Even Play Has Rules

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

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

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

This brings us to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staue of a horse with caption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is really what it means when you say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zatcho loved giving hugs.

He loved jacking his knees up to his eyebrows.

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

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








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

That’s not play.

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line Summary
So what is the bottom line?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 2: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, JOY Full Horses.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

In the preceding section I talked about why it is so important to be in a PLAY Full mindset when you go out to the barn.  I ended with this:

You want to build a conditioned response for yourself.  No matter what sort of a day you’ve had, as soon as you head out to the barn – your mood shifts.  The good news is you really can build triggers for yourself that turn this into a habit.  In this section I’ll be explaining how.

Number 2: Non-Verbal Cues, continued

Chapter 2: Turning being PLAY FULL into a Habit

Power of habit book cover

The Power of Habits
It’s all well and good to say we want to be PLAY FULL.  Your intentions may be good, but what is the reality?  What are your emotional patterns?  Is it your habit to be cheerful, or do you let the stresses of the day get the better of you?  How do you develop the habit of being PLAY FULL so that’s always how you are when you’re with your horse?

In his excellent book, “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg talks about how to alter existing habits and how to build new, desirable ones.

Without knowing it he was describing a process we use in clicker training to build clean sequences of behavior.  Clean means the sequences are made up only of the behaviors you want.  There are no unwanted behaviors messing up the progression from one behavior to the next or attaching themselves tight as a tick onto existing behaviors.

I refer to this teaching process as Loopy Training. You begin with a tight, small loop.  We often write this as:

click to reward

Reward is the short hand that’s often used, but it’s not the best word to choose.  Rewards certainly imply something good has been presented, but they aren’t necessarily directly linked to the behavior you’re trying to say “yes” to.  Getting a Christmas bonus may make you look forward even more to the Holidays, but it’s a clumsy way to reinforce you for a job well done in September. If the reward was linked to the task, it would serve as a much better reinforcer.

To remind us that we want to maintain the “ABC” tight connection between the behavior and it’s consequences, it is better to write this phrase out as:

click to reinforcement

Reinforce means to strengthen.  You reinforce a bridge or concrete.  You reinforce relationships.  If our actions reinforce a behavior, we should see more of that behavior.

When we write out this single phrase, it’s easy for our brains to end the sequence there and not see this as an on-going process.  We really should be writing this as:

loopy training diagram
As Duhigg describes them, habits are very much like that training loop.  They begin with a cue that triggers them, then the response, followed by the reward (or to use the language of animal trainers – followed by reinforcement.)

We all know we have habits – good and bad.  We are in the habit of always closing pasture gates once we’ve gone through them, of latching stall doors, turning off the barn lights when we go out.  Those are good habits to be in, but you might also have bad habits such as saying “you know” too often when you talk, or stopping at Starbucks on your way home for that extra sweet cup of coffee and sugar.

What the research makes us aware of is just how much of our lives are run by habits.  Going to the barn is one of my habits.  (And a very good one.)  Before the horses moved to the new barn, I would see them in the evening.  My schedule was dictated by the evening chores.  At the boarding barn stalls were cleaned only once a day in the morning.  If I wanted my horses to go overnight on a clean bed, I had to be there in the evening to do it.  And if I wanted to leave them with a warm mash and a late night snack of hay, again I had to be there to pass it out.  The last feed done by the barn staff was at 4 pm, and that’s too long a stretch to go until morning for a horse’s digestive system.

So my days revolved around the need to be at the barn to do evening chores.  Often I’d get to the barn feeling completely wiped out from a long day. At the start of the evening I’d be thinking this really is not going to be a riding night, but by the time I was cleaning the last of our stalls, I’d be itching to get my saddle out.  What had changed?

I was in a behavior chain.  I did the stalls in a consistent pattern.  Completing one stall became the cue to move on to the next.  I was moving from one conditioned response to the next.  By the time I got to the last stall, the triggers for riding were cued.  It happened every night.

cue:trigger loop
The Effect of Cues
The reinforcement in this case was the cue for the next link in the chain.  Confused?  Here’s an easy way to think of this.  Suppose you’re teaching a puppy to sit.  You say “sit”, and as he does, you click and give him a bit of hot dog.  The word “sit” will fast become a predictor of hot dogs.  Your puppy loves hot dogs, and he loves all the social attention sitting brings him, so he’ll be eager to hear you give the cue.  In fact he’ll be on the lookout for ways to get you to say “sit”.

If he jumps up on you and you say “sit”, and then you give him a bit of hot dog for listening so well to you, what have you in fact just reinforced?  What behavior are you going to see more of?

Jumping up.


Because jumping up led to the cue “sit” which reliably produces hot dogs.

This may not be what you intended, but this is the habit pattern you are inadvertently creating.

