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

Posts tagged ‘context shift’

How Mat Training Paid Off

Mat training is one of my key lessons in positive reinforcement training. It is a very versatile exercise and a good base for more advanced exercises.

Standing on a mat

Standing on a simple puzzle mat is a fun exercise to teach your horse. The goal is simple: the horse has to stand with his two front hooves on the mat.
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Preparation for other exercises

_Keylessonmatwork2Mat training can be a good preparation for the horse to stand more willingly on all kinds of surfaces like tarps, pedestals, plywood, trailer ramps, wooden bridges etc.

I found mat training also very useful as a preparation to teach your horse to soak his foot in a bucket of water.

Hoof care

Kyra is having some hoof issues that require me to soak her feet. I looked up some do-it-yourself hoof soaking solutions since I don’t own a soaking booth. One of the suggestions was a diaper soaked in water and put the hoof in a Ziplock bag reinforced with duct tape.

It was no problem for Kyra to go from standing on a mat to putting her feet in a rubber bucket. Next step was to teach Kyra to step into a bucket filled with water. I practised this a few weeks ago already, not knowing that I would soon need this behaviour.

Because Kyra already has a long positive reinforcement history of mat and bucket training, today she was not startled when i attached a soaked diaper around her hoof. She was a lot less surprised then I would be. Also stepping into a plastic bag with fluid was no problem at all.

She was totally OK with me tying the plastic bag full of water to her feet. This was totally new to her: she had never worn bell boots or leg protection before, but a plastic bag with water on her hoof was totally fine. It only took me a few clicks to get her walking around with the bag confidently.

_Hoof_soaking_booth_DIY_HippoLogic

The only downside of using the diaper was that I used a fancy one. One with silicone inside in order to keep your baby extra dry.

As soon as Kyra put her hoof with the diaper around it down, the diaper tore and all the soaked silicone came out. It was a big mess. Not something I would recommend using for equine use. Maybe the cheap diapers don’t have this feature. So make sure you check the inside of the diaper if you want to use it to soak hoofs in.

My point is that once your horse has a solid basis and a long positive reinforcement history with a certain exercise, it is not a big deal to tweak a few things and train different context shifts. In this way you train new behaviours very quickly.

Hooray for this key lesson I invested so much time in.

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to info@clickertraining.ca

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Setting your horse up for success: context shift

Horses learn in a certain context. Each change in the context of training your horse should be considered as a new criterion. Use this to set yourself and your horse up for success.

What is a ‘context shift’?

If you want to teach your horse something new, like targeting, practise this in the beginning always in the same place, the same context. Maybe you start this exercise in the round pen or in his stall where you can train with protective contact (a barrier).

After a few session in which your horse made progress you might decide that you want to train without the barrier. Now you’ve changed the context. Expect a change in performance and lower your criteria in the beginning so you can give your horse confidence. If you always trained indoors and you ask the same exercise outdoors, your context (indoor/outdoor) has changed.

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Not only the horse experiences ‘context changes’

If your horse masters the exercise and you want to show it to your friend or film it: the context changes for you. Have you noticed that it is suddenly much harder to perform at the same level when some one is watching? 

Why horse and rider perform much better at home

The same thing happens (for rider and horse) if you train for a competition and you as team perform great at home. Once you are in the dressage ring in a new place, with white fences your horse never saw before and you know there is a two person judge watching you, the context in which you have practised has changed. A lot. No wonder is doesn’t go as smoothly as it always goes at home, with your own instructor who you trust. Again, start lowering your criteria and set yourself up for success: consider the first competitions in a strange environment as training. Boost your horse’s confidence by communicating what you want. Positive reinforcement is an excellent way to communicate what you want and see more of.

How to handle context shifts

You will soon notice that you only have to lower your criteria (and your expectations) just a little bit and for a little while. If you don’t do this, the chances of getting dissapointed and/or frustrated are much bigger. Also for your horse it is much easier to learn to generalize certain aspects of the surroundings that have nothing to do with the cue for the behaviour.

Conclusion

You can use the context in teaching new exercises to your advantage, then if you want to teach your horse to generalize certain things in the setting you can change the context of your training. In this way the horse learns to generalize and he will soon learn is important to pay attention to (your cues) and what is best to ignore in order to get a click and reward (for instance certain things in surrounding, that are not part of your cue).

Related articles

Set you horse up for success: Splitting behaviour

Setting your horse up for Success: Short sesssions

Sandra Poppema
For tailored positive reinforcement training advise, please visit my website and book a personal consult!

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How to … teach your horse anything

Whenever an idea forms about what I want to teach my horse Kyra I set it as a goal. I then start writing a training plan and make a shaping plan to achieve this goal.

Goal setting

My goal in this example is teaching Kyra to stand still, next to a mounting block, until I mounted and give the cue to walk.

Shaping plan

After I set my goal I make a shaping plan. I think about all the possible steps I have to teach Kyra to achieve my final behaviour: standing parallel to the mounting block so mounting is safe and easy for me. I have to teach her to stand still when I’m mounting, put my feet into the stirrups, taken the reins and I am ready to ask her to walk.

I write all these steps down. I don’t even have to bring it to the barn. Just writing it down makes me focused.

A few of the building blocks of this goal are:

  • making her comfortable near the mounting block
  • halting
  • mat training
  • hip targetting (to be able to align her to the mounting block)
  • aligning with the  mounting block without stress
  • waiting until I have mounted
  • and walking on queue

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Context learning

Horses learn in a certain context. I use this into my advantage when I am teaching Kyra something new. I practise as much as possible in the same circumstance (context).

If I have a portable mounting block I always put it in the same place in the arena to practise. I will only put it in another place if she has already mastered lining up in the first spot.

I lower my criteria a bit when I change something in the context she learned the behaviour. In this way I always set Kyra up for success and I always have a good feeling too!

Set it up for success

I always take into account my horses emotions when I teach her something new. I recently saw a video in which the trainer put the mounting block next to the track in order to mount. Unfortunately this was the place where her horse was the most nervous (‘trapped in between the fence and the mounting block.) She made her training much more difficult than it needed to be.

For Kyra the most comfortable spot in the arena was in the middle where she has the most space and couldn’t hurt herself. Secondly I noticed that facing the door was more comfortable for her than facing the opposite side of the arena. I guess she likes to know where the exit is… After all it is an enclosed area and horses are flight animals.

Practising

Then I started to practise the steps in my shaping plan. I usually go up one criterion if Kyra masters it three times in a row.

Latent learning

After a few days of practise I give Kyra a break or I train something completely different. Often something she has already mastered. After giving her a ‘weekend’ off she performs much better. This latent learning is very valuable to me. It saves time!

Rinse and repeat

After a short break I lower my criteria a bit and start with some repetition to give her the confidence that she knows what is expected. After that I can move on very quickly.

Context shift

After Kyra has mastered the basics of the new behaviour, I change one thing in the context. I put the mounting block somewhere else in the arena. Not too far away from where she was used to.

Generalize

After a few times of putting the mounting block in different spots in the arena, I noticed that Kyra generalized the mounting block. Time for a real change: a different kind of mounting block.

I started practising with benches in the park, fences, rocks etc. Now Kyra is used to all kinds of mounting blocks and she is very safe to mount.

This is the general ‘recipe’ I use in teaching my horse new behaviours. You don’t have to use positive reinforcement training to use this in your training.

Sandra Poppema
For tailored positive reinforcement training advise, please visit my website and book a personal consult!

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Less is more

It sounds contradictory: how can less be more? In horse training it often is true. We try too hard. Three examples of less is more.

Don’t over ask
We expect too much of our horses. We don’t realize during training that a learning process consist out of many, many baby steps, which shapes a behaviour. Work on one criteria at a time. Only after the horse masters a set of different criteria is it time to combine them.

If we are ‘lumpers’ instead of ‘splitters’ we ask too much. Less is more: work on one criterion at a time. Get faster to the end behaviour, by skipping the frustration part which will set the horse back a few steps.

Example: if you want to teach a very mouthy horse to target, you can work a few sessions on just the criterion ‘keeping lips together’ or ‘relaxed muzzle’ and other sessions on ‘looking at target’, ‘moving nose towards target’ and ‘touching target’. After the horse masters these criteria separately can you combine them to ‘touching the target with a relaxed muzzle’.

Teach one criterion per session. In this way you can click and reward your horse more often and training will feel more successful and is more fun. For both of you! Less is more: teach less criteria at once.

Adjust criteria to circumstances
People don’t realize that horses do not easily generalize behaviour or cues as humans do. In other words, we don’t take into account that our horse is learning in a specific context. That’s why we don’t lower our criteria and expectations if we ask the same behaviour in another context. We are skipping steps in the learning process and don’t set our horses up for success.

Example: you have taught your horse to touch a target stick. You’ve always practised in the pasture. Now your friend is visiting and you want to show your horses’ progress.

Today it is rainy and instead of working in the pasture as usual, you decide to work in the barn. If you are asking your horse to touch the target, he might not perform as well as in the context where the behaviour was taught (pasture).

If you aren’t anticipating this context shift and you don’t lower your criteria momentarily, you might be disappointed about your horse’s performance. Less is more: lower criteria if context changes.

Keep cues as light as possible
People don’t realize that if they make their cues or riding aids ‘clearer’ (read: stronger or: bigger) if the horse doesn’t respond well, they are not the same anymore as the light cues the horse is used to.

Horse riding is not like tennis: if the ball isn’t going over the net, smack it harder. Figure out what the reason is the horse isn’t responding to your cue (read How to… listen to Horses). Adjust to the situation and work on the source of the problem rather than working on the symptoms (obeying your cues). If you’ve solved that, you can keep your cues and riding aids light.

Less is more: stay with light cues and the chance the horse responds correctly increases.

_Lessismore_hippologic

In what circumstances are you thinking: ‘Less is more’?

Sandra Poppema

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Clicker training 101: Introducing and using cues

Positive reinforcement training is all about giving a reward to reinforce the behaviour you want more of. The key word is giving. If you have never used a bridge signal before, you start with the simple act of giving. In return you will get your horses’ attention. Then ‘training’ can begin.

Introducing a bridge signal (click)

When you introduce the clicker or another bridge signal to your horse, you start with just clicking and giving rewards. No strings attached. After 30 – 50 repetitions (often sooner) of click = reward, the horse will try to figure out what made you give the treat and if he can influence this by his behaviour. In other words: he will start trying different behaviours in order earn a treat. He is ‘asking’ you what you want from him!

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Target stick

You will notice that it is very easy to teach your horse new behaviours and within a few clicks he is offering you his new trick more and more consistently.

Let’s take targeting as an example. You want to teach your horse to touch the target stick with his nose on cue. You start with presenting the target stick (a stick with a ball attached on the end) to your horse.

Criteria

In the beginning your criteria are low: it doesn’t matter where he touches the target stick as long as he touches it. If you want to set it up for success, you make the desired behaviour  (touching the target stick near the target & touching the target itself) much easier than the less desired behaviour (touching the stick near your hand or touching your hand). So that’s why you start by working with a barrier in the beginning.

Introducing a cue
Once your horse is offering a certain behaviour consistently you can add a cue. In this example: your horse is touching the target predictably and he knows that touching the stick isn’t getting him rewards.

You might have worked with a training cue , e.g. presenting the target stick to your horse is a cue in itself. The horse might have associated specific conditions and consider them as cues we are not even aware of. Maybe you are always in the same place (stall, with a barrier) or at the same time of day when you were working with the target stick.

Temporary (training) cue

Sometimes this temporary cue (presenting the target) is not a very useful cue in other circumstances and then it its time to introduce your ‘official cue’. You don’t want your horse to touch the target stick all the time… It would be rather annoying if he puts his nose to the target whenever he sees the stick. Your horse can become very frustrated if you click offered behaviour sometimes, but would click it every time. That’s why you need a cue. The cue means ‘you can start earning rewards now’.

Changing cues: from temporary cue to final cue

_targetstick

So if your horse is offering to touch the target consistently it is time to introduce an ‘official (final) cue’ e.g. the verbal cue ‘Touch’. You start by using the new cue before the ‘training (temporary) cue’.

Horses will quickly anticipate this and when he starts acting on the official cue you capture his behaviour with a click.

After some repetitions where you can click & reward after the behaviour occurred after you have given the new cue you can raise your criterion.

Be consistent

Now you only click & reinforce when you have given your final cue for the behaviour. If your horse acts on the temporary cue or offers the behaviour spontaneously you don’t reinforce it. This is the final step in training a behaviour.

You might notice, because you changed the criteria and he doesn’t get reinforced so easily, that your horse will try harder to make you click & reinforce. You might see a duration in touching the target or something else you want to reinforce. Ignore this.

It is important to be consequent: final cue + behaviour= click and reinforce, spontaneously offered behaviour does’t lead to a click anymore in this stage of training.

If he tries really hard and you see improvement in the behaviour take advantage and simply give your horse a chance to earn a click by offering the new cue to him. He will learn to pay more attention and figure out quickly when he can and when he can’t expect a reinforcer.

Final step of training a behaviour

The final step in the process of teaching a behaviour is to use the new cue in different circumstances. If your horse performs well in different situations, he has generalized the cue. Well done!

Context shift

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Changing context: now Leon is holding the target stick and giving the command.

A horse learns a certain behaviour in a certain context. Therefor it’s best to start training new exercises always in the same spot, for instance the round pen where you have the advantage of working with protective contact (a barrier).

If you want to test your new cue you have to shift one or more of the conditions (the context) your horse was learning a specific behaviour in. Now you ask to touch the target without a barrier between you two, or you ask it in the outdoor arena instead of the roundpen or at a different time of day and so on.

This will ask the horse to adjust and generalize and ignore certain ‘cues’ in the context and pay more attention to others, your new cue. Sometimes a horse seems to lose all his skills in a new context because the cues he had paid attention to are not there anymore. Always lower your criteria temporarily if you change the context of learning, so your horse will gets his confidence back quickly.

Sandra Poppema

Would you like a personal online clicker consult or a video coaching session, canter to my website to find out more.

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