equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

ASAT 2019: Alexandra Kurland – Listen.

Alexandra Kurland has been clicker training horses since the early 1990s when she started exploring it with her own horses. Since then, she has written and produced a number of books, videos, and online resources about how to use clicker training with horses. Her focus is on using clicker training to improve relationships and to create a positive training environment where both horse and human students can excel.


In this presentation, she talked about how important it is to adjust your training to allow opportunities for two way communication. Alex started by asking a question:

How would you describe your training?

Is it a one-way street where you do all the cueing and your animal’s job is simply to give correct responses? .. or

Is it more like two people talking over each other, with neither one really hearing what the other one is saying? … or

Is it more like a true conversation where you wait to listen to your partner’s response and then you intentionally, deliberately, and knowingly adjust your behavior based on what your learner has just given you?

For many trainers, the answer is one of the first two answers. They are so busy delivering their treats and then hurrying on to give the next cue, that they miss critical parts of the training conversation. They forget to listen to their animal. Specifically,

  • They miss seeing the cues that are evolving out of the shaping process.
  • They miss catching hold of moments when they can turn their prompts into deliberate cues.
  • They forget to look for all the cues that are coming from their animals.
  • They miss opportunities to provide choice, build complex chains, develop duration, and most of all, provide balance and clarity in their training.

Important questions

When she is working with a horse for the first time, these are some of the questions she keeps in mind:

  • Am I recognizing the cues that are emerging out of the shaping process?
  • How can base behaviors help me?
  • Have I found an effective starting loop?

Looking at this in more detail…

  • What will it give me when I remember to build in deliberate pauses?
  • When I’m working with a physically fast learner – how can I slow my training down without creating confusion?
  • What do I need to change with a slow, shut down learner?
  • Am I recognizing opportunities to build longer chains? What will chains add to the “conversation?”
  • Do I have the focus to slow myself down so I can slow a super eager, super quick learner down enough for us both to truly listen to one another?
  • What do I do to help the stuck learners?

How do all these details help me become a better listener so I can meet my animal’s needs? And how does that translate into becoming a much better trainer?

Loopy Training

With any horse, she gets the “conversation” going by starting with Loopy Training, looking for very small, very tight loops. Alex described this process by sharing the work she did with a horse named Xieque.

Xieque: A Case Study

She met Xieque last fall when she was traveling in Europe. His owner was having difficulty with trailer loading and asked Alex to come work with him. Over the course of a few sessions, Alex was able to produce some significant changes that would make it possible for his owner to continue and address the trailer loading issue. In her presentation, she showed video of those sessions as an illustration of how the trainer can adjust her training based on what the horse offers.

She used the runway lesson and mats to introduce him to clicker training and help him become more comfortable (both physically and mentally) with training.

In the runway lesson, the horse is taught to walk between two lines of cones that are placed in a “V” with a mat at the point of the “V.” The cones help direct the horse toward the mat and provide opportunities for the trainer to work on asking the horse to step forward and back. This ability to ask the horse to move in either direction, used in combination with targeting the mat, gives the trainer a way to help the horse learn to adjust his balance and follow the trainer’s guidance. This work laid the groundwork for successful trailer loading in the future.

Session 1: Observing and Finding a Baseline

When you are presented with a “problem,” it’s almost never productive to start by addressing the problem directly. Instead, it’s better to look at what the horse needs to learn, teach those skills under other conditions, and then slowly work your way back to the original issue. Even thought Xieque had a trailering issue, Alex didn’t start at the trailer. Instead she used targeting to get Xieque into the indoor where she could set up a related lesson and adjust it as needed.

The first session is always about observing and getting a baseline. It’s important to observe without judgement. What can the horse do? What is difficult for the horse? How does the horse take food? Where can the horse take food (head position)?

Train in small loops so you are always saying “yes” to the behavior you like. You have to be able to rapidly adjust your rates of reinforcement to meet the moment. This was well illustrated by how Alex handled Xieque pawing when he approached the mat. Rather than fuss over the pawing, she decided to click and treat for forward, even if there was pawing. At this point, it was more important that he was successful. So if she clicked, she treated, even if he pawed in between.

She wrote: If a weed is a flower growing in the wrong place, then pawing on a mat is a behavior occurring at the wrong time. Pawing is forward movement. The key to dealing with pawing is knowing that what goes up must come down. Depending upon the direction needed, either redirect the energy into backing or click for forward movement. As soon as the foot lands, shift your focus to a tight loop so the foot remains on the mat.

Observations:

  • He’s very stuck. He moves his feet but his shoulders are locked.
  • He’s also very stuck in his hind end. He has difficulty being asked to back – sometimes he paws when asked to back as well as when coming forward to the mat.
  • Also locked in his poll. She cannot feed him with a lowered head position, as she would have liked.
  • They did see some improvement over the session. He went from resisting any requests for backward movement to being able to take a step or two, and there was a general softening of his posture.

Session 2: Evaluating Progress and Adjusting

The following morning, they had another session. When he came out, he already looked significantly better. He was softer in his body and was now able to back 4-6 steps (compared to 1 or 2 in the first session). Because he had improved, she was able to change her food delivery to feed in a way that encouraged him to stretch. The goal is always to feed “where the perfect horse would be.” She wanted him to stretch his neck down and forward because that stretch relieves the compressions on his spine and that, in turn, allows him to feel more comfortable. In horses, emotional balance follows physical balance.

Because he already showed some improvement, Alex was able to adjust her training. As the training progresses, it’s important to remember to SLOW DOWN. By doing this, Alex was able to insert some pauses and use these pauses to create small sequences. As Xieque catches on to this process, he will begin to take a more active role. He will use his behavior to ask her to wait or to signal that he’s ready to begin the next part of the sequence.

This is how you start to create a “conversation,” a back and forth responding to intentional cues.

Session 3: Testing the water

The next session was a few days later. Alex wanted to show his owner how she could use mats, and the skills Xieque learned in the runway lesson, as part of a training plan to improve his trailer loading. He wasn’t ready to load yet, but he was ready to do some mat work in close proximity to the trailer and to start practicing the types of turns he would need to load.

Alex described this as “testing the water,” which was an opportunity to see if Xieque was comfortable working on mats near the trailer. Taking the lesson to the trailer area also showed the owner what she needed to work on in the next sessions.

Summary

Your conversation with your horse can and should evolve over time. The sessions with Xieque showed just how quickly a horse can change and how we need to adjust our training to allow the horse more opportunities to communicate with us. Horses sometimes rush us, or we feel that we have to keep them “busy” so that there are no opportunities for unwanted behavior, but doing so also limits the horse’s ability to participate equally in the conversation. Good trainers know how to find the balance between using tight loops and inserting pauses so that the conversation can develop and become more meaningful over time.


While I try to be accurate in my note taking, there may be some errors either in my understanding or my presentation of the information from this talk. If you have questions, feel free to contact me or leave a comment.

Thanks to Alexandra Kurland for allowing me to share her presentation. Thanks to the ORCA students and to the organizers of the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference for all their hard work on putting on this great event.

If you want to learn more about Alex, you can visit her website www.theclickercenter.com.

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