Clicking with the Pony Fairy

What to Leave Behind, What to Take Forward: Part 6

Clicker training for many is something they slip on easily like a

By: Clicking with the Pony Fairy |

Clicker training for many is something they slip on easily like a well fitting glove. For others it represents a real U-turn in their thinking. They have become comfortable with their current tool kit. Swinging a lead doesn’t feel forceful. It’s just how you use leads. The horse complies. Everything is light and polite. They don’t see the lack of sparkle as a problem. Until you have experienced the contrast, how do you know that something is missing? If I don’t know how much better a cake can taste when I add butter and cream and chocolate to it, I won’t mind the bland flavor and heavy consistency.

If you bring your old habits of thoughts with you into clicker training, you can still end up with that bland product. You may be mixing in the “butter and cream”, but you won’t see the result. It will get lost under the weight of the other, heavier ingredients.

Changing habit patterns takes time. For clicker training that often means changing the environment in which you work as well as changing how you work. I saw a great example of just how powerful habits can be during one of the first clinics I gave out in the western part of the country. I was in an area where people use their horses for back country riding. When meeting a grizzly bear on a trail is a very real possibility, you want a reliable horse. The horses in the clinic were all used to traveling. They knew how to come into an arena and go right to work without any emotional drama. They knew how to stand tied for long periods without fussing. They knew how to be ridden, how to load onto trailers. They were the kind of horses many people long to have – safe horses you can just get on and ride. They were also horses without sparkle. They did as they were told, but no more. When they were unsaddled and turned loose, the relationship ended. They weren’t interested in being with their people.

Changing Habits of Thought

For many in the clinic this was their first introduction to clicker training. We spent the weekend immersed in the basics. This was the first time – perhaps ever – that many of them had gone an entire weekend without saying “No” or “Don’t” to their horses. It was clear this represented a huge cultural shift. One woman in particular stood out for me. She was an experienced horse rider who was well trained in traditional “make it happen” methods.

For her it wasn’t just clicker training that was new. She also did very little ground work. So all the foundation lessons were completely foreign territory for her. She had no habits of thought or action to get in the way of learning these new skills. She did a wonderful job and her horse really blossomed throughout the weekend.

Monday afternoon the course ended and people began to leave. I was chatting with someone else when she came up to ask if it was all right if she rode her horse. We had been so busy with foundation skills, there had been no time to ride during the clinic.

The course was over. It was her horse. Of course, she could ride. She could do anything she wanted. She didn’t need to ask my permission. She led her horse into the arena and swung up into the saddle. It was like watching one of those science fiction transformer movies. As soon as her seat was in the saddle, she changed. She became an enforcer. Everything about her posture and her actions was different. Her horse started to walk off and she snatched at his mouth with the rein. Old habits suddenly swept away a weekend of thoughtful training.

Her conditioned responses were the strongest when she was riding. Sitting in the saddle ignited her old triggers. To really embrace clicker training she would need to postpone riding for a while until her new habits were strong enough to be there ahead of her older “make it happen” reactions.

This is one of the reasons I rarely have people ride in their first clicker clinic. Yes, we have a lot to cover and we normally run out of time before we get to the riding questions. But more than that, people need time to shift their habits. It doesn’t happen instantly.

Shifting habits is also one of the reasons I like to use the single-rein riding to reintroduce riding to both the horse and the hander. It is different enough that it sidesteps old riding cues. It doesn’t trigger old reaction patterns. That’s as true for the horse as it is for the handler.

We can be caught up in these old thought patterns without even realizing that we are. They are the comfortable norm. We wear them like a familiar old sweater. We don’t notice that the sweater has become so tattered that it no longer keeps us warm. And then someone gives us a new sweater that fits even better. The wool is soft, the colours bright. It provides real protection against the wind. You wonder why you have kept using that old sweater. You never really liked it in the first place. How did it come to be the one you wore so much?

Creating New Habits

So what do you do if you think you might be wearing that “sweater” without intending to? Change things. If you normally carry a whip, leave it in the barn. Can you figure out how to communicate without it? If you normally direct with a lead, take the lead off, or change to another lead that feels very different. Whatever tools you normally use, change them. And check to confirm that you really are changing your tools and not just transferring them to something else. If you take off the lead, you could simply be transferring your “make it happen” cues to your body language. They are linked together. Working at liberty is no guarantee that you will be changing the true meaning behind your ask.

