Saturday, June 22, 2019

Using Positive Reinforcement in a Lesson Program: Part 7, Help the People to Help the Horses

"Finally, do have any experience with TAGteach?  If not, get it.  Now. " 
from the introduction to the series.
tagulators, lined up in the tack room for young students
That was a pretty bossy line. I really do strongly recommend TAGteach certification. While tagging people has many similarities to clicker training animals, there are also distinct differences when teaching someone who shares a verbal language and societal pressures with us. It is well worth it to get the specialized education for using this very same learning theory we espouse for animals. 

using games to build balance
I have tried to keep this series focused on the horses and ponies with whom we have chosen to interact and this post is no different. Using TAGteach will make life better for your lesson ponies and horses. I have recorded a webinar with Joan Orr of TAGteach and have written a blog post with some ideas for teaching the people.  You can refer to them for more information on using TAGteach in an equestrian setting. 

So how does using TAGteach help our horses? It makes us better instructors.  The more clearly we teach, the more our students progress. The sooner they ride better, the more comfortable the horses will be. Or the more easily understood the cues on the ground will be. 

mounting practice without the pony
As you will see in the blog and webinar, many lessons can be taken away from the ponies, back to the barn. Anything we can work on while the ponies are napping in their stalls or paddocks is a bonus. I give examples of teaching correct mounting and riding a round circle both without involving a pony.  While neither clicker training nor TAGteach are really magic, it sure does seem like it sometimes. The rider may not transition seamlessly from ground to saddle, but the seams are a lot neater. 

Other lessons may take place in the saddle but using TAGteach methodologies gives us the ability to work at slower gaits.  I once had a woman who struggled to release with her hands sufficiently over a fence.  She knew she should, and I showed her on the ground where her hands should go, but in the heat of cantering down to a fence and jumping it, she was unable to repeat it. This poor release showed up in her entire position. Not only was the horse's mouth yanked on but she fell back into the saddle, rather than being in a position to absorb the landing in her own joints. 

Enter TAGteach. I placed a marker in the horse's mane.  I carry duct tape of various colors in my teaching bag for this purpose. Without it, I've been known to yank out my own pony tail to hold a braid in the horse's mane as a marker. Then, at a standstill, I tagged the woman for placing her hands in the correct position.  First, just her hands, then while using her whole jumping position. TAGteach gives us the same repetition success as clicker training.  She didn't have to canter over ten jumps, fatiguing her horse, to get ten successful reps of the position change. Her horse just stood. The marker did its magic, cementing that position into place. Then she went back to the jump. With that "muscle memory" established, and a clearly marked spot to put her hands over the fence, she nailed it the first time. And every time after that. Horse's mouth and back were spared. Magic. Nope, science.

a nice soft contact, free of restricting noseband
This is also an example of how TAGteach pushes us to become better at understanding what we are teaching.  Anybody can stand in the middle of an arena and yell, "stop pulling on his mouth!" every time a student makes that mistake. But we need to analyze why that student is not releasing. Fear? Improper equipment? Something in the horse's jumping style? An insecure base of position? In the above example, I went to the release to cure the flopping back in the saddle. In the process of teaching a better release, the rider had to adjust her base of position. I could have focused on her position, and then focused on her hands, but I chose to focus on her hands, which then caused her to find her own balance better. That might not have worked with another rider, if she hadn't had decent basics already.  Certainly a novice could go right over the horse's head if they shoved their hands too far forward without the base to support it. So we need that education in our own pasts, to find the thing that makes what we want to happen. 

Finally, students who experience TAGteach can make connections to working with their horses.  When we stop nagging them, we model how to stop nagging ponies. When we teach with compassion, we make it a safe space for them to show compassion for their horses. When we use scientifically sound learning theory, we demonstrate how it works for all species. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Positive Reinforcement in a Lesson Plan- Part 6, How Familiar is R+?

