click or treat

Mu-ray and I have been hitting the clicker training hard the last week or so.  I know that I professed that I would be doing training like crazy, but I avoided it for a few weeks.  To be honest, a big part of it is the judgement I receive at my barn about clicker training.  Some people are just curious and ask a lot of questions.  Some people don’t believe that it can be used to practically train horses to do anything other than “tricks”, and have told me that enough times that I just get a little… self conscious.


But enough people have heard me mope and whine about Murray’s leg hole that they’ve stopped asking, so I don’t need to keep explaining myself! Hooray, leg hole persistence.

The other reason I was avoiding training is that Murray wasn’t actually being very… cooperative. Pre-masticating several carrots just to have Murray crawl all over me to get his treats and not really pay attention to the click-treat paradigm is a waste of time and, quite frankly, not fun.  But then I had a little breakthrough with the treats.  Carrots are too high value right now.  Maybe because he’s on stall rest and needs enrichment in general, but carrots were just way too over-stimulating.  But a tiny handful of stable mix and rolled barley (a portion of his standard grain ration)?  Perfect.  He was willing to work for it, but his brain wasn’t shut down by the OMG SO GOOD desirability of the treat.

Pop quiz time! Which of the following things is Murray not known for?

a) his politeness and reasonable spatial awareness while hand walking
b) his attention to his handler’s stop/go motion while hand walking
c) his ability to control his feelings and not rear or buck at passing trucks while hand walking
d) all of the above

It is as Digital Underground said: the answer is D, all of the above.

when Murray bucks in-hand it’s actually weirdly polite: directed away from me (though not necessarily from other humans/animals) and he never pulls on me — once he hits the end of the lead rope he stops

We started re-establishing the basic click-treat connection while hand-walking.  Despite what my title says, if you click, you must treat.  Otherwise the relationship of the bridge breaks down.  When I stop, you stop.  When I go, you go.  When I say back, you go back.  This really helped me figure out how little food I could use as an effective reinforcer.  I started with my cupped hand full of grain — this was too much.  First, it took too long for Murray to hoover it out of my hand.  Second, with a high rate of reinforcement he ended up with too much food is his mouth and couldn’t keep accepting rewards.

Eventually, I realised that as few as five or six pellets of stable mix or about a tablespoon of rolled barley (or a combination thereof, as I mix the two together in a bucket) worked really well.  It was enough that Murray was satisfied, small enough that I could move my hand around for different positioning quite easily, and little enough that even with a really high rate of reinforcement Murray never had a bunch of food left in his mouth. I should have taken a picture of this amount, it’s smaller than you’d think.  And bonus: I no longer had to pre-masticate carrots.

To you this is a picture of a horse totally normally playing with a toy. To me, this is my horse performing a learned behavior that he literally did not know until today.  This jolly ball has sat in his paddock for a year.  He’s never touched it until today (some other horse threw it in there and his owner never reclaimed it).

Since last week, I’ve worked on a combo of stationary and in-motion behaviors.  When we’re walking I really want Murray to maintain a polite distance (at least one elbow’s-width from me) and not step into my bubble.  This definitely involves me throwing some elbows to remind him as well as clicking and treating.  On the ground there’s a whole suite of behaviors I’m excited to work on!  Like, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to touch my horse all over his body without having to use my entire body weight to hold his head down?  He doesn’t have to like it, I will happily take resigned but stationary annoyance when I clean out his nostrils and wipe down his face.  Even brushing his forelock is more dramatic than it needs to be — he doesn’t even dislike it, he just has to lift his head as high as he can when I lift up my arm, just in case I’m planning something awful.

So I trained it away. I lifted my hand up, and when Murray put his head down, I clicked and treated. Now when I lift my hand up he puts his head down and I can — gasp — put my hand on top of his head even though he’s way way way way way taller than I am.

I’ve been pretty impressed with how quickly this is coming along.  Not even just the behaviors (some are moving faster than others), but Murray’s ability to learn has improved in the last week.  For example, the other day, for the first time ever, Murray let me spray him in the face with fly spray.  Yes, not a spray on a brush and then tolerate putting it on his face.  He stood there, I sprayed him in the face (albeit from relatively far away so the drops that got to him were very small), and he didn’t run away,  break his halter, or break me.  That took a bunch of repetitions of me spraying fly spray on and around him with lots of reward for standing still, then quietly creeping the spray higher up his neck.  But it happened, and in about ten minutes too.

Now we’re working on station training so I can get pone to stand still while I mess with his body or do other things (coughtackupcough).  It’s going… okay.  Right now it’s more of target training, because Murray is only just learning that interacting with the jolly ball = treat.  What I really like about this video is that you can see his ears perk forward when he hears the click — it’s such a good demonstration of the value of the bridge. (Although I did commit the original sin of shooting in portrait.)

Here’s the last minute — literally — of our training session on Wednesday.  I changed the context up a little bit and stepped into his paddock (I’d done most of the work from the outside, as you can see in the first pic), and then moved further away from the ball.  Murray was torn between sticking close to me (holder of the pink bucket, giver of goodness).  Once I repositioned myself in relation to the ball, he was able to get back to the task at hand.

Hopefully I’ll have some fun clicker training updates in the future!  Our hand walking has to be cut back a bit because Murray got a rub under his bandage, so I think I can only really walk extensively if the bandage is off.  And that only happens every four days.  So there will definitely be more in-stall/paddock training sessions in our future.