I had a really interesting session with Moonshadow this morning. For those of you who remember my earlier post and video, I’ve been working with her, shaping her to put her foot into a bucket for future possible foot soaking procedures. I like to plan ahead for possible vet procedures and train it with the horses!
In the video I started with an empty small food container and shaped her to step into it. Later I added water to the bucket and I started very slowly doing my best to keep the techniques clean, the repetitions quick and the rate of reinforcement high.
This morning I added to the process. I had been filling water buckets and the water overflowed creating a small, little muddy area which she could cross. She had options. I fed her where she was and I put some pellets in a container on the other side of the muddy area. I also left the area to watch. The only “pressure” on her was to get what she wanted.
She hesitated, made a few tentative steps, then crossed the mud to get her treats. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this was after breakfast, so she was not hungry.
After she crossed the “creek” I put more treats on the original side and stepped out of sight to watch her work it out again, which she did more quickly.
After several repetitions of this I stepped in and gave her a cue for lining up with me in a leading position. Click/treat. Easy enough. I began to move towards the “creek” and she started to move with me. At this point she hesitated to pick her path.
I am assuming she had some processing to do, because I had raised the criteria by being a player in the puzzle, me! So I waited for her to look at the water and choose where she wanted her feet. Click/treat.
I began to move forward again, ever so slightly and she responded by following with a foot movement. Click/treat. I wanted her to continue thinking about where her feet should go while STILL responding to my body cue to move forward.
What was her motivation for this cooperation? Her desire to continue to work for a food reward? Her desire to follow me in a manner that she knew, from her reinforcement history, was likely to pay? Was there some sort of pressure on her? If she did feel pressure, how would I compare it to the pressure she felt trying to cross the creek when I wasn’t there, when she was left alone trying to figure out the same puzzle earlier?
The point I’m trying to make is this. Animals have to learn to manipulate their environment in order to get what they want (oh, and by the way, to me, THAT is true natural Horsemanship). They have to face availability and ease of access to their goals. They have to decide what worked for them and what didn’t in terms of their effort to GET what they want. Watch a horse teach herself to do the front leg bow to get a blade of grass on under other side of a fence. When given time, and enough desire to get that blade, the horse will put a tremendous effort into that task. Some horses succeed, other horses give up, but they all have the mechanism within that encourages them to try.
The key to this information is how the trainer can use the same mechanism to get behavior they want, without triggering the frustration a horse might receive in a pressure based system. Using the click and a treat the trainer can actually empower a horse to get what it wants very quickly, as long as the trainer understands how to encourage the try without making the goal too difficult. This is part of the art form of good training.
What is my horse capable of doing on her own, without my interference? Can I access some entry point or basic level upon which I can build a behavior using this desire to get what they want? Can I capture some movement they already do naturally and build upon it? Can I find a way to get a bit more effort on the behavior they’re offering?
These are a few things and more, that I keep in mind when I’m training. WHAT can they give me now, and HOW can I build on that? So back to my little Moonshadow with that question. She was able to cross the creek on her own. I watched her negotiate the puzzle carefully. I then added my presence to see if she could continue to negotiate that obstacle while I was around. I continued to reinforce her for her willingness to explore the creek while I was there. I added a bit of my own movement to see if she could “follow” me into the creek. After a bit of thought (which I encouraged with my reinforcers) she followed me across the creek several times.
And you know what the beauty of this was? I went back to the bucket that had the water in it and she stepped right in. She had gained confidence from both her own process and our combined efforts. She felt the water splash, she reconciled herself to the change, and offered the behavior freely the next four trials.
In my book I call this a successful training effort. I encourage you to go explore something similar with your horse. Please, let me know how it goes. 🙂