Willing Response to a Voice Halt Signal

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Photo: This is the moment I will ask for ‘whoa’ if I want her to stop with just front feet over the barrels.

INTRODUCTION

This month’s challenge is to refine a voice “Whoa” signal so that it works in a variety of situations. If we want to work on the halt, we will obviously also need our ‘walk on’ signals to be solid. These two tasks are the foundation of pretty much everything we want a horse to do with us. Even teaching ‘parking’ starts with a solid, confident ‘halt’.

Teaching the basic ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ is easiest done in position beside the horse’s neck or shoulder. I like to teach these with a ‘multi-signal’ or ‘signal bundle’. Using the multi-signals consistently at the beginning means that once the horse knows them well, I can use any one of them, or any combination of them, depending on what best suits the situation. The horse will also recognize the signals if I am walking beside his ribs or behind him.

These two clips look at the signal bundles I like to use.

‘Walk On’ multi-signals:  Click here.

‘Halt’ or ‘Whoa’ multi-signals:  Click Here.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Handler has developed both ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ multi signals.
  • Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals.
  • Decide on a consistent voice ‘whoa’ signal that does not sound like any of the other voice signals you use.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  1. Work area where the horse is relaxed.
  2. Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  3. Depending on what you choose to do: halter and lead or safe enclosed area for working at liberty plus buckets or tubs, familiar stationary nose targets, familiar mat targets, lunging or circle work gear.

AIM:

To have the horse halt promptly in a variety of situations when he hears a voice ‘whoa’ signal.

GETTING STARTED:

The flow charts at the end of the post outline all the options we could use. To find a good starting point, do low-key experimentation with the horse to find out what he can offer already.

  • Look through the flow charts and decide which route would be easiest for you and your horse to tackle first.
  • Your first decision is whether you are going to use targets or teach without targets. You can easily add in targets in strategic places but not use them all the time. While targets are often good to initially teach something, they can get in the way of making progress.
  • Decide if you will teach at liberty or with halter and lead. You can easily do some of each, whatever makes most sense to you and your horse. Some people don’t have the facility to work easily and safely at liberty.
  • Develop possible thin slices for your chosen route before you start.
  • Practice harder bits with a willing human if you have one.
  • Some of the tasks, like backing up, recall, working on a circle and guiding the horse from beside ribs/butt/behind, need a good level of proficiency before you add in ‘Whoa’. The flow charts therefore cover much more than a month’s work if some of these things are new to your horse.

To use the flow charts at the end of the post, track a single route from left to right. When one sequence becomes ho-hum, chose another sequence and design a thin-sliced plan for it.

For example, in the first video clip I choose: STATIONARY TARGETS — LIBERTY – TUBS – BESIDE NECK/SHOULDER – TARGETS RELATIVELY CLOSE TOGETHER. I modified it during the clip to walking beside Boots’ ribs or butt, mainly because I can’t yet walk very fast (I have two new knees) and she was keen to get to the next tub 😊.

Clip 1:  Click Here.

Clip 2:  Click Here.

Clip 3:  Click Here.

GENERALIZATION

The second video clip illustrates some of the generalizations. As with everything we train, once a task has been acquired and become fluid, we want to generalize it to as many situations as we can find and set up. Plus, we want to ask for it frequently, so it settles into the horse’s long-term memory.

One of my favorite generalization examples is from when I was long-reining Boots everywhere to establish long-reining firmly as part of our repertoire.

During an outing on a large farm with huge paddocks, we had to cross a stream. Usually the water was low enough to allow me to jump over without getting my feet wet. But on this day, I underestimated the depth of the water.

Boots willingly long-reined through the water in front of me. As I tried to leap over, I hit the water, lost my balance and dropped the reins. Boots kept on walking straight ahead. By the time I had pulled myself upright and out of the water, she was a good twenty meters away dragging the reins. I called out, “Whoooaaa”, and she immediately stopped and waited for me to catch up with her.

It was a great outcome compared to a fright about dragging reins and a panic run through hilly terrain with open gates connecting several fields.

flow charts Oct 2018 no targets

flow charts Oct 2018 Targets

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Link

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What is Equine Clicker Training?

Clicker training is also called Positive Reinforcement Training.  It is a way of establishing 2-way communication with a horse.

When the horse presents a behavior that we want to encourage, we use a special sound followed right away with a small food treat that the horse really likes.  Like all of us, horses will seek to re-create a behavior that gives them a positive result.

The special sound can be made mechanically with a ‘clicker’ or it can be a ‘tongue click’ or a special sound/word that we never use any other time.  Often a mechanical clicker is useful to first teach a new behavior.  Then it is easy to change to a tongue click or our chosen sound/word.  This makes it easier because working with horses we usually need our hands free to use ropes and body extensions.

