Clicker Training and Nudging Behavior

“The nudging behavior is a good indicator that it is time to introduce your horse to “the grown-ups are talking, please do not interrupt” lesson. Initially this involves a very stylized body posture on your part. Instead of outlining all the elements that go into “grown-ups”, I’m going to refer you to Lesson 1: Getting Started with the Clicker in the Click That Teaches DVD series. The third section in particular of that DVD will show you many details that are important. These handling details will help you and your horse sort through this early mugging stage.

You will still be working with protective contact. You’ll stand outside your horse’s stall in the stylized, “grown-ups are talking” position. This position will develop into a cue which you’ll use to signal to your horse that you would like him take his nose away from your body and to stand in the “grown-ups” orientation.

“Grown-ups” is not just a behavior you’ll use to teach your horse good treat manners. It is a behavior you’ll be using throughout the rest of your horse’s training. It becomes the glue that binds other behaviors together in chains. It gives you “punctuation”. It becomes your commas and periods. In other words, you’ll use it to create breaks and pauses. You’ll ask your horse for an adrenaline-raising activity such as trotting. Then you’ll return to grown-ups so he can show you that he can calm himself down. From Julia’s description it sounds as though she may be missing some of this “punctuation.” If you have a horse that is becoming overstimulated by the clicker training process, go back to these beginning steps. Review the protective contact phase of this process, paying particular attention to the “grown-ups are talking” lesson. In the next few steps I’ll show you how to use this lesson to develop much needed pauses that will help build emotional stability into your training.

For now, you’ll stand outside your horse’s stall or paddock. When he takes his nose away from your pockets, click then treat. Remember, feed where the perfect horse would be. In this case that means feed so your horse’s head is positioned evenly between his shoulders. His nose will be about level with the point of his shoulder and he should be in balance over his front end. If you feed him twisted off to the side, or too far forward, the lack of balance may encourage him to move his feet, and it will make it harder for him to settle emotionally.

You want to have your horse on a high rate of reinforcement. At first this may be hard because he’ll be spending so much time nuzzling your hand. As soon as he moves his nose away, click then treat. Try to get another click in before he can move back to nuzzling you. Your good mechanics will help with this. I often have people put a piece of duct tape on the back of the hand that is closest to the horse. If you are on the left, you’ll be feeding with your left hand. The duct tape will be on your right hand. This reverses on the right side. If you aren’t sure what this looks like or why you are feeding with the hand that is furthest from your horse, refer to the Lesson 1 DVD.

Imagine there is a large box surrounding your horse’s head. As long as his nose is somewhere in this box, you get to click, reach into your pocket, and feed him where the perfect horse would be. The perfect place for “grown-ups” is in the center of your imaginary box.

When you feed, you don’t want to find yourself twisting or stretching so you are out of balance. Move your feet as needed so you are feeding from a balanced position. You are training components you’ll be using later when you ride. The more you keep yourself in good balance on the ground, the more this will ripple over into riding in good balance. You may think you are just giving your horse a treat, but really you are riding. Think about what this means if you are working on a young horse or one that is being rehabbed. By the time your horse is physically able to be ridden, he’ll be beautifully balanced, ready to be ridden. And what’s more, you’ll also be ready. I know at times it can seem as though I fuss a lot of details in these foundation lessons, but the details make the rest of the work flow easily into place.

“So you’ll click, feed, and then you’ll move your hand back to the duct tape target on your free hand. If you can get your hand back to the duct tape while your horse’s nose is still in your imaginary box, you get to click and treat again. With this high rate of reinforcement you are saying to your horse – this is where your head belongs. It also breaks up any inadvertent chains. If you delay, and your horse goes back to mugging, you could easily get into a situation where your horse thinks the behavior is nudge, nudge, move the nose away, click, treat, nudge, nudge, move the nose away etc. Clean mechanics help break this up. You’ll feed, move your hand promptly back to your target and click again before he has a chance to move his nose out of the “box”.

Using the duct tape as a target keeps your mechanics clean. It means you won’t be diluting the meaning of the click by moving your feeding hand to the treat pouch ahead of the click. If your horse starts nudging your arm before you can get a click in, that’s okay. Wait until he moves away from you, click, treat and then see if you can’t get another click in while his nose is still in the box. If you begin with a good sized imaginary box, this should be possible. And remember you are the only one who knows if he has met criterion, because you are the only one who can “see” this “box”. As your horse becomes more deliberate in taking his nose away from your pockets and keeping it out away from you, you can begin to gradually shrink the size of your imaginary box.

You’ll use up some portion of your twenty treats. You’ll continue to develop your end of session ritual as you step away from your horse to refill your pockets. Again you’ll go through your assessment process, asking those all important questions: is it safe to go in with my horse? How did my horse do? Was my loop clean? What should I do with the next round of treats?

If you see any behavior that makes you uncomfortable, stay with protective contact. You can gradually expand your training even with a barrier between you. For example, you can use targeting to introduce head lowering, or you could free shape backing and ears forward.

Note: these are not check list behaviors, things you do a few times to get your horse up and running with the clicker and then abandon. These are your building blocks. These behaviors are key components you’ll be using over and over again throughout your horse’s training so taking the time now to build them well is time well spent.

Several key points to remember: there are lots of ways to get behavior to happen. If one shaping method isn’t working for you, shift to another. For example, your horse may do really well at first getting to head down through targeting, but he may not be ready for you to free shape the head-lowering behavior. As he becomes more familiar with clicker training and all the different ways in which you can get behavior to happen, you’ll be able to free shape head lowering, but for now targeting may be the more successful teaching strategy.

Especially if you’ve been seeing a lot of mugging behavior or an increase in anxiety during your clicker training sessions, your horse may be in the early stages of learning how to learn. You’ll be using these initial, protective-contact sessions to help develop his confidence and ability to solve clicker puzzles.

Also note: clicker training is not just about free shaping or targeting behavior. There are many ways to get behavior to happen. You want to become skilled in a variety of teaching strategies. And you want your horse to become skilled at solving different types of learning puzzles.

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