Acquisition, Fluidity, Generalization and Maintenance
Acquisition includes getting our head around how we will ask for a unique behavior and then explaining what we want to the horse.
The way we first present new material to the horse is crucial. As much as possible, we want the horse to be continuously successful.
It’s helpful to practice our ideas and techniques first on a person standing in for the horse. If you are lucky enough to have an experienced horse, it also helps to work out techniques with him before moving on to a novice horse.
Even a well-educated, experienced horse appreciates learning new things in small slices. This allows him to build confidence and expertise with each step toward being able to carry out the whole task smoothly with one click&treat at the end.
We always begin with low-key experimentation to see what the horse can already offer. We may find that some of the basic elements in our Individual Education Program are missing or not quite good enough. We might find some major training holes that need to be addressed.
For example, before we can teach our horse to weave a series of objects, have we taught him to confidently walk with us on a loose lead rope? Does he easily stay beside us, stepping off when we step off, halting when we halt and turning when we turn?
Gentle experimentation may also lead us to discover that the horse already has a solid foundation on which we can easily build a new task.
How we first present the halter to a horse and the way we handle the rope will have a huge influence on how confident the horse will be about joining in with activities that include the halter and lead.
Once we have created an Individual Education Program and carefully taken the horse through it, we have acquired the ability to carry out a specific behavior together.
If the task is part of daily general care and recreation, such as safety around gates, the horse will have ample opportunity to use the new behavior often and receive reinforcement for it. His response to the signal will become more fluent as long as the handler’s signals are consistent.
If, on the other hand, the new behavior is for a specific purpose, such as loading onto a trailer or trotting through a tunnel for Horse Agility, we have to set up special training opportunities to allow the horse to become fluent.
Thin-slicing the many skills required for trailer-loading leads to fluency. Here we are using a trailer simulation to build duration while standing in a closed-off spot.
In my experience, if we train a new behavior to the point of fluency, the horse tends to remember it forever.
If a behavior is unreliable, it was not originally taught to the point of fluency and was not adequately generalized or maintained.
Once the horse understands a new task or a new skill, it is important to take it out into the world. Through generalization, the horse gains further fluency with a task.
- Asking for the behavior in different places but still at home.
- Using different props.
- Working at different times of the day.
- Asking for the behavior away from home.
- Working with unusual distractions.
- Working at a different gait.
- Handler using a different body orientation.
- Fading out a signal and replacing it with a new one.
- Requesting more repeats or duration before the click&treat.
- Working with a different handler (who uses the same signals).
Generalization helps the horse put the new learning into his long-term memory. Each time we quietly repeat the task, we help build the horse’s confidence. If the horse is unable to do the task in a specific situation or context, it gives us vital information about where we are in our Education Program* with this horse for this task.
Once the horse confidently jumps simple obstacles, we generalize the skill to different-looking obstacles and obstacles in different venues.
As already mentioned under Fluency, some behaviors become and remain fluent because we use them a lot, for example, putting on and taking off a halter or cleaning out the feet every day.
Other behaviors are specialized, and we have to create a plan to refresh and use them occasionally so that they stay in our repertoire. Vet procedures usually come into this category.
If we teach our horse to flex toward the prick of a toothpick, so his muscles are loose rather than taut, we need to do such needle simulations on a regular basis. Likewise, if we want the horse to be confident with a worming tube, we can practice with applesauce as frequently as we like.
Hoof trimming, whether we do it ourselves or hire someone, can cause anxiety for a horse if it suddenly happens out of the blue. It’s much easier for us and the horse if we pick up feet regularly and move the feet into trimming positions to make it a normal request. We can also introduce the horse to a variety of different people who are allowed to touch him and handle his legs and feet.
My friend Bridget helping Boots get used to other people handling her feet.