Goat Diaries – Clicker Training Day 2: These Goats Are Smart!

The goat palace is almost finished.  We were hoping to get it done yesterday afternoon, but we didn’t quite make it.  The three yearlings are feeling very squashed in the stall by the oldest female, Thanzi.  She is making it very clear that they are TO STAY IN YOUR CORNER.  I am glad we decided in our construction to use the entire space the lean-to provided and didn’t just settle for making a small goat pen.  They will have plenty of room to spread out.

So for this morning it is back to July and the Goat Diaries.  I had gotten as far as mid-morning of E and P’s second day of clicker training.

Training Rhythms

Good training begins to have a rhythm to it, especially in these early stages where you are asking for simple behaviors, and you’re keeping the rates of reinforcement high. It’s get the behavior – click and feed, get the behavior – click and feed, – get the behavior, click and feed. It becomes a training loop. We’re looking for clean loops.

When a loop is clean you get to move on, and not only do you get to move on you should move on. That’s the mantra of loopy training. Often people change criteria too fast which ends up confusing the learners. Or they stay too long at one step so they build a glass ceiling into their training.  To the learner backing up means three steps and only three steps. If the handler asks for four, there’s frustration. The learner knows the behavior. It’s three steps and three steps only!

The mantra of loopy training helps you to know when to move on. It also helps you to know when you should pause for a moment to let your learner show you what he has learned. Canine trainer, Kay Laurence refers to these pauses as puzzle moments.

In these early sessions with these goats I was beginning to establish some training loops. P in particular was such a fast learner, it was time to give him some puzzle moments to see what dots he was connecting.  If you aren’t sure what a puzzle moment looks like, P is about to show you.

Session 3: 11 am
I started with P out in the pen. He was ready, eager to touch a target, but my attention was elsewhere.  I was busy setting up the camera. I was very aware that I might be missing a window of opportunity. We began with a little targeting. He oriented to it, I clicked, fed, and then clicked and fed again while he was still out of my space. The jumping up on me to try to get the food that he had been doing in the previous session was almost completely gone.  My active use of food delivery was paying off.

Click for targeting. Feed where the perfect goat would be. The perfect goat would have all four feet on the ground. He would be looking straight ahead, and he would be outside my personal space.

After I clicked, I fed P so he had to take a step or two back to get the food. My concern here was the food delivery caused him to curl his neck so his head was in the orientation it would be for butting with his horns. I didn’t want to trigger that behavior. But head butting is a forward moving behavior. Here he was moving back, so I hoped that his feet would keep his head from thinking he should be charging me.

Get them while they’re standing still.

I fed P so he had to back up a couple of steps to get to the treat in my hand. Before he could come forward again, click, I was giving him a treat – this time where he was standing. I wanted him to get the idea. Standing still, away from me, is a good thing. Click treat, click treat. I was tightening the training loop down to the tiny fraction of a second in which he was standing still looking straight ahead.

The neighbors were mowing the hill up above the barn. P kept turning his head to the side to check them out. His feet were still, but I didn’t want to make such a full head turn part of the behavior. I had to wait, hoping his feet would be still when he finally looked back in my direction. Click then treat.

When I clicked, I used my food delivery to move him back a couple of steps. I wanted to be able to click again while he was still standing back out of my space. I also wanted his head to be straight. If I clicked too many times when his head was turned, I was concerned that I would build that into the base behavior. So I had to wait to click until his feet were still AND he had his head straight. Asking for two criteria at once was pushing my luck. The first couple of times he was too quick for me. He straightened his head, but just as I began to click, he was shifting forward.

I moved him back again with the food delivery. He took his treat from my hand.  Before I could click again, he had come forward into my space.

I work hard to avoid putting my learners into a macro extinction process.  Here’s what that means: This behavior has been consistently working to get me to hand you treats. Only now suddenly, it’s not. You’re not going to be reinforced for this very successful behavior.

We all know how frustrating this can be. You put your money in the vending machine and nothing comes out. Time to shake the vending machine!

My training rhythm was broken and P didn’t yet have enough experience in the game to know what to do. His repertoire of behaviors was still too limited to offer me something I could reinforce. Instead he was trying to go directly to my pockets. I suspect by this point the small children he had grown up with would have dropped pretzels and peanuts all over the floor and everyone would be happy. The children would be giggling, and P would be gobbling up the goodies. Only this wasn’t how I played the game. How annoying!

P gave a little chuff of a sneeze. I had llamas years ago, so I recognized this sound as a sign of frustration. He tried both my pockets. Nothing. He gave a head toss which I dodged, and then I got lucky. He dropped his head away from me enough so that I could reinforce him. The food delivery moved him out of my space, and we were back on track building good behavior.

Goats day 2 what frustration looks like 4 photos.png

 

Goats Day 2 back up to get clicked 3 photos.png

Training is not without moments of frustration. I was beginning to recognize what this looked like in a goat. A little tail wiggle, a snort, a head butting gesture – these all told me that P was struggling a bit to make sense of what was happening. Why wasn’t I just giving him treats! That’s what the children would have done. And if they didn’t give him treats, he’d just jump up on them, and that was sure to make them scatter their peanuts and pretzels on the ground!

But here this was different. He was clearly frustrated. Doing what had always worked in the past, namely crowding into me didn’t work. Looking away, taking a step back, produced treats!  It made no sense to him, so while it produced treats it also produced a puzzled goat.  And a puzzled goat can very quickly become a frustrated goat.  Noted.

I was monitoring carefully. Always I am asking myself is this working? Is this the best strategy? How much frustration is too much? What should I change? Should I stop?

Puzzle solving!

There is a time to be clicking, and a time to just wait it out and let your learner work out the puzzle. Through the food delivery, I had shown P the answer. Back away and you get treats. Would he put the pieces of the puzzle together? I waited. The skill here is to be quiet, to remain as non-reactive as you can be and let him figure out the answer. A puzzle you solve for yourself, is an answer you will own.

He could sniff at my pockets. I remained non-reactive. How frustrating! I was not playing the game fair. The children would have been flailing their arms about and pushing him away. Which meant they would also have been dropping treats. Push on the vending machine, and it scatters goodies over the ground, except not now.

His feet took him back a couple of steps. Click – treat. The next time the backing was even more definite.

He caught on fast and began to back away from me. When he came forward into my space, now I could wait. It was a puzzle moment. What would he do? I had shown him the answer through the food delivery. Would he find it now on his own?

The answer was yes! He backed up, not just a little, but multiple steps. And he backed with energy. Very neat!

Goats day 2 Quick study 5 photos.png

P was definitely a quick study. He was beginning to understand that he could get the food by doing other things besides jumping up or bumping my pockets. It was a really fun session watching him catch on so fast. Though I got the impression that he was still very confused. Backing was clearly working, but it didn’t make sense to him. How could backing up get treats to appear? He was a very puzzled goat.

I sympathized. We’ve all been given sets of instructions that make no sense. Whatever is logical – do the opposite. How maddening is that! Especially when it works!

I would find out in the next session if P could reconcile himself to this new inside-out world order.

(Note: we had moved on in the treats. I was now using a mix of peanuts, peanut hulls, sunflower seeds and hay stretcher pellets as treats.)

Training time for this session: 6 minutes.

Video: Video: Goat Diaries Day 2: A Quick Study: Note you will need a password to watch this video: GoatDiariesDay 2 E Learns
“A puzzle solved is a behavior owned.” P showed me he was making the connections – fast!

Video: GOAT DIARIES/Day 2/Problem Solving: Note you will need a password to watch this video: GoatDiariesDay 2 E Learns

 

Coming next: Day 2 Continued – Two Different Learners

JOY FULL Horses: Part 3: Going Micro: Unit 3: Patterns

Patterns
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.

In the previous section I talked about base positions and movement cycles, and how they can be used to create high success rates.  These create repeating patterns.  You are doing the same sequence of behaviors over and over again.  I’ve heard people say they don’t like drilling patterns.  Their animals get bored.  They get bored.  Patterns, they will tell you, are the death knell to good training.

All I can say is that’s not been my experience.  Horses thrive on patterns.  They like the predictability of knowing what is coming next.  They like being successful.

They aren’t the only ones.  We thrive on patterns.  Want proof.  Look at how easily we fall into them.  We are creatures of habit, which means we are creatures of patterns.  Rather than fighting against this tendency, I’m going to use it to my advantage.

I’m going to create tight, clean, repeatable loops.  I’ll follow the mantra of loopy training.  When a loop is clean, I get to move on.  And not only do I get to move on, I should move on.  

When my whole behavior cycle is clean, I’ll change my criteria slightly.  Maybe I’m teaching my horse to back up through a corner.  I’ll begin by getting just a step or two of backing. I’ll ask for this well away from the corner.  I’ll start out very micro in my requests.  I’ll be satisfied at first with just slight shifts of his balance.  I don’t need a full step back to get the process started.  Even a slight rock back is enough.  Click.  I’ll feed him so he rocks forward to the starting point.  I have a movement cycle.  He is in position to begin again.

When the loop is clean, it’s time to move on. That’s what keeps the use of patterns from becoming boring.  They are changing, growing, becoming more complex, more interesting at such a rapid pace.  I am reinforced by the progress I experience in every session.  I don’t stay stuck on one criterion, drilling away at it until it feels stale and begins to fall apart.  My steps are small, my criterion precise, and that means my horse and I experience tremendous success.

The process reminds me of bending a coat hanger.  The more you bend it, the softer it gets.  So, as my horse rocks back and forth between the ask and the food the delivery, he will be getting softer and softer.  The clickable point will shift seamlessly.  I’ll ask him to rock back a little more, click, feed forward.  A couple of clicks later, I can ask him to take a full step back, click, feed forward.  I’ll build that loop, let it stabilize briefly, and then move on to the next small shift in criterion.   As my loop expands, my pattern will grow increasingly complex, but always I am expanding it one very achievable, small step at a time.

My pattern will become a large, predictable, repeatable loop.  My learner won’t be worrying about what is coming next.  He knows the pattern well.  It’s click, check in with the handler to see where the food is going to be delivered, retrieve your treat, and then continue on to the next well-rehearsed step in the pattern.  Because every element in the pattern has been taught with such clarity and with positive reinforcement, every element can serve as a reinforcer for the behaviors that precede it.

That’s another benefit of this process.  The behaviors that I have taught through my clean loops can now be used to reinforce other elements in my ever-growing pattern.  I can place the click and treat at strategic points wherever I feel the added information they provide is needed.  Adding to their motivating value, every behavior in a well-constructed pattern also serves as a reinforcer.  If you want to understand how to teach patterns as complex as a dressage test using the clicker, this is the key that will unlock that puzzle.  Going micro creates the macro.

This is a game that’s fun to play because it is so easy for you both to win.  Isn’t that one of the characteristics of play?  You’re both winners.

Coming Next: How Clicker Trainers 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.

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOY Full Horses: Part 2: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, JOY Full Horses.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

In the preceding section I talked about why it is so important to be in a PLAY Full mindset when you go out to the barn.  I ended with this:

You want to build a conditioned response for yourself.  No matter what sort of a day you’ve had, as soon as you head out to the barn – your mood shifts.  The good news is you really can build triggers for yourself that turn this into a habit.  In this section I’ll be explaining how.

Number 2: Non-Verbal Cues, continued

Chapter 2: Turning being PLAY FULL into a Habit

Power of habit book cover

The Power of Habits
It’s all well and good to say we want to be PLAY FULL.  Your intentions may be good, but what is the reality?  What are your emotional patterns?  Is it your habit to be cheerful, or do you let the stresses of the day get the better of you?  How do you develop the habit of being PLAY FULL so that’s always how you are when you’re with your horse?

In his excellent book, “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg talks about how to alter existing habits and how to build new, desirable ones.

Without knowing it he was describing a process we use in clicker training to build clean sequences of behavior.  Clean means the sequences are made up only of the behaviors you want.  There are no unwanted behaviors messing up the progression from one behavior to the next or attaching themselves tight as a tick onto existing behaviors.

I refer to this teaching process as Loopy Training. You begin with a tight, small loop.  We often write this as:

click to reward

Reward is the short hand that’s often used, but it’s not the best word to choose.  Rewards certainly imply something good has been presented, but they aren’t necessarily directly linked to the behavior you’re trying to say “yes” to.  Getting a Christmas bonus may make you look forward even more to the Holidays, but it’s a clumsy way to reinforce you for a job well done in September. If the reward was linked to the task, it would serve as a much better reinforcer.

To remind us that we want to maintain the “ABC” tight connection between the behavior and it’s consequences, it is better to write this phrase out as:

click to reinforcement

Reinforce means to strengthen.  You reinforce a bridge or concrete.  You reinforce relationships.  If our actions reinforce a behavior, we should see more of that behavior.

When we write out this single phrase, it’s easy for our brains to end the sequence there and not see this as an on-going process.  We really should be writing this as:

loopy training diagram
As Duhigg describes them, habits are very much like that training loop.  They begin with a cue that triggers them, then the response, followed by the reward (or to use the language of animal trainers – followed by reinforcement.)

We all know we have habits – good and bad.  We are in the habit of always closing pasture gates once we’ve gone through them, of latching stall doors, turning off the barn lights when we go out.  Those are good habits to be in, but you might also have bad habits such as saying “you know” too often when you talk, or stopping at Starbucks on your way home for that extra sweet cup of coffee and sugar.

What the research makes us aware of is just how much of our lives are run by habits.  Going to the barn is one of my habits.  (And a very good one.)  Before the horses moved to the new barn, I would see them in the evening.  My schedule was dictated by the evening chores.  At the boarding barn stalls were cleaned only once a day in the morning.  If I wanted my horses to go overnight on a clean bed, I had to be there in the evening to do it.  And if I wanted to leave them with a warm mash and a late night snack of hay, again I had to be there to pass it out.  The last feed done by the barn staff was at 4 pm, and that’s too long a stretch to go until morning for a horse’s digestive system.

So my days revolved around the need to be at the barn to do evening chores.  Often I’d get to the barn feeling completely wiped out from a long day. At the start of the evening I’d be thinking this really is not going to be a riding night, but by the time I was cleaning the last of our stalls, I’d be itching to get my saddle out.  What had changed?

I was in a behavior chain.  I did the stalls in a consistent pattern.  Completing one stall became the cue to move on to the next.  I was moving from one conditioned response to the next.  By the time I got to the last stall, the triggers for riding were cued.  It happened every night.

cue:trigger loop
The Effect of Cues
The reinforcement in this case was the cue for the next link in the chain.  Confused?  Here’s an easy way to think of this.  Suppose you’re teaching a puppy to sit.  You say “sit”, and as he does, you click and give him a bit of hot dog.  The word “sit” will fast become a predictor of hot dogs.  Your puppy loves hot dogs, and he loves all the social attention sitting brings him, so he’ll be eager to hear you give the cue.  In fact he’ll be on the lookout for ways to get you to say “sit”.

If he jumps up on you and you say “sit”, and then you give him a bit of hot dog for listening so well to you, what have you in fact just reinforced?  What behavior are you going to see more of?

Jumping up.

Why?

Because jumping up led to the cue “sit” which reliably produces hot dogs.

This may not be what you intended, but this is the habit pattern you are inadvertently creating.

