Empowering Equestrians to Train their own horse with 100% Force Free & Horse Friendly methods

Posts tagged ‘building block’

New Uses for ‘Old’ Tools in Clicker Training, part III

In part 1 of this trilogy I talked about how my vision and use of ‘timing’ and taking emotions into consideration changed the way I train. In part 2 I mentioned how I changed the  way I use rewards now. There is another tool I now use completely different. It is my training journal. Before my reward-based training journey began I already wrote about my training.

Diary
It started like a diary: I wrote down the things I did with my pony that day and I wrote down (preventive) medical treatments like deworming, hoof trims and so on. I still have those journals, and it is nice to reread them. Unfortunately it doesn’t give me any useful information, years later.

Training journal
Now I write my plans for the future, the training plans and I about how the training went in my training journal.

Training journalIf I reread those entries, I can see what my ambitions were, how I approached them and what I achieved. If I read back in my training plan I know which steps I took to achieve my end behaviour and in my journal I can read all about my learning points and what went well. I also have an idea now how long it took me to teach the behaviour. It is also a great reminder what I already have accomplished together with my horse. One really quickly tends to forget about these things and it is temping to only focus on what you ‘still have to accomplish’.

One of the things I did the first year was to make pictures of all my achieved goals and put them in a lovely photo album. Every month one or two goals or milestones. It is a nice reminder of all we have done.
Writing it down
Writing makes things clear. I noticed that if I write my goals down, it is already easier to achieve them. By writing them down, they become clear in your subconscious.

If I have a list of goals in my tack locker which I can see every day, it is much easier to make choices about what to train. Even if I change my original plan for the day, I will most likely choose something that is a stepping stone to another behaviour I want to work on in the future.

Do you write your plans down? Do you think it is helpful? Is it hard for you? If you don’t know where to start, find yourself an accountability partner.

Read more
4 Easy Ways to Start a Training Journal

Sandra Poppema
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How to turn “Standing on a mat” into a reward for your horse

Mat training is one of the Key Lessons, the basics for success in clicker training. In the beginning the goal of mat training is to teach your horse to “stand on the mat”. Then you click and reward. Simple. But, do you know you can also use “standing on the mat” as a reinforcer for another behaviour?

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Make standing on the mat rewarding
You start with building a lot of positive associations with the mat. You start using primary reinforcers to reward your horse for standing on the mat, like treats. Don’t forget to bridge and reward for stepping off of the mat.

After a while the mat is supercharged with pleasurable associations. Every time the horse goes to the mat or stepped on the mat a click and reward had come his way._key_lesson_standing_on_mat_hippologic

The mat as reinforcer
Once the mat is very attractive, you can start using it as a secondary reinforcer. You will notice when the mat is supercharged: your horse will be drawn to the mat as a mosquito to a lamp.

Start asking a very simple exercise to perform on the mat, for instance ‘head lowering’, then you click and reward. In this way you create a chain of behaviours. This one consists of three links: stepping on the mat, standing on the mat (duration) plus head lowering. You can variate the rewards you offer your horse.

If the mat is used as a reward, you click and let your horse step on the mat. The click and going to the mat both act as ‘end of exercise’. Your horse can also enjoy a little break on the mat, which can be rewarding in itself. Don’t forget to still use a primary reinforcer most of the time.

If you want to create reliable behaviours you still have to reinforce the secondary reinforcer (mat) with primary reinforcers, like treats. Don’t phase out the primary reinforcers one hundred percent.

Practical use
You can put a few mats in the arena while riding. You can use the mats as reward. You can practise a certain exercise riding from mat to mat. If you are working on canter you can canter from mat to mat. The mat indicates the start and the end of an exercise and can help both rider and horse. Or you can lay down the mats only a few meters apart and work on lateral movements where you ride from mat to mat.

Because the mats are supercharged, you should click and reward for ignoring the mat while passing by, walking, trotting and cantering over the mat. Your horse has to learn that only if you ask to stand on a mat, he will get rewarded.

I have used mats to teach Kyra to jump at liberty. I started off easy with one mat before a pole on the ground and another mat just after the pole and I sent her or walked with her from mat to mat. This is why it is important to reward right from the start for stepping off of the mat. Each session I either increased the distance between the mats or I heightened the jump a bit. Now I can send Kyra around the arena with 2 jumps all by herself. She really seems to like it a lot.

Sandra Poppema

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Keeping an open mind is a challenge

Of course we all think we are open minded, right? At least I love to think that I am open to new approaches and ideas. But when it comes to horse training I noticed that it can be a real challenge to keep the mind open. One of the challenges I took on a few years ago was to make reward-based training my only training method.

Turning a “whoa-horse” into a “go-horse”
When I started Kyra on long reins and under saddle I noticed that she was more of a “whoa-horse” than a “go horse”. The only time when she was very forward was when she was in ‘flight mode’. Not really a preferable state of mind to work with.

It was really difficult for me to find ways to activate a slow, calm horse with rewards only. The challenge was to let her decide to ‘go’ voluntarily. That is after all the whole idea behind clicker training.1_movingtarget

Experience
Before Kyra I worked with some Lusitano horses and they had way more “go” than “whoa”. Something I could easily handle. I had no experience with clicker training horses that where not motivated to go by themselves.

I noticed that my default reaction was to apply pressure if I ran out of ideas to entice a horse to go forward. “Use your whip, the horse has to listen,” said one voice in my head. The voice of my heart said: “She is doing all this voluntarily now and that is really precious to me, but I do want to trot some day…”. What to do?

I decided to stick to positive reinforcement only. I had to become very creative. No one else I knew could help me tackle this problem. I am glad there is internet now and a lot of very experienced positive reinforcement horse trainers want to share their valuable knowledge. Combining the gleaned knowledge from internet and some of my own ingenuity I made a plan. The required time-frame was still a mystery however.

Open mind
When I started Kyra under saddle I hadn’t realized that I had ‘cantering multiple tracks around the arena’ as a goal. It seemed so obvious that she would be doing that within two or three months after starting, right. That was a ‘norm’ I grew up with.

I was lucky to have some knowledgeable horse people around who assured me that she would offer ‘canter’ to me the day she was ready. That was a hard thought to digest, she cantered at liberty, why not under saddle? Other horses that got started could do it in 4 – 6 weeks. Did I really had to wait until she offered it, so I could click and reward it? When would that be?

It was difficult to trust the theory of this science based training because I felt there were no guarantees for me to get results. I had to open my mind and start trying things I had never done before. I didn’t have any experience yet with activating a slow horse with rewards. The fact that a few other clicker trainers on the internet got wonderful results with this kept me going and the theory behind the science gave me a little confidence too.

A long road
I must say it was a really long process to teach Kyra to trot even for a few minutes, but we accomplished it. She also now wants to canter multiple circles in one go in the arena under saddle, which I am really enjoying.

I think the road I took was way longer than the road of negative reinforcement would have been, where the results can be instant. But in my heart I am convinced that this longer road has been much more comfortable to travel for Kyra. After all it is not about the goal, it’s about the road to the goal that is much more important. I also know that the experience I have now will be very helpful in the future.Working on stamina in trot

So many temptations
I was tempted many times to go back to my default behaviours (pressure and release and sometimes even -just out of frustration- to use a whip or a similar device to make Kyra go). A lot of times this tendency came up more than once in a session and it was hard to resist, because I knew I could ‘teach’ her to go with pressure. Instant results are always tempting.

At the same time I was very scared that it would compromise our good relationship and the trust bond we built over the years. So every time I ‘hit the wall’ and became frustrated because I had the feeling I lacked training tools, I just stopped training.

I would go home and search the net for new ideas and I would read my training journals which encouraged me to stay on the chosen road. I have stopped a lot of training sessions over the years to prevent my frustration from taking over. Kyra ‘has won’ so many times. Just kidding, I don’t believe that nonsense. We are on the same team, so we win together or lose together. I prefer to win together.

Letting go of the desire of instant results
It was hard to open my mind and try a completely different approach like using a target or teaching Kyra to stand on a mat and then let her go from mat to mat in order to get her moving. The hardest part was to let go of the immediate results (“whip and go”) and focus on the tiny steps, the building blocks, that would lead to the end behaviour. To trust that the positive reinforcement training method would reach the same result.

It was difficult to keep the faith that once Kyra could walk slowly from mat to mat, she would want to canter from mat to mat. I didn’t have any experience with these training tools in this situation to rely on. I could see the theory that a behavior consists out of little building blocks and that you can train them one block at a time to get to the end result. I had experienced this in a lot of other behaviours I taught Kyra over the years. That knowledge kept me keep going and gave me the patience needed to accomplish trotting for a minute or cantering a circle in the future. And I did!

My biggest challenge
Giving Kyra the stamina to trot and canter under saddle is one of my biggest challenges. I think because training stamina under saddle is an ongoing challenge and the behaviour is never ‘done’. When I could canter three strides,_reinforcingscratch2 I wanted to ride a whole circle and then two. Now I am training the canter for minutes instead of seconds or strides, like I did in the beginning.

I hope I can inspire the passionate horse lovers to stay on the road of clicker training and to enjoy the ride. Even in rough times. Maybe it takes longer but the view is much, much better!

Sandra Poppema

Training ideas for Trail riding

_trailride1Today my barn friend took me and Kyra to the forest for a trail ride, here in BC, Canada. All went well and I realized that it took me many tiny training steps to turn my 11 months old feral filly into this reliable non spooking trail horse I have today.

Basics
I had to tame Kyra first, since she was born in a nature reserve and was not imprinted on humans and things like stalls, paddocks, all the sounds in a barn and so on. Then I had to teach her some basic skills like haltering and leading. When she was about two years old I started very slowly on her education on the long reins. When she was four years old I started her under saddle. By then she already knew the basic commands walk, trot, canter, halt and she could make left and right turns.

Despooking
Kyra and I did a lot of despooking exercises over the years. In The Netherlands we had different challenges than here in Canada. Here is a list of challenges I specifically clicker trained her on:

  • walking through water
  • puddles on the street and on trails
  • pedestrian crossings and other markings on the road
  • shadows
  • overpasses
  • approaching plastic bags
  • flags & balloons
  • fireworks
  • all kinds of heavy farm equipment
  • cars & motorcycles
  • bike bells
  • cyclists with children and flags
  • cyclists on road bikes, which bike very fast and can sneak up on you because they almost make no sound. They often ‘travel’ in packs which can be very scary to horses
  • strollers & shopping carts
  • children on inline skates & skateboarders
  • road signs
  • rail road crossings
  • manholes
  • weird appliances for fresh water in the forest
  • people walking their dogs off leash

Useful trail skills
In horse agility training we practised a lot of useful things too. One of the things you encounter on trails can be a “squeeze”. A squeeze is a very narrow space. Horses usually don’t like to go through narrow spaces because it can be an ambush for predators. If horses are not used to going through narrow spaces they tend

Ready to go for a ride

Ready to go for a ride

to race through them to make the time they are vulnerable as short as possible. This can be dangerous if the horse doesn’t take into account that your legs make him wider.

On our trail ride we encountered several squeezes: gates that enclose the road with big boulders next to it to prevent cars from passing. Sometimes there was also a road sign next to it. That can be dangerous if your horse spooks and it hits you right in the face.

Getting your horse used to fly spray is also very useful in the woods here.

Trailer loading
We take the trailer to get to the forest, so in our case trailer loading is also a part of trail riding for us.

Here is the video of the trail ride:

Sandra Poppema

Working with goals

Like many other horse owners and riders I also sometimes “don’t feel like going to the barn”, or the feeling “I don’t know what to do” (riding or training). Why is that? My horse is my passion!

Sometimes I get this feeling because it feels like I don’t have a goal in mind to work on. But in reality it is because I haven’t divided my goal into small enough steps. So my next step looks too big to accomplish and it demoralizes  me. On my way to the barn I often think of my goal and how my training approach will be this day. Sometimes I just don’t know and it comes while I am riding or training (groundwork). So in this case it is just a matter of start doing it and see what happens.

Or, I just don’t know how to accomplish the next step. Often that means: my steps are too big or I need some input or help with the next step. So I reconsider my steps and my goal and think about how to set it up for success. An accountability partner can be wonderful help. It doesn’t have to be my instructor. I have two training buddies to whom I can turn for help. Simply sharing my problem can be good enough to think of a solution, but also if my training buddy is asking me questions about my next step or about my approach is always very helpful.

Sometimes I am too stressed out for whatever reason. The best remedy for that, is actually going to the barn and enjoying my horse.

I like setting short time and longtime goals, but sometimes our best days are: to forget about achieving them and go without any expectations.

Another time I will write more about my goals and how goal oriented training motivates me.

Sandra Poppema
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