Heating Up a Behavior
In the previous section you learned how to teach your horse to back through a square. There are many practical reasons why you would want this kind of maneuverability in your horse. For starters it’s important that horses understand that they can swing their hips so they don’t feel trapped in tight spaces. I’m sure you can see why this would be important. What may not be as obvious is the link between backing in a square and head lowering.
To get to this lesson, you’re going to take a little detour. You’re going to leave the stall for a few minutes while you make head lowering a “hot” behavior.
The reason for this detour is this way of teaching head lowering out of backing can be a hard lesson. I learned it originally from John Lyons where essentially you were closing down all options but the one you wanted. You were taking away choice. It is often taught when horses are over threshold. It’s a powerful lesson that can bring a horse back under control.
There have been times over the years working with horses at clinics where I have been very glad I knew how to make this lesson work. When a horse is panicking because he is away from home, you need management tools that can safely and without undue force, bring him back under control. If you ever find yourself on the other end of the lead from a horse who is having an emotional meltdown, you may be very grateful that you know how to make this lesson work.
But, and this is a big but, I want to be a constructional trainer. I want to teach a skill before I need to use a skill.
That means I want to teach my horse how to solve the puzzle that this head lowering lesson presents BEFORE I need to use it. I want to tease apart what can be a hard lesson into it’s underlying component parts. Instead of taking away choice, I want to give it back. Instead of this feeling like a hard lesson where doors are slammed shut, I am presenting it in a series of easily understood steps. If my horse ever does have a moment of panic, he will know how to solve the puzzle.
Think about how this would feel for yourself. When you’re afraid, if someone asked you what 27 divided by 3 is, you might momentarily struggle to find the answer, but you know basic math. You’d be able to give the answer. But suppose you’re asked for something you’ve never done. Now you’re really in a panic. You can’t solve this additional puzzle. You feel even more trapped. You’re afraid of the environment, and now you are struggling to figure out what your inquisitor is demanding of you. That’s definitely not how I want my horses to experience training. Controlling the environment and breaking training down into small steps transforms an inquisition into a reasonable lesson.
This is essentially showing you how you can take training you may have learned from a traditional, correction-based system and transform it into something that is very clicker compatible. That’s why I have taken so much time to describe the step-by-step teaching process that is going to take us from backing in a square to head lowering.
Priming the Pump
To make the jump from backing into head lowering, I’m going to “prime the pump”. I’m going to make head lowering a super “hot” behavior.
To show you how this works answer the following questions:
What colour is snow?
What colour is the house the US President lives in?
What colour is a sheet of typing paper?
What colour is the opposite of black?
What colour are clouds?
What colour is a bride’s gown?
What do cows drink?
Many people will say milk. They’ve been primed to say milk because they are thinking about things that are white. But, of course, cows drink water, not milk.
We’re going to prime the head lowering pump by asking lots of questions where head lowering is the answer. It’s like having a stack of files on your desk. At the moment the head lowering file may be buried at the bottom. It’s in there somewhere, but you’ve forgotten it’s even there. Bring it to the top of the stack, and now you’ll be thinking about it. Make every file you open a head lowering file, and pretty soon that’s the only answer you’ll be expecting to give.
Priming The Head Lowering Pump
The easiest way to get head lowering is through targeting, so that’s how you’re going to begin. You’ll have your horse track the target down, click and treat.
Another easy way is to milk the line down as you bend down softly inviting your horse to join you. The expression milking the line refers to your fingers stroking down either side of the line. You aren’t pulling down, and you aren’t fixing your hand firmly around the lead. You are simply drawing your fingers along the rope in a soft invitation.
Placing your hand on your horse’s poll is yet another way. By now he may drop his head readily because he knows head lowering has been paying well recently so why not try it again. Click and treat.
It’s no accident that head lowering is the go-to option. When you put your hand on his poll, it’s clear you want something, but no clicks are coming for just standing still. When you withhold your click, you’ll see a resurgence of the behavior that was just earning high rates of reinforcement – in this case, head lowering. For a discussion of resurgence and how to use it in training refer to the May 2015 articles on Resurgence and Regression: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2015/05/21/
Head Lowering from Backing in a Square
The pump is now primed. Head lowering is a super hot behavior. It’s time to return to the backing in a square lesson. You were asking your horse to back through a corner. As he swings his hips to the inside, his head is going to drop ever so slightly. This doesn’t happen because he’s relaxing. It’s more matter of counter-balancing. As his hips swing to the side, his head will counter balance that move by dropping slightly.
You’re going to be looking for this subtle balance shift. At first, it may be very small, so you have to be on the lookout for it. Instead of releasing the lead as soon as he’s backing, you’re going to wait for this tiny head drop. Your hand will stay on the lead to say: “I want something”. As soon as you get the response you’re after, you’ll release it.
This isn’t a change in the way you’re playing this game. You haven’t suddenly switched from a starter button to a constant-on cue for the backing. What has changed is the criterion you’re looking for. Now it isn’t backing. It’s that slight drop in his head. You’ve been getting it in different ways. Now you’re simply triggering it out of backing.
Head lowering is a hot behavior, so your horse will catch on fast. He’ll start to drop his head even before he’s stepping back. This is golden. You now have a super reliable way of asking for head lowering, one that will work even when he is feeling nervous and anxious.
Calm Down Now!
Why are you teaching head lowering in this way? Why not simply stay with the easier, less technically-difficult-to-teach methods? It’s a simple answer – even the most mellow horse can have a moment when his world is falling apart. You never know when you might suddenly find yourself holding onto a horse who is becoming increasingly worried. Maybe your friend has just taken her horse out of the arena, or maybe his best buddy is being turned out without him. Whatever the reason your horse has suddenly gone from working quietly to exploding into a freight train’s worth of energy. You need to keep both you and your horse safe. Putting him away, or turning him loose to work things out at liberty may not be an option, so what else can you do?
Again, it’s a simple answer. Ask him to back in a square. This moves his shoulders out of your space and keeps him from crashing over the top of you. As he backs, you’ll be displacing his head up and to the outside. The more anxious he is, the higher his head will be as he takes a step back. When he swings his hips to the inside, he’ll have a tendency to drop his head. This isn’t because he’s calming down. It’s a matter of counter-balancing. The drop of his head tends to happen as he steps to the side.
Be ready for this. As soon as you feel even the first inkling of head lowering, be certain to release the lead.
Even if you don’t manage to get a click in, the release of the lead will jump start the process. You’ll be ready the next time to reinforce the behavior not just with the release of the lead but with a click and a treat, as well. Repeat this a few times, and you will very quickly have a horse who lowers his head not just a tiny amount, but all the way to the ground.
Priming the pump helps the horse make the connection. When you activate the lead, he’s going to try head lowering because head lowering has been the go-to answer. Click and treat. When you need it the most, activating the lead will head straight to head lowering. (In the next unit we’ll address stimulus control so head lowering isn’t the only behavior you get when you touch the lead.)
Heading Toward Lighter Than Light Cues
Cues for head lowering will definitely grow out of this shaping process. When you slide down the lead asking for that slight displacement of his head to the outside, he’ll know you’re after head lowering.
How light can you be? Will he lower his head from just a soft touch on the lead? From a hand gesture? How can you morph that head lowering trigger into ever more subtle cues?
Playing with Cues
You can play even more with this process. Head lowering is hot. So let’s see what else can trigger the head lowering response. Stroke your hand along your horse’s back. If he’s been a little anxious, the long brush strokes your arm makes over his back may feel soothing. If you see him drop his head even a little, click and treat. Resume stroking his back again. He’s catching on to this new clicker game. He’s beginning to make connections fast. After just a couple of clicks, you’ll see that stroking his back cues him to drop his head. Very neat!
You can install all kinds of fun “buttons” all over your horse. And it’s not just head lowering that you can trigger. If you understand the overall concept of how this priming process works, you can install “buttons” for ears forward, for the pilates pose, for forward motion, for backing, etc.
“How’d you do that?”
As you play with this game, the question you’ll be hearing from your friends will be: “How’d you do that?”
“How did you get your horse to back up by pulling on his tail?”
“How did you get your horse to drop his head by tickling his belly?”
“How did you get your horse to run towards you by sitting in a chair?”
You don’t have to give away all your secrets (unless you want to). You can give them the best answer of all – playfully.
Author’s note: I want to remind people that I am using these lessons to illustrate some important concepts. I’ve included a lot of how-to instruction in this unit, but I have also left a great deal out. I can’t fit everything that needs to be said about head lowering into the length of an article. It was never my intent that these articles would give that kind of complete 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.
Coming Next: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 6.) Getting What You Want When You Want It: Stimulus Control
Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.
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Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training. If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: