Saturday, March 29, 2014

Clickers And Things

A lot of people get really bent about clicker training. It's an equal opportunity bent-edness. Some think clicker training is the anti-thesis of all proper training. Some think it's the only way to train. There isn't much in between.

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you probably know that I'm not into ultimatums. I'm on a journey, I've got nothing to lose, and I'll try anything.

Like most horse people, I use mostly negative reinforcement to train horses.  That means that we apply some sort of pressure or cue and, when the horse does what we want, we remove the pressure or cue.  Most horses learn easily with this method, because it's how they interact with each other naturally.  Horses in a herd use the same type of negative reinforcement to establish boundaries and relationships with their herd mates.  

When I got Jack, I worried a little about how he was going to fit in here. He was willing, but he seemed really dumb. He just didn't understand how to be in a herd and interact with other horses and people. For me, that "herd" interaction is how I train horses. I wondered how I would train this little guy who didn't understand how to be a horse.

He's a savant at figuring out which pocket the treats are in.

Spider and Vinny have been with me a long time. We always have the same routine for dinner time: they go in their stall, I feed them. It never varies, but Spider and Vinny always have to be guided into their stall. They won't go in on their own. 

When Jack was introduced to the herd, he was obviously the lowest in the pecking order. But, he learned which stall was his easily. And he would be in that stall without fail as soon as he saw me with the feed buckets. I'd be guiding Spider and Vinny in, but Jack was already waiting in his stall, at his bucket. The horse I thought was the dumbest had figured out something the other two hadn't figured out in five years.

That got me thinking. Intelligence is the ability to solve a problem, but problems are subjective.  My problem isn't your problem, our problems aren't our horses' problems. I needed explain the problem to Jack so that he could use his intelligence to solve it. Since Jack is highly motivated by food, I needed to frame the question in such a way that food could be used as a motivator.  So, I introduced him to the first stages of clicker training.

It's not "real" clicker training by "purist" standards (I dislike "purists", as I don't believe that dogma has any place in real life.), but it works on the same general theory. 

The theory behind clicker training is that desirable behaviors can be shaped via positive reinforcement by association. The animal first learns to associate the "click" with a reward, over time the reward is no longer necessary and the click itself becomes the reward.

It's like Pavlov's dogs, remember Pavlov's dogs?  Pavlov would ring a bell every time he fed the dogs, and soon the dogs would begin to salivate any time the bell sounded even if no food was present.  (It's a bit more complicated than that, but I'm trying to keep this from being a dissertation.)

The first step in clicker training is teaching the horse to associate a behavior with the "click" and a treat. The easiest way to do this is to show the horse a novel object, wait for them to touch it with their nose, then "click" and give the treat.  (My "click" is just to say the word "good", I don't get fancy with it.)

The novel object (it's called a "target" in the official lingo) can be anything, so I chose my kids' Scooby Doo kickball.  It's a good size for easy handling, not something Jack sees regularly or would automatically associate with a reward, and happened to be laying next to the arena when I decided to start my clicker training adventure.

I held the Scooby Doo ball in my hand and waited.  It didn't take Jack long to get curious about the ball and touch it. I immediately said, "Good" and handed him a treat.  We did that a couple more times, until he got a little obnoxious, then we moved on to something not clicker related.  The key to clicker training is to keep the sessions short, but frequent, and to stop if the horse gets pushy.

This is just the beginning of our clicker experiment, and I'm by no means a Clicker Trainer, but Jack is understanding the concept and enjoying the work.  Once the weather gets better we'll start working on getting him to understand yielding to pressure during in hand work, building on the foundation we're laying now.

The other day I had Jack out while my daughter was playing with the Scooby Doo ball in the yard.  I asked her to kick it over to see what he would do.

Screw this dressage stuff, we're going to teach him to play soccer!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Let's Get This Party Started

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Alright, Winter.  It's mid-March and it's time for you to piss off.  I know you like to hang around past your welcome, sometimes well into April, but I'm not going to acknowledge you anymore.  I'm going to completely ignore you until you get the hint and leave.

Moving on, it's time to get back to business.  Spider is fat, Jack has no topline, and I'm just patheticly out of shape (unless "gelatinous" is a shape). We need to get fit, which means we all need to get moving.

After three months of extremely sporadic riding, I decided to just go for broke and have a lesson with my trainer on Spider. What was I thinking?! 

I used to think that I should be "prepared" for a lesson, that the horse and I should be fit and ready to work on all the tricks we need for shows, that we should have mastered the last lesson and be ready to learn something new.  As I've trained my own horse up the levels, I've realized that was a really silly thing to think. 

Seriously, training just doesn't work that way. There is no "mastering" of one concept and then moving on. I can guarantee you that the second you think you've "mastered" something, that concept will run up and bite you in the ass. Then you'll spend your next lesson being re-schooled in the concept you "mastered" last time. So, an unprepared lesson is not a bad thing at all. An unprepared lesson gets you back on track, it helps you re-focus and exposes the holes in your training.

My unprepared lesson showed me that, underneath the layers of flab and hair, the training is still there. We just need to get fit again, then we'll be back in business.  Spider's fitness plan is to do a lot of cavaletti work and walk-canter-walk transitions, along with lateral work.

Jack's fitness plan is a little different.  Because he's young and has no topline, his first order of business is going to be ground work: lungeing, in-hand, long lines, etc.  He needs to regain some muscle in his back before he starts serious under saddle work again.

My fitness plan is: A) start working two horses again, B) also do more exercising on my own.  It snowed today, so I didn't want to wasn't able to work both horses today, but nothing's stopping me from doing a bit of weight training.  Guess I should get off the computer and get started with that.....

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Mardi Gras Is Always A Good Day!

So, I'm finally feeling better from my hideous winter plague.  I started riding again late last week. Naturally, Winter has decided to give one last Hurrah and dumped about 6 inches of snow on us yesterday.


But, today is Mardi Gras.  Mardi Gras is my holiday.  I love Mardi Gras more than Christmas and Thanksgiving and all the other holidays together.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

It's Mardi Gras and Winter can get bent! I'm gonna ride my horse and have a good time, snow and ice be damned!


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