Goat Diaries Day 10: Expectations

What is the Click?

What does the click mean?

I’ve told you many times throughout these diaries that I clicked and reinforced a particular action.  Those are good words, but we have to question – is that what really happened?

Absolutely, I did click.  But what, if any, effect did it have on the goats’ behavior?  Did they even notice it?

In July I could make a good case for the click being just meaningless noise for the goats.  At this stage in their training were they stopping and orienting back to me because they heard the click? Or were they stopping because I stopped?

There was one very consistent cue that they were responding to.  When I reached into my pocket, they surged forward for the treat.  It’s this behavior that I wanted to change.  There are many strategies for doing this.  The one I chose for these sessions was to turn the movement of my hand into a cue for backing.

Once they had this part of the sequence down, I expected that they would notice more what came before the movement of my hand – the click.  Hear that sound, and you know treats are coming – get ready.  I know some people drop the click out and let the movement of their hand become the marker signal.  I prefer to keep the click in the sequence.

We all have biases in what we use for our marker signals.  My strong preference is for tongue clicks so I don’t have to carry a clicker around with me.  That leaves my hands free for other things.

We also have biases in how we use marker signals.  Do we keep them in?  Do we change them over time to verbal signals?  Do we sometimes feed without using a marker signal?  Do we click but not feed?  (When you want your click to function as a cue, that’s a peculiar one.  What are you cueing?  It becomes like an unfinished sentence.  Think how annoying and not very useful that is when people make a habit of never finishing their . . . .

There are lots of variations on the theme.  I developed my approach to using the marker signal through working with horses.  I decided early on I wanted the click to be a gate keeper.  That means about the only time I give my horses treats is after I have clicked.  I want the message to be: “If you didn’t hear a click, don’t bother looking for food.”  The exceptions involve rituals I have created around greeting and leaving.  I give treats as I enter the barn and say hello to my horses, and again as I am saying good-bye, but the context is consistent and creates its own control of expectations.

At all other times, if I am giving a treat, it is for something I have clicked.  This creates very consistent rules around the food.  In the absence of the click, I can reach into my pocket to get my gloves or a tissue.  My horses won’t be expecting food because I didn’t click.

If you sometimes feed a “just because” treat, you can create a lot of frustration.  Your horse is left wondering what he just did that got you to reach into your pocket.  “Just because” treats usually aren’t very consistent.  That lack of consistency can throw a learner into an extinction process complete with all the “shaking of the vending machine” that goes along with it.

You’re wanting to be kind, and instead the carrots you’re feeding are just turning your horse into a scary monster.  The click helps to manage this.  Now he knows there’s no food unless and until he hears the click.

If you are new to clicker training, this may sound very restricting.  You want to feed treats.  Don’t worry.  Once you start clicker training, you will have lots of opportunities to click and give your horse a treat.

Initially, the click is barely noticed by the horse.  He sees you reaching into your pocket.  That’s what he focuses on.  You can get the same kind of mugging behavior that the goats were showing.  The only difference is all that eagerness for the treats comes in a much larger package.

Over time you will see your horse respond to the click.  It has begun to function as a reliable cue.  When he hears that sound, he will stop to get his treat.

How do I know this?  I do a lot of liberty work.  Often the horse is at a considerable distance from me.  In fact, I may be completely out of his sight.  When I click, he stops.  He heard that sound, and he knows what he needs to do to get his treat.  Usually that means waiting quietly while I walk (not run) to him with the treat.

When cues are linked with positive reinforcement, they become predictors of good things to come.  The sound of the click leads to good things, so my learner will want to figure out what he can do to get me to click again.

Pushing forward into my space, nudging my hands, pawing at me, if none of these things lead to a click, but backing up does, I’ll begin to see my learner actively backing away from me and these other less useful behaviors (from his perspective) will drop away.  My learner will be using the backing behavior to cue me to make that funny sound that predictably, reliably leads to treats.

Over time he will learn that there are many behaviors that can get me to click.  So now the noticing of cues moves back another step.  He begins to pay attention to the thing that comes before the thing that comes before the thing that . . . .  In other words he begins to notice the cues I am giving that signal to him what is the hot behavior that will most reliably lead to a click and a treat.

In all of this click serves as a gatekeeper.  On one side are the behaviors that I want.  On the other are the treats that my learner wants.  It’s a win-win situation for both of us.

That understanding of the click’s function isn’t there at the beginning.  Horses can be just as eager for their treats as the goats.  They can crowd every bit as much into your space.  But at liberty, I can show you that the click is a cue an educated horse is definitely responding to.

Why do I want this?  I know many dog trainers have a much looser system with the click.  They will often toss treats without first marking a specific behavior.  Instead I want to give my horses so much practice responding to the click that it becomes automatic.  They don’t even think about it.  They hear the click, and instantly they are stopping.

Again, why do I want this?  Simple answer – because I ride.  Under saddle when I click, my horses all stop.  I don’t have to actively stop them in order to get a treat to them.  They stop on their own, and they wait patiently while I fish around in my pocket to get their treat.  There’s no fussing or fidgeting.  They have learned how to be patient.  That’s a wonderful safety net to have when you are sitting on the back of your learner.

These goats were a long way from that standard.  Riding was obviously not where we were heading. Instead they were going to be around small children.  When someone clicks, backing up away from the treat pocket is a great response for a goat to have.  That’s what I was working on in this session.

E’s leading session

In the previous post I described P’s leading session and my focus on the treat delivery. Now it was E’s turn.  I brought him out into the arena on a lead.  He was also excellent.  He’s so very gentle.  He’s much easier to lead than P.  That actually made this lesson a little harder for him.  Because P can be very pushy, he’s had a lot more experience moving back from the treat.  It was easier for him to make the connection and to understand that backing up is what got me to hand him a goody.

E was slower to catch on.  When I clicked, I extended my closed hand out towards him.  Instead of finding my open palm with the treats there for the taking, I had the back of my hand turned towards him.  At first, he was confused.  What was he supposed to do?  I didn’t want this to turn into teasing, so I helped a little by lifting the lead up so it exerted a slight backwards pressure.  It was a suggestion only.  I was careful not to pull him back. The lead was there only to remind him about backing, to bring it further up in the “files” so he would give it a try.

In previous sessions I had introduced him to this collar cue.  He had learned that backing led to a release of the pressure AND a click and a treat.  I’d given the lift of the lead meaning.  Now it was time to put it to use.  The lead was acting as a prompt.  He got it right away.  I only had to use it three times, and then he was moving away from my closed hand on his own.

Goat diaries Day 10 food manners 1.png

So now it was click, and he backed up to get his treat.  When I extended my hand out where the perfect goat would be, he was exactly where he should be to get a treat.

Goat diaries Day 10 food manners 2.png

You’ll need a password to watch this video.  It’s:  GoatDiariiesDay10E

I started to take E back, and then decided to let him have another go at the mounting block.  E was a little uncertain at first but then he went across the mounting block all the way to the end.  I had some foam mats at the far end.  E jumped up on them.  Contact points!  Then he leapt high into the air for a twisting dismount.  What fun!

We went back to the beginning, and he ran across the mounting block again.  I loved the rat a tat tat sound of his hooves on the wood.  At the far end he did another wild leap off the mounting block.

The two runs seemed to satisfy him.  He followed me into the aisle and back to his stall.  Getting him to go back in was easy.  Dropping treats seems to be the incentive they need to turn going into the stall into a good thing.  They could so easily become sticky at going back.  They like to go exploring.  And they definitely like the treats, the social attention, and the game.  Planning ahead so returning to the stall is a good thing was paying off.

As always, I balanced the excitement of our training sessions with the quiet of cuddle time.  P was particularly eager for attention.  They are showing more and more enjoyment.  Now when I scratch, they lean into my fingers.  I can see their lips wiggling.  None of this was there at the beginning.  Now when I scratch them, I get a whole body response.  Talk about reinforcing me!

The Goat Palace – Catching Up With Current Training

All this good prep has created more opportunities to give the goats adventures.  Because they will now lead reliably, we can take the three youngsters into the indoor arena for playtime.  I can lead Pellias and Elyan together without being dragged in opposite directions or pulled off my feet.  On the rare days when the temperature is reasonable I’ve also been taking them out individually for walks.

Last summer Pellias was the bold one, but this winter oddly enough it is Elyan who has been up for longer adventures.  We started out just walking a large circle immediately outside the lean-to.  I would ask Elyan to go just a couple of steps – click and treat.  When I walked off, I was always mindful of his response.

If he hesitated or stopped to look at his surroundings, I would wait for him.  The slack was out of the lead, but I didn’t add any pull.  When he oriented back to me, click, I gave him a treat.

If he rushed ahead of me, I would say “Wait” and stop my feet.  As soon as he glanced back towards me, click, I gave him a treat.  “Wait” became a reliable cue within one session.

I discovered this the next day when we took the three youngsters into the arena for a playtime.  We turned then loose and let them do aerials off the mounting block.  After a bit I headed towards the far end of the arena.  Elyan was staying close to me.  Pellias was a little further off.  When they spotted a set of platforms, they started to run towards them.   I said “Wait”, and Elyan immediately turned back to me.  Click and treat.  What fast learners these goats are!  I hadn’t yet given Pellias the “Wait” lesson, but when he heard the click, he immediately turned away from the platform and came running back to me.

Walking out with them individually has confirmed even more for me that the click has taken on meaning.  Pellias and Elyan have both become very good at staying by my side and keeping slack in the line.  As we walk along, I’ll click, and they will immediately orient to me.  This is happening now before I stop my feet or reach into my pocket.  What began as just noise in the background has become a reliable and very clear signal – come get your treat!

I should mention that Thanzi has also gained walking out privileges.  The first time I put a lead on her, she dragged me the length of the hallway to get back to the security of her pen.  Now she stays glued to my side, and we can venture out for walks.  That’s enormous progress.  She was chosen to come here because she was such a strong puller.  She’s so powerful, and now she is also so wonderfully light on a lead.

Trixie is another matter.  The lead for her is definitely a cue – just not a positive one.  If I am holding a lead in my hand, she shuts down completely.  Never mind trying to put it on her.  Just holding it creates this response.  She is a work in slow progress.  But I have written enough for today without going into the unwinding of her poisoned cues.  That will have to wait for another day.

Coming Next: Day 10 Continued: Distractions!

Please Note: if you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order.  The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd.  I suggest you begin there: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/10/02/   Two of the goats I write about originally came for a twelve day stay in July.  The July Goat Diaries track their training during this period.  In November these two goats, plus three others returned.  They will be with me through the winter.  The “Goat Palace” reports track their current training.  I wish to thank Sister Mary Elizabeth from the Community of St. Mary in upstate NY for the generous loan of her beautiful cashmere goats.


Goat Diaries: Keeping Things in Balance

The Goat Palace: Structure Matters – Nov. 14, 2017

When I first started teaching, I often traveled to people’s home barn to help them with their horses.  If you board your horse in a big barn, there’s usually plenty of help around,  but the people who keep their horses at home are often stuck.  They might have a trailer, but they have a horse who won’t load, so getting help can be a problem.  I was willing to travel, and I was also willing to make do with whatever training environment (or lack thereof) they had.

I learned fast that structure really does make a difference.  The right size space, good footing, good fencing, these really do make things so much easier.  I also learned to be creative with what I had.  In my first book, “Clicker Training for your Horse” I described a situation with a very aggressive thoroughbred mare.  There was no suitable outdoor space where we could work safely.  No matter.  Her stall was built into the structure of an old dairy barn, and it provided us with the perfect “theater in the round” where we could begin with protective contact. That horse really taught me how useful a starting point this can be.

Our first training day with the goats showed me that structure was going to matter with them, as well.  We began our day by closing off the gaps in the fence that separated the two areas.  That eliminated one problem.  We didn’t have to deal with little E squeezing through the boards to join in the game.  All the goats were together in the front section while we put up the boards.  That made it easy to open the gate and let the first goat through.  No surprise, Thanzi was first at the gate.

She started out by ignoring the target and checking out my pocket.  She’d looked like such a ringer the day before going so consistently to the target.  It was interesting to see what she had processed from that experience.  It was clearly, when there’s food involved, head straight to the pockets.

When she got too focused on my pockets, I would shift position so the target was more in view.  She would sniff at my pockets and then notice the target, touch it, get reinforced, then it was back to my pockets for another hopeful investigation.  This went on for a few minutes before she abruptly switched and went consistently straight to the target, click, treat, back to the target.

I used what the horses have taught me about food delivery.  As I got the treat from my pocket (winter squash rind), I moved into her space so she had to back up to get the treat.  She would take a step back without any fuss.  This is a very pushy, domineering goat.  Moving her away from the treats right from the start seemed to be nipping in the bud any tendency to crowd into me demanding treats. Yes, she was sniffing at my pockets, but it never escalated beyond that.

I know some goat enthusiasts have worried that moving goats back might trigger a head butting response, but so far, there has been no sign of this.  When I back her, I am stepping into her chest, just as I would a taller horse. And it is having the same good effect on reducing crowding that stepping into a horse’s space to deliver the treat does.

We let Trixie through the gate next.  My idea was that I would work with one goat and Marla could work with the other, but the goats didn’t cooperate.  Thanzi wanted whatever Trixie was getting so she hovered too close.  She wasn’t yet strong enough on the targeting to be drawn away.  We may have to work with her for a few days, and then catch Trixie up once Thanzi is able to stay solidly engaged with one person without being distracted by what other goats are doing.

We left the two ladies in the large area and then tried the boys.  I engaged E and P down at one end.  I had two platforms set up. I was trying to reinforce them for staying each on his own station.  I glanced over to the other end of the pen.  Marla was working Galahad using the protective contact of the fenceline.  The only problem was she had Thanzi trying to be part of the session as well.  I didn’t want Thanzi practicing behaviors that would create problems down the road so I suggested that Marla move Galahad away from the fence.  But Marla said she needed the protective contact.  Galahad was so focused on the food he couldn’t think about anything else.

Fair enough.  That’s very much what you would expect at this early stage.  It was interesting to compare E and P with Galahad.  They had started out in exactly the same way.  Peanuts meant two things: mug your person for treats and butt at your brother to drive him away.  They could think of nothing else.  But now they could work together in close quarters.  Instead of mugging, I had the beginnings of taking turns.  I was sure Galahad would catch up fast, but again structure matters.

If he needed protective contact, rather than muddle through making do, we needed to create a space that would work for him.  So we withdrew to think about how best to construct what we needed.

I didn’t think we needed to build a permanent second fence in our training space.  What we needed were panels that we could put up on a temporary basis.  I had just the right solution.  I had some lightweight training panels that could be made goat proof with a few simple additions.  We pulled them out of storage and began to weave a spider’s web of baling twine through the gaps.  When we were finished, it looked as though several very drunk spiders had been at work!

We set the panels across the width of the front training area using the jungle gym on one side to help hold them in place.

Little E was first into our new training area.  Now that he and his brother have become long-term residents, it’s time to call them by their proper names, Elyan and Pellias (though I’ll still refer to them as E and P in the July Goat Diaries).  Elyan had a super session.  He followed a new target – a green target on the end of a long stick) as I moved it around on a circle.  I had fun taking him up onto part of the jungle gym, and the down again to continue our circle.

Periodically, I stopped and held the target straight down to the ground in a neutral position.  Elyan paused by my side, and even backed up a little away from me.  Click and treat, then click and treat again to reinforce the stillness.  The title of today’s Goat Diary report is: Keeping Things In Balance.  That’s what we were working on here.

Galahad was next.  Marla and I both moved outside the goat enclosure and worked with him through the outer fence.  There was a post in the way, so we ended up working as a team. I held the target out to him and Marla fed.  He was surprisingly fast at catching on to the game.  He went consistently to the target, click, and then moved back to Marla as she reached for the treat.  The barrier made a huge difference for him.  And separating the target from the person who was feeding probably also helped.

Pellias was next.  We were just getting started, when little Elyan squeezed his way through the one gap in our fence.  I had thought the jungle gym would be enough to block it off, but I was wrong.  So again, I did a double session with them.  I got away with it, but my preference for now is to work them individually to strengthen their stationing behavior on platforms before asking them to work as a pair.  We will need to fortify our panels for the next session in order to do that.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on construction.  We finished the outer gates and further goat proofed the outer fencing.  There’s still a lot to do before we can declare the Goat Palace finished.

Again, in the evening after the horses were tucked in, I went out to sit with the goats.  This  time it was Elyan who stayed for a visit.  He was on the top platform of the jungle gym.  I set my chair beside him and reached up to scratch his chin.  He closed his eyes in blissful enjoyment.

