Titles are important. Names matter. I learned this a long time ago when I started referring to the “t’ai chi wall”. That’s an element in the rope handling that I teach. Suddenly, it became a something. It stood out from everything else that was associated with the rope handling.
Names matter. Farmers know this which is why they don’t name their animals. Names transform them into individuals.
We name our horses because we are looking for that individual connection. That brings me to the rest of the title I have given my new book. I’m calling it, “Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend”.
In previous posts I’ve talked about what Modern Horse Training means to me. I’ve described the example/non-example comparison that I am making by choosing that title. In yesterday’s post, I wrote in general terms what constructional training refers to.
Of course, I tried on many different titles, but I kept coming back to “Modern Horse Training”. And then there was the subtitle. I considered staying with just “A Constructional Guide to Horse Training“, but I kept adding on the rest: “A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend”.
I know there will be people who read that title and think the book isn’t for them. They are interested in performance not friendship. That title is too mushy.
I’m also interested in performance. The cover reminds us that we don’t have to give up on one to have the other. Training teaches performance skills. It also creates connection.
I should say good training does this. Force-based training turns communication into a one way street. When you use commands, meaning you are controlling your horse with a do-it-or-else threat backing up every request, you become like a drill sergeant barking out orders. The sergeant tells the private what to do. The private does what he’s told. He’s not on equal footing. He doesn’t respond by giving an order back to the sergeant. If he does, he’s being insubordinate, and he will be punished.
Punishment shuts down behavior. When we use command-based training we shut down the back and forth communication that makes being with our horses such a joy. We shut down the full expression of their personality. That funny, brave, inquisitive, smart, mischievous, bold, kind individual we love so much disappears and hides away from us. Good training brings our horse’s personality out of hiding – in a good way.
In a recent Equiosity podcast I brought together a group of people who are currently going through my on-line clinics. They were all regular attendees in the coaching sessions that are part of those clinics. The conversation turned into a three part series. I ended by asking each of them to describe what they thought of when they were pictured a clicker-trained horse. I thought they might describe some particularly fun bit of training they had taught to their horses. But no, to a person, they all talked about the relationship that was developing through clicker training. What they most valued was not that they could now pick up their horse’s feet with ease, or load him on a trailer, or ride him. What they valued most was the connection the training was creating.
That’s why we have horses. Think back to the horse books you read as a child. If you are one of the horse addicted, you probably had a whole shelf full of them. Yes, the stories were full of riders who soared over giant fences or raced across deserts. But always, what mattered most was the love between horse and handler.
Too often performance is put first and that connection is lost. We talk about “bomb-proof horses”. But what really does that mean? Yes, safety always comes first. I want a horse who is comfortable with me and the world around him. But if there is a bear nearby, I would like my horse to be able to tell me that going forward is really not a good idea. I want my training to give him a voice that counts, a voice that is listened to.
If he’s hurting, I want him to be able to let me know that he can’t do what I’m asking. I want him to be able to tell me this without having to shout. Horses shout by rearing up, kicking out, bolting off. Long before he has reached the boiling point, I want my training to give him a voice that is heard.
This is how we keep horses sound. It is how we remember why we fell in love with them in the first place. It is how we transform ourselves from drill sergeant into best friend. The title is the right one to chose. The new book is indeed a constructional guide to becoming our horse’s best friend.
The new book, “Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend” will be published April 26, 2023. It will be available through my web site: theclickercenter.com and through Amazon and other booksellers. Look for it in hardcover, paperback and as an ebook.
I’m counting down the days to the publication of my new book: “Modern Horse Training A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend”.
Everything is set to go (I hope). The publication date is April 26. While we are waiting, I’ve been sharing with you, not excerpts from the book, but some stories that explain the genesis of my training choices. Here’s today’s installment:
Yesterday I wrote about the link between ground work and riding. That sits at the core of the constructional approach to training that my horses have been teaching me. Here’s an example to help you understand how this works.
Suppose you are working with a youngster who hasn’t had much handling. You want this horse to pick up his feet for cleaning. That’s one of the universals we all need to teach our horses. It doesn’t matter if you want to ride English or western, or you don’t ride at all, horses need regular foot care.
But before you can pick up your horse’s feet, you need him to stand still and to be comfortable being handled. So there are some component skills that are handy to teach before you start trying to handle his feet.
You’ll be starting with the foundation lessons. You’ll be teaching him to stand still, to back up and come forward, to orient to targets, to stand on a mat. You’ll be starting in simple environments that make these lessons easier to teach. The new book covers this in detail so I won’t say more here. Let’s assume that you have taught your horse to stand on a mat, and you are now teaching him front leg flexions. As you develop this lesson, you are able to point at his shoulder and your horse will lift his foot up well off the ground into your waiting hand.
Teaching leg flexions to your young horse will mean foot cleaning is easy. He’s lifting his foot up for you, and he’s become so well balanced he’s not leaning on you for support.
Foot care may not seem to be connected to riding, but it very much is. Those leg flexions are a wonderful prep for riding. They help your horse find the good balance that makes riding easier for both of you.
When you clean your horse’s feet, you could skip all this training. You could pry his feet up off the ground and accept having him shifting around and leaning on you for support. Cleaning his feet would be a chore, but you’d get it done.
You could skip all the “niceties” of the preliminary groundwork and get straight on, but your job will be much harder. You’ll be getting on an unbalanced horse who is much more of a challenge to ride.
I prefer to stack the deck more in favor of both my horse and myself. So another important lesson my horses have taught me is: If a lesson is becoming difficult for either the horse or the handler, it’s time to break the lesson down into smaller steps.
Remember I want to avoid “brick-wall” training. The sooner I recognize that a lesson is presenting puzzles my horse and I aren’t ready to solve, the easier it becomes to avoid crashing into metaphorical brick walls. I want to fine tune my detectors so long before a puzzle begins to generate frustration, anxiety, fear, or any other emotion that could get us into trouble, I’m already looking for the smaller, easier-to-teach underlying steps.
My horses have taught me to keep looking for smaller steps. If I break a lesson down into what I think is a small step, if it is still too hard, I will keep looking for the even smaller step that it can be divided into. Sometimes finding the smaller step means asking for less. It means asking for just a weight shift instead of a full step. It can also mean looking for the missing component part that is needed to make the lesson easier to understand. What do I need to teach first? If I haven’t introduced my horse to basic targeting, asking him to target his knee to my hand could easily become a frustrating lesson for both of us.
Looking for the smaller step has evolved into this “loopy training” guideline: To find a starting place for your training, you will keep dividing a lesson into smaller and smaller component parts, until you find something your learner CAN consistently do, even if that step seems very small and very far away from your goal behavior.
What am I describing?
Constructional training. This term comes from the work of Dr. Goldiamond, a behavior analyst and clinical psychologist. In a nutshell Goldiamond didn’t want to “fix” behavior. He wanted to build new repertoires of behavior – hence the name constructional training.
This fits perfectly with clicker training. Instead of focusing on what you aren’t liking, and setting goals that are centered around eliminating unwanted behavior, you reframe everything. You focus on what you want your horse TO DO, and you teach that. A constructional training approach matches the approach to training that for me began to evolve over 40 years ago.
Something else I learned a long time ago is good ideas are good ideas. They aren’t unique to any one person or any one source. When you find a convergence like this coming from two very different sources – clinical patients in Goldiamond’s case, and horses in mine, that’s a good indicator that you are on the right track.
