Sunday, January 5, 2014

clicks and crocodiles

After another training session, and observing the antics of one of the horses we have in work, I suggested that Yvonne write an article about using food rewards in training, specifically clicker training. She obligingly put the following article together. Enjoy!

When Chris and I (Yvonne) start horses together, there is always Clicker Training involved, as this method (positive reinforcement, using a marker signal, i.e. a click, followed by a small treat) allows the human trainer to tell the horse what he wants in a very clear language: as soon as the horse does something the human was looking for, this precise moment gets highlighted by a click, followed by a small food treat. The horse immediately processes the information and is very likely to eagerly and happily repeat the reinforced behaviour in the following.

Most horses catch on very quickly, and often need just one or two repetitions to understand what is asked from them. It is also a very stress-free method, especially when the tasks are broken down into small steps, thus giving the equine student lots and lots of little successes.

But I was not going into depth with the clicker philosophy, there are other people who have done this very well before...

As there is food involved, I can hear an almost unisono cry from horse owners and trainers: you will create a monster, a pushy, rough, rude, impolite horse that walks all over his human.

Well, not at all, indeed! When done correctly, i.e. when the trainer sets clear criteria, the horse, on the contrary, learns very quickly to respect the human space, and you will be able to stand with your open treat pouch inches from his nose and he won't even try to help himself! Usually the introductory process takes only one short session: with a few repetitions, the horse is introduced to the click, followed by the treat, then very quickly learns to keep his head away from the trainer.

How do we do this? Easy: when the horse starts to mug you (and every horse will do this in the beginning), immediately close your fist over the treat, fold your hands in neutral position over your belly button and wait. If the horse is very persistent, slightly turn away your upper body, with your hands still in neutral position. Now watch your horse closely: as soon as you see him make the tiniest attempt to turn his head away, immediately say "good boy" (if you had already clicked, you don't want to do it again) and hand him his treat. For feeding technique, extend your arm (away from your body, to the exact spot your want his head), rotate it, so the palm faces upwards, open your hand and let him take the treat. Bingo! The horse has understood the rules and will in general follow them from now on. He might need a little reminder here and there, but as long as you stay consistent, you will have a polite horse.

But... from time to time there is one who isn't so easy-going. We call this type of horse "crocodile", because he grabs at your hand very vigourously, so you have the impression that he will swallow your whole hand, including your arm up to the elbow!

With these horses, you have to be extra-precise and persistent. You might only make relatively small progress during the first session, like it is the case here for this young Icelandic mare who came to us for training.

In such a case, don't force it, just wait for a slightly positive moment, then end the session on it. There is always another day. In the case of this little mare, she had indeed processed the information overnight and was worlds better the next day. Much more softness in taking the treat and lots of turning her head away or lowering her head or backing a step (all behaviours we want to encourage).

But, really, the crocodiles are the exception. Normally it works this way, and very quickly:

Big Al - Paso Creole gelding

Once you have introduced your horse to clicker training, you can use it for any part of your training, be it fun stuff, like trick training, be it groundwork, or riding. And for riding, all parts and variations of it. But that's another story...

Chris and I use clicker training to highlight each desired moment during the starting under saddle process, which makes things very fast and easy. In the beginning, I do the clicking and treating from the ground, while Chris sits on the young horse for the first time, then she takes over and clicks the moments she likes, and the horse gets his treat from me. All this is a lot of fun for all involved, including the horse!

No comments: