Sunday, October 25, 2009


The topic of the moment seems to come down to "are we having fun yet?". At least three things have come together to make me question this:
  1. there is an interesting thread right now on the TAGteach list where someone wrote “I was in a group situation and playing the training game. I was the person being trained and I was C/T repeatedly for the same thing, yet never seemed to have "arrived". It was horribly frustrating. And I have to admit, as the learner I felt like yelling at the trainer at one point and saying.. "what the heck do you want?" My inner being was begging for it all to stop and finally the leader did stop. Apparently I had been getting to a certain point and was suppose to do something there, yet never did. I can't quite remember the whole sequence, but truly it was soooo frustrating not understanding.” This was in response to someone else who wrote in about playing the game with her child and both parent and child got very frustrated when the child didn't "get it".
  2. Yesterday on National Public Radio I was listening to “Moth Radio Hour” where people tell true stories about themselves. One man told of being a neuroscientist working with a monkey. He was training the monkey to look somewhere specific (video game) so that he could then study the monkey’s brain movements. The monkey was rewarded with squirts of juice in his mouth. Once he figured out the game, the monkey loved it and things were great for months but the guy said there came a point where one day he just quit- completely would not play. The man’s perception (and this was a neuroscientist!) was that the monkey had figured out that it wasn’t about the game anymore but it was about the man’s research. This is a true story! Long story but the guy had been also giving the monkey extra attention and treats so he went back to “plain science” and no extra stuff....after months the monkey began working again....but like an automaton- no joy, no fun.
  3. There has been a lot of discussion on a Clicker Training list about horses exhibiting frustration behavior as well as horses who, due to previous bad experiences or possibly just temperament, seem to find Clicker Training too "stressful". Some very savvy trainers have found ways to empower these horses into feeling more in control and then they go on to enjoy and find success with Clicker Training.
I can certainly relate on some level to all of these stories. As wonderful and powerful as Clicker Training is, the best use of it is when your base is to enjoy your horse and have your horse enjoy his work. In all our efforts to break things down into baby steps (a critical component of Clicker Training), sometimes we lose the forest for the trees. I know I can get so focused on a behavior that I forget about the whole horse. That seems to be when crabbiness creeps in. As the neuroscientist with the monkey seemed to find, even positive reinforcement isn't always that's not right. Positive reinforcement IS enough- but we need to keep checking to see that what we are using for a reinforcer is, in fact, reinforcing to the learner. The monkey seemed to reach a point where the learning of the video game and the interaction with the man was more reinforcing than the juice. And I think many of our animals reach this point if we do our job well. They LIKE playing with us, they LIKE carrying themselves better and strutting their stuff, they LIKE learning new games and puzzles. So if we forget to keep an eye on whether they are liking their job, then all the food treats or whatever else we may be using, may stop working for us.

So this afternoon I went out with the intention of watching the whole picture with each of the youngsters. I worked them all in the round pen. With Ande I worked on trot and canter transitions as well as having him stay out on the circle (no cones). He wore only a halter- no line. The big "ah ha" moment with him was realizing how I put pressure on him by staying close and monitoring each step. I quite literally stepped back from him today while asking for upward transitions and found him to be happier and more responsive.

With Rumer, I wanted to work on both having her maintain her walk right next to me without a rope...but also wanted to transition her to walking away from me as she will in harness. How to make that transition? I realized I already had taught her the cue to step away from me by tapping her shoulder and so rather than hyperfocus on the details, I simply got her walking nicely and then asked her to step away. At this point, I remembered watching a friend use her driving whip to cue the horse while driving and switched from asking her to step over with a cue low on her shoulder to one up high near her when driving I can use it. All Rumer's work was also done with a halter and no rope.

With Percy I wanted to do more trot work in hand. I had a friend come take some photos recently and when I tried to show off his trot, he decided it would be more fun to canter. I had not done enough work on it to really troubleshoot so we went into the round pen with a halter and lead. I remembered to teach opposites- after a couple good transitions into a jog, when he began offering to trot off almost before I asked, I also began asking him to halt when my body did. I was very conscious of my body position and carriage- lifting myself up and slightly back when asking him to halt. He caught on in no time and I was able to work him on walk/trot and walk/halt transitions in both directions with no pressure on the line. He was working off voice and body cues. I think if I had been less focused on the whole horse, I would have forgotten how my body influences him and would have been focusing on him rather than my own cues. There is one good photo of Percy jogging in hand- I hope to have them soon to post here!


Ark Lady said...

I am glad to see you focusing on the animal--too many people forget to do that.

What you are doing is actually seeing what the animal perceives as the cue.

Animals communicate with body language and distance so by focusing and noticing what they do naturally you have clicked into better communication.

The technical method "fading the cue" is moving away from reliance on the tools or props used to get the behavior into subtle body cues or slight changes in your positioning.

In the zoo and performance world, where behaviors are not necessarily chained, these cues make it seem like there isn't any prompting by the trainer.

Great fun and rewarding but most people train it by accident with their animals...something I've been chatting about on my blog.

I enjoyed the three posts on your training that I found so and have your blog in my RSS reader.

Hope you stop by sometime to have a look.

Bookends Farm said...

What is amazing is how many cues pets learn that people have NO idea that they are picking up on...and when the PERSON figures it out, they think their animal is just a genius :)