#1 Jack Touches Ball
Start with the simplest of tasks. You want to set the horse up to succeed. Don’t say, “Touch” until you are certain the verbal cue is predicting the desired behavior.
After conditioning Jack to expect a treat whenever he hears the clicker, I can begin to use the clicker to mark the desired behavior and bridge the gap between his performance and his reward. Here, he is touching the ball and touching it with the correct part of his muzzle but not with the speed and enthusiasm that will later be required. This horse has been mistreated and clicker training allowed us to find new grounds for a relationship.
Putting Your Training On Target (Pun Intended)
Training by positive reinforcement has become increasingly popular in recent years and is known to most as “clicker training”. Clicker training is slang for the scientific term operant conditioning and it is magic with horses. I had heard about clicker training, but it never really interested me. One of my biggest hesitations was the use of treats in the process. I also believed the method was mainly for teaching tricks when it was applied to horses. I didn’t think I needed to teach tricks, so I dismissed the clicker method as very nice but of no use to me. However, I had some friends doing agility work with their dogs. They had seen clicker training in action and wanted me to help them organize a seminar with Corally Burmaster. They didn’t think we could get enough people with only dogs but were sure that if we included horses we could make a go of it. Before I knew it, I was in the midst of a three-day clicker training seminar with both of my dogs and several horses and I can’t say I’ve ever had time better spent.
Operant Conditioning: providing positive reinforcement following an action that we would like the animal to repeat. Any action that has a positive consequence will tend to be repeated while those actions that have negative consequences will be avoided.
The first eye opener for me was that while my dogs are exceptionally well behaved, neither of them is particularly well trained. I learned that they don’t actually know the verbal cue for ‘sit’. The next revelation was Granite. Granite is a 16-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse who has been terrified of fly spray since I’ve known him. All anyone ever had to do to set him into a rearing, totally mindless fit was pick up a spray bottle of any kind and walk in his direction. Over the past ten years, we have tried every approach known to us. He never got used to it and, more than once, he broke a halter or rope. He seemed legitimately terrified. Imagine my surprise when this turned out not to be the case.
#2 Jack Follows Ball
Once he is looking to touch the ball, move it around to strengthen the behavior. Later, this particular move can be used to teach a bow but for now we are simply touching the ball in different locations.
Now that Jack is touching the ball wherever it is presented near his head, I ask him to begin to follow it. You can also see from the disturbance in the sand that Jack offered pawing the ground as a behavior more than once. With an old injury in his withers, I take that to mean that he finds this position difficult. You can see how this maneuver could easily lead to a bow, but in Jack’s case I will only use it as a stretch.
About a week after our seminar with Corally, I brought Granite up from the field and the flies were bad. I looked at him and thought about Corally’s telling us that we can’t see emotions. We can only see behavior. I knew I had to start viewing behavior as behavior and stop attaching a bunch of emotional baggage to it. I looked at Granite, standing in the aisle covered with flies, and decided to give it a try. Okay, so when he sees the spray bottle he begins to move and get wide eyed. That’s behavior. Forget the “he’s scared” part. So, the question is, what do I want him to do? I want him to stand still while I pick up the bottle. Granite was in our seminar so he’s already conditioned to expect a treat when he hears the clicker. I walk toward the bottle and he’s just standing there so I click-and-treat. His curiosity is piqued and he watches as I pick up the bottle, click-and-treat, after putting it back down. So, in about two minutes I’m seeing a change. It takes maybe eight sessions over a three-day time span before he is standing while I spray him with fly spray. There are still some rough edges, all of which are due to my inexperience with this training method, but Granite is getting fly spray when he needs it and without the Shakespearean production it has been for the last ten years. Bottom line: Granite was never afraid of spray bottles or fly spray. He had somehow become conditioned to act in what we interpreted as a fearful manner whenever someone came at him with a spray bottle and the whole thing was behavior based, not emotionally charged as we had believed for so long.
Now I was supercharged with enthusiasm for this clicker thing. What else could I do with it? I do a lot of rehab work with horses and while stretches can be therapeutic for them, they aren’t for me - my back can’t take it. I also worry about the tension created in their bodies when I attempt to physically manipulate them. I feel they’re bracing even with something as subtle as wither rocking. What if I could get them to do some of these things for themselves? In short order, I had horses placing their foot on a block and lowering their heads to receive their treat at ground level, swinging back and forth between road cones placed to maximize a neck stretch, high or low, or, by repositioning the cones, creating a withers rock. We are all having a good time and annoying behaviors are dropping like flies in my string of horses. Fred leads like a dream. Pilot stands still while the saddle is being put on. Jack doesn’t take it personally when he’s asked to back up. Wings will walk through water and Big Red finally understands lateral work and doesn’t jig on trail rides when he turns back toward the barn. Ellie comes out of the trailer without coming unglued. Snapple accepts paste wormer without a fight. Need I go on?
Caption: #3 Jack Stretches Shoulder with foot on block
This is a great shoulder stretch. It’s much easier on my back than the traditional method and I don’t have to worry about putting too much traction on his leg. I can change it by using different height blocks, moving them for a stretch across or out to the side, or varying the duration of the stretch.
Jack loves to do this stretch so much that one of the first things he offers me in any session is to put his foot on something, anything. I created a bit of a monster with this when it comes to using a mounting block to get on him but it keeps my sense of humor in order. These white blocks aren’t really strong enough for this. They roll, scoot and cave in too easily. A large block of wood works best but can be heavy to move around.
Positive reinforcement shifts the tone of any training session from submission to co-operation. When you put your horse in charge of earning a reward, he becomes a contributing partner and acts willingly, sorting things out and volunteering a variety of options. In this process he is rewarded for making the right choices and he learns to think rather than simply respond to a cue. He actually learns to learn and once you have exposed him to this process you may be surprised by his ability to apply his knowledge and to generalize it.
I’m hoping that by this point you want to get started, so I’ve outlined the first steps:
1) Pair the ‘Click and the Treat’.
2) Use the click to mark a particular behavior and reinforce with a treat.
3) Strengthen the behavior.
4) Add a ‘cue’.
From here you can move on to using these basics in real life training situations and practical applications. You can use clicker training to get any behavior you can imagine. You can also employ it for bad-weather days, or to keep up a relationship with your horses when you are unable to ride due to injury or illness.
PLEASE KEEP IN MIND, however, that this process can be much more complex than this basic introduction implies. To go deeper into this, I highly recommend you go to a seminar and read books. Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog and Alexandra Kurland’s Clicker Training for Your Horse are two that helped me a lot, but it was the seminar given by Corally Burmaster, www.clickertrain.com, that provided me with hands on experience and really spurred me into action.
#4 Knocking Cone Over
This is Granite, my fly spray case; he has an active mind and often figures that if one thing works something else surely will work as well. This kind of volunteering of variations on a theme is extremely desirable but in this case knocking the cone over is not what I’m after. After several variations on the theme of swinging side to side, from cone to cone, he guesses again…
STEP ONE: Click and Treat. Simply click the clicker and deliver a treat in a series of short sessions. A minute or two of this at a time is enough for now. Do this until the horse expects a treat every time he hears the clicker. Click in a variety of places - indoors, outdoors, in the grooming area, in the arena, in his pen, and at unexpected times to make sure this connection has been made. You want to see a clear indication from the horse that when he hears the click, he expects the treat. Don’t be fooled by coincidental responses.
STEP TWO: Link the signal to a particular behavior. I use a tennis ball on the end of a stick (because it is unique to our training session and easy to see) and the horse must touch the tennis ball with his muzzle to get me to click, and to receive a treat. Right here, right now, we must be absolutely clear about what we want him to do. What part of your device do you want him touch and with what part of his body to do want him to touch it? He’s going to try a number of different approaches because all he really cares about right now is getting that treat out of your pocket and into his mouth.
So there you stand with tennis ball presented. Most horses are curious enough to eventually touch the ball. (If things are going very slowly and it seems you might turn to stone before he touches the ball, then click and treat for any inclination toward noticing the ball, or maybe for touching the stick. You can shapehis behavior into touching the ball with his muzzle later, see Step Four, but at this point, since patience is a virtue, I recommend you wait it out.) Timing is critical. The click must occur the instant his muzzle touches the ball. You might do a lot of waiting with horses, much more so than with dogs.
#5 Picking the Cone Up and Flinging It
Granite again, seeing if picking the cone up and giving it a good fling will produce a click and a treat. It does not. He does, however, get me to laugh and race about to reposition the cone. Perhaps the food is not really the primary reward here?
Shaping: To shape a behavior, you reinforce closer and closer approximations of the finished behavior. (Example: If you want the horse to come to you, you first reinforce his just looking at you, then shifting his weight in your direction, then moving one foot toward you, etc.)
Again, do this until you are certain the horse has made the connection. Sometimes it seems as though they have but the association really isn’t there. To make certain, have him touch the ball in variety of locations and in different positions, up, down, close in, out to the side.
Get your horse to follow the ball on the stick. This is called targeting and can be very useful. Think about some application here, might you want him to follow a target into a trailer, or through a narrow space? To do this, begin by having him touch the ball as before, then hold it a tiny bit farther away. Just far enough so he has to move to touch it. Be mindful or you will “lose” him. There is nothing to be gained by moving too far away and having him get discouraged or fail to respond. Distance will come with time. In short order you will be able to hold the ball out 30 feet away and he will come to touch it. Do this until you are absolutely certain he feels he can make you perform by clicking and treating him when he touches the ball. Your biggest clue to success here is that this is really fun for both you and your horse!
#6 Granite Stretches Neck, cones
Granite successfully swings side to side and stretches his neck.
Granite can effect a number of variations on a basic neck stretch by swinging back and forth between cones of varying height and distances. To get him to stretch higher, a target on a lunge whip or stick could stand tall over the top of the cone.
Targeting: Focusing on something and following it. By teaching your horse to target, you can guide him through performing desired behaviors. (Example: When the horse is being led and he stops when you stop, turns when you turn, he is targeting your body.)
STEP THREE: Strengthen the behavior. So far you have been employing a fixed schedule of reinforcement. The horse gets a click and treat for each correct behavior. Now, in order to strengthen the behavior, you will want to switch to an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. The horse has to work harder for the same reinforcement. Ask for two correct behaviors before you click and treat, then three, then one, then three, then four, then one, etc. When you begin to make him work harder, use your best treats. The same old peppermint chunk every time becomes boring. Mix it up and have something in your bag that is really desirable and can be given for a stellar performance. Occasionally, surprise the horse with a “jackpot”, a reward that is more generous than the usual treat.
This is where you get picky and clean up the act a little bit. Thus far you’ve been happy with any touch, but there are a variety of factors in the touching process that can be perfected. You can now required perfection of one, or all of these, but you can only do one at a time. You can first require that the horse touch deliberately instead of just brushing by the ball on his way to a treat. To do this, watch closely and if he just brushes by, no click, no treat. This will puzzle him and he will begin offering variations on his behavior. As soon as he touches the ball firmly, like you want him to do, click and treat. After you establish this you might go for how quickly he moves to touch the ball. Present it and count to yourself to establish your time limit. If he touches it within your limit, click and treat. If not, remove the ball and when you present it again he should be quicker to respond.
#7 Granite Doing Withers Rock
And, later, learns to swing to create a withers rock.
Here you can see that by positioning the cones close in and in line with or behind the front feet, Granite not only stretches his neck but also shifts his weight for a withers rock. He is asked to swing back and forth between the cones, stretching as he goes.
When you add criteria, it is important to remember that you need to back off on the other requirements and focus only on the one element you are teaching. After the connection is established, you can raise the bar on the rest of the elements of the behavior to perfect it.
STEP FOUR: Now add a cue. Once you are absolutely certain your horse is going to touch that ball wherever it appears, you may add a verbal cue. I say, “Touch.” The verbal cue is a stimulus that becomes linked with the behavior and eventually causes that behavior. The verbal cue must be presented consistently just before you know the behavior is about to occur. When you do this, you must remember to back up on the difficulty level of touching the ball. You want to start adding the cue in a situation where your horse cannot fail. Go back to presenting the ball in an easy, piece-of-cake place so he will go straight for it. The behavior needs to be strongly in place before the cue is added. The cue must predict the behavior. Your goal is to have the horse look around for that ball when he hears you say, “Touch.”
A NOTE ABOUT FOOD AS A REWARD:
Many people object to hand feeding horses because they feel it encourages the horse to nip or maul them for treats. Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to clicker train your horse using food as a reward.
- You must control the treats. He will not work for something he can get for free. Horses are remarkable trainers and the old adage about having to be smarter than the subject (in this case your horse) can be a real challenge with this work.
- Only give treats as a reward for having performed a desired behavior. Your horse will soon learn that mauling you will not get him a reward if the only time he gets his treat is when he has performed a desired task.
- Keep the tidbits as tiny as possible. You don’t want to have to interrupt a session to wait while your horse chews a huge chunk of apple.
- Use a variety of healthy, natural treats – whatever your horse likes. The same old thing every time becomes boring. Mix it up and have something in your bag that is really desirable and can be given for a stellar performance.
- The harder the task, the bigger or better the reward should be. When he does something really well or finally accomplishes a new task, I make sure I have a special treat for him.
- Occasionally, surprise the horse with a “jackpot”, a reward that is more generous than the usual treat. This will also help keep things interesting for the horse.