Using Clicker Training to Teach Riding as a Road to Reinforcement to a Mustang Stallion

A few years ago I sat on Tarot for the first time (read about that here), but I still didn’t really feel that he was ready for riding. He was relaxed with me being up on his back in terms of trust, but I didn’t feel that he had enough of an education for him to be ready for the complexities of riding . On top of that, he was uneasy in the indoor arena and I didn’t feel safe riding him in his lane with the electric tape and other horses nearby. So, I tabled everything after that first session of sitting on him.
But by late summer and early fall this year, a few things happened which illustrated how very deeply he has changed. I began to think riding was a real possibility for the first time.
Tarot School Horse clinic

Tarot giving a lesson to a student during a clinic here at Idle Moon.

The first thing that happened was I held a clinic here on my farm, and he was able to participate, as a school horse, in an arena full of people. Just a few years earlier, if anyone but me was in the arena with him he would be tense, on edge and prone to big, cantering bolt-y spooks. Extra people were always a concern for him because they reminded him of situations where multiple people had worked together to control him. But this year he let go of that old conditioning.

As if that wasn’t enough, he was additionally comfortable working with someone other than me at length. His ability to absorb stress and novelty had hugely expanded. In effect, his world-view had changed. His old predictors for danger and self-preservation were consistently superseded by his new, positive associations he had learned here.

The second thing was more subtle, but just as important. When I got home from my “study abroad” trip from the Netherlands, I took out my horses one by one to say hello and introduce them to some of what I had learned. When I started to work with him on some of the balances, I had the immediate sense of time turning to water, of the world softening, opening, and I knew that if I did not travel with him as deeply as possible, there would be lovely things he offers I would never get to know. It was time to be serious now.

When I re-visited our work at the mounting block, I found he remembered everything exactly as if we had rehearsed it the day before. I could climb up the block, take up the reins, throw my leg over and sit, click, climb off and feed. He even threw in lovely posture to sweeten the deal.

Tarot re-start

Relaxed and focused at the mounting block.

He was comfortable with me getting on, but I had never taught him how to take food from my hand while I was up on his back. Real riding was going to require that he was comfortable taking food from me while I was up. In addition, because Tarot had bolted before under a rider, it was important that I paid attention to every detail as I rebuilt a reinforcement history for ridden games. Structuring each piece so he felt safe and successful would guide him toward feeling being a riding horse would be something he could enjoy and be confident about. I didn’t want any carelessness on my part in the beginning to sabotage what might be possible for us.

Initially, when I clicked and tried to feed from his back the first few times,  I had grain in my hand, and it was hard for him to get a hold of all the grain. A lot of it fell onto the ground and he stopped trying to turn his head to get it. Too hard! My friend gave me the idea of trying big, easy to grab apple treats, so we tried again with those.

 

My goals with these initial repetitions are modest. Click Tarot for standing still, feed him so he can be successful taking a reinforcer, let him chew, click him for straightening his head back in the center of his neck, click and repeat. In the video you can see him practicing food acquisition, as well as the little “tour” we take around the object circle after our mounting practice. The walk around the circle gives both of us a little break in between repetitions and sets us up geographically for where we will go when we do start moving.

I was happy with our progress, but I wanted to see if once I was on his back, I could ask him for an operant behavior. I chose his “rein” behavior, which cues him to lower his head a touch when I pick up the reins. We’ve practiced it over and over at the mounting block and it’s a high probability behavior for him. In the next video, you’ll see me get on Tarot, click him for allowing the sit, feed and then cue a slight head lowering through a verbal cue and slide down the rein. It transfers just beautifully! In addition, I add in a shoulder tap to cue him about the side the reinforcer will be delivered from. Let’s watch:

All these details can seem like overkill. You are on! Get riding! Except, what do you have to rely on if things go wrong? Right now, we are building a lovely loop where we can relax in the halt and use well established head lowering and a high rate of reinforcement to take a break or re-establish calm should we need it. These are the details that are the scaffolding of trust and relaxation.

It’s easy to see that Tarot’s thick neck makes it hard for him to swing around and get the treat from my hand. There is a lot of sideways movement in that gesture. But, it’s also reassuring that he can come so far out of balance and go back into balance without panicking. I’m sure over a few more sessions we will refine this together and it will already look different than the video above. But first approximations are good to have on video so you can compare as things evolve.
This week we will practice a few more rounds of our loop at the mounting block, and after that, we will begin forward movement mat to mat.

Horse culture can be a throw away culture. If a horse is not following an owner’s timeline, or has more conflict behavior than they hoped for, they are often sold or thrown out to pasture or sent to auction. We have high hopes pinned to these beasts. Tarot and I are lucky, because I knew his issues before I brought him home. I wanted to live up close to a horse with serious fear and a lack of trust because I knew he would make me a better trainer and a better human. When I brought Tarot home, nearly seven years ago, I told myself that it would be at least five years before I ever knew if he would grow to be the sort of horse who might be able to be ridden. I knew there were no quick answers with him, I had to love the journey for it’s own sake. Only time and wading deep into process would reveal what was possible. Slow, patient magic.
Now, at this benchmark, I dream only of seven more years to explore this world we have mined, together.

Tarot liberty block

Playing at liberty after our session.

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Learning to read “tells” during training

Sistine lip to target

Sistine extends her upper lip to touch her jolly ball during a session. This is a confirmation of  relaxation and engagement.

Most trainers are deeply familiar with their chosen species’ body language. It’s a basic requirement for making training decisions and something that we take for granted as  part and parcel of our work. Many trainers use body language as a guide in their teaching progression, automatically, without even having to think about it. But being able to be conscious of what specific signals are guiding our work allows us to be even more deliberate and clean in our training choices.

horse poker blogI like to think of certain expressions of body language is as “tells”,  a term I borrowed from poker. In cards, hiding your emotions is a strength, so you can bluff without your opponents guessing at your hand. In reality, though, it’s really difficult to suppress expression, and it’s common for other players to learn what you look like when you know you are about to win and what you look like when you know you are going to lose. Emotions want expression and often our body language speaks regardless of our conscious intent. These consistent expressions are known as tells.

In horse training, being able to read your horse’s tells allows you to support them within the context of a training session. It lets you know whether they feel like they have a good hand or a bad hand at the moment in the training session, so you can adjust accordingly. In order to learn your horse’s tells, it’s helpful to video training sessions so you can go back and observe as many times as you need to. Let’s have a look at Sistine at her stationary target while being brushed:

When Sistine is comfortable and in seeking mode, not only does she continue chewing her grain and remain very mobile in her neck, but she is almost continuously active with her upper lip. When she is actively using her lip to move and manipulate the jolly ball, this is a tell for me that whatever activity I am working on : brushing, fly spray, etc is not or no longer a stressor for her.
Now let’s look at a decidedly different scenario:

In the above video, you will see me introducing a brand new spray to Sistine. She is actually quite comfortable with fly spray, but this is a skin spray and it has a really different scent from the fly spray. You will see her lips start to wiggle, or wiggle a little at first when she initiates touch on the ball, but then as I begin spraying her lips stop moving, she stops chewing and becomes generally very still. This is a classic freeze response and it means the horse is moving toward discomfort and into survival mode. Horse people miss and misinterpret freeze responses frequently as compliance, and it’s the reason many mustangs have a reputation for exploding “out of nowhere”. Freeze tends to be low on the ladder of conflict responses, so it is often what precedes a much larger flight or fight response. In addition, when we have taught our horses to “do nothing” or just stand still, it can be really hard to see the freeze response. But we need it! It’s predictive. So, in this case, the entire freeze response is her tell that she needs the spray split down into more manageable approximations.

Learning to be conscious of our individual learner’s tells is good homework for the human trainer and a way to keep our training learner-centric for the horse. All the stories people tell about their horses, “He exploded out of nowhere!” or “She was fine yesterday but today she is acting like she’s never been sprayed before!” are usually stories about failures of observation. Being a trainer is a journey of learning how to see. Its valuable to notice that Sistine stayed on her target without moving her feet, even while being sprayed with the new, unpleasant (to her) spray. If I wasn’t observant of smaller, more nuanced signals from her, I might believe she was “just fine” with being sprayed because she stayed still, near the ball. But I know her tells for true comfort, and they weren’t present.
The beautiful thing about tells to me, is if you follow them they will never lead you into conflict. They are always true. So, go find your horse’s tells and honor them. Let your horse lead you at their pace, with their nervous system, into the space they can inhabit without any concern. Then you will know how to see a horse.

 

The super power of reinforcement histories

R H Aesop SB

A few months ago, I read a blog that confidently stated, “Using feed to tease a horse into the trailer might work on a sunny day with no wind or challenge, but attraction to food fails when the stakes go up. When faced with multiple horses or injury or natural disaster, a relationship with treats will never save your horse. He needs a relationship with a leader for that.”

I felt the familiar sensation of frustration and exasperation rise together in my chest as once again I saw a chance for clear explanation of learning, stress and reinforcement histories traded in favor of a moral interpretation of horse behavior.

The laws and details of learning are a science. They are clean, spare little laws. Bare bones. They are always there, clear, unafraid and consistent.

I want to take apart the story about the horse and the trailer and the food and leadership, so we can see the actual laws at play within that situation rather than the story created around it. It’s only when we see clearly, that we can make informed choices for ourselves as trainers and for our horses as learners, so let’s begin.

First, we have to look at the nervous system.
I like to describe the nervous system to my clients as the scales of justice, a scale on each side hung from a central point. When one side of the nervous system gets heavier (or activated!), it hangs down a bit lower and the other is lifted a bit higher. The two sides counter-balance one another.
Essentially, one side is for threat preparedness, and the other is for return to homeostasis and relaxation. To make it easier to remember, think of your horse having a “survive” side of his nervous system and a “thrive” side of his nervous system.
Officially, the “survive” side is called the sympathetic nervous system or SNS and the “thrive” side is called the parasympathetic or PNS. We all have both and we need both to be alive.
Based on your horse’s behavior, you can observe which side of their nervous system they are operating out of. It’s good to know, and it matters a lot when you are trying to work on re-training something previously stressful like trailer loading.

On the thrive side we have: rest, digest, feed/eat, and breed.

On the survive side we have: fight, flight, fidget, faint, and freeze.

When we are truly worried about our survival, we don’t: lay down to sleep, stop for a bite to eat or to check out a love interest as we run for our lives.

When we feel safe and unthreatened, we do not: fight, run away from others, pace around, faint or remain frozen or immobile (like standing in front of a trailer.)

So, in the story about the horse who loses interest in food when asked to get on a trailer, what that detail really tells us is the horse was worried enough about being asked to step onto a trailer to be pushed into the sympathetic side of his nervous system.
His survival instinct just got triggered and when that happens, eating goes offline.

But does that mean food is useless when it comes to teaching and maintaining the skill of trailer loading? Oh my gosh, NO! It means you have to know how to use it. And to really understand the power of food, you need to understand reinforcement histories.

So, imagine this: Each time you ask your horse for a behavior, they perform the behavior and you feed them (ABC). Each time, they experience a little jolt of pleasure in relation to the behavior you asked for. Over time, your horse will grow to have a general impression, or “classically conditioned emotional response” to being asked to perform this behavior.
This emotional response is the composite of every time he performed the behavior and the consequence that followed. So, if each time you asked your horse to walk forward on a lead and they complied, you stopped and reinforced them with some grain, they would have a very positive emotional affect when asked to walk forward. Walking forward predicts good things. So, they feel good when you ask them to walk forward. This is their reinforcement history for going forward on lead. It contains the depth of multiple repetitions, rather than the shallowness of one bucket of food in the present moment.

So, cool! It would seem you were all set to walk your horse forward, which they LOVE, and into the brand new trailer you just bought!
But here is where folks go wrong. Walking forward near the trailer or into the trailer, ALSO needs to predict good things. This is a separate reinforcement history. (This is compound now. Walking forward+trailer = ?) If every time I walk into the trailer, my person closes me in and takes me on a long bumpy ride and then I’m away from home and my friends for days, then my reinforcement history for walking forward and onto the trailer is going to be poor. Getting on the trailer will predict unpleasant things.
To fix this, just breaking the ratio of loading to actual trips helps tremendously. If I load up ten times for every one time that I actually go somewhere, then I won’t worry so much about getting on the trailer. I’ll probably get on quite easily as it usually will predict a nice big flake of alfalfa and then unloading to go back to my paddock. And I’ll eat the whole time, because I’ll be lounging around in the “thrive” side of my nervous system.

So what of the horse who refused to get on the trailer and ignored the nice bucket of food? He wasn’t lacking for a leader and he, contrary to the post, DOES find the trailer to be a the problem. Trailers are small, often dark and when a horse steps in they don’t know how long the ride will be and where they will end up. Unpredictability is, by nature, punishing. Think of blindfolding an adult human and telling them you are taking them in the car for a “birthday surprise.”Lots of people panic, pull off the blindfold or get really angry about the situation. Honestly, it’s no different for the horse.
They see the trailer, their survival mechanism gets invoked and they go into (often) an extended freeze response to avoid loading up.

Their reinforcement history is insufficient to the task being asked.

So what do horses need?
Horses just need an observant, educated human to assess what part of their learning history needs to be re-worked if they are not loading into the trailer. The time to train trailer loading is not at the horse show or clinic or vet hospital. Yes, there are emergencies and natural disasters and other situations that come up and require urgent loading. And in those moments you do the best you can with multiple tools: chutes, panels, etc, because those are “oh crap!” situations, not training scenarios. But most days aren’t emergencies. Most days are calm and open and perfect for getting to work building deep reinforcement histories. Build yours carefully and deeply enough, and that reinforcement history will always lead right into the trailer.

 

 

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Understanding a basic progression in the education of a horse

Spryte at CBH horses SB

Me, at Camp Black Hawk in 1992, happy, but uneducated about learning.

The first horses that most of us ride are already trained. When I managed the barn for seven years at my girl scout camp, the horses came to us already trained. Sure, we tuned them up after their winter off, but they came to us knowing all the behaviors we needed them to know. We didn’t even talk about training, or understand the process of learning very well. This phenomenon is pretty much true throughout the horse world, in part because horses live so long and can have multiple stages in their lives, one often being where the horse goes to a beginner or a recreational rider with their skill set already in place to offer the human while they learn the basics of horse care and riding. In effect, because our horses are so long lived, and often so forgiving about their handling and ways of being ridden, training can be something that we understand vaguely as having happened in the past, but don’t truly understand as a process. In addition, because so few people start out with a foal or an untrained youngster, many professionals included, the process isn’t immediately obvious like it is with dog owners who often start with a young puppy who knows nothing about living with humans.

Because of this phenomenon, I often see huge holes in my students’ skill set when they get their first horse that needs active training, rather than passive maintenance of already acquired skills. In particular, I observe that people struggle to understand what to teach when, so I’ve created a basic curriculum to help guide folks working at home. It’s the general progression I use with my own horses and all my students’ horses as well. It allows you to rate where your horse is in their progression of learning and to know where to go next in their education. (This progression assumes a tame horse that wears a halter and is unafraid of humans.)

  1. Teach your horse to be operant through introduction of target training. If your horse isn’t operant and doesn’t understand they can effect change through their behavior, then you must go back and introduce this step. Even if they seem to have many other behaviors already learned, go back and confirm they are operant and not just passively compliant.
  2. Go through the process of teaching your horse foundation lessons.
    For me this means: Touch a target with your nose, walk forward from a cue on the lead, back up from a cue on the lead, stand quietly in with your head and neck in the center of your chest, aka, “neutral” position, stand on a mat, and offer head down from a cue on the lead.

    All of these behaviors can be taught from target training and transferred to tactile cues on the lead to avoid learner frustration, but it is very important that the cues transfer from visual to tactile cues as your horse becomes more educated. If they aren’t transferred, you will be limited when you want to begin riding, especially because targets from the saddle throw the horse off balance and badly out of alignment.

    Initial teaching of these foundation behaviors should occur in an environment where the horse is totally comfortable and learning is optimal.

  3. Establish that all of these responses are easy for your horse and can be put together in loops without “extra” behavior creeping in: walk forward – click – back up- click – head down – click, before you move on to rehearsing these behaviors in more challenging environments. (For more information on “loopy training”, check out Alexandra Kurland’s Loopy Training DVD.)
  4. Expand the context of your horse’s foundation behaviors. Use them in new and ever-widening environments: in the indoor arena, in the outdoor arena, on the road from the barn to the indoor, etc.
  5. Confirm that you can use the foundation behaviors you have taught your horse to  help them balance out emotionally. In the beginning, horse training is essentially energy regulation. Each of the foundation behaviors is there to place your horse in space and offer them an alternative to increasing adrenaline or fear. Being able to help them back away, stand still, move to a  mat or lower their head, suggest to them, “Do this for reinforcement rather than just react!”
    Once you can use your foundation behaviors to help your horse balance out emotionally, they are safe and ready to move on in the process. This stage of training can take some time, so be patient.
  6. Choose a discipline.
    What do you want to pursue? Now that you and your horse have built a system of communication and you both feel safe working in varied environments, it’s time to move on to new skills.
    Whether you want to pursue art form dressage, trail riding, horse agility, or working equitation, there will be a whole new set of component skills to teach your horse. Luckily, your horse will now be comfortable in the arena, or the outdoor arena or at a clinic, so you will be able to get to work on teaching the building blocks of your new discipline. And, if your horse gets worried, you know you have the foundation to go back to to help them calm down.
    Is your horse not even under saddle yet? Congrats! It’s time to start with the building blocks for ridden work!

    Helping people identify where they are in this progression with their own horses and helping them acquire the skills to teach each individual piece forms the bulk of my work with my students. In my experience, it takes from 2-4 years to learn the entire skill set as a human, but is a much briefer process to teach to a horse once you understand it yourself, six months to two years, depending on the horse.

    Where are you in the progression with your own horse? Do you know where you are going next?

    Enjoy the journey.

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