Clicker training Clever Hans: The balance loop

This is part three of my notes from ORCA’s 2013 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. For links to the rest of my notes (which will be posted over the next few weeks),
please visit the Conference and Clinic Notes section of my site.

Alexandra Kurland’s lecture was one of my favorite talks at this year’s Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. Her lecture, which was titled Clicker training Clever Hans: The balance loop, explored how better awareness of balance and cues can greatly improve our training.

Clever Hans, the world’s smartest horse (Really!)

Alexandra opened her lecture with the story of Clever Hans. You’ve probably heard of Clever Hans, he was a horse that lived in the early 1900s and that astounded crowds as he travelled around Europe, showing off his amazing mathematical abilities. Clever Hans could solve some pretty high-level math problems by tapping out the answer with his hoof. What was even more amazing was that the horse could solve problems even when his trainer wasn’t present, thus proving that the trainer was not secretly giving the horse signals for the correct answer.

However, eventually, Clever Hans’ mathematical abilities were disproven. It turned out that Clever Hans was very, very, very good at reading body language and very subtle body cues. He could indicate the correct answer as long as people in the audience knew the right answer (even when his owner/trainer was not present). Clever Hans could do this even though his trainer and the audience had no idea that they were giving him cues.

Of course, once people discovered what was “really” going on, horses were once again regarded as stupid, unintelligent animals. However, as Alexandra emphasized in her talk, most people, when hearing this story, miss a really important point. The moral of the Clever Hans story, instead, should be a reminder that horses are absolutely brilliant at reading humans. Trainers must remember this and be careful while training, since this can work either for or against you.

Modern Clever Hans

Alexandra showed several clips of some modifier cue work that she has done with her own two horses, Robin and Peregrine. When presented with two objects and given an instruction, the horses can both select the correct object based on a variety of properties. (Example: Pick blue. Pick smaller.) However, Alexandra explained that from this video clip, she still does not know whether the horses understand the concepts or are going off of other cues.

Next, Alexandra showed a second video of a test she did with the two horses. She presented them with two new objects and picked a nonsense word that would serve as the name for each object. Alexandra tested whether the horses would pick the correct object when the correct nonsense word was given. The horses did! She concluded that her two horses are very, very good at reading her body language and subtle cues, even when she does not know she is giving subtle cues and clues.

Whether you are interested in the science of learning, such as exploring how to train a horse to select a certain color, or whether you are interested in riding and upper level performance, you need to be very aware of what you are doing when you are training. Otherwise, you can get results that will look like the horse is performing completely correctly, but what’s really going on is something completely different than what you think you have taught. This is especially important when the behaviors we are teaching will serve as building blocks for future concepts or skills.

Building the balance loop

The second half of Alexandra’s presentation focused on what she calls the balance loop. Alexandra’s training curriculum focuses on creating horses that are balanced both physically and emotionally. However, in order to create balanced horses, trainers must be aware of the effect that their own balance will have on the horse. Awareness of balance and subtle training details will help you teach what you really want to teach.

Before discussing the different parts of the balance loop, Alexandra threw out a handful of questions that horse trainers should carefully consider.

Why do different people, following the same training instructions, get different results with their horses? Do you know what good balance feels like? Are you aware of what you are doing and the effect it will have on your learner? Is your handling supporting or undermining your training goals? Can you make adjustments when needed? Does your handling help you progress to the next step in the training?

Pretty deep questions! However, all of these questions can be addressed through what Alexandra calls the balance loop. The different parts of the balance loop help a trainer evaluate how her balance and cues are influencing her training.

The balance loop

Aware: At the beginning, a trainer must start by being aware of both her balance and her animal’s balance. Balance is especially important for horse training, since we ride our horses. An unbalanced horse will be much more likely to be injured or physically stressed from riding. As well, a horse will be quite uncomfortable and possibly even injured if the horse must carry a rider who has poor balance.

Balance: Once a trainer is aware of balance, she can start exploring how to change or improve her balance or her animal’s balance. If you want your horse to be balanced (especially during riding), you must first find your own balance. During this part of the lecture, Alexandra had everyone at the conference stand up and do a few exercises related to finding correct balance and posture.

Support: For this part of the balance loop, a trainer must evaluate whether her handling is supporting or undermining her long-term training goals. This goes back to awareness, in that a trainer must be aware of what she is doing and the effect it will have on the animal. Alexandra showed several video clips of a trainer feeding her horse after the click. The trainer’s balance, posture, and position had a big impact on the horse’s balance and equilibrium.

Adjust: Once a trainer is aware of balance and has assessed how her training is supporting or undermining balance, it is time to begin making adjustments. This is the place to begin deliberately making changes and then evaluating how they impact the horse’s balance, your balance, and your training as a whole.

Repeatability: This part of the balance loop, at first, seems simple. Repeatability simply refers to whether a trainer is aware of what she just did and can duplicate it. Alexandra told a story about taking photos for her first clicker training book. Because she wanted step-by-step photos, she often had to ask the trainers who were helping her to repeat what they just did, so that she could get enough photos. However, even for seemingly “simple” training tasks, many people have difficulty remembering exactly what they just did and then have even more difficulty as they try to repeat it.

Look ahead: This is the time for the trainer to assess her current training program and plan for the future. A good training program will be designed so that it builds good habits and skills in the handler, while, at the same time, teaching new behaviors and skills to the learner. Building complex skills and behaviors always begins with putting together basic component skills and building blocks.

Aware: Now, the trainer is back at the beginning of the balance loop, awareness. Alexandra discussed how two trainers, given the same set of instructions, often end up with very different results. The difference often depends on the trainers’ balance and awareness of training details. To train horses who are both physically and emotionally balanced, a trainer must be aware of her own balance and the effect it has on the horse.

Returning to the story of Clever Hans from the beginning of the lecture, Alexandra reminded the audience that what a trainer thinks is happening may not be what is actually going on. Alexandra likes to say “Go to people for opinions, horses for answers.” The framework of the balance loop can be used to ask questions to assess and evaluate your training. The answers from your horse when you ask these questions can be used to help you refine your training program to create a happy horse that is both physically and emotionally balanced.

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