JOY FULL Horses: Understanding Extinction: Part 14

Our Creative Horses
Yesterday I shared with you the story of Robin’s “pose”.  The use of resurgence has helped us develop a much more systematic way of creating unlikely behaviors.  Because we understand the process better, we can be more deliberate in it’s use.  I ended the post by saying: “The end result may look like magic, but there is good science behind it.”

When we open up our training in this way and turn our learners into more active participants, we often find that they are even more creative than we are.  Once again Robin provided me with a great example of this.

When Robin was three I took him to the Equine Affaire to be my demo horse.  I wanted to show people what freeshaping via clicker training looks like.  I didn’t want them just to see the end product of freeshaping.  I wanted them to see me teach Robin a completely novel behavior.  The problem was he already had a pretty extensive repertoire. I was stumped for ideas, but I thought the easiest solution would be to use a prop.  One of my clients had been teaching his horse to flip a hula hoop up over his head.  I thought I could make a start on that with Robin.

Robin had been our first equine retriever.  Picking things up was solidly in repertoire.  I figured if I put the hula hoop on the ground, he would try to pick it up.  I’d be able to reinforce that and build it into Robin holding it longer which might over three days of demos lead to him flipping it over his head.  Such was my level of creativity, that’s all I could think of to work on with a hula hoop.

So during our demo, I brought out the hula hoop and tossed it out on the ground.  I was still explaining freeshaping to the audience so I wasn’t focusing yet on Robin.  While I was talking, he walked over to the hoop and stood with his front feet planted in the middle of it just as he would have stood on a mat.  Before I could respond to him, he reached down, picked up one side of the hoop and began walking himself forward foot by foot with the hoop!  That was his level of creativity!

The Creative Process
Here are the steps the horses have been teaching us:

First, you build a strong history of reinforcement for the component behaviors.

You change the situation somewhat so mild extinction comes into play.

You get a resurgence of these previously reinforced behaviors and new combinations emerge.  That’s creativity.  The most fun for me is seeing what the horses invent. As we have seen, they are often so much more creative than their human partners!

Familiar Landscapes
Kay Laurence might say we were seeing familiar landscapes with fresh eyes.

Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz would say you have to understand the process of extinction before you can master it.  If you understand it, you’ll avoid situations that create macro extinction processes and all the frustration that goes along with them.  Instead you’ll use micro extinctions to build complex behaviors.

I would say that monitoring the level of extinction your learner is experiencing is a keys-to-the-kingdom part of good training.

I’ve just spent a couple of days working with a group of horses I have come to know well. One of them is a retired performance horse. Without going into a lot of details, I would describe him as an emotionally fragile horse. He’s easily worried.  If he thinks he has the right answer, he’s a superstar, but I always have to be careful how far I stretch him into new behaviors.  If he thinks he might get something wrong, he worries.  He’s come out of a training environment in which he had to perform correctly or his rider could get seriously hurt. I suspect he was punished for mistakes which accounts for his worry.

Mastering Micro
His back was looking prematurely aged so I wanted to teach him Robin’s “pilates pose”.  I had already shown him that he could get reinforced for lifting his back up and releasing at the poll.  In this particular session I was holding out for slightly better versions. As I withheld my click, I saw him experimenting.  Was it higher with his poll? Was it more lift of his back? What did I want?

The shifts he was giving me represented micro changes.  They were all within a clickable range.  Clicking him for any of these variations would have been fine, but I was waiting fractionally to see what else would pop out.

I was using micro extinctions to create the next step.  And because I was thinking about this in terms of extinction, I was monitoring closely his emotional responses.  I did not want him to become macro worried.  We were always just a second or two from a click so I could let him experiment without risking the emotional fallout of a larger extinction process.

Micro Masters
Micro is so very much the key.

Macro extinctions are frustrating.  Micro extinctions are part of good teaching.

Macro shaping can be confusing.  Micro shaping is elegant.

Macro negative reinforcement is literally painful. Micro negative reinforcement is clear communication. It is a conversation with cues exchanged in both directions.

When you go micro, your learner is always just a second or two away from a reinforceable moment.  You can cue another behavior, or you can simply click and treat. Either way, you are saying: “Yes! Great idea!” Micro Mastery is what we should be striving for in our training.  When you say someone is a great trainer, you are really saying that individual is a Micro Master.  In training that’s the “black belt” we should be aiming for.


With this last section we come to the end of my JOY FULL Horses book – almost.  What remains is one final chapter and that’s what’s coming next.

Coming Next: Doorways

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

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:          

JOY FULL Horses: Part 3: Going Micro: Unit 2: Base Behaviors

Base Behaviors
In the previous post I introduced you to Kay Laurence’s definition of microshaping.  Often when people are freeshaping behavior, it is very hit or miss training.  They are too macro in their shaping plan, resulting in long dry spells between clicks.

Microshaping takes a very different approach.  In microshaping you are using very small steps, clear criterion, and well thought out training plans to create a success rate of 98% or better.  Base behaviors help to create this high degree of success.

A base behavior is similar to the tap root behavior I described earlier.  (Refer to: Cues Evolve: Part 2 published Sept. 1, 2016 Returning to these behaviors over and over again creates a deep history of reinforcement and helps builds the learner’s confidence.

The base behavior is just what the name implies.  It is a behavior you keep returning to that serves as the end of one movement cycle and the starting point for the next.  Kay will often click as the dog returns to the base behavior, but she will toss the treat out away from the dog.  The dog runs to get the treat and then returns promptly back to the base behavior for another click.  If you’re clever, – and Kay is – you can build a huge repertoire of reaction patterns using the concept of base behaviors.

A base behavior might be a dog coming to a balanced stop with all four feet on a platform.  The dog returns to the platform because he knows he will get clicked.  As he lands on the platform, Kay clicks and tosses the treat so the dog must leave the platform to get it.  As soon as he gets the treat, the dog returns to the platform to get clicked again.

Kay tosses the treat out very strategically.  The path the dog takes to get back to the platform produces the behavior Kay wants.  That might be trotting around a cone to get back to the platform.  Kay gradually moves the cone out to the side.  The dog could by-pass the cone and go straight to the mat, but he’s learning that going out in a wide arc around the cone is part of the behavior.

Another function for base behaviors is they let you bring your learner into stillness so you can draw his attention to a small muscle movement. Kay offers a great example of how this works.  Suppose you want to teach your dog to wag his tail on cue.  When he’s with you, tail wagging is almost always present, so it may be hard for him to realize that’s what he’s being clicked for.  The solution: have your dog lie flat on his side.  This is your base position.  The rest of your dog is still.  Only his tail is moving.  As you click each time his tail lifts up off the floor, he’ll begin to realize that’s the desired behavior.

Grown-ups and standing on a mat are two great base behaviors we use with the horses.  Both keep the feet still so you can focus on ears forward, the pilates pose, or any other muscle pattern you may be working on.
Tossing Treats
With horses we don’t generally toss treats the way you can with dogs.  It isn’t that horses aren’t capable of tracking a thrown treat.  It’s more that we don’t usually work on the kinds of surfaces that we want horses eating off of.  Tossing a treat out into a sand footing raises concerns about sand colics.  And the trouble with tossing a treat out into grass doesn’t need explaining.

Kay uses tossed treats to tremendous advantage when she’s working with her dogs.  Suppose she wants to teach her dog to back up.  She’ll teach this using a mat.  Once again, coming to a balanced stop with all four feet on the mat is the base behavior.  She clicks, and then tosses the treat out in front of the mat so he has to leave the mat to get to it.

Once he’s got his treat, the dog is going to return to the base behavior.  Initially the food is tossed just a step or two away from the mat so taking a step back is the easiest way to return to the mat.  Click.  The food is tossed out a step or two from the mat and the cycle repeats.  The behavior Kay wants is backing.  She get this through the strategic use of treats and the return to the base behavior of stopping with all four feet on the mat.

Once the dog is consistently taking a step or two back to get the mat, Kay will toss the treat a little further away.  Note, the change she makes is in the distance she tosses the treat.  She doesn’t move the mat.  The dog knows where it is.  He’s learning how to return to it from increasingly greater distances and varied directions.  This creates a very confident backer.

