Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Training Intensive- Shaping

For the past several years I've had the honor of hosting a Training Intensive with three other coaches. Katie Bartlett, Cindy Martin, and Marla Foreman have joined me here at Bookends Farm and we invite up to twelve people to come for a full weekend of clicker training. Participants use Bookends Farm Equines to learn with and we choose a topic to focus on.  This year's topic is shaping.

It could and should be said that all clicker training is shaping: the process of breaking a learning task down into successive approximations at which the animal can easily succeed. But there are many different types of shaping, from free shaping to guided learning and many options in between. Knowing how to choose from these many options is one of the things we will explore on July 6-8. For more information on the Training Intensive, click here.  Vermont Training Intensive 2018

Wanting to do a little video to advertise the clinic, I played with some shaping this morning. I purchased a new mat late this winter, thinking it would be one I could use on frozen ground. I never actually got to use it before mud came but decided to work with it in the aisle with Walter horse. Walter is the newest equine resident and newest to clicker training and the foundation lessons. I'm quite sure if I had put it out for any of the others, they would have immediately stepped onto it as they know all about mats and will frequently search out things to stand on in hopes that it might count as a mat. But Walter is a bit of a worrier.  Which is odd because he's also a very solid citizen and just an all-around good guy. My guess is that his early training history did not involve a lot of nuance. Like many Thoroughbreds, his career began as a race horse. So while he has seen and done a lot, one thing I have noticed about him is concern about what is under his feet.  Not one to refuse to comply, instead he just strikes me as worrying about things.  We've done a lot of mat lesson work, and if he sees one (my standard plywood ones), he will lead me right to it but even then he is just a little cautious about stepping right on and likes to test how solid they are with a toe a time or two before venturing on.

I started with some free shaping, where I just let him loose in the aisle where the mat was, and I was going to click for any interest in the mat including looking at it, sniffing it and ideally, stepping on it.

As you can see, he sniffed and then pulled away. I managed to click while he was sniffing so I reinforced that, but he carefully stepped around it to come to me afterward.  We did a few more rounds of that: me backing up, him carefully stepping around the mat to come to me and I'd click for any interest he showed in it.

I decided to manipulate the environment a little. I tried moving the mat to one side of the aisle since turning in that narrow space positioned him to one side, but he still walked around. If free shaping was going to work with this, it was going to take a long time. There are reasons for doing that, which we'll go over at the clinic. But I decided to give Walter a little help in this shaping plan. I would use my hand as a target to encourage him to step on.

What we have here is the classic stance of a horse you are trying to lure into a trailer with a bucket of grain.  Feet bunched together at the edge, stretching the head and neck waaaay out to grab the grain, but not putting his feet on the ramp. But there's a big difference here.  There is no physical pressure on Walter as he is completely loose in the barn aisle.  He can leave if he wants to.  He can go interact with the other horses, eat hay out of the hay cart, go back in his stall or anything else.  He's only getting two little hay stretcher pellets for each click. He is choosing to stay and interact with me even though he's getting a lot less food this way than he would if he went and ate free choice hay.  This indicates a big step in his understanding and trust. And for me, it's important that he be given the time to decide that he wants to step on the mat.  I know if I put a halter and lead on him and lead him to it, blocking his ability to go around it, he would do it.  But that is not the point.

I want him to become aware of his feet and become confident about placing them securely down, with trust that I won't ask him to do that if it's not safe. My goal is to see him as confident as all the others here.

In this final video, he finally places one foot on the mat.  It would be so easy to say, "OK, now you can see it's safe, just get on it the rest of the way." But watch what Walter does.

Stepping completely onto the mat is not something I expected to accomplish in one session.  We'll keep working on it, allowing him the freedom to explore with his feet and his mind. There isn't much room for a horse's creativity and exploration in traditional training. This is a whole new world for Walter.

How do I choose when to click?  What to ask for next? How to set up each training session and how to set up a long term training plan?  These things could fill a book. But we'll cover a lot of them in July. We'd love to have you join us at the Vermont Training Intensive 2018.