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Getting Paid For Doing Nothing

For some folks, this would be a dream come true, but what does this have to do with clicker training? Let’s start by looking at the idea of getting paid to do nothing.

I thought that would be fun, until I got to sit on a tractor and help rake this year’s hay crop. Now this isn’t exactly doing nothing, but it’s pretty close. Once you figure out where to line up the tractor in relation to the swath and get the speed figured out, all you really do is cruise along. (Note: While I was not actually getting paid for “doing nothing,” I was helping to put up hay for my ponies.) Well, it turns out that doing nothing and getting paid for it is an acquired skill, and SKILLS NEED TO BE TAUGHT. After about one round, I was ready to do something else. It soon became apparent that I had never been taught the fine art of doing nothing (and being OK with it). While my kids seemed happy enough to just plug into their iPods and drive mindlessly around in circles, I wasn’t coping nearly as well with doing nothing. So, rather than relaxing and enjoying the “nothingness,” my mind was going a mile a minute thinking of other things. I like to DO things, and I see that tendency in my ponies, as well, now that I am clicker training. They want to do things when we are together.

This feeling I was having while raking - I thought that it must be what many horses experience when being lunged mindlessly in circles, over and over again. I kept thinking, “I’m bored, I need to do something!” I’m sure some of you out there may have a horse like this.

I have found that when we start clicker training our horses they tend to turn into “what can I do for you” animals rather than the “kid on the tractor raking hay” kind of animal. I know my ponies are like this. Perhaps it is because I am like this. I’m not the type that can just sit. But after my tractor raking hay experience, I saw even more clearly the need to feel good about doing nothing for both myself and my ponies. I needed an “off ” switch. I could see the value in having the ability to enjoy doing nothing, and could see it even more so as a skill needed in my ponies.

There are many places you can start to pay with high rates of reinforcement to encourage doing “nothing.” When I groom my clicker “super stars,” they like to see what they can do to get “paid,” so I must pay very well for “just chilling.” Can I brush for one stroke? How about two strokes and have you just stand relaxed? I look to reward the quiet mind as well as the quiet body. I find that my body and mental energy need to be relaxed and Zen-like to get them to relax, which is good for me too. In this day and age of hurry-up, it is good to find that moment of peace. I may ask for head down while grooming, as that is a calming exercise as well, and I can pair head down with just standing and make a training loop. (More on loopy training in a future article.)

All of this round and round also makes me think of Alexandra’s lesson called “PRE why would you leave me” that she uses for distracted, tuned out or unsettled horses and their people. (I certainly felt like that too!) At first glance, it is hard to see how this exercise would settle a horse, but it does; it makes their mind get quiet and they start to focus and tune back into their person. I certainly could have used this while raking hay, as I soon started to tune out and think of being elsewhere and often wandered off the path or almost missed a corner, just like horses will sometimes miss a cue on the lunge line.

To do this lesson, your horse and you should be familiar with food delivery, mechanical skills and of course the click-and-treat sequence. (If you need to review this, please look in the back issues of Saddle Up online and also view my videos on YouTube) Preparation for this exercise will be to set up a circle of cones with a radius of at least 3 human strides. This is easily done by setting a cone in the centre and then walking out three strides to 12, 3, 6 and 9 on the clock face and placing cones at those points. Then fill in by striding off again from the centre to place cones between each of these. This is a great way to create a truly round circle! (I will post a video on YouTube on how to do this.)

With your unfocussed horse in a halter standing next to you, start walking around the circle of cones with both of you on the outside of the cones, you being closest to the cones. You will click at each cone and feed, no matter what your horse is doing. (You still need to be safe. If you don’t feel safe doing this exercise the horse is telling you he is not ready for it for right now. You have to step back from the situation, listen to your horse and look at what issue he is telling you needs to be looked at first.) So, stop at a cone, click and treat, walk to the next cone and stop, click and treat, and so on. Repeat all the way around the circle. Change direction (also change the side you are leading from) and repeat the exercise. You will begin to see the horse settle and focus as you get into the rhythm produced by the evenly spaced cones and the stop-click-and-treat sequence.

So what are we really doing here? We are paying the horse well for doing “nothing” in particular. But very soon he will be focussed on you and you can start to ask more of him. I will go into more detail on this lesson in a future article. This starts the training for soft jaw gives and lateral flexions.

Why are my ponies so eager and have an on-off switch that seems stuck at ON? I’d put some of it down to the fact that I train for several months of the year in rather cold temperatures, when I don’t want to be doing a whole lot of “nothing.” Perhaps it is partly because their person doesn’t have an off switch either! I’d like to think that maybe we all just love to play and don’t get enough time together, so we “MAKE HAY WHILE THE SUN SHINES.”

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