Training should be fun, for everyone, even when we want serious results.
I find it hard to have fun if the people, or animals around me, are not having fun. That’s an easy statement to make, but what does it really mean for everyone to have fun. When I started learning about training I was told; just because you are training with positive reinforcement does not mean the learner is having fun. Until more recently what that has primarily meant to me is that I need to examine my reinforcers to make sure they are actually positive reinforcers at that moment in time.
To help decide what reinforcers might work the first thing I have to do is ask what my learner wants and compare that to what I want. If there is a mismatch then there may be conflict, if they match then all will be well. So straight away I may need to examine what I want in relation to what my learner would like.
Then we need to look at the reinforcer. I have a sweet tooth to day and I’m happy with chocolate cake for doing some chores, but what happens when I have had my fill of cake. I have e.g. washed all the dishes I could see and was reinforced with cake. If more dishes are produced and need to be washed cake might not work any more as a positive reinforcer. Its no longer a positive reinforcer (the learner is satiated).
But what about the thing/behaviour I am being asked to do. What if I really dislike doing the dishes more than I like chocolate cake?! All of a sudden its not just about the reinforcer being used, its about the balance of like versus dislike. I may want chocolate cake so I am willing to wash up my own dishes, but once I have done that and had a small piece of cake I am not willing to wash any more dishes. I like chocolate cake, but I dislike washing dishes more. Its not an equal comparison and so when we ask our horses to do something they don’t like, they may well do it because they really want what is in our pockets, but they quickly tire of it and walk away.
What if we find something the horses love to do in return for something that is not that high value? Now the balance is in the other direction and training gets quite interesting as we now have a learner who is motivated by the behaviour rather than the reinforcer.
That is all good and well, if the learner wants to do something that is going to add to the end goal we
have for training. And this is where getting creative comes in to play. New shavings day at my barn is a very fun training opportunity. Positive reinforcers from me are an added bonus when its new shavings day!
Brody loves to stand on pedestals. My problem is keeping him off them, not getting him on them. With the shavings bales able to re-shape and move, and roll over, this can make for interesting times, and it may even seem dangerous. Instead I see it as a wonderful opportunity for us to look more closely at balance through core muscle strength. Brody has to work out how to balance his front feet on the bale to make sure he does not fall off or tip the bale over.
He’s on the bale, now what? While on the ground we have been working on the lateral movements. They didn’t come easily to Brody, he is short coupled and has a cob build. But through microshaping and slowly building strength he is able to do all of the classical lateral movements with ease. We then moved on to piaffe, which required all that core strength, and more. And now back to the pedestal. While on his pedestal I started to ask if Brody could lift a back leg. He thought long and hard and popped a back foot off the ground for a split second. Then he offered it again, and again. From there, we have built many exercises on the pedestal. Some of them are very yard, but because he gets to stand on a pedestal to do them he is willing to give many more movements a try, all adding to his core strength.
Each new shavings day is a fresh opportunity to build on what he is able to do on the flat. On one occasion when I brought in the shavings bale he popped up and immediately offered, not just a back foot off the ground, but a diagonal pair. He was taking what he was learning on the flat and offering it in new situations (a form of proofing behaviour (not generalisation)). The result is that he continues to build core strength with each new shavings day and he enjoys it so much that he takes his prior learning and brings it to a game he loves.
The benefit for both of us is that he builds more core strength and brings that back to the flat work where he suddenly can offer more with ease, and then flat work becomes a more fun filled behaviour.
Finding creative ways to engage our horses so that everyone is having fun is so important.