Deer Fencing – A Great Example of Everything is Connected

 

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The view in winter out my window

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

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

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

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

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

Frames contain things

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

Frames both include and exclude facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paddy leading on grass 2

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

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

On the search for good grass

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

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

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

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

Happy grazing everyone!

Whisper walking away

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.

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The Fluid Nature of Language

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing with Chains – Part 5 of 5

The Fluid Nature of Language
We began this discussion of negative reinforcement by eavesdropping on a late night gathering of the Clicker Expo faculty.  It is now twelve o’clock and the conversation in the faculty lounge is still going strong.  We have shed Kay and several of the others.  I had promised myself that I would leave at 11:30, and yet here I am.  Another ten minutes and then I really will leave.  That’s what I say to myself, but I have been saying it all evening.

Eva has asked another question.  I am loving the twists and turns the conversation is taking, but really I do have presentations to give.  I find an opening in the conversation and stand up, bringing the discussion to a natural close.  The others all stand up, as well.  Good.  I won’t miss anything.  But as I am leaving, I hear Susan Friedman asking Ken Ramirez a question.  I want to stay, but I know if I do, I will be good for nothing tomorrow.  I leave, but the following day, I hear from Ken that he and Susan remained locked in a discussion over terminology until 1:30 in the morning.

Language is not fixed.  We add words.  We change words.  We think we understand the intended meaning when we hear words used in context, but do we?  We are so accustomed to the fluid nature of language we don’t even notice how the language has evolved until we run into someone who uses the same words but in a different way.

In behavior analysis precision matters, and the use of language is very structured and controlled. It is like that puppy in yesterday’s post who stays in the base position of lying down while he learns to move just his paw.  Lying down keeps the number of things that are moving to a minimum.  Change too many variables at once, and it becomes harder to notice the one thing that you’re doing.  Scientists attempt to constrain the language to make themselves clearer.  Terms such as positive punishment and negative reinforcement have very precise meanings.  Unfortunately, when you bring that language back into the realm of common usage, confusion is often the result.

As I thought about our wonderful late night conversation, I found myself straddling both sides of the fence.  I agree that we need to understand the technical definitions of the terms we use.  But along with that understanding is the consideration of how the terms have been used, interpreted, and misinterpreted over the years.  Are the definitions are still valid in light of additional research and development?  Do we need to modernize/change the definitions to bring them more in line with modern usage?  Is it time to develop new language that reflects more accurately our current understanding of the systems we’re studying.  Archaic language can keep us stuck in archaic belief systems.

How Words Are Used
Are there some terms that we need to snatch back from the scientists?  Are there some that are simply so useful and so easily understood that we need to say to the scientists you can’t have this one?  I think chains may well fall into this category.

A chain of behaviors is such a descriptive term.  It doesn’t take a lot of explaining for a novice to understand that you are asking for a series of behaviors, each one linked to the next.  It’s a good term, one that suggests it’s meaning almost without the need for a formal definition – except . . . the scientists have given this term a very specific meaning that excludes much of what many animal trainers mean when they refer to chains.

The scientists have their technical chains: you give one cue that starts the process.  The next behavior is triggered by an internal cue.  It’s like dominoes.  You push over the first block and all the rest follow.

A sequence is something very different.  It’s a series of behaviors in which you cue one after the other after the other.

Hmm.  But are they really all that different.  Why does it matter if the cue comes from the green cone the horse sees after the jump or from a handler calling out “green”.  Both are cues.  And both link behaviors together.

The kind of chain that you wear around your neck is made up of links.  You can open up one of the links to take a section of the chain out or to add in more links. That’s why it is such a good image.  It provides such a clear visual image of one behavior connected to another.  You begin with one link.  You make that consistent, then you add the next link in the chain.  Link by link you can imagine growing your chain into longer and longer sections.  You can also imagine how links can be opened and a section of a longer chain taken out to be worked on separately or used in a different context.

It’s such a great image, I’m reluctant to give it over to the scientists.  We can certainly refer to technical chains, but I am also going to use the term chain to mean any series of behaviors which are deliberately linked together by cues.

poco-hug-3

 

With Poco I was using these links to build a two way conversation.  Touch could be highly aversive for him.  I wanted to show him that it didn’t need to be.  He could let down his guard and let me in.

 

The Power of Play
Play brought us step by step to this point.  It kept me laughing.  It kept me from treating him like something broken that needed to be fixed.  It kept me from becoming so fixated on his ears that I simply convinced him all the more to keep me at arm’s length.  Remaining PLAY FULL opened up creative possibilities.  It brought back old training memories, memories of Linda-Tellington-Jones in the mid 1980’s working with a fearful llama by doing TTEAM circles with her forehead, not her hands.  It let me take familiar lessons and combine them in novel ways.  It kept me listening to Poco and letting him lead me through the process.  It kept the training fun.

If you had walked into the arena in the middle of this session, you might not have said – “oh they’re playing.”

You would certainly recognize as play the rough and tumble of two young horses rearing up together in a field, or two dogs playing keep away with a stick.  You would see play when a handler clicks and throws a tennis ball to her dog or engages with him in a game of tug.  But this subtle exchange with Poco probably would not look like anything you would call play behavior.

With dogs you can use natural play behaviors very effectively to build bonds between you.  That’s not so much the case with horses.  Given their size, a horse’s natural play behavior means you are “playing” with dynamite.  So Poco and I developed our own form of play.  It evolved out of my approach to the session more than the specific behaviors I used.  If I am full of play, the horses respond by doing what Poco did – letting down their guard and inviting me in.

*  *  *  *

With this tenth characteristic of cues well in place we’ve moved from the realm of macro-responses to micro-shaping.  You’ve had a taste of what this means in the descriptions of Pocos sessions.  We’ll be covering it in even more detail in Part Three of JOY FULL Horses.

Coming Next: Part 3: Going Micro

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

Hidden Motivators

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing with Chains – Part 4 of 5

Hidden Motivators
Yesterday’s discussion of negative reinforcement considered the impact that each individual’s learning history has on the emotional response to a particular procedure.  Something you regard as fun might make someone else run for the hills.  When we’re choosing which teaching strategy we’re going to use with our horses or dogs, their past experience matters.

We often think of negative reinforcement in terms of the overt actions someone is taking.  We can see the slack being taken out of a lead and understand that pressure is being applied.  The release of that pressure is intended to reinforce a desired response.  But there’s another form of pressure that’s not as easy to see that plays an important role in horse training.  I’ll use an example you can experience yourself.  Suppose I’m working with you showing you some of the rope handling techniques that I teach.

I’ll begin by having you stand in balance over your feet. I’ll slide down the lead very softly.  You’re relaxed, and I want you to stay that way.  If I slide down with a lot of “make it happen” muscle, I’d be picking a fight, and you’ll stiffen into resistance.

I want you to stay soft and relaxed, so I take care how I come down the rope.  I slide into a neutral position that doesn’t effect your balance.  This is the “get ready” stage of my cue.

Now I shift my own balance.  I let my overall balance shift forward onto my toes.  This subtle shift rocks you back on your heels.  The shift is so subtle, you may at first not even notice.  I wait.  I’ve taken the slack out of the lead, but I am not pushing on you in any way.  I have simply set up a shift in your balance.

After a bit, you’ll begin to feel uncomfortable.  You can’t maintain this slightly-out-of-balance position forever. You’re having to use muscle to sustain your position, and it’s creating uneven pressure on your joints. So you take a step back.  My hand releases, click and treat.

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At clinics people get to feel how subtle this is.  All I have to do is rock my balance slightly forward and the other person will shift back into her heels.  She won’t feel threatened by the action. In fact she often isn’t even aware that I have created this shift in her balance.  Her focus has been on my hands, not the subtle shift in her own balance.

It’s like a magician’s trick.  You’re so busy watching where the magician is directing your attention, that you don’t notice when he slips your watch off your wrist.  It isn’t the pressure from my hand on the lead that creates the change or causes that slight discomfort.  The lead gives me the framework through which to create the shift.  It’s the mild discomfort that the balance shift creates that triggers the step back.

This shift out of what feels normal to you draws your attention inside.  I want you to become aware of your balance, to learn to pay attention to these subtle shifts and to make adjustments that bring you closer to an optimal state of comfort.  I want to help you shift from what feels normal but may actually be a state of imbalance to what feels good because you are now in functional balance. That’s also what I want for the horses.  Body aware horses stay sounder longer.  And body aware horses not only look very beautiful, they are more athletic than their out-of-balance counterparts.

harrison-3-photos-before-after

This set of three photos show Natalie Zielinski and her horse Harrison.  In the top left photo he’s standing all higgeldy-piggledy.  Whenever he stopped, he was always out of balance.  He tended to fall over his left shoulder, so when she led him, he was always crowding into her.  The beautiful trot you see in the other two photos evolved out of work that helped him become much more body aware.

What Triggers Change?
Here’s another example of hidden negative reinforcement.  This one is a dog example.  I’ve watched Kay Laurence teach a puppy to put his paw on a target.  It looks like a wonderfully elegant example of shaping with positive reinforcement.  But is that all that’s going on there?

If you want a puppy to put his paw on a target, most people would start with the target.  Kay doesn’t. Instead she sets the puppy up to offer a consistent motor pattern.  She gets the puppy moving his paw, and then she puts the target in the path of where the paw is going to land.  Simple and elegant.

She begins by having the puppy lie down.  This is the base position she uses to teach the behavior.  Lying down limits the behavior which the puppy can offer.  Instead of offering responses from the entire range of things a puppy can do with his body, now he’s restricted to those things he can do while lying down.  This makes it much easier to get only the desired behavior and to get it without a lot of unwanted add-ons.

Kay jump-starts the process by placing a treat off to the side away from the direction she is eventually going to want the puppy to move his paw.  He has to shift his balance and move his paw to the side in order to reach the treat.

He’s left out of balance.  If he were to stay in this position, he’d quickly become uncomfortable, so he rights himself.  He moves back to center.  Kay clicks as he moves his paw back towards a more balanced position, but she doesn’t feed him there.

Instead she again feeds him so he has to move his paw to reach for the treat. He gets his treat and returns to center.  Click!

Why does the puppy not just stay out there in this position where all the treats are delivered?  Why does he right himself?

Over time the answer becomes because he is being positively reinforced for moving back to center.  The function of the click is to identify for the puppy the right-answer behavior that leads to a treat being given.  But initially he rights himself because he’s out of balance and that feels odd. So even here there is a negative reinforcement component in what appears on the surface to be the most elegant of positive reinforcement training.

Trying to decide what to call a particular procedure can make your head spin.  If you are trying to stay on the positive side of training, of course, you want to avoid the harsh use of aversives, but, as we’ve just seen, not all discomfort creates a negative emotional reaction.  Rather than fight against the terminology, I prefer to use it.  I think it is useful to understand that that slight feeling of muscle fatigue will cause you to take a step back.  I don’t have to push you back or do anything else to get the behavior.  I can simply wait and let you figure out the puzzle.  The same thing holds true for my horse.

My horse’s emotional reaction will tell me if I am on the side of the angels or sliding fast down the slippery slope that appears when soft words don’t match hard actions. I use the terms to remember the history of the harsh methods modern horse training has evolved out of.  At some point we may be able to let go of that trail, but for now I think it is wiser to keep remembering.

Coming Next: Part 5: The Fluid Nature of Langauge

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: Unit 10 – Part 2 of 5: What We Say

JOYFULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing With Chains – Cues Evolve into Chains

What We Say
It’s ten p.m., an hour at which I should be heading off to bed, but I can’t leave yet.  I’m sitting in the faculty lounge at the Clicker Expo.  We’ve just come from dinner and a presentation by this year’s guest speaker.  After a full day of presentations you would think we would all be ready to call it a night, but instead we’re just getting warmed up.

Around the table with me are Dr. Susan Friedman, Ken Ramirez,  Eva Bertilsson, Kay Laurence, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, and Laura Monico Torelli.

We are discussing terminology.  Eva got the ball rolling with a question about chains. We are wrestling with the different definitions of chains that are in use.

chain-2

Dr. Friedman is defining a chain from the perspective of a behavior analyst.  A chain has a very narrow and very specific meaning.  For a true chain, you give one cue that starts the process.  The next behavior is triggered by an internal cue.  It’s like dominoes.  You push over the first block and all the rest follow.

