I’ve just returned from Denmark, where I was teaching a really lovely group of people and their horses. What struck me about this group was how very different all the horses were and just how versatile these techniques can be.
These horses all needed a slightly different approach and it can be easy to get stuck trying to use a technique which worked with the last horse or situation you were in. Staying present to the moment and training the individual horse you’ve got there and then makes a big difference. Of course, knowing what options you’ve got and coming up with different solutions takes time and experience to learn, so here are some stories and approaches to give you some ideas…
One of the requests was to explore the concept of foodless clicks. I know there are differing opinions on this in the clicker world, but I’ve found (as ever!) that being dynamic, flexible and creative in your training gets the best results for each individual. And this applies to how we use markers and reinforcers, too.
For Gnisten, he was used to always receiving food on the click. It was very strong in him to stop and get his food as soon as he heard his click. But he was very happy and relaxed while doing so. I felt like it would be a long journey for both horse and human who have worked this way for a long time to introduce the idea of different reinforcers following the click as well as using the click as a reinforcer in its own right. However, I could see it would be useful for him to understand the concept to help him relax when working for longer duration – if they always get the food on the marker, it can then be easy to fall into the trap of not marking behaviour because you don’t want to stop and feed, but the lack of marker can cause tension and anxiety.
Instead, we introduced another marker in the way of verbal praise, using this on behaviours he knew well and backing it up now and again with food and scratches to help keep it strong. This helped maintain his relaxation, motivation and confidence for longer periods because it was getting marked without having to change the strong behaviour patterns he’d learned on the click.
I often use this process with horses anyway – teach new behaviours with the click beacuse it’s strong and precise, then move to a more general verbal marker once they’ve learned the behaviour. I find this helps because they know the behaviour and when they’ve done it right so you don’t need the precision of the click. It also enables you to give a more general, “well done, I really liked that last piece of work you just did,” rather than the click-precision of, “THAT step was what I wanted.” Often, you just want to reward to keep up motivation when they’ve been going nicely without changing their behaviour or striving to work out exactly the change you want and variably reinforced praise works perfectly for this.
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Similarly to Gnisten, Joey would stop dead on the click when hearing it when working on the lunge, though he was relaxed when doing so. His owner, Ann, was worried about this causing physical strain on his body and wanted to teach him instead to slow down more gently and in balance to receive his treat. Again, I thought it would be a long journey with lots of frustration if we tried to change his well-embedded behaviour on the click, so we introduced a new verbal marker.
We added this into the lunging straight away. Joey is a very self-aware horse with a lot of great training so I didn’t feel we needed to go right back to basics and build it up step by step. And we didn’t! (Of course, if it hadn’t worked then I would have changed tack but my instinct was right this time!). We began by Ann asking Joey to walk on the lunge. She then gave her new verbal marker, followed by her cue to halt, which is well trained and he stops gently and in balance. Once he’d stopped, she went up to him and gave him his food. Once we’d repeated this a few times, we did it from trot. Ann gave her new verbal marker at a time when Joey was trotting beautifully, then cued the walk, then a few steps later cued the halt. Once he’d stopped gently and calmly, she went up and fed him. Within a short time, when Ann gave her new verbal marker, Joey gently came down to walk and then stopped calmly and in balance.
What we had done was teach Joey a different response to this new marker and he picked it up really fast, clever boy that he is!
With Sean, it was different again because he gets very tense and excited around the click and the food. We began to only feed him when he was standing relaxed. Because he likes to just try harder and harder, this was a really important piece for him – by rewarding ‘doing’ with food, it just increases his desire to try harder which means that he gets less relaxed. Jacob would stand with him and scratch him etc until Sean was relaxed then click and feed. They’ve done a lot of this already so it was quite strong to work with which was great. Then, he’d ask him to do something that he knew, starting with easy behaviours like just walking round. Jacob would then click when he got something he liked, ask Sean to stand and then wait with him until he took a deep breath or softened his face or relaxed somehow and would then click and feed then. Of course, at first Sean got a little frustrated at not getting his treats on the click but Jacob stayed calm and consistent and within a very short time Sean started to change a lot.
He wasn’t trying so hard to do stuff all the time so he got more relaxed and the behaviours improved. Because he was being reinforced for not trying and just chilling out, those emotions were getting reinforced, too, and you could see his whole body and face change through the sessions.By the second day, he was even totally chilled out about Jacob getting on – he has a tendency to get really tense with a rider so this was a fantastic result! [ezcol_1third]
[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third][/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third_end][/ezcol_1third_end] I wanted to change Sean’s emotions around the sound of the click, because it was getting in the way of his relaxation and learning. With the two previous horses, they were calm and relaxed on the click so their owners could use it to train new behaviours well so I didn’t mind introducing another marker, but Sean would get tense and try really hard when he heard the click. Teaching him to relax a bit around the sound of the click will really help him stay relaxed even when learning new behaviours as well as when practising known ones. Of course, we could have started with a brand new marker and not used the click at all, but it was quick to change and is a strong marker already which is really useful.
Of course, the difficulty is that there are no fixed rules – you have to work with the individual you’ve got. Boleo was tense and anxious about being away from home and there was no way asking him to stand still was going to help at all – he just HAD to move. So, we worked him leading and on the lunge, asking for only one stationary behaviour at a time before letting him move again. This was great for him and allowed him to relax and focus more.
In terms of the behaviours and finding the key, you have to be just flexible in that as you do in how you mark and reinforce. Sometimes, it’s about finding out what’s the block to your horse doing the behaviour.
Coming back to Gnisten, he has fantastic lateral flexion at halt and at walk in-hand but gets stiff when Rebecca asks from on board. The key here was to teach him to lift his head a bit more in the flexions because when his head is too low it leaves too much weight on his shoulders and it becomes a lot harder for them to be able to do it physically. Of course, this is exacerbated when there’s a person on board!
Anyway, Rebecca and Gnisten both did some fab work on this and he learned it quickly and you could already see the balance of his walk changing which was brilliant!
Boleo was a bit trickier – it took a while and a lot of trial error for me to work out why he wasn’t lining up at the mounting block. He knew the lining up and hips towards behaviours really well on the ground and he’s calm and relaxed being ridden so why wasn’t it transferring to the mounting block?? We tried the usual process of doing it on the ground – got it! And then repeating on the mounting block, which they usually get really fast. But no, he just stood there looking blank. He did offer a tiny bit a few times but it wasn’t progressing as it should and he started to zone out a little.
So, I decided to try a different approach – instead of coming to the mounting block and swinging his hips towards, I put the mounting block a little way from the fence. The fence stops the horse being able to swing the quarters away and can be quite an easy way to give them the concept if they’re struggling for a long time. It didn’t quite work as I’d hoped but it did show up what the problem was – Boleo was too anxious about the mounting block being beside him that he could stop in front of it or scoot past it. Stopping beside it was a bit scary. We tried with some other objects – cones and a small pedestal – with the same result. AHA! The problem is NOT the mounting block but being able to stand with objects near his side and back legs.
So, that’s what we worked on – using a target to go slowly past and stop beside a range of objects. His confidence grew each time and I’m sure it’ll only take a little time before he’s lining up at the mounting block without hesitation. [ezcol_1third][/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third][/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third_end][/ezcol_1third_end]
We also worked on some other bits and pieces, too, with Isabella learning haunches in and body awareness exercises, Bison having his first introduction to the clicker and a very enthusiastic session from Mickey who’d been watching the other horses before getting his go!
So, a BIG thank you to Rebecca for organising and hosting it and to everyone who came along – I had a really lovely time and met some fabulous horses and people!
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