JOYFull Horses: Chapter 3: The Time Has Come . . .

The Time Has Come the Walrus Said To Talk of Many Things

“The time has come,” the walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax
Of cabbages and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings.”
Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking Glass

In Chapter One of this section I shared some examples of how the environment can cue behavior.  Panda, the mini I trained to be a guide, provided us with many examples of environmental cues.  In the previous Chapter I showed how a combination of mats and strategic food delivery can be used to teach basic leading.

We’ll be building on that lesson is this next unit. Which means the time has come to talk about Premack, Feldenkrais work, asking questions, mats, airplane runways, needlepoint, and creativity.  If you’re not sure what some of these mean or what the link is between them, read on.  And yes, we will be getting back to play and our list of ten things a beginner needs to know about cues, but first let’s set the stage with a discussion of the Premack Principle.

Behaviors as Reinforcers
One of the things that quickly becomes apparent when you start turning training into play is how quickly the behaviors you teach your horse can be turned around and used as reinforcers for other things.

This is not a new understanding. In the late 1950s primatologist, David Premack developed his relativity theory of reinforcement which is better know as the Premack Principle.  Simply put this means that a higher valued, more probable behavior can be used to reinforce a lesser valued, less probable behavior.

If you hate to sweep your barn aisle, but love to ride, don’t put sweeping after riding.  Let riding serve as a reinforcer for sweeping up.  When you finish grooming and reach for the broom before you reach for your hard hat, that puts you on a habit path that’s going to culminate not just in a great ride, but also in a love for barn chores. Clicks for you!

That’s something I discovered when I changed the sequence in which I did my barn chores.  I’ve always disliked sweeping.  When I was boarding my horses, it never made any sense to me that we were sweeping the barn aisle last thing at night.  The only person who was going to see our beautifully swept aisle was the morning stall cleaner, and she was going to begin the day by making a mess.

It would have been much better to sweep up when we first arrived so we could enjoy the clean aisle all evening, but that wasn’t how things were done.  In my own barn I sweep the aisle first and then follow that with cleaning the stalls and paddocks – something I enjoy.  After the barn chores are done, I get to play with the horses.  The result?  I now look forward to sweeping the aisle. It’s a great way to begin my day.

Panda helping me sweep 3

Panda is “helping” me sweep my barn aisle during a visit to the barn.

The same kind of sequencing becomes important when you train your horse.  Think about the order in which you ask for things.  If you’ve taught a behavior well, it can serve as a reinforcer for a newer behavior you’re working on.  Ideally every behavior you add into your training loops should function as a reinforcer for all the other behaviors.  The result: every behavior you ask for will become something your horse enjoys doing.

That’s ideally.  How can you make that a reality for the behaviors you teach your horses?

Turning Mats Into Tractor Beams
For a horse who likes to be actively doing something, what could be more tedious than standing on a mat?  And yet, that’s definitely not how our eager clicker horses view mats.

Mats become like tractor beams drawing the horse in.  They are where good things happen.  You get treats on a mat.  You get lots of attention.  And when you leave one mat, you get to head off to another.  More treats!  Yeah!!

Harrison on mat hug cropped

Mats are where good things happen.

If I teach mats well, they are a source of play not tedium. When I am first teaching mats, I keep the Premack principle very much in mind.  Most horses initially view a mat as something to avoid.  They will step over it, around it, slam on the brakes in front of it, anything but actually step on it.

I’ve taught mats in lots of different ways.  You can freeshape stepping on a mat, but I prefer to put the horse on a lead and turn this into a more directed-learning process.  The reason I do this is because it’s a great opportunity for the horse and handler to become more familiar with good rope handling techniques.

In the horse world the lead is often used as an enforcement tool.  “Do what I say – or else!” If a horse pushes past the handler, the lead is there to give him a quick reprimand.  The handler jerks the lead so the horse feels a sharp bump from the halter.

If a horse doesn’t back fast enough, he knows the lead will be there again swinging threateningly in his face.

That kind of expectation is not clicker compatible.  We need to take the “do it or else” threat out of the lead.  The lead is there to ask questions – not to tell or demand.

What does this mean – the lead is there to ask questions?  One of the best ways to describe this came from a youtube video clip of Mia Segal.  Segal is a Feldenkrais practitioner.  Developed by Moshe Feldenkrais in the mid-1900s Feldenkrais work eases pain or restrictions to movement by increasing an individual’s awareness of small movements.

Feldenkrais Work
Unlike a massage and other manipulative therapies, Feldenkrais work is experienced through self-observation.  You learn how to move with attention.  You become aware of how you move; what parts of your body you mobilize to create an intended movement; how far the movement flows through your body; where it stops; where it is blocked; and what can be released to extend the movement.  It is an exploration of movement in which an individual is guided via questions towards greater self-awareness and well being.

The expression “Where there is no fear or pain, learning can take place in a single lesson.” lies at the core of this training.  Like many in the horse world I was first introduced to Feldenkrais work via Linda Tellington-Jones.  Her TTEAM training evolved out of this work.  Later I was fortunate to have a client who was an Alexander Practitioner and who had also studied the Feldenkrais work.  We did trades, sharing back and forth the new things we were exploring. Through her I learned even more about the art of asking questions.

Asking Questions
Recently a friend sent me a link to a youtube clip of Mia Segal teaching a workshop  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prGxrhXDEgQ).  My friend said it reminded her a lot of my work.  As I watched it, I thought, she’s right.  Mia Segal might have been talking about working with people, but she was describing perfectly my approach to horse training.  Segal was sitting on the floor with one of the workshop participants.  She was clearly in the middle of a session.  Her student was lying on her back, knees up in the air, with Segal comfortably supporting her head in her hands.

Segal was talking about the first time she saw Moshe Feldenkrais working.  It was 1957.  After the session he asked her if she had any questions.  She had so many, but she knew there were other people waiting.  How could he have time for all of her questions?

Feldenkrais answered her – “If you know the question – it will take but a minute.”

The art of training is knowing the questions to ask.  That is as true for our horses as it is for people.

Segal went on to say:

Someone recently asked the question: ‘What is the difference between this work and pilates, yoga, and other physical therapies. Isn’t it all the same?  So you have another method.’  And I thought the biggest difference is this is a method of questions. I don’t have answers, and I don’t want answers.

You ask a person to move in a certain way.  Bend your knees to the right and you ask – ‘How is she doing it?  Is it anything to do with what I feel under my hands?’

How do I feel it in my hands?  How is she coming back?  Does this change anything under my hands?  And do it to the other side – How is she doing it, and does this feel different?

So rather than thinking – Here it stops.  Here it goes.  Instead I just keep putting a little question mark at the end.  HOW does it go?  HOW does it stop?  WHERE does it stop?  WHEN does it stop?  Is it the same on both sides?  And then I have the whole lesson.”

The Translation to Horses
When I slide down a lead to a point of contact, I am listening through my hands.  And I am asking questions.

Merenaro with alex

This horse and I are deep in conversation.  I am asking many questions through my hands.

When I meet horses for the first time, most aren’t used to being asked anything.  They expect to be ordered about.  Some horses are very compliant.  They have learned that the best way to stay out of trouble is to do what they’re told.  They will follow the feel of a rope.  They will be responsive, and light in your hands. They may even seem happy or at least content.

Light we can measure in terms of how much pressure we need to apply to get a response; how quickly the horse responds; how much weight we feel in the rope as he moves.  Does he move with us, or does he hang back leaving pressure on the lead?  These are all measurable.

But happy.  Who knows. How do I know if you or anyone else is happy?

The “Black Box” of Emotions
How do I know if another person is happy?  I may see behaviors that I associate with times when I have felt happy, but I don’t really know how anyone else feels.  When you say you love your horse, I believe you.  But what does that really mean?  If you tell me you love your horse, but then you sell him so you can buy another horse who jumps higher, I have to believe that that word means something very different to you than it does to me.

So I can say that a horse is responsive – that’s measurable.  I can describe other behaviors that I like to see – his ears are relaxed so they flop back and forth in time with his walk.   Or I might see the opposite.  He has his ears pinned flat, he’s grinding his teeth, and the muscles around his eyes are tight.  These behaviors tell a different story.  I wouldn’t say that’s a horse who is happy.

The Lead Tells A Story
Often when I first attach a lead to a horse, what I encounter is resistance and concern.  Leads have been used for corrections – so the horse is defensive.  He may throw his head up as I slide down the lead, or punch my hand with his mouth.  He might even bite at the lead or at me.  He’s telling me about his history, and I need to listen.  I also need to respond in a way that doesn’t prove to him that he was right to be guarded.

