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!
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.
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 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.
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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: