There are a couple of steps that happen before the switch occurs. The first step is the light-bulb moment when the horse learns that he can make the human feed him by touching a target or some other simple behavior. He may not always have the click associated with the process, but he usually figures out that touching the target gets him a treat. This is quite significant to the horse, and once this step is understood he can get quite quick and enthusiastic about bumping that target.
The next step is to raise the criteria and ask the horse to learn something else that might get the human to click/treat. If the new behavior is something easy like just moving the target to a different position, then the horse can generally make that connection fairly quickly. Also, by now the horse starts to associate the click with the process. At some point however, we want to expand the horses ability to generalize the whole process of learning that a click can occur for many different kinds of behaviors.
This shift can be difficult for a horse, especially in the beginning, because he can become quite focused on the ONE successful behavior and the possibility of finding alternatives to that behavior can be frustrating. If the trainer starts to ask for other kinds of behaviors without the target, the horse has to make an even bigger switch. This is really important part of training and every time I see a horse learning to make the switch I am thrilled because I know we’re opening up a new way of thinking for the horse.
I watched this process of the switch happen again recently. The particular horse involved was about 8 years old with no known history of abuse. The switch was made slightly complicated by the fact that this mare was used to getting hand fed from people, but up until I started with her she had not learned the marker signal or the click. She DID learn that standing very close to humans was a good idea because humans give a treat now and then. In the beginning my task was two-fold. Help her learn that the click meant that I liked what she did and a treat was forthcoming. The second goal was to help her learn to make “the switch.”
So in our two lessons prior to today we began to work with the target. After a couple sessions she learned that touching the target would reliably produce a treat from the human, but she still preferred to stand close because it had a longer history of paying off, even if she wasn’t certain as to WHY it paid off or what she DID to cause it to pay off.
Then came time for her to learn to make the switch. I needed her to learn to give up the current behavior and hunt for a different way to make me click. So I shaped her to touch a cone instead of the target and I clicked/treated her for touching the cone several times. Then I clicked and treated her several times for touching the target again. I also walked with her and clicked her for walking beside me. Then I rotated between all three of these behaviors.
Each time I made a change she had a difficult time letting go of what we were doing just prior to the change. This is the hard part. The horses learn their one favorite “trick” and they don’t want to be bothered by another one. (I wonder if that’s where the phrase “one trick pony” got started!) It is also important to help the horses learn to make this switch by being generous during the guessing process and shaping their ability to “guess” at what is different.
After a while the mare begin to realize that many things could paid off; she learned to think of new possibilities. She learned to be creative and she made the switch to being more versatile in her thinking. I just love watching this process.