Category Archives: Clicker Training Skills

Ringing a Bell

Introduction

This is one way to teach a horse to ring a bell. It has the bell suspended at nose height so it is easy for the horse to move it with his lips. Some horses may easily pick up a bell attached to an object and nod their head to cause it to ring.

Aim

On request, the horse nuzzles a bell to cause it to ring.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse understands putting his nose on a variety of targets to earn a click&treat.
  3. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Number 11 in my Blog Contents List: Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals. Click here.
  4. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. Number 10 in my Blog Contents List: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.
  5. Revisit the Rule of Three in Chapter 1: Click here.

Videos

#229 HorseGym with Boots: Ringing a Bell as a hand-held target.

#253 HorseGym with Boots: Ringing a Bell. This clip introduces the bell hanging freely.

#252 HorseGym with Boots: Bell Ringing.

#231 HorseGym with Boots:  This clip looks at introducing the idea of picking up the bell and walking with it.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A large bell that can be hung.
  • Something on which to hang the bell so it is freely suspended at the height of the horse’s nose.
  • For generalization, a bell attached to a rope or similar easy for the horse to pick up.

Notes

  1. The horse will think about it and be willing to try again next day. If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose willingness to engage again.
  2. With tasks like this we can fit several mini-lessons of three repeats in-between chores or other things we are doing with our horse.
  3. When the bell is a hand-held target, remove the bell behind you to take it ‘out of play’ each time you click&treat. This will allow the horse time to enjoy his treat and let you know with a consent signal (Prerequisite 3) when he is ready to do it again. Also, it will be obvious to him when you present the bell into view again.
  4. Some horses quickly progress through the early slices as soon as you start. Others need a great deal of patience over may days of mini-sessions.
  5. Click for any interest in the bell, even if it’s just sniffing the bell, then gradually click&treat for any sign of moving his lips to nuzzle the bell, even if it is not yet ‘ringing.

Slices

  1. Ring the bell yourself, followed by a click&treat for the horse. We want to let him know that the sound of the bell results in a click&treat. We also want to be sure that he is not spooked by the sound of the bell.
  2. If you think he might find it startling at first, use protected contact. Start ringing as softly as possible and make it louder as the horse shows confidence.
  3. Attach the bell to a hand-held stick so you can hold it out as a target. Click&treat when the horse puts his nose on it. This is outlined in video clip #229.
  4. Repeat 3 above with a major celebration if the horse nuzzles the bell enough to make it ring.
  5. Once it is reliable on one side of the horse, teach it again standing on his other side.
  6. Attach the bell to an object where it can hang freely at the normal height of the horse’s nose. This is outlined in video clip #253. Click&treat for targeting the bell.
  7. Wait in ‘zero intent’ until the horse nuzzles it enough to make it ring. Time your click as closely as you can to the very first bell sound. If this is not happening, try taping a string to the bell which you can quietly pull to make the bell ring a tiny bit as the horse puts his nose on it: click&treat at the very first bell sound. We want the horse to make the connection between the bell sound and the click&treat so he is motivated to make the bell ring himself.
  8. Once the horse is nuzzling the bell enough to make it ring, gradually withhold the click&treat, one second at a time, to encourage him to ring it for a bit longer. We might consider the task ‘complete’ if we get up to five seconds of bell-ringing.

Generalizations

  1. Set up the dangling bell in new venues and around other distractions. It could be part of a ‘circuit’ of different tasks.
  2. Once the horse is ho­-hum about ringing a dangling bell, we can generalize to him picking up a bell and walking with it as in video clip #231.
  3. Once the horse is carrying the bell attached to a soft item easy for the horse to carry, play with that in different venues. It could become part of your ‘Fetch’ games.
  4. Teach him to use his nose to ‘ping’ one of the little metal devices some shops use to let you announce that you need attention.
  5. Teach the horse to ‘play’ a keyboard with his lips
  6. Teach the horse to squeeze a bicycle horn for another novel sound.

Kill the Tiger

Introduction

This is a fun trick once your horse is good at picking up rags from the ground or off a fence. However, we have to be careful to put it solidly ‘on cue’ or ‘on signal’ so that the horse doesn’t generalize the task to pulling off his saddle blanket if he is a ridden horse.

I call it ‘Kill the Tiger’ because we only do it with the striped car seat cover we used in the video because, again, I don’t want her to generalize the idea to saddle pads or horse covers.

It’s another trick to keep our horse amused if it is too wet, windy, hot or cold to do more active things. The process of putting this trick ‘on signal’ consolidates our ‘wait’ signal. It’s also a lateral flexion exercise.

Aim

On request, the horse pulls a large cloth off his back and delivers it to our hand.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse understands a ‘pick’ signal which we’ve taught for picking items off the ground as in Number 73 in the Blog Contents List: Picking Things Up. Click here.
  2. ‘Zero Intent’ is well established. Number 10 in the Blog Contents List: Intent and Zero Intent. Click here.
  3. Horse and handler agree on a ‘wait’ signal. Number 65 in the Blog Contents List:  The Wait Game. Click here.
  4. Horse is confident about having large cloths draped all over his body.

Videos

#226 HorseGym with Boots: Kill the Tiger.

#254 HorseGym with Boots: Kill the Tiger 2.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A large cloth or similar easy for the horse to grab.
  • Perhaps a mat for parking the front feet to clarify that we don’t want the horse to move his feet.

Notes

  1. Ensure that the horse has a sound understanding of the prerequisite tasks. Give them the time it takes rather than focus on the end behavior too soon.
  2. Three repeats are usually plenty to start with. The horse will think about the task and be willing to try again next day. If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose willingness to engage again.
  3. Click&treat with a frequency that keeps the horse being continually successful with the slice of the task you are working on.
  4. Decide on a specific cloth or gunny sack or similar that you will always use for this exercise. It’s a task we don’t want to generalize to anything we put on his back.
  5. It’s probably easiest to teach this thoroughly on one side of the horse, then begin again on the other side.

Slices

  1. Ask the horse to pick your chosen cloth off the ground; click&treat. Repeat a couple of times to ensure this prerequisite is smooth and reliable and that he understands your ‘pick’ voice and gesture signals.
  2. Ask the horse to take the cloth from your hand when you give your ‘pick’ signal.
  3. Make sure the horse is relaxed with your chosen cloth draped all over his body.
  4. Lay the cloth over his back and ask the horse to ‘wait’, using your zero intent body language.
  5. Gently pull the cloth forward with your hand so it is easy for the horse to reach with his mouth and ask the horse to ‘pick’ it off his back. At first you may need to pull the cloth partially off. Click as soon as he grabs it and treat after he releases the cloth to your hand.
  6. Repeat 5 above a few times each session. As the horse gets to understand the task, gradually use your hand less but make sure the cloth is relatively easy for him to reach. We want him to be successful each time.
  7. At this stage you will often get the horse keen to ‘pick’ the cloth as soon as you put it on his back (or even before you can get it on his back), so we must emphasize the WAIT GAME from Slice 5 and frequently put the cloth on his back for a few seconds and take it off again without asking him to ‘kill the tiger’.
  8. When the task is ho-hum for the horse on one side of his body, teach it again from the beginning on the other side.
  9. Since this is a flexion exercise, routinely do a couple on each side of the horse. If one side feels stiffer, do a few more on that side.

Generalizations

  1. Ask the horse to walk along with the ‘tiger’ on his back before you ask him to ‘kill the tiger’.
  2. Gradually extend the ‘wait’ time before asking him to pull the cloth off his back.
  3. Generalize to pulling a rope off his back.
  4. Generalize to other venues.

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.

Playing Fetch

Introduction

Some horses easily walk along carrying something in their mouth. Other horses find this a foreign concept. For such horses we must work through a series of slices to build up a new skill. My horse, Boots, has never worn a bit for riding, so walking with something in her mouth was a truly new experience.

Some horses learn this quickly at liberty. Others gain security by being on halter and lead (kept loose) so we can give more guidance as we walk along together.

This is only a possible training plan – each person/horse partnership must tweak the ideas to suit their situation – Individual Education Plans are different for each horse.

Aim

On request, the horse moves to an item we have tossed away, picks it up and returns it to us.

Prerequisites

  • 1. The horse understands the task of picking items up off the ground and handing them to you. (See Number 73 in the Blog Contents List for the detailed Training Plan).

#224 HorseGym with Boots: Picking Things Up. https://youtu.be/gis3PF7OLlM

#255 HorseGym with Boots: Picking up Cones. https://youtu.be/pHAPExzdUPk

  • 2. Horse and handler are comfortable going for walks together.

Videos

#231 HorseGym with Boots: Picking Up Bell. https://youtu.be/x_Jk570Pnlc

Short clip showing combining PICK UP with WALK TOWARD ME.

#234 HorseGym with Boots: Playing Fetch. https://youtu.be/9L8xszYARaM

Clip showing the various slices of the Training Plan.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Places to walk together.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Lightweight items easy for the horse to hold.
  • Halter and lead to go for walks.

Notes

  1. With this exercise, we are chaining a whole series of tasks together to build a new skill: 1) pick up, 2) walk holding the item, 3) release the item into the handler’s hand without dropping it, 4) turn holding the item, 5) move toward the item when it is thrown out and pick it up, 6) turn to walk back to deliver the item to the handler.
  2. Several repeats one after the other, of the slice you are currently working on, is usually plenty. A little bit often builds an enduring habit and the horse will be willing to take part next time you bring out your item(s). If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose the horse’s willingness to engage again.
  3. Each time you click, remove the item behind you to take it ‘out of play’. It will then be obvious to him when you preset the item into view again.
  4. Some horses quickly progress through the early slices as soon as you start. Others need a great deal of patience over may days of mini-sessions.
  5. Any time the horse loses confidence, go back to what he can do confidently and gradually work forward again. Horses instantly pick up any emotion of frustration or annoyance or anger, so be sure to practice emotional neutrality except for gleeful celebration when things go well.
  6. A horse can’t be ‘wrong’ until we have carefully taught him what we want in a way that he can understand and does not make him anxious.

Slices

  1. Take your horse for a walk and occasionally halt and ask him to take the item out of your hand, hold it for x number of seconds (starting with one second) before asking him to release it back to your hand; click&treat.
  2. While taking your horse for walks, occasionally ask him to hold, then carry the item for one step, then release it to your hand. With some horses this slice may take many, many repeats. If he drops it, have zero reaction, pick it up and try again, asking for it back BEFORE he drops it, even if so far you haven’t been able to walk one step ­– i.e., return to Slice 1 for a while.
  3. Once you have a single step and it is good 90% of the time, ask for two steps, and so one, adding one step at a time over as many sessions as it takes to maintain the horse’s willingness to try again. It’s easy to rush these early slices. To build a confident, lasting behavior, we do a little bit often over many days, weeks, months, depending on your horse.
  4. Gradually add more steps, one at a time, before asking for the item back. If he drops it, ignore it with zero reaction, pick it up and go back to what the horse can do confidently. Slowly work forward again from that point.
  5. Once he will walk beside you carrying the item for 15-20 steps, we’ll change a parameter* by slowly walk backwards so the horse turns and walks toward us, hopefully still carrying his item. Have a big celebration the first time he turns without dropping it.
  6. When he can reliably hold the item as he walks with you, turns toward you as you walk backwards, and walks toward you, we can add the ‘picking up’ part. We use the ‘pick’ signals we taught as in video clip #224. Ask him to pick  the item up and walk along holding it. Because we’ve changed a parameter (please pick it up first), we again click&treat for one step walking, and as before, build up to numerous steps gradually.
  7. Fetch: when he picks it up readily and walks with it, start to toss it a wee bit further away. Go to him as he picks it up, receive it from him and click&treat right away.
  8. When 7 above is good, after you toss the item away, walk into a position that makes it easy for him to walk toward you after he’s picked it up; accept it from him; click&treat. Gradually position yourself a bit further away ( and eventually at different angles to him) so he takes two steps, three steps, and so on to deliver the item back to you. When you change the angle note how well he can orientate himself to deliver the item to you.
  9. Once the horse understands that the task is to fetch the item and return it to you, wherever you are, toss out the item and stay where you are so the horse picks it up and turns to bring it back to you.
  10. Some horses will get into this game with enthusiasm. Others will do it in a sedate manner to earn their click&treat.

Generalizations

  1. Use a variety of item that are easy for the horse to carry.
  2. Play in a variety of venues.
  3. Add variety like walking over rails, backing up, or weaving while carrying an item.

Importance of Putting Behaviors On Signal or On Cue

In the above photo, if I did not have ‘PICKING UP A CONE’ so it happens only when I give the Cue/Signal for picking it up, it would be hard to use cones as arena markers for other activities.

To become an adept and safe equine clicker trainer, it is essential to learn to put learned behaviors ‘on signal’ or ‘on cue’ as quickly as possible. We want the horse to wait for our signal before offering the behavior.

A horse throwing his learned behaviors at us might feel like fun at first, but it can rapidly get out of hand and become dangerous when the horse choses an inappropriate moment. For example, when I taught Boots to ‘spin’, it was quite startling when she wanted to show it to me and visitors all the time, while standing right beside us!

It pays to think carefully about the possible consequences of specific behaviors before we teach them. It pays to be aware that we can get into trouble, especially if the horse is a confident, imaginative and high-energy type of horse. 

The most recent thing you have taught your horse often becomes his favorite move because that behavior has recently been strongly rewarded.

Such horses may perform a learned behavior then ‘demand’ the treat. It’s important to make sure the horse does not develop this option. The treat is always a reward for something you have asked the horse to do. It can’t be demanded.

Reminder, always Click BEFORE you reach your hand toward your treat pouch or pocket. If you don’t, the horse’s attention will be on watching your hand rather than focused on what you want him to learn.

Once you have a strong relationship and your clicker training repertoire is well established, you will have built up a connection that suits you and a particular horse. For example, if I sometimes forget to click&treat a behavior that falls into our list of things I usually/always click&treat, Boots makes sure to remind me with a gentle nudge.

No other training method elicits the enthusiasm and fun that can be had with well-planned and well-executed clicker training. Many horses playing click&treat games never want their sessions to end. Rather than having to worry about ‘ending the session on a good note’, clicker trainers must teach an ‘end of session’ routine to let the horse gently and clearly know that the session is finishing.

Although the ‘marker’ does not have to be the sound of a mechanical clicker, using a distinctive mechanical clicker when first teaching something new has the advantage of greater clarity for the horse. It also helps make the handler extremely observant about where to place the current click point.

Once the horse knows a behavior and your signal for it, it doesn’t seem to matter if a tongue click or a unique, consistent sound/word is used as a bridging signal instead of a mechanical clicker.

Putting every new behavior ‘on signal’ as soon as you can, will gradually reduce the horse’s desire to throw the new move at us as soon as he sees us (much like a child dying to show us his new painting).

Usually, a horse will have one or two favorite behaviors that he pulls out to see if he can get the vending machine to pay attention. Boots’ smile is the one she always tries first. It’s good to develop a few relatively quiet ‘default’ behaviors like this that you can reward when just going to say hello to your horse or generally checking up on him.

Boots using her smile to see if a treat will be forthcoming.

The following two clips are from a while ago. The detailed notes mentioned at the end have now morphed into my books.

Signals versus ‘Cues’ or ‘Stimuli’

This is an extract from my book, Conversations with Horses: an in-depth look at signals and cues between horses and their handlers. Please see the BOOKS tab above to easily preview any of my books.

Defining a Signal

In the horse world, there are several terms used for the signals we give horses. One is ‘aids’ which is commonly used when riding. The term ‘cue’ seems to have become popular with clicker trainers.

Much more about Clicker Training is available in my book, How to Begin Equine Clicker Training. The term ‘stimulus’ comes from animal behavior laboratories.

I prefer the term ‘signal’ because it suggests that a message is sent and the ‘correct’ or intended message is received by the other party.

If a Morse code sender carefully sends his message, but the person at the other end does not know Morse code well enough to decode the message accurately, then the signal has failed. The garbled message may well lead to troubled times.

In other words, if a signal does not relay the desired message, then whatever we have used as a signal is not acting as a signal. By definition, a signal must communicate the person’s message and be received as such by the other party, in this case, the horse.

If it is not working as intended, the signal needs to be adjusted or changed so the message sent equals the message received.

When we are with the horse, he is busy sending us signals about his emotional, mental and physical well-being. If we can’t pick up these signals accurately, then the horse becomes frustrated and misunderstood and often retreats from willing interaction by trying to leave or ‘shutting down’. He becomes reactive rather than responsive.

Cues and stimuli are constantly bombarding all of us. A signal is something we want to stand out from everything else the horse is noticing and everything else we are noticing. We want the horse to easily separate our signal from all the other many cues that are constantly flowing in.

At the same time as we are communicating our intent with our signals, the horse is trying hard to communicate his intent and his feelings with his body language. The more ‘in tune’ we can get with the signals our horse sends us, the better our two-way communication can become.

In this work, I will use the term ‘signal’ rather than ‘aid’, ‘cue’ or ‘stimulus’. I’ll also refer to all horses as ‘he’ for ease of reading, unless I’m talking about a specific mare or filly.

Like the rest of us, horses thrive on clarity and consistency of communication. 

Building a relationship with a horse is like locating a set of keys to unlock a door so the horse’s true nature can come out.

The horse’s total well-being depends on how well we can help him adapt to the peculiar life a horse must live in a human-centered world.

While we are trying to get to know our horse better and understand his emotional, mental and physical boundaries, the horse is doing exactly the same with us.

He is trying to read our intentions so he can be ready to react or respond, according to his perceptions. The more we understand about the signals we are giving the horse, the more we can develop a mutual language.

Boots is reading my body language and gesture signals for stepping onto the balance beam.

The more we realize that much of what we are communicating to the horse is in our unconscious body language, the more we can ‘still’ our body between meaningful signals. 

‘No Intent’ body language tell the horse that all we are doing is standing together quietly.

We would like the horse to respond confidently to our requests rather than become anxious, reactive and bracing against the pressure of our signals. 

The horse would also prefer to respond rather than become anxious, adrenalized and feeling the need to react by trying to escape, push through pressure or mentally and physically ‘shut down’ – hiding inside himself. 

A horse needs a sound foundation of knowledge to enable him to cope with the very strange things people expect of their captive horses. 

To do this we need to:

  • Take the horse through a careful education program 
  • Set up a teaching schedule suited to the individual horse’s background and ability and adapted continually to the feedback the horse gives us 
  • Give him every opportunity to master each small step of a large task, before asking him to string all the parts of a big task together. 

This cutting of a whole task into its smallest teachable parts can be referred to as ‘thin-slicing the task’. 

My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans, looks in detail at thin-slicing and writing Individual Education Programs (IEPs).

For each step of the teaching process, we must make sure we are sending a clear message rather than a confusing mumble. Therefore, a key element for the success of any teaching and learning program is ensuring that our signals are consistent and clear.

Horses are so sensitive that if we alter a signal even a little bit, they often think it means something else. The more things we teach our horse, the more carefully we need to think about the signals we use.

We can give our horse the best deal by becoming more aware about:

  • The specific types of signals we can use
  • How we are orientating our body
  • How we can refine our signals as the horse becomes confident
  • How to use a ‘signal bundle’ or ‘multi-signal’
  • When we are ‘nagging’ rather than communicating.

As mentioned earlier, it is the most natural thing in the world to expect the horse to change so it does what we want. However, in reality, it is by changing what we do that yields the results we want. 

There will be variations in horse behavior based on each horse’s innate character type, his personal history, his relationship with the handler and the situation of the moment.

Horses will always be horses and will respond in the way that horses respond. Being prey animals, their main concern is safety.

Before we can cause change in the horse, we must become hyper aware of what we are doing while the horse is watching.

Whenever we are in our horse’s view, he is picking up all sorts of signals from us – our posture, our energy level, our intent, what we usually do that time of day, any specific signal we may be giving and so on.

Once we learn to pay close attention to the horse’s body language, we get better at understanding the signals the horse is sending us.

A signal is a direct, purposeful communication between horse and handler. If we’ve carefully taught a signal for backing up, then the horse will back up when we give that signal. 

Boots understand the ‘raised fingers’ signal to mean ‘please back up’. I may be using a “Back” voice signal at the same time, which means I’m using a multi-signal to be especially clear.

If the horse raises his head and points his ears with strong concentration, we pick up his signal that something in the environment has his full attention. 

The horse’s body language of raised head and ears focused strongly forward tells us that some cue or stimulus in the distance has captured his whole attention.

First, we learn the horse’s language – his signals. Then it is up to us to teach the horse the language he needs to remain safe and comfortable in the human world – our signals.

Since we have taken the horse away from his natural lifestyle and made him our captive, it is up to us to become fluent in Universal Horse Language and learn to use it effectively. To be effective we need:

  • An understanding of different horse character types.
  • An understanding of our particular horse’s character type.
  • Awareness of our body language and the different ways we use signals.
  • Knowledge about horse senses and sensitivity.
  • As much knowledge as possible about a particular horse’s background experiences.
  • To write good training plans which can be turned into individual education programs (IEPS) designed for a specific horse.
  • Adept use of body language, body extensions, ropes, reins.
  • Timely application of release reinforcement.
  • Adept use of reward reinforcement along with release reinforcement.

There is detailed information about using reward reinforce-ment in my book, How to Begin Equine Clicker Training.

The more fluent we are about understanding horse body language and the mechanics of both release (negative) and reward (positive) reinforcement, the better a teacher we can be for our horse.

It is hard for the horse to learn from someone who doesn’t have a good understanding of who and what they are teaching.

Before we head into an overview of the signals we use with horses, followed by a detailed look at each signal type, we need to look in detail at how horses sense and perceive their environment. (The next part of the book delves into this.)

 Once we are conscious of the biological differences between horse and human perception, it is easier to allow horses the leeway they need to feel safer in our company.

Counting with the Hind Feet

This task is an excellent exercise to work on the timing of our ‘click’ and melting into ‘zero intent’ to wait for the horse’s ‘consent signal’ to do a repeat. The task forces us to focus on the timing and consistency of our On/Off gesture signals. It is also an excellent mobilization exercise for the horse.

Boots and I played with this occasionally for over a year, especially when time was short or the weather was rough, but also as a regular ‘end of session’ exercise. We did this after a year of working on confident ‘counting’ with the front feet as in Prerequisite 3 below.

Aim

When I face the back of the horse and point to his hind feet with my inside hand, using an On/Off gesture signal, the horse lifts a hind foot when I point and sets it down when I remove my hand signal.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and Handler have developed good table manners standing quietly together. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.
  2. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: Click here.
  3. Horse and handler are already confident ‘counting’ with the front feet. Click here.
  4. Triple Treat: #16 HorseGym with Boots. Click here.
  5. Horse is comfortable rubbed all over with a long object (video clip below).

Videos: Counting with Hind Feet

#246 HorseGym with Boots

#243 HorseGym with Boots. The following clip shows the detail of working with ‘zero intent’ and waiting for the horse to give a ‘consent signal’ that tells us he is ready to try again.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A long-handled target to introduce the idea of lifting a hind foot to touch a target (which we eventually fade out).
  • A shorter target to accentuate the On/Off gesture signal (also gradually faded out).
  • A mat at first, to help the horse understand that we want him to stand still.
  • A safe fence or barrier alongside which we can stand the horse.
  • A variety of other barriers to use for generalization.
  • Two raised rails (or similar) to stand between.

Notes

  1. It’s important to stay with each slice of this task until the horse is fully ho-hum with it. In other words, repeat each slice a few time over as many short sessions as it takes for the horse to respond smoothly to your ON/OFF signal. If we take the time it takes to establish each slice, all steps of the overall task will be embedded in the horse’s long-term memory, giving us relaxed responses.
  2. Timing of the click is essential at first. It is the only way the horse can understand what you want him to do (lift his foot). Try hard to click as the foot is coming UP. If you’re unsure about your timing, practice by bouncing a ball and clicking when it leaves the ground. Or practice with a person standing in for the horse. Eventually we can relax the timing and click for the completion of one UP and DOWN movement. In the video clip you will notice that at one point I had to specifically wait to click after the foot returned to earth. Each horse will show his own little foibles.
  3. I don’t mind which foot the horse lifts. I prefer if he uses both. If a horse seems to use the same leg most of the time, make a big deal (triple treat / celebration) when he uses the other one. This is a mobilization exercise, so using both legs is good.
  4. When starting with this task, use the same location, same mat, same targets (until faded out) until the horse is truly confident with what you are asking.
  5. Often, it’s helpful to start on the horse’s left side, but we need to build the pattern standing on his right side as well. Spend a little more time on the side that feels harder. I like to teach each slice on both sides as we go along. An option is to teach all the slices on one side then teach them all again from the beginning on the other side. Or teach several slices on one side and then on the other side.
  6. Any time there is confusion (horse and/or handler), return to where you both feel confident and gradually work forward again. I had a terrible time remembering to use my inside hand for the gesture signal. When I used my outside hand I thoroughly confused my horse because gestures with my outside hand already had two different meanings, as shown on the video clip.
  7. Consistently use the hand closest to the horse (the inside hand) for your signal.
  8. A major part of the signal is the turning of our body to face the horse’s hind feet while we remain at his shoulder. As I turn, I add a voice signal, “Counting Rear”, to help differentiate this task from other things I do facing the back of the horse.
  9. It took us a long time (months) to put all these pieces together, with a short practice most days. I started in a consistent place as mentioned in Note 4.

Slices

  1. Stand the horse alongside a safe barrier in a place that you can use consistently for each session. The barrier stops the horse thinking we want him to move his hind end away. Ask him to park his front feet on a mat.
  2. Set the stage for the exercise by asking the horse to count with his front feet – a major prerequisite for success with this task.
  3. Turn so you are facing his hind end. Holding your long-handled target in the hand nearest the horse (inside hand) gently touch it to his hock; click as you touch and deliver the treat as you move the target out of play behind you.
  4. Repeat 3 above with Click&treat for any movement, even a shift of weight off that foot. When first teaching this, remember to click as the foot lifts UP.
  5. As the horse begins to understand that you click&treat when his foot comes up, hold the target near his hock, not touching it. The movement of your arm will become the horse’s clue.
  6. When 5 above is good, use a shorter target to point to the hind foot. Or shorten the target you have been using – or use the same-looking end on a shorter stick (a different-looking target may confuse an extremely sharp horse). Boots did not find this a problem.
  7. When 6 above feels ho-hum, go to an even shorter target and/or introduce the wiggling of your finger along with the target.
  8. When 7 above feels confident, refine your gesture to just lifting your arm and wiggling your finger. Immediately the horse lifts his foot, click, return your signaling hand to its OFF position lying on your belly, feed the treat with your other hand.
  9. When getting one foot-lift is reliable, and it feels right, ask for a second lift before the click&treat. Huge celebration if you get it. Remember we are using an ON/OFF signal, so put your signal hand into neutral on your belly before asking for the second lift.
  10. Vary between asking for one lift and two lifts. I count out loud as the horse lifts the foot: “One, Two” with a voice emphasis on the number I will click&treat if it is more than one. The horse learns that a soft counting voice means a request for another ‘lift’ is coming up.
  11. When 10 above feels ho-hum, ask for a third lift before the click&treat. Again, a huge celebration.
  12. Over time work up to as many lifts as you want. I usually stick with a maximum of five standing on the left and five standing on the right, but I vary the number requested each time we do it and might occasionally ask for six or seven.
  13. Once you have reliable lifts standing alongside a familiar barrier, generalize to other locations where you can stand the horse with a safe barrier along his far side to maintain the idea that he doesn’t need to move his body.
  14. Once 13 above is relaxed, stand the horse between rails raised to gradually wean away from a high barrier.
  15. The task is ‘finished’ when you can easily count your decided number of lifts on either side of the horse without needing any props.

Generalizations

  1. Play with the exercise in different venues.
  2. Play on a slope.
  3. Incorporate it into your WAIT game or your Four Corners Exercise. Click on the Blog Contents List at the top of the page to access these (Number 65 and Number 71 on the list).
  4. Use it as a mobilization exercise when it’s too hot, cold, windy, wet to do much else.

Navigating Gates and Gaps

Introduction

Gates come in a variety of shapes, orientations, and sizes. Teaching our horses to calmly negotiate gates in different situations gives us excellent training opportunities.

Aims

Horse confidently:

  1. Waits while the handler passes through the gate, comes through on request and turns 180 degrees once through the gate.
  2. Moves though a gate ahead of the handler and turns 180 degrees to face the handler.
  3. Moves though a gate ahead of the handler and waits without turning.
  4. Backs through a gate.

Prerequisites

  1. Smooth walking shoulder-to-shoulder and confident HALT. Number 16 in my Blog Contents List: Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions. Click here.
  2. Horse has learned to ‘wait’ until handler gives a new signal or clicks&treats. Mainly as in this clip: #8 HorseGym with Boots: Duration on the Mat. Click here.
  3. Smooth 180-degree turns. Number 23 in my Blog Contents List: 180 Degree Turns. Click here.
  4. Handler and horse agree on a clear ‘recall’ signal. February 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Simple Recall Pt. 1.Click here.
  5. Horse and handler have a ‘move away from me please’ signal paired with a ‘whoa’ signal while the handler is behind the horse. #213 HorseGym with Boots: Send & Halt. Click here.
  6. For generalizations, we have taught the finesse back-up. Number 40 in my Blog Contents List: Finesse Back-Up. Click here.
  7. For generalizations, the horse understands a back-up signal when the handler is behind the horse. #105 HorseGym with Boots: Trailer Simulation with Dead End. Click here.

Videos

Clip 1: #237 HorseGym with Boots

Clip 2: #238 HorseGym with Boots

Clip 3:  #239 HorseGym with Boots: Click here.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Six or eight low markers around which the horse can turn 180 degrees without the lead rope getting snagged. 5L containers of water or blocks of firewood work well.
  • A familiar mat.
  • Halter and lead at least 12 feet or 4 meters long. Light cord works fine.
  • Two tall objects to create a gap (gate simulation) or a fence/wall and one tall object.
  • A rope or similar to simulate a gate.
  • A variety of real gates.

Notes

  1. Navigating a gate requires a chain of small individual tasks. We teach the individual tasks, then link them together.
  2. As we link the small tasks, our Click Point* shifts along so the horse does progressively more before each click&treat.
  3. It’s important to stay with each slice and each small task until our signals are clear and consistent and the horse responds readily.
  4. Once a maneuver is smooth on one side of the horse, we teach it again on the other side of the horse. I like to teach each small task on both sides as we go along.

Slices

  1. Ensure that the horse confidently targets a mat with his feet to earn a click&treat.
  2. Set up a low marker object with a mat nearby. Start at the mat and ask the horse to walk around the marker with you and return to the mat, so you are doing a 180-degree turn together. Click&treat at the mat.
  3. When 2 above is smooth, do the same exercise without the mat. At first, ask for a HALT about where the mat used to be; click&treat the halt.
  4. Set up a line or circuit of objects to walk around to practice 3 above. And also generalize to different places if you can.
  5. When 3 and 4 above are smooth, hang back a bit and send the horse around the marker on his own. The Click Point is now shifted to when the horse returns to you after walking around the marker.
  6. Once 5 above is solid, send the horse away from you between two markers instead of around a marker. This is the first approximation of a gate.
  7. When 6 above is smooth, ask the horse to HALT and WAIT on the other side of the gap from you. The ‘halt and wait’ becomes your new Click Point. Go to the horse to deliver the treat.
  8. Create an obvious gap with two tall objects (or fence/wall and one tall object). Place a low markers on either side of the gap for the horse to walk around as he did in 3 above. Repeat 7 above using this gap.
  9. Negotiate the gap in both directions.
  10. Introduce the idea of the horse waiting on one side of the gap while you walk through the gap first. Once you’ve walked through, pause, then invite the horse through the gap and around the marker so he ends up beside you. This becomes the new Click Point when the handler goes through the gate first.
  11. When 10 above feels smooth, add a rope to simulate a gate. Play with opening the gate toward you and away from you.
  12. When the gate opens toward you, ask the horse to go through the gap first plus turn to face you and WAIT. Then you go through the gate and shut it. Click&treat.
  13. When the gate opens away from you, ask the horse to WAIT while you move through first, then ask him to come through and turn so he is beside you and facing the gate as you close it. Click&treat.
  14. Use a ‘gate’ gap to teach sending the horse through the gate but not turning around. If we long-rein or drive our horse, we won’t want him to turn after going through the gate. So teach him to walk through the gap while you stay behind him, plus halt and WAIT in the facing away position (Prerequisite 5). Go to the horse to deliver the treat.
  15. Ask the horse to back through a gate. Begin with walking him through the gate, then back up through it. Eventually walk to the gate, then ask him to turn so the gate is behind him and ask him to back through.
  16. When all the above are going smoothly, move on to practicing with as many real gates as you can.

Generalizations

  1. Play with simulation gates at liberty.
  2. Play with real gates at liberty if you can safely do that.
  3. Ask the horse to WAIT on one side of the gap while you walk through it and turn to face him. Ask the horse to recall through the gate. (Prerequisite 4).
  4. Play with simulation gates on a slope.
  5. Gradually make your ‘gate spaces’ narrower and narrower.
  6. Teach backing through gates with a signal while you face the front of the horse (Prerequisite 6).
  7. Teach backing through gates with a signal from behind the horse (Prerequisite 7).

Drive-By Grooming

Introduction

This is a fun way to work on the clarity of our voice, touch, and gesture signals for walk on, halt, and back up. If we have a tall horse (or we are short) it can make grooming the upper parts of the horse much easier.

Having our feet ‘planted’ in one place means we have to refine our signals to make them super clear for the horse.

Aim

To groom the upper areas of both sides of our horse while standing on a raised platform (or keeping our feet on a mark on the ground if we have small equines).

Prerequisites

  1. Horse confidently comes to a mounting block or similar structure without the need for a mat. #240 HorseGym with Boots: Wait and Recall. Click here.
  2. Horse confidently targets his cheek to a brush. #242 HorseGym with Boots: Target Cheek to Brush. Click here.
  3. Horse understands a ‘move forward please’ signal paired with a ‘whoa’ signal while the handler remains in one spot. #213 HorseGym with Boots: Send & Halt. Click here.
  4. Horse is familiar with backing up one step at a time and moving forward one step at a time. Number 37 in my Blog Contents List. One Step at a Time. Click here.
  5. Horse understands hand and voice signals for backing up when the handler is beside the withers. #173 HorseGym with Boots: Balancera Clip 1 of 2. Click here.
  6. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: Click here.
  7. Number 46 in my Blog Contents List: Rule of Three: Click here.

Video

#194 HorseGym with Boots:

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse and Handler are clicker-savvy.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A mounting block or anything safe for the handler to stand on. If you have a small pony, stand on a marker of some sort, so you are not tempted to move your feet other than turning as necessary.
  • A safe fence or similar barrier.
  • Grooming gear.
  • To start with guided shaping, use a target that’s easy to handle and take out of play (tuck into a belt or pocket), or a halter and lead.

Notes

  1. Short sessions of Slice 1 can be done alongside the other slices. But stay with each of the other slices until you are both confident with it. Better to go a bit too slow than to go too fast.
  2. Have each task working smoothly on the ground before putting them together and eventually adding the platform to stand on.
  3. The timing of the click is the only thing that tells the horse how to earn the treat, so strive to get your timing as accurate as you can.
  4. When the horse moves ahead of you, or backs up so he is behind you, we want him to halt and wait ‘on the spot’ when he hears the click. You go to him to deliver the treat.
  5. Remember to celebrate each approximation toward the final goal. Start with a high rate of reinforcement. As the horse gets to understand each task, ask for a bit more before each click&treat.
  6. But always be prepared to slow down and increase the rate of reinforcement if the horse (or the handler) gets lost. I always do this task with a high rate of reinforcement because Boots has never been keen on grooming.

Slices

  1. Ensure that your horse willingly comes to you when you call him while you stand on a pedestal, mounting block or marker. Usually this includes have taught a ‘wait’ so that you can move easily between your standing places (Prerequisite 1).
  2. On the ground, ensure that your horse willingly targets a brush in your hand, both with his nose and with his cheek (Prerequisite 2). This is a great task to teach your horse about consent signals (Prerequisite 6) by doing a little bit often (Prerequisite 7). A consent signal for brushing by the horse might be touching his cheek to your brush. Do all this standing on the ground.
  3. On the ground, ensure that your horse understands a signal for moving forward one step and back one step while you are beside him (Prerequisites 3, 4, 5).
  4. On the ground, play with asking the horse to move forward one or two steps with an arm gesture or a touch signal just behind the withers. We can teach this by standing back from a nose target and using the gesture or touch signal to request the horse to move to the target and wait there for you to move to him to deliver the treat. (Prerequisite 3). Eventually phase out the nose target. Click for one or two steps forward away from you when you use your touch signal behind the withers.
  5. On the ground, play with asking the horse to back up a few steps while you are at or behind his withers (Prerequisite 5). Work alongside a fence in a corner or build a dead-end lane to make it easier for the horse to understand what you want.
  6. Once all the tasks above are in place on the ground, add the mounting block or pedestal.
  7. When 6 above is smooth on one side of the horse, ask the horse to back up far enough so you can ask him to walk forward on the other side of the mounting block so his other side is nearest you.
  8. Once you have your ‘ready to brush’ Consent Signal in place (Prerequisite 6), use it for drive-by grooming while you stand on the mounting block or pedestal. Boots’ consent signals are coming over to me on the mounting block or pedestal and touching the brush with her cheek when I hold it out.

Generalizations

  • Move your mounting block to different locations.
  • Vary whether you start grooming on the left side or right side.
  • Stand on different pedestals to do drive-by grooming.
  • Play with asking him to come to the mounting block from further and further away.
  • Teach another person the signals so they can brush your horse.

Overview of Equine Clicker Training

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

People are often confused with the scientific/mathematical terms: Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement used in the study of behavior.

‘Negative’ means ‘bad’ in much of everyday language, but used in the mathematical sense, as it is here, it simply means removing (subtracting) something from a situation.

We touch the horse’s chest to ask him to step back and when he does, we remove our hand from his chest and drop our energy (-R).

‘Positive’ in everyday language means something ‘good’. But used in the mathematical sense, as it is here, it simply means adding something to a situation.

The horse comes to us and we give him a strip of carrot. We have added the carrot to the situation (+R).

Horses (as do we) behave in ways that stop/lessen the pressure of directional touch, gesture, voice, or energy sent toward them. This is negative reinforcement (-R): we remove the pressure of the signal when the horse complies.

Of course, horses may also seek touch if they love to be groomed, scratched or massaged, so some forms of touch may be positive reinforcement (+R). Young foals often find scratching very reinforcing. They quickly learn to repeat behaviors that result in a good scratch.

Horses (as do we) behave in ways that ensure they get more of something they like. When we train horses, we usually use a small food treat to reward a behavior that we want. This is positive reinforcement (+R): i.e., we add the treat to the situation.

We build up complex behaviors by marking each tiny step of the learning process with the marker sound we’ve chosen (click or word) and delivering a treat. Eventually the horse will be able do the whole task smoothly with one click&treat at the end.

How often we click&treat (rate of reinforcement) depends on the complexity of the behavior we are working with. We have to click&treat often enough to keep the horse being continually successful with working out what will earn his next click&treat.

Combined Reinforcement

We can use a touch on the chest, remove our touch as the horse steps back (-R), plus mark the stepping back behavior with our special sound, then deliver a treat (+R). This is ‘combined reinforcement’ because we have used -R and +R together to help the horse understand just what he needs to do to earn another click&treat.

It could be that if -R is reinforcing and +R is reinforcing, using both together in the name of clarity is more than twice as reinforcing for the horse.

Because we are essentially asking the horse to learn a foreign language, striving for clarity is essential. If a horse can only perceive a vague mumble, he will be inclined to zone out, either with his feet, or mentally if he is held by ropes or fences.

When we are riding, we use the energy and inclination of our body as signals for the horse. We use reins or a neck rope to give touch signals. When we train with touch, gesture, voice, body language and our body’s energy, we are using negative reinforcement. When the horse responds, we remove the signal. If we add click&treat to develop the response we want, we are using combined reinforcement.

Combined Reinforcement: Boots learned to ‘smile’ when she reached up to my hand held aloft and I tickled her Upper lip. When she moved her lips, I clicked and gave her a treat. Soon she was offering the smile, and now uses it as one of her ‘consent signals’*

Video Clip: Target & Tickle

Capturing

Some equine clicker trainers try hard to teach everything using only what they see as being +R (positive reinforcement). This has led to a burst of creativity to work out how we can teach horses by giving them a choice about taking part in what we want to do.

Capturing a complete behavior with a click&treat is possible for some behaviors. Things that horses do naturally can be captured. For example:

  • Touching the nose to a target.
  • Downward dog stretching.
  • Lying down.
  • Staying in the ‘sit’ position which is part of a horse getting up from lying down.
  • Walking along with us.
  • Investigative behavior with new objects.
  • Coming when called.
  • Head down. Click here.
  • Backing up – if we are patient enough to wait until it happens naturally.

There are probably others, but for more most things we want to teach we use free-shaping* and guided shaping*. Items with an asterisk (*) are defined in the Glossary section.

Capturing a behavior: A horse’s natural curiosity will cause him to investigate something new with his nose. We can capture this moment with a click&treat. Once targeting is established with a strong history of positive reinforcement, we can use the willingness to touch or follow a target to train a variety of more complex behaviors. In other words, we can use the target for ‘guided shaping’*.

Capturing a behavior: Boots has learned that this stretch always earns a click&treat. I noticed she usually stretched like this after a nap and managed to ‘capture’ it three days in a row with click&treat. Then she began offering it often.

Capturing a behavior: If the horse will walk one step beside us, we click&treat after one step. Gradually we build up the ‘walking together’ by click&treat for two steps, then three steps, and so on, staying within the horse’s comfort zone and understanding. If we lose the behavior, we’ve gone too fast.

Free-Shaping

For free-shaping we click successive approximations of what we eventually want. For example: look at tarp, walk toward tarp, sniff tarp, put one foot on tarp, walk onto tarp, trot across tarp. We stay with each approximation until the horse is ho-hum with it, then move our click point along the continuum.

Free-shaping allows us more of an agenda than capturing a finished behavior.

Here are a few examples of free-shaping:

  • Approaching a mat or a tarp. We click&treat each tiny step toward the horse confidently standing on these. Click here.
  • Putting on a halter. We start with a horse willingly targeting a halter, then proceed from there. Click here.
  • Playing Step Aerobics: Click here.
  • Walking along with a bike: Click here.
  • Belly Crunches: Click here.
  • Developing consent signals: Click here.
  • Picking something up. Ideally we don’t want the horse tied up as in this clip, but in some situations we don’t have a choice. Click here.

Free-shaping: We are playing with picking up a cone and bringing it to me.

Luring

Luring can be useful in some situations. If the horse is anxious about approaching a tarp, we can put a treat near the tarp and eventually on the tarp, then let the horse make up his mind about stepping on the tarp in his own time.

We can teach a horse to self-load into a trailer using luring by feeding first near the trailer, then on the ramp, then progressively more in the trailer until the horse is right in and the bucket of feed and hay are at the front of the trailer.

Using this system means the horse has time to overcome his anxiety about entering and exiting a small space. It takes careful planning, but the result can be a horse totally calm about entering and backing out of a trailer.

When I used this method, the horses managed their daily trailer loading sessions independently while I did the chores. By allowing horses the time to make up their own minds about a situation, we give them back some of the control we take from them by having them in captivity.

Luring: We can add a treat to a new situation and let the horse build his confidence in his own time.

Modelling

Horses are experts at reading the body language of their herd members. After all, a foal raised with his mother and other herd members learns what to do and what not to do by observation and modelling their behaviors.

A handler that the horse knows and trusts can tap into this by modelling the behavior she’d like the horse to copy. When a click&treat follows the horse’s first attempt to model a behavior, he often picks up the new move with enthusiasm.

Examples include:

  • Putting the feet on an obstacle.
  • Standing quietly with no intent.
  • Walk/jog when we walk/jog.
  • Halt when we halt.
  • Turn when we turn.
  • Beginnings of jambette.

Modelling: Boots was keen to follow my suggestion when I put my foot up on the object.

Modelling: If we click&treat the first effort at matching leg-lifts, the horse often becomes keen to do it again to earn another click&treat.

Guided Shaping

For guided shaping, we use a target, gesture, hand touch, touch on a halter via a lead rope, and energy changes in our body to give the horse information about what will earn him his next click&treat.

We click&treat each small step toward the finished behavior. Then we gradually link the small steps together until the horse can carry out the whole behavior with one click&treat at the end.

These cues we start with, once refined and once the horse understands and accepts them, become signals for requesting the specific behavior. We must be careful to put each behavior ‘on cue’ so the horse understands that a click&treat only happen if the task has been requested.

Guided Shaping with Targets

Using targets is a great way to motivate horses. This is +R where we add two things. The target to gain the horse’s interest, then the click&treat when the horse meets our objective. In a way, using targets is a specific type of luring.

We can use hand-held targets, stationary targets set at nose height, and foot targets.

Here are some examples:

  • Follow a hand-held target.
  • Walk/trot between stationary targets.
  • Follow target onto a trailer, wash-bay or stall.
  • Introduce movement around a reverse pen. Click here.
  • Voluntary stretches to reach a target. Click here.
  • We ask the horse to target gear we want to use before we use it, e.g., halters, ropes, covers, saddle blankets, saddles, harness parts, balls, wheelbarrows, vets, worming syringes. When I put gear on my horse, I always ask her to target each piece of it (click&treat) before we use it.
  • Come to a mounting block.

Once the horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement for touching his nose to a target, we can use it to encourage him to explore new situations.

Using a target for stationary flexion of parts of the body. Note that we are using a mat target to build the idea of keeping the feet still to do the stretching.

Our Hand as a Target

Although targets are super useful to teach the horse a variety of movements, they are an intermediate stage of training. We don’t want to have to carry a target with us forever.

We can begin to teach the horse to walk with us by presenting a target, click after a pre-decided number of steps, remove the target out of play behind us and deliver a treat.

As we present the target, we also use body language, breathing, voice, energy level changes. Once these are well established using the target, the target is easily replaced by an arm gesture to accompany the body language, breathing and energy change (energy up for ‘walk on’ and energy down for ‘halt’).

We can use our extended hand as a recall target. And we can use our hand to teach the horse to target various of his body parts to our hand. These include chin to hand, ear to hand, cheek to hand, knee to hand, shoulder to hand, hip to hand. Click here.

Hand as Target: Boots has moved her head to target her ear to my hand. I click, then feed the treat in a position that has her straighten her head again.

Guided Shaping with Touch and Gesture

When we use touch and gesture to explain to the horse what will result in a click&treat, we use ‘combined reinforcement’. We add the touch or gesture energy, remove it as the horse complies and simultaneously click&treat.

At first the horse often gives us just an approximation of what we want as the finished behavior. We click&treat all of these approximations. This is often called ‘rewarding the smallest try’. The horse is then usually keen to repeat the behavior and over time the click&treat point moves closer and closer to the ‘finished’ behavior.

When the touch and/or gesture signals (-R) are intricately linked with marking & rewarding (+R), the touch and gesture are information for the horse about how to earn his next click&treat.

Used thoughtfully in this way, negative reinforcement gives clarity to our teaching. The energy of our touch/gesture signals is minimal.

We can often teach a task or behavior using Capturing, Free-Shaping, Luring, Modelling, and Shaping with a Target. Once the horse understands the task, we add distinct, consistent voice, touch, and gesture signals.

Gesture Signal: I’m using my focus, arm gesture and energy to ask Boots to move her hind end across. This was one of the steps in the process of teaching her to sidestep along a rail.

Touch signal: Asking the horse to back up using touch on the halter via a lead rope. She is about to step back with her left front and right hind legs. We should teach our horse a variety of signals for backing up, both at liberty and with rope or reins.

Summary

It is an interesting learning experience to work out how we can use just positive reinforcement (+R) to teach our horse many of the things he needs to know. Once he understands the task, we add consistent voice, touch, gesture, breathing, body language signals so that we can put the task ‘on cue’ or ‘on signal only’ or under ‘stimulus control’.

When we begin using positive reinforcement, many horses become very keen and begin to throw behaviors at their handler in the hope of scoring a click&treat. This has to be handled carefully by only clicking&treating when an action has been requested. If we randomly hand feed at other times, the horse will of course be confused.

Some horses find this process of ‘putting a task on cue’ very frustrating so we have to plan our training carefully. We need to work in small bursts, develop ‘end of this session’ signals and ensure that the horse is never hungry before we begin a clicker training session. Click here.

Once the horse knows several tasks, we can switch between tasks to avoid this sort of frustration.

Equine clicker training is fun and built on a simple scientific principle, but it is never easy. Horses are complex beings and each horse brings his own twist to the table, as does each handler.

On top of all this, we have to be realistic about the situations most horses face sooner or later. We have to carefully prepare them to understand how to respond to various forms of negative reinforcement. We need to do this at home so when a tricky situation arises away from home, we have a full toolbox to deal with it.

Zero Intent in Action: Red Lights and Green Lights

Introduction

The concept of giving our horse a choice about whether or not he wants to do things with us is a novel idea at first. Until we delve into training with positive reinforcement, it is the norm to expect the horse to put up and shut up when we want to ride him or do anything else with him.

Horses are recreation or sport for us, but often we are not recreation or enrichment in their lives. In many situations, horses generally either learn to put up with human demands, no matter how painful or stressful for them, or they are passed over for a more ‘willing’ horse.

By learning about ‘consent signals’ and learning to wait for them, we can enhance a horse’s well-being by giving him back a little bit of the choice we remove from him when we keep him captive, away from the natural dynamics of life in the wild.

Aims

  1. To develop the handler’s ability to switch into neutral (to show the horse zero intent) by taking up a distinct body position, removing attention from the horse and draining energy out of the body.
  2. Improving how well we tune in to a horse’s consent signals and noticing more quickly when he shows us that he is not ready or able to proceed.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse has learned to ‘wait’ until handler gives a new signal or clicks&treats. Number 9 in my Blog Contents List: Mats: Parking or Stationing and Much More. Mainly this clip: #8 HorseGym with Boots: Duration on the Mat. Click here.
  3. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. Number 10 in my Blog Contents List: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here. This clip is also the second clip below.
  4. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Number 11 in my Blog Contents List: Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals. Click here.
  5. Handler understands ‘Trigger Stacking’: This is a situation faced by people and horses. If we are in a calm mood, we usually handle a first stress event easily. If soon after, a second stress happens, then maybe a third and fourth (as easily can happen with horses in captivity), the limit of stress tolerance for that individual is eventually reached and the person or animal reacts. The reaction can be violent outward expression of anger and frustration (tantrum). The reaction can also be retreat from interaction with the external world, as seen in horses who have ‘shut down’. Each of the stress-causing events or items is called a ‘trigger’, hence the term, ‘trigger-stacking’.
  6. Walking shoulder-to-shoulder. Number 16 in my Blog Contents List: Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions. Click here.
  7. Triple Treat to celebrate a good effort: #16 HorseGym with Boots: Triple Treat. Click here.
  8. Number 46 in my Blog Contents List: Rule of Three. Click here.

Videos

#243 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent in Action

#153 HorseGym with Boots: “Zero Intent” and “Intent”

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Hand-held target to start with.
  • Barrier between person and horse to start with.
  • Once mastered, we can apply these skills to any activity.

 Notes

  1. The horse may communicate with more than one consent signal. The nature of the consent signal might depend on the nature of the activity you are doing.
  2. The two AIMS above work together. Once the horse understands that you will wait until he is ready, he will become more and more adept at using his ‘Green Light’ go-ahead signal or telling you that he is not ready to proceed. You may pick up his earlier signals that he prefers to exit the activity (either mentally or physically).
  3. If the horse feels he gains something from an interaction, he will tend to want to stay and play. At first we use rewards (usually treats) that he finds reinforcing. Once a horse learns a few tasks and routines, doing them also has a reinforcing effect, but we have to keep using the primary reinforcer (usually food) judiciously. This means that we have to click&treat often enough to keep the horse successfully doing what we are asking.
  4. Video clip #243 uses an extremely specific behavior as an example. But we can develop and recognize a variety of consent signals.
  5. Consent might be turning the nose toward the handler to indicate that chewing is finished and the horse is ready to repeat whatever we are doing. Boots demonstrates this on the video clip. Important not to confuse this with the horse mugging for treats. You’ll notice that after turning to me she turns her head away again.
  6. Consent might be willingly staying ‘parked’ in a relaxed manner while we groom, tend feet, gear on and off, mount and dismount, ask for a ‘wait’, ground tie, stand tied up, travel or do a parked mobility task like ‘counting’ as in my clip.
  7. Consent might be willingly walking or trotting with us on the ground, with or without halter and lead.
  8. Consent might be willingly coming to a mounting block, lining up and standing so the handler can mount.
  9. Consent might be putting the head down so that we can rub inside the ear or put head gear on more easily.
  10. Consent might be dropping the nose into a halter.
  11. Consent might be a quirky behavior like a smile or lowering the head.

Slices Part A: The Handler’s Red Light and Green Light

1. When we begin clicker training, our first task is to establish politeness about receiving treats. Even when clicker training is well established, it is useful to review this exercise regularly.

Standing on the other side of a safe barrier, we ask the horse to do something simple he does naturally, like touch his nose to a target. We click for the action and remove the target out of play (out of sight behind us) as we deliver the treat with a firm, flat outstretched hand that causes the horse to keep his head straight and away from us. Repeat over many short sessions (about 10 treats-worth).If the horse is first learning this, we promptly present the target again, until the horse clearly understands that when he touches the target and keeps his head facing forward, he will hear our marker sound and we will deliver the treat to him – i.e. he doesn’t reach toward us searching for the treat.

2. When 2 is smooth, we begin to take up a ‘zero intent’ body position for a second or two after we’ve delivered the treat and before we present the target again.

3. ‘Zero intent’ is the handler’s Red Light (relax). It means that what we want is to stand quietly together. When the horse remains standing with his head straight we present the target again as our Green Light (action) that lets the horse know we are asking him to repeat touching the target to earn another click&treat. Gradually, one second at a time, lengthen the time you stay at ‘zero intent’ (Red Light) until 5 seconds is easy.

4. We do a little bit of ‘stand together with click&treat for keeping your head straight‘ every time we are with the horse.

5. When the slices above are smooth, we can apply ‘zero intent’ to walking along together (Prerequisite 4). Walk on, halt, click&treat for the halt, take up ‘zero intent’ posture for X number of seconds. Start with one second again and lengthen time gradually. Then walk on to another pre-set destination.

6. Walking between mats is a good way to start this exercise, but soon your voice and body language will be enough, as long as you are consistent. See Number 68 in my Blog Contents List: 20 Steps Exercise. Click here.If you are not consistent with your voice, gesture, breathing and body language signals, the horse will hear you like a ‘mumble’. And we know how frustrating it is to listen to someone who is mumbling so we can’t make out the message.

7. As you get adept with dropping into ‘zero intent’ body language, you will notice more and more places you can apply it.

8. In summary, standing or walking with zero intent is our Red Light (relax). The horse knows he is not being asked to do anything except stand or walk quietly beside us. We change to Green Light (action) whenever we signal the horse to do a specific behavior or chain of behaviors that will result in a click&treat.

Slices Part B: The Horse’s Red Light and Green Light

  1. The horse’s Red Light is different from the handler ‘zero intent’ Red Light. The horse’s Red Light is either inactivity or excessive activity due to distraction, changes, hunger, confusion, pain, boredom, exhaustion, trigger stacking. It is a caution/stop signal from the horse to us.

In the video clip, Boots’ Red Light was the distraction caused by interesting activity on the road while she was safely at home. It caused her full attention to drift to the road activity.

2. Out in other environments, a horse’s Red Light could be stopping for observation, or running the Red Light if the situation causes him to move suddenly.

3. The horse’s Red Light tells us that he is either momentarily distracted or he is out of his comfort zone. We can either wait out the distraction, as I do on video clip #243, or we can change what we are doing until the horse can return to his comfort zone.

A distracted horse is not in learning mode (responsive). He is concerned for his safety (reactive). We must organize things so he can change from reactive to responsive as best as we can in any given situation.

4. The horse’s Green Light is when he can bring his attention back to the handler and can respond to handler signals, rather than react to other things in the environment.

5. If we want to get along with our horse by listening to him, we acknowledge what is causing his distraction with our attention and body language. Then we wait (wait = our Red Light), taking up as close to zero intent body language as we can in the situation.

6. As we wait, we watch for the horse’s Green Light to tell us that he is ready to carry on with what we were doing. At that point, we can activate our Green Light – our signal to the horse for whatever activity or task we are doing which will yield a click&treat.

7. We can sometimes help the horse switch from his Red-Light alert to Green- Light readiness if we click&treat the moment his attention comes back to us. I didn’t do it in the video clip, but I often do this when we are out on the road.

SUMMARY

Handler

  • Red Light = standing or walking together quietly, relaxation – nothing else required.
  • Green Light = signal/cue asking the horse to do something else.

Horse

  • Red Light = I’m distracted, unable, anxious, fearful – please give me time. It might also be a question: we don’t usually do this, do we? We always stop here, don’t we?
  • Green Light = I’m ready to listen and respond to your signals.
  • Orange/amber light = first signs of the horse’s unease.

Illustrations

‘No Intent’ body posture: hands quiet on belly, attention off horse, cocked knee, energy drained from body, looking nowhere.
Intent: very beginning of asking her to move her shoulder away – hands moving in a gesture signal, body upright, focus on horse’s neck, breathing in.
Zero intent sitting down while teaching lip-lifting to check teeth. Note her ‘lip wiggle’ consent signal telling me she is ready to repeat.
We gradually moved from touching her muzzle, putting both hands around her muzzle, momentarily lifting a lip, to holding her lips apart for longer and longer, adding one second at a time.
Staying parked on a mat despite distractions can be a consent signal.
This is a Red Light moment with Boots. Jogging along calmly with the bike changed into excessive energy.
When I got off the bike and walked, she was able to relax and give me her ‘smile’ consent signal – her Green Light to carry on. This earned a click&treat.
We were then able to finish the session with her walking calmly alongside the bike.
Practice at home allowed us to eventually bike safely on the road.

Generalizations

As mentioned already, the more you practice your ‘no intent’ body language, the clarity of your signals, and the more accurate you get listening to the horse’s body language. You will notice the horse’s Orange/Amber light before it turns into Red Light. It becomes easier to apply the Red Light/Green Light concept to any activity.

Consent Signals: Target Cheek to Brush for Grooming

Introduction

When we want to give a horse the option to take part in an activity or not, we can learn to wait for the horse to give us a consent signal that tells us when he is comfortable for us to go ahead.

This task looks at setting up a consent signal for grooming. Some horses love to be groomed. Others not so much.

There are a variety of reasons why a horse may not be relaxed about grooming.

  • A traumatic grooming experience, e.g. punishment for restless movement. ‘One Time’ trauma learning is a real thing.
  • Grooming while tied up if tying up itself causes anxiety. Being in cross-ties may feel a bit like a straightjacket – we have removed all options for movement.
  • Grooming before activities that the make the horse feel nervous, afraid, uncomfortable, in pain, and/or exhausted.
  • Grooming with tools the horse finds uncomfortable.
  • General inexperience or discomfort with being around people or a certain person.
  • A combination of any of the above.

Aim

To establish the horse targeting his cheek to a brush as a consent signal that he is okay for us to proceed with grooming.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. Number 10 in my Blog Contents List: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.
  3. Horse understands the concept of targeting body parts to our hand. Click here.
  4. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: Click here.

Videos

#241 HorseGym with Boots: https://youtu.be/-TK4VqCnvL4

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A soft brush.
  • Mat (optional).

Notes

  1. Your horse may develop more than one consent signal. You will note in the video that Boots uses two. One is turning toward me to let me know she is finished chewing and ready to repeat. The other is moving her lips in what we call a ‘smile’ but sometimes she does it very discretely and it is just a wiggle of her lips.
  2. Note that we are chaining two tasks. Consent for one (target cheek to brush) becomes the consent for the second task (grooming).
  3. Notice how her body language changes when I start grooming.
  4. If the horse is mat savvy (parks willingly on a mat) you can use a mat when you begin this exercise. But if the horse is worried about grooming, we may not want to make the mat part of a worrying process.

Slices

  1. Begin with asking the horse to target his chin to your hand as per Prerequisite 3. This lets him know which game you are about to play.
  2. Change to asking him to target his cheek to your hand, using the process outlined for the chin.
  3. Once 2 is ho-hum, hold a soft brush for him to target with his cheek.
  4. Once 3 is ho-hum, brush a few strokes after the click&treat for targeting cheek to brush. Sometimes I begin brushing while delivering the treat with my other hand, then click&treat again for accepting the brush strokes.
  5. Gradually brush a bit more before the second click&treat (the first is for touching cheek to brush). Be super aware of thresholds of discomfort. If the horse needs to move, he is over threshold and we’ve gone too fast.
  6. Depending on how the horse feels about brushing, it may take many short sessions for him to become more comfortable with brushing, or it might happen very quickly. Spring shedding time is often when grooming is appreciated most.
  7. Teach the whole process from the beginning on the horse’s other side.

Generalizations

  1. Practice in different places.
  2. Add a variety of brushes.
  3. Use a similar process to get the horse comfortable with cloths, ropes, sticks rubbed all over his body.

Straddling a Rail

Introduction

This is an interesting exercise to help refine the timing of our signals and the ‘click’ (or whatever marker sound we have chosen) that lets the horse know when he is doing exactly what will result in a treat.

Boots and I first learned this task years ago and play with it occasionally. If a task is taught well enough to be in a horse’s deep memory, it seems it is never forgotten. Usually a bit of guidance to clarify which task I’m asking for is enough to bring back the memory. When I made these video clips we hadn’t revisited straddling a rail for several months.

However, we play with ‘shoulder/hip yield’ and ‘shoulder/hip toward me’ often, so our signals for these are current – well-honed and well-practiced.

Straddling a rail is an exercise useful for balance, foot awareness and general proprioception. We teach it in tiny slices that keep the horse being continually successful. In other words, we celebrate each approximation.

Aim

The horse confidently moves his feet individually to straddle a rail lengthwise.

Prerequisites

  1. The horse understands yielding the shoulder. This clip is in my Obstacle Challenges for Clicker Trainers PLAYLIST: April 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Yield the Shoulder. Click here.
  2. The horse understands targeting the shoulder to our hand. Number 27 in my Blog Contents List: Target Shoulder to Hand. Click here. 
  3. The horse understands yielding the hindquarters. This clip is in my Obstacle Challenges for Clicker Trainers PLAYLIST: May 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Yield the Hindquarters. Click here.
  4. Horse understands bringing hip toward hand. Number 28 in my Blog Contents List: Targeting Hindquarters to Our Hand. Click here.
  5. Horse is comfortable standing across and walking across solid rails. Number 18 in my Blog Contents List: Placing the Feet Accurately Using a Rail. Click here.
  6. Horse understands a signal for sidestepping. Number 29 in my Blog Contents List: Sidestepping. Click here.
  7. Handler is aware of teaching in short segments. Number 46 in my Blog Contents List. Click here.
  8. Triple Treat for celebration: #16 HorseGym with Boots: Triple Treat. Click here.

Videos

#222 HorseGym with Boots: Prep for Straddling Rails

#223 HorseGym with Boots: Straddling Rails

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead to clarify signals during the teaching (acquisition) stage unless you prefer to teach everything at liberty.
  • Rail: a half-round rail is ideal because it doesn’t roll/move while the horse is figuring out where and how to move his feet.

We can mound sand at the ends of a round rail to minimize rolling or chock round rails with bits of wood or stones at either end.

A long rail, or two short rails end-to-end, make it easier for the horse at the beginning. We could also use a tightly rolled tarp to stand in for a rail, or a thick rope/hose.

Notes

  1. Ensure that the horse can carry out the prerequisite tasks calmly and accurately.
  2. Give each slice of the ‘straddle’ the time it takes rather than focus on the end behavior.
  3. Doing a few repeats of ‘hip/shoulder away’ and ‘hip/shoulder toward me’ each session will keep them topical and smooth.
  4. Click and treat each approximation at first. Celebrate when you get either front feet or hind feet (or both) straddling the rail.
  5. Three repeats at one time are usually plenty to start with. The horse will think about it and be willing to try again next day. If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose willingness to engage again. (See Prerequisite 7.)
  6. Decide whether you will initially teach the task by asking the horse to yield shoulder/hip away from you or if you will ask the horse to bring shoulder/hip toward you. Don’t mix them up until the horse has a sound understanding about where you want his feet.
  7. Be careful to not ‘correct’ or make the horse feel wrong as he figures out what you want him to do with his feet to earn his next click&treat. He can’t be wrong because he doesn’t yet know what you want him to do.

The lack of ‘click’ tells the horse that he hasn’t quite got it yet. If he feels lost, increase your rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat) and lower your criteria – i.e., click for all approximations toward the finished task and stop after a good effort for that session. Then he will be keen to try again next session.

Slices

  1. Run through your ‘hip/shoulder away’ and/or ‘hip/shoulder toward me’ routines away from the rail, to set the scene.
  2. Introduce the rail by walking across it in both directions. Then park parallel to it several times — on both sides and facing both directions.
  3. Start with the side and direction that feel easiest.
  4. Ask for either front or hind end to straddle the rail. Click&treat for all and any approximations. Your horse may offer to do the full straddle right away – major celebration.
  5. Then quietly ask for the other end to straddle the rail. Don’t worry if he moves one end off the straddle to adjust his balance so he can straddle with the other end. You will notice in #223 video clip that Boots does this a couple of times.
  6. Also don’t worry if he steps his whole body across the rail. Simply breathe deeply, relax, and reset the task. If the horse moves both front or hind feet across the rail, try giving a less-energetic signal.
  7. The key is to quietly reset and try again. Finish on a good effort and go away from the rail to do something else.
  8. Resist the temptation to ask again to see if you can do it again. At first a ‘good effort’ may still be far from the finished movement. That doesn’t matter. If the horse is willing to try in a relaxed manner, you have a ‘good effort’.
  9. If it becomes a muddle, walk away, do something easy with a high rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat). Then return to the rail and start again or leave it until the next session. (See number 5 in the NOTES.)
  10. Explore different ways of coming off the straddle – turn and sidestep off, back off, walk forward with the feet staying on either side of the rail, and so on.
  11. Once the horse is adept at straddling the rail, click&treat for duration. Start with one second and increase duration one second at a time.

Generalizations

  1. Once the horse understands the task, it can be fun to also explore other ways of signaling the ‘straddle a rail’ task.
  2. I was delighted when Boots offered to sidestep into the straddle as at the end of clip #223, because I’d never asked her to do that before. We do, however, practice plain sidestepping regularly.
  3. Walk forward to straddle the rail.
  4. Back up to straddle the rail.
  5. Mix up ‘hip/shoulder away’ and hip/shoulder toward me’.
  6. Straddle different kinds of rails.
  7. Different venues.
  8. On a slope – facing downhill and facing uphill.

Resetting Tasks

We first played with this task at liberty and Boots scared herself when her leg touched the pipe on her left as she backed into the space. She jumped forward.
She jumped forward a step or two and then stopped. I was standing well back (you can just see the toe of my shoe) in case this happened.
We quietly reset the task with the help of halter and lead, with click&treat for each step back and she quickly regained her confidence. I’m standing to the side in case she feels the need to suddenly come forward.

The task above is a good one to prepare a horse for being restricted behind, as in a horse trailer. It is also a task for preparing a horse to back between cart shafts.

Rather than correct something that did not go well, we learn to reset* a task without placing a negative value judgement on what the horse just did. This makes a huge difference to how horses perceive their training.

While he is learning a new task, a horse can’t be wrong, because he does not yet know what you want.

