In this series I will be sharing 6 interesting facts I didn’t know about when I started using positive reinforcement in training animals. This is part 6. This one is really an eye-opener! This is a phenomenon you only see in R+ training! Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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, 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!
This is part III of ‘What is so powerful about clicker training’? What changes have I made since I switched from Natural Horsemanship to Clicker Training? In this series I talk about my 10 favourite tools for training horses and how they changed my training approach to a much more horse friendly way of training. You can read about Training tools # 1 – 3 here and read about Training tool # 4 here.
# 5 Mats
One of the 7 Key Lessons I teach my clients is ‘mat training’. Mats are very versatile training tools. First I thought you could just teach your horse to stand on it and that was it. Now I know how much more there is to mat training. You start by teaching your horse to stand on the mat with two front feet, that’s just the beginning.
Turning a whoa-horse into a go-horse
The results of the at liberty mat training made me use the mats for other exercises. I started to ride from mat to mat. She knew standing on a mat meant a break, a click and a reward. Double bonus for my more-whoa-than go-horse.
By using the mats I changed Kyra into a more go-than-whoa-horse because she learned quickly that the faster she went the faster the reward came. And the faster she went the more fun it was. Of course I had to teach her the “opposite” behaviour too: I clicked and rewarded a lot for just walking and trotting over the mats and for ‘ignoring’ the mats when I didn’t give her a sign to step on them, too.
Mats are also useful to teach a horse to stand on unfamiliar objects. Horses have ‘feeling’ in their hooves and they use their hooves to test surfaces. A squishy rubber mat will help in building trust, mounting pedestals, trailer ramps, bridges, tarps, water and so on. Instead of mats you can also use large pieces of plywood. Or use them both. Experiment!
Jumping at liberty
Then I used two mats so I could let Kyra walk from mat to mat at liberty. It helped me to make Kyra more active in walk and trot, because she loved to go over and step on the mat.
Then I placed a pole in between the two mats so she had to step over the pole. The pole became a cavaletti and later a jump. In this way I taught her to jump at liberty without chasing her with a whip or using a chute to make her jump. She got the concept of running from mat to mat. The faster she went the bigger reward she got. In this way you can create a ‘chain’ of behaviours’.
In the video the chain of behaviours is: walking of the mat, trot, jump, trot to the second mat where the click and reward follows. You can also see that the mat has become a ‘security blanket’ for Kyra when she was startled by noises outside the arena. She runs to the mat, not to me. That’s how powerful the mat has become for her. It has become a secondary reinforcer: standing on the mat itself has become a reward for her.
The process of teaching her to jump at liberty was longer this way than chasing her over it each time, but it was worth it. She started really to enjoy jumping and became really crazy and playful, something I am sure I wouldn’t have accomplished by sending her over a jump with a whip behind her butt. Mat training turned out to be very useful under saddle, too.
Mats are can be used to teach your horse to ground tie, it’s a good place to use as a starting point for an at liberty exercise or teaching your horse to stand patiently next to a mounting block.
I used a mat in the middle of a circle to reward Kyra for walking a nice circle outside the poles.
I am looking forward to hear about your creative way of using mats in training. Let’s share and inspire one another. Thank you.
If you think this is a blog that someone can benefit from, please use one of the share buttons below. Or post your comment, I read them all!
Or simply hit the like button so I know you appreciated this blog. Thank you!