"Are you teaching people on your own horses/ponies or on theirs? If you are teaching on yours, then you can train them to fit in with your teaching program.  If people are taking lessons on their own horse, then you have to consider whether the animal has any experience with R+. If not, again, creativity comes in to find ways of making the lesson reinforcing for them, how to incorporate markers and food treats, and not be too depressed knowing that will only be a small part of their lives." from the introduction to this series.
The photo above shows one of my ponies, getting into my trailer, using a target he had previous knowledge of, and being handled by a student. I had offered a one day clinic on trailer loading and I honestly didn't know how easily this pony would load. I've trailered him twice in the decade (?) that I have owned him. Once was to bring him home when I first bought him, and he did not load well for that.  Not badly, but not what I would call an easy loader. It was on this trailer (I think?). The second time was to move him from our previous farm to our present one. That time I was moving six equines in one day and chose to put the two horses on this trailer, and the four ponies into our stock trailer which was a very different experience.  The advantage that time was that he climbed onto the trailer with his three buddies. 

For the clinic, even though I wasn't sure how he'd load, I knew his history, his temperament, his cues, and his personality. This allowed me to set my human learner up for success. At the conclusion of our very methodical approach, each of the ponies I used that day was loading like a dream. I know that at least two of the participants went home and were able to replicate the plan to success with their own horses, but they were able to stretch the training over time, as needed. This shows the advantage of being able to use one's own ponies for training, even if they aren't familiar with the skill to be trained. 

Another time, more recently, I had a student bring her own horse for a riding lesson. She said he was not a good loader, and hoped to arrive on time, but promised to give herself an hour to load him. After her lesson, when it was time for her to load him up to go home, he did not want to get on and I offered to help. This was not a horse who was familiar with positive reinforcement training.  By that I mean he did not understand the significance of a click or other marker, did not offer behaviors and he had significant experience with the use of pressure to get on a trailer.  Having been pressured to get on once already that day, he did not want to do it again. That was one of those days which I wish I had timed and videoed the session. I can't promise because I didn't time it, but it took between 5 and 15 minutes. I backed him off regularly, as I do, and he quietly got on again each time going further in. By the time he was fully on the trailer, his owner looked at me in some awe and said, "that was lovely, how did you do that?". Of course she had watched the whole thing but couldn't figure out how it had worked.  I simply used the good training basic of reinforcing small approximations. I used some pressure on his rope, but it was very light pressure and released at any effort to respond. 

My goal with that horse was to get him on the trailer, with as little stress as possible, so he could go home. Had my goal been to train him to get on the trailer well every time, I would have taken a much slower approach, over many days. Had my goal been to teach the person how to use R+ to load a horse, it would also have been a longer process, as we did at the trailer loading clinic. But it illustrates how an experienced positive reinforcement trainer can get things done quickly and quietly. It doesn't make for as exciting a show as using sticks and "moving feet". But we can always choose to spare an animal some stress without avoiding the situation entirely (I could have chosen to go in my house and not watch). 

 Using my own horses and ponies allows me to draw on their skills and their known behaviors to facilitate the learning of the people. Handlers or riders can experience success and get the feel of that into their systems to take home to their own. This is another reason I try not to get my ponies too well schooled, as if it is too easy, then the people will be frustrated when their animals don't respond at all. So when I'm asked for lessons in something my horses do well, I need to get creative. My Rumer pony loads like a dream and always has, having been introduced to loading and life with positive reinforcement, as well as having no unpleasant experiences. To use her for loading practice, I introduced a platform she was unfamiliar with. With a strong history of standing on mats, she climbed right on, but even though she was used for standing on mats with hind feet at last year's Training Intensive, when it came to putting her hind feet on the platform, her inherent worries about her hind feet came through. (note: I think I can safely say they are inherent as I've known her since birth, she's always been "funny" about her hind feet, and her mother is the same way!). So this client was able to spend several weeks of lessons exploring various approaches to fine slicing how to get feet where you want them, even if the pony initially found it aversive. 

For people interested in learning and training with positive reinforcement, and willing to take the time, it's a thrill to oblige. For trailering practice, I can demonstrate how mats and rope handling allow us to fine slice our training. Clients and their horses build up their own repertoire of skills to draw on when the time comes. I often say that I have never found a behavior problem that I cannot solve using one of Alexandra Kurland's Foundation Lessons.  I'll add rope handling into that recipe box of necessary skills. 

I mentioned in a previous post in this series how I try to work reinforcement into riding lessons for horses inexperienced with it. Since traditional riding focuses on pressure and release, teaching people better timing in their releases can yield quick results that impresses students (and sure does help the horse).  If I can demonstrate that I really can help them with my knowledge of learning theory, that sometimes opens the door a crack for me to squeeze some positive reinforcement in. They may still think that stopping to offer treats mid-ride is crazy, but finding an itchy spot for the rider to scratch is sometimes accepted more readily by people who don't want to use food when they ride. And if they don't want to carry treats when they ride (sometimes the resistances people have is beyond ridiculous), I teach people that allowing their horses to graze while out on trail will be more effective at curing a reluctant trail horse than giving him a carrot when he gets back to the barn. 

Because I have incorporated positive reinforcement into all my training and teaching, it is natural for me to look for training solutions there. But I know that I have twenty years of experiences that have gotten me to this point. And I know that others simply haven't been exposed to what I have. My job is not to shame them into changing their ways overnight, nor to refuse to help them if they don't buy the full package immediately.  My job, as I see it, is to toss those pebbles into the pond and know the ripples will reach the shore. It may be a long time and/or many more pebbles in the pond before I see their mind shift.  Or I may never see them again.  But I trust that with gentle introductions and successful experiences, they are more likely to keep their minds open.

Next time- Conclusion

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Using Positive Reinforcement in a Lesson Program: Part 5, Group or Individual Lessons?

"Are you planning on teaching groups or individuals? Regardless of the above considerations, teaching groups requires a different skill set than teaching individuals. This is especially true of teaching groups of kids.  You really do need eyes in the back of your head and the ability to juggle flaming swords to teach groups of kids. If you have a lineup of "broke" lesson ponies, who just follow each other around the arena, the job is easier.  But if you have creative equines, looking to find ways to earn reinforcement, the job of the instructor needs to become very creative as well!" from Part One of this series.
Teaching groups of any kind can be a challenge.  I have not taught groups in a strictly positive reinforcement environment so it's been interesting to think about how I would do that. The groups I have taught have been kids on their own ponies when I taught for Pony Club. At the time, I was focusing more on the riding skills and so utilized TAGteach where I could. Both TAGteach and clicker training require eyes on individuals so you'd have to set up your lesson toward that end. 

If you are teaching riding lessons, I recommend thinking about whether your lessons will focus on the rider or the horse. Both are involved, but where is the focus? If you are focusing on the position of the rider, and possibly using TAGteach for that purpose, how will you keep the horse engaged? When I teach kids using tagulators, they like to pull down their beads frequently, and I often will use tactile contact on the ponies then. Not just a mindless pat, but something I know that individual pony appreciates. It's just my way of thanking them for their patience. I also sometimes combine TAGteach and clicker training though it takes a lot of focus on my part in planning and execution. Most often I do it in a Games environment. If the lesson is on balance for riders, a fun game is having them lean down and pick something up off a barrel as they go by. They need to keep centered over the pony (far more important to me than the success or not of grabbing the item), so the tag point might be "weight in outside stirrup". I will watch them carefully and tag for meeting that criteria.  But I will also set up a target after the barrel for the pony to go to.  This functions to direct the pony, so the rider does not need to steer, and if the weight shifts give conflicting information to the pony as to where they should be going, the target keeps them on track.  The rider knows that after picking up the item, the pony will continue to the target, and that is where I click, and deliver a treat.  In this way, instead of being mindless drilling back and forth for the pony, it's a fun game for them as well.

If your focus is on the horse, and you have a R+ knowledgeable group of riders, you could set a lesson and they would work on it as they rode, while you observed them one at a time to assess and assist. It would be much like a group dog training class. The space would need to be large enough to allow room for each horse/rider pair to stop for treating without the person behind them running into them. 

If you don't have a large space or R+ savvy riders, then it would be better to choose an area of the arena, say a short end or, between two particular dressage letters or other landmarks. As each rider entered that space, they would work on the training skill (flexions, for example), clicking and treating under your observation. When they reached the end of the observation area, the horses would be given a break as they proceeded around the rest of the arena, while you worked with the next horses in line. 

I think a big difference between riding with positive reinforcement vs traditional training is the amount of drilling which occurs. We give a lot of breaks as positive reinforcement trainers, dictated by the need to stop when we mark, in order to reinforce. There are huge advantages to this that are hard to see if you aren't familiar with the process. Every time you stop and reinforce, then you get to do it again.  Getting a break usually functions as an additional reinforcer. One just needs to build duration and chains from there, but both need to be clean, which will only happen if that reinforcement initially happens frequently. 

If you can set clear criteria for your rider to observe even at a novice level, you may be able to trust them to work behind your back while you focus on others, rather than having a long break. An example would be going over trot poles. If you set a single rail on the ground, and the criteria for a click is to step cleanly over the rail, the rider can easily hear if the horse hits a rail or not. If there is no hoof contact, then click! Stop and feed.  If you hear a hoof hit, then just keep riding quietly on.  And guess what? You are subtly educating your riders as well, to feel each foot as it goes over the rail, as they listen. If they are doing this behind your back, you can ask how the horse did when they come to the area you are observing. If they say she didn't earn a click, ask which foot hit. Is it always the same foot? Why is this? What can you do to set the horse up for success the next time? Etc. 

An excellent tool for teaching in groups (or individuals) is video. You can set up a camera to record somewhere along the rail or if you have parents or someone else observing, they can man the camera, only videoing particular parts. This allows you to play the video back later and point out the pertinent points of a lesson, saving the ponies from being drilled repeatedly just for the purpose of observation. We don't want our ponies practicing things incorrectly so that others can observe.  Get it on camera, use your clicker to fix it, then show it at a later time so everyone can see before and after. 

Another tool which is clearly demonstrated on the TAGteach website is learners tagging other learners. You could do the same with riders. The other student would have to be on the ground with his horse in the barn, so as not to confuse it, but if the lesson was on something more difficult for the rider to perceive (size of step, whether straight or lateral), a learner on the ground could do the clicking, thus educating two human learners and the equine learner. I will do this for introducing lateral steps to a rider who doesn't know yet how it should feel so they can't click it appropriately.  I observe and click the initial efforts at a lateral step from the horse.  Not only does the click point out the right step to the horse, but it also points it out to the rider. You aren't specifically teaching the rider what to do, but you are educating their feel. 

So if you are teaching a group lesson, you could set up a pattern in which you observe one part of the pattern, and maybe one or two other learners from a different class observe a different part of the pattern.  This keeps riders and horses entertained and learning while working on this assembly line of lessons. The environment should clearly cue the horse to know what the lesson is for each piece of the pattern. Ideally, the rider is cueing the behavior, but if we are working with newer trainers, it helps to have additional cues. 

Working with a group of people who are specifically interested in clicker training opens itself to an entirely different clinic setup than I was accustomed to with traditional riding clinics. I have to remember that now, when I offer a clinic to traditional trainers. They should not plan on going home after their lesson. When one signs up for a traditional clinic, one is usually given a lesson time. If you're lucky, or the format requires it, you might get more than one lesson.  The remainder of the time, the smart people observe other lessons. Hopefully this means their horse has a pleasant place to hang out, such as a stall, rather than being tied in or to a trailer for an extended period of time. But it isn't unusual for attendees to wander away during others' lessons,  since the lesson time is designated for the person in the ring at that time.  
I was introduced to a very different format when I began attending clinics with Alexandra Kurland. The focus on that clinic was that ALL attendees were being taught all the time. Observing was easily as educational as working with a horse, just different aspects of the same lesson. In this format, one is teaching both individuals and a group at the same time. The lessons for each horse/handler pair can be much shorter but there can be more of them. Learners of all species get frequent breaks, to allow the learning to settle in, and then come out again for another go. 

Whether teaching individuals or groups, I think it's important to take the time to think clearly about how to at least keep it interesting for our horses and ponies, if they are not specifically getting clicked and treated themselves. 

Next time- my ponies or those belonging to others.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Using Positive Reinforcement in a Lesson Program: Part 4, The Goals of the Program

"Third, what are the goals of the human learners?  The primary job of my lesson ponies currently is to teach people about positive reinforcement.  Most of my lessons are now lessons on the ground, to adults, so they can practice with R+ on experienced learners and then take their skills home to their own horses. But I also teach some riding lessons, and did much more of that previously. In all honesty, I have pulled further away from the riding lessons on my own ponies because of the stress of trying to convince people of a different approach. Traditional riding is heavily ingrained in our society due to the visibility of everything from cowboy movies to watching the current competitive scene. As someone who used to partake in that competitive scene every other weekend throughout the riding season, it has been a long road to where I am now. I enjoy working with others with the same mindset and so I have gravitated to more of that teaching.  But we need to preach not just to the choir, so I don't turn people away if they want riding lessons. I know that I will need to be tactful and patient with my human learners, just as I must be with my equine learners." From the introduction of this series. 
Whether child or adult, many people just want to learn to ride.  More sad are the ones who don't even realize it's a complex set of skills to be learned. They just want to ride, forget the learning part. Now I love to ride, and feel more at home on the back of a horse than I do in most places. Numerous equine therapy programs recognize the therapeutic benefit of being on a horse. But all these statements are about us, not about the horse beneath us. 

