This is the final part of this series where I talk about the tools I have learned to use since I started using clicker training. I didn’t use them all right away and I use more than these ten I write about here. I hope they may inspire you to try something new. Click to read part I, part II, part III and part IV of this series.
# 8 Barrier
Before clicker training I never considered working with a barrier between me and a horse, even if it was a dangerous horse. I just had never thought of it using it as an aid in training. Too bad, because training with a protective barrier can reduce stress in human and horse.
Now I use a barrier when I teach people clicker mechanics. When you start using clicker training it’s really difficult to handle a horse, a target stick, a clicker and present a reward all at once. With a barrier, the new trainer doesn’t have to deal with a horse in hand while he is learning new skills or listening to me.
When you use a barrier between you and the horse you prevent the horse from coming towards you. A lot of horses are interested as soon as they discover there is food involved in this new training method. They don’t know yet how to act in order to get more clicks. A barrier helps prevent self rewarding behaviour like putting his nose into your pocket to take the treats out. Of course a barrier can also be used for other safety reasons.
Another advantage of using a barrier is that the horse is at liberty and therefor has more freedom to communicate to the trainer how he feels about the training session. If he stays and looks engaged he would still like to earn some more clicks and rewards. If he is walking away he might need a break or it could be a sign that his brain is full, he’s bored or something else is more interesting.
I’ve learned that if I want to get the maximum result out of my training sessions I have to give my horse a break. Not only breaks between individual training sessions, but also after a few days of training. When I taught my horse a new skill and I practised it a few days in a row I always give my horse a “weekend” or a day off. In these days I don’t train new skills and I don’t repeat any of the new behaviour. I might leave her in the pasture or we just do something she already knows well.
In my experience horses perform better after their “weekend”. When the horse has had time to ‘sleep on it’. Sleep is thought to improve the consolidation of information. In my experience giving a horse a holiday of a few weeks per year instead of working 365 days is a good way to keep the motivation high.
The hardest tool but also the most rewarding tool is to know when to stop. If you stop when your horse is performing at his best, you are a good trainer.
Stop when you have thoughts like:”It was probably a coincidence that he did it, we’ll try it again” or “I want to be sure he got it”. The behaviour just before those thoughts must be jackpotted. The horse performed extremely well and should be rewarded with a break.
After a jackpot you have to stop what you were doing and give the horse a break. After the break you can ask something else. Really, if you ask it the next day chances are higher that the horse starts with the criterion you ended and jackpotted the day before.
If you think you have to ask your horse “just one more time” because you are so excited he did so well and it is so rewarding for you to let him do it again, you don’t set yourself and your horse up for success. When your horse is performing a new skill and he meets your criteria for the behaviour, he will only perform less then expected because in your subconscious you will raise your criteria slightly. “If he could do this, he can do that, too”. This is why a training plan is really important.
You set yourself up for success to stop when you are really exited “he did it!” Really! I know it’s a hard thing to do, but the reward for you will come next time: he will remember.
#10 Training plan
One tool all clicker trainers should use is a training plan. In a training plan you write down your goal. Describe what behaviour you want to teach your horse and include all the training steps you require.
In your training plan you should also mention the information about the animal you are training (species, gender, age), the surroundings (indoor arena, outdoor arena, stall) in which you train, what tools you want to use (target stick, mats etc) and what behaviour your horse needs to learn first. It can create a lot of training ideas.
Include all the steps/ training sessions you can think of and write down the criteria the horse has to meet in order to get a click & reward. Don’t forget to mention what rewards you will be using and after how many repetitions you will go on to the next behaviour. If there are specific things to think about for the trainer or to take into consideration for this specific animal write them down too.
It seems like a lot of work, but a form in Word is easily made. You will gain a lot of knowledge by using training plans and keeping a journal. The time investment it takes to write it down will pay itself back tenfold in results. Have fun!
Let me know what tools you use that changed your perspective or attitude in training your horse. I’d love to hear about it.