This type of chain can be very elegant to watch.  Imagine a series of agility obstacles set out in your arena.  You give your horse a cue that sends him out to the first obstacle, a small jump.  Just beyond the jump is a cone.  Your horse spots the cone as he clears the jump.  The cone itself serves as the cue for him to trot over to it, and pick it up.  Nearby is a large bucket.  He walks over to the bucket, drops the cone into the bucket.  A few feet past the bucket is a large platform.  Your horse now walks over to the platform, steps up onto it with all four feet, and lifts one foot high into the air while you click and run over with his treat.

That’s a technical chain.

Now imagine a different scenario.  You send your horse out over the first jump.  Just beyond the jump are two cones, a green one and a red one.  As your horse jumps, you shout “green”.  You’ve added a cue to tell your horse which cone he’s to pick up.  He heads straight over to the green cone, but now there are more choices.  Instead of one bucket, there are two identical ones, except one has a symbol of a circle painted on it, and the other a triangle.  As he picks up the green cone, you shout “circle”.  He walks over to the correct bucket and drops the cone in.

After this he again has more choices.  There are two platforms, one to the right and one to the left of the buckets.

You shout “Left”, and he walks over to the platform that’s off his left shoulder and steps up on it.

If you are using scientific terminology, this very sophisticated series of behaviors is not a chain because you are cueing each one.  It would be considered a sequence.

Our discussion rolled on around these two terms.  We all understood the distinctions.  The question was how fluid and flexible should we be with the language we use.

The Meaning of Words
In the field of learning theory scientists took for their own use many terms which already had a common-usage meaning.  Punishment is a great example.  When someone says we need to punish a child, a criminal, a terrorist, another country, the meaning is clear.  There is a moral element to it.  You don’t simply want to stop the behavior.  You want to impose a penalty.  You want the person to suffer in some way, to “pay” for his offense.  You are punishing the individual, not the behavior.

When a behavioral analyst uses the term, the meaning is very different.  There are no moral overtones of retribution.  If you smack a horse for biting, and the behavior decreases, you can say that the smack punished the biting behavior.  If the biting continues, the smack did not punish the behavior.  It may have annoyed or even frightened the horse, but if the behavior of biting didn’t decrease, the smack wasn’t a punisher.

When scientists take words that are already in common usage and redefine them, we can get a muddled result.  We also have confusion when scientists use words that we’re sort of familiar with, but not really.

A great example is operant conditioning.

That’s the big umbrella under which clicker training sits.  Operant sounds like operator.  And conditioning we understand from fitness programs.  But what do those two words put together really mean?

Look at what else happens when scientists start combining words we thought we understood.

Consider the four quadrants of operant conditioning: there’s positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment.

Positive punishment!?  Really.

Okay, the scientists explain.  The positive means simply that something has been added.  You’re adding something the horse doesn’t want and that stops the behavior, at least for the moment.  You add the smack of your hand when your horse bites you.

That’s clear enough, except it’s hard not to feel the harsh “take that” edge when you even just think about smacking your horse.  We can say we understand the plus and minus of the terms, but we still experience emotions we’ve come to associate with the words: positive equals good, negative equals bad.  Of course people get confused by these terms!  They understand them intellectually, but they experience them emotionally.  The only term that matches up and creates no conflict in meaning is “positive reinforcement”.  The rest get us into a real “knickers in a twist” state of confusion.

Negative Reinforcement
I was listening to the conversation, but I was also keeping an eye on my watch.  Eleven o’clock.  I had presentations to give the following day.  I should be calling it a night.  I decided to stay just a few more minutes.

Eva was asking more questions.  Now we were talking about negative reinforcement, a subject that always gets my attention given it’s connection to horse training.

When horses are handled with conventional training methods, rope handling is a very clear example of negative reinforcement.  The horse can avoid/escape the threat of escalating pressure by moving in the direction the handler wants.  As the horse learns to obey, the pressure diminishes to a subtle command.  The work looks soft, but the threat of escalation remains.  The soft command tells the horse how to avoid the escalating pressure.

Often people watch the finished result and think the trainer is very soft and kind.  This is very much a case of don’t judge a book by it’s cover.  The handler can look gentle because the horse understands the threat of escalating pressure that’s hidden inside every soft request.

That’s very straight forward.  If the handler is skilled, many horses thrive in this kind of system.  They know what they need to do to stay out of trouble. There’s no guess work. The commands are clear, the consequences are swiftly applied. Respond well, the pressure goes away. Fail to respond, and it escalates.  If you can figure out what is wanted – and if you can physically do it – you can stay out of trouble.

It’s easy to understand this kind of handling.  It’s textbook negative reinforcement.  And it’s also standard-issue horse training.

So what do we call it when the pressure doesn’t increase? When there is no threat of escalation, what is it?

I’ve always kept the use of the term negative reinforcement when I write about clicker-compatible rope handling.  I do this in part because I want to remember our history.  I want to remember where so many of the techniques that we use evolved from.  I want to remember so I won’t ever be tempted to go back there.

I have always combined pressure and release of pressure with the clicker.  You could say that I am simply piggy backing the clicker onto existing training systems, and that’s not really clicker training.

Perhaps, but it is a bridge.  If I am working with a rider who has spent years perfecting her horse-handling skills, I don’t want to say: “Throw all that away.  You won’t be using leads, or reins, or anything else you’re familiar with.”  That’s a great way to lose someone before they’re even out of the starting gate.

But if I say the communication system you know still works, we’re just going to teach it very differently, that makes more sense.  There’s still a huge learning curve, but I’m not going to begin by “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

By the way do you know the derivation of that expression?  Before the modern era of indoor plumbing, baths were a rarity.  You brought water in and heated it for one bath.  The patriarch of the household took his bath first, followed in rank by everyone else.  The children would be the last ones to bathe.  By the time it was the turn of the youngest babies, the water would be murky brown.  You literally had to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water!

This derivation comes courtesy of the historian, Lucy Worsley and her wonderful book, “If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home”.

Just as we still take baths – but my how they’ve changed – we still use lead ropes and other pressure cues in clicker training. But again – how things change when you take the threat away and make them clicker compatible!

Coming Next: Procedure versus The Emotional Effect

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: Unit 10 – Part 1 of 5: Creating Change Through Chains

JOYFULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing With Chains – Cues Evolve into Chains

The List of Ten
We’re coming to the final element in our list of ten things you should know about cues.  What began as a basic introduction has taken us to some complex concepts and sophisticated uses for cues.

We began with the fundamentals:

1.) Cues and commands are not the same.
2.) Not all cues are verbal.
3.) Cues can come from inanimate objects.  You can have environmental cues.
4.) Our animals can cue us.
5.) Cues evolve out of the shaping process.
6.) Having a cue attached to a behavior isn’t enough.  We need stimulus control – a fancy term for saying you get the behavior you want when you want it and only when you want it.
7.) We can use cues to counter balance one another to create stimulus control.
8.) Cues change and evolve. You can use this to create the degree of lightness you want.  You can also create new cues for existing behaviors.
9) You can’t not cue.  You saw this applied to the “play” session with Poco, the ear-shy horse.

This naturally brings us to:

10.) What’s more fun than playing with cues? Playing with Chains.

Creating Change Through Chains
In the previous unit I introduced you to Poco, an ear-shy horse.  I described a series of sessions in which I combined clicker training with body work.   Poco wasn’t just ear shy.  He was tight throughout his whole body.  Backing was hard.  Turning was hard. Yielding his hips was hard.

It may be that all that worry over his ears made him generally tight, or the ears were the red flag telling us that there was much more going on that we couldn’t see.

The Story for Poco
Remember we want to tell stories that help our horses.  So here’s the story I told about Poco.  Horses who are ear shy often get wrestled with.  They get jerked on and pulled around and told to STAND STILL OR ELSE!  At best they simply become wary and defensive.  At worst they can sustain serious injuries, especially if they are pulled off their feet in their struggles.

The story I told for Poco is that he was one of the horses who was wrestled with and who may have sustained some injuries.  We needed to ask him some questions to find out if we were dealing with simple tension or something more serious.  I suspected that part of the reason the ear shyness remained a persistent problem was because it hurt every time he threw his head up to avoid being touched.  That predictable spike of pain convinced that being handled around his ears was a bad deal.

I wanted to get to his ears, and I also wanted to get to his tail.  Most of us have seen frightened dogs with their tails tucked between their legs.  When they’re afraid, animals from many species clamp their tails tight to their bodies.  The best explanation I’ve heard for this behavior is it blocks the release of pheromones into the air.  When an animal is afraid, it may not want to broadcast that fear to everyone in the neighborhood, so it clamps down on its tail to cover the anal glands.

