Wow, there is no way I can fit everything into one blog post. It was a full and mind expanding weekend. Some of it was review; a lot was review with amazing new layers and understanding; some was clarification of some things I had read about but not fully understood; and there were some completely new ideas. I'm sure more will come out as I work with the horses in coming days, weeks and months.
I think there were two major points that I brought home. One was taking the "make it happen" out of my requests with horses. The other was that when a horse is distracted, I should request less and reward more.
Ande was the one I took to the clinic. The first evening after arrival, Alex asked us to introduce ourselves and share what we hoped to get out of the clinic. I expressed my concerns about Ande's focus. I don't always feel like I have his full attention and of the three young horses, he seems to be the least interested in working with me. The others clamor for attention and he will also...if there is nothing else to do. But for instance when I let him loose in the round pen, he would sometimes go off and graze along the fence rather than choosing to stay with me. If I kept him busy, he would willingly work, but the other two will continue to offer things in the hopes of enticing me to play...Ande seemed just as happy to be left to graze. Obviously this is a lot better than a non-clicker trained horse who doesn't know how to offer behaviors to entice the handler to play!
As I said before, what I came away with is that in these situations, I should ask for less and reward more. I can't even remember how Alex said this; I just remember putting it to work on the second day. The first day was "data collection", as she calls it. She watches us work with the horses and on other skills in order to decide what to offer us in the way of exercises and conversation. (Note: when you go to a clinic with Alexandra Kurland, she is unlike other clinicians. Instead of getting a lesson or two per day with her, you get HER for the full duration, from when she gets up in the morning until she goes to sleep at night. She has more energy for teaching than any of us do for learning and she makes herself available at meals and in the evenings. She teaches everyone equally, regardless of who happens to have the horse in the ring at any given moment). So that first day I put Ande in the round pen and he wanted to trot around and whinny to his friend in the barn. I explained that this was not typical. Usually I have solid voice commands on walk, trot, canter as well as a pretty good WWYLM (anyone unfamiliar with Alex's work, in simple terms it's an exercise where he walks next to me without any contact on lead or rein, choosing to stay with me).
What she pointed out was that any distraction, whether it was grass or other horses whinnying, was adding criteria to a behavior and so the rate of reinforcement needed to be increased. I knew this...somehow I was ignoring it. I was expecting him to respond in a certain way and rather than starting from a point of success (TAGteach talk), I was trying to wait until he responded correctly. Instead he chose to look elsewhere for his entertainment. Traditionally, I had been taught to "put them to work" when they are distracted. But asking for more simply added to the distraction and unless I was willing to make him respond...not at all clicker compatible...it didn't encourage him to want to work with me. The ridiculous thing was that as soon as I started rewarding more, I got better performance than ever in a fraction of the time. By holding out for better, I got less. By rewarding more, we shot past previous standards. There was a lot more to Day 1, but in order to stay focused myself, I'm going to go to Day 2 with Ande.
After Day 1, Alex gave us the homework of thinking of other behaviors our horses enjoyed so we could use them as reinforcement. This is under the topic of "hierarchies of reinforcement". I was stuck for a bit because I felt like he would be distracted no matter what I asked for. Then I remembered teaching him last winter to target a milk jug hung on the round pen so that I could put hay down without him pestering me. He seemed to like that and I hadn't done it in a while so he might think it was fun. There were even some targets already hung on the round pen we were using. The exercise we were going to do (possibly yet another blog post of its own) included the mat and Ande does like the mat. I also have used hand targeting successfully in the past. So I had a plan there.
My second task was to get that rate of reinforcement up. I realized I would need to start this from the first second. No lazy horse management. I needed to be training from the second he first saw me in the barn. I also decided to use a box clicker- it would be louder and sharper than my usual tongue click and hopefully grab his attention even a little more.
When I approached his stall door, he backed away as he's been taught- click, treat. I opened the door and he backed another step- click, treat. I could see him thinking, wow, this is easy. Open the halter and he pushed his head into it to self halter- c/t. I proceeded to c/t for everything he did well all the way to the round pen: walking politely, stopping and backing at the gate, etc. If his ears and or eyes wandered to the barn where his buddy was whinnying, I held out my hand for him to target (easy, peasy) and c/t when he did. I had a completely different boy already than the day before. His WWYLM work was lovely- not only staying with me but I asked for and got lovely flexions and lateral steps. Both Day 1 and Day 2 I had not bothered to tack up. I wanted to focus his attention on me on the ground first. On Day 2, Alex paid the compliment of saying "this looks like a horse I would be comfortable getting on". Whoopee! She has pretty high standards for how well a horse should be behaving and responding before getting on. It doesn't matter how young or old, how green or schooled, how many places they've been or things they've accomplished, you don't ride until they demonstrate her standards of safety and training.
I won't say he never looked away, but even when he glanced toward the barn, I felt like his attention was still with me and all I had to do was make a tiny request and he complied. It's so nice to have a horse who is voluntarily working with you. I also think using the target, the mat and the hand targeting were very helpful in keeping his attention. As Alex says, when they do something new or difficult well, we can say, "oh you did such a good job at that, we can go do something I know you like". And standing on the mat is such easy work but oh so handy to have in the tool box.
The "make it happen" post will have to wait for another day-
*Mountain Tide Farm is located in Danby VT. We were treated like royalty- it is a pet friendly site and the owner, Linda Sears, is a great cook! Man and beast could not want for more. There are also trails in addition to the wonderful round pen, arena and indoor. Turnout is spacious, grassy and well fenced. To contact Linda, call 802-293-2339 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org