When and How to Use Something Other Than Food as a Reinforcer.

I put up a new blog post/video on Connection Training. When and how to use secondary (conditioned) reinforcers with your horse? This is a fantastic question and worthy of much more than this little video response. Using positive reinforcement/clicker training isn’t always as simple as it might seem. There are lots of layers and this question delves into one of those layers. There are a couple of points that I didn’t cover in the video, that I will elaborate on in a blog post. One is the other side of “try”, which is focus and the other point that I want to cover is dealing with incorrect responses…consistency is key. www.shawnakarrasch.comhttp://connectiontraining.com/when-and-how-to-use-secondary-conditioned-reinforcers-with-your-horse/

Can You Teach Your Horse Olympic Level Piaffe or Passage using the Clicker?

Okay, my animals are doing well right now. So after a long and challenging spring, I FINALLY have time to post some more Ask Shawna questions and answers(recorded last winter)…yay! This is from Jacob who asks about teaching an Olympic level piaffe or passage using only positive reinforcement training (no negative reinforcement). There are a number of factors that have to be considered but I know it can be done for any performance oriented behavior… or even jumping style. For more info or help with applying positive reinforcement to your training program go to www.connectiontraining.com. What are your thoughts? Or experiences?

“Repetition is the Enemy of Wonder”

“Repetition is the enemy of wonder.” This got me to thinking. Can you think of something that was once exciting and new and pretty soon it was rather ordinary and barely noticed? I think of living by the ocean in San Diego. I lived in a little beach town for about 30 years, driving by the “wonder” filled ocean everyday. Sadly, there are a lot of days when I wouldn’t really stop and be filled with wonder. It was just a part of my day and I drove by all the time running errands, going back and forth to work or visit friends. It becomes so mundane that it was not the same as when it was new or novel. Now, I don’t dislike the ocean, in fact I love it, I just got to where it didn’t drum up the awe it once did. When I spend some time away and get back to it, I am once again overwhelmed with appreciation. Have you ever heard a song that struck a chord with you? You want to hear it all of the time. Then the novelty wears off and you don’t really “hear” it anymore when it plays? Then pretty soon you hear the song and it has become so familiar that you don’t even WANT to hear it any longer and you’ve become are sick of it. Think about your favorite food. What if you had it everyday at every meal? After a while it would most likely become your least favorite food.

I think we’ve all had experiences like this in our lives. Well, when I heard this quote the other day, being the training geek that I am, my mind immediately thought of horse training. I thought about how easy it is for us to take a good thing, something special and fun and turn it into something dreadful. This not only holds true with traditional training but also with positive reinforcement/clicker training. We think it is all honky dory because we are putting something in it that they have shown us they value. Often times we are using food and most horses love food! However, we can override the joy (or wonder) when we practice the same behavior or use the same reinforcer over and over. It then becomes a form of drilling, not anything fun, new or novel. In my opinion, this concept is quite important when we consider training our horses. Repetition and predictability are not as stimulating as variety. That is why a variable schedule/ratio of reinforcement is much stronger that a fixed schedule/ratio of reinforcement. In a nut shell, it means we should be creative when considering our horses lives and when we interact with our horses. By changing things up and trying not to develop predictable patterns we will help to minimize the vises or sourness that can come from boredom. Horses, especially ones who have been taught through negative reinforcement may tend to like the predictability of routine since it can keep them out of trouble…it helps them know exactly what to do to avoid a correction. They are usually happier when the people drop the food (or attention) and leave them alone. Depressed people tend to act the same way. Most emotionally balanced horses thrive with stimulation…they are curious and like to explore and interact with their environment. Since we are the biggest influence on their environment we have a lot of potential for providing their mental stimulation. Being that we have domestic horses in our care, we are responsible not only for their physical well-being but also their mental well-being.

By adding variety into their lives you can improve their over all attitude and quality of life. When I began working with John and Beezie Madden one of the first things Beezie commented on during that first week was that the horses who were being taught to do the positive reinforcement training were markedly better in the arena. At this point, these two events did not intersect at all. I was working on the very beginning of the training, conditioning them to the sound of the clicker and then teaching them to touch their nose to a target. These activities were only done with me while in their stalls. I had not yet done these sessions in the arena and Beezie was not a part of this phase of the training. They were two separate events, yet their attitude had changed in the arena. The change in routine was a welcome change that effected the way they perceived the other aspects of their lives.

More importantly, I think we should consider how we undertake the concept of training. We have a strong tendency to want to work on a behavior until it is perfect. This often results in drilling and can actually reduce the performance as well as attitude associated with a behavior or task. I have experimented with this concept and found that I make much more progress, both in quality as well as effort when I let a behavior go and focus on some other behavior for a while. If I really want to make progress with a behavior I will work on it maybe 25% of the time or less when I am doing sessions. That’s right…by letting it go and working on some entirely separate behaviors, the target behavior (no pun intended!) will improve more than if it is worked on every session or even everyday. According to the rules of “traditional” horse training it seems counter productive. However, as far as their mental stimulation and keeping it fresh, novelty is our friend. John Madden also recognized this and wanted the horses to learn ANY behavior, silly or not, as it improved their attitude about the other aspects of their training.

There are times when we have to help our horse to develop through some repetition, things such as physically building muscles and athletic endurance or things such as husbandry and day to day behaviors. By changing up the other aspects of their training as well as introducing new behaviors, we can keep them looking forward to all of the training. Also, for the behaviors that need to be repeated for physical reasons, varying the reinforcement, changing when, where and for how long, we can still avoid monotony. Mixing in other behaviors to this equation will help to keep things fresh as well. This includes the things we use as reinforcement. Using the same thing over and over can cause something that the horse once valued to lose it’s value…including food. Mix it up. What you feed, how much you feed (per delivery) and how often you feed. Utilize other reinforcers besides food.

This also makes me think of the other habits we get into with our horses. We tend to create habits rather easily. By switching up things like who lives next to whom, when they are exercised, where and when they get turned out or come in (do they come in by themselves or is it always the same routine? Do you always groom first and ride later?) what they do (cross training) and what toys they have…etc. By checking your patterns and mixing it up you will provide much more mental stimulation for your horse.

Remember to slowly introduce change into your horse’s life. If you have taught your horse to expect a certain fixed routine they will be rigid since they rely on the fixed events. Start with slight changes at first. Pretty soon you will see a more engaged horse…not only with you and your training program but with a lot of the other elements of his life too. Your horse will learn that new things are good. He will also begin to adapt better in novel environments and situations, creating a bolder and more confident horse. Variety in itself is reinforcing and will create a more flexible and engaged attitude in your horse when you bother to change things up. Their mental balance and psychological well-being is paramount. It takes time and real effort but the benefits are worth it. What habits have you developed? What can you do to add more variety to your horse’s life?

Teaching a Horse to Jump

March 11, 2012 by  
Filed under Ask Shawna, Jumping

Hi Shawna, Just a quick question don’t want to take up to much of your time. Do you have any info/videos pertaining specifically to training young horse with clicker to jump. Have put my fellow on the lunge over a cavaletti the other day and used the clicker over the jump to show him that is what i was after. Just not sure the path to take from here?? It sure stops them from thinking go crazy after the jump but also don’t want him thinking we come to a stop after every jump so let him to 2 rounds sometimes and clicked if he was steady and jumped it with out fuss??????? Any reading resource on this would be great??????? Thanks and have a nice weekend.

Jumping is one of my favorite things to teach horses. I am working on a DVD for teaching free jumping and addressing jumping issues. Positive reinforcement training with jumping just hasn’t been done too much. It is amazingly effective for horses of all levels. It builds such confidence in the horse. Like you mentioned, it helps them to settle and not get overly nervous or excited. Getting them started right helps to prevent issues from coming up later. So I am very excited about helping horses (and rider’s) learn how to jump.

I don’t know if you have the ability to teach him free jumping at liberty but it is a great tool. Not everyone has an open arena to work a loose horse or a second person available to help. You can teach them to jump with one person but there are a lot of other components to the one person behavior. This results in more attention to maintaining the other elements of the behavior and less on the actual jumping. The free jumping allows them to completely make the choice to jump, and it also helps to teach them about finding a distance. This latter skill comes in handy and helps to avoid some jumping issues down the road. If you can and want to teach this part let me know and I will tell you more about how to proceed. Also, I have some videos and blog posts on jumping that may give you some more info. They are not all perfect but the mistakes they make a part of the learning process. Here is the link if you want to take a look and haven’t seen them already: http://shawnakarrasch.com/blog/category/jumping/ (These are under the jumping category on this Blog)

It sounds like you are doing great. I recommend adding to the duration. If I click I anticipate them stopping. When under saddle I teach them to continue but that is a different scenario. We can discuss that another time. :0) So like it sounds like you are doing, I would ask him to jump then remain supportive with your signal that asked him to jump in the first place. When he accepted and jumped the next jump well, I would click and reinforce that. In the beginning this click is coming, mostly, for his continuation. As he grasps this concept and is jumping two jumps confidently and consistently then it is time to add another. continue on this path until you have built it up to where you want. Here is a caveat, I recommend still occasionally clicking and reinforcing the early jumps. If all of the clicks come at the latter jumps he will tend to put less effort into the early jumps since it seems the last jump is the only one that will get reinforced. It keeps it things from being too predictable.

When he is doing this well it is time to add more height. Go back to simple one jump at first. Then progress through the training exercise. When you change an element you want to recognize that this one little change maybe a huge change for your horse. You will then progress through the exercise. Remember to keep things short and positive by doing small, short session rather than long sessions. I have found things move faster and the horses stays interested.

Next thing I would consider is introducing the weight of a rider. You want him to keep the same mind set as the earlier exercises. We don’t want the rider to be giving any signals at this point as this may be distracting. We want to allow him to get accustomed to the new weight and balance. Still focusing on the ground person reminds him to practice his familiar exercise. Again, progress through the steps. Next add the rider’s cues (softly) while still on a lunge line. The ground person should still be doing the clicking but have the rider do the reinforcing from the saddle. We are slowly shifting the focus to the rider so we can fade the ground person out. Next the rider does the clicking and reinforcing. Then remove the lunge line. These small steps, that may not seem like a big deal to us, help ensure a smooth transition for your horse. This kind of process helps to set them up for success. It also sounds like a long drawn out process but it usually goes pretty quickly. I just like to be sure that I cover them all.

Alright, let me know how it goes and if you have more questions. It is an exciting time for you and your horse and I am glad to be a part of your journey!

REPLY: (to my response)
Wow Shawna Thanks for such a HUGE reply.lol You are obviously very keen on jumping and clicker. I was having seeds of ideas of how it could get the horse so much more confident about jumping. I want to really be able to let him know that was how you do it as you can’t really do that in the air over a jump! I do have an area that is big enough and, at present, my neighbour could help me a bit (she may be moving ??) She is also a clicker person ( you answered her question about her horse in the washbay. Leone) It would just be getting it set up right and if I have enough gear to do so?? I will look at the links to see if that helps me with the set up! This fellow is bred to jump but that does not mean he will love to jump. I think by doing as you have outlined above and clicker jump training him it will avoid the all to often situation that the horse gets scared and doesn’t enjoy the situation. Then only a strong jump ridder can get them around the course. I want the both of us to love a little jump course with a relaxed mind. Thanks and will be looking forward to you proposed jump DVD!!

RESPONSE: (from me to Sharon’s reply)
Beezie Madden, who is a two time olympic gold medalist, is who worked with when I started applying clicker training to horses back in 1994. She and her husband had a famous jumper named Judgement. He had a huge water jumping issue and clicker/target training helped him to overcome his fear. So it really works for every level. A little addendum…Remember to click on the behavior what you want to see more often. For jumping it is when they commit to leaving the ground. They remember what earned them the click. Since the it is uncomfortable for them to come to screeching halt so they figure out to come to a normal stop on the other side of the jump after they hear the click.

Another quote from Han Senn

As soon as the horse feels the rider’s distraction, he will promptly join in.
–Hans Senn–

On Target Training, Shawna Karrasch

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