Having problems with your dog not bringing the toy back to your hand, or not wanting to release the toy? As always we want to apply an objective eye to what is driving the behaviour. WTF? “What’s The Function?”, as Dr Susan Friedman would say.
Often people have issues with their dog not wanting to give them the toy, and it’s because the moment the dog DOES bring it to them, the human throws it away again. They never bothered to ask the dog what game HE wanted to play and they’re making an assumption that the chase is the thing the dog is enjoying. The dog, however, actually wants to play tug, so naturally doesn’t want to release the toy! —> WTF? What’s the function?
A few months ago Awhi was enjoying chasing the toys that I threw but didn’t always want to bring them back to me. I quickly realised that “keepaway” (pup dodges and runs and the human/dog playmate chases him and tries to get the toy) was his reinforcer of choice. You can’t play keepaway if you drop the toy in the human’s hand straight away. So duh. No dice. Catch-me-if-you-can!
The problem with this was that I want him to place the toy directly into my outstretched hand when we are playing fetch (a: because I am fundamentally lazy, and b: to make it easier for my mum and my little boy to play fetch with him, and c: for safety reasons if he ever grabs something he isn’t supposed to have).
So Awhi says “the game is keep the toy away from the human!” and Bex says “the game is bring the toy to the human!”. We were at an impasse. Except we weren’t. ‘Cos behavioural science for the win. Or the win-win.
I did two things:
- I devised a reliable cue for when its time to play keepaway, and we played that game together regularly
- I started reinforcing him with a click & food for placing the toy in my hand when we’re playing fetch, before throwing it again. I gave him more of a reason to want to bring it back to me. (I also sometimes reinforce him for a good toy delivery by immediately returning the toy to him, and then initiating the keepaway game! Double whammy).
Ok there’s a third thing (well sort of an extension of the first thing...):
- I also ensured my cues for ‘deliver toy to my hand’ vs ‘let’s tug’ vs ‘you should run cos I’m gonna GETCHA’ were nice and clear. These are separate games that have separate cues and they’re under stimulus control - i.e. we don’t play keepaway when the current game is fetch.
I always try to balance this out further by trying to take his cues as much as he takes mine - eg if he tells me he wants to play keepaway I don’t ride roughshod over his opinions and relentlessly insist on fetch. That would make me a poor playmate. Interactions with our friends should be a two-way street where compromises are made and communication is respected and one person doesn’t always dominate the games. Just ask my six-year-old. He and his buddies in the sandpit get it right (most of the time).
It is always worth thinking about what’s the function in very tangible terms - what is the consequence of the behaviour? How is it being reinforcer? Currently I reinforce the toy delivery with a click plus food plus a throw of the toy, and the keepaway game and tug are reinforced by the play itself. Soon I will start to fade the food for toy delivery and see if the behaviour maintains (ie test to see if the fun of chasing the toy is now enough to reinforce the behaviour of bringing it back).
So bottom line is this: it’s not all about me. I can honour the function of Awhi’s original ‘dodge-away-not-gonna-give-you-my-toy’ behaviour and not deny him that fun, while ALSO getting to have the fetch-and-deliver-direct-to-hand behaviour that I want. Win-win.
By satisfying the function and clarifying the cues for these different behaviours, I ensure that Awhi and I BOTH get what we want, and there’s no miscommunications or frustrations.
A guest blog by Tessa (15), from Texas USA, after the Positively Together clinic on March 7-8, 2020, hosted in Austin by The Willing Equine.
During the Positively Together Clinic with Bex Tasker in Texas during March, I took away some very deep and interesting points that have really been settling well with me and that I have already seen beautifully improving me and my horse’s flow of training.
First of all, I just want to say what an incredible trainer and person Bex is. She truly has an amazing gift of being able to teach others with such a profound mindset that is expressed through her deep passion in helping people and their horses create a connection in their training. I am so grateful that I was able to spend several days learning from her and having fun; it truly was very eye opening seeing what an incredible community she is building.
One of the main focuses throughout the clinic was the concept of “breathing and being.” Breathing to create a connection and calmness that leads to being present in the mind; being in the moment of the training and focusing on that connection between the human and horse.
“Breathe and be.” As I continued to think about it throughout the entire clinic, it continued to resonate more and more within me; as I put it to use during my training sessions with Arrow in the clinic, my eyes were opened.
It has helped both of us so much in the fact that it has reminded me to be in the moment during the training session which has allowed us to train more efficiently and improves my ability to asses the situation with a clearer mind. It reminds me to relax my body and focus on the present moment and what I’m positively looking for instead of focusing on what could go wrong or what I “should” be doing instead (more on the whole “should concept" later in this post).
Therefore with all of that being said about how it has been improving my mental state, it has helped Arrow so much because I am clearer in my communication in the training, I am relaxed and focused, which therefore helps Arrow because he can clearly feel safe in the training because he is perceiving clear communication from me. Our training is even more fluent and connected. Whenever one of us feels a little worried or unsure, we can always return to the “breathe and be” behavior and get re-grounded. I can also always keep the “breathe and be” thought process in my head as a reminder to stay calm and joyful in the entire training process.
Thank you so much Bex for sharing such an amazing concept with me to improve our training and connection that is built between myself and my horses. Whenever I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed in the presence of training, all I have to do to remind myself to put these words to use is to simply stop, place my hand on my belly and breathe as I reinforce Arrow for being in his “default” or “breathe and be” position. It has already been helping us immensely and I just have to remind myself to breathe and realize that everything is going to be ok even if something little unexpected happens — I have to challenge myself to stay relaxed and present.
Whenever one of us feels a little worried or unsure, we can always return to the “breathe and be” behavior and get re-grounded. I can also always keep the “breathe and be” thought process in my head as a reminder to stay calm and joyful in the entire training process.
Another very profound topic that was discussed is the meaning behind the word should. “I should have done this in that training session” or “I should be doing this instead of this.” — the list goes on and on and on… But Bex brought to my attention that “should" is a word that really puts a hole in our chest because it seriously causes us to question ourselves and regret the decisions we make and have made. When I think back on things, this word was the cause of so much self-doubt, frustration, sadness, and regret for me when I was switching over to R+. It has really caused some setbacks in me and my horse’s training in the past because I allowed it to get the better of me.
Over many discussions during the clinic days I opened my eyes in realizing that the word should is simply misused and overlooked in most cases. Who cares about what happened in the past because we can’t change that. I can’t go back in time and change something in the session that I just had with one of my horses. But what I can do instead is realize what went wrong, realize why it happened, notice that everything is going to be ok, my horse will forgive me, and then move on and start fresh with a new perspective and try again. Nobody is perfect and all we can do is try our best, we all make mistakes because it’s just part of the learning process. But Bex reminded me and refreshed my brain again to not let my words take over my mind; this is something that I have really been working on lately and Bex really helped me further my skill to improve it… the word “should” can’t overtake my thoughts because I will redirect my thoughts onto new priorities.
Instead of using the word should, I am looking and redirecting the circumstances as learning curves, reflections, and priorities. I have chosen to take that moment as a learning experience, reflect back on it to see what I can do different next time, and then create and choose new priorities that will alter depending on the horse so that I can avoid thinking of the past and future, and instead will help me create goals and accurate training plans for in the moment.
This thinking process has been helping me for several months now, but Bex helped me determine the word that was causing the triggering thoughts. Instead of dwelling in the past, I have been able to continue my steady mindset and thinking and have been able to continue and improve. This concept from Bex has deepened and, in a way, finalized my ability to get past certain events and continue to confidently move forward. Now of course I have moments when I do feel frustrated or sad from certain situations because that’s life, but for the majority of things, I try to continue to have this mindset and portray these positive thoughts.
I could write for hours about how much Bex has taught me these past several days, but these two things are what currently really stood out for me. I am so incredibly thankful for Bex and her teaching skills — her clinic was laid out beautifully and she has an incredible way of teaching people. She has created, grown, and is sharing such an amazing community with her wonderful business of Positively Together. I am so thankful for this wonderful trip and I hope to learn from her again during many experiences together in the future. Thank you for everything Bex.
by Tessa (15), Texas USA.
It was such a pleasure getting to know Tessa during the clinic and over the following week. She is bright, articulate, passionate, and an extremely talented horsewoman. It is youth like this that make me feel inspired and hopeful for the future of positive reinforcement training in the equestrian world. Thank YOU Tessa xx
Also another big shout out to Adele of The Willing Equine for making this clinic happen, and hosting it at her beautiful barn. Make sure you check out her website and follow her on social media if you don't already. I hope we can do it again soon!
Shaping behaviour is a two-way conversation, in which we ask a question, receive an answer, listen and acknowledge, back and forth. When the animal tells us they’re ready we respond by changing the question slightly or asking for a little more. It is an art-form akin to a dance; we might take two steps forward, one step back, three steps forward and in this way we dance our way ever closer towards our goal.
You may have heard the terms "splitting" vs "lumping". Or the phrase "rewarding the smallest try". I’m going to add another word to the mix: criteria.
Criteria is one corner of the golden triangle of training, to which Bob Bailey asserts we can attribute the vast majority of training problems. It is crucial that we don't always set our criteria too high or else the animal won't be successful and our rate of reinforcement will drop too low. (Cue frustration, shut down or disinterest from the animal). I'll say that again with different words: when we ask for more than the animal is capable of understanding or delivering in that moment what we get is hesitation, wrong guesses, or our animal gives up, shuts down or otherwise "fails" and doesn't get rewarded. Doesn't feel good for them, or for us.
Unfortunately, it is human nature to think fast, to set goals for the future and want to achieve them yesterday. We also tend to have unrealistic views (from our comfortable perch atop the mountain of prior knowledge and human agenda) of how “obvious” the answer is, how quickly our animal should be able to figure it out; in short we assume the job of learning is easier than it actually is. In fact, what you think about it all is irrelevant - your animal tells you whether your criteria is small enough or not, by their success rate (and therefore by your rate of reinforcement, i.e. the frequency of your rewards).
Setting our expectations and our criteria too high and trying to move on too fast before the animal is ready (aka "lumping") is a pretty well-known training issue. It's safe to say that in almost every scenario it wouldn't hurt to split or “thin-slice” behaviours more than we already are. However, something I see quite a lot but doesn't often get a lot of air-time is the opposite - the tendency to spend too much time drilling at a stage the animal already knows well. This usually happens due to a lack of trainer confidence and the sense of success and safety that comes from the animal getting it right every time. Sometimes we actually sabotage our own progress because we like to stay in the comfort zone where the animal, and therefore the trainer, is successful. It also happens because of a lack of a clear plan as to next steps.
"Some of the most annoying hours in my school career were spent listening to an instructor drone interminably through explanations of a concept I already understood. Remaining at a low level of criteria or performance can be intensely frustrating to a learner. In "Don't Shoot the Dog", Karen Pryor points out that failure to move ahead when the student is ready can be just as aversive as any punishment."
So once our animal is getting it "right" about 80% of the time at our current criteria, we NEED to move on up and ask for more! More duration, more precision, more distance, more expression, more speed, more softness, more distractions, or whatever it might be. We just gradually paint those layers on, one at a time. (As we shift the focus to another criteria we may see a drop in quality of the other aspects we’ve been working on. Don’t worry. It’ll all even out in the end).
