Clicker Training & Reloading

“While you are reloading, you will be assessing what just occurred. The most important question is this:

Was there anything about your horse’s behavior that would suggest that it would be unsafe to go in the stall with him with your pockets full of treats? Until his behavior shows you that he would be safe, you’ll stay with protective contact.

Other questions are: how did he do? What did you learn about your horse? Is targeting a good starting point or do you need to make things even more basic by beginning with just food delivery, then adding in the click, then making the click contingent on behavior. In other words do you need to backchain the whole process? Most of our horses are already familiar with hand feeding so you can go straight to targeting, but some need these more basic beginning steps. And some horses that have had little or no handling need to begin, not with targeting, but with simple accepting-you-in-their-vicinity lessons.

Your horse will tell you where he needs to begin, and what he needs to work on next. This first targeting session gives you a way of assessing where he is and what you should do next to get him off to a successful start.

Another question is do you have a clean loop of behavior? Your first training loop is:

Present the target => your horse touches the target => click => treat => present the target.

In a clean loop these behaviors occur promptly and there are no unwanted behaviors creeping into the loop. Both sides of the click have to be clean to have a clean loop. It’s not enough to have clean targeting behavior. If your horse is clumsy getting the treat off your hand or shows a lot of mugging behavior, your loop is not clean.

The mantra of loopy training is: when a loop is clean, you get to move on. And not only do you get to move on, you should move on. So the loopy training teaching strategy is a good way to know when to change criterion. Some of the behavior Julia described in her post makes me think that she may have been asking for too much too fast. When horses are feeling overwhelmed or confused by the training, they will often express their stress by becoming grabbier for the food. How a horse takes treats is a good indicator of the level of emotional stress a horse is experiencing. If a lesson becomes too hard, if you are jumping ahead too fast, if the criteria are not clear, if your timing is off, or if the level of environmental distractions is too much, you’ll see this expressed in grabber treat taking. Use that as an indicator that you need to make some adjustments.

The last question you’ll ask is what should you do with your next twenty treats? Should you do more targeting, go to simpler food delivery lessons, or shift to another foundation lesson?

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to work on next, refill your pockets with another round of twenty treats and go back to your horse. You won’t always be limiting your training sessions to just twenty treats at a time. Very soon you will just fill your pockets, but beginning with just twenty treats is a good strategy for these initial sessions. It builds in assessment time. You won’t be training, and training, and training, and missing some early warning signs that your horse is feeling either a little overwhelmed, confused, or overly excited by this new game. Using food has so many advantages and this is one of them. It is a great way to gauge the emotional state of your horse. As you become familiar with the assessment process, you’ll find that you are constantly monitoring and adjusting your training. Starting with twenty treats helps develop the assessment process into a good training habit.

Stopping and starting again has another huge benefit. It shows your horse that the clicker game stops for a little bit, but then it starts up again. He doesn’t have to be anxious because there’s a momentary pause in the process. You’ll be back. For some horses this is a hugely important understanding. They get so excited by their initial clicker experience, they don’t want it to end. They can finally understand you! They understand what you want, and they can train you! Their SEEKER circuit is turned on. They don’t want this brand new game to go away. But their excitement often makes novice clicker trainers uncomfortable. Novice handlers don’t yet know how to fill their horse’s clicker dance cards, so they have their “training sessions” and then it’s business as usual. For some horses this is a source of anxiety. They don’t understand why one moment they can influence your behavior in a positive way, and the next it’s back to the old murky communication. These horses need to be more actively engaged via the clicker. When they discover that taking a break from the clicker game doesn’t mean that it goes away permanently, they become much more relaxed. They are discovering that you will be back with another round of training.

Taking a break has yet another advantage. It gives your horse process time. Often when you return for your next round of training, your horse will be much more consistent and deliberate in his actions. He’s had time to think and understand what just happened, and he’s ready for more.

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