Attention Balance

I have looked at too much focus and a lack of focus previously and how these extremes of attention manifest themselves in our training but how do we deal with these extremes and can we avoid them? Whilst I’m particularly considering positive reinforcement here I think much of the answer is equally applicable to all training.

I’ve spent the last few weeks working with my own and other’s horses trying to formulate an answer that makes the whole attention scenario simple and easy to understand. I came up with some good anecdotes and real life observations but it is, as so often, simple whilst difficult to elucidate.

The saying goes- garbage in garbage out; if we continue to allow errors of input then we will continue to get results that are unsatisfactory and these may result in over or under attention. I don’t think being error-free is particularly helpful as a goal if it is even possible. I talked before of the pressures of being perfect and it is way too stressful to want to include in any training plan. But being perfect seems to matter and it is something to bear in mind when you watch alluring videos of perfect trainers ‘dancing’ at liberty to romantic music, all the time feeling bloody inadequate yourself; or that just me?

The simple bit first- cut yourself some slack. Every horse trainer/carer is working with different scenarios, knowledge, goals, raw materials etc. Remember too that the days of social media gift us snippets of the lives of others- they are not always wholeheartedly the truth of the situation they are just snippets. Shit happens and as far as I’m aware it happens to all of us whether we are trainers, carers, experienced or inexperienced but the internet isn’t generally for sharing your shit bits it is for showing your best bits! So if your horse left your side and didn’t want to be a spectacular trick horse today, don’t go home and bin the clicker just yet.

So slack cut I’ll continue. Getting behaviour on cue; it’s easy isn’t it?

Well with some behaviours, some horses, in some contexts it’s a doddle. Remember the touching of a target? Simple wasn’t it? But hang on, was it? I’ve seen the joy in a student new to positive reinforcement when that cute nose lands on the target- ‘click’ and it’s captured; job done. I realise I’m over simplifying things here but go and test this for yourself- do you have the touch only on delivering the cue? Does your horse insist on touching the target regardless of being cued or not? Do you have the touch within very different contexts; different places and with different people? Does your horse bite the touch cones every time he passes? If you’re not fully there with your cues don’t go home and bin the clicker just yet, form a strategy to improve things.

Cut some slack, train clear cues…next?

Progress towards the bigger picture. When you start out the whole liberty mission is enticing but make your bigger picture just that- YOURS. Where do you want to be in a few years time? Pootling on Exmoor with picnic and blanket in your saddle bag? Entering liberty agility classes? Training piaffe in-hand? Riding out with friends and having a blast? The goal may change the journey or at least influence it and perhaps help avoid too many dead ends. Don’t be miserly with the end shot; frame it in your mind and then frame the junctions you plan to pass en route before breaking it all down into tiny pieces.

hacking on Exmoor lanes
Exmoor lanes

Cut some slack, clear cues, set the bigger picture then progress towards it with very small steps.

Training can start with many things but one of your greatest tools is your power of observation– nothing is insignificant. Write it down, read it over regularly. Use your observations to create a plan- shape your journey to your end picture and shape your horse’s learning. Look for and record your plan and build it from the tiniest elements possible. Don’t consider inacurate responses as failures just treat them as invaluable feedback and reassess continuously.

Don’t get sucked into a system- there are many out there but you need to develop your own. Take the courses you like the look of, attend the clinics you are attracted to but see it within the framework of you and your horse. If you give up responsibility for your own training you will not progress as a trainer. Of course it’s good to share and learn new things but by adhering to a narrow system that drip feeds information you won’t see YOUR bigger picture.

picture your future
Insert YOUR picture here!

These are all very general concepts:

  • cut yourself some slack
  • create clear cues
  • progress towards YOUR bigger picture
  • observe and hone your observation skills
  • take responsibility

They are not in an order of significance or importance, on any day one may rise to the top of the pile but the biggest problem I perceive is creating clear cues. Many people (and I’ll include me in that) will think they have a behaviour on cue but when we dissect that cue it is rarely what they thought it was. A simple ‘walk on’ may be thought of as being on a vocal cue but then the hand flies forwards the weight shifts onto the forward foot, our intent changes and that’s even before we uttered a word! Be strict and test yourself, video yourself and check just what cues you use and then you might understand the confusion that can so easily arise for your horse.

To create clear cues you need to have a few things to support you, these are in addition to those mentioned above and might include:

  • comprehension of the bridge and reinforcer-do they truly understand the click?
  • clarity set clear criteria, rates and schedules of reinforcement
  • contiguity (closeness of behaviour and consequence; timing)
  • consistency on all levels- timing, accuracy, withdrawing etc
  • context the circumstances or setting
  • observing emotions and keeping below thresholds
  • saliency or attractiveness of rewards
  • thresholds  of time, saliency, distance etc
  • withdrawal or progress the exercise and extend the reinforcer, create ‘chains’ of behaviour
  • food delivery clean, unstressed and consistent

For those of you already embarked on your positive reinforcement training then you will not only understand the above bullet points but you will be able to pick them apart and understand the science within. This post isn’t really for those of you who are hot on the science (except to act as a reminder) but for those starting out who may be overenthusiastic and pressing on too fast like I did, only to have to reverse the slow moving tanker to make amends. If you don’t yet understand these terms then start with my usual recommendation of Karen Pryor’s book Don’t shoot the Dog or try a Google search.

I want to pick out a couple of really important points from the list for you, saliency being one.

Fruit or cake? Not much of a dilemma and for some the cake wins every time. If you want more attention you have to make yourself more interesting to be with than any distractions; be cake not fruit. In the case of most horses your competition for attention might include the smell of another horse, the smell or availability of food (always have hay or something of low value available for them) , noises (sudden (scary) or just interesting), places to roll or scratch, another horse to play with. What one horse finds distracting may not distract another- not all of us would choose cake and even those who love cake may not choose it every day! Reinforcers compete so make yourself competitive by checking your saliency regularly.

carrots and haylage balls

So if you want to sustain attention in your planned learning sessions you have to make yourself more appealing than food, play or companionship with another and less scary than noises and novel events. Easy hey! But of course it isn’t easy even if you have lots of cake and your student loves cake there will be times when attention wanes. That’s why becoming creative in your training is important- cake isn’t enough but it can be the start; solving the problem can also be a powerful stimulator in itself. Introducing play and seeking within your training is another essential element to making yourself attractive and good to be around see more here. Repetitive work on the same behaviour without changing your criterion (the exact snapshot of the behaviour you are looking at- perhaps looking at softness, duration or with a new behaviour just being close to something novel) won’t be stimulating for most horses and understanding when to change your criterion or when not to is essential.  When you have pushed forwards too hard it can turn horses off trying, not extending an exercise can lead to anger and stress as a result.

When we start clicker training it is often so exciting that we get rather carried away. All of a sudden we have the horse’s attention on us and it seems as if we can do no wrong. This is just the time when we can get it wrong and putting it right later can become quite expensive in emotional terms. The good old target comes out and our horse smiles inside as it strides over and gets close. We think we’ve made it- finally found a way of getting the attention we crave. Click-reinforce, click-reinforce it starts to become frenzied and the ability to put behaviours on cue diminishes with each click.

Many will abandon positive reinforcement at this point- for those of you who haven’t, read on.

So it’s becoming obvious that saliency doesn’t exist on its own, it’s best friends are alongside it on that list. Yes we want saliency in our rewards- the best scratch makes your nails bleed, the best food might be carrot or it might be a long chew on a haylage ball but finding the reward that gets the best response is only the very beginning.

Scrunched haylage ball = longer chew and attention
Scrunch yourself a haylage ball

Withdrawal is always a tough decision and especially for the newbie trainer. It should always be based on judgement after considered observation. I have been on the longest withdrawal imaginable with my cocker Coz. Indoors even at a distance our recall has been great since she was a puppy but outdoors with pheasant and other distractions it had been at best sticky. At nearly three years old I began the withdrawal of reinforcement for every recall when in a 10 acre field and we are now varying our schedule of reinforcement and criteria. I have continued to test the waters for withdrawal regularly throughout this period and have changed rewards and added in a ball or tugger (that attractive play thing again) rather than food in some situations, all of which have got me to the place we are today; a solid recall at distance in most contexts (still some work to do then!). But 3 years ago I would never have believed it might take so long and I did at times give up hope; don’t give up! If I had continued with the close up recall without withdrawing and expanding the behaviour I would have a massive attention overload. It has made a difference to the way I see withdrawal for horses and I now believe that it is the canny trainer who can distinguish between the need to withdraw and the need not to. There are mistakes along the way but if you’re struggling for attention don’t be afraid to keep at it- address the saliency and perhaps criteria until you feel safe to withdraw. On the other hand if you have too much attention and it is creating an emotion overload then maybe you didn’t withdraw and extend the behaviour soon enough.

I’ll repeat that as I feel it’s important:

If you’re struggling for attention don’t be afraid to keep at it- address the saliency and perhaps criteria until you feel safe to withdraw and extend. On the other hand if you have too much attention and it is creating an emotion overload then maybe you didn’t withdraw and extend the behaviour soon enough.

If you are unsure if your horse comprehends the bridge then test it. You may be absolutely certain that your ‘new to clicker training’ horse gets the absolute association between the offered behaviour, the bridge (click/whistle/word) and the reward; or you may not. Remove elements of the equation to discover the understanding. Remove the food bag, take your hand from the bag or pocket of food, work in a different area, get someone else to test the training…lots of possibilities but try substituting elements or removing them to discover the true associations in your training.

Keeping below thresholds is discussed much more now than it was when I first started positive reinforcement training. I saw the thresholds and did retreat from them but today I make sure I observe the horse’s emotional response much earlier. That way it is less of a retreat and more of a hesitation in going forwards further. Don’t push the boundaries, don’t test yourself when you are new to this work and certainly don’t push out of your comfort zone or you will most certainly push your horse out of his.

Think of behaviour like juggling jelly….it is constantly moving not neat little blocks that you can perfectly stack. Every question you ask and response you give will become a consequence for your horse and will wobble the jelly.

When you work with positive reinforcement your horse will experience times when you do nothing whilst waiting for the moment you want to reinforce- this can elicit an angry response but may at least confuse him. When we work with negative reinforcement a period when nothing happens becomes synonymous with things being OK, signalling carry on you’re doing good. Think about ways to tell your horse it is doing OK when training with positive reinforcement even something as simple as the way you breathe could become a ‘keep going you’re doing fine’ marker. The clicker doesn’t have to be the only communicator of correctness.

It is also helpful right from day 1 to train a stand down; time when there are no clicks on offer. Remove the rewards or at the very least change something obvious that indicates this. Have a mat or target that they learn is not reinforced, drop your rope to the ground, signal with your hand, let them go to some play things or let them munch on hay but make sure they understand that time out is part of the training; a chance to relax physically and emotionally.

If you got to this point in one sitting- well done! It has taken lots of tweaks and I’m still convinced I could write much more. However I will look at elements of this further at a later time and within my online introduction to clicker training module.

Attention can be won or lost in the blink of an eye. Pay attention to the science but devote yourself to the application after observing your horse and his nuances.

Happy training, Trudi



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