5GoToSea: Pt. 5: Extinction Reveals The Past

Resurgence and Regression: Understanding Extinction So You Can Master It

From a presentation given by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz during the 2014 Five Go To Sea Conference cruise.

This is Part 5 of a 15 Part series.

Part 1: The Elevator Question
Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?
Part 3: Unraveling the Regression Mess
Part 4: Extinction and Shaping
Part 5: Extinction Reveals The Past

Part 5: Extinction Reveals The Past

The Extinction Process
In the previous section I  said that extinction produces resurgence and regression.  I went on to talk about extinction without defining it.  In general we understand the meaning of that term, at least how we would use it in everyday language.

Here’s the definition Jesús gave us:

“When reinforcement is no longer forthcoming, when a response becomes less and less frequent, you get operant extinction.”

How does this play out?  What do you see in your animals?

In the controlled environments of a lab experiment, here is what you might see:  A rat is being reinforced consistently for pressing a lever.  When that behavior is well established, the experimenter no longer reinforces lever pressing.  When the behavior fails to pay off, the rat shows a sudden flurry of lever pressing behavior.  When this fails, the rat exhibits more aggressive types of behaviors.  In humans we would equate this to the behavior you see when vending machines fail.  You start out jiggling the knobs and progress towards pounding on the machine.

rat 2The aggressive behavior is followed by a period of the rat giving up.  He ignores the lever.  Then the rat tries again with a flurry of activity, trying to see if the original, reinforced behavior is once again working. The whole cycle repeats itself, but the bursts get smaller and smaller, and the pauses in between become longer.

Throughout all of this process the rat is clearly experiencing emotions we would not want to see in our horses.  When lever pressing fails to work, the rats become aggressive.  In our horses we see displacement aggression.  The horse is frustrated.  A behavior which was reliable is no longer working.  If other horses are nearby, you may see the horse pin his ears and snake his neck out to warn the others away.  Or he may grab at his lead rope, or nip at the handler’s sleeve.

Remember – you are seeing behavior that has been modeled for this horse.  You are seeing his training history.  And perhaps you are also seeing his herd background.  If he’s lived in crowded/confined conditions that promote more horse to horse aggression, it’s possible that’s what you’ll see acted out.

It would be interesting to look at two groups of horses – one containing horses that grew up in stable herds living in large, open spaces.  The other would have horses that were raised in much more confined spaces where competition for resources created more horse to horse aggressive interactions.  What difference, if any, would you see when these horses are exposed to a mild extinction process?  What behaviors would regression reveal?  What does your knowledge of your own horse’s background predict?

For horses with known backgrounds it would be interesting to collect data on their behavior when they are faced with a mild extinction process.  If you know the conditions under which your horse was raised, what type of behaviors would you expect to see during an extinction process?  Would he be the one “banging on the coke machine”, or would he cope well with the change in reinforcement rates?

Coming Soon: Part 6: Accidental Extinction

Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

5GoToSea: Pt 4: Extinction and Shaping

Resurgence and Regression: Understanding Extinction So You Can Master It

Five go to sea bannerFrom a presentation given by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz during the 2014 Five Go To Sea Conference cruise.

This is Part 4 of a 15 Part series.

Part 1: The Elevator Question
Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?
Part 3: Unraveling the Regression Mess
Part 4: Extinction and Shaping

Part 4: Extinction and Shaping

Often clicker trainers say they never use extinction.  I certainly work hard to set up my training so the horses aren’t put into the kind of guessing game that can lead to outbursts of frustration and aggression.  That’s something I very much want to avoid. But that doesn’t mean I don’t use extinction.  That’s what Jesús’ talk made so very clear.

To the people who say they never use extinction, his response is: “What do you mean you never use extinction!  Extinction is at the heart of shaping.  Shaping is differential reinforcement.  It’s the interplay between positive reinforcement and extinction.  So if someone says they aren’t using extinction, probably they don’t understand what they are saying.”

That’s such a wonderfully blunt and typically Jesús comment.  He went on to explain what he meant.  As he said: “If you don’t understand extinction, you won’t be able to master it.”

Regression and Resurgence
Jesús makes a distinction between regression and resurgence.

In regression you revert back to previously extinguished behaviors.

In resurgence you revert back to previously reinforced behavior.

This isn’t just semantics.  Regression and resurgence emerge out of different training strategies and produce different outcomes.

Regression is a term that is used in psychoanalysis and can be defined as: “If the present behavior is not capable of getting reinforcement, one reverts to older forms of response which were once effective.”  In other words, when a behavior that has been generating reinforcement is no longer working, the individual will revert back to behaviors that have worked in the past. The order in which this unfolds is significant.

Under stress you will revert back to an older way of behaving.  If that behavior is not reinforced, you’ll go through another extinction process.  You’ll revert back to even older behaviors.  You’ll keep trying things and trying things, until you either give up entirely, or you are pushed to creativity.  This can be a stressful process which is why some people think of creativity as an unpleasant experience.

Extinction History
Regression emerges because a behavior which normally earns reinforcement is no longer working.  Often we think of extinction as simply a procedure that’s intended to reduce behavior.  You don’t like a dog’s barking, so you never reinforce it in the hope that the behavior will go away.  This simplistic view misses an important key to understanding how to use extinction. The behaviors that emerge in an extinction process are not random. Understanding the order lets you master the process.

That’s one of the many gems from Jesús’ presentation.  Here are some more:

Jesús described extinction as the mirror image of reinforcement.

Extinction tells you what was reinforced in the past.

Reinforcement tells you what behaviors you are building for the future.

I wrote about this in Part 2 of this series: “The Translation to Horses.”  When you are first learning about clicker training, if your handling confuses the horse and puts him into an extinction process, the behaviors he throws at you tells you more about his past than his present.  Don’t blame yourself for the outburst.  Your current training choices didn’t create the behavior you’re now dodging.  Turn your spotlight instead on his past.  That’s where the behavior was learned.

You may be the catalyst, but you are not the cause.  That’s good news.  You don’t have to take his behavior personally. The cause sits not in the present, but in the past.  It’s only natural to become worried by the emotional reaction you’re seeing.  People sometimes inadvertently end up compounding the problem. If their handling skills are clumsy or they don’t yet know how to manage the environment, they can put the horse into even more of an extinction process.

I’ve seen this in beginner handlers.  They don’t yet understand how much a lack of clear criteria can impact a learner.  The horse has offered three or four clickable moments, but the handler has missed them all.

Those missed clicks can put the horse into an extinction process that leads to emotional outbursts.  The handler becomes rattled by this unwanted behavior.  She becomes even more uncertain and inconsistent which leads to more frustration in her horse.  What is he supposed to do?  His growing anxiety leads to displacement behaviors and the emergence of older, unwanted behavior.

That’s where video cameras can be so useful.  Video helps the handler to see the training from the horse’s point of view.  It reveals the good tries the horse is offering and helps the handler understand more clearly what she wants to be reinforcing.  And it aids in learning better handling skills that lead to clean, consistent teaching.

The solution to extinction bursts lies in embracing clicker training, not from running from it.  Through clicker training you’ll be building a repertoire of behaviors that give the horse alternatives to his old patterns.

Regression and resurgence reveal the past.

Reinforcement builds your future.

Coming soon: Part 5: Extinction Reveals the Past

Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

5GoToSea: Pt 3: Unraveling the Regression Mess

Resurgence and Regression: Understanding Extinction So You Can Master It

From a presentation given by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz during the 2014 Five Go To Sea Conference cruise. toppic1

This is Part 3 of a 15 Part series.

Part 1: The Elevator Question
Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?
Part 3: Unraveling the Regression Mess

Part 3: Unraveling the Regression Mess

Emitted Versus Permitted Behavior
What are the keys to unraveling the regression mess?

The first is to tighten up your training and learn how to set up the environment so the behavior you want is the behavior that is most likely to occur. Jesús made the distinction between emitted and permitted behaviors.

When behavior is emitted, you are waiting to see what the learner offers.  When behavior is permitted, you set up the environment so the behavior you want is the behavior that is most likely to occur.

If you’re waiting, waiting, waiting for the dog to sit or the horse to step on a mat, you may see lots of experimenting before you get something you want to click.  All that experimenting can end up as part of a chain.  And it could also lead to a regression into previously learned, but unwanted behavior.

With the horses we begin with very simple, easily isolated behaviors such as targeting.

With the horses we begin with very simple, easily isolated behaviors such as targeting.

With the horses we begin with very simple, easily isolated behaviors such as targeting and backing.  We set up the environment so the behavior is likely to occur.  You aren’t surfing an extinction wave of behaviors.  Your horse doesn’t have to do a lot of guessing.  The right answer is obvious and easy.

In those first lessons I have people start out with only twenty treats.  That limits how much training you can do.  Before your horse can get too confused or frustrated, you’re stepping away to get another round of treats.

You’re also using that time while you refill your pouch to assess what just occurred.  That first targeting session is just data collecting. You’re finding out if that’s a good starting point, or perhaps you need to find a different lesson.  A horse that is very shut down, or becomes easily stressed when he’s not told exactly what to do, may need you to start with an even simpler step than targeting.  This is a horse that may need to have the clicker carefully charged first by simply feeding one treat after another.  Once he’s showing interest in the food, you’ll add the clicker in.  Now it’s: click then feed, click then feed.  At this point the click is not yet contingent on a specific behavior. You are simply pairing the click with the food.

Once you think your horse is noticing the click and anticipating the food, you’ll begin to turn the click into a functional marker signal.   You’ll begin to pair it with the behavior.  You’ll pick something easy such as targeting, or perhaps a slight moving of his head away from your treat pouch.  It should be something you know you can get so the transition from charging the clicker to using it is a seamless one.

Designing an appropriate lesson plan is just part of the solution.  You also need to have clean handling skills and good timing.  Clicking late, clicking the wrong thing, clicking because you haven’t clicked for a while – all of these things will confuse your learner and lock in more unwanted behavior.  So work on your handling skills. Practice first, preferably in front of a mirror.  Borrow a friend to be your “horse”.  Use your video camera so you can review what you are doing. When your handling is quiet, clean, organized, and second nature, that’s what your training will become – quiet, clean, organized, and second nature.