In my case I was reinforcing good habits.  Each little habit led me predictably through my evening.  The last step in this long sequence brought me to the last ride of the night which was always reserved for Peregrine.  I always saved his session for the end.  Why? Why do we save desert for the end of the meal? Because we want to leave our favorite, best reward for the end.

Unexpected Habits
When we moved the horses to the new barn, my day flipped upside down.  Instead of going out to the barn in the evening, I was now going first thing in the morning.  I had been looking forward to being able to ride whenever I wanted.  In a boarding barn you are always working around other people’s schedules.  Here in my own barn I could ride at any time.  At least, that was the theory.  The reality was my habits got in the way.

Mornings were for working on the computer.  I would finish the last of the stalls, and then head into the tack room but not to get my saddle.  The tack room also served as a temporary office.  That’s where my computer was.  Riding the horses in the morning felt decadent.  The pull to the computer trumped playing with the horses.  That was the stronger morning habit.

Most of what we do through the course of our day is really the result of one habit piled on top of another.  I’m not talking here about the big, noticeable habits that we are probably aware of, but lots of tiny microhabits that go into forming the routine of our day.

Emotional Habits
It’s not just what we do that are determined by these habits.  It’s also how we feel about what we do.  I became very aware of this because of all the traveling that I do.  At home my day follows routines.  Not every day is the same, but it is made up of familiar segments.  Some days include a trip to the post office. That forms a distinct loop inside the larger flow of my day.  Once I enter that habit loop, it unfolds in familiar sequences with emotions attached to it that are the product of classical conditioning.

There’s the feeling of annoyance while I stand waiting in line.  I don’t mind lines in and of themselves.  I stand in lots of other lines, even other post office lines, without this feeling of grumpiness descending upon me.  It’s the inefficiency of the way this particular post office branch is run that triggered the original grump.  Now whenever I walk up the steps towards the front doors, I can feel my mood shift.  There might not be any line at all, or maybe one of the more efficient clerks is at the window.  It doesn’t matter.  I was in a good mood as I drove to the post office, but now as I walk up the steps, I can feel my mood shifting as I am drawn into the “post office habit loop”.

Traveling Outside Your Habits
When I travel, I step outside of all of these classically conditioned triggers.  I get to experience “me”, not the “me” of my daily habits.  I think this is why people enjoy traveling on their vacations.  They could stay home and spend time in their own backyards, but that doesn’t give them a break from their habits.  Traveling may not be more restful, but it certainly creates more of a change when you can step outside not just of familiar landscapes but also of familiar habits.

I’ll let you mull this over as you think about your own traveling experiences, and I’ll pick up next time with a continued discussion of micro-habits.

Coming next: Chapter 2 continued: Micro-habits

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 “Joyful 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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1: Afternoon Session

This is Part 2 in this series.  The horse I am featuring was one of the horses at the November 2015 Arkansas clinic.  He had no clicker training experience prior to the clinic.  We tracked his progress via video over a three day period. 

If you have not already read Part 1, I suggest you begin there.  Part 1 covers the morning sessions of Day 1.  This article covers the afternoon sessions of Day 1.

Afternoon Targeting Sessions

Just when you think you have that rare thing, a complete video record of a horse’s introduction to clicker training, you discover that several sessions are missing.  For the first two rounds of Nick’s afternoon session the record button wasn’t on.

In both sets he was at the door waiting for me and began with three very definite target touches.  He came forward promptly, touched the target and backed up easily for the treat delivery.  He came out further over the stall guard than he had been in the morning.  His interest in the game was growing.  That was encouraging progress, but it was also that’s something needed to be monitored.  I wanted to make sure that this new found confidence remained in balance with his general good manners.

In both rounds he showed the same cycle.  He began by touching the target promptly with none of the hesitation that he had shown in the morning.  He gave three solid touches, and then his response rate dipped down.  That was also something to monitor.

As usual we discussed what to do with the next round of treats.  Everything about his behavior suggested that he would be fine if I went into the stall with him.  He was backing easily out of my space.  He was taking the treats politely without any excessive mugging behavior.

Because he was now showing me that he would back away from me, I felt comfortable going into the stall with him.  But that didn’t mean I had to go in.  I could stay outside the stall and continue with the targeting.  Or I could introduce one of the other foundation lessons.  The consensus from the group was to continue with the targeting to get the come-forward-to-the-target-back-up-to-get-the-treat loop cleaner.

Again there is no right or wrong to this.  We could have made some other choice.  Nick’s behavior would tell us if the choices we made were heading us in a good direction.

Video: An Introduction To Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 3rd Session

Data Collected. Now It’s Assessment Time

People felt this was his best round yet.  I kept this session very short.  I got three good touches and then ended the session.  This avoided the dip in behavior that we had seen earlier.  Nick was clearly still very cautious in his responses.  This is a process that has to unfold in it’s own time.

Several of the clinic participants wondered if we should change targets or change treats.  It’s always a possibility.  One of the huge advantages of clicker training is there is always more than one way to train every behavior.  There isn’t one and only one right way that you have to follow.  That’s what makes these discussions so valuable.  We could certainly try a different target, or introduce a different foundation lesson, but it was also okay to stay with what we were doing.

With Nick, I was still working with simple targeting, but in each round there had been significant changes.  I began by offering him the food approximately where the target had been.  Now I could move him back to get his treat which meant he then had to step forward to touch the target.  The shaping of more complex behavior was occurring almost without his noticing.  In the morning he started out much more on the forehand.  I made a point of feeding him in a way that shifted his balance back slightly which brought him off his front end.  That then allowed me to feed him so he moved back even more.  You are now seeing in the video clip how he is moving back well out of my way to get the treat.

Because I can feed him so he steps back, the dynamic of touching the target changes.  I will often see people moving the target around through big changes.  They’ll hold it high, then low, then out to the side.  Most horses can follow these changes and continue to touch the target.  Essentially the handler is being reinforced for changing criterion in big stair steps.  We call that lumping.  It works for a simple behavior like targeting, but I would rather see the handler learn to build behaviors more smoothly, so a response is already happening consistently before it becomes the criterion that earns the click.

Questions

Training must always take into consideration any health concerns.  One of the questions I had concerned Nick’s teeth.  I wondered how long ago they had been checked.  Nick not only took a long time to eat the hay stretcher pellets, I never heard him take them up onto his back molars to chew.  So I wondered if he might have some sharp points or some other issues that were contributing to his overall caution.  His owner said he had very recently been done by a good dentist.  That’s good to hear, but it doesn’t completely eliminate my question.

It’s so hard to judge how well an equine dentist is doing.  We can look at our horse’s feet to see if a farrier is leaving flare and other obvious signs that perhaps we need to question the job he’s doing.  But with teeth it’s much harder to evaluate the job a dentist has done.  Reaching in to check for points isn’t something we’re trained to do.

Even if you’ve had the teeth checked recently, it’s always possible that something has happened since to cause a problem.  Nick’s owner reported that he is very tight in his jaw and his poll.  That’s consistent with the way he was eating his treats.  This is all part of this early data collecting phase of the training.  Many of the concerns and questions that these early sessions raise may well simply disappear as Nick figures out the game.  What remains needs to be looked at with the possibility that there is a physical issue interfering with his ability to respond well.  For now we were very much still in an exploratory stage, so I continued on with another targeting session, the fourth of the afternoon:

Video  An Introduction To Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 4th Session

The Grown-up Are Talking, Please Don’t Interrupt

In the discussion that followed this set, we decided that it would be interesting to shift gears and introduce Nick to an exercise which I refer to as: the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.  At it’s most basic this exercise is asking if the horse can keep his nose away from my treat pocket when I’m standing in close to him. Initially I free shape this lesson, meaning I am not prompting or triggering the correct response through my behavior.  I am simply observing Nick and reinforcing him for approximations that move him closer to my overall goal.

If he comes into my space or nudges at my arm, I’ll let him explore.  It’s important that he feels safe experimenting.  If I correct him for nuzzling my pockets, I can’t expect him to feel safe offering behavior in other ways.  If I don’t feel comfortable letting him nuzzle my pockets, I can always step back out of range.

When he moves his nose away from my body, click, I’ll give him a treat.  I’ll feed him out away from my body where the perfect horse would be.  That means he’ll have his head between his shoulders and at a height that puts him into good balance.

In this first round of grown-ups you will see that he spends over a minute investigating my pockets.  I let him explore.  This is such an important part of the process.  He isn’t being punished for coming into my space or nuzzling at my vest.  It isn’t dangerous for him to check out this option, but it also doesn’t get him any treats.

If you’ve been taught that you should never let a horse into your space like this, it can be really hard to watch him nuzzling at my pockets.  During this process his owner told us that he often mugs for treats.  It’s a behavior his previous owners allowed, which may account for his persistence.  But watch how quickly he catches on to this new game.  Moving his nose away from me is the way to get treats!

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 5th Session – the First Asking for  Grown-Ups

In the discussion that followed this session I again emphasized how systematic the unfolding of clicker training is.  The behaviors I work on are very connected one to another.  Even though I haven’t perfected targeting, I can still move on and introduce other behaviors.  In the targeting he was learning that moving his head away from me to touch the blue end of the target stick produced goodies.  In grown-ups he was discovering that moving his head into that same position, even when a target wasn’t present, also produced treats.

I think it’s important early on for horses to discover that there is more than one way for them to earn a click and a treat.  If you work too long on targeting or some other behavior, a horse can get too narrow in his understanding of how the process works.  He will think that there is one and only one behavior that produces treats.  He can become very locked in.  When you try and do something else, he’ll get very frustrated because he feels as though he is being blocked from the one thing that he knows works.  So it’s good to experiment and introduce other behaviors early on in the process.

Remember there is no one and only one right answer.  If we had stayed with another round of targeting, would that have been wrong?  No.  If we had moved from targeting sooner, would we have been wrong?  No.  If we had switched to a different target or to different treats, would we have been wrong?  No.

Nick is definitely cautious in his approach to the target, but at this stage that isn’t a bad thing.  We’re at the beginning of a huge paradigm shift.  I’m letting him come into my space and sniff at my hands and explore my pockets.  He has to do that in order to discover that that’s not what works.  What works is taking his nose away from me.  I’m not going to correct him for nuzzling at me.  I don’t want to punish him for it.  I want him to make that choice on his own with minimal prompting from me.

If I thought he was dangerous, if I thought he was going to bite me, I would step away.  I might even have a different kind of barrier.  Or I might wait to work on this particular lesson.  In other words, I would set it up so I felt safe.  He’s exploring.  He’s experimenting.  While he’s doing so, it’s important that we both feel safe.

If I said to you: I want you to experiment, but recognize that there are sharks in the water.  And now go dip your toe in the water, you’d say to me: “I’d rather not.”

If I’m correcting him for nuzzling, then experimenting in general is a bad idea.   Trying things has become unsafe.  He’d be right to say the same thing to me. “I’m not going to reach out and touch that target, because I might get smacked.  You may be giving me treats this time, but next time you just might hit me instead.”

This is why I set up the training in this very structured way, and why I begin with protective contact.  I want him to learn that he can experiment safely.

In this next round you’ll see how well this strategy is paying off.  Nick spent most of the previous round mugging my pockets.  Now in this set you’ll see him very deliberately moving his head away from me.

Progress.

Video:  Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training: 6th Session – 2nd Grown-ups.


Nick is showing us why clicker training is so much fun.  With every round we’ve seen a shift, a change in his understanding.  Grown-ups produced for him a real “lightbulb” moment.  Shifting from targeting to grown-ups has helped him “connect the dots”.

It also shows again the value of using these short rounds of training.  You may be thinking: that’s easy to do in a clinic.  You have to stop to talk to the participants and explain what you’re doing.  How am I supposed to do this the the real world of my barn?

It’s really easy to do these short rounds of training in your home environment.  You might do a quick round of targeting and then fill a couple water buckets.  You’d do another short round of targeting and then throw down some hay, or turn out a horse.  You’d do another round, and then sweep the barn aisle.  In other words, in between doing your normal barn chores, you can get in a lot of short sets of training.

After you’ve got your chores done, you might want to have a more “normal” visit with your horse. You want to do more with him than just targeting in a stall.  All your previous training says you need to “work” with your horse.

You can begin to expand your clicker training into all the everyday tasks he already knows.  If he’s a horse like Nick who is safe to handle, by all means bring him out and groom him.  In that grooming session, you’ll be looking for opportunities to click and reinforce him.  If he normally fusses and moves about while you groom him, but right now he’s standing still, click and reinforce him.  When you ask him to move his hips over so you can get by, as he responds, click and reinforce him.

You will now be paying attention to all those little requests that we often take for granted when we groom.  You’ll be finding excuses to click and reinforce him, and in the process you’ll be discovering how much better he can be.  You will still have your “formal” clicker sessions where you focus specifically on targeting and the other foundation lessons.  But you can also begin to incorporate the clicker into the “real world” of everyday tasks and expectations.

Business can continue as usual, but now you have this added communication tool that says: “thank you for a job well done.” 

You’ll be doing this, and you’ll also be continuing with the formal process of introducing him to the six foundation lessons of clicker training.  As your horse masters those lessons, you can use them to make daily husbandry and the rest of your training even better.

Now, if your horse were showing you dangerous behaviors, I wouldn’t be encouraging you to bring him out to groom him.  While he learns how to learn, I would be recommending that you stay with protective contact.  He can be dirty for a while.  If you’re dodging his teeth, there’s nothing that says you have to groom him every day.  If you are seeing behaviors that raise safety concerns, I would teach him the learning-how-to-learn emotional-control aspect of his training with a barrier between you.

After this discussion I decided to finish up with one more round that would include both targeting and the grown-ups are talking lesson.

Video:  An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – Afternoon Training:  7th Session- Targeting & Grown-ups

This was the final round of the day.  In the afternoon we spent approximately fifty minutes focused on Nick.  About 17 minutes of that time was spent working directly with him.  The rest was spent in discussion.  That’s a good ratio, especially at this stage of the training.

One of the things we were discussing were all the changes we were seeing.  You have a huge advantage because you can go back and review the earlier video clips.  Think about all the changes you’ve seen in these clips.  We began in the morning with his first tentative exploration of the target, and now in the afternoon he will step forward to touch a target, and I can move him back with the food delivery.  I can stand next to him with my pockets filled with treats, and he will deliberately take his head away from me.  I can combine targeting and grown-ups in one work session.  That means  I am beginning to introduce him to two important concepts: cues and chaining.  Chaining refers to linking behaviors together via cues to create long sequences of behaviors.

At the beginning of the afternoon session, Nick was starting out with three strong responses and then his rate of response would drop off.  In this final set of the afternoon he was maintaining a high response rate through a long training set.

Throughout each of these training sets I was making choices.  In that very first round, I was deciding what does “orient to the target” look like?  Can he just sniff the target to get clicked, or does he actually have to touch it. These are all choices that have to be made.  Remember there are no rights or wrongs.   With every click I am assessing the horse’s progress.  Have I made a good choice, or do I need to adjust my criterion slightly?

When you are training, it is good to remember this wonderful quote: “It is always go to people for opinions and horses for answers.”  Through his behavior your horse will tell you if you are making good choices.  He will also be telling you if your basic handling skills are clean.  If you are fumbling around in your pocket trying to get out a treat, you’re giving him extra time to mug you.  You don’t want to be collecting unwanted behavior even as you’re reinforcing other things that you want.  The steady progress Nick made through the day told us that on balance the choices were good ones, and the game was making sense to him.  It was time to let him process what he was learning.

One of the expressions I use often in clinics is you never know what you have taught.  You only know what you have presented.  We would be finding out what he was learning by returning the next morning with another round of training.

More Training

That last video marked the end of day 1 of Nick’s introduction to clicker training.  But this wasn’t the end of the day’s training for Nick’s owner.  We spent another fifty minutes working with her on her clicker training skills.  Just as we did with Nick, we began in a stall with “protective contact”.  She was on one side practicing her handling skills while another clinic participant played the part of her horse.

Human targeting game

I like beginning with these rehearsals.  If you are new to clicker training this is a must-do step.   What you just watched can look so easy.  You are probably thinking: “What can be so hard about holding up a target?”  Until you try it, you won’t know, but better that you find out all the little places where you’re fumbling around trying to get coordinated BEFORE you go to your horse.  If you can’t find a friend to help you, you can always pretend you have a partner.   Video tape yourself or practicing in front of a mirror to give yourself visual feedback.

I know many people fuss at having to go through these steps. They want to go directly to their horses.  They have told themselves that they are hands-on learners.  They need to be doing in order to learn.  These rehearsals give them the “hands-on” learning experience they are looking for.

I am very protective of horses.  If you are learning something new by going straight to your horse, your horse is going to have to withstand your learning curve of making mistakes, fumbling with the clicker, not getting the target up, etc. etc..  That can be hard on a new learner.  When someone runs into trouble in the first stages of the clicker training, its often because they didn’t do enough dress rehearsals.  This show up in inconsistent handling, timing that’s off, unclear criteria, and other issues that result in a horse being equally inconsistent.  The result is a lot of unwanted behavior as the horse expresses his frustration.

Watching someone else training with clean, consistent handling doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to do it yourself.  The dress rehearsal is the step you put in between.  The handler will be going through all the training steps first with a “human horse”.  Her partner will hold her hands together to represent a horse’s muzzle.  When she reaches out and bumps the target with her hands, her “trainer” will click and give her a treat.  The “human horse” will adjust her behavior to meet the needs of her learner.  If someone simply needs to practice clicking and getting the food out of her pocket, the “horse” will cooperate by touching the target directly.  She won’t present any behavioral challenges until her “handler” is ready to work on that step.

One of the huge advantages of this process is the “horse”can give her “handler” verbal feedback.   By the time you’re ready to go to your horse, you can focus on what he’s doing instead of focusing on your own skills.

Once your “human horse” gives you the “all clear”, you’re ready to ask your horse how you’re doing.  In this case we had a barnful of clicker-wise horses, so Nick’s owner was able to practice her new clicker skills with an experienced horse.  This was a real luxury that prepared her even more for her first clicker lessons with Nick.
Puffin targeting in stall
This is Puffin checking on Wendy’s “homework”.  Puffin was a rescue pony who is becoming a clicker star under the guidance of his person, Karen Quirk.

The clinic participants had to wait overnight to see how Nick processed his first day’s lessons.  I will make you do the same.  I’ll share Day 2 in the next installment of this report.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercentercourse.com

This is Part 2 of a 4 Part series on introducing a horse to the clicker. 

My thanks to Cindy Martin for organizing and hosting the November clinic, and to all the clinic participants, especially Wendy Stephens and her beautiful Nick.

Please note: This article gives you wonderful details to get you started with the clicker, but it is not intended as complete instruction.  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

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1

This is Part 1 of a 4 part article.

The last time I posted I had just returned from the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  It’s now November and I have just finished the 2015 clinic season.  Thank you to everyone who was able to join me this year.   Sharing clicker training is such a joy.  I am looking forward to seeing you again in 2016.

I’ll have my full  2016 clinic schedule posted on my web site soon.  In 2016 I’ll be back at the Cavalia retirement farm for another series of clinics.  And I’ll be returning to several of my long time clinic locations for more Clicker Intensives.

My conference schedule is already posted.  2016 is going to be a great year for learning!

The last clinic of the 2015 season was at Cindy Martin’s farm in Arkansas. One of the participants brought a horse who was completely new to clicker training. Usually when I have a start-up horse we are in narrow barn aisles with poor lighting and limited site lines.  Cindy’s barn is a perfect film studio. It had an extra wide aisle, tall ceilings and great lighting.  So we were we able to video this horse’s progress over three days.

What follows is a detailed account of the start-up process.  Whether you are brand new to clicker training or an experienced trainer, I think you will find this of interest.  This report takes you very systematically through the process that I recommend for introducing a horse to clicker training.  I have included video as well as the discussions that followed each training session.

Enjoy!

 

Step One: Introductions

Nick grown ups look away

My clinics always begin with a Friday night gathering.  When you talk to experienced clicker trainers, they always emphasize the importance of building a relationship with the animal you are training.  Relationship can be one of those fuzzy, feel-good words.  You can have all different kinds of relationships, some good, some quite toxic.  When science-based trainers define relationship, they are referring to a history of reinforcement.

In clicker training we put the emphasis on creating a history of positive reinforcement.  One of the metaphors that’s often used is that of building up a bank account by making many deposits via positive reinforcement.  As the bank account grows, if something happens and you do have to use a correction, your “bank account” can withstand a small withdrawal.

So training begins by building up that history of reinforcement with the animals you’re working with.  I’ve always felt that it was important to treat the people I work with with the same consideration that I give to their horses.  While I’m clicking and treating the horse, I don’t want to be barking commands at the person and criticizing every little mishap.  I also don’t want to spend three days working with a group of people who are essentially strangers.

I know I’ll be seeing many of the participants again at future events, so I like to get to know them as individuals, not a sea of anonymous faces.  So we spend the Friday night gathering in introductions.  I want to know what brought people to a clicker clinic.  What is their horse background? What is it they are hoping to get from the weekend?  I tell them that this is their first shaping exercise of the weekend.   Their introductions, what they are specifically looking for, help shape the clinic experience they are going to have.

Wendy, the owner of our first-time clicker horse, told us his story.  She was given Nick after friends of hers had given up on him.  They had hoped he would be a reining horse champion.  They had bred their mare to a top stallion.  At eighteen months he was sent off to a top trainer who thought the world of him.  He considered him his best futurity prospect of that year.  By the time Nick was two, the trainer was less excited by him, and by three he was saying Nick would not make it as a reiner.  It’s a familiar story.  His disappointed owners took him out of training, and then found that they no longer wanted him, so they gave him to Wendy.

Wendy’s training concerns centered around a desire to feel more connected to Nick.  He was very aloof.  He wasn’t hard to catch out in the pasture, but he never came directly up to her.  He would always stop ten to twenty feet away from her.  Out on trails she described him as safe to ride, but easily distracted.  It was hard to get him to focus on the rider.

People often come to clicker training as a last ditch effort to “fix” a problem horse.  Nick didn’t need “repairing”.  He was not a “broken” horse.  As I explained to the group Saturday morning, we weren’t trying to fix anything.  We were simply introducing a nice horse to clicker training.

What to Feed

We began with a discussion of the treats, both what to use and how to handle them in these early training sessions.  I rejected some flavored commercial horse treats that Wendy had brought in favor of some plain timothy alfalfa pellets Cindy had for an insulin-resistant older horse.

In these early start-up lessons you are asking for simple behaviors.  All the horse has to do is touch a target or move his nose away from your treat pocket.  You want to keep the rate of reinforcement high so the horse stays engaged in the game.   That means you are going through a lot of treats fast.  When I don’t recognize the commercial horse treat, I don’t know what I am feeding.  Is this something that is designed to be truly that – a treat, something you feed in quantities of one or two at a time, or is it something we can safely use in larger quantities during a training session?

If I’m not sure of ingredients, and especially of the sugar content, I prefer to use something like the timothy alfalfa pellets.  They are bland enough that a horse isn’t going to have a “sugar high” during the training, but still enough of a treat that he’ll want to figure out how to get me to give him more.

Protective Contact and the Importance of Choice

In addition to a discussion of what to feed, I also talked about protective contact.  What this means is the handler is separated from the horse by a barrier.  There are a number of reasons for using protective contact to introduce a horse to clicker training, even with a horse you know well.

When a horse is loose in a small paddock or a stall, he is free to interact with you – or not.  He has choice.  That’s key to clicker training.  If you go in with a horse, even if he is at liberty, his previous learning may interfere with his ability to figure out this new clicker game.  He’ll be so busy responding to previously learned cues, he won’t even be aware that there’s a puzzle to solve.  In fact, the more well-trained a horse is, the more important this reason for using protective contact becomes.

And if a horse isn’t so well trained, all the safety reasons for using protective contact come into play.  Without the barrier, if a horse crowds you trying to get to the treats in your pocket, you’ll need to do something to push him away.  If you’re having to correct him for this unwanted behavior, you’re creating a bind for yourself.  On the one hand you want your horse to feel safe experimenting and offering behavior.  And on the other hand you’re still saying no, don’t do that.  You’re essentially poisoning your first clicker encounter.

The barrier removes the safety concerns and gives your horse choice.  Choice is very important.  Current research is confirming that choice is reinforcing.  When we put a horse into protective contact, we are giving him the choice to interact with us or not.  We are also keeping things safe.  I don’t know the horses I am introducing to the clicker.  I don’t know which one is going to get super excited about the food and push into my space.  I don’t know which horse is going to show a huge regression into unwanted behaviors when the constraints of punishment are removed. (See my blog post:  Resurgence and Regression: Five Go To Sea Conference Presentation.  This is a twelve part article.  Part 1 was posted on May 21, 2015.)  Until the horse shows me that it is safe to go in with him with my pockets filled with treats, I stay with protective contact.

This is one of those soap box issues for me.  I know that there are many people in the horse community who will NEVER try clicker training.  Feed horses!  Give horses choice!  Horrors!

That’s fine.  Clicker training doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea.  But, clicker training doesn’t just introduce the use of marker signals coupled with reinforcers.  It also brings into the horse world this idea of training with protective contact.  If we can introduce the concept of protective contact into mainstream horse training, we will be doing a very good thing indeed.  People go in with horses much too soon, and as a result, they end up reaching for punishment solutions first.

I remember watching a clinic years ago where a very well known clinician made everyone climb in and out of the round pen – even though there was a perfectly good gate.  The reason was this:  if a horse every charged you, you’d know how to climb the fence so you’d be able to get out of that pen fast!

There’s something wrong with this reasoning.  I don’t want to be in the pen with a horse until he tells me he’s comfortable having me there.  If he feels threatened, I don’t want him thinking he needs to attack me to remove the danger.

I want the horse to show me that he understands enough of “my language” to be able to figure out the puzzles I’m presenting.  Horses are punished for so many reasons, including not responding fast enough to commands.

When you’re afraid, it’s hard to think straight and follow instructions.  We know that from our own experience.  So imagine what it must be like for a horse.  He’s struggling to figure out what is wanted.  If he hesitates, he’ll be punished. If he reacts fast, but guesses wrong, he’ll be punished.

When a horse isn’t not sure what is wanted, is it any wonder he feels threatened and frustrates easily?  Aggression comes from a place of fear.  If I am working with a horse that is quick to lash out to protect himself, I want a barrier between us.  That way I won’t be adding fuel to the emotional fire by correcting him to keep myself safe.  I can just step back out of the way while he goes through the “learning how to learn” process.

Throughout the horse industry, if we treated horses more like zoo animals and used more protective contact, we would see an overall shift towards kinder training.  “Aggression comes from a place of fear” doesn’t just apply to horses.  Think about that the next time you are watching someone cracking a whip or swinging a lead rope at a horse.

Enough of the soap box.  Nick was stabled overnight in a large 14 by 16 box stall with a door that opened out onto a small outside covered run.  A stall guard was already set up in the stall door so creating protective contact was easy.

Keep your First Sessions Short: The Twenty Treat Strategy

The first lesson I teach is generally targeting.  For this first lesson I count out twenty treats.  I want to limit how long the session can last by limiting the number of treats I start out with.  When I run out of treats, I am obliged to take a break from active training.  These breaks do a number of good things.

First, they show the horse that this interesting game begins, ends, and then comes back again.  For many horses during this first introduction into clicker training is a true “Helen Keller” moment.  (If you don’t understand this reference, watch the old movie “The Miracle Worker”.)

When the horse figures out that he can control your behavior,  you often see what are referred to as “light bulb moments”.  For some horses this a huge sea change.  The horse needs to understand that this amazing experience is something that will continue on past the first introduction.  That’s part of what helps him to settle into the experience.

By giving breaks your horse is learning that the game stops, but it comes back again.  For many horses clicker training is a world changer.  Their human makes sense!  They can actually train their human!  Their world opens up.  You’re offering the target, and clicking and treating.

And then you close the door and walk away – and for the horse it’s back to business as usual.  All that clear communication vanishes.  For some horses this can be really hard on them.  Get back here and train me!  It’s bang, bang on the stall door.  If you’re in a boarding barn, that’s going to make you very unpopular with the owner!  By giving breaks, the horse learns that the game has pauses and then starts up again.

So I like to do a short session and then go away for a few minutes.  Then I come back to do another round.  The game ends, and then it begins again.  That’s hugely reassuring to the horse.

The other thing that the breaks create is an opportunity for the handler to think about the training.  Clicker training is fun.  You see your horse touching a target with more confidence.  He’s making progress.  It’s like the old potato chip commercial – “bet you can’t eat just one.”  You’ll be thinking: “I’ll just have him target one more time.  How about one more time after that?” 

If you fill your pockets at the start, you could end up training and training.  Caught up in the momentum of the moment, you might not notice some unwanted behavior that’s crept into the game.  Yes, your horse is eagerly touching the target, but he’s also pinning his ears flat to tell his neighbor in the adjoining stall to stay away!  That’s not the kind of behavior you want him to be weaving into his first clicker training experience.

If you take a short break to think about each session, you’re more likely to pick up on these unwanted behaviors, and you can make adjustments to your training environment as needed.  You want to catch any “speed bumps” in your training early on so you can make the necessary changes that ensure that the behavior you want is the behavior you get.

The breaks also give you time to think about what to do with the next round of twenty treats.  And they let you appreciate the steady, good progress you see your horse making.

Choosing Your Target

I generally introduce horses to the clicker via basic targeting.  Most horses are curious.  If you are holding something in your hand that doesn’t look too much like a goblin, they will come up to see what you’ve got.  Click!  They have just earned a treat.

Lots of things make good targets.  They need to be easy to handle, horse safe, and nothing that looks too scary.  Small plastic cones work great, as do empty water bottles and the lids off of supplement containers. In other words, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on targets.  Look around your barn.  You are bound to find something that will work.  From the collection Cindy had in her barn, I chose a great target stick.  It was made from an old riding crop.  She had stuck  a bit of foam from a pool noodle over one end and wrapped it in duct tape.  Perfect.

Planning Your Exit Strategy

Before I could introduce Nick to targets, I first had to think about my exit strategy.  If I’m going to take breaks, I need a way to end a session that’s okay for the horse.  I’ll be taking the treats, the attention, the game away with me.  I don’t want the horse left thinking that whatever he just did it made me leave.  He promises never to do that again!  If I’m clicking and treating for desired behavior, that’s the opposite of what I want, so I need to think out in advance how I’m going to end a training session.

The horses I work with regularly are all familiar with treats being tossed on the ground.  When I need to break away from a conversation we’re having, I toss a few treats on the ground or into a feed bucket for them.  While they are searching around for the goodies, I can slip away.  However, I can’t assume that other horses will know where to look when I toss a treat into a feed bucket.  So  Step One for Nick begins with this very easy lesson.  I simply opened his stall door, dropped a feed tub onto the floor and began dropping treats one or two at a time into the bucket.  Is it any wonder horses love clicker training!

This first video clip shows Nick learning that the sound of treats being tossed into his bucket means goodies are to be found there.  You will see that Wendy’s description of Nick was very accurate.  While he is willing to come to the front of the stall to take treats, he is very cautious.  This was a good first step both to help build his confidence, and to begin to let me learn more about him.

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Session 1: Creating an Exit Strategy

 

Data Collecting: The First Targeting Session
Next came Nick’s first targeting session.  I view this first round of targeting very much as data collecting.  I am not thinking of it as the “teaching” part of the training.  This is exploratory training.  Nick’s response to the target will tell me where I can begin.  If he’s reluctant to even come up close to the target, I know that I’m going to have to break this lesson down into much smaller steps, beginning with more time spent just clicking him for acknowledging my presence.

On the other hand if he eagerly touches the target and then grabs for the treat and remains fixated on my pockets, I know I have a very different starting point for the training.  It’s all data collecting.  Until I ask Nick a few questions, I won’t know where to begin.  As you watch this next video, you can join us in the data collecting.  It shows Nick’s first targeting session.

Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – The First Targeting Session

As you can see these sessions are short.  Putting only twenty treats in my pocket forces me to stop after just a couple of rounds of targeting.  While I am getting more treats, I can think about what I learned about Nick.  What did I like about this round?  What unwanted behaviors, if any, do I need to be aware of?  What do I want to do next?

Data Assessing: What Did We Learn?

The two main questions are: is there anything about this horse’s behavior that would suggest that it would be unsafe to go in the stall with him with my pockets filled with treats?  If the answer comes back yes, or even, I’m not sure, I stay with the protective contact.

The other question I ask is what should I do with the next round of twenty treats?  Should I continue with the targeting, or does his behavior suggest that I should shift to one of the other foundation lessons?  I have six to choose from: targeting, backing, head lowering, the grown-ups are talking – please don’t interrupt (meaning take your nose away from my treat pockets), ears forward (which I refer to as Happy Faces) and standing on a mat.  Taken together these six behaviors work beautifully to introduce horse and handler to clicker training.  They are great behaviors to choose because the end result of these lessons is a horse who has beautiful ground manners and lots of emotional self-control.

Often when I ask a group: “what did we just learn about this horse?”, they are stumped for words.  They don’t know what they are supposed to say.  We are so used to criticizing what we see.  That’s how we’ve been trained in school, at work, even in our own families.  “What’s wrong with this picture” is what we know, and yet, that doesn’t quite seem to be what I’m asking for.

There may indeed be things the horse presents that are a concern, but I really am looking at this through a different lens, one that is often very unfamiliar to first-time clicker trainers.  They haven’t spent a lot of time practicing finding things they like, so this is a great opportunity to develop that skill.  Let’s listen in to this first assessment process:

Video: Introduction to Clicker Training- Group Discussion After the 1st Target Session

Especially if you are new to clicker training, I recommend that you videotape your first clicker sessions.  They really can be fascinating.  The change in your horse’s understanding can happen so fast.  You can use the pauses between training sessions to review your video.  Often you’ll see little things in your handling that you’ll want to change.  If you are reaching into your treat pocket ahead of the click, or you’re feeding too far forward so your horse gets pulled onto his forehand, you’ll catch these handling glitches and be able to change them for the better in the next round.

Details That Make A Difference

To help with this type of data collecting I’ll point out a few handling details that you can watch for in this next video clip:

Note how I handle the target.  I position it so it is easier for Nick to touch it than it is for him to get to me.  If he starts exploring past the end of the target stick, I very quietly ease myself out of his reach while still keeping the target stick easily available.

After I click, the target stick drops down into a neutral position.  I give him his treat, and then immediately bring the target back up so it is available to him to touch.  The movement of the target stick as I bring it back up helps to attract his attention.  Taking it down after I click means that each round is a discreet trial.

Note also how deliberate I am in how I present the treat.  After I click, and NOT before, I begin to reach into my pocket to get the treat.  I am prompt in beginning the reinforcement delivery but that doesn’t mean I move fast.  Note the rhythm of the overall lesson. I maintain a steady pace which allows me to set the tone of the lesson.

Some common things to watch for in your own handling would be:

* Are you reaching into your treat pouch ahead of the click?  The movement of your hand will overshadow the click.  It will become your marker signal which isn’t what we want.

A good marker signal has the following characteristics:  It is quick.  It is unique, meaning it stands out from other stimuli in the background. It is non-emotional.  The click of the clicker meets all these criteria.  It gives you so much precision when you begin to work on details in performance.  And it means your horse does not need to be watching you to respond to a marker signal.  That’s a huge advantage for riding.  So take care now to make the click of the clicker a clean marker signal. (Note, very quickly you will shift from the actual clicker to a tongue click.  You’ll see me do this with Nick in the clips that follow.)

* Are you feeding out away from your body where the perfect horse would be?  If you feed in close, you’ll be reinforcing your horse for coming into your space.  I want to feed Nick so his head is away from me.  More than that, I want to take full advantage of the fact that I’m using food in my training, so I’m going to feed him to encourage good balance.  In this first lesson that means his head will be even between his shoulders and at a good height so he isn’t pulled onto his forehand to get the treat.

* Are you remembering to take the target down in-between trials.

* Are you bringing the target up promptly so it is approximately in the same orientation that it was in the previous trials?  Often people move the target around from one spot to another in this first round.  First the target is high, then it is low  That means that every time the horse touches the target it’s a very different behavior.  Even if the horse is managing to touch the target, he may be struggling to understand the underlying concept behind the click and treat.

* Are you maintaining a steady pace throughout the cycle?  Sometimes people rush to get the food out.  They are forgetting that the click buys them time.  It marks the moment you like.  You can think of it like a place holder.  You want your horse to understand that the behavior that was occurring at the exact moment that you clicked is worth trying again.  As long as you begin to reach into your pocket promptly, you don’t have to be fast in the delivery.  This isn’t “click and shove” training.  Your horse can see that you are getting a treat.  He knows it’s coming.  The whole process is part of the reinforcement.  It’s like Christmas.  It isn’t just ripping open a present that’s reinforcing.  It’s all of the anticipation leading up to the event that makes the presents so exciting.  With a beginner horse you can’t mess around and take too much time getting your treat to him.  That can be frustrating, but nor do you need to feel as though you have to rush.

Look for these details as you watch Nick’s second targeting session.

Training Sessions #2: More Targeting

Video An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – 2nd Target session

In this next round of targeting Nick is interested.  He’s waiting for me at the front of his stall, but he’s still unsure what this is all about.  Nick is slow to touch the target.  Waiting for him to touch the target can feel a bit like watching paint dry.   I have to decide: do I wait for an actual touch, or do I click any orientation towards the target?  With Nick I decided to wait for him to touch the target.  It wouldn’t have been wrong to click for approximations. That’s one of the great advantages of clicker training.  There is no one only one right moment to click.

Someone else might make different decisions.  Nick’s behavior will tell us if we are on the right track.  That’s one of the reasons to begin with these short sessions.  They give you time to consider the choices you’ve made so you can make adjustments.

In the discussion that followed this section, I again reminded people to count out their twenty treats so these early sessions remain short.  As long as I am still working with protective contact, I continue to count out twenty treats.  Once I decide that it’s time to go into the stall with the horse,  I then add more treats to my pockets.

As a group we agreed that Nick was remaining very calm and polite, but he didn’t yet get what this game was all about.  As one of the participants said: “That’s what is so exciting about watching this. That moment when a horse understands that he just made you click and hand him a treat, it changes the whole world for that horse.”

Often times in more traditional forms of training horses are corrected for offering behavior that hasn’t been asked for.  When you hold a target up, these horses wait to be told what to do.  Taking the initiative is not something that feels safe to them.  You’ll see them remain hesitant about touching the target.  Both Nick’s background and his behavior matches this scenario.

You don’t want to rush through these simple targeting lessons.  Again it is about choice.  I want Nick to discover that he has control of this lesson.  That’s what will build his confidence.  He needs me to give him whatever time it takes to make this discovery.  That’s what will turn him into a bright-eyed clicker star.

This is another good reason to use protective contact.  The stall guard limits my ability to step in a get “things done”.  This lesson isn’t about getting a horse to touch a target.  If I were goal oriented, that’s all I would see.  How fast did I get this horse to touch the target?

That’s just a behavior.  It’s a tool I’m using to teach Nick much more fundamental lessons.  I want him to understand the core values of clicker training.  I want him to understand that he does have choice, that his feelings matter.  I want him to understand that what is evolving is a conversation, and that his voice counts.

In the third round of targeting, you’ll see more changes.  Again we decided to continue with the targeting.

Video: Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – 3rd Targeting Session


As I finished this round, I decided that I would do just one more round of training that morning – in part because I was looking at how much of the original bowl of treats I had gone through.

Measuring out the treats into a bowl was a good reminder to everyone that you need to keep track of how much you are feeding.  In these initial training sessions you are working with very simple behaviors.  You can go through a lot of treats fast. It’s one touch of a target, click, treat.  One quick moment of grown-ups, click treat.

Later you’ll be asking the horse for so much more.  You’ll be building complex sequences of behavior and asking for much longer duration.  You’ll be getting much more behavior for every single click.  When you reach the stage of filling your pockets at the start of a training session,  this early discipline of counting out your twenty treats will help you keep track of how much you are feeding.

Video:  Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 – 4th session

This fourth round of targeting shows the evolution of the food delivery.  Remember in the first round I fed Nick approximately where the target had been.  Now I can move into his space to feed him.  Initially it’s easy to think in terms of single behaviors.  You are having a horse touch a target.  But really what you have is a cycle of behaviors.  I refer to this as loopy training.

As a shorthand way of describing clicker training, we will often say that behavior leads to a click which leads to a treat.

You can write this as:

Behavior leads to  Click leads to Treat
or the short hand of:
Behavior => Click => Treat

It’s an easy way to think of clicker training. If you like it, click and reinforce it.  Reinforce is the key.  When you write out that single phrase, it’s easy to think of this event as an isolated unit, but reinforce means to strengthen.  If a behavior has been reinforced, you should see it occurring more and more frequently. So really what we have is a loop of behavior which we can write out as:

Behavior => Click => Treat =>
More of the Behavior => Click => Treat =>
More of the Behavior => Click => Treat => etc.

The food delivery is a dynamic part of this process.  I could simply click and continue to feed pretty much as I did in the first round of training, but that would be giving up so so much of the value that I get from my treats.  People who don’t use food in their training are at such a huge disadvantage. I know that’s not how they think about food, They see it as a nuisance, a distraction, a bribe.  All these negative labels can keep someone from seeing the enormous advantages using food as a reinforcer gives me.  It isn’t simply that getting something he wants want makes the horse more eager to do it again.  I get so many more good things from this part of the cycle:

* I can help a horse find good balance through my food placement.  You can see that in this fourth round of the training.  I place the food so Nick not only straightens out his head, but I am also placing it at a height that encourages him to lift up in his shoulders and come off his forehand.

* I can also set up the next phase of the training.  At some point I will want to ask Nick to back up.  By getting the backing first from the food delivery, I can map out the behavior before asking for it directly.  I can see how easily – or not – Nick backs.  If his feet get stuck and he struggles to back up to get to his treat, I know I will need to be careful how I introduce backing when I ask for it directly.  I may be dealing with a horse with arthritic hocks so backing is painful.  Or backing may have been taught so punitively that the horse resists and resents any attempt to make him back – even if it is to get to a treat.  Or the horse may simply never have been asked to back, and he can’t figure out how to move his feet.  Whatever previous experience Nick has with being asked to back, introducing it via food delivery gives him a huge jump-start on solving the clicker backing puzzle.

What this boils down to is I use food delivery dynamically.  These simple targeting lessons introduce this concept early on in the process.  The horse becomes accustomed to moving his feet to get treat, plus he becomes familiar with the feel of good balance.  The horse is learning to follow the handler’s body language creating the foundation for both leading and liberty work.

Nick’s owner was thrilled.  These four short training sessions showed her the structure she had been looking for.  She appreciated how systematic and organized the process was.  She saw how valuable the breaks were.  As she said, when you are new to clicker training, you need to step back to take stock of where you are.  Is this behavior going the direction you want, or is it going off the rails somehow?  Video really helps you keep track.  Most of us have cell phones or cameras that can take short video clips.  If you don’t have a tripod, you can always prop your phone up on a hay bale or a fence rail.

During the breaks you can review your video.  You’ll see your hand creeping towards your treat pouch ahead of the click.  No wonder your horse was more interested in mugging you than touching the target!  Details like this really do matter.  It’s so much better to catch them early on so your handling isn’t creating confusion and unwanted behavior.

The total training time for Nick that morning was twelve and a half minutes spread out over a forty-nine minute session.  If you were working on your own, you might spend a few minutes introducing your horse to a target, take a break to review your video, do a couple of barn chores, then return for another round of targeting.  Breaking up the individual targeting sessions by putting barn chores in between spreads the sessions out nicely.  After you’ve reviewed your video, it also gives you time to think about what you want to do next.

When you are brand new to clicker training, it’s perfectly understandable that you may not be completely sold on this style of training.  All you’re doing with these first few sessions is testing the waters.  Is this something you’re going to enjoy and find useful?

The structure I’ve shown in these video clips gives you a safe way to become familiar with the overall process.  If you need to take a pause from clicker training, you’ll be able to do so.  Context cues matter.  If you don’t have a target, your horse won’t be expecting the game, so you can handle him business as usual when you put away your treat pouch.

Having said that, when I introduce a horse to clicker training, I feel as though I am making a commitment to that horse.  I don’t want to show the horse that we can communicate clearly and then snatch that experience away.  Once I open up the communication channels, I want to keep them open, active, and ever-enlarging.

For Nick I may have decided that this fourth session would be the last for the morning, but it was definitely not the last of the weekend.  We continued on in the afternoon with another round of targeting.

Just as the clinic participants had to wait to see how Nick processed his morning lessons, you will have to wait to see the afternoon sessions.  I’ll post those in Part 2 of this series.

This is Part 1 of a 4 Part series on introducing a horse to the clicker.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercentercourse.com

My thanks to Cindy Martin for organizing and hosting the November clinic, and to all the clinic participants, especially Wendy Stephens and her beautiful Nick.

Please note: This article gives you wonderful details to get you started with the clicker, but it is not intended as complete instruction.  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