Alexandra Kurland talks a lot about loopy training, which is an analogy or framework of sorts for this exact scenario. She describes it as follows:
“In a clean loop, the trainee performs all the elements within the loop smoothly and without hesitation, and no unwanted behaviors creep in (as might happen if the emotional balance is off). Once the loop is clean [before and after the click], it’s time to move on to the next criterion. In fact, when a loop is clean, the trainer should move on!".
For more about loopy training read this blog.
Good training is rhythmic, almost meditative. (Here's a nice example - do you see the clean loops of behaviour?). I find it puts me and my learner into a flow state where the world disappears and we're completely in the moment with each other. The reinforcement process (click, reach for food, deliver food, return to neutral ready for the next rep) is a cohesive part of the “loop” and there’s no hesitations or sticky bits at any point and so it flows. No training session is going to be entirely like this, but this is always my goal.
You can see how any messy moments will disrupt your flow - these might include confusion or frustration behaviours from the animal, or your equipment malfunctioning so you're having to reset it all the time, or if there's anxiety or foraging/mugging behaviours going on between reinforcers, etc. By setting criteria well, cleaning up your food delivery and fine-tuning your environment/props/set up you can eliminate many of these messy moments and create smooth clean rhythmic loops of behaviour that spiral steadily outwards towards your goal.
Shaping behaviour is a continuous dance in which we step forward, step back, pause, skip three steps forward and so on... if you stand in one place too long or repeat the same steps endlessly when dancing, your dance partner would likely get frustrated or bored. Be brave enough to ask the questions; your animal will probably surprise you. Keep the flow going and enjoy the process as you dance your way toward your goals.
We often see the most creative and effective methods of behaviour management coming from those dealing with exotics and wild animals. (Perhaps because you can't put a choke chain on a parrot or a shock collar on a dolphin, and "whip taps" simply aren't effective on a rhino?)
Earlier this year a group of kea (a highly intelligent and notoriously cheeky New Zealand alpine parrot) began entertaining themselves playing with road cones in Milford Sound. They were shifting them around and tipping them over and generally causing havoc in the one-way tunnel where roadworks were underway. The delightful and very sensible response by the authorities was to give the kea their own roadside playground in a bid to encourage them to invest their time in less disruptive hobbies. The kea gym was regularly updated with new toys and treats to keep them interested.
On my way to a clinic recently, I passed two cyclists complete with packed panniers, travelling along rural State Highway 2 (a narrow and dangerous 100km/h road). My attention was drawn by the bright yellow pool noodles they had strapped to the back of their bicycle seats, extending a metre or so out into the road towards the cars.
This is the first time I've ever seen this, and it really struck me as it is such an innovative example of influencing behaviour. (Apparently this is a thing - I found this photo by googling "pool noodle cyclist").
I just LOVE these sorts of elegant management solutions to problems! These people were taking personal responsibility for their own safety, and had found a simple and quick way to effectively prevent unwanted behaviour by the vehicle drivers (that of driving too close). The kea playground shows a pragmatic acceptance of the playful nature of these birds and a tidy redirection of that play drive onto something more appropriate than the roadworks.
"Prevention is one of the greatest tools in force-free training. When something goes wrong, don’t ask yourself how can you punish your animal. Ask yourself “How can I prevent this in the future?”
A very common question I get from dog owners is "how do I stop my dog from getting into the rubbish bin?". The obvious answer (obvious to the trainer, at least!) is "... put the bin somewhere the dog can't get to it?". It doesn't matter how good a trainer you are, or how much time you have to devote to that one animal, you can't train ALL. The. Things.
Yes, it's possible to train an animal to do just about anything it is physically capable of doing. However we all have limited hours in our days, and we can't train every single thing to the nth degree. We also want to set our animals up for success, and prevent them from practising the behaviour we don't want. Therefore management and prevention is a critical tool. In the dog example, this might mean removing the object of interest or using baby gates or crates to limit your dog's options around the house. With a new horse it might mean putting him in a yard or behind a gate when doing initial training, so that he doesn't get to practice any mugging behaviour. (And then of course, in all cases, we reinforce alternative, more appropriate behaviours, because no animal can exist in a vacuum, right? If we want to eliminate a behaviour we need to fill the space with something else).
“The learner is never wrong. When an animal doesn’t do what we expect, it’s the program. And, the solution is to change what we, the trainers, do. To change behavior, change conditions. The animal changes himself/herself.”
One of the keys to successful behaviour change is (in behaviour-speak), arranging your antecedents. Or in normal talk, set the environment and the animal up for success. There is no "should". He is either doing it, or he's not. If not, that's your problem not his. Change the conditions to better enable success. Break it down further and explain more clearly what it is you want. Motivate him sufficiently. And then he'll do it.
Remember that whatever behaviour it is we're asking our animals to do, it's all our silly idea. It isn't hard for most people to grasp that if an animal is giving us a genuinely unwanted behaviour then we should immediately act to prevent that from happening (because it's in our own interests). However what if the behaviour isn't "unwanted" but it's just a "wrong answer"? Well, same deal. If for no other reason than the sake of the animal's enjoyment of the training process, we don't want to passively allow them to repeatedly make the wrong choice over and over, waiting for them to randomly land on the answer we're looking for. It's not efficient training and they'll likely get frustrated and eventually switch off.
However, if I simply stand outside the rail and hold the target in such a way that it's easy for her to do the right thing and she can get multiple rewards in a short space of time, then when I enter the paddock and stand right beside her, what will she do? She'll very likely do what she's just been rewarded dozens of times for doing - touching the end of the stick. Problem solved. Less time spent, more success.
