Yesterday I tried a somewhat complicated loop of behaviors with Ande. I'm not sure the serious behavior people would justify the way I did it, but it was a fun process and he seemed to enjoy it, as well as benefit from it. It also became a bit of a behavior chain.
He did know all the individual behavior pieces and so my process was simply to connect the pieces and see where I needed to click and where I could use the next behavior in the loop or chain as a reinforcement for the previous behavior. In the round pen, I laid out one ground rail and about one horse-length beyond that, I put the plywood mat. Ande loves the mat and sometimes when I ride him we get stuck on it...he willingly goes to it and stands on it but does not want to leave it (not at all uncommon with horses who have done mat work). So one of my goals was to lighten him about leaving the mat. But I also wanted to use the mat to encourage him to go forward over the pole. I did a fair amount of longeing and riding him over ground poles last season and in the process, he found he got clicked for stepping over...and he would anticipate the click and slow going over the pole. Initially, I thought this was fine, having ridden many Thoroughbreds in my day who quicken over ground poles! I want him to learn to do rails and then on to jumps with a quiet and careful attitude. But I didn't love the way it took the forward out of the picture.
A third criteria and the weakest of them all, was his ears. I have written before about my frustration with the way he seems to go around with his ears back so much of the time. He is so much more attractive with his ears up, as I guess all horses are. He just hasn't really embraced the ears up thing so I continue to peck away at it. If that is all I focus on, he will do it. But when I am trying to work on something else, the ears go back and I have to choose between the new behavior or the ears. Grrr.
I began by simply walking next to him (he was wearing a bridle and longe line; I was carrying a lashless longe whip). The first time around, I clicked when his front feet went over the rail (this was the first time with rails this spring). He stopped, took his treat, and then we proceeded directly to the mat where he got clicked and treated for stepping onto the mat. Oh- a couple more criteria I was working on: staying out on the longe line and responding to voice cues...both of which he does well, but I wanted to be sure that I paid attention to all the pieces as I built this loop. So after our first trip around the pen, I stepped back one large step and cued him forward with "walk on". Since he was on the mat, he did not want to go forward and I followed the voice cue with pointing the whip at his hip. When he stepped off, I CT'd. Leaving the mat is hard for him and I wanted to initially reward any leaving of it even if it took the two separate cues. So we went around again but this time I was doing more of a parallel longeing technique: walking with him but about 3 feet to the inside. I CT'd a few times when he was right next to the rail because I wanted him to know that he was doing the right thing by staying out on the rail, rather than staying at my shoulder, which is also something that I expect at times. This time when we got to the ground pole, I waited to click until his back feet had gone over the pole. So he had to keep going beyond the point of success the previous time and he did this without needing further encouragement.
After the treat, I stepped back again and expected him to stand still until he got the cue to go forward. The mat was right in front of him so it was hard for him to stand there and wait for the cue! I can't honestly remember which times he did it and which times he tried stepping off at this point, but it was excellent self-control practice. If he stepped forward before I asked him to, I simply put the whip in front of his chest which he knows is a cue to back up and in that way, I re-set him, waited a moment, gave the "walk on" cue, which immediately put him on the mat where I could CT.
Then I stepped back another large step so I was now about 6-10 feet from him, and sent him forward. If he stepped off the mat with a voice cue only, I CT'd immediately. If it required the whip pointing at his hip to walk off, no CT. But he did get clicked for staying close to the rail and flicking an ear forward at the same time. So there were reinforcers coming when he left the mat. I wanted him to keep this loop going and be willing to go from one piece of it to the next, never wanting to get stuck at any one place. This time around, I held out on the click for the ground pole until he was on the mat. They were close enough and the loop was set so that I thought he could see stepping on the mat as reinforcement for going over the rail. This set him up so that the next time around, I had him trot over the rail. Seeing the mat right there in front of him kept his trot forward as each foot went over the rail.
My next step was to move the mat out further from the ground pole until it was about 2 horse lengths from the rail. Using the mat as a reinforcer for the rail meant that he would trot over the rail in a nice forward trot in his enthusiasm for going to the mat. This worked well so I threw in a change: I clicked right as he went over the rail again....meaning he stopped and showed self control by not going right to the mat. And he had to again wait while I backed away (and by this time I had graduated to the center of the round pen), not going forward until I gave the voice cue.
All in all I was really pleased with the session. Giving him lots to think about minimizes the ears back and keeps him guessing. Not guessing in the sense that he's frustrated or worried, but always working to figure out what will earn the click...trying to figure out what I want and being happy when he gets it right. That's a pony I'd like to train.