Starting off on the right emotion

Social distancing means that all of the conferences and other events I had planned for this spring and summer have been cancelled. However, the conversations are still continuing virtually!

If you’d like to listen in on some of these conversations, you can listen to the Drinking from the Toilet episode about shaping that I did at the very end of April with Hannah Branigan.

I’ve also made an appearance on the last several episodes of the Equiosity podcast. I’ve already written about the movement cycle episode and the episode in which we discuss emotions.

In the latest episode, Alexandra Kurland, Cindy Martin and I chat about PORTL. (You can listen to the episode here.) We recorded this conversation last April at Alexandra’s spring clinic at Cindy’s ranch.

The episode begins with a discussion about PORTL. PORTL is a tabletop game that helps you improve your teaching and shaping skills. If you’re new to PORTL, I would highly suggest you check out the “What is PORTL?” page on the Behavior Explorer website. You also may be interested in watching the errorless conditional chain video that Alexandra mentions in the podcast episode.

Alexandra, Cindy, and I talk about writing shaping plans in PORTL, which leads to a discussion about component skills. Whenever you are training any behavior, there are a series of component skills that the horse needs to know and that the human needs to know. When components are missing, it often leads to errors and frustration.

Component skills led us to more discussion about emotions. In the podcast, we discuss two horses that attended the clinic. The horses came together from the same barn, and neither horse had ever been to Cindy’s ranch before. At the beginning of the weekend, both horses were a little unsettled, as horses often are in new environments.

On the first day of the clinic, the decision was made to work with both of these horses in their stalls using protective contact. The idea was to provide a safe environment for the horses and humans and to allow the horses to begin working on some foundational behaviors using clicker training.

However, this was too much for the horses! The stalls in Cindy’s barn have solid walls, and the horses could not see each other. Each horse was somewhat interested in the training, but it was clear that they were also quite anxious and unhappy about being separated.

So, the decision was quickly made to go around to the other side of the barn where each stall had a small, attached pen built from metal corral panels. Once the horses could see each other, they both were able to relax and participate more fully in the training.

Horse clicker training clinic - The barn

We mention this story in the podcast, and it has several good lessons.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make during training is picking a starting point and then sticking with that starting point. Instead, pick a starting point. Next, do just a little bit of training. Then, reevaluate your starting point. More often than not, you’ll find there are adjustments you can make.

These adjustments could include changing your criteria for reinforcement so that it is easier for the animal to succeed. You may also need to change things in the training environment so that it is easier for the animal to focus and relax.

Alternatively, you may realize that your animal can easily do what you are asking. In this case, it was good to try this starting point, but now you can go ahead and proceed to the next step.

The example of the two horses at the clinic was also an interesting one from the perspective of emotions. I often see videos online in which the trainer has picked a starting point that is basically okay, but the animal is still showing signs of hesitation, uncertainty, or fear. The signs are small, but they are there.

However, the trainer continues with this starting point because she feels that the animal’s performance is good enough and that with lots of positive reinforcement, things will gradually get better, and the animal’s emotional state will improve. Sometimes this does happen.

What can also happen, though, is that the animal gradually becomes more tolerant of whatever was making him uncomfortable, but still, at some level, remains somewhat fearful or uncertain.

Of course, there are lots of factors that determine whether you end up with a happy, relaxed horse or a tolerant, but still somewhat worried horse. But, I think the starting point contributes a lot more than people realize.

If you start at a point where your horse is calm and comfortable, it will be much easier to continue with this! If you start at a point where the horse is unsure, you’re at a disadvantage from the beginning.

So, if your horse seems worried, hesitant, or unhappy, change something. This may mean going back several steps in your training program, moving to a different setting, getting someone to help you, or any other number of things. Find a new starting point where the horse is truly comfortable and where you like the emotional behaviors you are seeing.

Sometimes, this seems discouraging because it feels like you are starting with something that seems SO little. You may think to yourself, “How will I ever be able to ride my horse if I can’t even take him out of his stall?!”

However, training proceeds faster (and sometimes much, much faster) when you find the ideal starting point that produces the behaviors and emotions you are after. Then, you can build on these behaviors and advance through your training program with the emotions you want to be producing.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll probably also enjoy the post I wrote last week about emotions. It discusses emotions versus emotional behavior, whether emotions cause behavior, and how looking for emotional behaviors can help you improve your training.

Spanish translation: This post is available in Spanish at edogtorial. Thank you Nuria Frances for the translation!

Also, don’t forget! Alexandra Kurland, Dominique Day, and I have just released our new online course. If you have enjoyed the posts and podcast episodes I have been sharing recently, you will definitely enjoy the course.

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