Friday, July 10, 2009


Positive reinforcement works for all species and the humans I train are no less enthusiastic than the equine and canine ones. TAGteach is an organization dedicated to using the same methods on people as Clicker Training uses on animals. It is a real challenge not to correct riders constantly, only pointing out when they are doing something wrong and occasionally telling them when they have something right! Instead, with TAGteach, as with Clicker Training, I have to ignore the bad and reward the good. It works!
I use a different marker signal for the humans than the animals....if I used a clicker for the students, my ponies would think I was clicking them and get confused. The marker signal I use is called a clicker plus. You can see what it looks like in the photo above- it's the yellow thing on the left with the blue button. Requiring 2 batteries, it has setting for 4 different sounds: a "ping", a bird trill, a cricket chirp and another one I can't describe! I use the "ping" one as it seems to carry across an arena better than the others.
As with clicker training animals, TAGteach requires that I chunk down behaviors into tiny achievable goals. This is ideal for position work. A frequent "tag point" is "heels down". When I am first getting a student to get heels down far enough, I ask them to push their heels down and when I see the heel lower even a fraction, I tag them. If the heels are now in a good position, great! They have felt what the proper position is. If they still need to lower them further, I repeat "tag point is heels down" and they push a little further down and I tag again. I ignore it if the leg goes forward, or the seat slides back or any other position distortion. What I am focusing on in this initial step is simply "heels down". Compare this to my saying, "push your heels down- no more, even more, ok but don't push your legs forward when you do that, no your heels just went back up again and you aren't sitting up right any more". Frustrating for the learner? You bet! The alternative is simply positive reinforcement- a "ping" for "you got it!". After a while, when the learner just needs reminders to KEEP the heels down once they know what the correct position is, then I say "Tag point is heels down at the dressage letters". So every time they pass a dressage letter, they get a little reminder to check their heels and every time they get them down, they get the noise that says "yes!". If they aren't down, then nothing happens- that is enough for them to realize they need to work harder- no criticism, no nagging.
So what is the reward for people? In the photo above, you can see a little row of "tagulators": these are 10 beads strung on colorful string which can be pulled down one at a time. In my lessons, the little riders know that 3 or 4 "tags" (each ping) is worth one bead. When they get the 3rd ping, they can pull down a bead. At the end of the lesson, they count how many beads are pulled down and write it down in a personal little notebook in the tack room. There are prizes worth different numbers of beads. I have some stickers, pencils and things that are worth 3 beads. I have a little container of model ponies worth 10 each, some larger models worth 25 - 40 beads, etc. as well as lifesavers worth 1 each (only one per lesson!).
For the older children, usually the opportunity to do something fun in the lesson is enough. "Four tags and you can jump the crossrail"....when the four tags are for heels down, I know the base of support is what it needs to be to safely jump and the incentive is there for the rider! For adult riders, being tagged for doing something correct rather than harassed for doing something wrong is a thrill! Lateral work? I just keep my mouth shut and wait for a true step over and "ping!"....the rider gets feedback of what a correct step feels like.
There is science behind it- how the sound is accurately perceived by the body and integrated into learning....but all you have to do is experience it as a learner or teacher to know the effectiveness and see the positive attitudes of the learners. I will be attending a TAGteach seminar in the end of August and can't wait to learn more about utilizing it!

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