JOY Full Horses Pt 1. Ch 7: Training Playfully Mixed with a Little Science

When I think about playing with my horses, I don’t mean trick training.  I’m not asking them to bow or to lie down.  I’m not dressing them in clown costumes and having them retrieve my hat – or maybe I am (at least the hat retrieving part).  The behaviors I’m asking for are not as important as how I train them.  Ideally whenever I am with my horses, I want to be in a PLAY FULL state.

That’s easier said than done.  If you’re used to training in a very formal, structured way, being PLAY FULL may feel very foreign.  The good news is clicker training provides us with a clear road map for discovering PLAY.  It begins appropriately enough with the ABC’s.  In this case ABC stands for:

ABC of training
Behavior is obvious.  That’s what you want your horse to do.

Often people think it is the Antecedent that makes a behavior happen.  That’s how it looks.  You call your dog, and your dog comes.  A came before B so it appears to be the cause of the behavior.  But what really determines whether or not the dog comes is all the learning history associated with that behavior. When he responded in the past to the cue, what happened?

The reason that behavior is likely to occur again – or not – is because of the consequences. Good consequences make the behavior more likely to happen again.  If you put a heating pad on your back after you’ve strained it lifting too many hay bales into your loft and your back begins to feel better, you’re likely to use the heating pad the next time you over do the barn chores. Good consequences make the behavior more likely to occur again.  They are a predictor of future behavior.

Unpleasant consequences mean the behavior will be less likely.  Instead of loading all the hay into the loft yourself, you may decide you’ve learned your lesson.  Next time you’ll hire some strong teenagers and spare the strain to your back.

Antecedents obviously occur before the behavior.  When you give your horse a cue, you’re telling your horse which behavior is most likely to earn reinforcement.

So the ABC’s can be written as:
ABC of training with arrows
If you’re familiar with clicker training, you’ve no doubt seen this phrase written out many times before.

In clicker training we focus a lot of attention on the consequences.  It’s click and reinforce.  One of the many questions good trainers ask is: how can we expand the ways in which we reinforce our learners?

Reinforcement Variety
Trainers of other species inform us that we want to use reinforcement variety to maximize performance.  For a dog it’s easy to come up with a long list of different reinforcers.  Think of all the goodies dogs will happily (and safely) wolf down.  And then there are the chase, kill and dismember games that make this lifelong vegetarian appreciate her horses all the more.

While it may make me cringe as you play tug with a squeaky toy that mimics the screams of a dying rabbit, the underlying concept is a good one.  We want reinforcement variety.  For our horses food is a primary reinforcer in more ways than one.  It is primary in the technical sense in that it is needed for survival.

And it is primary in that it is of first order usefulness.  Food is both something that horses want, and it is easy to use in a training session.  In fact it is such a powerful motivator that many people have shied away from using it because they have not known how to manage their horse’s heightened emotional response to food.

Clicker training changes that by introducing an organized process for teaching horses emotional self-regulation around food.  The process transforms food treats from a distraction into a useful training tool.

Food is not our only reinforcer, but it is the most convenient to use, especially in a training environment.  My horses may love to roll in a sand pit – but not with my good saddle on their backs, thank you very much.

Peregrine Robin sleeping in arenaI’m writing this section about the ABCs of training sitting on the inner deck of my barn.  From my vantage point I can see Peregrine and Robin lying down in the arena enjoying a morning nap.
They’ve had a busy morning “helping” me with the chores, and now it is time to rest.  Again, this is clearly something they enjoy.  It is part of their daily ritual.  Today is especially pleasant.  It’s late May.  The temperature could not be more perfect, and as yet the flies are not out.  The horses can indulge in a long nap.  Peregrine is stretched out on his side, clearly dreaming.  His hind legs are cantering and every now and then he gives a deep throated nicker.

Robin sleeping cin in sawdustRobin is resting more upright, his nose buried in the shavings as he falls into a deep sleep.

I don’t know why watching horses sleep is so very reinforcing.   I treasure these quiet times we have together.  While I watch over them, I can work on the computer.  It is family time we all enjoy, but this is not something that I can use in a practical way during a training session.  That’s true of most of my horse’s favorite activities.  So if I want to vary their reinforcers, I need to shift my focus from the consequences and look more at antecedents.  I need to learn about cues and how they glue behaviors together.

Understanding cues unlocks a lot of “doors to the kingdom”.  In particular this key component opens the door to PLAY.  That’s what we’ll be exploring in the next section.

Peregrine Robin family time

Family Time

Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 8: Cues and Their Connection to Play

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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: