This post is part of a series of several posts on cues.
I recently watched one of Alexandra Kurland’s DVDs, Overcoming Fear and the Power of Cues. It was a fascinating look at positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, desensitization, fear and cues.
Muska’s fear of saddles.
The DVD features a lesson with a horse named Muska, her owners, and Alexandra Kurland. Alexandra offers thoughts and tips to both the owners and the audience throughout the DVD. The horse, Muska, is an Icelandic mare who is terrified of being saddled. Through the DVD we watch Alexandra and then the horse’s owners work with the mare as they help her overcome her fear.
The saddle starts as a cue for Muska to move away and evolves throughout the session to become a cue for head lowering and standing in place.
Using positive reinforcement during desensitization.
Usually, during desensitization procedures, we gradually introduce the animal to the scary thing a little bit at a time, rewarding the animal for standing calmly (or some other criteria). Alexandra Kurland takes this one step further and lets Muska actively be involved in the desensitization process.
Alexandra presents the saddle at (or just above) Muska’s threshold. Then, she gives the cue for head lowering. When Muska lowers her head, she gets a click, a treat, and the saddle is removed. This lets Muska become much more active in the desensitization process by giving her control over the saddle. By lowering her head, she can make the saddle go away. Also, Alexandra has more information about Muska’s comfort level by watching how she responds to the head lowering cue. Gradually, Alexandra gets where she can move the saddle closer and closer to Muska’s back, finally placing it on her back.
Improving timing and cues.
In the second part of the DVD, Alexandra gives suggestions and advice while Muska’s owner works with her on saddling. There’s a lot for the owner to think about–the saddle, the head lowering cue, holding the rope, the clicker, treat delivery and watching the body language of the horse! Alexandra offers him good advice about timing, mechanical skills, and how to make the session flow smoothly. I found this part great, as she touches on some common problems people run into with clicker training.
One of the big problems people make when training is by lumping everything together. Instead, this DVD is a great example of splitting behavior down into tiny chunks when training. When we do this, the animal is able to remain successful a larger amount of time and we can often progress a lot faster.
Even if your horse doesn’t have problems being saddled (or even if you don’t even have a horse!) this is a great DVD for learning about training behaviors in small chunks, reading body language of the animal, dealing with fearful animals and learning to use cues successfully.