Category Archives: Clicker Training Skills

Dec 2018 Challenge: ‘No Intent’ and ‘Intent’

Left Photo: ‘Zero Intent’ posture for staying parked: energy drained from my body, hands lying on my bellybutton, hips relaxed, one knee cocked, shoulders down, looking nowhere.

Right Photo: ‘Intent’: I’ve lifted my torso, breathed in and am activating my fingers into our signal for Boots to move her shoulder over.

INTRODUCTION:

One way we can make it easier for our horse to understand what we would like him to do, is to refine our own body language. The horse can only be as precise in his responses as we are precise with our body language.

We want to be as clear as possible when we ask the horse to do something new, and equally clear when we want him to just stand or walk with us in a relaxed manner.

If we reliably assume a distinct stance and put our hands in a certain position to indicate that we don’t need anything to happen, the horse soon realizes that our posture is meaningful for him.

It is a bit like the computer binary system of zero and one. Either we want the horse to stand (or walk with us) in a relaxed manner or we want him to begin moving part of his body or his whole body in a particular way.

‘Zero Intent’ (sometimes called ‘neutral’) means that we want the horse to keep on doing what he is doing. On the ground, this might include:

  • Standing ‘parked’.
  • Walking beside us at a steady pace in a relaxed manner.
  • Maintaining the gait we have asked for if we are lunging the horse.

VIDEO CLIP:  #153 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent and Intent illustrates. On the video clip I use ‘No Intent’ to mean the same as ‘zero Intent’. The clip demonstrates a variety of tasks that begin with the ‘parked’ position.

The video clips make it much easier to get an overall picture. Practice with visualizing changes from ‘zero intent’ to ‘intent’ can be most helpful.

We express ‘Intent’* with signals we have taught the horse. When we first teach a new task, we can make our intent clearer if we engineer the horse’s environment to make the behavior* we want more likely to happen. Once the horse does the desired behavior reliably, we can add voice and gesture signals.

For example. If our intent is to have the horse confidently walk onto a tarp, we can put a favorite treat on the tarp, so it becomes the horse’s idea to put his feet on the tarp in order to reach the treat. We are still free-shaping* the behavior of walking onto a tarp, but we are helping it along by setting up an environment that increases the chances of it happening.

Behaviors that start and end with the horse standing parked with us in a relaxed manner are ideal for improving our ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’ body language. For example:

  • Touch a hand-held target which we then put behind us ‘out of play’ as we deliver the treat
  • Halt-walk transitions followed by walk-halt transitions.
  • Backing up from halt.
  • Yielding forequarters.
  • Yielding hindquarters.
  • Head down.
  • Picking up a foot.

We begin with zero intent, signal the horse with intent, click&treat when the horse carries out our intent, then return to zero intent.

When we practice this consciously, we remove much of the ‘noise’ and unnecessary energy or tension we hold in our bodies, which confuses horses because they are extremely sensitive to body language*.

If there is no consistency in our body language, horses tend to regard all of it as meaningless and tune it out.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse has learned a few tasks that he can do from a parked position.
  • Handler has practiced awareness of his/her ‘zero intent’ posture away from the horse. If you can, use another person as a ‘sounding board’ for your changes in body language. Using a mirror will help. Things to work with for zero intent are:
    1. Energy deflated from body with a deep breath out.
    2. Shoulders relaxed down.
    3. Breathing slow and quiet.
    4. Hands lying quiet on bellybutton.
    5. Hips relaxed.
    6. Maybe one knee cocked.
    7. Eyes soft and away from the horse (e.g. gazing at the ground).
  • Then practice coming out of ‘zero intent’ posture into the body language and gesture signals for the behaviors that you will ask for.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • If halter and lead are necessary, avoid pressure on the lead.

AIMS:

  • Handler becomes super-aware of (and consistent with) moving into and out of ‘zero intent’ body language.
  • Horse becomes super-aware of the difference between ‘intent’ and ‘zero intent’ in the handler’s body language.

SLICES:

Before you begin, visualize what tasks you will ask the horse to do with your ‘intent’ signals.

Here are some possibilities:

  • Present a hand-held target, then remove it out of sight behind you as you deliver the treat.
  • From halt to walk toward a mat destination to halt again.
  • From halt to back-up to halt again.
  • From halt to move forequarters to halt again.
  • From halt to move hindquarters to halt again.
  • From halt to target one of: chin, knee, eye, ear, cheek, shoulder to hand (see Jan 2018 Challenge).

GENERALIZATION:

  • The ’20-Steps Exercise’  is another context to help become fluid with the ‘intent’ and ‘no intent’ dynamic.
  • Once the horse stays parked reliably, we can begin to move into different positions around him, taking up the ‘no intent’ body language so he easily understands that nothing is required of him except to remain parked. The skill is to maintain our ‘zero intent’ while we move into different positions around the horse. The video clip from the Oct 2017 Park & Wait challenge demonstrates.

  • Focus on developing ‘no intent’ body language when walking with your horse beside you. By walking in a relaxed posture, with a drape (smile) in the lead rope, breathing evenly, the horse has the opportunity to mirror your ‘at ease’ demeanor. Just as horses are conscious of any tension we hold in our bodies, so they are conscious when we let go of the tension.
  • As we become more aware of our body language, it gets easier and easier to apply our ‘zero intent’ postures to let the horse know that nothing is required of him at the moment except to stand or walk with us quietly.

The ‘no intent’ position sitting down.

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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

 

 

 

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

HorseGym with Boots video clip series on YouTube

There is a little series of clicker training activities posted on YouTube.  They can be reached by putting HorseGym with Boots into the YouTube search engine, then clicking on the ‘playlist’ of the same name.

Each clip has an accompanying set of notes with lots of planning and thin-slicing ideas.  I am happy to send the notes as a PDF attachment to an email.  They are free on request.  Just email me at:  hertha.james@xtra.co.nz

Or below is the first of the series.