Our training behavior and the horse’s response behavior are totally intertwined.
Creating a detailed but flexible training or ‘shaping’ plan is essential for successful progression. A good plan helps us develop our training skills, and through our skills we show the horse how to relate confidently to what people ask of him.
A written plan lets us to look both forward and backward, giving us a good idea of where we have been as well as where we are heading.
If we keep records of each session, we can easily see where we must tweak our plan; where we must slow down and where it is going smoothly.
Difference between a Training Plan and an Individual Education Plan (IEP)
A Training Plan is an outline of the possible thin-slices (click points) that we might be able to use to teach a horse a particular skill. We can share training plans with other people to adapt to their own horses in their own environment.
A Training Plan is the starting point for writing an Individual Education Program (IEP) that suits a specific handler, the specific horse and the specific training environments that they have available.
An Individual Education Program (IEP) is a Training Plan carefully customized to suit the character type, age, health and background experience of the individual horse to be educated.
The IEP must also consider the same factors in relation to the handler. For example, although I was athletic in my youth, bionic knees now set a limit to how fast and far I can move.
My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans has much more detail than I can fit into this blog post.
If you would like a hand developing your next plan after reading this post, send me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to have a look at it.
Summary of the Planning Process
Decide Your Overall Objective
Everything we do with our horse needs to be designed to increase his confidence with the human-dominated world he has to live in. If we are watching and listening, the horse will usually tell us what we should work on next to reach the overall objective we have set.
Training that relates to the care, welfare and safety of all horses includes:
- Rope relaxation and calmness.
- Leading along and backing up.
- Staying parked at a target or ground-tied.
- Feeding time behavior.
- Specifics like safely navigating gates and other tight spots.
- Understanding the handler’s various leading or guiding positions.
- Hoof care.
- Vet procedures.
- Being tied up.
- Ground-work skills.
- Gymnastic exercises for general fitness.
- Road and traffic confidence.
- Walking or driving out without other horses.
- Walking or driving out with other horses.
- Water and hill confidence.
- Trailer loading, travelling and unloading if we intend to go elsewhere or if we need to evacuate due to flood, fire, earthquake
Scope your Overall Objective
A. Decide on your Overall Objective
Now is the time to create a mind map or make a list of all the aspects of teaching our overall objective that we can think of. We write down all our ideas, large and small, without giving them a value judgement at this point. Also pick the brains of other people you trust, especially if they also use positive reinforcement training.
- We then use the mindmap/list to come up with a set of TOPICS that relate to and underpin our overall objective.
- Next, we must put our TOPICS into a logical order of progression.
- Then we must decide which items on our mindmap/list are GOALS which fit under our various TOPIC headings.
- Then we organize the GOALS within each TOPIC into an order that seems to make sense.
B. Next we define and sort specific GOALS that fit under our TOPICS.
If our overall objective is complex, we achieve it by first teasing out the topics involved as in the mindmap above. Then we decide what goals fit within each topic.
If we let the ideas ferment in our mind for a while and revisit them over several days, we usually end up with a more comprehensive plan. Every time I revise my initial lists or mindmaps, I have a few more ideas to add or I see new connections between things that I didn’t notice before.
Break Down Each Goal
It is helpful to have an overview of the whole planning process. We can outline the decreasing complexity of what we are teaching like this:
- overall objective (most complex)
- goals within the topic
- tasks to achieve a specific goal
- thin-slices to achieve each task. (least complex)
If we read this from the bottom up, thin-slices allow us to achieve a task. Several tasks allow us to achieve a goal. The goal is part of a larger training topic. Good training in all the topics allows us to achieve our overall objective.
It’s important to set tasks that can be achieved in a relatively short time frame. Some goals might be so small that they easily become one task.
On the other hand, a major goal may take months or years to achieve. But the individual tasks leading to that goal should be small enough so that the horse and the handler have a continuous experience of small achievements.
Define the Tasks that will Achieve each Goal
For each goal we teach a set of related tasks. When we have achieved all the tasks for each goal in a topic, we have mastered that topic. All the topics together achieve our overall objective.
To review where tasks sit, let’s quickly revisit this outline of the decreasing complexity of what we are teaching:
- overall objective e.g. FOR YOU TO DECIDE.
- topics are all relevant to teaching confidence with the overall objective.
- goals which all relate to a specific topic
- tasks we need to master to reach a goal
- thin-slices organized to achieve each task.
Defining specific tasks is made easier by using a format called the ABCD method.
A = Audience (of our teaching), B = exact Behavior we are seeking, C = in what Conditions will we ask for the specified behavior, D = what Degree of proficiency does the behavior need to achieve our purpose.
A = Audience: your horse is the audience of your teaching. Think of the horse’s character type and what best motivates him. What do you think he may find easy or hard? If you are coaching another person, consider the character type of the person too. If you are working by yourself, consider your own character type.
