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That’s my space, Cowboy!

I introduced Cowboy a few days ago, my latest clicker project who needs to resolve issues of crowding his humans. Another concerning behavior has been kicking at horses or people during group rides. Overall I’d sum up Cowboy’s issues as one of spatial awareness; he needs a more consistent and confident sense of where his space ends, and someone else’s begins.

Cowboy yielding space. What can you read from his expression?

It’s really tempting to guess whether we are able to increase Cowboy’s confidence. As a horse lover I can’t help but want to “know” this, but wondering about such nebulous things as emotions can get in the way of actual training. We’ll probably never know for sure if Cowboy feels confident, cocky, has high or low self-esteem–but we can guess how he feels by using objective criteria. On an every-day scale, we make these “guesstimations” by reading body language. On a micro-scale, we study neurochemistry and brain imaging to make similar, perhaps even more compelling, guesses.

I’ll save the neurochemistry part for future posts.

In the meantime, we want to know if Cowboy has stopped kicking on trail rides, and if his owner’s feet are getting stepped on any less.

Our last post ended with Cowboy getting introduced to the target. Again, target training with an exuberantly curious horse like Cowboy is a breeze, because they are bold enough to start checking out the target immediately. Within 4 or 5 clicks, Cowboy notices that every time his curiosity gets the best of him and he sniffs the target, he hears a click sound and he gets fed a treat.

Then we start moving the target around. Cowboy checks the target out in its new position and whaddya know, the same click! and treat happens. We move the target to a handful of new positions, all within a few feet, and we notice two things. First of all, Cowboy is actively seeking the target in anticipation of his treat. Second of all, as soon as he hears the click he’s looking away from the target, back to us for his treat. So he knows he can make the click happen (nose the target), and he knows that click means there’s a treat soon to follow.

Another easy thing about a horse like Cowboy is that he’s so curious that he really enjoys the game, and we can keep clicking for a fairly long time, maybe 30 clicks or more. But for most horses, if following the target around is taking quite a bit of deliberation, we might need to stop a training session after only 10 clicks. Honestly, 10 is plenty. I leave Cowboy and his owner to play with this new game for the week: Find the target, touch it, hear click and get fed.

Over the course of the first week, Cowboy plays with finding the target from a greater and greater distance. In small steps, mind you; “greater and greater” means we start with 3 feet away, then 5 feet away (target hand-held by the human). Then we put the target on a wall somewhere or stick it in the top of a traffic cone, and have Cowboy find it from 6 feet away, 10 feet, etc. We point to it each time, and Cowboy learns to follow our point and find the target.

At our second weekly training, Cowboy is finding the target in various positions around his stall. He seems a little unsure, so I show his owner how to lower the criteria a bit (make it easier) in order to increase the rate of reinforcement. See how I used that behavior jargon? In plain English, I made the target easier to find, so that Cowboy could get rewarded quickly and often, rather than struggling to get the “click” each time. Lots of fast repeats make Cowboy even more reliable about finding the target he’s pointed to.

In the next session we introduce the game of liberty leading.

~Thinking horses? Think positive!

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