The Power of Practice

The last few weeks have been particularly busy  for me with workshops in different parts of Europe.  Always great to meet new people and share clicker training with them and their horses.

One of the things we do a lot is work with human ‘horses’.  For even the most basic of behaviours…asking your horse to touch a target, it helps if you have the processed the necessary skills well.  So one person is the trainer and another the ‘horse’.  The trainer has to present a target, click as the horse touches it, then hide the target while delivering a treat to the ‘horse’.  Sounds simple doesn’t it….What could possibly go wrong?…. well there’s presenting the target in just the right place with one hand while holding a clicker in the other.  Getting the timing of the click just right and then removing the target to say, behind your back, while reaching into the pouch or pocket to get some feed, then presenting the reward at arm’s length, without feeding the clicker to your eager horse!  A beginner can end up feeling like they simply don’t have enough hOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAands!

An eager horse can be intimidating for a beginner handler.  They can become enthusiastic, leaning forward towards the trainer, mugging them for treats.  A human partner can mimic all these behaviours and the handler can learn to modify their technique before they go to the four-legged variety of horse! …very useful indeed!

I love working with my horse at liberty….no physical ties between us, just an invisible connection based on trust and understanding.  But there are times when we need to have our horse on the end of a lead rope and we also want to communicate with them through reins.  So learning how to handle a lead rope in a clicker training compatible manner is important.

We can ask a lot of questions when we work with human ‘horses’.  How does it feel to be a horse on the end of a lead rope?  How does it feel when the ‘horse’ is tense? when he/she’s relaxed?  The beauty of a human horse is that they can use words to describe how they feel.  If the handler is a bit quick or grips strongly on the lead, then she is not met with pinned ears or nipping teeth.  This means that we have the opportunity to refine our movements so that our request is clear but polite on the lead rope.

In his book “The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle talks about deep practice.  A method of slow deliberate practice to get the mechanics absolutely correct before increasing speed.  This is the approach that Alexandra Kurland (The Click That Teaches) has used for many years and which her coaches (including yours truly) also use.

That deep practice means  that when we want to communicate with our horses down a lead rope or reins, we will do so with skill and confidence  .

Andrea and Celine practice sliding down a lead rope.

Andrea and Celine practice sliding down a lead rope.

While our human ‘horse’ holds the snap on the lead rope, the handler can practise good technique while sliding down the lead rope.  The handler can ask her ‘horse’ how it feels…is my suggestion polite?, is it clear?, am I too quick?, am I present on the rope or too light and vague?

Every horse is different, so during our workshops we can swop partners to allow our ‘horses’ feel a variety of  handlers.  The feedback allows the handler to modify and improve their technique.

Leading the horse (Meike) with a loose rope.

Leading the horse (Meike) with a loose rope.

Sady and Sabine practise their skills

Sady and Sabine practise their skills

Group practise in Westerburg, Germany

Group practise in Westerburg, Germany

In Austria, we also took advantage of a “Pushmi-, Pullyu”* horse to practise single rein riding!

Carolin and Lisbeth practise some single rein riding

Carolin and Lisbeth practise some single rein riding

Because these horses were very stiff, we added a human to allow the rider to feel softening down the rein.

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Practice does indeed make perfect and by practising properly before we get to our four-legged horses, we can ensure that our handling makes the communication with our horses clear.

 

*The pushmi-pullyu (pronounced “push-me—pull-you”) is a “gazelle-unicorn cross” which has two heads at opposite ends of its body!

 

Sitting and Chilling

Can your horse stand quietly beside you while you do other things? 

mary phone2It’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. 

Aoife sit chill CT

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.

Starting to teach this behaviour is done in small increments…Basically you can think of it as asking a series of questions:  For every YES answer you click and treat, but it’s up to the trainer to set it up so that it’s easy for the horse to say YES.

  • Can you stand quietly beside me with your head forward?
  • Can you remain standing quietly for 1 second?
  • Can you stand beside me quietly for longer times (initially, increase the times slowly and vary them….1 sec, 2 sec, 4 sec, 2 sec, 3 sec, 6 sec etc)?
  • Can I stand a bit further away from you?
  • Can I stand further still?
  • Can you stand at a distance for longer times (increase the times slowly and vary them….1 sec, 2 sec, 4 sec, 2 sec, 3 sec, 6 sec etc)?
  • Can I sit beside you? ……..

One more tip….It can be very challenging for some horses to learn this at the early stages, they want to move.  So it’s essential to allow them.  Click and treat a couple of times for the standing behaviour but then go for a walk around before asking for the next trial.

Clicker Training in Dorset : Venya

The morning after a workshop in Oakfield Farm Dorset,  I was sitting in the conservatory looking out over several fields of gorgeous Icelandic horses grazing and snoozing contentedly in the early morning sun.  It’s a great way to relax after three full days of clicker training with a great bunch of people and horses!

We had people and horses with different levels of experience and so had great variety over the three days with some lovely improvements over the course.  We also had Alexandra Kurland ‘drop in’ for a cuppa and a chat on the Saturday via Skype

One was Venja, an Icelandic mare imported directly from Iceland several months ago.  Her new owner has been very busy and couldn’t give her the time she needed so she has been staying with Nick Foot at Oakfield Icelandics Farm.

In Iceland horses live out, essentially in the wild, until they are old enough to be started under saddle.  They are then herded en masse into a pen and the chosen horse is picked out.  A head collar is put on and the horse is taken out to be bridled, saddled and ridden for 20 min before being returned to the pen.  At the end of the day the horses are turned out and the process is repeated again the next day.

In Venja’s case, this left a horse who was quite fearful of humans and could not be caught in a field.  Prior to the clinic, Nick and Alison had done quite a bit of work with Venja, including sitting in her field with a book and feeding her treats from a bucket, when she approached.  She would not come close enough to touch or be caught and had to be herded down to the yard (gently) and into a pen as she also had an issue with her pelvis and needed some chiropractic work.

Nick wanted to be able to catch her in the field and lead her down to the yard, so this was our objective!

Her initial sessions were in a pen.  We started with just the polite manners game (Grown Ups Are Talking) where the horse stands politely alongside you with their head in front of their body and is clicked and treated for keeping it there.  In Venja’s case we were particularly looking for relaxation.  In the confines of the pen, she was able to take treats from Nicks hand.  Slowly we introduced scratching around the withers and neck.

In her next session we took her head collar off.  We wanted to make sure that she could still take treats from a hand when she wasn’t “trapped” by the head collar.  Same format with polite manners, scrithes, and targeting Nicks hand.  A big improvement was that she moved to touch his hand.  We had another short session (all sessions were kept quite short!) later that day where Nick started to move around her, all the time clicking and treating for softness and relaxation.

We then moved to the field.  She followed her companion to the gate and allowed Nick to stand close, so CT.  After an initial hesitation, she took her treat and stayed for more.  She then relaxed and was happy to target, be scratched and allow Nick to move around her.  When Nick moved a couple of steps away and invited her to follow, she did so willingly.

In her next session I introduced myself to Venya and we had some scratches and rubs.  Nick produced the head collar and had her target it several times before slowly putting it on her in easy stages.  He then added the lead rope and they went for a very short walk.

You can watch our evening session at the end of day 2.

A huge improvement …… objective achieved and we still had a day to consolidate, take her for short walks and move on to grooming and meeting a saddle again in the yard.

It was great to see the transformation of this little mare from high headed and tense near humans to trusting and relaxed.

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!

Amazing Misty

Last weekend, we took advantage of the continuing good weather, popped Misty and Newbie into the horsebox and headed to Fermoyle Beach.  While there wasn’t glorious sun, it was warm and calm and we virtually had the beach to ourselves.

Fermoyle Beach, Co Kerry, Ireland.

Fermoyle Beach, Co Kerry, Ireland.

Now I know you’re looking at the photo and thinking, there’s an awful lot of footprints for an almost deserted beach, but it is also the main thoroughfare for the local cattle to transfer from one field to another!

At one point there is a promontory dividing Fermoyle beach from the inlet to Cloghane and the rocks come all the way up to a low cliff.   You can see it here shown at high tide on a google maps image.

Fermoyle and Cloghane

Fermoyle and Cloghane

Newbie and I headed off in front and picked out a very circuitous route that avoided most of the rocks and boulders.  Ger and Misty followed on (Ger tends to be more of a passenger than a rider but he and Misty get along very well!).

Fermoyle Beach, Co Kerry

Fermoyle Beach, Co Kerry….last of the rocky bit!

We continued down the beach (the tide was waaay out) for a bit before turning for home.

Now Misty and Ger were in the lead and here’s my puzzle.  Ger had dropped the reins completely and was letting Misty find the way.  She followed our original hoof prints in reverse and took the exact circuitous route, almost hoofprint for hoofprint, back to Fermoyle beach…..How did she do that?.  Was it visual?  Did she smell the hoofprints?   Or was it from memory?  Whichever it was, we were both pretty amazed.

Ger and Misty

Ger and Misty