Galahad came over a time or two but didn’t stay.  Pellias watched from the back area.  He would have had to run the gauntlet of the ladies to join us.  If they hadn’t been there, I don’t know if he would have come over or not.  It was nice to have a few minutes just with Elyan.  Every time I took my hand away, he leaned down to invite me to continue.  Back in July when I began this project, I had no idea how cat like goats are.  It’s one of their greatest charms.

So now it’s on to the double feature of today’s installment of the July Goat Diaries.  I hope this isn’t confusing you going back and forth between these two time lines. 

The Goat Diaries: Day Two Session 4: Keeping Things in Balance


goats backing up to get treats.png

Moving back out of my space gets treats.

In an earlier Goat Diary blog I described how P had discovered that backing up got him treats. Surprise, surprise! This discovery was clearly messing with his head. Why did this work? This evening session was confirming for him that he was right. Backing did work! But why? That was clearly still perplexing him.

One of the core principles I follow in my training is this:

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

Backing away is great, especially when you are working with an animal that comes equipped with horns! But coming forward to me is also useful. I didn’t want to lose one behavior while I worked on the other. So I also offered him the target to touch.

This is such an important stage in an animal’s introduction to clicker training. It’s easy to be right when there is only one answer. Touch a target – get clicked. That’s easy. But if the only way to get reinforced is when there’s a target around, that’s really limiting. I want my learners to understand that there are many ways to get reinforced. Touching a target is only one option.  But adding in other behaviors complicates the game. Now you have to figure out what is going to work. Is it backing? Is it targeting?  What’s the right answer? If you are guessing, it is easy to become frustrated.

This is when clues begin to morph into cues and a whole new dimension is added to the game.

4th Session 5 pm

P’s Session: Backing Confirmed

You never know what you have taught. You only know what you have presented.

In this session I asked P what he was learning. What would he do when he came forward into my space? The answer: back up away from me. Wow! Was he ever a fast learner! What fun! Now my challenge was to stay a step or two ahead of him.

Goats Day 2 Backing Confirmed P 3 photos.png

Backing Confirmed

With E I continued with some target practice in his stall.  His session showed that he was still unclear what to do with the target. He hesitated between moving to the target and staying attached to my pockets.

It is never a race to see which goat learns the fastest. E was experimenting, learning what worked and what didn’t. This is such an important part of clicker training. One of the main things E was learning was that mistakes were not punished.  It was safe to be close to me, and it was safe to guess wrong.  It was safe to experiment.

With many horses their training history has taught them not to experiment.  In command-based training you wait to be told what to do.  Anything else can get you punished. The first steps into clicker training can feel very unsafe for these individuals.  Instead of enthusiasm, you get worry and caution.  It can be a slow process unraveling the fear that comes wrapped up in their training expectations.  I was glad with these goats we could go straight to enthusiasm.

Video: Goat Diaries Day 2 E following a target  Note:You will need a password to open this video.  Use: “GoatDiariesDay 2 E Learns”


Coming Next: Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 2
Goats are Like Horses Except That They’re Not – Platform Training Begins

Please Note: if you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order.  The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd.  I suggest you begin there: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/10/02/ 

Goat Diaries – Clicker Training Day 2: These Goats Are Smart!

The goat palace is almost finished.  We were hoping to get it done yesterday afternoon, but we didn’t quite make it.  The three yearlings are feeling very squashed in the stall by the oldest female, Thanzi.  She is making it very clear that they are TO STAY IN YOUR CORNER.  I am glad we decided in our construction to use the entire space the lean-to provided and didn’t just settle for making a small goat pen.  They will have plenty of room to spread out.

So for this morning it is back to July and the Goat Diaries.  I had gotten as far as mid-morning of E and P’s second day of clicker training.

Training Rhythms

Good training begins to have a rhythm to it, especially in these early stages where you are asking for simple behaviors, and you’re keeping the rates of reinforcement high. It’s get the behavior – click and feed, get the behavior – click and feed, – get the behavior, click and feed. It becomes a training loop. We’re looking for clean loops.

When a loop is clean you get to move on, and not only do you get to move on you should move on. That’s the mantra of loopy training. Often people change criteria too fast which ends up confusing the learners. Or they stay too long at one step so they build a glass ceiling into their training.  To the learner backing up means three steps and only three steps. If the handler asks for four, there’s frustration. The learner knows the behavior. It’s three steps and three steps only!

The mantra of loopy training helps you to know when to move on. It also helps you to know when you should pause for a moment to let your learner show you what he has learned. Canine trainer, Kay Laurence refers to these pauses as puzzle moments.

In these early sessions with these goats I was beginning to establish some training loops. P in particular was such a fast learner, it was time to give him some puzzle moments to see what dots he was connecting.  If you aren’t sure what a puzzle moment looks like, P is about to show you.

Session 3: 11 am
I started with P out in the pen. He was ready, eager to touch a target, but my attention was elsewhere.  I was busy setting up the camera. I was very aware that I might be missing a window of opportunity. We began with a little targeting. He oriented to it, I clicked, fed, and then clicked and fed again while he was still out of my space. The jumping up on me to try to get the food that he had been doing in the previous session was almost completely gone.  My active use of food delivery was paying off.

Click for targeting. Feed where the perfect goat would be. The perfect goat would have all four feet on the ground. He would be looking straight ahead, and he would be outside my personal space.

After I clicked, I fed P so he had to take a step or two back to get the food. My concern here was the food delivery caused him to curl his neck so his head was in the orientation it would be for butting with his horns. I didn’t want to trigger that behavior. But head butting is a forward moving behavior. Here he was moving back, so I hoped that his feet would keep his head from thinking he should be charging me.

Get them while they’re standing still.

I fed P so he had to back up a couple of steps to get to the treat in my hand. Before he could come forward again, click, I was giving him a treat – this time where he was standing. I wanted him to get the idea. Standing still, away from me, is a good thing. Click treat, click treat. I was tightening the training loop down to the tiny fraction of a second in which he was standing still looking straight ahead.

The neighbors were mowing the hill up above the barn. P kept turning his head to the side to check them out. His feet were still, but I didn’t want to make such a full head turn part of the behavior. I had to wait, hoping his feet would be still when he finally looked back in my direction. Click then treat.

When I clicked, I used my food delivery to move him back a couple of steps. I wanted to be able to click again while he was still standing back out of my space. I also wanted his head to be straight. If I clicked too many times when his head was turned, I was concerned that I would build that into the base behavior. So I had to wait to click until his feet were still AND he had his head straight. Asking for two criteria at once was pushing my luck. The first couple of times he was too quick for me. He straightened his head, but just as I began to click, he was shifting forward.

I moved him back again with the food delivery. He took his treat from my hand.  Before I could click again, he had come forward into my space.

I work hard to avoid putting my learners into a macro extinction process.  Here’s what that means: This behavior has been consistently working to get me to hand you treats. Only now suddenly, it’s not. You’re not going to be reinforced for this very successful behavior.

We all know how frustrating this can be. You put your money in the vending machine and nothing comes out. Time to shake the vending machine!

My training rhythm was broken and P didn’t yet have enough experience in the game to know what to do. His repertoire of behaviors was still too limited to offer me something I could reinforce. Instead he was trying to go directly to my pockets. I suspect by this point the small children he had grown up with would have dropped pretzels and peanuts all over the floor and everyone would be happy. The children would be giggling, and P would be gobbling up the goodies. Only this wasn’t how I played the game. How annoying!

P gave a little chuff of a sneeze. I had llamas years ago, so I recognized this sound as a sign of frustration. He tried both my pockets. Nothing. He gave a head toss which I dodged, and then I got lucky. He dropped his head away from me enough so that I could reinforce him. The food delivery moved him out of my space, and we were back on track building good behavior.

Goats day 2 what frustration looks like 4 photos.png


Goats Day 2 back up to get clicked 3 photos.png

Training is not without moments of frustration. I was beginning to recognize what this looked like in a goat. A little tail wiggle, a snort, a head butting gesture – these all told me that P was struggling a bit to make sense of what was happening. Why wasn’t I just giving him treats! That’s what the children would have done. And if they didn’t give him treats, he’d just jump up on them, and that was sure to make them scatter their peanuts and pretzels on the ground!

But here this was different. He was clearly frustrated. Doing what had always worked in the past, namely crowding into me didn’t work. Looking away, taking a step back, produced treats!  It made no sense to him, so while it produced treats it also produced a puzzled goat.  And a puzzled goat can very quickly become a frustrated goat.  Noted.

I was monitoring carefully. Always I am asking myself is this working? Is this the best strategy? How much frustration is too much? What should I change? Should I stop?

Puzzle solving!

There is a time to be clicking, and a time to just wait it out and let your learner work out the puzzle. Through the food delivery, I had shown P the answer. Back away and you get treats. Would he put the pieces of the puzzle together? I waited. The skill here is to be quiet, to remain as non-reactive as you can be and let him figure out the answer. A puzzle you solve for yourself, is an answer you will own.

He could sniff at my pockets. I remained non-reactive. How frustrating! I was not playing the game fair. The children would have been flailing their arms about and pushing him away. Which meant they would also have been dropping treats. Push on the vending machine, and it scatters goodies over the ground, except not now.

His feet took him back a couple of steps. Click – treat. The next time the backing was even more definite.

He caught on fast and began to back away from me. When he came forward into my space, now I could wait. It was a puzzle moment. What would he do? I had shown him the answer through the food delivery. Would he find it now on his own?

The answer was yes! He backed up, not just a little, but multiple steps. And he backed with energy. Very neat!

Goats day 2 Quick study 5 photos.png

P was definitely a quick study. He was beginning to understand that he could get the food by doing other things besides jumping up or bumping my pockets. It was a really fun session watching him catch on so fast. Though I got the impression that he was still very confused. Backing was clearly working, but it didn’t make sense to him. How could backing up get treats to appear? He was a very puzzled goat.

I sympathized. We’ve all been given sets of instructions that make no sense. Whatever is logical – do the opposite. How maddening is that! Especially when it works!

I would find out in the next session if P could reconcile himself to this new inside-out world order.

(Note: we had moved on in the treats. I was now using a mix of peanuts, peanut hulls, sunflower seeds and hay stretcher pellets as treats.)

Training time for this session: 6 minutes.

Video: Video: Goat Diaries Day 2: A Quick Study: Note you will need a password to watch this video: GoatDiariesDay 2 E Learns
“A puzzle solved is a behavior owned.” P showed me he was making the connections – fast!

Video: GOAT DIARIES/Day 2/Problem Solving: Note you will need a password to watch this video: GoatDiariesDay 2 E Learns


Coming next: Day 2 Continued – Two Different Learners

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

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: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 6.) Getting What You Want When You Want It: Stimulus Control

I have a lot of new people joining this blog, so it’s probably a good idea to remind people that the articles you’re reading are an experiment in publishing. I am combining a 19th century idea, publishing my book, JOY FULL Horses, in installments, with 21st century technology to publish it here as a blog.

If you’ve been reading the blogs from my first posting on January 2, 2016, you’ve been reading them in order, but if you are new to this series you are encountering them back to front.  My recommendation would be to treat this like the book that it is.  You wouldn’t want to read a Dickens novel beginning in the middle.  This is very much the same.  You will get so much more from these articles if you read them in order.

Click on the JOYFULL Horses tab at the top of this page to go to the Contents.  That will give you the links to all the articles.  It also makes it very easy to go back and find individual posts that you want to reread.

Also, please let your friends know about these blogs.  The more we share, the more people can learn about clicker training.  This is a great opportunity to introduce people to the fabulous relationships that clicker training helps us create.

Now on to today’s article.  The previous section was a long one with lots of how-to instruction.  Today’s post is much shorter, though it deals with an important concept: stimulus control.  Without this you can easily end up with a clicker mess instead of a clicker super star.

Getting What You Want
Our novice clicker trainer is learning a lot about cues.

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.

The list is simple, but we’ve covered some major training concepts. Now it’s time for another.

Number six on my list is how to get what you want, when you want it, and only when you want it.  In other words, I want my novice trainer to understand:

6.) Stimulus Control

Cues and Our Eager Clicker Horses
Cues are great, but they are just the beginning.  You could have a great back up cue for your horse.  Every time you ask him to back he does so right away.  There’s no hesitation.  It’s a completely reliable cue.  The only problem is he also backs up when you ask him to go forward.  And he backs up when you try to groom him and saddle him.  In fact just about every time he sees you, he’s backing.

fengur backing from saddle with caption

Your horse knows backing is a hot behavior.  You often pay well for it, so it’s worth a try.  And if backing doesn’t work, how about retrieving?  That usually gets a laugh and a treat.  How about handing you all the brushes out of your grooming bucket.  Will that work?

Clicker-trained horses can be great fun, and they can also be great pests!

When my clever clicker horse starts expanding on the games I’ve taught him, I keep reminding myself that I don’t want to make him wrong for offering the behaviors I’ve taught him.  I just need to understand that attaching a cue to a behavior is only half of the story.

I need to take the process a little further and establish some level of stimulus control over the behaviors I’ve been reinforcing. That means I get the behavior when I ask for it, but not at other times.  And I don’t get some other behavior in response to my cue.  If I ask for backing, I get backing – each and every time.  I don’t get head lowering or walking forward in response to my cue.  And I don’t get backing in response to some other cue.  Stimulus control takes me to precision and consistency.

Stimulus Control Version 1.0
When I was first learning about clicker training, stimulus control was taught using an extinction process.  Here’s how it was described:

You are teaching your horse to touch a target.  You would eventually like to say “touch” and have your horse orient to the target.  (Remember Number 2 of Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Not All Cues Are Verbal. We’re a verbal species so, of course, we would feel that we don’t have the behavior fully developed until we have a verbal cue attached to it! https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/02/14/)

We are reminded that saying “touch” before you have the behavior in place is not going to help you get the behavior.  If I held a target out in front of you and said “Rabish”, you wouldn’t know what to do.  Think of all the things you could do.  You could back up.  You could spin around. You could grab the target from me.  You could jump up and down, wave your arms, sing the “Star Spangled Banner”.

Who knows what the behavior is that the cue “Rabish” is supposed to elicit.  Based on your past history I could get all sorts of things besides simple targeting.  Before I add the verbal cue, I already want to be getting the behavior I’m after.

So the instructions tell you to wait for the horse to be consistently touching the target.  The way this was always described was this:

When you are so confident that your horse will touch the target that you would bet money on it, that’s when you add a verbal cue.

Now you say “touch” and you hold the target up.  Your clever horse touches the target, but of course he hasn’t suddenly learned English. He would have touched the target whether you had said anything or not.  You could have said “Rabish”, and he would have done the same thing.

You repeat this several times creating an association between the word “Touch” and the action of bumping the target.  Now when you say “Touch” your horse looks around for something to orient to.

The Four Criteria of Stimulus Control
The cue is becoming associated with the behavior, but that’s not enough.  You want stimulus control.  That means the cue meets the following criteria:

The horse touches the target promptly every time the cue is given.

The horse doesn’t touch the target in the absence of the cue.

The horse doesn’t offer some other behavior in response to the cue.

And the horse doesn’t offer the behavior in response to some other cue.

Speed Bump: Teaching with Extinction
So the next step in this process was to hold the target up without saying “Touch”.

Here’s where the snag occurred for me.  The horse had been consistently reinforced for touching the target up to this point, so, of course, he was going to touch it now.  But you didn’t give the cue.  From this point on the horse was only to be reinforced for touching the target when the cue was given.

The poor horse didn’t know about this rule change so he thought the system was broken.  What do you do when you can’t get your candy bar out of the vending machine?  You bang on the machine.  That’s what the horses would do.  They would bump the target really hard.  It’s as if they were saying to their human:

“I’m touching it!  Can’t you see.  I’m really touching it!”

As their frustration grew, they might grab the target, or bite at their handlers to get their attention.

This is all very typical of the behavior you see in an extinction process.  The animal gets frustrated.  He tries harder, and when that doesn’t work, he gets angry.

When I was first exploring clicker training and I followed these directions, I would see the best examples of targeting yet.  My horse was really bumping the target hard to get my attention.  In fact he was well on his way to picking it up and handing it to me. How could I not reinforce that?  A retrieve would be really fun to train!  But if I reinforced him at this point when I hadn’t given my cue, I would blow my stimulus control.

Now I was frustrated.  My horse was frustrated.  We didn’t like this way of doing things so we found a different way of building good stimulus control.

We taught behaviors in pairs.

Through “the Wardrobe”
The next unit will explain what this means. As you come to understand this process, you will be stepping “through the wardrobe” – not into Narnia – though it may seem that way given the clarity of communication that evolves – but certainly into a world of play.

Coming Next: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 7.) Stimulus Control and Play: Teaching Cues in Pairs

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

JOYFULL Horses: Cues Evolve Out Of The Shaping Process – Pt. 3

In the previous post I used the process of teaching a horse to back in a square to illustrate several ways in which cues evolve out of the shaping process.  I showed you how you can use food delivery to move your horse through a particular motor pattern.  When you first teach a horse to come forward to touch a target, it’s easy to have him step back to get to his treat.  Body language cues evolve easily out of the food delivery.  Now if you turn into him to ask for backing, he’ll know what you want.  The cue for backing evolved out of the shaping process.

Horses are masters at reading subtle changes in body language.  They are good at seeing what comes before what comes before what you are asking for.  In the wild a horse needs to be good at predicting the future to stay out of trouble, both within the herd and when a predator is on the hunt. So horses are good at spotting the little clues that tell them what you’ll be asking for next.  After all, the better they learn to read you, the more successful they’ll be.  Those clues help them to get to their reinforcers faster.

Starter Button and Constant-On Cues
In Part one of this section, I focused on teaching your horse to back in a square.  That’s the precursor to teaching head lowering.  So let’s continue on to that part of the lesson.  Remember you’ve been asking your horse to back from the front of his stall a step or two toward the back wall.  The stall may be his actual stall, or just a square marked out with cones or ground poles.  Once these steps come easily, you can begin to build duration.  You’ll need to decide if your cue is a starter button or a constant-on cue.

A starter button cue is exactly what it sounds like.  Think about how you use your key to turn on your car’s ignition.  You turn the key and as soon as you hear the engine start, you let go.  You don’t keep turning the key.  You assume that once your car starts it’s going to keep going until you turn it off.  If it does stall out, you’ll restart it with the turn of the key.

Your backing cue can work in the same way.  When you slide down the lead, you expect your horse to begin to back.  But do you hold on to the lead the whole time he’s backing, or do you let go once he’s initiated the movement?  The later would be a starter button cue.

If you hold on, you’re using the lead as a constant-on signal.  You’re in effect saying: “As long as this signal is present, you’re to keep backing.  When it goes away, you’re to stop.”

In her book, Lads Before the Wind, Karen Pryor described how she taught her dolphins to spin and to keep spinning as long they could hear a certain signal.  It was an easy way to build duration in a behavior, especially working as she was with multiple animals.

The problem with using the lead as a constant-on signal is it can effect your horse’s balance.  You can experience this yourself.  You’re going to hold the snap end of the lead so you get the horse’s perspective of this lesson. Have a friend slide down the lead to ask for backing.  First, she’s going to hold on until you have given her the number of backing steps she wants.  That’s the constant-on cue.

Next have her slide down, but she’s to let go AS SOON AS you’re in motion.  If you stall out, not sure what she wants, she’s to slide down again and restart the behavior.  Once you are backing freely, she’s to let you back several steps before she clicks.  That will bring you to a stop.  Remember, as you are backing, she is NOT keeping an active hold of the lead.

So now you’ve sampled both constant-on and starter button cues.

Question:  Which way did you prefer?  If you are like most people, you’ll prefer the starter button.  The other will feel heavier and more demanding.  You’ll also notice that there was a difference in how you backed.   With the starter button your steps will be longer, more even, better balanced.

The Horse’s Perspective
There’s a lovely expression that I refer to often in clinics: Go to people for opinions and horses for answers.  In this case you were the horse.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  You can test out the two different versions of how you ask for backing and decide for yourself which one you prefer.

One of the things I like about clicker training is we can experience directly so many of the lessons we give to our horses.  Holding on to the lead with a constant-on cue comes much more easily to most people.  You have to make a conscious effort to let go. If there’s no difference, there’s no reason to change.  But once you’ve experienced for yourself from the horse’s perspective the difference in the feel and the impact it has on your balance, it becomes a lot easier to pay attention to the detail of letting go.

Years ago at one of the big horse expos I had a trade booth set up directly across the aisle from a company that sells electronic shock collars for horses.  All weekend long I got to watch their sales video.  It featured a mare who had a foal at her side.  The mare was a cribber.  They were using the shock collar to discourage the cribbing.

Each time she reached out to the fence, they would zap her with the collar.  Over and over again as the video played, I got to watch her jump back from the shock.  That was hard enough to watch.  What made this even worse, when they shocked her, her foal had just started to nurse.  Think of the associations that was creating!

As part of their sales pitch they were letting people feel the shock the collar produced.  Toward the end of the weekend when things were quieting down, I went over to have a feel.  They had the collar set at the lowest setting.  You didn’t get a jolt. Touching an electric fence is much worse, but even so it was exceedingly unpleasant.  That was the lowest setting.

I asked to feel the setting the mare was given.

“Oh on.  We don’t let people take that level of shock.”

Soap Box Time
It made me appreciate clicker training all the more.  To the best of our ability to simulate experiences, there’s nothing we do to the animals that we do not also let people experience.  I can slide down the lead and let you feel what the horse feels at his end of the lead.  I can set up training games and let you go through the same puzzle solving process.  I can click and feed – maybe not hay stretcher pellets, but something more to your liking.

We are confronted by so many different opinions about how best to train our horses.  We can’t always know how something feels to a horse.  I can’t wear a bit or carry a rider on my back, so I can’t replicate every experience, but here’s my standard.  Your horse should not have to go through any training procedure which you are uncomfortable watching.

Note, I do not say which you are uncomfortable doing to your horse.  You may not have the skill to take your horse through a particular lesson.  You may be using a trainer to help teach your horse something that requires more experience than you currently have.  But you should be able to watch everything that’s done to your horse.  If something makes you squirm, it’s okay to speak up for your horse.  There is always, ALWAYS another way to train everything you want to teach.

A good trainer will respect you more for standing up for your horse, and a good trainer will find another way to teach the lesson.  A punitive trainer with a narrow tool box will tell you this way is for the good of the horse, and you have to let him finish.  He’ll tell you if you let the horse get away with being disrespectful, you’ll ruin him.

These are red flags.  Thank him very much for his opinion and take your horse home.  You don’t have to be a clicker trainer to know how to break a lesson down into small steps.  You don’t have to be a clicker trainer to be fair to a horse.  You just have to be a good trainer. So take your horse out of harm’s way, and find someone to help you who is a true teacher not a bully.

Backing with Starter Button Cues
That’s enough standing on a soap box.  Let me step down off of mine and get back to the backing in a square lesson.  Hopefully, you got a friend to help you, and you were able to feel the difference between a starter button and a constant-on cue.  You know for this lesson you want the lead to act as a starter button cue.  Once your horse initiates backing, you’ll release the lead and walk back with him.

Now note, this means that there is a constant-on cue in this process.  As he backs, you’re walking forward toward him. Walking toward him is your constant-on cue. You want him to keep backing out of your way as you walk into his space.  That cue is evolving out of the shaping process.

Again, if he stalls out too soon, you’ll restart the “engine” by sliding down the lead.

You’ll ask him to back a couple of steps, being mindful that you are still in a stall and there’s a wall behind him.

After the click, you’ll use your food delivery to reposition him forward.

This begins a new movement cycle.

As you ask him to repeat the cycle, you’ll see him backing with more confidence.  Not only does he understand what you want, he’s backing over ground he’s already stepped on.  He knows now that it doesn’t contain any hidden traps.  It’s safe to step back.  Each time you ask him, it becomes easier and more fluid.  That’s in part why you do this back and forth dance.  It is like bending a metal coat hanger.  At first the hanger is very stiff, but the more you bend it, the softer and easier it becomes.

A Change in the Game
Now that you have a horse backing easily, you’re going to change the game once again.  Instead of feeding forward after the click, now you’re going to feed right where you clicked.

Again, this can trip people up.  They spent so much mental energy figuring out how to feed forward, and now they have to change all that and keep their feet still.

Why the change?  You’re ready to tackle the puzzle that the back corner of the stall presents.  So many horses feel trapped in this kind of situation.  They forget that they can just swing their hindquarters over.  When they get in a corner, instead of simply stepping back and to the side, they panic and push forward into the handler.

You’re going to show your horse that he has another option.  You have him at a halt with his rear end close to the back wall.  You’re going to slide down the lead and ask him to turn his head away from you.  Your body orientation is still saying back, but you ARE NOT pushing into him AT ALL with the lead.  There is no backwards force on the lead.  There doesn’t need to be.

If you add a feel of pushing him back before he has figured out how, he’ll just feel trapped.  All the pressure will go down into his hocks.  Especially if he has any arthritis in his hocks, this will make him feel even more anxious, and it will be harder yet for him to figure out what he’s to do.

More “Being the Horse”
Instead you are simply going to ask him to turn his head away from you.  You can experience what this does simply by standing up for a moment.  Put your hands on your hips so you can really feel the effect.  Begin by looking straight ahead.  Now turn your head to one side and look over your shoulder.  What did your hips do?  They counter balanced the movement by swinging in the opposite direction.

As you ask your horse to bend his nose more and more to the outside, he’ll become aware of the answer to the puzzle.  All he has to do is follow the turn of his hips, and he can back up out of this corner.  Putting him in the corner makes it easier for him to figure out the answer.  The structure helps you.  I just don’t want to put him prematurely in the corner before he’s comfortable enough with backing to be able to find the answer in a relaxed manner.  That’s the reason for all the back and forth prep.

Robin back in square 3 photos

If your horse doesn’t understand your request to move his head away from you, there’s a simple way to prep this part of the lesson.  Use food delivery to set up the response.  Begin by asking him to stand next to you in the “grown-ups are talking” position.

Robin grown ups with caption

When you click, instead of presenting the food so he continues to keep his head in this position, you’ll extend your arm past where his nose is so he has to turn his head to get his treat.  As he moves, you’ll step forward, filling the space he’s vacating.  You’ll repeat this until the food delivery has created the weight shift you need to ask him to turn his hip so he can back through the corner.  This is an easy way to ask for what can be a very challenging maneuver for some horses.  The goal is to make this as easy and understandable as possible so your horse is very comfortable being asked to back through turns.  (For another view of how to use food delivery to set up the behavior you want refer to the May 6, 2016 post on Using Environmental Cues https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/05/06/)

Robin back thru square with food delivery - captions

Whichever approach you use, you now have him backing one step through the corner.  Click and treat.  You can ask for another step, or perhaps it is time to walk him forward again out of the stall to give him a break.

Once your horse is comfortably backing through all four the corners of the stall, it is time to change the game yet again.  Now you’re going after head lowering.

Heating Up a Behavior
To get to this lesson, you’re going to take a little detour.  You’re going to leave the stall for a few minutes while you make head lowering a “hot” behavior.

Coming Next: Priming the Pump

Author’s note: Once again, I want to remind people that I am using these lessons to illustrate some important concepts.  These articles are not intended to give detailed, how-to instructions.  For those resources refer to my web sites, and to my books, DVDs, and on-line course.  In particular refer to my book, “The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures”, and the early DVDs in the DVD lesson series: Lesson 1: Getting Started with the Clicker, Lesson 2: Ground Manners, and Lesson 3: Head Lowering.  My on-line course will also provide you with a very thorough introduction to clicker training.

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