equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

The Nudge

       Last night Stella nudged me. I guess that might seem insignificant and at some point in time, I might not have realized what it meant.  Even when it happened,  I took note and thought it was interesting, but I did not realize I would still be thinking about it today. But that moment has stayed with me.  It was the first moment of clear communication  where I felt that Stella was trying to communicate with me in a conscious way, instead of just showing standard horse behaviors that convey frustration or anxiety, which I then had to interpret.

     I think the moment has stayed with me because this month I have been thinking about horse communication. Not just the obvious ways that horses communicate by neighing, body language and movement. But also some of the more subtle ways that horses show us how they are feeling and what they do or do not want to do. There have been some interesting discussions on the internet lists about how hard it is to interpret a behavior such as licking and chewing or ear pinning without seeing the behavior as it is occurring and understanding it within the context of what is going on.  One horse’s ears may pin in concentration while another may pin due to anxiety or displeasure.  There are lots of other little clues that help the handler evaluate what the ear pinning means and sometimes we are not even aware that we are using them, so it is hard to explain why we feel the ear pinning means what it does. I think nudging falls into the same category of behaviors that can mean different things depending upon the situation.

    One of the reasons I have been thinking about communication is a book I am reading (Suzanne Clothier’s  “If Bones Would Rain From the Sky” – which I highly recommend).  Her focus is on developing the relationship you want with your dog, a relationship that goes beyond the basics of having a well trained dog, but expands to include being connected with your dog. It has made me re-examine my relationships with my horses and make sure that I am listening to them.  My horses are kept at home so I see them all the time and I think I know them pretty well. This is a good thing, but it also means that slow and subtle shifts are not always so easy to identify.  It is always good to take a step back every now and then to make sure that I am not missing anything.

    With some of the horses, analyzing our relationship and how the horses are feeling seems quite straight-forward.  These are the ones who are pretty easy-going and if something is really bothering them, they let me know because there will be a significant change in their behavior. I am sure that because they are easy-going, there are things that get overlooked because they don’t make a big fuss over them. But it seems to work out.   It is the horses that wear their emotions on their sleeves that I find difficult.  It can be hard to sort out what is a real problem when it is mixed in with daily changes due to general moodiness, anxiety or bad timing (is it too close to lunchtime?, too hot? etc..).  These are the horses that are giving out so much information about how they are feeling and what they do or do not want to do, that I end up having to sift through lots of material just to find a few relevant pieces.

    So perhaps because I was thinking about horse communication, that little interaction seemed particularly important to me and prompted me to write this article.  I have not introduced Stella yet and at some point, I will write up her story and what I have been doing with her.  Stella is a 6 or 7 year old pony mare (Welsh x Holsteiner) who came to me in mid April. She had been at a rescue but they were unable to place her because of her behavior (rearing, pulling back when tied, general difficulties with any husbandry work- vet, farrier etc..).  I took her on as a project and have been working on improving her ability to handle regular aspects of horse care. 

    I started by teaching her to target and doing some mat work. She is a very nervous and high strung pony.  If I asked for anything that she made her uncomfortable, she would move her feet. If she could walk away, she would. If she could not, she would paw.  It took a lot of time and persistence to get her to do mat work without pawing. Any time I taught anything new, she would add in pawing, so it was difficult to get “clean ” behaviors where she was doing the desired behavior (head down, baby gives, mat work, targeting) without also clicking for pawing.  She did not like to be restricted by her halter or the lead. She would lead fine as long as there was slack in the line or we were going where she wanted. But she would pull back if I she got pressured or felt the lead and did not want to go forward. I have been slowly chipping away at things, teaching her about following the feel of the lead and helping her to accept a small amount of pressure. I would say we have made slow but steady progress.

    I think there are some physical issues going on as well. She has odd wear patterns on her feet and some odd postural things she does, as well as not moving in a connected and balanced manner. Because she has a history of not handling equine professionals well, I wanted to give her some time to settle in before I had anyone evaluate her.  I have gotten her comfortable with foot trimming my doing it myself in very small increments. I spent some time desensitizing her to shots and was able to get her vaccinated without difficulty.

    So she has made a lot of progress but I was not sure how well she really understood clicker training. It is clear that she knows that if she does things I ask, she will get a click and a treat. But even after all the mat work I have done, she does not see the mat and eagerly walk up on to it. I have to ask her and then wait until she puts both feet on and stays there. She does a lot of “one foot on, one foot off, and switch…”  I had not gotten the feeling that she really understood about offering behaviors or that she could communicate with me in a clear and meaningful way.  I would say that she communicated with me by changes in her body language so I was certainly getting information from her about her state of mind, but these were not behaviors that she was doing intentionally for the purpose of communicating with me.

    Last night I was working with her in the ring. I have five behaviors I am working on with her. I am trying to improve her mat work with both front feet and with her hind feet.  I am working on baby gives and WWYLM in a very basic form.  And I have done some Stand Quietly While the Grown-ups are Talking.   I divide up my work session and do a little walking between working on different behaviors.  Usually she is pretty clear about what we are working on, but last night when I finished doing WWYLM and asked her to stand quietly, she was not sure what I wanted. I was just standing still with my arms folded and she kept offering lateral work away from me. 

    At some level, I felt like she was offering to bend and soften and walk around me because we had just been working on that , but there was still some element of her need to move her feet when she got anxious. And that is a behavior I do want on cue, so I just waited her out and clicked her for stopping.  After a few clicks, she stopped moving and then I was clicking for having her head away from me. She is not very muggy, but she will sort of dive at me with her nose if she is frustrated. I have seen this mostly when I ask her to pick up her feet and she is having balance issues or when I was working on baby gives. It is sort of an anxious, sharp movement. Last night she was not mugging me at all, but she was turning her head toward me, so I just waited for a moment when it was straighter. 

    She went for a moment without a click and then she nudged me. It was a very polite nudge, not a “give me the food” or “I am upset” nudge. It was more of a “pay attention to me” nudge.  She nudged me and then took her head slightly away. She probably nudged me three or four times before she moved her head far enough away that I could get in a click.  Then once I clicked her a few times for having her head away, she was successful at doing that and did not nudge me again.  I did a little more work with her and then put her away, but that nudge has stayed in my mind.

    Why? Why did it seem so significant to me? I have had a lot of horses nudge me and in general, it does not make an impression. Usually I treat it as a form of mugging and I would prefer that the horses not do it, although it is preferable to biting, nibbling, pushing and other related behaviors. But somehow with Stella it was different. It was the first time she clearly realized that she could communicate with me and she did it in a very deliberate and thoughtful way.  Instead of walking off or pawing, or pulling back, she just bumped my hand.

    This morning in thinking about it, I realize that I had taught her to target my fist, so bumping my hand was a behavior that she had practiced and been reinforced for.  I could just say that she was not getting clicked for one thing so she tried another. It is also possible that she bumped my hand because that is a horsie thing to do.  But it had such a deliberate quality to it and whichever it was, I don’t think that changes anything. She was not getting clicked and instead of getting upset, she chose another behavior to try and communicate with me. I think THAT is what I found so fascinating about the whole interaction. She finally figured out that clicker training did not just allow me to communicate with her, it meant she could ask me questions too, even if they were as simple as asking “did you want this instead?”  She was finally thinking for herself instead of being totally dependent upon me to help place her or set her up to earn her click.

    I will be interested to see if this is the start of a breakthrough for her. I think this is such a significant part of clicker training. I take it for granted with my other horses because they ask questions and offer things all the time.  I had forgotten how huge it is for a horse to go from reacting to whatever the handler does to trying to actively figure out what that person might want.  And it all goes back to seeing behaviors not as isolated and easily interpreted actions, but to understanding the context in which they occur. For Stella, those nudges were not undesirable and signs that she was stressed. They were a sign that she was finally starting to think clearly and trusting that she could communicate with me and I would listen.  And for that reason, I welcomed them, for a while at least…

Katie Bartlett, 2008