Big Balou starts his positive reinforcement journey!
One of the horses we have at Lincourt is a huge (and at +17HH I mean huge!) beautiful black Percheron x TB gelding called Balou. He’s the perfect picture, with a gleaming black glossy coat, big, bright black eyes and waves of flowing mane. He’s talented too. Balou’s special power is vaulting and he has been to many competitions with the vaulting teams based at the Paddock Riding Club. To ride he has a smooth balanced canter thanks to spending so long on the lunge teaching small people how to vault.
On the ground Balou is big and he knows it. Walking down the barn aisle is like a tempting equine buffet and if you are not on your toes about who is in charge you end up with Balou stood on yours as he samples hay from outside one stall to the next. Saddling Balou involves a lot of soggy clothing as he spends his time trying to chew (he doesn’t bite but he does like to put everything in his mouth) anything that comes within range. Balou has a heart of gold and a tummy that needs constantly fed.
In order to help Balou understand that not all the food in the world is always meant for him we decided he might be a great candidate for starting positive reinforcement.
We are starting right at the beginning with Balou which is great for me as I get to learn the process right from the start too. I’m very lucky that Balou’s owner, Verna, is happy to let us learn the process under the experienced eye of Patricia. The idea is that if we all learn together, me, Verna, Balou, then we can all be consistent and understand what the ‘rules’ of the training are, which will make things easier for Balou.
Stage one is getting Balou to understand ‘the power of the click’, I am sure this is not a technical term but the idea is that he associates the ‘click’ of the clicker (this could also be a word or a sound) as a marker for something that he has done correctly and is therefore rewarded. So at its most basic; the horse performs the behaviour that we desire, the behaviour is marked with a sound and then the behaviour is rewarded. And repeat. With a horse like Balou who is very food conscious, short, positive but frequently repeated practice we think is probably the best approach. We don’t want to confuse Balou and the concept is completely new to him (and pretty new to me) so to start with any sign of him making the right decision, in this instance turning his head or moving away from me, will be clicked and rewarded. We want him to understand that correct behaviour means reward rather than him being told off for getting too close or trying to eat your pockets.
A quick note on the food. I have come from a very traditional background where feeding tidbits is not approved of and this was engrained in me. One of my ponies was very food possessive and would get quite aggressive if he thought you had treats and didn’t give them to him, so I never gave them to him. With positive reinforcement I am understanding that the food is a reward not a treat and this makes a difference, the horse understand that if they behave in the desired fashion they are rewarded with a small piece of food, so they want to behave correctly so they are rewarded more.
Choosing the right food is important, you want to have something low calorie that you can feed a lot of and carry enough of without worrying about over feeding. With Balou we are using alfalfa cubes to ensure he has something he needs to chew properly and they are big enough that he can find them from the floor, we are not hand feeding to start with until Balou gets the idea to take food gently.
The concept of positive reinforcement depends a lot on the horse thinking for itself which is a fascinating process, Balou needs to work out what the behaviour is we are looking for and this requires experimenting. It also requires patience from the handler and thinking in advance about how to set the scenario up to ensure that the horse has the best chance to succeed. With Balou we decided this should be in ‘protective contact’ ie the food should not be on my person until Balou gets the idea that he needs to not mug people. The behaviour we want is for Balou to look or move away from me to receive the food NOT that I have food and therefore he can try and get the food from me. Setting the scenario up is important because we don’t want to get into a situation where he gets anxious or emotional, we want the experience to be positive for everyone involved.
In our initial session I stood in the stall with the clicker and Patricia stood outside the stall with the food, this meant Balou had to understand that by displaying the right behaviour towards me ie turning his head away from me and not eating me he was clicked and the food miraculously appeared in his stall. To start with we have a policy of high reward, so for every small movement of his head away from me he was clicked and rewarded, more than we will in the future when we want to stretch the criteria and feed less frequently. To start with getting the idea registered with Balou is important. The next session I stood outside the stable with the food and clicked and rewarded from there, the moment Balou stepped away or turned his head away from I clicked and gave him a reward. I have to be very observant and quick with my timings, if he even turns a fraction I reward, because he needs to understand this is the desired behaviour. We’ve kept the sessions short and positive and will keep doing this until Balou links the clicker with the food. We will take this slowly and step by step so that Balou has the chance to understand what each of the behaviours are that we want him to display. So far, he seems to be getting the game and moving his head away more frequently and more quickly. We will let you know how this progresses as we continue working with Balou on his new superpower!
If you are interested in finding out more about training, especially in positive reinforcement methods please contact us.