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Happy Faces

The next foundation lesson is called Happy Faces.

Whether it is yourself doing the smiling or being on the receiving end of a smile, smiles just make you feel good. Behaviour and emotion are neurophysiologically linked so when you change one you can change and influence the other (Antonio Damasio, Descarte’s Error). The smile tricks the mind into feeling better, as endorphins are released (Peta Haskell, Speech Mastery).

So, now what does all this have to do with clicker training? Often, we will see what folks might call “ears back” in horses that are being clicker trained. In most instances, this is because the horse is concentrating, and just like us, when we concentrate, our expression tends to be less ‘happy’ looking. Our horses aren’t grumpy, just concentrating on the task at hand, but how can we bring more fun and relaxation into the mix? If you look at the opening paragraph it might give you an idea of where we are headed. Happy faces on our horses. Now what does a happy horse face look like? A happy horse face will have a soft eye and definitely ears forward. As humans we are hard-wired to respond differently to a happy expression, so we will tend to deal with an animal that has a happy expression a bit differently as well.

So, the happy faces lesson is important. Now, how do we get the happy face? How do we shape this behaviour using positive reinforcement; the click and treat? If you have been following my articles, you will have several foundation lessons that are fairly well established by now. Happy faces can be layered onto any of these behaviours very easily. Clicker training is very much about layering behaviours.

So, let’s start by layering happy faces onto grown-ups are talking. Ears forward is a shaped behaviour, meaning that we will click and treat for a slight flick on an ear in the right direction, and build that behaviour slowly into both ears fully forward by changing our criteria for what is good enough ears forward as we progress. Your horse by now will have caught onto the clicker game and be wondering what you are looking for today. Being in grown-ups, he knows what he will get rewarded for but you can now add other criteria, a new layer, which is the ears forward that needs to be present before the click will happen.

Start in grown-ups and do a couple of click and treats just as you have been. Then for your next grown-ups, try and wait until there is that little bit of ‘added ear forward’ and then click. Remember not to wait until both ears are fully forward as you will frustrate the learner, but by all means if both ears shoot forward definitely reward that!

So, now your horse will only get clicked and treated when he is in grown-ups and has the start of ears forward (maybe you have a very happy horse and this is an easy lesson). Each time try and wait for a bit more ears forward, but don’t get greedy! By looking at his ears he will also take a clue that perhaps this new layer has something to do with his ears. After a few successful approximations of happy faces, move to a different location and do either grown-ups again or targeting or mat work. This will give him a bit of process time for this new behaviour and keep behaviours in balance. Then go back to grown-ups with ears forward. You can eventually add this to all the behaviours and once you can predict that it will happen you could even put it on cue.

For those of you who would like to clicker train, but are somewhere far from an Alexandra Kurland instructor I am pleased to announce that Alexandra Kurland’s long awaited online clicker course is now up and running. It is a very comprehensive and reasonably priced course and even has the option of distance coaching from myself or one of her 12 other incredible coaches. Check it out here.

Advanced modules will be coming available in the future as well and even if you have been working through the foundation lessons with me this is a great way to fill in the holes that might be there.

Until next week keep it positive.

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