In my case I was reinforcing good habits.  Each little habit led me predictably through my evening.  The last step in this long sequence brought me to the last ride of the night which was always reserved for Peregrine.  I always saved his session for the end.  Why? Why do we save desert for the end of the meal? Because we want to leave our favorite, best reward for the end.

Unexpected Habits
When we moved the horses to the new barn, my day flipped upside down.  Instead of going out to the barn in the evening, I was now going first thing in the morning.  I had been looking forward to being able to ride whenever I wanted.  In a boarding barn you are always working around other people’s schedules.  Here in my own barn I could ride at any time.  At least, that was the theory.  The reality was my habits got in the way.

Mornings were for working on the computer.  I would finish the last of the stalls, and then head into the tack room but not to get my saddle.  The tack room also served as a temporary office.  That’s where my computer was.  Riding the horses in the morning felt decadent.  The pull to the computer trumped playing with the horses.  That was the stronger morning habit.

Most of what we do through the course of our day is really the result of one habit piled on top of another.  I’m not talking here about the big, noticeable habits that we are probably aware of, but lots of tiny microhabits that go into forming the routine of our day.

Emotional Habits
It’s not just what we do that are determined by these habits.  It’s also how we feel about what we do.  I became very aware of this because of all the traveling that I do.  At home my day follows routines.  Not every day is the same, but it is made up of familiar segments.  Some days include a trip to the post office. That forms a distinct loop inside the larger flow of my day.  Once I enter that habit loop, it unfolds in familiar sequences with emotions attached to it that are the product of classical conditioning.

There’s the feeling of annoyance while I stand waiting in line.  I don’t mind lines in and of themselves.  I stand in lots of other lines, even other post office lines, without this feeling of grumpiness descending upon me.  It’s the inefficiency of the way this particular post office branch is run that triggered the original grump.  Now whenever I walk up the steps towards the front doors, I can feel my mood shift.  There might not be any line at all, or maybe one of the more efficient clerks is at the window.  It doesn’t matter.  I was in a good mood as I drove to the post office, but now as I walk up the steps, I can feel my mood shifting as I am drawn into the “post office habit loop”.

Traveling Outside Your Habits
When I travel, I step outside of all of these classically conditioned triggers.  I get to experience “me”, not the “me” of my daily habits.  I think this is why people enjoy traveling on their vacations.  They could stay home and spend time in their own backyards, but that doesn’t give them a break from their habits.  Traveling may not be more restful, but it certainly creates more of a change when you can step outside not just of familiar landscapes but also of familiar habits.

I’ll let you mull this over as you think about your own traveling experiences, and I’ll pick up next time with a continued discussion of micro-habits.

Coming next: Chapter 2 continued: Micro-habits

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 “Joyful 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 1 Ch. 4: Inside The Trainer’s Brain

Recognizing Play

sindri fengur playing 3 photos

When they’re turned out together, our two Icelandics engage in mock battles. How do I know they are playing and not fighting for real?  Their drama is intense.  Both rear up and crash into one another.  One will come down over the neck of the other seemingly trying to bite the other horse through his thick mane.   They’ll spin apart and kick out, then race off at a gallop shouldering one another for an advantage in the turn.

To a causal observer it looks both very dramatic and very real, but these Iceys are good actors.  Their battles are all make believe.  They leave the “battle field” without a mark on them.  The kicks are all pulled punches and the bites nothing but pretend.  One moment they are body slamming into one another, the next they are standing side by side in their other favorite activity – social grooming.

After a good play session they come into the barn relaxed, refreshed, and always ready for more.  At twenty they play with the same vigor and intensity that they did when they were four.

When you watch your dogs or your cats wrestling together, you have no trouble recognizing this behavior as play.  You see the bites that aren’t bites, and the claws that don’t draw blood.  You see them taking turns.  First, one is on top pinning the other down, and then they’ll flip roles.  The stronger animal has learned that if he dominates the play, the other animal will quit.  I don’t know which of the Icelandics is the faster horse.  They always run together.  If Fengur has his nose out in front, it is only because Sindri, our stallion has let him, not because Sindri has fallen behind.

When Peregrine, my senior horse, was a two year old, he was chased by another horse through a fence.  I’ve seen what it looks like when these clashes are not play. It is terrifying to watch.  There is no mistaking the real thing for play.  When I see my cats confronting the neighborhood stray, it does not look in any way like the play they engage in together.  But that play between friends has prepared them well for the negotiations they are about to have.  All of us – cats, horses, people – know when the play has stopped, and we are now engaged in the real thing – a struggle for survival.

Part 1: Chapter 5: What is Play?

Defining Play
So we can recognize play.  But what is it?  Stuart Brown wrestled with this question in his book. He opened by saying he resisted giving play a definition for a number of reasons.  Play is so varied.  As he points out, an activity such as writing this chapter might seem like play to me, but it might be work to somebody else.  So we cannot define play simply through the activities we engage in.

For Brown play may be hard to pin down with a rigid definition, but at least in people, it does have very recognizable properties.  He would say:

* Play is done for it’s own sake.  Play has no direct survival value.
* It is voluntary.  You don’t “have to” play.
* Play is inherently reinforcing.  Play is fun so you want to play more.
* Play provides freedom from time.

This is the characteristic that most resonates with me.  I am constantly losing track of time.  I’ll be working with the horses, or working on this book, and suddenly realize that several hours have passed and I’m about to be late for an appointment.  I have been so absorbed in what I was doing, so in “the zone” in a PLAY state, that I have completely lost track of time.

At clinics I am constantly surprised that the hands on my watch have moved forward by several hours. “How can it be four o’clock?”, I’ll exclaim.  “It was just 12:30 the last time I looked.”  It is as though I’m surprised by the notion that time passes.  I know the hands on my watch will be progressing around the clock face, but in my PLAY state it truly does seem as though no time has passed.

* Play produces a diminished consciousness of self.

pool noodle GermanyWe stop worrying so much about how we look to others.  In imaginative play we may even become a different “self”.  When you’re trying to learn to ride and you have an instructor barking commands at you treating your lesson more like military boot camp than something you’ve chosen to do for fun, you’ll be a long way from a PLAY state.  Barked commands create FEAR and make the learner more self-conscious – not less.  To promote the best mental state for learning and retaining information, we want to be PLAY full.

When people are first learning clicker-compatible rope handling skills, I start them out without their horses.  At first, people may be thinking how silly they look practicing their technique with a rope tied to a door handle.  They’ll be terribly self-conscious.  Once I get them in a PLAY state, this kind of thinking disappears. They forget what it might look like to an outsider as they become fully engaged in the process.

* Play has improvisational potential.

When you play, you aren’t locked into a set way of doing things.  You can experiment and invent.  Many of the details that we now know make a huge difference to the horses were discovered during play sessions without any horses being involved.

People took turns being the handler and the “human horse”. They stepped outside of themselves and left behind their usual, I’m-an-adult-and-I don’t-play-silly-make-believe-games.  They let go of their self-conscious rigidity and let the act of playing take over.  The result was they saw things in a different way and with fresh insights.

Canine clicker trainer, Kay Laurence, often refers to a quote from Proust:

A journey of discovery comes not from a voyage into new landscapes but seeing familiar landscapes with fresh eyes.

Over and over again, our animals show us the truth of this expression.  As each new layer of training is explored, we see our animals and all their brilliance with fresh eyes.

* Play provides a continuation desire.  You want to keep doing it.  Once the play stops, you want to do it again.  As Brown puts it: “Play is its own reward, its own reason for being.”++

++ The Properties of Play are from: “Play: How it Sharpens the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul”    Stuart Brown M.D. and Christopher Vaughan, The Penguin Group, NY New York 2009.

Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 6:  Being PLAY FULL

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 “Joyful 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

Happy New Year!

No one wants to read a long post on New Year’s Day.  Instead I’ll just share three quick things.  The first is to let you know that tomorrow I will be posting the first in a very long series of articles.  I am looking forward to sharing them with you, so save a bit of time tomorrow to join me for a cup of tea and the first of the articles.

The second is share this New Year’s Greeting from Panda and all of us at The Clicker Center.

And the third is to wish you a very Happy New Year!

Alexandra Kurland  January 1, 2016


An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 3

This is Part 4 of 4 in this series.  The horse I am featuring was one of the horses at the November 2015 Arkansas clinic.  He had no clicker training experience prior to the clinic.  We tracked his progress via video over a three day period.  What you are watching  are the training sessions we gave him throughout the weekend.

Part 1 covered the morning training sessions of Day 1

Part 2 covered the afternoon training sessions of Day 1

Part 3 covered the training sessions of Day 2

If you have not already read Parts 1 – 3, I suggest you begin there.  This article covers the training sessions in Day 3, the final day of the clinic.

Note: If you are new to clicker training yourself, this article and the videos they contain introduce you to the way that I recommend beginning with a horse.  They are not meant to be complete instructions.  For more on getting started with your horse, please visit my web sites: theclickercenter.com and theclickercentercourse.com.

You will see from the videos that I began with this horse in a stall.  If you don’t have a stall available, you can use a small paddock.  The only caution there is the fence that you are working over needs to be safe. No electric, even if it is turned off, and obviously no barbed wire or splintered boards.

Also, you will want to begin with one horse at a time.  You don’t want to create a safety issue by having several horses arguing over who gets the treats and the attention.

Always training is a study of one.  You are watching Nick, a quarter horse who has come out of a reining horse background.  Your horse might be more timid, or much more eager. You’ll want to adjust what you are seeing here to meet the needs of your horse, but this will give you a good framework to follow.

