Grown-ups and initial training environments

Apollo and I have been working on Alexandra Kurland’s “the grown-ups are talking” exercise. This is a polite manners exercise that teaches the horse to stand calmly next to you for an extended duration of time with his head straight ahead.

One important consideration when we first started this exercise was our training environment. When training a new behavior, trainers often focus all of their attention on the behavior. However, selecting or arranging an ideal training environment is also a very important step and can greatly expedite your training. 

Depending on the weather, the time of day, and what else is happening at the barn, I have three main places where we often do our clicker training sessions – the barn aisle, a small pen behind the barn, and the arena. 

When we first started working on the grown-ups exercise, we tried it briefly in all three places. However, the barn aisle sometimes has the sights and sounds of other people and horses. The arena has its own set of distractions, and Apollo is still not always completely comfortable there.

The additional distractions in these two environments meant that Apollo’s head was sometimes higher than normal, and he would also sometimes turn his head and orient to strange sounds or other distractions.

So, I made the decision to do all of our teaching sessions for the grown-ups are talking exercise in the small pen behind the barn. With this behavior in particular, I wanted to make sure Apollo was calm and relaxed during the initial training. He is very happy and comfortable here because this is where I normally feed him. There are also minimal distractions in this environment, compared to the other two places.

I could have continued practicing in the more distracting environments and just focused on reinforcing the behavior I liked. The potential problem is that unwanted behaviors and the accompanying emotional state could become linked to the grown-ups are talking behavior. Then, I would have had to spend extra time later on trying to clean up the behavior. 

The safer strategy was to train the grown-ups are talking behavior in the small pen where I know Apollo is almost always relaxed, calm, and focused. This made it much easier to get the exact behavior I wanted. Then, once we get a strong behavior with a bit of duration in this first environment, we can start to practice the behavior in other slightly more challenging environments. 

And, we have already started this process. It has been cold and muddy this week. So, we have been doing some of our clicker training sessions in the barn aisle when there are not too many other people around. The one adjustment I have made is that at each repetition, I am asking for a smaller duration of time. As we practice more in the barn, I will gradually increase the time until it matches the duration that we currently practice in the small pen. 

I will write more later as we continue working on this behavior. 

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