Expanding my understanding of cues

 

Back in 2007 I decided to take on a big challenge and develop a freestyle dance routine with 2 miniature horses, to be performed live at a local horse show.  The process challenged my understanding of cues, cue control (stimulus control), behavior chains and performance at liberty. From time to time I would like to share some training strategies learned from the process with the hopes that you can apply some of the concepts to your own training. I hope you all see that the concepts are universal and apply to all horses. Do not be misled into thinking “Well that only works with minis.”

During the actual live performance, the horses were not completely at liberty in that I placed is very small one foot high barrier of a single white PVC pipes stretched between low uprights; the horses could have jumped them at any point during the routine. This factor added some security, but the behaviors and the reinforcement history of those behaviors was the glue that held the routine together.

McKee was only 3 years old at the time, Handsome was 4, and you’ll remember that they both had behavioral issues when they came to me.

The project was a big stretch for me and it really brought up some interesting training challenges. For example, in the routine McKee had several behaviors that involved doing something with his mouth. He had to bite the corner of a blanket and pull it off of me, he had to bite a handle of a coffee cup and throw it in a trash can, and he also had to retrieve a small feed tub from the ground and hand to me several times in a row. The tricky part was helping him understand which behavior to do when.

You see, most people, including myself, would think that an animal could easily differentiate between items and tasks, and automatically learn the subtle nuances, but that was a lot to assume on my part.

So during the training, after I shaped each mouth oriented behavior, we went through a phase where McKee offered to do every single behavior with every single item; it looked like a three ringed circus. I consulted Ken Ramirez. The advice included training each behavior in a separate location, at a different time of day., then slowly integrating them into the routine both in time of day and location. Who knew? Simple, yet complex in terms of training strategies.

After we had performed the routine, I filmed it at home. The following link takes you to the video so you can see the behaviors I described. More installments to follow. Enjoy.

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