The mats are going to help me.  I was about to add the phrase: get past his defenses, but that’s not exactly right.  That would imply that the castle walls are still there, and all I’ve done is found a way to scale them.

castle walls 1.png

Instead, I want to show him that the castle walls, the moat with the sharks, the draw bridge, the boiling oil, the iron portcullis, and all the armored men lined up behind it aren’t necessary.  They can all vanish, whisked away not through force, but through play.  In the next installment I’ll describe a lesson that replaces castle walls with airplane runways, and you’ll see how the Premack Principle can be applied to training loops.

Coming next: The Runway

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 “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

 

JOYFull Horses: Using Environmental Cues

Using Environmental Cues

Spring is clinic season which means a lot of traveling for me.  I haven’t been able to post anything since the beginning of April which also means some of you may have lost track of where we are in the book.  At the end of Part One I asked the question: what are ten things you would want a novice trainer to know about cues?  In Part Two I began to answer that question.  So far my list includes:

1.) Cues are not Commands.

2.) Cues can be non-verbal.

3.) The environment can be a cue. 

In the first chapter of this section on environmental cues I shared some stories about Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide.  Her work illustrates well the many ways in which the environment can cue behavior.  

IMG_1994_1 Panda Ann great walk

Now in this post I’ll be looking at ways we can all use environmental cues in our training.

Every Day Environmental Cues
Panda’s training shows how much inanimate objects can cue behavior.  You may never ask your horse for the kind of work that is expected of a guide, but you can still make effective use of environmental cues.  They can help turn a frustrating or even dangerous situation into play.

Here are a few examples:

For a horse who rushes out to turnout – even to the point of rearing if you try to slow him down – teach him to stand on a mat.  Then put out a series of mats on his way out to turnout.  Now instead of trying to keep things calm over the long stretch to turnout, all he has to do is walk a couple steps to the next mat – click and treat!  Turn each mat into a station where he can engage in some favorite game.  That takes the focus off the turnout.  In fact when you do finally get to the paddock, you may find your horse doesn’t want you to leave.

“Must I go eat grass?  This is so much more fun!”

Shannon mat series

For the barn-sour, herd-bound horse who doesn’t want to leave the comfort zone of his friends, hang targets at strategic points around the barnyard and along the driveway.  Click and reinforce him for walking to the target.

For the horse who worries out on trails, take his toys out with him so he can play familiar games.

Magic with ball
Combine mats with a circle of cones to teach a horse how to trot around a circle.  Lay out a small circle made up of cones and one mat.  Your horse will begin on the mat and end up back at the mat – click and treat.  As you gradually expand the circle, he’ll understand that his job is to stay out around the the outside of the cones.

 

For the horse who fidgets and fusses to be groomed, hang a stationary target or give him a mat to stand on.

Mounting blocks become wonderful environmental cues.  Teach your horse to bring himself over to your mounting block and line himself up so it is easy to get on.  It’s not only a fun behavior to “show off”, it’s also a great way to measure how ready – or not – he is to ride.

(Note: This video features Michaela Hempen, one of my coaches for the on-line course.  I almost didn’t use this video because she wasn’t wearing a hard hat. When I mentioned it to her, she said she normally wears a hard hat.  She just couldn’t resist getting on.  I decided to use the clip after all because it is a great example of the joy this training brings to both horses and handlers.  And it also gives me an opportunity to say safety always comes first.  Certainly good preparation contributes to safety, but hard hats are still important.)

These are just a few training suggestions.   The more creative you are, the more playful you can be with your horse.

When you have a training challenge, instead of tackling it head on with your normal “horse training” solutions, think instead about how you might use props.  If your horse has trouble turning to move out of your space, how could you use mats to help with this?

Maybe you have large cones or temporary fence posts that can be used like gates on a slalom course.  How could you use them to explain the patterns you want to your horse?

If forward is an issue, teach him to retrieve, and then toss a cone out in front of his path.

If stopping is the problem, set out lots of mats.  Give him a positive reason to stop.  That’s a lot better than the “horse training” solutions of harsher bits and running horses into fences.

If you want your horse to get more exercise, but for some reason you can’t ride, use targets to teach your horse to go from person to person.  This can easily be turned into a game Panda would say she invented and which we named after her: “Panda catch”.  She “taught” us this game when she was a yearling.  At thirteen she plays it with every bit as much gusto as she did then.

 

As you can see from this article, teaching your horse to stand quietly on a mat has many uses.  What I haven’t included here are the how-to instructions for introducing your horse to mats.  You can find detailed instructions for teaching this lesson in my books and DVDs and in my on-line course.  Visit my web sites to learn more:

 theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

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 “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