Your Key to Success in Equine Clicker Training (clickertraining.ca)

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How to Teach Your Horse to do Crunches with 100% R+

The body worker/chiropractor came by for Kyra a few weeks ago. She wasn’t walking well and her back is swaying (sags). In this blog I share my shaping plan and point out most common pitfalls in teaching your horse to do crunches.

The equine body worker/chiropractor did great work by helping Kyra’s body relax and getting rid of some blockages. Our home work was belly lifts (abs). He showed me how to do it: by placing your fingertips (using your nails) at the sternum and pushing up.

Of course that worked… He explained it was a reflex. I believe it’s a response to an aversive, not a reflex in the biological sense of the word.

I don’t work with aversives in training, therefor I had to figure out another way to communicate that I wanted belly lifts from Kyra and I did.

I thought of which behaviours we already have on cue (standing square, backing) and used those as foundation for the belly lifts. Kyra now lifts her back about 2 cm on verbal and body language cue and she is getting better at it every day.

This video is session 4 and Kyra totally rocks! She even offers duration: she flexes her abs a split second longer, and that’s all it takes to start building duration, see video below.

Shaping plan

Kyra already mastered standing square (which is part of Key Lesson Patience) and also backing up (Key Lesson Backing). The Key Lessons in the HippoLogic program are the basics you can built all other behaviours on.

Here is the basic step-by-step plan (shaping plan) I used to train Kyra to free shape belly lifts (back lifts):

  • Standing square, weight on both hind legs equally divided (vertical balance)
  • Minimal weight shift to hind quarters
  • Add: flexing abs (belly lifts, back comes up)
  • Reduce: moving backwards
  • Add: head/neck position (Feeding for Position is a great help)
  • Add: duration
  • Add: repetitions

As with all shaping plans, each step can be divided into multiple steps and have to be trained over multiple sessions. Depending on the horse and trainer more steps can be added.

Pitfalls

Training without a system is setting yourself up for failure. Before you start, think about these common pitfalls and prepare yourself.

Shaping plan: Not making a plan before you start. What does the behaviour look like? What are my criteria? When do I stop? How long do I train? If you don’t think before you start, you have to think a lot more after you started. Reshaping a trained (reinforced) behaviour can be way more complicated and more difficult than training a brand new behaviour. A shaping plan prevents frustration in trainer and horse.

Timing: if you click too late, your horse thinks he has to back up. Click too early he thinks he just has to stand or do whatever he was doing (moving his head, tail, legs). Important to click the instant he starts shifting his weight backwards. It’s almost for clicking for ‘thinking to step backwards’.

Reinforcers: if you give your horse verbal praise or a treat he doesn’t value, you don’t get more of the marked (desired) behaviour. Find out what your horse loves to work for. If the wanted behaviour increases, the reinforcer was valuable.

Criteria: make sure you have small enough steps for your horse to understand what you wants. Make the criteria as clear as possible for yourself. Reinforce micro-movements in teaching crunches. Make criteria as clear as possible: eg don’t click for weight shifts while sniffing your pockets (go back and practise Key Lesson Table Manners first. This will safe time later. Don’t wait too long to click or you’ll have ‘too much behaviour’ (a step backwards, instead of weight shift). Goal is to lift the back, not (only) shifting weight!

Benefits of doing crunches

I think you don’t have to wait for your horse to get a swayed back before teaching your horse to do crunches (Pilates for horses, back lifts, belly lifts).

It’s a great way to strengthen your horse’s core muscles that will help him under saddle. Not only for riding but also to help him use his body in the best way he can. It keeps him healthy and strong and is a great way to create horizontal balance. It’s fun too! They learn to use their body’s in a way that benefits them and makes them more body aware.

In this video (session 6) you can see how much Kyra’s back lifts and how much it straightens.

If you need a bit of help with teaching your horse to do crunches, don’t hesitate to contact me.  That is what I do: helping equestrians get the results in training they really, really, really want.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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Two Tips for building ‘Duration’ in Behaviour

There are many ways to built on ‘duration’ in behaviours you train with positive reinforcement. I will give an example of building duration in stationary behaviours and building duration in moving behaviours.

General Training Tips

Set your horse and yourself up for success:

  • Make sure the horse understands the goal behaviour before adding the criterion ‘duration’
  • Minimize the distractions in the environment when adding duration
  • Make sure your horse is focused on you and interested in learning

Key Lesson for Trainers: Timing

In clicker training there is a saying You get what you reinforce. In practise it is often quite hard to recognize what behaviour you are actually marking with your click.

