Behaviors Become Cues
In the previous section I wrote about Panda and the guide work she performs. Just as guide work made the perfect example for understanding environmental cues, it also shows so clearly how this back and forth cue communication works.
When Panda gets to a curb, she stops. If it’s the up curb on the far side of a street crossing, she’ll put one foot up on the curb. This tells Ann not only that there is some sort of obstacle in front of them, but where to look for it.
Ann finds the obstacle by searching for it with her foot. She then cues Panda to go forward. Panda walks on. Ann may then tell her to trot on with a “hup, hup” verbal cue. Panda will increase her speed by breaking into a brisk trot. But she may then stop and pull to the side. Perhaps a pedestrian is coming in the opposite direction pushing a baby carriage and walking a dog. There isn’t room to pass, so Panda alerts Ann that there is “a situation” ahead by stopping and moving them over to the edge.
Traffic checks are another great example of cue communication. It’s up to Panda to alert Ann and either to refuse to go forward, or to back them up out of harm’s way.
In all of these examples Panda is using the behaviors we have taught her in their appropriate context to provide Ann with the information she needs.
Mounting Blocks as Cue Communication
Cue communication can take other more subtle forms. One of the early behaviors I taught to Peregrine via the clicker was to line himself up to the mounting block. He was already very good about walking with me to the mounting block and standing quietly while I got on, but I wanted to add a bit of clicker flourish to the behavior. So I used two targets. The first brought him to the mounting block and the second took him forward a couple of steps so he ended up positioned exactly where I needed him to be in order to get on.
The targets quickly faded to hand signals. I was able to leave him in the center of the arena, walk the ten to twenty feet over to the mounting block, and call him to me. He would come and line himself up without my having to make any adjustments via the reins.
It became a favorite behavior. In fact, if I forgot and started to lead him to the mounting block, he would hang back. How silly of me! I’d let go of the reins and head by myself to the mounting block. He’d wait until I signaled to him, and then he’d come directly over and line himself up.
This behavior could always be counted on night after night even in a busy arena. Peregrine would wait in the middle of the arena while all the other horses went past. When the coast was clear, I’d cue him to come. He never wandered off to visit with the other horses or to look for the scraps of hay which could always be found in the arena. Coming when cued was a consistent, sure-fire behavior – except . . . every now and then he would stall out in the center of the arena. I’d cue him to come, and he’d just hang back.
I never forced him over to the mounting block. Instead I checked his feet, I listened for gut sounds, I took his temperature. Hanging back from the mounting block was his way of telling me that something was wrong. It was my early warning sign that he wasn’t feeling well.
Trust Your Horse, Trust the Process
I can just hear the harrumphers now. What nonsense! All you’re doing is teaching your horse that he doesn’t have to listen to you. You’re letting him get away with not coming. You’re rewarding him for hanging back. You’re just going to get a horse who never goes to the mounting block.
Except that’s not what happened. I trusted Peregrine, and I trusted the work we were doing together. I truly believed that riding was fun for him. He wanted to be ridden.
He showed me this in so many ways. We’d be working on shoulder-in, adding our clicker bells and whistles to the basic movement. He’d give me an extra lift through his shoulders, and I’d click and pull a peppermint – his favorite treat – out of my pocket.
He could hear the crinkle of the wrapper as I was undoing it. Through the saddle I could feel his excitement. If the paper was very stuck to the peppermint so he had to wait a bit longer than usual, he’d give a soft nicker of anticipation. Finally! I’d reach down, and he’d take the treat gently from my fingers. I’d hear the quick crunch of the candy, and then he’d be ready to move on. I’d touch the reins and without missing a beat he would pick up into another stride of even more glorious shoulder-in. How could I not click that!
Of course he loved to ride! Riding was the ticket to laughter, to lots of praise, to scritches on the neck, and best of all to peppermints!
So on the nights when he hung back, I knew he wasn’t feeling well, and I always listened. He’d had a long series of serious health issues following a bout of Potomac Horse fever. I needed this early warning system to be up and functioning so I could monitor his health.
Capture the Saddle
I teach the mounting block lesson very differently these days. The lesson is called “Capture the Saddle”. It begins with rope handling and directed learning and ends with targeting. I teach it in this way because I regard the mounting block lesson as a final safety check before I give the okay for a rider to get on.
A horse that has been well prepared with good ground work, will breeze through this lesson. The prerequisite is a lesson that I refer to as the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game. In the next section I’ll describe both these lessons and the reasons for them.
Coming Next: Unit 4: Cue Communication continued: The Mounting Block Lesson
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