Take this concept to any behaviour you're training. If you want square halts when riding, you could ask for dozens of halts (which would give you lots of variability) and just reward the ones that are vaguely square... or you could train your horse to stand their front feet in balance on a mat and then put the mat in the arena when riding. Do a little more practice from on top and when you take the mat away they're very likely to halt square again. All that repetition and reward has greased up the neural pathways in their brain to produce "muscle memory" for balance and straightness in the halt.
Ethical training can (and should) also be efficient and effective training. Dragging out the process by not communicating clearly with the animal, or allowing them to make endless "wrong choices" which result in a low success rate, is not fair on them. Nobody wins. So keep your eye focused on the end-goal, your remarkably creative and logical brain focused on the steps needed to get there, and through it all maintain an unwavering dedication to proactively helping your animal partner to succeed and have fun.
Mini Ha Ha Horse Haven in North Canterbury, New Zealand, is a place where miracles happen. Neglected, sick and severely laminitic horses that in their previous homes have often, quite literally, had a hole dug for them, come to the Haven and they survive. Often, they begin to thrive. Unfortunately there is no waving of wands that can create this particular brand of magic: it takes fierce dedication, deep knowledge and experience, a fair bit of money, and relentless hard work.
Mini Ha Ha Horse Haven is run by Jen Heperi and her husband Lindsay and is currently home to 23 miniature horses and ponies and two donkeys. Recently I taught a clicker training foundations clinic hosted at the Haven. I was just blown away by the facility, the hard and selfless work going on behind the scenes and all the happy healthy horses. So as a special treat, I thought I would blog a bit about it so you can all learn a bit more about the Haven and what they do there!
Click on the photos to read captions:
With 23 horses, Jen is the first to acknowledge that the numbers are starting to creep too high, but despite the difficulty of rehabilitating a foundered horse, it is still much easier to rehabilitate and retrain than it is to rehome these little guys. Their diet must be strictly managed (the health and survival of laminitic, metabolic or cushings horses depends heavily on diet) which means they cannot be just left to graze a front lawn or used as a full-time paddock-mate for a riding horse. Foster carers and adopters must be prepared to educate themselves and commit to the long-term health of the horse.
It is immensely satisfying for Jen and Lindsay and their volunteers to see the results of all this effort happily trotting around in the sunshine, but it is also relentless and often heartbreaking work. Requests come in on a weekly or even daily basis from members of the public asking the Haven to take on yet another horse, often accompanied with dire warnings such as "the dog tucker truck is coming tomorow" or "she's been abandoned and the property owners will shoot her". The horses often turn up virtually (or literally) crippled, with grotesquely overgrown feet, full-blown cushings or laminitis.
Photos by Tracey Agnew (photographer and treasured Mini Ha Ha volunteer).
Join the Mini Ha Ha group on Facebook to see regular updates on the lives of these little horses.
Treatment starts the moment they arrive and with pain meds, foot soaks, dentals, corrective trims, and a strict grass-free diet with soaked hay and supplements from Calm Healthy Horses, the horses steadily improve. (Now let's not get carried away with the talk of miracles though, these are often very elderly and severely compromised horses with long-term or irreversible damage to their health, and so for some the "miracle" will not be a complete recovery, but perhaps just to be relatively pain free, or the hope of a few more years of life. That in itself is no small feat).
When they are well enough the horses are integrated, where possible, into the larger herd where they have acres of grass-free tracks to run on. The challenge is then to find a loving home that will ensure they are appropriately cared for and that won't undo all the hard work and let them slip back into unsoundness or sickness again. Some of the horses will never be able to be re-homed and will live out the rest of their days at the Haven. One horse costs on average $2,500 per year to care for (with 23 horses currently at the Haven, you do the maths on that one!).
After many years of funding themselves with the help of sponsors, Mini Ha Ha is now a registered charity. There is a small group of volunteers who help with the daily mucking out, feeding and medicating routines, as well as fundraising and enrichment activities for the horses like training tricks, liberty and jumping or taking them for little walks to the river. Unfortunately, with the nature of people's busy lives, it is challenging to get enough committed volunteers and Jen does the vast majority of the work on her own.
Regular volunteers are part of the lifeblood that keep Mini Ha Ha running - can you help?
All these years of practical experience have given Jen a unique and valuable store of hard-won knowledge in the rehabilitation and care of these sorts of horses. When I was there for my clinic Jen had just returned from a very long-awaited visit to her children in Australia, and I got the impression that having a rare few days break away from the Haven had sparked something of an epiphany. She had come home determined to find ways to ease the time and financial pressure so that she can stop chasing her tail quite so much and instead have a chance to focus more on the educational 'branch' of what she does. This seems eminently sensible - by sharing her knowledge with the wider community of horse owners, she can make a bigger difference to a larger number of horses. I'll be watching with interest to see what she comes up with and cheering her on from this end of the country.
Thanks again Jen and Lindsay for your hospitality, and for all that you do for these special little horses.
P.S. If you can help by donating toward feed and medical costs or warm rugs to keep the sick and elderly ones warm in the freezing Canterbury winter, the ponies would be so grateful. If you live locally and can spare some time to help Jen with caring for these wee mites, she'd dearly love to hear from you.
A few photos from the clinic - we had about 18 people come along, with eight horses of varying sizes. Thank you everyone! I've been asked to return and do a full weekend clinic so if you're a Cantabrian, keep an eye out for date announcements.
Time. Or rather, the lack of.
Most of us have work or study or young kids or multiple horses (or all of the above!) and it's sometimes hard enough to find time to squeeze in a regular ride let alone "make time for training".
Good news: you don't necessarily have to! Or at least, don’t let that be the excuse you make to justify doing no training at all.
First of all, clicker training done well (with structure and a clear plan) is so effective that you can often achieve a huge amount in just a few 5 minute sessions here and there. But if you're struggling to make that happen (trust me, I empathise), you'd be amazed at what you can achieve at the same time as you change covers, feed out and shift paddocks, hold the horse for the trimmer etc. No additional training time required. And the best bit is that doing this will SAVE you time in the end as it will be easier and faster to get your "horse chores" done as your horses will calmly cooperate with you.
So with that in mind, here's my
Top 5 ways to train your horse when you don't have time to train your horse!
#1 Come to you in the paddock:
Most clicker trained horses will come running as soon as they see you at the gate. If yours don't already do that and you have to walk out to them, just wander on over until they raise their head and look at you. Stop there. Call them in a friendly, relaxed sort of way. Acknowledge them and any calming signals they might give you by turning your energy down (breathe out, turn sideways, wait). When they take a step towards you, click, and either wait for them to wander over, or just start meandering slowly back to the gate. Feed them when they catch up with you. If they won't approach or they walk away, then a) they need more time to learn to trust you, b) you need to ensure they are truly enjoying the time they spend with you, and c) try high value treats to change their associated emotional response (you = wonderful things) and speed the process along!
#2 Self halter:
Haltering is usually the first things we do with our horse each time we interact with them, and it sets the mood. Invite your horse to be part of the process. In other words, don't get all business-like and just walk up and shove it on. If you are in a rush, you can at least pause with the halter around nostril-level and give the horse a chance to put her own nose the rest of the way into it. Ask permission and listen to her answer. Many horses, if invited tactfully, will put their own nose in the halter. This is the point where you might like to reward. (If your horse turns her head away, she is giving you a calming signal. Take a calm slow breath. Acknowledge her and just wait. She’ll come back to you. If she raises her head or otherwise tries to evade the halter, then I'd suggest you need to dedicate a couple of short sessions to training this. Click and reward when your horse brings her nose to touch the halter, and build up to self-haltering (putting her own nose into it when you hold it out). Also, similar to the catching example, examine your relationship and how she might be feeling about the time she spends with you.
Your training session starts the moment you begin interacting with your horse. Therefore training good leading manners begins the moment you put the halter and rope on (and actually a great way to teach leading is without any halter or rope at all, but that’s a different subject). If your horse tends toward rushing or lagging or grass-snatching etc, don’t get caught up in a combative cycle of corrections. Focus on what you want - help him give you the right answer and actively reinforce your horse for any nice moments as you lead him from the paddock to the grooming area, to the arena, and back to the paddock. You're both going there anyway, so don't miss the opportunity to reinforce him for the nice soft moments. What you reward, you get more of. It really is that simple.
#4 Good manners for the trimmer/farrier:
If you hold your horses for the trimmer and you are not actively training the entire time, then you're wasting a massive amount of time and opportunity. I had 4 young horses trimmed this morning, and as each horse was having its feet done, I was constantly training. I marked the moments they lifted their foot on the first gentle ask, and when they stretched their foot forward to rest on the hoof stand (and when they kept it there). I was building duration while she was rasping, and I was simultaneously reinforcing park and self-control around the food. If you have young horses (or older horses that are not impeccably behaved for the trimmer), you need to actively train your horse. Don't expect your trimmer to train AND do their feet.
#5 Mounting block safety:
Acknowledge and reward your horse for lining up and standing still at the mounting block. Take a breath and thank her. (What she is doing here is much more than just a convenience for you; she is allowing you to sit astride her body, so be thankful). Pause for a few breaths on top of the mounting block and reward her for staying parked.
If your horse doesn't stand stock still when you put your foot in the stirrup and remain still until asked to move, please dedicate training time to this. It's VERY dangerous. So don’t take it for granted, and don’t just correct her when she moves - actively reward her for standing calmly.
You can click again when your foot is in the stirrup and you're swinging up, so that by the time your butt lands in the saddle she will be looking for her treat, not going to walk off. Once on board, don't pick up the reins and immediately get going. Take a moment, check your girth, make yourself comfortable, take some deep breaths and connect with her. If your horse tends to take the initiative and start the ride without being asked, make a point of fiddling about before you cue the walk and reward her for waiting patiently during this process.
(Please don't mount from the ground unless you have to - think of your horse's poor spine).
So there you go - five ways you can fit more training into your days. Little short sessions are way more effective than long ones anyway. The horse learns faster that way and it ensures some brain soak time. And don't worry, when you use positive reinforcement they retain their learning for an exceptionally long time, so even if it's weeks or months before you re-visit that behaviour they'll still be further along than they were before. I hope that helps - just remember, something is always better than nothing.
Animals are learning constantly. The dinosaurs were learning and adapting their behaviour as a result of consequence and association long before humans came along to peer at lab rats in boxes and write papers about operant and classical conditioning and argue endlessly online about quadrants.
For this reason, I define “training” as simply “learning that happens in the direct presence of a human”. Broad? Yes, intentionally so. Any time we are interacting with our horses, we are potentially training them. If a human allows a horse to learn that shoving or biting or pinning ears is an effective way of getting what they want, then it is not deliberate training on the part of the human but it is training nonetheless. As the incomparable Dr Susan Friedman says, "Reinforcement is a natural process like gravity - it's in effect whether or not you notice it and make good use of it".