Only after a while -when you get a certain amount of the reinforced (marked) behaviour- it shows what you’ve been clicking for, according to the horse. If that was not what you intended, you have to change your timing.

Is your timing right?

If you have difficulties training for duration or other criteria ask yourself: What am I clicking for? A video will help you discover it.

Building duration in stationary behaviours

With stationary behaviours I mean behaviours when the horse is not suppose to move. Examples are: Key Lesson Patience, Key Lesson Mat Training, Key Lesson Head lowering.

Building duration in stationary behaviours can be done with increasing your Rate of Reinforcement (RoR): as long as your horse displays the desired behaviour you keep clicking and reinforcing. When the horse moves out of the desired position you stop clicking and reinforcing.

Timing of the click

The click must be timed when the horse does not move.

timing is everything_hippologicExample 1: when your horse is standing on a mat and it is difficult to built duration, are you really reinforcing ‘standing on the mat’? Describe your criteria and focus on what you want. Standing on a mat: hoof or hooves are touching the mat, horse has weight on his foot/feet.

If your timing is not correct, you might have clicked more often for ‘moving towards the mat’ or ‘moving away from the mat’ than ‘touching the mat’.

Both movement behaviours are present in pawing. If your horse paws the mat, are you really only clicking for the moment he touches the mat or is your horse already moving his leg and are you actually reinforcing the movement of the leg? If that is too difficult to time, start focusing on another criterion: ‘putting weight on the hoof that touches the mat’.

This is an example of the horse doesn’t yet understand the assignment. You need to teach him first to really stand on the mat (not just touching briefly) before adding duration to the exercise.

Example 2: as long as your horse stands ‘Patiently’ waiting next to you, you click, give a treat and when he hasn’t moved, you click and reinforce again. You keep doing this until your horse decides to try out another behaviour, eg moving forward one step and you stop clicking. Once he offers the desired behaviour again you start clicking and reinforcing.

Most horses will learn quickly that ‘not doing anything (else)‘ is very rewarding.

Next step is to withhold the click to built duration

When your horse offers the desired behaviour, wait 1 second (counting out loud can help you and your horse) then click and reinforce. Then you count to 2 before clicking and reinforcing.  Don’t train this in a lineair way and go from 1, 2, 3, 4 to 5 seconds.

Instead, alternate the duration and go from 1 second before you click to 0 seconds (click right away), to 1 and then 2 seconds before you click. Then do 1 second, click, 2 seconds, click, 1 second, click, 2 seconds, 3 seconds click, 1 second, click 4 seconds, click and so on.

Keep Going Signal clicker trainingYou horse learns that as long as you are still counting he must do whatever he is doing. If he moves before you can count to 2, you start counting from 1 again.

If you already have an established ‘keep-going’ signal, you can use that instead of counting out loud.

Building duration in movement

With building duration in movement I mean the behaviours when the horse is is suppose to keep moving. Example: Key Lesson Backing.

Timing of the click

The click must be timed when the horse does move._timing_hippologic.jpg

Make sure you click and reinforce the movement itself and not after the movement stopped or before the movement is happening.

Example: in Key Lesson Backing you want to focus on the movement. You start clicking for weight shift while that movement is going on. Then of one step with one hoof, one with two hoofs and so on. Once your horse understands the behaviour, you can build duration by clicking for the movement only.

Click ends behaviour

Please remember that click means also ‘end of behaviour’. So when the horse stops after hearing the click that is OK. He was moving when the click was happening. The click marks the behaviour.

Add a stop-cue

Once your horse has learned to keep moving, you need a cue to ask him to stop, because you won’t always keep clicking to break the pattern of movement.

_stop_cue_hippologic

You can ask for a incompatible behaviour in order to stop the movement you’ve been training. Don’t forget to reinforce that behaviour, too! In backing you can ask for ‘halt’ (cue ‘Whoa’) or ‘go forward’ ( cue ‘Walk on’).

More ways to built duration

There are many more ways you can built duration in a behaviour. What works for you depends on the animal, the situation and on your level of expertise.

This blog has no room to share all possibilities, I usually keep the word count around 500 and this one is already more than twice as long.

If you want to share your approach or training tips about building duration add them in the comments for everyone else to read.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners create the relationship with their horse and get the training result they really, really want.  
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Key Lesson: ‘Patience’

In this key lesson the horse learns to stand next to you in a relaxed way and keep his head straight forward, not too high and not too low. The goal is to reward the horse for his ‘patient’ behaviour. Of course the horse is not really ‘patient’ when he stands with his neck straight and his head on a comfortable level, it is a ‘learned behaviour’. A very safe behaviour!

Benefits of this Key Lesson are (this makes it my favourite exercise to teach):

  • It teaches your horse relaxation
  • Responsiveness to cues
  • And it reinforces calm behaviour
  • Bonus: it’s incompatible with ‘mugging’, stepping on your toes and other unwanted behaviours

Focus on what you want
It is really important that you communicate to your horse what it is you want or expect from him. If you don’t think about this, you will end up with a horse that is always asking your attention when you are busy with something else. In this case you want your horse to ‘stand with four feet on the ground, relaxed, neck straight forward and horizontal’.

Asking attention
I think we all know horses that will show their whole repertoire of tricks if people are around to get attention, kick their stall doors in order to ‘call’ people over, push a person, sniffs pockets and try to get the treats out when the person is talking to someone. Or horses that pull their handlers to the juicy patches of grass as soon when they want to check their her phone for messages. Wouldn’t it be great if your horse just stood there ‘patiently’ and waited for you to be ready to give the next cue?

This is why the key lesson ‘patience’ is an important exercise to spent some time on. The time you spend on this exercise is really a good investment. It looks like the horse is ‘patient’ but it is just a learned behaviour, just like the behaviours described above. The difference is, that the key lesson patience is desired behaviour and you can put it on cue.

Default behaviour
Just like head lowering you could choose to make this behaviour the default behaviour. It is a very practical behaviour. It prevents the horse from mugging you, pushing you, sniffing your pockets or asking your attention when you are doing other things, like talking to a friend, adjusting your tack, braiding his mane and so on. It also calms your horse down if he is excited. This is a behaviour that the trainer always should reinforce, even when it is displayed without cue. That is the way you can make it a default behaviour. A default behaviour is a behaviour a horse can fall back on when he is getting frustrated, anxious or wants your attention.

Useful
Teaching a horse to be ‘patient’ is also a useful exercise under saddle, with ground tying, waiting in line on competition grounds, during a bath/hosing him down, brushing, saddling and so on. Ask you horse to be ‘patient’ if he can’t wait for your next cue and randomly shows behaviour. It will help him become relaxed. This can help prevent frustration. Then teach your horse to wait for cues.

Reinforce what you want to see

It is just that most handlers forget to reinforce this simple behaviour of seemingly ‘doing nothing’. The handler has to be aware of this behaviour and reinforce it and put in on cue. Once you have learned to recognize it in your horse, keep it in his repertoire by reinforcing it.

__keylesson_patience_clickertraining_1

If the horse has a tendency to mug you or invade your personal space, you can start teaching the horse to ‘look away’. Later you can shape it into standing straight forward with his neck.

_keylesson_patience_hippologic

Kyra ‘s head is still a bit high in these pictures. I shaped my ‘Patience’ now more into a combination of ‘Patience’ with ‘Head lowering’. It is such a great tool and helps calm the horse down and makes everyone safer!

Links to other key lessons

Thank you for reading. Let me know how what your favourite key lesson is and why.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
Get your FREE 5 Step Clicker Training Plan on HippoLogic’s website.

Take action. Start for free!

Book a free 60 minute Discovery Session to get a glimpse of a new future with your horse. In this conversation we’ll explore:

  • Your hopes and dreams and goals so that we can see what’s possible for you and your horse

    Key to Success in Horse Training

    Your Key to Success

  • Where you’re now, where you want to go and which path is right for you
  • What’s holding you back so you can make a plan to get these hurdles out of your way.

At the end of the call I’ll give you some ideas and advice for your next step and if it looks like a fit, we can explore what it looks like to work together.

Simply check the best time for you in my online calendar and click to reserve your free call today.

Follow my blog  on Bloglovin

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!
_targetstick_

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 the desired 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 an ‘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’. New cue -> old cue -> behaviour. 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. 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. You don’t want to frustrate your horse in training. One way is to offer another behaviour that is already on cue and alternate 2 behaviours so that you give your horse a chance to be successful.

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

1_leontarget_hippologic

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 round pen 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.

Join the Clicker Training Academy if you want to improve your clicker skills

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Join the HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy for personal advice and support in training your horse with positive reinforcement. The first 25 founding members get an additional 90-minute coaching session with me for free (value $150 CAD).
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
Get a free 5 Step Clicker Training Plan.
Follow my blog with Bloglovin
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