Broadening the Repertoire
Good handling is part of the solution.  Another is to develop a broad repertoire of behaviors.  The more skills you teach your horse, the more options he’ll have besides aggression. Instead of regressing into aggressive responses, he’ll have other options that work.  This is where trust the process begins to make sense. We’ve all read the stories.  Someone has been struggling with a horse, not seeing much progress, and then the pieces all fall into place.  Instead of snapping at his handler, he’s backing up politely and dropping his head.  Instead of pulling away, he’s offering beautiful lateral flexions.  The older repertoire is still there. Given the right triggers, you might still see him regressing back into “childhood”, just as that professor regressed back when she was trapped in an elevator.  But you’ve given him more tools.  That broader repertoire gives him more options. He’ll regress back to head lowering not aggression.

There were many more gems in Jesús’ talk, but this was a good one.  I’ll stop here for now and let you enjoy it.

Coming Soon: Part 4: Extinction and Shaping

Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

5GoToSea: Pt. 2: The Translation to Horses

Resurgence and Regression: Understanding Extinction So You Can Master It

aftercruise1From a presentation given by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz during the 2014 Five Go To Sea Conference cruise. 

This is Part 2 of a 15 Part series.

Part 1: The Elevator Question
Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?

Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?

Personality Expressed or Suppressed
In the opening of his presentation on regression and resurgence Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz defined regression and gave some examples in terms of human behavior.  I ended yesterday’s post with this statement:

Extinction reveals our history.roman ruins

How does this translate to horse training?  At the very beginning of clicker training the extinction process may reveal your horse’s training history. It helps us to understand the “childhood” our horses have had.  Did your horse have a fair introduction to people, or are there issues you need to know about?

In most cases when you introduce a horse to the clicker, it’s smooth sailing.  The horse quickly figures out the game. You may have to go through a little bit of explaining around the food, but for most horses this moves along without any major hiccups.  You hold a target up, he investigates it, click, you give him a treat.  Easy. Unless he’s one of the horses who has been punished for showing any self-expression.

If your horse has learned that being “well behaved” means he doesn’t offer any behavior you haven’t asked for, he’ll be good at following orders, but not taking the initiative. In fact your “well-behaved” horse may have learned that offering behavior is dangerous.  The best way to avoid punishment is to wait to be told what to do. This is why I put well-behaved in quotes.  Is he well behaved in the way a clicker-trained horse can be?  Or is he simply not offering much in the way of behavior?  There’s a huge difference.  In the first, the personality is expressed.  In the later, it is suppressed.

When you hold out the target, a suppressed horse may be stuck for answers.  He doesn’t know what you want. The “right answers” that normally work don’t seem to apply in this new situation.  This horse is being presented with a puzzle that can make him feel very uneasy.  In the past guessing wrong has meant being punished.

Extinction Reveals the Past
At first this horse may try offering the one or two things that might possibly fit this situation. When those don’t work, he’ll become aggressive. He’s going to protect himself from the punishment he’s knows is coming when he doesn’t respond right away.  Your “well behaved” horse is suddenly charging you with teeth bared.  It’s easy to blame clicker training or the treats for this sudden turnaround in behavior, but I’ve always seen it very differently.  I’ve always said that what is happening is the training history of the horse is being revealed.  Jesús’ talk confirmed this.

Often what we refer to as “well behaved” horses are really horses whose behavior and personality have been shut down through the use of corrections.  They have learned to wait to be told what to do.  Offering behavior, expressing their personality has been punished.  Give them a command they know, and they will respond promptly.  They can seem like the perfect horse.  Safe, easy to direct.  But put them into a situation where they don’t know the answer – in dodo birdfact they really don’t even understand the question – and you will begin to see the extinction process unfold.  Extinction follows a predictable pattern.  These horses will take you back through the stair steps of how they have been treated, and often the story they tell is not a pretty one.

When a horse is not sure of the “safe” answer, he’ll begin to regress back through his training history.  You will see the behavior that has been “swept under the carpet” by suppressing it with corrections.

How do you avoid this regression back into unsafe behavior?  The early steps of clicker training are very structured.  I make use of protective contact so the horse is free to interact – or not.  This lets me see what kind of a learner I have so I can tailor those early steps to the individual. I design my lessons around very small steps so I can keep the training loop clean.  That doesn’t just mean that the horse performs the intended behavior.  Everything matters.  How he takes the treat matters.  How long he hesitates before beginning a new cycle matters.  How quickly he performs the desired behavior matters.  These all tell me something about the emotions he’s experiencing and those definitely matter.  My goal in this first foray into clicker training is to avoid the kind of uncertainty that leads to frustration and a regression back through older learning patterns.

Details matter – especially in shaping.  Jesús showed a couple of video examples of shaping where the loop was not kept clean.  In one a dog was going to be reinforced for coming back to the handler away from distractions.  While the instructor was explaining the lesson, the dog’s handler was listening to her, not paying attention to her dog.

The dog started surfing through all the behaviors that had been reinforced in the past. What should he do to get his person focused back on him?  He started with head bobs, moved on to sitting, then a play bow into lying down and finally he started jumping up on his person.  These were all behaviors that had previously been reinforced, sometimes unintentionally.

The instructor finished describing what she wanted the handler to do, and the formal “session” began.  The instructor deliberately distracted the dog while the handler tried to call him away.  The dog returned fairly promptly to his handler, but the behavior included a sit into a play bow followed by the dog lying down, then jumping up on the handler.  So yes, the dog did indeed return to the handler, but the recall now included these other unwanted behaviors.

This is why I stress so much how important it is to pay attention to details.  When you are first starting, it can be hard to keep track of everything, but details matter.  Yes, you can get your horse touching targets.  Yes, you can have a lot of fun. Yes, clicker training can be very easy.  But if you aren’t being attentive to details, you can miss a lot of important signs that your horse may not be fully understanding this new game.  If your horse isn’t sure what is wanted, you could see a regression through his past training history.  He’ll be telling you what he thought of how he’s been treated, and often the tale is not a pretty one!

When you are brand new to clicker training, and especially if you are also new to horses, this can be a hard dynamic to understand.  What you hear about clicker training is how much fun it is, how much horses enjoy it.  So you give it a try. But instead of smooth sailing, your horse falls apart.  Instead of having a wonderful time, you’re dodging teeth.  You’ve been promised a dream horse, and all you have is a nightmare.  Of course, you blame clicker training and all of the treats you’re feeding for the horrible behavior you’re seeing.   But what can you do?  You don’t want to go back to punishment-based solutions.  You keep hearing from others that you need to trust the process, so that’s what you do.  You continue on determined to solve the riddle of your horse’s regression into nightmare behavior.

Coming tomorrow: What it means to trust the process: Unraveling the regression mess.

Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

Resurgence and Regression: Five Go To Sea Conference Presentation

It’s been just over a year since the first Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  Kay Laurence organized it to celebrate her 60th birthday.  She invited Ken Ramirez, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and myself to participate in a five day adventure in the Caribbean.

Alex tells the best stories

Planning for our Caribbean adventure during the winter Clicker Expo: note the snow in the background. We were definitely looking forward to the April cruise.

If you’re counting, that’s four.  Five referred to the each of the conference attendees who joined us.  The reference goes back to Enid Blyton’s series of children’s books: “The Famous Five” and the many adventures they went on.


Five go to sea banner


my-roomfrom-outsideAdventures we certainly had.  This was my first time on a cruise ship, my first time on the open ocean, my first time in the Caribbean.

ocean view from ship

For me, it was the perfect mix of intense learning and holiday adventure.  We spent our days at sea engaged in the conference. Each evening from the top deck we watched the sun set over the ocean while we played the learning game PORTL.  That was followed by more conversations at dinner in one of the many restaurants the cruise ship had to offer.


Jesús and the son of one of the conference participants deeply engaged in a PORTL learning experience. Note: Jesús is the one being “trained”.


On excursion days we headed off to explore the Islands we stopped at.  People went snorkeling with sea turtles and dolphins.  Kay took a group Segwaying through the historic district of one of our ports of call.  I joined Ken one evening to go zip lining through the treetops of a tropical forest.

I returned home with a notebook bulging with notes.  Our days had not followed the usual format of conferences where you have rigid time schedules: this lecturer is presenting from 10:00 to 11:00, and then he has to stop so another speaker can begin. No, this conference was centered around the ideas we were presenting and the questions people had.  The schedule was flexible.  We could give each topic the time it needed.  If we found a gem that needed mining, we took the time to explore it.  We could each contribute, ask questions of the other presenters, add our own take on the subject.  What evolved through this more relaxed format was an amazing exchange of ideas.
My notebook was stuffed full of page after page of things I wanted to think about further.  For me the highlight of the conference was Jesús’ talk on Regression and Resurgence. I had first heard him give this talk at the Clicker Expo during the winter.  During the cruise, it was my number one request.  I wanted to hear that talk again.  Because we had the luxury of time, Jesús expanded beyond what he had presented at the Expo to give us a much deeper understanding of the subject.

Jesús with two of the conference participants enjoying the perfect setting to discuss training questions.

Jesús with two of the conference participants enjoying the perfect setting to discuss training questions.

To help process everything he covered, when I got home, I wrote a detailed report on this presentation for my on-line course.  In it I described both what Jesús had covered and then I related each topic directly to horse training.  If you work with other species, I think you will find that the translation is still relevant.

Posts of this sort are read, enjoyed, and used at the time they are written, and then they get buried under the mountain of other posts that come into our in-boxes. Almost every day I will read questions from people that make me think about Jesús’ talk.  His material adds so much depth to our understanding of how shaping works.  It is fundamental to our understanding of the training. His talk shouldn’t be buried in the archives of a computer. It needs to have a more public and permanent home, so I am going to post it here in my blog.

It is a long post, some forty pages overall.  That’s much too long for a single blog, so I am going to present it instead like one of Dickens’ novels.  You’ll get it in installments so you can enjoy it one gem, one chapter at a time.

Alexandra Kurland


Resurgence and Regression: Understanding Extinction So You Can Master It

From a presentation given by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz during the 2014 Five Go To Sea Conference cruise.

This is Part 1 of a 15 Part series.

Part 1: The Elevator Question



The Elevator Question
elevatorWhat would you do if you were trapped in an elevator?  You’d probably push all the buttons.  You’d bang on the door. You’d call out in the hope that someone would hear you.  But what if none of those things worked?  What would you do then? Would you wait patiently for the help that you know would be coming?  Or would end up huddled in a corner calling out for your mother?  That’s what happened to a professor at a conference in Mexico.  By the time help arrived, she had regressed back to very early childhood behavior.

Our horses sometimes show similar types of regression.  You aren’t reinforcing your horse at your usual rate.  He becomes confused and frustrated.  What do you want? His version of pushing all the elevator buttons is throwing other behaviors at you that you’ve previously reinforced.  He’ll try lowering his head, putting his ears forward, “posing”. When those don’t work, he’ll regress further back.  He’ll nudge your arm. He’ll paw. He may even bite at you.  That got your attention!

Regression reveal’s an individual’s past.  When you’re tired and under stress, how do you behave?  Do you find yourself regressing back and behaving like a cranky teenager – or worse a spoiled toddler who needs to be put down for a nap?  What are we learning about the child that you were?

In his conference presentations on regression Jesús Rosales-Ruiz helps us understand this process.  He begins with several definitions of regression that are in the scientific literature.  One of the simplest is:

“If the present behavior is not capable of getting reinforcement, one reverts to older forms of response which were once effective.”

In other words under stress we tend to revert to older ways of behaving.  So regression is a product of an extinction process.  When behavior that was being reinforced no longer works, you regress back to previously learned behavior.  When that doesn’t work, you go back another step and then another.

As Jesús said, very tongue in cheek, during the extinction process we see behavior that was modeled in childhood. If one of his students is acting out, he tells them – “Don’t blame me.  Blame your parents.  You’re simply presenting behavior that was modeled for you in childhood.” If you want to learn about family dynamics, watch toddlers.

So extinction can reveal the history of the individual.

Coming tomorrow:  The Translation to Horses

Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

Today’s Peregrine Story: #12 Unexpected Changes

When I started Peregrine under saddle, my trainer said to me that he didn’t have the back strength to perform all the movements of upper level dressage, but he could still carry himself in the equilibrium of a high school horse.  She didn’t mean in a few years.  She meant now, as a young horse, we could expect him to lift up and carry himself in an engaged equilibrium.

Oliver contrast side by side

This obviously isn’t Peregrine, but these two photos show clearly what is meant when I say he learned to lift and carry his own balance. The photo on the left shows Oliver, a percheron/quarter horse cross, as an almost two year old on day one of his first clinic with me. The photo on the right is also of Oliver. Look at how much more up and lifted he is throughout his body. He looks much older, but this picture was taken just twenty-four hours later. This beautiful balance comes from the lessons Peregrine has been teaching me.

That became the training criterion.  When Peregrine was engaged, his stifles didn’t lock.  I was learning to manage him so our rides no longer felt quite so on a knife’s edge of control.   When I first started riding him, his stifles would lock up without warning.  He would release them by catapulting me forward in a hard, rolling buck.  As long as he was engaged, I could keep him from locking up, and he was a lot of fun to ride.  But as soon as I got off and left him to manage his own balance, his stifles would be locking again.

He was eight years old.  Clearly he was not going to outgrow this condition.  And then he got Potomac horse fever.  And then he was laid up for seven weeks with foot abscesses.  And then we started exploring clicker training.

There had certainly been lots of people before me who used clicker training with their horses.  So why did it stick with me?  Why was I the one who buried herself in a computer for two years writing that first book on clicker training horses?  And why have I continued to be so fascinated by it?  The answer lies with Peregrine.

He was an interesting mix.  He was a well trained horse, but he was also a horse with a lot of issues – all stemming from his locking stifles.  I also had a huge repertoire to work with, both on the ground and under saddle.

Peregrine 1993 Spanish walk

1993 Peregrine in-hand – working on the lift needed for Spanish walk.

Ground work for me meant a lot more than lunging.  It also meant classical work in-hand and a huge liberty repertoire.  As Peregrine recovered from his hoof abscesses, I began to add the clicker into all of this other work.  Before his lay up we’d been working on Spanish walk.  I reshaped the leg lifts using the clicker.  He was so elegant, and he clearly enjoyed the new way this lesson was being taught.

Spanish walk required a huge shift in his balance.  In order to lift up into the front leg extensions, he had to engage his hind end to free up his shoulders.  This was taught in conjunction with all of his other in-hand work.  It was not presented as a separate “trick” behavior.  I was asking Peregrine to carry himself forward in engagement – something the guidance of the marker signal helped him to figure out.

I was a month or two into this work when it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Peregrine lock in his stifles in quite a while.  I started paying more attention.  I was right.  His stifles weren’t locking – not under saddle and, even more telling, not on the ground, either.

For eight years we had been battling his stifles.  After just a few months of clicker training, they had stopped locking.  That’s when I knew that clicker training wasn’t simply another way to teach behavior.  Yes, it’s great that we have a kinder way to teach horses to pick up their feet for cleaning, or to load into a trailer.  That’s important, but clicker training goes deeper than that.  It awakens our horses’ intelligence.  I say it in this way because so much of training teaches horses only to follow, not to take any initiative.  Clicker training lets them to be full partners in the learning process.  They truly own what we are teaching them.  The lessons aren’t simply things you do when someone directs you.  Peregrine was learning how to manage his own body to keep himself more comfortable – all of the time – not just when I was around.

If clicker training had simply been another way to teach standard behavior, it would have been an interesting stepping stone, but it would not have held my attention in the way that it has for over twenty years.  Peregrine showed me that it is so much more.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  What a wise horse you are.  Thank you for being my teacher.

Today’s Peregrine Story: #11 What Good Trainers Have in Common

I have watched and learned good things from force-based trainers. How am I defining force-based training? This is training that is backed up with a do it or else threat of escalating pressure. The trainer applies light pressure. If the horse complies, the pressure is released and all is well. If the horse fails to respond, the pressure increases until the horse gives a correct response. The more the horse resists, the greater the pressure becomes.

A skilled trainer using these methods can look unbelievably light. Raise an eyebrow and the horse backs up twenty feet. The final result is very impressive and compelling. How magical. Of course we want that. But it is like a magician’s illusion, all built out of slight of hand. We need to remember that the reason the horse backs up for that raised eyebrow is because he knows that if he doesn’t, the subtle directive will turn into the sharp crack of a whip. The threat is always there even if the audience fails to see it.

I make this sound unbelievably harsh, but good force-based trainers can create good results and end up with eager, happy horses. Good trainers no matter what methods they use share many of the same characteristics.

Good trainers are splitters. They break their lessons down into many small steps. If you are a force-based trainer and you are heading straight for the towering brick wall, you will end up in a fight. But if you tear that wall down and build it up brick by brick, layer by layer – in other words if you are a good teacher – then the amount of do-it-or-else pressure you will be adding at any one step will be small. You will be building confidence in your learner that he can succeed. He can figure out what you want, and he can do it.

If your small steps are accompanied by good timing, your requests will be clear and fair. You will truly be working for the good of the horse. Safety will be built into your training, and you will be a trainer I can watch and learn from.

It is important to make these distinctions and not put all the eggs into the same basket. It’s only the rotten eggs that need to be left out.

When we see training that violates safety, we need to speak out. It can be hard. Punishers are good at punishing. And they will all tell you it is for the good of the horse.

But good trainers know there is always another way to train everything. If I am working with someone who isn’t comfortable with one of the choices I’ve made for their horse, I’ll change the lesson plan. There is ALWAYS another way to teach what we are after.

If you are working with a trainer who tells you that lassoing the horse’s hind leg to get it over it’s fear of shots is the way to go, it’s okay for you to say you aren’t comfortable with that method – it isn’t safe for your horse and to please find a different way. A good trainer won’t belittle you or make you feel bad. A good trainer will listen to your concerns for your horse’s welfare. A good trainer will respect you more for standing up for your horse. And a good trainer will find another way. There is ALWAYS another way.

That wasn’t what I expected to write when I began writing Peregrine’s birthday stories, but these are important lessons he has taught me.  So let me share a fun clicker story.
Peregrine’s early experiences left him with a deep distrust of all things veterinary, but during his long recovery from the after effects of Potomac horse fever, he had many lameness exams.  I had by then settled on a very good vet who I have used for the past twenty years.  One morning he arrived at the barn to do nerve blocks to evaluate Peregrine’s recovery.

I brought Peregrine out into the barn aisle.  My vet prepped Peregrine’s ankle and then popped the first needle in.  Peregrine stood perfectly.  He never picked up a foot, but he did quiver his skin so the needle popped out before the anesthetic could be given.

My vet took a deep breath and tried again.  He was trying to be patient but he was exhausted.  He had been up all night with emergencies, and he was heading next to a large thoroughbred breeding farm to vaccinate yearlings.  He did not need to start his day out fighting with Peregrine.

He had met Peregrine first many years before when Peregrine was three.  He was an associate in the vet practice I used at that time.  Another vet had just joined the practice, and they were traveling together that day.  Peregrine was colicing.  We needed to get a tube down him to give him fluids, but even sedated and twitched he was fighting hard.  Both stifles were locked tight which made things even worse.  He kept plunging forward trying to release his joints, and no matter what they did, they couldn’t get him to swallow the tube.  The more they tried, the harder he fought.

Finally the new associate suggested that they get the smaller pony tube from the truck.  He had found that sometimes the smaller diameter made a difference.  Sure enough, the smaller tube went down without a fight.  Peregrine simply couldn’t swallow the larger tube.  That’s why he had been fighting so hard against them.  Once again, I learned he was always right.

On the next visit my vet told me that as they were driving away the new associate said he couldn’t believe “that horse” wasn’t in a hole in the ground.  With stifles that locked so badly he couldn’t imagine why anyone would bother with such a horse.

My vet moved out of the area, and I changed barns several times as well, but when he came back into the area, I switched to his practice, and he has been Peregrine’s main vet ever since.  He knew Peregrine when he was a young challenging horse with severely locking stifles, and he has seen the transformation that clicker training helped create.

So on this morning he knew that twitching Peregrine was only going to lead to a fight.  With his history, twitches didn’t subdue Peregrine.  They frightened him and made him fight harder because way back when he was learning about vets, he couldn’t swallow a full sized nasal tube.

Besides, how was a twitch going to help?  Peregrine was standing perfectly still.  He hadn’t moved a foot.  He was simply twitching his skin so the needles fell out.

I could tell my vet was becoming increasingly frustrated so I intervened.

“Look,” I said.  “Peregrine has a tool in him that we’re not using.  He’s clicker trained.”  I explained briefly what this meant, and then I gave him some simple instructions.  I had him stroke down Peregrine’s leg.  I clicked, but I had my vet hand Peregrine his treat.  After the second click, I could see Peregrine visibly relax.  This vet was speaking his language.

