Seeing Steps

We’re Mid-way through May.  Time to send another thank you out into the world to all the people who have helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  2018 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse“.

1998 was very much pioneer days.  There was no trail ahead.  We were blazing it.  Everyone who went out to the barn with a pocket full of treats and a clicker in hand was truly a pioneer.  We were stepping out into unknown territory.  The first people who went on that journey with me were my clients.  These were people I saw on a regular basis, some of them I had been working with for years.  They were familiar with how I operated.  I’d read a book, I’d go to a clinic, I see some interesting training, and then I’d try it out.  My horses were always the first guinea pigs.  If they liked what I was testing, I’d share it with a few of my clients, and, if they liked it, I’d share it with everyone.

That’s how clicker training got started, first with Peregrine and then with a few of my client’s horses.  That’s all it took to get the snowball rolling down the hill.  The first few steps into clicker training were easy.  You taught basic targeting.  You cleaned up the horse’s manners around food, and then what?  That’s was what my clients were helping me to figure out.

So this month belongs to them, to all those willing pioneers who joined me in that first approximation in.  As usual, I am going to single one person out, but in doing that what I am really doing is saying a huge thank you to all of my many clients who followed me into this exploration of clicker training.  So this month I am going to introduce you to Sharon and her Arab Missfire.  They were the inspiration behind Chapter 5 in “Clicker Training for your Horse”.

The title of Chapter 5 is: All Aboard! Mounting Blocks and So Much More: The Power of Goal Setting. You could say Chapter 5 is about teaching your horse to stand still at a mounting block, or you could say that it is about breaking training down into small steps.  Both would be right.

Sharon was a first-time horse owner who kept her mare at home.  She had what was a very common situation.  She had a couple of small fenced-in fields with access to a run-in shed, but no separate designated training area.  All the work was done out in Missfire’s paddock.  Missfire didn’t come with too many warning labels attached.  She was comfortable being groomed, okay to lead, she was afraid out on trails and would rush for home, but in her home paddock she was safe to ride.  The problem was she frustrated Sharon.  It was all the little things that Missfire didn’t do well.  Yes, you could groom her, but she fidgeted.  Yes, you could put a saddle on, but she fussed.  Yes, you could get her to the mounting block, but getting her to stand still long enough to get on was a challenge.

Sharon was a special ed teacher.  She taught math to teenagers who had been removed from regular classrooms because of their disruptive behavior.  When I first introduced Sharon to clicker training, I thought – she’s going to love this!  This will be right down her alley.

I was right.  She did love clicker training, the parts of it she understood, but oh how she struggled to make it work.  She just couldn’t see the steps.  She understood the overall concept, but she needed me to guide her through each lesson.  In between my weekly visits she was still struggling with her horse and feeling frustrated.

Clicker training has brought me many great things.  I’ve been able to travel and meet people I would never have connected with if not for the adventure called clicker training.  One of the connections I very much treasure is that with canine trainer, Kay Laurence. Kay feels about dogs the way I feel about horses.  The species we are passionate about may be different, but our regard for the animals we love is the same.  It was Kay who highlighted for all of us in the clicker training community the difference between guided and self-directed learning.

There’s a time and a place for both.  Knowing which to use when is the skill.

In the horse world many traditional riding lessons are designed to create dependent students.  There is a very clear hierarchy.  The trainer is the expert.  The learning is very much directed.  In group lessons you’re told when to trot, when to canter.  You’re not taught to become an independent thinker.  When you buy your first horse, you are still very much dependent upon the trainer.  You need him/her to fix things when the training goes wrong.

Clicker training changes that.  The role I play is that of guide not guru.  My favorite definition of a teacher is “someone who started before you”.  When someone asks me to help them with a horse, that’s all that I am.  Someone who started before that individual.  My job is not to make that person dependent upon me.  It’s to help her realize that she can be a teacher for her horse.  She can be an active, effective problem solver.

Even someone who has limited handling skills can be a good teacher.  The first requirement is understanding how to apply basic principles.  It’s: safety always comes first.  It’s: train where you can – not where you can’t.  If you don’t have the riding skills yet to handle rough terrain, sudden surprises, and an excited horse who wants to bolt for home, then ride where you can be safe.  Ride in your home paddock.  Or ride from the ground first.  Remember – ground work is just riding where you get to stand up.

Here’s another core principle: find a step in the training where you can get a consistent yes answer.  If you are just learning how to handle a horse, what CAN you ask for?  It might be as simple as having a horse touch his nose to a target.  That may not seem like much, but it’s a beginning step.  Each step opens the door to learning new skills which you and your horse are learning together.

The stumbling block that many people encounter when they are first experimenting with training is they become very outcome oriented.  Instead of focusing on the process, they want to jump to the end result.  That means they tend to lump criteria, and they miss seeing all the places where the horses are asking for more information.  That’s where Sharon was.  When she brought Missfire up to a mounting block, she expected to be able to just get on.  She was missing all the small steps that could be inserted into this process.  She just didn’t see them.

This was over twenty years ago – long before any of us knew about Hogwarts and Harry Potter.  But thinking back on it, that’s the image that comes to mind.  When I stood on the mounting block next to Missfire, I could see all the steps, but it was as if there was an invisibility spell cast over her when Sharon stood in the same place.  She just couldn’t see all the little questions she could be asking Missfire.

Can I put my hands on the saddle?  Yes.  Click and treat.

Can I wiggle the saddle?  Yes.  Click and treat.

Can I touch the stirrup leather?  Yes.  Click and treat.

That’s great.  That was a nice unit.  Now I’m going to step off the mounting block, and we’ll walk off together in a big circle so we can go back to the mounting block and ask those same questions – and maybe one or two more – all over again.

Slowly the invisibility spell lifted.  Sharon saw the steps.  She got it.  She was able to take Missfire to the mounting block and ask these small questions.  She was understanding how these small asks accumulated into a solid owning of the behavior – for both of them.

The following week when I arrived Sharon showed me how she had taught Missfire to “self bridle”.  And the week after that she showed me another new skill they had worked on together.  She was owning the process!  She was becoming what clicker training allows us to be – our horse’s teacher.  She wasn’t dependent upon me.  We still enjoyed our visits together.  There were lots of new skills that I could help her to learn, but she didn’t need me.

In “Clicker Training for your Horse” I used specific lessons such as foot care or the mounting block lesson to teach broader principles.  Sharon’s struggle with the mounting block became the inspiration for a chapter in “Clicker Training for your Horse“.  The week after her lesson I wrote Chapter 5: All Aboard! Mounting Blocks and So Much More: The Power of Goal Setting.

Here is the opening section from that chapter:

“Some of you who are more experienced may glance at this and think: a whole chapter just on getting your horse to stand next to a mounting block!  You’ve got to be kidding.  When is she going to talk about some real training?

This book is intended for people of all experience levels.  In my own teaching I work with many highly trained riders and instructors, but I also work with beginners and first-time horse owners.  If you haven’t spent much time around horses, no exercise is ever too basic to be taught.  I’ve given lessons in how to lead a horse into a barn, turn it around, and close the door behind you.  Sound simple?  If you’ve been around horses for years, of course it does, but to a timid, first-time owner with a pushy horse it can seem like an impossible task.

You may know how to teach your horse how to stand quietly while you get on.  It’s no problem for you, but for someone who has never dealt with this issue, it can be extremely frustrating.  You may take bridling for granted.  Then you buy that green, three year old you’ve been dreaming of for years, and he throws his head up into the rafters whenever you come near him with a bridle.

I don’t know what issues you’re struggling with, or what you already know, and what you don’t.  I don’t want to skip over anyone, so I’ve chosen to talk about some very basic training issues here.  That way everyone can participate.  Embedded in the discussion are the principles and concepts that will help you with every step of your training.  If you’re an experienced rider, you’ll be able to generalize easily from these examples and apply the principles to your own training situation  .  .  .  .  Foundation is everything in horse training.  So even if you’re working with upper level horses, I think you’ll find a great deal in this chapter that will interest you.

Training is easy once you know where to begin.  Getting started is the hard part.  You want to ride.  You’ve got a picture of your dream horse in your head.  You can see yourself clearing every fence on the course; galloping along a winding trail; or executing the perfect canter pirouette.  That’s your dream, but right now you and your horse are just starting out together.  What are you going to work on today to get to all those wonderful tomorrows?  What are your immediate training goals that address the issues you are working on today?

Goal setting is an important part of training.  When I’m working with someone on a regular basis, I’ll ask them what they want to focus on today, in this lesson.  Very often they’ll say they don’t know.  They have an overall dream of what they want to do with their horse, but they don’t have a specific goal in mind for that day’s training.  That’s fine.  The horse will always tell us what he needs to learn.

We’ll take him out to the ring and he’ll refuse to walk up to the mounting block.  Great.  He’s just given us the lesson for the day.  Yes, we could get on somehow, but we’d be missing a wonderful opportunity to train.

We might have been planning to work on canter departs, but that’s not what the day’s lesson is going to be about.  We’re going to teach him to stand next to the mounting block.  In the process we’ll be working on leading; on ground tying; on lateral work; on loading into a trailer; and, oh yes, on canter departs, and even on flying lead changes.  How is that possible when all you’re doing is getting on?  The answer is, you can never teach just one thing.  You’ll see what I mean as we go through this lesson.”

It’s great fun reading this chapter so many years after it was written.  I feel as though I could be writing it today in response to someone’s email query.  The words wouldn’t be that different.  I may know a lot more ways to teach the lessons I was writing about, but the core, underlying principles are the same.  What Sharon showed me was the power of those principles.  When you learn how to use them, they set you free.

So this is my thank you to Sharon and to all my other clients who showed me how to transform these principles from words on a page into actual practice.  Those pioneering days were great fun!  I am glad we took the journey together.  Many of you have split off and gone off on your own.  That’s as it should be.  The best part of clicker training is it teaches you how to forge your own path.  We will be friends always, and I am sending you a thank you for the time we journeyed together and the discoveries we made.  Thank you for helping to bring clicker training into the horse community.

Have fun!

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering

Each month this year I’ve been writing a post in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  These posts are thank yous to all the many people who have helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  In January I began with a tribute to Bob Viviano and his horse Crackers.  February belonged to Ann Edie and Panda.  Last month I turned the spotlight on all the clinic organizers.  To represent them all I singled out Kate Graham and her horse Lucky.

This month is different.  April can belong to no one else but my beloved Peregrine.  April 26, 1985 was his birthday.  For thirty years I celebrated that event with him.  Now I remember the day without him.  Today I am getting ready to fly out to California to teach a clinic.  Peregrine put me on the path to all these great adventures.  I learned about clicker training for him, through him.  When I went out to the barn all those many years ago with treats in my pocket and a clicker in my hand, I had no idea of the journey he was sending me on.

When I lost Peregrine’s mother, I promised her I would write her a love story.  I didn’t know at the time what form that would take, just that I would do it.  My book, “Clicker Training For Your Horse”, was that love story.  It was written for her and for Peregrine.  Clicker training was not a story to keep to myself.  I have been sharing it with all of you because of them.

When Peregrine turned thirty, I wrote a series of posts in celebration.  They are a tribute to him and a history of equine clicker training.  You can read them beginning with https://theclickercenterblog.com/2015/04/13/todays-peregrine-story-early-lessons/ 

For most of his life Peregrine lived at boarding barns.  It was only in his final years that I was able to move him to a home of his own.  The barn is still so full of his memories.  We moved July 4th 2011.  It was truly Independence Day for all our horses.

Peregrine shaped how the barn is used.  He taught me to open all the doors.  Throughout his life he was always opening doors.  The most important one was the door to clicker training.

He is greatly loved, and he will always be greatly missed.

Peregrine Foal and in winter

Peregrine April 26, 1985 the day he was born, and Peregrine when he was 29

Thank YOU!

I’m taking a brief detour from the Goat Diaries.  2018 is the 20th Anniversary of the publication of my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  To celebrate every month this year I will be writing an article about one of the many people who have helped me bring positive reinforcement training into the horse world.

Last month I told you about Bob Viviano and Crackers.  Bob was there literally at the beginning of my exploration of clicker training.  Ann Edie joined us a short time later when she started taking lessons from me at the barn where I boarded my horses.  This month I want to turn the spotlight in her direction to thank her for the enormous contribution she has made to the development of clicker training and for 25 years of friendship.

Most of you know Ann through her guide horse, Panda.  Ann has big horses as well.  We seem to share our equine family – at least that’s how it feels.  Ann’s first horse, Magnat, is our one in ten thousand horse.  That’s how I think of him.  He was originally my school horse, but he was such a great match for Ann, in 1996 I gave him to her.  In 1999 he was joined by our two Icelandics, Sindri and Fengur.  Panda joined the “herd” in 2001.

I’ve written so much about Panda, I’m going to shine the spotlight instead on Magnat.  He played such an important role in the early development of clicker training it is right that he should get the attention as I celebrate twenty years of “Clicker Training for your Horse“.   There is so much I could write.  I’ll just share a couple of favorite Magnat stories.

Remembering Magnat

Magnat is an Arabian.  He came to me through clients of mine who wanted a weekend trail horse for their guests.  Several months and several disastrous rides after they got him, they discovered that he had a severe heart murmur.  My clients were in a dilemma.  They didn’t want to keep him as a pasture ornament, but they couldn’t ethically sell a horse with such a severe heart condition.  Who would want such a horse?  The answer was I would.

So Magnat became mine.  One of my favorite training mantras is:

The walk is the mother of all gaits.

I didn’t need to ride fast to enjoy a horse.  Magnat and I were a perfect fit.  I would love to have reserved him just for myself, but he was such a great school horse.  I began to use him to give lessons at the barn where I boarded.  I could not have asked for a better co-teacher.  This was in 1994.  I had just begun the year before to explore clicker training with Peregrine.  I was having such good success with it, I had started to share it with all my clients.

Pretty soon the only horse who wasn’t clicker trained was my own school horse.  I was reluctant to introduce it to him.  I had all the questions that everybody else has when you first start introducing food into your training.  What if he got mouthy?  He was so polite now.  I didn’t want to risk messing up my one and only school horse by teaching him clicker training!

When someone is hesitant to give clicker training a try, I get it.  I had the same questions and concerns that most people have when they first encounter this work.  But I really couldn’t go on encouraging all my clients to give it a try and not follow my own advice with Magnat.

I needn’t have worried.  For Magnat it barely caused a blip on the landscape.  He was polite before I introduced food, and he remained so even when my pockets were bulging with treats.  He was never muggy.

There are lots of horses who go through a very rocky transition stage.  The food does get them excited.  They frustrate easily and often older behaviors that have been suppressed through punishment resurface to create problems.  Magnat showed none of this.  That isn’t to say there weren’t changes.  My solid, reliable lesson horse truly began to shine.  If he had been good before, now he was outstanding.

Throughout that first winter he helped me teach people the basics of single-rein riding.  There’s a great expression:

The longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things you’ll see that it gives you.

One of the good things the basics of single-rein riding produced for Magnat was collection.  The beginnings of two favorite behaviors popped out: piaffe and canter in-hand.  This later is a gorgeous behavior to have in repertoire.  Magnat became so balanced and collected, he could canter while I walked beside him.

It was around this time that Ann came to the barn wanting to take lessons.  Ann was not a beginner.  She had ridden as a teenager, but then like so many others she gave up riding when she went off to college and never got back to it once she started raising a family.  The challenge for me was Ann is blind.  I had never worked with a blind rider before.  This was a new frontier for me.  But I assumed my job was teaching her to ride.  Ann would take care of the rest.  If I taught her the way I taught everyone else, we’d come out okay.  It turned out I was right.

I started Ann the way I start all riders who come to me.   It doesn’t matter how many years you have ridden or how experienced a trainer you are, if you are going to ride one of my horses, you start with a pony ride.  I guide the horse from the ground.  All you have to do is sit and enjoy.

As the rider becomes familiar with the horse’s communication system, and understands how to cue the horse, I gradually turn over more and more of the control.  So at first I have the reins, and I’m working the horse in-hand with a rider up.  Then I hand the reins over to the rider, but I stay close so my body language continues to support the rider’s cues.  Then I gradually fade out and the rider takes over completely from me.

This worked perfectly for Ann.  Having Magnat as my co-teacher made all the difference, especially since he could canter in-hand.  For teaching that made him worth his weight in gold.  I wish I had learned how to ride on a horse like Magnat.  Ann has such a relaxed canter seat because she learned the rhythm of the canter from him.  Starting out she never rode a bad canter.  All she had to do was relax and enjoy.  There was no struggle trying to get him into the canter, no trotting faster, faster, faster like a plane taking off.  There was no leaning sideways through unbalanced turns.

Magnat canter

Instead there was just the relaxed rhythm of a collected, glorious canter.  And then there was the piaffe and the passage.  It was Ann who was riding the first time Magnat succeeded in mobilizing into piaffe.  I was working him from the ground while she helped manage his weight shifts.

We were figuring out how to teach riding with the clicker.  I gave Ann the lesson, and she taught Magnat.  They were such a good match, I decided after their first winter together to give him to her.  It gave me so much more pleasure watching them develop as a team than I ever would have had riding him for myself.  And I had Peregrine.  He and Magnat became riding partners.  For the next sixteen years while we kept the horses at the boarding barn, Ann and I shared our evening rides together.

They were an unlikely pair, my thoroughbred, her Arab.  But it turned out that each horse gave their best to the other.  Magnat gave Peregrine the confidence to move forward again after a long, hard recovery from the aftershocks of Potomac horse fever.  And Peregrine taught Magnat about collection.

Magnat lived in a small paddock with two other horses.  I’m sure you can picture what he looked like during mud season.  Every night Ann would spend an hour or so grooming him and by the time he was ready to go into the arena, he was snowy white.  I don’t know how she did it!  When I brush my horses, the dirt moves from one spot to another.  When Ann grooms, the dirt leaves!  And a horse isn’t clean until her fingers tell her he’s clean.

Early on we taught Magnat to retrieve.  There’s a picture of him with a wooden dumbbell in his mouth on the cover of the first edition of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  When Ann brought him into the arena, he would ask to be turned loose.  She’d let go of his reins, and he’d go out in the arena and bring back to her all the things the previous riders had dropped.

We boarded in a barn where there was a very active after school lesson program so there were always dropped riding crops, gloves, hats, kleenex.  Ann never knew what she was going to be handed.  Magnat was very diligent in making sure that he had found anything and everything that might get in their way.  In so many ways he was Ann’s first guide horse.

When the arena was clean, he would walk with her to the mounting block and line himself up.  Now the real glory of Magnat shone through.

Ann understood that clicker training means so much more than just using a marker signal and treats.  Clicker training for us is synonymous with good balance.  It was a joy to explore with her what that meant for our horses.

When Ann first started riding Magnat, she couldn’t manage his trot at all.  He bounced her out of the saddle.  It was the most jarring, bone rattling, uncomfortable trot imaginable.  That was because for her Magnat wasn’t yet balanced.  She didn’t yet understand how to use lateral flexions.  When she asked for the trot, she got the hollow-back, high-headed, stiff-legged trot that is all too often associated with Arabs.

As she learned how to use lateral flexions, Magnat relaxed and lifted himself up into a magic carpet ride.  The transformation was so black and white.  Ride him without asking for the lift that comes through the lateral work, and he would jar you right out of the saddle.  Ask for collection, and you were in heaven.

I taught Magnat lateral flexions before I began to explore clicker training.  He understood what I wanted and was a willing student.  Often people seek out clicker training because they are struggling with a horse.  That wasn’t the case with Magnat.  He could have gone through his whole life without ever needing to be clicker trained.

Before clicker training he was a good, solid-citizen riding horse, but that’s all he was.  Without clicker training he would have remained a nice, but ordinary horse.  With clicker training he shone.  I used to say he was a one in a million horse, but as the years went by and he just became more and more wonderful, not just to ride but to be around, I changed this to a one in ten million horse.

But I really shouldn’t be the one to describe what it was like to ride Magnat.  He was Ann’s horse.  Here is how Ann described him in a piece she wrote for my riding book:

“It’s always a dilemma to describe the experience of riding a truly extraordinary horse who has had the benefit of several years of clicker training.  Although many technical components go into the production of a really memorable ride, the irrepressible smile, the feeling of wonder, and expression of “WOW!!” that arises so regularly these days when I ride Magnat simply cannot be described in anything but poetic terms.

Yes, athletic talent and neuromuscular conditioning are part of what makes the ride so special; and yes, many hours of repetition over many months have gone into it; and yes, there is extraordinary lightness and balance.  But this is still far from the sum total of the experience.

Musicians have described a great melody as “ a journey which has many familiar passages, and which also contains some wonderful surprises which cause you to look at the world in a completely fresh way and gives new meaning to life.”  This is the best description I can find of what it is like to ride Magnat.

Magnat comes out into the arena every night feeling relaxed and eager to work.  He knows he will be appreciated and reinforced for his performance.  He knows that he is a respected dance partner and member of the team, not a mere subject of training.  This awareness and active participation on the part of the horse is one of the benefits bestowed by clicker training.

Our rides begin with warm-up exercises.  In the course of executing figures or doing simple softening and balancing work, I will pick up on the reins and suddenly feel the most indescribable lightness!!!

We may be in a super-buoyant, floating trot, a deliberate, balanced, ballet-like piaffe, or a heavenly rocking-horse canter.  Whatever it is, it will feel as though I am floating on a magic carpet.  He is so responsive in these moments.  It’s as if there are clear filaments of two-way communication from my finger tips to each of Magnat’s feet.  The slightest breath of a touch on one of those lines will be answered by an immediate floating response.

The musicians described music as a journey which “contains some wonderful surprises.”  That’s how I feel about riding Magnat.  Each ride contains surprises and special pleasures we have not experienced before.  It is like coming around a bend in the road and seeing a spectacular sunset, or a grove of awe-inspiring redwood trees, or the grandeur of an ancient castle, or the peace and cool of a Buddhist temple.  It truly takes the breath away!  It creates the deepest joy and aliveness in my heart!

These moments have totally changed the way I think about riding.  I feel such awe for Magnat and for what we create together.  In this moment I know, without the slightest doubt, exactly what I ride for – it is just this amazing feeling of total balance, effortlessness, lightness, and energy.  Magnat seems to feel the same excitement and joy, for he literally beams with pride, and recently he has begun uttering deep chortles in his throat at these moments.

I let the magic moment go on for as long as I dare, wanting it to continue forever, but knowing I must capture it with a click, before it disappears like a soap bubble or a delicious dream.

The click creates a pause in the music.  Magnat comes to a halt; I throw my arms around his neck in a huge hug, shower him with lavish praise, and empty my pockets of the most desirable treats!

The “WOW” feeling is definitely addictive.  The glow of the experience lingers and stays with me long after the ride.  Our whole horse-human relationship is one of appreciation, respect, and awe.

This is, for me, the great gift of clicker training.  When taken to the high-performance level, it creates transcendent moments of great joy”

Ann Edie – written in 2005 for “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker

Ann’s words express so perfectly why we have both worked to bring clicker training into the horse world.  If clicker training had just been about teaching tricks, and finding kinder way to get horses onto trailers or to stand for grooming, I would have moved on years ago.  Instead clicker training takes us on a journey to Joy.  It connects us deeply to our horses.

This is what Ann and I wanted to share when we wrote about our horses.  It is what I am celebrating in this twentieth year of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  It is what we hope others will find as they explore clicker training: the great love and wisdom of horses.

Sadly we lost Magnat in 2011 not long after we moved to our new barn.  He had reached the grand age of 33, but it wasn’t enough.  We were both hoping he would be one of those Arabs who live to be forty.  Sadly he had cancer, and we had to say good-bye.

Ann has shared so generously her horses.  Magnat and the Icelandics have served as my school horses.  I’ve written about them, and they have appeared in the books and DVDs.  Sindri, our Icelandic stallion, was my riding horses.  Thank you Ann for that great pleasure and honor.

And then of course there is Panda, Ann’s guide horse.  Ann is a very private person, but she has shared Panda literally with the world.  We’ve had journalists from as far away as Japan and Australia come and do stories on her.  Ann has always been a good sport, and so has Panda!

What many people don’t know is Ann is one of the partners in The Clicker Center Barn. Without her help, the barn would never have been built.  Thank you Ann for this.  And thank you also for teaching me how to play scrabble and for occasionally letting me win.

Alex Panda scrabble 0038

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.

 

The Goat Diaries – Day 6: Staying Positive with Constructional Training

Constructional Training

I’m a clicker trainer. The work I do sits under the umbrella of The Click That Teaches. Those are both labels I’m very comfortable with, but for years people have said I need to give my work a different name.

“It’s so much more than just clicker training,” they say to me. They are referring to my emphasis on balance.  When we do a summing up at the end of clinics, someone will always say there is so much more to clicker training than they had ever imagined.  So perhaps it isn’t that I need a different name for my work. Perhaps I just need to help people see the depth and breadth of what clicker training can do.

In any case I have tried on many names over the years. One of my favorites is “Constructional Training”.  That comes via Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz from the field of Behavior Analysis.  My translation of this term is this: Complex behaviors are created from smaller components.  When I teach these smaller components first, it becomes easy to ask for the larger, goal behavior.  So I construct complex behaviors from smaller building blocks.

I also want to construct behaviors before I use them.  If I haven’t taught the goats how to soften and yield to the contact of the lead, or how to follow a target, or how to stay by my side, then it isn’t fair game to ask them to walk beside me on a lead.  If they charge ahead of me, and I use the lead to stop them, I’m being a negatively-focused trainer.  I’m using the lead to try to stop a behavior I don’t like.

But if I’ve taught them the components, then I can ask them to back up and come forward in response to cues.  Leading becomes a dance – and in great dancing both partners respond to one another.  They listen to one another.  Both partners direct the flow.  If my partner misses a cue and rushes ahead of me, I can redirect him into another direction.  I’m asking for a known behavior which my partner has learned leads to positive reinforcement.  Constructional training takes me to the dance.  And the dance helps me be a more positive partner for my animal learner.

All of this sounds very grand.  But really it is very simple.  With the goats I was building the components I would need for us to be successful venturing out into the larger spaces of the barn aisle, the arena, and eventually the great outdoors.  Leading was high on the priority list.  These goats would be going home in just a few days, back to the children who were leasing them.  They would be going to the county fair, and hopefully they would know how to lead and not be one of the goats who was dragging his child across the show ring (or being dragged by the child).

We’ve reached Day 6 of their stay with me.  In this report I’ll be illustrating what it means to be a constructional trainer.  In the previous posts I described how I introduced both goats to platforms and to the beginning of leading.  At the start of Day 6 I continued with Pellias’ platform training.

The July Goat Diaries Day 6 7/9/17 Sunday

9 am session:  I was learning from previous experience.  I made sure to give the goats plenty of time for their breakfast before asking them to concentrate on training.  By the time I was ready to play, they were lying down side by side having a nap. I scattered some hay stretcher pellets on the floor as a distraction while I went outside to set up the platforms.

Goats lying down by bucket.png

For P I set out both platforms and the ground poles as before, but the platforms were closer together so I could film. P was ready to play, and he did great.  I could move several steps away, and he stayed put.  I loved the consistency P was beginning to show.  Instead of stretching out to try to get to my treats, he was standing in great balance.

Diaries Day 6 Platform Progress with P -panel 1

When I rattled the target, he changed platforms readily.  He had lots of energy which he was learning to control. I liked seeing him move at speed to the next platform, and even more I liked seeing him transform that energy into an ability to stand still on the mat.

Diaries Day 6 Platform Progress with P -panel 2.png

Back and forth between the platforms, I was seeing lots of energy.

Diaries Day 6 Platform Progress with P -panel 4.png

Diaries Day 6 Platform Progress with P -panel 5.png

He was such fun to watch as he leapt into the air to bounce from one mat to another.

Diaries Day 6 Platform Progress with P -panel 6.png

Diaries Day 6 Platform Progress with P -panel 7.png

Diaries Day 6 Platform Progress with P -panel 8.png

A couple of times he missed or came off the platform. I waited, and he turned away from me and landed on the platform – excellent. It seems as though he is really getting the game.

The Goat Palace Journal Dec 23

That initial introduction to the platform has evolved into what I am working on now.  I am using Michele Pouliot’s platform training as my model.  I introduced Michele in a previous post.  In her position of the Director of Research and Development at Guide Dogs for the Blind, she transformed their training program.  Now all the dogs at that school learn their guide work via clicker training.  In her free time Michele’s training hobby is canine musical freestyle.

Michele is a creative, inventive trainer.  Lots of us use mats and platforms in our training.  Michele took the idea of using platforms and developed it into a fabulous process for teaching the body orientation and cued positions she wants for freestyle.  With the horses I make extensive use of multiple mats, but I have used them in a very different way from Michele’s work.  With the goats I wanted to explore more directly Michele’s use of platforms.

For step by step instructions for platform training for dogs I’ll direct you to her DVD on platform training which you can find on her web site: MichelePouliot.com

One of the key ingredients of her approach is you want an animal that is magnitized to the platform.  If your dog, goat or guinea pig sees a platform, he’s on it.  Forget trying to pick up a platform to move it.  Your animal will already be on it.  I definitely had that!  In fact I had it with all four goats.  The lessons I’ve described in previous posts had created super magnitized mats and super eager-to-play goats.

So in July you could say I began the initial construction of platform behavior.  Now I was continuing that process.  Those early lessons let me construct this current layer.  What I’m building now will become the components for the next project, and on it goes.

So what am I doing?  Here’s my set up for Pellias and Elyan: at the near end of the hallway I set out two the narrow platforms side by side.  In the middle I have the a single platform next to which I hang a stationary target.  Actually this target is not all that stationary since it is hung from the rafters so it swings after they touch it.  Pellias’ hanging target is a giant kong toy.  Elyan’s is another dog toy, a dumbell with tennis balls at either end.  The storage box is at the far end of the hallway, so I have three stations set up.

I’ve been working them individually in this lesson.  Normally it is Pellias who goes first.  He goes immediately to one of the narrow platforms with a very expectant air of I’m here!  Let’s play.  And that’s exactly what we do.  We play.

I have four positions that we’re working on:

“Front” – I stand directly in front of Pellias as he stands all four feet on the platform.

“Side” – I stand by his left side.

“Off” – This one will only make sense to horse people.  I stand on by his right side.  In the horse world that’s referred to as the off side.  Left and right would confuse me, but my brain can keep track of the off side so that’s what I’m using.

“Behind” – I stand in front of Pellias but with my back turned to him.

I also want “Ahead”, but I will probably need to use a target to get this one.

I generally begin with “Front”.  I say “front” as I stand in the position.  Click, treat. Repeat.  Then I shift to the other mat.  “Front” – Pellias shifts with me.  Click, treat.  From here I can shift into other positions.  I can step to either side of him.  As I do, I identify the position.  Or I might step to the opposite end of one of the mats so Pellias has to spin 180 degrees around to face me.

He’s gotten very good at following me and shifting position as needed and also staying put and letting me change position around him.  The idea is I will eventually be able to fade out the mats, and he will move into the cued orientations.  Time will tell what dots he connects.  For now it is keeping us both well entertained.

When we have done a good unit on these two platforms, I move to the middle platform and Pellias follows.  I don’t want to get him stuck and only able to work on the two platforms so it’s important to have these multiple stations.  On the middle platform he gets reinforced for touching the hanging target.

From the middle platform we head to the box.  On the box I reinforce him for body contact.  Then it’s back to the middle platform, and then on to the two narrow platforms.

With Elyan I am doing a similar lesson.  The difference between the two is Elyan is much wigglier in a younger brother sort of way.  I have no idea which one is the younger twin, but the difference in actual age is measured in minutes.  The difference in emotional age is much greater.  Elyan is the little brother bouncing up and down excited that Santa is coming.  Pellias is the older, wiser brother who pretends he’s not excited that Christmas is here.  I find them both charming.

So I am busy constructing behavior.  With horses I have built component behaviors that are similar to the ones I am teaching the goats, but not in this way.  I am very much looking forward to seeing how this unfolds.  It is fun working with an animal that not only is the size of a dog, but in so many ways moves like a dog.  That means I can more directly explore some of these techniques that canine clicker trainers have developed.  It is great fun to take someone’s good work and then to see what your own learners do with it.  And then it will be interesting what I take back to the horses.

Happy New Year Everyone!  May you construct great things from the gifts your animal friends give you.

Coming Next: Train Where You Can

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 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.

Deer Fencing – A Great Example of Everything is Connected

 

IMG_8839.JPG

The view in winter out my window

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

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

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

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

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

Frames contain things

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

Frames both include and exclude facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple versus coiled grip.png

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-05-18 at 10.51.08 PM

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

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

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

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

Panda in grown-ups not grazing.png

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-02-18 at 11.43.45 AM

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

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

Paddy leading on grass 2

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

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

On the search for good grass

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

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

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

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

Happy grazing everyone!

Whisper walking away

I Don’t Understand You. You Don’t Understand Me. Thank You Donald Trump For Helping Me To Understand Why.

New Years Greetings!

I always like to prepare a New Year’s gift for everyone, a thank you for all the support people have shown for clicker training.  This year’s gift comes in the form of a new blog post.

As we count down the days towards the Presidential Inauguration, this seems like an appropriate article to post.  There were so many times when I was puzzled and even deeply disturbed by the 2016 election campaign.  To help decipher the puzzle that is American politics, I’ve been reading some of George Lakoff’s books.  What really hooked me were the very obvious parallels with horse training.  This post is a result of my reading.

I thought about breaking this article up into a series of shorter posts so it wouldn’t monopolize your reading time, but it is better read in larger chunks.  So make yourself a cup of tea and enjoy.

Alexandra Kurland – January 2017

 

frightened-horse-close-upI can still hear the filly screaming.  She was only three months old, and she was being weaned.  Her mother had been abruptly taken away earlier in the day.  She was left on her own for the first time in her life, trapped in a dark stall.  She was rearing and spinning, screaming for her mother.  The older gelding in the stall next to her was aware of her distress and in the quiet way of horses provided her with comfort.  She had latched onto him for security.  As long as she could hear him next door, she was okay, but now that he had been taken out to be ridden, she was screaming her distress.

The barn owner wasn’t having it.  He moved the gelding to another part of the barn and put a different horse next to her.

I was watching this drama play out from the other end of the barn where my own horse was stabled.  The filly’s anguish wrenched at my heart.  I wanted to help her, but she wasn’t mine to comfort.  I couldn’t do anything but listen to her scream.

The barn owner didn’t share my concern.  He explained he was doing this for her own good.  She was destined for the race track.  She needed to learn how to be on her own. Her life would be a lot better if she learned early on not to attach herself to other horses.

After the third move, and the third loss of her equine comforter, the filly did settle.  She stopped forming attachments with the horses that were nearby.  She stopped screaming for them whenever they were taken away.

Over the years I’ve seen the terrible stress some adult horses go through when they are separated from their friends.  I think of that filly when I see their anxiety.  Through his actions the barn owner may well have been saving her from a lifetime of stress, but every time I think of her I still want to give her the comfort she was so desperately crying out for.

If I told this story to the cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, he would immediately know who I voted for in the 2016 presidential election. – I’m guessing that’s not where you thought this story was heading.

 To save myself some time I have uploaded the full article as a pdf file. Click on the link below to continue reading.

you-dont-understand-me-1-8-17