Tag Archives: clicker

Clicker training weekend revisited

I was going through old photos on the laptop and came across a series of photos taken on the third day of the clicker training clinic I attended last year. This was the day where it all seemed to come together for me and Ben, where we walked together in harmony and which gave me great encouragement to continue with clicker training. Since then, I have asked myself many times, where I have gone wrong, just what I have missed that has led to such tension coming in.

I was quite fascinated to look at the photos. Where we were walking together there did indeed seem to be harmony, Ben relaxed and both of us walking in step together. But here are close ups of Ben’s face from moments where we had stopped and he was given the click and was getting his treat. He was not snatching, but I look at these photos now and I see tension:

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The quality of the photos is not the best as I have cropped them to focus on his head. That stretched top lip is always a sign of tension with Ben: it may have been pleasurable tension – excitement about getting some food, or it could have been worry about food appearing and disappearing. Whichever one it was it shows me that already the foundation of the future aggressive behaviour was present and I did not see it.

I am not saying that tension in itself is bad. (I am talking about tension that arises in my presence.) Tension will often be present, during a hack for example, when calves crowd against a gate we are to pass and Ben recoils, or when we pass a young horse on its own in a field and Ben rises up to assert his presence. But, and I am thinking aloud here, these are naturally occurring incidents and Ben can move, stop, spook, or respond to my request to trot on and move the tension out of him that way.

But in these photos, Ben is on a line, with me close beside and has to contain himself and therefore the tension is not released, or is only released by the delivery of food.

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Name and explain

One of the interesting facets of the SATS approach is ‘name and explain’. It is suggested that, without even incorporating bridging (intermediate or terminal), you can start labeling events, locations, physical or emotional states etc. As I understand it, it is different to adding a cue to a learnt behaviour. You just explain things as you go.

This approach has been used to successfully prepare animals for veterinary procedures. A practical example with a horse is explained in this blog post.

I have been comparing and contrasting this in my mind to body language, energy and intent, all clear ways of communicating with horses. Years ago I read Dancing with Horses by Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling and immediately and with some success started to put his ideas around leading horses into practice. Recently I have revisited and reinforced this with Ben and Cloud. And it is effective. However, I will never have the focus of energy and intent that Hempfling seems to bring to his work with horses. (I have only his videos to go on as regards this.) There is still plenty of room for error. Adding language is surely a way to help a horse understand what I mean. (This desire for more clarity in my communication was also the reason I got into clicker training.)

Ben and Cloud live in a domesticated environment, in close contact with humans and rely on these humans for their basic needs. Therefore, their natural and normal expression of instinctual behaviour is not always appropriate. They need to adapt.

Here is an example. Morning and evening they are brought a bucket of feed each. As I do not want to be pushed aside I ask them to wait until I have put the bucket down and moved away. They have always done this but each time it has required strong body language and energy from me. So recently I added words. As I emerged from the shed holding the bucket I would say ‘food’. In the stable I would say ‘wait’ with my hand up. I would put the bucket down and step back. I would say the word ‘good’ as a terminal bridge. (‘Good’ is my new bridge as the tongue click had become too associated with excitement and even aggression). Then I would say ‘eat’, as they ate.

I was able to very quickly stop using the bridge word ‘good’. I now just use the words ‘food’, ‘wait’ and ‘eat’. I have not needed to use strong body language. I could be tired and distracted and still I would not be crowded. Indeed Cloud, of his own accord, has been giving me extra space.

This morning I decided to let them into the lake front area that we own which is across a road in front of our house. To get there I had to lead them through the yard gate, down a longish drive with grass on one side, through a further gate, a short way along the road and into the lake front. Ben and Cloud are on hay 24/7. I wondered if I should lead them down separately given their expected excitement at the prospect of grass. I decided to name and explain to help us together reach the lake calmly and safely. I told them we would go to the lake for grass. (I have been naming grass when I let them have grass while riding.) I named ‘headcollar’ and both stood in place as I put headcollars on. We walked out, one pony on each side, each on on a loose lead rope with their head just behind my outstretched hand. I could feed Ben’s excitement rising so I said ‘wait’ and he calmed down and stayed behind me. I could feel Cloud wanting to make for the grass that was beside him. Again I said ‘wait’ and he calmed and stayed just behind my hand. And so like that we walked down the drive, they waited as I opened the bottom gate, we walked calmly along the road and into the lake front area. I named ‘lake’ when we arrived. I asked them to wait again and each did so until released.

It may not sound much but it felt like a lot. Two grass starved ponies successfully curbed their instincts until we arrived at the lake. They had successfully generalised their understanding of ‘wait’ and could apply it to this short journey. As my husband pointed out naming the word must have also helped me: supporting that magic pairing of attention and intention so that I was present, calm and focused with them. I also realised afterwards that I did not even think of using a bridge to mark desired behaviour and it was not needed.

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Operant

Operant: the operator, operant conditioning.

I am working with Ben, in-hand. I have been using clicker and though I have moved from treating every click I am still giving treats. I feel greater and greater intensity from Ben. It seems to grow in a crescendo of focus. I am feeling uncomfortable.

He is operating me.

Stop. This is all wrong. This is not good for either of us.

I stop. I walk away. I sit and think for a long time.

With Cloud in charge of their herd of two, King Ben has been less in evidence. But he is there and I love King Ben. And I know, oh how I have come to know, how to be in the presence of King Ben. And this is not the way.

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Further thoughts on clicker training 2

Ben wants and expects clicker training, that much is evident.

Ben is not relaxed during clicker training, that is also all too evident.

I have found that clicker training has its limitations. I have not been able to use clicker to convince Ben to approach a feared place. Once, after I had ridden a relaxed Ben in the picadero, we headed out towards the back gate. Something was rustling in the hedge and Ben spun around and headed away from the gate. I had ‘head down’ on cue and asked for it, and he gave it. I turned him towards the gate again. He advanced so far and spun around again. I tried this a few times. Ben himself tried this – he often does I have noticed if his anxiety is high. He could not bring himself to get any nearer the gate. So, I got off and led Ben to the gate, past the feared place and resumed riding.

I have heard and read clicker training being recommended for approaching feared situations, but in my experience with Ben, when his energy/fear/stress is high, positive reinforcement is not what he needs. He needs leadership he can rely on; in this example, me on the ground in front of him.

Positive reinforcement (through use of a clicker) has been useful in teaching Ben new skills, specifically in-hand work, but has also resulted in him becoming too focused on the source of food and not focused on me. Once, when we were doing what I thought was some nice lateral work (on a ‘why would you leave me’ circle), something rustled in the bushes and Ben jumped, almost knocking me over. This has really put me off clicker training to the point where I would happily have abandoned it, except that Ben has been demanding it, demonstrating this by nipping and clearly being frustrated.  We have also had good sessions with clicker training.

One of the great advantages of keeping a blog is that I have been able to look over old posts I wrote about clicker training. A year ago I described a situation when Ben was on winter grazing where we started with some clicker targeting and ended dancing together with no click and no treat. That is the result I want. That was harmony.

At that time I was using Ben Hart’s approach to clicker training: using both an intermediate bridge (one or more clicks) and a terminal bridge (hand to food pouch). Over the last few days I have read his book again and it made a lot of sense. He addresses frustration in equines, he also emphasises that clicker is not for all situations (or even all horses or trainers). But most importantly he disagrees with the approach of a providing a reinforcer following each click.

So I went out to Ben and used this approach. He understood instantly and nipping and air snatching almost disappeared.

I then searched the internet for examples of trainers using intermediate and terminal bridges and that has led me to Kayce Cover’s SATS approach. It is very early days but I am reading her manuals and really liking what I read. There will be more to come with SATS I am sure.

Ben: my guide to the world of communicating effectively with a horse: push him too far and his aggression or panic can rise; meet him in the right way and his cooperation knows no bounds.

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Further thoughts on clicker training

Two recent back-to-back interactions with Ben:

1. Time to trim Ben’s hooves. I tie him up outside the stable. Ben moves around. I move him back to his original position. He moves again. I move him back. He stands still, relaxes and focuses on me. I lift a hoof and trim, Ben stays with me, not leaning on me. Then he moves his hoof. I put it down. He stretches out and down with his neck and licks and chews. I stretch up and back and breathe. (How does anyone do this professionally?) I ask for that hoof again, Ben gives it to me and I carry on. And so we proceed around each hoof in turn. Time to bring each hoof forward to give the finishing roll (my favourite part). I have only an up-turned bucket to use. I put it in front of Ben’s leg. He knows exactly what I want him to do and lifts his leg and stomps his hoof onto the bucket. And so we proceed again around each hoof. The whole procedure has been as efficient as it could be and has felt like a cooperative, joint effort.

2. Time for in-hand work. (I have signed up for Marijke de Jong’s Straightness Training course – excellent so far). So I put a cavesson on Ben and take him up to the picadero. Once there Ben’s entire demeanour changes. He is expecting treats. He knows that in-hand work has been done with the clicker. So he snatches. And snatches. And snatches. Quick grabby snaps with his mouth. And I have used very clear boundaries and they are not working for Ben. No matter how calm I am, how clear I am, what behaviour I ignore, what behaviour I reinforce, and I have been very consistent indeed with Ben in this area, Ben’s excitement and tension come up every time. This is not a cooperative, joint effort. I sense that Ben is hardly aware of me. ‘What do I need to do to get my treat?’

And so I have reverted to my tried and tested bucket behind the fence and asking Ben to stand and wait while I walk to the bucket to get a treat. I have stopped reinforcing every good attempt and he is learning just as well. Essentially I am using pressure and release and also putting some very clear boundaries around my space and Ben’s excitement is lowering and he is focussing on me again.

I like the idea of positive reinforcement and see the logic of using a clicker as a marker. I used it to good effect when Cloud first came to us and he was reluctant to let us pick up his hooves to clean them. But it did not get him into a trailer recently (he’s going in now – that’s for another post maybe) and it never works if Ben is genuinely scared of something.  There have been times when it seemed to work well and it has taught Ben some in-hand behaviours but generally he loses his focus on me when I use the clicker.

The problem has not been with the clicker but with the reinforcer. I started by using treats as a reinforcer and trying to substitute scratches instead has not worked. I do not know if scratches would have worked as a reinforcer if used from the start. I do not think they would be a sufficiently motivating reinforcer. But I have not been able to overcome Ben’s degree of anxiety associated with treats. I am only thankful that I have used clicker in very specific instances with Cloud. I am doing the straightness training programme with him also and he responds very well to the bucket behind the fence. He stands and waits, looking calm but hopeful in a Cloud kind of way. Food is such a powerful reinforcer.  Who knows what history Ben has with food, or indeed what reaction he has to a possible sugar spike from a treat and I did not consider all these aspects sufficiently for Ben.

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Transitioning to barefoot with a new pony

So here we go again. I had forgotten just how anxiety-making this process is. It does not help that I am only getting to know Cloud.

I had hoped that the pony we found would be unshod – common enough for ponies here. But Cloud was shod on his two front feet. His hooves were far too long and the riding school owner offered to have him shod again before we collected him. Coincidentally her farrier was the farrier we are now using – he is from Belgium and understands barefoot trims which is a huge relief. It is great to have a reliable professional eye cast on how the hooves are balanced. So I asked that he take off Cloud’s shoes and give his feet a barefoot trim. We were on holidays when he came so I could not talk to him about how he found Cloud’s hooves.

Cloud is tender in both front feet, more so on his left. He is sound on smooth ground but not on gravel and he really does not like his hooves picked out. This has resulted in him planting his hoof, and if it is lifted, starting a pawing motion. This is where I do not know how much of this he would be doing anyway. We were told – and saw – that he has a habit of striking out with his front legs ‘like a stallion’ and were advised that he should be tied up when being groomed. He does respond to a firm ‘no’ and I would suspect that, as a riding school pony, boundaries were inconsistent.

But I need to pick up his hoof and he has not wanted to. So I resorted to introducing clicker. I started with targeting over the stable door. He became very excited with the treats and my whole hand practically disappeared into his mouth. So for the next session I put Cloud in the stable and did clicker with Ben in the yard. I had the treats in a bucket behind the fence. I did targeting with Ben and then clicked for lifting up his hoof. Cloud did not take his eyes off us. When Cloud came out he had got the concept. Over another couple of sessions he learned manners around treats – very quickly – and I could start to click for lifting his hoof. I rewarded him for relaxing his hoof in my hand, not tensing it to strike – quite the opposite of Ben who loves to lean his entire weight into my hand so I am always looking for him to hold his hoof up.

So it has made the task easier, but poor Cloud still does not like his hoof being picked out. I am sure there is bad thrush there. I have ordered some Field Paste from Red Horse Supplies and in the meantime I pick it out (snatch), scrub it with milton (snatch) and then put anti-thrush ointment in (no snatch) and pack the grooves and central sulcus with sudocreme and cotton wool.

And I watch his steps anxiously and I really understand how people give up on transitioning, and I tell my daughter that we have to focus on Cloud transitioning well rather than getting him fit right now.

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A clinic with Alexandra Kurland 3

Sunday: the final day and we started in a nice, contemplative Sunday manner with some tai chi exercises on the lawn. We practised tai chi walking and did some neck flexions and shoulder rotations that made an immediate difference to my flexibility. We also paired up with a more advanced participant to practise rope handling skills. Ben had been at his most relaxed when I groomed him first thing. He was happy to stay ground tied and focused on me for the session. He and Minnie were placed as far from Moffet as they could be when it was time for us to take our horses in and show where we were at.

I made sure I was centered in myself as I went to Ben. I let all anxiety go and was prepared to take him as he came. Alex had placed cones in a large circle with a wedge shaped ‘runway’ going up the centre towards a mat. Ben and I walked through this. This time he was with me, as soft as he can be, moving with me, stopping when I exhaled, turning with me, lowering his head or backing up on request. Alex noted that we were walking in step. I find that this happens spontaneously when we are in synch and it is a way of moving that Alex emphasises. What we did was very simple, no fancy lateral work, never moving out of walk, but it flowed. I was able to watch Ben’s feet when he stood to make sure he stood square and by himself he started to adjust his feet to stand square when he stood on the mat. We had one slight moment of disharmony and that was when we were leaving the arena; Ben did not want to leave.

Over the few days of the clinic, I had three short sessions with Ben. But I learned so much in-between, from the discussions, the observations of other horses and the practise sessions. Ben learned so much too. His journey through the clinic was quite fraught at times, but each fraught moment resolved itself and I also noted him watching intently as other horses had their time in the arena. I was of course very pleased to finish on such a soft, harmonious note. I was pleased that others saw the soft horse I know at home. But while we have had good sessions of clicker work at home, I have never experienced such harmony throughout a session as I did on Sunday. A lot of learning came together for both of us.

We had to leave to make the journey home before all the horses had their final turn. Next year (I am already looking forward) we will try to stay one further night. Alex’s advice to me is to work on the foundation lessons until they are very good, then to tighten up any routines with clicker work and then move on to lateral work.

Ben likes clicker training. The other night I opened some grass for him and Rosie and had left a green cone lying in the yard. Rather than go to grass (having been on hay all day) Ben went to the cone, touched it and looked at me.

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