The new book, “Modern Horse Training” is designed to help you become a skilled constructional trainer. It explains in detail how the concept of constructional training provides a wonderful framework for positive reinforcement training. Everything is connected to everything else makes perfect sense when you see your training from this perspective.
“Modern Horse Training” will be available as a hardcover, a paperback, and as an ebook. The publication date is April 26. You’ll be able to order it through my web site, theclickercenter.com and also through Amazon and other booksellers.
Everything is Connected to Everything Else – Including Dolphins and Horses
I stumbled across clicker training in 1993. A friend who bred and trained Irish Wolf hounds told me about Karen Pryor’s book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog”. I read it, loved it and wanted to learn more. What was this clicker training that she was talking about? How did it work?
I read her second training book, “Lads Before the Wind: Diary of a Dolphin Trainer” which described how she and her husband, Tap Pryor, developed Sea Life Park in Hawaii. Karen was given the task of figuring out how to train dolphins. It wasn’t anything she set out to do. The task fell to her because the people they had hired to train the dolphins weren’t getting anywhere. These trainers were trying without success to use old-style circus training methods. That didn’t work with an animal that could just swim away from them.
Karen was intrigued by the work that was coming out of B.F. Skinner’s labs. So armed with the lab notes from some of his graduate students, she set to work. She figured out how to use marker signals and positive reinforcement to train dolphins.
Her books were great. I loved both of them. I enjoyed “Lads” even more than “Don’t Shoot the Dog” because Karen shared the puzzle-solving aspect of training. But those books weren’t training manuals. They didn’t teach you HOW to train. They just teased you with the possibility that you could remove the threat of punishment that sits behind most horse training methods.
I was intrigued, but in 1993 other than Karen’s books, there weren’t any readily available resources for learning more about clicker training. Through a bit of luck, I did manage to find a VHS recording of a seminar that Karen produced. It included two short video clips showing animals being clicker trained. One was of an African bull elephant at the San Diego zoo being trained with protective contact to present his feet for trimming. The other was a 12 week old mastiff puppy who learned to sit and lie down in minutes without ever being touched.
The elephant was the most interesting. He had attacked his keepers on several occasions so the decision was made to that no one was allowed to go directly into his pen with him. That meant that for ten years he had not had any foot care. Clicker training was being used to see if they could teach him to orient to targets and present his feet through a small opening in the gate of his enclosure. During the video, you could hear Gary Priest, the director of training at that time, saying “I cannot impress upon you enough how aggressive this animal was, but he’s standing there cooperating for just the social attention and a bucket of food treats.” I watched that and thought – we in the horse world have a lot to learn. I was thinking of the twitches, the lip chains, the hobbles, etc. that I had seen people use to force horses to comply.
The other video showed the use of a treat held up above a puppy’s nose to get the puppy to sit. Within just a few clicks, the puppy was sitting, then lying down and staying down while the trainer walked around her. There was no pushing, no shoving, no use of force. It was simple, elegant training.
Those two videos were all I needed to be up and running. They gave me what I needed to go out to the barn to ask Peregrine what he thought about clicker training. He got the proverbial ball rolling, so it is fitting that the new book, Modern Horse Training, is coming out on the anniversary of his birthday, April 26.
A Perfect Fit
I could say that clicker training was a perfect fit for me. Or I could turn it around and say that I was a perfect fit for clicker training. There were no horse books out there to guide me, or even any other trainers I could visit to see how it was being used. I was on my own. But I was primed. To use the language of constructional training, I had the components that were needed to turn the idea of clicker training into a fully formed, detailed, soup to nuts training program.
So what were those components? What were the skills, the mindset, the repertoire that prepared me so well to embrace the idea of clicker training? I will say that I have met many others who shared similar components. For so many all that is missing is the understanding of marker signals. Give them that, and, like me, they are off and running. But for many others clicker training represents a huge shift in thinking. Can you really use food in training? Isn’t it a distraction? Won’t it teach your horse to bite? What do you do when your horse says: “No”? The old style of thinking dictates that you must punish unwanted behavior or your horse will become dangerous. “Fear of and fear for” becomes an underlying motivator even if it is not spoken of in that way.
We can begin with that same underlying motivator and end up with a very different result. That’s what I wrote about in yesterday’s post. You can also use treats in training and still stay wedded to the belief that unwanted behavior needs to be corrected.
Using positive reinforcement describes a procedure. What I’m addressing now is the question of what motivates your training decisions? Even kind people can end up choosing punishment because they are motivated by “fear for” risks. You’re afraid that your dog might rush out the front door and be hit by a car, so you use punishment to teach him to stay back when you open the door. That’s one example of how this plays out.
You don’t have to use punishment to solve this problem. There are other options. You begin by acknowledging that you are concerned for your dog’s safety, and then you search out solutions that are a match with your core ethics and the type of relationship you want with your dog.
The same applies to horses. Wanting to keep bad things from happening is a powerful motivator that can take us to some wonderful learner-friendly procedures.
Sometimes it’s okay to start out by running away from something. Clicker training teaches us how to reframe that so you begin to run TOWARDS the good things that you want. You stop focusing on the unpleasant outcomes that you don’t want and you teach instead all the good things you do want.
You don’t want your horse crowding into you, stepping on your toes, mugging your pockets, biting at your hands. You can certainly suppress these behaviors through the use of punishment. Or you can look at what you do want. When your horse is standing next to you, what does that look like? Can you describe what the “perfect version” of your horse would be doing? He’d be standing four on the floor, in his own space, with his head between his shoulders so his nose is well away from your pockets. The more detailed your description is, the easier it is to train what you want. Each element you describe becomes a lesson you can teach. What are his ears doing? Where is his head – level with his chest, down on the ground? You can shape all of this using a marker signal that is linked to positive reinforcement.
Those are nice sounding words, but again how do you make this work? What were some of the component skills that helped me transform clicker training from an interesting concept into a workable training program?
That’s tomorrow’s post. I’m splitting what was originally a much longer single post into two installments so it’s not too much to read in one sitting.
“Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend” will be available April 26. It will be available as a hardcover, a paperback, and as an ebook. You’ll be able to oder it through my web site and also through Amazon and other booksellers.
In March we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Clicker Expo. The theme for the Expo was centered around excellence. The Expo organizers wanted the presenters to talk about what made their work consistently stand out – what accounted for our success in training and teaching. This was originally supposed to be the theme of the 2020 Clicker Expo, but then the pandemic got in the way, so we had a lot of time to think about this topic.
Yesterday I wrote about Peregrine’s mother. She had neurological damage which meant, especially early on, she would frequently lose her balance and fall. I was told by my vet that there was no treatment for her, and in all likelihood her condition would worsen and I would be forced to put her down. The risk of her falling on someone would mean she would simply become unsafe to handle.
I saw her fall. I knew the risks and I chose to work with her anyway. How could I not? I loved her.
When I was around her, I was always careful. And I was always afraid in a way that I had not been before when I was around horses. My fear shaped my training choices.
So when I thought about this question for my Expo presentation: in general what are the procedures, the techniques, the principles that help people to excel in their training, I came up with what might seem to many to be an unexpected answer.
But before I give you my answer, I first want to ask what is excellence anyway? What does it mean to you?
The dictionary defines it as: “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.”
That’s a nice feeling to think that we are outstanding in something. And we are. Every one of us is an expert. We are an expert in our own life experience. Nobody knows more about your life than you do.
So when I was thinking about this question of excellence, I was thinking about what for me is the difference that has made a difference?
Here’s my answer: what helped me to be a better trainer comes down to one word and that’s fear.
This is an interesting answer because, of course, I am a positive-reinforcement trainer. I want my learners to be moving towards activities that they enjoy, not away from aversives. I work hard to set up positive-reinforcement scenarios for both the horses and the people I work with. But scratch below the surface of my training and what motivates my search for training excellence is fear.
There are two kinds of fear. There’s the fear of something. Horses are big. That’s such an obvious statement it almost seems silly to point it out. But I think this is one of the reasons that horses make us look more deeply below the surface of our training choices than working with dogs typically does.
Dogs can certainly be dangerous. They are predators, after all, but for the most part they are harmless family pets. They jump up on people and lick their faces. They run around their feet and bump into them. They pull on leashes and for the most part people manage to stay upright. The same behavior in a horse could land you in the hospital. Horses are bigger than we are. They are stronger than we are. They are faster than we are. When they are excited or afraid, they can very definitely hurt us. Plus we get on their backs! We compound the risks by riding them, so fear of being hurtrepresents a rational response to being around a large, potentially volatile animal.
Then there’s the fear for something. Dog owners know this kind of fear. It very definitely can effect their training choices. Think about this situation: You don’t want your dog running out the front door because he could end up in the road and be hit by a car.
That fear motivates many people to adopt punishment-based solutions. They aren’t cruel, mean owners. They love their dogs. They don’t want to lose them. That’s the motivation that sits behind choosing training methods that cause fear or pain. They want to stop the behavior of running out the front door to prevent something much more horrible from happening. Interesting. Give them a kinder solution and they’ll switch – provided it’s effective. If we want to move owners away from punishment-based solutions, education matters.
Horses are big. And as strong as they are, they are also very fragile, so horses confront us with both kinds of fear, and often at the same time. Training minis revealed to me how much size effects our training choices. Panda, the mini I trained to be a working guide for her blind owner, came to me when she was nine months old. The first day she was with me I brought her into my house. It was such a novelty. There’s a horse in my house! She was so small I wasn’t worried at all. She was the size of a large dog. She weighed only a hundred pounds. In horse terms she was 7.5 hands tall (28 inches at the withers). If she had gotten under a table or trapped somehow in a tight space, I could easily have helped her out. But when a full sized horse gets cast in a stall or trapped under a fence, you may need four or five strong people to get the horse untangled. Size makes a difference. If you have only trained big horses, I very much recommend that you find a mini-sized mini to work with. Panda revealed how much size makes a difference. For me I know it certainly colors the risks I am willing to take and the training decisions I make.
Size matters in others ways. When I took Panda for walks in those early days, she used to stand up on her hind legs like a goat. She was amazingly well balanced. When she reared up, I just laughed. She was so tiny. She was only 28 inches at the withers. So when she reared up, it was cute. If she had been a nine month old warmblood, I probably wouldn’t have been laughing. Size matters. Training minis is a useful exercise. It really does reveal how much our training is colored by the size of the animal we work with.
My horses have free run of the barn, that includes the barn aisle and other spaces that horses don’t typically have free access to. I am very comfortable with them. I couldn’t give them this life style if I wasn’t very confident that they are safe to be around, even in tight spaces. But even so I respect their size. I am mindful of how I move around them so we all remain safe. Fear isn’t on the surface. I know my horses are mindful of me, as well. They have shown me that they will actively avoid bumping into me, but mistakes can happen. So fear sits in the background and influences how I evaluate the safety moment to moment of every horse-human interaction.
In the horse world fear is everywhere. It’s easy to spot. All you have to do is look for tension. You’ll see it in the horses. And you’ll see it in the riders, even riders at very high levels. Look for the tension in their arms, the tightness in their bodies, the hold on the reins. Only we don’t call this fear. We call it being tough, being assertive. Being afraid in the horse world isn’t acceptable. Riders who are afraid are shamed. Horses who are afraid are punished.
Another place you can see how afraid riders are of their horses is at tack stores. Look at all the leverage devices that are used to control horses. Why do we need to control them? Because we are afraid of them. Only that fear is hushed up, glossed over, called something else.
The Legacy of “Get Back On Your Horse” Training Attitudes
In the horse world when you take a tumble, it is get back on your horse. You aren’t allowed to be afraid. Unless you are so hurt you are being airlifted off to a hospital, it is get back on. Conquer your fear and conquer that horse. We have inherited this attitude from the age in which horses were used for transportation. The phrase “get back on your horse” has become part of normal speech. If you have a disaster at work, you are instructed to get right back out there. People who have never been near a horse in their entire life are told: “You have to get back on your horse.”
In a previous post I wrote about my experience at a hunter jumper barn. There I saw attitudes that are all too common in the horse world. In lessons people were told to get over their fear.
They were told to push past it, “to get back on their horse”. If a horse refused a fence, he was just being lazy. He was testing you. He was stubborn.
The solution that was offered was to get after him and make him do it. Get tough. Go straight at the brick wall and go over it. Being afraid wasn’t an option.
The horse world has no patience for those who can’t. You have to be brave and make the horse do it.
So I went to the dictionary again to find out what brave means. The horse world agrees with the dictionary definition: brave – adjective: ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.
Next I went to the thesaurus. That was interesting. The synonyms the thesaurus gave me made me feel as though I was in the swashbuckling era of the early Hollywood movies. They evoked images of the three musketeers or old John Wayne movies.
Interesting. These were certainly words that were valued in “brick-wall” training. But my horse was showing me these weren’t qualities that helped her. And they certainly didn’t describe me.
So what is the alternative to being brave? I was just beginning to learn about training. Compared to the people around me I had very limited skills. But I had two things going for me that they either ignored or steam rolled over because they could.
I was patient.
And I was persistent.
Plus I loved my horse. I wanted to put off for as long as possible the day her neurological impairments would force the decision to have her put down.
So you can definitely say that FEAR sits at the center of what drove me to become a better trainer.
Instead of pushing FEAR aside, instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t there, or feeling as though I wasn’t good enough because I felt afraid, I turned things around and learned to listen to that fear.
I was afraid of my horse and for my horse, both at the same time. Instead of running from fear, I listened to it. I used it. It shaped my training in a good way. I found solutions that were horse friendly, that sidestepped fighting with horses and instead helped me to become what the subtitle of my new book celebrates – my horse’s best friend. The new book, “Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide To Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend” is very much a product of the forty year journey my horses have sent me on.
I know from teaching thousands of people that I am not alone in feeling afraid of my horses and for my horses. And I also know that many of these individuals have encountered the same message that I observed in that hunter jumper barn: Get over your fear. Get tougher. Get back on your horse and show him who is the boss.
I have taught people who now struggle to ride because they listened to someone else instead of to their own fear. When they got back on, their horse sent them flying. Broken bones were the result. The brick wall that is their fear now looms so high it can’t be ignored. There are still ways around the wall, but it’s a longer journey than it needed to be.
This isn’t universal. You may have been lucky enough to start out in a barn that taught through compassionate, learner-centric methods such as Sally Swift’s Centered Riding or some other equally kind form of instruction. But the old attitude sadly is still there in far too many barns. It is so embedded in the training world, you may not even be aware of it. It is just the norm, the way things are done. If you’re an instructor, of course you find yourself telling a student to get back on after a fall. It’s what you were told. It’s what you did.
But it’s not what our horses are asking for, and it’s certainly not a match with the kind of relationship that many of us are looking for when we get a horse. We want to ride, and, yes, absolutely we want adventures. But we want them want them with our best friend, not a sparing partner.
The title of the new book, “Modern Horse Training”, refers to this shift in thinking. The older forms of thinking used punishment to suppress fear. There is an alternative.
“Modern Horse Training” offers another way forward. I’ll show you what emerges when instead of trying to suppress the fear, you acknowledge it, you listen to it – both in yourself and in your horses. It lets you develop teaching strategies that build confident, eager, resilient, enthusiastic learners. There’s no pushing through brick walls. Instead there is good instruction built around the much kinder path of constructional training and positive-reinforcement procedures.
The new book will be published on April 26, 2023. You will be able to order it through my web site: theclickercenter.com and also through Amazon and other booksellers. It will be available in hardcover, paperback and as an ebook.
In the coming posts I’ll share with you some of the many good things that have evolved in my training because I learned to listen to that little voice inside me that was telling me to be careful. Coming next: Everything is Connected to Everything Else
I have a new book coming out on April 26: Modern Horse Training
The subtitle of the book is: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend.
In the clicker training community we’ve been talking a lot recently about constructional training. Dr Jesús Rosales Ruiz has brought to our attention the work of Israel Goldiamond. Dr Goldiamond was a clinical psychologist. Instead of trying to “fix” problem behavior, he constructed new repertoires. The analogy would be instead of trying to fix a falling down, hundred year old barn with a leaky roof, cracked foundations and ceilings that are too low for horses, you build a new barn that’s purpose-built for what you need. It has none of the problems of the falling-down barn. The old barn may still be on your property, but you don’t have to use it for your horses. The old, unwanted behavior may still exist. Nothing is ever erased or unlearned, but there is a clean, new behavior in repertoire that you can call on instead.
The term constructional training appeals to me. I like building things. The idea that we can teach complex behaviors by first breaking them down into smaller component parts is not new to me. My horses showed me this decades ago.
Nor is this a new idea in the horse world. It is how good trainers train. But that doesn’t make it the norm. Far from it. What we see around us are people who confront problems head on. The horse world is full of instructors who tell their students to send their frightened horses forward, to make them obey, to show them who is boss. Sometimes this works and sometimes it puts the rider in the hospital and the horse on a trailer to the auction yards.
My Path to a Constructional Mindset I have always been horse crazy. Like so many others I grew up in a family that just didn’t share my obsession over horses. My parents did at least provide me with the opportunity to ride. Over time I developed a decent seat. I could ride, maybe not that well, but riding out over rough terrain, riding at speed, riding bareback were all well within my capabilities. As a teenager, I thought I knew how to ride. As a young adult, I decided I was wrong. Yes, I could ride, but I didn’t really know how to ride. There’s a difference. And I certainly didn’t know how to train. I wanted to learn, so I started to take lessons at a local hunter jumper stable. To choose the stable I opened the phone book – yes, this was a time before computers when there were actual phone books with yellow pages directories. When I chose the stable that was closest to my house, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The owner had been around horses all of his life. He had grown up poor with very little formal schooling. I’m pretty sure he would not have been able to read the words I’m writing here, but my goodness he could read horses. He was a superb horse person. Talk about horse whisperers – he was definitely one of them.
He was running a hunter jumper barn because that’s where the money was in the northeast, but that wasn’t where he started out. At one point he had been top ten in the country – in bull riding.
That’s certainly not a typical background for a trainer at a jumper barn, at least not in this region. It made for “exciting” lessons. He had no physical fear. And he didn’t understand fear in others, not in people and certainly not in horses. His approach to fences was to go straight at them, the higher the better.
In New York where I live the thoroughbred racing industry is strong. That means if you are looking for a riding horse, you will encounter a lot of thoroughbreds. The horses in the school line were all thoroughbreds with only one exception, and they were all literally off the track. On Sunday the horses would be racing. On Monday they would be on a dealer’s van heading for the riding stable. The dealers knew Pick was looking for cheap horses, horses that weren’t fast enough, or sound enough for the trainers to hang onto, but who might do as riding horses.
These were horses who had never jumped a fence in their lives – at least not with a rider on board. Pick would set up a line of fences. He’d have one of the teenage boys who rode for him get on and they’d send the horse over the jumps. If a horse balked, they would build a chute. Two men would stand on either side of the chute with lunge whips while the rider drove the horse forward with a crop.
When the horse cleared the fence, the rails went up. They wanted to see what the horse could do.
The horses that took the fences down, or that came up lame afterwards were put back on the trailer and were sent back to the dealer’s yard. The others stayed and were put into the school line. I rode some amazingly athletic horses. I also rode some very frightened, unbalanced, and untrained horses. And I learned a lot about brick-wall training.
Brick-wall Training Brick-wall training refers to an approach to problem solving where you go head-on into the problem. It was the reality I saw at this stable, and it’s a metaphor for much of what we encounter in the rest of society. If there’s a brick wall in front of you, you head over it, no matter how tall or how wide it is. You either make it over, or you crash. Oh well.
Brick-wall problem solving is fine if you are athletic enough, strong enough, sound enough, brave enough to make it over the fence. Many of those thoroughbreds were. But many of the riders weren’t. Pick lost a lot of potentially good riders to broken bones and just plain old fear.
I very quickly decided to opt out of the group lessons. I watched as many as I could, but I chose to take private lessons instead. I wanted to control what I was being taught. I wasn’t interested so much in going over the fences. That was a fun outcome, but only if the fence was jumped well. I wanted to know how to ride a correct corner that would bring me into a balanced approach to the fence. In other words, I was looking for the components that made for a successful ride. Because I had ridden before, I knew what I wanted to learn.
I baffled Pick. He thought riders just wanted to jump. In my lessons I would stop and ask questions. It turned out he knew a lot about balance. If you asked the right questions you could learn a lot from him. I asked a lot of questions, and I did indeed learn a lot about good riding. By watching the group lessons I also learned what I didn’t want.
I couldn’t go straight at brick walls, not with my horse. This was Peregrine’s mother. I bought her from Pick just before she turned a year old. He had bred her to be a racehorse, but he was just as glad to sell her early. She passed a pre-purchase vet check. Now that I’ve seen more pre-purchase exams, I know the vet was pretty superficial with this one. He wasn’t expecting to see any problems in such a young horse so he didn’t look for any. Not long after that exam, I began to see the first small signs that there was something terribly wrong.
At first, I saw her dragging her hind feet. When I asked Pick about it, he said she was just being lazy. How many times since then have I heard people say that about a horse?
When I saw her fall for the first time, I called the vet back in. This time he looked more closely, and he diagnosed her as a wobbler. She had spinal cord damage. When I started asking questions and doing some digging it was clear that the cause was a handling incident that had gone wrong. She was tied tight to a post while a teenager pulled her mane for the first time. She protested. He persisted. She fought back. She was against the four foot kick board of the arena. Her only escape was over the rail so she jumped it with her head tied tight. I’ll leave it to you to imagine the rest of that scene.
The incident occurred shortly before I bought her. I wouldn’t have known anything about it except one of the visible signs of the event was a swollen hind leg. If I hadn’t seen the swelling during one of my visits to the barn, no one would have said anything about it.
The swelling went away, but the damage to her spinal cord remained. The injury left her with limited awareness of her hindquarters. Wobbler syndrome is descriptive even if it doesn’t tell you very much about what has happened internally. It can be caused by injury, and there is also equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) which at that time was just beginning to be understood. In either case, even the vets at Cornell had no treatment to offer me. My local vet told me I would never be able to ride her, and he advised me to put her down.
I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t end her life simply because I wouldn’t be able to ride her. That wasn’t right. Nor could I afford to retire her to a pasture somewhere while I got a second horse to ride.
The vet told me that her condition would deteriorate over time, and I would eventually be forced to put her down for safety reasons. That was the future I had in front of us, but in the meantime I needed to deal with what she was struggling with on a day by day basis.
For starters she had trouble going in and out of her stall because there was a sill over the threshold that was intended to keep the bedding from spilling out into aisle. I thought if I taught her to go over ground poles, she would have more confidence stepping over the sill. So I set out a round jump pole. That terrified her. She refused to go anywhere near it. I could have forced her over it. That’s the “show them who’s boss” approach to training I had seen modeled all around me at the riding stable. I didn’t want to fight with her, so I took a different approach.
A ground pole was too hard. That was too big a “jump”. I swapped it out for a flat board that wouldn’t roll if she stepped on it. She was still afraid. She couldn’t manage it.
I tried a lead rope. That was still too hard. So then I drew a line in the sand. That she could walk over. From the line in the sand, I reintroduced the lead rope, then the flat board, and the round ground pole. She was eventually able to jump a small cross rail.
I didn’t approach the problem head on. She taught me how to break complex tasks down into smaller and smaller steps until I found something she could do.
Over time she learned to compensate for the nerve damage. My vet warned me never to ride her. He told me it was just too risky. She might lose her balance and fall on top of me. I listened to him. I had seen her fall often enough to know he was right, but when she was ready, I rode her. She was the horse who introduced me to classical dressage. She was the first horse I taught to piaffe. It was because of her that I became balanced obsessed. That’s what kept her from falling. That’s what kept us both safe, and that’s what formed the core of everything I teach today.
Here is the simplicity of what she showed me:
Break complex tasks down into smaller, simpler components.
Find something – no matter how small, no matter how far away from your goal behavior it may seem to be – where you can get a “yes answer” response and begin there.
Build in small steps.
Build in repeating patterns.
At that time I didn’t know anything about clicker training. I didn’t have the clarity of the marker signal. I wasn’t talking about movement cycles or loopy training. I didn’t call any of what I was doing constructional training, but the elements were all there. I was primed to be a clicker trainer. And I was primed to be drawn to the language of constructional training that Goldiamond has given us.
The new book, “Modern Horse Training“, has grown out of those powerful lessons learned over forty years ago. What we have now are the words to describe what the horses have been showing us. Horses are truly our best teachers. We just need to listen to them and they will open their hearts and their wisdom to us.
The publication date for “Modern Horse Training” is April 26, 2023. I’ll share more about where it can be ordered as we get closer to the date.
I’m a clicker trainer. The work I do sits under the umbrella of The Click That Teaches. Those are both labels I’m very comfortable with, but for years people have said I need to give my work a different name.
“It’s so much more than just clicker training,” they say to me. They are referring to my emphasis on balance. When we do a summing up at the end of clinics, someone will always say there is so much more to clicker training than they had ever imagined. So perhaps it isn’t that I need a different name for my work. Perhaps I just need to help people see the depth and breadth of what clicker training can do.
In any case I have tried on many names over the years. One of my favorites is “Constructional Training”. That comes via Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz from the field of Behavior Analysis. My translation of this term is this: Complex behaviors are created from smaller components. When I teach these smaller components first, it becomes easy to ask for the larger, goal behavior. So I construct complex behaviors from smaller building blocks.
I also want to construct behaviors before I use them. If I haven’t taught the goats how to soften and yield to the contact of the lead, or how to follow a target, or how to stay by my side, then it isn’t fair game to ask them to walk beside me on a lead. If they charge ahead of me, and I use the lead to stop them, I’m being a negatively-focused trainer. I’m using the lead to try to stop a behavior I don’t like.
But if I’ve taught them the components, then I can ask them to back up and come forward in response to cues. Leading becomes a dance – and in great dancing both partners respond to one another. They listen to one another. Both partners direct the flow. If my partner misses a cue and rushes ahead of me, I can redirect him into another direction. I’m asking for a known behavior which my partner has learned leads to positive reinforcement. Constructional training takes me to the dance. And the dance helps me be a more positive partner for my animal learner.
All of this sounds very grand. But really it is very simple. With the goats I was building the components I would need for us to be successful venturing out into the larger spaces of the barn aisle, the arena, and eventually the great outdoors. Leading was high on the priority list. These goats would be going home in just a few days, back to the children who were leasing them. They would be going to the county fair, and hopefully they would know how to lead and not be one of the goats who was dragging his child across the show ring (or being dragged by the child).
We’ve reached Day 6 of their stay with me. In this report I’ll be illustrating what it means to be a constructional trainer. In the previous posts I described how I introduced both goats to platforms and to the beginning of leading. At the start of Day 6 I continued with Pellias’ platform training.
The July Goat Diaries Day 6 7/9/17 Sunday
9 am session: I was learning from previous experience. I made sure to give the goats plenty of time for their breakfast before asking them to concentrate on training. By the time I was ready to play, they were lying down side by side having a nap. I scattered some hay stretcher pellets on the floor as a distraction while I went outside to set up the platforms.
For P I set out both platforms and the ground poles as before, but the platforms were closer together so I could film. P was ready to play, and he did great. I could move several steps away, and he stayed put. I loved the consistency P was beginning to show. Instead of stretching out to try to get to my treats, he was standing in great balance.
When I rattled the target, he changed platforms readily. He had lots of energy which he was learning to control. I liked seeing him move at speed to the next platform, and even more I liked seeing him transform that energy into an ability to stand still on the mat.
Back and forth between the platforms, I was seeing lots of energy.
He was such fun to watch as he leapt into the air to bounce from one mat to another.
A couple of times he missed or came off the platform. I waited, and he turned away from me and landed on the platform – excellent. It seems as though he is really getting the game.
The Goat Palace Journal Dec 23
That initial introduction to the platform has evolved into what I am working on now. I am using Michele Pouliot’s platform training as my model. I introduced Michele in a previous post. In her position of the Director of Research and Development at Guide Dogs for the Blind, she transformed their training program. Now all the dogs at that school learn their guide work via clicker training. In her free time Michele’s training hobby is canine musical freestyle.
Michele is a creative, inventive trainer. Lots of us use mats and platforms in our training. Michele took the idea of using platforms and developed it into a fabulous process for teaching the body orientation and cued positions she wants for freestyle. With the horses I make extensive use of multiple mats, but I have used them in a very different way from Michele’s work. With the goats I wanted to explore more directly Michele’s use of platforms.
For step by step instructions for platform training for dogs I’ll direct you to her DVD on platform training which you can find on her web site: MichelePouliot.com
One of the key ingredients of her approach is you want an animal that is magnitized to the platform. If your dog, goat or guinea pig sees a platform, he’s on it. Forget trying to pick up a platform to move it. Your animal will already be on it. I definitely had that! In fact I had it with all four goats. The lessons I’ve described in previous posts had created super magnitized mats and super eager-to-play goats.
So in July you could say I began the initial construction of platform behavior. Now I was continuing that process. Those early lessons let me construct this current layer. What I’m building now will become the components for the next project, and on it goes.
So what am I doing? Here’s my set up for Pellias and Elyan: at the near end of the hallway I set out two the narrow platforms side by side. In the middle I have the a single platform next to which I hang a stationary target. Actually this target is not all that stationary since it is hung from the rafters so it swings after they touch it. Pellias’ hanging target is a giant kong toy. Elyan’s is another dog toy, a dumbell with tennis balls at either end. The storage box is at the far end of the hallway, so I have three stations set up.
I’ve been working them individually in this lesson. Normally it is Pellias who goes first. He goes immediately to one of the narrow platforms with a very expectant air of I’m here! Let’s play. And that’s exactly what we do. We play.
I have four positions that we’re working on:
“Front” – I stand directly in front of Pellias as he stands all four feet on the platform.
“Side” – I stand by his left side.
“Off” – This one will only make sense to horse people. I stand on by his right side. In the horse world that’s referred to as the off side. Left and right would confuse me, but my brain can keep track of the off side so that’s what I’m using.
“Behind” – I stand in front of Pellias but with my back turned to him.
I also want “Ahead”, but I will probably need to use a target to get this one.
I generally begin with “Front”. I say “front” as I stand in the position. Click, treat. Repeat. Then I shift to the other mat. “Front” – Pellias shifts with me. Click, treat. From here I can shift into other positions. I can step to either side of him. As I do, I identify the position. Or I might step to the opposite end of one of the mats so Pellias has to spin 180 degrees around to face me.
He’s gotten very good at following me and shifting position as needed and also staying put and letting me change position around him. The idea is I will eventually be able to fade out the mats, and he will move into the cued orientations. Time will tell what dots he connects. For now it is keeping us both well entertained.
When we have done a good unit on these two platforms, I move to the middle platform and Pellias follows. I don’t want to get him stuck and only able to work on the two platforms so it’s important to have these multiple stations. On the middle platform he gets reinforced for touching the hanging target.
From the middle platform we head to the box. On the box I reinforce him for body contact. Then it’s back to the middle platform, and then on to the two narrow platforms.
With Elyan I am doing a similar lesson. The difference between the two is Elyan is much wigglier in a younger brother sort of way. I have no idea which one is the younger twin, but the difference in actual age is measured in minutes. The difference in emotional age is much greater. Elyan is the little brother bouncing up and down excited that Santa is coming. Pellias is the older, wiser brother who pretends he’s not excited that Christmas is here. I find them both charming.
So I am busy constructing behavior. With horses I have built component behaviors that are similar to the ones I am teaching the goats, but not in this way. I am very much looking forward to seeing how this unfolds. It is fun working with an animal that not only is the size of a dog, but in so many ways moves like a dog. That means I can more directly explore some of these techniques that canine clicker trainers have developed. It is great fun to take someone’s good work and then to see what your own learners do with it. And then it will be interesting what I take back to the horses.
Happy New Year Everyone! May you construct great things from the gifts your animal friends give you.
Coming Next: Train Where You Can
Please Note: if you are new to the Goat Diaries, these are a series of articles that are best read in order. The first installment was posted on Oct. 2nd. I suggest you begin there: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/10/02/ Two of the goats I write about originally came for a twelve day stay in July. The July Goat Diaries track their training during this period. In November these two goats, plus three others returned. They will be with me through the winter. The “Goat Palace” reports track their training. I wish to thank Sister Mary Elizabeth from the Community of St. Mary in upstate NY for the generous loan of her beautiful cashmere goats.
When I shared the runway lesson with you in the June 2016 posts, I talked about constructional training. That’s where you teach the skills you’ll need for a particular task BEFORE you need to use them. Before you build a house – or even a birdhouse – you must first learn how to use a hammer.
That’s what we’re doing with the mounting block lesson. I’m going to use the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game to teach my horse the skills he’ll need to line himself up to the mounting block BEFORE I take him anywhere near the mounting block. (Refer to the previous installment of JOYFull Horses: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/07/27/ and Lesson 5 in the Click That Teaches DVD Lesson Series: “The Why Would You Leave Me?” Game)
In training we talk about breaking each lesson down into smaller steps so it becomes easier for your learner to understand what is wanted. Constructional training is another way of looking at this basic teaching strategy. What are the skills you need for the task at hand? Do you have those skills? Yes, then the task will be within your reach. No, then build the skills first.
When you build skills first, you find that each new thing you ask for is really just an easy step beyond what you already have. So before I play what I refer to as the “capture the saddle” game, I first build the skills I’ll need for this lesson via the “why would you leave me?” lesson.
Capture the Saddle – A Targeting Game
Photo 1.) Why would you leave me? At this point in the lesson, Robin’s answer would be: I can’t think of a single reason. I’m happy to stay right here by your side.
Why would you leave me? Answer: I can’t think of a single reason. I’m happy to stay right here by your side.
When that’s the answer, you have a horse who is ready to walk with you to the mounting block.
I’ve pulled some photos from a video of the “capture the saddle” lesson. The resolution isn’t the greatest since they come from a video, but they illustrate well how the lesson works. The horse I am working with is a young haflinger who didn’t know how to stand well for mounting.
Photo 2.) Getting a Baseline.
His owner didn’t use mounting blocks so this was a new concept for him. When she asked him to stop with her beside the mounting block, he kept going. He ended up facing in the opposite direction. Previous experience had taught him that it was a good idea to keep the saddle well away from her. This is a very common scenario, one many riders have to deal with.
Photo 3.) This is a horse who doesn’t understand mounting blocks.
We can’t expect this horse to understand instantly what is wanted. Instead we went through the steps that would teach him how to line up next to a mounting block so his rider could easily get on.
Photo 4.) We want to go from this . . .
Photo 5.) . . . to this.
We weren’t just teaching him to line up next to a mounting block. That could easily have been done with targeting. He was also learning how to soften and respond to rein cues. That’s an important extra that this lesson gives us. His owner reported that he was an incredibly wiggly horse who was very difficult to ride. BEFORE she gets back on, the mounting block lesson will help him to be better balanced and more connected to her.
Photos 6-8.) The three photos above show how I begin with the “Why would you leave me?” lesson. He’s learning to walk with me. Note, as I approach the mounting block, I am not holding onto the reins. I want him to stop with me as I step up onto the mounting block.
Photo 9.) He doesn’t know this part of the lesson. He’s not expecting to stop at the mounting block, so he over shoots the mark. That’s okay.
I could teach this part of the lesson in many different ways. I could use targets and mats to help him out, but remember, I want to prepare this horse for riding. Riding includes not just all those times when things are going great. It also includes the sudden scares that can send even the most solid of riding horses jumping to the side.
The mounting block lesson confirms that your horse understands how to respond to your rein cues. It provides an essential safety net for those times when things are going wrong, and it is also a core building block for creating the great performance we all dream of having when things are very right.
So in photos 10-12, I have taken the left rein, and I am asking this horse to soften and bend his nose towards me. That causes his hips to swing out away from me. Essentially his front end is stopping before his hind end. The extra momentum from his hind end causes him to swing around to the front side of the mounting block. In horse training language he is yielding his hips.
He has ended up facing in the opposite direction from the one in which we started. (Photo 13) That’s more than okay. I’ll first ask him to take a step or two back so I can easily reach the right rein.
Next I’ll have him soften and come around me on his right rein. (Photo 14) As he swings back to the opposite side of the mounting block, I’ll again ask him to take a step back. (Photo 15) This does two things. It helps him to rebalance, and it gives me access to the left rein. (Photo 16)
By the time I get on, I will know that he will soften and yield his hips to both reins. Many people get in a hurry with this lesson. They become too goal oriented. They are thinking only about getting on. I am thinking about the ride ahead. I want it to be safe. That’s first and foremost. And then I want it to be fun – for both the horse and the rider. That’s not going to happen if the horse is out of balance and disconnected from his rider. So the “capture the saddle” lesson is really one that should be process not goal driven. Yes, I want my horse to line up next to the mounting block, but it’s not a race to see who can teach this the fastest. Each time this horse swings wide, he’s giving me another opportunity to explain rein cues to him.
As he comes past me again on his left side, I let go of the rein and reach out towards the saddle. (Photo 17) He’s not ready to let me get to the saddle. In the photos below you see that he swings wide again. (Photos 18-19) That just gives me another opportunity to ask him to soften to the right rein. (Photo 20)
At no point in this do I want the horse to feel as though I am punishing any of his responses. This is about teaching him WHAT TO DO. It is not about blocking or stopping unwanted reactions.
As he swings past the mounting block, I can again ask him to take a step or two back. (Photo 21) This helps him to rebalance, and it also gives me access to the left rein. I’ll ask him to step forward to line up along side the mounting block. (Photo 22)
As he comes past me again on his left side, I LET GO OF THE REIN. (Photo 23)
This is very important. I don’t want to block him to make him stand still. Remember always – you want energy. You want your horse to move his feet. This lesson redirects his energy. It doesn’t block it. You are releasing him into a halt, not stopping him from moving. There is a huge difference. (I’ll refer you again to my books and DVDs for a more in depth discussion of this very important concept. Visit theclickercenter.com)
As I release the rein, I am reaching up to touch the saddle. (Photo 23) Click and treat. (Photo 24.) The clickable moment for this phase of the lesson occurs as my hand makes contact with the saddle. So this lesson begins with rope handling and ends with targeting.
I’d like him to come forward half a step so he is in a better position for me to get on. I use the left rein to ask for this step. (Photo 25.) As he begins to respond, I again release the rein and touch the saddle. (Photo 26.) Click and treat. (Photo 27.) We’re making progress. This time he doesn’t swing away.
Photos 28-30.) I ask him for another small step forward. (28.) This time when I reach out for the saddle, he’s in perfect position. (29.) Click and treat. (30.)
Remember though, it isn’t so much about the goal of lining up next to the mounting block as it is about his response to the reins.
So far I have clicked and reinforced him just for letting me make contact with the saddle. Now I am making it harder. I have stepped all the way up onto the mounting block so I can lean down onto the saddle and add some weight. I’m really seeing if I can “capture it”. (Photo 31.)
(Photo 32.) The answer is – not yet.
He swings wide out from under my hands. Again, this is okay. It gives me another opportunity to ask him to soften and yield his hips. All of this bending and connecting to the rein helps him to become more supple and better balanced. That’s going to help him be more connected to his rider.
So as he swings around past me on the left rein, I’ll again ask him to rebalance by taking a step or two back, and then I’ll bring him back in front of me first on the right rein, and then on the left. (Photos 33-36.)
As he passes the mounting block, I again let go of the rein and reach for the saddle. (Photo 36.) He’s better balanced than he was in the first couple of passes, and he’s in a much better position. It’s easy for me to touch the saddle. This time I can really grab the saddle. (Photo 37.) Click and treat. (Photo 38.)
I use the word grab because I don’t want to be delicate in this. I want this horse to really feel me taking the saddle in my hands. This is the target position. As soon as I have both hands on the saddle – Click!
I’ve asked him to go forward another step (Photo 39.) and this time he swings a little too wide so I can’t reach the saddle. (Photo 40.) The pattern should be familiar by now. I ask him to swing back around via the right rein, (Photo 41.) then I bring him forward past me on the left rein. (Photo 42.)
He comes in really close to the mounting block. It’s easy to capture the saddle. (Photo 43.) Click and treat. (Photo 44.) This isn’t an ideal orientation for getting on, but we’re making good progress.
I ask him to come forward one small step. This adjustment puts him into a great position for me to get on. Click and treat. (Photos 45-47.)
He’s made great progress. We’ve gone from the photo on the left (48) to the one on the right (49) in just a couple of passes.
48.) We want to go from this . . .
It’s time for a break.
I’ve gotten down from the mounting block. (Photo 50.) We’re going to walk a large “why would you leave me?” circle back to the mounting block. Remember that means I’ll be asking him to walk beside me without my needing to take the reins to keep him with me. (Photo 51.)
I approach the mounting block hands free. (Photo 51.) As I step up onto the mounting block, he stops on his own. (Photo 52.) He’s brought the saddle into perfect position. I can really grab hold of the it and truly capture it. (Photo 53.) Click and treat. (Photo 54.) This is a horse who is telling me he’s ready for me to get on.
As the horses figure out that they get clicked for bringing the saddle to our waiting hands, they become increasingly clever about lining themselves up to whatever we are using for a mounting block.
It’s great fun having your horse bring the saddle to your waiting hands. (Photo 55.)
55.) This horse is bringing the saddle to his rider’s waiting hands.
Sometimes a horse will misjudge the approach and ended up slightly angled out to the side. You know he has truly understood the lesson when, without any prompting from you, he steps sideways so he can bring the saddle to your waiting hands. That’s a horse who really understands the game. Click and treat.
As this video shows, sometimes a mounting block is a tree stump, or in this case a metal gate. When a horse understands the capture the saddle lesson, he will line himself up to anything you treat as a mounting block.
If you have a horse who dances around a mounting block, this lesson will definitely help you. But please note: this article began with a discussion of constructional training. The more preparation you bring to it, the easier the lesson will be.
The preparation goes beyond the “Why Would You Leave Me?” Game. It’s a matter of looking at what comes before what comes before the lesson you want to work on.
What comes before the “Why would you leave me?” Game? Lots of preparation. That’s prep for your horse AND prep for you. Anytime you use a lead or reins, you want to practice first without your horse so your handling skills are horse-friendly and clicker compatible. The how-to instructions for using reins and leads is beyond the scope of this single article. For that please visit: theclickercenter.com and theclickercentercourse.com
Coming Next: Cue Communication Part 5: Grand Prix Behaviors
Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.
I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends. But please remember this is copyrighted material. All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra Kurland, via theclickercenter.com
Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training. If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:
In the previous installment I introduced you to constructional training. I used the runway lesson to teach your horse to step on a mat. Instead of going directly to the mat, you first taught your horse the skills he’d need to make this an easy lesson.
So now you have a horse who is eager to get to his mat. He isn’t just gingerly stepping a toe onto the edge of the mat, he’s rushing ahead to get to it. Hurray! You’re part way through this lesson.
For every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.
The mat lesson helps you understand the importance of this statement. You’ve got a horse who is eager to get to the mat. Now you need to explain that you’d like him to walk with you to the mat.
Robin shows his great mat manners, walking with me to the mat.
He lands on the mat in beautiful balance. He’s going to continue to be our equine teacher for this lesson. In the following photos you’ll see how to build great mat manners.
You’re now ready for the next level in this “runway” game.
You want a horse who is eager to get to the mat, who regards it as a fun place to be, a place where lots of good things happen, but you also want a horse who walks with you to the mat. You don’t want your co-pilot taking over complete control. You still want to make some of the decisions. So now if he starts to grab the throttle stick from you, you can use your “needle point” skills to ask him to stop and back up.
I know that’s mixing a lot of metaphors. Let’s see how this works.
Rushing doesn’t lead to the mat. It leads to needle point. But needle point is not a bad thing. Your co-pilot understands what is wanted. I tend not to click for course corrections. So that first backing step won’t be rewarded with a click and a treat. But when we’re back on pattern, and I ask for the next step, perhaps asking now for one green stitch forward – that I’ll click and treat.
In the “needlepoint” part of the runway lesson I’m asking Robin for one step forward.
After a click and a treat, I release him to the mat.
We’re back in sync with one another, still a few steps away from our landing pad. I’ll release the controls to my co-pilot, and we’ll walk together with slack in the lead. I won’t need to help him get to the mat. He knows how to land our little craft. He stops, perhaps not perfectly square yet, but with both feet on the mat. Click and treat!
Again, he lands beautifully on the mat.
And now the game changes yet again. I want the mat to be a versatile tool. I want my horse to remain on the mat while I move around him, or even away from him. The mat provides the foundation for what is referred to in the horse world as ground tying – the horse stays on the spot where you left him as though he was tied.
The mat is a great tool for teaching ground tying.
So the new game becomes “101 things a handler can do while a horse stays on a mat.”
This is a variation on the theme of a game which many canine clicker trainers play with their dogs. It’s called “101 Things a Dog Can Do With A Box”. The handler presents a dog with a box. Each novel behavior the dog offers gets clicked. So if the dog sniffs the box, he gets clicked. If he sniffs it again, he doesn’t get reinforced. But if he paws the box with his right front foot, he does. Now if he sniffs the box or paws it with his right front – nothing. But if he changes and paws with his left front, click and treat.
This was a popular game early on amongst canine clicker trainers, but for a lot of reasons I never played an equine version of it. One of the more fuddy-duddy reasons was I really didn’t want my horses learning all the creative things they can do either with their bodies or with things. I didn’t want them thinking they can do fancy leaps into the air with me on their backs or open their stall door latches whenever it pleased them. If they discovered these talents on their own, so be it, but I didn’t need to be an accomplice in this kind of cleverness. (That’s especially true when it comes to stall latches!)
So 101 things was out for my horses, but it is very much in for the handlers. I need them to be creative. So the game becomes – every time your horse lands back on the mat, you have to come up with a new behavior a handler can do while a horse stands on a mat.
At first this is easy. Your horse lands on the mat, and you might ask him questions about handling his mane. Will he continue to stand on the mat while you run your fingers through his mane? Yes. Click and treat. Repeat this several times and then walk off casually back around to the top of the runway.
I begin by “parking” Robin by tossing the lead over his neck. Draping the lead over his neck quickly becomes a cue to stand.
With Robin “parked” on the mat, I can begin the “101 things a handler can do while a horse stands on a mat” lesson. In this round of the game I am stroking his mane. The lead rests over his neck in the “parked” position. I’m not holding on to it, but I can easily pick it up should he walk off.
Next time you get back to the mat, you have to think of something else to do. It could be you simply expand running your fingers through his mane to stroking down his neck and along his shoulder. Or you could decide to play the game more like “101 things you can do with a box”. You stroked his mane in the last round, so now you’re going to think up a completely different sort of behavior. “Will you stand on the mat while I bend down to tie my shoe? Oh, I don’t have shoe laces! Never mind my shoe still needs to be checked.”
“Will you stand still while I tie my shoe?” Yes, click then feed.
Most people can easily play a couple rounds of this game but then they begin to get stuck for ideas. They are too much in their “horse-training” head. They’ve already stroked their horse from head to tail and picked up all four feet. What else can they do? They are running out of ideas.
The Opposite of Flooding
Time to channel their inner child or their inner kindergarten teacher. You can ask your horse for horsey things like dropping his head, or putting his ears forward, or letting you walk behind him and groom his tail.
While Robin stands on a mat, I can ask for horsey things. In this case I am touching him at his elbow as a cue for him to lift his foot.
As Robin lifts his foot, I have him target his knee to my hand.
From here it is easy to ask him to target his foot to my hand. (This is an easy way to teach a horse to pick up his feet.)
You can play silly games with your horse. Can he stand still while you run around pretending to be an airplane? Bzzzz, Bzzz – coming in for a crash landing into the mountain (horse). Click and treat.
When you run out of “horse training” games, you can play silly ones. In this case I’m pretending to be an airplane. I even include the sound effects of a buzzing engine.
My favorite kind of “crash landing”.
I love watching the horses watch the people. This is the best entertainment they’ve had in years! What will their human do next!?
Robin isn’t sure what to make of my behavior. What a very strange human!
This type of training is done routinely when you are prepping a youngster for riding. The handler waves things around and jumps up and down. The goal is to desensitize the horse so he doesn’t spook at unexpected movement. But instead of creating an entertaining game for the horse, it is often done with flooding.
Here’s an example of how flooding works. Suppose a horse is afraid of flapping saddle blankets. He scoots away. The blanket pursues him, matching him move for move until finally he gives up and stands still. Next comes another scare, this time it might be an umbrella opening and closing in his face. The horse learns he can’t escape. The best he can do is stop. That makes the umbrella go away – for the moment, but it is back again in the next instant. He learns finally that no matter what happens, no matter how afraid he is, he can’t get away. He gives up and stands still while the handler flaps tarps around his body, and up over his head, covering his eyes so he cannot see to run even if he wanted to. He’s given up flight because he has given up.
The handler isn’t playing, except maybe at being a “horse trainer”. And this most certainly is not a game for the horse.
I want to create something very different for the horses I interact with. It needs to be play for both of us. I want my horse to know that he does have a choice. His voice most certainly counts.
Teaching the skills you need before you use them; building success and confidence through patterned exercises; and – most important – really listening to your horse helps transform these lessons into true play for both of you.
Playing with Language
I’ve written about mats many times. I’ve described in detail the rope handling techniques that are used. I’ve referred to the runway image. (I definitely spend too much time in airports. I can rarely teach a weekend clinic without making some reference to airplane travel.) I’ve also referenced the needle point image because to me this section of the lesson always makes me think of the fine, detailed work that needle point represents.
What I haven’t done before is used quite so much of this type of imagery in describing the lesson. My point is not to force you into a mold where you have to be thinking – okay what colour thread am I supposed to be picking up and why? If you’ve never done needle point or other fine detailed handiwork, this image will feel foreign and forced. If you haven’t traveled on as many airplanes as I have over the last few years, the runway image may not jump out at you as you set your cones out in a V.
My point is not to get you using these images. My point is to get you thinking creatively, with imagination. That’s what takes you far, far away from the mind set of do-it-or-else training.
Coming Next: Transforming Horse Training Into Play
Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.
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