structured.

Lakoff has proposed that there are two primary family models:  the strict father family and the nurturant parent family.

In the strict father model, the father is the head of the family.  As the moral authority of the family, it is the father’s job to teach his children right from wrong.  He communicates this to the children in a hierarchical way.

Lakoff’s description of a Strict Father patriarch sounds eerily like force-based training.  You have only to substitute a few words – trainer for father, horse for child – and you have this:

“The trainer is the legitimate authority, and his authority is not to be challenged. . . Obedience to the trainer is required. It is upheld through punishment. Bad behavior from the horse is always punished.

The trainer teaches the horse right from wrong, and he communicates this to the horse in a hierarchical way.

Punishment is seen as absolutely crucial. It is the trainer’s moral duty to punish bad behavior in the horse.”

The nurturant parent model provides the contrast.  In this family structure it is moral to show empathy, to nurture, and to take on individual as well as social responsibility.  Cooperation with others is seen as more important than competition.

Instead of hierarchical communication, the Nurturant Parent model focuses on open communication. There is mutual respect between children and parents. This is different from other parenting models where children are expected to show respect for their parents, but not vice versa.

People often say words matter, but words are defined by our core values.

The chain in American Pharaoh’s mouth becomes a  symbol of command-based training.   In this very conventional view of training, horses are considered to be stupid animals.  If we look at that through the lens of Lakoff’s metaphors, we see more clearly what these words mean.  It implies a hierarchy – people above horses.  It means people can do whatever they want with horses.

Here’s the rest. Because horses are stupid animals, you have to use force to control them.  You have to show them “who’s boss”.  Here’s the corollary to that:  “But don’t worry.  They don’t feel pain the way we do.”  The frame these metaphors create very much influences what we are able to see.

In this view of the world, when a horse shows resistance, he’s being disobedient. He’s challenging the trainer’s authority and must be punished.  This training frame makes it hard to see other reasons a horse might fail to obey.  Only secondarily will the trainer break the lesson down into smaller steps, or look for physical causes.

Here’s the contrast:

Robin hug

This photo represents my core belief system.  It says something very different.  It is much more in line with Lakoff’s description of the nurturing parent model.  I believe that horses are intelligent animals, and that they should be treated with great kindness and fairness.  There is no hierarchy.  There is no separation between their needs and mine.  We are partners together.

What matters more than the words we use are the core values we hold.  Words only have the meaning that those values give them.  Respect is a perfect example.

Suppose you are new to the horse world.  You’re looking around for an instructor who can help you train your first horse.  You’ve been told that you should go watch a few lessons before taking your horse to anyone, so that’s what you’ve done.  You’re watching this trainer interact with his horses.  They are behaving exactly how you would like your youngster to be.  They move out of his space – no questions asked.  They stand politely to be groomed and saddled.  They seem safe to ride.   You like how he talks about his horses.  He talks about partnership.  He says it’s important that your horse respects you.

Respect is an important word for you, as well.  You like what this trainer is saying.  You like how calm and safe his horses are.  You leave feeling very confident that you have found what you’re looking for.

But have you?  What kind of respect do each of you mean?  In the strict father model respect is maintained through the use of punishment. So, yes, horses can appear to be very respectful, meaning they are afraid of the trainer.  They have learned what to do to escape punishment.

In the “nurturing parent model” respect means something very different.  It is something that is earned.  It is not something that is demanded.

Both parenting models can produce horses that show what you would call polite, safe manners, but the teaching process the horses experienced will have been very different.  If you send your horse to this trainer, you may find it’s a perfect match.  You were both talking about the same kind of respect. Or you could find yourself second guessing your decision.  You like him.  You can see that he’s skilled.  He certainly gets results, but the lessons make you squirm.

When you find that for you there’s a disconnect between someone’s  words and their actions, it’s time to look at core values.

What do the words really mean?  When we train thoughtfully, we learn to look beyond the outer shell of the familiar words we use. Are we letting someone else’s meaning take over?  Do our words reflect the kind of relationship we want to have?  Do the training methods match our core values?

Do you want an example?  Kay Laurence has just produced a promo video for our October Training Thoughtfully conference.  It’s a beautiful video.  Words and images are aligned.  They tell you so much. When I watch this video, I know it was produced by someone whose core values match my own.  If they match yours, as well, I hope you’ll join us for some Thoughtful Training this October.

Training Thoughtfully Milwaukee, Oct 20-22, 2017: Visit: https://www.trainingthoughtfullymilwaukee.com/

Training Thoughtfully Milwaukee Oct 20-22 2017.pngWatch the video: https://vimeo.com/216184198

If you want to learn more about George Lakoff’s work, read my January 8, 2017 post. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/01/08/)

Enjoy!

Bridge Builders

Author’s note: I’ve been publishing my new book, JOYFull Horses in this blog.  This post is different.  July was packed with great training adventures.  I wanted to share, so this is a slight divergence from the JOYFull Horses posts.  Enjoy!   Alexandra Kurland

balsa wood bridge 1

Bridges
When I was in eighth grade, my science teacher set up a competition in the class.  Given the same components (balsa wood and toothpicks) each student was to build a bridge which would then be tested with progressively heavier and heavier weights to see which bridge was the strongest.  It was a great assignment.  Or it would have been except the competition was open only to the boys in the class.  What did the girls do instead?  Our assignment was to create a stain booklet showing how best to remove different types of stains from soiled clothing.

This sounds like the dark ages, but it was really not that long ago.  I’ve been thinking about that science teacher this week because of the Democratic National Convention.  I was traveling last week so I missed most of the Republican convention, or I would have been writing about that, as well.  I’m one of those people who actually enjoys listening to political speeches (at least the well-crafted ones).  I like talking about politics, even  – and especially – with people who have views that differ from my own.  I try not to mix too much politics into what I write about horse training, but every now and then it is important to pause for a moment and step outside the barn door.

One of the clips the news feeds played from Tuesday night’s roll call vote was that of a delegate who was 102 years old.  She was born before women had the right to vote.  That stopped me in my tracks.  I know the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified in 1920, but that’s just an abstract date.  Hearing her speak made me realize that there are many women alive today who were born into a world in which their mothers were not allowed to vote.  It brought home to me how recent these changes really are, and how important it is that finally, finally we have a woman nominated to run for president of the United States.

Whatever you may think of Hilary Clinton, however you are planning on voting in the fall, this is a milestone that is worth celebrating.

In eighth grade the boys in my class took shop.  They learned how to work with power tools.  The girls took home economics.  We learned how to cook what was at the time considered a healthy meal: chicken ala king – essentially a can of cream of chicken soup poured over chow mein noodles. Curious the things we remember.   We were to fix it for lunch and serve it to the boys in the class.  As a vegetarian, I refused to participate.  I was allowed to skip the preparation of the main dish and was relegated instead to making a salad – iceberg lettuce and tomatoes.    We then had to serve what we had made to the boys in the class.

The message was clear.  The world may have been changing.  Many of our mothers had advanced degrees from universities. They were working outside the home in professional jobs that only a few years before would have been closed to women, but we were still expected to be homemakers not world changers.

The school gave one message.  My family gave me a stronger one.  We can create our own realities.  I wasn’t allowed to build a bridge in that class, but that didn’t keep me from building them later.  You can walk over my bridges without any fear of falling because they are bridges that link what we knew then about how to handle horses with what we know now.

Bridge Builders
This month I had the very great privilege to meet some other bridge builders.  One of the most surprising was a lion trainer I met in Germany.  I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that one!

Anja Beran book coverI’m just back from attending Anja Beran’s annual workshop on classical dressage.  Anja has a long standing relationship with the Krone Circus.  She trains their dressage horses.  The horses stay with her for roughly eight years, and then they are sent to the circus where they continue to perform well into their twenties.  When we walked through the barns at the circus, we saw horses who were 25, 28, even 30 years olds.  They all looked great.  They were a good weight, with healthy backs, clean legs, shiny coats, and brights eyes – and they were all still performing.

That was one of the main messages from both the circus and Anja Beran’s workshop.  When you build a strong foundation for a horse, you will have a horse who can stay sound and in work for many years to come.  This has always been at the core of my work.  My horses are family.  It matters to me that the work I do with them isn’t just for my entertainment.  It has to benefit them, as well.  One thing Anja Beran and I share is a deep understanding that good training helps horses stay sound.  Horses thrive when training is done well.

We hear so many sad stories of competition horses breaking down because they are rushed through their training.  At the circus we met horse trainers who value a good foundation because they love their horses.  Yes, they value performance – but not at the expense of the horses.

We also met Martin Lacey, a trainer who loves lions. In the morning before the circus opened to the public Anja had arranged for us to watch him work with his lions.  I don’t think many of us were truly looking forward to this part of the program.  Yes, it was lions, but we all had images of the old-style circus training with its cracking whips and sad-eyed lions.

Martin Lacey built a bridge for us into another world.  He loves his lions.  That was clear.  He grew up in a family that owned several zoos in the UK. For him lions were part of his family.  That’s how he talked about them.  He had 26 lions and tigers with the circus, and all of them were animals he had known since they were cubs.

lion group grooming at 4.30.28 AM

 

He showed us how he began their training, teaching them a very natural behavior for cats of any size.  He had the lions follow a moving target stick. Correct responses were reinforced with meat held out to them on the end of the stick.

Everything Martin Lacey showed us was so very familiar.  He used mats in very much the same way I use them for the horses.  He arranged the environment so his lions were successful.  He wanted to show people the power and graceful movement of the lions so he taught them to jump from one platform up onto the metal panels of their enclosure and then down to another platform.  In the show it was very dramatic watching lion after lion leaping up onto the side of the enclosure.  They would hang for a moment high over the heads of the audience before jumping down onto the next platform.

Lacey showed us how he taught this behavior.  He begins by having his lions follow a target stick from platform to platform.  When they are confident, eager jumpers, he has them leap from one platform onto a higher one that is hung from the enclosure wall.  As the lions become confident with this jump, he slants the platform down slightly so now they are landing on a sloping surface.  He lets them build their coordination and confidence at this level of difficulty, then he slants the platform down a bit more.  Gradually over time the platform hangs straight down, but now the lions have the strength and the skill to leap directly up onto the vertical wall of the enclosure.  It is just shaping through small approximations, something every good trainer understands.

Some of the behaviors Lacey teaches are based on very traditional circus tricks.  He has his lions sit up on their haunches and swat at the air to show off their enormous claws.  The behavior may be old-style, but how it is taught is not.  When Lacey first teaches his lions to sit up, he provides them with an elevated T bar for them to rest their paws on.  The T bar gives his younger lions the support they need to keep their backs straight while they are developing the strength and coordination to perform this behavior correctly.

lions sitting up 4

The lion to the right of Martin Lacey is using her T bar for support as she sits up on her haunches.  All the lions are orienting to his target stick.

He uses targeting to get them to reach up to the T bar in the first place.  Once they can balance resting their forepaws on the bar, he teaches them to swat one paw at a time at a moving target.  His skill at delivering timely food reinforcers was impressive, but shrink down the size of the feline, and you would see that any of us could teach our family cats this same behavior – in the same way.

In the show some of his lions still had the T bar set up in front of their station for support. With the youngest lions the T was very long giving them plenty of room on which to rest their paws.  The ones who were further along had shorter horizontal bars.  The T bar was gradually being faded out.  In the show many of his lions could balance without needing any support.

To teach his lions to advance towards him as though they were charging, he used multiple mats.  The lions moved from mat to mat to mat.  I had to smile.  I use multiple mats all the time with horses.  When I teach horses to run towards me, to keep things safe as they add speed, multiple mats are a great tool. Predators, prey, it makes no difference. Good training is good training regardless of the species you are working with. One of the hallmarks of good trainers is they are masters at setting up the environment for success.

That was the bridge Martin Lacey was helping us to see.  The planks of his bridge were made from the elements good trainers share.  I know there are many who oppose the idea of keeping any animals  in captivity, especially animals like lions.  That’s a different conversation, one I’ll leave for another time.

For now, given that animals are already under our care, the question becomes: how do we manage them?

If Martin Lacey had come out cracking whips and using intimidation to control his lions, I would be the first to say, absolutely not.  This shouldn’t be.  But that’s not the relationship Lacey has with his lions, and because of that he is an important bridge builder.  He is saying to all of us – look at the connection you can have with these animals, a top predator. It isn’t built out of fear.

If Lacey can create this with these lions, what excuse do we have for using violence to control our horses, our dogs, our children?

I think the jury is still out around the question of should wild animals be kept in zoos and circuses.  Is it fair to them?  What is the benefit to them, to us, to the planet?  Where does the greater good fall?  There are so many ethical questions involved, but one thing that was clear is Martin Lacey’s message is one we all need to hear.  Whatever the species of animal you are working with, the core principles of good training apply.  If he can stand in the center of an enclosure surrounded by lions, with a pouch filled with raw meat at his belt, and control them not through fear, but through understanding, that’s a bridge that is worth standing on.  If he can do it with lions, we surely can do it with each other.

Classical Bridges


Anja beran second book coverAnja Beran is another bridge builder.  Her bridge stretches back centuries to bring classical riding into the modern world.  Her bridge reaches forward into the future as she shows us how the gymnastic exercises developed by the great riding masters can be used for the benefit of horses.  So many of the horses in her barn came to her severely lamed by training.  Draw reins, heavy hands, rushed training – had compromised the soundness of so many of the horses that she presented during the workshop.  With each horse, she showed us how slow lateral work can be used to restore soundness and create performance excellence.

I know there are many people who would say that we should not ride horses at all.  But Anja was showing us something that I also know – good riding heals horses.  Physically, emotionally, good riding is good for horses. I may add the clicker and all that it represents into my training, but at it’s core what we each teach is not that far apart.

The Science Bridge
abc's graphicEarlier in July I also had the honor of spending time with yet another bridge builder, Dr. Susan Friedman.  Dr. Friedman is a professor of Applied Behavior Analysis at Utah State University.  Many of us know her through her presentations at the Clicker Expo, her web site – behaviorworks.org, and her on-line course, Living and Learning with Animals, a course for professional animal trainers and veterinarians.  Earlier in the month Susan joined me at the Cavalia Retirement farm where we co-taught a workshop.

If Anja’s bridge links us to classical dressage, Susan’s links us to science.  When I watch a trainer like Martin Lacey working with his lions, I am smiling not because he is using feel-good words.  Lots of clinician-showmen know how to hide their actions behind soft words.  I am smiling because I see good training being applied.

What is the measure of good training?  Susan helps us answer that question through her understanding of scientific inquiry.  She reminds us that science is always self-correcting.  What we understood about animal behavior fifty years ago, ten years ago is changing because of the research that is being done. Science connects what I do with my horses to what Martin Lacey does with his lions.  When one of my horses makes a mistake, I don’t punish him with a whip.  I change the environment to make the lesson easier for him to understand.  Martin Lacey does the same thing with his lions.  Why have we both chosen to avoid punishment and maximize positive reinforcement in our training?  Susan’s bridge takes us to that answer.

It’s easy to nod your head and say, yes, yes, of course we should use positive reinforcement, but so often what we have had modeled for us is punishment.  You might be reading this thinking that it’s horrific to have animals in captivity.  What do you do?  What actions do you take?  Do you respond to this post by attacking me?  If so, you are acting like an old-time lion tamer cracking his whip and using punishment to suppress behavior.

Susan built for us a very different bridge.  Throughout the weekend, in so many different ways, through her stories, her teaching, her thoughtful modeling, she showed us how to be completely congruent with the ethics of positive living.  It is all too easy to let a thoughtless word here, a careless action there erode a relationship.  Susan modeled for us so brilliantly how to live a life that leaves people shining.  She takes care to give every individual the positively-oriented support, attention, and modeling they need.  That’s not just a bridge, it’s a gift.

My eighth grade science teacher didn’t build bridges.  Instead he broke them down – literally.  When the boys brought their balsa wood bridges into class, he kept adding weight to them until, one by one, they all broke.

He broke other kinds of bridges.  For many in that class he broke the bridge into the sciences.  And most importantly he broke the bridge into kindness.  The behavior he modeled was that of a bully.  He used ridicule and punishment to control his class, and he ended up being universally disliked by his students.  He was a dictator not a bridge builder.

In this world we need people who build bridges, not the ones who tear them down.  When you find someone who is a good bridge builder, that is someone you want to get to know better.

Thank you Susan, Anja, and Martin.  I hope life brings me many opportunities to get to know each of you better.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2

 

This is Part 3 in this series.  The horse I am featuring was one of the horses at the November 2015 Arkansas clinic.  He had no clicker training experience prior to the clinic.  We tracked his progress via video over a three day period. 

Part 1 covered the morning training sessions of Day 1

Part 2 covered the afternoon training sessions of Day 1

If you have not already read Parts 1 and 2, I suggest you begin there.  This article covers the training sessions in Day 2.

Day 2

Day two began with another round of targeting and “the grown-up are talking”.  Again, I was choosing to work over the stall guard and to keep the session short.

Video: Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 Session 1

We followed the same pattern of the previous day.  After working with Nick, I asked people what they saw.  They all agreed that he was doing much better.  He was coming forward to touch the target, but the targeting loop was not yet clean.  He was first looking down the barn aisle.  Since this was not his home barn, it wasn’t surprising that he wanted to look around.  However, being easily distracted was one of the issues his owner reported having with him.

One of the participants commented that she was seeing a trend. Yes, he was looking at these competing distractions, but he was re-engaging with the targeting faster.  We also liked how far he was backing to get his treat, and how promptly he came forward again once the target was up.  He was still cautious about touching the target so we discussed whether we wanted the actual bump of the target, or was it enough for him to orient towards it.

Part of the answer to this depends upon how you are going to use the behavior in the future.  This is something to consider as you build your horse’s targeting skills.  For example, when horses trail ride in company, horses target on the tail of the horse in front of them.  We don’t normally think of this as targeting, but it is.  So here’s the question: do you want your horse to catch up to that target?  Or would you rather have him learn to maintain a set distance from the horse in front of him?  Following at a set distance the kind of target stick we were using with Nick is a good first step towards teaching this skill.

Once I start moving a target, generally I want the horse to keep a set distance from it.  There are other targets that I want the horse to catch up to.  If I am teaching a horse to retrieve, I not only want the horse to catch up to the target.  I want him to put his mouth around it, pick it up and bring it to me.

The beauty of this system is you don’t have to choose.  You can teach your horse that one type of target is something you orient to and follow.  Another is something you retrieve.  And still another type of target is something you station next to.

So what are some examples of different ways you might use targets?  You can teach your horse to “self bridle” by first having your horse touch his mouth to a bit that you’re holding out. Through small shifts in the criteria, you can then teach him to put his mouth around it in preparation for bridling.

Here’s an example of what this looks like when it’s a finished behavior:

Here are some other uses for the targeting skills Nick is learning.  You can hold a hula hoop out and have your horse put his nose through the center.  Change to a smaller hula hoop, and then change again to the nose band of a halter that you’re holding out for him.  He’ll be targeting by putting his nose into a halter.

You can hang a stationary target such as an empty orange juice jug in your barn aisle or stall.  While you are grooming your horse or doing a medical procedure, he’s staying next to his target.

I can even use the same object for two different target uses.  Small cones are a great example.  Cones make perfect retrieve toys.  They also make great markers.  I will often put cones out in a circle for my horses to go around.  These are targets that I want the horse to orient to, but not interact with in other ways – until I direct him to.  At the end of the lesson I’m going to ask him to pick up all the cones and hand them to me so we leave a tidy arena behind us.  How does an experienced clicker horse know the difference?  Cues.

Cues and the context in which they are given help a horse understand what to do when.  You might have a horse that understands the verbal cue “trot”.  When he’s on a lunge line, he picks up a trot promptly when asked.  But if you said “trot” to him while he was in a stall, he probably wouldn’t respond.  He’s not responding to the word “trot” in isolation.  It is “trot” plus all the context cues.   “Trot” plus the environment tells him what to do when. So the target alone doesn’t tell the horse what to do with it.  As his understanding of clicker training expands, it’s the target plus the associated context cues that he’ll be learning

Generally when I move a target, I want the horse to follow it, but not catch up to it.  The timing of my click teaches my horse what I want.  If I want my horse to follow a moving target, I’ll click as he orients to the target.  I won’t wait until he has caught up to it. So, suppose I’ve been teaching my eager clicker horse to bump a target, and now he’s really hitting it hard with his muzzle.  I may be wondering: did I really teach that!?  If I want a softer touch, or I want to have him just approach but not make contact with the target, I’ll click as he approaches the target.

Here’s a discussion of this process:

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2: The Flexibility of Targeting

Based on this discussion in the next round of targeting, I used a flat cone instead of the target stick.

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Session 2: Targeting with a Cone

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Session 2 continued: Work in the Stall

Going into the stall with Nick revealed the core issues his owner has been puzzling over.  The way Nick struggles to turn in the stall makes the space look small and cramped, but he’s in a stall that was built for draft horses.  It’s roughly 14 by 16 feet, more than big enough for a small horse like Nick, and yet he struggled to turn.  Again, I am still in the data collecting phase of the training.  I make note of the difficulty even while I continue to ask Nick questions.

One question I wanted to ask related to the halter.  Was it contributing to Nick’s inability to maneuver in the stall?  Was there something in his previous experience with being worked on a lead that caused him to stiffen?  The way to answer that question was to slip the halter off and shift to targeting.

In this next clip you’ll see how I begin to ask for backing not via the food delivery, but as a direct request.  I’ll ask for backing by placing my hand on his neck.  I think of my hand there as a starter button cue.  It is very much like the key that turns on your car.  Once your car has started, you don’t keep turning the key.  In the same way, once Nick is backing, I release my hand.  But you’ll see that I walk into him as he backs.  So my hand on his neck is a starter button cue.  Walking into him is a “keep going” cue.  “As long as I am walking towards you, keep backing up.”  I want the horse to continue to back until either I click, or I ask for something else.

My hand on his neck is a pressure-and-release-of-pressure cue.  I am teaching it in a context that hopefully makes it easy for him to understand what is wanted.  In the clip you’ll see I ask at one point where he is close to the back corner of the stall.  He doesn’t think he has room to back up, so he stalls out.

When I fail to get a response, I don’t escalate.  I don’t push into him harder or become louder in my body language.  There’s no “do it or else!” embedded in my request.  Instead I make some small adjustments to ensure that my request is clear, and then I wait for him to solve the puzzle.  When he steps back, my hand goes away, and, click, he gets a treat.

Choice is what this lesson is all about.  When he stops at the door to look at the people, again, I wait him out.  I am letting him decide to bring his head inside the stall to touch the target.  You see revealed in the small confines of the stall the two issues his owner reports that she has with him.  When she goes out to get him, he will approach part way, but he is reluctant to come all the way up to her.  And out on the trail he is easily distracted.  She has trouble getting him to focus back on her.

I don’t have to turn Nick out or take him out on a trail to see these issues revealed.   He’s showing them to us here in the stall.  That’s good news.  Out on the trail energy levels can shoot up.  Small problems can suddenly turn into major safety issues.  Here in the stall, if he gets distracted, it’s easy to handle.  I  can teach Nick some skills that will help him stay with me as the environment becomes more complex.

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Session 2 continued: More Stall Work

And here is the discussion that followed that session, including what it means to have a Grand Prix clicker horse.

 
Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Final Discussion

Once again, the clinic participants had to wait overnight to see how Nick processed this day’s lessons.  I will make you do the same.  I’ll share Day 3 in the next installment of this report.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercentercourse.com

This is Part 3 of a 4 Part series on introducing a horse to the clicker. 

My thanks to Cindy Martin for organizing and hosting the November clinic, and to all the clinic participants, especially Wendy Stephens and her beautiful Nick.

Please note: This article gives you wonderful details to get you started with the clicker, but it is not intended as complete instruction.  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

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1: Afternoon Session

This is Part 2 in this series.  The horse I am featuring was one of the horses at the November 2015 Arkansas clinic.  He had no clicker training experience prior to the clinic.  We tracked his progress via video over a three day period. 

If you have not already read Part 1, I suggest you begin there.  Part 1 covers the morning sessions of Day 1.  This article covers the afternoon sessions of Day 1.

Afternoon Targeting Sessions

Just when you think you have that rare thing, a complete video record of a horse’s introduction to clicker training, you discover that several sessions are missing.  For the first two rounds of Nick’s afternoon session the record button wasn’t on.

In both sets he was at the door waiting for me and began with three very definite target touches.  He came forward promptly, touched the target and backed up easily for the treat delivery.  He came out further over the stall guard than he had been in the morning.  His interest in the game was growing.  That was encouraging progress, but it was also that’s something needed to be monitored.  I wanted to make sure that this new found confidence remained in balance with his general good manners.

In both rounds he showed the same cycle.  He began by touching the target promptly with none of the hesitation that he had shown in the morning.  He gave three solid touches, and then his response rate dipped down.  That was also something to monitor.

As usual we discussed what to do with the next round of treats.  Everything about his behavior suggested that he would be fine if I went into the stall with him.  He was backing easily out of my space.  He was taking the treats politely without any excessive mugging behavior.

Because he was now showing me that he would back away from me, I felt comfortable going into the stall with him.  But that didn’t mean I had to go in.  I could stay outside the stall and continue with the targeting.  Or I could introduce one of the other foundation lessons.  The consensus from the group was to continue with the targeting to get the come-forward-to-the-target-back-up-to-get-the-treat loop cleaner.

Again there is no right or wrong to this.  We could have made some other choice.  Nick’s behavior would tell us if the choices we made were heading us in a good direction.

Video: An Introduction To Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 3rd Session

Data Collected. Now It’s Assessment Time

People felt this was his best round yet.  I kept this session very short.  I got three good touches and then ended the session.  This avoided the dip in behavior that we had seen earlier.  Nick was clearly still very cautious in his responses.  This is a process that has to unfold in it’s own time.

Several of the clinic participants wondered if we should change targets or change treats.  It’s always a possibility.  One of the huge advantages of clicker training is there is always more than one way to train every behavior.  There isn’t one and only one right way that you have to follow.  That’s what makes these discussions so valuable.  We could certainly try a different target, or introduce a different foundation lesson, but it was also okay to stay with what we were doing.

With Nick, I was still working with simple targeting, but in each round there had been significant changes.  I began by offering him the food approximately where the target had been.  Now I could move him back to get his treat which meant he then had to step forward to touch the target.  The shaping of more complex behavior was occurring almost without his noticing.  In the morning he started out much more on the forehand.  I made a point of feeding him in a way that shifted his balance back slightly which brought him off his front end.  That then allowed me to feed him so he moved back even more.  You are now seeing in the video clip how he is moving back well out of my way to get the treat.

Because I can feed him so he steps back, the dynamic of touching the target changes.  I will often see people moving the target around through big changes.  They’ll hold it high, then low, then out to the side.  Most horses can follow these changes and continue to touch the target.  Essentially the handler is being reinforced for changing criterion in big stair steps.  We call that lumping.  It works for a simple behavior like targeting, but I would rather see the handler learn to build behaviors more smoothly, so a response is already happening consistently before it becomes the criterion that earns the click.

Questions

Training must always take into consideration any health concerns.  One of the questions I had concerned Nick’s teeth.  I wondered how long ago they had been checked.  Nick not only took a long time to eat the hay stretcher pellets, I never heard him take them up onto his back molars to chew.  So I wondered if he might have some sharp points or some other issues that were contributing to his overall caution.  His owner said he had very recently been done by a good dentist.  That’s good to hear, but it doesn’t completely eliminate my question.

It’s so hard to judge how well an equine dentist is doing.  We can look at our horse’s feet to see if a farrier is leaving flare and other obvious signs that perhaps we need to question the job he’s doing.  But with teeth it’s much harder to evaluate the job a dentist has done.  Reaching in to check for points isn’t something we’re trained to do.

Even if you’ve had the teeth checked recently, it’s always possible that something has happened since to cause a problem.  Nick’s owner reported that he is very tight in his jaw and his poll.  That’s consistent with the way he was eating his treats.  This is all part of this early data collecting phase of the training.  Many of the concerns and questions that these early sessions raise may well simply disappear as Nick figures out the game.  What remains needs to be looked at with the possibility that there is a physical issue interfering with his ability to respond well.  For now we were very much still in an exploratory stage, so I continued on with another targeting session, the fourth of the afternoon:

Video  An Introduction To Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 4th Session

The Grown-up Are Talking, Please Don’t Interrupt

In the discussion that followed this set, we decided that it would be interesting to shift gears and introduce Nick to an exercise which I refer to as: the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.  At it’s most basic this exercise is asking if the horse can keep his nose away from my treat pocket when I’m standing in close to him. Initially I free shape this lesson, meaning I am not prompting or triggering the correct response through my behavior.  I am simply observing Nick and reinforcing him for approximations that move him closer to my overall goal.

If he comes into my space or nudges at my arm, I’ll let him explore.  It’s important that he feels safe experimenting.  If I correct him for nuzzling my pockets, I can’t expect him to feel safe offering behavior in other ways.  If I don’t feel comfortable letting him nuzzle my pockets, I can always step back out of range.

When he moves his nose away from my body, click, I’ll give him a treat.  I’ll feed him out away from my body where the perfect horse would be.  That means he’ll have his head between his shoulders and at a height that puts him into good balance.

In this first round of grown-ups you will see that he spends over a minute investigating my pockets.  I let him explore.  This is such an important part of the process.  He isn’t being punished for coming into my space or nuzzling at my vest.  It isn’t dangerous for him to check out this option, but it also doesn’t get him any treats.

If you’ve been taught that you should never let a horse into your space like this, it can be really hard to watch him nuzzling at my pockets.  During this process his owner told us that he often mugs for treats.  It’s a behavior his previous owners allowed, which may account for his persistence.  But watch how quickly he catches on to this new game.  Moving his nose away from me is the way to get treats!

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 5th Session – the First Asking for  Grown-Ups

In the discussion that followed this session I again emphasized how systematic the unfolding of clicker training is.  The behaviors I work on are very connected one to another.  Even though I haven’t perfected targeting, I can still move on and introduce other behaviors.  In the targeting he was learning that moving his head away from me to touch the blue end of the target stick produced goodies.  In grown-ups he was discovering that moving his head into that same position, even when a target wasn’t present, also produced treats.

I think it’s important early on for horses to discover that there is more than one way for them to earn a click and a treat.  If you work too long on targeting or some other behavior, a horse can get too narrow in his understanding of how the process works.  He will think that there is one and only one behavior that produces treats.  He can become very locked in.  When you try and do something else, he’ll get very frustrated because he feels as though he is being blocked from the one thing that he knows works.  So it’s good to experiment and introduce other behaviors early on in the process.

Remember there is no one and only one right answer.  If we had stayed with another round of targeting, would that have been wrong?  No.  If we had moved from targeting sooner, would we have been wrong?  No.  If we had switched to a different target or to different treats, would we have been wrong?  No.

Nick is definitely cautious in his approach to the target, but at this stage that isn’t a bad thing.  We’re at the beginning of a huge paradigm shift.  I’m letting him come into my space and sniff at my hands and explore my pockets.  He has to do that in order to discover that that’s not what works.  What works is taking his nose away from me.  I’m not going to correct him for nuzzling at me.  I don’t want to punish him for it.  I want him to make that choice on his own with minimal prompting from me.

If I thought he was dangerous, if I thought he was going to bite me, I would step away.  I might even have a different kind of barrier.  Or I might wait to work on this particular lesson.  In other words, I would set it up so I felt safe.  He’s exploring.  He’s experimenting.  While he’s doing so, it’s important that we both feel safe.

If I said to you: I want you to experiment, but recognize that there are sharks in the water.  And now go dip your toe in the water, you’d say to me: “I’d rather not.”

If I’m correcting him for nuzzling, then experimenting in general is a bad idea.   Trying things has become unsafe.  He’d be right to say the same thing to me. “I’m not going to reach out and touch that target, because I might get smacked.  You may be giving me treats this time, but next time you just might hit me instead.”

This is why I set up the training in this very structured way, and why I begin with protective contact.  I want him to learn that he can experiment safely.

In this next round you’ll see how well this strategy is paying off.  Nick spent most of the previous round mugging my pockets.  Now in this set you’ll see him very deliberately moving his head away from me.

Progress.

Video:  Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 6th Session – 2nd Grown-ups.


Nick is showing us why clicker training is so much fun.  With every round we’ve seen a shift, a change in his understanding.  Grown-ups produced for him a real “lightbulb” moment.  Shifting from targeting to grown-ups has helped him “connect the dots”.

It also shows again the value of using these short rounds of training.  You may be thinking: that’s easy to do in a clinic.  You have to stop to talk to the participants and explain what you’re doing.  How am I supposed to do this the the real world of my barn?

It’s really easy to do these short rounds of training in your home environment.  You might do a quick round of targeting and then fill a couple water buckets.  You’d do another short round of targeting and then throw down some hay, or turn out a horse.  You’d do another round, and then sweep the barn aisle.  In other words, in between doing your normal barn chores, you can get in a lot of short sets of training.

After you’ve got your chores done, you might want to have a more “normal” visit with your horse. You want to do more with him than just targeting in a stall.  All your previous training says you need to “work” with your horse.

You can begin to expand your clicker training into all the everyday tasks he already knows.  If he’s a horse like Nick who is safe to handle, by all means bring him out and groom him.  In that grooming session, you’ll be looking for opportunities to click and reinforce him.  If he normally fusses and moves about while you groom him, but right now he’s standing still, click and reinforce him.  When you ask him to move his hips over so you can get by, as he responds, click and reinforce him.

You will now be paying attention to all those little requests that we often take for granted when we groom.  You’ll be finding excuses to click and reinforce him, and in the process you’ll be discovering how much better he can be.  You will still have your “formal” clicker sessions where you focus specifically on targeting and the other foundation lessons.  But you can also begin to incorporate the clicker into the “real world” of everyday tasks and expectations.

Business can continue as usual, but now you have this added communication tool that says: “thank you for a job well done.” 

You’ll be doing this, and you’ll also be continuing with the formal process of introducing him to the six foundation lessons of clicker training.  As your horse masters those lessons, you can use them to make daily husbandry and the rest of your training even better.

Now, if your horse were showing you dangerous behaviors, I wouldn’t be encouraging you to bring him out to groom him.  While he learns how to learn, I would be recommending that you stay with protective contact.  He can be dirty for a while.  If you’re dodging his teeth, there’s nothing that says you have to groom him every day.  If you are seeing behaviors that raise safety concerns, I would teach him the learning-how-to-learn emotional-control aspect of his training with a barrier between you.

After this discussion I decided to finish up with one more round that would include both targeting and the grown-ups are talking lesson.

Video:  An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training:  7th Session- Targeting & Grown-ups

This was the final round of the day.  In the afternoon we spent approximately fifty minutes focused on Nick.  About 17 minutes of that time was spent working directly with him.  The rest was spent in discussion.  That’s a good ratio, especially at this stage of the training.

One of the things we were discussing were all the changes we were seeing.  You have a huge advantage because you can go back and review the earlier video clips.  Think about all the changes you’ve seen in these clips.  We began in the morning with his first tentative exploration of the target, and now in the afternoon he will step forward to touch a target, and I can move him back with the food delivery.  I can stand next to him with my pockets filled with treats, and he will deliberately take his head away from me.  I can combine targeting and grown-ups in one work session.  That means  I am beginning to introduce him to two important concepts: cues and chaining.  Chaining refers to linking behaviors together via cues to create long sequences of behaviors.

At the beginning of the afternoon session, Nick was starting out with three strong responses and then his rate of response would drop off.  In this final set of the afternoon he was maintaining a high response rate through a long training set.

Throughout each of these training sets I was making choices.  In that very first round, I was deciding what does “orient to the target” look like?  Can he just sniff the target to get clicked, or does he actually have to touch it. These are all choices that have to be made.  Remember there are no rights or wrongs.   With every click I am assessing the horse’s progress.  Have I made a good choice, or do I need to adjust my criterion slightly?

When you are training, it is good to remember this wonderful quote: “It is always go to people for opinions and horses for answers.”  Through his behavior your horse will tell you if you are making good choices.  He will also be telling you if your basic handling skills are clean.  If you are fumbling around in your pocket trying to get out a treat, you’re giving him extra time to mug you.  You don’t want to be collecting unwanted behavior even as you’re reinforcing other things that you want.  The steady progress Nick made through the day told us that on balance the choices were good ones, and the game was making sense to him.  It was time to let him process what he was learning.

One of the expressions I use often in clinics is you never know what you have taught.  You only know what you have presented.  We would be finding out what he was learning by returning the next morning with another round of training.

More Training

That last video marked the end of day 1 of Nick’s introduction to clicker training.  But this wasn’t the end of the day’s training for Nick’s owner.  We spent another fifty minutes working with her on her clicker training skills.  Just as we did with Nick, we began in a stall with “protective contact”.  She was on one side practicing her handling skills while another clinic participant played the part of her horse.

Human targeting game

I like beginning with these rehearsals.  If you are new to clicker training this is a must-do step.   What you just watched can look so easy.  You are probably thinking: “What can be so hard about holding up a target?”  Until you try it, you won’t know, but better that you find out all the little places where you’re fumbling around trying to get coordinated BEFORE you go to your horse.  If you can’t find a friend to help you, you can always pretend you have a partner.   Video tape yourself or practicing in front of a mirror to give yourself visual feedback.

I know many people fuss at having to go through these steps. They want to go directly to their horses.  They have told themselves that they are hands-on learners.  They need to be doing in order to learn.  These rehearsals give them the “hands-on” learning experience they are looking for.

I am very protective of horses.  If you are learning something new by going straight to your horse, your horse is going to have to withstand your learning curve of making mistakes, fumbling with the clicker, not getting the target up, etc. etc..  That can be hard on a new learner.  When someone runs into trouble in the first stages of the clicker training, its often because they didn’t do enough dress rehearsals.  This show up in inconsistent handling, timing that’s off, unclear criteria, and other issues that result in a horse being equally inconsistent.  The result is a lot of unwanted behavior as the horse expresses his frustration.

Watching someone else training with clean, consistent handling doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to do it yourself.  The dress rehearsal is the step you put in between.  The handler will be going through all the training steps first with a “human horse”.  Her partner will hold her hands together to represent a horse’s muzzle.  When she reaches out and bumps the target with her hands, her “trainer” will click and give her a treat.  The “human horse” will adjust her behavior to meet the needs of her learner.  If someone simply needs to practice clicking and getting the food out of her pocket, the “horse” will cooperate by touching the target directly.  She won’t present any behavioral challenges until her “handler” is ready to work on that step.

One of the huge advantages of this process is the “horse”can give her “handler” verbal feedback.   By the time you’re ready to go to your horse, you can focus on what he’s doing instead of focusing on your own skills.

Once your “human horse” gives you the “all clear”, you’re ready to ask your horse how you’re doing.  In this case we had a barnful of clicker-wise horses, so Nick’s owner was able to practice her new clicker skills with an experienced horse.  This was a real luxury that prepared her even more for her first clicker lessons with Nick.
Puffin targeting in stall
This is Puffin checking on Wendy’s “homework”.  Puffin was a rescue pony who is becoming a clicker star under the guidance of his person, Karen Quirk.

The clinic participants had to wait overnight to see how Nick processed his first day’s lessons.  I will make you do the same.  I’ll share Day 2 in the next installment of this report.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercentercourse.com

This is Part 2 of a 4 Part series on introducing a horse to the clicker. 

My thanks to Cindy Martin for organizing and hosting the November clinic, and to all the clinic participants, especially Wendy Stephens and her beautiful Nick.

Please note: This article gives you wonderful details to get you started with the clicker, but it is not intended as complete instruction.  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

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1

This is Part 1 of a 4 part article.

The last time I posted I had just returned from the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  It’s now November and I have just finished the 2015 clinic season.  Thank you to everyone who was able to join me this year.   Sharing clicker training is such a joy.  I am looking forward to seeing you again in 2016.

I’ll have my full  2016 clinic schedule posted on my web site soon.  In 2016 I’ll be back at the Cavalia retirement farm for another series of clinics.  And I’ll be returning to several of my long time clinic locations for more Clicker Intensives.

My conference schedule is already posted.  2016 is going to be a great year for learning!

The last clinic of the 2015 season was at Cindy Martin’s farm in Arkansas. One of the participants brought a horse who was completely new to clicker training. Usually when I have a start-up horse we are in narrow barn aisles with poor lighting and limited site lines.  Cindy’s barn is a perfect film studio. It had an extra wide aisle, tall ceilings and great lighting.  So we were we able to video this horse’s progress over three days.

What follows is a detailed account of the start-up process.  Whether you are brand new to clicker training or an experienced trainer, I think you will find this of interest.  This report takes you very systematically through the process that I recommend for introducing a horse to clicker training.  I have included video as well as the discussions that followed each training session.

Enjoy!

 

Step One: Introductions

Nick grown ups look away

My clinics always begin with a Friday night gathering.  When you talk to experienced clicker trainers, they always emphasize the importance of building a relationship with the animal you are training.  Relationship can be one of those fuzzy, feel-good words.  You can have all different kinds of relationships, some good, some quite toxic.  When science-based trainers define relationship, they are referring to a history of reinforcement.

In clicker training we put the emphasis on creating a history of positive reinforcement.  One of the metaphors that’s often used is that of building up a bank account by making many deposits via positive reinforcement.  As the bank account grows, if something happens and you do have to use a correction, your “bank account” can withstand a small withdrawal.

So training begins by building up that history of reinforcement with the animals you’re working with.  I’ve always felt that it was important to treat the people I work with with the same consideration that I give to their horses.  While I’m clicking and treating the horse, I don’t want to be barking commands at the person and criticizing every little mishap.  I also don’t want to spend three days working with a group of people who are essentially strangers.

I know I’ll be seeing many of the participants again at future events, so I like to get to know them as individuals, not a sea of anonymous faces.  So we spend the Friday night gathering in introductions.  I want to know what brought people to a clicker clinic.  What is their horse background? What is it they are hoping to get from the weekend?  I tell them that this is their first shaping exercise of the weekend.   Their introductions, what they are specifically looking for, help shape the clinic experience they are going to have.

Wendy, the owner of our first-time clicker horse, told us his story.  She was given Nick after friends of hers had given up on him.  They had hoped he would be a reining horse champion.  They had bred their mare to a top stallion.  At eighteen months he was sent off to a top trainer who thought the world of him.  He considered him his best futurity prospect of that year.  By the time Nick was two, the trainer was less excited by him, and by three he was saying Nick would not make it as a reiner.  It’s a familiar story.  His disappointed owners took him out of training, and then found that they no longer wanted him, so they gave him to Wendy.

Wendy’s training concerns centered around a desire to feel more connected to Nick.  He was very aloof.  He wasn’t hard to catch out in the pasture, but he never came directly up to her.  He would always stop ten to twenty feet away from her.  Out on trails she described him as safe to ride, but easily distracted.  It was hard to get him to focus on the rider.

People often come to clicker training as a last ditch effort to “fix” a problem horse.  Nick didn’t need “repairing”.  He was not a “broken” horse.  As I explained to the group Saturday morning, we weren’t trying to fix anything.  We were simply introducing a nice horse to clicker training.

What to Feed

We began with a discussion of the treats, both what to use and how to handle them in these early training sessions.  I rejected some flavored commercial horse treats that Wendy had brought in favor of some plain timothy alfalfa pellets Cindy had for an insulin-resistant older horse.

In these early start-up lessons you are asking for simple behaviors.  All the horse has to do is touch a target or move his nose away from your treat pocket.  You want to keep the rate of reinforcement high so the horse stays engaged in the game.   That means you are going through a lot of treats fast.  When I don’t recognize the commercial horse treat, I don’t know what I am feeding.  Is this something that is designed to be truly that – a treat, something you feed in quantities of one or two at a time, or is it something we can safely use in larger quantities during a training session?

If I’m not sure of ingredients, and especially of the sugar content, I prefer to use something like the timothy alfalfa pellets.  They are bland enough that a horse isn’t going to have a “sugar high” during the training, but still enough of a treat that he’ll want to figure out how to get me to give him more.

Protective Contact and the Importance of Choice

In addition to a discussion of what to feed, I also talked about protective contact.  What this means is the handler is separated from the horse by a barrier.  There are a number of reasons for using protective contact to introduce a horse to clicker training, even with a horse you know well.

When a horse is loose in a small paddock or a stall, he is free to interact with you – or not.  He has choice.  That’s key to clicker training.  If you go in with a horse, even if he is at liberty, his previous learning may interfere with his ability to figure out this new clicker game.  He’ll be so busy responding to previously learned cues, he won’t even be aware that there’s a puzzle to solve.  In fact, the more well-trained a horse is, the more important this reason for using protective contact becomes.

And if a horse isn’t so well trained, all the safety reasons for using protective contact come into play.  Without the barrier, if a horse crowds you trying to get to the treats in your pocket, you’ll need to do something to push him away.  If you’re having to correct him for this unwanted behavior, you’re creating a bind for yourself.  On the one hand you want your horse to feel safe experimenting and offering behavior.  And on the other hand you’re still saying no, don’t do that.  You’re essentially poisoning your first clicker encounter.

The barrier removes the safety concerns and gives your horse choice.  Choice is very important.  Current research is confirming that choice is reinforcing.  When we put a horse into protective contact, we are giving him the choice to interact with us or not.  We are also keeping things safe.  I don’t know the horses I am introducing to the clicker.  I don’t know which one is going to get super excited about the food and push into my space.  I don’t know which horse is going to show a huge regression into unwanted behaviors when the constraints of punishment are removed. (See my blog post:  Resurgence and Regression: Five Go To Sea Conference Presentation.  This is a twelve part article.  Part 1 was posted on May 21, 2015.)  Until the horse shows me that it is safe to go in with him with my pockets filled with treats, I stay with protective contact.

This is one of those soap box issues for me.  I know that there are many people in the horse community who will NEVER try clicker training.  Feed horses!  Give horses choice!  Horrors!

That’s fine.  Clicker training doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea.  But, clicker training doesn’t just introduce the use of marker signals coupled with reinforcers.  It also brings into the horse world this idea of training with protective contact.  If we can introduce the concept of protective contact into mainstream horse training, we will be doing a very good thing indeed.  People go in with horses much too soon, and as a result, they end up reaching for punishment solutions first.

I remember watching a clinic years ago where a very well known clinician made everyone climb in and out of the round pen – even though there was a perfectly good gate.  The reason was this:  if a horse every charged you, you’d know how to climb the fence so you’d be able to get out of that pen fast!

There’s something wrong with this reasoning.  I don’t want to be in the pen with a horse until he tells me he’s comfortable having me there.  If he feels threatened, I don’t want him thinking he needs to attack me to remove the danger.

I want the horse to show me that he understands enough of “my language” to be able to figure out the puzzles I’m presenting.  Horses are punished for so many reasons, including not responding fast enough to commands.

When you’re afraid, it’s hard to think straight and follow instructions.  We know that from our own experience.  So imagine what it must be like for a horse.  He’s struggling to figure out what is wanted.  If he hesitates, he’ll be punished. If he reacts fast, but guesses wrong, he’ll be punished.

When a horse isn’t not sure what is wanted, is it any wonder he feels threatened and frustrates easily?  Aggression comes from a place of fear.  If I am working with a horse that is quick to lash out to protect himself, I want a barrier between us.  That way I won’t be adding fuel to the emotional fire by correcting him to keep myself safe.  I can just step back out of the way while he goes through the “learning how to learn” process.

Throughout the horse industry, if we treated horses more like zoo animals and used more protective contact, we would see an overall shift towards kinder training.  “Aggression comes from a place of fear” doesn’t just apply to horses.  Think about that the next time you are watching someone cracking a whip or swinging a lead rope at a horse.

Enough of the soap box.  Nick was stabled overnight in a large 14 by 16 box stall with a door that opened out onto a small outside covered run.  A stall guard was already set up in the stall door so creating protective contact was easy.

Keep your First Sessions Short: The Twenty Treat Strategy

The first lesson I teach is generally targeting.  For this first lesson I count out twenty treats.  I want to limit how long the session can last by limiting the number of treats I start out with.  When I run out of treats, I am obliged to take a break from active training.  These breaks do a number of good things.

First, they show the horse that this interesting game begins, ends, and then comes back again.  For many horses during this first introduction into clicker training is a true “Helen Keller” moment.  (If you don’t understand this reference, watch the old movie “The Miracle Worker”.)

When the horse figures out that he can control your behavior,  you often see what are referred to as “light bulb moments”.  For some horses this a huge sea change.  The horse needs to understand that this amazing experience is something that will continue on past the first introduction.  That’s part of what helps him to settle into the experience.

By giving breaks your horse is learning that the game stops, but it comes back again.  For many horses clicker training is a world changer.  Their human makes sense!  They can actually train their human!  Their world opens up.  You’re offering the target, and clicking and treating.

And then you close the door and walk away – and for the horse it’s back to business as usual.  All that clear communication vanishes.  For some horses this can be really hard on them.  Get back here and train me!  It’s bang, bang on the stall door.  If you’re in a boarding barn, that’s going to make you very unpopular with the owner!  By giving breaks, the horse learns that the game has pauses and then starts up again.

So I like to do a short session and then go away for a few minutes.  Then I come back to do another round.  The game ends, and then it begins again.  That’s hugely reassuring to the horse.

The other thing that the breaks create is an opportunity for the handler to think about the training.  Clicker training is fun.  You see your horse touching a target with more confidence.  He’s making progress.  It’s like the old potato chip commercial – “bet you can’t eat just one.”  You’ll be thinking: “I’ll just have him target one more time.  How about one more time after that?” 

If you fill your pockets at the start, you could end up training and training.  Caught up in the momentum of the moment, you might not notice some unwanted behavior that’s crept into the game.  Yes, your horse is eagerly touching the target, but he’s also pinning his ears flat to tell his neighbor in the adjoining stall to stay away!  That’s not the kind of behavior you want him to be weaving into his first clicker training experience.

If you take a short break to think about each session, you’re more likely to pick up on these unwanted behaviors, and you can make adjustments to your training environment as needed.  You want to catch any “speed bumps” in your training early on so you can make the necessary changes that ensure that the behavior you want is the behavior you get.

The breaks also give you time to think about what to do with the next round of twenty treats.  And they let you appreciate the steady, good progress you see your horse making.

Choosing Your Target

I generally introduce horses to the clicker via basic targeting.  Most horses are curious.  If you are holding something in your hand that doesn’t look too much like a goblin, they will come up to see what you’ve got.  Click!  They have just earned a treat.

Lots of things make good targets.  They need to be easy to handle, horse safe, and nothing that looks too scary.  Small plastic cones work great, as do empty water bottles and the lids off of supplement containers. In other words, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on targets.  Look around your barn.  You are bound to find something that will work.  From the collection Cindy had in her barn, I chose a great target stick.  It was made from an old riding crop.  She had stuck  a bit of foam from a pool noodle over one end and wrapped it in duct tape.  Perfect.

Planning Your Exit Strategy

Before I could introduce Nick to targets, I first had to think about my exit strategy.  If I’m going to take breaks, I need a way to end a session that’s okay for the horse.  I’ll be taking the treats, the attention, the game away with me.  I don’t want the horse left thinking that whatever he just did it made me leave.  He promises never to do that again!  If I’m clicking and treating for desired behavior, that’s the opposite of what I want, so I need to think out in advance how I’m going to end a training session.

The horses I work with regularly are all familiar with treats being tossed on the ground.  When I need to break away from a conversation we’re having, I toss a few treats on the ground or into a feed bucket for them.  While they are searching around for the goodies, I can slip away.  However, I can’t assume that other horses will know where to look when I toss a treat into a feed bucket.  So  Step One for Nick begins with this very easy lesson.  I simply opened his stall door, dropped a feed tub onto the floor and began dropping treats one or two at a time into the bucket.  Is it any wonder horses love clicker training!

This first video clip shows Nick learning that the sound of treats being tossed into his bucket means goodies are to be found there.  You will see that Wendy’s description of Nick was very accurate.  While he is willing to come to the front of the stall to take treats, he is very cautious.  This was a good first step both to help build his confidence, and to begin to let me learn more about him.

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Session 1: Creating an Exit Strategy

 

Data Collecting: The First Targeting Session
Next came Nick’s first targeting session.  I view this first round of targeting very much as data collecting.  I am not thinking of it as the “teaching” part of the training.  This is exploratory training.  Nick’s response to the target will tell me where I can begin.  If he’s reluctant to even come up close to the target, I know that I’m going to have to break this lesson down into much smaller steps, beginning with more time spent just clicking him for acknowledging my presence.

On the other hand if he eagerly touches the target and then grabs for the treat and remains fixated on my pockets, I know I have a very different starting point for the training.  It’s all data collecting.  Until I ask Nick a few questions, I won’t know where to begin.  As you watch this next video, you can join us in the data collecting.  It shows Nick’s first targeting session.

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – The First Targeting Session

As you can see these sessions are short.  Putting only twenty treats in my pocket forces me to stop after just a couple of rounds of targeting.  While I am getting more treats, I can think about what I learned about Nick.  What did I like about this round?  What unwanted behaviors, if any, do I need to be aware of?  What do I want to do next?

Data Assessing: What Did We Learn?

The two main questions are: is there anything about this horse’s behavior that would suggest that it would be unsafe to go in the stall with him with my pockets filled with treats?  If the answer comes back yes, or even, I’m not sure, I stay with the protective contact.

The other question I ask is what should I do with the next round of twenty treats?  Should I continue with the targeting, or does his behavior suggest that I should shift to one of the other foundation lessons?  I have six to choose from: targeting, backing, head lowering, the grown-ups are talking – please don’t interrupt (meaning take your nose away from my treat pockets), ears forward (which I refer to as Happy Faces) and standing on a mat.  Taken together these six behaviors work beautifully to introduce horse and handler to clicker training.  They are great behaviors to choose because the end result of these lessons is a horse who has beautiful ground manners and lots of emotional self-control.

Often when I ask a group: “what did we just learn about this horse?”, they are stumped for words.  They don’t know what they are supposed to say.  We are so used to criticizing what we see.  That’s how we’ve been trained in school, at work, even in our own families.  “What’s wrong with this picture” is what we know, and yet, that doesn’t quite seem to be what I’m asking for.

There may indeed be things the horse presents that are a concern, but I really am looking at this through a different lens, one that is often very unfamiliar to first-time clicker trainers.  They haven’t spent a lot of time practicing finding things they like, so this is a great opportunity to develop that skill.  Let’s listen in to this first assessment process:

Video: Introduction to Clicker Training- Group Discussion After the 1st Target Session

Especially if you are new to clicker training, I recommend that you videotape your first clicker sessions.  They really can be fascinating.  The change in your horse’s understanding can happen so fast.  You can use the pauses between training sessions to review your video.  Often you’ll see little things in your handling that you’ll want to change.  If you are reaching into your treat pocket ahead of the click, or you’re feeding too far forward so your horse gets pulled onto his forehand, you’ll catch these handling glitches and be able to change them for the better in the next round.

Details That Make A Difference

To help with this type of data collecting I’ll point out a few handling details that you can watch for in this next video clip:

Note how I handle the target.  I position it so it is easier for Nick to touch it than it is for him to get to me.  If he starts exploring past the end of the target stick, I very quietly ease myself out of his reach while still keeping the target stick easily available.

After I click, the target stick drops down into a neutral position.  I give him his treat, and then immediately bring the target back up so it is available to him to touch.  The movement of the target stick as I bring it back up helps to attract his attention.  Taking it down after I click means that each round is a discreet trial.

Note also how deliberate I am in how I present the treat.  After I click, and NOT before, I begin to reach into my pocket to get the treat.  I am prompt in beginning the reinforcement delivery but that doesn’t mean I move fast.  Note the rhythm of the overall lesson. I maintain a steady pace which allows me to set the tone of the lesson.

Some common things to watch for in your own handling would be:

* Are you reaching into your treat pouch ahead of the click?  The movement of your hand will overshadow the click.  It will become your marker signal which isn’t what we want.

A good marker signal has the following characteristics:  It is quick.  It is unique, meaning it stands out from other stimuli in the background. It is non-emotional.  The click of the clicker meets all these criteria.  It gives you so much precision when you begin to work on details in performance.  And it means your horse does not need to be watching you to respond to a marker signal.  That’s a huge advantage for riding.  So take care now to make the click of the clicker a clean marker signal. (Note, very quickly you will shift from the actual clicker to a tongue click.  You’ll see me do this with Nick in the clips that follow.)

* Are you feeding out away from your body where the perfect horse would be?  If you feed in close, you’ll be reinforcing your horse for coming into your space.  I want to feed Nick so his head is away from me.  More than that, I want to take full advantage of the fact that I’m using food in my training, so I’m going to feed him to encourage good balance.  In this first lesson that means his head will be even between his shoulders and at a good height so he isn’t pulled onto his forehand to get the treat.

* Are you remembering to take the target down in-between trials.

* Are you bringing the target up promptly so it is approximately in the same orientation that it was in the previous trials?  Often people move the target around from one spot to another in this first round.  First the target is high, then it is low  That means that every time the horse touches the target it’s a very different behavior.  Even if the horse is managing to touch the target, he may be struggling to understand the underlying concept behind the click and treat.

* Are you maintaining a steady pace throughout the cycle?  Sometimes people rush to get the food out.  They are forgetting that the click buys them time.  It marks the moment you like.  You can think of it like a place holder.  You want your horse to understand that the behavior that was occurring at the exact moment that you clicked is worth trying again.  As long as you begin to reach into your pocket promptly, you don’t have to be fast in the delivery.  This isn’t “click and shove” training.  Your horse can see that you are getting a treat.  He knows it’s coming.  The whole process is part of the reinforcement.  It’s like Christmas.  It isn’t just ripping open a present that’s reinforcing.  It’s all of the anticipation leading up to the event that makes the presents so exciting.  With a beginner horse you can’t mess around and take too much time getting your treat to him.  That can be frustrating, but nor do you need to feel as though you have to rush.

Look for these details as you watch Nick’s second targeting session.

Training Sessions #2: More Targeting

Video An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – 2nd Target session

In this next round of targeting Nick is interested.  He’s waiting for me at the front of his stall, but he’s still unsure what this is all about.  Nick is slow to touch the target.  Waiting for him to touch the target can feel a bit like watching paint dry.   I have to decide: do I wait for an actual touch, or do I click any orientation towards the target?  With Nick I decided to wait for him to touch the target.  It wouldn’t have been wrong to click for approximations. That’s one of the great advantages of clicker training.  There is no one only one right moment to click.

Someone else might make different decisions.  Nick’s behavior will tell us if we are on the right track.  That’s one of the reasons to begin with these short sessions.  They give you time to consider the choices you’ve made so you can make adjustments.

In the discussion that followed this section, I again reminded people to count out their twenty treats so these early sessions remain short.  As long as I am still working with protective contact, I continue to count out twenty treats.  Once I decide that it’s time to go into the stall with the horse,  I then add more treats to my pockets.

As a group we agreed that Nick was remaining very calm and polite, but he didn’t yet get what this game was all about.  As one of the participants said: “That’s what is so exciting about watching this. That moment when a horse understands that he just made you click and hand him a treat, it changes the whole world for that horse.”

Often times in more traditional forms of training horses are corrected for offering behavior that hasn’t been asked for.  When you hold a target up, these horses wait to be told what to do.  Taking the initiative is not something that feels safe to them.  You’ll see them remain hesitant about touching the target.  Both Nick’s background and his behavior matches this scenario.

You don’t want to rush through these simple targeting lessons.  Again it is about choice.  I want Nick to discover that he has control of this lesson.  That’s what will build his confidence.  He needs me to give him whatever time it takes to make this discovery.  That’s what will turn him into a bright-eyed clicker star.

This is another good reason to use protective contact.  The stall guard limits my ability to step in a get “things done”.  This lesson isn’t about getting a horse to touch a target.  If I were goal oriented, that’s all I would see.  How fast did I get this horse to touch the target?

That’s just a behavior.  It’s a tool I’m using to teach Nick much more fundamental lessons.  I want him to understand the core values of clicker training.  I want him to understand that he does have choice, that his feelings matter.  I want him to understand that what is evolving is a conversation, and that his voice counts.

In the third round of targeting, you’ll see more changes.  Again we decided to continue with the targeting.

Video: Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – 3rd Targeting Session


As I finished this round, I decided that I would do just one more round of training that morning – in part because I was looking at how much of the original bowl of treats I had gone through.

Measuring out the treats into a bowl was a good reminder to everyone that you need to keep track of how much you are feeding.  In these initial training sessions you are working with very simple behaviors.  You can go through a lot of treats fast. It’s one touch of a target, click, treat.  One quick moment of grown-ups, click treat.

Later you’ll be asking the horse for so much more.  You’ll be building complex sequences of behavior and asking for much longer duration.  You’ll be getting much more behavior for every single click.  When you reach the stage of filling your pockets at the start of a training session,  this early discipline of counting out your twenty treats will help you keep track of how much you are feeding.

Video:  Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – 4th session

This fourth round of targeting shows the evolution of the food delivery.  Remember in the first round I fed Nick approximately where the target had been.  Now I can move into his space to feed him.  Initially it’s easy to think in terms of single behaviors.  You are having a horse touch a target.  But really what you have is a cycle of behaviors.  I refer to this as loopy training.

As a shorthand way of describing clicker training, we will often say that behavior leads to a click which leads to a treat.

You can write this as:

Behavior leads to  Click leads to Treat
or the short hand of:
Behavior => Click => Treat

It’s an easy way to think of clicker training. If you like it, click and reinforce it.  Reinforce is the key.  When you write out that single phrase, it’s easy to think of this event as an isolated unit, but reinforce means to strengthen.  If a behavior has been reinforced, you should see it occurring more and more frequently. So really what we have is a loop of behavior which we can write out as:

Behavior => Click => Treat =>
More of the Behavior => Click => Treat =>
More of the Behavior => Click => Treat => etc.

The food delivery is a dynamic part of this process.  I could simply click and continue to feed pretty much as I did in the first round of training, but that would be giving up so so much of the value that I get from my treats.  People who don’t use food in their training are at such a huge disadvantage. I know that’s not how they think about food, They see it as a nuisance, a distraction, a bribe.  All these negative labels can keep someone from seeing the enormous advantages using food as a reinforcer gives me.  It isn’t simply that getting something he wants want makes the horse more eager to do it again.  I get so many more good things from this part of the cycle:

* I can help a horse find good balance through my food placement.  You can see that in this fourth round of the training.  I place the food so Nick not only straightens out his head, but I am also placing it at a height that encourages him to lift up in his shoulders and come off his forehand.

* I can also set up the next phase of the training.  At some point I will want to ask Nick to back up.  By getting the backing first from the food delivery, I can map out the behavior before asking for it directly.  I can see how easily – or not – Nick backs.  If his feet get stuck and he struggles to back up to get to his treat, I know I will need to be careful how I introduce backing when I ask for it directly.  I may be dealing with a horse with arthritic hocks so backing is painful.  Or backing may have been taught so punitively that the horse resists and resents any attempt to make him back – even if it is to get to a treat.  Or the horse may simply never have been asked to back, and he can’t figure out how to move his feet.  Whatever previous experience Nick has with being asked to back, introducing it via food delivery gives him a huge jump-start on solving the clicker backing puzzle.

What this boils down to is I use food delivery dynamically.  These simple targeting lessons introduce this concept early on in the process.  The horse becomes accustomed to moving his feet to get treat, plus he becomes familiar with the feel of good balance.  The horse is learning to follow the handler’s body language creating the foundation for both leading and liberty work.

Nick’s owner was thrilled.  These four short training sessions showed her the structure she had been looking for.  She appreciated how systematic and organized the process was.  She saw how valuable the breaks were.  As she said, when you are new to clicker training, you need to step back to take stock of where you are.  Is this behavior going the direction you want, or is it going off the rails somehow?  Video really helps you keep track.  Most of us have cell phones or cameras that can take short video clips.  If you don’t have a tripod, you can always prop your phone up on a hay bale or a fence rail.

During the breaks you can review your video.  You’ll see your hand creeping towards your treat pouch ahead of the click.  No wonder your horse was more interested in mugging you than touching the target!  Details like this really do matter.  It’s so much better to catch them early on so your handling isn’t creating confusion and unwanted behavior.

The total training time for Nick that morning was twelve and a half minutes spread out over a forty-nine minute session.  If you were working on your own, you might spend a few minutes introducing your horse to a target, take a break to review your video, do a couple of barn chores, then return for another round of targeting.  Breaking up the individual targeting sessions by putting barn chores in between spreads the sessions out nicely.  After you’ve reviewed your video, it also gives you time to think about what you want to do next.

When you are brand new to clicker training, it’s perfectly understandable that you may not be completely sold on this style of training.  All you’re doing with these first few sessions is testing the waters.  Is this something you’re going to enjoy and find useful?

The structure I’ve shown in these video clips gives you a safe way to become familiar with the overall process.  If you need to take a pause from clicker training, you’ll be able to do so.  Context cues matter.  If you don’t have a target, your horse won’t be expecting the game, so you can handle him business as usual when you put away your treat pouch.

Having said that, when I introduce a horse to clicker training, I feel as though I am making a commitment to that horse.  I don’t want to show the horse that we can communicate clearly and then snatch that experience away.  Once I open up the communication channels, I want to keep them open, active, and ever-enlarging.

For Nick I may have decided that this fourth session would be the last for the morning, but it was definitely not the last of the weekend.  We continued on in the afternoon with another round of targeting.

Just as the clinic participants had to wait to see how Nick processed his morning lessons, you will have to wait to see the afternoon sessions.  I’ll post those in Part 2 of this series.

This is Part 1 of a 4 Part series on introducing a horse to the clicker.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercentercourse.com

My thanks to Cindy Martin for organizing and hosting the November clinic, and to all the clinic participants, especially Wendy Stephens and her beautiful Nick.

Please note: This article gives you wonderful details to get you started with the clicker, but it is not intended as complete instruction.  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