Whatever the reason, horses certainly do carry a great deal of tension in their tails.  Working the tail can help release that tension and free up the hind end.

Poco’s Learning Loop
Under saddle you learn to free up a horse’s hindquarters by working from the front end first.  And to soften the front end, you begin with the hind end.  So what do you do when you need to gain access to both ends and both have “do not trespass” signs posted?  The answer with Poco was I set up a predictable pattern.  Poco always knew what I was going to do next.  Because he knew what to expect, he could let me know when he was ready for me to move on. Until I got a sign from him that he was comfortable with what I was doing, I did not move deeper into the cycle of behaviors.

Step one began with a hug.  Standing at his side, I used the components I had built earlier to ask Poco to rest his nose in my hands.  I could then press my head against the side of his face.  A casual spectator would have seen me hugging Poco.  What a lovely picture!  But look more closely, and you would see that I was also asking for a lateral give at his poll.

I was placing my head on his forehead.  It gave him a reference place around which to soften into a bend.  The give was tiny.  Gives are.  But I could feel him release through the poll – a release that traveled down his spine towards his withers.

That was my cue to step in front of him and ask for the next link in the chain: the forward stretch that asked for another give at the poll.  I was inviting him to lengthen forward, down and out.  I could feel the release so clearly as he melted into my hands.

poco-forward-give-2nd-link-caption

The third link in this sequence was long strokes across his back and down his hindquarters asking him to drop his head.

poco-head-lowering-3-photos

His response told me how ready or not he was for me to go on.  As he took down his “no trespassing” signs, I was able to slip in behind him.  I was being given tentative permission to proceed.

poco-tail-lift-2

I used TTEAM body work techniques to lift his tail.

I slid my hand gently under his tail and lifted up.  The muscles of his hindquarters spasmed, and he stepped quickly away swinging his tail away from me.

Clearly my “story” had some merit to it.  He was showing me places where there were huge questions.

 

He was facing me again.  I reached up as though nothing had happened and asked for another hug. The chain began again.

Link 1 was the hug asking for a lateral bend.

Link 2 was the forward stretch and release through the poll.

Link 3 was the stroking across his back looking for head lowering.

His response gave me permission to move onto his tail.

Link 4 was working his tail looking for a release through his whole spine.

The result: Poco felt soft as butter.  Instead of a wary, tense horse keeping himself well removed from me, he was seeking out my company, melting into my hands.  We were having a conversation.  These gives were asked for, not demanded. I was asking the questions.  He was finding the changes.  He was coming up with the answers. That changes everything – not just in his body but in the relationship.

Coming Next: What we Say

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

Tactile Communication

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

Adding the Click
In an earlier section I said we expand a field not from within, but from without.   Innovations come from bringing ideas together from different areas of study.  Poco gives us a wonderful illustration of this.  I was combining two things I knew worked well: body work and clicker training.  The click turned over responsibility for the process to Poco.  I was not simply a body worker doing something TO him.  Poco and I were involved in a conversation.  I was asking questions, but I didn’t have the answers.  Poco had to provide those.

I was asking him to release through the poll.  What could you find, what could you release that would let you melt into my waiting hands?  I felt the answers through my hands, and I acknowledged them with a click and a treat.

Tactile Communication
The release through the poll was just one area I wanted to explore with Poco.  I not only wanted to get to Poco’s ears.  I also wanted to get to his hindquarters, but he had huge “DO NOT ENTER” signs posted everywhere.

I don’t know the horses I meet at clinics well enough to know which are the ones who really do mean KEEP OUT and which ones are all bluff.  If you ignore the “warning signs” of the ones who mean it, you can get seriously hurt, so I respect the “signs” all the horses post.  I try not to bludgeon my way in.  I much prefer to have them take down the warning signs themselves and invite me into their personal space.

Cues Evolve
I wanted to reach Poco’s hips.  I began my approach with long arm strokes across his back.

Poco dropped his head marginally.  Click and treat.

You can’t not cue.

Cues evolve out of the shaping process.

I was on the look out for associations which could turn into cues.  I stroked his back, and Poco dropped his head.  Again, I clicked and treated.

Poco was a tuned-in clicker horse.  He caught on right away.  I was cueing head lowering.  Very neat.

I always chuckle when this sort of thing pops out.  It’s so easy to miss that first little head drop.  It’s so easy to think that all you’re doing is stroking your horse’s back.  But if you are on the lookout, you will spot that first little drop of the head.  Once you’ve captured it with a click and a treat, you can grow it into a more definite, predictable response.

Cue Communication
Poco now had a way to tell me when it was okay for me to move on.  I could stroke a little further back along his barrel.  If his head dropped right away, I knew he was at ease, and next time I would be able to ask for a bit more.

But if he hesitated, I knew I was asking for too much.  I needed to move back towards his withers and ask for less.  Poco very quickly realized he had control.  I wouldn’t go any further, any faster than he was ready for.

I built a small, predictable loop.  First, I stood in front of him and invited him to release forward and down into my hands.

Click and treat.

Then I moved to his side and stroked along his back.  He dropped his head.  Click and treat.

That sent me back to the start of the cycle, asking for a release of his poll.  As I invited him into my hands, I leaned directly over the plane of his face.  My chin at times rested against his ears. I could feel his worry melting away.  At least in this context, he was trusting me to keep my word. I was not going to hurt him.

Adding in Lateral Flexions

poco-stroke-back

I asked for a series of these lengthening through the spine.  Then I moved to his side, but now I was looking for the next level of criterion in the head lowering.  It was no longer enough that he was dropping his head.  Now I wanted him to drop his head AND give to the side I was on.  In other words I was looking for the same lateral give that I would have been looking for if I had had a rein in my hand.

At this point I could stroke along his top line and down the backside of his hindquarters.  He dropped his head, but I didn’t click.  He brought his head up.  I re-cued head lowering by stroking my arm over his hindquarters.  He dropped his head and gave slightly to the side – a lucky discovery in his part.

Immediately I clicked and treated.

I stroked again, and he dropped his head and gave into the left bend.  Click and treat.  What a smart horse!  Our communication was expanding.  Each criterion we added gave us another bit of “syntax” to weave into the conversation we were having.

Do Not Enter Signs
It was time to ask him if he was ready to take down another of his KEEP OUT – NO TRESPASSING ALLOWED signs.

This one was on his belly.  As I also stroked along his back with one hand, I tried stroking along his sternum with the other.  He hunched up away from my hand.  This reaction revealed the kind of tension that can turn into a buck under saddle.

I eased my hand back.  He could tell me when he was ready.  When he dropped his head, click and treat, I returned to the stretch forward.  I was telling him once again that I wouldn’t proceed without his permission.

Permission granted. He took down the first of his signs.  I could stroke his belly.  He signaled his content by dropping his head and giving into the bend.  Click, treat, and walk off casually to give him some break time for processing all the new information.

Microrhythms
Cues evolve in many ways.  When you open yourself up to listen to your horse, you will quickly discover what it means when I say you can’t not cue.

When you are in conversation with someone, there are always subtle cues that are being exchanged.  We nod our head, we smile, we add in a quick word.  These simple gestures become cues that keep the conversation going. We notice them when they are absent.  When you talk on the phone and the other person doesn’t say anything in the pauses you provide, you start looking at your phone to see if the call has been dropped.

Poco and I were creating our own subtle micro rhythms.  We were understanding that our actions had influence.  I could cue him, and he could respond by cueing me.  He was showing me so clearly not only that cues evolve out of the shaping process but also that you can’t not cue.  The exchange of cues goes on even when we are not consciously aware of it.  When I turned our session into play time, I simply made these cues easier to spot.

Review
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this unit.  These videos will give you a quick review of the work I did with Poco.  The first clip was taken during the second session I did with him.  I am asking him to target his nose, then his chin, and finally I can rest my head against his forehead – click and treat.  (refer back to Part 10 of 12: Stepping Stones https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/09/18/)

 

Next came adding in duration by clicking on the exhale of his breath.  (refer back to Part 10 of 12: Stepping Stones https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/09/18/)

The next video shows the release of the poll and the building of head lowering. (refer to Part 11 of 12: Moving On https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/09/19/ and this current post.)

This final video in this series shows the taking down the “Do Not Enter”signs.  I’m coupling the stroking along his back and belly with head lowering.

This ends this section: Number 9: You Can’t Not Cue.

Coming Next: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing with Chains 

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