Author Archives: herthajames

About herthajames

* BSc Zoology, University of Calgary, Canada * Lifelong interest in animal behavior * 5 years working as a zookeeper and movie set animal handler * Diploma of Secondary School Teaching, Christchurch, New Zealand * 23 years teaching high school Biology and Science * Diploma of Information and Library Science, Wellington, NZ * Writer specializing in creating teaching and learning resources * Lifelong student of horsemanship in its many guises * Began study of 'natural horsemanship' in early 1990's * Author of NATURAL HORSEMANSHIP STUDY GUIDE * Took up Equine Clicker Training in 2008 * Author of Obstacle Challenges for Equine Clicker Trainers on Facebook. * Author of nine books about training horses with positive reinforcement available as e-books or paperbacks from Amazon.

The Rule of Three

Introduction

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:

  • Structure our time together.
  • Keep us learning new things.
  • Build in the movement that is key to the horse’s welfare.

A training session usually works well if it consists of three general parts:

  1. Something new we want to teach.
  2. Something we want to improve.
  3. A few things that the horse already knows how to do well, often used for warm-up or cool-down.

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.

Rule of Nine

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.

Movement Routine 5 – Fence for Focus

Photo: Task 3: Walking a half-circle away from the fence.

INTRODUCTION

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).

AIM

To link this series of tasks into a sequence:

  1. Walk together.
  2. Recall toward fence.
  3. Walk a half-circle
  4. Yield shoulder to put horse’s butt at 90 degrees to fence.
  5. Back butt against fence.
  6. Two steps forward, one step back.
  7. One step forward, one step back; repeat once.
  8. Yield shoulder so horse faces fence and morph into sidestepping away.
  9. Sidestep in the opposite direction.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT)
  2. Horse can smoothly U-turn into a recall when the handler changes from walking forward to walking backwards. (https://youtu.be/XuBo07q8g24)
  3. The horse understands yielding the shoulder. (Yielding the Shoulder: https://youtu.be/eSlin8ZYcRA)
  4. Horse backs up easily to put his butt against a solid barrier. (#186 HorseGym with Boots: Backing Against Objects: https://youtu.be/SBcdVtV-eCo)
  5. Horse is familiar with backing up one step at a time and recalling one step at a time. (One Step at a Time: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5X6)
  6. Horse understands a signal for sidestepping away from the handler. (Sidestepping: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RL)
  7. Horse understand a signal for sidestepping toward the handler. (Target Shoulder to Hand: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5SH and Targeting Hindquarters to Our Hand: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Tk)
  8. Triple Treat: #16 HorseGym with Boots: https://youtu.be/FaIajCMKDDU

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and 10′ (3m) or longer lead.
  • A safe fence or other barrier. For this challenge, we ask the horse to back his butt against the barrier, so something solid like a wooden fence, a wall or a hedge is best. We could also use a line of barrels or a raised rail.

VIDEO CLIP

NOTES

  1. Be sure that the horse is confident with each task before starting to link them together. We never want to make the horse feel wrong. He can’t be wrong because he doesn’t yet know what you want. Do a quiet reset and start again if things don’t go to plan.
  2. It is usually helpful to link pairs of tasks at first, then add the first pair to the second pair, and so on.
  3. I like to memorize the sequence of events by walking the pattern without the horse and then visualizing the sequence often (a good substitute for counting sheep to go to sleep!) If you have a human friend, take turns walking the sequence being both the horse and the handler.

TASKS

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.

  1. Walk along shoulder-to-shoulder with the handler nearest the fence.
  2. Gently change to walking backwards, asking the horse to make a U-turn toward the fence, so he is walking toward you.
  3. Stop walking backwards and ask him to halt in front of you.
  4. Move to the side that allows you to easily walk a half-circle together, with you on the inside of the circle.
  5. Halt when you have walked a half-circle away from the fence. Ask the horse to yield his shoulder 90 degrees so his butt is toward the fence.
  6. Ask the horse to back up until his butt (or tail) is against fence.
  7. Ask the horse to take two steps forward toward you, then ask for one step back.
  8. Now ask for one step forward, followed by one step back; repeat once.
  9. Ask the horse to yield his shoulder 180 degrees so he faces the fence and morph that movement into stepping away from you sideways.
  10. Ask the horse to sidestep toward you or move to his other side and ask him to sidestep away from you.
  11. Finish with a big celebration (e.g. a Triple Treat).
  12. Repeat from task 1 walking on the horse’s other side.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • Practice in different spots and/or different venues.
  • When it is super smooth with rope and halter, play at liberty.
  • Move away from the fence to do the routine. Change task 6 to ask for a set number of back-up steps or have a ground rail as a back-up destination.
  • Chain the tasks in a different order.

 

 

Movement Routine 4 – Rags for Focus

INTRODUCTION

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).

AIM

Smoothly carry out a sequence of tasks using a ‘rag rail’:

  • Walk a circuit around all the rags.
  • Halt alongside, parallel to the rags.
  • Carry out one or more stationary tasks.
  • Approach the rag rail at 90 degrees, halt, back up several steps.
  • Approach the rag rail at 90 degrees and step over it with the front feet; halt, pause, then walk forward stepping across cleanly.

PREREQUISITES

  1. We have ‘step on the mat’ strongly ‘on cue’ or ‘on signal’ or ‘under stimulus control’. (Using Mats: Parking or ‘Stationing’ and Much More: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9)
  2. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT)
  3. Signals for counterturns are smooth. (Smooth Counterturns: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5WK)
  4. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. (‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO)
  5. Smooth change of direction plus changing the side of the horse the handler is on. (Changing Direction in Motion: https://youtu.be/3oqPs4LM5AM)
  6. Horse is comfortable standing across and walking across solid rails. (Placing the Feet Accurately Using a Rail: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Wc)
  7. Horse backs up confidently. (Finesse Back-Up: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5XL and The Balancera Exercise: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Wm)
  8. Horse knows one or more stationary exercises, e.g., head forward, head down, target knee, eye, ear or chin to hand, belly crunch. (There are several ‘stationary’ exercises illustrated here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Un.)

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and 10′ (3m) or longer lead.
  • A set of chunky rags. In the videos I uses five rags, but we can easily use more.

VIDEO CLIPS

#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

NOTES

  1. Lay your rags in a long straight line touching each other, to resemble a rail on the ground.
  2. Ensure that the horse is confident with each prerequisite before you begin to link them together.
  3. I like to memorise the sequence of events by walking the patten without the horse and often visualizing the sequence (a good substitute for counting sheep!).
  4. How often you click&treat depends entirely on where you are with developing each of these skills. To begin with, I opt for too often rather than not often enough. I want the horse to be continually successful as much as possible.

TASKS

  1. On the left side of horse, with the horse closest to the rags (but far enough away from them so he doesn’t step on them), walk a circuit (counter clockwise) around the rags. In this case, we need to do a counter-turn when we reach the end of the rags. Adjust how far the horse is from the rags to ensure that he does not step on them. We want him to be sure that these rags are not the same as mats. Once he understands that they are not mats, have him walk as close to them as he can.
  2. Change to the right side of the horse and repeat 1. This will be a clockwise circuit with a counter-turn.
  3. Still on his right side (and the horse closest to the rags), walk him alongside and parallel to the rags and ask him to halt; click&treat for the halt. Then ask him to carry out one or more stationary exercises that he already knows. Click&treat each exercise. For example: a) Head kept straight forward for ‘x’ number of seconds. b) Head down. c) Target knee, eye, ear, or chin to hand. d) Belly crunch.
  1. Move to the horse’s left side and repeat 3 above (horse closest to rags).
  2. Remaining on his left side, walk away from the rags in an arc to you can directly approach the center of the rag rail at 90 degrees. Halt facing the rags back far enough so the horse doesn’t step on them. Pause up to three seconds, then ask for three – five steps of back-up; either shoulder-to-shoulder or a finesse back-up (turning to face the horse).
  3. Change to his right side, walk a loop and repeat 5 above.
  4. Staying on his right side, approach the rags at 90 degrees again, but his time ask the horse to step his front feet over them and halt with the rags under his belly; pause.
  5. Ask him to walk forward across the rags.
  6. Finish with a jackpot or triple treat.
  7. Repeat 7 and 8 on the horse’s left side.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1. Vary how long you remain at ‘halt’ while standing in front of or across the rags.
  2. Vary which stationary exercise(s) you ask for as party of task 3 above.
  3. Set up your ‘rag rail’ in different places.
  4. When if all feels smooth, play with it at liberty.
  5. Do all the tasks on one side of the horse, then switch to the other side.
  6. Change the sequence of the tasks.
  7. Repeat using a solid rail instead of rags.
  8. If you have a large tarp, use that laid out instead of a rag rail.

Greet and Go: How Horses Acknowledge Each Other

Greet & Go = Acknowledging Another Group Member

Background

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.

The Human Tendency

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.

The Greet & Go Process

A brown horse standing next to a fence

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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.

A boy feeding a cow through a fence

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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.

A brown horse standing next to a fence

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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.

Relaxing Ourselves out of Frustration

  1. Pause and turn away from the horse.
  2. Breathe deeply and slowly, in and out.
  3. Roll your shoulders slowly until they can stay in a relaxed, down position.
  4. Gently bend your neck up and down, right and left.
  5. Stretch both arms straight up and down again – slowly.
  6. Smile.
  7. If the situation allows, sit for a while in the horse’s area, watching the clouds, noting your breathing, meditating.
  8. Walk around the horse’s enclosure, noting specifics. If the horse comes over to you at any point, Greet & Go.
  9. Breathe while doing all the above.
  10. Sometimes it is good to quietly finish the session and go away.

The Horse Unwilling to Greet the Human

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

The Planning Process

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: herthamuddyhorse@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to have a look at it.

Summary of the Planning Process

  1. 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:

  • Haltering.
  • Rope relaxation and calmness.
  • Leading along and backing up.
  • Staying parked at a target or ground-tied.
  • Grooming.
  • 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
  1. 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.

  1. We then use the mindmap/list to come up with a set of TOPICS that relate to and underpin our overall objective.
  2. Next, we must put our TOPICS into a logical order of progression.
  3. Then we must decide which items on our mindmap/list are GOALS which fit under our various TOPIC headings.
  4. 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.

  1. 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)
    • topics
      • 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.

  1. 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

Think about:

  • 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.

  1. 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:

   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.

  • 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.

CONCLUSION

A good plan does the following:

  1. Decides on the overall objective and expresses it clearly.
  2. Scopes the topics that fall withing the overall objective and decides which topic might be best tackled first.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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?

 

Movement Routine 3 – Fence for Focus

Photo: Walking concentric circles is part of this routine.

INTRODUCTION

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.

AIMS

  • Transitions from walking forward into finesse back-ups.
  • Walking concentric circles.
  • Stay and Wait.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (See Related Resources 1 at the end of this post.)
  2. We have taught the finesse back-up. (See Related Resources 2 at the end of this post.)
  3. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. (See Related Resources 3 at the end of this post.)
  4. While walking shoulder-to-shoulder, the horse follows the movement of the handler’s body axis away from the horse to move into a circle. (See Related Resources 4 at the end of this post.)
  5. We have taught the horse to ground-tie. (See Related Resources 5 at the end of this post.)

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and 10′ (3m) or longer lead.
  • A safe fence or similar. A safe fence or barrier is one the horse can’t put his foot/leg through if he suddenly steps back. Tape fences can work well with some horses – NOT electrified.

VIDEO CLIPS

With halter and lead:  https://youtu.be/BHSztrpA8oo

 

At liberty: https://youtu.be/O0dpTo6mXSs

NOTES

  1. Memorize the sequence of tasks by walking the pattern without the horse and then visualizing the sequence often.
  2. The number of steps you take walking forward is not important. I tend to not take many steps when making the video clips to keep the viewing time short. I sometimes suggest a number of steps, but please suit that to your horse and your environment.
  3. However, the number of steps I suggest for moving backwards is significant. Horses don’t naturally do a lot of stepping backwards. We want to stay with only 2-3 steps at first, and gradually, over many short sessions, build it up one or two additional steps at a time. We want to avoid making the horse sore.
  4. While teaching this routine, or revisiting it after a long time, I generally click&treat for each part of each task. When the routine feels familiar, I move the click point along so we are doing more before a click&treat. Each horse will be different and each time doing the pattern will be different. I like to move the click points around a bit to stop the horse anticipating a treat at a specific point every time.
  5. The key to all these tasks is to keep a continuous drape in the lead rope, using halter pressure via the rope only momentarily for additional guidance. Most of our guided shaping comes via our body position, gestures, breathing, energy level and voice signals.

TASKS

  1. On the horse’s left side, with the horse nearest the fence, walk forward maybe ten steps, halt for a second or two, then turn into a finesse back-up – asking for 2-3 steps back. Repeat two more times (three times in total).
  2. Walk a large circle (handler on the inside). At the point along the fence where you began the large circle, switch to walk a medium-sized circle. Reaching the same spot again, carry on walking a small circle. The circle sizes will depend on the space you have and how flexible your horse is. Start with large circles and gradually make them smaller as indicated by the increasing suppleness of the horse.
  3. Ask the horse to HALT alongside the fence, either ground-tied or put the rope over his neck/back. Then ask him to WAIT while you walk away about ten steps with your back to the horse. Turn to partly face the horse and take up your ‘Zero Intent’ body position for x number of seconds. Then walk back to the horse; click&treat. Gradually (over lots of short sessions with this routine) work up to a WAIT of ten seconds or more.
  4. Walk forward shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse, then turn into a finesse back-up without a halt first. With practice this can get lovely and fluid.
  5. Repeat the whole sequence of tasks walking on the horse’s right side.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1. Practice alongside different fences/walls/hedges if you can.
  2. Once the horse shows that he knows the pattern, play with it at liberty along a fence using the same signals you have used all along.
  3. Once the routine is smooth along the fence, play with it out in the open first with a lead rope, then at liberty. Alternate on which side of the horse you begin the routine.

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.

RELATED RESOURCES

  1. Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Finesse Back-Up: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5XL
  3. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
  4. Smooth 90-Degree Turns: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5VM
  5. Ground Tie: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5WX