The Clicker Super Glue

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 6 of 12

What Keeps People Interested in Clicker Training?
I ended yesterday’s post with the question: what is the “glue” that gets somebody to stick to clicker training?  What makes someone take more than that first look?  What creates the shift from being simply curious about clicker training, to giving it a try, to becoming an active user, and eventually a clicker trainer?  I think there are four main elements that go into the creation of clicker super glue.

Science
The first component of clicker super glue is a love of science.  I’ve already talked about this, but let me expand on it here.  When I talk about a love of science I don’t mean someone who has read the chapter on learning theory in the psychology text book and memorized the four quadrants.  Lots of people can give you the definitions of negative and positive punishment.  That’s simply someone who has done a bit of reading.

A love of science is something more.  It’s that curiosity that has you always asking the “why” questions.  It’s wanting to know how things work.  It’s never being satisfied with the “because that’s the way it’s done” answers.

Someone who is passionate about science is also passionate about history.  You want to know what others before you have said in answer to those “why” questions.  Where did our current ideas come from?  Why do we use marker signals?  Why do we call them bridging signals? Where did that term come from?  What was meant by it, and is it still applicable?

“Just because” isn’t good enough.  How do we test our ideas?   How do we peel back the layers of confusion our words often create and look at what is really going on when we say antecedents set the occasion for behaviors which are controlled by consequences?   Do you nod your head and passively write that down in your notes?  Or do you want to dig down into those words to find out what those relationships really mean for your animals?

People who are passionate about science understand that what is understood today is not fixed in stone.  As we learn more, our understandings change.  In the sciences, as you test ideas and develop techniques that allow for more fine-tuned levels of exploration, ideas shift.  Science is the perfect companion to training.

science is the perfect companionIn both you will hear people saying: I used to follow this line of thought, but then the data showed me that this other was a better explanation/approach.  It offered a more functional interpretation or way of handling the behavior I was seeing.

Nothing becomes entrenched because we are always asking those why questions.

Science alone is not enough.  Think of it like the super glues that come in two separate tubes.  Each tube by itself won’t hold anything together, but combine them, and you have a super glue that will last for years.  By itself science creates an interest in training, but it doesn’t guarantee that someone will turn into what I mean by a clicker trainer.

Relationship
One of the other super glue “tubes” is relationship.  When I first went out to the barn with a clicker in my hand and treats in my pocket, I was curious.  The scientist in me wanted to explore what sounded like an intriguing approach to training.  There weren’t any other equine clicker trainers around to act as role models.  I didn’t go out to the barn because I had been watching youtube videos showing me the amazing relationships people were developing with their horses.  It was the science behind the training that made me take the first look.  I kept going because that early exploration into clicker training so enriched the relationship I had with Peregrine.

I started sharing my early forays into clicker training with my clients.  I remember asking one of them what she thought about clicker training.  She said out of all the things I had shown her, it was her favorite.  When I asked why, she said it was because of the relationship it created with her horse.

Repertoire
Two tubes aren’t enough to create clicker super glue.  There is another element that I think is critical and that’s repertoire.

I’ve known many people who were excited to try clicker training.  They introduced their horses to the target, and then they got stuck.  What do you do with it?  That was the question.

When I started with the clicker, Peregrine already knew a lot, but there were glitches and speed bumps throughout his training.  Always the physical issues he had with his stifles got in the way.  As a youngster, he was plagued by locking stifles.  The stifle joint is equivalent to our knee.  When Peregrine wanted to take a step forward, the tendons that ran over his knee cap wouldn’t always release.  He’d try to move, and one or both of his hind legs just wouldn’t bend.  He’s be stuck in place until they let go.  On the ground backing usually unlocked his joints.  Under saddle the solution he was more likely to find was a hard buck forward.

So you could say he was both very well trained, and at the same time very much a problem horse.  On a good day he was a dream to ride, but when his stifles were locking up, he was a nightmare.  His stifles had forced me to learn so much more about training, especially about ground work, just to be able to manage him safely on those bad days.  On the good days, that same training produced some simply beautiful work.

Twenty plus years ago when Peregrine and I were first exploring clicker training, ground work for most people meant lunging.  That was all they knew.  You lunged your horse to get the “bucks out” so your horse was safe to ride.

Lunging was often crudely done.  The horse ran around you on a circle, often out of balance, often pulling on your lunge line.  It wasn’t fun for either of you, so if someone said: “we’re going to use the clicker to do ground work”, of course people ran for the hills!  What was fun about ground work?

I’ve raised all my horses.  Peregrine was a horse I bred.  I raised his mother, and Robin came to me as a yearling, so ground work to me has always meant so much more than lunging.  Ground work is the teaching of connection.  Ground work means showing your horse how to get along with people.  It includes basic manners and leading skills, but it’s so much more than that.  For a young horse ground work includes long walks out to learn about the world.  It includes walking through mud puddles and over wooden bridges, meeting the cows that live in the next field over, encountering joggers and bicycle riders.  It means liberty training and in-hand work.  It means learning about your body and gaining control over your balance so you can go up and down hills safely and one day carry a rider in comfort.

All this meant that after Peregrine was routinely touching a target, I wasn’t stuck.  I had a rich and varied repertoire to work with.  I began by reshaping everything I had ever taught him with the clicker.  In so many places I could almost hear him say: “Oh THAT’S what you wanted!  Why didn’t you say so before?”

Everything I had already taught him – the clicker made better. I began by using it as a piggy back tool, meaning I simply added it in to familiar lessons.  I would ask Peregrine to rotate up into shoulder-in much as I had always asked him, and I would click and treat as he complied.  It made him more willing, so it took less explaining on my part to get the desired response.

Reworking our existing repertoire got us a solid foot in the clicker door.  It gave us lots to explore to get us started.  When I’m introducing people to clicker training, I want to help them see all the many possibilities that exist in ground work.  If you equate clicker training just with targeting, you may well get stuck.  Your horse is touching a target.  That was fun, but now what?

The “now what” is finding creative ways to use that targeting behavior.  And it’s recognizing that there are many other shaping methods you can use.

It’s remembering that at one point your horse didn’t know how to pick up his feet for cleaning or to stand quietly while you put on his halter.  Can you use the clicker to make those things better?  Of course you can!  While you are learning how clicker training works, you can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

I like beginning with the “universals”, things we all do with our horses regardless of the type of riding we do.  We all need to clean our horse’s feet, groom them, halter them, and, if we ride, bridle and saddle them.  Below is a fun video from Monty Gwynne showing how a clicker-trained horse takes a bridle.  It’s a great example of turning the ordinary – something we all do on a regular basis – into something with real clicker flare.

Persistence
Science, relationship, repertoire are all important.  There’s one more component to our super glue and that’s persistence.

Training is not easy.  It is not straight forward.  It is certainly not a linear path where one success builds on another, and you never have another frustrating day ever again with your horse.

Training is about running up against a reaction you don’t understand and going off to have a proverbial cup of tea while you figure out a different way to approach the problem.  You have to have persistence to weather these little storms of confusion.  You have to have persistence to learn the handling skills that can make the difference between smooth-sailing success and a stormy ride.

You can understand the science inside and out, but your horse may still be turning his back and walking off the minute he sees you coming.  Persistence keeps you in the game, scratching your head trying to figure out what to do next. What do you change?  What do you add?

Persistence is what gets you to clinics and fills your bookshelves with training book after training book.  It is what gets you to tie a lead rope to your fence rail so you can practice, practice, practice your rope handling skills before you ever go near your horse.  And it is what takes you back out to the barn to see what your horse thinks of all the homework you’re doing on his behalf.

Put these four things together and you will have someone who shifts from simply giving clicker training a quick look to someone who is actively using clicker training on a routine basis.  But that still doesn’t mean someone is a clicker trainer.

Coming Next: Using Clicker Training Versus Being A Clicker Trainer

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