Category: Clicker training

Playing on the beach

Years ago my husband made a comment that struck a chord with me.  He said that dogs can enjoy an outing much more than horses.  When I tried to argue this he said,dogs get to run around, sniff and pooch at things but horses only get out when they’re ridden and they never get a choice about where they go!  He was so right.

I now love working at liberty and giving my horse the choice to stop and pooch.  Newbie and I have a great relationship which allows us to do a lot of work at liberty…on the beach.  I live on the shores of Tralee Bay, a shallow bay, several miles across, which pretty much empties on low Spring tides.  In addition, Tralee Bay opens to the Atlantic Ocean and the next parish west is  in the U.S.of A!  So we have a wide and wonderful playground, swept clean daily with lots of (seaweed) mats randomly arranged just for us.

We can lunge, trot, walk together, go from mat to mat at liberty and add in the leg flexions he loves.  We can be walking casually along when he decides to collect up and offer shoulder-in at walk….magic.  Yesterday we were out together just strolling along when he suddenly stopped.  When he stops to look at something like that, I usually just keep walking and he joins me soon after or I call him to come. And he trots over to me.  Yesterday that did not happen.

The local primary school is close-by with a small sheep field between the school and the beach.  Obviously taking advantage of a fine spring day, there were the sounds of a game being played in the yard, complete with sharp referee’s whistle.  In a classroom there was a tin-whistle lesson taking place.  (For anyone unfamiliar with the Irish tin whistle being played by a group of young learners, it can be a tad piercing and excruciating)  Brave teacher!

The unusual noises alerted Newbie who stopped to look, but then the sheep decided they had had enough and took off across the field.  Newbie turned to look at me when I called, his head high in alarm, but then clearly felt that home with his herd would be the better option.  He headed off in that direction, happily only at a walk, so I walked back, not towards him but parallel to him until we were past the sheep field.  I called him again.  This time thankfully, he came to me but he was not happy…head high, looking towards the field and foot moving.  He lowered his head for me to pop on a headcollar and attach rope reins but clearly he was not happy to have his head down when all those sheep thought the best option was running around!

So it was one of those ‘what to do?’ moments.  Insist on head lowering?  Head smartly for home? or put him to work?  We were in an area where there were some of my beach ’mats’ available and Newbie loves his mat-to-mat work so this is what I decided to do….put him to work with something that he loves and feels comfortable with.  We went from mat to mat at walk.  I used the reins to ask for collection prior to moving off and to give him a direction to the next mat but then released him to step on it.  We did this for some time and the familiarity and rhythm of the work quickly settled him down.  When I felt he was relaxed, we then walked away to a different area (away from the sheep), where he was happy to stay with me at liberty once again…although I did leave his headcollar on!  A few minutes of just walk, halt, back-up games and we headed home.

The next day we came onto the beach with Newbie ‘dressed’ in headcollar and reins.  We strolled casually to in front of the sheep field.  It’s spring and there are now lots of lambs bleating, so his head was up listening to all this relatively new noise, coming from what had been a scary place just a day ago.  We started mat work and very quickly his focus returned so that we could play with reverse arc circles and even trot (which would have been unthinkable the previous day).  After a few minutes (time unknown….I often think we’ve been out for 5-10 min and check my watch to find it’s been closer to 30min!,  we headed off up the beach, both of us with enough confidence for me to take off the reins and enjoy some casual liberty time.

Splashing along
Splashing along

Some NZ horses!

It’s hard to take photos during a workshop, so I rarely have nice pics, but here’s a few from New Zealand:

Peanut waits patiently for her treat
Peanut, who is just 2 year old, waits patiently for her treat
And here it comes!
And here it comes!
Buster shows his good manners
Buster shows his good manners
Clayton poses with some of the group.  At just 3 and 1/2 years old, he's already a very big boy!
Clayton poses with some of the group. At just 3 and 1/2 years old, he’s already a very big boy!
Lucy takes a treat polirely
Lucy takes a treat politely
Angel is a Kaimanawa, a feral horse from the central desert region of the North Island
Angel is a Kaimanawa, a feral horse from the central desert region of the North Island
Clayton learns to back up nicely
Clayton learns to back up nicely

New Zealand Workshops

The Click That Teaches instructor, Mary Concannon will be giving at least two workshops in New Zealand early next year.  The first two workshops are for complete beginners.  No previous knowledge is required for either horse or handler.

The first is on 11th and 12th January in Waimauku, Auckland hosted by Monique Masoe.  For bookings or further information contact: Monique at (64) 21 150 9513 or email: moniquemasoe@gmail.com

The following week, 18/19th January, the workshop will be in Whatawhata, Hamilton.  Karen Drummond of Learning About Dogs is the organiser here.  You can contact Karen for more details at (64) 21 655054 or email karen@learningaboutdogs.co.nz

Keep an eye out for details of other workshops in NZ in February.

Liberty clicker training
Liberty clicker training

Looking forward to meeting new clicker trainers from this part of the world!

Shaping ……What is it?

‘Shaping’ is the process of growing a behaviour in small increments.

It’s a little bit like the children’s game where you are directed to a place by someone saying that you’re cool (not too close) cold (wrong direction altogether), warm (right general direction) or hot (right there!).

The main difference is that when we shape a behaviour with animals, we only use ‘yes’ (warm/hot) answers.  We start by capturing a tiny bit of the behaviour we want to shape.  So, for example, if we want to shape head lowering to the ground, we simply observe the horse until we see his head dip down a fraction…click and treat.  Then watch to see if this is repeated, CT.  Capture this a few times and then wait for the horse to drop his head a little lower before clicking.  Very quickly your horse will recognise what’s happening and we continue clicking and treating each increment of head lowering until the horse is consistently lowering his head to the ground.

Aoife Stephens used this technique as part of her Young Scientist project in 2011 while she was in transition year in school  This video shows her working with a pony with no previous clicker training experience.

We can use as many steps or thin-slices as needed to go from the start to a finished behaviour….In scientific terms these are known as successive approximations.

Guidelines for successful shaping:

  • For this exercise, it’s important that your horse is completely free to leave the game. He can be at liberty in a paddock or loose in his stable.  The space doesn’t have to be huge but if he chooses to walk away, he must be free to do so.  In the video above you see Aoife working with a pony in an open shed where the pony can move away from her.
  • For a novice horse/pony or an animal you don’t know well, use protective contact. This means work behind a barrier as Aoife is doing here.  In this case it’s a very simple set-up with a rope strung across the front of the shed so that she can stay out of the pony’s space if he starts to mug her for food.  You can work behind a gate to a field, over a fence etc.
  • Keep your sessions short.  Take about twenty treats and when they’re all gone, finish your session (use a consistent signal to show the session is over e.g. show your empty hands)
  • When you finish a session move well away so as not to tease your horse.  This gives your horse a mental break.  The break need only be a few minutes…enough time to refill your pocket/pouch and assess how your session went.
  • Accept the slightest try to start with….a muscle twitch, or a few millimetres of movement, etc
  • Festina Lente…for the latin scholars.  It means make haste slowly.  Be prepared to put in lots and lots of steps/thin slices between the starting point and the finished behaviour.  It may seem like you’re taking longer but the learning is much better and its often quicker.
  • Have fun!  Think of this as a game, not work and it becomes a pleasure for both you and your horse!!

 

The Dreaded Donkey…and Rope-Handling skills

donkeyMIsty never liked donkeys.  She hated the noise they made and even the look of them. For years, our normally calm, relaxed, easy-going family cob became distinctly upset in the vicinity of donkeys.  This has mellowed over the years but I have always, for the past 18 or so years, been ‘donkey aware’ when out riding.

Newbie is a thoroughbred, with all the excitable and quick characteristics of the breed.  The first time we met a donkey, out walking in hand, I became anxious.  This was in our early months together and we were doing lots of targetting (can you touch the gate, scary bag in the ditch, dustbin, etc) for clicks and treats…….I could hardly ask him to touch the donkey!  However, much to my amazement, he was completely unfazed by the donkey once he spotted him.  I was always conscious of giving him time to see and observe other animals, donkeys, goats, sheep etc, as we came across them though.

Roll on many years to recently when we were returning home after an enjoyable hack around the parish. I knew that one of my neighbours had a donkey in his garden on temporary lawnmower duty and so as we came up to the house I made Newbie stop and look over the wall at said donkey who was tethered to a large metal pole in the centre of the lawn. The donkey looked at us but he was safely ensconsed behind a cattle grid. Calm and relaxed, we pottered on. Thirty or so yards down the road we heard an horrendous noise of metal banging on metal then metal on concrete and we both whirled around to see donkey galloping down the road towards us followed by a length of rope and metal pole hopping, banging and clanging behind him.

Newby dismount 2 (800x600) (2)We both reacted….Newbie’s thought was to wheel around and head for the hills, while my reaction was to slide down the reins and ask for head lowering. To my relief and delight, the head lowering response outweighed the “I’m out of here” response and Newbie stopped and dropped his head long enough for me to slide off his back.  Phew!!!!!

Donkey had now caught up with us and was quite determined to check out Newbie’s rear end.  So now Newbie was trying to avoid being followed by this creature while kicking out and circling me all at the same time.  I kept Newbie from running over me using my tai-chi rope handling skills (taught by Alexandra Kurland – the Tai Chi Wall keeps the horse’s shoulder over and away from the handler….more of this later).

Fortunately for us, another neighbour pulled up in her car, jumped out and asked how she could help.  I asked her to open the gate to an adjacent field and lead Newbie in, closely followed by donkey.  We had to move well into the field to allow donkey, rope and metal pole all get inside.  Newbie and I then made a dash for the gate and the neighbour closed it just in time to keep donkey in.

We then stood catching our breath while I repeatedly had Newbie drop his head CT, drop head CT, until we were both calm enough to walk on.  I was never more grateful for having practised a technique as much as I had practised head-lowering!

An Icey Experience

In mid September I had the pleasure of visiting Oakfield Farm in Dorset, England, to give a clicker training workshop.  Nick Foot has been producing Icelandic horses here for a number of years and they are truly a wonderful breed.

photo 3 (2)For those of you who are not familiar with “Iceys” they are really pony sized, being anywhere from 12 to over 14 hands high (122-148cm) and originate in Iceland (as the name suggests!)  Their size belies their strength! They come in an array of colours. Icelandics are the only horse found in Iceland which allows no importation of horses, and if they leave the country (even for competition), they are not permitted to return.

riding trackAs well as the usual three gaits that ‘normal’ horses have i.e.,walk, trot and canter/gallop, they have two additional gaits.  The ‘tolt’ is a fast, ground-covering four beat gait and the ‘pace’ is a very rapid smooth gait.

When I saw Brynja, who was a sturdy little mare but only something over 13 hands…I did ask…Are you sure?.  My own thoroughbred is 16.2hh approx and I looked at this little creature with a degree of wariness.  I need not have worried!!!!

Riding an Icey in tolt was described to me as being akin to a fast spin in a small sports-car and how true that is.  Its a wonderful sensation, fast, smooth and low to the ground.  We had a lovely ride from the farm through lanes and tracks over the gorgeous Dorset countryside and I came back with a grin from ear to ear!!

 

Sitting and chilling!

Can your horse stand quietly beside you while you do other things? It’s great to have a horse that is patient and will wait happily beside you while you say, open a gate, answer the phone, chat to a neighbour, but many horses are not patient by nature and so you need to train this as a behaviour.Aoife sit chill

Here Aoife is sitting in the arena and Rua is learning to stand quietly beside her. When he’s relaxed, happy and keeping his distance from her, she clicks and treats to tell him that’s the behaviour she wants. As Rua learns patience, the time between clicks becomes ever longer.Aoife sit chill CT

Summer continues…..

Misty comes for a paddle
Misty comes for a paddle

This time it was Misty’s turn for a paddle on the beach…. We’re very lucky in where we live in that the beach beside us is shingly and rocky to mid-tide but sandy at very low tides which makes for a wonderful playground for horses. photo 3 Because there are so many glorious sandy beaches near us in Kerry, only local people use our beach and so I can safely play with my horses at liberty!

So Misty tried to drench me with splashes (and succeeded)

Misty decides that I'm not wet enough already!
Misty decides that I’m not wet enough already!

Back in the arena, Max enjoyed a shower!photo 1

 

Clinic with Alexandra Kurland: Misty

Misty is now a mature 20 years old.  She has been in our family since she was a 2 year-old and has taught several people to ride  (including me and my three, now grown-up, children, as well as Marte’s daughter and son).  She’s spent the last few years mostly in Marte’s, having a pretty easy life!

Michaela hugs Misty with a 'move away' feel
Michaela hugs Misty with a ‘move away’ feel

Misty does know about mats and standing (being a cob/irish draft) is one of the things she does best!  So mats can be used to build patience but also to build enthusiasm and movement.  Michaela worked with Misty and multiple mats.  These mats were scattered pretty randomly around the top half of the arena.  Misty was perfectly happy to go and stand on any mat!  Alex wanted her to move off with a proper bend and flexibility in her body so to get this MIchaela hugged her! This was a hug with a feel of movement in a direction away from Michaela.  When Misty adjusted her balance..Click and Treat (CT).

Michaela moves into the space to treat
Michaela moves into the space to treat

Michaela then moved into the space that was opened up by Misty’s change of balance as she reached to give her a treat.  The hugs were repeated until Misty was bent in the direction of the next mat, when Michaela picked up the lead and moved off with her.  The amount of bend needed depended on the location of the next mat and can be made more or less by the choice of mat to move to.  Initially they chose mats that were easy to reach with a little bend but as Misty softened and became more flexible, Michaela (and the audience) could pick mats that required more bend to reach.

A hug towards Michaela!
A hug towards Michaela!

As well as moving away from hugs, Michaela also asked Misty to move towards her with a hug.  As Misty shifted her balance, Michaela moved back to allow Misty to bend more towards her.

 

In this case feeding is back further as Michael encourages Misty to keep the bend..

Misty gets her CT
Misty gets her CT

In all of the pictures where Misty is on the mat, the lead rope has been thrown casually over her back.  This then becomes a cue to stand and wait.

In the next sequence of pictures, Michaela sets up the turn towards her with a couple of hugs and then lifts the rope off Misty’s back as they are ready to move onto the next mat.

Setting up the bend
Setting up the bend
Improving the bend
Improving the bend
Ready to move off
Ready to move off
Starting leg flexions
Starting leg flexions

To make the mat an even better place to be, we can add in other requests and put them on a high rate of reinforcement.  During this clinic we used leg flexions in order to achieve this…. starting with the front feet.

Here Misty is barely lifting a front foot but as the session progressed she lifted it higher. As ever, successive approximations were used so for the initial try, CT, but with each ask, a little more is required.  As she lifted higher Michaela could then support her foot by just holding the tip of her toe and hold her other hand up as a target for Misty’s knee.

Misty targets Michaela's hand with her knee
Misty targets Michaela’s hand with her knee

Over the course of the clinic this improved hugely.  Initially there was a lot of wiggling of her leg, but Misty learned to find the target and hold her knee there. Gradually Michaela changed her cue so that she could ask for the lift from touching the shoulder…This is needed to be able to transfer to asking under saddle.

 

 

The gallery below shows hind foot lifts….Click on a picture to enlarge it.

And so on to some ridden work:

A huge benefit of this clinic for Misty was that she learned to move very smartly from one mat to the next with huge enthusiasm.  As she has been ridden primarily for the past three years by Marte’s now 5 year-old daughter, she has really only been pottering!!  Her nature is that shes a quiet slow-moving cob….ideal for giving confidence to young children.  In her earlier years she was an excellent show-jumper and so it was great to see her move quickly again and clearly loving it..

Another advantage is that at 20 years of age she now has a level of arthritis, so the leg lifts and flexions are a great way for Misty to build strength and keep her active.

As ever, when watching the clinic, I’m not very focused on taking photos so they’re not always the best or even very good moments that are shown here.

And finally…..I just love this picture of Michaela and Misty…even from this angle you can see that they are both focused on each other.

 

Michaela and Misty focus on each other!
Michaela and Misty focus on each other!