Dead trees, one foot in a bucket, and other ways to be creative

Apollo and I have been looking for some new challenges. So, I’ve been trying an activity that we discuss in the “Creativity” episode of our new Listen and Learn online course.

In the episode on creativity, Alexandra discusses a simple strategy for helping yourself be more creative. Put some new stuff in your arena or training area. This could be everyday items your horse is used to seeing, but that you don’t normally use as part of your training. Or, it could be interesting, new items. 

So, when I am training with Apollo, I’ve started looking for objects that I normally ignore. Then, I’m trying to think of ways that we can incorporate some of these items into our training. 

For example, we’ve had fun recently with a large, dead tree trunk in the middle of the pasture. The trunk lies on its side and is probably around 15 feet long. 

Now that I am thinking about it as a training toy, it offers endless possibilities. It can be something for Apollo to target. Or, I can stand on it and ask Apollo to line up, as if it were a mounting block. Alternatively, I can walk along one side of it and use a target to get Apollo to follow along, while he stays on the other side of it. 

We also have experimented with using an old rubber feed pan as a foot target. The first day we tried this, Apollo was pretty sure that his foot was NOT supposed to go in the pan. 

He would walk over it, or beside it, or stop with his foot just an inch or two away from it. Eventually, he put his foot in it, but it took some patience on my part and some maneuvering back and forth before we were successful. 

The second day we tried this, however, I just had to ask him to reposition his foot several times before his foot was right in the center of the pan. We repeated this a few more times with faster success each time. He clearly had figured out the new game and was enjoying it. 

Apollo stands with his foot in a feed pan. This is a behavior we have been working on using clicker training.

These are just a few examples of the fun we have been having recently as we take behaviors Apollo knows well and figure out how to practice them in new situations.

I often hear trainers say that they want to be more creative or that they want to be better problem solvers. The problem, however, is that people are often looking for giant problems to solve, which can just lead to frustration. 

I think the big key to being more creative is to start small. Start with little training challenges and problems in which you and your animal can both be successful. Start by noticing and celebrating even very small acts of creativity, such as using a feed pan as a foot target.

Here’s how you can try this

If you want to give this a try, start by brainstorming at least half a dozen behaviors your animal already knows well. Next, find several objects that you wouldn’t normally use as part of your training. Stick with objects that your animal won’t be afraid of. 

Then, see if you can figure out some new combinations. How can you use one of these objects to practice one of the behaviors from your brainstorming list? 

As you practice, remember to look for and reinforce small steps toward your goal. Similar to Apollo and the feed pan, your animal may be a little confused or unsure at first. So, don’t be greedy and wait for the full behavior. Instead, click and give your animal a treat when your animal offers approximations.

As well, your animal may come up with something clever that you hadn’t thought about. If so, you can reinforce and capture this new behavior, if you want!

I encourage you to give this a try. After you do, let me know how it goes.

Want to learn more about creativity? Here are two more blog posts that you will enjoy. This blog post has my notes from a talk by Terry Ryan about lateral thinking, and this blog post has my notes from a talk by Dr. Robert Epstein about teaching novel and creative behaviors. 

And a reminder! Don’t forget about our new Listen and Learn online course about applied behavior analysis. Learn more here.

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