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Here is a short summary clip of the training process which took several months.
The time I spend with my horse does not always exactly follow the ‘rule of three’ described here. However, in general and especially when I have a specific training project, I find that the ‘rule of three’ makes it easier to:
A training session usually works well if it consists of three general parts:
The ‘rule of three’ suggests practicing three repeats in a row, unless the first one is perfect and calls for a celebration.
The ‘rule of three’ is an ideal way to teach something new, work on improving something else and maintain the horse’s enthusiasm to tackle the harder work by frequently relaxing back into doing things he knows well. It helps if the tasks are quite different.
If the ‘new’ and ‘to improve’ tasks have limited movement, it is good to have more energetic well known tasks. If the ‘new’ or ‘to improve’ tasks are energetic, then it may be more helpful to use quieter well known tasks.
In the following video clip, this is our ‘new task’: the horse to sidestep along the rail away from me while I keep my feet still. In the past I’ve always moved along with her. Now I’d like her to confidently move across to the barrel by herself.
In the video clip, this is our ‘task to improve’ because it is a long time since we played with the balance beam.
In the video clip, weaving a row of markers was one of the several, ‘tasks we already know well’, that we did for relaxation and more sustained movement between the new learning.
During the overall training session, we return to the new task three times, with up to three repeats each time. We also return to the task we are improving three times and do up to three repeats each time. When the horse is in the learning stage, each tiny improvement over last time is a ‘release/click point’.
In-between the new task and the task we want to improve, we do things the horse already knows well and where he can easily earn his clicks&treats or down time. We might walk out and about, stop for a spot of grazing, flexion exercises or gymnastic type routines for overall body fitness, or just hang out together.
One of my evergreen training protocols is to ensure confident responses over nine consecutive training sessions before moving on to the next part of the training sequence.
For some tasks, communication may become smooth before nine sessions – but carry on for nine anyway.
For other tasks it may take a long time to get confident responses over nine consecutive sessions. Every horse is different. Every handler is different. Every horse-handler combination is different.
Also see Blogs number 44 and number 13 in the ‘Blog Contents List’ tab at the top of the page for more about planning and thin-slicing.
Photo: Task 3: Walking a half-circle away from the fence.
The purpose of this series of movement routines is to regularly have the horse doing a series of gentle movements that aid his overall flexion and suppleness.
We need to consider both physical suppleness and mental suppleness. Mental suppleness is about the horse’s ability to understand the signals for each task and to move calmly between tasks.
Once the horse is adept with each of the tasks in the routine, this whole routine takes about two minutes. But it might take weeks or months of short daily practices to teach each element of the routine to the proficiency needed to link them all together.
I like to mark the end of a routine such as this with a celebration which in our case is a triple treat (details in Prerequisite 8).
To link this series of tasks into a sequence:
ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS
Use a rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat) that keeps your horse being continually successful as much as possible. As he learns the routine, ask for a bit more before the next click&treat but always be prepared to increase the rate of reinforcement again if the horse needs you to clarify your intent.
This time we set the rags to form a continuous ‘rail’ to make it different from the first ‘Rags’ challenge. It is a good arrangement to see if the horse accepts that the rags are not the same as mats for standing on.
The purpose of this series of challenges is to play with communication basics in slightly different contexts. This mixture of familiarity and novelty encourages the handler to work on precision of timing and consistency of signals.
It allows the horse to consolidate behaviors he already knows in slightly different situations and in different sequences.
This routine has five basic tasks. Since we do them on both sides of the horse, the routine has ten parts in total (or more if we do more than one stationary task).
Smoothly carry out a sequence of tasks using a ‘rag rail’:
ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS
#190 HorseGym with Boots: MOVEMENT ROUTINE 4: RAGS AS FOCUS: https://youtu.be/v3B8rZJf5jg
#191 HorseGym with Boots: MOVEMENT ROUTINE 4: AT LIBERTY: https://youtu.be/yr_0wAt5kWw
The Greet & Go process is based on how horses who know each other greet upon meeting. In this exercise, the horse can choose to greet us. If he decides not to greet us, nothing happens, so this exercise shows the horse that it is okay to say, ‘No, not right now’. It helps to build trust because the horse gains a sense of control in the situation.
It seems that control over one’s actions is a primary reinforcing element in life, whether one is human or any other critter. A sense of having control is probably strongly related to routine. A sense of well-being arises if we can move, eat/drink, sleep, seek shelter, choose our company (if a gregarious species) according to our daily and seasonal rhythms and our personal preferences.
Any departure from having control about what happens next induces unpleasant stress (‘distress’, as opposed to ‘eustress’, the useful stress involved with learning new things at a rate we can easily absorb). For horses, any sort of containment causes distress because they are adapted for freedom of movement over 24 hours, strong environmental awareness and the ability to flee rapidly if a worrying situation arises.
The more we can allow our horses control over their lives, the better the probability that they will be relatively comfortable in captivity and willing to form working relationships with people.
The human-horse interaction dynamic is always problematic for the horse. By introducing the Greet & Go to every meeting with a horse, we relate to him in a way that acknowledges his reality rather than imposing only our desires.
Greet & Go is an activity done every single time we meet a horse.
When I introduce this exercise to people, they invariably want to pat the horse’s face after the horse has politely put his nose on their hand. In terms of horse etiquette, I have the feeling that horses find this distinctly impolite. Most horses dislike it, especially from a stranger.
They often try to move their head away. Some horses have learned to stop people doing this by using their teeth if a warning with the ears is ignored.
As already mentioned, new horses greeting each other often put their foreheads together, check each other’s breath and push to help get the measure of the other horse. I think putting our hand onto the horse’s face might feel to them like a dominating gesture.
The Greet & Go exercise does not include any fondling of the horse’s head or ears.
We can do this across a fence or in with the horse. The key is to always let the horse close the last 2 inches of space. If he chooses not to connect, we walk away.
Wait with zero intent while the horse decides whether he wants to make contact or not.
Smoky making contact with the back of Bridget’s hand. We always allow the horse to close the last two inches of space between his nose and our hand.
The Greet & Go exercise is simple but profound. You can do it across a fence or while in with the horse. You approach the horse from the front in a quiet, relaxed, friendly manner and before you quite reach him, you hold out your arm with a lightly curled fist, and invite the horse to touch the back of your hand. Your hand stands in as another horse’s nose. Horses use their noses to explore like we use our hands.
As soon as the horse has touched your hand, which is the Greet, you quietly walk away. Walking away is the Go part of the process. You approach the horse, Greet, then immediately do the opposite, Go, by walking away. You are showing the horse that you respect his space and his place in the universe and in your life. You no longer approach his bubble only when you want to halter him and make him do things.
Horses appreciate the opportunity to greet us politely. The act of turning and walking away (Go) is a neutral act another horse might do, i.e. touch noses and share breath to say hello and then move away to mind his own business because he is secure in the relationship. It shows that neither party is looking for any sort of further interaction or confrontation.
The whole dynamic is like the friendly recognition we give to colleagues as we walk past them at work or when we briefly greet a neighbor out shopping.
Here is an important point that runs through all our interactions with a horse. If the horse comes into our space (our bubble) of his free will, he needs to do so politely. If he’s not polite, it’s fair for us to send him away. If we go into our horse’s space (bubble) we need to do so politely. If we intend to ask him to do something, we need to ask politely, giving the horse time to think about our signal and respond to it.
Do the Greet & Go routine as often as you can during your usual interactions with your horse. Approach the horse from the front offering your outstretched hand. A horse that wants to greet you will put his nose on your hand. As soon as he does, walk away and carry on doing what you were doing. If you clean your own paddocks every day, it is a nice way of recognizing the horse and letting him know it is not time to play clicker games.
Bridget and Boots having a greeting during Quiet Sharing of Time and Space.
Stopping for a greeting during a filming session.
If the horse does not want to put his nose on your hand, that’s okay. Go away and carry on what you were doing or go do something else. The horse will appreciate that you understood his feelings at that moment in time.
The greeting is also a good way to begin further contact, such as clicker training, grooming or getting ready for an activity.
If your horse does not want to greet you, you have instant feedback on his mood of the moment and can adjust your plans accordingly.
