As a trainer I’ve had my share of wake-up calls. By that I mean either the delightful “ah-ha” moments when an idea or concept suddenly makes sense, or the other type of events based on experience, so called “learn burns” or near misses that changed my views.
One of these wake up moments came out of a very frustrating behavior from Buckwheat. From the day I got him at three, he was a pocket horse, complete with mugging and nipping. At that stage in my process (mid-nineties) I was not using food as a training tool, so many of my tools were based in negative reinforcement or some punishment (P- or P+).
When I did start to use food, the click and positive reinforcement, I was surprised at the effectiveness of a few simple lessons of turning away from the treat pouch and feeding him while his head was forward. I made some good progress in a short time, but Buckwheat still had an annoying habit of bumping me with his nose if I was near him and not paying attention.
To add insult to injury, I was still of the mistaken mindset that this was a “respect” issue; I had not yet learned that it was solely a training and behavior issue. This added frustration to the whole process because I labeled him as a “disrespectful” horse that was not getting better.
I remember the moment that changed me and it really was a total light-bulb moment. I was standing on one side of a fence speaking with a friend who was, herself, a clicker trainer (of rabbits mind you) while Buckwheat was on the other side of the fence.
I was complaining to my friend that the clicker training wasn’t working with this behavior when she said, “But look at him, what is he doing now?” At that moment, I had to stop and realize that he had been standing for about three minutes (an eternity in Buckwheat time) without bumping me once. I also had to stop and realize that much of my mindset was on how he did it WRONG instead of how he did it right.
I was so wrapped up in how the behavior wasn’t improving enough and how he was disrespectful, that I failed to see how the behavior HAD improved. That moment felt like the proverbial forehead slap – I had been so blind.
From that moment I have kept my mental focus on what the animal COULD give me. No, I’m not perfect. Sometimes I’m still downright stingy with my reinforcers, but the paradigm shift from within was profound and changed my training as well as my life.
Buckwheat has also made a lot of progress. He even shows amazing self control around other horses, even when food is present.
So through this learning process I can share with you a helpful insight “What can your horse give you NOW?”
Peggy Hogan – the best “whisper” is a “click”