A good couple of days in the world of learning clicker.
Doing an extra day volunteering this week, so yesterday I had opportunity to practice clicker with two very different characters. Skye, of course, but also big Diego at the stables.
Diego is a lovely daft character, but pretty coltish (despite his age, 15) and at some point, somehow, someone’s pissed him off with regards to work and pressure/release. He’s been settling in with us these last five months, so we’ve only scratched the surface really. He doesn’t see much point in yielding to pressure or in responding to forwards aids, and when he does eventually respond to increased pressure it’s generally with a bit more energy (to be diplomatic) than you’d like. He’s got no problem bucking or rearing or biting, if he feels like that’s his best option. So we’ve been trying to convince him work (and the arena, and having good manners) can be worthwhile.
What a star though, he’s responding really well to clicker. Today was our fifth session, I think. So far we’ve achieved walking/halting at liberty and on lead-rein (this a horse who will immediately walk away from you if at liberty in the arena), decent manners about standing with his head out of your space and not mugging/nibbling for food, and targeting with his nose.
All these things a work in progress, of course, but I’m impressed with him, especially his flourishing manners. Then today we were expanding on the targeting. Two targets held by two people, sending him back and forth between them. Just a few sideways steps each way. At a certain distance he found it irksome, but we managed to convince him it wasn’t really too much like “work”. Also had my friend hold him whilst I walked away with a target, then send him to me. Very keen, big walk, and straight for the target. I feel like this is an important step for him, to learn that there is a task to do to get the reward, and the task is disassociated from coming into the handler’s body, or always being near to you. Threw the target to the ground, no problem, he’ll just toodle off to nudge it with his nose. A couple of times I would start an encouraging “good boy…” whilst he was on his way and this is where individual characters become so much fun. Skye takes verbal encouragement as a “yes, you’re on the right track!” sort of thing. Diego takes it as, “oh, there’ll be a treat now!” So my ill-timed “good boys” saw him instantly stop mid-task and turn around to receive his reward. Cheeky sausage. We realised what was happening, laughed, and worked harder to make sure he was doing his bit to earn the treat. He’s a quick learner so I’m needing to up the criteria to keep him interested, but not too much or he no longer feels it’s worth his time. It’s all in adapting the timing and questions to the different personality.
He’s a funny character. At the moment it’s all about earning the treat. But it’s filtering over to other parts of life. Generally a bit more mannerly about being lead and head-collared, for example. Slightly less angry if you say hello whilst he’s at his net (he gets anxious about his net, but not about clicker, which is interesting). Walking to the arena with more enthusiasm. We all like him a lot, despite his grumpy ways.
Anyway, he’s gotten targeting so well these past two days that today I also asked him to follow the target a few steps. Got it easy. Then, glory be, broke into a trot to catch up with me and the target faster. Hallelujah! Such a small thing, but we were thrilled. This horse does not trot on request. Not without a lot of effort on the human’s part first. And when he does he never seems especially thrilled about it. But he’ll trot in the field happily enough and trotted when out on a test hack the other day, so there’s something about the arena… Just soured to work and switched off to negative reinforcement.
Anyway, we got that trot and were delighted. Just a few steps, click, halt, jackpot reward, loads of verbal praise and scratching from both humans. Horse stood there politely, ears pricked, enjoying his sizeable mouthful. Will be trying chaff as our reward next, since this is a horse that needs a mouthful and a good long chew-time to feel like he’s been rewarded. He can begin getting wound up if the reward isn’t big enough, which seems common enough in horses. Unlike dogs they need the chew-time to really register satisfaction. Except for Skye, it seems, who considers even the tiniest morsel rewarding.
He seemed rather surprised and confused by it all. “All this happiness for five steps of trot? What on earth?!”
Called it a day there. He’s so bright that I’m imagining he’ll be far more ready to trot next time we work, fingers crossed. And you know, he is such a fast learner and so confident, in a way, that I think the shorter the session the better. Make the point, let him think about it, revisit and build on it the next day. My timing isn’t great yet, so I’m spending about twenty minutes when I could probably achieve the same in ten. But hey ho, that’s fine. Clicker is all about adjusting as you go, but the thinking is to get him doing some “work” type things without feeling like it’s work. Trotting a circle, for example. Then with a passive rider on. Then handing control to the rider. Just generally improving his attitude towards work and human beings.
Now for Skye. Went to her yesterday after Diego. And went to the last Gillian Higgins talk in Kidderminster in the evening, so it was a busy day. She was far happier about the new horses but still in “herd protector” mode, so I just did some targeting in the field. Awkward with other horses wanting to get involved, but that’s fine. Imagine if Skye had just a smidge of their bravado about novel objects, ha. I couldn’t put my targets down without the other ponies trying to pick them up. I’m sure they learn by watching. Big Velvet was at very keen to touch and pick up the targets. “I can do it too see, treat now please.” Sorry pony, you’re not mine to treat.
Skye loves her targets. I’ve made three, all similar-but-different, and as soon as she sees them she begins toodling over. When I finish, she follows me for more. Motivation. Confidence. Optimism. It’s lovely to see it begin to emerge. And that’s a nice illustration of the treat being just a way in. If all she wanted was treats, she’d have been walking to me in the field from Day One, as I have always had a slice of carrot ready to catch her. But she never began walking towards me until she understood targeting. It’s the confidence that comes with knowing and understanding and enjoying the game that has helped her.
Skye is another one that, somehow at some point, has been upset with regards to ordinary horsemanship. Pressure cues do not have to be aversive. But here we have two horses (and many more in the world) who consider them so, no matter how light you are about it. Their responses are very different though. Skye is from the FEAR system, and I feel like Diego’s is from the RAGE system, but I’m still getting to know him. Lift a whip to Skye and she either braces and runs off (on the lunge) or drops her head and does as you ask but gives strong calming signals at the same time. “I’m being good, please be nice!” Another reason why I wanted to try +R and targeting in particular.
So yesterday, after some preliminary stuff that she enjoys, I thought I’d make a start on haunches-targeting. She’s not as fast a learner as Diego. She’s too afraid of volunteering ideas or movement. She expects to always be aggressively sent away. Her reflex, if I lift an object to her hip (even her friendly target stick) is to swing away. But not in a nice calm communicative yield (which would be useful), more a fearful, bracing, defensive move. So I thought the first thing to establish, before I ultimately try shaping a haunches-in, is standing still whilst the target touches the hip. And we got there pretty swiftly. Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to hold it just a tiny bit away from her hip and she’ll think, “hang on, every time this touches me I get a click but it isn’t touching me, it’s just hovering there… I’ll bump it…” Maybe not, maybe we’ll have to try a different way, but this is my current thinking. With someone like Diego you might use “accidental” bumping instead, putting the target in his way, walking him on, and capturing/clicking the bump. But with Skye and her fear levels, she’s not going to accidentally bump the target, oh no…
Two such different but lovely characters. And whether using clicker or traditional, the rule that they’re all individuals certainly applies. I’m learning to be much more ready to change my plans, and much faster to call it a day at good moments in a session. Thrilled with both horses, wish I had more to play with!