When I was first introducing the microshaping strategy, I worked with a client who had done a lot of ground work with her horse. I wanted her to freeshape backing. She couldn’t do it. It wasn’t that she couldn’t get her horse to back. That was easy. What I mean is she couldn’t keep herself from prompting the behavior through her body-language cues. Her horse was following directions not figuring out a new puzzle. We had to put a barrier between them and plant her against a fence post to remove all the familiar prompts.

So if you are used to working at liberty and you are using cues that were derived from escalating pressure, putting away your leads and other tools may not be enough. Try sitting in a chair. Now how are you going to structure your training so your horse responds in the way that you want? How are you going to get the behavior when you truly can’t compel it? Can you still train with a high enough rate of reinforcement so that your horse does not become frustrated? And do you know how to move your training along so the behavior evolves both in terms of quality and duration?

Seeing Possibilities

Changing habits takes work. Why bother doing it? Here’s one simple answer – it gives you more options. The old habits aren’t going to disappear. You will always have your “horse handling” tool kit and your “horse handling” solutions. But now you may see other possibilities. For me, the more I look for these solutions the more entertaining the work becomes. That’s important because I am in this for the long haul. I’ve been teaching clinics for a great many years, and I think it is fair to say I have never been bored. How many of you can say that about the work you do?

Let me end with a story from a recent clinic.

One of the attendees brought her charmer of an Icelandic. She had done a lot of natural horsemanship with him. The result was a polite horse who was very easy to be around. Space management was definitely not an issue. But he was drab. She wanted more sparkle. She didn’t want him simply saying: “Whatever you want is fine with me.” She wanted him to engage actively in their relationship, not simply passively follow directions.

The first day of the course is what I always think of as the data collecting day. I want to see what the horse knows and where he is emotionally. What carries over from the work someone has done at home to this unfamiliar environment? Is this the horse you have at home, or does his worry or excitement over being in a new place bring out issues you don’t normally have to deal with? In other words what is our starting point and what “tools” in terms of the behaviors the horse knows do we have to work with?

The Icey’s owner set out a pattern of mats and cones, and he followed her through them, stopping on cue, backing, coming forward again, even picking up a cone when requested. This can be one of the hardest types of clinic horse to work with. You can so easily say what’s wrong with this picture? What is there to change? He was doing everything that was being asked of him politely and willingly. The horse that is falling apart emotionally or pushing through the handler to grab for treats is a much easier clinic project. There’s so much that needs sorting, it’s easy to come up with things to work on.

But this horse was already polite. He was coping well emotionally. The big hole was his balance. He tended to stand all higgledy-piggledy with his legs going every which way. Overall his balance was down, forward and leaning on his inside shoulder. This really matters for small horses, even strong small horses like an Icelandic. The more he learns to carry himself up in good balance, the easier it will be to carry a rider, the sounder he will remain, and the better he will gait for her.

Following Directions Versus Initiating Behaviour

Now I could have approached this conventionally. I could have set out a circle of cones and gone straight to work on lateral flexions, but if I did that, I risked falling through the trap door of obliging a response. He would not have been solving a puzzle and offering behavior. He would not have been becoming increasingly body aware. He would simply have been following directions as he had been doing for years.

I always use the analogy of following the car in front of you back to the hotel you’re both staying at. The first night you follow the the car in front of you from the barn to the hotel. The second night you follow again. On the third night that person has to stay behind to check on something. You head out on your own, but you end up sleeping in your car because you never do find the hotel. You were relying on the car in front of you to get you there. You weren’t paying attention to any of the turns or landmarks you passed.

Adding “Stuff” to Become Creative

This horse could follow direction, but he wasn’t used to initiating behavior. That’s what his person wanted him to explore. So we changed course. I had her get lots of horse-safe stuff and scatter it around the arena. In addition to the usual mats and cones, she added some dog toys, a beach ball, several hula hoops, a jacket, a bandana, and her rubber rain boots. In general the more stuff you have the better. This isn’t so much for the horse as it is for you. More stuff helps you to be more creative.

What can you and your horse do with a hula hoop? What can you do with a beach ball? Each item separately will produce a list of behaviors you could go after. Take a moment to think about what would be on your list.

Now what can you do if you have both a beach ball and a hula hoop? The options and possibilities just expanded. Put two objects together that you haven’t combined before, and you may see even more new things popping out.

Teaching Creativity Creatively

So here’s what happened: The first day the Icey was hesitant. He pushed the ball ever so politely. “Am I really supposed to be doing this? Is this really what you want?”

Years ago another of our Click That Teaches coaches, Debra Olson, demonstrated for a clinic group how she teaches creativity. She was working with another of these very polite, but very drab horses. Her prop was a large beach ball. Now most of us would have no trouble teaching a horse to push a ball. We would set it down near the horse. If the horse sniffed at it, click, we’d offer him a treat. It wouldn’t be long before he would be nudging it to get a goody.

That’s not what Debra did. Debra is a professional artist. When she was first getting herself established, she taught art to young children – not the tedious draw-inside-the-lines type of art class I endured in school, but real creative work. She used some of the same techniques with this horse that she had developed for the children. Instead of plunking the ball down and going through the standard clicker approach, she first rolled the ball back and forth. Then she very deliberately set the ball down in front of the horse.

The horse sniffed it. Click and treat. She nudged it tentaively a couple of times, click and treat.

Then Debra took the ball away and sat on it. She bounced it a time or two and then again very deliberately set it down in front of the horse. It was as if she was saying: “This is what I can think of to do with this ball. What can you do?”

If we had filmed just the mare’s interactions with the ball and compared them to that of a more conventionally-trained horse, they would not have looked that different. (By the way I love the idea that we have been clicker training long enough to call something conventional! This simple teaching strategy would once have been considered ground breaking.)

In that one session Debra had with this mare you could not say for sure that anything life changing had occurred, but I know Debra’s horse, Magic. I know what this kind of approach creates, and it is a horse that truly is magical.

So this was my approach with the Icey. We first let him explore the objects at liberty to see if he had any preferences. He passed by the dog toys and showed some mild curiosity about the rubber boot. It wasn’t enough to sustain any real interest. He was waiting to be told what to do. Instead of going down the conventional route, I picked up the boot and tossed it to his person. Click and treat as it landed in her arms.

The game was on! In that first session he was tentative, polite, unsure if he was really meant to nudge the boot. On the second day he was much more engaged. He had picked out his favorite toys, the hula hoop, the beach ball and the rubber boots. He was doing his best to imitate tossing the boot forward. He couldn’t quite get the coordination down, but with a little more practice I think he would be able to toss the boot to us.

On the third day we continued to play with the toys, but now I added a new element. We played for a bit, then I held my hands gently around his face. I waited at the point of contact. I wasn’t forcing or telling. I was waiting. It was up to him to experiment and offer. He found the first tiny give, click and treat. Within just a few more attempts he was presenting me with clean, clear, consistent, self-mobilized gives of the jaw. That’s the first rung on the ladder that leads to brilliant performance.

Find the Other Way

We were back to performance work, but we had gotten there in a very round about way. If I had gone there directly, whatever I got from him would have been false because it would not have come as an offered behavior. He had to play with the toys first to discover that offering was safe, offering was even fun, before we could move into performance-related requests.

People sometimes say that clicker training is too slow. I would say it only seems slow because we want so much more. And because we want more, we put in more steps. Someone watching these sessions might have thought his owner was wasting her time. She could be riding! And instead she was playing catch with a rubber boot and watching her horse push a beach ball. But she understood what we were after. She loves to laugh. It was a joy spending the weekend with her. She was always bubbly, always smiling.

She could always ride. She wanted something more precious. She wanted her horse to be able to laugh with her. What a great gift to give to the horse she so clearly loved.

In shaping we know that there is always another way to train everything. The challenge we all have is finding the other way. The gift we give ourselves and our horses is finding the other way.

When we figure that out for our horses, perhaps we will have the skills to apply it to people. Around the planet, it is certainly something we need to figure out how to do.