Whenever you have a Challenge with your horse, the first step is to break the problem down in smaller pieces.
Imagine your horse doesn’t lift his feet well for cleaning or trimming. How can you break down that problem for your horse?
Break it down for your horse
Your horse doesn’t know anything about your expectations!
When you break your goal down and start rewarding your horse for a slight weight shift *off* of that foot, you’re reinforcing 2 things. One is that you encourage your horse to think about what he did and how it influenced him (he got a treat). The other thing is that you strengthened the first step toward your goal.
We can have success when we try to skip the first step in the process. Even when you’re not sure that you know all steps in the training process, start by thinking about the first step.
This will also give you information about the second step and the third. Especially when your use positive reinforcement and encourage your horse all the time to think *with* you. Horses are very good at helping you train them, when you let them do it and are willing to listen.
So what would YOUR next step in training your horse be like? I would love to hear it!
PS If you want to practice your clicker training skills, join our Clicker Challenge Community! You get a new Challenge each month and you’ll develop your equine clicker training skills while having fun with your horse. Everyone can join!
In this series I will keep you posted about the young horse I am training in order to prepare her for the next farrier visit. I will call her A. in this blog. A was scared to let people touch her legs, especially her hind legs. She kicked out whenever she felt something touching them.
In the previous blog I described the progress we made so far. I have only had one more session between this blog and the last one. That means that A. hasn’t been (clicker) trained for two weeks. Usually a horse benefits from a break in training.
In positive reinforcement training you have to improvise often. If something has changed in the circumstances we are used to in training, we can’t expect the same results. This is called a ‘context shift’.
Horses and other animals, find it often hard to generalize. If we can touch their body with a pool noodle in the stall, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the horse knows what to do when we are stroking her with a pool noodle in her paddock or in the arena.
Last training session the circumstances changed: it was raining so A.’s neighbours were not outside, but stayed in her stalls. In previous training I used the fence between the stalls as a protective barrier between me and A. This time that was not an option: standing in the stall of a clicker trained horse B. while clicking and feeding horse A.
I pondered a moment about the possibilities. Since A. is used to being haltered and isn’t a dangerous horse, I chose to halter her and go train her in her stall.
Horse B. was really determined to become a part of the training session, so I had to improvise again. Every time I clicked she expected a treat and she became a bit frustrated that the clicks weren’t meant for her.
I offered horse B. a handful of pellets, my usual food rewards and gave her my end of session signal, to tell her that she wasn’t going to get any clicks. I chose to switch the mechanical click of the clicker for a very soft tongue click instead to train A. I quickly introduced her to the new marker signal. A. is very smart and quickly understood that my tongue click was an announcer for a treat.
I noticed that B. didn’t recognize the new marker and she went back to her hay to munch a bit. Time to start A.’s training.
There were also a few other things that were different this morning. I had haltered A. this time, there wasn’t a fence between us and we were standing in the center of her stall, in order not to be too close to the other horses. On top of that I also forgot my pool noodle on a stick.
How to handle a context shift
Because of all the changes that day I started repeating a lot of the previous lessons in this new setup: I started with touching her shoulder again. She didn’t move and she stayed relaxed so I tongue clicked and reinforced. Then I stroke her and let my hand move more towards her front leg. She was OK with that too: click and reinforce.
I moved my hand very slowly and I made sure I clicked and reinforced a lot. A. understood the exercises quickly. Within a few (tongue) clicks she lifted her front leg all by herself! It was just a fraction of a second, but worth a click and a handful of food.
After a break we went on with lifting her front leg. Because I had given her a jackpot for lifting her leg she wanted to earn more food and she enthusiastically lifted her leg and swung it forward. Click & treat. I didn’t expect her to swing that leg to the front so my timing was exactly when she was performing a perfect jambette (like the picture of Kyra of the left). Oops.
The next try she did it again so I had to click much sooner: when she just lifted her leg from the floor. We will work on duration another time. I ended the training after lifting each of her front legs, without getting a jambette.
In this series I will keep you posted about the young horse I am training in order to prepare her for the next farrier visit. I will call her A. in this blog. A. is scared to let people touch her legs, especially her hind legs. She kicks out when she feels something touching her hind legs.
In my last blog I wrote how I started her training. She is now used to the clicker. She knows that a click is an announcer of good things coming her way: appetitives (in this case treats). She understands my end of session signal that tells her that there are no more treats to be earned.
Besides a clicker and treat I use a target stick that I made from a piece of pool noodle on a stick. I chose a pool noodle because they are soft, light weight and cannot hurt the horse accidentally.
I did not start with nose targeting this time. I used the target to touch A. The aim is to teach her that touching her hind legs is safe, will lead to appetitives (something the horse likes to have, such as a treat) and that she is in control (no force or coercion) about accepting her body to be touched. For obvious safety reasons I still work with protective contact. A. is allowed to kick the pool noodle in case I go too fast and nobody will get hurt.
Introducing the Pool Noodle
I already knew A.’s favourite spots to scratch her, so I kept those in mind while training.
I introduced the pool noodle by holding it in front of her and click and treat her for looking at it. I am still working with protective contact (a barrier between her and me). She wouldn’t touch the target in the beginning.
Then I held it a bit more to the left on my side of the fence, still not too close, and clicked and reinforced A. for ‘standing still’. Then I held it a bit more to the right, near her withers and so on. Clicking and reinforcing every little step in order to give her confidence that standing still is what I want from her. Nothing else.
Little by little I could hold the target closer and closer until she could touch it. I haven’t clicked and reinforced much for touching with her nose or sniffing since my goal is not to teach her to touch the pool noodle with her nose. She wasn’t afraid of the pool noodle target by the way, just curious.
After 3 sessions of each 5 minutes I could touch her with the pool noodle on the withers, her chest/throat/mane and her bum. If she moved away, even a little weight shift, I went back to the previous steps when she was still relaxed and OK with it. I would take a step back and continue a bit slower. In positive reinforcement training you mark the desired behaviour. If A. wants to move away that is OK. I just wait until she is ready to come to me and present her body close to the fence so I could touch her with the pool noodle again.
I don’t keep the pool noodle on her body until she stops moving. That would be negative reinforcement (strengthening the behaviour (standing still) with taking away the aversive (the thing she wants to escape).
I know it took 3 sessions because I keep a training logbook. I keep track of time, how many sessions we do each day, how long the sessions are, how long the breaks are (usually 2-3 minutes), where we train (A. lives in an in/out stall and sometimes we train outside, sometimes inside) and how much progression we made and also what startled her or what body parts he becomes anxious. I also wrote down the next steps of her training.
I end every session with an end of training signal. Sometimes A. keeps standing aligned to the fence in the hope of getting scratches, sometimes she walked right back to her hay to eat.
In the next blog I will tell you more about how A.’s training is progressing.
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