I seem to be pondering the theme of choices lately and one more example came to mind, mostly because a training situation with McKee illustrated the topic quite clearly. Funny how horses can give us that moment to stop and reflect.
Anyway, for those of you who know the antics of my miniature horse, McKee, using him in an example of this topic of choice may not surprise you. For those of you who don’t know about McKee, well, the best way I would sum it up is the statement, “The good news is I have a smart horse; the bad news is I have a smart horse.”
All kidding aside, McKee has given me a very seriously clear illustration of how horses can respond to our training efforts, where they take place, and the differences in how we present choice. Horses like McKee sort of forced my hand in terms of evaluating and using choice in training.
First, it’s helpful to know that I have not always been able to rely on McKee for an easy-going response; when I got him he was considered “loco” by his owner. He was the proverbial gift horse, complete with attitude problems and dangerous behaviors. In the course of training, I worked with situation after situation that had, as its core, been developed from an attitude of self-defense.
Still, the use of clicker training and R+ totally changed his opinion of people and of training. It is also interesting that he is one of the most trainable horses I’ve met.
The situation that brought about this post has to do with the techniques and cues I use to put McKee back in his paddock when I’m done training him. I have developed several different cues that are used when I need to stop the training and put him away.
Technique One: I trot into his paddock and deliver a pretty big payload into a feed tub. He sees me trot off and follows quickly with ears forward in anticipation of the good-sized bonus. He knows that this signals the end of the session, but he still trots willingly into his paddock. We have developed this technique over time and it works well.
Technique Two: I gently put my arm on his neck, using a slight tactile cue, and we walk together towards the same feed dish. We do not trot. He gets the same generous bonus when we get to the bowl.
Technique Three: I have taught McKee the verbal cue “walk-on.” I stand by the gate, open it, and then give him the cue to walk through. This is also rewarded well.
These are the things I’ve noticed about the techniques. With Technique One, he moves into action, he responds quickly, he goes right over to his feed tub, and he doesn’t make any motions indicating he wants to turn around and go right back out.
With Technique Three, because I want this cue to remain salient in this context, my ROR is high. I realize by putting him away, it could be perceived as P-. I am always mindful of his desire to stay out in our training area where there is a lot of stimulation as well as reinforcement and I do not want to use the verbal “walk-on” cue in a context where it could be weakened. Remember, I’m not using force, coercion, or pressure. If he turned and walked out, I would just go back and keep reinforcing the cues that would encourage his cooperation.
With Technique Two, I’m noticing the correlation between the tactile cue of moving forward and his ears, which go straight back. Just for comparison, I use this cue in other contexts and he does not automatically put his ears back. However, in the context of being put in a paddock for the night, even with the same bonus presented to him once he’s in the paddock, he puts his ears back.
My best assessment of this is that on some level, this particular cue is associated with lack of choice. For McKee, maybe this cue has the element of being R- or maybe even P+. It’s odd to think that a horse would feel punished being put back in his paddock where dinner, a food bonus, his pasture-mate, and no training await him. But given his response, it is possible for him to think he is being punished by being put away.
We could even say that there is a possibility that P- has been associated with this method of being put back in his paddock. When using the other two techniques, I do not see him display the same gestures with his nose wrinkle and “ears-flat-back” look that, in this horse, I associate with dissatisfaction. Even with the most gentle tactile cue to guide him back, he most definitely expresses his opinion of the plan.
Just to make the conversation more interesting, I would add that McKee is very soft and responds readily to the tactile cue. He is reinforced with a big bonus, as with the other two techniques. So why the expression?
At this point in his training I’m thinking the situation is occurring because of the lack of perceived choice. In other words, “You’re making me do it” is a pretty big pill for McKee to swallow and, in this context, he associates that particular cue with lack of choice.
To be accurate, I realize I can never know exactly why a horse thinks something. I cannot be exactly sure of the emotion I’m seeing in the horse. However, I do know certain body language cues that McKee uses which, in his relationship with other horses, means “move,” “don’t do that” or “I don’t like that.” The fact that he responds so well with the other cues points to the issue of choice. This is my current interpretation of the issue. Whatever the interpretation, I know I’ll stick with the two options that seem to work without inducing the look of dissatisfaction. That is the least I can do for a little horse who so willingly offers good behaviors, especially given his background.