The Art of Natural Dressage

Working with the Horse's Initiative
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PostPosted: Sun Jan 01, 2012 7:07 pm 
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This discussion was split from Titum's diary.

Donald Redux wrote:
Do you behavior mark, that is do you click or make some other identifying sound that identifies for the horse the exact behavior increment you are working to capture?


Not very consistently. That is, if I want them to do a very specific thing, I do use short words ("goed", "jip" and so on) as reward signals, hopefully with some precision, and sometimes I even click with my tongue. However, during our usual interaction and play, I mosty don't. Of course I praise the horses a lot when they do something I like, but I guess I can't really call this a marker.

I have often asked myself why I don't use reward signals more precisely, knowing about their benefits. But somehow I was feeling that it didn't really seem to fit, it just didn't come to me naturally. I guess there are several reasons behind this intuitive aversion (a much too strong word, but I hope you know what I mean).

One of them is that often I am not after specific behaviours, but a more general state of the horse. For example when I reward them for being careful with me, it's not this one step of moving backwards, or that tiny bit less physical pressure of their muzzle on my hand when taking the treat. It's their general attitude, which is of course reflected in these behaviours to some extent, but I feel that when I am marking the behaviour more specifically, I am also shifting their focus away from what actually matters to me.

Another reason is that often there is no "correct" behaviour, but communication with answers that depend on the course of the conversation. For example during our body language experimentation it is nice when the horses react to my movement in the way I had planned, but if they do so, that means that my cue was good enough. If they react differently, that reaction generally is not less correct. It is consequential. As long as I am not able to evaluate my own body language cues in an objective way (and I am afraid there is no such way), I can't judge the correctness of their response, so I prefer not to try rewarding correctness but hand out the reward in a less specific way and adapt my own behaviour according to their response.

Another aspect of non-existing correct responses is that many of my actions are suggestions and not cues in a strict sense. That is, if I am asking Titum to rear and he does not, this is not necessarily less correct that when he does. It is just his reply, which in turn determines the course of the subsequent conversation. Perhaps that's a bit hard to explain in horse training terms, so I will try it with a human example. Imagine you are shopping groceries with Kate. You ask her if she wants to buy tomatoes for dinner, and she says she prefers spinach. Was this more or less correct than if she had said yes? I often find myself in a similar situation with my horses. I can still reward them, because after all they were answering and this is keeping up the conversation, but I would have some difficulties if I should specifically mark the "correct" aspect of their behaviour.

Finally, there is a reason we have already talked about before. Not sure if you remember though, it has been some years ago. Personally I am not able to adequately show my enthusiasm when I click. Theoretically I know that I could first click and then still praise them verbally, just as much and with just as much emotional differentiation as I do without a click. But often I don't, as if I had already "done my duty" with the click. So not only my expression of happiness gets lost but also the differentiation between the degrees of fantastic. :smile:

And then there are other situations where I am after a very specific behaviour, and where the situation also determines that there is a single correct behaviour, with the horse's response being more or less close to it. In these situations I usually do mark the behaviour, but in the whole of our interaction they are rather rare.


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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Sun Jan 01, 2012 9:58 pm 
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I'm a considerable fan of the more relaxed and playful (you know me, LOL) approach of Classical Conditioning and it frequently comes to mind as I read some of your posts about your adventures with your herd.

Though I do work on disciplining myself with Operant Conditioning +R, in my training work I always go for a happy relaxed and playful atmosphere too, if not at the moment, during other times together.

I sometimes leave the horses, my two, in their stable yard, and with the stall doors open, just so they'll pester me while I muck out. We have wonderful conversations where I admonish them for stepping in a pile and scattering it, or standing directly in my way - and of course they know this is all play, and move out of my way, or stand and look at me until I change my words or attitude.

If I get serious, too serious, that is when I get the "dumb looks," like "what's wrong with you human, don't you know how to have fun any more?"

The best is when I stop to rest and we mug each other a little. Even Altea the Aloof has come to participate in these. She makes "training," her so difficult for me, because I much prefer her little gentle asides. From distance and space, she has taken to putting her muzzle to my face and just holding it there, like she's breath sampling or studying the texture of skin and beard.

Sometimes I don't care if they don't move when I ask, I'll just work around them. That's when they give me one of those lovely, "oh, sorry, here I'll move," little moments that are so precious.

Not a lot different than things I see your sweethearts doing with you.

I agree, the click isn't all that inspiring to the user, as we are so focused on catching the moment and of course on the outcomes, the results.

The only thing I care about at "Classical," time is that we have peace and a warm loving feeling toward each other.

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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2012 4:01 am 
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wow, thats so cool that you got them to let you rasp their teeth in a positive way. Zoe ended up teaching BJ to let her give him the mouthwash by getting him to let her stick her hands in her mouth first as well. I don't think I really realised before how it could be such a useful thing to teach them and it does mean so much less fuss when trying to get them to let you put things in their mouth (I should probablly teach the others as well). Its great the things you can get them to do if you just break it down into small enough steps :).

I wonder sometimes why I don't try to be more precise with my clicks/treats - I think my brain theorises that if I did it properly then the horses would understand quicker - but I find it just too hard to be that structured especially when they are looking cute or trying really hard :).


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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2012 5:14 pm 
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Marina, I think that precision becomes less and less important once the initial introduction to a new behavior is past and the horse has learned what is wanted.

I chide myself for my more lax handling of clicker and treat too much I think. The classical model is softer than the operant one as I think of it. Thus it might be said that we can effectively move from the strict discipline of conditioning with more precise click and treat to the more relaxed marker of a word of approval, soft or energetic according to the conditions of the moment, and from the precise delivery of the treat to the more imprecise but still appreciated rubs, pats, hugs, scratches, and other physical rewards.

If things seem to slip, that is behaviors are no longer given or done without the energy we wish, we certainly can go easily back to a "refresher," of precise click and treat. Nice tool, behavior conditioning. But in the end, for me, it's the friendship that counts. One of the reasons I like reading Romy's posts is that she reminds me of this value I hold so dear with how she is with her herd.

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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2012 7:42 pm 
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Lovely, Romy! I actually wanted to ask you the same thing for a long time - whether you use a clicker signal or not. Very interesting to hear your explanations.
While I sometimes love the precision of a clicker sound (I use the word "bravo"), I sometimes get very unprecise with it. I guess out of the same reason as mentioned by Romy and Marina.
I understand the mechanical clicker and the precision that comes with it was invented for training animals efficiently in a short timespan. It probably is the best way to learn something very fast.
On the other hand I always preferred the way I can modulate the tone of a spoken clicker signal. It may not be as precise, but it carries much more information. And I have the impression that a horse can easily process that information. I'm afraid they process so much more! :D I daresay Romy, that your horses catch all that unspoken clicker signals I'm sure you give. I recall that sometimes you bend your knees slightly like a courteous bow when you like something the horse did, or the way you smile. I can imagine that there are thousands of little things a horse perceives when we like something they do. Especially when they are trained to look for the slightest cues like your horses are! I think in the way you are working with them, you somehow train them to be extra attentive and to tune in on you perfectly.
Maybe that's your secret behind the genius of your horses? :funny: Any way it happens, it's lovely! :thumright:

Just two more things about marker signals:
I don't see them to have a judging quality, like saying "That's correct!". I use my word "Bravo!" to say that I liked what my horse was just doing. Nothing more, nothing less. Of course I'm not at all free of thoughts that judge what Mucki is doing in terms of right and wrong. It will take a long time for me to achieve that, I'm afraid ;).
My second point I value about marker signals is that they teach me to structure an exercise into achievable parts, so I can keep the learning experience positive all the time. I guess with more experience the structuring will come more natural for me, so I can relax the signal a bit.

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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Tue Jan 03, 2012 12:05 am 
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In a clicker group not long ago discussing spoken as opposed to mechanical clicks I made the same point Volker...that I can modulate my voice and use it to raise and lower energy, for one thing. Yet it then becomes a sort of quasi cue.

That's useful to me when a behavior has been learned and I wish to change it by energy up or down.

When I'm doing introduction of a new behavior, or changing an old behavior to doing it a new way, I do prefer the precision of the mechanical marker.

To help me remember how I mean to use it I think of it as a neutral "yes," mark for the horse.

Just the other day I was working on "ears forward," at the stall door at feed time. My two Andies seem to think I am going to starve them (fat chance of that).

I was using voice, and frankly not getting it very well. I remembered the clicker one day and bingo, very clear powerful response to my cue, "ears forward please." Soon I'll be able to transfer that to the "cue," of the situation, standing at the stall door. But I was much impressed with seeing what I already knew and needed a more graphic reminder of.

Now I carry my clicker in my pocket with a couple of pits of beet pulp pellet.

If I were teaching CT I'd teach a strict regimen of mechanical clicker and very precise application. Since I'm not I can appreciate and use myself more informal methods. Creating a positive environment is more important to me, but the precise click can have it's place in that ... especially in reminding the horse we have a language we can speak to each other when we need to.

What a door opens with Bmark+R, eh?

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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Thu Jan 26, 2012 11:26 pm 
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Thanks for all your replies! :) And Volker, I totally agree that the clicker in itself does not have a judging quality as in right versus wrong, that's all my personal association. I also believe that horses can easily perceive reward signals in a human's behaviour. But then on the other hand especially in videos of some clicker trainers it often seems to me that their emotional expression is reduced to being almost imperceivable. I guess that's what I am afraid of when I say that clicking makes me feel as if I had done my duty, with the mechanical reward signal being a surrogate for socially appropriate behaviour.

I have deleted the rest of this post as it was a regular diary entry and therefore did not belong to the topic of clicker training. It is still included in the original post in Titum's diary.


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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Fri Jan 27, 2012 11:55 am 
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Romy wrote:
But then on the other hand especially in videos of some clicker trainers it often seems to me that their emotional expression is reduced to being almost imperceivable. I guess that's what I am afraid of when I say that clicking makes me feel as if I had done my duty, with the mechanical reward signal being a surrogate for socially appropriate behaviour.
As you know I'm reading in the German clicker forum lately and there I realised that maybe I'm not really doing clicker training in a strict sense.
I've seen videos of CT used with dogs where the frequency of clicks was measured and ways developed to increase the rate of reinforcement. It was all very scientific and - as you said - it had a very mechanical, umemotional touch to it. I really don't know if that's what the majority of clicker trainers are doing, but I know that I don't want to do it that way.
I love to dig into the scientific background of CT and learning why it all works, but when I'm with Mucki I try to lose myself in the conversation as much as possible. That's what makes it so precious to me - afterwards is always time to analyse what I've done :)

The more time I spend in that other forum, the more I appreciate the AND approach ;) Whatever that is, by the way :funny: I still can't quite put my finger on it, but something seems to be very special to this group of people here...
Maybe it's the way that no method is proposed or propagated. Instead everyone seems to experiment and takes the bits and pieces that fit best for the situation, the horse and the human. It's that "go with the flow" approach that gives everything a calm, serene and positive aura, like "we'll get there, whatever road it takes"...

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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Fri Jan 27, 2012 1:33 pm 
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I must admit that I am getting a little bored in that other forum - which is a shame, because there are such nice people. I find myself just skimming through the texts and not finding many things that interest me. Maybe one reason for this is that I have studied psychology, so the basic science behind behaviour modification isn't completely new to me. But it also seems to me that many of the things talked about are on a rather basic level. You have problem x, so do operation y with a frequency z, and then give a food reward. If it does not work, manipulate the component operations and the frequencies and amounts of the rewards.

Generally, that is not necessarily different from what I like to do with my horses, because communication always implies that you act in certain ways, react to the signals you get and adapt to the behaviour of your partner. So in principle you could describe it all in strictly action-oriented terms. For me the problem arises, however, when such descriptions cause people to start thinking about the communication process in a purely action-oriented way and then try to perform it that way. This is because the descriptions can never be as rich and detailed and nuanced as natural interactions are, so you have to reduce it to some aspects that seem most important or salient to you, and ignore the rest. Not a problem at all, I think, as long as I don't have to base my real-life interactions solely on these selective descriptions - but exactly that is what I see happening at times. So for me the danger in such a mechanical approach that is grounded in scientific descriptions seems to be that the layers of communication get lost, simply because they are not part of the description the training is based on.

For me the special thing about our forum is that a lot of focus is on that "rest", on the nuances of interaction and emotion, on the goals and thoughts behind people's actions instead of only the most easily perceivable action components and their effects, on the things that are harder to describe but that matter most to me. As a result, I feel most at home here, because when the genuine communication part is not left out of the discussions about communication, I feel like I can discuss the things I am really interested in.

I have deleted the rest of this post as it was a regular diary entry and therefore did not belong into this topic. It is still included in the original post in Titum's diary.


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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Mon Jan 30, 2012 3:45 pm 
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Very true. I feel the same way mostly. It is also the main problem I feel about clicker training. When I adhere to it in a strict sense it becomes - like any other training method - to a rigid constraint that blocks my creativity and emotionality.
Last Saturday I was participating in a clicker course. It was very interesting - I had the opportunity to clicker a donkey, for instance. 8) But - as I was concentrating so much on the timing and the progression of the exercise, I totally froze my body language and my emotionality. It felt like being amputated. It was like a regression to a state of interaction that I had when I started working with Mucki. All the feeling, the softness, the kind of inaccuracy that comes with my emotional engagement during my interaction with a horse was lost.
This incident showed me how very personal and intimate this interaction is for me. I'm not the most extroverted personality, so I need to establish a certain connection to a horse before I really engage it. The more scientific the approach and the more I am focused on the implementation of rules or guidelines, the more I freeze my body and get the feeling of very insufficient communication.
Don't know if that relates to what you meant Romy, but it made me wonder, how can these subtle layers of communication be taught or learnt? It seems to me that such things can either be gained , or maybe in some form of master/apprentice relation?

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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Mon Jan 30, 2012 4:42 pm 
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Ah, I already wanted to ask you about the clinic, if you actually went there and how you liked it. :)

Houyhnhnm wrote:
Don't know if that relates to what you meant Romy, but it made me wonder, how can these subtle layers of communication be taught or learnt? It seems to me that such things can either be gained , or maybe in some form of master/apprentice relation?


I think that what you wrote relates a lot to what I meant - or I could also say you expressed a similar thing in a much more understandable way :blush: ;) - but I don't think I understand your last sentence.

Anyway, I believe that they can be taught IF you manage to teach people to simply be themselves and treat horses according to that, instead of applying any external method. However, I am not someone who can teach this, simply because I don't know how to not be myself, so I don't know what I could suggest to people. That's why in my understanding there are mainly two ways in which I can help people to find the "layers of communication", with the first one actually just being a means to reach the second one.

The first one is to simply live with the horses, or at least spend time of doing nothing specific with them if you can't live there. Thinking of it, to me it seems to be the same with people: the better I know them and the closer we are, the more layers of communication we use. If I meet someone new, probably I am less normal or natural and perhaps more formal than after having spent an hour or a day or perhaps even a whole week with him. I have never been a huge fan of doing nothing with horses, like in just sitting there - unless I really want to sit there of course, but not as in sitting there in order to have some effect on my horse. However, I think one of the most important activities in my interaction with my horses is doing things that are not directly aimed at communicating or having an effect on the horse. Of course communication can be a part of these activities, but it's not the focus of what we are doing. To me that's similar to a distinction in human-land, namely sitting next to a client or patient (for example if you are a social worker) in order to tell him something or have him tell you something specific versus sitting at the campfire with a friend, talking.

This directly leads to the second thing, which I think is very likely to emerge from spending time together: seeing horses as normal persons. This is easiest with people who have never been involved with horses before and much harder for those who already have horse experience. I think if people treat a horse like they would treat their friends, a lot of the communication skills just come naturally, because people don't ruin them by trying to apply some method. That's also why I think that often children can deal with horses so well. They don't seem to make this distinction of "me, the handler versus horse, the subject", and if there are no fixed roles, there also is no need to communicate by using a certain rigid schema. I also can't directly teach this, but I can get people's attention to it, simply by the way I interact with the horses or comment on their behaviour while the people are with us during our everyday interactions.

But I feel like I am writing things that everybody knows already, so I'll stop talking now in order not to bore you all to death. :)


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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Tue Jan 31, 2012 8:21 am 
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Romy wrote:
but I don't think I understand your last sentence.
:blush: How could you? It's missing important words. :roll: What I wanted to say was, that to learn the layers of communication it can be done autodidactically or maybe in a sort of master/apprenticeship relationship. Means spending time or working with somebody who does this way of communication successfully and over time it would rub off on you.
I think it's hard or even impossible to learn such things just from talking or watching... Which is always the problem if you propagate some kind of method. And clicker training is a training method after all. Nothing more, nothing less. But in a community like the forum you mentioned, such a method might be adopted as a universal system of rules. When that is combined with a very goal-oriented approach to horse training - and CT seems to be often used for just circus tricks - then in my opinion some important points of R+ might go missing: the focus on the positive parts of communication and the reciprocity of communication.
I noticed that CT, when done by the book (or at least as I understand the book ;)), draws the focus of attention from the human to the horse. Where in NH it feels to me like the talk is all about the human, being herd leader, always in control of the situation, correcting the errors of the horse - in CT the focus seems to be all on the horse, it's behaviour, the new behaviour and all the tiny steps in getting there. Both approaches lack the vital point (for me) of scrutinising the interaction with the horse at just those aforementioned deeper layers of communication. Is that what defines AND? I wonder...

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 Post subject: Re: Titum
PostPosted: Tue Jan 31, 2012 2:21 pm 
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There are two Facebook lists that I spend a good deal of time reading and contributing to that are C/T forums.

It's become apparent by what I read, and more, by what I actually do with my two horses, that C/T demands and allows for more focus on the horse.

I think you'd find there, Volker, that circus tricks aren't the emphasis. The evolution of a C/T horse handler (and I've watched dozens on these two groups so far) seems to be very much on ground handling, much as we find happening here at AND, and what I think of as "maintenance." That is manners and compliance and participation with grooming and similar work, such as loading in vans or boxes, bathing, etc.

Some of what might well pass for circus tricks are in fact elements taught with an eye to the future. Stationing, for instance, is done to having the horse hold in place with front feet on a target, usually just a mat of some kind. This, of course, is highly useful for grooming chores at liberty, say on the ride out when you wish to dismount and check a hoof or the condition of a bump.

It's also used for working more than one horse at a time. One stations while you work the next.

There are some exhibition kinds of things being taugth, such as fetching objects, or playing chase the tiger in lieu of standard lunging methods.

My suggestion to these groups is that we work on adding standard cues for standard work, just as walk trot canter, reining back, laterals, etc. This I suggest because horses need to respond to none C/T handlers they may encounter in their future with others than the C/T trainer.

The intensity of focus, so as to catch and capture tiny minimal approximations to shape toward the final action, is much more than any -R methods asks for - though we who are doing -R might well improve our technique if we had that same kind of focus the dedicated C/T folks have.

If you are curious you might visit and browse either or both these FB groups. One is based in England primarily, the other in California USA.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/153530901404432/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/ClickerTrainingHorses/

NOTE: The latter group is created and authored by a commercial person, but a warm and generous person at that. Peggy Hogan comes from an academic behaviorist background but as a horseperson. Her advice and information is wonderfully friendly and easy to take (she doesn't lecture or preach). The first group may have a commercial aspect to it as well but I am less familiar with that facet of that group. It too is very user friendly.

If you have questions about the fine points of C/T either place is a great resource. The atmosphere is similar to that here at AND. Much exploring and sharing goes on.

Best wishes,

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 31, 2012 10:11 pm 
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Volker, to me it seems that your differentiation pretty much hits the nail on the head.

To me it doesn't really matter if it's circus tricks or horsehandling things or what some people call manners, or any other kind of exercises. It's still that the main focus of many clickertrainers, as I perceive it, is on discrete actions, on certain combinations of behaviours that the horse is supposed to perform, preferably with minimal involvement of the human.

In my own training what matters to me most is the interaction part. I often do fixed exercises with my horses as well, but what really fascinates me is not to get them to perform action x when I press button y, so to say, but for us both to fluently align our actions with each other. Of course both ways aren't mutually exclusive, but still the general tendency seems to be somewhat different - which is great actually, because in that way I get a lot of different input when watching clicker trainers, so I can only learn. :)


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PostPosted: Wed Feb 01, 2012 1:18 am 
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Quite a few of the C/T sources I know of do come across as being overly focused on goals, Romy. It's why I recommended both of the forums I did. Neither are like that. Tons of classical conditioning going on ... the wholistic experience taking priority over precision goal attainment ... so that the stories there read much like our stories at AND.

Many instances of play taking precedent and even more encouragement of the horse to offer what he wishes and going with that. I wouldn't hang out where goal behaviors became more important than play - that's for sure .

Best Wishes,

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