equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Training with Base Position – Using this technique to train hoof handling

Aurora 103Last fall when I bought Aurora it was clear that getting her feet trimmed was a high priority. It was also clear that it was not something she was comfortable having done. I could sometimes ask for a foot and she would pick it up, but not with any consistency, and there was a lot of anxious body language.   Even if I could pick it up, she would then snatch it away, wave it around and put it back down.

So even though I needed to do her feet, I wanted to approach the matter carefully. I’ve trained a number of babies for hoof care and usually shape the behavior by teaching them to pick up a foot (with free-shaping or directed learning) and it has worked well. But with all of them, the issue was more one of getting the foot off the ground, and while I also had to teach duration and relaxation while the foot was held up, they were not inclined to fling their legs around. Aurora’s behavior was different enough that I decided to try something new and I chose to teach her hoof care by training it out of a base position, something l learned from Kay Laurence. That is not to say that my usual method would not have worked, but it’s always nice to explore other training strategies and have a variety of techniques to choose from.

So what does it mean to train a behavior “out of base position?” The idea is that you start by reinforcing or teaching the animal a behavior which is the starting point for the new behavior. It becomes the default behavior that the animal is reinforced for between repetitions of working on the new behavior. In this case, Aurora’s base position was standing still (later it became a balanced stand). I chose standing still because it’s easier to shape a foot lift if the horse is standing quietly and my goal was for her to stand quietly between each foot.

In the case of hoof handling, there is really only one base position that will work, but sometimes you have a choice of several base positions. It’s easier to see this with dogs that have more base positions. Some of the possible base positions are sitting, lying down (lion down), lying down (on hip), lying flat, standing, and trotting. When choosing a base position, I try to choose the one that makes it easy for the animal to offer the behavior I want and also minimizes the amount of extra movement that is possible.

For example, if I want to train a behavior where the dog moves the front legs but not the hind legs, I might start with a base position of sit.   If I want to train head movement, I might start with the dog lying down so it’s less likely to move its legs. The idea is that by limiting the number of available body parts that can be moved, the dog will more quickly pick up on what is being clicked and I won’t end up having to get rid of unwanted “extra” behavior later.  It’s very frustrating to get the behavior I want, but have it attached to another behavior and be unable to separate them. Using base position makes this less likely.

Here are some key points about base position:

  • It can be stationary (sit, down, stand,…) or moving (trot, walk, run,…)
  • Base position is the starting position for a new behavior as well as what the animal should return to between repetitions. This makes it easier for the animal to repeat exactly the same thing each time.
  • Using base position allows you to select/isolate one specific movement and get that behavior without additional unwanted behaviors.
  • It makes it easier to get the behavior under stimulus control, both in getting it on cue and avoiding having it offered off cue. Because you are reinforcing both base position and the new behavior, the animal learns to look for information about which behavior you want.
  • The same movement can be trained from several base positions to get different behaviors more quickly. A paw wave can be taught from a sit and then easily added to other positions such as stand, walking, etc… to get new behaviors.
  • You can use “return to base position” to train behaviors. I’m not going to explain much about this but wanted to mention it as Kay often uses base position when she is microshaping new behaviors.
  • The base position gets very strong.       It’s a great way to keep your original behaviors strong and makes it less likely that the animal will lose one behavior (sit with feet still) when you add a new behavior (wave paw from a sit).

Aurora’s Training Plan:

I chose to work with Aurora in her stall at liberty. At that time, it was the place where she was most comfortable and I could work with her without worrying about the other horses that share her field.

Step 1:   Teach the base position of standing still:

I worked in short sessions, teaching her to stand still while I stood next to her (in various locations relative to her body), moved around her, and did some easy grooming or just stroked her. I gave her little breaks where we worked on other behaviors such as targeting.

Step 2:   Start to shape picking up a foot:

Once she was standing nicely, I started shaping the foot lift. When working from a base position, the easiest way to get the new behavior started is to use either directed learning (targeting, luring, molding) or food placement to start the new behavior. In her case, I chose to use a combination of food delivery (to ask her to step forward) and tactile information (my hand on her leg).

At this stage, most of her reinforcement was still for the behavior of standing still, but I would mix in a repetition or two focusing on the foot lift every now and then. How often I did that would depend upon her response and how far along we were in the training. In the beginning, I might just focus on her foot and c/t for that behavior once. As she got more comfortable with the process, I would do a few repetitions before going back to reinforcing base position. This part of the process is very flexible.   If she got a little anxious about lifting her foot, then I would go back to reinforcing base position for a while. If she was doing well with offering the “foot behavior,” I might continue with it, but I was careful to regularly return to base position both as a break and as reinforcement for a good effort on foot lifting.

My early sessions when I was introducing the foot lift looked like this:

c/t for standing c/t for standing

c/t for weight shift off LF

c/t for standing

c/t for standing

c/t for weight shift off LF

c/t for larger weight shift off LF

c/t for standing c/t for standing

Step 3: Continue to shape the foot lift, slowly changing the focus from reinforcing base position to reinforcing the foot lift.

As she got better about lifting her foot up, I was able to focus more on that behavior and less on the base position of standing still.    At this point it is tempting to drop out the reinforcement for base position, but it’s important to keep it in. This is what gives you some stimulus control. I was very careful to be clear about when I wanted standing still and when I wanted her to lift her foot. By reinforcing both behaviors, I avoided the situation where she would offer the foot when I didn’t want it and then become frustrated at the lack of reinforcement.

My sessions now looked more like this:

c/t for standing

c/t for lifting foot up

c/t for lifting foot up

c/t for standing

c/t for lifting foot up and holding it up for 1 second in my hand

c/t for lifting foot up and holding it up for 1 second in my hand

c/t for standing c/t for lifting foot up and holding it up for 1 second in my hand

c/t for lifting food up, holding it up and putting it back down

c/t for lifting foot up and holding it for 1 second in my hand

c/t for standing

Step 4:   Continue to shape the foot lift:

From this point on, it’s just a matter of continuing to shape the foot lift. We worked on increasing duration and teaching her that I could hold the foot and move it around (tip the toe down, take it a little forward, rest it on my leg, etc….). I still mixed in reinforcement for base position but it was becoming less frequent.

Step 5: Go through the same process with the other feet:

I listed this as step 5 because one way to do it is to work on the feet one at a time. So you could train the LF foot pick-up until it was quite far along and then start with a different foot. The advantage to doing this is that often once the horse knows the behavior with one foot, they learn more quickly with the other feet.

But you can also train the horse to pick up her feet by working on several feet within the same session, or on alternate sessions. This is actually how I chose to do it. I followed the same steps, but instead of just working on the LF for several sessions, I worked on both the LF and the RF for a few weeks. I would ask for one foot in the beginning of the session and then switch to another foot later in the session.  It gave her a break from doing the same foot the whole session and each side had its strengths and weaknesses so I was able to introduce new criteria on the side on which it would be easier.

Training out of base position incorporates a lot of the benefits of training behaviors in pairs (people often do this with opposites) or adding in another behavior to keep the Rate of Reinforcement high (Alexandra Kurland’s microshaping strategy). I think it’s a great way to build a clean behavior that already has the beginnings of stimulus control. And while it may seem more structured than some other methods of shaping, I found that there was plenty of room for the learner to experiment and for the trainer to adjust as needed.

Here’s a little video I made to show Aurora picking up her feet. I had to take the video in the ring (not her usual location) so I kept the duration short, but she is calm and relaxed and easily picks up all four feet.

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