40. When a cue is not a cue

Blog 40 – “When a cue is not a cue”

When a horse is relaxed in its environment it will be aware of but not hyper-vigilant about its surroundings, graze contentedly and much of the time its head will be lowered, muzzle touching the ground.  

Less relaxed horses might snatch at their grass or hay, repeatedly lifting their head to scan the environment, they might panic, spook and take flight.  

Even relaxed, happy horses will react to environmentally factors, especially if others within the herd do so too, but those with the highest tolerance for stress will be amongst the first settle down again.  

I consider it important that horses have the space and therefore the option to run and move freely in their environment and those that do not, in my opinion, maybe the most stressed of all.  (I refer you back to the “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” book mentioned in my last blog).

While I am happy for my horses to run in the paddock I want them to spend the vast majority of their time not doing so.  

I also need to teach my horses that the “flight response” is not conducive to a happy, safe riding experience.  

Lola’s flight response was hair-trigger, she is powerful and had learned that this was the best way dealing with anything that bothered her.  

Alex Kurland has Head Lowering as one of her Foundation Lessons and it might be described as the “cue to calm down”.  (Please visit her website to find out about her series of dvd’s which go into far greater detail that I will be able to here.)

Head lowering will not be effective if you put your horse into a stressful environment or wait for the horse to become stressed before you cue it.  This will only serve to make it very challenging for the horse to respond to your cue and will create confusion and conflict in the horse.  It is essential to train head lowering in an environment and at a time in which the horse is already calm and put it on a high rate of reinforcement, gradually decreasing the height of the horse’s head and then building duration.  Lola was at her most relaxed in a paddock, so that’s where she learned to head-lower.  Once learned there within her sessions in the arena I would cue her to lower her head before she became stressed, topping up her level of calmness throughout.

The next step in Lola’s development was that she would frequently offer to lower her head without me having cued it which told me three main things -
1.  Lola is highly reinforced by head lowering.
2.  I didn’t really have head lowering on a cue.  She was head lowering when I cued it but she was also doing it when I did not.  (An analogy might be an actor not waiting for their cue to enter a scene.)
3.  She was showing me that being calm was a more desirable to her than being stressed.
From this I concluded that
1.     Just as I might use “Stand on a mat” (another of Alex’s Foundation Lessons) or play chase with Filly as a reward, I can use head lowering as one of Lola’s reinforcers.
2.    Even if I had not cued it I did not want to stop Lola from doing what she felt like she needed to do so I did not correct her or ask her to do something else instead, I simply allowed it to happen but only reinforced her (with a *click and treat) for the head lowering that I had cued.  Now she only head lowers when I cue it and I have more than one cue for her to lower her head.  When I teach a horse something new I use only one cue, (Please note, a cue can only be used once thing that you are teaching is already being performed by the learner.) then I might teach the horse different cues for the same behaviours.  One cue could be verbal, another could be a rein /rope cue from the bridle or head collar, and another might be a body language cue - horses can become multi-lingual.
3.    Lola can make choices about the emotional state that she would prefer to exist in, Naudi Augilar of F.P. might say, Lola has learned to “live intentionally, not habitually.”

*Although referring to clicker training throughout this blog I do not actually use a hand-held clicker, I want my hands free for other tasks so I use a tongue click instead.  Visit here for course details.

Next time "Watch, Listen, Learn"

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