Since horses are designed to eat much of the time, a food treat is usually appreciated as long as we make sure it is something they really like.  It’s important to keep each treat very small and to include the treats in the horse’s daily calorie intake.

A good way to learn clicker training skills is to start with the Target Game.  Before communication can start, the horse has to understand the connection between the marker sound and the treat that will follow.  Some people call this  ‘charging the clicker’.  It just means that the horse has learned that if he hears that particular sound, a treat will always follow.

Target Game:

It’s a good idea to first practice the mechanics of this with another person standing in as the horse.  Well-timed food delivery is a key to success with this way of training. It is easier for the horse if the handler had muddled through the learning of  the mechanics of treat delivery. At the beginning it can feel a bit like tapping ones head and rubbing ones belly at the same time.

Ideally have the horse in view of his friends, but separated from them.  He will learn best if he is not hungry or thirsty and if he is in a relaxed frame of mind. I always ensure that the horse has been grazing or had access to hay before I train.

We’d like the horse to put his nose on a ‘target’ that we present near his nose.

The handler’s task is to:

  1. Have a hand ready on the clicker, if using one.
  2. Have a safe barrier between you and the horse.  Present the target – gently to one side of his nose, not thrust directly at him.  A plastic drink bottle or a safe object taped onto a stick is good to start with.
  3. Wait patiently until the horse touches the target with his nose or whisker at which point CLICK, move the target down out of the way
  4. And promptly reach into a pocket or pouch to get out a treat.  Use a pocket or pouch that allows the hand to smoothly slip in and out.  Be careful never to reach into the pocket or pound until after you’ve clicked.  This gets important later.
  5. Present the treat to the horse in a firm, totally flat hand so it is easy for him to retrieve the treat.  For some horses it may work better at first to toss the treat into a nearby familiar food bucket.  The skill of taking a treat politely from the hand can be learned later.  If he pushes your hand down, gently push upwards with equal pressure.
  6. When he’s eaten his treat, present the target again.

If we keep each targeting session short (3-4 minutes) and are able to repeat them 2 or 3 times in a day, the horse will learn quickly and look forward to each session.

The Target Game is a good one to start with because when you finish you simply put the target away.  Using the Target Game will let you decide whether Clicker Training (Training with Positive Reinforcement) is something you’d like to carry on with. It can be done alongside anything else you do with your horse.

The little clip below shows the beginnings and how it might develop over time.  The horses in the clip are already clicker-savvy. Be aware that at first we should always present the target in the same place.  When the horse consistently gets 10/10 for that, we can change to holding it higher up.  Then eventually lower down and to the side and requiring the horse to move to reach it.  But it’s important to get 10/10 for each of these, before we make a change.

Clip: Starting Equine Clicker Training

 

 

 

Training with a Marker Signal and Positive Reinforcement

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Photo: Using targets as ‘destinations’ makes it much easier to give meaning to our request in a way that the horse easily understands. Reaching the target, whether it is putting the front feet on a mat or touching the nose on a stationary object, earns the horse a click&treat. We can then move between targets to encourage the horse to come with us willingly because there is always something for him to look forward to – the next click&treat when we reach the next destination.

Training with a Marker Signal and Positive Reinforcement

Training with the click&treat dynamic is a skill worth learning well, but it is not the only thing we have to learn well.

Some people handle/condition a horse’s behavior in a way that encourages the horse to always look to the handler – a form of ‘learned helplessness’.  The horse is asked to subjugate his own observations, feelings and natural responses in favor of what the handler requires him to do.

Other people set themselves the interesting challenge of doing everything with their horses using only positive reinforcement training (often called ‘clicker training’).  They pair each desired response with a marker signal (click) followed immediately by a food treat.  They feel that this is the only way to keep a horse’s ‘sparkle’ alive.

Somewhere between these two extremes, fall the people who teach many things with the click&treat dynamic, but they also understand, respect, learn and use universal horse language.  In their view, any horse education system that fails to acknowledge group social order, different horse character types and how horses succinctly communicate with body language, will have limited success.

From our human standpoint, we could define ‘success‘ as having a horse that is safe and fun to be with and that we can take places for exercise to maintain blood circulation health, overall fitness and mental stimulation.

Success could mean that the horse:

  • greets us willingly
  • enters our space politely
  • offers feet confidently for foot care
  • accepts gear on and off comfortably
  • leads safely and willingly in a variety of positions
  • responds equally well to upward and downward transition requests
  • confidently accepts touch and grooming all over its body
  • confidently accepts ropes draped all over its body and legs
  • willingly, at request, moves away from a food dish, pile of hay or grazing spot
  • not unduly spooked by dragging ropes, wheelbarrows, flapping things, balls, bicycles, vehicles
  • able to stay ‘parked’ quietly or stand and ‘wait’ for a further signal
  • confident moving through gates/narrow spaces/lanes and over water/unusual surfaces at our request
  • approaches new/spooky things as long as we give him the approach & retreat time to convince himself it is harmless
  • at ease with any body extensions the handler might use to clarify or accentuate signals

Once we have all that, we can endlessly refine the basics and teach new patterns and tricks.

Teaching with the click&treat dynamic is hugely helpful to horse handlers for two main reasons:

  1. Encourages accurate observation of what the horse is doing in order to pick the ‘clickable moments‘, which are also the moments that signal/cue pressure is released.  Therefore becoming a good clicker trainer also hones the skill of becoming an excellent trainer with simple ‘release reinforcement’.
  2. It teaches ‘thin-slicing’ — the cutting of a large task into its smallest ‘clickable’ components so that we can get the horse confident with each tiny ‘slice’.  Then we can chain the slices together until the whole task is achieved.  This way of teaching/learning, often called ‘mastery learning‘ keeps the horse successful all the way through the process.  A clicker-savvy horse knows that if the click&treat is withheld, they need to try something else.

Developing the two skills above will greatly increase the ‘feel‘ of the handler.  That ‘feel‘ will translate to the times when a good choice is use of ‘release reinforcement’ by itself.  Feeling what the horse is doing — understanding what his body language is saying and knowing how to respond to that with our feel and body language, is the key to training with signal pressure and release of signal pressure (‘release reinforcement’).

What horses gain from positive reinforcement  Horses trained with the click&treat dynamic discover that they can have a voice.  Once they learn that a certain behavior will earn them a click&treat, they can become pro-active in offering that behavior.  For many horses this is huge because in the past things have only been done to them or demanded of them — they could only be re-active.

When a task is thin-sliced so they understand each part of the training process, the horse’s learning can progress in leaps and bounds.  We’d all rather work for a boss who praises what he likes rather than one who only criticizes what he doesn’t like.

Horses are not blank pages on which we write what we want.  They already have a perfectly good language.  It seems logical to learn it and use it as best as we can with our non horse-shaped bodies.  Horses are very generous with their interpretation of what we mean.  No doubt we have a very funny accent, but unless they have been traumatized by humans, they are happy to learn new things and accept us as part of their personal herd.

Social Group  Once the horse accepts us as part of her personal ‘ in-group’, we have a position in the group social order.  The two things go together.  We can’t form a bond of understanding with a horse unless he or she lets us into their social group.  Once we are part of the social group, we have a ranking within it.  If the horse can move our feet at will, she or he stands above us in the social order.  If we can ask move the horse’s feet, we rank above him her in the social grouping recognized by the horse.  When people don’t understand this dynamic, or chose to deny/ignore it, things might not go well.

Horse Character Types  Like us, horses can be innately anxious or innately confident and imaginative.  They come as extroverts who like to/need to move their feet a lot and they come as introverts who prefer the quiet life.  A careful look at how our horse perceives and reacts to things can give us insight into how we can best proceed with an individualized training program.  What works perfectly with one horse can be quite problematic with another.

Universal Horse Language  Horses have a complex communication system using their body language and a few vocalizations. They ‘message’ other horses with body tension, body orientation, neck position/movement, ear position, tail activity, posturing, striking out, kicking, biting, nibbling.   How they use each of these depends on their intent at the time.  An ‘alarm snort’ will instantly have the whole herd on alert. Quietly turning the head away as another horse (or a person) approaches is an appeasement signal.

With the aid of body extensions which make us as tall and long as a horse, and simulate a horse’s expressive tail, we can more clearly emulating universal horse language.  If we are good at it and use our movements consistently, any horse will understand our intent without us ever needing to touch the horse or use a rope.  We can establish our position in the social order by ensuring we can move the horse’s feet in a variety of situations while the horse is at liberty to move away, as it would be in a natural herd situation.

Once we have established our social position, we maintain it by the way we behave.  Anxious type horses may rarely challenge our position.  Confident, imaginative type horses may well challenge our position regularly.  In a natural herd situation, they have the drive and sparkle to work their way up the group’s social order.

With an understanding of, horse character typesequine body language,  and how the social order works, we can flow with the information the horse gives us via his behavior and body language.  Skills of observation, timing and ‘feel’ allow us to decide how we will use clicker training to make his life in his strange human-dominated world a little bit more interesting and understandable.

With equine clicker training, we experiment to find out what the horse can already do, then build his skills in a way that has him being continually successful.

The link below contains a bit more information about horse character types.

