March Discoveries

March is slipping away fast and I have not yet written this month’s celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  It’s been a jammed packed month.  The Clicker Expo and the Art and Science of Animal Training conferences were back to back this year.  Both conferences become endurance tests because I can’t resist the late night conversations with the other faculty members.  We typically don’t stop until one or two in the morning, and then only because we know we have presentations to give the next day.

For most of the month I had the added endurance test of night checks on the goats while I waited for Trixie and Thanzi to give birth.

Prepping for the conferences would have been enough to fill this month, but I also added the launching of the new Equiosity podcast with Dominique Day.

Episode 3 just went live yesterday.  The conferences are done, the goats are all doing great, so finally I can write my thank you to the people who helped open the doors to these great adventures.

It’s always a challenge to pick one person out of the many hundreds who have played principle roles in bringing clicker training so actively into the horse community.   This is the last day in March.  Spring is coming which means the clinic season is about start up again.  So it seemed like a good choice to celebrate the clinics and the many organizers and attendees.  I couldn’t possibly list all the names.  I’d be bound to leave someone out, so instead I am going to thank just one person, Kate Graham who, along with Lin Sweeney, for years hosted the Groton New York clinics.

I’m choosing Kate for two reasons.  One, the Groton clinics were one of my first clicker training clinics, and the first that turned into a recurring event.  Two or three times a year we would gather in Lin’s living room for the start of a great weekend.  Many people who became very instrumental in helping to expand clicker training were regulars at these clinics.

My main memory of the first Groton clinic was not of horses but of snow.  Saturday night we went out to dinner as a group.  We drove through near white out conditions to get to the restaurant.  In spite of the cold weather that weekend people were hooked.  We’d just scratched the surface of what is possible.  None of the horses in that first clinic had any clicker training experience so most of the training involved basic targeting.  But even so people were excited by the changes they were seeing in their horses.

I will always be grateful to Kate and Lin for saying – “Let’s do this again!”  If I had spent all my travel time just giving start-up clinics, I would never have been able to take clicker training past the basics of simple targeting.  My own horses would have known the joys of beautiful balance and all the other great gifts that clicker training brings us, but I wouldn’t have been able to share it with others through the clinics.  Instead clinic by clinic we moved the work forward.

We had a core group of regular attendees which meant I got to see horses advance through the stair steps of the training.  Katie Bartlett was among this group.  I got to see her senior horse, Willy, turn into a clicker super star, and then I watched her young Dutch warmblood, Rosie, develop from gawky youngster into a beautiful riding horse.

One of Lin Sweeney’s horses, a standardbred named Button, became a school horse for clinic attendees. Button became a super teacher for anyone who wanted to learn about lateral flexions. And then there was Lucky, Kate’s horse.

Lucky is the second reason for saying thank you to Kate.  Watching the two of them together always made me smile.  Lucky was a Connemara cross (or so Kate was told.)  He started with that all too usual story.  The first time Kate rode him after she bought him, Lucky spun and bolted as she was getting on him.  Kate fell off and broke her ankle.

To get him to the point where he could be ridden safely Kate looked at John Lyons’ work.  She found one of his instructors living within driving distance in Canada.  She helped her enormously.  When I first met Lucky, Kate could ride him, but he was incredibly wiggly.  Straight lines were not in his riding vocabulary.

I knew about that stage from my own exploration of single-rein riding.  Teaching a horse to be soft is done through lots of bending into lateral flexions.  Your horse now feels wonderfully light.  He is safe to ride.  You don’t have to worry about the spooking or the bolting off.  Those terrors are now a thing of the past, but your rides seem to be mostly about going in small circles.  Lyons knew how to sort out all this bending for his own horses, but he was just beginning to figure out how to teach it to others.  So Lucky was stuck in the stage where going in circles and wiggly lines was the norm.

I had also studied Lyons work and was familiar with the single-rein riding, so I understood what Kate was working on with Lucky.  Peregrine had taught me how to insert clicker training into the process which dramatically changed the conversation.

With Lucky we began on the ground, first with the basics of targeting and the other foundation lessons.  In 1998 I was focused on three foundation lessons, targeting, backing and head lowering.  It was through the clinic process that I expanded the list to six.  The other three behaviors had always been something I taught, but I hadn’t yet understood how universally important they were.

What did the clinics add to the list?  Standing on a mat, “happy faces”, and the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.  Grown-ups gives us a base position, a calm settled launching point to balance out all the more active behaviors we ask for.  It simply means that your horse is standing beside you in his own space with his head oriented evenly between his shoulders so he’s looking straight ahead.  He’s not doing all the “I don’t want my horse to . . . ” behaviors, such as mugging your pockets or crowding into your space.  Grown-ups begins the process of focusing on what you want your horse TO DO, instead of the unwanted behavior.  So it is as much for the handler as it is for the horse.

I gave it that long, somewhat cumbersome name because I wanted to make it clear to people who were peeking in at clicker training that we may be using food, but we are not permissive trainers.  Our horses have good manners.

Getting a horse to stand still beside you can be a challenging behavior to teach well.  It’s easy for force-based trainers.  You simply say to your horse – move and I’ll hurt you.  Say it with conviction, back it up with action, and your horse will stand still until you tell him to move.

In clicker training we are taking away the threat of enforcement.  Instead we reinforce behaving.  Horses get reinforced for offering behavior.  Standing still is very much a behavior.  Getting to a point where your horse will stand still long enough for the grown-ups to truly have a conversation takes time to build.  You have to convince your horse that all those other charming behaviors that you’ve been teaching him – lifting his feet, walking off into lateral work, picking up your grooming brushes, backing up, rushing off to find a mat, etc. none of these things are what you want right now.  Standing quietly beside you is what will get you to click and hand him a treat.

So grown-ups lets you discover how to build duration.  It introduces cues and stimulus control.  It shows you how to balance one behavior with another, and how to expand a simple stand-beside-me behavior in many different directions – from neutral balance into the pilates pose, and from simple duration into solid ground tying.  Through the process it also shows you how the behaviors you are teaching become transformed into conditioned reinforcers which can then be used to help support other newer behaviors.

The clinic horses were helping me to see connections.  I was discovering things about these foundation behaviors that working with my own horses had not yet revealed.  They were showing me details that are now embedded into the core teaching.  They helped make clicker training better, more universally applicable, and so much more fun!

Lucky loved clicker training.  And even more he loved Kate.  Watching the two of them together was always a highlight of the Groton clinics.  It wasn’t just that Lucky was beautiful – which he was.  With each clinic he became more and more suspended, and more and more stunning to watch.  He was a head turner for sure.  But what made Lucky stand out was his sense of humor.  He and Kate laughed their way through every training session.  They never worked on anything I shared with them.  For them it was always play.

That’s the joy they shared and that I have been lucky enough to share with others.  Thank you Kate!  And thank you to all the other clinic organizers.  You played an important role in planting the seed of clicker training.  Look how it is growing now!

Lucky-canter-for-web

This is one of my favorite photos.  Lucky is cantering beside Kate.  I love the canter in hand.  Kate is walking.  She’s not running to try to keep up with a cantering horse.  Instead Lucky is staying beautifully connected to her so she can walk beside him with her hand on his neck.  Talk about an addicting sensation!   You can feel all the power of your horse, and all the control.  It is magnificence itself, an experience like no other, especially when you know that your horse is offering you this connection, not because he has to but because he joyously seeks it out.

Every time I look at this picture I smile.  It represents so many of the good things clicker training can give us: laughter, fun, a great connection with our horses, an opportunity to explore – and succeed in training advanced performance skills, beautiful balance, and most important of all – a happy horse.

Thank you Kate and Lucky, and thank you to all the other clinic organizers.  Your desire to bring clicker training solidly into your own area has helped to build a world-wide clicker training community.

 

 

 

 

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2

 

This is Part 3 in this series.  The horse I am featuring was one of the horses at the November 2015 Arkansas clinic.  He had no clicker training experience prior to the clinic.  We tracked his progress via video over a three day period. 

Part 1 covered the morning training sessions of Day 1

Part 2 covered the afternoon training sessions of Day 1

If you have not already read Parts 1 and 2, I suggest you begin there.  This article covers the training sessions in Day 2.

Day 2

Day two began with another round of targeting and “the grown-up are talking”.  Again, I was choosing to work over the stall guard and to keep the session short.

Video: Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 Session 1

We followed the same pattern of the previous day.  After working with Nick, I asked people what they saw.  They all agreed that he was doing much better.  He was coming forward to touch the target, but the targeting loop was not yet clean.  He was first looking down the barn aisle.  Since this was not his home barn, it wasn’t surprising that he wanted to look around.  However, being easily distracted was one of the issues his owner reported having with him.

One of the participants commented that she was seeing a trend. Yes, he was looking at these competing distractions, but he was re-engaging with the targeting faster.  We also liked how far he was backing to get his treat, and how promptly he came forward again once the target was up.  He was still cautious about touching the target so we discussed whether we wanted the actual bump of the target, or was it enough for him to orient towards it.

Part of the answer to this depends upon how you are going to use the behavior in the future.  This is something to consider as you build your horse’s targeting skills.  For example, when horses trail ride in company, horses target on the tail of the horse in front of them.  We don’t normally think of this as targeting, but it is.  So here’s the question: do you want your horse to catch up to that target?  Or would you rather have him learn to maintain a set distance from the horse in front of him?  Following at a set distance the kind of target stick we were using with Nick is a good first step towards teaching this skill.

Once I start moving a target, generally I want the horse to keep a set distance from it.  There are other targets that I want the horse to catch up to.  If I am teaching a horse to retrieve, I not only want the horse to catch up to the target.  I want him to put his mouth around it, pick it up and bring it to me.

The beauty of this system is you don’t have to choose.  You can teach your horse that one type of target is something you orient to and follow.  Another is something you retrieve.  And still another type of target is something you station next to.

So what are some examples of different ways you might use targets?  You can teach your horse to “self bridle” by first having your horse touch his mouth to a bit that you’re holding out. Through small shifts in the criteria, you can then teach him to put his mouth around it in preparation for bridling.

Here’s an example of what this looks like when it’s a finished behavior:

Here are some other uses for the targeting skills Nick is learning.  You can hold a hula hoop out and have your horse put his nose through the center.  Change to a smaller hula hoop, and then change again to the nose band of a halter that you’re holding out for him.  He’ll be targeting by putting his nose into a halter.

You can hang a stationary target such as an empty orange juice jug in your barn aisle or stall.  While you are grooming your horse or doing a medical procedure, he’s staying next to his target.

I can even use the same object for two different target uses.  Small cones are a great example.  Cones make perfect retrieve toys.  They also make great markers.  I will often put cones out in a circle for my horses to go around.  These are targets that I want the horse to orient to, but not interact with in other ways – until I direct him to.  At the end of the lesson I’m going to ask him to pick up all the cones and hand them to me so we leave a tidy arena behind us.  How does an experienced clicker horse know the difference?  Cues.

Cues and the context in which they are given help a horse understand what to do when.  You might have a horse that understands the verbal cue “trot”.  When he’s on a lunge line, he picks up a trot promptly when asked.  But if you said “trot” to him while he was in a stall, he probably wouldn’t respond.  He’s not responding to the word “trot” in isolation.  It is “trot” plus all the context cues.   “Trot” plus the environment tells him what to do when. So the target alone doesn’t tell the horse what to do with it.  As his understanding of clicker training expands, it’s the target plus the associated context cues that he’ll be learning

Generally when I move a target, I want the horse to follow it, but not catch up to it.  The timing of my click teaches my horse what I want.  If I want my horse to follow a moving target, I’ll click as he orients to the target.  I won’t wait until he has caught up to it. So, suppose I’ve been teaching my eager clicker horse to bump a target, and now he’s really hitting it hard with his muzzle.  I may be wondering: did I really teach that!?  If I want a softer touch, or I want to have him just approach but not make contact with the target, I’ll click as he approaches the target.

Here’s a discussion of this process:

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2: The Flexibility of Targeting

Based on this discussion in the next round of targeting, I used a flat cone instead of the target stick.

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Session 2: Targeting with a Cone

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Session 2 continued: Work in the Stall

Going into the stall with Nick revealed the core issues his owner has been puzzling over.  The way Nick struggles to turn in the stall makes the space look small and cramped, but he’s in a stall that was built for draft horses.  It’s roughly 14 by 16 feet, more than big enough for a small horse like Nick, and yet he struggled to turn.  Again, I am still in the data collecting phase of the training.  I make note of the difficulty even while I continue to ask Nick questions.

One question I wanted to ask related to the halter.  Was it contributing to Nick’s inability to maneuver in the stall?  Was there something in his previous experience with being worked on a lead that caused him to stiffen?  The way to answer that question was to slip the halter off and shift to targeting.

In this next clip you’ll see how I begin to ask for backing not via the food delivery, but as a direct request.  I’ll ask for backing by placing my hand on his neck.  I think of my hand there as a starter button cue.  It is very much like the key that turns on your car.  Once your car has started, you don’t keep turning the key.  In the same way, once Nick is backing, I release my hand.  But you’ll see that I walk into him as he backs.  So my hand on his neck is a starter button cue.  Walking into him is a “keep going” cue.  “As long as I am walking towards you, keep backing up.”  I want the horse to continue to back until either I click, or I ask for something else.

My hand on his neck is a pressure-and-release-of-pressure cue.  I am teaching it in a context that hopefully makes it easy for him to understand what is wanted.  In the clip you’ll see I ask at one point where he is close to the back corner of the stall.  He doesn’t think he has room to back up, so he stalls out.

When I fail to get a response, I don’t escalate.  I don’t push into him harder or become louder in my body language.  There’s no “do it or else!” embedded in my request.  Instead I make some small adjustments to ensure that my request is clear, and then I wait for him to solve the puzzle.  When he steps back, my hand goes away, and, click, he gets a treat.

Choice is what this lesson is all about.  When he stops at the door to look at the people, again, I wait him out.  I am letting him decide to bring his head inside the stall to touch the target.  You see revealed in the small confines of the stall the two issues his owner reports that she has with him.  When she goes out to get him, he will approach part way, but he is reluctant to come all the way up to her.  And out on the trail he is easily distracted.  She has trouble getting him to focus back on her.

I don’t have to turn Nick out or take him out on a trail to see these issues revealed.   He’s showing them to us here in the stall.  That’s good news.  Out on the trail energy levels can shoot up.  Small problems can suddenly turn into major safety issues.  Here in the stall, if he gets distracted, it’s easy to handle.  I  can teach Nick some skills that will help him stay with me as the environment becomes more complex.

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Session 2 continued: More Stall Work

And here is the discussion that followed that session, including what it means to have a Grand Prix clicker horse.

 
Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Final Discussion

Once again, the clinic participants had to wait overnight to see how Nick processed this day’s lessons.  I will make you do the same.  I’ll share Day 3 in the next installment of this report.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercentercourse.com

This is Part 3 of a 4 Part series on introducing a horse to the clicker. 

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

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

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1: Afternoon Session

This is Part 2 in this series.  The horse I am featuring was one of the horses at the November 2015 Arkansas clinic.  He had no clicker training experience prior to the clinic.  We tracked his progress via video over a three day period. 

If you have not already read Part 1, I suggest you begin there.  Part 1 covers the morning sessions of Day 1.  This article covers the afternoon sessions of Day 1.

Afternoon Targeting Sessions

Just when you think you have that rare thing, a complete video record of a horse’s introduction to clicker training, you discover that several sessions are missing.  For the first two rounds of Nick’s afternoon session the record button wasn’t on.

In both sets he was at the door waiting for me and began with three very definite target touches.  He came forward promptly, touched the target and backed up easily for the treat delivery.  He came out further over the stall guard than he had been in the morning.  His interest in the game was growing.  That was encouraging progress, but it was also that’s something needed to be monitored.  I wanted to make sure that this new found confidence remained in balance with his general good manners.

In both rounds he showed the same cycle.  He began by touching the target promptly with none of the hesitation that he had shown in the morning.  He gave three solid touches, and then his response rate dipped down.  That was also something to monitor.

As usual we discussed what to do with the next round of treats.  Everything about his behavior suggested that he would be fine if I went into the stall with him.  He was backing easily out of my space.  He was taking the treats politely without any excessive mugging behavior.

Because he was now showing me that he would back away from me, I felt comfortable going into the stall with him.  But that didn’t mean I had to go in.  I could stay outside the stall and continue with the targeting.  Or I could introduce one of the other foundation lessons.  The consensus from the group was to continue with the targeting to get the come-forward-to-the-target-back-up-to-get-the-treat loop cleaner.

Again there is no right or wrong to this.  We could have made some other choice.  Nick’s behavior would tell us if the choices we made were heading us in a good direction.

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

Data Collected. Now It’s Assessment Time

People felt this was his best round yet.  I kept this session very short.  I got three good touches and then ended the session.  This avoided the dip in behavior that we had seen earlier.  Nick was clearly still very cautious in his responses.  This is a process that has to unfold in it’s own time.

Several of the clinic participants wondered if we should change targets or change treats.  It’s always a possibility.  One of the huge advantages of clicker training is there is always more than one way to train every behavior.  There isn’t one and only one right way that you have to follow.  That’s what makes these discussions so valuable.  We could certainly try a different target, or introduce a different foundation lesson, but it was also okay to stay with what we were doing.

With Nick, I was still working with simple targeting, but in each round there had been significant changes.  I began by offering him the food approximately where the target had been.  Now I could move him back to get his treat which meant he then had to step forward to touch the target.  The shaping of more complex behavior was occurring almost without his noticing.  In the morning he started out much more on the forehand.  I made a point of feeding him in a way that shifted his balance back slightly which brought him off his front end.  That then allowed me to feed him so he moved back even more.  You are now seeing in the video clip how he is moving back well out of my way to get the treat.

Because I can feed him so he steps back, the dynamic of touching the target changes.  I will often see people moving the target around through big changes.  They’ll hold it high, then low, then out to the side.  Most horses can follow these changes and continue to touch the target.  Essentially the handler is being reinforced for changing criterion in big stair steps.  We call that lumping.  It works for a simple behavior like targeting, but I would rather see the handler learn to build behaviors more smoothly, so a response is already happening consistently before it becomes the criterion that earns the click.

Questions

Training must always take into consideration any health concerns.  One of the questions I had concerned Nick’s teeth.  I wondered how long ago they had been checked.  Nick not only took a long time to eat the hay stretcher pellets, I never heard him take them up onto his back molars to chew.  So I wondered if he might have some sharp points or some other issues that were contributing to his overall caution.  His owner said he had very recently been done by a good dentist.  That’s good to hear, but it doesn’t completely eliminate my question.

It’s so hard to judge how well an equine dentist is doing.  We can look at our horse’s feet to see if a farrier is leaving flare and other obvious signs that perhaps we need to question the job he’s doing.  But with teeth it’s much harder to evaluate the job a dentist has done.  Reaching in to check for points isn’t something we’re trained to do.

Even if you’ve had the teeth checked recently, it’s always possible that something has happened since to cause a problem.  Nick’s owner reported that he is very tight in his jaw and his poll.  That’s consistent with the way he was eating his treats.  This is all part of this early data collecting phase of the training.  Many of the concerns and questions that these early sessions raise may well simply disappear as Nick figures out the game.  What remains needs to be looked at with the possibility that there is a physical issue interfering with his ability to respond well.  For now we were very much still in an exploratory stage, so I continued on with another targeting session, the fourth of the afternoon:

Video  An Introduction To Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 4th Session

The Grown-up Are Talking, Please Don’t Interrupt

In the discussion that followed this set, we decided that it would be interesting to shift gears and introduce Nick to an exercise which I refer to as: the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.  At it’s most basic this exercise is asking if the horse can keep his nose away from my treat pocket when I’m standing in close to him. Initially I free shape this lesson, meaning I am not prompting or triggering the correct response through my behavior.  I am simply observing Nick and reinforcing him for approximations that move him closer to my overall goal.

If he comes into my space or nudges at my arm, I’ll let him explore.  It’s important that he feels safe experimenting.  If I correct him for nuzzling my pockets, I can’t expect him to feel safe offering behavior in other ways.  If I don’t feel comfortable letting him nuzzle my pockets, I can always step back out of range.

When he moves his nose away from my body, click, I’ll give him a treat.  I’ll feed him out away from my body where the perfect horse would be.  That means he’ll have his head between his shoulders and at a height that puts him into good balance.

In this first round of grown-ups you will see that he spends over a minute investigating my pockets.  I let him explore.  This is such an important part of the process.  He isn’t being punished for coming into my space or nuzzling at my vest.  It isn’t dangerous for him to check out this option, but it also doesn’t get him any treats.

If you’ve been taught that you should never let a horse into your space like this, it can be really hard to watch him nuzzling at my pockets.  During this process his owner told us that he often mugs for treats.  It’s a behavior his previous owners allowed, which may account for his persistence.  But watch how quickly he catches on to this new game.  Moving his nose away from me is the way to get treats!

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 5th Session – the First Asking for  Grown-Ups

In the discussion that followed this session I again emphasized how systematic the unfolding of clicker training is.  The behaviors I work on are very connected one to another.  Even though I haven’t perfected targeting, I can still move on and introduce other behaviors.  In the targeting he was learning that moving his head away from me to touch the blue end of the target stick produced goodies.  In grown-ups he was discovering that moving his head into that same position, even when a target wasn’t present, also produced treats.

I think it’s important early on for horses to discover that there is more than one way for them to earn a click and a treat.  If you work too long on targeting or some other behavior, a horse can get too narrow in his understanding of how the process works.  He will think that there is one and only one behavior that produces treats.  He can become very locked in.  When you try and do something else, he’ll get very frustrated because he feels as though he is being blocked from the one thing that he knows works.  So it’s good to experiment and introduce other behaviors early on in the process.

Remember there is no one and only one right answer.  If we had stayed with another round of targeting, would that have been wrong?  No.  If we had moved from targeting sooner, would we have been wrong?  No.  If we had switched to a different target or to different treats, would we have been wrong?  No.

Nick is definitely cautious in his approach to the target, but at this stage that isn’t a bad thing.  We’re at the beginning of a huge paradigm shift.  I’m letting him come into my space and sniff at my hands and explore my pockets.  He has to do that in order to discover that that’s not what works.  What works is taking his nose away from me.  I’m not going to correct him for nuzzling at me.  I don’t want to punish him for it.  I want him to make that choice on his own with minimal prompting from me.

If I thought he was dangerous, if I thought he was going to bite me, I would step away.  I might even have a different kind of barrier.  Or I might wait to work on this particular lesson.  In other words, I would set it up so I felt safe.  He’s exploring.  He’s experimenting.  While he’s doing so, it’s important that we both feel safe.

If I said to you: I want you to experiment, but recognize that there are sharks in the water.  And now go dip your toe in the water, you’d say to me: “I’d rather not.”

If I’m correcting him for nuzzling, then experimenting in general is a bad idea.   Trying things has become unsafe.  He’d be right to say the same thing to me. “I’m not going to reach out and touch that target, because I might get smacked.  You may be giving me treats this time, but next time you just might hit me instead.”

This is why I set up the training in this very structured way, and why I begin with protective contact.  I want him to learn that he can experiment safely.

In this next round you’ll see how well this strategy is paying off.  Nick spent most of the previous round mugging my pockets.  Now in this set you’ll see him very deliberately moving his head away from me.

Progress.

Video:  Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 6th Session – 2nd Grown-ups.


Nick is showing us why clicker training is so much fun.  With every round we’ve seen a shift, a change in his understanding.  Grown-ups produced for him a real “lightbulb” moment.  Shifting from targeting to grown-ups has helped him “connect the dots”.

It also shows again the value of using these short rounds of training.  You may be thinking: that’s easy to do in a clinic.  You have to stop to talk to the participants and explain what you’re doing.  How am I supposed to do this the the real world of my barn?

It’s really easy to do these short rounds of training in your home environment.  You might do a quick round of targeting and then fill a couple water buckets.  You’d do another short round of targeting and then throw down some hay, or turn out a horse.  You’d do another round, and then sweep the barn aisle.  In other words, in between doing your normal barn chores, you can get in a lot of short sets of training.

After you’ve got your chores done, you might want to have a more “normal” visit with your horse. You want to do more with him than just targeting in a stall.  All your previous training says you need to “work” with your horse.

You can begin to expand your clicker training into all the everyday tasks he already knows.  If he’s a horse like Nick who is safe to handle, by all means bring him out and groom him.  In that grooming session, you’ll be looking for opportunities to click and reinforce him.  If he normally fusses and moves about while you groom him, but right now he’s standing still, click and reinforce him.  When you ask him to move his hips over so you can get by, as he responds, click and reinforce him.

You will now be paying attention to all those little requests that we often take for granted when we groom.  You’ll be finding excuses to click and reinforce him, and in the process you’ll be discovering how much better he can be.  You will still have your “formal” clicker sessions where you focus specifically on targeting and the other foundation lessons.  But you can also begin to incorporate the clicker into the “real world” of everyday tasks and expectations.

Business can continue as usual, but now you have this added communication tool that says: “thank you for a job well done.” 

You’ll be doing this, and you’ll also be continuing with the formal process of introducing him to the six foundation lessons of clicker training.  As your horse masters those lessons, you can use them to make daily husbandry and the rest of your training even better.

Now, if your horse were showing you dangerous behaviors, I wouldn’t be encouraging you to bring him out to groom him.  While he learns how to learn, I would be recommending that you stay with protective contact.  He can be dirty for a while.  If you’re dodging his teeth, there’s nothing that says you have to groom him every day.  If you are seeing behaviors that raise safety concerns, I would teach him the learning-how-to-learn emotional-control aspect of his training with a barrier between you.

After this discussion I decided to finish up with one more round that would include both targeting and the grown-ups are talking lesson.

Video:  An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training:  7th Session- Targeting & Grown-ups

This was the final round of the day.  In the afternoon we spent approximately fifty minutes focused on Nick.  About 17 minutes of that time was spent working directly with him.  The rest was spent in discussion.  That’s a good ratio, especially at this stage of the training.

One of the things we were discussing were all the changes we were seeing.  You have a huge advantage because you can go back and review the earlier video clips.  Think about all the changes you’ve seen in these clips.  We began in the morning with his first tentative exploration of the target, and now in the afternoon he will step forward to touch a target, and I can move him back with the food delivery.  I can stand next to him with my pockets filled with treats, and he will deliberately take his head away from me.  I can combine targeting and grown-ups in one work session.  That means  I am beginning to introduce him to two important concepts: cues and chaining.  Chaining refers to linking behaviors together via cues to create long sequences of behaviors.

At the beginning of the afternoon session, Nick was starting out with three strong responses and then his rate of response would drop off.  In this final set of the afternoon he was maintaining a high response rate through a long training set.

Throughout each of these training sets I was making choices.  In that very first round, I was deciding what does “orient to the target” look like?  Can he just sniff the target to get clicked, or does he actually have to touch it. These are all choices that have to be made.  Remember there are no rights or wrongs.   With every click I am assessing the horse’s progress.  Have I made a good choice, or do I need to adjust my criterion slightly?

When you are training, it is good to remember this wonderful quote: “It is always go to people for opinions and horses for answers.”  Through his behavior your horse will tell you if you are making good choices.  He will also be telling you if your basic handling skills are clean.  If you are fumbling around in your pocket trying to get out a treat, you’re giving him extra time to mug you.  You don’t want to be collecting unwanted behavior even as you’re reinforcing other things that you want.  The steady progress Nick made through the day told us that on balance the choices were good ones, and the game was making sense to him.  It was time to let him process what he was learning.

One of the expressions I use often in clinics is you never know what you have taught.  You only know what you have presented.  We would be finding out what he was learning by returning the next morning with another round of training.

More Training

That last video marked the end of day 1 of Nick’s introduction to clicker training.  But this wasn’t the end of the day’s training for Nick’s owner.  We spent another fifty minutes working with her on her clicker training skills.  Just as we did with Nick, we began in a stall with “protective contact”.  She was on one side practicing her handling skills while another clinic participant played the part of her horse.

Human targeting game

I like beginning with these rehearsals.  If you are new to clicker training this is a must-do step.   What you just watched can look so easy.  You are probably thinking: “What can be so hard about holding up a target?”  Until you try it, you won’t know, but better that you find out all the little places where you’re fumbling around trying to get coordinated BEFORE you go to your horse.  If you can’t find a friend to help you, you can always pretend you have a partner.   Video tape yourself or practicing in front of a mirror to give yourself visual feedback.

I know many people fuss at having to go through these steps. They want to go directly to their horses.  They have told themselves that they are hands-on learners.  They need to be doing in order to learn.  These rehearsals give them the “hands-on” learning experience they are looking for.

I am very protective of horses.  If you are learning something new by going straight to your horse, your horse is going to have to withstand your learning curve of making mistakes, fumbling with the clicker, not getting the target up, etc. etc..  That can be hard on a new learner.  When someone runs into trouble in the first stages of the clicker training, its often because they didn’t do enough dress rehearsals.  This show up in inconsistent handling, timing that’s off, unclear criteria, and other issues that result in a horse being equally inconsistent.  The result is a lot of unwanted behavior as the horse expresses his frustration.

Watching someone else training with clean, consistent handling doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to do it yourself.  The dress rehearsal is the step you put in between.  The handler will be going through all the training steps first with a “human horse”.  Her partner will hold her hands together to represent a horse’s muzzle.  When she reaches out and bumps the target with her hands, her “trainer” will click and give her a treat.  The “human horse” will adjust her behavior to meet the needs of her learner.  If someone simply needs to practice clicking and getting the food out of her pocket, the “horse” will cooperate by touching the target directly.  She won’t present any behavioral challenges until her “handler” is ready to work on that step.

One of the huge advantages of this process is the “horse”can give her “handler” verbal feedback.   By the time you’re ready to go to your horse, you can focus on what he’s doing instead of focusing on your own skills.

Once your “human horse” gives you the “all clear”, you’re ready to ask your horse how you’re doing.  In this case we had a barnful of clicker-wise horses, so Nick’s owner was able to practice her new clicker skills with an experienced horse.  This was a real luxury that prepared her even more for her first clicker lessons with Nick.
Puffin targeting in stall
This is Puffin checking on Wendy’s “homework”.  Puffin was a rescue pony who is becoming a clicker star under the guidance of his person, Karen Quirk.

The clinic participants had to wait overnight to see how Nick processed his first day’s lessons.  I will make you do the same.  I’ll share Day 2 in the next installment of this report.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercentercourse.com

This is Part 2 of a 4 Part series on introducing a horse to the clicker. 

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

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

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1

This is Part 1 of a 4 part article.

The last time I posted I had just returned from the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  It’s now November and I have just finished the 2015 clinic season.  Thank you to everyone who was able to join me this year.   Sharing clicker training is such a joy.  I am looking forward to seeing you again in 2016.

I’ll have my full  2016 clinic schedule posted on my web site soon.  In 2016 I’ll be back at the Cavalia retirement farm for another series of clinics.  And I’ll be returning to several of my long time clinic locations for more Clicker Intensives.

My conference schedule is already posted.  2016 is going to be a great year for learning!

The last clinic of the 2015 season was at Cindy Martin’s farm in Arkansas. One of the participants brought a horse who was completely new to clicker training. Usually when I have a start-up horse we are in narrow barn aisles with poor lighting and limited site lines.  Cindy’s barn is a perfect film studio. It had an extra wide aisle, tall ceilings and great lighting.  So we were we able to video this horse’s progress over three days.

What follows is a detailed account of the start-up process.  Whether you are brand new to clicker training or an experienced trainer, I think you will find this of interest.  This report takes you very systematically through the process that I recommend for introducing a horse to clicker training.  I have included video as well as the discussions that followed each training session.

Enjoy!

 

Step One: Introductions

Nick grown ups look away

My clinics always begin with a Friday night gathering.  When you talk to experienced clicker trainers, they always emphasize the importance of building a relationship with the animal you are training.  Relationship can be one of those fuzzy, feel-good words.  You can have all different kinds of relationships, some good, some quite toxic.  When science-based trainers define relationship, they are referring to a history of reinforcement.

In clicker training we put the emphasis on creating a history of positive reinforcement.  One of the metaphors that’s often used is that of building up a bank account by making many deposits via positive reinforcement.  As the bank account grows, if something happens and you do have to use a correction, your “bank account” can withstand a small withdrawal.

So training begins by building up that history of reinforcement with the animals you’re working with.  I’ve always felt that it was important to treat the people I work with with the same consideration that I give to their horses.  While I’m clicking and treating the horse, I don’t want to be barking commands at the person and criticizing every little mishap.  I also don’t want to spend three days working with a group of people who are essentially strangers.

I know I’ll be seeing many of the participants again at future events, so I like to get to know them as individuals, not a sea of anonymous faces.  So we spend the Friday night gathering in introductions.  I want to know what brought people to a clicker clinic.  What is their horse background? What is it they are hoping to get from the weekend?  I tell them that this is their first shaping exercise of the weekend.   Their introductions, what they are specifically looking for, help shape the clinic experience they are going to have.

Wendy, the owner of our first-time clicker horse, told us his story.  She was given Nick after friends of hers had given up on him.  They had hoped he would be a reining horse champion.  They had bred their mare to a top stallion.  At eighteen months he was sent off to a top trainer who thought the world of him.  He considered him his best futurity prospect of that year.  By the time Nick was two, the trainer was less excited by him, and by three he was saying Nick would not make it as a reiner.  It’s a familiar story.  His disappointed owners took him out of training, and then found that they no longer wanted him, so they gave him to Wendy.

Wendy’s training concerns centered around a desire to feel more connected to Nick.  He was very aloof.  He wasn’t hard to catch out in the pasture, but he never came directly up to her.  He would always stop ten to twenty feet away from her.  Out on trails she described him as safe to ride, but easily distracted.  It was hard to get him to focus on the rider.

People often come to clicker training as a last ditch effort to “fix” a problem horse.  Nick didn’t need “repairing”.  He was not a “broken” horse.  As I explained to the group Saturday morning, we weren’t trying to fix anything.  We were simply introducing a nice horse to clicker training.

What to Feed

We began with a discussion of the treats, both what to use and how to handle them in these early training sessions.  I rejected some flavored commercial horse treats that Wendy had brought in favor of some plain timothy alfalfa pellets Cindy had for an insulin-resistant older horse.

In these early start-up lessons you are asking for simple behaviors.  All the horse has to do is touch a target or move his nose away from your treat pocket.  You want to keep the rate of reinforcement high so the horse stays engaged in the game.   That means you are going through a lot of treats fast.  When I don’t recognize the commercial horse treat, I don’t know what I am feeding.  Is this something that is designed to be truly that – a treat, something you feed in quantities of one or two at a time, or is it something we can safely use in larger quantities during a training session?

If I’m not sure of ingredients, and especially of the sugar content, I prefer to use something like the timothy alfalfa pellets.  They are bland enough that a horse isn’t going to have a “sugar high” during the training, but still enough of a treat that he’ll want to figure out how to get me to give him more.

Protective Contact and the Importance of Choice

In addition to a discussion of what to feed, I also talked about protective contact.  What this means is the handler is separated from the horse by a barrier.  There are a number of reasons for using protective contact to introduce a horse to clicker training, even with a horse you know well.

When a horse is loose in a small paddock or a stall, he is free to interact with you – or not.  He has choice.  That’s key to clicker training.  If you go in with a horse, even if he is at liberty, his previous learning may interfere with his ability to figure out this new clicker game.  He’ll be so busy responding to previously learned cues, he won’t even be aware that there’s a puzzle to solve.  In fact, the more well-trained a horse is, the more important this reason for using protective contact becomes.

And if a horse isn’t so well trained, all the safety reasons for using protective contact come into play.  Without the barrier, if a horse crowds you trying to get to the treats in your pocket, you’ll need to do something to push him away.  If you’re having to correct him for this unwanted behavior, you’re creating a bind for yourself.  On the one hand you want your horse to feel safe experimenting and offering behavior.  And on the other hand you’re still saying no, don’t do that.  You’re essentially poisoning your first clicker encounter.

The barrier removes the safety concerns and gives your horse choice.  Choice is very important.  Current research is confirming that choice is reinforcing.  When we put a horse into protective contact, we are giving him the choice to interact with us or not.  We are also keeping things safe.  I don’t know the horses I am introducing to the clicker.  I don’t know which one is going to get super excited about the food and push into my space.  I don’t know which horse is going to show a huge regression into unwanted behaviors when the constraints of punishment are removed. (See my blog post:  Resurgence and Regression: Five Go To Sea Conference Presentation.  This is a twelve part article.  Part 1 was posted on May 21, 2015.)  Until the horse shows me that it is safe to go in with him with my pockets filled with treats, I stay with protective contact.

This is one of those soap box issues for me.  I know that there are many people in the horse community who will NEVER try clicker training.  Feed horses!  Give horses choice!  Horrors!

That’s fine.  Clicker training doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea.  But, clicker training doesn’t just introduce the use of marker signals coupled with reinforcers.  It also brings into the horse world this idea of training with protective contact.  If we can introduce the concept of protective contact into mainstream horse training, we will be doing a very good thing indeed.  People go in with horses much too soon, and as a result, they end up reaching for punishment solutions first.

I remember watching a clinic years ago where a very well known clinician made everyone climb in and out of the round pen – even though there was a perfectly good gate.  The reason was this:  if a horse every charged you, you’d know how to climb the fence so you’d be able to get out of that pen fast!

There’s something wrong with this reasoning.  I don’t want to be in the pen with a horse until he tells me he’s comfortable having me there.  If he feels threatened, I don’t want him thinking he needs to attack me to remove the danger.

I want the horse to show me that he understands enough of “my language” to be able to figure out the puzzles I’m presenting.  Horses are punished for so many reasons, including not responding fast enough to commands.

When you’re afraid, it’s hard to think straight and follow instructions.  We know that from our own experience.  So imagine what it must be like for a horse.  He’s struggling to figure out what is wanted.  If he hesitates, he’ll be punished. If he reacts fast, but guesses wrong, he’ll be punished.

When a horse isn’t not sure what is wanted, is it any wonder he feels threatened and frustrates easily?  Aggression comes from a place of fear.  If I am working with a horse that is quick to lash out to protect himself, I want a barrier between us.  That way I won’t be adding fuel to the emotional fire by correcting him to keep myself safe.  I can just step back out of the way while he goes through the “learning how to learn” process.

Throughout the horse industry, if we treated horses more like zoo animals and used more protective contact, we would see an overall shift towards kinder training.  “Aggression comes from a place of fear” doesn’t just apply to horses.  Think about that the next time you are watching someone cracking a whip or swinging a lead rope at a horse.

Enough of the soap box.  Nick was stabled overnight in a large 14 by 16 box stall with a door that opened out onto a small outside covered run.  A stall guard was already set up in the stall door so creating protective contact was easy.

Keep your First Sessions Short: The Twenty Treat Strategy

The first lesson I teach is generally targeting.  For this first lesson I count out twenty treats.  I want to limit how long the session can last by limiting the number of treats I start out with.  When I run out of treats, I am obliged to take a break from active training.  These breaks do a number of good things.

First, they show the horse that this interesting game begins, ends, and then comes back again.  For many horses during this first introduction into clicker training is a true “Helen Keller” moment.  (If you don’t understand this reference, watch the old movie “The Miracle Worker”.)

When the horse figures out that he can control your behavior,  you often see what are referred to as “light bulb moments”.  For some horses this a huge sea change.  The horse needs to understand that this amazing experience is something that will continue on past the first introduction.  That’s part of what helps him to settle into the experience.

By giving breaks your horse is learning that the game stops, but it comes back again.  For many horses clicker training is a world changer.  Their human makes sense!  They can actually train their human!  Their world opens up.  You’re offering the target, and clicking and treating.

And then you close the door and walk away – and for the horse it’s back to business as usual.  All that clear communication vanishes.  For some horses this can be really hard on them.  Get back here and train me!  It’s bang, bang on the stall door.  If you’re in a boarding barn, that’s going to make you very unpopular with the owner!  By giving breaks, the horse learns that the game has pauses and then starts up again.

So I like to do a short session and then go away for a few minutes.  Then I come back to do another round.  The game ends, and then it begins again.  That’s hugely reassuring to the horse.

The other thing that the breaks create is an opportunity for the handler to think about the training.  Clicker training is fun.  You see your horse touching a target with more confidence.  He’s making progress.  It’s like the old potato chip commercial – “bet you can’t eat just one.”  You’ll be thinking: “I’ll just have him target one more time.  How about one more time after that?” 

If you fill your pockets at the start, you could end up training and training.  Caught up in the momentum of the moment, you might not notice some unwanted behavior that’s crept into the game.  Yes, your horse is eagerly touching the target, but he’s also pinning his ears flat to tell his neighbor in the adjoining stall to stay away!  That’s not the kind of behavior you want him to be weaving into his first clicker training experience.

If you take a short break to think about each session, you’re more likely to pick up on these unwanted behaviors, and you can make adjustments to your training environment as needed.  You want to catch any “speed bumps” in your training early on so you can make the necessary changes that ensure that the behavior you want is the behavior you get.

The breaks also give you time to think about what to do with the next round of twenty treats.  And they let you appreciate the steady, good progress you see your horse making.

Choosing Your Target

I generally introduce horses to the clicker via basic targeting.  Most horses are curious.  If you are holding something in your hand that doesn’t look too much like a goblin, they will come up to see what you’ve got.  Click!  They have just earned a treat.

Lots of things make good targets.  They need to be easy to handle, horse safe, and nothing that looks too scary.  Small plastic cones work great, as do empty water bottles and the lids off of supplement containers. In other words, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on targets.  Look around your barn.  You are bound to find something that will work.  From the collection Cindy had in her barn, I chose a great target stick.  It was made from an old riding crop.  She had stuck  a bit of foam from a pool noodle over one end and wrapped it in duct tape.  Perfect.

Planning Your Exit Strategy

Before I could introduce Nick to targets, I first had to think about my exit strategy.  If I’m going to take breaks, I need a way to end a session that’s okay for the horse.  I’ll be taking the treats, the attention, the game away with me.  I don’t want the horse left thinking that whatever he just did it made me leave.  He promises never to do that again!  If I’m clicking and treating for desired behavior, that’s the opposite of what I want, so I need to think out in advance how I’m going to end a training session.

The horses I work with regularly are all familiar with treats being tossed on the ground.  When I need to break away from a conversation we’re having, I toss a few treats on the ground or into a feed bucket for them.  While they are searching around for the goodies, I can slip away.  However, I can’t assume that other horses will know where to look when I toss a treat into a feed bucket.  So  Step One for Nick begins with this very easy lesson.  I simply opened his stall door, dropped a feed tub onto the floor and began dropping treats one or two at a time into the bucket.  Is it any wonder horses love clicker training!

This first video clip shows Nick learning that the sound of treats being tossed into his bucket means goodies are to be found there.  You will see that Wendy’s description of Nick was very accurate.  While he is willing to come to the front of the stall to take treats, he is very cautious.  This was a good first step both to help build his confidence, and to begin to let me learn more about him.