A 98% success rate depends upon precise criteria.

So picture this.  Kay has just tossed a treat out in front of her dog.  It’s a short toss.  He only has to go a step or two forward to reach the food.  Returning to the mat means backing up a similar number of steps.

Many of us would watch the front feet, and as soon as they were both on the mat, we would click.  And we would be wrong.

We would be clicking an outcome not a behavior.  The outcome is the dog standing with all four feet on the mat.

The behavior Kay looks for is the right front steps back onto the mat, followed by the left front stepping back onto the mat – click.  That’s precision training.

What is the difference?  This level of precision means the same behavior is consistently being marked.  In the outcome driven view of the world the dog might back right front, left front this time; followed by left front, right front the next; followed by a half step forward, then right front, left front.  Those are three different approaches to the mat.  Precision training creates clean, precise results.

Dynamic Food Delivery
We may not be able to toss treats to our horses in the same way that Kay uses them with her dogs, but we can certainly put the concept of strategic treat delivery to work and use it to our advantage.  When I’m teaching backing, I turn and walk with my horse as he backs up.  After I click, I’ll turn forward and walk as I get the treat from my pocket.  I move my feet WHILE I am getting the treat out of my pocket.

I’ll end up exactly where we started when I initiated the backing.  This resets the whole behavior so I can repeat that unit over and over again until it is clean and fluid.  Then I’ll follow the mantra of loopy training: when a loop is clean, you get to move on.  Not only do you get to move on, you should move on.

I’m not asking the horse to back up, click and treat, and then back up again without going forward.  That may seem as though it’s the same behavior – backing. To the horse each additional step back is a step into unknown territory.  Is he about to step into a hole or onto unstable footing?  Is he getting too close to the electric fence or the other horses?  Each step presents a new question which means each step is a completely new behavior.

Resetting via the food delivery means I can ask for the same step over and over again, creating a consistent response for this simple reaction pattern.  I’m not being outcome driven – backing through a specific pattern.  Instead I’m focused on the reaction pattern that will create for me the ability to ask for backing at any time, for any number of desired steps, in any direction and in good balance.

Training via reaction patterns means I can be precise in my criteria.  It isn’t any step back I am looking for.   It is this foot stepping back.  And more than that, I will be watching how the horse lifts his foot.  I’ll time my click so I’m marking the upward lift of the foot, not the part of each step where his foot is returning to the ground.  I will do this until my loop is clean.  At that point it will be time to change criteria and move on to an expanded version of this movement cycle.

The video illustrates how to use strategic food delivery in combination with a request to back.  It also illustrates the difference between training for reaction patterns versus outcome.  The overall function of this set-up is to teach my horse to back in a square.  If I were training with that narrow goal in my sights, I would ask my horse to continue backing around the perimeter of the square.  Instead I build the underlying reaction pattern that will make this an easy outcome to achieve.

Precision and Play Go Together
Precision training creates precision results.

This sounds hard.  It sounds as though you have to really be focused and thinking every second.  Clicker training is supposed to be FUN! How can you play if you have to be thinking every second about which foot is moving and what part of the arc to click in?

Remember that convenience store where all the lottery tickets are printed with winning numbers?  You look at your numbers and you’ve won!  Hurray!  You don’t have to think about what your lucky number is.  You don’t have to wonder if your non random numbers look random enough.  You can choose the same set of numbers over and over again.  Each time you’ve got a winner!  Easy!

Your horse steps back onto his mat – left front, right front.  You’ve won!

Hand him the food a step or two forward.

He steps back – left front, right front.
You’ve won again!

This is easy.  This is child’s play!

Learn to set up behavior, and it truly does become playful because laughter thrives on success.  Laughter dies away when there’s confusion.  When the clicks are few and far between, when your learner decides he’d rather go sniff the nearest manure pile than interact with you, that’s when play disappears.

Play evolves out of success.  Play evolves when both learner and teacher are relaxed and confident in the process.  Good technique, attention to detail, attention to your learner’s emotional needs are the breeding ground for play.

Coming Next: Part 3: Going Micro: Patterns

P.S. To learn more about Kay Laurence’s training visit:

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

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: