Heather, a petite silvery blonde eleven-year-old, walked down the hill towards the arena leading Tritan, her Icelandic Horse.
Her announcement was clear, confident, and matter of fact: I'm going to teach Tritan to lay down today.
That may have come as a surprise to some, but not to those who know this young horse trainer who has a natural knack for communicating with a horse.
Game plan prepared ahead of time, she wore and carried the tools of the trade: helmet, clicker, treats. She did not forget one of the most important tools in horse training: patience. She was well prepared.
Heather is experienced in clicker training, as is her horse, Tritan. Clicker training refers to a new method of teaching behavior using a "yes" signal or conditioned reinforcer, to tell the horse precisely when it has done something right. The "click" in clicker training refers to a small plastic noise maker, similar to a child's toy cricket.
Clicker training allows a trainer to shape behaviors and / or performance exclusively with positive reinforcement. In shaping you take a small tendency to perform in a desired way, and by reinforcing that behavior you gradually shift it towards a more complex behavior.
The clicker is also a BRIDGING signal. It links a desired behavior to a reward. It says "yes! that's exactly the behavior I wanted. Now I'm going to give you a reward." The reward is the reinforcer to the "yes" signal.
Clicker training is a relaxing method of training, and learning happens faster and easier when the student is relaxed.
First step: wet the horse to encourage the natural reaction of laying down to roll when wet.
After hosing is completed, it's time to sit and wait to capture and reward the desired behavior.
There were a few distractions, lessons in the round pen, dogs playing, and big sister Amber occasionally riding by.
Patience is a virtue, they say. Just wait... it'll happen. It'll be natural. No force.
Ho-Hum. This is boring.
Tritan starts to paw the ground, an indication that he's thinking of going down.
He moves off a little and paws again. Heather has the clicker ready. Her patience in this endeavor is enviable.
He turns and starts folding in front. Heather has the clicker ready to give the "yes!" signal.
He's down! Click! Heather quickly reaches for the treats.
He hears the click and jumps up. His thoughts are: What? What did I do? I didn't know we were playing the clicker game.
Now, he knows. He continues offering the behavior to keep the vending machine (Heather) pumping out treats. In effect, HE is choosing to play the clicker game.
And, as with any good horse trainer, she breaks no promise to her horse. He offers the behavior, he gets a click, and treat. The next step will be to add a cue. Once the behavior is on cue, he will only be rewarded for the behavior when asked for it. Any attempts to offer the behavior without the cue will be ignored which will lead to un-cued attempts being extinguished.
Just a little patience, a child, and a horse.
Heather's next step will be to work on duration. She will not click immediately when Tritan goes down, but withhold the click for a few seconds (progressively more as the process continues) and Tritan will stay down longer as the click ends the behavior.
Heather plans to continue the process to shape "sitting down" which will occur as Tritan starts to get up (by raising his front end and leaving his hindquarters on the ground).