Ask Shawna: Clicker, Target, Timing, Rearing…HELP!!

Video critique of training session. There are two videos posted. One is the session sent in by Amy. The other is my observations and advice for Amy. She is off to a great start. This is the second horse that Amy has clicker trained and this mare has a different personality and different response. Her mare is doing great about standing quietly and patiently between targeting. This is such an important behavior. People often take standing still for granted forgetting that this is a real challenge for some horses. I suggest that she draw more attention to this behavior. The more she gets reinforced for this the more she will stay on the ground. You will see the rest as you watch the video. Amy you are doing a great job. Keep up the good work. I would love thoughts and comments!!

Ask Shawna: Keeping A Horse Upright While Saddling!

I will be answering Peter’s question. I will be addressing a school horse who will throw herself to the ground rather than let a specific rider put a saddle on her! Okay, this is not your usual issue.

The mare is displaying an avoidance behavior. She has learned that she can avoid something that she doesn’t like by dropping to the ground. She finds it more reinforcing to lay down rather than to stand quietly for being tacked up. Avoidance behaviors are actually quite common in horses. Think of the horse who does not let you touch his ears. He avoids the touch by lifting his head out of our reach. Or the horse who gets behind the bit to avoid contact with the rider. There are lot’s of examples. They just aren’t usually as drastic as this situation. The solution is a rather simple, straight forward approach using clicker training to rebalance the scales.

Of course, we always need to check for physical causes. Is her back sore, does the saddle fit correctly? etc. Once we rule these out we can begin to move forward. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that although we may fix a physical problem it doesn’t mean the behavioral issue will go away. Horses have good memories and will probably still associate the pain with the activity that caused it in the first place. They may still anticipate that the pain is still going to come. It all boils down to the reinforcement history. The association has been made with this behavior resulting in pain. With positive reinforcement/clicker training we can rebuild the correct reinforcement history. This will result in them finding the desired behavior (standing still) more reinforcing than the undesired behavior (laying down). If you think about it, what is in it for her to stand quietly? By adding a reward that your horse finds valuable(food) you will get your horse to want to be involved in the training process.

The key is small steps, which help to break it down and set her up for success. If you can identify at what point she falls to the ground, reinforce her just before this point, while she is still standing and still seems willing and accepting. This is the attitude you want to see more of. I can think of about a hundred little, simple exercises that will help correct this situation. I mentioned some in the video but a progress report will help me to guide you through this process and give other ideas. When I read these questions I always wish I could just be there to walk through it with you guys!! Okay Peter, please keep me updated and let me know if you have any questions.

Ask Shawna: Dealing with a Mouthy/Nippy Colt

This question was sent in by Priscilla. In this video I address how to deal with a young, mouthy colt. This behavior is prevalent with young horses who are new to training. This is part of their biological need for social learning. Through play they learn to develop skills that will serve them later as mature horses. The problem is…we are not horses and they should not interact with us like we are horses. Sure, it’s important to understand how horses communicate with one another, but when’s the last time you saw a horse saddle up and mount another horse or ask another horse to stand still for clipping? Horses constantly challenge and test each other as part of their social dynamics. When we use and apply behavior principles correctly, we teach our horses to be compliant. This is not established through the physical means that horses use with one another. Instead we use our intelligence as well as our understanding of equine behavior. Okay, I feel like I am getting a little off topic.

So, it is common to see young horses trying to engage us in play by nipping and poking at us. We respond by trying to correct them. Physically engaging them OFTEN leads to more of the same behavior because the seem to see this as a game. A game that they are hard wired to get good at. The best thing to do is not engage but instead ignore this behavior and if necessary to remove the horse or yourself from this situation. You can also balance this out by reinforcing them for good, mannerly behavior. Food is a very strong motivator. It is important that any horse and especially the young horse learns the early principles of clicker training. This means them waiting patiently, with their head away from us, for their reinforcemnt. They will quickly learn that pushiness does not get them the reward but standing quietly does. Probably the most important behavior principle to remember is: “If any behavior increses in frequency then something in the horse’s environment is reinforcing their behavior”. They are either getting something they want or avoiding something they don’t want. It is that simple. We may not always recognize what the reinforcer might be but we can certainly rebalance the scales to get the desired results.

The young horse has a lot of energy to burn and we should not completely ignore their need (and want) to play. Giving them outlets even within the training program will serve you well. I encourage incorporating play/activity in the training program as a reward for their practicing holding still and learning patience. We need to be the one initiating the play following good behavior. Our goal is to slowly build up the time between the activity until they will hold still for longer and longer periods of time. Teaching them to retreive is a great tool to use in between the more challenging behaviors that require standing quietly. At Sea World I worked with Commerson’s dolphins, who had an attention span of about 3 seconds, I started by holding still for 2 seconds and then running 30 feet away. Stopping for 3 seconds and moving then stopping for 5 seconds etc. eventually we had them holding still for 30 minutes. Asking them to hold still for too long in the beginning didn’t set us or them up for success. Taking the small steps allowed us to gain their interest. We also taught behaviors that they could do that allowed for activity (i.e. fast swim, high jump) Intermittently we would ask for these behaviors as a reward extending the period of time between these behaviors. The same principles are at work with the horses and are great training tools as we teach our young horse to be upstanding citizens!

I just discussd some of these same training tips on: Horses in the Morning Radio. Here is a link if You want to hear more: http://www.horsesinthemorning.com/hitm-for-08-17-2011-by-back-on-track-cutest-jockey-ever-standing-still-and-stall-safety/

Ask Shawna: When Do You Stop Using the Clicker?

This video answer was sent in by Lisa. It is a great question and one that a lot of people ask.

Some people think that you (or your horse) will be lost without the clicker. This is certainly not the case. The clicker is a small part of a much bigger equation called “operant conditioning”. The principles of operant conditioning are working in our lives all the time whether we are aware of this fact or not. Just so you know, these principles are not limited to animals. They are proven behavior principles which also apply to people.

The clicker holds no magic. It is a conditioned reinforcer. Once trained, the clicker serves as a “bridge” signal to tell the horse “yes, what you have just done is correct”. At Sea World we didn’t even use clickers! We used whistles and verbal signals to tell the animals when they did something right. I like to use a clicker for a couple reasons:

1) It is a distinct sound that is new to the horses. This makes the sound more significant to the horses.
2) It sounds the same from person to person. This makes it clearer for the horse when you have more than one person teaching or implementing a new behavior.
3) It is loud enough to be heard while cantering, or from a distance.
4) It is pretty inexpensive and easy to find.

I do use a verbal bridge signal quite often but when I am working on something new I prefer to go back to the clicker since it holds a stronger value. The drawback to the verbal bridge signal is that our horses hear our voices all the time, especially mine since I have the gift of gab! A large majority of the time our talking is not meant for our horses. We are talking to other people. So they get a bit desensitized to our voices. Also the pitch of our voice cannot always be heard from far away or in the midst of physical exertion.

The point I make in the video is that the clicker serves as a training tool. It is a clear source of communication for our horses. I often fade the clicker out of the equation once the behavior is trained. Same thing for the food as a reinforcement. Soon they just know how to do the behavior. They have built up a good reinforcment history and they seem to trust everyone. People often groom and ride my horses who do not apply positive reinforcement. My horses are responsive and compliant with everyone.

I hope this helps to clear some things up for you Lisa and the other people who have the same question. If you have any questions about this, or any other topic, please feel free to send it to my Ask Shawna page! Enjoy getting your horse on Target!!

P.S. In the video I say “…draw attention to unwanted behavior”. OOPS!! I meant ignore unwanted behavior. It is best to ignore undesired behavior as much as possible.

Ask Shawna Answer: Teaching Your Horse to Ground Tie (Stay)

Another video Ask Shawna answer. What a great behavior for clicker training! Ground tying (stay) is an easy thing to train and ever-so-useful. This video tip just scratches the surface though. It is a great behavior for any horse and it is unparallelled for teaching a young or fussy horse patience.

The use of positive reinforcement helps give them some real incentive to pay attention and stand quietly even when they may want to go play or just want to wander around being nosy.

You may start in their stall or someplace that is relatively quiet. Start with slow, limited movements. You can build up to more distracting locations and much more activity going on around them. Hmmmm…I think this would be a great subject for a full length DVD.

Anyway, Louise, I hope this helps and as always, I am available if you have more questions about ground tying or any other horse behavior! Remember, enjoy getting your horse on target!

On Target Training, Shawna Karrasch

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