Day 3: Session 1:

We’ll begin by going straight to Nick to see what he’s processed from his first two days of clicker training.  You will want to watch the previous two days of training in order to appreciate the changes he’s making.

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

I took a very short break to refill my pockets and then went right back in with Nick.  I broke this next session up into three video clips to make for easier viewing.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

I was enjoying this session so much I decided to go directly back in with Nick.  As you watch these videos, note how quickly I have switched from counting out twenty treats and making sure the session is short to this much longer training format.  This is very typical.  The total training time on Nick’s first session on day one was a minute and a half.  Now on day three this session was twelve minutes followed by a very quick break while I refilled my pockets and then a second sixteen minute session.

As you can see, this last session covered a lot of ground.

I continued to work on head lowering, but it was head lowering with a twist – or really I should say head lowering without a twist. I was very mindful how I lowered the target, and where I placed it to encourage him to release through the poll so that he could stretch down straight.

Balance – The Core of All Good Work
For me balance sits at the core of all good work – emotional balance as well as physical balance.  Throughout all the lessons you can see attention is always given to the horse’s balance.  Remember in the very first, most basic, targeting lessons, how very mindful I was how I fed Nick.  I used the food delivery to encourage him to stand in good balance.

Now with the head lowering, as I take the target down, I am watching how he reaches for it. I am making small adjustments in where I place the target in order to encourage a release through the poll.  He is learning about the connection between a marker signal and treats.  He is learning how to use the information that the click provides.  He is learning how to track a target, and to back up or lower his head when requested.  Those things are easy to see.  What is more subtle is he is learning how to release long-standing tension in his spine and to stand in better balance.  Through this simple attention to detail, I am preparing him for riding.

Balance comes into play in other ways.  I am careful to balance one behavior with another.  You’ll see how I work on head lowering for a few minutes, and then I switch to grown-ups.  This helps him to understand that there are many ways to get reinforced.  I don’t want to reinforce one behavior so heavily that that’s all he wants to do.

As Nick makes the choice to stay with me, you’ll see the beginnings of liberty work and basic leading.  All this is done in a stall.  It is amazing how much good work can be done in a very small space!

The work is quiet.  There are no fireworks going off.  Progress unfolds in small steps in which core issues are addressed.  Best of all this kind of work is accessible to everyone.  So give clicker training a try.  It’s tremendous fun!

Alexandra Kurland

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

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

Please note: This article gives you wonderful details to get you started with the clicker, but it is not intended as complete instruction.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

Today’s Peregrine Story: Early Lessons

Peregrine foal 11 days 2 head downPeregrine foal naptime 2Peregrine was a perfect foal.  I know.  I know.  We all want to say that about “our kids”, but he really was.  He was so people oriented, so easy to handle.  He was exactly the foal you want when you are breeding that “special” horse who is going to be not just your future riding horse, but your best friend and companion.

I’ve met the rambunctious colts who seem to be nothing but biting teeth and rearing legs.  Peregrine was nothing like that.  He was the sweet foal you hope for when you are breeding your one special horse.

When Peregrine was three weeks old, his mother stepped on his hock.  It was puffy so of course I was worried.  I had my vet out to take a look.  This was thirty years ago.  I’ve learned a lot of important lessons since then, and this vet certainly taught me some of them.  For starters he taught me that first impressions matter.

His practice was just outside of Saratoga Springs, home to one of the premier thoroughbred race tracks in the country.  The track and the related breeding farms that were thriving in our area at that time provided him with the bulk of his equine clients.  If you had a lameness question, he was the vet to use – if you were a professional trainer whose horses were as interchangeable as golf clubs.

I can see him so clearly as he and his assistant walked into the stall where Peregrine was waiting with his mother.  They didn’t even try to say hello or to earn Peregrine’s trust.  They were used to the big thoroughbred breeding farms with their wild, untamed colts.  Peregrine walked up to the assistant expecting the same gentle handling he had come to expect of all the humans who had been visiting him.  She threw her arms around him.  She wrapped one arm around his chest and with the other she grabbed hold of the root of his tail and wrenched it straight up in the air effectively immobilizing him.  The vet did a quick exam of his hock and declared it to be nothing to worry about.

Peregrine was released back to his mother.  The exam had taken just a few seconds, but it changed him forever.  He lost his trust of the world.  He had been the softest foal.  Now there was tension in his body.  Where before there had been an openness to engage, now there was newfound fear.

I’ve never written about this before.  The damage that vet did to Peregrine was deep and life lasting.  This may seem like a trivial event to many.  He was just a horse after all and horses need to learn to deal with people – all sorts of people.  But I know the foal I had before the encounter, and the foal I had after.  They were not the same.  I’ve had many reasons for choosing to champion horse-friendly training methods.  This was one of them.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  Thank you for all the gifts you have given me.