Thursday, March 15, 2012

clicker training update

We're a couple of weeks into clicker training with our painted pony, Apache Moon, aka the Little Man.

He has been a very quick study with this so instead of working through the various lessons I have found myself having to back off some in order to prevent us going literally straight through the book. I'm tending to do brief lessons once or twice a day, skipping days in between so the pony doesn't get too obsessed with the clicker. I'm also wanting to keep him intrigued. He's so immediately responsive it would be easy to just keep going to see how much he *could* do in a day.

He's targeting and backing and lowering his head and I've been shaping his tendency to test boundaries by clicking when he walks along with ears forward and presents himself as a cheerful companion. There's another path to getting that behavior, and it involves being very solidly "in one's footprints" - using the clicker is I think more fun for him and offers him a way to get to yes without so much angst involved.

I've been speculating lately as to why he has the need to test boundaries so regularly with his herd and with his human herd. It's often a tiny test initially, but if not met with a clear message he will escalate and can quickly become very annoying. If you're ever passing by November Hill and hear a resounding hyena squeal/bellow, that would be Keil Bay telling the pony to CUT IT OUT.

Apache grew up in a herd of painted ponies very similar to himself. His sire was a 10h Shetland who carried the painted gene. He had three girls who played, rode, and hung out with him and was considered by all to be a very good pony. His dam was a 14h grade pony who looked to me like she had some Hackney blood. She was a very reserved mare who was sweet when you gained her trust. (we actually leased her for my son to ride for about 8 months so got to know her well)

I have wondered this week if living in a herd of opinionated, flashy ponies might necessitate learning how to test the herd waters each and every day in order to maintain one's status in that herd. Apache clearly recognizes other painted horses and responds to them differently than he does normally colored equines. I saw him once in a huge pasture spot a painted horse being ridden by - far enough away that I could barely see the painted pattern of the horse - and Apache went into full alert and then trotted briskly to the edge of the pasture to see the horse. The rest of the herd continued to graze.

When we take the pony off the farm he always notices other paints, and he is quite often the cause of big eyes and sometimes spooking on the part of big horses who have never seen such a small painted creature.

Once when we had a clinic here on November Hill, one of the participants pulled up and unloaded her 17h painted warmblood. If ever a pony's eyes nearly bugged out of his head, it was on that day. (Keil Bay's eyes bugged too - his worst nightmare - a gigantic, bigger than him, Apache Moon!)

The main thing I'm noticing about the clicker training, other than his quick mind, is that the pony's overall demeanor is shifting. His usual MO is friendliness and then an immediate testing. Sometimes this is a bossy glance or a tilt of his ears back. He likes to intimidate. I have a method of working through that - usually I step toward him and ask with my hand for him to lower his head. He usually licks and chews to let me know he's submitting and he visibly relaxes. But he'll often test again. And again.

Since the clicker training, he is much more curious and friendly and he is not getting to that testing piece of behavior. He seems to be saying, "Hi! Are we going to play that clicker game now? No? Okay!"

I'm not sure why the absence of the clicker game doesn't elicit a negative response or a testing - maybe he doesn't want to thwart the possibility of the game happening in the near future. Or maybe even thinking about the clicker game puts him into the same mind set as when he's actually playing it. But there is a definite shift in the conversations that happen with him when I don't have the clicker in my pocket and just give him a pat and a cheerful word.

On Tuesday we tried using the clicker to reward acceptance of something he usually hates - being groomed on the inside of his hind legs up near his groin. Within one click he was allowing it on both sides with ears forward and not one sign of displeasure. Pretty amazing.

And I have to add another thing I'm thinking about. I admit that I really don't want a push-button pony. I want him to be happy, to enjoy his interactions with other equines and with people. I don't want a trick pony who has been conditioned to do a series of cute behaviors, or whose cheerfulness seems manipulated by the clicker constantly. So I'm trying to use this tool judiciously, trying to use it to enhance rather than to make all the conversations about click and pellet.

I love what I see so far but I don't want to overdo it.

I'd love to know what anyone else who has used this method thinks about the potential for overuse. Has the core relationship suffered? Does it feel like the clicker intrudes on the relationship at all?

I haven't used it at all with Keil Bay or Salina because I love my interactions with them and I intentionally do NOT want to change them by inserting a device that makes a sound. Am I being silly?


Grey Horse Matters said...

Clicker training can be a useful tool as you're finding out with the Little Man. As with anything else it has the potential to be over used, but it sounds to me like you've struck a good balance with Cody. He sounds like a character and reminds me quite a bit of Sami. Sami pulls all the same stunts as Cody with herd interactions, everyone simply ignores him. I said we should have named him Bonaparte, he definitely has the Napoleon syndrome.

I've used the clicker with Blue and Donnie and they are smart little monkeys. I can see there might be a tendency to over use it or go too quickly with them because they pick the idea up so fast. Both seem to enjoy the games but so far we've only done targeting with the cones. Amazingly, they can find them wherever I put them in the arena or barn.

You say you don't clicker with Keil Bay or Salina. If you don't feel the need then don't do it and don't feel silly about it. Clicker isn't for every horse. Case in point Dusty: she will grudgingly barely touch the cone with her lips and then only because there is a treat involved. She seem insulted and definitely refuses to become a "trick pony." The thing is, I know she's smart enough to do it, it's just not in her job description and is above her pay grade!

billie said...

A, I'm thinking I read somewhere at some point that Napoleon's nickname was the Little Man. It definitely fits this pony!

I just came in from barn chores. Unbelievably, here on March 15th, I have them in the barn for the hot part of the with fans on!

I took the opportunity to do a new exercise with the pony and the clicker. I put his rope halter on and asked him to back in a square around the edge of the stall. It again took one click. He was a master - particularly impressive b/c he tends not to like us in his stall, although he will accept it.

Today he backed around and ended with ears pricked up, hoping for more. I always say "all done now" and give him pats, but try to leave him wanting more.

Between the heat, the carpenter bees out in full force, and Salina suddenly in season, things at the barn are not exactly quiet and calm today. I hope they settle in and relax for a few hours.

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

Poor KB. Dreading a giant-er annoying painted pony. More than double trouble! It really is possible to read their minds sometimes. :) Sounds like the pony is getting fulfillment from the process.

I haven't tried an actual clicker with Val. I'm scared I'll create a monster.

I inadvertantly, okay, advertantly, rewarded his new stretchy-neck-need-a-treat-mooch face. And I always crack up at it. Now he offers that face all the time, and to anyone who gets near the paddock. One would think he has an affliction...

Better to save the intense positive reinforcement for behaviors I need to promote lol!

billie said...

Keil was truly mortified until he figured out that the giant painted pony was not in fact moving in. :)

I'm considering the fact that the pony likes this clicker thing b/c the clicker is saying yes to him and the clicker is nothing he can herd or boss. So he isn't 'giving in' and losing status.

He continues to be more focused on the clicker than on the treats. I mean - don't get me wrong - he WANTS the pellets and loves them. But what he would dearly love to get his mouth on is the clicker. I am half tempted to give it to him to see if he would click it and wait for his treat. I'm sure he would. That he might swallow it keeps me from testing my theory. :)

smazourek said...

I guess I'm different in that I've never used the clicker to teach my horses "tricks." I use it to teach and reinforce good manners, to get my horses to accept things that might otherwise be aversive, to build better balance, and to play.

You must be careful to associate actions with cues and then only reward the horse when he responds after you cued. If you click whenever the horse offers the behavior whether you cued it or not- you WILL get a monster.

For instance, I only click my horses for touching a target after I've said the cue, "target." I also know some trainers that teach their horses signals for "we are going to clicker train now," or "we're done." That could help.

billie said...

So far I'm asking for something and using the clicker to say "yes" when he responds correctly - then rewarding after the click.

I've also used the "all done now" for the finish.

I'm using Alexandra Kurland's book as a guide.

My main goal is to do something different and fun with the pony that engages his mind. He's very smart and also opinionated, and I really wanted to introduce a new "language" to him so we could explore something new together.

When I ask him to ground drive I hope I have a tool that can help me break down the lessons as well as say "yes" very clearly and specifically.

I'm curious about using the clicker to play if you have time to share some of what you're doing with that.

Máire said...

Billie, I completely understand how you want to make sure that using the clicker doesn't result in a push-button pony. I am with you there. I am new to clicker but am sure that different horses respond to it differently. The books I have read don't refer to that. Apache Moon seems to know just how to use it. One clever pony - I love your tails of paint recognition.

billie said...

Maire, it is fascinating to see how the different equines here are taking to the clicker. The pony does seem to be the best candidate and for whatever reason since I started doing this with him he is VERY tuned into me when I am out and about at the barn. In a way it seems like he has found a common language with me and he likes it.

The donkeys seem extremely curious about the sound. I've already noticed that Redford barely even wants the pellets. He wants the click!

Salina would probably be just as content with someone feeding her pellets to distract her from something she doesn't like. She doesn't seem to "connect" with the clicker part, but it did get her attention. I'll see if the novelty of the clicker wears off for her.