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Session 1: Creating an Exit Strategy

 

Data Collecting: The First Targeting Session
Next came Nick’s first targeting session.  I view this first round of targeting very much as data collecting.  I am not thinking of it as the “teaching” part of the training.  This is exploratory training.  Nick’s response to the target will tell me where I can begin.  If he’s reluctant to even come up close to the target, I know that I’m going to have to break this lesson down into much smaller steps, beginning with more time spent just clicking him for acknowledging my presence.

On the other hand if he eagerly touches the target and then grabs for the treat and remains fixated on my pockets, I know I have a very different starting point for the training.  It’s all data collecting.  Until I ask Nick a few questions, I won’t know where to begin.  As you watch this next video, you can join us in the data collecting.  It shows Nick’s first targeting session.

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – The First Targeting Session

As you can see these sessions are short.  Putting only twenty treats in my pocket forces me to stop after just a couple of rounds of targeting.  While I am getting more treats, I can think about what I learned about Nick.  What did I like about this round?  What unwanted behaviors, if any, do I need to be aware of?  What do I want to do next?

Data Assessing: What Did We Learn?

The two main questions are: is there anything about this horse’s behavior that would suggest that it would be unsafe to go in the stall with him with my pockets filled with treats?  If the answer comes back yes, or even, I’m not sure, I stay with the protective contact.

The other question I ask is what should I do with the next round of twenty treats?  Should I continue with the targeting, or does his behavior suggest that I should shift to one of the other foundation lessons?  I have six to choose from: targeting, backing, head lowering, the grown-ups are talking – please don’t interrupt (meaning take your nose away from my treat pockets), ears forward (which I refer to as Happy Faces) and standing on a mat.  Taken together these six behaviors work beautifully to introduce horse and handler to clicker training.  They are great behaviors to choose because the end result of these lessons is a horse who has beautiful ground manners and lots of emotional self-control.

Often when I ask a group: “what did we just learn about this horse?”, they are stumped for words.  They don’t know what they are supposed to say.  We are so used to criticizing what we see.  That’s how we’ve been trained in school, at work, even in our own families.  “What’s wrong with this picture” is what we know, and yet, that doesn’t quite seem to be what I’m asking for.

There may indeed be things the horse presents that are a concern, but I really am looking at this through a different lens, one that is often very unfamiliar to first-time clicker trainers.  They haven’t spent a lot of time practicing finding things they like, so this is a great opportunity to develop that skill.  Let’s listen in to this first assessment process:

Video: Introduction to Clicker Training- Group Discussion After the 1st Target Session

Especially if you are new to clicker training, I recommend that you videotape your first clicker sessions.  They really can be fascinating.  The change in your horse’s understanding can happen so fast.  You can use the pauses between training sessions to review your video.  Often you’ll see little things in your handling that you’ll want to change.  If you are reaching into your treat pocket ahead of the click, or you’re feeding too far forward so your horse gets pulled onto his forehand, you’ll catch these handling glitches and be able to change them for the better in the next round.

Details That Make A Difference

To help with this type of data collecting I’ll point out a few handling details that you can watch for in this next video clip:

Note how I handle the target.  I position it so it is easier for Nick to touch it than it is for him to get to me.  If he starts exploring past the end of the target stick, I very quietly ease myself out of his reach while still keeping the target stick easily available.

After I click, the target stick drops down into a neutral position.  I give him his treat, and then immediately bring the target back up so it is available to him to touch.  The movement of the target stick as I bring it back up helps to attract his attention.  Taking it down after I click means that each round is a discreet trial.

Note also how deliberate I am in how I present the treat.  After I click, and NOT before, I begin to reach into my pocket to get the treat.  I am prompt in beginning the reinforcement delivery but that doesn’t mean I move fast.  Note the rhythm of the overall lesson. I maintain a steady pace which allows me to set the tone of the lesson.

Some common things to watch for in your own handling would be:

* Are you reaching into your treat pouch ahead of the click?  The movement of your hand will overshadow the click.  It will become your marker signal which isn’t what we want.

A good marker signal has the following characteristics:  It is quick.  It is unique, meaning it stands out from other stimuli in the background. It is non-emotional.  The click of the clicker meets all these criteria.  It gives you so much precision when you begin to work on details in performance.  And it means your horse does not need to be watching you to respond to a marker signal.  That’s a huge advantage for riding.  So take care now to make the click of the clicker a clean marker signal. (Note, very quickly you will shift from the actual clicker to a tongue click.  You’ll see me do this with Nick in the clips that follow.)

* Are you feeding out away from your body where the perfect horse would be?  If you feed in close, you’ll be reinforcing your horse for coming into your space.  I want to feed Nick so his head is away from me.  More than that, I want to take full advantage of the fact that I’m using food in my training, so I’m going to feed him to encourage good balance.  In this first lesson that means his head will be even between his shoulders and at a good height so he isn’t pulled onto his forehand to get the treat.

* Are you remembering to take the target down in-between trials.

* Are you bringing the target up promptly so it is approximately in the same orientation that it was in the previous trials?  Often people move the target around from one spot to another in this first round.  First the target is high, then it is low  That means that every time the horse touches the target it’s a very different behavior.  Even if the horse is managing to touch the target, he may be struggling to understand the underlying concept behind the click and treat.

* Are you maintaining a steady pace throughout the cycle?  Sometimes people rush to get the food out.  They are forgetting that the click buys them time.  It marks the moment you like.  You can think of it like a place holder.  You want your horse to understand that the behavior that was occurring at the exact moment that you clicked is worth trying again.  As long as you begin to reach into your pocket promptly, you don’t have to be fast in the delivery.  This isn’t “click and shove” training.  Your horse can see that you are getting a treat.  He knows it’s coming.  The whole process is part of the reinforcement.  It’s like Christmas.  It isn’t just ripping open a present that’s reinforcing.  It’s all of the anticipation leading up to the event that makes the presents so exciting.  With a beginner horse you can’t mess around and take too much time getting your treat to him.  That can be frustrating, but nor do you need to feel as though you have to rush.

Look for these details as you watch Nick’s second targeting session.

Training Sessions #2: More Targeting

Video An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – 2nd Target session

In this next round of targeting Nick is interested.  He’s waiting for me at the front of his stall, but he’s still unsure what this is all about.  Nick is slow to touch the target.  Waiting for him to touch the target can feel a bit like watching paint dry.   I have to decide: do I wait for an actual touch, or do I click any orientation towards the target?  With Nick I decided to wait for him to touch the target.  It wouldn’t have been wrong to click for approximations. That’s one of the great advantages of clicker training.  There is no one only one right moment to click.

Someone else might make different decisions.  Nick’s behavior will tell us if we are on the right track.  That’s one of the reasons to begin with these short sessions.  They give you time to consider the choices you’ve made so you can make adjustments.

In the discussion that followed this section, I again reminded people to count out their twenty treats so these early sessions remain short.  As long as I am still working with protective contact, I continue to count out twenty treats.  Once I decide that it’s time to go into the stall with the horse,  I then add more treats to my pockets.

As a group we agreed that Nick was remaining very calm and polite, but he didn’t yet get what this game was all about.  As one of the participants said: “That’s what is so exciting about watching this. That moment when a horse understands that he just made you click and hand him a treat, it changes the whole world for that horse.”

Often times in more traditional forms of training horses are corrected for offering behavior that hasn’t been asked for.  When you hold a target up, these horses wait to be told what to do.  Taking the initiative is not something that feels safe to them.  You’ll see them remain hesitant about touching the target.  Both Nick’s background and his behavior matches this scenario.

You don’t want to rush through these simple targeting lessons.  Again it is about choice.  I want Nick to discover that he has control of this lesson.  That’s what will build his confidence.  He needs me to give him whatever time it takes to make this discovery.  That’s what will turn him into a bright-eyed clicker star.

This is another good reason to use protective contact.  The stall guard limits my ability to step in a get “things done”.  This lesson isn’t about getting a horse to touch a target.  If I were goal oriented, that’s all I would see.  How fast did I get this horse to touch the target?

That’s just a behavior.  It’s a tool I’m using to teach Nick much more fundamental lessons.  I want him to understand the core values of clicker training.  I want him to understand that he does have choice, that his feelings matter.  I want him to understand that what is evolving is a conversation, and that his voice counts.

In the third round of targeting, you’ll see more changes.  Again we decided to continue with the targeting.

Video: Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – 3rd Targeting Session


As I finished this round, I decided that I would do just one more round of training that morning – in part because I was looking at how much of the original bowl of treats I had gone through.

Measuring out the treats into a bowl was a good reminder to everyone that you need to keep track of how much you are feeding.  In these initial training sessions you are working with very simple behaviors.  You can go through a lot of treats fast. It’s one touch of a target, click, treat.  One quick moment of grown-ups, click treat.

Later you’ll be asking the horse for so much more.  You’ll be building complex sequences of behavior and asking for much longer duration.  You’ll be getting much more behavior for every single click.  When you reach the stage of filling your pockets at the start of a training session,  this early discipline of counting out your twenty treats will help you keep track of how much you are feeding.

Video:  Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – 4th session

This fourth round of targeting shows the evolution of the food delivery.  Remember in the first round I fed Nick approximately where the target had been.  Now I can move into his space to feed him.  Initially it’s easy to think in terms of single behaviors.  You are having a horse touch a target.  But really what you have is a cycle of behaviors.  I refer to this as loopy training.

As a shorthand way of describing clicker training, we will often say that behavior leads to a click which leads to a treat.

You can write this as:

Behavior leads to  Click leads to Treat
or the short hand of:
Behavior => Click => Treat

It’s an easy way to think of clicker training. If you like it, click and reinforce it.  Reinforce is the key.  When you write out that single phrase, it’s easy to think of this event as an isolated unit, but reinforce means to strengthen.  If a behavior has been reinforced, you should see it occurring more and more frequently. So really what we have is a loop of behavior which we can write out as:

Behavior => Click => Treat =>
More of the Behavior => Click => Treat =>
More of the Behavior => Click => Treat => etc.

The food delivery is a dynamic part of this process.  I could simply click and continue to feed pretty much as I did in the first round of training, but that would be giving up so so much of the value that I get from my treats.  People who don’t use food in their training are at such a huge disadvantage. I know that’s not how they think about food, They see it as a nuisance, a distraction, a bribe.  All these negative labels can keep someone from seeing the enormous advantages using food as a reinforcer gives me.  It isn’t simply that getting something he wants want makes the horse more eager to do it again.  I get so many more good things from this part of the cycle:

* I can help a horse find good balance through my food placement.  You can see that in this fourth round of the training.  I place the food so Nick not only straightens out his head, but I am also placing it at a height that encourages him to lift up in his shoulders and come off his forehand.

* I can also set up the next phase of the training.  At some point I will want to ask Nick to back up.  By getting the backing first from the food delivery, I can map out the behavior before asking for it directly.  I can see how easily – or not – Nick backs.  If his feet get stuck and he struggles to back up to get to his treat, I know I will need to be careful how I introduce backing when I ask for it directly.  I may be dealing with a horse with arthritic hocks so backing is painful.  Or backing may have been taught so punitively that the horse resists and resents any attempt to make him back – even if it is to get to a treat.  Or the horse may simply never have been asked to back, and he can’t figure out how to move his feet.  Whatever previous experience Nick has with being asked to back, introducing it via food delivery gives him a huge jump-start on solving the clicker backing puzzle.

What this boils down to is I use food delivery dynamically.  These simple targeting lessons introduce this concept early on in the process.  The horse becomes accustomed to moving his feet to get treat, plus he becomes familiar with the feel of good balance.  The horse is learning to follow the handler’s body language creating the foundation for both leading and liberty work.

Nick’s owner was thrilled.  These four short training sessions showed her the structure she had been looking for.  She appreciated how systematic and organized the process was.  She saw how valuable the breaks were.  As she said, when you are new to clicker training, you need to step back to take stock of where you are.  Is this behavior going the direction you want, or is it going off the rails somehow?  Video really helps you keep track.  Most of us have cell phones or cameras that can take short video clips.  If you don’t have a tripod, you can always prop your phone up on a hay bale or a fence rail.

During the breaks you can review your video.  You’ll see your hand creeping towards your treat pouch ahead of the click.  No wonder your horse was more interested in mugging you than touching the target!  Details like this really do matter.  It’s so much better to catch them early on so your handling isn’t creating confusion and unwanted behavior.

The total training time for Nick that morning was twelve and a half minutes spread out over a forty-nine minute session.  If you were working on your own, you might spend a few minutes introducing your horse to a target, take a break to review your video, do a couple of barn chores, then return for another round of targeting.  Breaking up the individual targeting sessions by putting barn chores in between spreads the sessions out nicely.  After you’ve reviewed your video, it also gives you time to think about what you want to do next.

When you are brand new to clicker training, it’s perfectly understandable that you may not be completely sold on this style of training.  All you’re doing with these first few sessions is testing the waters.  Is this something you’re going to enjoy and find useful?

The structure I’ve shown in these video clips gives you a safe way to become familiar with the overall process.  If you need to take a pause from clicker training, you’ll be able to do so.  Context cues matter.  If you don’t have a target, your horse won’t be expecting the game, so you can handle him business as usual when you put away your treat pouch.

Having said that, when I introduce a horse to clicker training, I feel as though I am making a commitment to that horse.  I don’t want to show the horse that we can communicate clearly and then snatch that experience away.  Once I open up the communication channels, I want to keep them open, active, and ever-enlarging.

For Nick I may have decided that this fourth session would be the last for the morning, but it was definitely not the last of the weekend.  We continued on in the afternoon with another round of targeting.

Just as the clinic participants had to wait to see how Nick processed his morning lessons, you will have to wait to see the afternoon sessions.  I’ll post those in Part 2 of this series.

This is Part 1 of a 4 Part series on introducing a horse to the clicker.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercentercourse.com

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

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

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

 

 

A Summer of Adventures!

scenery whales conference horses

Labor Day weekend seems like a good time to post this report on the Five Go To Sea conference and the August clinics. It’s taken me a while to put it together.  The problem with heading off on a summer of adventures is at some point you come bumping back into reality.  That happened to me when I returned from three weeks of travel.  I got home to find the hot water heater in my house was leaking and the tank was sizzling ominously.  I turned off everything I could find that was even remotely connected to the hot water tank and headed off to spend the night at the barn.  Thursday got the hot water tank replaced.  Friday a repair man came to fix the snowblower that wouldn’t start last winter.  I know the first snowfall is still a fair way off, but waiting until November to get it fixed is a bad idea.  Just to round things out, I also took my aged truck in for servicing.  I was learning that these machines have one thing in common with our brains.  They all operate under a use it or lose it principle.

