How We Introduce Something New is Critical

Before We Start

Ideally, we consider the following points before we start.

  • We have thin-sliced the task into its smallest teachable parts and have an idea of where the early click points will be.
  • We have organized a training environment where the horse is able to relax. Ideally, he can see his herd mates, but they are not able to interfere.
  • We have thought about which part of the horse’s body we need to influence, and we’ve planned possible signal(s) to use (energy levels, body posture, body position, gesture, touch, words, strong intent). My book, Conversations with Horses, An In-Depth Look at Signs and Signals between Horses and their Handlers, looks at this topic in great detail.
  • The environment is set up to make it as easy as possible for the horse to understand what we want (use of a ‘lane’ or a corner; where we place the mat target or a nose target; use of barriers on the far side of the horse; where we position our body).

We want to make the desired behavior as east as possible for the horse to do. Setting up the training environment to achieve this means we are already halfway there.

For example, if water is challenging for the horse, we can start with walking through a box of rails on the ground, then put unusual surfaces down, like a tarp or these plastic bottles, before moving on to water.

If, instead, the horse learns evasive moves during our first fumbling with a new task, our education program has suddenly become more complex and longer. A bit of thoughtful planning can make things much easier for us and for the horse.

Ideally, we first try out our ideas with another person standing in as the horse. Or we can trial our process on a more experienced, forgiving horse. That allows us to eliminate some of the early trial and error in relation to our positioning and body language. 

By practicing with a person standing in for the horse, our horse does not have to put up our first fumbling as we learn new motor skills.

It allows us to be clearer for the horse when we first introduce something new, rather than confuse him because we have not yet worked out a smooth way to proceed.

The first step is always to make sure the horse is relaxed and in a learning frame of mind. If something has brought up his adrenalin, we do calming procedures or something active until he’s used up the adrenalin and can return to relaxation. If he is uninterested, we need to make ourselves and our treats more interesting. Or stop and just hang out. Maybe the horse is tired due to the weather or other activities.

Or we wait to start the new thing in a later session. If the horse gets tense during a training session, we must first look closely at our own emotional state and the energy we are communicating to the horse, often unconsciously. Both handler and horse need to return to relaxation before continuing.

We start teaching each slice of the whole task with click points determined by what the horse is able to offer already. As both horse and handler get smooth with each tiny additional slice leading toward the whole task, we gradually chain the slices together and shift the click point until the whole task can be achieved with one click point at the end.

When we begin teaching something new, we start by finding a beginning click point. For some things, this may be a very rough approximation of the final goal behavior, e.g. just a tiny drop of the head when we begin to teach head lowering right to the ground.

This is illustrated in the first of two Head Lowering video clips in my Free-Shaping Examples playlist. Click here.

We gradually shift the click point toward closer and closer approximations of what we want until we achieve the goal behavior.

Good timing of the click allows the horse to become more and more accurate. Once the horse understands a task that we are free-shaping, like the head-lowering example, we add a signal (cue) so we can ask for the task and also put in ON CUE so that the horse learns that a click&treat will only follow if we have asked for the task to be done.

When teaching something new, the focus of click&treat is on the new learning, but we can still click&treat good execution of things the horse already knows.

Short clip about introducing water as an unusual surface.

Consolidation of New Learning & Developing Fluidity

The Consolidation Phase begins when the horse generally understands our intent, our signals and usually responds willingly with the move we want. 

At this point, we can keep up interest and enthusiasm by providing an extra click&treat whenever any part of the task is done really well. 

To put a new task into long-term memory (for horses and for people) it needs to be practiced at least 9 or 10 sessions in a row; ideally over 9 or 10 days in a row. Some tasks will take longer, depending on their complexity. If we can’t have a session every day, we need to accept that it will take longer to build a new behavior solidly. Keeping a written record becomes essential.

How many ‘repeats’ we should do during one session is hard to pin down because it depends so much on:

  • What we are teaching.
  • The character type, age and history of the horse.
  • The skill of the handler.
  • The nature of the handler-horse relationship.

For some tasks, a rule of thumb might be three practice repeats in a row, unless the first one is perfect and calls for a major celebration. Clicker-savvy horses are usually keen to work until you decide to stop, but even a keen horse can use a short break after 10 repeats of learning something new.

If the horse is in the initial learning stage, a tiny improvement over last time is a valid click point, followed by celebration and doing something relaxing. During the whole training session, we could return to the ‘new learning’ task three times, in-between doing other things. 

Generalizing walking in water out and about.

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