drowning in attention

This post follows on from the previous where I talked about attention conflict when training.

attention conflict

The struggle to keep attention is just one end of a broad spectrum. Those starting out with liberty work are often eager for attention from their horse but what about the possibility of too much attention? I experienced this with Moralejo when we first started positive reinforcement and I’ve experienced it with new clients.

Balance is the buzz word in everything these days but balance in terms of attention can be tricky. Not least because we humans all see things differently. How might I define balance in terms of the horse’s attention towards me? Is the perfect scenario 100% calm attention, 100% of the time, focused on me? Then the fully flawed version would be 0% attention, 0% of the time! Reality, depending on external distractions, somewhere between the two.Try giving one thing your absolute attention even for one minute, not taking your mind off that one thing. It isn’t easy without training or something exceptionally engaging to put your mind to. Luckily horses, like us, seem to manage multitasking to a degree.

The use of positive reinforcement can get a bad press in terms of over attention but is it the method or the application that fails? Haters really hate food rewarding. Most haters I meet will attach some scientific reason to their dislike but I also think there is an element of genuine concern about working with food and the stress element. If you take any training to it’s empirical formula then an element of bribery, influence or coercion is likely to be present. It works for us humans so why not for animals. The concept of an animal ‘working’ of its own free will is a great one but I don’t think they are that unlike us (excuse the anthropomorphism but I don’t feel it sits too uncomfortably here) and free will is more likely governed by complex interior and exterior controls. Of course natural play type behaviours can be spotted everywhere and sometimes pre-learned behaviours will enter that domain; it might almost appear that your horse is practising his moves ready for your next session. Personally I believe it is not only possible to use food rewards in training but to do so without causing stress.

Some horses are very motivated by food and some less so. If a horse has a poor history around food, or lack of, they need much more work in terms of food delivery and being calm around it. Perhaps more importantly we humans need to learn to work with food. Rewarding with food isn’t about pumping as much in or as often as you can (although the conundrum is that it might be at some times for some horses). For this reason I have moved towards scratching as a reward with students new to clicker training. This means we can work on timing and delivery without the extra tension of getting the hand to the food and to the horses mouth. Seemingly innocent things like having a hand in and out the food bag aside from when necessary to reward can tend to become a bit of a nervous ‘tic’ with new students and leads to horses not discerning the true bridging signal.

Timing! Well as with all horse training timing is crucial and removing food from the initial stages can be helpful for the human. It’s still positive reinforcement but without the potential of souring the relationship as the human gets to grip with the clicker and the sense of timing. The timing of moving on is also crucial; when to stop rewarding and accept that things are on cue. Non-clicker folks watching me train are somewhat puzzled when I’m not madly clicking at every step in every session. Hey, behaviour grows and our expectations should too!

Writing this post is  highlighting lots more potential problem areas that might affect attention- saliency of rewards,  context, reward schedules, ignoring the bad stuff…and so on. You then start to understand how easy it is to make mistakes at the beginning. The lovely behaviours come thick and fast but the calm button can remain hidden; over attention is your reward! When you really get to grips with clicker work you learn to keep everything pretty much below threshold but the damage has probably been done in those early stages. I’ll consider some of these in more depth in future posts along with thoughts on how to both gain attention and avoid over attention.

Too much attention is not always desirable, dealing with it post-training isn’t perfect either but is often necessary. The answer? Well try not to make too many mistakes as you go; take it slowly and understand what you’re working towards as this will help you develop and relinquish as you go. If you are new to clicker training then try starting with scratches until you see the effect of this style of training. Practice lots. Sign up with a great trainer who has lots of background across training methods and understands the link between methods and how to blend different training to individual horses. Understanding your horse is the key to any training system you use, everything they offer us is feedback.

I sometimes read how fast clicker is but I don’t think that sums it up correctly at all. Yes training single behaviours is straight forward but it can be too easy to gloss over the issues. Even at clinics for new students you will see target touching and ‘no mugging’ behaviours looking easy but it’s what comes after that counts. I’ve been called in to help when pockets have been ripped off and horses become snatchy and unhappy- it is not a panacea for the novice trainer.

I sound as if I’m underselling positive reinforcement with food but I’m being honest. It remains the most incredible source of producing behaviours, without force, that I know. It remains a fringe method in relation to mainstream horse training but don’t discount discovering it if you haven’t already.