Goat Diaries: Clicker Training Day 4

The Goat Palace: Training is Accumulating Fast!

The goats are doing great.  My journal notes are filled with superlatives.  The basics are becoming much stronger and more reliable.  Each session opens the door to a new possibility, something I can now ask for that would have been hard to get just a few days before.  They are so much fun!  I love quick, eager learners!

But before I get swept away with their current training, it is worth going back to the July Goat Diaries to see what the first steps of the learning were, not just for them, but for me, as well.

Just before Thanksgiving I had finished posting about Day Three of their training.  (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/11/20/)  Three days doesn’t sound like much, but that was fourteen training sessions.  I had introduced Elyan and Pellias (E and P as I referred to them in July) to the bare bones of targeting.  They had been on platforms.  On day four I was planning to add in a second platform.  So let me jump back to July.  Hopefully, this won’t confuse you too much.  I wish I had begun posting these Goat Diaries sooner so there wasn’t this overlap, but that wasn’t how my summer unfolded.  And perhaps it is better this way.  You can see both how these first steps can be built, and at the same time how much fun you can have using these foundation skills.

Remember in July I had not yet expanded the roof of the lean-to to create the goat palace.  Instead E and P were living in the barn in one of the horse stalls.  I was using the stall, plus the outside run as my training areas. So back to July . . . .

The July Goat Diaries: How We Get Behavior

My main training goals with Elyan and Pellias were: to stabilize their behavior around food so they were safe to feed treats to; and to work on basic leading.  I was going to have these goats for less than two weeks.  At the end of that time they would be going back into the 4-H program that Sister Mary Elizabeth ran for the children in her area.  At the end of the summer the goats would be going to the county fair and to several fiber festivals.  To be shown in the ring, they had to lead.  So anything I could do to help them with their leading manners was a plus.

It may not seem that teaching them to target and to stand on platforms had anything to do with leading, but they are all connected.  I was creating the building blocks that would make adding in a lead much easier.  To help you connect the dots between these foundation skills and leading remember in clicker training there are many strategies you can use to get behavior to happen.  You can lure behavior with food.  I was certainly using that with the goats when I had them follow a bucket of hay back into their stall.

Food luring can be a very effective and humane management technique, especially under conditions when other skills have not yet been taught.  It is much less stressful for a herd animal like these goats to follow a bucket of hay into an enclosure, than it is to be driven from behind.  Getting the goats into the habit of following me and my bucket of treats was a first step towards having them stay with me on a lead.

Targeting is another way to get behavior.  The goats were in the early stages of understanding targeting.  I had used it to begin their introduction to clicker training.

Goats day 2 target practice E - 1.png

Elyan learning about targeting.

That was step number one.  The more you explore targeting, the more you discover what an incredible teaching tool it is.  Targeting is very much part of leading.  We usually think of targets as a visual aid.  Certainly the handler becomes a visual target.  But I also want the feel of the snap under a horse’s halter to become a target.  In this case it becomes a tactile target – follow this feel.

Tactile targets take us to rope handling which takes us to a discussion of pressure and release of pressure.  Often the mere mention of pressure makes some people cringe. That’s what they want to get away from when they clicker train.  But we do put halters and leads on our animals.  So the question is not do we use pressure, but how has the response to pressure been taught?  Is it information or a threat?

Escalating pressure has a do-it-or-else threat embedded in it.  This is what we want to get away from in clicker training.  But pressure doesn’t have to become painful or frightening to have an effect.  It can simply close one “door” while leaving other doors open.  When you’re trying to figure out how to use pressure in a learner-friendly way, that can be a helpful metaphor.

Used well a lead provides clues that help an animal get to his reinforcement faster.  Suppose I want my learner to back up.  I could simply wait until I see a shift of balance back.  If I’m lucky, the animal will shift back quickly, but he’s just as likely to try other directions first.  That introduces more “noise” into the process.

Think about situations in your own life where having some boundaries was helpful. Computers offer us so many good examples.  You want something to change on your screen, but nothing is happening, so you start hitting buttons.  Is it this combination or this one?  When you finally do get the response that you wanted, do you remember what you did?  Can you repeat it without first trying all the errors?  Probably not.  How do you feel?  Frustrated.

But now think about those times when the computer gave you a “not this way signal”.  When you tried something that wasn’t going to work, you heard an error message.  It sometimes takes me a couple of repetitions to realize that that ping I’m hearing is the computer telling me what I’m doing isn’t going to work, try something else.  Oh, right.  That door is closed.

At least the computer is communicating something.  I must be hitting the wrong keys.  Yes, I was pressing down the cap lock key instead of the shift key.  That’s why I was getting that error message. 

The error message doesn’t change.  Siri doesn’t come on and start yelling at me.  The computer doesn’t tell me if I don’t change my behavior and do what it wants, it will start destroying files.  The computer remains non-reactive to my emotional displays of frustration.  When I finally notice that I’ve been hitting the wrong key, it responds immediately by producing the result I want.

When I was trying to push through the wrong “door”, it gave me a clear message – try something else – but nothing else escalated.  Good rope handling is very similar.  When my animal partner learns to pay attention to the information the lead is providing, it doesn’t just close doors, it shows him which ones are open.  What is the fastest path to the click and treat?  Leads provide boundaries.  Used well, they also provide very welcome information.

The lead provides simple messages.  Slide down the lead and you are saying: “I want something.”  Staying on the lead closes doors.  Now you’re saying: “Not this way, but keep trying.  There is an open door, and I know you can find it.”  Releasing the lead says: “Great! You just found the answer!”

All of this has to be taught.  I can’t expect my learner to understand the cues a lead can provide first time out of the box.  If he’s had confusing, inconsistent, or punitive experiences with the lead, then the teaching process becomes even more involved.  I’m not working with a clean slate.  I have to show him through my actions that I’m not intentionally going to use the lead to hurt or scare him.

An animal that has not been carefully introduced to leads may not understand this.  His learning history may tell him to try to push on the “door”.  Bang on it hard enough and it will open!  Goats certainly know about pushing through things!  And so do many horses.

I want to build my training steps systematically so my learner can safely, comfortably discover that pushing on the door isn’t needed.  When he encounters a closed door, that’s a hint.  It means try a different direction.  The faster you stop banging on that door, the faster you’ll find the one that is open – click and treat.

Elyan and Pellias both wore collars, but so far I had avoided putting leads on them.  I wanted to give them some other skills first which would help them understand how leads worked.  We were heading to leading, but not directly.  The training principle is: Never start with your goal.  The more steps you put between where you are and where you want to be, the smoother and more successful the learning experience will be.

More steps in part means learning to use more than one teaching strategy.  So here is another training principle:  There is ALWAYS more than one way to teach any behavior.  The more ways I come up with to teach the same thing, the stronger that base behavior will be.

So another teaching strategy I use is referred to as free shaping.  Here you are not using any prompts such as a target to trigger the behavior.  Instead you are simply observing the individual and marking those moments that take you in the direction of your shaping goals.

When people talk about the magic of clicker training, they are referring to freeshaping.  Yes, it is good science, but it does look quite magical when an animal begins to consistently offer a complex behavior and the handler has “done nothing” but click and reinforce tiny stair steps towards the desired behavior.  There have been no targets and certainly no whips.  You haven’t applied pressure by moving into the animal’s space. You’ve just sat in your chair, and now suddenly your animal – goat, horse, dog – is backing up twenty feet.  Very neat.

I have always considered free shaping to be an advanced skill for both the handler and the animal learner.  A handler who is just learning how to change behavior through incremental steps will miss clickable moments.  The criteria will be unclear.  The timing will be off.  The result: a learner who is becoming increasingly frustrated and confused.  A confused learner leads to a confused handler.  Put those two things together and you get a mess.  That’s no way to begin with clicker training.

Freeshaping may be an advanced skills, but you need to practice free shaping in order to build your skills.  Here’s the mantra: for every complex behavior you teach, there will be some element that is free shaped.

I may use my rope handling skills to get a horse to step onto a mat.  Once he’s standing there, I’ll free shape his head orientation.

I was going to use this concept with the goats.  I got them to the platforms with the target. Once they were on the platform I wanted to free shape head orientation.  My starting point was a goat who was indeed standing with all four feet solidly on the mat, but his head was reaching up towards my pockets.  I knew what I didn’t want.  I didn’t want him straining up towards me, or the opposite – curling his neck down so he looked as though he was about to ram something.  I wanted him standing all four feet on the platform, with his head up, and looking straight ahead.

The problem was the goats never really presented me with what I wanted.  They looked off to the side, or up at my pockets, but rarely were they looking straight ahead.  If I insisted on perfection, my rates of reinforcement would drop.  I’d get a frustrated goat, and I’d already seen what frustrated goats do.  Jumping up on me was not an answer I wanted them to be practicing.

To help prime the pump I had been using the food delivery to approximate the behavior I wanted.  My concern was I might be getting too much of a curl of the neck.  I didn’t want to trigger head butting.  So that was my question as I began the morning session.  What had these goats learned from the previous day’s training?  Good things I wanted?  Or would  I be left with “Oh dear, let me go have another cup of tea and rethink where we are.”  I was about to find out.

Session 1: 8 am with P.

I wanted to make the target more meaningful to P. He clearly liked being up on his platform.  So perhaps if I set out two platforms and used the target to move him from one to the other, he would begin to have a better understanding of targets.  Targets are things you orient to get to other good things.

I set out two platforms, the original foam platform and a new one made out of two heavy blocks of wood.  P went directly to the foam platform, click and treat. I worked on his head orientation.  Mostly he was stretching his nose out towards me.  I tried to catch moments when his head was down, but I needed to be careful with that.  I didn’t want to teach him to lower his head into head butting position.

I used the target to move him to the second platform.  He definitely got the idea of moving from one platform to another, and he was staying on the platform well.  It seemed as though this was going to be a useful approach for him.

I did not film this session because there was a light rain so I have no pictures to share.

E’s Session

E’s session – I worked E in his stall.  That seemed easier than switching the goats.  I already had the makings of two platforms.  I dismantled their corner platform and used two of the blue blocks as bases for single platforms.  E was concerned with them at first so I put the plywood on them, and he was fine about getting up on the blocks.  I again added in the scratching after feeding so he got very soft-eyed and dreamy.  I liked this association.  Clicks are followed by treats (exciting!) which are followed by head scratching (dreamy).

The whole peanuts took too long to eat, so I had been breaking them up.  He wasn’t particularly interested in the hulls, but he did like the peanuts.   I had also added sunflower seeds to the mix in my pocket, and those he really liked!  We had a lovely session going from platform to platform.  He was getting treats and attention.  And I was getting more good data to record in my journal.  Win-win for both of us.

When we were finished, I opened their stall door so he could go out into the pen with P.  Instead of staying out, P came into the stall and got up on a platform.  So E came back in as well.

They started sparing over who got the platform.  I managed to get each one on his own platform and reinforced them for staying put.  Once I have taught them individually about platforms, this will definitely be a usable approach for teaching them to work as a pair.

When I was all done, I spent a few minutes scratching them both, then I left them with some treats scattered over the floor.

The Goat Palace: Working in Pairs

So now I’m going to jump forward to the present.  I just described the very bare bones beginning of using multiple platforms to work the goats together.  I’ve been building on these skills both with Elyan and Pellias, and Thanzi and Trixie.  It is key to being able to reduce the competition over food.

I was so impressed with Trixie and Thanzi yesterday.  I’ve been working them in their pen.  Each goat can now stay at her own station (a stack of plywood mats).  I can move to Trixie, offer her a target to touch, click and drop treats in her bucket while Thanzi stays on her platform.  Then I can go to Thanzi, and Trixie stays put.  That is such a change from the dashing from bucket to bucket that we started with.

Yesterday I took them into the hallway.  The narrow platforms were set out side by side.  They got themselves sorted, one on each platform.  I was pleased with the progress Trixie, in particular is making.  Thanzi, I know will leap eagerly onto a platform.  Trixie has been slower at figuring out that going to platforms is a great way to get clicked.  But there they both were each on her own platform.

I stood in front of them and waited for both of them to take their noses away from my pockets.  They could do it!  Click, treat.  And when I fed them, they stayed each in her own space to get the treat.  They didn’t try to crowd in and snatch treats from one another.  That’s huge progress, but wait it gets better!

Remember these goats were side by side.  The treat bowls were right in front of their platforms.  I could click one, drop treats in her bucket, and the other goat would stay put!  Of course, she got clicked and reinforced for staying on her platform.  Win-win for everyone.

Pellias and Elyan are becoming increasingly solid working as a pair.  I can now consistently use their stationing behavior as a management tool.  When I want them to go back into their pen, I call them and they both come running.  They dash onto their platforms: Elyan on the balance beam of a thick piece of wood, and Pellias on a stack of plywood mats.  Click – treat both several times.  Then click, drop treats and leave.

They stay at their stations hunting for the dropped treats in the hay instead of swooping in trying to get what the other one has.  That gives me time to call Galahad in and give him treats at the other end of the pen.  This core foundation skill is creating much more peaceful living conditions for everyone.

Before I can move on to teaching the “fancy” stuff, first there are these basics – the universals of day to day handling.  Done well, the basics become “fancy”.  They are certainly fun to teach.  Every day I feel like a small child who has been given another bag of leggo blocks to play with.  I can build so much more with the behaviors the goats are learning!  What’s next?  The goats will always tell me.

Coming Next:  Goat Diaries – Day 4 Learning About Goats

 

Hidden Motivators

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing with Chains – Part 4 of 5

Hidden Motivators
Yesterday’s discussion of negative reinforcement considered the impact that each individual’s learning history has on the emotional response to a particular procedure.  Something you regard as fun might make someone else run for the hills.  When we’re choosing which teaching strategy we’re going to use with our horses or dogs, their past experience matters.

We often think of negative reinforcement in terms of the overt actions someone is taking.  We can see the slack being taken out of a lead and understand that pressure is being applied.  The release of that pressure is intended to reinforce a desired response.  But there’s another form of pressure that’s not as easy to see that plays an important role in horse training.  I’ll use an example you can experience yourself.  Suppose I’m working with you showing you some of the rope handling techniques that I teach.

I’ll begin by having you stand in balance over your feet. I’ll slide down the lead very softly.  You’re relaxed, and I want you to stay that way.  If I slide down with a lot of “make it happen” muscle, I’d be picking a fight, and you’ll stiffen into resistance.

I want you to stay soft and relaxed, so I take care how I come down the rope.  I slide into a neutral position that doesn’t effect your balance.  This is the “get ready” stage of my cue.

Now I shift my own balance.  I let my overall balance shift forward onto my toes.  This subtle shift rocks you back on your heels.  The shift is so subtle, you may at first not even notice.  I wait.  I’ve taken the slack out of the lead, but I am not pushing on you in any way.  I have simply set up a shift in your balance.

After a bit, you’ll begin to feel uncomfortable.  You can’t maintain this slightly-out-of-balance position forever. You’re having to use muscle to sustain your position, and it’s creating uneven pressure on your joints. So you take a step back.  My hand releases, click and treat.

sue-3-photos-tai-chi-wall-2

At clinics people get to feel how subtle this is.  All I have to do is rock my balance slightly forward and the other person will shift back into her heels.  She won’t feel threatened by the action. In fact she often isn’t even aware that I have created this shift in her balance.  Her focus has been on my hands, not the subtle shift in her own balance.

It’s like a magician’s trick.  You’re so busy watching where the magician is directing your attention, that you don’t notice when he slips your watch off your wrist.  It isn’t the pressure from my hand on the lead that creates the change or causes that slight discomfort.  The lead gives me the framework through which to create the shift.  It’s the mild discomfort that the balance shift creates that triggers the step back.

This shift out of what feels normal to you draws your attention inside.  I want you to become aware of your balance, to learn to pay attention to these subtle shifts and to make adjustments that bring you closer to an optimal state of comfort.  I want to help you shift from what feels normal but may actually be a state of imbalance to what feels good because you are now in functional balance. That’s also what I want for the horses.  Body aware horses stay sounder longer.  And body aware horses not only look very beautiful, they are more athletic than their out-of-balance counterparts.

harrison-3-photos-before-after

This set of three photos show Natalie Zielinski and her horse Harrison.  In the top left photo he’s standing all higgeldy-piggledy.  Whenever he stopped, he was always out of balance.  He tended to fall over his left shoulder, so when she led him, he was always crowding into her.  The beautiful trot you see in the other two photos evolved out of work that helped him become much more body aware.

What Triggers Change?
Here’s another example of hidden negative reinforcement.  This one is a dog example.  I’ve watched Kay Laurence teach a puppy to put his paw on a target.  It looks like a wonderfully elegant example of shaping with positive reinforcement.  But is that all that’s going on there?

If you want a puppy to put his paw on a target, most people would start with the target.  Kay doesn’t. Instead she sets the puppy up to offer a consistent motor pattern.  She gets the puppy moving his paw, and then she puts the target in the path of where the paw is going to land.  Simple and elegant.

She begins by having the puppy lie down.  This is the base position she uses to teach the behavior.  Lying down limits the behavior which the puppy can offer.  Instead of offering responses from the entire range of things a puppy can do with his body, now he’s restricted to those things he can do while lying down.  This makes it much easier to get only the desired behavior and to get it without a lot of unwanted add-ons.

Kay jump-starts the process by placing a treat off to the side away from the direction she is eventually going to want the puppy to move his paw.  He has to shift his balance and move his paw to the side in order to reach the treat.

He’s left out of balance.  If he were to stay in this position, he’d quickly become uncomfortable, so he rights himself.  He moves back to center.  Kay clicks as he moves his paw back towards a more balanced position, but she doesn’t feed him there.

Instead she again feeds him so he has to move his paw to reach for the treat. He gets his treat and returns to center.  Click!

Why does the puppy not just stay out there in this position where all the treats are delivered?  Why does he right himself?

Over time the answer becomes because he is being positively reinforced for moving back to center.  The function of the click is to identify for the puppy the right-answer behavior that leads to a treat being given.  But initially he rights himself because he’s out of balance and that feels odd. So even here there is a negative reinforcement component in what appears on the surface to be the most elegant of positive reinforcement training.

Trying to decide what to call a particular procedure can make your head spin.  If you are trying to stay on the positive side of training, of course, you want to avoid the harsh use of aversives, but, as we’ve just seen, not all discomfort creates a negative emotional reaction.  Rather than fight against the terminology, I prefer to use it.  I think it is useful to understand that that slight feeling of muscle fatigue will cause you to take a step back.  I don’t have to push you back or do anything else to get the behavior.  I can simply wait and let you figure out the puzzle.  The same thing holds true for my horse.

My horse’s emotional reaction will tell me if I am on the side of the angels or sliding fast down the slippery slope that appears when soft words don’t match hard actions. I use the terms to remember the history of the harsh methods modern horse training has evolved out of.  At some point we may be able to let go of that trail, but for now I think it is wiser to keep remembering.

Coming Next: Part 5: The Fluid Nature of Langauge

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

Procedure versus The Emotional Effect

JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing with Chains – Part 3 of 5

Procedure versus The Emotional Effect
Yesterday’s post began a discussion of negative reinforcement.  Especially when you have a horse who is new to clicker training it is important to separate procedure from emotional effect.  I can perform what appears to be the same procedure with two individuals and end up with completely different emotional outcomes.

That’s true whether I am using what appears on the surface to be a positive reinforcement or a negative reinforcement procedure.  Think of all the people who run in the opposite direction if you suggest playing a training game.  I view these experiences as fun opportunities to improve my skills.  Others see them as a torturous experiences, even when you are passing out reinforcers they want. Their childhood experiences have set them up to see training games as anything but fun.  Same procedure – different emotional response – different behavioral outcome.  So for one person the training game is a positive experience.  It will get them in the room, engaged in the process.  For another it has the opposite effect.  It will get them looking for the nearest exit!

If I’m working with a horse that has been handled well all of it’s life, sliding down the lead will convert easily into a cue, and there may never really be any aversive elements in the process. That’s especially true if I have set up the use of the lead through the first couple of foundation lessons.  If I begin with basic targeting and use my food delivery to move a horse back a step or two to get his treat, he will quickly respond to my body language.  When I turn into him, he’ll easily back up.  Now I can add in the activation of the lead as I turn towards him, and he’ll back up just as readily.

robin-touch-target-back-up-with-caption

I’m really using more of a transferred cue process than negative reinforcement.

History Matters
An individual who has been hurt by leads will be deeply suspicious of them, even if I have gone through the same foundation lessons that prepared that first horse so well.  I can be super soft, but any interaction with a lead will be regarded with suspicion.  Same action, different emotions.

For the first horse the pressure acts as a cue from the very beginning. But what about the second?  When I slide down the rope, that horse is going to read it as a threat. That’s his history. If he guesses wrong, he’s expecting to be hurt.  If he comes crashing into my space with a lot of energy attempting to escape the inevitable, the wall I create with the lead is going to have to be pretty solid.  I’m ricocheting his own energy.  I’m not adding any pressure beyond that, but his previous experience will control how he feels about what I’m doing.

The Emotional Spectrum
When I slide up the lead to richochet this horse’s energy out of my space, I am operating in a zone that sits between true, easy-to-define negative reinforcement and positively taught tactile cues.  With some of the horses that I work with, it is very clear to me that I am starting out with negative reinforcement.  No question.  Slide down the rope and you meet with the guarded response of a horse who knows the pressure will escalate if he guesses wrong.  My job is to show him that that’s not going to happen.  No matter what he does, I am not going to retaliate.  His history may be creating some major flare ups of aggression, but I am not going to be drawn into a counter attack.

It’s Not Your Fault
At times like these I remember a line from Ismael Beahl’s autobiography “A Long Way Gone”.  Beahl was a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war.  He and the other boys he fought with were given drugs that contributed to the horrific acts of cruelty which they committed.  He describes his actions with great honesty in his book.

When he was pulled out of the army and sent to a hospital for rehabilitation, he lashed out at the people who were trying to help him.  He had done such terrible things.  How could he live with himself?  He wanted to hurt everyone who came near him.

“It’s not your fault,” his caregivers would say, refusing to be drawn into the drama of his conflict.  Again and again they would repeat this:

“It’s not your fault.  It’s not your fault.”

At first this enraged him even more, but gradually he could hear the words and accept their meaning.

Changing Expectations
When horses are flaring up with aggression, I say the same thing to them: “It’s not your fault.”  I’ve seen how horses are handled.  In far too many places harsh handling is the norm.  It’s how we’re taught you have to be around horses.  It’s not the handler’s fault either.  It is our heritage, but it doesn’t have to be our future.  We can pass on a different legacy to the next generation of horse owners.

When I’m using a lead, my task is to direct the horse away from this expectation of retaliation.  Eventually, he will truly believe that the lead will always and only be a positive communication tool. That’s when he’ll let you in past his guard, and the relationship becomes magical.

The response to the lead shows us it’s hidden history. I cannot make a blanket statement that the slide down the lead is experienced as something pleasant and acceptable, something neutral, or something aversive.  The horse’s history creates an expectation that effects his initial emotional reaction to the rope.  In some cases the emotional reaction is one I hope to change.  By changing the way I use the lead, the lead itself may no longer trigger an unwanted emotional response.

scout-on-lead-two-photos

Coming Next: Part 4: Hidden Motivators

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFULL Horses: Cues Evolve Pt 4: Priming the Pump

pump 2.pngHeating 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.

Training Detours
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.

head lowering follow cone 2 photos

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.

milking the line down Robin

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 poll with caption

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.

Robin backing black background

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.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

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

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

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

Robin back in square

Head lowering is taught via backing in a square.

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

Grazing is a forward-moving exercise.

Panda grazing 1

Grazing is forward movement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin lying down shavings

Forward and back.

To the left and to the right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

backing in a square of poka dots

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

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

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

Robin backing in square 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would you leave me change of direction sequence Robin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin coming forward for target

Robin has come forward to touch a target.

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

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

Robin backing in stall for food delivery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diagram of food delivery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Next: Starter Button and Constant-On Cues

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

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

 

JOYFull Horses: Cue Communication Continued: Part 6 – Just Tell me How You Feel

Listen to Your Horse
I’ve been describing a lesson I call “Capture the Saddle”.  It’s used to teach horses to line themselves up next to a mounting block.  In the previous section I talked about how you can turn this ordinary, everyday behavior into extraordinary “Grand Prix” level excellence.

Even before you have built the behavior to this point, you can use the mounting block as a measure of how your horse is feeling.  If your horse normally lines up well, but today he is swinging out or he’s walking off before you can get on, don’t assume that he’s “testing” you.  Instead ask him what’s wrong?  He knows standing at the mounting block leads to riding.  Why doesn’t he want to be ridden today?

Our horses work so hard to communicate with us.  We need to learn to be better listeners.  When we train them with play in our hearts, they will want to work with us.  If today they are saying “No” to riding, there’s a good reason.  It may not always be obvious, but we need to become good detectives and find the answer.

Detective Work
Ask most horse owners about the ancestral background of the horse, and they can tell you that horses are a prey species that evolved in open grasslands.  What they may not be as clear about are some of the consequences of that background.

Horses are herd animals because there is safety in numbers.  The flip side of this is there is danger in appearing to be vulnerable.  A lame or sick horse draws attention to itself and to the herd as a whole.  Show weakness, and you’ll be drawing in predators, so horses are very good at hiding their injuries.  They are protecting not just themselves, but their whole family.  It takes something acutely painful such as an abscess or a torn tendon to bring a horse hobbling to a stand still.  If they can hide an injury, they will.

So we have to be good detectives.  It may not be immediately obvious what is wrong, but if you keep looking, if you keep collecting data, you may be able to piece together enough clues to discover that the reason your horse fidgets at the mounting block has nothing to do with training and everything to do with the poorly fitting saddle that is hurting his back.

“Just Tell Me How You Feel”
Normally an angry or frightened horse gives lots of warning signals that he is about to explode.  If you punish those early warning signals in an attempt to stop a horse from biting, you can create that most dangerous of animals – a horse that gives no warning signals and goes straight to attacking when he has been pushed over threshold.

Just as horses can learn to withhold these signs of stress, they can learn the opposite.  Instead of punishing them for fidgeting and refusing to step up to the mounting block, if you show them instead that you will listen to them, they will become more comfortable about expressing how they feel.

Just as we can actively teach a process that leads to intelligent disobedience, we can teach our horses to express more openly how they are feeling.  When we listen to them in a context such as the mounting block, they begin to generalize the concept and offer us a truer picture of how they feel both physically and emotionally.

Peregrine for years bounced from one health crisis to another.  The  aftermath of a bout of Potomac Horse fever sent him on a downward health spiral that took several years to sort out.  During that time I was grateful for his grumpy faces.  I needed to know from one day to the next how he was feeling.

He was never punished for making faces.  The rule was he could make faces.  He just couldn’t act out on them.  Because I was listening, he never needed to.

Saying “No”
Sometimes the reason a horse says “No” to us, is not because there is something wrong with him, but because there is something that isn’t right with us.

This was driven home to me by a horse I met in a clinic many years ago.  The horse was on loan to one of the course participants.  She was a very clicker-experienced horse who was used to being handled by a skilled and very tactful owner.

Some horses are incredibly generous teachers.   They seem to enjoy working with beginners.  They are truly worth their weight in gold as they make up the heart of a good lesson string.  Round-bellied ponies who take care of their young riders are treasures.  Solid citizen campaigners who will take you over your first jump no matter how out of balance or how scared you are are the salt of the earth.

This mare was none of those things.  She was a finely-trained artist who expected a high level of expertise and delicate feel from all her human partners.  Unfortunately the woman who was working with her wasn’t able to live up to this mare’s exacting standards.

They started out well enough.  I had them walking around a “why would you leave me” circle of cones.  The mare started out by offering what she knew – beautifully balanced steps of shoulder-in on the circle.  The handler clicked, gave her a treat and then slid down the lead.  The mare wasn’t happy.  Something was wrong, but it wasn’t clear yet what it was.

They went through a couple more cycles.  The handler slid up the rope, and the mare walked off in shoulder-in, click and treat. Only now she was beginning to grab the lead before the handler could get more than a few inches down the rope.

“That’s as far as you’re going, little miss,” she was effectively saying.

We stopped, put the mare away and worked with the handler.  We had her slide down the lead while someone else held the snap end.  She felt soft enough to us.  There was nothing especially harsh or abrupt in the way she handled the lead.  We made a few adjustments to the details we did notice, and then we brought the mare back out.  Things were not much better.  Hmm.  We put her away again and went back to rope handling basics.

Our handler told us she had the same sort of issues with her own horse.  Clearly both horses were trying to tell her something.  This was a puzzle we needed to solve.

We brought the mare back out, but now we let her be the teacher.  The instructions were to wait until she showed her handler that she was ready to begin a new cycle.  Not until her horse cued her was she to slide down the lead.

They stood side by side.  The handler had her hands folded together about waist height.  That’s the cue for a behavior which I call “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”. It is one of the very first lessons which I teach a horse.  The horse is clicked and reinforced when he keeps his nose pointing forward, away from the handler’s treat pouch.  Over time it evolves and branches off into many different behaviors.

 

Robin Runway return to mat grups 2016-06-18 at 6.21.41 PM

Robin shows us a beautiful baseline for “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt” behavior.

The grown-ups are talking:

  • is the formation of ground tying which means, among others things, you can groom a horse while he stands at ease.
  •  transforms from a simple at-ease posture into the pilates pose.  This is a “grand prix” behavior.  The horse engages the same muscles he uses under saddle to collect himself for advanced performance. Only instead of doing this in motion, he is collecting at the halt.  It is wonderfully good for a horse’s overall muscle tone and can help maintain a horse’s back strength for riding.

The Conversation
This mare had a beautiful pilates pose which she normally was perfectly happy to offer.  Now she just stood next to this handler in a flat, at-ease stance.

The handler was waiting in grown-ups for she wasn’t sure what.  She let out her breath, and the mare posed.

“Slide down the lead,” I quietly instructed her.  The handler did as she was told.  There was no biting at her hand. Instead the mare flowed into a beautifully balanced shoulder-in.  Click and treat.

The handler waited again.  Again, she let out her breath, and again the horse posed.  “She’s telling you she’s ready for you to go on,” I told her handler.  “Let the pose be the cue to you that she’s ready for you to slide down the lead.”

The mare had been trying her best to tell us what was wrong.  When this handler slid down the rope, she held her breath.  That made her feel tighter, heavier.  It made her feel as though she was shouting at this very light horse.

Either we humans weren’t as sensitive as this mare, or the handler hadn’t been holding her breath when she practiced the rope handling with us.  But at least with this horse she was definitely holding her breath. Without meaning to she was applying too much pressure.  This horse didn’t like it and neither, apparently, did her own horse.  When we gave the mare a way to signal to us when things were more to her liking, we could not only see what was going on, we could solve the problem.

Fixing the “Fixers”
As I watched this handler more closely throughout the weekend, I saw lots of little ways in which she was keeping the pressure on.  It was so subtle, it was easy to miss.  The pressure wasn’t coming from her hand on the lead, it was coming from her expectations and to be blunt – her neediness.  She was a rescuer.  She wanted to “fix” this mare. But this mare didn’t see herself as broken.

When we gave the mare permission to lead the dance, she was able to show us all that she wasn’t broken.  Her handler needed to breath, smile and set aside the “poor horse” energy that was clogging up the relationship she brought to all the horses she worked with.  She saw horses as sad little infants in need of rescuing and fixing.

If you don’t see yourself as either a baby or broken, you don’t want someone mother henning you and trying to “fix” you.  There are definitely times when my horses aren’t feeling well, and they want to be cuddled.  And there are horses who have fallen on hard times and really do need to be rescued.  But that’s not forever.  At some point that event sits in their distant past, and they are no longer “broken”.  When we surround them with “fix it” energy, some of these horses can begin to feel restricted and annoyed.

It’s very much like a toddler who squirms out of his mother’s protective arms.  “I can do it myself!”  He’s beginning to exert his own independence.  “I can tie my own shoes!”  At some point you have to let him try.

At some point we have to stop treating our horses like infants in need of our constant care and supervision.  They are our partners in the best and truest sense of that word, and sometimes our partners get to take the lead.

This handler needed to play more.  She wanted to be a nurturer, and for some horses that is exactly what is needed.  But every good mother knows there is a place for play, as well.

When my horses wrap themselves around me in beautiful lateral work, they make me smile.  I laugh with them.  We are dancing together, and for both horses and humans there is no better of expression of Joy than that.

 

This article ends this section on “Cue Communication”. 

Coming Next in our list of “Ten Things You Should Know About Cues” is: Number 5: Cues Evolve. 

The way in which cues evolve as we teach new skills leads us straight to play.  That makes this a very important concept to explore.  

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 4 – Capture the Saddle – A Targeting Game

Constructional Training

When I shared the runway lesson with you in the June 2016 posts, I talked about constructional training.  That’s where you teach the skills you’ll need for a particular task BEFORE you need to use them.  Before you build a house – or even a birdhouse – you must first learn how to use a hammer.

That’s what we’re doing with the mounting block lesson.  I’m going to use the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game to teach my horse the skills he’ll need to line himself up to the mounting block BEFORE I take him anywhere near the mounting block. (Refer to the previous installment of JOYFull Horses: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/07/27/ and Lesson 5 in the Click That Teaches DVD Lesson Series: “The Why Would You Leave Me?” Game)

In training we talk about breaking each lesson down into smaller steps so it becomes easier for your learner to understand what is wanted.  Constructional training is another way of looking at this basic teaching strategy.  What are the skills you need for the task at hand?  Do you have those skills?  Yes, then the task will be within your reach.  No, then build the skills first.

When you build skills first, you find that each new thing you ask for is really just an easy step beyond what you already have.  So before I play what I refer to as the “capture the saddle” game, I first build the skills I’ll need for this lesson via the “why would you leave me?” lesson.

Capture the Saddle – A Targeting Game

Robin wwylm facing very connected good at 12.06.42 PM

Photo 1.) Why would you leave me? At this point in the lesson, Robin’s answer would be: I can’t think of a single reason. I’m happy to stay right here by your side.

Why would you leave me?  Answer: I can’t think of a single reason.  I’m happy to stay right here by your side.

When that’s the answer, you have a horse who is ready to walk with you to the mounting block.

I’ve pulled some photos from a video of the “capture the saddle” lesson.  The resolution isn’t the greatest since they come from a video, but they illustrate well how the lesson works.  The horse I am working with is a young haflinger who didn’t know how to stand well for mounting.

Capture the saddle with owner -baseline

Photo 2.) Getting a Baseline.

His owner didn’t use mounting blocks so this was a new concept for him.  When she asked him to stop with her beside the mounting block, he kept going.  He ended up facing in the opposite direction.  Previous experience had taught him that it was a good idea to keep the saddle well away from her.  This is a very common scenario, one many riders have to deal with.

capture the saddle overswings with owner 2

Photo 3.) This is a horse who doesn’t understand mounting blocks.

We can’t expect this horse to understand instantly what is wanted.  Instead we went through the steps that would teach him how to line up next to a mounting block so his rider could easily get on.

capture saddle baseline b

Photo 4.) We want to go from this . . .

capture saddle baseline c good

Photo  5.) . . . to this.

We weren’t just teaching him to line up next to a mounting block.  That could easily have been done with targeting.  He was also learning how to soften and respond to rein cues.  That’s an important extra that this lesson gives us.  His owner reported that he was an incredibly wiggly horse who was very difficult to ride.  BEFORE she gets back on, the mounting block lesson will help him to be better balanced and more connected to her.

Photos 6-8

Photos 6-8.) The three photos above show how I begin with the “Why would you leave me?” lesson.  He’s learning to walk with me.  Note, as I approach the mounting block, I am not holding onto the reins.  I want him to stop with me as I step up onto the mounting block.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block baseline 4

Photo 9

Photo 9.) He doesn’t know this part of the lesson.  He’s not expecting to stop at the mounting block, so he over shoots the mark.  That’s okay.

I could teach this part of the  lesson in many different ways.  I could use targets and mats to help him out, but remember, I want to prepare this horse for riding.  Riding includes not just all those times when things are going great.  It also includes the sudden scares that can send even the most solid of riding horses jumping to the side.

The mounting block lesson confirms that your horse understands how to respond to your rein cues.  It provides an essential safety net for those times when things are going wrong, and it is also a core building block for creating the great performance we all dream of having when things are very right.

Photos 10-12

So in photos 10-12, I have taken the left rein, and I am asking this horse to soften and bend his nose towards me.   That causes his hips to  swing out away from me.  Essentially his front end is stopping before his hind end.  The extra momentum from his hind end causes him to swing around to the front side of the mounting block. In horse training language he is yielding his hips.

He has ended up facing in the opposite direction from the one in which we started.   (Photo 13)  That’s more than okay.  I’ll first ask him to take a step or two back so I can easily reach the right rein.

Photos 13-16

Next I’ll have him soften and come around me on his right rein.  (Photo 14)  As he swings back to the opposite side of the mounting block, I’ll again ask him to take a step back.  (Photo 15)  This does two things.  It helps him to rebalance, and it gives me access to the left rein. (Photo 16)

By the time I get on, I will know that he will soften and yield his hips to both reins.  Many people get in a hurry with this lesson.  They become too goal oriented.  They are thinking only about getting on.  I am thinking about the ride ahead.  I want it to be safe.  That’s first and foremost.  And then I want it to be fun – for both the horse and the rider.  That’s not going to happen if the horse is out of balance and disconnected from his rider.  So the “capture the saddle” lesson is really one that should be process not goal driven.  Yes, I want my horse to line up next to the mounting block, but it’s not a race to see who can teach this the fastest.  Each time this horse swings wide, he’s giving me another opportunity to explain rein cues to him.

As he comes past me again on his left side, I let go of the rein and reach out towards the saddle.  (Photo 17)  He’s not ready to let me get to the saddle.  In the photos below you see that he swings wide again.  (Photos 18-19)  That just gives me another opportunity to ask him to soften to the right rein. (Photo 20)

At no point in this do I want the horse to feel as though I am punishing any of his responses.  This is about teaching him WHAT TO DO. It is not about blocking or stopping unwanted reactions.

Photos 17-20.)

As he swings past the mounting block, I can again ask him to take a step or two back. (Photo 21)  This helps him to rebalance, and it also gives me access to the left rein.  I’ll ask him to step forward to line up along side the mounting block. (Photo 22)

Photos 21-22

As he comes past me again on his left side, I LET GO OF THE REIN.  (Photo 23)

capture the saddle 17 close up

Photo 23.)

This is very important.  I don’t want to block him to make him stand still.  Remember always – you want energy. You want your horse to move his feet.  This lesson redirects his energy.  It doesn’t block it.  You are releasing him into a halt, not stopping him from moving.  There is a huge difference.  (I’ll refer you again to my books and DVDs for a more in depth discussion of this very important concept. Visit theclickercenter.com)

As I release the rein, I am reaching up to touch the saddle.  (Photo 23)  Click and treat.  (Photo 24.) The clickable moment for this phase of the lesson occurs as my hand makes contact with the saddle.  So this lesson begins with rope handling and ends with targeting.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 18

Photo 24.)

I’d like him to come forward half a step so he is in a better position for me to get on.  I use the left rein to ask for this step. (Photo 25.)  As he begins to respond, I again release the rein and touch the saddle.  (Photo 26.) Click and treat.  (Photo 27.)  We’re making progress.  This time he doesn’t swing away.

Photo 25-27.)

Photos 28-30.) I ask him for another small step forward.  (28.) This time when I reach out for the saddle, he’s in perfect position.  (29.) Click and treat. (30.)

Photos 28-30.)

Remember though, it isn’t so much about the goal of lining up next to the mounting block as it is about his response to the reins.

So far I have clicked and reinforced him just for letting me make contact with the saddle.  Now I am making it harder.  I have stepped all the way up onto the mounting block so I can lean down onto the saddle and add some weight.  I’m really seeing if I can “capture it”. (Photo 31.)

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 26

(Photo 31.)

(Photo 32.) The answer is – not yet.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 27

(Photo 32.)

He swings wide out from under my hands.  Again, this is okay.  It gives me another opportunity to ask him to soften and yield his hips.  All of this bending and connecting to the rein helps him to become more supple and better balanced.  That’s going to help him be more connected to his rider.

So as he swings around past me on the left rein, I’ll again ask him to rebalance by taking a step or two back, and then I’ll bring him back in front of me first on the right rein, and then on the left.  (Photos 33-36.)

Photos 33-36)

As he passes the mounting block, I again let go of the rein and reach for the saddle. (Photo 36.) He’s better balanced than he was in the first couple of passes, and he’s in a much better position.  It’s easy for me to touch the saddle.  This time I can really grab the saddle.  (Photo 37.) Click and treat. (Photo 38.)

Photos 37-38.)

I use the word grab because I don’t want to be delicate in this.  I want this horse to really feel me taking the saddle in my hands.  This is the target position.  As soon as I have both hands on the saddle – Click!

Photos 39-40

I’ve asked him to go forward another step (Photo 39.) and this time he swings a little too wide so I can’t reach the saddle.  (Photo 40.) The pattern should be familiar by now.  I ask him to swing back around via the right rein, (Photo 41.) then I bring him forward past me on the left rein. (Photo 42.)

Photos 41-44

He comes in really close to the mounting block.  It’s easy to capture the saddle.  (Photo 43.)  Click and treat.  (Photo 44.) This isn’t an ideal orientation for getting on, but we’re making good progress.

I ask him to come forward one small step.  This adjustment puts him into a great position for me to get on.  Click and treat. (Photos 45-47.)

Photos 45-47

He’s made great progress.  We’ve gone from the photo on the left (48) to the one on the right (49) in just a couple of passes.

Photo 48-49

It’s time for a break.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 45

Photo 50

I’ve gotten down from the mounting block.  (Photo 50.) We’re going to walk a large “why would you leave me?” circle back to the mounting block.  Remember that means I’ll be asking him to walk beside me without my needing to take the reins to keep him with me. (Photo 51.)

Photos 51-54

I approach the mounting block hands free.  (Photo 51.)  As I step up onto the mounting block, he stops on his own.  (Photo 52.)  He’s brought the saddle into perfect position.   I can really grab hold of the it and truly capture it.  (Photo 53.)  Click and treat.  (Photo 54.) This is a horse who is telling me he’s ready for me to get on.

As the horses figure out that they get clicked for bringing the saddle to our waiting hands, they become increasingly clever about lining themselves up to whatever we are using for a mounting block.

It’s great fun having your horse bring the saddle to your waiting hands. (Photo 55.)

Icky mounting block - hands up

55.) This horse is bringing the saddle to his rider’s waiting hands.

Photo 55

Sometimes a horse will misjudge the approach and ended up slightly angled out to the side.  You know he has truly understood the lesson when,  without any prompting from you, he steps sideways so he can bring the saddle to your waiting hands.  That’s a horse who really understands the game.  Click and treat.

 

As this video shows, sometimes a mounting block is a tree stump, or in this case a metal gate.  When a horse understands the capture the saddle lesson, he will line himself up to anything you treat as a mounting block.

If you have a horse who dances around a mounting block, this lesson will definitely help you.  But please note: this article began with a discussion of constructional training.  The more preparation you bring to it, the easier the lesson will be.

The preparation goes beyond the “Why Would You Leave Me?” Game.  It’s a matter of looking at what comes before what comes before the lesson you want to work on.

What comes before the “Why would you leave me?” Game?  Lots of preparation.  That’s prep for your horse AND prep for you.  Anytime you use a lead or reins, you want to practice first without your horse so your handling skills are horse-friendly and clicker compatible.  The how-to instructions for using reins and leads is beyond the scope of this single article.  For that please visit: theclickercenter.com and theclickercentercourse.com

 

Coming Next: Cue Communication Part 5: Grand Prix Behaviors

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