B = Behavior: exactly what do you want to see when the horse is carrying out the task the way you want? Sometimes as well as seeing, we can feel the horse’s response through the rope or reins, or we feel his body energy, relaxation or tension. Additionally, how do you want your signals for the horse to look and feel?
C = Conditions: in what venues, with what props, in what environment(s)?
D = Degree of Perfection or Proficiency: how are you going to measure what you are doing? Decide on how long, how many strides, how many rails, zero tight lead-ropes, how far, how fast?
Once you have taught the basic task, it can be further developed to be performed more proficiently or to a higher standard as well as in different contexts and environments.
When you describe each task with these ABCD points in place, your Individual Education Plan will progress nicely.
Not defining tasks clearly is a major hurdle to good planning and good training outcomes.
5. Brainstorm Possible Thin-Slices for Each Task
Now all your thinking about your defined tasks can be put to work to create a brainstorm mind map or list of the smallest parts (slices) that make up each task.
We can begin this part of the planning by writing down all the possible slices of the task as they came to mind, without putting them in any specific order.
Remember, it’s easy to have too few slices, but we can never have too many. The more we can keep the horse feeling successful, the more he will enjoy his sessions (and so will we). If the horse is not being successful, we must adjust our plan so he can be almost continuously successful.
Pretty much everything we ask horse in captivity to do is entirely unrelated to their natural life in the wild. If we always keep this in mind during our training, it is easy to cherish each small accomplishment toward our final objective.
6. List your thin-slices in an order that might work
Once you have a brainstormed list/mindmap of the smallest slices you can think of, it’s time to put them into an order that might work nicely for you and the horse.
If the slices have been clearly thought out on paper, it’s easier to know what we are doing while we’re out with the horse. We can stay in the moment and our mind is free to interact with the horse rather than wonder what we are doing next.
Pocket cue cards with the slices listed in order can be helpful. I generally use these if I’m working on a complex task.
None of the sequences in a plan are written in stone. We get important feedback from each session with the horse. Either things went smoothly, or we need to tweak something.
Maybe we need to spend a lot more time on a certain slice. We are always free to add, delete, expand or move our ideas around.
When we have thin-sliced all the tasks for all the goals in each topic leading to our overall objective, our Training Plan is written! More accurately, the first version of a Training Plan for the overall objective is written.
We don’t have to write the whole plan all at once. We can simply choose the first topic to work on, set the goals for that, work out the tasks needed to achieve one of the goals, then thin-slice the tasks one at a time.
Thin-slicing tasks gets easier as we practice it. We get better at imagining all the pieces that make up the puzzle we have set for ourselves and the horse.
7. Venues, Props and Time
- The training venue(s) you have available.
- The time you can spend with your horse.
- How long you think it may take the horse to learn the task you are currently working on?
- How long might it take the horse to learn all the tasks relating to the goal you are presently working on?
- What props and helpers do you have available?
You outlined the Conditions for teaching when you defined your task with the ABCD format. Now is the time to work out the detail of where and when and how you can set up the conditions that will make the teaching and learning as easy as possible for you and your horse.
This is especially important if you must book venues or check when your helper(s) will be available.
Decide How You Will Document Your Progress
As part of your Training Plan, decide how you will keep a record of what you’re doing, when you did it and how it went during each session.
My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans: The Art of Thin-Slicing outlines a variety of ways to document progress. There are digital record-keeping formats that some people find useful. One possibility is illustrated below.
This format has numbered spaces to record ‘session scores’ – one for the horse and one for the handler, to fill in after each training session. This chart has spaces to record 18 training sessions.
The format above has the benefit of being quick to fill in. Most of us have busy lives into which we must fit our horse time. Once our mind switches over to other parts of our life, it is easy to forget the detail of what we specifically did with our horse and how the session felt. The horse and the handler each get a ‘score’ which is just a shorthand way of recording a ‘session assessment’.
We can use symbols or emoticons to indicate how we felt, how we thought the horse felt and weather details (make sure you create a key for your symbols). Hot, cold, wind, wet all affect how a session goes. If we train in various places, we can have a symbol for each place. If there is a time-break in our training due to life and/or weather interfering, we can note this as well.
The sort of detail mentioned above is priceless when we look back on it. We can see how many repeats we did to get from introduction of a new task to getting it fluent and generalized to different situations.
If we keep charts like this in our tack room or car there is an increased chance that we will fill it in right away while the session is still fresh in our mind.
The following chart shows one possible way to score each session’s progress. Some people may prefer a ten-point scale so more nuances can be recorded.
It probably works best for each person to make up a scoring details page that best suits their environment and their horse and how they like to record things.
Note that the ‘score’ is just a quick way to define our assessment of a session. It helps indicate where we are while working through a process.
There is no other value judgement added to the score numbers. For some tasks the handler may stay at ‘1’ for a while until he/she has sorted out the best way to introduce an idea to the horse.
Every task we undertake will have its own time-frame to move from Score 1 to Score 5, depending on the many variables that relate to the horse and the handler.
A possible scoring (session assessment) range may look something like this:
|| Horse’s Score (session assessment)
|| Person’s Score (session assessment)
||Situation and signals are unfamiliar to the horse.
||Experimenting to find best props/gear, best orientation, clearest signal and best timing.
||Horse is experimenting with responses to find those that yield a click&treat.
|Gear, body orientation and body language, voice and other signals are developing to be as clear as possible for the horse.
||Noticeably more fluent with the requested movements (or stillness).
|Signals are becoming smoother. Beginning to link one or more thin-slices of a complex task.
||Getting it right in a familiar area most of the time.
||Feeling the rapport of two-way communication with the horse.
||Desired responses are reliable in various situations and venues.
||Signals are fluid and consistent.
Remember, the ‘scores’ are session assessments which are simply points along a continuum ranging from first introduction to something new all the way to smooth execution of the task. We are assessing the session, not critiquing it.
Most things we want to do with a horse is a trick/game to the horse – something he would rarely do on his own. To teach the rules of our games fairly we need to be aware of the following questions that underpin all training.
- What thin-slices do I needed in order to teach this horse this task?
- How little or how much does this horse already understand about the task?
- What gaps are there in my knowledge, gear handling and training skills that I should address first?
- Am I aware of how am I orientating my body in relation to the horse?
- How consistent are my signals?
- How good is the timing of my release (click&treat)?
- How good and consistent are my rope handling skills?
- How well and consistently do I handle my body extensions (including rope/reins)?
- How good am I at using my breathing and core body energy to show intent or relaxation?
The horse can only be as smooth as the handler is smooth. The horse can only learn as smoothly as we can teach smoothly.
9. Experiment with Horse and Self to Find a Starting Point
This is where you find out whether your proposed thin-slices are thin enough and whether you have thought through the prerequisites carefully enough. The aim is to begin each task at a point where both you and the horse are relaxed and confident.
You can, of course, do gentle experimentation all the time during the planning process. If you mostly work with the same horse, your starting point for a specific task may become obvious while you are doing other things.
For example, if your horse is not able to easily lift each leg in turn to touch a target, then he may find it difficult to sort out his balance on three legs when you want to tend a foot. So addressing this would be a starting point for relaxed hoof care.
10. Create your Individual Education Program (IEP)
Now is the time to tailor your Training Plan by considering the character type, health, age, fitness level, and background experience of your horse and yourself.
You already considered this to some extent when you thought about the Audience portion of the ABCD used for defining your task.
Consider the time you can put into the project. Be careful to link your expectations realistically to the time you have available to be with the horse.
Your experimentation may show that your Training Plan is too ambitious, and you need to slow down and do more thin-slicing of certain parts. Or you may discover that the horse already knows more than you realized, allowing you to move quickly through some of the foundation lessons from your IEP.
It is important to still work through the exercises that already feel easy, rather than leave them out.
You may discover that your horse finds something particularly difficult, so you give that more time and attention. Life, weather or injury may interfere, forcing you to adjust the time frame.
As mentioned earlier, it’s important that the tasks you set are achievable in a relatively short time frame. Each small success is worth its weight in gold for motivation to keep learning, for both the handler and the horse.
You may decide that some of your defined tasks are too large, so you go back to redefine them, slice them more thinly, until you have tasks that you can master in a comfortable, shorter time frame.
11. Tweak Your Individual Education Program (IEP)
Every horse, every handler, and every horse-handler combination are unique. What works magically with one horse may be a total dead-end with another horse. Each horse brings new challenges and triumphs.
Every session with a horse gives you valuable feedback and new ideas. Things that don’t work are just as valuable as things that do work. By using a pre-planned set of thin-slices, we avoid a lot of unfocused activity that confuses the horse and leads to handler frustration.
Inevitably, we’ll still get confusion. The IEP is always a work in progress. Tweak it as you get new information by listening to your horse, and when you make new connections as you think through a challenge.
A good plan does the following:
- Decides on the overall objective and expresses it clearly.
- Scopes the topics that fall withing the overall objective and decides which topic might be best tackled first.
- Works out the individual goals that are part of each topic and decides on an order in which you will tackled the goals – but stays flexible.
- Carefully defines the tasks you need to master in order to achieve each goal and decides the order in which you will work with the tasks. You might work to develop elements of one, two or three different tasks during one training session.
- Diligently thin-slices each task into its smallest teachable/clickable portions and organizes these slices into an order that will probably make sense to the horse. Again, we must stay flexible and adjust our training to the horse that shows up on the day.
- Experiments gently with the horse to find a starting point at which you both feel comfortable. We do this for each task within each goal.
- Sets up your Individual Education Program (IEP), once you know your starting point, by customizing your plan to suit the horse you are working with.
- Tweaks your IEP to make learning easier for the horse any time you and the horse are not being continually successful most of the time. A vibrant planner is always thinking of different ways to approach things. If we are listening, the horse usually shows us the direction we should take.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?