clicking past creative constipation

The most confusing thing in figuring out Speedy’s (remedial, challenging, constipated, convoluted, muddled) learning patterns was that he clued in to the click = treat thing real quick. It was just the next step he dawdled on.

I’ve clicker trained a few animals now — to greater or lesser success, but I’ve always been able to train at least a few behaviors on cue — and I don’t remember there being such a lag between click = treat and behavior = click = treat before. It took weeks of daily clicking before that piece fell into place. I would do something with Speedy, click for the behavior I saw, and he would eagerly turn to me to get his treat. And then when I tried to do that same thing again, it was like I’d never clicked for it before.

I started clicker training Speedy on January 20th or so. It wasn’t until February 14th that Speedy realized “I can… go to a place…. to get more treats?” and it took another week before he started to repeat, offer, and iterate on behaviors, looking to me even if I hadn’t clicked just to see if a treat was forthcoming. Even now (March 6th, another two weeks later), he’s still not totally tuned in to me and looking to collect clicks. There are definitely still some dots to connect.

expert red dirt sampler

The first hint of processing and learning came with the mounting block training. Of course one of Speedy’s problems was running off at the mounting block. After a few days of off/on standing still/wandering off at the mounting block, I realized I wasn’t giving the horse the repetitions he needed to actually get the concept (and I wasn’t doing myself any favors). So I took a night to rebuild Speedy standing at the mounting block. I clicked for standing at the block while I was on the ground, up on the steps, on both sides of his body, weighting the stirrup, leaning on the saddle, sitting in the saddle. And once I got my butt into the saddle I asked Speedy to walk an aimless lap of the arena back to the mounting block, got off, and did it again.

Somewhere around rep four or five, Speedy cut the arena in thirds and walked right back to the mounting block where he stopped hesitantly. I want to say he turned back and looked at me expectantly for his treat, but he didn’t. (That came later though, and it is amazing every time he does it.) He did, however, keep making smaller circles and dropping me back off at the mounting block sooner and sooner, in addition to standing rock steady while I got on and off him. He was getting it. Even if he didn’t get that his standing-still was what was getting him the treat, he was getting that this place was the place where he got treats, and he could get more treats by going to the place. It was a solid first step.

a few rides later during our walk warmup Speedy marched right over to the mounting block, lined himself up, and stopped like this. it was pretty perfect, and I obviously gave him a treat for his immense cleverness.

To further break up Speedy’s creative impaction, Kate suggested that I click a lot and do it fast — getting my reward rate up above 15 clicks per minute. I’m not sure where I can attribute this idea (maybe 101 things to do with a box?), but I also wanted to click for a lot of different behaviors. So I tried to walk the line of clicking a lot, but not just for the same old behaviors Speedy tended to offer (have I mentioned before that he wants to put things in his mouth?). I threw TrJ’s ball in the arena, and Speedy and I started there.

“OMG look I can put my face on it”

I clicked for everything. As long as Speedy was doing something with the ball, it got a click. Eventually, he picked it up and I gave him a huge pile of treats for that. He picked the ball up a few more times that evening, and the next day he tried climbing up on it with a front foot. That got another jackpot reward.

Megan shared a post about the training game “Chase the Tiger”, where you encourage (over many sessions) your horse to chase and attack a “tiger” on the end of a stick. So I got a flag, and Speedy and I clicked around with that too. Speedy wasn’t willing to chase the tiger at anything other than a meandering walk, but he was happy to mush the flag with his face, push it around, and try to step on it.

The next week, I threw Speedy in the arena with an empty feed bag for some turnout during the Arctic freeze. Once I clicked a few times for interacting with the bag, Speedy was happy to go to town on that thing. After a bit, the feed bag became as much reinforcement as the treats were.

In addition to free-form clicker games, I started incorporating a ton of clicking into our ground work. When Speedy went forward from a single cluck? Click. Woahed from a prr? Click. Yielded his hind quarters from a whip tap, my hand, or my energy? Click. I didn’t want to get into specifics or refining movements, I just wanted Speedy to connect the idea that different aids mean different things and all kinds of behavior will be rewarded. And all of this was alongside continued clicking for picking up his hind feet easily during grooming, standing/lining up at the mounting block, as well as a bunch of things under saddle.

Three weeks out from the clicker intensive (and five weeks after starting in full training), Speedy’s learning has improved tremendously. For the most part, I can put one leg on under saddle and he knows it means to move over, not spurt out in front of me. If I keep my leg on, I might even get a second and third step over. And then I can put two legs on and Speedy knows he can go. He stands like a rock at the mounting block and often tries taking me back there for a second treat. I’ve even been able to incorporate some of the bending and alignment aids under saddle to help him maintain a better posture and shape.

When your own pony curiosity gets the better of you

We still have a long way to go in terms of developing Speedy as a learner, and especially as a problem solver. He still gets confused easily and reverts to a few comfort behaviors (chomping, backing up). I’m still being really careful to reward heavily when Speedy makes the right choice, and pay attention to what he wants as a reward. I’ve expanded his repertoire of behaviors and his comfort zone, but he doesn’t necessarily enjoy solving problems (especially under saddle). But it is super comforting to have him respond to my aids with different behaviors, instead of just pulling forward and going faster or telling me that he’s stressed out and really can’t handle anything right now.

I feel like we’ve found a balance of rides/training/lessons/games that works for us, and it feels so good to be making the horse both more rideable and more well-rounded. We’re still in three lessons a week and some trainer rides, and of course we’ll keep up the groundwork and clicker games, so I expect things to keep ticking right along. But I’m also super excited that in a couple of weeks we will be going to a Shawna Karrasch clinic!! I am so excited to hear her insights and incorporate the exercises and lessons she will get us started on to help Speedy get EVEN STRONGER at learning.

5 thoughts on “clicking past creative constipation”

  1. that’s so awesome that you’re already starting to see such big results!! one of these days i want to find somebody who is like, expert-level-amazing at trick training bc i think charlie would really enjoy those types of games etc. like i can totally see him being one of those animals that paints lol. but… i worry i don’t have the discipline or technique to try doing it myself, lest he turn into an even worse treat monster than he already is LOL

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  2. How interesting! I’m glad he’s making some progress, I can’t imagine how frustrating it was to feel like the connecting the dots step was so far away.

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  3. This is so great to read (also I don’t remember if I mentioned it in your last post, but I’m definitely using the phrase “creative constipation” instead of “artist’s block” from now on lol)

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