Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Clicker Training Mingo

Clicker Training Mingo

Last month, I wrote about clicker training my cat, Thunder. I was having so much fun with Thunder; I thought I would experiment with Mingo. (Cruiser is very limited with treats, so he was out of the question.) I bought a good book on clicker training horses, and I worked up my plan.

Clicker training is based on 100% positive reinforcement. When a horse does something you want him to do, he gets a reward—usually in the form of a treat. The beauty of the clicker is that you click at the very moment of the correct behavior. This makes rewarding your horse clear and consistent—something that is incredibly important with horses. Let’s say that you want your horse to step over a log, and decided to give him a reward when he did. If you stop and give him a treat after he steps over the log, he may not understand why he is getting the treat. It may be because he stepped over the log, but it might be because he stopped or because he is standing still. See where the confusion lies? With a clicker, you can click as your horse is stepping over the log. Once he hears the click, he knows he will get a treat, so the reward is clearly for stepping over the log.

A trainer can clicker train a horse from the start to the finish of his career. It applies to tricks, groundwork and riding. It sounded like intense clicker training would be good for winter training, but this is trail-riding season here in Ohio. I wasn’t about to spend a lot of time in the arena, right now.

From working with Thunder, I knew that clicker training could work for isolated behaviors, too. I chose a few projects to work on that would help us with our trail riding. I wanted to teach “walk faster” and its corollary “walk down the river bank faster.” I also wanted to reinforce confident walking over the river ford.

The first thing to teach Mingo was that the clicker meant “Good boy.” It took about 5 minutes. The book suggested using a cone, but I decided a hammer would be better. I didn’t want him acting silly around cones. As he stood in his stall, I held the hammer out. Being naturally curious, he touched it with his nose. I clicked and gave him a treat. We practiced this. If he touched my hand—nothing. He had to touch the hammer. Eventually, he would touch the hammer wherever I stood. When I clicked, he turned his attention to me and waited for his treat. Finally, I would throw the hammer on the floor, and he would walk over and touch it. Mingo is an equine genius.

As he had a hoof abscess at this time that required hand walking, my next step was to teach him “walk faster.” It only took one session—even with a sore foot. I would cluck my tongue, tug the rope, he would speed up and I would click and treat. He was even trying to trot. I didn’t click for that. Before I knew it, the tongue cluck was all he needed to speed up. A miracle.

When his hoof healed up enough to take him for a walk down to the river, I practiced on the hill, and then we did the riverbank. Several years ago, the riverbank washed out resulting in very deep mud. He hated the mud, and got in the habit of walking very, very slowly down the bank. When the park fixed the bank, there was nothing I could do to get him to go down it faster. Once he decides something should be done slow, it is so hard to convince him otherwise.

Clicker training works best if you break the project down into small steps. (Mingo is good at small steps!) He has always been reluctant to take the first step down the bank. As I led him down a couple steps, I clicked and treated. We went a few more steps and I did the same. I also clicked at the bottom. I turned him around, brought him up and did it again. By the third trip, he knew just what I wanted.

At my next opportunity to ride him, I rode him down the bank several times. When you ride a horse and click, he will stop and wait for his treat. After a few times, when he was walking quickly every time I asked him to step further down the bank, I decided to click him at the bottom only. He was ready to walk quickly down the bank. It was another miracle.

Since I didn’t want to give him a treat every time we went down the riverbank, I phased the clicker out. I did give him verbal praise, and I wouldn’t let him stop and wait for the treat. This was a couple of months ago. I now only give him a click and treat maybe once a week when he goes down the bank, but it is enough. His old habit was changed and a new habit is in its place. He now walks down the bank at the speed of a normal horse without me even asking.

I had one more project—the river ford. When he was just a colt, we had an incident on the river ford where he got scared and hurt. To make the long story short, he didn’t want to cross any of the fords. I retrained him, and it worked for a couple years—then he quit, again. It took a couple more years for me to convince him it was safe, he did well, and last year, in a rainstorm, we tried to cross one of the fords and he refused. The next week, on a dry day, he refused again. He still crossed the other fords, but I realized how shaky his confidence was. He could refuse anytime, and then it would be back to square one. All spring, we had been crossing one of the fords by following other horses, and he was doing well, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to try by myself. This is where clicker came in.

I went out for a ride on my own. When I got to the river ford, I dismounted (it is easier to give him a treat, and I knew he would be more willing if he followed me.) His trouble spot is a line where the black top pavement changes to cement. He thinks it might be a sheer drop off into the middle of nowhere. There is one on each side, of course. I clicked on the approach, clicked when he stepped over the line, clicked in the center and clicked when he crossed over the second line. We repeated the process on the way home, too. Every ride that I did this on, he was more confident and willing to cross the ford—even if he wasn’t following another horse.

Next time I am riding and the fords are closed allowing us to cross but not cars, I will go back to the one that he absolutely refuses to cross, and we will have another training session. I will let you know how it goes. It should be better since he has a reason to “walk,” “walk faster” and “walk over the line.”

Clickers can be purchased for a few dollars at many pet stores. I got mine at Pet Supplies Plus. You can use them with any animal. I now see the clicker as another tool in my toolbox to solve problems. Besides, it is a lot of fun seeing the animals figure things out and do them because they want to—not because they have to.

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