Category Archives: Clicker Training Skills

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. I’ve stepped off the black tub so I could deliver the treat while she stayed in the position I wanted.

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.  Here is a bit more detail about what parameters are, and things to remember to become better teachers for our horse.

A parameter is something we decide to keep the same or constant.

For example:

  • Walking on the horse’s left side would be a constant or parameter you have chosen.
  • If you then change to walking on his right side, that is a new parameter.
  • If you decide to walk beside the horse’s ribs (where you will be if you ride) rather than beside his neck, you have changed a parameter.
  • If you decide to walk behind the horse rather than beside him, you have changed a major parameter.
  • When you ask the horse to walk with you on the road rather than at home in his paddock or arena, you have changed a major parameter.
  • Walking on an unfamiliar road or track is changing a parameter.
  • If you are walking together toward a familiar destination, where he knows he will halt to earn a click&treat, the first time you ask him to halt before he reaches the destination, you have changed a parameter.
  • If you are walking and change to asking for a trot or jog, you are changing a parameter.

Whenever we change a parameter, it is important that we increase the rate of reinforcement (i.e. click&treat more often) and work our way forward again until we and the horse are both confident in the new situation, with one click&treat at the end of a task or a series of tasks. For example, relating to the photo above, once Boots confidently backed up in a straight line to stand between the two tubs, I removes the rails (one at a time) and ask her to back up for just a step or two, then work forward again to get 6-8 steps straight back.

Horses are super observant of all changes, large or small, and can often be ‘thrown’ by them if we proceed too fast or ask for too much too soon. They also immediately pick up if we are unsure about what we are doing.

This is why it’s important to have a written Individual Education Program suited to this horse in this environment before we delve into teaching our horse something new. If we are clear in our mind about what we are working on, that confidence will be picked up by the horse.

If you want to look at 20+ training sessions to achieve the objective outlined in the photo above, done at liberty with no extra props, here is the link to the very first session (lessons were mostly one a day, weather willing and lasted about three minutes each day). I can’t ride any more (dodgy hips & knees) so we did this as a just an interesting training project. The second video clip below takes you to the last clip in the series, in case you don’t want to see all the others in between!

 

 

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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 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 between acting in an assertive way and acting in an aggressive way, 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.

For most things we teach, we have to also teach a counter-balancing task.

  1. If we teach ‘head down please’, we also need to teach ‘head up please’.
  2. If we teach ‘back up please’, we need to teach, ‘come forward please’.
  3. If we teach targeting a mat with the front feet, we have to teach happily stepping off the mat and walking away from it. Some horses get strongly attached to their mats.
  4. If we teach a turn followed by a ‘halt’, we have to teach a turn followed by a brisk ‘walk on please’.
  5. If we teach entering a trailer, we need to carefully teach exiting the trailer.
  6. If we teach the horse to ground tie, we also need to teach him how to move with a dragging rope so he learns not to step on it and isn’t frightened if something happens to make him move dragging his rope.
  7. If we teach the horse to come to us when we are playing at liberty, we also need to teach him to go away from us in a way that is fun rather than seen as a punishment.  Being sent away to the outskirts of the ‘herd’ can be seen by horses as a punitive action because it’s a less safe place to be.
  1. If we teach a move or behavior on one side of the horse, we need to teach it again on the other side of the horse. Maybe also from in front of the horse and from behind the horse. This concept is explored in detail in my book, Walking with Horses: The Eight Leading Positions (see the BOOKS link above).

If we don’t do these things, the horse will become fixated on one way of doing a task. He’ll be determined that he’ll always do it this way. In some situations, the power of the click&treat dynamic can work against us rather than for us.

So, for everything we teach, we need to counterbalance it with another task. How much time we spend balancing out these sorts of tasks depends on many factors. As we get better at understanding our horse, it will get easier to know when we’ve done too much of one dimension and need to consider the other dimension. We’ll find it easier and easier to keep a better balance.

The clip below looks at how we can generalize working with mats to balance the expectation of landing front feet on a mat to earn a click&treat, which we teach first. Once the horse heads straight to a mat as soon as he sees it, we can use tasks like this to balance out his eagerness.

What is Equine Clicker Training or Training with Positive Reinforcement?

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This article gives a brief overview about what is involved with using markers and treats to make it easier for a horse to understand what we would like it to do.

What is Positive Reinforcement Training
also known as Equine Clicker Training or Reward Reinforcement?

‘Clicker training’ or ‘reward reinforcement’ is also called ‘positive reinforcement’ because we add something (usually a small morsel of food the horse likes) to the situation. ‘Release reinforcement’ is also called ‘negative reinforcement’ because we put signal pressure on the horse to do something. When we ‘release’ the pressure we remove something from the situation.

The terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, in the field of animal behavior, are used in
a mathematical sense, not in the sense of being ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Clicker training can work with ‘reward reinforcement’ only. You can observe and wait for the horse to do something, and click him for it. For example, you can click and treat each time he itches himself. Once he’s made the connection, you can put a signal (either a gesture or a word or both) on that action, and then you can ask him to do it whenever you like.

This is called ‘free shaping’. Once he responds correctly to your signal most of the time, you have created a ‘conditioned response’. If your horse comes to you every day at feeding time, you have created a ‘conditioned response’. If he sees you with a halter or bridle and moves away so you can’t catch him, you have a ‘conditioned response’.

However, to progress a bit faster, we mostly pair up ‘release’ and ‘reward’ reinforcement when we use clicker training. We apply some sort of gentle pressure to the horse to cause it to do something we want. This is called ‘guided shaping’. When the horse does his best to comply with our request, we both release the pressure and click&treat. The ‘click’ is the ‘bridge’ between what the horse has done and the treat he will get for it right after the click. It allows us to ‘mark’ the exact behavior we would like the horse to do, or at least a first approximation of the behavior we would eventually like him to carry out.

The click/treat system causes the horse to be strongly focused on finding out what earns the click and treat. He’ll start to offer behaviors to ‘earn’ the treat. It gives him a way to communicate with us. It also allows him a stronger ownership of the new learning. Soon after starting to learn things with click&treat, the horse will begin to offer the  behaviors we have taught this way, hoping to motivate us to ‘pay’ for his effort with a click&treat.

At this point, it is important to put a new task ‘on signal’. A signal can be a gesture, a touch or verbal. Often it’s nice to use touch or gesture and voice together. Signals usually arise naturally out of the nature of the task we are teaching. For picking things up, I ask Boots to, “Pick!” and point to the object. At the end of a session, she likes to come around with me to pick up all the cones and rags we were using as arena markers.

Once the horse knows the task and the signal, it is important to only click/treat when you have asked for it by giving the signal. Otherwise it might be hard to use cones as arena markers while riding or doing ground work exercises!

Using the click&treat only when we’ve asked for the behavior, will slowly tone down the horse’s desire to ‘throw the new move at you’ as soon as he sees you (much like a child dying to show you his new painting). When I taught Boots to ‘spin’, it was quite startling when she wanted to show it to me and visitors all the time, while standing right beside us!

There is more information in the GLOSSARY which you can access with a link at the top of the page.

 

HorseGym with Boots video clip series on YouTube

Over the last few years I have created a series of clicker training activities posted as clips on YouTube.  They can be reached by putting HorseGym with Boots or HerthaMuddyHorse into the YouTube search engine

There are a number of other playlists devoted to specific topics. Clips are kept short, usually under five minutes long, to make them easy to find and review. New clips are added each month. Many are being incorporated into my blog posts.

If you would like more information, email me at:  hertha.james@xtra.co.nz

Below is the first of the “HorseGym with Boots” series. “Boots” is my horse’s name – ‘Nirvana Puss ‘n Boots’. She is 3/4 Quarter Horse, born in 2002.