My vet wanted to jump directly to popping the needle in, but I had him stroke down Peregrine’s leg a little further.  Click, he handed him another treat.  Now he was stroking down around his ankle.  Click.  He handed him a treat, then he stroked down the leg and popped the needle in.  This time it stayed in.  Peregrine was relaxed.  There was no more quivering it out.

The whole process, including the explanation, had taken less than five minutes.  We got the job done without a fight.  Everyone won.  I got the information I needed from the nerve blocks.  Peregrine had a good experience with the vet.  And my tired vet didn’t add to his fatigue by starting his day with a fight.  It was a great lesson for all of us.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  What great gifts you have been sharing with us.

Today’s Peregrine Story: #10 Standing Up For Our Horses

I was at a horse expo watching a trainer crack a bull whip over a horse’s head. She first warned the audience to cover their ears because the crack was going to be loud. The horse couldn’t cover his ears, and he couldn’t get away. Over and over again she cracked the whip around his body. Each time you could see his belly tighten. You know the expression tied up in knots. That’s how this horse was clearly feeling.

This isn’t training. This is learned helplessness.

We know about learned helplessness from some terrible laboratory experiments that were done with dogs. The dogs were restrained in harnesses and given electric shocks through electrodes attached to their foot pads. For the experiment two dogs were yoked together. The first dog could stop the shocks by pressing a lever which also stopped the shocks the second dog was receiving. The second dog could not stop the shocks through it’s own actions.

In the second half of the experiment the dogs were placed in a room with a barrier down the center. The floor they were on had electric wires running through it. Again the dogs were shocked. The dogs that had learned that they could control the shocks jumped over the divider and escaped. The dogs that had not been able to control the shocks made no attempt to jump out.

Nothing was restraining them. They could have jumped across the partition to the safety of the other side, but instead they just curled up in a ball and took the shocks. Learned helplessness. They didn’t believe any more that they could escape.

Is this what we want for our horses? The trainer with the bull whip had a benign intent. This horse was pushy and tended to spook. The trainer wanted to be sure the horse was safe for the owner to be around.

Safety does always come first – but that has to mean for BOTH the horse and the handler. The trainer continued to crack the bull whip around this horse. I don’t know how long it continued. I left to find the show management to get it stopped and to issue a complaint.

I know if I push against you, you will push back against me. And I know that we will not all make the same training choices. There are many in the clicker training community who want to avoid the use of leads and any use of pressure. But pressure and release of pressure is our riding language so I’ve made it part of clicker training. I want the horses to learn how to use the information that pressure provides in a constructive way. I want it to mean not do it or else, but follow the hints the pressure is offering and you’ll get to your reinforcer faster. How we teach changes how it is perceived.

We all make different choices. We all draw our lines at different points. People who are exploring coercive, force-based training methods want good things for their horses. They see that the end results can look very light. They see that horses can be responsive. They are afraid of the dangerous behaviors they are dealing with, and they are looking for solutions that work.
I don’t want to push against these good intentions, or the exploration that each of us goes through as we sort out how we want to train. But at some point we all need to remember that it is more than okay, it is our responsibility to stand up for our horses. We are their voice. When we see methods that cross the lines of safe training, we need to be able to move past the words the trainers are using to describe what they are doing and see what is really going on.

Peregrine is a crossover horse.  That means he didn’t start out with clicker training.  We began with the training methods that were being taught within the general horse community.  I learned how to say “now here this! This is what you are to do.”  And he learned to say “No, I can’t!  I won’t”  Instead of getting tougher, I learned to be smarter.  Together we found a way to say “Let’s do this together.”

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  Thank you for the gift of true partnership you have given me.

Today’s Peregrine Story: #9 My Soap Box

I wrote yesterday about Peregrine’s mother.  Some wonderful things have grown out of that terrible training accident, but I am never very far removed from the consequences. It reached past her life and changed Peregrine’s. I’ve also written about his foaling, how she got down against a stall wall and couldn’t get up. He was boxed in by the corner of the stall, trapped in her pelvis. If I had not been camped out beside her stall, ready to help, I would have lost them both. Peregrine’s spine was damaged by the foaling. That in turn led to his locking stifles which led to a challenging first few years of training which led through a series of twists and turns to clicker training. So again good things came out of a hard beginning.

It has also given me the right to stand on the soap box that actively promotes positive training methods.  When I first started introducing clicker training to the horse world, I was very careful what I said about other training methods. Clicker training was the new kid on the block. If I came in like gang busters denouncing what everyone else was doing and saying “my way is the best”, I’d have been pounced on and crushed – and rightly so. If you push against someone, of course, they are going to push back.

So I chose not to comment on what was occurring in the rest of the equine training community. At times this was incredibly difficult. There have been so many emerging trends over the last thirty years. Many, very horse-friendly advances have been made. Acupuncture, chiropractic work, physical therapies of many varieties are now common. But why do we need so many interventions? In many cases it is because we also have so many “methods” that are so very hard on horses. Strip away the rhetoric, and you will see revealed some horrific things being done in the name of training.

The words often sound great. Everyone talks about partnership, harmony, etc.. But when you turn the sound down on the videos and watch what is actually being done to horses, it is at times nothing more than abuse.

I remember watching one video where the trainer’s solution to a needle shy horse was to run him to exhaustion in a round pen. The horse was wearing a rope halter to which was attached a long lead. He was trapped between the lead controlling his head and a rope lassoed around his hind leg. A strong twenty-something handler had a hold of the lead. The trainer was riding a stocky quarter horse, controlling from the saddle the rope around the horse’s hind leg.

Every few minutes the trainer would tighten the rope, and the horse would go bucking and pitching around the pen. Then they would back off and give the horse a short break. The horse’s sides were heaving from fear and exertion.  The trainer, meanwhile, was telling stories about how much he was helping this horse to get along with people. He was like a skilled magician distracting an audience away from the things he didn’t want them to see.

After about forty minutes of this, his assistant did indeed manage to wrestle this horse into a head lock and give him a pretend shot. As his owner walked him out of the round pen, the trainer told her the horse might be a bit stiff for a few days, and he’d need some ointment for the rope burns on his hock.

I was horrified. Whatever happened to safety always comes first!? Whatever happened to common sense and humane handling!?

The trainer never asked for a physical history on this horse. Did he have any hock or hind end issues that might be made worse by this kind of handling? Suspending a horse as they did between the two ropes could easily have resulted in an injury to his pelvis, his spine, his hind legs. He could have ended up with the same kind of neurological damage that had so crippled Peregrine’s mother. Was it worth it? All this just to give a shot! When you see the videos from the zoos and aquariums showing wild animals – whales, dolphins, cheetahs, giraffes, rhinos, baboons etc. – voluntarily presenting themselves for shots and blood draws, you have to question these methods.

This is a soap box I have earned the right to stand on because for over thirty years I have lived with the consequences of this sort of “get it done at any cost” training approach. We do get to stand up for our horses and say find a different way, find a better way. Find a humane way.

And always, always – safety does come first.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  We have learned some hard lessons together, but we have come safely through to this.

Today’s Peregrine Story: #8 They Don’t Feel Pain The Way We Do

Shortly before she became mine, Peregrine’s mother was injured in a handling incident. One of the teenagers at the barn had been given the assignment of pulling her mane. In case you aren’t familiar with this technique, it is literally what the name implies. The mane is shortened and tidied up by pulling out the longer strands.

The horses I grew up with never had their manes pulled. The first time I watched this being done it was to a young racehorse, a two year old who was literally climbing the walls trying to get away. The trainer stood outside the stall door watching as a young handler struggled to get the job done.

I couldn’t help asking what they were doing. It looked to me like some horrific form of torture. The trainer dismissed my concerns. “They don’t feel pain the way we do,” he said. In his view, the mare was climbing the walls not because of pain, but because she was being disobedient. That’s a great example of the stories we tell ourselves – and come to believe – to make things okay.

Peregrine’s mother wasn’t in a stall the first time someone tried to pull her mane. Shortly before she officially became my horse, it was decided she should have her mane tidied up. For her introduction to this procedure she was tied tight to a post supporting a four foot high fence. To get away from the pain she presumably didn’t feel, she jumped the fence. You could say it showed how athletic she was that she was able to jump the fence with her head snubbed up tight to the post. Really, it just says how desperately she needed to get away.

I only learned about it because I saw scrapes on her legs and asked about them. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the full scope of the injuries she sustained. Her spine was damaged in what was a very avoidable accident. My beautiful, athletic, perfect horse became a wobbler. That is exactly what the name suggests. She sustained neurological damage as a result of that incident. She couldn’t tell where her hind legs were so she wobbled about trying to stay on her feet.

I learned over time just how profoundly compromised she was. Eventually it became hard for her even to walk without falling. All the dreams I had had for her as a riding horse were set aside as I tried to help her learn the most basic of motor skills. It was my early training experiences with her that taught me about small steps, and about finding ways around the many “brick walls” that were thrown up in her path. Long before I ever heard about clickers and positive reinforcement, she taught me how to break things down into the smallest of small steps. The power of those lessons formed the core of what clicker training means to me.

She taught me to believe in the power of change. You cannot NOT change. How’s that for a sentence! But it’s true. We are constantly changing. The question is: are you changing towards something or are you simply always reverting back to familiar patterns?

If you don’t believe that change is possible, you will always be reverting back to the same reality that you currently find yourself mired down in. I didn’t know what change, if any, was possible for her. The vets at the time painted a very bleak future for us. I just knew that I had to deal with the challenges each day presented.

Stepping over the sill of her stall door was hard for her. But it was something she needed to be able to do, so we worked on stepping over ground poles. Those were terrifying for her, so I put a rope on the ground instead. Even that was too hard, so I drew a line in the dirt. That she could manage so that’s where we began.

She was showing me that no matter how small a step may seem, there is always, ALWAYS a smaller step you can find.

That is truly at the heart of all good training. It is certainly at the heart of how I think about clicker training.

Eventually she was able to walk over those ground poles, and the sill of her stall was no longer a problem. She could even manage a small cross rail. We didn’t know what was possible. We just kept working on the little things that challenged her. Eventually the little things grew into wonderful things. She became my riding partner and introduced me to the world of classical dressage.

She is why at the core of everything I teach there is balance. For me balance is everything. It gave her life. When some people talk about dressage, they see competition rings and rosettes. I see balance. That’s what dressage means to me. The end result may indeed take you to the show ring, but first it takes you to a feel that is heaven itself. Balance is everything. It is life-giving, life sustaining. It is beauty, grace, power. It is love.

Peregrine continues to teach me those lessons his mother began.
Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine