JOY FULL Horses: Epilogue: To Love A Horse

To Love A Horse
This is the final installment of the JOY Full Horses posts.  I know we are in the midst of the Holiday season, and it is hard to find time to read things on the computer, but I hope you will find time to read this final post.

It contains a request on behalf of Panda, Ann Edie’s guide horse.  This past May Panda became very ill.  Her health issues have been on-going and the vet bills have mounted up.  The details are in the post.  If you would like to send a thank you for the JOY FULL Horses posts, you can do so by contributing to Panda’s fund.  The money raised will go towards paying her vet bills.  To contribute go to:

https://www.youcaring.com/annedieandherguidehorsepanda-718398

If you go to Panda’s youcaring.com page, you can also read a letter from Ann describing the work Panda does for her and the relationship they have.

And now for this final chapter of the JOYFULL Horses posts:

I have thought about this final chapter so many times, but I have never yet put the words down on the page.  Now that I have come to the end of these JOY FULL Horses posts it is time to say this.  On September 10, 2015, as he was coming up the hill into the barn, Peregrine had a heart attack and died .  My very good friend, Bob Viviano, found him when he checked on the horses mid-day.

I was out of the country.  I had left the day before.  Where I was staying during the first part of my trip didn’t have an internet connection so it was two days before I could be reached.   By then it was too late to get home to see him buried.  All I could do was continue on.

They put him next to Magnat, our senior horse.  I planted 500 daffodils for him, and in the spring, while I was publishing the first section of this book, I watched them bloom into new life.

Much of my life is very public. My horses have been my teachers so it is often their stores I share.  When I write about clicker training, I am writing about them, but this time I chose not to share.  I wanted private time to remember Peregrine.  When you have had the privilege of loving someone for thirty years, they are your heart.

When I lost Peregrine’s mother I promised her I would write her a love story.  That love story was clicker training.  She began it.  Peregrine continued it. All that I have written, all that I have shared through all these years has been my love story to them.  Clicker training means many things to many people, but that is what it means to me.  Woven into every lesson are gifts of love from my horses.

Remember that as you are using it.  For those of you who have taken my work and given it your own twist, your own names, by all means build on this work, but treat it well.  What you are building on came from them, it came from a very great love.

I began writing JOY FULL Horses when Robin was in hospital, recovering from colic surgery.  I finished it during Sindri’s long illness.  I wrote about that when I began sharing these JOY FULL Horses posts back in January.  It was a book my horses gave to me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it.  And then I lost Peregrine, and I knew.  This is his gift. That’s why it was important to share his book with all of you through these bog posts.  With each post I have been remembering him, honoring him.  He was the first of our clicker trained horses.  For thirty years he was my teacher.  I have been pleased to share his lessons by giving you these JOY FULL Horses posts.

It is a gift, but as I said at the start of this post, I do now have something to ask of you.  This has been another very hard year.  In May Panda, Ann Edie’s guide horse, became ill.  She had an intestinal blockage.  Without the surgery she received, she would have died.  Her recovery has been a long, hard one.  She was in hospital for three weeks following her surgery, and then at the end of June she developed pneumonia and had to be readmitted to the hospital.  She was on IV antibiotics for a week before she was finally well enough to go home.  She remained on antibiotics through the rest of the summer.

In September she developed severe diarrhea and had to be hospitalized again.  She spent another six weeks in hospital.  She is home now and doing okay.  She’s well enough to go for walks around the neighborhood with Ann, but she can’t yet resume her full role as her guide horse.

I’m sure you can imagine how fast the vet bills have added up.  The vets have generously given Ann a service animal discount, but even so Panda’s bills have risen towards a staggering $30,000.  The amount is unthinkable, but even more unthinkable would have been giving up and losing Panda.  To help out I have just started a youcaring.com fund raising campaign.  If you would like to send a thank you for the JOY FULL Horses posts, you can do so by contributing to Panda’s fund.  The money raised will go towards paying her vet bills.  Please share this through your social network so we can help Panda and Ann.

The fund can be viewed at:

https://www.youcaring.com/annedieandherguidehorsepanda-718398

Peregrine and I thank you for your help.

Happy Holidays

Alexandra Kurland

Cues Evolve: Part 4

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed 

Consistency
In the previous post I shared with you some stories from Panda’s early training.  Panda’s manners developed over time because she lived in a world of total consistency.  Throughout the early part of her training I was the only one who handled her.  She didn’t have to figure out how the rules worked with different people setting different standards.

Ann’s first guide dog, Bailey, had been a great guide.  I learned a guide’s job in part by watching him.  The job description is pretty straight forward.  The real key to training a guide is consistency.  I knew that Ann would never be able to see the raised curb in front of her, so I knew that Panda and I always had to stop at each and every curb.

By the time Panda went to live full time with Ann, it was actually a relief sending her off.  Maintaining that level of consistency when you yourself don’t need it is a challenge.  There is always the temptation to cut across the parking lot because you’re in a hurry instead of following the edge the way a guide should.  I remember being at a conference where there where several guide dog trainers in attendance.  One of them spotted us and cut through several rows of empty chairs to come talk to us.  She had a dog with her who was about a week away from being placed.

I was horrified.  I would never have cut through those chairs with Panda.  We would have walked to the end of the aisle and gone through all the navigational checks that a blind handler would use to move to a different row of chairs.

There’s a great horse training expression that applies here:

“The horse doesn’t know when it doesn’t count, so it always has to count” John Lyons

The more consistent I was, the more consistent Panda was going to be.

Over-eager Students
But what happens when you can’t maintain this standard of handling?  What happens when clicker training isn’t a consistent part of a horse’s life?  That’s often the case with the horses I work with.  I see them for short periods of time, and then they are back to handling as usual.

Pico head down 1One such horse was Pico, a wonderfully clever horse who right from the start adored clicker training.  I began with him, as I do all horses, with protective contact, but I quickly moved to a larger work space where he had more room to move.  We worked on basics – grown-ups, targeting, the beginnings of mat work, backing and head lowering.

On my first visit I spent four days with him during which time he had two short sessions per day plus some casual interactions over his stall door.

For four days his world was completely turned upside down.  He was singled out from a group of fifty horses for all this special attention.  Every morning I greeted him as I walked into the barn.  I gave him extra attention.  He got to play this very neat game out in the arena.  He had the goodies, all the social interaction, and then I left and there was nothing.  From his perspective I simply disappeared. What a topsy turvy world it must have seemed to him.  I was gone.  There was no morning greeting, no play time after coming in from the day’s turnout.  Nothing.

I was gone for about a month, and then I suddenly popped back into his life.  Pico was so excited he could barely think straight.  During my first visit he’d been a superstar, but now he was a mess.  He was in my space, mugging my pockets, forgetting the manners he’d been showing me so beautifully before.  He was truly like a small child the day before Christmas.  He was just so excited, he couldn’t do anything right.

I certainly didn’t want to punish this enthusiasm, so I turned it instead into a game.

The game was: “What’s the new cue?”

I thought of it for Pico because I truly enjoyed his company.  I wasn’t training him.  I wasn’t working him.  “Working” opens one set of files.  It gives you access to tried and true methods.  It doesn’t open the creative files that bring you to new solutions.  Those are opened only when you are playing.  Play and creativity are like two vines that have grown together and hold one another up.

Creating New Cues
So what is this “What is the new cue” game?

It is based on the process of creating a new cue for an established behavior.

Here’s the process:

Suppose you have taught a puppy to sit.  You’ve added a cue to the behavior.  When you say “sit”, your puppy sits readily.

But now you would like to change the cue.  There are many reasons you might want to do this.

Your puppy may at first have sat with his hips off to the side.  That’s how young dogs often sit.  Over time you’ve cleaned up the behavior for the show ring, and he now sits with his hips squarely under him.

By changing to a new cue, you are creating a performance cue that refers only to this tidied up version of sit – not the original sloppy sit.  If you kept the original cue, under the pressure of competition, your puppy might revert back to the first-learned version of the behavior.

Or perhaps you have been sloppy with your stimulus control.  “Sit” means sometimes, if you feel like it, when the spirit moves you.  It doesn’t mean now.  So you tidy up the behavior and give it a new cue that has none of the old sloppiness associated with it.

Or maybe your puppy sits just fine.  There’s nothing wrong with the original cue, but you’d like to do some freestyle with your dog, and you’d like to use some props.  When you knock over a suitcase, you’d like your puppy to sit.

You can come up with lots of different situations where changing to a new cue for an established behavior would be useful.  Whatever the reason for wanting a new cue, they all depend upon the same process:

1.) Build the behavior.

2.) Attach a cue to the behavior.

3.) When this first cue is solid, you can begin to transfer the behavior to a new cue.

You’re going to give the new cue first, followed immediately by the old cue.  This will trigger the behavior – click then treat.

Repeat this process several times.  You will begin to see the animal initiating the behavior before you can give the old cue.  So now you can give the new cue and get the behavior – click then treat.

So it’s:

transfer cue process

Sleight of Hand Magic Tricks
This is the underlying process I used for Pico to turn an unwanted behavior – mugging my pockets – into the cue for a desirable behavior – head lowering.

That’s straight forward enough.  What changed was turning this into play.  The end result was great manners taught without the frustration of extinction.  I didn’t want to just fold my arms and wait for Pico to stop trying to get past me into my pockets.  As excited and eager as he was, that would have spoiled his game.  From his perspective he’d be saying: “I put my quarter into the candy machine.  Why isn’t my carrot bar coming out?!”

What do we do when a vending machine isn’t working?  We get frustrated.  We jiggle the vending machine, and if that doesn’t work, we bang on it harder.

Eventually, we’ll give up and leave, but we’re not going to be very eager to try again.

This was not the downward emotional spiral I wanted for Pico.  I loved his enthusiasm.  I just needed to redirect it.

So I began with head lowering.  I used my hand as a target.  I invited him to drop his head by following my hand down.   Targeting made the behavior “hot”.  Follow my hand down – click and treat.  Easy.  The cue became the combination of my targeting gesture and a slight bend of my body.

Next I transferred the cue to a light touch on his poll.  I reached out towards him and rested my hand briefly on his poll.

By itself this is a very standard “horse training” way to ask for head lowering that can be easily adapted for clicker training.  You rest your hand lightly on your horse’s neck just behind his ears.  Your horse won’t at first know what you want.  The most normal reaction is he’ll lift his head up, or he’ll brace against you.  You’ll follow his head movement, keeping your hand in place with a steady, neutral pressure.  You aren’t trying to push his head down.  That’s his job – to drop his own head.  You’ll simply wait with your hand on his poll.  Eventually, he’ll drop his head, and you’ll remove your hand.  If you’re a clicker trainer, you’ll add a click followed by a treat.

This strategy is based on the following:

A little bit of pressure over a long period of time will create a desire for change.

Understanding Pressure
If your cat is sitting on your lap while you read this text, eventually, no matter how much you love her, you will need her to move.  A little bit of pressure from her curled up on your lap has created a very great need for a change.  You’ll be squirming out from under her.  (Of course, she will then go to work training you.  She will turn into a boneless rag doll and very mysteriously manage to pin you down even more.  And she will charm you into providing even more of a lap to sit on by purring loudly.)

Your horse will eventually get tired of having your hand resting on his head.  Up doesn’t dislodge you, so he’ll try down.  At the slightest drop of his head, you’ll take your hand away. Click then treat.

This method works, but it can take a lot of patience on the part of the handler.  What usually happens is the person gets impatient and begins pushing down.  The horse pushes back, and suddenly you’re moving a long way away from play.

Play and the Transferred Cue
So instead of waiting for Pico to discover the answer, I used the transferred cue process.  I put my hand on Pico’s poll, but I didn’t linger there.  I wasn’t trying to trigger the behavior by leaving my hand there.

I rested my hand on his poll long enough for Pico to be aware that I had done so, then I offered him my hand as a target. He dropped his head.  Click then treat.

I repeated this process:

Hand on poll graphic

After the third or fourth repetition, I hesitated just fractionally after reaching out to his poll.  He dropped his head.  Click and treat.

After that, all I needed was my new hand-on-poll cue.  If he hesitated at all, I could offer a reminder by shifting to the hand targeting.  I only needed the reminder a couple of times before the new cue was solid.

So then I moved to the next transfer.  I used the simplest version of asking for head lowering from a lead.  I milked the line down.

This is a curious expression.  It means I slid my fingers along the line to create a slight downward suggestion.  My hand didn’t close around the lead.  I stroked down a couple of inches and then brought my hand back up to the snap and stroked down the lead again.  But remember this was a transfer-cue process.  I wasn’t waiting until the stroking of the lead triggered the head lowering response.  Instead I stroked the lead just a couple of times, and then I reached up and touched his poll.

He wasn’t expecting that, so I continued on back through my chain of cues and targeted him down with my hand.  He dropped his head, click then treat.

milked line transfer cue

On the next repetition I got as far as my hand on his poll before he dropped his head.

And then he had it.  As I milked the line down, he dropped his head.  Very neat.

The Transfer Continues
We practiced this for a few more reps, and then I made the next transfer.

Now the cue was a bump of my hand against his nose.

So here was the sequence of cues he knew:

transfer cue full sequence

I could go as far back into this sequence as I needed to trigger head lowering.

I thought of it like learning how to say “horse” in five different languages.  When I say “horse” as part of a children’s game, you’ll point to the picture of a horse – not the cow or the sheep.

Pferd is the German for horse.

If I say “pferd”, I want you to point to the picture of the horse.  At first, this odd word won’t mean anything to you, but if I say “pferd”, then “horse”, you’ll point to the picture I want.  Click and treat.  I’ll only need to repeat this a couple of times to have you pointing to the horse when I say “pferd”.

Okay, got that.  Before I need to remind you what pferd means, you’re pointing to the picture of the horse.

Caballo is the Spanish for pferd.

So now I say “caballo”, followed by “pferd” and you point to the picture of a horse.

“Caballo”. You don’t need the extra hint. You point right away to the horse.

Cavallo is the Italian for caballo.  So again I say “cavallo” followed by “caballo”.  The new word trips you up for a moment, so I continue on to “pferd”.  Now you have it.

“Cavallo.”  You point to the horse.

Cheval is the French for caballo.

So now I say “cheval” and you point to the horse.  This is an easy game – as long as I don’t mix in other farm animals.  That’s when it becomes a real test of memory.  Right now I am simply transferring the cue through a chain of words.

By the time I get to cheval, you’ll have no trouble making the switch.  You know the game.  Pointing to the horse is the hot behavior.  Played at this level of difficulty, this is a game you are guaranteed to win.

Pico was guaranteed to win.

I bumped his nose – he dropped his head, click and treat.

Sleight of Hand Magic – The Trick Revealed
Now if you are thinking all of this was built over a period of many sessions – think again.  These transfers happened in rapid fire succession, one after another.  It was like watching a magician’s trick.  Where’s the quarter that was just in my hand?  Oh look!  It’s on your shoulder.  How did it get there?  And how did your watch get on my wrist?  You weren’t watching.  Oh look!  When I bump his nostril, your horse is dropping his nose to the ground .  That’s a funny reaction!

So now I could fold my arms into “grown-ups”.  If Pico bumped me looking for treats, his own mugging behavior cued him to drop his head.  Magic!

But then it’s all just child’s play!

Coming Next: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9: You Can’t Not Cue

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

Cues Evolve: Part 3

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed 

The previous post introduced the concept of tap root behaviors.  You strengthen a base behavior by returning frequently to it.  Like a well-nourished tap root, it keeps getting stronger.  The reinforcement history becomes extra deep, and you’ll have a rich network of behaviors branching off from it.  In this next section we’ll build on the solid foundation of good manners that approach creates.

Saying Please and Thank You  
Suppose a friend is visiting you with her four year old daughter.  The toddler sees some toys you have in a basket.  (We won’t tell her mother they’re dog toys you keep there for your other friends and their canine companions.)

The child asks to play with the toys.  Immediately, her mother is saying “What do you say?”

“Please,” the child answers.

You hand the child a toy to play with (a new one that hasn’t yet been chewed by your canine guests).

Again, the mother prompts, “What do you say?”

The child parrots out the answer: “Thank you.”

“Please” and “thank you” aren’t just for toddlers.  She isn’t learning to say these phrases just to satisfy her mother.  They are the glue that holds our social lives together.

We ask permission.  We don’t demand.

We say thank you in appreciation for all the little gestures of accommodation that make life easier.  It takes time for please and thank you to become habits, but once learned and understood, it becomes second nature to include them in conversations.

Good Manners are a Good Habit
Grown-ups is similar.  At first you have to keep reminding your horse that manners matter. He can’t just go straight to your pockets for goodies.  It takes a while for good manners to become a good habit.

I remember when I first started working with Panda, Ann was worried about her interest in my pockets.  Ann was struggling with her new guide dog.  He came to her with a total lack of basic living-with-humans manners.  Her previous dogs had always had the freedom of her house.  This dog had to live either crated or behind baby gates.  If he was given free access to the house, he would turn anything that wasn’t tied down into a chew toy.

This can be a problem for anyone living with a dog, but for someone who is blind it is especially so.  Every time you hear your dog chewing something, you have to check to see what he has. It could be your best dress shoes, a harmless dog toy, or a pill bottle filled with medicine that could kill him.

Manners matter.  This dog was supposed to be showing me the model to copy for training a super guide.  Instead he was showing me everything you didn’t want.  Ann didn’t need two problem animals.  When a very young Panda wanted to see what else we were hiding in our pockets, I could feel Ann tensing.  She had enough trouble with this dog.  She didn’t need a pushy horse, as well.

I’d only had Panda a week when we had our first long car trip.  I was teaching a clinic at a barn that was about an hour from my home.  We were quite the Noah’s Arc heading off that day. Panda was still learning how to ride in a car, so I sat in the back seat with her.  Ann sat in front with her guide dog wedged in between her feet.  And another client drove us.

Panda was essentially right in my lap so my pockets were at nose level for the entire trip.  I couldn’t be more vulnerable, and there was no putting her away and taking a break.  For the entire hour’s drive we worked on grown-ups.

Each time Panda took her nose away even for a second, click, she got a treat.  What Ann was hearing from the front seat was a rapid-fire barrage of clicks.  She’s an experienced clicker trainer so she knows how training works.  You begin with high rates of reinforcement for little things, and you gradually expand them out.  But I knew she was worried.  Her shepherd was supposed to be a “trained” dog, but everything was still in the “terrible twos” toddler stage with him. How was this going to work for Panda?

Panda was our true “toddler”.  She was only nine months old on that first car ride.  Just like a human child, she needed a lot of reminders to say “please” and “thank you”.  She was learning that mugging my pockets not only never got her treats, it wasn’t necessary.  There were so many other, great ways to get me to click.

The Grown-ups Really Are Talking
Panda was also learning that she didn’t need to bang the proverbial kitchen pots and pans to get attention.  She got plenty of attention, but sometimes my focus needed to shift away from her.  She was learning at those times it was okay to take a nap.

Panda asleep 5 photos

By the time she went to live full time with Ann, the grown-ups really could talk uninterrupted.  We could go out to dinner with Panda as Ann’s guide.  She had learned to stand next to Ann’s chair dozing while waiters set yummy smelling food on the table.  Panda would occasionally poke her nose above the table to check out what was on the menu, but she never interrupted – not until after the desert course, and then it was only to let Ann know she needed to go out.

(By the way – if you want great service, take a guide horse with you.  It was always great fun watching the waiters competing to see who got to serve the table with the mini horse.)

Great Service
This reminds me of a great Panda story.  The very first store we took Panda into was Lowes Hardware.  We quickly discovered that Panda loved to shop!  I don’t know what there is about the long cavernous aisles of the big box stores that she likes, but from the very beginning Panda has always enjoyed her trips to these stores.

She had trotted down several aisles before we found the PVC pipe we had come for.  Ann and I were discussing what size we needed for our project when I looked up.  Normally you have to hunt for someone to help you.  Not this time!  We were surrounded by twelve sales clerks.  One of them said, “We heard on the walkie-talkie there was a horse in bathroom fittings.”

I could just imagine what they were thinking – some idiot has brought a full sized horse into the store.  They had all come running.

Of course, we got great service!  And think of the conversations they must have had that night around the dinner table!

Coming Next: Consistency

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

JOYFULL Horses: Cues Evolve Out of the Shaping Process – Pt. 2

Cues evolve out of the shaping process.
I chose head lowering to illustrate how this works.  In Part 1 I ended with a reminder that there is always more than one way to teach every behavior.  I teach head lowering in many different ways.  The first, easiest way is through targeting. That’s a good start, but just because you can get head lowering one way doesn’t mean your job is done.  The more different ways you can trigger the behavior, the better.

Backing in a Square
You may not see the connection at first, but one of my favorite ways to teach head lowering is via backing in a square.  The reason for using this teaching process is because it generates a shift of balance from the forehand onto the horse’s hindquarters.  That in turn leads straight to improved performance under saddle.  You may not see the connection at first, but this way of asking for head lowering creates a very different balance from the one a horse is normally in when he drops his head.  The most frequent form of head lowering occurs when he’s grazing.

Robin back in square

Head lowering is taught via backing in a square.

Grazing is a forward-moving exercise.  Horses graze by walking slowly forward.  They don’t normally graze by walking backwards and eating the grass that they have already stepped on.  Grazing forward means they encounter fresh grass that hasn’t yet been crushed underfoot.

Grazing is a forward-moving exercise.

Panda grazing 1

Grazing is forward movement.

Not A Forward-Moving Exercise
The expression for teaching head lowering is: head lowering is not a forward-moving exercise.

At first glance this seems like a very clumsy sentence.  What you are saying is your horse can stand still and drop his head.  He can also walk backwards and drop his head.  So you aren’t saying he can’t move his feet.  He just can’t move his feet forward.

You most need head lowering when a horse is nervous.  A nervous horse needs to move.  If you were to try to ask him to drop his head AND stand still, you would bottle him up way too much.  Under this kind of enforced restriction, he might end up exploding like an over-coiled spring.

So you don’t say to this still learning-to-be-calm horse – “Stand still”.  You say: “You can move your feet all you want, but I get to choose the direction.  If you need to move, you can back up.  And to be more precise, you can back in a square.”

It’s best to teach this lesson when your horse is calm.  If your horse already understands how to back up in a square, he won’t feel trapped.  If something does make him nervous, it will be easier to remind him that backing is a great option, and dropping his head is even better.

Moving the Hips
Backing in a square lets you manage where in your work space you are going to be.  If your horse becomes even more nervous the further into your arena he goes, backing in a square lets you stay in the part of the arena he can handle.  It also keeps him from backing into other horses, ditches, fences, or the clutter that many of us have around our barnyards.  Horses learn very quickly what works.  Backing is hard work.  It’s not something horses normally choose to do on their own.  So if backing straight towards a barbed wire fence gets you to stop asking for backing, guess what your horse will learn fast: point your rear end towards anything sharp, or dangerous, and your human will let you go forward.

You can very quickly teach your horse to back towards ditches, blackberry canes,  wild roses, barbed wire, tractors, traffic, the one horse in the group that kicks.  You name it and if it’s something you don’t want your horse to back into, that’s what he’ll do.

Backing in a square circumvents that.  To back through a turn your horse needs to learn two skills.  The first one is obvious.  Your horse needs to back up comfortably.  You want him to back promptly when you ask, every time you ask.  He shouldn’t feel as though he is pulling his feet out of cement. He needs to move back fluidly.

You also need to be able to ask him to bring his hips to the inside, towards you.  Most of us know how to send a horse’s hips away from us.  If you ask a horse to bring his nose towards you, that will send his hindquarters away from you.  This is one of the first things a beginner learns.

Think about the instructions you give to someone who is holding a horse for you while you examine a cut on his hind leg.  You tell this person to stay on the same side that you’re on.  If the horse gets anxious, even a beginner handler will react by bringing the horse’s head towards her.  This will send his hips away.  If you were standing on the opposite side of the horse, you’d be knocked over.  You might try to push his hips away from you, but the effect the handler has with the lead is much stronger that any push you could give at his hind end.

You can get the horse to send his hips away from you, but that’s not the only direction you can influence.  A horse can move his hips in six directions.

Up and down.  Think about when he lies down and gets up again.

Robin lying down shavings

Forward and back.

To the left and to the right.

You want to be able to ask for each of these six directions, especially the last four.  Forward and back are easy.  You do that every time you ask your horse to follow beside you on a lead, and to stop and back up.

You’ve already seen how you can send your horse’s hips away from you.  Bend his nose towards you as he steps forward.  That sends his hips away from you.

To bring his hips toward you, you’ll do the opposite.  You’ll bend his head away from you as you ask him to back up. I teach this by asking him to back in a square.

Backing in a Square
If the size is suitable, I like to teach this in a stall.  The walls will help your horse understand that you aren’t just asking for backing.  You want him to turn.  Solving this puzzle helps him become more hind end aware.

Some stalls are just too small or too crowded with feed bins, water buckets, and hay racks to be good work spaces.  And some horses just aren’t comfortable in stalls.  They may feel crowded by their neighbors or anxious because the rest of the herd is outside. Asking them to work in this kind of confinement isn’t fair or productive.

So the next option is a small paddock, but again there can be problems here.  If you are slogging through muddy footing, it may not be safe for you or fair to your horse to ask for backing when you’re both pulling your feet out of ankle deep mud.  And it’s certainly not fair to ask him to back towards electric fencing – even if that fencing is turned off.

So another option is to lay out ground poles or cones in a large square, and to use those as the boundary markers.  If possible use a fence line for one side of your square.

backing in a square of poka dots

You don’t have to have a stall or small paddock to teach your horse to back in a square.  Here the square is built out of cones.

If I’m using ground poles or cones, I’ll pretend that I’m in a stall. I’ll have a designated “entrance”.  I’ll begin by walking my horse into the “stall” and stopping so his nose ends up at the “entrance”.  This gives me a reference point to return to after each click.

Initially, I’ll ask my horse to back just a step or two, click!.

Robin backing in square 1

As I am reaching for the treat, I’ll step forward.

My horse will also step forward to get his treat so we’ll end up back where we started at the entrance to our “stall”.

“Walking and Chewing Gum”
Feeding so he walks forward to the “entrance” is very important.  I don’t want to keep asking my horse to back up without taking him forward again to the front of the stall.  We would find ourselves all too quickly confronted with the back wall of the square before we’re ready.  The closer I get to the wall that’s behind him, the more reluctant my horse is going to be to back up.  He’ll be thinking: “What a stupid human!  Can’t she see there’s a wall behind me!  I can’t back up any more than this.”

In these two photos I’ve brought Robin in too close to the wall.  I’ve left him nowhere to go.  When I ask for a turn, he ends up crammed against the wall.  This could easily make a less experienced horse feel very nervous.

I don’t want to make a nervous horse feel more nervous because I’m crowding him up against a wall.  And I definitely don’t want my horse thinking I’m incompetent and stupid!  So instead, before we get too close to the back wall, I’ll reset him forward using my food delivery.

This is one of those tricky handling skills people struggle with.  They can walk.  And they can reach into their pocket to get a treat.  But doing both at the same time is hard.  It’s so like the expression about walking and chewing gum.  This is clearly a skill that must be learned and practiced.

Here are some points to look out for: You don’t want to begin your food delivery before you click.  That undermines the meaning of the click.  And you don’t want to get the food out of your pocket and then put your feet into motion.  That interrupts the flow of the pattern.
You want to click, then begin reaching into your pocket AS you turn to walk back to the front of his stall. You want this to become so automatic that you can do both together without thinking. That frees you up to focus on your horse’s response.

Dynamic Food Delivery
Now you could ask “why bother?”  Why not just click, feed where you are and then ask your horse to step forward, click, then treat again?  That accomplishes the same reset forward. It’s just broken down into more steps.

This certainly works, but it doesn’t gain you some extra bonuses.  Most important, I want my horse to understand that sometimes he needs to move his feet to get to the treat.  This active form of food delivery does many good things. It lets me reposition him so I can set him up for the next cycle of the behavior I’m focusing on.

Earlier I described the “Why would you leave me?” game.  This lesson provides us with a great example where moving to get the treat really helps both you and your horse learn the “dance steps” of the pattern. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/07/27/) In this lesson you are walking your horse around a circle of cones.  At some point you’re going to want to change direction.  You can do this via the food delivery.

Food delivery gives you a sneaky way to execute a complex series of steps that some horses find quite challenging.

Mapping Out The Dance
It’s very much like trying to figure out the steps for a new dance.  Once you’ve learned them, they seem effortless.  How could you ever have struggled over something so easy?  But right now you can’t figure out where to put which foot.  What a mess.  Arthur Murray where are you when we need you!?

That’s how your horse feels in the “Why would you leave me?” game.  You’re asking him to stop, back up, swing his front end across, and walk off with you in the opposite direction.  What a tangle!  But if you make this dance sequence part of the food delivery, he won’t be thinking about which foot to put where.  He’ll be following your lead before he’s even aware that he’s changed direction.  You’re programing in the dance steps BEFORE you ask for them directly.

So it’s: click, you do your part of the dance as you reach for his treat.  Next he does his part as he moves into position to take it from you. He’ll find it’s easy to stay with you.  The dance is completed without his having to think about how he’s done it.  You’re mapping this movement out in his nervous system.  Once the map is in place, it will be that much easier to ask directly for the dance steps.

Why would you leave me change of direction sequence Robin

Using Food Delivery in the “Why would you leave me?” game to map out a change of direction.

You’re also getting a chance to watch how he moves BEFORE you ask directly for the steps.  Does he back easily?  Is he able to rock back into his hindquarters and step across into the new direction?  No.  Then he may have some arthritis in his hocks or some other condition that needs protecting.  This kind of information makes a huge difference both in what you ask for and how you teach it.

Reading Your Dance Partner
The “why would you leave me?” lesson provides a great example of using dynamic food delivery.  It’s such a useful strategy, but in clinics I often encounter horses who have only been fed in place.  The first time I click and flow into my half of the dance, they don’t follow me.  Just like everything else, this is a strategy that must be taught.  I can’t expect my horse to understand that he needs to track my movement and move his feet to get his treat unless I have gone through a teaching process to explain this to him.

That’s a specific example of the basic training principle: you can’t ask for and expect to get on a consistent basis something you have not gone through a teaching process to teach to your horse.  That and safety always comes first are twined together as the guiding principles that direct all my training.  Following these two principles can help you avoid many training pitfalls and keep your training very positively oriented.

Normally, I teach the food delivery lesson early on.   It’s part of his first introduction to targeting.  (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2015/11/20/2015-clinic-season-an-introduction-to-clicker-training-day-1/)  Once my horse figures out that he may need to track my movements to get to his treat, he’s going to pay even more attention to my body language.  What hints or clues am I telegraphing that will let him know where he needs to be?

As he learns to step forward and back in response to the positioning of the treat, he’ll also be learning how to read me.  When I rotate my shoulders towards him and extend my arm out towards the point of his shoulder, he’ll back up.

This lesson is introduced in the very first clicker lessons.  I generally begin by having a horse touch a target.  I’ll hold the target out in front of him.  When he touches it, click, he gets a treat.

Robin coming forward for target

Robin has come forward to touch a target.

At first, I’ll make things easy for him.  I want him to be successful, so I’ll deliver the treat about where the target was.  He won’t have to move his feet to get to his treat.  In the photo above this would keep his head on my side of the stall guard.

I would eventually like to be able to ask him to back up.  If I’m working with a horse I don’t know, I won’t know what his past history with backing is.  Has it been used as a punisher so he resents being asked to back?  Does he have joint problems so backing is uncomfortable?   I’d like to get a “read” on how he feels about backing, so I’ll introduce it first via the food delivery.  As this lesson progresses, I’ll begin to step towards him so he has to back up to get his treat.

Robin backing in stall for food delivery

I’ve turned into Robin and extended my arm out towards the point of his shoulder.  He backs up to get to his treat.

I think of the image of a swing door.  If I swing the door (my torso) towards the horse, I am effectively closing the door, and he’ll back up.  If I rotate in the opposite direction, I’m opening the door.  I’m no longer blocking the space in front of him.  Instead I’m opening that space to him and inviting him with the gesture of my leading hand to come forward.

Cues Evolve – Adding the Lead
Once my horse is consistently coming forward to touch a target and backing up to get his treat, I can clip a lead to his halter.  Now I can combine the opening and closing of the “swing door” with cues from the lead.  My horse will respond perfectly.  I won’t need to escalate the pressure to “make” him back up.  This is a very clear case of the cues evolving out of the shaping process.

Here’s the summary of this lesson:
Beginning with some of his very first clicker training lessons, my horse learned to back up or come forward to get his treats.  That was easy.  In the process he became aware of the clues my body orientation was giving him so he could get to the treats more efficiently.  If the treats are going to be presented forward, there’s no point in getting ready to back up.  You need to read your human to know which one it’s going to be.

These hints can then be transferred to a different part of the movement cycle.  The hints are no longer part of the food delivery.  Now they are the main event.   They come before the click.  I’ll use them to ask for the behavior I want.  This process lets me use the food delivery to help my horse learn how to respond to the lead.

By tracing these reaction patterns back through a series of lessons, you can see how your horse’s ability to read your body language cues has been evolving beginning with the very first clicker lesson.  You have been building the components you’ll need one small step at a time for the more complex lessons that are to come.

This points up how important the foundation lessons are.  Ideally, no matter how complex a lesson may seem to an outside observer, for my horse the correct answer should be only one small, very attainable step away.  If I jump into the middle of a teaching progression, that won’t be the case at all.  I won’t have the underlying components in place.  I’ll be teaching my horse three or four new things all at once, and I’m likely to end up in a muddle.

In the backing in a square exercise I’ll want him to back up and then come forward to get his treat.  If he’s never moved his feet to get to his treat, he won’t understand what has just happened.  I clicked, but then I marched off before he could get his treat.  It will feel like a broken click, a broken promise, and he may shut down on me.  But, if in an earlier lesson I have taught him to walk forward to get his treat, this component will be well understood.  He’ll follow me forward to get his treat, so we’ll be set up to repeat the movement cycle.  I’m only introducing one new element at a time, not three or four.  In this case my horse already knows how to back up when asked, and to come forward after the click to get his treat.  The new element is he’s backing within a confined space.

The key to good training is this progressive, step-by-step building of components.  Lessons are only complex when they are not well prepared.  Build the underlying layers well, and you can turn the difficult into the achievable.

diagram of food delivery

This is one way in which cues evolve out of the shaping process.  Here’s another.

Cues Evolve: How Light Can Light Be?
Now that I have my horse backing easily when I rotate toward him as I slide down the lead, I’ll begin to notice that he is already backing before I can get very far down the lead.  Great!  My cues are getting lighter.  I’ve now opened up a whole new game to play.  The goal is to see how little I need to do to get a correct response from my horse. How little do I need to do to get him to back?  How far do I need to rotate? Look, I just move my shoulder slightly and he’s already backing.  Click!  Give him a treat with some laughter added on top.

Horses are superb masters at this game.  They have to be given the herds they live in. To keep from running into one another they need to be able to read and predict movement.

When Robin and I were sorting out one of the many leading patterns I’ve wrestled with, I’m sure he thought me the rudest, clumsiest dance partner ever! I was forever in his space, “stepping on his toes”.  How annoying!  When I finally figured out how to ask for the sequence I wanted without crowding into him, you could see from his expression the immense relief he felt.  Finally, he was getting somewhere teaching his very awkward pupil!

Who’s Not Showing Respect?
People are forever talking about respect – by which they usually mean the horse needs to mind his manners and stay out of their way.  But really this goes both ways.  We’re often the clumsy ones not understanding how to give our much larger dance partner the space he needs to maneuver.

Here’s something else to consider: when a horse is startled, he will often crowd in on top of us.  We humans often view this as very rude, disrespectful behavior.  But look at it from the horse’s point of view.  What should he be doing when his herd is threatened?  Bunch in closer together to make it harder for a predator to get at any one of them.  He isn’t being disrespectful at all. He’s trying to keep you both alive!  But that very generous act can get a human seriously hurt. That’s why we are teaching him some alternatives to crowding on top of us.

The food delivery has tuned you both into body language.  He now tracks you beautifully, and you’ve been able to transfer your cues to the front end of the process, ahead of the click.  You started out with a big obvious rotation of your body, but that’s now evolved into a whisper.  Tighten a shoulder muscle, and he rotates back.  What fun!

Now that he’s tuning into you, you’ll begin to notice even more ways in which your body language is giving him clues about what you want.  Before you can give your big deliberate cue, he’s already read what you want and responded to you.  You’ll need to decide if you want him to be this light, or do you want him to wait for a signal you’ve chosen.

This is often what people mean when they talk about attaching a cue to a behavior.  But as you can see the cues are already there.  It’s more a matter of deciding which of these signals are you going to highlight and make more definite.

You get to decide if you are going to make deliberate use of the small cues your horse is already using.  You can only do that if you understand the process so you can be on the lookout for these subtle cues.  Otherwise, if you block him when he starts to respond to these signals, you could end up confusing him.

One of the training mantras I repeat often in clinics is: don’t make your horse wrong for something you’ve taught him.

Being aware of the way in which cues evolve out of the shaping process is one of the ways you can help your horse to be right.

Coming Next: Starter Button and Constant-On Cues

Author’s note: Once again, I want to remind people that I am using these lessons to illustrate some important concepts.  These articles are not intended to give detailed, how-to instructions.  For those resources refer to my web sites, and to my books, DVDs, and on-line course.  In particular refer to my book, “The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures”, and the early DVDs in the DVD lesson series: Lesson 1: Getting Started with the Clicker, Lesson 2: Ground Manners, and Lesson 3: Head Lowering.  My on-line course will also provide you with very thorough how-to instructions.

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

 

 

JOYFULL Horses: Cue Communication Continued – Part 3: The Mounting Block Lesson

In the previous section I described how I taught Peregrine to line himself up to a mounting block.  He was already an experienced riding horse who was familiar with mounting blocks so this was an easy lesson.  I used two targets to bring him into position.  The first brought him to the mounting block and the second took him forward a couple of steps so he ended up positioned exactly where I needed him to be in order to get on.

Capture the Saddle
I teach the mounting block lesson very differently these days.  The lesson is called: “Capture the Saddle”.  (Refer to Lesson 11 in The Click That Teaches DVD Series: “Capture the Saddle”.)  It begins with rope handling and directed learning and ends with targeting.  I teach it in this way because I regard the mounting block lesson as a final safety check before a rider gets on.  The lesson shows how well connected you and your horse are to one another.  BEFORE you get on and need to rely on them for your safety, it confirms that you BOTH know how to communication via the reins and are comfortable with their use.

A horse that has been well prepared with good ground work will breeze through this lesson.  The prerequisite is a lesson that I have named: The “Why Would You Leave Me?” game.  I will refer you to the DVD of that name for the details on how to teach this lesson.  (This is Lesson 5 in The Click That Teaches DVD Lesson Series)

The “Why Would You Leave Me?” Game
The overall description is this: the handler sets out a circle of cones and then leads her horse around the circle.  The basic question is: can the handler let go of the lead/rein and have her horse stay with her like a dog heeling at her side?  Or when she let’s go, does her horse wander off the circle, lag behind, rush ahead, or push into her to cut across her path?  Where is his attention – with her or elsewhere outside of the circle?

Robin wwylm far end collecting 1 at 11.59.50 AM

Robin has his attention on me as we walk around the “Why Would You Leave Me?” circle.

It doesn’t matter if the horse can do this perfectly at liberty, wearing nothing on his head.  Lots of things change when a horse is “dressed” for riding.  The horse that walks beautifully by your side when he’s wearing nothing, may become an anxious freight train when he’s wearing a bridle.

Bridling 2

Some people may jump to the conclusion that a horse who becomes anxious when he’s wearing a bridle dislikes having a bit in his mouth, but that may be a red herring.  If we went back to that horse’s first encounter with a bit, we might discover that he was one of those youngsters who always seemed to have something in his mouth.  His handlers were forever taking lead ropes, brushes, halters out of his reach.  If you left anything close enough to grab, he would have it in his mouth. So when he was offered a bit, there was nothing unpleasant about it.  It was something he could put in his mouth, and finally his people didn’t snatch it away from him!

But then the reality of riding set in.  Riders bounced uncomfortably on his back.  His saddle pinched his shoulders, and worst of all, when he guessed wrong or headed off in his own direction, his riders jerked on the rein so the bit hurt his mouth.  It wasn’t long before someone approaching him with a bridle became a predictor of unpleasant things to come.

Of course, this isn’t the only outcome for riding.  The sight of the bridle can mean a fun clicker game is about to begin.  But for a horse who has been ridden with corrections, the bridle often triggers unpleasant associations.

You could decide to work exclusively at liberty, or you could help this horse out by explaining away his anxiety about halters, leads, bridles, and saddles.  Every time you explain away a fear, you remove a potential source of stress for your horse.  That’s a process that’s worth doing.

Expectations
When I first get on a horse, I like to walk off from the mounting block on a loose rein. (And yes I do use mounting blocks.  I feel very strongly that they are a courtesy to the horse.  They save strain to his back.  You save strain to yours, and you protect your saddle from becoming twisted.)

Icky at mouting block 2 photos at 11.18.23 AM

I want the horse to stand patiently at the mounting block until I signal to him that I am ready for him to walk off.  I’ve watched too many horses who barely let the rider settle into the saddle before they take off.  The rider is snatching up the reins and blocking the horse before they’ve even gone two steps.  The horse protects himself by throwing his head up and tightening his jaw which then hollows his back.  The ride has barely begun, and already they are in a training hole.  It’s a long way from play for either horse or rider.

When I get on, I expect my horse to wait patiently while I get myself organized and settled into the saddle.  I appreciate these good manners, so I always click and treat the horse for standing well.  I’m sure there will be some who feel that the horse should not need to be be reinforced for behavior that he knows well, but I like to say “thank you” by marking good responses with a click and a treat.  It costs so little to maintain this ritual.  I ride with clicker treats at the ready.  Offering one as a thank you takes no real effort, and it means that my horses can be trusted to stand quietly at the mounting block.

When we are ready, I cue the horse to walk off.  I want him to walk off on a loose rein.  On a green horse, this may not be possible.  Two steps on from the mounting block I may be picking up the rein and sliding down asking for the hip, but the goal is to have a horse who leaves the mounting block in an energetic, but relaxed walk.  The reins are long.  I don’t want to be shortening them up and restricting the walk in any way.

This is important.  It gives me time to evaluate how my horse is feeling on that day.  Where is his back?  Does everything feel as it should, or is there a stiffness or an uneven feeling that I need to be aware of?  What is his energy level? How does everything compare to previous rides?  Can I feel the effect of the previous lesson in the start-up?  What is available to me?  What do I need to work on?  As Mia Segal (June 9, 2016 post)  would say, if you know the questions, you have the lesson.

Walking Off Casually and the “Why Would You Leave Me?” Game
Walking off casually gives us time to come together as a riding pair.  It gives me time to evaluate where my horse is on that particular day, both physically and emotionally.  But walking off casually is not a given.  It is something I have actively taught to my horses.  It begins on the ground with the very first leading lesson and is further expanded upon in the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game.

This lesson is best taught on a circle.  Every time the horse takes his focus away from the handler and begins to leave the circle, the handler slides down the lead and brings the horse back onto the circle.  The handler is essentially asking the question: why would you leave me?

This is such an important question to ask.  Are you leaving because the environment is too distracting? In that case perhaps the best option is to move to a less distracting location.  And note the distractions could be from things the horse is afraid of and wants to get away from, such as a tarp that’s come loose over the shavings pile.  Or it could be things the horse wants to go towards, such as grass or his pasture buddies.

Are you leaving because you are so full of energy that you can’t walk at my pace?  Are you leaving because you aren’t balanced enough to stay on a circle?  Are you leaving because you’re afraid of me?

wwylm collage

Robin begins by being momentarily distracted by something out the back door, and ends with some lateral work and a beautifully balanced, connected trot.

These are all questions I want to ask and have answered before I put my bones up on the horse.  That’s the purpose of the “Why Would You Leave Me” game.  The end result will be a horse who walks with you without needing to be held there with a lead.

We begin on a circle so the loop keeps repeating itself.  If your horse tends to crowd into you as you pass by the gate, and you missed noticing until he was already pushing you off the circle, don’t worry.  You’ll come around to that point again, and you will be better prepared to ask for what you WANT him to do.  Eventually,  you’ll be able to leave the set pattern of the circle and walk complex patterns.

In this video Panda shows off her “heeling” skills.  She’s working with Sue Bennett, one of the coaches for my on-line course.  Sue and Panda have just met, but that doesn’t matter to Panda.   She’s happy to stay connected.  Why would you leave me? For no reason at all.

My thanks to my coaches: Michaela Hempen and Asfaloth for the bridling pictures; Monty Gwynne and Icaro for the mounting block; Sue Bennett and Panda for the heeling video (and Ann Edie for letting Sue play with her guide horse); and Robin for the “Why Would You Leave Me?” photos.

Also please note: I am not attempting to provide complete instructions for any of the lessons I have described in this post.  Nor have I detailed how to ride in a way that is clicker compatible.  That’s not the function of these posts.  You will find very thorough instructions in my books, DVDS, and on-line course.  Visit: theclickercenter.com    theclickercentercourse.com

Coming Next: Cue Communication Part 4: Capture the Saddle – A Targeting Game

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

JOYFull Horses: Cue Communication continued

Behaviors Become Cues
In the previous section I wrote about Panda and the guide work she performs.  Just as guide work made the perfect example for understanding environmental cues, it also shows so clearly how this back and forth cue communication works.

 

Panda environmental cues

This is a particularly challenging form of curb for a guide because there is no clear difference between the end of the sidewalk and the start of the driveway, but Panda was always consistent at stopping where she should.  Even when the surface was repaved, changing many of the familiar environmental cues, she was rock solid in her guide work.  The driveway is the entrance to the parking lot for the district school buses so there was always a lot of traffic in and out.  Stopping accurately at this crossing was essential.

 

When Panda gets to a curb, she stops.  If it’s the up curb on the far side of a street crossing, she’ll put one foot up on the curb.  This tells Ann not only that there is some sort of obstacle in front of them, but where to look for it.

Ann finds the obstacle by searching for it with her foot.  She then cues Panda to go forward.  Panda walks on.  Ann may then tell her to trot on with a “hup, hup” verbal cue.  Panda will increase her speed by breaking into a brisk trot.  But she may then stop and pull to the side.  Perhaps a pedestrian is coming in the opposite direction pushing a baby carriage and walking a dog.  There isn’t room to pass, so Panda alerts Ann that there is “a situation” ahead by stopping and moving them over to the edge.

Traffic checks are another great example of cue communication.  It’s up to Panda to alert Ann and either to refuse to go forward, or to back them up out of harm’s way.

In all of these examples Panda is using the behaviors we have taught her in their appropriate context to provide Ann with the information she needs.

Mounting Blocks as Cue Communication
Cue communication can take other more subtle forms.  One of the early behaviors I taught to Peregrine via the clicker was to line himself up to the mounting block.  He was already very good about walking with me to the mounting block and standing quietly while I got on, but I wanted to add a bit of clicker flourish to the behavior.  So I used two targets.  The first brought him to the mounting block and the second took him forward a couple of steps so he ended up positioned exactly where I needed him to be in order to get on.

The targets quickly faded to hand signals. I was able to leave him in the center of the arena, walk the ten to twenty feet over to the mounting block, and call him to me. He would come and line himself up without my having to make any adjustments via the reins.

It became a favorite behavior.  In fact, if I forgot and started to lead him to the mounting block, he would hang back.  How silly of me!  I’d let go of the reins and head by myself to the mounting block.  He’d wait until I signaled to him, and then he’d come directly over and line himself up.

This behavior could always be counted on night after night even in a busy arena.  Peregrine would wait in the middle of the arena while all the other horses went past.  When the coast was clear, I’d cue him to come.  He never wandered off to visit with the other horses or to look for the scraps of hay which could always be found in the arena.  Coming when cued was a consistent, sure-fire behavior – except . . . every now and then he would stall out in the center of the arena.  I’d cue him to come, and he’d just hang back.

I never forced him over to the mounting block.  Instead I checked his feet, I listened for gut sounds, I took his temperature.  Hanging back from the mounting block was his way of telling me that something was wrong.  It was my early warning sign that he wasn’t feeling well.

Trust Your Horse, Trust the Process
I can just hear the harrumphers now.  What nonsense!  All you’re doing is teaching your horse that he doesn’t have to listen to you.  You’re letting him get away with not coming.  You’re rewarding him for hanging back.  You’re just going to get a horse who never goes to the mounting block.

Except that’s not what happened.  I trusted Peregrine, and I trusted the work we were doing together.  I truly believed that riding was fun for him.  He wanted to be ridden.

He showed me this in so many ways.  We’d be working on shoulder-in, adding our clicker bells and whistles to the basic movement.  He’d give me an extra lift through his shoulders, and I’d click and pull a peppermint – his favorite treat – out of my pocket.

He could hear the crinkle of the wrapper as I was undoing it.  Through the saddle I could feel his excitement.  If the paper was very stuck to the peppermint so he had to wait a bit longer than usual, he’d give a soft nicker of anticipation.  Finally!  I’d reach down, and he’d take the treat gently from my fingers.  I’d hear the quick crunch of the candy, and then he’d be ready to move on.  I’d touch the reins and without missing a beat he would pick up into another stride of even more glorious shoulder-in.  How could I not click that!

Of course he loved to ride!  Riding was the ticket to laughter, to lots of praise, to scritches on the neck, and best of all to peppermints!

So on the nights when he hung back, I knew he wasn’t feeling well, and I always listened.  He’d had a long series of serious health issues following a bout of Potomac Horse fever.  I needed this early warning system to be up and functioning so I could monitor his health.

Capture the Saddle
I teach the mounting block lesson very differently these days.  The lesson is called “Capture the Saddle”.  It begins with rope handling and directed learning and ends with targeting.  I teach it in this way because I regard the mounting block lesson as a final safety check before I give the okay for a rider to get on.

A horse that has been well prepared with good ground work, will breeze through this lesson.  The prerequisite is a lesson that I refer to as the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game.  In the next section I’ll describe both these lessons and the reasons for them.

Coming Next: Unit 4: Cue Communication continued: The Mounting Block Lesson

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

 

JOYFULL Horses: Unit 4: Cue Communication

Everything  You Need to Know About Cues
At the end of Part 1 I asked: What are ten things you would want a beginner to know about cues?  That seemed like a simple enough question, but look where it has taken us – to neuroscience and the affective emotional systems, to habits and what maintains them, to TAGteaching and the focus funnel, to guide training for horses, to Feldenkrais work and asking questions, to the Premack principle and the creative use of imagery in training.

All that and we still have only three things on our list:

1.) Cues and commands are not synonyms.
2.) Cues are not just verbal signals.  They can include weight shifts, hand gestures and other body language signals.  
3.) Cues can come from the environment.

And now here’s number 4.) Cue Communication

Icky mounting block - hands up

Cue Communication
We tend to think of cues as coming from us, but cues can also be given by our animals.  The behaviors we teach them can be turned around and used by them to communicate back to us.

When we recognize that cues are a two way street, we become much more aware of what are animals are trying to communicate to us.

Panda was the poster child for environmental cues.  She can serve the same function for cue communication.  Guide work is dependent upon the back and forth exchange of cues.  I described earlier Panda’s traffic checks.  That’s a great example both of environmental cues and cue communication.  The moving car is the signal for Panda to stop and back up.  Her actions cue Ann.  Ann must interpret Panda’s sudden change of behavior correctly and allow her to move her out of harm’s way.

 

Everyday Conversations
Good training is about cue communication.  It’s a two way street.

When novice trainers first encounter cues, they often think that they are something only they give.  Most of us have spent time around dogs, either our own or a friend’s.  We’re used to telling dogs to sit, to lie down, to come, to leave it!  These are all cues (or possibly commands – depending upon how they were taught) that we’re giving to the dog.

But what about that sad-eyed look the dog is giving you that gets you to stop working on the computer, get up, walk to the coat closet, put on your jacket and your outside shoes, take the leash off the hook where it’s hanging, attach it to your dog’s collar, open the back door and take him out for a walk.  That was quite the complex chain the dog set in motion just by raising his eyebrows and giving you “that look”.

He probably further cued the internal components of the chain by jumping up, wagging his tail, running to the back door, sitting quietly while you put on shoes and jacket and attached the lead.

Back and forth throughout this sequence there was a dance of cues.  Some were given by you, some by the dog.  It is so like talking on the phone.  You have a long story to tell.  What maintains the conversation?  The little interjections your listener gives you that tell you she’s still on the line, still listening to you.  The call hasn’t been dropped by your cell phone network, nor has she gone off to feed her horses.  Without those little sounds cueing you that the connection is still active, and she’s still on the other end of the line, your story would stutter to a stop.

“Are you still there?” You may find yourself asking this as you talk on the cell phone.

“Are you still walking to the door?”  Your dog wags  his tail, or goes into a play bow.  Yes!  That just redirected the human from the kitchen back on track to the door.

We tend to think of cues as coming from us, but cues can also be given by our animals. When you live with animals, you become as much cued by their behavior as they are cued by you.  We know the look our cats give us when they want to be picked up for a cuddle, when they want to be set down again, or let out, or fed.  We become well-trained humans.

Animal Trainers – The Ones to Really Learn From!
I have always known how much my behavior is being cued by my animals.  I know those “looks”.  I have learned to interpret them and respond appropriately to them.  It’s no good picking your cat up for a cuddle when what she wants is to go out.  She’ll simply squirm out of your arms to repeat – louder – her cue.  She knows what many people who travel in foreign countries also believe.  If the foreigner doesn’t understand your language, repeat what you just said, only louder.  In the cat’s case, this often works!

Cats are superb trainers.  They are experts at arranging their households to their liking.  If you want to learn about training – watch your cats.  You don’t need to go any further to find a master trainer!

A Well-Trained Human
Cats are very good at taking the behaviors we have taught them, and turning them around to cue us.  I became very aware of this when one of my cats was a small kitten.  She wanted to see what I was having for breakfast and perhaps share it with me.  I didn’t want to encourage this behavior, so I took advantage of her interest to teach her to sit.  I followed the same procedure I had seen dog trainers use.  I held a small tidbit over her head.  As she looked up to see what was in my fingers, her hindquarters sank towards the floor.  Click!  I gave her a tiny bit of the buttered toast she was so interested in.

Two or three reps were usually enough to satisfy her curiosity. She would go off and leave me alone to enjoy my breakfast without the constant interruption of a too inquisitive paw pushing its way onto my plate.

Over the course of several days the sit began to evolve.  Now we had a proper down on your rump sit.  Click and treat.

One morning she added a slight paw lift.  I grew that from a slight lift of her front foot into a “high five” wave.   It was very cute.

And that’s when she turned the tables on me.  I was in the kitchen not far from the refrigerator.  She very deliberately sat down, lifted her paw and gave me my cue.  It was so like the dog handlers who cue “sit” and “down” with a hand signal, only in my case the cue set in motion a much more complex chain.  I walked to the refrigerator, opened the door, reached in, lifted out the tub of margarine, took off the lid, put a small dollop on the tip of my finger, reached down and let her lick it off my finger.

I had to laugh.  I knew exactly what had just happened.  She had turned everything around, and she was cueing me!

I also understood more clearly than I ever had before that the behaviors we teach our animals can be used by them to cue us.