JOY FULL Horses: Resurgence and Regression

Reverting to Past Behaviors
Imagine you have joined us for the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  You have just come from breakfast which you enjoyed on a terrace overlooking the open waters of the Carribbean.  You have now settled yourself comfortably in the Reflection’s conference room to listen to Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz’s lecture on resurgence and regression.

Jesús began by sharing the story of a professor who was attending a conference in Mexico.  She got trapped in an elevator.  At first she tried pushing all the buttons, calling out for help, things we would all think to do.  Two hours later, when they finally got the elevator working again and the doors open, they found her huddled in the corner of the elevator calling for her mother – and her mother had been dead for years.

What does this story tell us?  We regress in predictable patterns that reveals our history.

When a behavior that was being reinforced no longer works, you enter an extinction process in which you regress back to previously learned behavior.  When the first behaviors you try don’t work, you go back another step and then another.

As Jesús said, very tongue in cheek, during the extinction process we see behavior that was modeled for us in our childhood.  If you want to learn about someone’s early family dynamics, watch what happens to them when they are under stress.  If one of his students is acting out, he tells them – “Don’t blame me.  Blame your parents.  You’re simply presenting behavior that was modeled for you in childhood.”

So extinction can reveal history.  That’s definitely a gem to take away from our Caribbean treasure trove and carry back to our horses.

Extinction Reveals Your Horse’s Past
When a horse is first learning about clicker training, much of what he knows no longer applies.  You’re holding a target up for him to touch.  A lot of horses figure out quickly how the game is played, but some get confused.  Suppose you’re working with a horse you recently adopted from a horse rescue.  He isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do. Consider the dilemma he finds himself in.  You only mean well, but he doesn’t know that.  Past experience has told him wrong answers get punished, but the few things he knows how to do aren’t working.   He is plunging head long into an extinction process.

The extinction process can reveal a horse’s training history. It helps us to understand the “childhood” our horses have had.  Did your horse have a fair introduction to people, or are there issues you need to know about?

In most cases when you introduce a horse to the clicker, it’s smooth sailing.  The horse quickly figures out the game. You may have to go through a little bit of explaining around the food, but for most horses this moves along without any major hiccups.  You hold a target up, he investigates it, click, you give him a treat.  Easy.  Unless he’s one of those horses who has been punished for showing any self-expression.

If your horse has learned that being “well behaved” means he doesn’t offer any behavior you haven’t asked for, he’ll be good at following orders, but not taking the initiative. In fact your “well-behaved” horse may have learned that offering behavior is dangerous.  The best way to avoid punishment is to wait to be told what to do.

This is why I put well-behaved in quotes. Is he well mannered in the way a clicker-trained horse can be? Or is he simply not offering much in the way of behavior? There’s a huge difference.  In the first, the personality is expressed. In the later, it is suppressed.

When you hold out the target, a suppressed horse may be stuck for answers.  He doesn’t know what you want.  The “right answers” that normally work don’t seem to apply in this new situation.  This horse finds himself in a difficult position.  He knows he’s supposed to do something, but past experience tells him if he guesses wrong, he’ll be punished.  He’s not sure what the answer is so he’s plunged into an extinction process.

Extinction follows a predictable pattern.  At first he may try offering the one or two things that might possibly fit this situation.  When those don’t work, he’ll shift rapidly from feeling frustrated and worried to being aggressive. That’s the next, predictable stage in the extinction process.  Your “well behaved” horse is suddenly coming at you with teeth bared.

It’s easy to blame clicker training or the treats for this sudden turnaround in behavior, but I’ve always seen it very differently. I’ve always said that what is happening is the training history of the horse is being revealed.  Jesús’ presentation on resurgence and regression confirmed this.  It helped me understand even more clearly this dynamic. Sadly, there are all too many horses who have been at the receiving end of excessive punishment.  Often you don’t know which is the horse who really is sweet and well behaved, and which is shut down through punishment.  This is one of the reasons I put so much structure around the beginning steps of clicker training.  The support of these lessons helps insulate the punished horses from their history.

Well Behaved or Shut Down?
Often what we refer to as “well behaved” horses (and people) are really individuals whose behavior and personality have been shut down through the use of corrections. They have learned to wait to be told what to do.  Offering behavior, and expressing their personality has been punished.  Give them a command, and they will respond promptly.  They can seem like such perfect horses.  Safe, easy to direct. But put them into a situation where they don’t know the answer – in fact they really don’t even understand the question – and you will begin to see things unravel.  As the extinction process unfolds, they will take you back through the stair steps of how they have been treated, and often the story they tell is not a pretty one.

Clicker training did not cause these outbursts.  When these horses are not sure of the “safe” answer, they’ll began to regress back through their training history. You are seeing the behavior that others “swept under the carpet” by suppressing it with punishment.

When you are brand new to clicker training, and, especially if you are also new to horses, this can be a hard dynamic to understand.  What you hear about clicker training is how much fun it is, how much horses enjoy it.  So you give it a try.  But instead of smooth sailing, your horse falls apart.  Instead of having a wonderful time, you’re dodging teeth.

You’ve been promised a dream horse and all you have is a nightmare. How could you not blame clicker training?  But just as equally, how can you go back? How can you return to the use of punishment to suppress the behavior you’re now dealing with?

You keep hearing from others that you need to trust the process.  That can seem like a hard choice, especially when you don’t really understand what the process is, but what other choice is there?  You don’t want to go back to your correction-based training, so you plunge ahead, clicker in hand.

Coming Next: Leaving History Behind

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY FULL Horses Part 3: How Clicker Trainers Play

Five Go To Sea
If someone had asked me a few years back what the likelihood was of ever finding me on a cruise ship, I would have said you had a better chance of winning the lottery – the real one, not the kind I described in the last section.  But in the spring of 2014 that’s exactly where I was.  Kay Laurence had decided to celebrate her sixtieth birthday in style.  She was going on a Caribbean cruise, but not just any cruise.  She invited Ken Rameriz, Dr. Jesús Rosales Ruiz, and myself to join her on a Five Go To Sea conference/cruise/adventure.   I’m really not sure what to call it, so I’ll just settle for amazing!  That describes it the best.

I’m sure you’ve done the math.  Kay, Ken, Jesús and myself make four not five.  Number five were all the other conference attendees.

Before I plunge into describing the conference and all that we learned, let me set the stage by describing the ship we were on.  Prior to going on the cruise, I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew cruise ships were enormous, but this ship dwarfed anything I had imagined.  I looked up it’s dimensions.  It was 127 feet wide and 1047 feet long. Some people think in terms of football fields.  I translate dimensions into riding arenas.  The ship was twice the width of my indoor arena and more than eight times as long!

Now take those dimensions and stack up 14 floors of guest accommodations, restaurants, theaters, pools, meeting rooms, dance floors, lounges, spas and all the other amenities a cruise ship has to offer, and you’ll begin to get a sense of the size of the ship.  And however big it was from the ground floor up, there was that much again below to accommodate the crew, kitchens, engines, fuel, water, food storage and everything else that it takes to provide for well over 4,000 people. My barn looks like a big building sitting by itself on the side of a hill, but it would be easily swallowed up inside the belly of this ship.

celebrity-reflection

Most of the 4,000 people who were vacationing on the ship were there for the spas, the theaters and all the other guest amenities.  And then there was this rather odd group of clicker trainers who completely baffled the staff.  We weren’t sleeping in after a night of partying.  Instead we were getting up at the crack of dawn to meet up for a morning t’ai chi and body awareness session.  Instead of lounging for hours at a time by the pool or gambling in the ship’s casino, we spent the days at sea in the conference room.  That was our idea of fun!

“Riding” the Ocean
I know heading into the cruise many of the conference attendees were concerned about being seasick. I can now tell you that yes, you do feel the pitch and roll of the ocean. Was anyone sea sick? On the first day some people were definitely feeling a bit queasy. Experienced travelers like Ken Ramirez had taken precautions and were wearing motion sickness patches.

What did I experience? I can now say that I loved being out on the open ocean. Was the rolling of the ship fun?  Absolutely! I loved it!  It felt like riding!  I might have a different tale to tell if we’d been crossing the north Atlantic in a winter gale, but I loved the rolling of the ship.  When you ride, you let the motion of the horse take you.  It’s not about blocking the energy or keeping yourself rigid. You let your joints follow the forward and up of the horse’s back. The ship was like that.

There’s an exercise I teach called the “four points on the bottom of your feet”. It’s a Feldenkrais exercise.  You begin by noticing how you move, how you shift your balance as you roll around the four points on the bottom of your feet (inside toe, outside toe, outside heel, inside heel).  How do you shift your balance forward and back, side to side? How do you send and receive these shifts in balance?

In the “Four Points” exercise you are asking yourself:  Where does the movement begin?  Where does it stop? What blocks it?  What could I release, what could I find that would let me flow more easily around the four points on the bottom of my feet?

The roll of the ship let me explore those questions.  I loved the feel.  The ship would pitch to the side, and I would roll with it, catching my balance at the top of the swell and rolling down with it.  I kept thinking how boring it was going to be to be back on land that didn’t roll and sway under my feet.  I loved “riding” the ship.

I suspect the people who were feeling a little “green around the gills” were wishing I would stop grinning like a Cheshire cat each time the ship pitched up over a wave. There’s nothing so annoying as someone who is having a good time when you’re feeling miserable – especially when what is making you feel sick is the very thing they are laughing about.

I do think it is a great example of how we create our own reality.  I went into the cruise expecting to have a great adventure.  I could have stiffened against the pitch of the ship and made myself miserably sick.  Instead I flowed with it and had a grand time “riding”.

I love exploring balance.  On that first day at sea I had a hard time staying balanced.  I could roll around the four points just fine, but I couldn’t stand with my feet together.  I had to keep stepping out wider to catch my balance. There was also no walking a straight line down the endlessly long corridors of the ship.  I swayed from wall to wall looking like I’d just downed a bottle of Caribbean rum.   But a couple of days later, not only could I stand feet together, so could everyone else. I led the group through the beginning steps of learning to stand balanced over your feet.  On day one this would have been a challenge for all of us.  But on day three of the conference everyone had gained sea legs.

The Conference
We do create our own reality.  Kay Laurence discovered she likes cruises, so she created a conference cruise to celebrate her 60th birthday.  She designed a conference like no other.  We had overall themes for each day, but we weren’t tied to particular presentations.

Normally at conferences the organizers want to know what you’re going to talk about months ahead of the event.  I understand their perspective.  They need to advertise the event, but eight months out I don’t know what is going to be inspiring me.

I much preferred Kay’s approach.  Creativity comes from combining familiar elements in new ways.  All four of us had heard each other speak before.  We were familiar with the material that was going to be presented, but in the format of this conference we had so much more time for conversation and discussion.  We could expand on ideas presented and adjust our choice of presentations to follow up on topics that were of interest.  That meant the impact of the presentations went beyond that of most conferences.

What emerged from those talks was a true Caribbean treasure trove.  If you asked each of the participants who went on the Five Go To Sea cruise what the highlight of the trip was, I’m sure you would get dozens of different answers.  For some it might be an adventure they had on one of the excursion days. For others it might be a dinner time conversation with one of the speakers. For me I would say the cornerstone of the event was Dr. Jesús Rosales Ruiz’s talk on resurgence.  In the previous unit I talked about Kay Laurence’s microshaping.  This is very much linked to the concepts Jesús introduced us to in his talk.

Kay wants a 98% or higher success rate.  To get to that you need to thin slice your criteria.  If you’re sloppy, if you’re waiting for your animal to offer behavior, you will end up with a hodgepodge of clicks.  You’ll miss clickable behaviors.  You’ll click for a head turn this time and a foot lift the next.  Kay calls this dirty shaping.

For both Kay and myself clean, elegant shaping evolves out of microshaping.

Reaction Patterns
Micro.  That’s always been the direction I’ve looked.  Remember Dr. Susan Friedman’s phrase – level of analysis.  (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/09/16/) She talks about that in reference to the focus someone has.  If you are looking through a Caribbean pirate’s spy glass, are you focused on the distant horizon or the bird that’s skimming across the water just a few feet out from your ship?   When you consider why a certain behavior is occurring, are you trying to figure out what part of the brain is activating and what individual neurons are firing?   Or are you looking at observable events that surround the behavior which might be effecting the frequency of it’s occurrence?

Levels of focus very much relate to training.  You can go macro and be outcome driven and send your horse directly over fences.  If you and your horse are bold and athletic enough, you’ll be successful.

Alternatively, you can go micro and look at the reaction patterns that will allow you to jump those fences successfully.  (I discussed reaction patterns in the previous post.)

going-micor-textGoing macro prematurely can lead to crashes.  Going micro will produce the macro outcomes without seeming to work on them directly.

Most of us have been told that we need to walk, trot, and canter our horses in both directions every day for training to advance.  But if your horse is out of balance in the faster gaits, practicing them just makes the balance problems more entrenched.

There’s a lovely expression that sits at the core of my training:
“The walk is the mother of all gaits.”

What this means is you can focus on the underlying reaction patterns that lead to great balance in all three gaits without needing to go out of the walk.  When you do ask for the trot or canter after a hiatus from these gaits, it will feel as though you have a completely different horse under you.

Extinction
Going micro gives us something else.  It allows us to transform the make-it-happen force and violence of traditional horse training into clicker-compatible good technique.  It is this transformation that makes true play between horses and humans possible.

To get there we need to look at extinction and the role it plays in shaping.  To help us we’re going to return to the Five Go To Sea cruise and sit in on the lecture Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruis gave on Extinction and Resurgence.

So get out your notebook, pull up a chair and join us on the cruise.  You’re about to be treated to a gem of a lecture.

Coming Next: Resurgence and Regression

P.S.: We so enjoyed the conference cruises that Kay came up with yet another innovation: a land cruise. We had our first Training Thoughtfully Land Cruise in the UK in January 2016.  In 2017 we will be holding our second.  This one will be October, 20-22, 2017 in Milwaukee WI.

If you are thinking Milwaukee seems an unlikely place for a land cruise, one of the reasons for picking the locations is Kay and I want to use these conferences to provide a stage for local talent.  People often feel that there is no one close to them they can go to for help.  These conferences will help connect people to their local training resources.  At this conference two of my Click That Teaches coaches, Jen Digate and Natalie Zielinski, will be presenting, along with several dog trainers Kay knows.  All of them are local to the Milwaukee area.

Anticipation is a wonderful thing.  If you are reading this in November 2016, there is currently an early bird special available for the conference registration.  Visit trainingthoughtfullymilwaukee.com for full details.

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY FULL Horses: Part 3: Going Micro: Unit 3: Patterns

Patterns
Play evolves out of success.  Play evolves when both learner and teacher are relaxed and confident in the process.  Good technique, attention to detail, attention to your learner’s emotional needs are the breeding ground for play.

In the previous section I talked about base positions and movement cycles, and how they can be used to create high success rates.  These create repeating patterns.  You are doing the same sequence of behaviors over and over again.  I’ve heard people say they don’t like drilling patterns.  Their animals get bored.  They get bored.  Patterns, they will tell you, are the death knell to good training.

All I can say is that’s not been my experience.  Horses thrive on patterns.  They like the predictability of knowing what is coming next.  They like being successful.

They aren’t the only ones.  We thrive on patterns.  Want proof.  Look at how easily we fall into them.  We are creatures of habit, which means we are creatures of patterns.  Rather than fighting against this tendency, I’m going to use it to my advantage.

I’m going to create tight, clean, repeatable loops.  I’ll follow the mantra of loopy training.  When a loop is clean, I get to move on.  And not only do I get to move on, I should move on.  

When my whole behavior cycle is clean, I’ll change my criteria slightly.  Maybe I’m teaching my horse to back up through a corner.  I’ll begin by getting just a step or two of backing. I’ll ask for this well away from the corner.  I’ll start out very micro in my requests.  I’ll be satisfied at first with just slight shifts of his balance.  I don’t need a full step back to get the process started.  Even a slight rock back is enough.  Click.  I’ll feed him so he rocks forward to the starting point.  I have a movement cycle.  He is in position to begin again.

When the loop is clean, it’s time to move on. That’s what keeps the use of patterns from becoming boring.  They are changing, growing, becoming more complex, more interesting at such a rapid pace.  I am reinforced by the progress I experience in every session.  I don’t stay stuck on one criterion, drilling away at it until it feels stale and begins to fall apart.  My steps are small, my criterion precise, and that means my horse and I experience tremendous success.

The process reminds me of bending a coat hanger.  The more you bend it, the softer it gets.  So, as my horse rocks back and forth between the ask and the food the delivery, he will be getting softer and softer.  The clickable point will shift seamlessly.  I’ll ask him to rock back a little more, click, feed forward.  A couple of clicks later, I can ask him to take a full step back, click, feed forward.  I’ll build that loop, let it stabilize briefly, and then move on to the next small shift in criterion.   As my loop expands, my pattern will grow increasingly complex, but always I am expanding it one very achievable, small step at a time.

My pattern will become a large, predictable, repeatable loop.  My learner won’t be worrying about what is coming next.  He knows the pattern well.  It’s click, check in with the handler to see where the food is going to be delivered, retrieve your treat, and then continue on to the next well-rehearsed step in the pattern.  Because every element in the pattern has been taught with such clarity and with positive reinforcement, every element can serve as a reinforcer for the behaviors that precede it.

That’s another benefit of this process.  The behaviors that I have taught through my clean loops can now be used to reinforce other elements in my ever-growing pattern.  I can place the click and treat at strategic points wherever I feel the added information they provide is needed.  Adding to their motivating value, every behavior in a well-constructed pattern also serves as a reinforcer.  If you want to understand how to teach patterns as complex as a dressage test using the clicker, this is the key that will unlock that puzzle.  Going micro creates the macro.

This is a game that’s fun to play because it is so easy for you both to win.  Isn’t that one of the characteristics of play?  You’re both winners.

Coming Next: How Clicker Trainers Play

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY FULL Horses: Part 3: Going Micro: Unit 2: Base Behaviors

Base Behaviors
In the previous post I introduced you to Kay Laurence’s definition of microshaping.  Often when people are freeshaping behavior, it is very hit or miss training.  They are too macro in their shaping plan, resulting in long dry spells between clicks.

Microshaping takes a very different approach.  In microshaping you are using very small steps, clear criterion, and well thought out training plans to create a success rate of 98% or better.  Base behaviors help to create this high degree of success.

A base behavior is similar to the tap root behavior I described earlier.  (Refer to: Cues Evolve: Part 2 published Sept. 1, 2016 https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/09/01/) Returning to these behaviors over and over again creates a deep history of reinforcement and helps builds the learner’s confidence.

The base behavior is just what the name implies.  It is a behavior you keep returning to that serves as the end of one movement cycle and the starting point for the next.  Kay will often click as the dog returns to the base behavior, but she will toss the treat out away from the dog.  The dog runs to get the treat and then returns promptly back to the base behavior for another click.  If you’re clever, – and Kay is – you can build a huge repertoire of reaction patterns using the concept of base behaviors.

A base behavior might be a dog coming to a balanced stop with all four feet on a platform.  The dog returns to the platform because he knows he will get clicked.  As he lands on the platform, Kay clicks and tosses the treat so the dog must leave the platform to get it.  As soon as he gets the treat, the dog returns to the platform to get clicked again.

Kay tosses the treat out very strategically.  The path the dog takes to get back to the platform produces the behavior Kay wants.  That might be trotting around a cone to get back to the platform.  Kay gradually moves the cone out to the side.  The dog could by-pass the cone and go straight to the mat, but he’s learning that going out in a wide arc around the cone is part of the behavior.

Another function for base behaviors is they let you bring your learner into stillness so you can draw his attention to a small muscle movement. Kay offers a great example of how this works.  Suppose you want to teach your dog to wag his tail on cue.  When he’s with you, tail wagging is almost always present, so it may be hard for him to realize that’s what he’s being clicked for.  The solution: have your dog lie flat on his side.  This is your base position.  The rest of your dog is still.  Only his tail is moving.  As you click each time his tail lifts up off the floor, he’ll begin to realize that’s the desired behavior.

Grown-ups and standing on a mat are two great base behaviors we use with the horses.  Both keep the feet still so you can focus on ears forward, the pilates pose, or any other muscle pattern you may be working on.
robin-on-mat-1a
Tossing Treats
With horses we don’t generally toss treats the way you can with dogs.  It isn’t that horses aren’t capable of tracking a thrown treat.  It’s more that we don’t usually work on the kinds of surfaces that we want horses eating off of.  Tossing a treat out into a sand footing raises concerns about sand colics.  And the trouble with tossing a treat out into grass doesn’t need explaining.

Kay uses tossed treats to tremendous advantage when she’s working with her dogs.  Suppose she wants to teach her dog to back up.  She’ll teach this using a mat.  Once again, coming to a balanced stop with all four feet on the mat is the base behavior.  She clicks, and then tosses the treat out in front of the mat so he has to leave the mat to get to it.

Once he’s got his treat, the dog is going to return to the base behavior.  Initially the food is tossed just a step or two away from the mat so taking a step back is the easiest way to return to the mat.  Click.  The food is tossed out a step or two from the mat and the cycle repeats.  The behavior Kay wants is backing.  She get this through the strategic use of treats and the return to the base behavior of stopping with all four feet on the mat.

Once the dog is consistently taking a step or two back to get the mat, Kay will toss the treat a little further away.  Note, the change she makes is in the distance she tosses the treat.  She doesn’t move the mat.  The dog knows where it is.  He’s learning how to return to it from increasingly greater distances and varied directions.  This creates a very confident backer.

Precision
A 98% success rate depends upon precise criteria.

So picture this.  Kay has just tossed a treat out in front of her dog.  It’s a short toss.  He only has to go a step or two forward to reach the food.  Returning to the mat means backing up a similar number of steps.

Many of us would watch the front feet, and as soon as they were both on the mat, we would click.  And we would be wrong.

We would be clicking an outcome not a behavior.  The outcome is the dog standing with all four feet on the mat.

The behavior Kay looks for is the right front steps back onto the mat, followed by the left front stepping back onto the mat – click.  That’s precision training.

What is the difference?  This level of precision means the same behavior is consistently being marked.  In the outcome driven view of the world the dog might back right front, left front this time; followed by left front, right front the next; followed by a half step forward, then right front, left front.  Those are three different approaches to the mat.  Precision training creates clean, precise results.

Dynamic Food Delivery
We may not be able to toss treats to our horses in the same way that Kay uses them with her dogs, but we can certainly put the concept of strategic treat delivery to work and use it to our advantage.  When I’m teaching backing, I turn and walk with my horse as he backs up.  After I click, I’ll turn forward and walk as I get the treat from my pocket.  I move my feet WHILE I am getting the treat out of my pocket.

I’ll end up exactly where we started when I initiated the backing.  This resets the whole behavior so I can repeat that unit over and over again until it is clean and fluid.  Then I’ll follow the mantra of loopy training: when a loop is clean, you get to move on.  Not only do you get to move on, you should move on.

I’m not asking the horse to back up, click and treat, and then back up again without going forward.  That may seem as though it’s the same behavior – backing. To the horse each additional step back is a step into unknown territory.  Is he about to step into a hole or onto unstable footing?  Is he getting too close to the electric fence or the other horses?  Each step presents a new question which means each step is a completely new behavior.

Resetting via the food delivery means I can ask for the same step over and over again, creating a consistent response for this simple reaction pattern.  I’m not being outcome driven – backing through a specific pattern.  Instead I’m focused on the reaction pattern that will create for me the ability to ask for backing at any time, for any number of desired steps, in any direction and in good balance.

Training via reaction patterns means I can be precise in my criteria.  It isn’t any step back I am looking for.   It is this foot stepping back.  And more than that, I will be watching how the horse lifts his foot.  I’ll time my click so I’m marking the upward lift of the foot, not the part of each step where his foot is returning to the ground.  I will do this until my loop is clean.  At that point it will be time to change criteria and move on to an expanded version of this movement cycle.

The video illustrates how to use strategic food delivery in combination with a request to back.  It also illustrates the difference between training for reaction patterns versus outcome.  The overall function of this set-up is to teach my horse to back in a square.  If I were training with that narrow goal in my sights, I would ask my horse to continue backing around the perimeter of the square.  Instead I build the underlying reaction pattern that will make this an easy outcome to achieve.

Precision and Play Go Together
Precision training creates precision results.

This sounds hard.  It sounds as though you have to really be focused and thinking every second.  Clicker training is supposed to be FUN! How can you play if you have to be thinking every second about which foot is moving and what part of the arc to click in?

Remember that convenience store where all the lottery tickets are printed with winning numbers?  You look at your numbers and you’ve won!  Hurray!  You don’t have to think about what your lucky number is.  You don’t have to wonder if your non random numbers look random enough.  You can choose the same set of numbers over and over again.  Each time you’ve got a winner!  Easy!

Your horse steps back onto his mat – left front, right front.  You’ve won!

Hand him the food a step or two forward.

He steps back – left front, right front.
You’ve won again!

This is easy.  This is child’s play!

Learn to set up behavior, and it truly does become playful because laughter thrives on success.  Laughter dies away when there’s confusion.  When the clicks are few and far between, when your learner decides he’d rather go sniff the nearest manure pile than interact with you, that’s when play disappears.

Play evolves out of success.  Play evolves when both learner and teacher are relaxed and confident in the process.  Good technique, attention to detail, attention to your learner’s emotional needs are the breeding ground for play.

Coming Next: Part 3: Going Micro: Patterns

P.S. To learn more about Kay Laurence’s training visit: learningaboutdogs.com

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY Full Horses Part 3: Going Micro: Unit 1 – The Many Forms of Micro

This begins Part 3 of JOY FULL Horses.  I ended Part 1 by posing the question: what are ten things you would want someone who is new to clicker training to understand about cues?  I asked you to make your own list.   In Part 2, unit by unit, I shared my answer to this question.  How did my list match up with yours?

The exploration of cues took us on quite a journey.  In any journey, once you’ve taken in the overall look of a landscape, you can begin to focus in on the finer details.  That’s what we’ll be doing in Part 3.  We’re going Micro.

The Many Forms of Micro

monty-with-miniWhy Micro
Going Micro doesn’t mean we’re all going to take up training miniature horses.  Going Micro refers to the level of focus we bring to the training.

At first blush becoming more detail-oriented would seem to be anti-play.  It’s easy to visualize a horse cantering through an agility-style obstacle course and think of that as play.

We tend to be very goal oriented.  We see someone “playing” tennis, and we think that individual is having fun.  But when that individual is a professional tennis player who spent his childhood being forced to practice for hours at a time every day, there is nothing playful in the behavior.  It is work, work, and more work.  Read Andre Agassi’s autobiography,  Open, to discover how far from Play this form of forced practice can take you.

HOW something has been taught is much more important than WHAT the behavior is.  A horse trotting through a series of obstacles may be doing so because he loves the game.  Or he may be trying hard to avoid the sharp lash of his trainer’s whip.  In this section we’re going to look at what it means to go MICRO and how that can lead directly to a creative Play state for both the handler and the horse.

MicroShaping
Kay Laurence coined the term MicroShaping.  For her it refers to a very specific form of training.  The conversation I was having with Poco, the ear-shy horse you met at the end of Part 2, depended upon my being able to ask small questions.  In clicker training we often call this thin slicing.

Kay Laurence uses this term in her training, but when Kay talks about microshaping, she doesn’t just mean breaking the training down into super small steps.  She means setting the training up so the success rate is 98% or higher.

Yes, you read that correctly.  98%.

If you want a 98% success rate, you need a well thought out training plan.  You aren’t waiting, waiting, waiting, hoping that your horse will give you something you want.  You are setting up the training environment in such a way that, of course, he presents clickable moment after clickable moment.

It also means you are looking for underlying reaction patterns – not the final outcome behavior.

Outcome Versus Reaction Pattern
When you focus on reaction patterns versus outcome, what difference does it make to your training?

If you want your horse to back up in a square, you won’t simply ask your horse to back up, and then back up some more until you have somehow gotten him around the pattern. (Or more likely trapped in a corner.)  That’s being goal driven.

If you are training reaction patterns, you’ll view backing as a movement cycle. Movement cycles are just that.  They don’t have a linear beginning, middle and end.  Rather the behaviors within the cycle loop back to the beginning point so the whole pattern can occur again.  A cycle is not complete until the individual is in position to repeat the entire pattern.  Sitting in a chair from a standing position isn’t the complete movement cycle.  You’re only half way there.  The person needs to stand up again, returning him to a position from which he can sit down.  Only then can he begin the next loop in the cycle.

So with backing you’ll begin with a very small unit.  You’ll ask your horse to shift his weight slightly back.  Click.  You’ll feed so that he’s brought forward again.  In this way you can keep repeating this small unit.  You will know you can expand to the next criterion when it is already occurring on a consistent basis.  You’ll end up with a clean, finished behavior because you trained clean throughout.

It’s easy to read fast through this last paragraph and miss completely the significance of what I am saying.  Suppose you are reinforcing your horse for standing beside you in the stationary behavior of the “grown-ups are talking”.  You want him to keep his head balanced evenly between his shoulders.  Check, he’s doing that consistently.

Behavior varies.  Doing the same exact thing over and over again just doesn’t happen.  Even Olympic athletes, as consistent as they are, show some slight variability performance to performance.  So, while your horse is standing beside you, your eye may be caught by the movement of his ear flicking forward.  He may have been listening to the sounds of horses moving in a paddock behind him, and that’s why his ears were back.  Now something has caught his attention in front of him, and his ear flicks forward to listen.  You’ve been focused on his head position.  Now that that overall position is becoming consistent, your attention can broaden out to include the flick of his ears.

If his ears were always back, it would be hard to make that the next criterion.   If a behavior isn’t happening at all, waiting for some piece of it to pop out can take your learner straight into the frustration of an extinction process.  Your learner will begin throwing behaviors at you trying to get you to click.  One of those behaviors just might be a flick of an ear, but it’s a messy process.  You’re more likely to get pinned ears as he becomes increasingly frustrated trying to figure out what you want.  Frustration can lead to a whole lot of behaviors you don’t want. They’ll become unwanted guests attaching themselves at odd times to the desired behavior.

Instead of this form of hit or miss shaping, you’ll wait until the behavior begins to pop out as you consistently reinforce your current criterion.  If the new behavior begins to happen often enough for you to notice it, then it is likely that it will happen again fairly soon.  So even if you go a tiny bit down the extinction road by withholding your click as the previous criterion occurs, your learner will very quickly land on the right answer.  Click then treat.  He won’t feel the frustration of an unsolvable puzzle.  Instead he’ll experience the pleasure of another successful answer.

Waiting until the next shift in criterion is already occurring removes a lot of training frustration for everyone – horse and handler alike.  Once you get the hang of this approach, you’ll begin to understand what it means to train via reaction patterns.  With that shift you’ll also discover that you are reaching your overall training goals faster.

Kay Laurence has a great video example illustrating the difference between training that is goal driven versus training for reaction patterns.  The final outcome that she is working towards is having her dog put his foot up on a small box.  In the goal-driven example, Kay waits to click until her dog lifts his paw onto the box.  Her dog doesn’t understand that the box is important or that she wants him to put his paw on it, so even though he has received a click for approximating that behavior, he’s not sure what he should do next.

In the video Kay trains in sixty second units.   During his first session, he presents many behaviors.  He looks around, he noses the box, he lifts his other foot, he paws at the box, he walks sideways, he backs up, etc..  At the end of the sixty seconds the number of behaviors he’s offered versus the number that were clicked puts him down around a 20% success rate.  But you don’t need to do the math to know that he’s a confused dog who isn’t having much fun.  You just have to watch the clip to see that he’s teetering on the brink of shutting down altogether and going off to have a nap.

In the second video the box is still there, but now Kay is looking for something very different.  In order for the dog to put his front foot up on the box, he first has to lift his leg up.  So she is clicking for any shift of balance through his shoulder that brings his foot up off the ground.

This transforms the training.  Suddenly the dog is getting click after click.  It’s as though you’ve walked into a convenience store to buy a scratch-off lottery ticket only to discover that every card is printed with the winning numbers!  I would eagerly buy that kind of lottery ticket.  I like knowing I’m going to win, and so do our animals.

In this second video clip instead of looking lost, the dog is fully engaged.  Very quickly he’s consistently lifting his paw.  So now it’s an easy step to move the box so it’s in the path of the paw lift.  Click, treat – you have your outcome behavior.

The dog didn’t begin by putting his paw on the box.  Kay wasn’t waiting, hoping he would do something, anything she could click.  He was set up to succeed at a 98% or higher success rate.

An important element in creating this kind of training success is the use of base behaviors.  I’ll define what that means and give some training examples in the next section.

Coming Next: Part 3: Going Micro: Base Behaviors

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

The Teachers We Get Are The Teachers We Need

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 9 of 12

Stories
“She’s just being lazy.”  That was what I was told when I first asked about the way Peregrine’s mother dragged her hind toes.  She was not even a year old, and she had been mine for just a few short weeks.

The vet hadn’t said anything during the prepurchase exam about the way she used her hind end, but then he hadn’t really looked.  This was the first prepurchase exam I had ever seen so I didn’t know what to expect.  I’ve watched many more since, and I can say that this was the sloppiest and most superficial.

She was a weanling.  What could be wrong?  Thank goodness he was so casual with the exam!  If he had looked more closely, he might have noticed the way she was moving behind.  I’m not sure what I would have chosen to do.  I didn’t want a “problem” horse.  I wanted a horse I could ride; a horse who could teach me about great horsemanship.  The Universe was clearly listening because that’s what I got.

While my friends were taking their adult horses off to shows, I was raising my dream horse.  Only there was something wrong.  Dragging her hind feet was the first sign.

“She’s just being lazy.  You need to get after her more and make her move.”

That didn’t seem right.  There was something else going on.  A month or so after I started questioning her movement, I saw her fall for the first time.  I’m glad I didn’t listen to all those well-meaning horse people who had been telling me to get after her.  I had known she wasn’t being lazy.  I knew there had to be a different answer.  I just didn’t know yet what it was.

One of the best definitions of a teacher that I have ever heard is this: a teacher is someone who started before you.  Nowadays, as a teacher, I say to people we need to tell stories about our horses that work in their best interest.  The owner of the barn told the “lazy” story about my filly.  That story leads to the “get after her” answer.

I told a different story.  I didn’t know what was going on, but I was sure there was something wrong.  I had a new vet in the practice come out and give her a more thorough exam.  This one included neurological tests – all of which she failed.

We need to tell stories that help us find good training solutions.  If I say that there is something wrong, I’ll become a good detective.  I’ll take care of my horse’s physical needs.  I’ll make sure my horse’s feet are well balanced, that his tack fits comfortably, that his nutritional needs are met.

I’ll check for lameness issues, for ulcers, and for other health issues that might interfere with my horse’s willingness to work with me.  I’ll break my training down into small, manageable steps.  If my horse doesn’t want to go forward, I’ll explain what I want more clearly.  I’ll find lots of different ways to say “go forward” until they all begin to make sense.

Suppose after all this due diligence, I discover that actually, yes, the reason my horse didn’t want to go forward was he’s lazy.  In that case what is the worst that can happen? He’ll be healthier because I reexamined his overall management.  He’ll be better trained because I explained what I wanted.  And in all likelihood, he’ll be eager to work with me, and I won’t be thinking he’s lazy.  I’ll just be appreciating his level-headedness.

But suppose I bought into that original story – “He’s just being lazy. You should get after him.”  What’s the worst that can happen?

In my filly’s case I would have destroyed all the good will I had built up in our relationship.  She wasn’t dragging her toes because she was lazy.  She was dragging them because she couldn’t feel where they were.  The neurological damage meant she couldn’t feel her hind feet as they landed.

The news was devastating.  But even more was the prognosis.  At that time the vets had nothing to offer.  They told me she would in all likelihood continue to deteriorate until she was no longer able to stand up.  She would become a danger both to herself and to anyone who was near her.  I would never be able to ride her.  The best thing I could do would be to put her down.

I couldn’t do it.

I felt trapped.  I wanted a riding horse, not a pasture ornament.  I couldn’t afford a second horse.  But I couldn’t put her down just because she couldn’t do for me what I wanted.  Her life had value to her.  When she got to the point where she couldn’t stand up and life was hard for her, then I would face the decision to put her down.  That was the future we were looking at.  In the meantime I had to deal with the problems each day presented.

One Day At A Time
While my friends were learning how to jump, I was teaching my filly how to walk – literally.  When most of us talk about teaching our horse to walk we simply mean when we are asking them to walk with a certain energy level and overall balance.  We don’t mean how to put one foot in front of the other without falling.

When you are caught in a situation like this, you try many different things.  It is truly everything and the kitchen sink.  At the universities scientists run controlled studies so they can say this technique works, and this other is just an old wife’s tale.  I wasn’t interested in controlled studies.  I tried lots of different things.  Her condition began to stabilize.  She wasn’t getting worse.  The neurological deficit was still there.  It would always be there, but she was learning how to compensate for the lack of proprioception.

Her balance was better, but not her mood.  She was a terrible grump.  She didn’t want to be groomed.  If you walked past her shoulder, you would get pinned ears and her head snaking out at you to warn you off.  I always had to be careful when others walked past her to make sure she didn’t bite at them.  The barn owner had no use for her.  He made his money by taking clients to horse shows and giving them lessons.  From his point of view she was useless, and on top of that she was bad tempered.

I didn’t see her this way.  She was my beautiful, best beloved.  Together we were figuring out how to manage her condition.  But the grumpiness was a concern.  She clearly hurt somewhere, but she couldn’t tell me where.  As soon as I approached her, she was warning me off.

TTEAM
In one of the many horse magazines I was reading at that time, I came across an article about Linda Tellington-Jones’ TTEAM training.  The article described in detail the TEAM body work.

I was up for trying anything.  That evening at the barn I experimented with the TTEAM circles. You were to cup your hand lightly on the horse.  Then you imagined a clock face.  Beginning at 6 o’clock, you moved your finger tips once around the clock back to 6 and a little beyond, pressing softly into the horse’s coat.  You were to make one circle, and then move on to a different spot, letting your fingers guide you.

I tried it.  My filly melted.  Her head dropped.  Her eyes got soft.  She let me in.

Her whole body didn’t hurt.  Finally, she could show me where the problem was.  I could do TTEAM circles everywhere but one spot on her shoulder.  That was off limits.

Now I could help her.

I didn’t have a lot of money.  Taking on a horse was stretching my budget to it’s limits, but I knew I had to learn more about TTEAM.  I knew I needed to study with Linda directly.

So I did some research, booked a spot on a clinic she was teaching out in the mid-west and got on an airplane.  That was the first of many long journeys my horses have sent me on.

Innovations Come From the Outside In
Whether you are talking about the sciences, sports, economics: whatever the field of study is, new innovations evolve by bringing in ideas from the outside.  We don’t evolve from the inside expanding out.  We evolve by bringing in fresh ideas and combining them with what we already know.  That’s how we come up with completely novel combinations.

That’s what Sally Swift did through her Centered Riding.  She introduced the horse world to the Alexander technique and transformed how riding is taught.

Linda Tellington-Jones did something comparable for how horses are handled.  She combined Moshe Feldenkrais’ work with her knowledge of horse training to produce something brand new and revolutionary – TTEAM.

Linda describes how she stumbled across Feldenkrais.  She and her husband, Wentworth Tellington, had been running a school for instructors in California.  They had 65 horses, plus staff and students, and all the responsibility and work that goes along with the running of a successful program.  Linda burned out.  She divorced her husband, sold off all the horses and went traveling.

As she described it, she put her antennae up and followed them wherever they took her.  I love that image, and I have used it myself many times.  I follow my antennae, and they have taken me on many wonderful adventures.

Following Antennae
Following my antennae took me to TTEAM.  I became a TTEAM Practitioner and in the mid-1980s I began teaching.  That hadn’t been my intent when I headed off on this journey, but people were seeing what I was doing with Peregrine’s mother, and they were curious.  How could she be doing so much more than their own horses when she was so very handicapped?

Because I was willing to travel, I had access to people they didn’t.  I was bringing in new ideas from the outside.  I was still greener than green in so many ways.  Some of my clients could most definitely ride circles around me in terms of their skills on horseback, but I had access to resources they didn’t.  And I was beginning to understand balance in a way that could help every horse I encountered.

The Joy of Discovery
There is a lot to be said for riding lots of horses.  That’s the typical horse background of most professionals.  They’ve grown up on the backs of horses, riding everything and anything that came their way.

I was having a very different and very unique experience.  While others were off riding at shows, I was piecing together yet another tiny layer of the balance puzzle.   What fascinated me was process.  My clients understood that I didn’t have set answers for them.  What I was sharing was a love of exploration.  I wasn’t giving them recipes: this and only this is the way you train.  I was sharing with them the joy of discovering yet another layer in the training puzzle.

People would contact me because they were struggling with some handling issue.  Usually within a session or two we would be well on the way to solving their original problem, but now they were hooked on learning more.  The adventure of discovery was what I was sharing.  Very quickly they didn’t need me any more for the original problem.  That was well behind us, but they wanted to keep going, to join me on the journey that eventually led to clicker training and all that it represents.

Ready To Teach
Many of my clients became long-term friends.  As their skills expanded, they also became interested in teaching, but often they weren’t sure if they were really qualified to help others.  When someone voices concerns about being ready to teach, I always refer back to my own early experiences.  We are all experts in our own experience.  That is the one thing we can safely say.  I may not be an expert in jumping or team penning, but I am an expert in my own life experience.  That is something I know well and can share.

A teacher is someone who started before you.

I have always loved that definition.  I don’t know where I first heard it or who gets the credit for it.  Whoever it was said a very wise thing.

You don’t have to wait until you are The Expert in your field to have something useful to contribute.  You can teach and share out of your own experience.  As long as people understand that you are teaching process, an on-going, never-ending exploration, you are fine.  You aren’t teaching something that is set in stone and where you have all THE answers.  You are teaching a process of exploration.  You are inviting others to join you on the journey.

Change Makers
These days if you watch me train, most of the time you won’t see anything that jumps out at you that says: she must know TTEAM.

TTEAM was a stepping stone, and a very important one at that.  Linda followed her antennae to Moshe Feldenkrais.  He told her to keep exploring and to create.  She became a Feldenkrais practitioner, but instead of using the work just on people, Linda carried it back to what she knew – horses.  Out of that combination she developed something new.

I remember helping Linda at a clinic she was giving for a university audience in Madison Wisconsin.  It was a large group that included many vets and vet students.  One of the horses she worked that day was a big, raw-boned chestnut thoroughbred named Perfect.

Linda began by exploring his body using what she called tiger touches.  Tiger touches are not meant to be therapeutic.  They are used to collect data.  Instead of the soft circles that I had first tried, in the tiger touches you curve your fingers more like the claws of a cat – hence the name – and you go deep into the muscles.  You begin the exploration up at the horse’s poll and then work your way down his spine, shoulders and hindquarters.

At every point that Linda tested, Perfect reacted.  When she got to his back, he all but dropped to his knees, he was in so much pain.

I listened to a gasp go up in the audience.  Linda was helping people see what had been in front of them all this time.

What they had been taught had kept them from seeing how much pain horses could be in.  We had all been told horses are stupid animals.  Over and over again we heard this.  That was the underlying belief system that dominated horse training.  “Horses are stupid animals and because they are stupid, you have to use force to train them.”  But then this was added: “Don’t worry, they don’t feel pain the way we do.”

A month or so after I watched Linda working with Perfect, I was reading an article in one of the major horse magazines.  It was written by a vet.  In the article he stated that horses do not experience back pain.

That was 1984.  We have truly come a long way, and Linda, I believe, was a major catalyst for that change.

In 1984 we didn’t pay attention to saddle fit.  You found a saddle that fit YOU, and then you used it on every horse that you rode.   I remember being taught to put saddles up on top of the horse’s withers.  When the saddle slid back on our high withered thoroughbreds, we put breast collars on to hold them in place.

It was Tony Gonzales, a farrier from Hawaii, who started to look at saddle placement.  He had people watch how their horses moved when the saddles were placed up on the withers.  Then he slid the saddles back behind the “locking in” point of the shoulder and had them watch again.  The change was often dramatic.  Now that the saddle was no longer pinching their shoulders, the horses could move.

Tony pointed out how uneven our horses often are.  I remember being at a clinic of his that Sally Swift was also attending.  Tony lifted Sally up so she could see down the spine of a tall thoroughbred.  He pointed out how uneven this horse’s shoulders were.

This is general knowledge today, but it took a farrier from Hawaii bringing in fresh information to help us see what had always been right in front of us.

Change Our Beliefs, Change the World
When Peregrine’s mother was first diagnosed, there weren’t any chiropractors, or body workers around to help.  They didn’t exist for horses.  If they don’t experience pain, why would you need a body worker?

But now there are physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, energy workers.  They are there in large part because Linda did tiger touches on a chestnut thoroughbred named Perfect. Together they helped people see what had always been there – horses do experience pain.  It is just as real to them as it is to us.  They are just better at hiding it.

Detective Work
I have always said I was so lucky in my horses, first with the neurological issues, and then later with Peregrine and his stifles.  That may not sound lucky, but at least I knew what I was dealing with.  There was no hiding these issues.  I’ve dealt with so many horses who are puzzles.  You know something isn’t right, but the horse masks the symptoms.  It’s tempting to dismiss the reluctant attitude and reach instead for “just make him do it” solutions.

Again, we need to remember that horses are prey animals that rely on the safety of the herd for protection.  Any animal that looks lame or infirm will attract the notice of predators.  To stay safe horses have to hide their pain.  That doesn’t mean they don’t feel the sharp twinge every time they take a step.  I’ve had lots of injuries that I kept to myself.

If you don’t see the injury, you don’t need to know about it.  That’s how horses operate.  If they look vulnerable, they could be driven out of the herd.  Alone and infirm, they will certainly attract the attention of any predators that are around.

We need to remember this when we go looking for the root cause of our horse’s reluctant attitude.  The big things horses will show.  It’s hard to disguise an abscess or a torn tendon.  But other things they will be reluctant to let you see.

“He’s not right” will be a nagging feeling.  Vets, trainers, other horse people will tell you nothing is wrong, but you’ll still have that gut feeling.  Listen to it.  Be a good detective and tell a story that works in the best interest of your horse.

Coming Next: Stepping Stones
I promised you I would be returning to the ear-shy horse, and now finally in this next post, that’s what I’ll be doing.

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

The Clicker Super Glue

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 6 of 12

What Keeps People Interested in Clicker Training?
I ended yesterday’s post with the question: what is the “glue” that gets somebody to stick to clicker training?  What makes someone take more than that first look?  What creates the shift from being simply curious about clicker training, to giving it a try, to becoming an active user, and eventually a clicker trainer?  I think there are four main elements that go into the creation of clicker super glue.

Science
The first component of clicker super glue is a love of science.  I’ve already talked about this, but let me expand on it here.  When I talk about a love of science I don’t mean someone who has read the chapter on learning theory in the psychology text book and memorized the four quadrants.  Lots of people can give you the definitions of negative and positive punishment.  That’s simply someone who has done a bit of reading.

A love of science is something more.  It’s that curiosity that has you always asking the “why” questions.  It’s wanting to know how things work.  It’s never being satisfied with the “because that’s the way it’s done” answers.

Someone who is passionate about science is also passionate about history.  You want to know what others before you have said in answer to those “why” questions.  Where did our current ideas come from?  Why do we use marker signals?  Why do we call them bridging signals? Where did that term come from?  What was meant by it, and is it still applicable?

“Just because” isn’t good enough.  How do we test our ideas?   How do we peel back the layers of confusion our words often create and look at what is really going on when we say antecedents set the occasion for behaviors which are controlled by consequences?   Do you nod your head and passively write that down in your notes?  Or do you want to dig down into those words to find out what those relationships really mean for your animals?

People who are passionate about science understand that what is understood today is not fixed in stone.  As we learn more, our understandings change.  In the sciences, as you test ideas and develop techniques that allow for more fine-tuned levels of exploration, ideas shift.  Science is the perfect companion to training.

science is the perfect companionIn both you will hear people saying: I used to follow this line of thought, but then the data showed me that this other was a better explanation/approach.  It offered a more functional interpretation or way of handling the behavior I was seeing.

Nothing becomes entrenched because we are always asking those why questions.

Science alone is not enough.  Think of it like the super glues that come in two separate tubes.  Each tube by itself won’t hold anything together, but combine them, and you have a super glue that will last for years.  By itself science creates an interest in training, but it doesn’t guarantee that someone will turn into what I mean by a clicker trainer.

Relationship
One of the other super glue “tubes” is relationship.  When I first went out to the barn with a clicker in my hand and treats in my pocket, I was curious.  The scientist in me wanted to explore what sounded like an intriguing approach to training.  There weren’t any other equine clicker trainers around to act as role models.  I didn’t go out to the barn because I had been watching youtube videos showing me the amazing relationships people were developing with their horses.  It was the science behind the training that made me take the first look.  I kept going because that early exploration into clicker training so enriched the relationship I had with Peregrine.

I started sharing my early forays into clicker training with my clients.  I remember asking one of them what she thought about clicker training.  She said out of all the things I had shown her, it was her favorite.  When I asked why, she said it was because of the relationship it created with her horse.

Repertoire
Two tubes aren’t enough to create clicker super glue.  There is another element that I think is critical and that’s repertoire.

I’ve known many people who were excited to try clicker training.  They introduced their horses to the target, and then they got stuck.  What do you do with it?  That was the question.

When I started with the clicker, Peregrine already knew a lot, but there were glitches and speed bumps throughout his training.  Always the physical issues he had with his stifles got in the way.  As a youngster, he was plagued by locking stifles.  The stifle joint is equivalent to our knee.  When Peregrine wanted to take a step forward, the tendons that ran over his knee cap wouldn’t always release.  He’d try to move, and one or both of his hind legs just wouldn’t bend.  He’s be stuck in place until they let go.  On the ground backing usually unlocked his joints.  Under saddle the solution he was more likely to find was a hard buck forward.

So you could say he was both very well trained, and at the same time very much a problem horse.  On a good day he was a dream to ride, but when his stifles were locking up, he was a nightmare.  His stifles had forced me to learn so much more about training, especially about ground work, just to be able to manage him safely on those bad days.  On the good days, that same training produced some simply beautiful work.

Twenty plus years ago when Peregrine and I were first exploring clicker training, ground work for most people meant lunging.  That was all they knew.  You lunged your horse to get the “bucks out” so your horse was safe to ride.

Lunging was often crudely done.  The horse ran around you on a circle, often out of balance, often pulling on your lunge line.  It wasn’t fun for either of you, so if someone said: “we’re going to use the clicker to do ground work”, of course people ran for the hills!  What was fun about ground work?

I’ve raised all my horses.  Peregrine was a horse I bred.  I raised his mother, and Robin came to me as a yearling, so ground work to me has always meant so much more than lunging.  Ground work is the teaching of connection.  Ground work means showing your horse how to get along with people.  It includes basic manners and leading skills, but it’s so much more than that.  For a young horse ground work includes long walks out to learn about the world.  It includes walking through mud puddles and over wooden bridges, meeting the cows that live in the next field over, encountering joggers and bicycle riders.  It means liberty training and in-hand work.  It means learning about your body and gaining control over your balance so you can go up and down hills safely and one day carry a rider in comfort.

All this meant that after Peregrine was routinely touching a target, I wasn’t stuck.  I had a rich and varied repertoire to work with.  I began by reshaping everything I had ever taught him with the clicker.  In so many places I could almost hear him say: “Oh THAT’S what you wanted!  Why didn’t you say so before?”

Everything I had already taught him – the clicker made better. I began by using it as a piggy back tool, meaning I simply added it in to familiar lessons.  I would ask Peregrine to rotate up into shoulder-in much as I had always asked him, and I would click and treat as he complied.  It made him more willing, so it took less explaining on my part to get the desired response.

Reworking our existing repertoire got us a solid foot in the clicker door.  It gave us lots to explore to get us started.  When I’m introducing people to clicker training, I want to help them see all the many possibilities that exist in ground work.  If you equate clicker training just with targeting, you may well get stuck.  Your horse is touching a target.  That was fun, but now what?

The “now what” is finding creative ways to use that targeting behavior.  And it’s recognizing that there are many other shaping methods you can use.

It’s remembering that at one point your horse didn’t know how to pick up his feet for cleaning or to stand quietly while you put on his halter.  Can you use the clicker to make those things better?  Of course you can!  While you are learning how clicker training works, you can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

I like beginning with the “universals”, things we all do with our horses regardless of the type of riding we do.  We all need to clean our horse’s feet, groom them, halter them, and, if we ride, bridle and saddle them.  Below is a fun video from Monty Gwynne showing how a clicker-trained horse takes a bridle.  It’s a great example of turning the ordinary – something we all do on a regular basis – into something with real clicker flare.

Persistence
Science, relationship, repertoire are all important.  There’s one more component to our super glue and that’s persistence.

Training is not easy.  It is not straight forward.  It is certainly not a linear path where one success builds on another, and you never have another frustrating day ever again with your horse.

Training is about running up against a reaction you don’t understand and going off to have a proverbial cup of tea while you figure out a different way to approach the problem.  You have to have persistence to weather these little storms of confusion.  You have to have persistence to learn the handling skills that can make the difference between smooth-sailing success and a stormy ride.

You can understand the science inside and out, but your horse may still be turning his back and walking off the minute he sees you coming.  Persistence keeps you in the game, scratching your head trying to figure out what to do next. What do you change?  What do you add?

Persistence is what gets you to clinics and fills your bookshelves with training book after training book.  It is what gets you to tie a lead rope to your fence rail so you can practice, practice, practice your rope handling skills before you ever go near your horse.  And it is what takes you back out to the barn to see what your horse thinks of all the homework you’re doing on his behalf.

Put these four things together and you will have someone who shifts from simply giving clicker training a quick look to someone who is actively using clicker training on a routine basis.  But that still doesn’t mean someone is a clicker trainer.

Coming Next: Using Clicker Training Versus Being A Clicker Trainer

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

You Can’t Not Cue: Part 1 of 12

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 1 of 12

Using the Cues Your Horse Discovers

Collecting Gems
I began with the intent of introducing a beginner clicker trainer to the concept of cues.  Look where it’s taken us!  The first post in this unit was put up on Feb. 10, 2016.  Look at all the things I’ve covered since then.  I may have started out really simple, but as I’ve marched through the list, I’ve covered some very complex concepts.

That’s very much like training in general.  Focus on one particular exercise over a period of time, and you’ll ALWAYS get many more good things emerging from it than that one simple beginning point.

The more we look at cues, the more good things we see that are connected to this “green light” concept.

So far we’ve looked at:
1.) Cues and commands are not the same.
2.) Not all cues are verbal.
3.) Cues can come from inanimate objects.  You can have environmental cues.
4.) Our animals can cue us.
5.) Cues evolve out of the shaping process.
6.) Having a cue attached to a behavior isn’t enough.  We need stimulus control – a fancy term for saying you get the behavior you want when you want it and only when you want it.
7.) We can use cues to counter balance one another to create stimulus control.
8.) Cues change and evolve. You can use this to create the degree of lightness you want.  You can also create new cues for existing behaviors.

Now for number nine I would say to my novice clicker trainer:

9.) You can’t not cue.

Your horse is a grandmaster at reading humans.  And he’s also great at predicting the future.  He knows your patterns even if you don’t.  He knows when you’re about to ask him for head lowering, for backing, etc..  Before you can give what you think is the cue, he’s already worked out what you want.  It’s time to notice those cues so you can play with them and have some fun as you solve some common training problems.

Clever Hans
I wrote about Clever Hans earlier.  (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/02/14/) Clever Hans was a horse who gained fame in Germany in the early years of the 20th century.  It was said he could do basic arithmetic, including multiplying and dividing.  He could tell time; he could keep track of the days in a week and solve other puzzles that were asked of him.  Ask him how much 3 times 9 was, and Clever Hans would tap out the right answer.  Of course, it had to be a trick. Horses couldn’t do math or know the answers to these other questions.  But how was he doing it?  Even when they took his owner away, Clever Hans would still tap out the correct answers.

A panel of experts examined him, but couldn’t solve the puzzle.  And then in 1907 a psychologist named Oskar Pfungst cracked the code.  Clever Hans didn’t need his owner to be present.  As long as the other people watching knew the answer, Clever Hans would stop tapping at the correct moment.  It wasn’t magic or a hoax, just a horse who was extremely good at reading body language.

He couldn’t do arithmetic and all of those other intellectual feats. People could go right back to their firmly held belief that horses were indeed stupid animals.

How sad.  There is another conclusion they could have drawn – and celebrated. Horses are brilliant at reading body language.

We are training the species that is represented by Clever Hans.  You can fight your horse’s ability to read even the subtlest of cues, or you can put it to good use.

Working WITH Your Own Clever Hans
If I were setting up a scientific study to test a horse’s ability to differentiate colours, I might want to be very rigid in my experimental design.  I would want to know that I wasn’t giving away the answer through some subtle hints I might not even be aware of.  I would have to work hard to take my body language out of the picture.  I might wear dark glasses so my horses couldn’t see where I was looking, but even that wouldn’t be enough. Horses are such masters at reading subtle signals, any tilt of my head would be a giveaway.

Fighting against my horse’s ability to read me is NOT how I train. I’m not training my horses so I can pass the scrutiny of some scientific standard.  Instead of fighting my horse’s ability to read body language, I’m going to make use of it.  I WANT my horses to read me.  And I want my horses to be successful.

So I’m going to embrace a very basic understanding of cues which is: you can’t not cue.

Canine Teachers
Several years back at the Clicker Expo Morten and Cecilia Egverdt did a series of presentations on teaching canine obedience using backchaining.  They want high energy, enthusiastic dogs who can perform with great accuracy and precision.  When a signal is given in competition, they expect an immediate response.

They taught their dogs via clicker training.  The end result was sharp, accurate performance at the highest levels of competition.  In a competition if you were comparing one of Morten’s clicker-trained dogs with other dogs that were more conventionally trained, you would see all the dogs working with extreme accuracy and precision.  They would all respond immediately to the signals they were given. They would all work at speed.  They would all work accurately.  Stimulus control would create in all the dogs very polished performances.

But Morten stressed that he didn’t want to end up with a dog that was indistinguishable from the more conventionally-trained dogs.  He wanted his clicker-trained dogs to retain the enthusiasm for their work that they displayed when they were first learning new skills.  He wanted to keep the creativity and joy even as he developed the unwavering precision in response.  He wanted his dogs to know that offering behavior was still okay.

At the start of a work session his dogs could offer behaviors that were appropriate to that particular environment.  If they were out in their training arena, they could sit, lie down, spin, run in a big circle, leap over a jump, etc..  Any and all of these behaviors would be reinforced.

It was as if the dogs had a menu from which to choose.  In this environment barking, digging holes in the footing, biting the handler – these are NOT behaviors which will ever be reinforced.  But sitting, lying down, running backwards, jumping over the jump, retrieving the dumbbell, these are all behaviors which will earn clicks and treats – until . . .

Until the handler gives the first definite cue.  After that ONLY the behaviors which are cued will be reinforced.  No off-cue behaviors will earn a click and treat.

Selecting from the Menu
I loved the concept of the menu.  In this context, these are the behaviors that have a high probability of being reinforced.  This is something I very much want my horses to understand.  It is the basis for what I refer to as default behaviors.

A horse can’t do nothing – not unless he is dead.  Your horse is always doing something.  When I’m in the barn doing chores and my horses are in their stalls, there are lots of possible “somethings” they could be doing.  Some of the “somethings” would be behaviors that I wouldn’t want – banging on the stall door or raking their teeth across the metal bars to get my attention.  I also wouldn’t want them pacing, attacking their neighbors, rearing up, etc..

I wouldn’t mind if they took a nap, ate their hay, drank from their water bucket.  Those are all perfectly acceptable behaviors.  If they want me to interact with them, they could pose, or put their ears forward.  They don’t have to wait for a specific cue from me.  I am the cue.  If I walk past my horse’s stall and he wants to initiate a conversation, all he has to do is arch his neck in what I consider to be a pretty pose.  Click – he has my attention.

I’m not under perfect stimulus control. Sometimes I’m carrying two water buckets which makes stopping to give a treat difficult.  But I think my horses would tell you, they have me pretty well trained.

What Morton and Cecilie’s work suggests is that the dogs (and horses) are learning the concept of putting individual behaviors into categories.  Under these conditions these behaviors are acceptable.  If you want reinforcement, offer me behaviors from within this class.  Cantering is a wonderful behavior to offer out here in the arena, but I don’t want to see it in the barn aisle or in your stall!

Use Your Cues
The only place where I parted company with what they were saying was their comment that they weren’t cueing these behaviors.  I watched a video clip showing one of their dogs offering behavior after behavior while Cecilie stood in a rigid position, arms at her side, feet together.  Of course she was cueing!  That body position was the cue for her dogs to offer behavior.

I don’t want to fight these cues, or pretend that they aren’t there.  The previous section looked at how cues evolve out of the shaping process.  I want to put them to work.  As soon as I recognize how fast cues emerge out of the shaping process, I can begin to use them to solve some very common behavior problems.

Coming Next: An Accident Waiting To Happen

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

Cues Evolve: Part 3

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed 

The previous post introduced the concept of tap root behaviors.  You strengthen a base behavior by returning frequently to it.  Like a well-nourished tap root, it keeps getting stronger.  The reinforcement history becomes extra deep, and you’ll have a rich network of behaviors branching off from it.  In this next section we’ll build on the solid foundation of good manners that approach creates.

Saying Please and Thank You  
Suppose a friend is visiting you with her four year old daughter.  The toddler sees some toys you have in a basket.  (We won’t tell her mother they’re dog toys you keep there for your other friends and their canine companions.)

The child asks to play with the toys.  Immediately, her mother is saying “What do you say?”

“Please,” the child answers.

You hand the child a toy to play with (a new one that hasn’t yet been chewed by your canine guests).

Again, the mother prompts, “What do you say?”

The child parrots out the answer: “Thank you.”

“Please” and “thank you” aren’t just for toddlers.  She isn’t learning to say these phrases just to satisfy her mother.  They are the glue that holds our social lives together.

We ask permission.  We don’t demand.

We say thank you in appreciation for all the little gestures of accommodation that make life easier.  It takes time for please and thank you to become habits, but once learned and understood, it becomes second nature to include them in conversations.

Good Manners are a Good Habit
Grown-ups is similar.  At first you have to keep reminding your horse that manners matter. He can’t just go straight to your pockets for goodies.  It takes a while for good manners to become a good habit.

I remember when I first started working with Panda, Ann was worried about her interest in my pockets.  Ann was struggling with her new guide dog.  He came to her with a total lack of basic living-with-humans manners.  Her previous dogs had always had the freedom of her house.  This dog had to live either crated or behind baby gates.  If he was given free access to the house, he would turn anything that wasn’t tied down into a chew toy.

This can be a problem for anyone living with a dog, but for someone who is blind it is especially so.  Every time you hear your dog chewing something, you have to check to see what he has. It could be your best dress shoes, a harmless dog toy, or a pill bottle filled with medicine that could kill him.

Manners matter.  This dog was supposed to be showing me the model to copy for training a super guide.  Instead he was showing me everything you didn’t want.  Ann didn’t need two problem animals.  When a very young Panda wanted to see what else we were hiding in our pockets, I could feel Ann tensing.  She had enough trouble with this dog.  She didn’t need a pushy horse, as well.

I’d only had Panda a week when we had our first long car trip.  I was teaching a clinic at a barn that was about an hour from my home.  We were quite the Noah’s Arc heading off that day. Panda was still learning how to ride in a car, so I sat in the back seat with her.  Ann sat in front with her guide dog wedged in between her feet.  And another client drove us.

Panda was essentially right in my lap so my pockets were at nose level for the entire trip.  I couldn’t be more vulnerable, and there was no putting her away and taking a break.  For the entire hour’s drive we worked on grown-ups.

Each time Panda took her nose away even for a second, click, she got a treat.  What Ann was hearing from the front seat was a rapid-fire barrage of clicks.  She’s an experienced clicker trainer so she knows how training works.  You begin with high rates of reinforcement for little things, and you gradually expand them out.  But I knew she was worried.  Her shepherd was supposed to be a “trained” dog, but everything was still in the “terrible twos” toddler stage with him. How was this going to work for Panda?

Panda was our true “toddler”.  She was only nine months old on that first car ride.  Just like a human child, she needed a lot of reminders to say “please” and “thank you”.  She was learning that mugging my pockets not only never got her treats, it wasn’t necessary.  There were so many other, great ways to get me to click.

The Grown-ups Really Are Talking
Panda was also learning that she didn’t need to bang the proverbial kitchen pots and pans to get attention.  She got plenty of attention, but sometimes my focus needed to shift away from her.  She was learning at those times it was okay to take a nap.

Panda asleep 5 photos

By the time she went to live full time with Ann, the grown-ups really could talk uninterrupted.  We could go out to dinner with Panda as Ann’s guide.  She had learned to stand next to Ann’s chair dozing while waiters set yummy smelling food on the table.  Panda would occasionally poke her nose above the table to check out what was on the menu, but she never interrupted – not until after the desert course, and then it was only to let Ann know she needed to go out.

(By the way – if you want great service, take a guide horse with you.  It was always great fun watching the waiters competing to see who got to serve the table with the mini horse.)

Great Service
This reminds me of a great Panda story.  The very first store we took Panda into was Lowes Hardware.  We quickly discovered that Panda loved to shop!  I don’t know what there is about the long cavernous aisles of the big box stores that she likes, but from the very beginning Panda has always enjoyed her trips to these stores.

She had trotted down several aisles before we found the PVC pipe we had come for.  Ann and I were discussing what size we needed for our project when I looked up.  Normally you have to hunt for someone to help you.  Not this time!  We were surrounded by twelve sales clerks.  One of them said, “We heard on the walkie-talkie there was a horse in bathroom fittings.”

I could just imagine what they were thinking – some idiot has brought a full sized horse into the store.  They had all come running.

Of course, we got great service!  And think of the conversations they must have had that night around the dinner table!

Coming Next: Consistency

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

Even Play Has Rules

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

Reminders
The rules surrounding play grow out of a core understanding of cues.  Again we have:

1.) Cues and commands are not the same.
2.) Not all cues are verbal.
3.) Cues can come from inanimate objects.  You can have environmental cues.
4.) Our animals can cue us.
5.) Cues evolve out of the shaping process.
6.) You need to be able to get what you want, when you want it, and only when you want it.  In other words, you need stimulus control.

This brings us to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staue of a horse with caption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is really what it means when you say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zatcho loved giving hugs.

He loved jacking his knees up to his eyebrows.

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

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

“Up”

“Down”

“Up”

“Down”

“Left”

“Right”

“Attention!”

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

That’s not play.

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line Summary
So what is the bottom line?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com