For me, creativity in horse training is a fundamental quality, for the human part as well as for the horse. As the topic popped up a few times lately in different places for me, I wanted to discuss it with all of you here.
Last weekend we hosted a clicker meeting and a friend asked if we could play a clicker game. I already knew the classic clicker game where one person is playing the trainer and another the horse, so when I was told to wait outside the room until I was called, I already suspected what it was all about. And like I thought, when I got back inside, I was clicked for certain behaviours I did like in a free shaping process. There was an empty water bottle on the floor, so I grabbed it and was clicked for it. I tried different things and was clicked. I didn't have a clue what the end behaviour was supposed to look like, but I let myself be guided by the clicks and thought that I couldn't do wrong. I let myself float with the clicks in a way. After three minutes (by then, I had already drunken from the bottle, refilled it, handed it over to multiple onlookers, and lots of other stuff), I was told to stop and the exercise was then revealed to me. They were doing the exercise called "101 things you can do with a bottle" with me!
This exercise can be found in a lot of clicker books and is always advertised as something that "teaches creativity". Basically, you have to reward for every new behaviour that is shown.
We also did the exercise with another person that day and we both reported that at a certain point we felt quite frustrated by the fact that we tried to figure out what kind of task we had to perform, but couldn't tell what it was really. All the time we thought it was about a specific behaviour, not about the concept of doing something new all the time.
At one point I decided not to question the reason behind it all, but just to go with the flow, knowing that as long as I still get clicks for what I was doing, I couldn't go wrong.
We speculated afterwards whether a horse would feel similar during that exercise and whether it is possible at all to encourage creativity that way.
I know that some people here on the forum (Romy and Dani for example) are doing something similar with their horses with success, but somehow I think that there's a small, but significant difference. First I don't think that the clicker is the right tool for the job, as it marks a certain behaviour that is usually to be repeated again. With that concept in mind, it is very hard to come up with the concept 'do something different after every click'.
Furthermore, the more a horse is trained for iterated shaping processes, it will over time get trained to follow the human lead and not to invent own paths, as they are usually discouraged by only rewarding 'correct' answers.
Here comes the interesting part in my opinion, as the solution is - like so often - to let go of control and allow for 'wrong' answers
Breaking off an exercise, because the horse lost interest, or changing the direction of the exercise midway, because of some playful idea, has to be rewarded in order to get more creativity. After all, creativity is all about breaking boundaries and bending rules, isn't it?
But rewarding for that kind of 'chaos' is out of the question for most horse people. Even those I talked to, who use mainly positive reinforcement, said yes, BUT!
They would only allow for inventing new things to do with a cone for example, only when the one exercise they are currently training for is under stimulus control. But that is, in my opinion, the exact opposite to encouraging creativity.
I would really like to know, if you have certain exercises that are specifically aimed at building creativity, or how you think that might work in general...