If the horse does not want to greet you (ignores you or walks off) you can choose to carry on the interaction by walking a loop away from the horse and approaching him again, creating another opportunity to offer your hand. Allowing the horse to say, “No,” without consequences builds his self-confidence.
It may take just a couple of approaches before he is willing to greet you, or it may take more than ten relaxed approaches spread over one or more sessions. Eventually he will. Meanwhile, you are learning how to relax yourself out of frustration.
Horses with unknown histories can have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to greet a person. If you make five or ten approaches every day and they are all rejected, keep a written log. At some point, it will happen. Celebrate quietly and Go away. If you feed hay, offer to Greet & Go before you put down the hay.
Remember, horses have all day every day. If you have the time and good humor to persist, the horse will eventually greet you. A treat offered after the greeting (put on the ground if the horse does not accept food from your hand) can amplify the importance of your offer to greet.
If you don’t have all day, you might decide to simply go away. The horse misses out on attention and treats. Maybe you can openly give your treats to another horse before you go. Horses will observe this and think on it overnight. Or you can move away and put a treat on the grass or in a feed bin well away from the horse before you leave. The horse will also think about that.
If the horse usually moves away at your approach, you probably need to go back and spend more time with Quiet Sharing of Time and Space to build the bond. Most likely he has benefited from human avoidance behavior in the past – he was able to control the interaction by moving away.
If he seems to have an “I’d rather avoid you” habit, there are ways of making yourself more interesting. If they are around, you could pay attention to other horses or pets or things. Sit down and eat an apple or a carrot. Go back to Quiet Sharing of Time and Space and ignore him.
If you’ve set up the usual environment for a one-on-one date, the horse may initiate an interaction as more interesting than ignoring you. Whenever something seems broken, go back to Quiet Sharing of Time and Space to re-forge the bond.
You can also, if your environment allows, hide behind trees, buildings, vehicles or barrels to pique your horse’s curiosity. Sitting or reclining on the ground changes our profile and may encourage curiosity. I had great fun running from tree to tree and hiding for a while behind each one. My horse couldn’t stand watching this novelty without coming over to investigate. Make yourself interesting. Seek ideas outside the square.
The point of the Greet & Go exercise is that the horse is free to choose whether he wants to greet you. If you’ve approached him several times and he’s wandered away rather than touch your outstretched hand, you are receiving a clear message.
The challenge becomes to consciously change your behavior and observe closely to see how the horse responds. How does his behavior change when you act differently? Such experimentation is fun. There is no right and wrong. At any time, your horse unbounded by ropes is free to choose what he thinks is the best thing to do at that moment.
These exercises allow you to see what works to your advantage and what doesn’t. It’s very different from making horses do things when you decide they’ll do it because you have a rope on them, and/or they are contained in a small area.
Used every time you approach your horse; the Greet & Go exercise helps build a powerful connection. If you include a gift with the greeting (food treat or a scratch and rub and eventually putting on the halter and going for a grazing walk), it becomes even more powerful. If you do clicker training, the Greet habit can be strengthened using click&treat whenever the horse approaches you at the beginning of a clicker training session.
Greet & Go
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
|Score||Horse’s Score (session assessment)||Person’s Score (session assessment)|
|1||Situation and signals are unfamiliar to the horse.||Experimenting to find best props/gear, best orientation, clearest signal and best timing.|
|2||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.|
|3||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.|
|4||Getting it right in a familiar area most of the time.||Feeling the rapport of two-way communication with the horse.
|5||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.
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.
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.
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:
Photo: Walking concentric circles is part of this routine.
For Movement Routine 3 we are back to using a fence as a focal point to initially build the routine. A fence helps the horse maintain straight movement. It also makes it easy to establish beginning and end points for each circle in this sequence of tasks.
ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS
With halter and lead: https://youtu.be/BHSztrpA8oo
At liberty: https://youtu.be/O0dpTo6mXSs
Note that during backing up, horses usually push harder with one hind leg, so their hind end tends to veer away from the stronger leg. You may want to teach a gesture signal that allows you to regain straightness.
Experiment with how your position to the right or the left of the horse’s head affects his backing up.