Lessons with Lukas, the World’s Smartest Horse: Basics
What would you say if I told you that everybody’s a trainer? That’s right; everyone you see and meet is training either themselves or others every waking moment, even if just to maintain a habit of some sort. Let’s look at this closer. I’ll use myself as an example, since I’m sure none of you would do these things. For instance, I might hit the snooze button a few too many times if I stayed up late the night before, and grab a doughnut going out the door if I don’t have time for a regular breakfast. Coming home I might let my therapy dog, Wendel, jump on me if I’m not paying attention, or perhaps forget to acknowledge a thoughtful gesture by my husband, Doug, if I’m distracted. And so on. All of these incidents are either reinforcing or eliminating what we and others do, and what we repeatedly do creates what we and others become.
You’ve heard of self-fulfilling prophecies? We determine our world and what’s in it, for the most part. Some of you might be thinking right about now – this is really woo-woo, out there, might work for animals, but I’m above any sort of conditioning like that. As a psychiatric nurse for the last 25 years, I can assure you that not only does this system work on people; it can produce immediate, lasting and beneficial effects without others even realizing their involvement! In this article series, you’ll be learning more about this process. For now, I just want you to begin to consider how far-reaching and powerful our influence can be, not only for others, but especially for ourselves.
In my work as a psychiatric nurse on acute-care, locked-down units, I’ve certainly witnessed some dramatic events. I’ve watched as small issues, which should have blown over, turn into huge crises with unfortunate outcomes: unnecessary violence, injuries and over-medicating and often a worsened situation. On the other hand, a few select staff could turn around even the most desperate circumstances almost single-handedly. Early on I saw the advantages of eliciting cooperation in a kind manner, using gentle and fair methods. I also became more aware of the effects my body position, gestures, voice, eye contact and attitude had on outcomes. Allowing choices, maintaining dignity and promoting positive results increasingly became a part of my repertoire.
Together, through these articles, we’ll be reviewing the techniques and how to blend them to magnify results. Additionally, you’ll discover ways to refine these techniques for advanced lessons. You’ll also learn principles I’ve found helpful. Keep in mind that this system, as with all approaches, should be tailored to fit the individual learner’s needs. There are no rigid formulas or recipes, and viewing difficulties and obstacles as ways to grow and improve will keep our training fun and fresh. Being open to possibilities has enabled me to learn much more from animals than I’ll ever be able to teach them!
My program has three main parts: Shaping, Clicker Training and Positive Reinforcement. Shaping is the overall process, the basic foundation; the tools are your click, an indicator that the desired behavior has occurred, and positive reinforcement, which energizes your methods. I was impressed with the effectiveness of clicker training when it came out years ago, but there were several disadvantages as far as I was concerned: I didn’t want to carry anything around in my hands, it wasn’t conducive to riding (horses), and there always seemed to be a time lapse between the response and click, from what I could see. So instead, I substituted sounds – words and whistles – for my click. Be aware that you’ll need to pair the click of your choice with primary reinforcement – food usually – so the animal learns to work for your click. And the click promises food, so be careful what you choose.
If you repeatedly, accidentally click and say “Good” for example, and no food is forthcoming, you’re weakening the link and lessening the student’s motivation.
Shaping is a way for me to introduce a behavior in a gentle and subtle manner. It teaches small behaviors by growing and connecting them. In order to shape a behavior, I have 2 choices: I can create it and/or capture it. Think about this: not only am I cueing my horse Lukas (the World’s Smartest Horse according to the World Records Academy and Guinness World Record Holder: “Most numbers identified by a horse in one minute: 19”) for expected responses, I’m also always watching and looking for things I might want to use and save for later. This doubles your training potential and is very powerful tool. Creating and capturing resemble a steep staircase – the trials and attempts are the flat steps and as the horse catches onto the game, learning rises sharply. In the next article (Liberty) you’ll discover the secret key element in putting these strategies to work for you.