As positive reinforcement trainers, we have a responsibility to educate people about what a horse's body language tells us and humane ways to respond.  Actually I think all trainers have that responsibility but as a group, I think positive reinforcement trainers are more open and sensitive to those responsibilities. 

A common response to any concern about how a pony feels is, "it's his job. He gets food and shelter; veterinary care and hoof trimming so he better not complain about being ridden". Or "he can handle it".  These responses minimize our responsibility and make it easy to do what we want, without concern for the emotional and mental states of the animal.

I have always had horse management as a centerpiece of all my teaching.  This includes leading, grooming, safety, feeding, health, and more. Since transitioning to positive reinforcement training myself, I simply include that as part of the package. People are taught to leave slack in a rope when leading, which then prepares students for my insistence on soft hands when riding. I teach that instead of shoving a pony over, there are cues we can use to ask her to back up or move over when we are grooming, and we can thank her by clicking and treating. I know the weak points of each pony, and step in to demonstrate over many lessons how to address that specific skill in a compassionate manner. 

In this way, I can have positive reinforcement training be the umbrella which covers everything I do. While students may come with the goal of learning to ride, my goal is to teach them how to do so in a scientifically up to date way. Not only do they learn that turning their head affects the way their seat bones contact the horse's back, but I challenge them to observe and share with me what they think the horse is looking at, thinking about, and feeling, based on observations, as they ride. 

Children can be very compassionate when encouraged to do so. As I no longer have full sized horses for riding lessons, I don't have to deal with adults who may have years of societal pressures about how animals should obey humans and "just want to ride". With kids, I can use analogies of their own lives to explain that we get better cooperation when we ask politely and reward good responses.

A skilled trainer working on desensitization for trailering
A large portion of my horse related business is teaching others to train, not just ride, with positive reinforcement. As these people are coming to me with the goal of specifically learning this way, my job is easier without trying to convince people to let go of old thought patterns.  They still need help letting go, but they are willing to do so when taught how. This means they give off somewhat conflicting cues to my ponies. For this reason, I do not fine tune my ponies. To do so, I believe, would sensitize them to the point of frustration with novice handlers. Instead, their cues remain somewhat coarse. Gross movements are easier for people to mimic than subtle ones. Being handled by a rotating variety of people is much more pleasant when you are getting paid in hay stretcher pellets to make your best guess as to what the person wants. 

I make sure the ponies get frequent breaks, with hay in their stalls, while the student and I step out to discuss, review, and practice some more without the pony.  This is where I can pull out TAGteach so that people can learn the movements of cueing, rope handling and feeding mechanics. I may or may not specifically "tag" and reinforce, but my teaching methods are heavily informed by TAGteach as far as my instructions, my marking of correct moments, and my responses to errors. 
using targets to build behavior

For the past five years, I have hosted a Vermont Training Intensive here at the farm. This is a two day clinic, during which up to twelve people come for instruction in some aspect of positive reinforcement for horses. I have been joined by good friends Cindy Martin, Katie Bartlett, and Marla Foreman, who have co-taught the weekend with me in different years. These weekends are always instructional for me, not only in how best to help people learn, but how my horses and ponies respond to strangers. The first year was an incredible experience in realizing how fully I trusted my fellow coaches with my equines. After five years, I am even more appreciative, as I have learned more and more what challenges the ponies have with different people. 

Stow and handler having fun!
Most years, we have had a couple dog trainers join us.  Most of them have at least some horse experience as well, since that number of participants does not allow the one-on-one supervisions that novices require around horses. Even so, they always come with a friend who does have significant equine experience and the friend is tasked with keeping things safe from a "do not walk straight up behind the pony" aspect. I always encourage participants to bring their own treat pouches if they have them. One year, we had a couple dog trainers, one experienced with horses and one not. I was amazed to see my ponies quit on them, and just start walking away from training sessions. They assured me they had scrubbed their treat pouches clean of any dog treats before coming, but just to be sure, I had them wear some of mine.  It was a night and day difference. The ponies were back to being committed participants in their training session. 

Another fascinating thing to observe is how people "invite" problem behaviors which their own horses have. They certainly aren't doing it intentionally, but when my reliable lesson ponies start mimicking the horse they have at home, the person is more likely to realize that the problem is not in the horse. 
another skilled trainer demonstrating keeping a pony in balance

For the first several years, I divided participants into teams, with 2-3 people assigned to a particular pony for the entire weekend. They chose a goal, relevant to the topic, and worked together through the weekend toward that goal.  Then one year we had a topic that seemed to lend itself to having everyone able to work with every pony, because the different ponies had different things to teach on the topic.  So the ponies would work with 2-3 people, then they'd get another 2-3 people, then another 2-3.  I really saw pony fatigue set in. Whereas they usually were enthusiastic participants, by Sunday afternoon, they were telling me they were cooked.  I realized how exhausting it was for them to try to adjust to each new person who came along. Horses are so observant of our body language and while I try to keep gross movements as cues for the ponies, they no doubt pick up on all the other little things each person does.  The way we stand, the way we walk, the way we move our shoulders when we turn, where our toes point, at what point do we reach for the treat, how quickly we reach for and deliver treats, and so much more. I have gone back to the team approach, so that each pony only needs to learn three new people in a weekend, instead of twelve!

Next post: Teaching groups or individuals?

Friday, June 14, 2019

Positive Reinforcement in a Lesson Program: Part 3, The Horses and Ponies

"...we also need to consider what the histories of the horses and ponies are. If these saintly individuals have only known a more traditional approach, you will have a very different experience than if you are starting an equine in a program with positive reinforcement from the get-go. Again, I have done both. I currently have four lesson individuals.  Two were purchased at an older age and had histories with traditional training. The other two are homebreds who were started with R+ as babies. They are very different to teach on."  From the Introduction posted on 6/13/19
 As always, these are my experiences and I don't know if others see the marked difference between crossover horses and clicker started horses that I do. There are so many things which determine the personality of a horse and how it responds to training. My understanding of the difference between temperament and personality is that temperament is innate. It is what we see when an individual is born and displays certain tendencies even in the first minutes after birth. Personality is what develops over time when life experiences are layered onto the temperament

Because two of my lesson ponies were born on our farm, I got to meet them in their first minutes. I find it fascinating to see what parts of their temperament remain with them today. Of course having seen those first behaviors, it's undeniable that I interacted with them according to what I saw and so that may be a large part of why they remain so to this day.  My goal was never to mold them into what I wanted, but to take what I saw from them and make it work for all of us. 

My other two lesson ponies came to me when they were about twelve to fifteen years old. They did not come at the same time but the teeth on each indicated that to be their approximate ages when I bought them. 

Kizzy, my 12 h pony, had been rescued. I was told that she was emaciated and had a foal at her side when rescued, and went by the name "Bitch". The rescuers had renamed her "Socks" and fattened her up to the point of obesity by the time I got her. X-rays indicate she had foundered badly at some point. And that is the extent of what I know about her past. When I brought her home, she was next to impossible to catch.  I had no idea if she had ever been ridden but my original purpose for her was as a companion for my TB gelding who was lonely. It was only when a neighbor asked if I'd give her daughter riding lessons that I considered using her for that. I don't think she'd had much, if any, training under saddle. She certainly was never an easy horse to ride independently. Being so little, it was hard to find anyone that would fit on her who was good enough to school her. At the time, I didn't have the ground skills to do it. She was, and remains, a wonderful lead line pony. She is sweet and careful with little ones.

My other lesson pony, Stowaway, came from a woman who dealt in camp horses. She bought horses in the Spring, leased them to summer camps (where they were ridden in multiple lessons a day), and then put them up for sale in the Fall. So he came with a history of many miles as a lesson pony. By this time I was teaching the Junior Pony Club for our local Pony Club and needed a larger pony for bigger kids. Stowaway's personality at that point was the "perfect" lesson pony. He was quiet to the point of laziness, non-reactive, and acted like he never had an original thought in his head. He remains the animal I had the most difficulty teaching about clicker training. He could not believe he was allowed to initiate anything. It took me an entire winter to teach him to target. He did learn that the click meant he would get a treat, and would perk up when he heard it, but reaching out to touch something, whether my hand or an object, seemed too risky to him.  I would try one day, and then decide to give him more time to settle in and find that we weren't going to punish him, and try again in a week or more, with no luck. He never did have that light bulb moment, but finally inched his way into believing that yes, he could reach out and touch my hand without worry. From there, we continued to inch into more understanding. 

In addition to these two ponies, I have helped many horses transition to a life of positive reinforcement over the years. I have less experience with starting foals since very few people start their own horses, and most clients picked up their horses later in life.  This is a big difference from working with dogs. Although rescue is not an uncommon way to get a dog, many people get their dogs as young puppies. We know much more about their parents and early life experiences than we do about horses' early days. My opinion about the results of starting a foal with positive reinforcement is strengthened by the experiences of starting puppies.  

So here's the difference. Animals started in training with positive reinforcement are enthusiastic and clever learners, who love to offer behavior. Very often, traditionally trained ponies and horses have been taught to give up. I can't count the number of times I've been told how wonderful a horse is because he "just stands there" unless told to do otherwise.

There are some incredibly aversive approaches to starting young horses. There's a reason they call it "breaking" a horse, whether to a halter or to being ridden or driven or anything else. They used to call it breaking a horse's spirit. Horses are big and can be very dangerous. The goal is to get on their back which goes against all of a horse's self preservation instincts. Predators are usually the only thing which climb on a horse. Techniques to breaking sometimes mean putting tack on its back and letting them buck it out until they give up. No matter how hard he bucks, he can't get it off.  Sometimes that is done with a rider as well. 

Even if a horse is backed in a more kind manner, equipment and techniques have been developed over the centuries to control, not train, a horse. Round pens give a flight animal no escape. Bits, hobbles, martingales and bitting rigs tie the horse up in ways that they give up when they find they have no way to escape.

I spent a couple summers working on a TB breeding farm when I was younger and one of my jobs was to "break" a couple of the young horses who stayed on the farm. The farm owner gave us general guidelines but also gave us a lot of independence.  I had never heard of positive reinforcement at that age, and I doubt the owner had either, but we did not use any of the aversive methods listed above. We went slowly and we gradually increased our expectations. These youngsters had learned as foals that they could not get away from our ropes. We taught them that when they were still small enough that we could hold on if they fought to escape. That knowledge, along with slow and quiet handling, taught them to do what we wanted. There were no treats involved, but there were rests, stroking, and quiet words.  

Even in this kind approach, creativity from the horse was not encouraged. The expectation was that they do what WE wanted. There were no puzzles to solve. The best thing they could do was stand quietly until asked to do something. They learned to stand on cross ties for grooming and tacking up and that prevented any efforts to move or leave. If they balked at anything, pressure, though mild, was used to encourage them forward. They became nice horses who did what they were told.

In contrast, Ande and Rumer, the two lesson ponies who were born here, learned with choice and I listened to their opinions. Their foalhoods were earlier in my positive reinforcement journey. I'd "only" been doing it for seven years when I started them. So I made mistakes and came on situations I didn't know how to handle. There was some pressure used simply out of habit, but for the most part, Alexandra Kurland's work was my guiding light. Even if I used pressure, responses were followed by a click and a treat. Yielding to pressure was learned much more quickly when followed by a click and a treat than I'd ever experienced before. (note: Ande is the oldest, then Rumer, and then my Percy horse.  Percy had the most positive reinforcement-based start of all, as I learned from each one along the way and could do better with the next).

When I taught them to wear halters, then bridles, harnesses (for ground driving), and saddles, every step of the process was explained with a click and a treat. If they balked, I slowed the training and broke it down into smaller steps. If they saw something scary in the environment and balked at that, we played "touch the goblins". That is Alex's game where approaching a scary thing gets clicked and treated for any forward movement. Ande was the first to show me how drastic a difference this was from my previous experiences. While other youngsters might learn to ignore things in their environment, Ande would see something new and march up to it to touch it with his nose. The world was not to be ignored, but to be explored! New skills were puzzles to be solved, challenges to conquer. They were active learners, not passive ones.

Ande was also the one who taught me that ignoring unwanted behavior was not sufficient to eliminate it. With his Quarter Horse breeding, that pony could leave in a flash. If leaving got him to grass or friends, the leaving was highly reinforced. I had to delve deeper into Alex's work to learn how to teach him to flex away from his freight train alignment. I did many, MANY repetitions of that with a high rate of reinforcement to overcome the previous reinforcement history of grass or friends for bolting away. When I turn him out, he still loves to gallop fast in a straight line and then do a sliding stop for grass...his temperament as dictated by his genes. But he hasn't done that in hand for many years, or under saddle ever. As a lesson pony, I don't need that in his repertoire of things to offer under saddle! 

Remember, positively trained individuals OFFER behavior. Transitions from one gait to another should be under very careful stimulus control. When I was teaching Ande to walk, trot, and canter under saddle, I got a lot of offered upward transitions, which was great at the time.  I wanted him willing to trot and canter freely.  But that would not be good for a rider who was not prepared with the physical skills to ride it OR the mental awareness that the pony was not running away with her.  So I had to take the time to put it under strong stimulus control.

All four ponies offer behaviors now. But the ones that Stowaway and Kizzy offer tend to be things which they were taught with positive reinforcement initially.  So Kizzy loves to go to and target cones.  I can use that for lessons to indicate where I want her to go with a little rider. Or I can avoid that by removing cones from the arena. Stowaway will seek out mats in the arena.  Again, I
can use that or remove them.  Additionally, those are behaviors which stop movement. So they are relatively safe, providing that they don't speed up to get to the target or mat. I did have Kizzy in a perky mood one day and I'd neglected to remove the cones so she zipped from one cone to another, giving her little rider an excellent lesson in keeping her balance! I was laughing so hard I could barely stand up so it was a good thing the little rider was ready for that lesson.

Stowaway is an energy conserver when under saddle. I can't imagine how many kids he carted around before I got him, but there was no enthusiasm for the job. Somehow, he'd been taught to do as told, no more, no less. He was dead to leg aids. Even now, I might expend more energy than he does during a lesson. The way to get him to willingly trot is for me to go to the end of a long side and hold out my hand for a fist target. His ears perk up and he breaks into a trot to come to me. Then I have to run down to the other end of the arena to give the rider another trot. [While Kizzy is an exception, I avoid teaching horses to target cones because I like to use them for guidance. If they are indicating a circle, horses and riders both get frustrated when they continually stop at cones.] This is how I have helped him enjoy his lessons better, but is an example of how he responds to me, rather than to his rider (see part 2 of this series).

Last summer, I had a young teen, who is a lovely rider, come and ride Ande. I wanted to see how he did with a traditional rider. Ande is very light to rein aids as a result of getting clicks and treats for responding. Negative reinforcement has been shown to produce the least response necessary to remove the aversive stimulus, whereas positive reinforcement trained behaviors lean toward giving you more. So I found I needed to remind the rider to keep a very light contact. He can be really wiggly until you get used to using those light aids. Novice riders are not able to keep a light and consistent contact so he is not appropriate for beginners.

I had this young rider go over individual cross rails, which I had done with Ande myself in years past.  Then I began to set a gymnastic line. He has done those before, at liberty, but I can't remember how many jumps I have set in a line. In any case, with this rider he would do two, and then peter out.  It wasn't a slam on the brakes, just a loss of energy until he stopped. Neither rein, nor leg aids changed the situation. He had zero fear of being chased through the line. Whether it was a loss of energy or balance with a rider over additional obstacles, or what, I'm not sure.  But it was quite clear that we were going to need to break this concept down for him somehow, as good training should.  I've seen a lot of horses stop at fences over the years, but this was unlike anything I've seen in his total nonchalance 

While this has been a scattering of anecdotes about my own ponies, the theme I have found is that individuals started with positive reinforcement are creative and enthusiastic, responding to very light aids. Beginner riders instead need reliable, calm mounts who can ignore all the crossed wires that a novice gives with seat, hand and legs.

Horses who have been initially taught with traditional methods have very often shut down their reactions to things in the environment. You can see it in their flat expressions. This does make for a safer ride. When transitioning this type of horse to positive reinforcement, I have found that even when they "wake up" to offering behaviors and more enthusiastic responses, they maintain their ability to accept aversive experiences, such as an unbalanced rider. On the other hand, if a lot of pressure was used to build or maintain their behavior, and that is no longer used, they may decide they'd rather not participate at all. Then you have to decide if you are going to maintain them with the negative reinforcement with which they are familiar, or take the time to retrain everything with positive reinforcement. This is made more complicated when working with students who may not have the observational and timing skills necessary to train, rather than just being able to focus on their own skills.

Next up: the goals of the lesson program and the students