Alexandra Kurland presented us with a new term this year- loopy training. Katie Bartlett does a wonderful job (as always) in explaining it at her website www.equineclickertraining.com To really get a good idea of what loopy training is, you should read her description but to put it very simply, (and looking through my understanding) it's looking at the flow of your and your horse's actions when you ask for a specific behavior. A very simple example is asking your horse to target something. The loop begins when you give the cue (hold out the target), continues as your horse touches the target, then you reward and the loop is complete when you ask for the behavior again. You can then go into another loop (either the same behavior or another one). The significance of this is how "clean" your loops are. A clean loop is one that does not contain any other other behaviors than the one you ask for. So this would require that your horse promptly touch the target when it's presented, that you click and deliver the reward promptly, that the horse have established manners for collecting his reward and at the end you are in a place where you can ask for the behavior again. A cluttered loop could include the horse being distracted by something when you hold out the target so that he doesn't immediately target it, could include you fumbling for the treat in your pocket, could include the horse being rude by reaching or stepping into your space for the treat, etc. You want clean loops for clarity of training. All that other stuff in the loop gets built into the final behavior if we, as trainers, don't clean it up.
To project this into the riding sphere, you could examine your canter transition. A clean loop would begin with your aids for the canter and would be followed by the horse jumping promptly into a balanced canter, followed by a reward (whether it is a click and treat, a kind word or scratch, or in the case of negative reinforcement, simply the prompt removal of the aids) all finishing with the horse being ready for the next request. A cluttered loop could include unclear or incorrect use of aids, aids timed incorrectly, uncoordinated use of aids including excess movement of the rider, all of which could result in a horse who may not take the aid, might rush into the canter, might show unhappy signs such as tail wringing or ear pinning, might not transition into a balanced canter and/or might canter off but would not be immediately able or willing to accept the next aids from the rider.
It's been fascinating for me to observe my own training in this context. I have been trying to clear up a lot of sloppy handling on my part. Clicker training has certainly made me aware of how I was always "shouting" at horses, not literally, but with my aids, and how unnecessary that is. Considering that my yearling, Percy, will walk alongside me, without halter or lead, politely and at an acceptable distance, and he will halt, trot or step laterally when I do the same, I really have no need for shouting of any kind. He does this as I walk through his paddock to get to the barn and I do not click or treat for any of it unless he does something fantastic...it's just the way we proceed from fence to barn these days. But it does mean that I am very careful of my thoughts and movements as he accompanies me. If my mind is elsewhere, my body is not projecting what I want from him. I may be hurrying to get chores done....and he reflects that back by hurrying and perhaps getting a little wound up. So the loop when I enter his paddock has become: duck under the fence, slowly stand upright because he is right there hovering, plant the expected kiss upon his muzzle as he sniffs my face (bad, bad horse trainer), step off toward the barn quietly but with intention and proceed with him at my side. There are many bits of this loop and all have been built individually before being added together, but now I simply have to keep myself attentive so that this loop stays clean- distractions pop up and that is all part of the training process. I need to make sure that I respond in a way that does not reinforce unwanted bits.
To go back to my recent Ear Obsession post, Ande putting his ears back was a piece of clutter that was built into several loops. I wrote about how I used going toward grass as a reward for him keeping his attention on me and with ears relaxed. I also intentionally built some loops once we got to the grass. When we first got to the field, I would let him graze until he was a little less frantic- initially tearing off hunks of grass and then settling into a grazing rhythm. I wanted to set us up for success. Then I would ask him to lift his head for a moment by just putting a little pressure on the lead. As soon as he did, I said "graze" and immediately let him go back to eating. I let him graze for another minute or two, then repeated but asked him to hold his head up for just a second or two. If he tried to put his head down, I simply anchored my hand to my hip so he couldn't. When he was still for a second or two, then I said "graze" and bent slightly at the waist to invite him back to the grass. It was amazing how quickly he picked up the graze cue. The cue "graze" became a reinforcer. I was not clicking because he would have looked to me for a treat- I wanted the action of grazing itself to be the reward.
At this point the loop was- cue for head up, he lifts his head promptly from a light rope cue, waits quietly, I give the cue "graze" and he puts his head back down and is ready for me to ask again. I began to lengthen my loop, adding in a couple walk steps: rope cue to lift head, cue to walk off, walk a step or two, say "graze" and let him go back to eating. What we were practicing was his response to my request for attention even when he is engrossed in heavenly deep fall grass, his willingness to leave the grass, and his waiting for a cue from me before diving for the grass, rather than just pulling for it all the time. Over the weeks of November when we were so lucky to have such nice weather this year, we continued with this exercise a couple times a week and built in walking down the road. He was allowed to graze for a bit, then I asked him to leave the grass, walk down the road with me a ways (slowly building up distance so that I returned to the grass BEFORE he showed any nervousness...I did not want to turn around and reward him for showing signs of anxiety) and then we'd return to the grass but he could only graze when he heard the cue. I'm glad I did that in November because as of this week, this is what that field looks like now!