The bigger picture of training with food.

Several years ago I took a 2 day course with Ken Ramirez on teaching secondary reinforcers. I also had the good fortune to hear this lecture at Clicker Expo; it is one of my favorite lectures. He describes in depth just how to condition these subtle yet powerful secondary reinforcers (think reinforcement variety) as well as how to integrate them into a reinforcement routine.

With the process of conditioning a secondary reinforcer, we basically pair a neutral stimulus with a primary reinforcer. An example of this would be clapping your hands, then feeding the horse and repeating this process several times. Over time, this creates an association between clapping hands and receiving food.

This concept isn’t new to us as clicker trainers, since that is a part of what we do when we condition the clicker. Click/feed. Right?

Let’s take a look at another look at the click. One of the functions of the click is to provide great precision so the horse can understand that we like what he was doing at the time of the click and he can expect to receive reinforcement for that activity.

However, you might not have realized that even if we do not click, we can still be inadvertently encouraging the horse to offer behavior, especially when food is involved. If you need an example of that, watch how many stalled horses paw around meal time even though they don’t hear a clicker.

There is a LOT of repeating behavior and the creation of new behavior that occurs with a horse that is anticipating or receiving food. The repetition lets you know something is maintaining the behavior. So the horse learns behavior without the click as well as with the click.

Ken Ramirez stressed that, during the conditioning phase of a secondary reinforcer, it is important to be aware of whether or not the animal is beginning to offer behavior WHILE we are doing the clapping/feeding. The idea is that animals want to gain control of reinforcers and why they happen, so they will begin to offer little bits of behavior in hopes of learning WHY, WHAT, WHERE and HOW this new event is making the person feed.

With clicker savvy horses it can be quite a challenge for the human to do something like clapping, while the horse stands there and does “nothing.” Most often you will see little bits of behavior creeping in, repeating, and this defeats the purpose of conditioning a new secondary reinforcer. In the conditioning phase, we want the animal to think “wow, this is the easiest trick I’ve ever learned. Just stand while they clap.”

Later when this association between clapping and food is strong, we will be able to work it into our routine and even use it in place of a primary reinforcer on occasion.

That brings us back to the topic of giving lots of food while a horse is standing or doing something stationary. If we are free feeding to keep them in a position and not carefully observing, we also run the risk of reinforcing unintended behavior (sometimes called superstitious behavior).

An example of this potentially dicey situation occurs when we hold the horse for a farrier. We feed for “still” but the horse really hasn’t learned duration on stillness or maybe doesn’t have clear cue control for the behaviors he knows (meaning there is no “off” button to the behaviors) and so he will begin to get “fussy.” This means he begins to offer familiar behaviors or sometimes he will get creative and offer new ones. Whatever the gift, most of the time the horse does NOT think the farrier is part of the package and will begin to want to extract the leg in order to pay more attention to the handler.

It can get even more complicated if we think we are training our horse to be “calm.”

I say this because “calm” can fall into that category of human interpretation and it is comprised of several ingredients at once. What does “calm” look like in terms of visible behavior? Does it mean holding the feet still? Does it mean holding the head still? If we are not careful, we will stack up several criteria at once, frustrating the horse because we feed for head still once, then feet still the next, then ears forward the next. In this context we think we’re feeding for calm, but the horse is clueless as to what he’s supposed to be doing and probably has never learned a cue for any of those behaviors. The poor horse has no way of knowing how or why he is being fed or what he needs to repeat to make it happen again. I’ve seen horses develop all sorts of extraneous head movements or other movements because they didn’t have clear criteria when the person was training for attitude, calm or less defined behaviors. It can become quite pronounced in terms of what they offer.

So where are we with all of this? I still free feed without the click for certain kinds of behaviors. I do it a lot in certain situations like asking a horse to station for long periods of time. I do sort of “drive by feedings” when they are at work stationing. But I’m also aware of the need to watch like a hawk for any repeating behaviors. Just remember the clap/feed illustration. If we can condition clapping as a reinforcer, think how easy it would be to condition something we’re not even paying attention to.

2015-03-11 17.19.38

Minis autostationing

Train visible, repeating behaviors. Look for those and reinforce those. Realize that behavior changes and morphs. Just because we click something doesn’t mean the horse has learned what we want. Repetition is our best ally in trying to determine what a horse knows.



About clickertraininghorses - Peggy Hogan

I teach people and train horses using positive reinforcement. The horses I work with are given choice, the freedom to volunteer behavior. The joy is that they strive to volunteer what works for both of us.
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