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JO BLOGS: Mind your P’s and Cues – Poisoned Cues

JO BLOGS: Mind your P’s and Cues – Poisoned Cues

Well, Summer is here and the days are now getting shorter, it just seems that we seem to get into the swing of having the sun around and it decides to reduce it’s working hours. Longer days, however, do mean more hours in the day to train, or generally hang out with my horses. Mud and frozen taps seem to be a distant memory for now.

Whichever style of horsemanship you choose, your training might be dotted with landmines that you have never heard of - Poisoned Cues. Since I have been training using positive reinforcement I have become more and more aware of them.

First of all, what is a cue? A cue is a word, a signal, pretty much anything that signifies the start of something or asks an animal for behaviour. A cue can be putting your leg on to ask your horse to move forwards or saying ‘Sit’ to a dog to put its bum on the floor. It can be something that you have trained as in the examples above or something that signifies something about to happen; picking up the lead is a cue for my dog Izzy to do a happy dance because we are off out on a walk.

A poisoned cue occurs when a dog, horse or any animal associates a cue with something unpleasant. Dusting off the cat basket is a cue for my little cat Monty to inflate himself to at least three times the size and prepare himself to vomit and poop in the basket when we are in the car and 3 minutes from the vets.

I first became aware of poisoned cues in 2006 when I adopted a German Shepherd/lab cross rescue dog. She was called ‘Lady’ and had not had the best start in life. It soon became apparent that whenever I used her name, she would become wary, cautious, worried even. Given her history, it was likely that she associated her name being called (or yelled) with something unpleasant happening. I changed her name to Anya and helped her learn that this new sound meant something really good, a treat, a game or a belly rub. In good training, a dog’s name should be used to get it’s attention and feel positive to the dog. It can be easy to use the dog’s name as a telling off - we’ve all done it. I have a cheeky Rhodesian Ridgeback girl called Izzy

‘IZZY! =Stop licking the cat’s bum.. ‘IZZ!’ = Stop rolling in fox/goose/cow poo/dead fish…

I am in no way perfect and caught myself doing it a couple of times yesterday when explaining clicker training to a friend. Izzy was insistent on muscling in on the conversation and insisting that my friend’s face was in need of a tongue bath. I found myself using her name to tell her NO!. I think that these things are good reminders for trainers of all levels

So, why are poisoned cues on my mind so much? Hannah Weston from Connection Training came to my house a couple of years ago to give me a lesson with my horses. I had never had a lesson from someone else based on positive reinforcement before. I had mostly been applying my knowledge of dog training to my horses, learning as I went along. As I was working in isolation at the time, I really wanted to know whether I was on the right lines or not. Happily, for me, Hannah only suggested a few tweaks to my methods. One thing that she did notice, but had somehow completely passed me by was the faces that Missy was pulling when I asked her to walk on when being lunged. I had always been taught that if a horse didn’t move on when asked on the lunge, that it should get a proverbial rocket where the sun doesn’t shine. My particular rocket mostly consisted of me, a sweary small person stepping toward her and gesturing wildly - it usually did the trick and got forward movement.

I am not sure that my horse ever did anything to deserve this display of expletive-peppered flappiness, she didn’t think so either. I also noted tightness in Missy’s lips and nose when I asked her to walk on. ‘Walk on’ was a cue, that for Missy, was absolutely laced with poison. It meant that flappy retribution would likely follow if she didn’t comply. How could I have made my horse so unhappy performing the simple task of moving forward?

I thought back to my rescue dog and decided with Hannah that a new cue and retraining positive associations with moving forward were in order.

As you will see from last month’s blog, both my horses absolute love to go to a target, targets have a real feel-good factor. They have learned to stand at or follow a target calmly for a click and a treat. Targets become like horse magnets if introduced properly, so I decided to use targets and add a new cue.

My new cue was ‘Lets Go!’ Each time Missy moved up from halt toward the target (a large traffic cone) I would say ‘Let’s Go’ in an upbeat way. She got clicked and rewarded for happy face, not grumpy face when she did this and was soon moving happily forward on cue. I gradually increased the distance that she had to go to get to the target.

She is now happy to move forward with the’ lets go’ cue, until I clip a lunge line on. She will revert to dragon lady, nostrils stretched all the way up to her lugs, and fire coming out.

Introducing poisoned cue #2 - Equipment. As we know, ill-fitting tack can create major behavioural problems, but a lunge line? apparently so!. This is something that we are still working on. Don’t get me wrong, I was never any kind of Cruella DeVille in the methods that I used, but I just don’t think that I listened to what my horses were telling me.

I have recently treated myself to a new bridle, no ordinary bitless bridle but the very sexy Transcend double bitless bridle, If Marks and Spencer’s made bridles….

I have tasked myself with training my horses to respond to subtle cues, not pressure. This is why after a lot of research, I chose the Transcend. It is designed to not put any leverage on any part of the horse’s head but has two reins with which I can use as separate cues, or if I add a couple of parrot clips, can be ridden on a single rein. Perfect. I hope to document my journey with this lovely innovative piece of kit later on in the year.

I would really like my horses to come running when they see me hold that bridle up, very much in the way that my dog does a happy dance when I hold her lead up. Yes, that would be the holy grail of horsemanship for me. New equipment, new start, I have already taught both of my horses to stick their noses into the new bridle when I hold it up. Of course they get a click and a treat for doing it calmly. I have also taught Missy to flex gently from the poll when I give her a hand signal (cue). I will then transfer that cue onto a light touch from the featherweight bottom rein.

You may have read my first blog - ‘No such thing as average’ where I document my journey of changing my thoroughbred mare; Missy’s way of going on the lunge. She goes from hollow and resistant, through to stretching down and relaxed, and finally to really putting in the flair and offering the most flamboyant expressive trot ever. Yup I am still blown away by this and feel that being able to ask her to move happily forward toward a target rather than away from perceived pressure is the icing on the cake.

I have added to the video that went with my first blog with a couple of clips of her moving toward a target (a cone) . She even moves between two cones at the opposite end of the school from me, of course, it would help if I remembered to remove the dog toy from the arena first. If you teach a horse to target, they will touch things if you leave them on the ground. It is lovely to be able to update an old clip this way, look back and see areas of improvement, it’s what keeps us moving forward.