Monday, February 28, 2011

When the Marbles All Have Been Lost

Stinky Pondering the State of the World
What a winter!  Middle-Easterners are protesting their terrible governmental overseers.  State workers are protesting the union-busters.  The Republicans are protesting the Democrats, and the Democrats are protesting on general principles.

Closer to home, my horses are engaged in a massive protest of their own.  They're sick of being cooped up on stormy nights and sick of being outside in the storm.  They hate their feed and the lack thereof when they've left it in their buckets.  They've made a sculpture of the hay in the feeder, having flung it into the air and watched it fall in interesting piles that only the one-eyed horse will actually eat.  They walk into the barn on tiptoes and stand in front of me, one at a time, staring hard, willing me to pop the snow balls out of their feet so they can go back to running and bucking and landing flat-out with abandon.  They're pissed when they come for dinner dressed in icicles and equally pissed when the sun comes out, though they're not saying why.

And I'm right in there with them.

So what does a horse person do with horses in the yard when they can't be ridden and don't show much interest in RFDTV on the newly-installed flat screen in the barn aisle?  She teaches them tricks!  What else?

This is Zip in his youthful (1997) early clicker-training days bonding with one of my high school students who came to learn the fine art of clickering:
Say, what?

Zip did, eventually, learn to arrange the cones in the ring to suit his own training preference, and Lauren went on to a normal life without horses or clickers.  My congrats to both of them. 

So I'm thinking this is a good time for a refresher lesson on clicker training.

[SIDEBAR:  Let me forestall all the comments on how giving treats by hand is Evil and Dangerous.  If you have a horse that bites, you can clicker-train him out of it or just stop reading here.  If you're absolutely set on avoiding hand-feeding and still want to play, then use a very small bucket so he won't focus more on the process than on the treat.  And know in your heart that food is the way to the heart of that mega-beast breathing snot into your hair.  I wouldn't lie to you.] 

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time will recognize the photo.  It's the only one I have of someone actually performing the clicker process.  And there's nothing really new in the world of clicker training.  But I'm revisiting this topic because it's been such a crappy weather season, and I know there are people besides me who lost the will to live about two weeks into the first round of ice storms.  This is for you.

Clicker training couldn't be easier, and the best part is that the early stages are barn-worthy, not requiring that Trainer or Trainee venture into the snow and ice or floods and mud.  Clickers are easy to find at the pet store since dogs were subjected to clickering long before anyone bored enough to consider it wisdom thought, "Hey!  Let's see if my horse can fetch a ball!"

Clicker in hand?  Dress for success (and the weather), and off to the barn you go!

Start with the horse you think is least likely to attack you, fall over dead from stress at the sound of the clicker, or fall asleep.  Put him in his stall with a stall guard or stall gate or half-door closed to prevent his leaving or moving around so much that you spend the next hour chasing him.  His head and neck should be free and unencumbered, eg:  no halter or neck collar or small child clinging to any of his upper parts.

While dapper, the hat is not absolutely required
This second photo shows a good arrangement for a starter session.  Leo can hardly wait.

Next, you'll need the all-important Phase One Target.  Anything handy will work, but try to keep it simple.  If the target is more interesting to the horse than you are, then you've lost a teachable moment and gained a circus act. 

Has your horse heard the sound of a clicker before?  How about the other horses in the barn?  If any of the resident animals is a clicker virgin, I suggest you start outside the barn, clicking like mad as you calmly walk through the door.  Watch for negative reactions.  A horse (Pokey comes to mind) doing an Olga Korbut over the stall guard is a definite negative.  If no one panics and your chosen trainee appears mildly interested, you're well on your way.

Stand in front of the horse, far enough away to make frisking you for cookies an impossibility, but close enough so that you can easily put the target within nose range.  Put the target within nose range.  Now.  Hold it out in front of the horse and wait.  Is he touching it?  If not, you haven't waited long enough.  This whole clicker thing depends heavily on "catching" the horse doing the right thing.  He can tap dance, chew the wall, slam his bucket, spit at you....you don't get to react at all unless he touches the target (let's guess you went to Wal Mart or Advance Auto Parts and bought a package of those little orange plastic cones) with his nose.

Leo, sans hat and with his Game Face on,
performing his only successful trick


 The instant--the very instant-- he does, click that clicker and hand over your chosen treat.  Squelch the desire to yell and jump up and down.  Just click-treat.  I like tiny miniature frosted shredded wheat for this because they go down really fast and are unlikely to result in a choke episode and emergency vet call.  If it takes him ten minutes to chew and swallow what you've given him, he's already forgotten why he got it before he's finished eating it.

This is Day One, so all you're going to do is work on making the target-touching as snappy and clean as possible.  It might take a few minutes if the horse has been subjected to other trick-training efforts and catches on quickly.  It might take hours if the horse (Dakota) is startled every time you click the clicker.  Just keep at it until you're satisfied that the horse has made the connection between the target and the click-treat phenomenon, then call it a day.  Your toes are cold anyway, so why press your luck?
The hoped-for end result:  Free barn help

You will likely find that the other horses who were watching also picked up the lesson.  This is truly awesome.  Tomorrow, when you move on to the next step, try a different horse for a minute and see if there hasn't been some unexpected learning going on.  Hurrah for science and viva l'experiment!

Next lesson: Clickers work on spouses, too

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