Tag Archives: Clicker Training

TARGET SHOULDER TO HAND

INTRODUCTION:

In the photo above Boots is leaning her weight toward me to connect with my hand which I held a small distance away from her shoulder.

Teaching the horse a signal to target his shoulder to our hand fits in nicely after we have taught him a signal to yield his shoulder away from us.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse is mat-savvy.
  • Horse is comfortable standing ‘parked’ with the handler standing alongside. To review, check out my ‘Using Mats’ blog.
  • Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. To review, see the clip #153 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent and Intent toward the end of this blog or check out the ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’ blog.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead (kept loose) and a safe, enclosed area for working at liberty, if possible.
  • Mat.
  • For generalization, a hoop, ground rail, mounting block or similar.

AIM:

Horse confidently moves his left or right shoulder toward the handler’s ‘outstretched hand’ gesture signal.

Video Clip:  #160 HorseGym with Boots: TARGET SHOULDER TO HAND

 

Note:

When we request the shoulder to yield away, we project energy at the horse’s shoulder from our body’s core at the belly-button which causes our posture to be upright.

When we request the shoulder to move toward us, it is important to pull our belly-button back so that we create a ‘draw toward me’ energy with our whole body. Horses are so sensitive to advancing and receding energy from another body, that they easily read the intent of our posture as long as we are totally consistent and not sloppy.

SLICES:

Stay with each slice until it feels ho-hum and smooth for both of you.

Make each session extremely short, 2-3 minutes. The magic is not in the final result as much as it is in the process of helping the horse figure it out.

  1. Ask the horse to park squarely; click&treat.
  2. Take up a position shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse and relax; click&treat. Work up to standing together quietly for five seconds before the click&treat, on each side of the horse.
  3. Reach out the flat back of your hand to lightly touch the horse’s shoulder; click&treat the moment your hand makes contact.
  4. Take up the ‘no intent’ or ‘zero intent’ body position and wait to see if the horse is okay for you to carry on. If he continues to stand in a relaxed manner, he is probably okay to carry on, or you may have sorted out one or more ‘okay to proceed’ signals.

ZERO or ‘NO’ INTENT POSITION

  1. Repeat 3 and 4 above, watching for any weight shift the horse makes toward your hand as you move it toward his shoulder. If he does, celebrate hugely with happy words and a jackpot or triple treat. Avoid the urge to see if he will do it again. Wait until your next session.
  2. When you feel the time is right, hold your hand a tiny distance away from touching the shoulder and WAIT for the horse to shift his weight to make the contact; click&treat. Some horses may step toward you to make the contact right away. For either one, celebrate hugely once again. Maybe do it once or twice more to consolidate the idea.
  3. It took Boots a couple of weeks of daily mini-sessions before she consistently leaned toward my hand to make the contact. Then it took more days before she confidently stepped toward my hand when I held it further away.
  4. Decide whether you want to continue teaching on the side you started with, or if you want to teach slices 1-6 on the other side of the horse before proceeding.
  5. When 6 is ho-hum, gradually hold your hand a little bit further away so the horse must take a sideways step to contact your hand; click&treat.
  6. Whenever the response seems slow or unsure (or is missing), go back to touch the shoulder; click&treat. Then work forward again at a rate that keeps the horse being continually successful as much as possible.
  7. When starting a new session, always introduce the task with a shoulder touch; click&treat, to let the horse know which game you are playing.
  8. Work to having the response equally smooth on either side of the horse.
  9. If the horse is mat-savvy, lay a mat beside the horse to act as a destination. Place the mat so the horse takes one step over to reach it. Gradually increase the distance to get two steps, then three steps.

GENERALIZATIONS:

  1. Turn on the haunches: ask the horse to step around to complete one/quarter of a circle (90 degrees). When that is smooth, work toward 180 degrees, and finally a full turn on the haunches (360 degrees). It can take a while to build confidence to do more than a quarter or half circle keeping the hind feet relatively in one place.
  2. Repeat 1 above on the other side of the horse. Because our bodies and the horse’s body are asymmetrical, one side is usually easier. It helps to do a bit more on the harder side until, after lots of short sessions, both sides feel smooth.
  3. Add a hoop (made so it comes apart if it catches on the horse’s leg) to the turn on the haunches exercise. This increases the level of difficulty, so start at the beginning with just one step and work up very gradually. Be careful not to make the horse feel wrong if he steps out of the hoop with a hind foot. If he does step out, quietly walk away together and return for a reset. The video clip demonstrates where I got too greedy, wanting too much, and it blew Boots’ confidence for a while.
  4. Keep each session super short and celebrate each new success hugely. This exercise enhances foot awareness.
  5. Stand the horse with his hind end nearer the mounting block than his shoulder, step on the block and ask him to bring his shoulder over so he is in the mounting position.
  6. If you want to focus on the horse moving toward you in a straight line, rather than in a circular pattern as above, stand the horse over a rail and see if he will bring his hind end along. If not, leave moving straight for now until you teach the ‘ribs toward me’ lessons.
  7. When shoulder to hand is smooth, start again at the beginning with ‘ribs to hand’. Follow the exact same procedure but start with a touch to the center of the ribs instead of the shoulder.

 

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THE FOUR STAGES OF NEW LEARNING

Acquisition, Fluidity, Generalization and Maintenance

Acquisition

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.

 

Fluency

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.

GENERALIZATION

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.

Generalization includes:

  1. Asking for the behavior in different places but still at home.
  2. Using different props.
  3. Working at different times of the day.
  4. Asking for the behavior away from home.
  5. Working with unusual distractions.
  6. Working at a different gait.
  7. Handler using a different body orientation.
  8. Fading out a signal and replacing it with a new one.
  9. Requesting more repeats or duration before the click&treat.
  10. 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.

MAINTENANCE

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.

 

Willing Haltering

Willing Haltering

One horse may learn to sniff his halter (click&treat) and put his head in the halter (click&treat) in less than two minutes.  Another horse may take weeks of short sessions to just approach a halter lying on the ground or hanging on a fence.  An Individual Education Program (IEP) for such a horse might be sliced to include click&treat for each of the slices outlined below.

We stay with each slice until the horse is ho-hum with it.

One main element of teaching like this is that the handler maintains a relaxed attitude and observes the horse closely to see when he’s had enough for one session. The sessions are usually very short – maybe three minutes. Ideally three sets of two-three minutes among other things being done with or around the horse during any one visit.

A second main element is for the handler to keep a relaxed, consistent body position, orientation and way of presenting the halter (hoop) during the teaching/learning stage. Our focus is on what the horse CAN do (click&treat), not on what he can’t do YET.

We start with teaching the most basic prerequisite behavior.  When the horse clearly understands our request for that behavior (which could take a couple of minutes or up to many, many sessions), we add in the next ‘slice’ of behavior that will lead to our ultimate goal.

We can and should move on when:

  • The way we give the signal is consistent and clear (e.g., put our right arm over his neck and hold the halter open so the horse can put his nose into it).
  • The horse presents the behavior we want 99% of the time (when we hold the halter open, he puts his nose into it).
  • The horse does not add in any unwanted behavior (e.g. running away first, chewing on the halter).

If the situation becomes confused, it is usually because we have not cut the whole task into thin enough slices. Although we have an ultimate goal, the ultimate goal is not where we put our attention. Our attention is directed at each ‘slice’ or mini-skill.

Mastering these one by one and linking them together, as the horse is ready, will seamlessly bring us to our ultimate goal – the whole task that we thin-sliced at the beginning is performed smoothly with one click&treat at the end.

When confusion arises (in either the horse or the handler or both), it is essential to return to previous work until we find the ‘slice’ at which both the horse and the handler can regain their confidence. Then we simply work forward again from that point. This is Mastery Learning. Each small part is mastered before moving on to the next part.

By slicing the overall goal small enough, we can gradually create a positive association with a halter.

We want to teach the horse to be proactive about putting his nose into the halter/hoop. Something like a small hula hoop is easier to hold into position to teach the idea of dropping the nose into the hoop/halter.

#168 HorseGym with Boots illustrates an early lesson using a hoop to introduce the idea or something moving around the head, across the eyes and over the ears.

#65 HorseGym with Boots illustrates starting with a hoop and moving on to a halter.  In this clip I cut out the chewing and waiting time between trials to make the clip shorter, but didn’t really like the result as much as if I had left them all in, which would give a better overview of the pace of the session.

It’s easier to hold a small hoop when we first teach the horse to drop his head into an opening. This will eventually be the nose-piece of a halter. I also have to  build confidence about having my right arm lying across the horse’s neck.

SLICES

If the horse is wary about the look of a halter, for whatever reason, use a small hula hoop or similar made with a piece of hose.

Stay with each slice of the task until your body language and orientation are consistent and the horse is ho-hum with what you are doing.

  1. The horse looks toward the halter/hoop.
  2. The horse steps even the tiniest step toward the halter/hoop (Note that for very anxious horses, we can provide encouragement by putting the halter/hoop beside a familiar dish of feed or a pile of hay. In other words, we use complementary motivating environmental signals to help initiate a response that we can click&treat).
  3. He confidently touches his nose to the halter/hoop.
  4. As 3. when the halter/hoop is in different places.
  5. As 3. when the halter/hoop is in a person’s hand.
  6. Confidence when the halter/hoop in the hand is moved.
  7. Confidence with allowing himself to be touched on the neck with the halter/hoop.
  8. Confident with the halter/hoop touching his face.
  9. Confident with the handler putting and resting one arm up over his neck.

Eventually we can click&treat the following slices.

  1. When the horse moves his head toward the hoop.
  2. When the horse moves his head to the left and drops his nose into the hoop.
  3. When we can lift the hoop up toward his eyes and take it away again.
  4. When we can lift the hoop up over his eyes and take it away again.
  5. When we can lift the hoop past his ears and take it away again.
  6. When we can lift the hoop over his ears and lay it on his neck and take it away again.
  7. When we can do the steps above with a halter rather than a hoop.
  8. When we can slip on the halter and lay the halter strap behind his ears and take it away again.
  9. When we can hold the halter strap in position for longer.
  10. When we can do up the halter strap and undo it again and take the halter off.
  11. When we can put on the halter and leave it on for a short time.
  12. When we can put the halter on and take it off two or three times in a row.

 

Step Aerobics

 

INTRODUCTION:

This exercise developed from something my horse offered when I was in the tack room where there is a wooden platform in front of the door. While I was in the tack room getting organized, Boots would step up onto the wooden platform to see what I was doing.

I recognized the beneficial gymnastic effect when I asked her to back off the platform and step up again in a rhythmic pattern. It became one of her favorite things to do. Interestingly, she never seems to have enough of it, and I have to be the one to suggest that we should do something else.

This Step Aerobics task has become our go-too exercise when time is limited but we want a bit of a warm-up before cleaning her feet or doing other tasks. When it’s too wet or hot or windy for much else, it’s a fun way to build some movement into our time together.

Step Aerobics, just like the human version, is an exercise that requires whole-body movement and flexion of all the joints, so it is an ideal task to do often in short bursts.

Items with an asterisk (*) are training plans covered in detail in my book, Precision Horse Training with Positive Reinforcement: 12 Thin-Sliced Groundwork Plans, available as e-book or paperback via Amazon.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement for placing his front feet on a mat, so he is keen to stand on a mat whenever we put one out. #124 HorseGym with Boots: Free-Shaping Mat Targets* illustrates: https://youtu.be/xMaZWt5gK2o
  • Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. #153 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent and Intent* illustrates: https://youtu.be/3ATsdPvld4Q
  • The ‘Finesse Back-Up’ exercise is ideal to teach a reliable back-up while we are facing the horse. The description and two clips below show how we evolved it.
  1. Working across a barrier, using a hand-held target for stepping forward, and using body language, breathing, intent and voice signals for backing up.
  2. Adding a halter and rope signal to the back-up so we can use it anywhere. Once the horse knows the task, the rope pressure signal usually isn’t needed because the horse responds to the breathing, body language, voice and distinct orientation signals.
  3. Once voice, body language, intent and orientation signals are well established, we have a reliable back up at liberty while we are facing the horse.
  4. To the signals in 3 above, we add a clear ‘raised fingers’ gesture signal to the back-up while we are facing the horse, allowing us to communicate clearly from further away.

Back-Up Part 1*:  https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y

Back-Up Part 2*:  https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA

  • The other part of Step Aerobics is a recall signal. Teaching and consolidating a recall signal are outlined in these video clips.

Recall Clip 1: https://youtu.be/XuBo07q8g24

Recall Clip 2: https://youtu.be/5BQCB2Fe5RE

My ‘recall’ gesture signal in this context is a movement where I shrink backwards and drop my energy and make a circle with my arms.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead (as minimal pressure as possible on the lead, but enough to be effective) and a safe, enclosed area for working at liberty.
  • Materials to build a simple lane (one side can be a safe fence) and to block off one end of it.
  • Different mats familiar to the horse.
  • A pedestal or a step-up situation safe for the horse. A step-up trailer is an option, or setting up the trailer ramp as a step.

AIM:

Boots has taken herself to stand on a tire-pedestal while I organize the camera.

Horse steps up onto a pedestal (or step), then steps backwards down again, in a rhythmic pattern repeated several times.

SLICES:

A simple lane made with two rails, blocked off at one end with two tall cones, and a mat in the lane, demonstrating Slice 4 of the training plan.

Video Clip: #159 HorseGym with Boots: STEP AEROBICS

  1. Set up a simple lane. My lane in the video is two ground rails. You may want to begin with a higher-sided lane to make the behavior option we want as clear as possible for the horse. One side can be a safe fence.
  2. Ensure that the horse can walk right through the lane confidently; click&treat each time he calmly passes right through the lane. Handler walks on the outside of the lane. Walk a loop with the horse to repeat.
  3. Set a target mat near the end of the lane. Walk the horse into the lane and ask him to halt with his feet on the mat; click&treat. Walk him out of the lane forward, making a circuit to repeat targeting the mat.
  4. When 3 is done reliably with confidence, block off the lane at the end nearest the mat. Ask the horse to walk into the lane and target the mat; click&treat. Position yourself facing the horse, a bit to one side.
  5. Review the ‘Finesse Back-Up procedure as outline in the prerequisites. Click&treat for one or two steps back on request.
  6. When you no longer need to run your hand up the rope because the horse responds to your body language, inward breath, intent, and voice signals, begin holding your hands up higher until eventually your gesture signal morphs into your fingers held up beside your ears waggling to suggest backward movement; click&treat and celebrate hugely when he does (triple treat or jackpot or special treat). Keep a non-influencing loop in the rope or lay the rope over the horse’s neck out of the way.
  7. We want the raised fingers to become a main ‘back up please’ gesture. But at this point we still emphasize our inward breath, posture expressing intent and voice along with the gesture.
  8. If the horse comes forward to target the mat again right away, accept this with a click&treat the first time, but ideally, we want him to wait to be asked to move forward. You may, at first, need to invite him forward again very quickly after delivering the treat for backing up. If you have taught him a ‘wait’ signal, you can use it here. The October 2017 Challenge: Park and Wait* illustrates creating duration with the ‘wait’;
  9. Use your recall signal to ask the horse to come forward onto the mat again; click&treat. My recall signal as shown in the clips is a movement where I shrink backwards and drop my energy and make a circle with my arms. I learned it from Sharon Wilsie’s book, HorseSpeak.
  10. Alternate the back-up (click&treat) with the recall (click&treat). The aim is to smoothly get a series of these one after the other.
  11. Eventually, when 10 is really solid, you can ask for a back-up and a recall before the click&treat. Or ask for a recall followed by a back-up before the click&treat, moving toward the horse to deliver the treat.
  12. Once 10 is smooth, practice with a barrier on only one side of the horse.
  13. When 12 is smooth, practice with no barriers.
  14. When 13 is smooth, practice with a variety of mats and in a variety of different places.
  15. When 14 is smooth, introduce a pedestal or step. If the ‘step up’ idea is new to your horse, it can be helpful if you place a familiar mat on the pedestal the first time you ask.
  16. For some horses, it may help to begin with a relatively low ‘step up’ situation, such as a plank or thick board before asking for a higher step.
  17. At first be careful about asking for too many repeats. For some horses it will be an unaccustomed way of using their joints. Three repeats at one time is plenty to start with. Doing a little bit often is ideal. Once you are doing it at liberty the horse will probably let you know if he’s done enough.

GENERALIZATIONS:

We can use the back or sides of a trailer ramps as our ‘step’. I have used a solid piece of timber under the end of the ramp to create a step-up situation.

  • If you’re able to move your pedestal, move it to different locations. I have three ‘tire-pedestals’ set up in different parts of our training areas.
  • A step-up trailer is another option.
  • If you have a trailer with a ramp, and there are no jagged bits on the sides of the ramp, use the sides of the ramp as a ‘step-up’ spot.
  • If you ride or walk with your horse out in the countryside, look for spots that create a natural safe step. I’ve used our concrete front door step in the past.
  • Some people fill different-sized tires giving different heights for a step or build a series of pedestals.
  • If your pedestal is large enough, or you have a spot like the one in the photo below, ask the whole horse to step up and step down again.

I’ve asked Boots to step up with all four feet, then step back down again. The wooden lip and uneven ground make it more challenging.

I look forward to hearing and seeing  how you get on if you take up this challenge.

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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

Click & Scritch Bridget 01-08-2016_082102

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

 

Safety

smile while st&s 2 06-16-2016_155354

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