When we train with positive reinforcement, we get eager learners. That is certainly the case with mine. When winter finally started to let go a little in March of 2019, I began working with horses after morning chores. As soon as Percy noticed this new routine, he was excited for training sessions to begin. When I was cleaning stalls, he would come over to the barn and poke his head in over his dutch door, wondering if I was ready yet. And he would wait there, ignoring the hay in his paddock, nickering hopefully, while I went through all the chores.
I wanted a way to explain to him that he could go eat his breakfast and I wouldn't forget but that I would come get him when I was ready. I needed a cue to tell him when I was available. I didn't want it to be his halter, because then if I went out with anyone's halter, he would think it was time. I needed it to be clearly visible from a bit of a distance so that he could see it from afar. I didn't want it to be anything I wore because, well, weather.
Having learned that yellow and blue are both colors which can be seen by horses, I have two other bright yellow objects that I use for different Percy cues. It has become "his" color. I decided to stick with a good thing. The nice thing about bright yellow is that it can be seen from a distance, and with the exception of peak foliage season, it usually stands out against the background. In my tack room, I had some sheets of rubbery material which I thought would be weatherproof, large enough, and yes, there was a yellow one. I had my cue.
Next to explain it to Percy. I opted go the route of letting him figure it out. He's a smart boy and I didn't really want to try to train him to come to it or target it because I wanted this, as with my other cues, to be clearly optional. One thing I have learned from the consent/control type work I've done is that history of reinforcement is a very strong motivator. Anything we teach as a starter cue which is separate from the actual behavior can be deceptive if not carefully trained. "Sure I'll touch that target, but hey! I didn't know I was going to get a shot when I did!". This can put the horse in conflict if they know touching the target will earn a treat, but they fear the pain which might occasionally follow.
If I taught Percy that coming to the yellow sign would earn a treat, then he would certainly come to the sign. But if what I wanted was for him to learn the sign simply indicated my availability for a training session, I decided it would be better to have no reinforcement history for the sign itself. The only consequence for coming when he saw the sign would be a training session. If he enjoyed training and wanted to participate, he could come over. If the sign was not out, then coming over might earn him some brief attention in the form of tactile rubs, but then I'd go back to my chores.
Percy's default is that if he sees me approach a door or gate, he comes right over. Now I simply needed to "label" that behavior with my sign. My training process was to take the sign with me when I went to the door with the intention of a training session. If I did anything else near the door, there was no sign, and I did not yield to his requests for a training session.
He figured it out in three days.
Without the sign, he ignored me completely and stayed out at his hay pile. As soon as he saw me approach with the sign, he came right over. I tried to be sure that he never made contact with the sign. Interacting with it was not the point. As soon as he approached, I put the sign off to the side, put his halter on, and brought him in to the barn. He did not get clicked or treated for coming, nor for haltering or any other part of the transitional process. His only consequence was a training session. Therefore, if he came over when he saw it, I knew that the training process itself was reinforcing. A behavior which is reinforced is more likely to be repeated. He continued to come over when he saw the sign = training sessions were reinforcing for him. I loved that he could now stay out and eat breakfast without hanging around hoping for a training session. He now had a way to know when that would happen. The other thing I loved was that being Spring, I'd give him a thorough 30 minute grooming before training, something which was initially taught with positive reinforcement, but has been conditioned so that they are no longer needed. So he wasn't actually getting any treats for a good half hour after coming in. His decision to approach was based on our history together being an enjoyable time, even if he wasn't sure exactly what it would be.
This led me to another possibility. Some days we did training sessions in the barn and some days we went for walks. If you read my "Learning to be Brave" post back in February, you'll know that going for walks used to be a very scary thing for Percy and that part of the process in helping him through it was to push through some hesitation on his part. In that process, if he stopped or looked worried, I did not turn around and take him back, but I proceeded in such an incremental process that he was able to go slightly further and further. Reading his body language over time was enough to tell me that he was becoming more comfortable.
But would he CHOOSE to go for these walks? I wasn't really sure. And I thought my new sign could help me find out. If I went for walks some days and did training sessions in the barn with lots of treats on other days, how would I know if he was just hoping it wasn't a walk day? I needed to give him clear information that today was a walk day, and see what his response was.
Again, I chose to let him figure it out. He'd figured out the sign in three days so I trusted he'd figure this out too. The only thing I did differently was where I placed the sign and myself. If I hung the sign over his dutch door, we were going in the barn. He usually got some grooming first but at some point, we'd do a training session. He didn't know exactly what we'd be working on, but I was pretty confident that didn't matter.
If instead, I was planning on taking him for a walk down the road, I would take the sign and go to the gate which connected the paddock and the barnyard. That is actually what you see in the video above. When he came to the gate, I'd put on his halter, and we'd go directly down the driveway for a walk- no grooming, no clicks and treats. By now I had dropped the Foundation Lessons portion of our walks. There was green grass growing along the roadside and we just went a little further each time, then stop and have a lovely hand grazing session.
In the months which followed, he never hesitated to come over if I took the sign to the gate. There was one day when he ignored it when I hung it over the door. I have no idea why, but I had to be very firm with myself: he knows what this means. He chose not to come over so you need to respect that and walk away, regardless of your training plan or other schedule for the day. I did, and he never ignored the sign after that.