Sunday, December 27, 2015

What's My Motivation?

Nose to nose with Smokey Joe

There’s an old joke in theatre circles. Actors always analyze the parts they play, questioning why their characters would or wouldn’t behave in certain ways. What motivates the character? So, during a rehearsal, the director asks the actor to walk across the stage, and the actor responds “What’s my motivation?” Without skipping a beat, the director says, “Your paycheck.”

Of course, I was never paid to be on stage while I was in college. No financial incentive there. And now, many years later, I find myself in metaphoric director’s shoes, asking my horses for certain behaviors. I can almost hear them ask, “What’s my motivation -- and where’s the paycheck?”

In the past eight years, I’ve abandoned the idea of controlling my horses. Control is a great illusion. In a physical contest, my horses will win – hooves down -- unless I bully my way through our encounters. I’m not interested in bullying. I’ve discovered that collaboration is really a better goal. I’d rather accomplish things together, as partners and friends, than have to pretend I’m stronger or in charge. I ask rather than demand. It seems to work better for us.

Motivation factors into the collaborative dance. Sure I can ask for a behavior, but if it doesn’t make sense to the horse – and if I’m not clear about what I want – why should my horse want to cooperate? What’s his motivation?

I needed to break behaviors down into smaller increments, layering new information onto the already learned behavior. It comes down to this:

Whatever I’m asking has to make sense to my horse. An intelligent being questions the reasons behind any request. Horses are really no different than most humans in this way. There has to be some purpose or meaning involved, other than because I said. Common sense – horse sense -- requires me to consider what the horse understands as a reasonable request. The next step for me is to ask for a simple behavior that, when achieved, results in a reward. Rewards make sense. Simple behaviors transform over time into more complex skill sets, all based on motivation and paycheck.

Enter the clicker and a bag full of horse treats. Horses eat approximately 75 % of their waking day, so food is a logical and inviting “paycheck” -- not to be mistaken for a bribe. A bribe is something you dangle in front of someone before a behavior to coax the person (or horse) into doing what you ask. A reward comes after, when the behavior has been satisfactorily presented.

In truth, food equals motivation – but it’s not the only motivation. My horses now see the clicker and treat pouch and know we’re going to play. The interaction has become a game, less about eating and more about connecting and figuring out puzzles together. It’s fun, and horses love to have fun! Now there’s a great motivating factor!!

And what does the clicker do for me? It requires me to focus on exactly what I’m asking. If my horse doesn’t understand what I’m asking, I have to adjust and communicate more clearly – asking for less or simply asking for something differently. If I’m not clear, how can I expect my horse to understand? After all, we don’t exactly speak the same language.

So, the clicker trains me, too. When I’ve asked clearly and clearly see the desired behavior, the click isn’t just for my horse, it’s for me, too. It says, “I got it right! Yea for me!!”

And Yea for all of us who endeavor to bridge the communication gap in positive ways! What’s the motivation? The paycheck? At the end of the day, I think my paycheck is mutual love and friendship.