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December 20, 2008

Training without pressure?

I just wanted to take a few minutes to share some of the fun I’ve been having clicker training the horses. Lately I’ve been working with a 5 month old miniature buckskin filly named Moonshadow. To say she’s a joy is an understatement. What a privilege it is to train a young, relatively untainted mind while starting her immediately with positive reinforcement.
The most recent event has been a validation of an experiment I started a few years ago. I challenged my knowledge of CT tools by teaching several horses all of the basic yielding and husbandry behaviors using shaping, capturing and some targeting. While doing this I “shelved” the pressure/release/click techniques.
An example of the behaviors I trained to date were yielding the hind end, crossing the fore, backing, side pass, loading in the trailer, picking up the feet for the farrier and learning to lead. Once I trained a behavior, I went back and added familiar looking cues so that someone who used pressure/release would be able to communicate with these horses. I also added many verbal cues. To say the least it challenged my own paradigms for training, but the results have been so profound.
I followed this same path with the unweaned filly, Moonshadow. My goal was to teach her to have her feet trimmed, but she didn’t have any operant behaviors in place. I saw that she and her mom would mutually groom, and since she was unweaned and a bit skittish I decided scratching was a good inroad to build a bond between us. The next thing I did was give her a good scratch at the withers for keeping perpendicular to my body with her head facing forward ; I did this for about 2 weeks.
Then I added a food reinforcer while teaching her to target. With food as the primary reinforcer we began to work on several other behaviors; I wanted to have them in place before I asked her to lift her feet. She was an eager student. We added a bit of mat training, I also shaped her to put her head in her little halter and during this time she learned to offer an “auto-back” when I approached the gate.
We then began to shape lifting the foot. For me, having a nice mat to work on made it easy to drop a treat and it avoided having the horse ingest sand. When she stood near me, I would drop the treat between her legs and then click when she began to lift her left fore in order to back. From there I shaped the behavior of just lifting the foot. She was very quick with this. Then I went back to add duration to the foot lifting behavior. She was so willing to accept this process and once again, if I goofed by raising the criteria too quickly she was always able to walk away (I did all of this at liberty.) Obviously the process reminded me to keep my rate of reinforcement high! Once she lifted her foot I added my cue of touching her on her front canon bone near the knee.
All the while I continued the other behaviors and worked on generalization. This kept things interesting and kept me from getting too focused on the single task of training her to lift her foot. She also became very proud of the fact that she could make me click by backing away from me at meal times as well as the when I approached the gate.
This whole process of working with another weanling has been so reinforcing to me as a trainer. I love the way I feel when I’m focusing on the positive. And in a lot of ways that statement in itself is a huge statement. Focusing on the positive can really become a way of relating to all living creatures. Not in a Pollyanna sort of way, but in a healthy acknowledgment of someone else’s effort. So I’ll keep updating her progress. Thanks for reading.
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