Most of you reading this have handled and/or ridden horses for years, or decades, and thus have spent an equal amount of time TRAINING those same horses. That training is not always deliberate, or conscious. Whether on the ground or in the saddle, we may well be getting good results, and yet often we still don’t truly know WHY it is working (or not working, as the case may be). I say “we” because this was me, from when I got my first pony as a child and on right through the next 10 years or so, despite plenty of coaching and relative success in both dressage and show jumping. I was working on gut feel and instinct, combined with some basic “recipes” given to me by instructors.
It doesn't matter at all that I didn't know the proper terms for what it was I was doing, what matters is that it worked. However, I lacked clarity about why it worked and how I might apply the same principles to different scenarios or different horses or different training problems. Looking back, it feels like I was operating in a bit of a fog, riding and training quite effectively, but without a conscious understanding of how I was doing it. After teaching many hundreds of humans to train their horses and dogs, I believe this is the way many (or perhaps most) people are, to some extent.
The thing is, if we don’t have the ability to observe and analyse behaviour, and a clear understanding of how to gain the animal's cooperation to influence that behaviour, then we’re missing out on the real magic. There’s plenty of instructors that can teach you HOW to achieve a certain outcome, just as I can buy a recipe book and bake quite a good cake by following the instructions exactly. But I don't understand the science behind baking. I can't invent a recipe, or substitute important ingredients. I don't know why one recipe calls for 1 tsp bicarb soda and another one calls for 2 tsp of baking powder, and if my scones end up hard as a rock I don't always know what to do differently next time to fix it.
We can learn specific techniques to fairly reliably get our horse to back up, or go in a “frame” before a dressage test or get him over a jump etc, but it is understanding the WHY of learning that enables our efforts to be more efficient, repeatable, and transferable to other horses and other behaviours. And importantly, this is also what enables us to train ethically and consistently, with clear communication in both directions, and ultimately giving our horse the best chance of succeeding each step of the way. And that right there is the foundation of true partnership and trust.
I want to pass on some tips at this point, in case you feel like you're experiencing a bit of fog yourself, or if you have students or friends who could do with some blue skies and clarity.
Get your hands on as many different animals as you can! The video above is of an impromptu training session with a friend's new kitten. The photos below are from the multi-species clinic I ran last year at Bullswool Farm Park. Training other species is an opportunity to improve technique, cement concepts and underlying training principles, and makes us more creative and flexible as trainers.
What experiences have you had that have caused those "pennies to drop from the heavens"? Have you got any tips to share on how to help lift the fog and start having more clarity and consciousness around the training that is happening every time we interact with our horses? Leave a comment below!
'til next time,
I don't know about you, but I've constantly got ideas for new things I want to train churning around in my head. I'll discover a training gap which is causing me problems, or identify a new ridden goal, or see a friend doing something cool with their dog and think "I bet I could train a horse to do that". But once you've thought up the latest, greatest thing you want your horse to be able to do, are you clear on next steps to turn it into reality? Or does it all feel a little murky? Do you find yourself thinking "where do I even start?!"
The great Bob Bailey knows a thing or two about good training, and his famous mantra is "Think! Plan! Do!". For most people the "Think" part (what I've described above) is the easy part. It's the fun daydream of "how great would it be if my horse did X". However, it's all the bits that come next, to turn the vision into reality, that a lot of people get stuck on.
This is actually one of my favourite parts. The creative process combined with the logical problem solving. The science, and the art. Turning fanciful ideas into plans for action. That’s what I’m hoping to shed some light on with this blog.
"Two minutes of training with a solid plan is equivalent to at least twenty minutes without"
We must remember, that as the trainer we are standing in front of the metaphorical mountain, looking up at our goal. It's a bright sunny day, and we can see the various roads winding their way up. It is clear to us where we're headed, and we're anticipating our arrival. The horse, on the other hand, is standing at the bottom in the dark, with a spotlight shining only a metre or so in front of his hooves. He can only see far enough to take one step at a time, and has no idea what the end goal is. It's crucial that we retain our empathy for just how difficult the learner's job actually is, and if we ever find ourselves beginning to think "oh come on! Why don't you just do it! It's obvious what I want you to do!", we should go away and smack our heads against the wall, then come back, apologise to our horse, and train better.
(If you haven't played the Training Game before, you must try it! It's great fun and it gives you a real insight into what it actually feels like to be an animal being trained).
One more thing I’ll just put upfront right now: there are no fixed formulas. Many people seem to want a recipe - simply complete step 1, then step 2, and you will have x result. But it doesn’t really work like that. Sorry. Behaviour and training is a study of one (Dr Susan Friedman said that!). Each animal has different skill sets, talents and temperament, as do us trainers, and all these factors (and more) influence the outcome of each session. Bottom line is, there's many roads up the mountain. Treat your barn/arena/paddock as your laboratory - get out there and experiment. But! Do your horse and yourself a favour, and do some thinking and some PLANNING first, before unleashing your fanciful ideas and hopes and wishes upon your unsuspecting equine.
So, having just said above that a "step 1, step 2" approach is not appropriate, I am now going to set out some numbered steps for you to follow. Ha!
So you have an idea of something you want to train. That being the case, here's some questions and prompts you can now ask yourself, so that you are clear and confident on how to get to your end goal. If you're not clear on how to get there, then how is your poor horse ever going to be successful? Don't leave him floundering in the dark while you wander around aimlessly.
1. What’s the end goal? Be specific!
You’re not married to every detail, things may change as you go but you should be clear on how you want the behaviour to look when you’re finished. This clarity is what enables you to make decisions as the shaping session progresses, rewarding one attempt but not another, gently steering the horse in the right direction as you build the picture you want to see.
Specifics are important! So don't just say "teach him to bow". Instead say "bow with left cannon-bone resting on the ground, head lowered, with nose at knee level". It's a really good idea to google images or video so you can see the different variations and visualise your end result. To some extent your horse will decide how he wants to do it, and you can be guided by him, but it's best to start out with an idea at least.
By way of example, below I have put a collection of bow photos (I googled 'horse trick "take a bow"'). This is just a few of the possible variations. I have sorted them according to my personal preferences. Look at the top row versus the bottom row - does one look more elegant and the other more effortful or extreme? It does to me. This is not a criticism of the trainers in question but simply a matter of style. In many cases the photographs are a "moment in time" and the horse has probably moved through a variety of different angles and positions on its way into and out of the bow. I have to admit though, some of these look downright dangerous to me (e.g. the ones where the front plane of the head is lying flat along the ground). Regardless, you can see how this exercise helps you to build a picture of where you want to end up (and therefore, how you will get there).
2. Where is your horse at right now?
We shape any new behaviour by breaking it down into small pieces and building slowly toward our goal. Visualise those small pieces as steps on a staircase. The smaller the steps, the easier and faster the staircase is to climb. Since your end goal is at the top of the shaping staircase, we need to figure out where on the staircase your horse is today. Always ask the horse this question, as he may surprise you! I have often gone out with a plan to train steps A, B, and C, and in the first two minutes my horse tells me he is actually already at step J or K and would you please keep up mum!!
3. Sketch out all the steps in between.
What’s the basic strategy here? Can we train different pieces of the behaviour and then put them together? What order should we do that? Will we back chain? What alternative ways can we think of to reach the same goal?
Let's say you want to teach your horse to fetch (aka retrieve). Fetch is a behaviour chain - in order to fetch, the horse must sight the object as it's thrown, walk away from the trainer to the object, pick up the object, turn around and return to the trainer (without dropping the object), and place it in the trainer's hand. That's a whole bunch of little behaviours strung together. If we don't reinforce the right part of this chain, we will never have a retrieving horse.
4. How can we ensure a high likelihood of success for each little step?
Other than breaking the behaviour down into tiny pieces (if you're new to this, break it down even more. Just don't get stuck; once the horse is giving you clean repetitions, move up to the next step). Reduce distance and duration and build those up slowly too.
Teach one criteria at a time. If training spanish walk, don't click for leg height and forward movement and hindquarter engagement and headset all at the same time, the poor horse will have no idea what you're on about. It's like a jigsaw puzzle - do all the edge pieces, then the windmill, then the flowers, then the sky. If you just pick up random puzzle pieces and try to fit them into other random pieces, you'll be there a long time.
Session 1 of teaching Minstrel to find a toy under a cone (this will eventually become a scent-work exercise).
4a. What are his existing skill sets that can contribute?
Depending on the behaviour you're training, useful existing skill sets may include targeting, mats, liberty leading, picking up/holding objects, following a feel on a rope or mirroring your body movements etc. How can we use these to our advantage, to make it easier for our horse to be successful (and therefore make our training more efficient)?
For example, if I want my horse to retrieve a letter from a letterbox, and he already knows how to pick up and hold an object, we are halfway there before we've even started. If I want to hold a target near my horses hip and have him perform "carrot stretches" by keeping his nose on the target, I need to find a way to explain that he should keep his feet still and bend his neck around rather than disengage the hindquarters to follow the target as he naturally would want to do. So I put a mat down and have him stand on that, before presenting the target where I want his nose to be for the stretch.
It is the trainer's responsibility to alter the environment, the props, the surroundings, the training space to ensure success for the horse. Think creatively and constantly about this.
5. What objects or props do we need? How shall we set them up?
In this context I am talking about objects we might be using as part of the behaviour. So the letterbox or basketball hoop or pedestal etc. Before you start training, and throughout the training process, examine how you can set these up to best help the horse. For example, when I first taught Hokey to fetch a bottle from the chilly bin, I propped the lid up with a towel so he could more easily nudge it open. I then quickly discovered I needed a way to hold the bottle upright inside the chilly bin, because he can only pick it up from the neck when it's sitting vertically and he often knocked it with his nose before getting a hold on it. So I sat it in a small bucket wedged between two bricks. Once we had the set-up working well, the training progress accelerated markedly.
"Execute! Time is your most precious resource - don't waste it!"
Depending on what sort of person you are, you might like to write this stuff down, do a mind-map, brainstorm it out on a whiteboard, throw ideas around with a trainer friend, or go out there and physically rehearse it without your horse. Do whatever works for you, I just want to encourage you not to inflict the messy experimental bits on your horse more than necessary. If you can predict that your horse will probably knock the basketball hoop over, then you can save him from the experience of frustration and failure by rectifying the issue before it happens or at least before it happens too often.
My hope is that these questions help you to progress past the "wouldn't it be cool if..." stage, and into the "omg look what my horse can do!" stage. Think things through, make a plan, and then go out there and DO IT! Don't labour every point - we don't want "paralysis by analysis", and I know ALL about the strategy of "planning as a form of procrastination", so catch yourself if you find you're doing either of those. To quote Bob Bailey yet again, "Thinking about good training, believing in good training, planning to do good training, is NOT the same as DOING good training!".
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback and questions.
Now that we're home and settled, here's some final thoughts on the whole experience. This is the final instalment in this series.
The seminar on Friday, and the demos/clinics on all three days had much larger audiences than I'd expected. The seminar room was almost full and I had full grandstands for the most part (I was pleasantly surprised considering my clinic times clashed with a number of very popular international clinicians in natural horsemanship, dressage etc). In terms of the Sunday night Top Talent performance, we won the Fan Favourite competition, and came 3rd overall in the Open division. So all in all, a very successful event!
And that's all you need to know really!
....however, if you're interested in a bit of a blow-by-blow account of Equidays Top Talent, with some "behind the scenes" insight, read on.
Thank goodness I'd had the foresight to get some help for the weekend! Asking for help is not my strong point but Equidays gave me extra passes for 'grooms' so I took advantage. I had Tash Pearce to help me with Hokey, making sure he was spotlessly clean and fed and walked out and all that stuff, Becca O'Byrne who helped with horses and was #1 organiser for the Top Talent props/performance as well as general dogsbody (horsebody?), and in the end I also had my dear friend Jane Lenaghan who drove up to support me over the weekend and though she couldn't stay for the performance she helped keep me sane and (mostly) on the rails during the lead up to Sunday night's show. Thank you so much all of you xxx.
We were some of the first to arrive on site on Thursday, while event setup was still underway. We found our spot in the far corner where we'd be camped with all the other Top Talent competitors and the Wilson sisters' eleven horses. Vicki Wilson (despite her arm being in a sling after shoulder surgery) helped me to re-arrange the barriers to make Hokey's yard bigger which meant he had the best one of the lot.
With spectacularly bad timing, I had caught a cold off my pre-schooler (aka the sweet little germ factory) the week of Equidays, and by the time I arrived I was feeling relatively ok but coughing a lot. At one point during Friday's seminar I had to let the audience silently read the slide while I desperately drank water and sprayed numbing spray down my throat until the coughing passed. All fairly mortifying but everyone was super kind about it. One lady came up and pressed Strepsils upon me at the end. All that aside, the audience seemed to enjoy the subject matter ("How animals learn and how best to motivate them") and were engaged, asking lots of good questions.
Saturday afternoon, after a massive audience showed up for my "De-spook your horse using clicker training" clinic, I was looking forward to the night show and the opportunity to just sit and watch rather than have to do anything myself. My 15 minute Top Talent rehearsal (the first and at that stage possibly the only time we would be allowed to take our horses into the indoor arena before the performance on Sunday night) was scheduled for 9.45pm, directly after the night show. I didn't find watching the night show as relaxing as I'd thought I would, knowing that it would be me and Hokey in that enormous spotlighted arena tomorrow.
We nipped out of the night show before the finale in order to get Hokey plus props up to the arena and be ready to go in when we were called. It took ages until they let us in but when we finally got in there, the audience was still filing out, there was aerial silks and cables hanging down from the ceiling with workmen dismantling things, and the whole place smelled strongly of gunpowder from the last act. Hokey was beside himself, at one point rearing up (basically unheard of) and totally unable to even walk straight let alone think straight. I was so tense that I was not able to help him at all, so Jane took him for a few minutes to give me a chance to take a breath. He improved somewhat with time, but was not able to come back down to earth sufficiently to even consider doing any tricks. By the time I got to bed it was close to midnight, and we were told to be back at the arena at 5am for another session (the arena was busy all day with clinics and competitions, hence the crazy timing for getting in there). I coughed my way through the few hours until my alarm went off, hardly sleeping at all. Despite that, the early morning familiarisation session was much improved on the night before. He was still very tense but we were getting there. By the time we took him in again in the afternoon for a brief walk around while the show-jumps were being built, he was fetching the ball for me, and he opened the chilly bin to bring me the bottle of wine. I had my horse back. Kelly Wilson also gave me a lengthy pep talk, along with some much-needed perspective.
My clinic (Tricks & Liberty) at 9.15 on Sunday morning went REALLY well, Hokey was on form and did everything I asked of him. I had a good size crowd despite being the first slot in an out-of-the-way arena. So that boosted my confidence somewhat.
I had a phone chat with the wonderful Jane Pike of Confident Rider before the Top Talent performance. She gave me some absolute gems of advice but amongst it all these are the bits that really stuck out for me, in that moment:
The indoor arena at Equidays is huge (40x75) and lined with grandstands. We stepped through the door and the curtains closed behind us as the music started. The whole place was positively humming with energy - even I could feel the crowd's presence - and for a horse who is so sensitive to energy it must have been incredibly intense. I didn't take the halter and rope off when I had intended to, choosing in the moment to keep him attached, and towards the end I just removed the rope (despite my friend Ellie Harrison having helpfully relayed to me a Russell Higgins quote that "doing liberty with a halter on is like making love with your socks on").
We didn't get to show off everything we'd intended, but he did the tricks he needed to do, including fetching the wine bottle from the chilly bin. He was very tense in that arena, and I was incredibly proud of the way he held it together and stayed reasonably connected with me. Warwick Schiller commented on the complexity of the chilly bin trick, and Dan Steers and Vicki Wilson both commented on the fact that he stayed connected despite his nerves. Dan Steers said "he was clearly nervous in here, but he was comfortable with you".
We won $500 and a lovely wide sash for coming third, and another sash for winning overall Fan Favourite.
I really enjoyed being a clinician, teaching comes easy to me and it was amazing to be able to share the positive reinforcement philosophy and techniques with a mainstream audience. I'm not sure I would say I "enjoyed" performing in Top Talent, but we survived it and even got a pretty good result in the end. It certainly put me well and truly outside of my comfort zone and it's massively satisfying to have faced my fears and overcome them.
So here's some lessons learned from the whole thing, in no particular order:
I truly felt SO supported throughout this process. All of you who were at Equidays and watched my clinics, asked intelligent questions, came and said hi when you saw me, wished me luck for Top Talent, gave me hugs and generally surrounded me with love and positive vibes. And everyone who couldn’t be there in person but followed the journey online and sent me your thoughts and good luck messages through private messages and FB comments etc.
Thank you all from the bottom of my heart xxx
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