equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? Q is for …


What can you do with clicker training? Sometimes we are limited by traditional thinking or just need some new ideas. In this A to Z series, I’ll be sharing ideas for things to train. I’ve trained some, but not all of them, and will share links to resources for more information whenever possible. I hope this list inspires you and you can’t wait to go out and teach some new behaviors to your horses.

I’ll be adding to these posts over time when I have time and new material to share. In some cases, I have intentionally been brief because the topic cannot be covered appropriately in this format, but I wanted to mention it so you have more complete list of ideas for things to work on. If there is a topic that interests you, and you would like more information, let me know and I will consider writing a more detailed article on the subject.

If you have a suggestion for an addition to this page, would like to share a photo, or add a comment, please send me a message.

contents: queue, quick, quiet, quiet nose targeting


queue

Ok, I’m a little desperate for words that start with Q, but horses do sometimes need to learn to stand in line or wait their turn. In the picture above, Red, Aurora, and Finale are standing in line waiting for me to approach. They know they will each get some attention so they are waiting calmly. They are demonstrating this behavior over a fence line, but I actually taught them to wait in line at the gate so that I could safely bring each horse in from turnout.

This was not something I originally trained, but I realized I had to do something when Finale (the big bay) started kicking out at the other two with both hind legs while they were milling around the gate at dinnertime. I taught it with a stationary target. I put one on the hinge side of the gate and taught Finale to stand next to it. Then I taught Red to stand at the open side of the gate. Aurora chose the middle position. When I went up to get them at dinnertime, they would line up in a row and I could remove each horse, while reinforcing the others for waiting.

Finale learned his stationing behavior so well that whenever I go into the field for any other reason, he often goes (if he was close enough) and stands at his target, even if it isn’t time to go in. I do sometimes ignore him, or give verbal praise, but I do also reinforce this behavior with food because it’s such a useful behavior that I don’t mind if he does it at other times. But, that’s my choice. I’m sure if I didn’t reinforce it unless it was time to come in, he would learn when it was worth doing it and when it wasn’t.

Waiting at a gate is not the only time that horses might have to stand in line. In many horse sports, the horses have to line up before entering the ring, or while in the ring. You can teach this using mats or targets and slowly fade them out. I like to do this after I have already introduced distractions and practiced the behavior under a variety of conditions, including other horses moving around.

quick

Quick could refer to the speed at which the behavior is performed or the time it takes for the horse to respond to the cue (latency). I have to say that I rarely want a horse to move “quickly” as that implies rushing, but I may want more energy or activity. I can achieve this by selecting for moments when the horse shows more of the quality I want, or I can set up the environment or session structure so the horse is more likely to offer more activity.

For example, one of my favorite ways to get a more active walk is to create chains that have alternating segments of walk and trot. Chaining tends to create anticipation and my horse will usually bring up his energy in the walk when he expecting the trot cue. I can mark and reinforce for that moment of higher energy in walk, add a cue, and I can now ask for a more energetic walk. The process is not always as simple as I’ve described, but that’s the general progression I use.

If I want the horse to respond more quickly, then I have to think about ways to decrease the time between when I give the cue and when the horse responds. This requires a bit of detective work to think about why there might be a delay. Some possibilities and things to consider are:

  • The horse is not ready or able to do the behavior when I cue it.
    • Is he paying attention?
    • Is he in a position to respond?
  • The horse is not confident about which behavior to do in response to the cue.
    • Have I cued the behavior under these conditions before?
    • Does the cue stand out from other environmental stimuli?
    • Could he be unsure about the difference between several similar cues?
  • The horse is not motivated to respond to the cue.
    • Am I providing sufficient reinforcement?
    • Am I asking for too much difficulty too quickly?
  • The behavior is associated with aversives or physical discomfort
    • This can happen with medical and husbandry behaviors
    • Does the horse have physical limitations that make the behavior difficult or painful?

These questions will help me identify what I might want to change in order to have the horse respond more quickly (this is called LOW latency). In most cases, I need to go back to an easier version of the behavior or a simpler environmental set-up and confirm/strengthen my horse’s response to the cue under these conditions. Then, I can start to make small changes, while monitoring the latency. If the latency increases, then I need to step back and assess. It’s easy to think that the shaping process is done once a behavior is “on cue,” but if I think of it as an ongoing process, where I want to continue to change the difficulty in small approximations, I will be more successful.

Other resources:

quiet

Is quiet a behavior? No. We can’t teach a horse to “be quiet.” But, we can teach our horse to do behaviors that we associate with relaxation or that do not involve making noise.

Perhaps you would like to teach your horse to be more relaxed under certain conditions? Or perhaps he makes noise by calling, banging on a door, or making some other ruckus and you’d like him to stop doing it. If so, then you might want to think about what behaviors you associate with being “quiet” and teach your horse to do them. Depending upon what you choose, your version of quiet might look very different than someone else’s version, but that’s ok as long as your criteria are clear so the horse knows what to do.

One of the first training challenges I tackled was Rosie’s persistent door banging. When she wanted something, she would bang her knees on her stall door. I suppose she was pawing, but since the door was right in front of her, I just heard “bang, bang, bang.” Not only was this annoying, but it was not good for her knees either. I started reinforcing her for moments when she was standing with both front feet on the ground. This was a little tricky as I didn’t want to create an unwanted chain where she banged and then stopped, hoping I would notice that she had stopped banging and reinforce her.

Ok, I did get sucked into this a little bit at first, but I quickly learned to click and reinforce her BEFORE she started banging. I also started looking for ways to minimize her opportunities for banging. One was to click and treat for standing with two feet on the ground and then give her some hay. I also had the option of closing the grill on her door. If she couldn’t stick her head out, then she would not bang. After a few weeks of reinforcing her for standing with two feet on the ground, I had learned to identify the circumstances in which she was more likely to bang and would either be prepared to either manage the environment or spend a few minutes reinforcing the behavior I wanted.

I also learned that if I did her training session first, then she was much less likely to bang. The banging was mostly for attention and if I had already given her enough, she was content to watch me or would wander off. This is an important point. When you have an unwanted behavior, it’s not enough to just replace it with another behavior, you have to make sure that the needs of the horse are still being met.

Changing her behavior was a slow process but she did eventually learn to stand quietly and watch me, knowing that I would occasionally reinforce her. Interestingly enough, at some point, she chose another way to communicate with me and if she feels I am ignoring her when she’s been standing nicely for a while, she will give a low nicker as if to say “hey – don’t forget about me.” And of course, I always respond to that. How could I not?

I will write more about the relaxation version of “quiet” when I get to the letter “R.”

quiet nose targeting

When Rosie was about 8, I spent one winter teaching her to hold her nose on a stationary or hand-held target with complete stillness. Prior to this training, she would wiggle, fidget, nudge, or bite at targets when asked to stay near them for a longer period of time. I’m sure she thought she was supposed to do something with the target. She did stay near it, so it was a functional behavior, but I didn’t really like her mental state and it made me reluctant to have her do the behavior for very long.

One day I decided it was time to clean it up. How to do that? I experimented first with finding moments of stillness, but they were brief so it was hard to get my timing right. And… she was so sure I wanted her to do SOMETHING that even if I did click when she was still, she would chain the moment of stillness with previous behaviors and offer me the entire chain instead of the one behavior I wanted. I could see this was not going to work and might lead to further frustration.

So, I got out the target and taught her that she would be reinforced for holding still while I touched her with the target. If I had to do this again, I would get a NEW target, one that she had never been asked to touch before. But, this was a long time ago and back then I had one target that I used for everything. Anyway, the game was “can you hold your head still while I touch you with the target?” I had to start by touching her on the side of her head, where she couldn’t reach it with her lips. Then, over the next days (or weeks), I moved it closer and closer to the end of her nose, always clicking when her mouth was closed. Eventually I could hold it on her nose and she kept her mouth completely still. Along with the closed mouth, her whole face relaxed.

Now that I had a new behavior associated with the target, I wanted to be able to ask her to touch the target with the new behavior instead of the old set of behaviors (lipping, nudging, biting, etc.). I slowly changed from clicking as the target touched her to holding it almost touching her and clicking for any head movement toward it, as long as her mouth stayed closed. This turned out to be easy because Rosie decided the new behavior was touch the target with your nostril. So, instead of using the end of her nose, she would turn her head slightly as if she wanted to smell the target. This was a great behavior and I accepted it.

I taught Red to hold his nose on a stationary target without any mouth movement. This was a challenge as Red liked to lick everything. And, he liked to lick and chew for a long time after getting his treat. I had to wait until he was completely done eating before I asked him to target again. Otherwise, I couldn’t distinguish between licking the target and just licking. The good news is that he did learn to keep his mouth closed and quiet while on the target.

I should point out that a simple solution to a horse that is “busy” at the target is to teach the horse to hold his nose near, but not on, the target. I’ve done this too and while it can be quicker, I have found that for some horses, “near the target” is too vague a behavior and it’s hard to build duration.


Q is a tough letter. Any additional suggestions? I thought of, but not include .. teach your horse to participate in a quiz show, play quidditch, find quicksand, ….


If you have a suggestion for an addition to this page, would like to share a photo, or add a comment, please send me a message.


If you want to learn more about clicker training, check out my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement, available from Amazon.

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