As I head into the last month of my KPA course, I find myself extremely grateful for a better understanding of Cues as Reinforcers. Attending Clicker Expo for the first time in the midst of my KPA course was a wonderful immersion in all thing clickerly. I saw and heard many examples of cues as reinforcers there as well. When I returned home, I decided to put this into action and had an "aha" moment in my first attempt.
It was early Spring and I was longeing Ande over a little jump. We're still working on combining all the preferred criteria over fences: a nice forward approach but not rushing, good form over the jump, and a polite, clean landing. The landing was giving me the most trouble. If the jump was nice and I clicked at any point over it, he landed with the brakes on to receive his treat. If I clicked when he landed, he screeched to a halt. If I did not click until several strides after he landed (trying to reinforce a polite landing), he would either hesitate as if wondering why I did not click or the quality of the jump would deteriorate.
I can't remember now if I went out with the intention of using a cue as reinforcer or if it came to me in the moment. Ande has been reinforced oodles for trotting on voice cue- for years and whether in an up transition or a down transition. Therefore, "trrrottt" fit the description for a cue that could be used as a reinforcer: it had been taught and maintained with +R, had a solid reinforcement history and was a fluent behavior.
So this time when Ande approached the jump in a forward active trot, rocked back and was clean with his knees, instead of clicking, I said "trrrottt" as he went over. It was magic. He landed with his ears up and trotted cleanly off with no hesitation, no question, no frustration, no structure-jarring halts. I let him trot 5-6 steps and then clicked. Voila. It was so easy it was ridiculous. All this mystery of how to fade clicks and treats disappeared. Not only was I the cookie, behaviors themselves had become the cookies.
This opened up all kinds of opportunities for me to utilize cues as reinforcers more often. Over the years I have built up quite a little treasure trove of individual behaviors. Now I can link them together with an understanding of how cues work and how chains work. Certainly all the foundation lessons are useful as reinforcing cues. Instead of viewing all my requests as more demands on the horses, I now see them as welcome cues. They know this stuff- they enjoy it (obvious by their willingness to offer them to me even without asking sometimes). It isn't a burden to them to comply- it's an opportunity to interact and earn more reinforcement. By mixing them up, I gain more attention and interest from the horses. I can balance them in ways that enrich each session.
Standing still for grooming is now so reinforcing that I was able to finally get Percy to hold a quiet mouth with a bit in it. When I focused on the bit, so did he (chew, chew, chew, tongue rolling, head twisting). When we focused on the grooming, the bit became a part of the pleasant process. I spent years working with him on allowing me to touch and groom different parts of his body so that he really enjoys it rather than tolerates it. Just this week I realized how much better he is about being groomed than his mother is (sorry Zoe). She loves parts of it but hates other parts of it. There are days she enjoys it, days she tolerates it and days you wish you'd stayed in the house. Percy happily stands in the barn aisle for grooming. He is not tied, he has access to both his paddock and a hay pile but instead he stands. He has worn his bridle and practiced his new yawning behavior while I go over every inch of him with all the different brushes. When I stop, he reaches into his grooming box and hands me another brush (he likes the rubber ones). Actually, he just keeps handing me brushes whether I stop or not. Handing me things is a fun behavior- I can use that to reinforce other things.
I have now taught him to back on voice cue. I've tested it in several situations but next want to expand my experimentation to see if he'll do it when I'm somewhere other than in front of him (can I stand behind him and get him to back to me?). Since retrieving is such fun, I can use that as a reinforcer. I'll just hold his little toy, ask him to back and then toss it for him, clicking and treating when he hands it to me.
I'll need to be sure that all these behaviors stay reinforcing- with a background in traditional training, it's easy to get caught up in the riding and forget that. If my flexions are reinforcing, then I can use them to reinforce a nice transition. If transitions are reinforcing, I can use them to reinforce flexions. Either way, I get a happy balanced horse.