Our brains thrive on novelty and that was certainly provided by the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  The first cruise took us to the Caribbean. This year we sailed up the Alaska coastline.  The route the ship took was through what is referred to as the inner passage.map with caption
It travels between islands and through spectacular fjords so it doesn’t matter where you are on the ship, there is always something breathtaking to look at.  Our conference room had floor to ceiling windows so we didn’t miss out by being in a conference.   By the end of the first day, I think we were all in agreement that every conference from now on should provide a similar spectacular backdrop.  It certainly gave us some memorable conference moments.conference attendees 3

One such moment occurred during a presentation Kay was giving on PORTL, a training table game.  Kay was in the middle of a demonstration.  She was working with one of the conference attendees showing everyone how to get the game started.  Her learner made an unexpected move that Kay had not planned for.  Kay began to talk about these “oh, oops” moments.  Do you have a strategy in place to deal with this kind of situation?  How do you move on without confusing or frustrating your learner?  She had barely posed the question when one of our keen spotters cried “whale!” and everyone, Kay included, rushed to the windows.  Apparently, that’s what you do.  By the time we returned to the game the sticky moment was completely forgotten!

whale watching during conferenceIt helps to bring along your own naturalist on these cruises.  Ken Ramirez isn’t just a first class trainer.  Not surprisingly, he’s also an expert whale spotter, and he could tell us what we were looking at based on the size and shape of a quickly glanced spout.  My first whale sightings were just that.  A fleeting glimpse of a very distant spout.  But in Juneau I joined four of the conference participants for a whale watching tour.  In addition to seeing some spectacular scenery, we had close up views of hump back whales.

whale watching collageOther trip highlights included a hike through the coastal rainforest.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.  Moss covered trees created a magical landscape.  I spotted a large hole disappearing under the roots of one massive tree.  “What would live in there?” I asked our guide.  She gave me a general answer, running down the list of small mammals that inhabit these forests.  What she left off her list were elves, brownies and fairies.  In a woods like this they were just as likely to be the inhabitants of this hidden cavity as any martin or rabbit.

giant tree with caption

nurse tree with caption2

At Skagway I boarded a train that followed the route the “Stampeders” took in the late 1800s on their journey to the Yukon in search of gold.  You have to wonder at the mass insanity that overtakes people.  Riding in the comfort of an old-fashioned train, I could marvel at the beauty of deep river gorges.  But if I had to carry a year’s worth of supplies up these same mountains, would I have thought they were beautiful?  The train was built in 1898 to carry the Stampeders to the gold fields of the Yukon.  Today it brings gold in the form of tourist dollars into the area.

railroad 4 photos tain picturestrain follows same routeminers narrow trail 2ghost bridge 2climing into the clouds 2The train passes through a section of trail called “Dead Horse Pass”.  It’s estimated that over three thousand horses and mules died along this stretch of trail.  Ignorance was the culprit.  The shop assistants and mill workers who were racing to the gold fields knew nothing about how to balance a pack.  They didn’t even really know where the Yukon was or what kind of conditions they were heading into.  Pictures taken of them in San Francisco before they headed north to the gold fields showed prospectors posing in front of painted mountain scenes with palm trees in the foreground!  But it wasn’t palm trees that they encountered as they drove their over packed horses up the White Pass Summit.

I thought of these horses as the train passed through this section of the trail.  I think of them now as I write this in my barn where my very pampered horses get to live a life of great comfort.  Perhaps it balances the scale just a little.  Throughout our history with horses we have a lot to answer for.

We met a very different kind of horse in the Butchart Garden in Victoria, British Columbia.  Along with a delightful giraffe, a camel, an ostrich, a reindeer, and a large cat with a salmon in its mouth, the horses pranced around an old-fashioned Carousel.  We wanted to ride them all, so we ended up taking several turns on the Carousel.  I rode a rabbit and, in honor of Kay, a large white dog.  One of us should have ridden the Orca, but we were running out of time.  The garden closed at nine, and we didn’t want to miss the bus that would take us back to the ship.carousel butchart 2

Did I mention that we also spent our days at sea in the conference room?  Ken treated us to an update on the training he’s been doing teaching dogs to count.  I had requested that for the day that I organized.  The results of his experiment are impressive, but what I particularly wanted him to include were the preliminary steps he goes through to design a good training set up.

So many of us simply jump straight into training.  We find out too late that we can’t really manage our props, that our set up is clumsy, and we haven’t given any thought to all the things that can – and now are going wrong. Ken showed how a bit of training practice without any dogs revealed some major issues in his original set up.  He also showed his clumsy first attempt when he was still evolving the best training procedure to use.  He refers to this as exploratory training.  What do you need to change before you begin the real task of training and data collection?

Ken is such a skilled and creative trainer, it was good to see things going wrong for him in this early phase of the training.  This isn’t to gloat but to understand that this planning phase is part of good training.

He also shared with us his recent foray into butterfly training.  He couldn’t show us any video, but his detailed description of the training process was a definite trip highlight.  I don’t know which surprised us more – that butterflies could be trained or that butterflies could be bullies.

Kay focused much of her time on the training game, PORTL.  She divided people up into groups of three: a learner, a teacher and a coach.  The first tasks were fairly simple.  The teacher was to introduce the learner to the game.  Kay instructed them to plan thoroughly before they brought in their learner.  What were they going to do if their learner did something unexpected, if there was a bad click, if they got stuck and needed to consult with the coach?Portl planning session 2With Ken’s emphasis the day before on planning the teachers and coaches took this training prep very seriously.  Normally people rush through this part of the process.  They jump right in with their learners and then don’t have any plan for dealing with the unexpected.  You see that kind of approach creating a lot of frustration on both sides of the table.kay coaching Portl planning sessionNot so with this group.  More than half an hour went by and none of the learners had been called in.  The teachers and coaches were still engaged in careful planning.  The poor learners weren’t sure what they were supposed to do.  No one had anticipated this contingency – that the prep would be so very comprehensive.  The advantage of being on a cruise ship is we could send them off to get a drink or to whale watch while the rest of their team planned out their training strategy.

break time at the conferenceWe learned from this experience.  On the last day of the conference we again played PORTL.  This time Kay set more challenging tasks which definitely required some planning time.  I took the “learners” through some body awareness/training exercises.  That produced some interesting results.  When the teachers came to get their learners, people didn’t want to leave to go play the game.  One “teacher” ran into a training puzzle and needed a moment to think.  She told her learner that they would only be a couple of minutes.  She could stay at the table while she consulted with her coach.  “Oh no”, her learner told her.  “Take your time.” She was going back to rejoin the body awareness session.

Ken coaching POrtl standingPortl plan first then playI must say having the backdrop of the open ocean created the perfect setting for body awareness exercises.  The gentle pitch and roll of the ship added to the proprioceptive experience.  Even the occasional “whale” cue which sent us all rushing to the windows contributed to the learning.  How quickly could you come back from a mammoth distraction into a state of calm balance for your animal?  And since I was among those who rushed to the window I couldn’t fuss when others did the same.

(I’ll write a separate post on some of the work I covered during the conference, including the body awareness exercises.)

The cruise ended all too soon.  When we docked back in Seattle early on Friday morning, I felt as though I could easily have set sail again.  Alaska is a landscape I could easily become lost in.  We are talking about where to go next.  What adventure should we have for our next cruise?  I could easily return to Alaska to sail up through the inner passage and see again those magnificent fjords.

For those who don’t want to go on a ship, Kay is talking about a land cruise next winter in the UK.  I’ll enjoy that as well, but I will also be looking forward to our next ocean adventure.

The cruise was over, but not my travels.  I headed next to a small clinic at Monty Gwynne’s, one of my Click That Teaches coaches.   Many of you have met Monty through her wonderful PRE Icaro.Monty and Icky 2 photos

Icky is only one of the many horses Monty has trained.  She also has a barn full of ponies who have all learned lateral work.  They made my job so easy.  They were the true teachers.  I simply stepped aside and let them teach people how to dance with horses.  On the third day we brought three of the horses into the arena for the start of a quadrille.  We had originally planned on having six horses working together for our drill team, but two of the participants had to leave early, and the third was busy attending to her own horse.  So we settled on just three horses which was enough for everyone’s first attempt at working in sync with one another.

Watching them coming down the long side together in shoulder-in was the highlight of my entire trip.  What a treat!  Monty has a treasure trove of wonderful horses.  If you want to explore what the combination of clicker training and an understanding of good balance can create, you should plan a trip to visit Monty.drill team Monty's ponies

I flew home on Tuesday, spent half a day catching up and then drove to the Cavalia Retirement Farm for a three day clinic.  It was another great event.  Several of the attendees were brand new to clicker training so the focus this time was on foundation work.  One of my Click That Teaches coaches, Sue Bennett, joined us.  Having Sue there to help meant we could split up into smaller groups to give people lots of one on one coaching.

Bilbo enjoying the clinicThe star of the clinic was Bilbo, an enormous Ardennes daft stallion.  When Bilbo enters the arena all eyes are on him, and it isn’t just because he’s so big.  Bilbo has charisma.  We generally save him for the end of the day.  We let him play his version of Panda catch.  He’s not as good at it yet as Panda.  She runs at full gallop from person to person.  I am glad to say Bilbo chooses a more sedate speed.  His reward for moving from one station to the next is not just a click and a treat.  He also gets a back scratch from everyone in the clinic.  He’s so big you can have the entire clinic group around him and everyone can find a spot to scratch.  Did I mention that Bilbo likes clinics and wouldn’t mind if they happened every weekend?favorite photos from 2015 clinics 2

I enjoy the clinics and all the other adventures, but it is good to be home for a bit.  I have pastures to mow, plumbing to fix, and horses to enjoy.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com

Metaphors Matter: What Are Your Metaphors?

Metaphor: noun – a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.

Which image describes you? Are you:                                                                                                   set in stone; or growing and changeable like an oak sprouting from an acorn?

Do youstone believe that intellectual abilities or athletic talent are something you’re born with?  If you weren’t born smart, or fast, or coordinated – oh well, you just aren’t going to be able to excel.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist teaching at Stanford University, calls this a Fixed Mindset.

tree seedling

Or do you believe in neuroplasticity?  Do you believe that your abilities are not fixed rigidly by your genes but can be developed over time through deliberate practice?

Dweck calls this a growth mindset.

Dweck has done a number of fascinating studies showing the impact that these two mindsets have on performance.  In one study involving 400 5th grade students from all over the US, students were brought into a room one at a time and given ten problems to solve.  On completion the students in one group were praised for their intelligence.  They were told they had achieved a really good score which meant they must be very smart.  The students in the second group were praised for their effort.  They were told they had a really good score which meant they must have worked really hard.

The students were then given another test, but this time they could choose which test to take.  The first option contained a set of problems that were similar to the first set.  They were told they would almost certainly do well on this test. Or they could work on a much more challenging and difficult set of problems that gave them the opportunity to learn and grow.

Can you guess what the results were?

If you said the students who were praised for their intelligence chose the easier test, you would be absolutely right.  67% chose this option.  In dramatic contrast 92% of the students who were praised for their effort chose the more challenging test.

One little phrase: you’re really smart or you worked really hard changed the choice they made.  Here’s the explanation Dweck gives for this difference:

The children who were praised for their intelligence thought that’s why others admired them.  They didn’t want to do anything that would show that they weren’t really that smart, so they played it safe.  They developed what Dweck refers to as a Fixed Mindset.  Instead of challenging themselves with the tougher set of problems, they chose the option that would support the self-belief that they were smart.  The result was they limited the growth of their talents.

The students who were praised for their effort received a very different message.  They heard that it was their hard work and the strategies that they chose that created the good result.  Instead of thinking that mistakes would show that they weren’t smart and talented, they looked at challenges as opportunities to grow and become more talented.

In the next part of the study all the students were given a truly challenging test that was beyond their current abilities.  The students who had been praised for being really smart became frustrated and gave up early.  The students in the second group worked longer and reported enjoying the process.

In the last phase of the study the students were given a test that was at the same level of difficulty as the first test.   The students who had been told they were really smart showed a decline of on average 20% in their scores while the students who had been praised for their effort raised their score on average by 30%.  That’s a whopping 50% difference between the two groups – caused by just a few simple and in both cases well-meaning words.

Changing Mindsets
So what do you do with this information?  How do you help someone shift from the limitations a fixed mindset creates to the open-ended possibilities of a growth mindset?

Dweck conducted another study that sought to answer this question.  She and her colleagues took a group of 7th graders who were doing poorly in math and divided them into two groups.

The first group was given an intervention in which they were taught better study skills.

The second group was taught the same study skills, but they were also taught that the brain was like a muscle.  It got stronger with use.  When they were working through a challenging problem, the neurons in their brains were forming new connections.  Those new neural synapses were helping them to become smarter.

The results of these two interventions created very different results.  The first group continued to show a decline in their math scores, while the second group improved.

school desk plus interventionMetaphor Matters
Current research in neuroscience has given us the metaphor of neuroplasticity. Our brains continue to grow, make new connections, change in response to the learning challenges we take on.  When a student is faced with a difficult math problem, instead of cringing away from it, she tackles it with enthusiasm.  When she hits a stumbling block instead of quitting in frustration, she thinks of the new neural connections that are forming in her brain, making her smarter and able to tackle even tougher problems. This is what Dweck’s study showed.

Metaphor matters.  So what metaphors do you have?  What works for you? And how does this carry over to your horses?

The Mindset Trap
Do you have a fixed mindset for yourself?  For your horse?

Years ago I had a client who was frustrated by the length and shape of her thighs.  “If only they were longer, if only they were thinner,” she would lament, “then she would be able to ride the way she wanted to.”  But alas, she was short and no matter what she did, she would never be the tall, long-legged, naturally-gifted rider she envied.  Her fixed mindset kept her stuck.  She was a good rider, but she was never able to enjoy her achievements.

She had a similar fixed outlook for her horse.  She couldn’t afford the big, fancy warmblood the long-legged riders all had.  She could only afford an off-the-track thoroughbred with poor feet and some undiagnosed hind end issues.  She was constantly feeling frustrated and stuck.  How could she ever progress given the way the cards were stacked up against her?

My thoroughbred was never on the track, but he certainly had major hind end issues, and yet I didn’t crash up against the same glass ceiling that hung permanently over my client’s head.  My passion was learning.  Peregrine presented me with many struggles and many frustrations, but always with the opportunity to learn.  In many ways because Peregrine had such severe physical issues, he freed me up to experiment.  I’ve encountered so many people who have finally bought the horse of their dreams.  They have a beautifully trained, athletic horse who can carry them forward to their performance goals – and yet they are frozen.  They become completely dependent upon their trainers, unable to risk any experimentation for fear that they will mess up their horse.  In Carol Dweck’s studies the performance scores of the children with fixed mindsets declined.  I’ve seen the same thing with the riders who are trapped by fixed-mindset belief systems.

The Journey to Excellence

Where did this trot come from?

 

Harrison and warmblood

 

This warmblood stallion is expected to be brilliant.

 

 

 

Would you at first glance expect the same of this horse?

 

 

So again – where does talent come from?

You could answer this by saying that his owner, Natalie, is a naturally gifted animal trainer.  She’s one of those people who just seems to have a way with animals, who can bring out good things in every animal she works with, be it a horse, dog, cat, or guinea pig.

Or you could say that it comes from Natalie’s willingness to work hard no matter the conditions.  Many is the video she’s sent me where she’s out in the snow on a cold winter day training her horse.  Others would be inside by the fire, but she continues to work regardless of the weather.  Her talent comes from that hard work diligently applied over a long period of time.

But that still leaves the question: where does this growth mindset come from?  And how can you strengthen your own growth mindset so you can be on your own journey to excellence?

Are Your Metaphors Up To Date?
Are your metaphors up to date, or are you stuck in old belief systems that no longer serve you well?  Science changes.  Have you changed along with it, or do you still believe in old, outdated theories?

What we were taught in grade school in so many cases no longer applies. Consider genetics.  In school I remember learning about Lamarck and his giraffes.

Lamarck and his giraffesIt was a lovely, simple metaphor.  The giraffes stretched higher and higher to reach the upper branches in a tree. As a result, their necks grew longer, and they passed on this trait to their upward-reaching offspring.

We were taught to laugh at Lamarck.  What a silly notion.  Much better was Mendel and his peas.  We learned about recessive and dominant traits, and we learned how to do the formulas that would predict how many peas would be short and how many would be tall.

Mendel and his peasMendel’s was also a lovely, simple metaphor, only now with epigenetics coming on the scene we are discovering that maybe we will have to dust off poor old Lamarck and take another look at his metaphors.

Science Changes and So Must We
The point is our ideas about how the world works change over time.  We come up with new, better metaphors to describe our current, best guess at how things work.  We use these metaphors in many ways.  And sometimes we go back and dust off old metaphors even when we know they aren’t correct.

The world is flatIn 2005 economist, Thomas Friedman, wrote “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century”.  You might well ask: did Friedman not know that Christopher Columbus didn’t fall off the edge of the world?  In grade school had he not learned about Magellan circumnavigating the globe?  Did he truly believe the world was flat!? Of course not. He was using the image of a flat planet as a powerful metaphor to help us understand economic globalization. Because we know the world really is round, Friedman’s metaphor is all the more powerful.

This to me is a great example of how we use metaphors and how role of science is to provide us with new, better, different ways of perceiving the world.

If I were trying to find the cure for cancer, I might take umbrage at this view of science.  I would be looking for The Truth – whatever that means.  Instead what I want from science is a more useful story.

I want images and metaphors that help me:

  • Better predict how an animal is going to behave, especially in response to my actions.
  • Provide me with better ways to explain my training choices to others.
  • Motivate people to develop their own skills so they can become better caregivers and trainers for their animals.

the talent codeThe Talent Metaphor
I can’t talk about the question of where talent comes from without bringing up Daniel Coyle and his book, The Talent Code.

Coyle is not a scientist, but like me he is a user of the metaphors science provides.  His book is brimming over with great metaphors, many of which I have been borrowing of late.  In The Talent Code, Coyle poses the key question: where does talent come from?

The old metaphor was talent was something you were born with.  Mozart was born a musical genius.  The fact that his father was also a musician and began rigorously teaching his son from infancy on is irrelevant to the metaphor of genius as an innate gift.  This image of Mozart the musical genius is one many people firmly believe.

mozart on tour

The OLD metaphor: talent is something you are born with. If you aren’t one of the gifted few – oh well, too bad.

 

 

 

mozart on tour

The NEW metaphor: talent is the product of deep practice techniques that develop well-myelinated nerve fibers. If you aren’t one of the gifted few – don’t give up, just find better practice strategies for achieving your goals.

 

 

 

The Myelin Metaphor

attic insulationIn the neuroscience courses I took way back when I was in school myelin got a cursory mention, nothing more.  Myelin insulated the nerve fibers – end of story.  No one really talked about what this really meant. Why was it important for nerve fibers to be insulated?  What did that do for a nerve fiber?  If I thought about it at all it was to picture a nerve cell wrapped in a bundle of attic insulation.  I never really thought why a nerve cell needed to be kept warm!  It was a word that was tossed out and then quickly glossed over.  All the focus was on the nerve cells themselves not the myelin that coated them.

So here’s the modern, updated short course on neuroscience – with apologies to any neuroscientists who may be reading this:

nerve cell 2

Put very simply nerve fibers carry electrical impulses through a circuit.

nerve cell 5

Myelin wraps around those nerve fibers,           insulating them so the electrical impulses
don’t leak out.

myelin sheathThis illustration depicts the multiple layers of myelin surrounding the inner nerve axon. The thicker the myelin sheath – the faster and more efficient the nerve fiber becomes.

When nerve cells fire, specialized glial cells respond by wrapping layers of myelin around that neural circuit.  The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster the electrical impulse is transmitted.

diagram of nerve cell firesThink of the difference in speed between the old dial-up modems and the new high-speed fiber optic cables of today.  The sweetest sound in the morning used to be the high-pitched squeal that signaled a successful dial-up connection.  I remember the slow load times and the long waits for even simple functions.  Very little of what I use the internet for today would be possible at those old, slow speeds.

Just as faster connections give us a much more talented internet, faster nerve fibers give us a much more talented individual.  Here’s where the myelin metaphor takes us:

  • Every thought, action, or emotion depends upon a precisely timed electrical signal traveling at high speeds through a chain of neurons.
  • Myelin insulates the fibers and increases signal strength, speed and accuracy.
  • The more a particular circuit is fired, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

This doesn’t happen just for the talented few.  Myelin is universal.  We all grow it, and it impacts all skills – physical, emotional, and intellectual.  Understanding the role myelin plays in nerve functions gives us a metaphor to create growth mindsets.

Questions
So let’s ask:

How do you build super-fast, well-insulated neural networks?

The answer, according to Coyle, is you focus on your errors, but you do it in a very structured and specific way that he refers to as Deep Practice.  I wrote about this in detail in my recent post: In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice (Nov. 16, 2014).

biplane crash

How do you build skills in an activity where mistakes can get you killed?

The answer here is you use simulators.

There are many very high-tech riding simulators now on the market.  This is not the kind of simulator I have in mind.  I’m thinking of some much more low-tech, but still very powerful ways of developing your skills separate from your horse.   Again, I wrote about this in detail in my recent post.

Ruth Alex deep practice lead handling

In brief: practicing your rope handling skills first with a “human horse” is a great way to develop your skills.  It keeps you safe while you are learning, and it lets you experience the effect of different actions from both the horse’s and the handler’s perspective.

 

 

combine ingredientsWhen you combine “equine simulators” with the new research on myelin, you get people focusing with much greater intent on the work.  Just like the students in Carol Dweck’s study whose scores improved after they were taught about better study skills and neural plasticity, the riders who engaged in horse simulator exercises after learning about myelin, deep practice techniques and the connection to talent hotspots, showed much more engagement in the process.

Seeing these connections has led me to my new favorite training metaphor:

3 layer square cake

Deep practice through myelin mastery creates growth mindsets and leads to excellence.

Deep Practice
It turns out that there are three tiers to Deep Practice.  I described them in my previous post, but we’re going to revisit them here.  I’ll be illustrating them with lots of new metaphors.  Hopefully you’ll find them of value.

For each tier I’ll give the overall definition, then I’ll look at how this applies directly to clicker training, and then specifically to horse training.

cake with three tasks

1.) Look at the task as a whole:

You have to have some sense of what you are building before you can begin.
stairs

The Translation to Clicker Training: Training Plans.

Good shapers have a training plan that takes them step by step towards their goal behavior.  Often the analogy of a staircase is used to describe this planning process.

The Translation to Horses:

Find a look that pleases your eye.  Collect images that inspire you.  Paste them on your refrigerator, your bathroom mirror.  Decorate your desk at work with them.  Put them by your bedside table.  Make them your screen saver.  Create a gallery of images that make you smile and say: I want that.

horses like imagesAnother Great Metaphor: Mirror Neurons

mirror reversedWe are wired to imitate.  That’s been another interesting discovery – mirror neurons.  They fire as we watch someone else perform.  When I’m coaching someone, I don’t just see their ride.  I feel it.

Filling your life with the images that inspire will allow this imitating process to occur almost without your being aware of it.  But because we are wired to imitate be care-full of the images you watch.

Normally this is written careful, but I want to emphasize this point.  Be full of care. Especially today with such easy access to all kinds of images via youtube, be care-full what you watch.  If you find within a few seconds of watching a dressage ride, that you aren’t liking what you see, turn it off.  You don’t need to watch it through to the end.

rolkuer cut

When you focus on what you don’t like, you’re still absorbing those images and myelinating those circuits.

Be Care-Full what you watch.

 

 

Instead find images you like. Linger over them. Let them permeate through you and become part of you.

mirror plus 3 piaffe panels

When you practice, you will find yourself mirroring those images.

cake second tier

Break each task down into small units.

When you divide a task up into very small units, it is easier to notice the small errors that exist in each of those units.  Highlighting the errors lets you adjust, correct, perfect each of those small units.

The Translation to Clicker Training: Thin Slicing.

For every step that you find, no matter how small it may seem, there is ALWAYS a smaller bread for futsal articlestep that you can break something down into.  You want to keep thin slicing and thin slicing until you find a step where you can get a consistent, clean loop of behavior.  If you find bobbles, mistakes, resistance, the slice you’re looking at is still too large.

 

Loopy training diagram with loop

Looking at training from the perspective of myelin makes clean loops all the more important.  You want to be insulating pathways that fire off patterns you want to build. If you allow in little bobbles, little bits of almost-good-enough-but-not-quite, those errors will become insulated along with everything else.  They will become stronger, easier to access, harder to avoid.

The myelin model also gives us another way to look at shaping.  Especially when people are broad brushnew to clicker training, they often begin with a broad brush approach to the behaviors they are clicking.  They start with a general approximation and then gradually refine their criteria towards the more polished, goal behavior.  If you are after consistent, high-quality performance, the myelin metaphor suggests that this may not be the best strategy. Instead it tells us why you may find old pieces of unwanted behavior creeping back into your training.  Through this broad-brush shaping process those old patterns will have become well myelinated right along with the patterns you want to keep.

funnel images of shaping

Training Mantras
This myelin model of shaping gives me some new favorite training mantras to go along with my new favorite training metaphors.

Be Care-Full what you myelinate.

Remember myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap.

ben franklin

At the risk of sounding like Benjamin Franklin, what this     translates to is:

A habit formed is a habit kept.

 

 

 

 

The Translation to Horses
Horses notice everything.  They are masters at reading body language.  How you stand, how your weight shifts, even how you breath, all these details will be noticed by your horse.  One of the common tripping up points many new handlers have is their body language is telling the horse something very different from their intended message. Taking the time to learn about your own balance means you will be giving one consistent message – not two conflicting ones.

In clinics we explore balance through a series of awareness exercises that are designed to help you communicate more effectively with your horse.  Movement is slowed down into tiny weight shifts.  I want people to experience their balance at a micro level.  It is observe, adjust, perfect.  We are building skills myelin layer by myelin layer.

We move from these awareness exercises to working with “human horses”. Handlers develop their skills working with a partner who can give them verbal feedback and where mistakes are welcome.  What happens when you slide down a lead with tension in your shoulders?  Let’s find out.  What does your “human horse” think of this?  Now release that mad scientist at worktension and see what difference – if any – it makes.  These training games turn us into “mad scientists”.  We can ask questions, experiment, try different strategies.  These same “mistakes” made with a horse could create frustration, even injuries.  Mistakes made with your “human horse” are part of the learning process.  They are part of the growth mindset that leads to excellence.

 

The Click Creates Stepssteps macro micro
Chunking down continues once you are back with your horse.  Every time you click, you are creating a step in the training. With your new-found awareness of your own balance, you can ask more subtle, detail-oriented questions of your horse.  Beginners shape on a macro level.  They ask a horse to back, and they click as they see him take a full step.

Think about what this means for the horse.  Often the timing of the click is late.  The horse is already putting his foot down by the time the handler is clicking.  So the handler wants movement, but the horse thinks he’s being reinforced for stopping.  Oh dear.

Even more confusing the next time the horse gets clicked it’s for taking a step back with his other front foot. That’s a different behavior.

The micro trainer is more aware of small details.  She begins by clicking for just a shift of balance.  Her timing is good and the behavior is repeatable.  The circuits she’s insulating create a clean, consistent final behavior.

 

cake third tier

Playing with Timepocket watch 3
Detecting mistakes is essential for making progress. This error-focused element of deep practice is achieved by playing with time.  Movement is slowed down so small bobbles and losses of balance can be detected and corrected.

 

violin Daniel Coyle described practice sessions at a music school where students played the music so slowly it became unintelligible.  By slowing down and drawing out each note, they were able to notice slight errors in their technique.  If their performance goals had been to play just for themselves and a few friends, those errors might not matter, but when you are training for the world’s great concert halls, they most definitely do.

So again it is highlight, adjust, perfect.  The myelin model tells us that this attention to detail creates clean, highly polished skills.

 

The Translation to Clicker Training  clicker image red
Slowing an action down lets you notice
and attend to errors. Focusing on
errors at first sounds like the opposite
of clicker training.  We want to focus
on what we want the animal TO DO,
not the unwanted behavior.

But that’s at the MACRO level.

At the macro level I do want to focus on what I want my horse to do.  I can’t train a negative.  Saying I don’t want my horse crowding into my space, doesn’t tell my horse what he CAN do.  I can punish the unwanted behavior, but unless I provide my horse with an acceptable alternative, I’m leaving him in a guessing game.  It’s up to him to figure out how to stay out of trouble.  That’s not only bad training, it’s incredibly unfair.  So I need to teach positive actions.  What is the behavior I WANT to see?  If my horse stops crowding me by bolting off, I haven’t solved anything.  I’ve just replaced one unwanted behavior with another.  Focusing on these undesirable actions, turns me into a reactive trainer.  I’ll be forever chasing after these unwanted behaviors, trying to stomp out brush fires before they spread.

What I want to do instead is create an overall macro picture of my perfect horse and then train on a micro level.

clicker image redAt the MICRO level  I can notice the small bobbles and loss of balance that may be part of the root cause of the behavior problem. I can refine my criteria even more until I have a clean, error-free loop of behavior.
So it’s – highlight, adjust, click, reinforce, repeat – until the loop is clean.
Again, the myelin model says that this attention to detail will create the clean, consistent behavior I am after.

Chunking down to micro creates thin slicing and that in turn leads to excellence.

clicker to thin slice to excellence

The Translation to Horses
When you are first experimenting with clicker training, it’s tempting to jump right in and rush past all the details that I find so fascinating.  Initially the focus is on macro behaviors.   It’s easy.  It’s fun – that is, until your horse becomes frustrated by the lack of clarity.  Details do matter.  Every time you click and give your horse a treat just when he’s falling onto his inside shoulder, you are insulating circuits that you are not going to want.

Remember

  • Myelin wraps nerve fibers.
  • It insulates them well to build strong, high-speed habits.
  • Myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap.

So you want to build good habits sooner rather than later.

The myelin pathways I am strengthening by playing with time lead to excellence.
But so far I have only focused on technical skills.  To improve my ability to respond to the unexpected I’m going to play with space, as well as time.

Playing with Space

In “The Talent Code” Daniel Coyle used the example of the incredible ball-handling skills Brazilian soccer players develop by playing a game called futsal.  Instead of practicing on the over-sized expanse of a soccer field, young players build their skills in a space that’s the size of a tennis or basketball court.

soccer field Soccer Field
futsal court 2

 

Futsal Court

 

A futsal player can make contact with the ball 600 percent more than he would in a regular
soccer game.  That’s a huge multiplier especially when you add in the age at which
these players are starting out.  If the above view of the soccer field looks huge to you,
imagine what it must look like to the average eight year old.  That’s a huge area to be running up and down.  But compress that space into the length of a tennis court, and now you have many more opportunities to engage with other players.  There are more quick decisions to be made and more plays to have.  Is it any wonder Brazil is a leader in world-class soccer?

The Translation to Clicker Training

P1070994 newby ridden get treatWhen people first watch clicker training, they are often puzzled by all the stopping for a treat.  How is the horse ever going to go anywhere if he is forever stopping? That’s one of the most common questions that gets asked from the outside looking in.

The myelin model of skill building explains why this is more than right.  It is the road to excellence.

Clicker training is a skill accelerator.  Pick a behavior you’d like to improve. It can be anything – teaching a horse to pick up his feet for cleaning, or a dog to sit, or a bird to come when called.   For this example, I’ll use teaching a horse to go from a walk into a canter.  In a conventional ride, you would normally ask for the canter and then keep going.  Over the course of the ride that means you ask for just handful of canter departs.  In contrast a clicker trainer might focus in on just the depart phase of the canter.  She’ll ask for the depart and – click – her horse will stop to get his treat.  This is what non-clicker trainers find so puzzling.  The horse keeps stopping.  How is he ever going to go anywhere? But what they aren’t considering is how many canter departs that horse is performing.

Let’s compare the two rides:


 

Conventional training ride:                                       Clicker-trained ride:

Ride 1: ask for 5 canter departs.                             Ride 1: ask for 20 canter departs.
After 10 rides: you’ll have 50 canter departs.     After 10 rides: you’ll have 200 departs.


 

That’s quite a difference.  So let’s consider:

Which horse is going to understand canter departs better?
Which horse is going to have the better insulated myelin?
Which horse is going to pick up the canter faster, with better balance, without seeming to think about it?

It’s an easy answer: the clicker-trained horse.  Of course, you won’t be staying at the level where you only ask for the canter depart and then click.  You’ll be gradually expanding your loop to include more strides of canter.  But that canter will be built on a solid foundation of myelin-supported departs.  This is a horse-related example, but the concept holds no matter the species you are working with.  Clicker training is a skill accelerator, and the myelin model of excellence helps to explain why.

The Translation to Horses
The Brazilian soccer players play futsal to improve their skills.  All those quick encounters sharpen their ability to respond to the unexpected.  What do horse trainers do?  They put their horses away and practice their handling skills with other people.  At clinics I’ll play the part of the horse by holding the snap end of the lead while the handler practices her rope-handling skills.   I can let someone experience a horse who is spooking or pulling on a lead over and over again.  I’m good at copying what horses do.  I know what it feels like to have a horse leaning in on me, or trying to scoot away.  I’m good at “being a horse”.  I can slow the movement down, make it less abrupt or less forceful so a new learner isn’t as overwhelmed as she would be by an actual horse.  I can lean into her space and see how she responds down the lead.  That was too slow, try again.  Better.  Try again.  Now what happens if I make a slight change? 

These sessions are comparable to futsal.  The handler gets in many more practice rounds so she is better prepared for the real thing.  We’re improving her underlying technique and sharpening all the quick decision making that partnering a horse requires.

Metaphors Matter – Myelin Matters
Where does talent come from?  I asked that question earlier.

The gift of the gifted lies not in genes but in mindset.  That’s what Carol Dweck’s work showed.  A simple phrase – you’re so smart versus you worked really hard was enough to change the outcome of a student’s performance.

The gift of the gifted comes from the messages we receive from family and teachers.  It comes from chance encounters and life experiences that lead us to discover our own powerful metaphors.

Shortly after I posted my recent article: “In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice” – this is what one of the participants in my on-line course sent to the discussion group:

“This post and the book The Talent Code were really timely for me. With the bad weather arriving and our property turning into a giant bog of soupy clay, I’m down to a 14 by 28 foot covered/dry work area. At first I was hugely disappointed to have to postpone the horses’ work for lack of space, but really when I look at it from the perspective of Alex’s post I have my own little futsal court. I set up a miniature cone circle for bending and a mat at one end for balance work and am going thru the blog post and the course in detail looking for exercises we can use for deep practice.”

Metaphors matter.  What are the messages you tell yourself?  Are you trapped in a fixed mindset?  Or like the person in this next post have you found metaphors that create for you a growth mindset?

The Talent Code gave me hope that I do not have to be born with particular qualities to be successful.  That hard work, intelligent practice and learning do make a difference. At about 12 years old I was told to give up my dream of becoming a professional piano player, as “you are not talented enough”. I was stopped the very moment when I was starting to enjoy the piano playing, when piano playing became a lovely activity for me, and not a burden. Thirty years later I can still feel the pain of “not being talented enough”. When I started to work with horses I was obsessed that I did not have the time, I could never be good enough, and performance was not accessible as “I am not talented”. Oh well, I like to believe that I do not need to be talented, I just need to practice and learn deep enough.

And I have found so much in Alexandra’s course to give me hope. I have practiced what she teaches and I am safer, and also I like to believe that the horses I am in contact with are happier.

So thank you Alexandra for giving me the hope that at my age and experience I can still be successful.”

Metaphors matter.  Find the metaphors that open your life and take you to your dreams.

Alexandra Kurland
published Dec. 25, 2014

Happy Holidays Everyone – I wish you the best gift of all – the metaphors that give you a life filled with joy, growth, love – and of course horses!

 

Please note: 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

Futsal for Horses

Fred Icky  futsal article

There’s a connection between the horse on the left who is learning to step onto a mat and the horse on the right who is learning to piaffe. To find out what they are – read on.

Piaffe Discovered
One of the highlights of the 2014 travel season was a trip north to visit with Monty Gwynne and her beautiful Andalusian, Icaro – or Icky as he is called in the barn.

Monty has been building the components of piaffe, and during my visit all the elements fell into place for Icky to produce his first, clean steps of piaffe. When you reach this milestone, that is always a cause for celebration and celebrate we did.  Icky certainly must have thought Christmas had come early given all the treats he was receiving.

Icky’s success provides me the perfect way to talk about two very different types of skills that are needed with horses.  Whether you are aiming for piaffe or just a simple walk down a country lane you need to develop both.

Shannon whisper country lane

Deep Practice
In my recent post, “In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice” (Nov. 2014), I wrote about these two types of skill and the techniques used to develop them.  These are the techniques described by Daniel Coyle in his book, The Talent Code.

The basic premise of Coyle’s book is that people are not born superstars.  There is not a genetic code that says you will grow up to be a world class musician, an Olympic-level rider, a rocket scientist, a basketball superstar.  Not everyone who is over seven feet tall becomes an NBA player.  So what is it that makes someone stand out in a crowd?  Where does talent come from?

To answer this question Daniel Coyle visited what he refers to as talent hotspots, places that were consistently producing people of outstanding talent.  Across a wide variety of activities – both athletic and otherwise – he saw many similarities in the coaching practices.  What he distilled from his travels was a process that he refers to as Deep Practice.

There are three tiers to Deep Practice:

3 layer square cake1.) Look at the task as a whole.  For horses I refer to this as find a look that pleases your eye.  You have to have some sense of what you want before you can go after it.

2.) Chunk things down. In clicker training we learn that for every step you design, no matter how small it may seem, there is ALWAYS a smaller step that you can break something down into.  We want to keep thin slicing and thin slicing until we find a step where we can get a consistent, clean loop of behavior.  If we find bobbles, mistakes, resistance, “no” answers, the slice we’re looking at is still too large.

pocket watch 33.) Play with time.  Whether you are a musician, a dancer, a painter, a basketball player, a rider – good technique matters.  When you perform a task at normal speeds, it’s easy to gloss over little mistakes.  When we walk across a room, we don’t pay attention to HOW we walk.  We just walk across a room.  At clinics I slow people down through a series of body awareness exercises.  Now they are paying attention, and through that deliberate focus, they learn about their own balance.  They can notice the tiny bobbles that occur as they initiate movement.  They can make adjustments, get feedback, try again, and through this process perfect their own balance.

When you work slowly you are observing, evaluating, adjusting your own performance.  You are becoming your own coach.  I wrote in detail about this in the previous post (“In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice”; published on theclickercenterblog.com Nov. 16, 2014).  I will refer you to that post for more on the details of Deep Practice.

Technical Skill and Decision Making Expertise
The three tiers of Deep Practice develop technical skills – how you swing a tennis racquet, how you control your breath while singing, how you slide down a lead rope to cue your horse.  That’s one part of the Talent Code process.  The other important skill revolves around the ability to make quick decisions and to respond effectively to the unexpected.  For what are hopefully obvious reasons this later skill is of particular importance when working with horses.

Daniel Coyle illustrated this point by describing what he found when he went to Brazil’s soccer camps. Brazil has become the country to beat in world class soccer.  Coyle wanted to know why.  What were Brazilian coaches doing to produce so many top players?  The answer he discovered was the players grew up playing futsal.

Think of tennis played on a full sized court and now shrink that court down to the size of a ping pong table.  The game speeds up.  With shorter distances to travel the number of volleys per minute increases.

Now translate that to soccer.  Instead of practicing on a huge soccer field, the game is played out in an area that is not much bigger than a basketball court.  This means that players are in much closer contact with one another. During the course of a game they have hundreds more opportunities to make contact with the ball.  In futsal players touch the ball 600% more than they do in regular soccer.  600% is a powerful magnifier.

Imagine yourself back in school, out on the soccer field.  Instead of kicking the ball and seeing it bounce away from you across the huge expanse of a regulation-sized soccer field, now you kick the ball and it goes just a couple of feet before it encounters another player.  In seconds you are right back in the midst of a play.  You are having to make quick decisions over and over again.  When you do play on a regulation-size field, you are so much sharper and more aware of where everyone is on the field.  Your footwork is faster and you aren’t afraid of close contact.

Futsal for Horses
When I read The Talent Code, I resonated with his description of Deep Practice.  Working on technique through the three-tiered process was so very familiar to me.  This is how I have taught myself new skills, and it is how I teach others in clinics and private coaching.  I also resonated with Futsal.  We have our own version of this game.  And surprisingly it sits in one of the foundation lessons: teaching a horse to stand on a mat.

But before I explain how mat work becomes our version of Futsal, let me first describe piaffe.  Most of you have probably seen video of horses in paiffe, the very collected and suspended movement in which the horse appears to trot in place.

Nuno Olivievro piaffe

Nuno Oliviero, one of the great riding masters of the 20th century.

Done well, it is one of the most beautiful of the equestrian arts.  Done well, it can also be wonderfully therapeutic for the horse.  We won’t go into the done badly end of the spectrum.  Done badly everything and anything can become a torturous mess.

No one sets out to piaffe badly.  If piaffe is your goal, you are truly in search of excellence, so we’ll focus on that end of the spectrum and how you get there.

The Four Points on the Bottom of Your Feet
In clinics I guide people through a series of awareness exercises.  We begin with the head and the neck and work our way down to the feet to an exercise I refer to as: “The four points on the bottom of your feet”.  It’s a Feldenkrais exercise I learned years ago from Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of TTEAM.  It has stayed in repertoire because it is such a simple and yet powerful exercise.

The four points are: inside toe, inside heel, outside toe, outside heel.  As people roll from point to point – inside toe across to outside toe, back to outside heel, to inside heel and back again to inside toe, etc. – I instruct them to observe how they shift their balance from one part of their foot to another.  How do they send and receive their weight?

Stand up for a moment and try it.  Roll around the four points on the bottom of your feet.  How do you send and receive the weight changes?  How do shift from foot to foot? From side to side? From front to back?

And how does this relate to piaffe?

The weight shifts are very similar to the weight shifts we are asking of the horse.  We are asking the horse to shift his balance forward and then back again.  Trot, but transform your energy into upward suspension not forward propulsion.  So it is suspend forward and up and then cycle the energy back around so your balance rocks back and resets you for the next diagonal pair.  Piaffe is very much a sending and receiving of energy.  It is a balancing act for both the horse and the handler.

And it isn’t just physical balance that I’m referring to here.  There is emotional balance to be considered as well.  And then there is the balance between all the quick decisions the handler needs to make.  You have to be a nimble thinker to keep the rhythm of piaffe from falling apart.

Here’s a good way to think of this.  This is the original photo of Icky which I pulled from a short video clip.  I’m working him in hand, and he has just found the balance shift that has allowed him to mobilize into piaffe.
icky piaffe for futsal article 1The photo was a little dark so I decided to use the color adjustment feature that was available to me in the editing program I was using.

Icky piaffe + photo adjust 1Look at all the choices I have, all the dials I can play with.  On my laptop I can only work one at a time, so I begin at the top and play with the level of exposure.  If I move the dial all the way to the left, this is what I’ll get:

icky piaffe for futsal article 2
This is obviously way too dark.  I’ve swung the pendulum too far in one direction, so let me see what happens if I swing the pendulum in the opposite direction:

icky piaffe for futsal article low exposureNow the colour is too washed out.  I’ve gone too far to the right.  But by swinging the dial to both ends of the spectrum, I have learned what happens when I adjust the exposure.

Each element I can adjust gives me a different effect.  Here’s what happens when I adjust for contrast.  All the way to the left washes out the photos .  All the way to the right makes it so dark you can’t even make out the image.

icky piaffe contrast 2 shotsLess extreme is what happens when you adjust the temperature dial.  Again you see the full adjustment to the left and right.

icky piaffe temp 2 shotsObviously I don’t want the extremes for any of these effects, so I begin to play with the dials.  Beginning with the exposure level, I move the dial back and forth around the original point until I find a spot that pleases my eye.
icky piaffe little exposure

This is a little too dark.

Icky piaffe little exposure rgtThis seems better.

Now what happens when I keep that adjustment and nudge the contrast dial back and forth?  The effect is subtle, and there are things I like about both changes, but a decision must be made. I choose to move the dial to the left.  If I were to do this again, I might make a slightly different choice.

icky piaffe contrast 2 shots for futsalI continue on through each of the selections, nudging the dial left and right, seeing the effect it has and then making a selection.  Each choice is effected by all the others.  I go back and forth between effects, moving the dial left and right for each one until I settle on the final combination which produces this image:
Icky piaffe! color adjustedCompare it now to the much darker original:

Icky piaffe! original for futsalIcky stands out from the wall making it much easier to see what he is doing. If I were creating a photo for a different purpose, I might choose to stay with the softer, more muted tones of the original, but for this purpose, for today, the top photo is the one I like.

All these little adjustments make a good analogy for what I was doing in real time to help Icky find this new balance.  First, Monty had prepared him well.  She taught him the individual components that are needed for piaffe.  Think of it like teaching him how to respond to each of the color adjustment dials.  We can see how he responds to each one.  Now it is time to combine them to create the whole picture.

If you had asked me at the time what I was doing, I would not have been able to answer in any meaningful way.  The conversation that was occurring between Icky and myself was so very complex and layered.  Let’s go back to the analogy of the colour dials.  Imagine, if instead of working on my laptop where I am limited by being able to perform just one operation at a time, I were working at a console where I could move many dials at once.  It would be more like playing a piano where many notes can be played together.  Now I can slide the controls for exposure, contrast and temperature all at the same time.  I can adjust one to the left and the other to the right.

Now imagine that it isn’t a computer responding mechanically to my adjustments, but a horse who is listening,processing and responding to the multiple layers of my requests.  Shift your balance forward, now catch it and cycle it back so you are ready with your next diagonal pair.  In other words, nudge the dial to the left and then immediately back to the right.  Do all this while I have another conversation layered on top of that about the way you are lifting out of the base of your neck.  Add another conversation about the height at which I receive the point of contact, and another on the telescoping of your poll.

That’s piaffe.  It is made up of one quick decision after another.  Linger too long deciding if you like the result of the previous request, and you will interrupt the balance and the flow of the weight exchanges.  Piaffe is for nimble thinkers – both human and equine.

Handlers don’t start out with this ability.  It isn’t a talent you’re born with.  It’s something you learn. That’s also true for the horses.  They have to learn how to process and respond to quick exchanges of what can at first seem like conflicting cues.

Deep Practice and Mat Work
That brings us back around to Deep Practice techniques and mat work.  There are six foundation lessons that help introduce both you and your horse to clicker training.  I should really say there are five foundation lessons, and the sixth – standing on a mat – serves more as an assessment to see if you have understood well what the other lessons are teaching.  It also helps develop the nimble thinking handling horses requires.

When confronted for the first time with a doormat-sized piece of plywood or carpeting, most horses will avoid it.  If you lead them casually along so that the mat is in their direct path, they will step over it, or around it, but they won’t step directly on it.  Unknown surfaces could be covering holes that can break a leg.

If you stop the horse in front of the mat and then ask him to step forward just one stride so his front foot lands on the mat, he’ll over-stride.  He’ll push past you or he’ll sidle to the side so again he can avoid landing on the mat.

Natalie Harrison mat 2 shots for futsal

For a novice handler this can turn into a bit of a mess.  So let’s take a step back and apply both the rules of good shaping and the techniques of Deep Practice.

The rules of shaping tell us that if you are encountering a problem in the training, the solution won’t be found within that level.

It is Albert Einstein who is commonly credited with the brilliant quote:
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  If you google this, you will find others who also get the attribution, but whoever said it for the first time, said a very wise thing indeed – especially when it comes to training horses.

When I was first learning about horse training, I saw many who would fit this definition of insanity.  I remember one rider in particular who used to have a major fight every night with her horse.  She would send him toward a fence. He would refuse. She would bring him back through a tight circle, and drive him at the fence again.  He would refuse – again.  She would get mad and strike him around the head.  He would finally crow hop over the fence.  Did that solve the problem and turn him into a reliable jumper?  No.  The next night the drama would play out all over again.  True insanity.

bread for futsal articleWhen you encounter a problem in your training, the best way forward is to break the lesson down into smaller steps.  Keep thin slicing and thin slicing until you find a request that gets a consistent yes answer.

The techniques of Deep Practice also tell us to break each lesson down into small steps.

Instead of beginning with mat work, we’re going to go back several more steps.  We’ll end up using simpler behaviors, so we can work on the handler’s basic skills.

In the ideal world here is what the learning process would be:

1.) The handler watches a video of a horse with great mat manners.  The horse walks with the handler to the mat.

natalie Harrison 2 shots walk togWhen he gets to the mat, he knows what to do.  He steps onto the mat and stops squarely in the middle with both front feet. He waits quietly on the mat, and then walks off readily when his handler asks him to do so.

natalie harrison on mat futsalThe handler watches several other video.  One shows the teaching process that was used to create these great manners.  She also watches several videos in which the mat was used as a conditioned reinforcer.   She’s beginning to understand the many reasons for teaching this particular behavior.  Inspired she heads out to the barn to work with her horse.

coronel crowding lisa futsal2.) The handler sets out a plywood mat about the size of a door mat.  She brings her horse to the mat.  On the first pass her horse crowds her, pushing her to the side so he can step around the mat.  She’s late in noticing his concern, and she feels clumsy when she asks him to stop and back up to move his shoulder out of her space.  He responds slowly to her cue to back.  His feet feel as though they are stuck in cement.  When he does finally back up, he’s crooked, and he ends up several steps away from the mat.  The whole process feels very awkward and clumsy.

3.) She’s “tested the water”. She knows her horse isn’t really ready for this lesson.  She puts him away while she comes up with a better training plan.  When she watched the videos showing how the mat was introduced, the lesson included setting up a triangular runway of cones that funneled the horse towards the mat.  In the “runway” the handler reinforced the horse for taking only one step forward or back at a time.

Vt mat funnel for futsal

Taken from Lesson 18: Loopy Training in the Click That Teaches DVD lesson series. This video clip is also included in the on-line course.

When she watched the video the first time, she didn’t understand the importance of this step.  She went directly to the mat, but now she understands that the handler was building the skills she would need her horse to understand once they were at the mat.  She needed to be able to ask for one small step at a time to help her horse find the mat.

Now that she’s “tested the waters”, so to speak, by bringing her horse up to the mat, she understands that neither of them have the underlying skills to make this a “smooth sailing” lesson.  If she continues as she is without the necessary preparation in place, she’s likely to get a lot of resistance.  Her horse may even start pawing at the mat, something she knows from others is a common problem.  The horse on the video pawed briefly, but then stopped as he was reinforced for a shift in balance.  This looked easy on the video, but she now sees she needs to work on her own skills before going back to her horse.  She feels clumsy handling the lead which makes it hard to ask for the quick changes in direction that mat work requires.

It’s clear now that she needs two things: a.) she needs to sharpen her own handling skills; and b.) she needs to teach her horse to shift his weight promptly forward and back one small step at a time. It’s clear he needs more work on these component behaviors.  That’s best done first without the mat being in the picture.

4.) The handler begins by reviewing her basic skills.  She is using Deep Practice techniques.  She videotapes herself as she pantomimes asking her horse to back up and come forward.  When she plays back her first attempts, she notices how stiff she is.  The handler on the video was very smooth.  When she turned her upper body, her feet moved as well.  Her body language complemented perfectly what she was asking for down the lead.

Our handler makes use of the body awareness exercises that are taught in conjunction with the rope handling skills.  She practices the “Four points on the bottom of your feet” exercise and the “T’ai Chi Walk” that goes along with.

AK tai chi walk futsal

Alexandra Kurland demonstrating the T’ai Chi Walk: taken from one of the on-line course videos (Unit 10).

As she returns to these exercises over a period of several days, she notices changes in her balance.  And during the day she also notices that she is less tired when she has to stand for any period of time.  That’s an unexpected bonus from her Deep Practice exercises.  It motivates her to keep exploring this work.  She’s eager to apply what she’s learning about her own balance to her horse.  She sees that many of the places where she at first felt stiff or stuck are also places where she feels resistance in him.  Already she’s understanding better what she needs to do in order to help him, and interestingly enough, teaching him about mats will be an important part of the process.

With her feeling of growing balance and coordination, she begins to work directly with a lead.  She hangs her halter from the top of a door and follows a video that shows her how to slide down a lead.  It takes her through the process in very thin slices.  She feels very awkward at first.  She thought she knew how to handle a lead rope!

ak halter on door futsal

Alexandra Kurland explaining the details of good rope handling techniques: taken from one of the on-line course videos (Unit 10).

Because she’s on her own, she feels very free to slow everything down.  Through this process she discovers lots of little details that she is sure will make a difference to her horse.  When she encounters a step that feels particularly awkward, she drops the lead and pantomimes the action, working in slow motion to understand what needs to be done.  Outside it’s raining.  It’s a cold, miserable day.  She’s quite happy to be inside the house, staying warm and dry.  The best part is she can still work on her horse’s training by working on herself.

When the rope handling begins to feel second nature, she enlists a helper to be her “horse”.  She slides down the lead and gets feedback from her friend.  She makes adjustments as needed.

Ak rope close up with Sue futsal

Close up details of the rope handling: taken from one of the on-line course videos (Unit 10).

At first, her friend remains passive, which lets her continue to work on her basic skills.  When they have ironed out any glitches they find, they watch the runway lesson together and then go out and try it, taking turns playing the role of the horse.  At first, she asks her friend to be an easy, cooperative  “horse”.  They work out any hiccups in the timing and the rope handling.  They check on the active use of the food delivery.  And then her friend becomes more “real life”.  Instead of walking straight onto the mat, she swerves to the side, pushing into the handler.  Given this type of behavior, decisions need to be made faster.  The handler doesn’t want to be reactive, waiting for things to go wrong before asking for the counter move.  She wants to be there ahead of any problems, asking her “horse” for what she wants her TO DO, instead of reacting to unwanted behavior.

After several rounds of this pantomime, she feels much more confident in her handling skills, and she has a much clearer understanding of the lesson. Because she has gone through all these steps, she now knows what she will be asking her horse to do and why.

5.) She reintroduces her horse to the mat.  This time she takes him through all the steps that she missed the first time around.  She begins without the mat, by reviewing his basic leading skills.  She finds places where he was not understanding clearly what she wanted, but with her freshly honed skills, he learns much more quickly, and she is able to help him out more.

They progress quickly together to the point where she feels as though she is ready to reintroduce the mat.  She sets up a runway so she can ask for one step only at a time.  Asking him to move slowly reveals his balance issues which she can now help him with. Her timing is much better and she is able to make quick adjustments so her focus remains on constructing new behaviors, not blocking unwanted ones.

fred in funnel futsalThis time when she releases her horse to the mat, instead of pushing past her, he steps right onto it.  The lesson could not be more different from that first experience!  She is learning how to ask for quick changes of direction forward and back.  He in turn has become wonderfully responsive.  When they get in close to the mat, he can’t really see where it is, so he’s come to rely on her subtle cues to help him find it.  Instead of resenting all the intervention, he’s enjoying the high rates of reinforcement they produce.

fred near mat futsal articleOnce he’s on the mat, he’s able to settle, so in between going forward and going back is a quiet middle where he is standing beautifully on the mat.

nikita on mat futsal

Mat manners done well can be developed into high art.

Connecting Up The Dots: The link between Mats and Piaffe

Can you see now the link between mat work and piaffe?  Remember how I described piaffe: it is built out of a series of quick decisions. The skills they are learning together in the runway and using at the mat will carry forward to create for them this most beautiful of the equine arts.

That’s still a long way off.  For now all you may think you are doing is getting your horse to stand on a mat.  Piaffe may not even be on your radar.  Your performance goals are for back country riding, or jumping, or pleasure riding – not dressage, but you can still appreciate the need for quick decisions and equally quick responses.  You can see many places where that ability to ask for subtle balance shifts will come in handy.  And who knows, someday you may decide you want to try your hand at teaching piaffe.  What a surprise it will be when you discover that you have already built the necessary components!

Magnifying Your Practice Time
Mat work is the equine version of Futsal.  The Brazilian soccer players magnify the effectiveness of their practice time by shrinking the size of their playing field.  With the horses we use the runway and the mat for a similar purpose.

Handling horses, especially handling them when they are upset and pushing through you, requires rapid-fire decisions.

meranero 3 shots for futsal

A sudden spook gives my rope handling a good test.

A beginner who is still fumbling over the handling of her equipment will find that she’s always behind.  She’s always reacting to her horse’s unwanted behavior, not building what she wants.  Even if she’s using clicks and treats, she’s really just blocking what she doesn’t want.

The mat work helps her stay ahead of her horse so she can ask for what she would like him TO DO.  She’s not waiting for things to go wrong and then correcting them.  She sees how he’s responding, and she’s ready with the next request.  She’s making faster, better decisions.  She is gaining the nimble thinking that not only keeps her safer, but also builds great relationships.  Horses feel confident around confident handlers.

She spent a couple rainy days inside working on her handling skills and what is the result?  She and her horse are gaining superstar skills.  They are both loving the training and loving each other.  What could be better than that!

Harrison hug great close up July 2014

Natalie Zielinsky with her wonderful Harrison

Written by: Alexandra Kurland   The Clicker Center  Copyright 2014

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