Now how can that be? How can I take the same exercise and use it to solve opposite issues?
At a recent clinic, I was presented with two horses. One was leading like a husband going Christmas shopping and the other one was like someone after too many of those new energy drinks. How was I going to use the foundation lessons that these horses knew to solve these “no go” and “no whoa” issues? In their training toolboxes, the handlers had the foundation lessons of Grown-Ups Are Talking, Head Down, Mat Work and a bit of Why Would You Leave Me. Luckily we had several mats available for use and I came up with a plan. Standing on a mat is a wonderful exercise for teaching many behaviours. It helps develop light cues for forward and back from the lead rope, weight shift s to improve balance, and the ability to place individual feet using the lead. It can also be used for teaching ground tying and comes in handy for standing quietly during grooming sessions.
As clicker trainers, we know that when a behaviour is highly reinforced it will tend to be offered. Both horses had already learned the mat lesson well and were drawn to the mat because of the reinforcement history with it. They liked to be on the mat and I was going to use this to help with the “no whoa” and “no go.”
To start solving the “no go” issue
We began the exercise without the horse. The handler walked through it with a “human horse” partner, making sure they were clear on the mechanical skills and exactly what they were reinforcing. We planned to start with the mat and reinforce mat work, but not stay on the mat very long as that would not help our stuck horse at all. We would have him step off one mat right onto another mat, with a click and treat. Since he understood that good things happened on the mat, part of his reward for going forward was to end up on another mat. We were reinforcing his forward by letting him get to the next mat. The handler was to be clear with her start up cue but not drag the horse; the mat was going to be her draw. She was to set it up and wait. When the walking on the close-together mats was working well, we would move the mats a bit farther apart and repeat the exercise; we would continue doing this until the horse walked on from the start up cue and could go a good distance before getting to the next mat. Our plan worked well and soon the “no go” horse had some get up and go.
How did this same exercise help sort out the “no whoa” horse?
Once again, we discussed the plan without the horse and walked through it until the handler had the mechanics down pat. Why did we do this? It is important in training to manage the environment to ensure success. By taking the horse out of the equation, the handler could focus on what needed to be done without worrying about having to deal with the horse at the same time. It is much less stressful for both handler and horse, especially in the case of the “no whoa” horse.
Again, we started out by placing the mats very close together, but this time we spent more time on each mat, rewarding the horse for standing quietly before moving on. The horse had to stand quietly before being allowed to move on to the next mat. (Although, to start with, it was only for a split second!) We used a very high rate of reinforcement for standing on the mat. That means lots of clicks and treats in a short period of time. The handler would allow the horse, after the moment of stillness, to move to the next mat and click and treat for landing and standing on the mat. The mats would be kept relatively close together until things were going really well, so that there would be no tendency to get up a head of steam. Following this plan, they got into a nice rhythm and the horse, now attentive to what was going on, became content to wait for the handler’s cue.
Perhaps the “no go” horse had been reinforced more for standing than for going, and the training had gotten out of balance. Perhaps the “no whoa” horse’s handler was high-energy and didn’t do enough chill time. It is always important to train opposite behaviours so that things remain in balance, and both these horses had gotten out of balance in their training. We all do it. We get so focused in training one thing that we forget to train the opposite, and create an imbalance as a result. Remember: if you teach forward you must teach back; if you teach stop you must teach go; if you teach left you must teach right
What had really changed in these interactions?
I think the really important one here was, “If we think different, we are different.” The mats and the exercise allowed the handler to think about the issue differently. By taking the focus of the handlers off the “no whoa” or “no go” and putting it onto the mats, they allowed their thoughts to change, which in turn changed how they were with their horses and how their horses were with them. Each pair was focused on getting to the mat and the positive click and treat when they got there. The mat exercise was the catalyst to change the thought process of each handler and horse, and the click and treat reinforced this new pattern and allowed for success to occur for all concerned. The balance had been restored to the relationship. The new behaviours would be stronger because of the use of the positive reinforcement and the neural pathway that the click (the marker signal) makes in the brain of both the horse and handler.
Until next time, keep it positive.