As positive reinforcement trainers we often hold ourselves to extremely high standards, I think. We're on this journey due to a desire to do the right thing by our animals ethically-speaking (and we all know that path has virtually no end, there's always *something* we could be doing better). We often spend time pondering our personal training philosophies, ideals and ethical standpoints, and all of this can sometimes lead to a bit of mental self-flagellation.
Idealism can be a beautiful thing but pragmatism doesn't have to be sacrificed on the altar of noble principles. Sometimes life happens, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and a bit of self-love and forgiveness go a long way.
So if you didn't quite manage that training situation the way you'd have liked, if you accidentally forgot to check your emotional baggage at the paddock gate, if you got impatient or lost your temper, then so be it.
Apologise. Make it right. Learn something. Let it go.
People often chat to me about how frequently they second-guess themselves and their training choices. Sometimes they have a strong background in traditional or natural horsemanship but it feels like something is missing in their relationship with their horses. Maybe they find themselves flitting from one 'method' or trainer to the next, unable to commit to any one thing for long enough to see real results (or a lack of) before moving onto something else. Maybe they have followed a particular 'guru' or style of training but something has happened that they're uncomfortable with, to make them question their loyalty to that person or method. Often they are absolutely convinced of the benefits of positive reinforcement for horses, but peer pressure from friends, coaches or social media and the desire to conform is overwhelming and causes them to continually doubt themselves. And often they really want to train under a positive reinforcement paradigm, but old habits keep getting in the way.
Regardless, my heart truly goes out to those people. To you, if you're one of them. I've been there. What it means is that you are a seeker of truth, you're trying to better yourself for the sake of your horse, you're thinking critically and striving for improvement. That's a beautiful thing.
And I get it - there's so much information available out there, online and in person, and it seems that each trainer you listen to, or article you read, is recommending different methods/techniques (and sometimes dishing out judgement or subtle derision of alternative ways of doing things). It can be difficult to sort through it all and feel confident and consistent in which parts you should take home and actually implement with your horse. This is only made worse when the path you're walking is a lonely one, and outside of the accepted mainstream, such as it is for positive reinforcement or clicker trainers.
I have personally sat in the audience at clinics of very well-known and respected international horsemen and listened to them mock and denigrate positive reinforcement training, while clearly having little to no idea of how it works (let alone having given it a proper try themselves). I have left those clinics rather irritated at the ego on display, but still with a degree of respect for the horsemanship they practice and with a few ideas to take home with me.
"Knowledge makes people humble. Arrogance makes people ignorant."
Sometimes people comment how lucky I am to have "found my path" and have so much clarity and confidence in how I want to train (and how I don't). Yes I do feel pretty secure in my training choices, at a basic level, but it's still an ongoing journey and I still question myself constantly and doubt myself regularly.
After all, this is an ongoing and lifelong process. I'm constantly playing 'devils advocate' with myself, watching other trainers (of all species) and questioning the way I do things or whether I could improve what I'm doing. I think that's important to do, but it often actually causes me to feel less sure of myself! Such is life. I've learned to be ok with this sort of discomfort, it comes with stretching outside of comfort zones and it's a temporary feeling. As I work through the new ideas in my mind, or with my horses, or in conversation with peers and mentors, I consolidate and integrate and then continue on. I'm sure this is a process most people are familiar with to some extent.
Also, these things take time - for over 15 years I have been working through questions like
"What feels right to me?"
"How can I balance what is best for the animal with what is practical and efficient?"
"Where do I sit ethically on that spectrum?"
"How can I combine the useful parts of both 'common practice' and 'best practice' without compromising my integrity?"
Crucially, I've had some really challenging life experiences that helped cement my own ethical code when it comes to horses, and form the basis of my unrelenting dedication to empathetic and ethical training. During these times I doubted my own decisions and skills, felt lost, beat myself up, flailed around a bit then (eventually) found solid earth again and emerged stronger and more confident and with the benefit of hindsight. As usual, it's the difficult times in life that provide the biggest insights and catapult us on our way to clarity.
Bear with me here, and I'll give you an example. When I think back 12 years or so to when I was a Customs drug dog handler, I vividly recall my frustration and ethical quandary over the way I was made to 'teach' my dog Oscar 'obedience'. (Clue: with a choke chain). "Get more muscle into it. Correct him harder. HARDER." was the constant refrain, until I snuck away one lunch break with a clicker and some biscuits, hid behind a warehouse out the back of the airport and taught him what he needed to know, MY way. A few months later down in Trentham I had to bite my tongue and hide my tears of empathy when the police dog trainer in charge of our graduation course took Oscar's lead from me and jerked the chain so hard he yelped and was thrown off his feet (he was a very large black Labrador, so there was some force behind that 'correction'). *
There were a few reasons I left that job but that was definitely part of it. To this day I question whether I could have been a better advocate for my dog, but the reality is I was young and relatively inexperienced, and working without proper support or mentorship in a military-style hierarchy. Regardless, I left the dog section even more convinced that I needed to follow my gut and stick with reward-based training, much more aware of the gaps in my own knowledge and capabilities, and absolutely adamant that I would never again put myself in the situation of being powerless and forced to follow someone else's orders on how to train my animals. To this day, if I am taking my horse to a clinic or lesson with someone I haven't trained with before, I remind myself of my role as her advocate and rehearse how I am going to remove her immediately if the need arises. I'm not a fan of conflict so the idea of doing this doesn't sit comfortably but I am ready to do it anyway.
The point of relaying all of this, is that if you're second-guessing yourself, or feeling like you don't know who to listen to or how to proceed, or that things just aren't working for you, please understand that it's totally NORMAL. We all feel like that at different stages and many of us throughout our lives!
Some of my "tribe"
So in practical terms, what can you do if you're feeling that way?
So there's some slightly rambling thoughts about my own journey (so far) which hopefully helps to make you feel less alone, and also some tips on how to manage the nagging self-doubt or second-guessing that so many of us subject ourselves to. I hope it's helpful.
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
* (To be clear, the operational detection work was all trained positively, using play rewards and no corrections. It was the other early-stage obedience stuff that I am describing above. Also, things have improved a lot in NZ drug and explosives detector dog training since then, largely thanks to some inspiring and dedicated trainers who have introduced and implemented marker training into the detector dog community here in NZ. Unfortunately, any improvements were too late for me and Oscar).
"Oh, I'm not interested in tricks. I have far too many other (more important) things to be doing..."
Hey that's cool. I'm totally fine with that, to each their own. I too have little time and lots of important things to be training (and *cough*toomanyhorses*cough*). I do make time to train some tricks though, and here's why.
All that said, I admit I find this whole thing a little tricky (haha), after all I don't want to perpetuate that myth that clicker training is "just for tricks". I personally clicker train my young warmblood during every schooling session, to mark the moments she softens and engages, gives me some lateral movement, or a soft balanced transition. With clients I am most often supporting them to resolve problem behaviours or bad habits, as well as working toward ridden and groundwork goals.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on all of this - if you don't train tricks, why not? If you do train tricks, what's your favourite thing you've ever taught your horse to do?
We can and should teach our horses how to behave around food, in the same way we teach them how to behave around children, or how to accept a saddle, or to have their feet picked up. If our young horse refused to have his feet trimmed we wouldn’t just give up and let his hooves grow unimpeded for the rest of his life, we would resolve the issue (hopefully with patience and compassion). So rather than just never feeding treats because we don’t like who our horse becomes, we simply have to teach him how to access the food by behaving in a way that is acceptable to us. After all, why would we want to forego the use of something that is clearly so incredibly motivating for our horse?!
(If you've introduced your horses to clicker training and they are keen to offer behaviour in return for treats AND they are calm and find it easy to be still in both head and feet, then stop reading. Go outside and train something.)
As with all training, we start by thinking about our ultimate goal. What do you want your horse to do?
(If you said “I want my horse to stop mugging me”, then rewind and try again. What do you want your horse TO DO?)
If you said “I want my horse to look away when I have treats” (a common answer), then that’s a good start, but I’d say you’re not quite there yet. If we are talking about the end result, the ultimate goal, do you really want your horse to constantly angle his head away from you? Or do you just want him to keep his nose off your body, for example?
Either way, we’re still not getting to the guts of the issue yet, and the only way to get there is to acknowledge the underlying emotion that drives the behaviour we're seeing.
I’ll tell you what I want: I want a calm horse that behaves much the same way whether I have food on my person or not. I want him to be eager to play and interact, but also to understand how the game works. That means he is confident in the knowledge that I will let him know when it’s time to play the "training game", and until then he can rest and just be. I want him to have a really solid foundation of suitable behaviour that he can offer me if he wants to earn a reward. More tangibly, I want to be able to ask him to keep his feet still while I work around him, or walk away from him.
That is my end goal. And of course as with any behaviour, I can't train all of that in one go. I must first slice it up into a multitude of tiny pieces and start at the beginning, moving up as the horse shows me he is ready. So, next comes my plan to put structure to those steps.
Step one of every training plan is not a task, but a question: what's our baseline? In other words, what is the horse able to do right now? Don't judge, just observe and acknowledge. We are going to place our horse’s baseline, his current reality, at the bottom of a staircase and our ultimate goal at the top. Then we simply fill in the gaps with as many little steps as we can (simple, right?). As Bob Bailey famously says, "training is simple, but it's seldom easy".
This "manners" behaviour is a very simple exercise for the horse in terms of what's physically involved (basically, just stand there and chill), however, as Alexandra Kurland says, "look to people for opinions, look to the horse for answers". And many horses will tell us that this exercise is NOT in fact straightforward at all. At least, not when their human is standing right next to them with pockets full of treats and a prefrontal cortex overflowing with bubbling expectations and infectious energy and churning thoughts and plans for the next thing on the list and the next.
So we hopefully have a clear view of our staircase, with our current baseline at the bottom and our goal at the top. We are going to start by explaining clearly to the horse that keeping her feet still and her nosey nose away from our bodies is the right answer. In a nutshell that's what we call "manners". That’s the obvious bit, and we can generally train the beginnings of that in a few minutes. The problems I so frequently see come about because the trainer gets that far and then stops. They don't finish the job, and in order to finish we must look at the animal holistically, and acknowledge the emotions not just the physical behaviour. So yes we start out by reinforcing the nose being away from our body space, but we very quickly progress to incorporating calmness, balance, a soft eye and happy ears.
If so, I find it helps to visualise an energy bubble around the horse. When we step outside the bubble their energy drops. What is interesting is that if you pay attention you'll probably notice that your own energy drops when you step out of their bubble too. It is very common for the horse's tense or nervous energy to "infect" us and we end up feeling a bit rushed and flustered. Thus begins a vicious spiral into mutual frustration. (I see this pattern occur all the time in horses that are trained with traditional or natural horsemanship, without any food in sight. So this is not caused by the food per se, but rather by any exciting or scary situation. The scale of the horse's reaction is influenced by their temperament and training history. In any case, clicker training will help to teach the horse emotional self control, and that is a very valuable life skill with far-reaching benefits).
To help a horse like this we are going to find the edges of her bubble and work around the threshold, slowly shrinking it down. You can start by click and treating your horse from outside her bubble, usually a few metres away. By doing this you're setting her up for success. She can't "fail", because you're too far away for her to mug you and she's guaranteed to relax as a result. You're not only reinforcing moments of relaxation but you're also demonstrating that having distance between you is ok - she can stay put and she can trust you to deliver the food to her. She'll learn quickly.
But guess what? If the horse is struggling with calmness, it's very likely there's another factor at play.
Spoiler alert: it's you.
Before you do anything more, stop. Step well away from the horse and take a moment. Breathe down into your belly, slowly. Quiet your mind. Soften. Feel the ground, deep beneath your boots. Breathe out your to-do lists and time-frames and let them drift away in the breeze. Your horse lives in the moment - go and join her there. Return to her with calm energy and zero expectations and let's try that again.
TRUST & CONFIDENCE
Whatever a horse's unwanted behaviour might look like (sniffing, nudging, licking, biting etc), the issue generally boils down to anxiety around how to get the food - where will it come from, when will it come, how do I get access to it. So as you go along you are going to show the horse that he can trust you not to be stingy or unpredictable with food. Through consistent and thoughtful food delivery you will prove to him again and again that he doesn’t need to panic about where the food is coming from or whether it's going to be snatched away. You will reward only desired behaviour. And you will take responsibility for yourself and won't exacerbate his anxiety by adding your own frustrations and expectations to the mix.
(Guys, this means not taking it all so personally! Stop thinking "he's being disrespectful", "he knows better". Don't shove or poke or push him away. If you're feeling annoyed, he's feeling worse. We humans are the ones that landed on the moon - take a short break and apply your considerable brain to the problem. YOU figure out how to help him be successful and calm, and then go back and do better.
Hint: the answer is almost always 'click more often, for the right things').
From here we quickly move on to something specific like targeting. These sorts of behaviours solidify understanding of the "clicker game", and get the horse seeking the click by offering behaviour. If we train nothing but manners for too long then the horse doesn't get the chance to learn to experiment and feel safe volunteering behaviour, which is an important lesson for them and one of the biggest benefits of clicker training.
We revisit manners again and again in between presenting the target, and we begin to morph it into "park", aka "ground tying" (in which he stands still while you walk away or move around him). We do this by continuing to reward for the calm stillness but also begin to change our body position, move our feet and add some distance between us and the horse. In other words, we're now adding in another criteria, of "keep your feet still". Teaching the horse a mat target (place his front feet on a mat and stay there) is a closely related exercise which is incredibly valuable for cementing this concept.
We also begin to generalise the behaviour by changing location. We can reinforce park while we're grooming, while we open a gate, when we're putting rugs on and standing at the mounting block. (Just remember: we are climbing the staircase step by step. Don't expect your horse to grow wings and fly directly to the 5th storey).
Alexandra Kurland calls this whole concept "The Grownups are Talking, Please Don't Interrupt", which I think portrays beautifully the intent behind it. Whatever you want to call it, this behaviour of calm, relaxed standing still is our horse's neutral. His default. It is the baseline we will return to over and over again, both as a valuable behaviour in its own right and as a contrast when we are teaching other behaviours and adding new cues (more on this in a future blog). It also feeds directly into relaxation and balance while moving in-hand and under saddle.
Just don't forget that YOU are half of this equation, and make sure you regularly turn a critical gaze inward to assess how you may be impacting upon your horse.
I have just spent 3 intense but incredibly rewarding days learning from the incomparable Bob Bailey. It was a full-immersion R+ training geek out and I thoroughly enjoyed it!
If you don't know who Bob Bailey is, then, in short, you should! Go here to read more about his fascinating role in the history of positive reinforcement training and the roots of modern-day "clicker training". (When I say "fascinating" I mean it - I'm talking about pigeons trained to guide missiles by sitting inside and pecking at a screen, ravens conducting surveillance by flying to upper-story windows and taking photos with cameras attached to their heads, Navy dolphins trained to swim in the open ocean on circuitous routes of up to 12 hours and return to the trainer, and more).
It will take me some time to process all the learning and reflect on how I will integrate it into my own practices as well as my teaching, but here I will share some highlights and brief "take aways" from the seminar.
Keys to good training:
- Precise timing
- Observing behaviour
- Quick decisions
- Fast trials
- More trials
- More reinforcement
- Higher expectations (of yourself too!)
- Changing your behaviour
You can understand the principles of good training, you can read about it in books and on the internet and write academic papers on it, but if it doesn't go from your head to your hands (i.e. put it into practice) then it means nothing.
Hearing about good training, thinking about good training, believing in good training, planning to do good training, is NOT the same as DOING good training!
Good training is not about hierarchies and relationships - relationship with the animal is nice, but we don't NEED it in order to train.
(My interpretation: Good training deepens relationships, but the one is not dependent upon the other).
1. "ANY trainer, using ANY method, can train ANY animal, to do ANY behaviour, given enough time"
Don't just ask "did the animal learn the behaviour?" instead ask yourself "how could I have trained this in less time?" and "Could the behaviour be better?"
(Plus I would personally add, "was the horse a joyful and eager volunteer in this learning experience?")
Every trainer can point to some behaviour or other they have trained. Success is not just getting behaviour, it's getting behaviour quickly and accurately.
(My interpretation: Good training is both ethical AND efficient)
2. If you are making poor decisions and training badly, and the animal manages to figure it out despite you, the ANIMAL should take the credit, not you.
3. "Animals are built to learn. They are learning all the time, not just when we want them to."
(Training is learning that happens in the presence of a human)
"Evolution prepared animals to learn well, and learn quickly. If learning occurs slowly there is a REASON!" (Spoiler alert: it's probably you).
If the animal is not learning, most likely the trainer has done something wrong - e.g. not defining behaviour, not making it worthwhile for the animal to do it, not controlling distractions.
This is the best time for novelty and creativity. Use your imagination, visualise what you want.
Define, describe, simplify, make mistakes (rehearse without the animal).
First (before we start training) we must ask ourselves "what do I have?" then, "what do I want?". The training plan describes the path from what you have, to what you want. Train to fill in the gaps.
"Split, but do not reject opportunistic lumping!"
Don't get in the way of learning - have a plan, but if the animal is ready to leap ahead, don't hold them back
E.g. We might have a plan to get from A-B-C-D-E-F but the animal may leap straight from B to E. (Get out of their way, and for Dog's sake keep up!)
Execute! Don't waste your most precious resource - TIME
Over-analysis (thinking too much) can get you into trouble.
"Don't allow INDECISION to paralyse your ACTION! " You must be able to make fast, good decisions in the moment. Having a clear plan is key to this.
Training period (e.g. 10 minutes)
Training session (e.g. 1 minute block or 10 trials)
Trial (one attempt)
Train ONE behaviour per session; ONE criterion per session.
Approx 8/10 trials should be successful before you move on / add criteria (that doesn't mean it will always be 80% successful - it may be a much lower ratio early on).
Define new behaviour for any training session in ONE SENTENCE! If you can't define it in one sentence then it is too complicated for one session.
"If you can't precisely define the response you are training, STOP TRAINING"
Every session should have an objective. If you have 3 consecutive session failures then go and bang your head against a wall 3 times and then review your plan.
PAVLOV & SKINNER - Pavlov's respondent (classical) conditioning works on reflexes, and Skinner's operant conditioning influences voluntary behaviour.
Don't rush to start training. Hang out with Pavlov for a bit - i.e. just feed the animal. How fast does he eat? What is his behaviour like? Is he anxious? Is he ready to start training?
When you're training, Skinner is on one shoulder, Pavlov is always on the other -
"Operant and respondent behaviours lie along a continuum. All operant behaviours are accompanied by respondent behaviours."
"An animal's behaviour may appear totally under operant control, yet there is always an underlying respondent component"
Don't try and train an anxious animal!
(My notes: the emotion that the animal is feeling while learning becomes tied in to the specific behaviour they are learning. This issue is commonly overlooked by horse trainers. Look into 'poisoned cues' for more on this.)
If you're training your animal, you're utilising operant conditioning. You may not be doing it systematically or mindfully or even consciously, but believe me its happening anyway.
GET behaviour with reinforcement.
REDUCE or ELIMINATE behaviour with extinction.
SUPPRESS behaviour with punishment.
Both primary reinforcers (e.g. food) and conditioned reinforcers (e.g. a click, whistle, word etc) strengthen behaviour. Conditioned reinforcers lose strength with improper use, i.e. always pair them with a primary reinforcer! (In simple language - click AND treat, not just click).
The delivery of the conditioned and primary reinforcements is two separate acts.
"Click for ACTION, feed for POSITION"
Generally speaking, the LONGER THE DELAY in delivery of the reinforcer the LESS EFFECTIVE the reinforcement process.
"You get what you REINFORCE, not what you WANT"
Use measurable behaviour. Don't try to work out what you think the animal is thinking. Just look at the behaviour.
If you're getting more of a behaviour, it is being reinforced somehow. This applies whether or not YOU perceive the behaviour to be "good" or "bad".
"Reinforcement of unwanted behaviour is worse than failure to reinforce wanted behaviour" - i.e. if there is junk behaviour in amongst wanted behaviour, you're better off NOT reinforcing it.
80% of training problems stem from issues with A) timing B) rate of reinforcement C) criteria.
Timing must be PRECISE. RoR must make it worthwhile for the animal, otherwise they will find other behaviours more worthwhile. Criteria - if its too high, RoR will be low. If criteria is too low, you are likely feeding the animal for non-contingent behaviours and therefore may be training unwanted behaviours.