Wednesday, September 15, 2010


The first Bible verse that tacked itself to my brain cells was memorized at age seven. The daughter of a pastor, scripture had an important roll in my childhood, but I don’t remember being particularly excited by Bible reading. I do remember a certain Sabbath school contest and my small mind expanding to record multiple verses for a magnificent grand prize: a beautiful set of colored pencils. I worked hard to memorize a boatload of verses I cannot recall today. All except one: Ask and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.

Spoken by Jesus, Matthew 7:7 echoed in my cranium long after the colored pencils were worn down to nubs. For me it has trumped other more popularly memorized verses—such as John 3:16—every time. God knew his child of small faith and large fear needed a promise to remember always: Seeking is rewarded.

Currently I am doing much reading/research in preparation for a literary project and recently began Animals Make Us Human by autistic scientist Temple Grandin. Grandin shares fascinating research into the emotions of mammals including discoveries by neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp. Panksepp considers seeking—curiosity, wanting something, investigating—an emotion. Also called the “Christmas emotion,” seeking is is anticipation of good things. It energizes and motivates.

Clicker training is all about seeking. Especially when variable reward is introduced and the animal has to try various behaviors as it seeks the “well done” click and cooresponding reward. I’m pretty sure Chance has avoided much seeking over the course of a largely pathetic existence. His life had been small and fearful and unpredictable. This produced a horse that alternated between lashing out in anger and hiding in fear. How much of his behavior is due to inbred wiring and how much is due to lack of nurturing/care I’ll never know. It really doesn’t matter.
I do know he has lived with me in a state of constant vigilance. Remove him from his safety zone of stall and medium sized paddock and he is on alert for terror of all kinds—a saddle pad on fence, a man jogging down the road, every move of the horses in the field behind him. As a family member said, “He’s scared of his own shadow.” This has not stopped us from riding him, but his mental state makes for an unpredictable horse (and the need for a Velcro butt). Clicker training is a last resort as I cling to a shred of hope Chance’s brain will make new neuropathways and he can develop a thinking habit rather then a reactive one.

Our first clicker sessions of ten or fifteen minutes were not real encouraging. Chance has an extremely short attention span. It took a long time for him to understand the click and link it to a reward. Often he’d lose interest and move away, looking off into space or nipping at non-existent grass with his teeth. The reward of grain or carrots didn’t seem enough motivation to inspire seeking behavior. At that point I’d simply leave and try again later. When one is used to using negative motivation to train it can be frustrating when the animal is unresponsive. Sometimes I wondered about his intelligence.

Without a doubt I have noticed an increase in Chance’s attention span over the last two months of experimentation. The list of behaviors I am shaping in him currently include these: head down for extensive periods of time, come on cue, follow a target, responding to “touch” on various objects and “push.” Most recently we began working on moving his feet calmly, one step at a time, when touched with a whip. He now follows me like a dog and tries various behaviors on his own to see if they will elicit a click. The head down is particularly funny because it is the one he uses most often when he isn’t sure what else to do. He’ll approach, bob his head, then hang it inches from the ground and wait. For a horse that spooks at dirt clods this adrenalin lowering activity is quite useful.

I nearly saw his thoughts the day Chance discovered the difference between “touch” and “push.” I’d set up a white canister and small buckets to practice touch, sometimes insisting he touch several on cue before getting a reward. For “push” I added a hand motion. It took a few days before Chance made the connection between the canister falling over and getting a click rather then just touching it with his lips. I began adding rocks so the canister was heavier and thus took more effort on his part. I didn’t want it to be accidental when he pushed it over. At first he became frustrated. I was encouraged that he did not give up or disengage as before but continued moving the object with his lips while I waited. When it tipped over I told him “good” and clicked. The light bulb blinked on at that moment. When I asked again to “push” he immediately pushed the weighted canister over and even pushed the buckets with wide bases that took more effort. He seemed very pleased with himself. Watching an animal’s pleasure in discovery—something scientists would have mocked a few years ago—is amazing. Seeking simply feels good.

Confident in our training for the day, I stroked Chance’s neck and told him he was a very good boy. Before I could gather up my silly training devices, he returned to the canister and knocked it over again for good measure. I clicked and rewarded. Seek and you will find.


C.J. Darlington said...

I love reading about your adventures with your horses, Catherine. I'm so glad Chance is getting this!

I recently read Temple's book Animals in Translation, which I think was written after Animals Make Us Human. I need to pick up that one too.

Catherine said...

Isn't Grandin amazing? She's over come so much and done alot for animal welfare. Animals Make Us Human is fascinating. I now want to read Translation to get a bit more of her personal story. So inspiring.

Thanks for stopping by, CJ. Good luck with Lacey. I will try to make a short video of Chance and the canisters with my handy Flip Mino to post here. It really is fun to see his brain work.

Mary H. said...

"This produced a horse that alternated between lashing out in anger and hiding in fear."

Most traditional horse training methods don't want a horse who is offering behaviors, trying things out and seeking to find the answers.
Punishment and corrections means many horses learn that it's best to do nothing.

It's hard for many horses to switch over to the clicker training mindset and start seeking to find the right answer because they want to.

Temple Grandin's book Animals Make Us Human is excellent. My favorite part is when she talks about forced novelty and what makes something scary.

For some of our horses, I've used targeting successfully to get really spooky horses to be more comfortable with their environment. We start out targeting easy, safe things. Later move to slightly more scary things and so on. Gradually increasing what we target, making sure to progress at the horse's comfort level. At some point, something clicks and they realize it's more fun to touch scary things and get a treat, than to spook. (Alexandra Kurland calls this the touch the goblins game).

Mary Hunter

Catherine said...

Thanks for commenting, Mary. I fooled around with clicker training years ago with a young, playful gelding I used to own but never thought it was really practical. Out of desperation I'm trying it again with Chance and Eli. I think you are completely right on about trainers not wanting horses to express themselves or offer things. I'm now reading Animals in Translation and the part about thinking in pictures makes so much sense with horses--especially if its a fear picture.

I'd love to hear how clicker training has improved the emotional stability of the horses you've worked with. Kurland says, "You are never training only one thing." Love that. I hope what I'm doing with Chance will cross over into real riding situations. My stallion is emotionally healthier then Chance. He's very different with the clicker and I have not experimented as much.

Mary H. said...

Hi Catherine,

Just made it back to this post.

You said:
"I'd love to hear how clicker training has improved the emotional stability of the horses you've worked with"

One thing I think clicker training really helps do is remove some of the pressure of demands, which helps to build confidence and acceptance about training.

Of course, there's a continuum between letting the horse do whatever they want and training by complete force.

But, in clicker training, I think we often move more towards letting the horse voice his opinion and make more his own choices. The horse can choose to touch the umbrella for a click and treat, or can let me know through his behavior and body language that he's not ready for that. Whereas back when I was doing more traditional training I would have kept pushing, now I try and acknowledge my horses' opinion.

When the horse is allowed to make choices he has more control over his environment. This can be a great confidence builder and help build the emotional mindset we want.

This all is related to being able to recognize and acknowledge when the horse is making an attempt or approximation. Some trainers call this recognizing the try or finding the try. And also, importantly, being able to set up the training situation up so that the horse is confident and motivated to keep trying. This has less to do with clicker training than with good training in general. However, I think the framework of clicker training makes it easier for us to try and work with the horse, rather than fighting against him.

I have one 3 year old I'm working with now who has benefited enormously from clicker training. He was basically unhandled before this summer. We had to heavily sedate him for a general vet exam this spring and he was still pulling back and jerking away whenever the vet tried to touch him. Vet shook his head and thought the horse had a screw loose.

Here's a clip of him working on halter training in July

and his third bath in august:

He's turned into a total sweetheart, but we went really slowly all summer.