PDF Ch 5 READING HORSES

 

Destination Training

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Photo: Mats laid out in our training area make good destinations to encourage willing movement to the next destination. First we can have them close together, then further apart.

Destination Training

Destination training adds an important dimension to a horse’s ability to understand what we would like him to do.  We have to remember that the horse is captive to an alien species. Unless we take him through a careful, thin-sliced training plan to teach him what we would like him to do, he has no way of knowing what we want.

Every moment we are trying to figure out how to communicate with our horse, he is trying even harder to figure us out, and work out what we want him to do.

Giving the horse destinations helps him to make sense of many of our signals, because he sees a purpose to what we are asking him to do, rather than keep him forever locked into a mystery tour.  Like us, to remain confident, horses like to know what is going to happen before it happens.

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Photo: Here we have set up a series of white target disks along a track. Boots earns a click&treat for targeting each one with her nose. Gradually we would spread them out further and further, eventually attach them in appropriate places along a longer ride on road or trail.

Once the horse loves to move on to find the next target, we can introduce targeting of natural objects like trees or rocks, bushes, particular fence posts. We can also teach ‘target places’ like corners of paddocks or favorite grazing spots.

The pdf document has a bit more detail and much more information is available in the HorseGym with Boots clips on YouTube.

Destination Training

Parameters: Setting the Rules for the Games we Play

Parameters

Photo: I’m teaching my horse, Boots, to back up to a mounting block. My parameters include backing straight (hence the guide rails for this early lesson), backing for 6-8 steps (she started at the fence on the right) and halting with her withers just in front of the two tubs. This time she moved back an extra step, but it was a very good response for early in the training of this task.

Parameters: Setting the Rules for the Games we Play

Because of their role in the web of life —  to be a meal for predators — horses are so much more observant than we are.  They read our mood the moment we appear.  They read our body language with exquisite care.  When something in the environment is different from last time, they notice instantly.

If we want to become good at communicating with our horse, it helps to become more aware of what our mood, our body orientation and our body energy may be saying to the horse.  Horses get confused and worried when our body language does not agree with what we are asking them to do.  Or if we use a similar message to mean two different things.

As horsemen often say, “Nothing means nothing to a horse”.  So if everything means something, it is good to be aware of the parameters we are setting when we interact with a horse.  The PDF below looks at more detail on what parameters are and what to remember if we want to become better teachers for our horse.

Parameters on pub

Safety

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Photo: Sitting with the horse in a roomy, enclosed area, asking nothing of him except politeness. This is a superb way to build a new relationship with a new horse or to to build an improved relationship with a horse we have already.

Safety

It’s only when we feel safe with our horse and our horse feels safe with us that real teaching and learning can go on.  If our horse makes us feel worried or afraid, we need to take heed of the feeling and organize our environment so that we can be with the horse in a way that allows us to regain our safe, calm, centered core. Maybe we need to sit in our chair just outside the horse’s enclosure to start with.

It will be difficult for a horse to remain in his calm, centered core in our presence if we are sending out vibes that tell him we are uneasy and nervous.  A very good first step is to spend undemanding time with the horse, in his home if we feel safe there, or on the other side of a fence or gate if we don’t.  We need to carry a swishy type body extension so that we can enlarge our bubble without offending the horse by striking out toward him.  Horses are very sensitive to the air movement of two swishy twigs or dressage whips, or the swishing of a string rotated like a helicopter blade.

Horses easily understand when we are merely enlarging our bubble of personal space.  If we strike out toward their personal bubble rather than just protect our own space, the horse will realize it instantly.  It is important to be aware of the difference and to be mindful of which one we are doing.

As we sit with our horse, we can read, meditate or just enjoy the quiet of being in the moment, looking and listening and breathing.  It’s nice if the horse can be in a roomy area where he is comfortable, able to see his companions but not where they can interfere with your special time together.

It works well to set a time limit.  It doesn’t matter what the horse does.  We are there as a companion, a paddock mate for the time we have set.  We expect nothing of the horse except politeness.  If he becomes overbearing, we move away with our chair or ask him to back off by swishing the air toward his feet to protect our personal bubble.

The PDF attached has a look at ways to ensure our safety.

Safety with Protected Contact and Body Extensions

Keeping the Balance

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Photo: Teaching the horse to target a pool noodle with his hind foot to help his confidence with standing on three legs is one half of the task.

Bex confidence

Photo: The other half of the task is to teach relaxation while being rubbed all over with a pool noodle, keeping all feet on the ground.

Keeping the Balance

For everything we teach our horse, we have to be mindful of also teaching the opposite.  If we teach a very good ‘whoa’, it is also important to teach an excellent ‘walk on’ signal.  This PDF looks further into the important idea of keeping our training objectives ‘in balance’.

Keeping the Balance