I’m slowly putting together some additional material for the Alphabet blogs (What Can I Train? A to Z) series. In the first version, my goal was to provide ideas for specific behaviors that people could train and I covered them in varying degrees of detail. Now that I have that framework, I’d like to expand on some of the topics that I covered more generally, as well as add some additional items. These items could be new behaviors or things to consider when training.
“Things to consider when training” is a pretty broad category, so one way I’m going to do this is by sharing some training stories from my own horses. Even when I have a training plan that I use for many horses, I find I often need to tweak it for each individual horse. This is what makes training interesting, because I have to do a little creative thinking about what would help the horse reach the next step in my training progression. My hope is that by sharing these training stories, I will give people ideas for things to think about when they get stuck.
The first story I’m going to share is about a little training project I’ve had going with Aurora. Aurora is my 8 year old Oldenburg mare. I’ve clicker trained her since was 9 months old, teaching lots of practical behaviors as well as some fun ones. Two years ago, in the winter of 2020-2021, I taught her leg flexions and extensions. For the flexions, I wanted her to lift and hold her leg up with a bent knee. For the extensions, I wanted her to lift and stretch a front leg out to the floor in front of her. I used physical targets as both cues and guidance for shaping.
Here are some pictures showing how I taught her using a target. I did fade the target out, but I chose these pictures (which show the target) so you can see how I used it when she was learning to do them.
In case you are wondering, the targets are pieces of foam that I cut out of a kneeling pad and covered in duct tape. I had made them in different colors for a previous training project and I thought I’d see if she could learn to associate the colors with different legs. We’re not there yet, but I figured I might as well start with different colors for different legs.
She got pretty good at doing the eg flexions and extensions, spring came along, and we put them aside and did other things. A year later, in the spring of 2022, I decided to revisit the project to see if I could teach her to lift and extend her leg – combining both behaviors.
While this was partly for entertainment value (I like to have a few training projects that are more for fun than practical use), I did think it might be good physical therapy for her. She had an accident when she was a weanling and it has affected how she uses her shoulders. She finds it difficult to lift her forehand and is also tight in her flexors, which makes it hard for her to take her leg forward on to a hoof stand. I’ve done a lot of bodywork on her and I thought her shoulder mobility had improved, so some shoulder exercises seemed like they might be beneficial.
There are a variety of ways we can help horses use their shoulders and thoracic sling better. I chose this exercise because I had seen good results with other horses and she had already learned the components. The new part would be to do the extension with her leg in the air. Since I had used targeting for the previous leg flexions and extensions, I decided to stick with that strategy. But, I knew that to get her offering a new variation, it would be smart to change the environment, both to provide different context cues and to make it physically easier for her to do the new variation.
I chose a fuzzy green duster and attached it to an old riding crop. This created a novel target stick. I also had her stand on a pedestal. I like to use pedestals for teaching these kinds of leg lifts because they provide some stimulus control as I never ask for (or reinforce) the behavior if the horse isn’t standing on the pedestal. The pedestal also makes it easier for the horse to raise a front leg since her weight is already shifted back.
We worked on this for several sessions, with mixed results. She had the general idea, but was still trying to place her foot out and down. I knew she was doing what she had already learned and I didn’t want to frustrate her, so I had the idea of providing additional audible feedback by using a hard target. The hard target would make a noise when she touched it, and that might be enough to shift her from putting the foot down to touching an object in the air. Within one session, there was a significant improvement. She knew the point was to make a noise by hitting the target.
Why did changing the type of target make such a difference? I think it’s because she got direct feedback from the environment about her own behavior. As clicker trainers, it might be tempting to say that the marker and reinforcer provide the necessary feedback, but I’ve been amazed at how quickly horses can learn when we choose a training strategy that provides an immediate physical change when the learner does the correct behavior. This is one reason I often use wooden mats and why behaviors such as ringing a bell can be easy to teach.
In this case, what the hard target did was to provide direct audible (and probably sensory) feedback to her. She knew when she hit it because of the physical sensation, and that helped her learn how to move her leg to make that contact. I also noticed that she experimented more with different ways to use her leg to make the sound. Sometimes she lifted her knee higher and came down on to the target. Other times she extended her leg out more first.
I’m sharing some pictures that I pulled from the video of one session. You can see how intent she is on hitting the target with her foot and also how the topography of the behavior is different on each side. I tried to choose representative pictures and they show she is more restricted in her right shoulder and in her ability to fully extend her right front leg. This is one of the benefits of exploring different aspects of movement through simple behaviors. You can learn a lot about your horse’s natural asymmetries and how they affect each individual body part.
Want to learn more about teaching leg lifts or extensions? Check out:
- The entry for jambette in my blog What Can I Train? J is for …
- The entry for leg lifts in my blog What Can I Train? L is for …
For the purpose of this article, I shared an example of audible feedback, but that’s just one of many ways to have the environment provide direct feedback. Many behaviors that involve movement or manipulating objects create changes that provide useful information to the horse and can accelerate learning.
Do you have an example of a behavior that you taught by providing audible feedback from the environment? I’d love to add more ideas to this blog. You can leave a message in the comments or contact me directly.
Want to learn more about clicker training? My first book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement, is available in both Kindle and paperback. My second book, What Can I Teach My Horse?, is available in Kindle and PDF. I’ve put links to each book below: