Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Teaching Opposites

I was speaking with a client this morning who said that her yearling was being very good about staying out of her space as a result of his Clicker Training lessons. She was surprised that he didn't come up for a face rub when she went to his paddock this morning but she was smart to realize that it was because she had done a good job of training him and he learned his lesson well. So I told her that one of the things which Alex Kurland reminds us of frequently is that for everything you teach, you must teach the opposite. And in fact my client has already done this because she has taught her yearling to target. So that is a way to bring him to her if he is voluntarily staying away. One can see how it could be problematic if you do an overly good job of teaching a horse to stay out of your space and you don't have a cue for the opposite: you wouldn't be able to catch your horse! But by simply holding out a target, you can bring the horse to you. I have followed Alex's lead by teaching my horses to target my closed fist as well as other items. I never have food in the closed fist; that would confuse a horse who is not supposed to beg. I just hold my closed empty fist out away from my body and when the horse bumps it, they get a click and treat from the other hand. From there I teach them to follow the closed fist. I hold my arm away from my body and walk. As the horse follows, and at this point he does not need to actually keep his nose on it or even touch it, but just follow and he gets C/T'd at duration intervals. This is VERY handy when I have a loose horse. I just hold out my closed fist and rather than the horse thinking "oh, I'm free, I'm going to run and play", she thinks, "oh- a fist, if I follow that I'm going to get goodies!" and bingo, your loose horse follows like a puppy dog, right back into the barn or paddock. It's also the way I lazily bring horses into the barn. I don't bother with a halter or even lead over the neck- just a fist held out.

The wonderful part about teaching a horse to stay out of my space if asked or to come to me if asked, is that now my horses are watching me to see what is expected, rather than doing what they want to do for me to react to. They are tuned in. Now this presents issues of it's own because it means that I need to be very aware of what I am doing. Horses learn body movements and pick up on subtleties that we aren't always aware of. An example of this was when Elly became very light to rope and body cues in hand. She would walk with me, step away with a hip or back with the lightest of aids. But when I'd been working with her on this, a student would come to ride her, lead her into the barn and turn to hook up the cross ties. Elly would see the student turn to face her and know that was the cue to back up. So she would back the full length of the aisle with the student baffled as to what she was doing! Another reason to be careful what I teach my lesson horses.

Other opposites to be sure to teach: go forward and stop. This seems obvious. But sometimes we spend a lot of time teaching horses to stand still- on a mat or with the drop of a rope, etc. Then the horse learns there is a lot of reinforcement for standing still and he doesn't want to move. So it's a good idea to teach the balance at the same time. Yes you are being reinforced for standing, now I am going to reward you for moving when I ask you to.

The other time you need to balance go forward and stop is when beginning to ride. I had been riding Ande for a while before realizing I had not taught him to stop from his back. Because I clicked frequently, the stop always happened when he heard it so he could turn and take the treat. But I needed to teach him to stop when I asked with a rein cue as well!

Another thing I need to work on with the little ones is head UP. I teach them head down as a relaxation cue but when they volunteer it, it can be a problem if there is grass! So as well as teaching them head down, they need to learn it on cue. I like that they will drop their head to calm themselves if necessary but not as an excuse to grab a there needs to be a cue for walk with head at chest height (or whatever you choose).

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