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.

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

JOYFULL Horses: Guide Work: Yes, She Can!

Saying “No”
I ended the previous post by saying that intelligent disobedience shouldn’t just be limited to guide horses.  My wish would be that our big horses could have the same freedom to say “no” that Panda does.

If I have taught well, my horse will understand what I want.  If I have taught well, my horse will want to do what I ask.  If he says “no”, I need to trust that he is aware of something I have missed.  Instead of forcing him to comply, I need to find out what that is.  If I believe that horses are intelligent animals, it makes sense to acknowledge that intelligence and let it be expressed through the training.  Choice is part of clicker training.  Real choice only comes when our horses know that it is safe to say “no”.

Saying “no” to cues that are well understood is part of the job description of a guide.  A guide says “no” to the cue to go forward when it would take the team into the path of an on-coming car.  Wouldn’t it be equally useful to have a riding horse say “no” to going forward down a trail his senses are telling him is unsafe?  Wouldn’t it be empowering – not to mention so much safer – to have a horse stop well before a jump he isn’t sure he can clear?

Instead of forcing a horse to go forward into something he perceives to be dangerous, we could become better at preparing him for the tasks we set. When our horses say “no”, there is a reason.  Taking the time to ask what that reason is would transform horse training.

The importance of Panda is not that horses can serve as guides, but that we can teach them an appropriate way to say “no”.

Guide Work: Yes, She Can!

IMG_1994_1 Panda Ann great walk

This is one of my favorite photos of Ann and Panda.  Look at how relaxed they both are.  They have just passed through a construction zone, and they are back on an undisturbed section of sidewalk.  Panda is trained just like our riding horses.  We want connection not pull.  Panda is guiding Ann, providing her with all the information that is needed, but there is no strain in either of them.  They are both able to walk in balance, passing information back and forth through harness and lead as needed.  It looks like what it is: a relaxed, enjoyable outing.

Panda shows how much the environment cues behavior.  Ann can’t see when there’s a curb coming up. She can’t see the trash can that’s fallen across the sidewalk, or the overhead branch that’s been weighed down after a summer’s rain.  Panda’s training has taught her to respond to these environmental cues.

As I write this, Panda is fifteen.  She has been in work with Ann for thirteen years.  Well before this age most guide dogs would be retired, but Panda is still a relatively young horse.  She has a job, but to watch her guide, it would be hard to describe it as work.  Panda was trained exclusively through clicker training.  She was never punished for mistakes.

During her training with me, if she missed an obstacle – meaning I got bumped or I tripped over a tree root pushing up through the sidewalk, we would stop and rework the obstacle.  Normally that’s all she needed.  Once she saw the consequence to me, she would make the necessary adjustments and take me safely around not just this obstacle, but all others that resembled it.  She was wonderfully clever at being able to generalize from one example out to a whole class of similar obstacles.

But, But, You MUST Need to Correct Her
When Ann was first transitioning from her guide dogs who were traditionally trained with corrections to Panda who was clicker trained, she told me about a conversation that was occurring on one of the guide dog users on-line discussion groups.  Ann had been describing some of Panda’s training.  The question people had was how do you correct her?  Ann responded that she never needed to correct Panda.  She would then describe, yet again, how Panda was being trained.

“Yes, yes,” they answered back.  “We understand that’s how you taught her, but what happens when you’re out in the real world, and she makes a mistake?  How do you correct her?”

They were truly insistent.  They needed to know how Ann dealt with these transgressions.

Ann wrote back that Panda didn’t make mistakes.  That sounds very smug, but it happened to be true. That was right around the time the three of us went to the Equine Affaire, the big horse Expo that’s held every year in Springfield Massachusetts.  All day Panda guided Ann through the chaos of the trade show.  She navigated her through aisles crowded with people, and from building to building.  There were plenty of distractions, plenty of opportunities to bump Ann into a pole or miss a curb crossing, but Panda’s focus was on her job, not the other horses in the back parking lot, or the kids reaching out to pet her as she walked by.

She did all that plus she served as my demo horse in the presentations I was giving on clicker training.  In the evening we decided she had done enough.  We left her happily munching hay in her stall while we went out for dinner.  There were several us in the group, and at various points in the evening Ann used us to go sighted guide.  That means she took our elbow, and we served as her guide. Every one of us during the course of the evening either tripped her up at a curb or bumped her into a pole.

As Ann wrote later, she didn’t think punishing us for the mistakes would have helped us to be better guides.  Nor would it help Panda.  If a mistake is made, Panda is not reprimanded for it.  She is simply given another opportunity to try again.  As needed, we break the overall task down into smaller segments and teach her any missing skills.  Once she understands how to navigate through a particular type of obstacle, Panda doesn’t make the same mistake twice.

Horses can live a very long time.  Hopefully, Panda and Ann will be partnered together for thirty years and more.  As our cities and towns become even more congested, the challenges a guide faces will grow increasingly complex.  Keeping it fun, keeping it more like play than work is an important part of maintaining this life-long partnership.

Panda Ann Scrabble

Panda gets plenty of opportunities to play as this video shows.  It was taken on New Year’s Day, 2016 during a holiday visit to the barn.

Coming Next: Chapter 2: Using Environmental Cues

You can read about Panda’s early training on my web site: theclickercenter.com. Visit: http://www.theclickercenter.com/ThePandaProject.html

Also, there is an excellent children’s book that was written about Panda:  Panda: A Guide for Ann written by Rosanna Hansen with photographs by Neil Soderstrom, published by Boyd Mills Press 2005.

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

JOY Full Horses: Intelligent Disobedience

Number 3: The Environment can be a Cue
Chapter 1:  Emotions and Environmental Triggers

My Cue Trumps Your Cue
In the previous section Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide, provided us with many examples of environmental cues.  Among them were curbs marking a street crossing.  Moving cars are one of the many dangerous obstacles a guide has to deal with.  People who aren’t familiar with guides often ask how the animal knows when a light has turned green and it’s okay to cross.

The answer is that’s not the guide’s job.  The guide finds the curb and stops the handler before they get to the edge.  Then the handler listens to the traffic patterns.  When the handler thinks it is safe to cross, she will tell the guide to go forward.  But these days with cars turning on red, and so many people riding bikes, and the new, very quiet electric cars, there are many opportunities for mistakes.

Moving cars trump go forward cues.  If Ann tells Panda to go forward, but Panda sees something coming that will cut across their path, she will stand her ground and refuse to move until the vehicle has passed.  If they are already crossing and a car suddenly comes towards them, she will stop quickly and back up, taking Ann out of the path of the on-coming car.

 

Intelligent Disobedience
When Ann asks Panda to go forward off a curb, Panda knows perfectly well what she is supposed to do.  When she refuses to move, she isn’t being bad.  She’s doing her job.  There’s a name for this kind of response: intelligent disobedience.

When I took on the project of training Panda, this was one of the areas I was most interested in   There were so many myths floating around about intelligent disobedience.  Ann told me that many people believed guide dogs were especially intelligent and could do a job that ordinary dogs just wouldn’t be able to handle.

There were certainly people in the horse community who huffed and puffed when they heard about Panda.  “If I were blind,” they declared, “I would never trust a horse to guide me.”

I always thought – how sad.  Is that really what they think about the horses that they get on and ride?  How little do they understand the amazing abilities of the horses they say they love.  I would much rather think that I am entrusting my safety to an intelligent animal than one I regard as stupid.

Horses as Guides
As a herd animal, guiding made perfect sense to Panda.  It was easy to teach her the basic elements.  A dog might want to explore the hedgerow.  That’s where the rabbits live.  To a horse it makes sense to go around.  By extension going around other obstacles also makes sense.  And because horses do live in herds, they understand that they need to make room for the person walking next to them.

A dog is nimble and can easily handle rough footing.  So can a horse, but they are very aware of where they put their feet.  Looking out for rough ground makes sense to them.  A broken leg from a fall is a death sentence for a horse.

Dogs are distracted by squirrels, other dogs, pigeons and lots of other things that can run or fly away.  Panda has never chased a squirrel in her life.  She can be distracted by grass, but as Ann has said, the grass isn’t likely to run away.  It’s a much easier distraction to deal with.

Some horses are very spooky and nervous in unfamiliar settings.  Panda seems to thrive on the puzzles they present.  I live not far from Albany, the Capital of New York State. During the time Panda and Ann were first learning to work together, there were a lot of street repairs going on in Albany.  We used to take field trips into the downtown sections where we knew the sidewalks were under construction.  Every visit presented monster-sized challenges.  Sometimes the entire sidewalk would be torn up, and Panda and Ann would have to work together to find a safe way through the construction zone.  I never saw Panda even hesitate.  She would size up the task in front of them and proceed forward. (You can see an example of one of these sidewalk hazards in the video at the top of this page.)

IMG_1991 Panda Ann construction

Panda guiding Ann safely through a construction zone.

Ambulances blasting their sirens just a few feet away, people on bicycles, busy traffic, nothing seemed to surprise or frighten her.  Whatever was in front of her was just another puzzle, another opportunity to earn clicker treats, another part of the game.

Teaching Panda to guide a handler over and around obstacles was easy.  It was really just a matter of supporting the good decisions she was already making.  The outstanding question was would she be able to understand intelligent disobedience?  Could a horse understand this concept?

Evidence in Support of Intelligent Disobedience
Before I ever started training Panda, I already had the answer to this question.  Anyone who rides out has experienced some form of intelligent disobedience.  There are so many stories of horses who have refused to go forward on a trail.  The horse stops, feet firmly planted, his whole body clearly saying “No!”. The rider gets after him, kicking him, maybe even hitting him with a crop or the long end of the reins.  The horse just plants himself even more.  And then a friend’s horse catches up to them and passes them on the trail, only to find itself mired up to its belly in deep mud.  Horse and rider are lucky to escape uninjured.

Of course, the first rider always feels about two inches tall.  Her horse was trying to tell her the trail wasn’t safe.  This is a horse who grew up free to roam over large tracks of land.  He understood the signs that were in front of him.  The second horse may have grown up in a small field and had never seen this kind of boggy ground before.  But the first horse was trying in every way he knew how to say that it wasn’t safe to go forward, and his rider didn’t know enough to listen.

Trusting Intelligent Disobedience
Intelligent disobedience is a wonderful response to build into our horses.  Panda’s training shows us we can do so deliberately.  If I know that I have taught a behavior well and my horse doesn’t respond to my cues, I need to look for a reason.

Suppose I have taught my horse to come to me from the middle of the arena over to a mounting block. If he comes every time, and then suddenly one day, he hangs back, I need to look for a reason.  It may be that he isn’t feeling well, and his reluctance to ride is his way of telling me. It may be that I’m in a grump of a mood, and again, he is letting me know that riding isn’t the best choice for the day.  Whatever the reason, I need to listen and not simply assume that my horse is “testing me” with his disobedience.  That “disobedience” could one day save my life.

Teaching Traffic Checks
Let me describe briefly how Panda’s traffic checks were taught.  The lesson that I followed was given to me by Michele Pouliot.  Michele has thirty plus years of experience working with guide dogs.  She is currently the Director of Research and Development at Guide Dogs for the Blind where she has played a primary role in transitioning the training of their dogs to clicker training.

I don’t know if this is still how she teaches traffic checks, but these are the instructions she gave me in 2002 when I was teaching Panda this lesson.

Step 1: We began with a parked car.  We walked directly toward the car.  When Panda stopped in front of it, I clicked and reinforced her.

Step 2: I enlisted the help of one of my experienced clicker friends.  As we approached the car, she began to drive it very, very slowly forward towards us.  Panda stopped on her own, and I cued her to back up.  Click and treat.

Step 3: Panda stopped and backed up without needing to be cued by me when the car went into motion.  Click and treat.

Step 4: We now moved to simulated traffic checks.  Still using my experienced driver, we had her wait for us in a neighbor’s driveway.  (You do wonder what people looking out their windows must have thought!)  I walked Panda along her familiar route.  As we began to cross the driveway, my driver would pull out slowly across our path. Panda backed us up out of harm’s way.

We were essentially teaching Panda that moving cars trumped the go forward cue.  If I asked her to go forward, and there were no cars or bicycles coming, she was to take me across the intersection.  But if there was a vehicle in motion, she was to stop.  She wouldn’t be punished for refusing to respond to a known cue.   Keeping us out of the path of a car produced clicker treats.

Step 5: The traffic checks continued.  We used different cars and different locations.  They became increasingly more like real world situations.

Step 6: Once Panda was paired up with Ann, we went through the whole process again, making sure that the behavior was solid now that the possibility of real traffic checks existed.

Testing the Training – How Strong are your Habits?
Panda was so good at these checks I wanted to get them on film.  Our usual driver wasn’t available so we enlisted the help of Ann’s husband.  We gave him the instructions.  He was to wait for us in a neighbor’s driveway and, as Ann approached with Panda, he was to pull out in front of them.

That was fine.  He knew how traffic checks worked.   The one part of the instructions we forgot to tell him was we only needed one or two traffic checks.  After that he could go home, and we’d keep walking.  Since we left that part out, at every driveway and parking lot intersection along our route – there he was.

Later when we watched the video, we thought we should have the sound track from Jaws playing in the background.  There was the gold van stalking Ann and Panda yet again!  Ann was taking her usual route heading for the barn.  It’s a long walk, and that day we all learned just how many driveways there are between her house and the barn!  (You can see one of the many of these traffic checks in the video at the top of this page.)

All of these traffic checks served them well.  Prior to pairing up with Panda, Ann had had two guide dogs who both failed to stay in work.  They were both very distracted by other dogs, squirrels, really anything that moved.

Crossing streets was always a white-knuckled affair.  Ann would get to the barn with horror stories about missed curbs and missed traffic checks.  Neither of these dogs should ever have been passed by the school that trained them, but they were hoping that an experienced handler like Ann would be able to manage them.  In both cases they had to be returned to the school and re-homed into other careers.   I think both went on to be police dogs, work they were much more temperamentally suited to.

Ann’s experience with Panda was completely different.  Dogs were something you ignored.  And traffic checks – for Panda they were like playing a video game where you’ve reached master level.  Ann would get to the barn laughing, telling me about that day’s adventures.  For well over a year the high school she walked past on her way to the barn had been under construction.  Every day there was some new challenge for them.  One day there would be a sidewalk for them to navigate along.  The next day it would be gone.  All that was left would be a gaping hole and piles of rubble.

IMG_1990 Panda Ann construction

This once familiar landscape has been transformed by construction, but Panda still manages to find a safe route.

Traffic checks didn’t just mean avoiding cars, school buses and the high school track team out for the day’s run.  It now included encounters with heavy construction vehicles and bulldozers. Panda had to watch out for traffic and figure out how to find a route across a parking lot that was completely transformed.  This was nothing like the tidy sidewalks and suburban side streets she had trained over.  All those trips into Albany paid off here.

Saying “No”
I’m writing about intelligent disobedience because this is something we need to be more aware of in our training.  I wish our big horses could have the same freedom to say no that Panda does.  If we’re going to ride a horse, he should be able to say no, not today.  If we’re going to jump a horse, or ride him over uncertain ground, we need to trust those times when he slams on the brakes and says not there. You may not see the slick ground or smell the grizzly bear, but I can.

If I have taught well, my horse will understand what I want.  If I have taught well, my horse will want to do what I ask.  If he says no, I need to trust that he is aware of something I have missed.  Instead of forcing him to comply, I need to find out what that is.  If I believe that horses are intelligent animals, it makes sense to acknowledge that intelligence and let it be expressed through the training.  It makes sense to use their senses to help keep us both safe.

The importance of Panda is not that horses can serve as guides, but that it is okay for a horse to say no.

Coming next: What About Mistakes?  When is it okay for us to say no?  Panda has some things to teach us about that, as well.

You can read about Panda’s early training on my web site: theclickercenter.com. Visit: http://www.theclickercenter.com/ThePandaProject.html

Also, there is an excellent children’s book that was written about Panda:  Panda: A Guide for Ann by Rosanna Hansen with photographs by Neil Soderstrom, published by Boyd Mills Press 2005.

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

 

 

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

Number 3: The Environment can be a Cue
Chapter 1:  Emotions and Environmental Triggers

The previous section began a discussion of environmental cues.

Panda environmental cues

Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide, provides us with lots of examples of environmental cues.  In this photo there’s no real curb to mark where the sidewalk ends and the driveway begins,  but Panda has stopped exactly where she should.  This section of their daily walk had been under construction for months.  Every day the landscape was different.  In this photo the pavement has been newly patched.  The appearance of the intersection has changed dramatically from it’s previous state, but Panda still knows what to do at this intersection.

Looking ahead to the opposite side of the driveway we see another place where the environment will cue a stop.  Stopping at the far side of the driveway helps her blind handler stay oriented.  The stop on the up-curb side of the driveway lets her know when they have come to the beginning of the next section of sidewalk.

The sidewalk itself is another environmental cue, one which overrides the pull of the grass to the side.  Panda will guide her handler straight along the sidewalk to the next curb crossing.  There are lots of cues being exchanged between Panda and her handler, but it is Panda’s responsibility to respond correctly to the environmental cues which her handler cannot see, and to alert her to any changes or obstacles in their path.

I ended the previous installment by promising you some more Panda stories and here they are:

Goose Neck Trailers
I can’t resist telling one of my favorite Panda stories.  When Panda was first being paired up with Ann, we spent a day at the Equine Affaire, a giant horse expo and trade show that is held every year in western Massachusetts.  It’s a wonderful place to take a guide-in-training.  The concentration of challenging obstacles is a trainer’s delight.  We had loading ramps that could substitute for railway platforms, and garage doors that gave us lots of practice with overhead obstacles, not to mention the crowds of people in the trade show to navigate through.

Panda handled it all with ease.  Late in the day as we were walking through the back parking lot area, we passed a goose neck trailer that was parked alongside the sidewalk.  I decided to put Panda through one more challenge.  I instructed Ann to stop at this point and cross the street.  This would take them directly under the front of the trailer.

gooseneck trailer

The goose neck portion was right at forehead-hitting height, but I had no worries.  Of course, Panda would stop.  Except she didn’t.  I was about to cry out an alarm.  It looked as though Panda was going to crash Ann straight into trailer. But before I could get the words out to say STOP! Panda slammed on the brakes, looked up at the trailer hitch and hastily backed Ann away.

The double take she did was priceless. It was as if she was saying: “Where did that come from! How could I have missed that?!”

It reminded me of those times when I’m driving, and I’ve been so focused on the road ahead that I have completely failed to see a car coming up alongside me.  “How could I have missed that!?” I’ll exclaim as the car comes into view.  I could sympathize with Panda’s surprised reaction to the goose neck.

Now for Panda the goose neck trailer was not a hazard.  She could easily fit under the hitch, but Ann would most certainly have hit her head.  When Panda looked up, it was clear to me that she had seen the overhead obstacle and was backing up to avoid it.

Every class of obstacle requires a different type of response.  Find an empty chair means Panda scans the available seats and takes Ann to an empty one.  She alerts her to the presence of the chair by putting her nose on it.

For doors Panda finds the door and then orients her body sideways towards it so it is easy for Ann to reach out and find the handle.

A Trainer’s Play Ground

Panda descending museum stairs
Stairs present a special hazard.  It’s important that the handler understands that the guide is stopping at a flight of stairs and not at a single curb.  Towards the end of Panda’s training we spent a fun day practicing stairs during a visit to Albany, the capital of New York State.

concourse

A photo of the Empire State Plaza taken from the steps of the State Museum. The State Capital is straight ahead. To the right is The Egg, the Center for Performing Arts.

We turned the state plaza into our personal playground.  We were in a huge concourse that serves as a public park.  Underneath the plaza is a maze of offices and shops.  At one end is the state library and museum.  At the other end the State Capital.

state museum

The State Museum with its imposing flight of steps leading up to the entrance.

state capital building

The State Capital Building at stands at the opposite end of the Concourse

These are beautiful buildings, but we were not there for the sight seeing.  The plaza provided us with a wonderful array of training obstacles.  There were stairs everywhere – stairs going up, stairs going down, stairs in all sorts of unexpected places.

Ann wasn’t familiar with the area, so she never knew for certain what was coming up next. I was having a grand time directing her towards every unexpected obstacle I could find, the more challenging, the better.  If you’re given a playground, you should play in it!

Stairs cue a distinct set of responses from Panda.  When she comes to a set of stairs, she will stop before the first step.  At this point Ann will not know what is in front of them.  She will tell Panda to go forward.  In response Panda will put one foot on the first step – either up or down – and again stop.  She will not go forward until Ann has also placed her foot on the step and given her the verbal cue to go. Panda is not to proceed until both of these things have happened.  It’s important that Ann not only knows there’s a set of stairs in front of her, but that she also has time to prepare herself for them.  Panda is not to go forward until Ann tells her she’s ready.

I think we found every set of stairs in the concourse that day, including the long flight that takes you up to the State Library.  I especially liked pointing Ann and Panda towards the stairs that led down into the underground concourse.  Up stairs are more expected.  It’s the ones that took them down below the Plaza that really tested them as a team.

The Herd Horse Advantage
Pedestrians, bikes in motion, dogs being walked, baby carriages, parked cars are all obstacles that cue specific responses.  One of the things that I most enjoy is watching Panda maneuver Ann through a crowd of people.  I will sometimes position myself far enough ahead so that I can see Panda and Ann approaching.

Panda will be scanning what is in front of her.  You can see her eyes moving, taking in all the activity that’s coming up.  She’ll make little course adjustments so there is never a collision.  As a herd animal, she is superb at being able to judge where she is going to be relative to people who are moving towards her from the opposite direction.  The course corrections are seamless.  The only ones swerving abruptly are the people doing double takes when they realize what has just passed them!

Coming Next: Intelligent Disobedience   This is the name given for those times when a guide does not respond to a cue the handler has given, but instead responds to environmental cues.  It might be ignoring the cue to go forward and instead backing up out of the path of an approaching car.  Intelligent disobedience is an important part of every guide’s training.  It is also something we would do well to be aware of in the training of our full-sized horses.

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.

You can read about Panda’s early training on my web site: theclickercenter.com. Visit: http://www.theclickercenter.com/ThePandaProject.html

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

 

 

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

Today’s installment begins a new unit.  So far in my list of ten things you should know about cues I have: 1.) Cues are not commands. 2.) Cues can be non-verbal

This brings us to:

Number 3: The Environment is a Cue

Panda zebra crossing

This mini is a guide horse for the blind.  She’s just done a beautiful stop at the curb, and now she’s guiding her handler across the entrance to a busy parking lot.  Just to add to the complexity of the task, the parking lot is under construction.

 

Chapter 1:  Emotions and Environmental Triggers

Environmental Cues
We seem to have wandered a long way from the ten things I would want a beginner to know about cues.  So let me pull us back to that list for a moment.

Beginners tend to think of cues as something they present to the animal, but cues can also come from inanimate objects.  In fact much more than we may be aware of these environmental cues move us through our day from one habit pattern to the next.

Many of us have experienced this with our horses.  If you work in an arena, you may have found that there is one corner where your horse’s balance makes it easiest to ask for a canter.  Maybe you’re starting a youngster, so setting up the canter out of the short side makes sense.  He pops up nicely into the canter which is reinforcing for both of you.  It gets easier and easier to ask for the canter out of that corner, except now, even when you aren’t wanting to canter, that’s what he’s offering.  That corner has become the cue, not your riding aids.

We often experience the same thing riding out.  The stretch of trail where the path widens out into a gently rising slope over good footing just invites a canter.  Both you and your horse enjoy a good run up the hill.  You don’t even notice that the trail has taken over control of your horse – until you are riding out with a friend who is on a young horse that she doesn’t yet want to canter.  You get to the bottom of that hill, and your horse is off and running – following instructions that you helped to write.

Here’s the mantra to remember:

“Never make your horse wrong for something you have taught him.”

Punishing the canter isn’t the solution.  That may squash the behavior for the moment, but it will have fallout.  For one thing punishment takes you a long way from play.  You may stop the canter in that moment, but the damage you do to your relationship is a price you may not want to pay.

In a later section I’ll describe how you can manage these environmental cues by teaching cues in pairs.  But before I get to the solution to the problem, let’s first dig down a little deeper to see how environmental cues work.

Guide Horses

Panda sidewalk construction

The “Equine Poster Child” for environmental cues is Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide for her blind owner, Ann Edie.

Guide work is dependent upon environmental cues.  It’s the job of the guide to spot changes in elevation, overhead obstacles, moving cars, other pedestrians; to find the door, the stairs, an empty chair; and to point out designated landmarks that the blind handler uses to navigate, such as driveways and street crossings.

The different triggers elicit different responses.  When Panda spots a section of sidewalk that’s been pushed up by a tree root and that might trip her person, she stops and waits for her handler to find it.

As Panda approaches a street crossing where there is no raised curb, she will pull her handler to the left hand edge of the sidewalk.

At the opposite side of the street if she encounters a raised  curb, Panda will stop and tap the curb with her hoof.

Out in the country where there is no sidewalk to follow, Panda will follow the curve of the road past a street crossing and then stop.  She will not go directly across or stop as she might at a driveway.  Following the curve of the corner lets her handler know that they have come to an intersection.

At street corners with traffic lights, her handler will direct Panda to “find the button”, and Panda will take her to the pole with the pedestrian crossing signals.

If they encounter an overhead obstacle such as a tree branch weighed down with snow that her handler won’t fit under, Panda will stop and look up.  The movement tells her handler what sort of obstacle is in front of them.

 

Coming next: More Panda stories.

IMG_1989 Panda Ann construction

Even when the familiar environmental cues are obscured by construction, Panda still finds the way from curb to curb.

 

You can read about Panda’s early training on my web site: theclickercenter.com. Visit: http://www.theclickercenter.com/ThePandaProject.html

Also, there is an excellent children’s book that was written about Panda:  Panda: A Guide for Ann written by Rosanna Hansen with photographs by Neil Soderstrom, published by Boyd Mills Press 2005.

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