Last month I discussed “getting paid for doing nothing” and how that can help your horse settle and focus on you. Soon you can start to ask more of him, but you must be careful how much you ask for! Let me tell you a bit more about my hay baling experience to explain why this is important.
The next day after my “boring, do nothing” hay-raking job, the one that exposed me to the important and very necessary skill of being able to do nothing and enjoy it, I found myself assigned to a completely opposite task. This time, I was on the tractor with the small baler and an accumulator tagging along behind it. At first, I thought, “This is more like it... a job that makes me focus and think. Bring it on!” But, as I started out having received only minimal, vague instructions from my hubby on what to do, within a few minutes I was sure I was feeling like one of those 2-year-old colts in a trainer’s challenge. And my trainer was a “lumper,” not a “splitter,” when it came to training technique. (Definition of lumper/splitter: a lumper is a trainer who tries to train the whole behaviour in one large step or lump; a splitter would break the task down into smaller, more easily achievable steps, to work towards the end behaviour.)
“Crap!” I had to steer, keep the tractor in line with the row of hay, watch to make sure the hay fed into the baler slowly enough, and count to eight so that I could watch for the gate on the accumulator to open and release the bales. Oh, and I was supposed to do this at a decent speed! Ha! How I was wishing for another day on the boring hay rake now.
I had way too many things to think about at one time. I was very definitely stressed and feeling overwhelmed. I was not able to cope well at times and if I could have stopped, I would have. Now, I’m the sort of person who takes pride in doing a good job at whatever I try. In this situation, I felt like Lucy, from the I Love Lucy Show, in the episode where she is trying to put chocolates into boxes on an assembly line, and the line starts going too fast for her to keep up and she starts stuffing the chocolates in her mouth to try and make things work. If only she could have slowed down the conveyor belt, and thus, the task, until she figured it all out, then she would have been fine. I felt the same way. If I could have slowed down the task, or better yet, split the task into the component parts first, I think I would have been able to cope. But, in this case, we needed to make hay while the sun was shining, so slowing down was not an option.
As clicker trainers, we often talk about making deposits into the “trust account” when we work with our horses. By giving them tasks that they can easily do, we help build a positive relationship. These experiences of being successful, in doing things we ask of them, are the “deposits”into the trust account. After a while, the relationship has enough deposits in the trust account that we can start to ask of them harder tasks - this is like making a small “withdrawal” from our relationship trust account - and the horse responds by making an effort, as if to say, “I trust you, so I will try.” Luckily, my hubby had made enough deposits to the relationship trust account that I knew he would not ask me to do something I could not be successful at - or at least survive!
Breaking down a task so that everyone, handler and equine, feels successful is one of the key principles of good training, not just good clicker training. The click just makes the learning occur more easily and quickly, and the learned behaviour is retained longer. That is one of the things I love about clicker training. I can have a marker signal for the handler to let her know she is doing what she needs, and another signal for the equine to let him know he did the task correctly... a real win-win situation. Stand back as exponential learning is about to take place!
As for the hay baling, I struggled through it and I survived, like many of our horses do with their tasks every day, but it was not a pleasant memory. Could I do it again? Yes. Could I do it with less stress? Certainly, if I broke the task down into component parts so that I could be successful. I would also manage my environment better to “set things up for success,” just like I would if I were teaching something to a horse. For my hay-baling experience, a rear view mirror on the accumulator would have been an improvement - I would have been able to see if the bales were going in all right; and a counter would have told me when there were seven bales in and one more to go. Can you see how setting up those two changes to my baling environment would have helped me be more successful at the task?
The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, take note of the feeling it gives you. Later, think about what would have made it less stressful. Remember that when you are working with your horse. Try not to put him into that stressful kind of a situation if you can avoid it. If you can’t, then make sure you have enough deposits in the trust account to at least come out with your relationship intact. I know I don’t want my horse to feel as overwhelmed as I did when I was on the baler. A little stress now and then is a good thing, as you both learn how to handle more challenging tasks, but just make sure it’s not so much stress that it puts your trust account into the red.
Next month’s article will show you how to be a splitter. We will break down a task into its component behaviours, see how to teach these behaviours and then recombine them back into the original task.
Until then, keep it positive!