Confessions of an Equestrian Instructor in the Pursuit of Excellence

By Jane Jackson, Level 3 TAGteacher

In my pursuit of excellence (for myself and my students) I discovered TAGteach. This teaching approach has added many effective new tools to my tool box and has provided me with ways of becoming a better instructor. The first three (of many) things which pop into my head when I think about how TAGteach has helped me are: 

  1. observation
  2. breaking things down and; 
  3. reinforcing successes.  

I tend to prefer the term instructor over the term trainer when talking about teaching people to ride. For the purpose of this article, I’ll use “instructor” when talking about teaching people, and “trainer” when talking about teaching horses. 

Observation Skills are Critical

We all have favorite exercises we use when we teach, but a canned approach only takes you so far. We also have to watch the student and see what needs help: position, confidence, comprehension, something different? We may start with an exercise such as riding a square by halting in each corner and doing a partial turn on the forehand to line up with the next side of the square. Observation comes in if the horse and rider pair do not execute the exercise correctly. Why not? Is the rider’s leg in the correct position? Is she using her seat correctly? Does she understand how to use her aids to ask for the turn? Does the horse understand the leg aid? Maybe all of those things are in need of help! 

Breaking it Down

That brings us to breaking it down. As trainers, we know that the aids must be correct in order for the horse to understand what we are asking. We naturally want to make all of it correct so the tendency is to say, “next time slide your leg back and don’t lean over and make sure you maintain the bend but don’t pull on the inside rein….”. As instructors, we’ve also been in the saddle when someone else was barking orders at us (and boy do we have stories to tell about how rough WE had it when we were learning). So in order to make it easier on our students and to help them be successful- which of course helps us look good-, we can use TAGteach. We can break it down and only work on one of those skills at a time. “But!”, you say, “you have to have all those things in order to get it right”. Well, yes, but does anyone do it correctly the first time? Or even the tenth time? Better to break it down and make progress in one aspect of the skill, than to keep repeating yourself while your student gets frustrated trying to remember all the different things at once and still not getting it right. You can even take it out of the context of the turn. Focus on the leg position while she’s riding down the long side and have the student practice putting it in the correct place and back until she feels confident and can easily put her leg where you want it repeatedly. Tag each time she correctly places her leg.  Then you can focus on the seat while leaving the leg out of the picture for a bit. Focusing on each component individually allows to the student to feel and experience each before trying to put them together.

Reinforcing Success

Finally, reinforcing the student’s successes helps nail the skill down. A reinforcer is defined as something which will make the behavior more likely to happen in the future. While training animals, food is a great reinforcer because most animals like food. My young students are reinforced by receiving stickers or little plastic ponies for their efforts (we keep track of each tag and they barter them for prizes afterward). For many riders, simply being able to execute the skill correctly is reinforcement enough. That is, after all, why they are taking lessons- they want to become better riders! Being able to ride away from a lesson and say, “I can ask for and get a turn on the forehand” for the first time is sweet! But we want to help our student get to that point. So little reinforcers along the way, for each step of that process, is what I have learned is invaluable. First, you have to mark that correct performance of the skill. While a clicker is best for the accuracy and non-judgmental tone, you can also use your voice: “there!” when the rider gets the leg in the right place. Repeating the skill so that the affirming marker is heard repeatedly is what will create an easier and easier performance. So whether you have students pull down beads on a tagulator for each successful repetition or they simply get to hear and feel the little successes, keep that “rate of reinforcement” high.

An Example

Here is an example. In the first photo the rider has her heels down properly, but her leg is too far forward. When I ask her to move her foot more to the back, she moves it too far and now her heel has come up into the wrong position (see photo 2). So we have two things to fix: the position of the heel (should be down below the stirrup) and the position of the heel relative to the hip (should be aligned). Deciding to work on only one aspect (the heel/hip alignment), I put a piece of purple tape on the hip and the heel and give the tag point “tape to tape”. The rider will get a tag when she lines up the tape horizontally. Success!

Video Examples from Webinar with Jane

The Bonus?

Observing, breaking things down and reinforcing successes are three critical components of using TAGteach and as such, they are some of the initial skills taught at a TAGteach Seminar or the online course.  The bonus? I feel I have become a better trainer and rider myself through this process of careful examination. 

Webinar with Jane

The recording of this webinar will be available from the same link as the live event

Do you see promise and potential in your students, but wish they would progress faster? This webinar will show you how to boost your student’s performance. You’ll learn how to make simple changes to your teaching approach. You’ll learn how to talk less, say more and motivate your students to do their very best. You’ll learn about a powerful new approach to giving structured, perfectly timed positive reinforcement. This is a practical webinar that will show you exactly how to use TAGteach. TAGteach is teaching method that uses the principles of behavior science for precise, efficient, effective teaching. Elite orthopedic surgeons are trained this way as reported in Scientific American. Your students will be thrilled to know that they are being taught like surgeons!

Raise the bar for your teaching and for your student’s performance.

In this webinar you’ll see creative ideas for removing the horse (and his stress) from the picture and using just a few minutes on the ground before the lesson to minimize unnecessary errors.

More About Jane

For more information about Jane, visit BookendsFarm.com and check out her blog at bookendsfarm.blogspot.com

Read a TAGteacher Spotlight article about Jane

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TAGteach – “You had me at click, click…”

By Tony Harvey, Guide Dogs for the Blind UK

Reprinted from Visionary Magazine, April 29 Edition

I have worked with visually impaired people for the past 15 years, and guides dogs for the last 10. We have to the train people how to work with their dogs in order for then to have the best mobility possible. There is a lot to learn so I have been using TAGteach to really break down these processes and turn them into easy to learn chunks.

TAGteach was great for me as I didn’t have to process a lot of words. I just knew if I hadn’t heard the click, I had something else to do. Thank you for understanding me.

Vision Impaired Client

TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance and it’s teaching and communication method that combines positive reinforcement with an acoustical event marker. It’s an application of behavior science that makes the science of positive reinforcement accessible.

TAGteach relies on breaking behaviour down into small pieces, looking for desired behaviors and giving positive reinforcement to increase those moments of great behaviour. In that regard it is the same as guide dog training, or all animal training.

For me it’s like telling a story or painting a picture. Teach a single tag point, and then add on one more part and then another until you have the whole picture.

One client I recently worked with has memory issues and finds it difficult to process information. When she qualified with her dog, she said to me “TAGteach was great for me as I didn’t have to process a lot of words. I just knew if I hadn’t heard the click, I had something else to do. Thank you for understanding me.”

I was hesitant to use it at first. it seemed complicated and to be honest I was not sure of the benefit. Anyway, as a huge advocate of anything positive-reinforcement based I decided to put myself through the course, so I could really learn about it and apply it correctly. It’s far more than just “clicking a person”.

It’s primary use has been with sighted people, and children in particular. It has also had success with kids with additional disabilities such as autism. In order for me to use it successfully with the guide dog client base I had to make some adaptations. My first adaptation was to mostly drop the demonstration stage. Obviously this is not so relevant, but there are still times when I manage to do a form of demonstration by utilising a sighted guide or something similar. My second adaptation was on what to use as a marker in the presence of clicker savvy guide dogs! TAGteach puts a lot of emphasis on the potential emotional baggage a vocal marker can bring so I opted for a shoulder tap. Since then I have found an alternative acoustical marker that is different to the clicker.

There are no mistakes for the person to make, only opportunities for success.

Tony Harvey

The advantages I have found using TAGteach have been really positive and not just based on the clicker but on how I now really break down tasks into small chunks. There are no mistakes for the person to make, only opportunities for success. If people are not getting the tag points, all we have to do as practitioners is adapt our tag point, no telling them it’s wrong, just a new opportunity for successful results. We all know behaviour is driven by successful outcomes. I do a lot of work prior to the dog being involved, this means I can really hone the skills first. Then the client is more fluid and confident when the dog arrives and he dog experiences a more similar style of handling to what it is used to and so hopefully less stress. It creates fluid sessions as there is no conversation required during the learning. Once they hear a tag the know it’s right and can continue. No tag means keep trying. I have found quick learning with great retention using this method, as well as as added bonus of increased focus on the tasks which I think is due to lack of conversation and task orientation once you say, “The tag point is….”

So why isn’t everyone doing it? It’s fairly new, some people see the clicker and think it would patronise people using a “dog” training device on humans (although I have never found this when I have used it). People like what they know and it’s a leap of faith for us to try something new, also people are good trainers and coaches so they already do a great job. Anyone with reservations, I would advise them to go to tagteach.com and youtube.com/tagteacher where there is a collection of information and videos on its application.

Learn Tony’s Best Training Tips

Join us for a live webinar with Tony to learn all his best secrets for top level training. After the live date it will available as a recording at the same link.

Why “Good!” is not Good Enough for Your Learners

By Joan Orr M.Sc.

Why Did She Get a Better “Good” Than Me?

There was a time, when we had much less experience than we have now, that we suggested to people that they might use the word “good” or another verbal marker to signal success to the learner. In practice this has turned out not to work as well as using a clicker or other non-verbal signal. We have used taggers with elite athletes, tiny tot ballerinas, commercial fishermen, kids with autism, kids with Down syndrome, business professionals, prison inmates and medical students to list a few examples. Using the tagger absolutely works and it works with every population of learner that we have encountered.

The verbal marker becomes very repetitive and annoying very quickly. It seems condescending in a way to say “good, good, good” over and over especially to another adult. It’s also very difficult to keep the tone of the “good” the same each time. People tend to want to convey additional information with the verbal marker. They tend to vary the tone and give a more expressive “good” if there is a particularly good effort. It’s hard to avoid the big excited “YES” when they finally get it, or the desultory “yes” when you’re tired, hungry and have a headache.

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The Different Sounds of Tagging

A topic that seems to come up with some frequency in our interactions with TAGteachers relates to the sound of the tagger and what kinds of sounds (or other stimuli) can be used with TAGteach. Here is a sampling of some of the concerns that have come up:

  • I work with children diagnosed with autism. They are very sensitive to sounds and will be upset by the sound of the traditional tagger (clicker).
  • I work with people who are hard of hearing. They won’t be able to hear the click sound.
  • I teach riding to children and adults and all my horses are clicker trained, so I don’t want to use the same sound for the people since the horses might get upset or confused if the hear the click sounds and don’t get a treat.
  • I teach people to clicker train dogs (or other animals) and I am worried that the animals will be confused if I use the same sound for them as for the people.
  • I would like to try peer tagging, but with so many taggers going off all over the place I don’t think anyone will know which tag is for them.

Let me preface this discussion by saying that in all the many years and many applications in which the TAGteach founders, faculty and experienced TAGteachers have used TAGteach, we rarely use anything other than the traditional box clicker (tagger) to make the tag sound. We have tried other things, but in the end they break, we lose them, or they didn’t work any better anyway. Even with children diagnosed with autism, noisy roomfuls of kids tagging each other and in the presence of clicker trained animals, we have had great success with the box clicker – as have others.

In trying to decide the best way to deliver the tag stimulus, a TAGteacher needs to consider the following:

  • Can the learners perceive the tag?
  • Does the learner like to get a tag?
  • Is the tag distracting other learners (including animals)?
  • The first two are easy to assess. All you have to do is ask the learners.

Does the Learner Perceive the Tag?

We have often been astounded that learners hear their own tag even if there are lots of other taggers and other noise going on. If they don’t hear their own tags, then you might need to spread out more, change the position of the person with the tagger so they are closer to or within the line of sight of the learner or take turns with tagging so that fewer taggers are going off at once. You will most likely find that once the learners become tag savvy, they don’t have any trouble hearing the tag that is meant for them.

Does the Learner Like the Sound of the Tag

Some learners find the tag sound aversive. This is more often true with adults than kids. They may dislike the sound for no particular reason, may experience physical pain (very rare) or may have a past negative association with the sound. Generally they will not suffer in silence and will be quick to let you know that you are causing them grave suffering. Sometimes this aversion can be remedied by associating the tag sound with a tangible reinforcer (candy, stickers, chocolate etc). Sometimes they get over it when they see others progressing well and the want to have some of that success for themselves. The tag sound has not been a problem for professionals working with children diagnosed with autism. These children seem to adapt well to the tag sound, most likely because it is associated with a primary reinforcer (popcorn, a sip of soda etc) and because they quickly learn that this is the sound of success and something that they can control in an otherwise largely uncontrollable world. This latter is just speculation, since we haven’t conducted any studies, but it has been a surprise to some to find that sound-sensitive children are not bothered by the sound of the tagger.

Visit Martha Gabler’s page about TAGteach and autism

Visit our reference list for scientific research reports

Is the Tag Distracting Other Learners?

The tag sound is generally not distracting to other learners who are also engaged in the tag session. For example a roomful of gymnasts or volleyball players all tagging in pairs or groups will not disrupt the others. They get very good, very quickly at concentrating and hearing the tag that is meant for them. In a quiet situation in which a teacher is tagging one student for reading skills, while the others work quietly, the tag sound could be distracting, so muffling the sound or using something quieter may be best.

Many people are using TAGteach to teach animal-handling skills. In the majority of these cases the animals are clicker trained, or are being clicker trained and so the tag for the person could be distracting for the animal. Some people are concerned that the power of the click will be diminished if the animal hears a lot of clicking and doesn’t get a treat. People who teach group clicker training classes, train animals in a group situation or have multiple clicker trained animals at home know that animals very quickly learn that not every click is for them and not every clicker session involves them. They learn to read environmental cues, pay attention to where the trainer’s cues are directed and most importantly to where the treats are coming from and where they are going. Animals become very good at knowing when it’s their turn.

When animals are first learning about clicker training, or if the animal is likely to get excited and become a danger, then an alternative approach is needed. This may involve using a different sound or working on the human skills with the animal out of the picture at first. In some cases it may be appropriate to have the click and the tag be the same. For example, if you are teaching loose leash walking and the tag point is “leash hand at waist”, then both dog and person could get a click/tag at the same time. If the use of TAGteach for teaching animal handling skills becomes confusing and problematic, then you need to take steps to simplify. We always recommend that the animal be out of the picture until the person learns the skill.

But I Need an Alternative Signal!

Sometimes you really may need an alternative signal for the tag, whether it be a different sound or a different signal altogether. Here are some alternatives to the traditional box clicker (tagger) that have been used or suggested by TAGteachers:

  • i-click (quieter click sound)
  • Clicker+ (makes 4 different sounds – these are no longer in production)
  • Muffle the sound of a box clicker with a cloth, your hand or from inside a pocket
  • Car key fob (from the dollar store – makes the sound that your remote car door opener makes when you unlock your car)
  • Whistle
  • Squeaker from squeaky toy
  • Clap hands
  • Click from ball point pen
  • Click from hand-held counter (also counts the tags, which can be useful)
  • Juice bottle lids that pop when pressed
  • Bicycle bell
  • Party noisemaker
  • Ding from triangle instrument
  • Sound from phone app
  • Tongue click
  • TAGteachers have also used non-sound markers with hearing impaired students and in other situations in which the tag sound is inappropriate or would be ineffective:
    • Flash of light
    • Tap of finger on shoulder or hand
    • Hold tagger against the learner’s back so the feel it, if they can’t hear it
    • Virtual tag – pretend to tag by making the tag motion without tagger
    • Slide a ticket or a block or other marker from one side of the desk to the other
    • Pull down a bead on a tagulator

Here is a video that shows a shoulder tap being used as a tag:

More Than Just a Sticker: How TAGteach Prevents Kids from Being Punished by Rewards

There is a book called “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn. I saw the title and thought “how can that be?” and so I bought the book. Dr. Kohn explains how endless stickers and charts and ribbons and praise and approval to children for every single accomplishment no matter how small is creating children who cannot function without outside approval. They have no confidence in their own abilities and low self esteem because they judge themselves through the eyes of others. They are not self motivated and do not derive satisfaction from achievement for its own sake since they have been systematically trained to look to others for approval as a result of the frivolous doling out of rewards by parents, teachers and coaches. This is of course an over-simplification, since it is quite a long book with lots of scientific references, but you get the idea.

The Praise Junkie

Theresa McKeon (TAGteach cofounder and professional gymnastics coach) calls these kids “praise junkies”. They are the ones that always want the coach to look at them. They can’t work independently. They are not focused on learning, but are focused on what the coach (parent, teacher, etc) thinks. They require constant approval and encouragement. They may even misbehave in order to have the attention focused back on them if other children are getting in the way of this.

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Should We Pay Kids to Behave and Do Well at School?

By Karen Pryor (first published in 2010)

Last week TIME magazine ran a cover story about paying kids cash money to get better grades.
The objections to cash ‘rewards’ for schooling have been around for a long time and can lead to tremendous political uproar. There are moral objections—children should do what’s expected of them without reward. There are philosophical, theoretical, religious, and of course financial objections.

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet.

Well, this fellow at Harvard, economist Roland Fryer Jr., decided the first thing to do was to find out if paying kids to do better in school actually worked or not. Forget all the existing studies and opinions. Forget those specific schools where reinforcers, large and small, are built into the system. According to TIME, Dr. Fryer “did something education researchers almost never do: he ran a randomized experiment.” (Just think about THAT for a minute. They opine stuff and put it into the schools and they don’t TEST it?)

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Show ‘Em the Money! What Kids Want Teachers and Parents to Know About Reinforcement

Parents, teachers and other adults need to realize that it is all very well to hope that an innate sense of moral obligation will cause Jimmy to clean his room or raise his hand in class, but if you want the job done easily and well, then you need to pay with currency that kids value.

What do kids really want for reinforcement? How can we possibly find out? Social worker Lynn Loar PhD decided to ask them. The simple answer  was candy, for one thing; money for another. But it’s more complicated than that, as these kids explain in an article published in the the Summer/Fall 2009 issue of the Latham Letter. The article is authored by Lynn Loar and five young co-authors.

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