How do we become truly fluid with a specific task or series of tasks?
How can the handler practice a clear, consistent signal or group of signals?
How can we engage the horse to willingly carrying out tasks confidently at our request?
It’s natural to want to ‘practice’ to get better. It’s especially challenging when it’s the handler that needs/wants the practice to improve:
- Optimum body orientation.
- Moving easily between ‘no intent’ and ‘intent’ body language.
- Gesture signal clarity.
- Consistent voice signal.
- Timing of the click to truly mark the desired behavior.
- Prompt treat delivery.
The temptation is to get the horse to ‘do it again’ so we can practice. However, if a horse had carried out a complex task to a good standard, does it make sense to him to have to do it again right away?
Probably not. He may instead think that he didn’t get it right the first time. He may try a different variation in good faith and become confused if it does not result in a click&treat.
We acquire a complex task by teaching it via thin-slicing. The ACQUISITION STAGE is finished when our signals are relatively consistent, and the horse’s response is accurate about 90% of the time. Then we enter the STAGE OF BUILDING FLUIDITY with the task.
Gaining fluidity, with either new thought processes or new movements, means building up nerve connections. The only way to build up nerve connections is to apply our full attention to repeating the learning process.
Once we have a general idea about what we are learning, we focus our attention on the detail by reviewing the new skills often enough to put them into our long-term mental and muscle memory.
This involves repetition. How we do the repetition can vary.
Not recommeded – Drilling:
Drilling involves repeating something over and over. Good point: it will become habitual. Bad point: it can kill enthusiasm for both that task and learning anything else by drilling.
For example, horses who are routinely made to move endless circles in a round pen, or constantly repeat dressage movements, often form an aversion to going into a round pen or arena.
Recommended – Cherishing each Mini-Objective:
To put a behavior into the horse’s long- term memory and have it ‘on signal’ or ‘on cue’ seems to be best done with 1-3 repeats each session over the number of days, weeks, or months that it might take, depending on the complexity of the final objective.
If the horse does a behavior to a pleasing standard the first time we ask, it is often a good idea to wait until the next session or later in the same session before asking for it again.
Helpful – Visualizing:
there is evidence (human studies) to suggest that if we focus on clearly visualizing the muscular movements needed to achieve an outcome, the brain views this as almost as good as actually doing it.
We can’t know whether horses visualize things, but my experience with teaching horses in mini-sessions or 1-3 repeats suggests that they do seem to ‘mull over’ new learning and bring a brighter response to the next time we do it.
This is especially noticeable if we can have a short repeat most days. Once the horse shows a good knowledge of a task, a break of 2-3 days between requests often brings even more keenness to have ‘another go’ to earn a special high-value treat.
My horse, Boots, has a distinct little smug expression when she nails something especially well, earning approbation, applause, and a triple treat, a jackpot or a very special treat like a peppermint.
Helpful – Simulation:
To improve our expertise with the task, we can ask another person to stand in for our horse so we can practice developing clear signals and build up our mental and muscle memory for our part of the equation. The horse can only be as smooth in his responses as we are smooth and clear (fluid) with our signals.
If we are lucky enough to have an older, more experienced horse available, we can practice with him so we can be more coherent for a young or new horse.
A Possible Solution
To have a way of steadily improving the fluidity of challenging tasks, I decide on what mini-objectives I want to play with today, before we begin a session.
I pocket the exact number of higher-value treats to cover those objectives; usually one peppermint for a spot-on effort. In addition, I have un-shelled peanuts or carrot strips for good attempts. This stops me from being tempted to ‘do it again’ once we have a peppermint-worthy response.
I also carry (horse pellets) for getting organized with resets and for when we do more relaxing things between the mini-objective items for the day.
In a way, it’s an example of getting more by doing less.
The video clip below shows three examples. They are either fun tricks to keep us amused, moving and supple, or they are Horse Agility tasks that are getting rather tricky because we have reached the higher-level ‘walk only’ class. Instead of increasing task difficulty with trot or canter, the tasks get more convoluted.
I’ve chosen relatively complex tasks. To reach the point shown in the video, the prerequisites for each task were taught with thin-slicing over a long time.
One peppermint for a 180-degree turn and back through a gate. Previously she learned a 360-degree turn by following the feel of a rope, then learned hand and voice signals and willingly did it at liberty during a recall. Some people teach this using a target. Boots also has had many practices backing up when I stand behind her, including months of long-reining training.
A jackpot of five rapid treats for backing 8 steps in a straight line to end up in a 2.5-foot space between a barrel and me on a mounting block or between two barrels. In a session I did this once in each direction, so she could earn two peppermints. She knows ‘park and wait’ thoroughly as well as backing up with me behind her. She also has a strong background in backing out of narrow dead-end lanes as part of trailer loading preparation, which is how we started training this task. I simply added the barrel on one side and me on a mounting block on the other side.
An un-shelled peanut for our line-dancing move while I’m on the right side of the horse and another while I’m on her left side. We’ve been doing this for only a few months. She understood yielding the shoulder to touch or gesture as well as targeting her shoulder to my hand before we started. She had also learned to target her knee to my hand, so I had to be careful about developing a distinctly different hand signal. For a long time, I asked for only one repeat before the click&treat. We are now gradually building in more repeats before the click&treat.
#163 HorseGym with Boots: Gaining Fluidity without Drilling.
If our first attempt at a task is a bit sketchy, we do a quiet reset and try again, looking for improvement, click&treat for the improvement and usually we don’t repeat it again until later in the session or next day.
Instead, we go on to one of the other things we are working on, or just do activities that are well-established.
It seems that after a few weeks of repeating a complex task once daily, the horse often begins to look forward to doing it, knowing that a higher-value treat follows.
Cherishing each mini-objective set for the day’s session and rewarding it with a higher-value treat keeps alive the fresh desire to do it again tomorrow.
If you are really keen, you can watch the whole filmed video series from which I took example two in the clip above, showing Boots backing up to eight steps to end up between a barrel and me on a mounting block. This is what we did for the first 30 days. During days 31-38 we practiced Boots backing up to stand between two barrels when I stood in front, facing her.
I filmed each of the first 30 training sessions. Over 38 days we trained an average of 5 minute on this task per day, so the total training time was 3 hours, 10 minutes.
She already knew about backing up when I stood behind her, so we were adding more detail to the task. She had to learn to stay straight and to target her withers to my hand.
The clips clearly show how we were both learning stuff each day. I was learning how to be clearer in my teaching and she was figuring out exactly what she had to do to earn the click&treat. Before and after each short session we did other things.
This is the first clip in the series. They all follow in a playlist called Backing Up to a Mounting Block. Each clip is quite short.