Clicker-savvy* horses often don’t want their sessions to end. The positive vibrations that go with good clicker training make it fun rather than a chore.

Clicker training gives us a way to let the horse know instantly, by the sound of the marker signal* (click), when he is right. It takes away much of the guessing horses must do as they strive to read our intent* (which is often fuzzy to them).

A horse’s perceptions and world view are quite different from human perception and world view. While we are with our horse, the more closely we can align our world view with that of the horse, the easier it is for him to understand us and comply with our requests.

There is much more about this in my book: Conversations with Horses: An In-depth look at the Signals & Cues between Horses and their Handlers available as an e-book or a paperback.

Key Features of Equine Clicker Training

Clicker training is not a quick fix for problems. It is a carefully crafted language between horse and handler used during every interaction. People often have to let go of what they have always done in order to make room for a new way of interacting with their horse(s).

If frustration becomes part of the equation, for the horse or the handler or both, it is usually a sign of going too fast and expecting too much too soon.

The solution is usually to slow down, think things through, decide on the exact behavior required and write a careful shaping plan to achieve that behavior.

Keeping emotions (horse and person) on the calm/relaxed/joyful side of the emotional continuum is a major part of effective clicker training.

Counting with the Front Feet

Introduction

You may have heard the story about a horse called Clever Hans who could add, subtract, multiply and divide. I think it was eventually found that Hans responded to eyebrow signals from his person to let him know when he should start and stop lifting his foot.

My horse, Boots, and I won’t reach such a level of sophistication, but teaching ‘counting’ can be fun. It also forced me to refine and clarify the way I presented my signals, as well as improve the timing of my ‘click’.

Leg lifts without moving are a good way to play with mobilization. Viewing the video clips, I notice that lifting one leg engages her whole body.

‘Counting’ is a game we developed over many months with several starts and stops to focus on other things. It’s an engaging game for a few minutes at a time when the weather is too hot, wet, windy, or cold to be out and about.

The key, as for most of equine clicker training, is to have many short sessions, two or three minutes long, over many, days. By keeping it short, the horse begins to look forward to the new game as a relatively easy way to earn clicks&treats.

NOTE: Items with an asterisk {*} are described in the GLOSSARY which you can access at the top of the home page.

Developing Boots’ Individual Education Program* for ‘Counting’ helped me:

  • Be more aware of deciding and stabilizing my body orientation, which is a key part of any signal. Horses are super aware of body positioning.
  • Refine the nature and energy of my signal for this task. We do a lot of different things, so it is tricky to keep all my signals ‘clean’.
  • Improve the timing for when I turn the signal on and off.
  • Remember to take up my ‘zero intent*’ position to wait for the horse to tell me when she is ‘ready to repeat’ (Consent Signals*)
  • Relax when the horse attends to external distractions and wait for her to bring her attention back to me.

This exercise is an extension of tasks we developed to create confidence with standing on three legs for hoof care. Details of this are available in my book, Confident Foot Care using Reward Reinforcement.

Once Boots readily lifted a leg when I pointed to it, it was not a big leap to ask for two lifts in a row before the click&treat*. She is presently on her way to counting to ten. Which lets us have fun doing simple math questions when the grandchildren visit.

Aim

To have the horse understand a signal for lifting a front leg (either one) and able to repeat lifting the leg up to ten times on request (number is optional) before a click&treat.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and handler are clicker-savvy.
  2. Handler uses clear body language to indicate ‘intent’ and ‘zero intent’. Click here.
  3. Horse is relaxed about foot care and willingly lifts his feet for cleaning/trimming. Or this task can also be part of improving balance on three legs.
  4. Horse has developed one or more ‘Consent Signals*’ to let the handler know when he is ready to go ahead with what we are doing. Click here.
  5. Horse understands touching a target with his nose, his knee, and his foot. #89 HorseGym with Boots: Balance on Three Legs looks at foot targeting. Click here.

Videos

MATERIALS AND ENVIRONMENT

  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • A space where the horse can stand relaxed and confident.
  • A safe fence (not electrified or wire) or similar barrier.
  • A target safe for foot targeting and easy to handle. I find a piece of cloth slipped into the leather end loop of an old riding crop makes a nice lightweight target. Bulky things like pool noodles are harder to hold and harder to remove from view to ‘take out of play’.
  • A rail on the ground may be helpful in some cases.

Notes

  1. Using props when we begin a new task makes it much easier for the horse to understand what to do to earn his next click&treat. Use of well-planned props takes us halfway to achieving our aim.
  2. Once the horse understands the task, we gradually fade out the props.
  3. Pawing is not the same as counting with a discreet signal from the handler for each ‘number’ counted. If pawing becomes an issue, repeated click&treat for ONE lift of the foot may (over many short sessions) may make it clearer for the horse.
  4. I start each session (once we can count more than ONE) with click&treat for ONE, and work up the numbers to our present limit.
  5. I like to encourage the horse to use both front feet for the counting. Boots sometimes uses both and sometimes mostly one foot. Using both gives better distribution of the muscle movement throughout the body.
  6. HANDLER SKILL: Your horse may begin to offer foot lifts once you’ve started this game. Boots does it in the video clips. This ‘offering’ is precious. It shows you that the horse understands the game and is volunteering to start. If I’m ready, I count such an ‘offer’ as ONE and begin to signal for TWO and so on.
  7. HANDLER SKILL: Click as the horse is in the act of lifting his foot. Good timing is not always easy and can always be improved. Don’t worry if you don’t get it exactly right each time. Focus on the upward movement of the foot. Once you are conscious of this, and with practice, your timing will improve.
  8. HANDLER SKILL: Carefully check your body orientation to keep it the same each time you begin to ask for ‘counting’. Horses are super aware of how our body is orientated. Consistent orientation is a large part of signal clarity.
  9. HANDLER SKILL: Ensure that you always use the hand closest to the horse to give the ‘lift foot’ signal. Which hand you use is highly significant to the horse. I use the hand furthest from the horse to give a signal for ‘shoulder away’.
  10. HANDLER SKILL: The signal for each ‘foot lift’ is an ON-OFF signal.
  11. HANDLER SKILL: As you click, remove the target (and later your hand/finger) to behind your body to consciously take it ‘out of play’ – the OFF part of the signal. When you present it again for the next ‘repeat’ it will catch the horse’s attention as your ON signal. Once you are using your finger, make your moving finger the ON signal and learn to tuck your finger way for the OFF signal.
  12. HANDLER SKILL: I begin the task by using a voice signal. I say, “Counting – Fronts” and quietly count each foot lift, exaggerating my voice for the number I will click. Boots has learned that while I say the number softly, she will need to do another one – in other words, she listens for my loud, happy final number plus click. I’m also teaching her to count with the back feet, where I start by saying, “Counting – Rear” and my body orientation is quite different.
  13. HANDLER SKILL: In the clips you will notice that occasionally Boots pauses. She is not being slow or stubborn, she is thinking. Be sure to give your horse ample thinking time and sometimes they like a bit of time to enjoy their last treat before resuming the game.
  14. HANDLER SKILL: Always click before you reach for the treat or the horse will learn to watch your hand rather than focus on what you are teaching. This is especially important for this task because your hand moving slightly forward with a finger wiggling will become the ON signal as you fade out the target prop.
  15. HANDLER SKILL: Feed the treat away from your body. Try to position your treat hand so the horse straightens his head to retrieve the treat.
  16. HANDLER SKILL: If the horse is distracted, wait with ‘zero intent*’ body language until the horse brings his attention back to you – hopefully using a ‘consent’ signal*. Sometimes the waiting feels like a long time, but it is usually only a few seconds. Pay attention to whatever has caught the horse’s attention by looking at it keenly, then breathe out deeply. This shows the horse that you have noticed his concern but are not worried about it.
  17. HANDLER SKILL: Teach everything on either side of the horse. One side may feel more difficult. The horse may be less comfortable with you on one side. We are usually less smooth giving signals when we use the non-dominant side of our body. I like to teach each slice of this task on both sides before moving on to the next slice. While the horse is learning, I am learning to be more particular about everything mentioned in these notes.
  18. HANDLER SKILL: Stay with X-number of leg lifts until it feels like the horse is ho-hum with that number, even if you stay at ONE or TWO for what feels like ages. Nothing derails our training as quickly as going faster than the horse is able to absorb each new slice and put it into deep memory.
  19. HANDLER SKILL: If you get a nice series of ‘counting’, resist the natural urge to ‘do it again to see if we can do it again’. Stop when it feels really nice and wait until your next session.

Slices

  1. If you already have a space where the horse stands comfortably relaxed, start with Slice 2. If not, we first need to establish a place we can use consistently for teaching this task. One way is to ensure your horse is comfortable standing between a safe fence and a rail on the ground. Walk him through the space in both directions. Then halt in the space; click&treat, in both directions. The fence and rail help show the horse that you don’t want him to move sideways. When he is relaxed in the space, start with Slice 2.
  2. Set the scene to let the horse know that ‘targeting’ is the game of the moment by asking him to target his nose, a knee, then the back of a front foot to your target.
  3. Repeat touching the foot to the target ONCE with a click&treat each time. Somewhere between three and five repeats is plenty at one time. (See The Rule of Three. Click here. )
  4. When the horse readily lifts his foot once, ask for twice before the click&treat.
  5. When the horse readily ‘counts’ to TWO, ask for THREE before the click and treat.
  6. And so on, to as high a number as you like, always staying within the horse’s ability and interest level.
  7. As you reach a higher number (over five), the horse may pause more often to think. He may be thinking about which foot to lift next.
  8. When it feels like the horse has a good understanding of the task, gradually introduce a finger wiggle with the hand holding the target. Horse peripheral vision is magic at picking up movement, so they will notice the finger wiggle easily.
  9. Gradually lessen the movement of the target stick toward the horse as you wiggle your finger. Eventually you’ll realize that you no longer need the target stick – that your hand/finger movement has become the signal.
  10. Remember, bringing your hand forward and the wiggling your finger is your ON signal. Put your hand ‘away’ and out of play is your OFF signal. Then when you bring your hand with wiggling finger forward again, the horse will notice it as your ON signal to do another ‘count’.

Generalizations

  1. When the horse is ho-hum about his ‘counting’ task in the familiar spot you have been using, move to different venues. You may want to begin with fence and rail props in a new venue. Horses let us know when the props are no longer needed.
  2. At some point you can begin to mix up the number you ask for – sometimes THREE, sometimes FIVE, occasionally SEVEN, and so on.

Learning the Mechanics of Clicker Training

Timing of the click and smooth, prompt treat delivery are harder than it looks at first glance.

Practice with a Person

It’s ideal (perhaps even essential) to learn the process of when/how to click and how to deliver the treat with a person standing in for the horse. The more adept we are with the mechanics of treat delivery before heading out to the horse, the more our horse will buy into our confidence that we know what we are doing.

We want to practice with another person until we have the mechanics of click timing and treat delivery in our muscle memory. Then, when we start with the horse, we can focus more clearly on the horse and the consistency of our actions.

Simulation with a Person

The first step to becoming a clicker trainer with good timing skills is to get our head around how to carry out the click&treat routine smoothly.

We need to practice enough to put the sequence of events into our muscle memory. If we are familiar and confident with what we are doing, the horse will buy into our confidence.

Neither person is allowed to speak.

You can put the clicker on a string around your neck or on a string around your wrist so you can let go of it to use your hand. However it takes lots of practice to smoothly slip the clicker back into position so that ‘letting go’ doesn’t interfere with good timing* of your next click.

Slices:

  1. Have your hand ready on the clicker (if using a clicker).
  2. Present the target a little bit away from the person, so he or she must reach toward it slightly, to touch it.
  3. Wait for the person to touch the target with their hand (be patient).
  4. The instant they touch it, click or say your chosen word or sound.
  5. Lower the target down and behind your body to take it out of play.
  6. Reach into your pocket/pouch for the treat (maybe use coins or bits of cardboard or mini chocolates).
  7. Extend your arm fully to deliver the treat.
  8. Stretch your treat hand out flat so it is like a dinner plate with the treat on it.
  9. Keep your arm and flat hand firm, so your pretend horse can’t push it down as he takes the treat.
  10. When your pretend horse has taken the treat, relax and pause briefly, then begin again with slices one and two (hand on clicker, present target).
  11. Ignore any unwanted behavior as much as possible.
  12. Turn a shoulder or move your body/pouch out of reach if the person pretending to be your horse tries to mug you for a treat (in case you are using chocolate). Your pretend horse must learn that he or she earns the click&treat only by touching the target. If your ‘pretend horse’ is strongly invasive, put a barrier between you.
  13. Multiple short sessions (up to three minutes long) at different times during the day allow your brain and your muscle memory to absorb the technique, especially the finer points of timing.
  14. If your helper is willing, let him/her be the teacher and you take a turn being the horse. Playing with ‘being the horse’ is often a huge eye-opener. The ‘horse’ is not allowed to ask questions or make comments but he can use body language to express his opinions.
Playing with different people will be as different as playing with different horses.

Using Hoops for Foot Awareness – and More

Hoops are handy obstacles to use for teaching a variety of skills. They are easy to set up and store. We can use them in numerous contexts. They can help us achieve a variety of objectives. For example:

Handler:

  • Identify prerequisites for each exercise.
  • Practice thin-slicing the tasks.
  • Practice writing a training (shaping) plan for each configuration.
  • Hone our timing of the click.
  • Make our signals as clear and consistent as possible.

Horse:

  • Develop foot awareness.
  • Gives a defined spot to learn the ‘wait’.
  • Generalize signals (cues) to new situations.
  • New puzzles to work through – mental stimulation.
  • Flexion exercises.

Boots and I have played with hoops on and off for quite a while, as in the following video clips.  For a 15hh horse hoops about one metre across work well for trotting through, but we also use smaller ones for some of the other activities.

The hoops are made with plastic water pipe with the ends held together either with the right-sized twig pushed into the ends or a stretch of hose either one size smaller to fit inside the ends or one size larger to form a sleeve across the ends. To make them more visible I wound electrical tape around them.

Clip 1

 

Clip 2

 

Clip 3

 

Clip 4

 

Clip 5

Developing Relaxed Food Retrieval

Photo: Relaxed treat retrieval is the essence of clicker training.

Lunging for the Treat = Anxiety or Assertive Horse Behavior

Some horses are always polite, others not so. Something in their background may have created anxiety around food. But the character type of the horse is also involved. Each horse lies somewhere along a shy ——– assertive continuum. A horse on the assertive end will be keen to follow his nose to the source of the food, which is obviously a helpful survival behavior.

For effective clicker training we have to carefully navigate this crucial aspect of using positive reinforcement in the form of food. The handler must feel safe and the horse must feel safe and have a sound understanding of when a food treat will be offered. It requires us to be careful and consistent and willing to explore options.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of having a way to let the horse know when we want him to stand with us quietly. We need to teach him when our body language indicates that all we want is to stand together in a relaxed manner, and when our body language is asking him to do something which will earn a click&treat.

  1. Be safe. Organize a barrier between you and the horse so you can move back out of range if he gets excited about the idea of food rewards. Depending on the horse and your expertise, you may not need the barrier for long, or you may need it for quite a while.

If your horse is energetic, use the energy by setting up a roomy reverse round pen and teach the horse to follow your target as you walk or jog along.

A reverse round pen is one where the handler stays inside the pen and the horse moves around the outside of it. Or you can do the same on the other side of an existing fence. For this, you want to click for the actual movement, rather than catching up with the target. For example, click after three steps, then five steps, and so on until you get whole circuits or stretches of fence before the click&treat. Find out more about using reverse pens here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-64e

  1. Make sure that the horse is not hungry. We want the horse interested in clicker work, but not over-excited or aroused by the thought of food tit-bits. In other words, make sure he has ample access to grazing or hay before you start a clicker training session.
  2. Check out your food delivery technique.
  3. Does it take too long to get your hand into and out of your pocket or pouch? Can you find easier pockets or a more open pouch?
  4. Do you move your hand toward your treats before you’ve clicked? This causes problems because the horse will watch your hand rather than focusing on what you are teaching.
  5. Be sure to only feed treats if they have been earned and you have clicked. Ask the horse to do something before giving a treat, either have him touch a target or take a step or two backwards; click for the action and deliver the treat.
  6. Avoid feeding any treats by hand unless you have asked for a behavior and clicked for it. When not clicker training, put treats in a feed dish or on the grass.
  7. Often, we can influence the horse’s position by holding our treat-delivery hand where we want the horse’s head to be rather than where he has stuck his nose.

In the beginning, we ideally want him to have his head straight to retrieve the treat. If he is over-eager, it can help to hold the treat toward his chest, so he must shift backwards to receive it.

This is the clearest way to let the horse know that lunging at your hand for the treat won’t benefit him. It also begins to build the habit of stepping back when you shift your weight toward him, as in the photo coming up. It’s a great way to begin teaching the ‘back’ voice and body language signal.

Video: Encouraging stepping back to retrieve the treat.

In some cases, it can help to have a halter on the horse, so we can take hold of the side of the halter after the click, giving us some control of where the horse puts his mouth. See the section called ‘Developing Good Table Manners’ that is coming.

It can help to run your closed treat hand down the horse’s nose from above, asking him to target your fist before you open your hand right under his lips so he can retrieve the treat.

When you do this, use a bit of upward pressure to stop the horse pushing your hand down. If your hand does not stay firm, it can cause a horse to get anxious about where his treat is and cause him to push down harder or become grabby.

  1. It may also work to bring your fist (closed around the treat) up under his chin and have him target your fist before you flatten your hand (and apply upward pressure) so he can retrieve the treat. Often one of these little intervening steps can help build the habit of polite treat-taking.
  2. A bit of experimentation will determine what works best with a specific horse.
  3. If the horse is overly keen, try using treats that he doesn’t consider quite so yummy. Be sure to set up your routines so the horse has ample time to graze or eat hay before each session.
  4. With consistency and patience on the handler’s part, over-enthusiastic treat-taking usually improves once:
  5. The horse understands that a click only happens when he carries out a request you have made.
  6. A treat always follows the click.He’ll learn that a treat will only follow if there has been a click first. That is why we must be totally consistent with when and how we click&treat.
  7. The horse’s character type and current emotional state will influence how he takes the treat. If a horse who usually takes the treat softly becomes grabbier, he is giving us information to take on board. Alternately, a horse who starts out grabby may over many sessions become relaxed about retrieving his treat, once he understands how the system works.
  8. Prompt, cleanly-executed treat delivery is always important. If things are not going smoothly, the first things to check are inconsistency and sloppy treat delivery. It helps to video what is happening, so you can look closely at your body position, orientation, timing* and treat delivery.
  9. Another approach is to put the treat in a container after each click. It can either be a food bucket in the horse’s pen, into which we toss the treat, or a flat dish or scoop we hold out for the horse to retrieve the treat, then remove again. Some boarding facilities have a ban on hand feeding, which is a little hurdle to overcome. There is a video clip about this here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-651

What to Check for:

  1. Timing of your click to the action you want.
  2. Smoothness getting the treat out of pocket or pouch while you take the target ‘out of play’.
  3. How promptly you present the treat to the horse.
  4. How you hold out the treat to the horse and how firm you keep your hand so the horse doesn’t push it down.

 

Developing Good Table Manners

A video clip called Table Manners for Clicker Training in my Starting Clicker Training playlist illustrates how we can use the timing of the click to improve politeness around treat retrieval. The clip shows Smoky, early in his clicker training education, with Zoë who had never done it before. Click here.

The method shown on the clip can be improved by not waiting so long to click&treat again. When we begin teaching a horse about keeping his head facing forward rather than toward us, we want to click&treat the moments when the horse remains facing forward and the moments when he turns his head away from the food source.

In some parts of the clip we waited for Smoky to turn toward Zoë and then turn away again before she clicked. Doing this runs the risk of having the horse think that turning toward the handler first is part of what we want him to do. In this exercise, we also want to mainly click&treat the act of keeping his head facing forward.

Summary: to develop good table manners while we stand beside the horse’s neck or shoulder, we click&treat for:

  • The horse turning his head away from us into the ‘straight forward’ position.
  • The horse keeping his head straight, away from us.
  • The horse keeping his head straight for longer, building up duration one second at a time.

Be sure to teach good table manners standing on either side of the horse as well as facing the horse. Begin the table manners training in protected contact, i.e. standing on the other side of a fence, gate, or stall guard.

Or have the horse tied up if that is your safest choice. When it is all going well with protected contact and you feel safe, change to standing with the horse.

It may take lots of very short sessions before the horse is able to relax into the ‘head forward’ position while we stand with zero intent* beside his shoulder.

Do a little bit of this ‘Polite Table Manners’ exercise every time you are with your horse to keep it strong in the repertoire.

As mentioned earlier, I prefer to introduce the idea of click&treat by asking the horse to do something more specific such as touch his nose to a target object.

Whether or not we are using protected contact in the form of a fence or gate, it’s easier to introduce the target if we stand in front of the horse and a little bit to one side.

If the horse is tied up, it may be easier to stand beside the horse to present the target.

Maintaining politeness around food is always part of the clicker training equation. It’s good to teach food manners standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse as soon as the horse has clearly made the connection between the click and the treat.

  1. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’

It’s hard to overstate the importance of having a way to let the horse know when we want him to stand beside us quietly. We need to teach him when our body language indicates that all we want is to stand together in a relaxed manner.

One way to do this is to stand with both hands laid flat across our belly button, and our energy as close to zero (deflated) as possible, breathing quietly, relaxing our hips. We look down or gaze softly into the distance.

If you do this consistently, the horse will soon recognize this posture as your ‘neutral’ signal when you have zero intent and all you want is for him to stay quietly parked. (See the Blog: ‘Zero Intent and ‘Intent’: Click here.)

My body language is at ‘zero intent’. My stance and hands lying quietly on my belly tell Boots that the task is to stand quietly. My focus is soft and away from the horse. My breathing is quiet.

 Every time we are with our horse, we should spend a few minutes focused on taking up our ‘zero intent’ position with click&treat reinforcement for the horse standing quietly without offering any behavior except standing quietly.

Over many sessions, we build up the ‘waiting quietly’ time, second by second, to fifteen or twenty seconds.

It is hard to overemphasize how important this is as part of our everyday interactions.

Hand Feeding at Other Times

It’s important not to hand feed the horse unless we have asked for something specific which we can click&treat. If we randomly hand feed when we are not clicker training, the horse will be confused, and problems can arise.

As with everything, it is up to us to be clear and consistent all the time. If we visit the horse or check up on him and want to give him a treat, we can put it in a feed bin or on the grass.

20 Steps Exercise

Photo: Our horse walking with us confidently is basic to everything else we want to do.

INTRODUCTION

This is one of my favorite exercises. It is fun to do as a warm-up or a cool-down or if horse time is short. If you are energetic you can eventually do it trotting.

This exercise encourages the horse to walk with us in position beside his neck or shoulder. It is a way of teaching ‘leading’ without the need to put pressure on the lead rope or use a lead rope at all. We can teach this exercise totally at liberty once the horse is clicker-savvy.

The more precise we can be with our body language, the easier it is for the horse to read our intent.

When we invite the horse to walk with us in the ’20 Steps Exercise’ we adjust our pace to the horse’s natural pace, so we can walk ‘in step’ with each other.

When we do this task at liberty, it’s easy for the horse to let us know if he is not in the mood to do things with us because he can peel off in his own direction.

If you have a safe, enclosed area, and protected contact is no longer needed, starting at liberty is ideal.

If the horse is exuberant and protected contact remains a good idea, you can still do this exercise with the horse at liberty by using a reverse round pen (person in the pen, horse moves around the outside of it) or a stretch of paddock fence. If your fencing is electric tape, make sure it is turned off. Lots more about reverse pens here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-64e

Doing a little at a time keeps this exercise fresh and lively in the repertoire.

If protected contact is a good idea, we can set up a reverse round pen with uprights and fencing tape. The horse moves around the outside of the ‘pen’ while the handler stays inside. We can make it a size that best suits the task we are working with.

AIMS

  1. Handler refines clear ‘walk-on’ and ‘halt’ body language, energy level and voice signals.
  2. Horse willingly mirrors the handler’s energy changes and stays in position with his neck/shoulder area beside the handler.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Handler is aware of using breathing and body energy level to indicate ‘energy up’ before moving off and ‘energy down’ before coming to a halt.
  2. Handler had decided on clear ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ voice signals.
  3. Handler has developed a consistent ‘walk on’ arm gesture.
  4. Handler uses clear preparatory body language before coming to a ‘halt’, e.g. slowing down, breathing out and dropping weight into the hips.

Optional: These prerequisites are nice but not essential. This task is a way of achieving or improving the three skills below.

  1. Horse walks smoothly beside the handler’s shoulder.
  2. Horse understands ‘Whoa’ voice, breathing and body language signals.
  3. Horse willingly responds to ‘Walk On’ voice, breathing, gesture and body language signals.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A safe, enclosed area for working at liberty.
  • If protected contact is the best choice, use a reverse round pen or use a paddock fence, whichever suits your situation best.
  • If there are no other options, use halter and lead, keeping a non-influencing drape in the lead rope. A light-weight lead is preferable.

VIDEO CLIPS

December 2017 Obstacle Challenge: 20 Steps Exercise.

 

#30 HorseGym with Boots illustrates Boots helping Zoë learn the process with halter and lead.

SLICES

  1. Standing beside the horse’s neck/shoulder, do the following pretty much all at the same time:
  • Raise torso and look ahead.
  • Breathe in deeply.
  • Gesture forward with the hand furthest from the horse.
  • Step off with your outside leg to walk one step using ‘draw energy’ to encourage the horse to move with you. The horse can more easily see movement of your outside leg.
  • Halt after one step by breathing out and releasing your energy; click&treat when your feet are stopped. If the horse has moved out of position accept that for now – deliver the treat as close as possible to where you want him to be.
  1. We will click&treat for EACH halt.
  2. If the horse is a bit surprised and moves out of position, move YOURSELF back into position beside his neck/shoulder and start again, raising torso breathing in, gesturing and stepping off to walk on. Slow down, breathe out, and drop into your hips to stop. If you are consistent, the horse will begin to take note of your breathing and posture.

If you are on the other side of a barrier or fence from the horse, walk on and click&treat any indication that the horse is willing to come join you, then start again with 1 above.

  1. If you are not in protected contact, it’s ideal to start with the horse between the handler and a safe fence, so the option of swinging the hindquarters away is removed. I didn’t show this part in the video clip.

If protected contact is necessary and the horse is unsure about what you want to do if you try using a reverse round pen or paddock fence, we can use a lane. A lane can work well because it reduces the horse’s options. The horse walks in the lane and the handler walks on the outside of the lane.

Lanes can be set up with fencing tape and uprights next to an existing fence or made with bits and pieces like the one in the photo below.

We can usually make learning easier for the horse by organizing our training environment so that what we will click&treat is easy for the horse to discover. Here ware are using a lane to initiate walking side-by-side together.

Next Slices

  1. When one or two steps together is smooth, take three steps before the halt, click&treat.
  2. When three steps together are smooth, take four steps before the halt, click&treat, and so on.
  3. Each time you walk on, begin counting at ‘one’ again.
  4. Stay with four-five steps until moving off together is smooth and the horse stays in position beside you for the halt.
  5. Adjust how many steps you add before each halt and click&treat. It will depend on how fast the horse catches on to the pattern, the clarity and consistency of your signals, as well as how the horse is feeling that day.
  6. With some horses you can soon add steps in 2’s, 3’s or 5’s to reach the twenty steps.
  7. If the horse gets lost or seems to forget, go back to where he can be successful and work with a smaller number of steps until you gain true confidence.
  8. Gradually work up to 10, 15, then 20 steps before each halt, click&treat.
  9. Asking for 20 steps before the click&treat, carried out on both sides of the horse, is usually plenty at one time. But there is no reason we can’t do several sets of 20 steps if the horse stays keen.

Be sure to teach this walking on either side of the horse. One side may be easier. Start again from the beginning (along a fence or in a lane) for the second side. Some horses easily transfer new learning to the other side. Other horses find everything harder on one side.

Handlers usually must also focus to consciously produce clear, consistent body language with the less dominant side of their body. If the horse’s and handler’s stiffer sides coincide, everything will feel a bit harder at first.

When a task feels equally smooth on either side of the horse, a big milestone has been achieved.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • If you started with a lane, move from the lane to working alongside a fence.
  • Play the game in an open area, away from a fence-line.
  • Teach, then add drawing the horse into arcs and turns with the horse on the outside of the turn. See also: Smooth 90-Degree Turns: Handler on the Inside: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5VM
  • Teach, then add walking arcs and turns toward the horse (counter-turns). See also: Smooth Counter Turns: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5WK
  • If you can run, play with it at trot. It’s best to begin this in protected contact in case the horse finds it exciting.

 

 

Alternative to Hand-Feeding Food Reinforcement

REASONS

There are several reasons why feeding the treat from our hand may not be the way forward with either a person or a horse new to clicker training.

For example:

  • The horse is new to people and has no idea about eating from a person’s hand.
  • The person is nervous about offering food from their hand.
  • The horse tends to mug the person once he realizes they have food in a pocket or pouch.
  • The horse is not gentle about taking the food from the hand.
  • Some horses are shy of people’s hands due to experience, or they don’t like taking food from a person’s hand.

In such situations, we can set up protected contact with a handy bucket or dish into which we toss the treat after the click.

We want the container situated so it’s easy to toss in the treats. We also want to use a container from which the horse can easily retrieve the treats.

In the video I’ve put a shallow round-bottomed bowl into the trough that sits on the gate. The depth and corners of the trough make it hard for the horse to retrieve a small strip of carrot or horse pellets.

In the video, I use the word CLICK (and clicker) to stand in for any marker sound you have chosen to use with your horse.

Charging the Clicker

‘Charging the Clicker’ is the first thing we must do when be begin clicker training. We want the horse to relate the sound of our ‘marker sound’ with the idea that a bit of food always follows that sound.

Some horses pick this up very quickly. Others need many short repeat sessions before they make the connection. For horses taught to wait to be told what to do next or get into trouble, the idea of offering a behavior may be a new idea.

This video clip demonstrates just one way of ‘Charging the Clicker’. It has the advantage of using protected contact – a barrier between horse and person. Until we start using food reinforcers with a horse, we don’t know how he will respond to the idea.

Protected contact keeps the person safe and some horses feel safer if a handler is on the other side of a fence. Using a hand-held target means the horse can easily find the YES answer that results in a click&treat.

To me, it feels more meaningful to the horse to ‘charge the clicker’ this way, rather than by waiting for the horse to move his head away from the handler. Using a target gives the horse a tangible destination for his behavior. Asking him to keep his head away from the treats goes totally against the nature of how horses find nourishment. It requires a ‘no’ answer rather than the ‘yes’ answer provided by touching nose to a target.

Once the horse understands the click&treat dynamic, we can work on keeping the head facing forward rather than seeking out the treat pouch.

We can also use this set-up when things are not going well. The horse may have developed the habit of mugging for the treats – pushing his nose into the person. It is totally normal horse foraging behavior – to follow their nose to a likely food source.

By using a bucket or dish, we separate the location of the retrievable food from the person’s body. That alone is a good reason to begin with this technique. Once the horse understands the concept and we understand how the horse is responding to the idea of working for food reinforcement, we can work toward offering the food in our outstretched hand. We can make the switch to hand-feeding while still in protected contact.

Video Clip

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 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.

Finesse Back-Up

At one point a friend and I came up with 29 different ways of backing up a horse, including groundwork, long-reining and riding. This Finesse Back-Up is one of my favorites when I am leading a horse and we need a prompt back-up.

I learned the essence of this process from Alexandra Kurland, a true pioneer of equine clicker training. I’ve added the idea of using corners to teach because it arranges the environment so that stepping back makes sense to the horse right from the beginning.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse understands putting his nose on a target results in click&treat. (See Related Resource 1 at the end of this post.)
  2. Horse walks confidently between the handler and a safe fence or similar barrier.
  3. Horse understands ‘Walk On’ and ‘Whoa’ voice and body language signals. (See Related Resource 2 at the end of this post.)
  4. Handler easily slip into and out of ‘zero intent’ so the horse easily knows when he can relax in a ‘wait’ and when he is being asked to move. (See Related Resource 3 at the end of this post.)
  5. Horse understands the handler’s body axis orientation as a signal for bending. (See Related Resource 4 at the end of this post.)

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • A safe fence or barrier which leads into a safe corner.
  • Halter and lead.
  • Mat (optional). A mat can make it easier for a mat-savvy horse to settle into standing in a corner.

AIMS:

  • Handler uses clear, consistent orientation, body language and voice ‘back up’ signals.
  • Horse smoothly shifts from walking forward to stepping backwards on request when the handler turns to face him.

Clips:

https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y

https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA

Notes:

  1. Once the horse readily parks calmly in the corner, we can begin to teach the Finesse Back-Up. I call it that because it requires gently running our hand or fingers up the rope toward the halter, until we reach a point of contact to which the horse responds.
  2. Each horse will be different. I had trouble having Boots demonstrate clearly because she knows the task so well that she reads the very beginning of my body language sentence and steps back right away. If we teach this well, the horse will step back as soon as we begin to turn and use our voice signal, so that even our hand on the rope eventually becomes redundant.
  3. This is tricky to explain in words. Hopefully the video clips and still pictures will make it easier to understand.
  4. Two terms explained:  Outside hand refers to the hand furthest away from the horse.Inside hand refers to the hand nearest the horse.These obviously change depending on which side of the horse you are on, and whether you are shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse, i.e. both facing the same direction, or you are facing the horse front-on.

SLICES:

A: Getting Comfortable in a Corner

  1. Walk with the horse and halt in a corner set up with a gate or a barrier. The handler is on the open side of the corner. It the horse finds it hard to stand relaxed in the corner, and you have taught him to love standing his front feet on a mat, use a mat for your ‘halt’ position. Click&treat for the halt.
  2. Relax into zero intent and ask the horse to ‘wait’ for a little while in the corner. Click&treat the ‘wait’ task a few times.
  3. Turn the horse 90 degrees toward you so he can walk forward out of the corner. Walk a loop and come back to park in the corner again. Click&treat the halt. (This bit is not on the video clip but when first teaching this, we want the horse totally comfortable standing in the corner. It’s helpful to generalize the task to several corners if you have them available or can build them.)
  4. Teach relaxed standing in the corner on the horse’s left and right sides.

B: The Back-Up Maneuver

To ask for the back-up, you are going to smoothly pivot 180 degrees, so you face the opposite direction to the direction the horse is facing, but you are a bit to one side of him.

BUT: ***In the moment before you pivot…*** 

  1. Gently reach across your body with your ‘outside hand’ and slide it quietly up the rope to a point of contact to which the horse responds.
  2. At first, this may be right up to the snap on the halter (or if using a rope halter, even beyond the snap to hold the bottom of the halter) so you can give the horse a very direct backwards feel on the halter.
  3. As you pivot to face the horse, what was your ‘outside hand’ becomes your ‘inside hand’ — the one nearest the horse.
  4. Then simply keep a ‘hold’ tension on the rope and bring up your energy and intent for the horse to step back. This stance causes the horse slight discomfort by making him feel unbalanced. We want him to work out that he can regain his balance/comfort by shifting backwards. Our first click point is the moment he thinks of moving back. Because he’s in a corner, his easiest choice is to step backwards to regain his balance.
  5. When first teaching this task, release your ‘hold’ and simultaneously click&treat at the horse’s smallest inclination to shift his weight back. After the treat, walk a circuit, return to the corner, and ask again.
  6. When you can feel the horse readily shifting his weight back, release the rope pressure, but then, right away, slide up the rope again and ‘hold’ a bit longer to get a whole step back. Drop your signaling hand off the rope as soon as you get backward movement. Walk a circuit, return to the corner, and ask again.
  7. As he begins to understand, eventually ask for two steps, then three steps and so on, before the click&treat. The horse will soon know that when you relax your intent and take your signaling hand off the rope, he can stop backing.
  8. Ask for two or three back-ups (of several steps each) in a row, with release, click&treat for each one. Then ask the horse to step forward into the corner again; click&treat.
  9. Build a little dancing rhythm of movement: back up = click&treat. Forward into corner = click&treat. Back up = click&treat, and so on. After about 3 of these, go away for a bit of relaxation or doing other things.
  10. Gradually, over many short sessions, ask for more steps back until the horse willingly offers as many as you like.

Generalizations

  1. Move away from the corner and use just a fence on the far side.
  2. Move away from the fence and use just a low raised rail on the far side.
  3. Repeat with just a ground rail along the far side of the horse.
  4. Check to see how well the horse can back with this signal (turning to face him) out in the open. If you lose straightness at any point, return to using a fence or rail on the far side. If the horse begins to swing his hind end away from you, you can straighten his body by touching his neck to move his head away, which will straighten his body.
  5. Back through increasingly narrow spaces; e.g. two barrels, gates, into and out of stalls, always being careful that the horse does not catch his hip on an upright.
  6. Back through lanes set up with higher sides.
  7. Back along a track or trail.
  8. Back down slopes and up slopes. Start with gentle inclines.
  9. Back into a trailer or trailer simulation.
  10. Weave backwards (you need to create signals to direct his butt to the right, to the left and to keep it straight). If you are asking the horse to back up while you face him front on, moving his head a bit to his left (your right) will cause his butt to move to his right (your left). And vice versa if you move his head a little bit to his right, his butt will move to his left. If you want him to back straight, ask his head to stay straight.
  11. Back an L-bend.
  12. Back a U-bend.
  13. Back a Z-bend.
  14. Back in a circle.

Related Resources:

  1. Using a target: https://youtu.be/IfbdNme5UQA
  2. ‘Walk On’ and ‘Whoa’ Signals: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  3.  ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
  4. Body Axis Orientation: https://youtu.be/mjBwyDsVX6Y

Movement Routine 1 – Fence

Photo: Standing with ‘no intent’ at halt is part of these five chained tasks.

INTRODUCTION

This is the first of a series of movement routines we can do with only a fence and an open working area. The routines put together many of the individual skills and movements that my resources have looked at so far.

The key purpose of these routines is to encourage handlers to work on the precision of their signals in a relaxed manner.  The routines require the handler to pay close attention to refining his/her signals to improve timing, clarity and softness. A horse can only be as precise as we are precise. A horse can only be as soft as we are soft.

Each routine has five elements that are chained together into a pattern of movement. Horses are pattern learners and, like all of us, like to know what will happen before it happens. We tend to forget that horses living natural lives in the wild are totally in control of all their actions.

We can increase the positive feeling of ‘certainty’ by teaching these routines in a light-hearted but methodical way. Boots usually picks up a new pattern after three-six repeats over three days. Some horses will be quicker, and some will take longer.

Other reasons for playing with these routines:

  1. They are a way to keep skills we have already taught current in our repertoire.
  2. They give a way of interacting with our horse when time is short, we don’t have time to set up objects and obstacles, we don’t have access to objects and obstacles, or we are past the point of lugging around heavy rails and other objects.
  3. They include movement tasks we can do between working on stationary tasks, so giving the horse a good mix of activities.
  4. They make excellent cool-down routines after energetic riding or groundwork.

I’ve called them ‘routines’ because gymnasts first learn the individual elements of a performance and then form the elements into a ‘routine’. First each element is mastered emotionally, intellectually and physically. Then the routine is put into brain memory. Then it is practiced until it is also in muscle memory.

All this is a little bit tricky because doing a routine with a horse involves two brains and two sets of muscles.

After jotting down a plan for a possible routine, I try it out with Boots multiple times. The feedback I get from Boots and myself always shows that the initial plan needs a lot of changes. Most of the changes concern my body position plus when and how I give the signal for each part of the action.

AIM

Smooth execution of a series of five individual tasks chained together:

  • ‘Walk on’ and ‘halt’ repeated three times;
  • Change of direction and side of horse (so horse remains nearest the fence);
  • ‘Stay’ while handler backs away from the horse to the end of rope (keeping a drape in the rope);
  • Horse Waits for ___ seconds;
  • Recall.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (See Related Resources 1 at the end of this post.)
  2. Handler has developed a clear ‘No Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. (See Related Resources 2 at the end of this post.)
  3. Change of direction plus changing side of horse the handler is on. (See Related Resources 3 at the end of this post.
  4. Horse and handler agree on clear ‘stay’ signals. (See Related Resources 4 at the end of this post.)
  5. Horse has learned to ‘wait’ until handler gives a new signal or clicks&treats. (See Related Resources 5 at the end of this post.)
  6. Handler and horse agree on a clear ‘recall’ signal. (See Related Resources 6 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′ (3 m) or longer lead.
  • A safe fence line to work alongside. It can be straight, curved or the inside or outside of a round pen fence.

VIDEO CLIP

https://youtu.be/HqyJA_E7waY

NOTES

  1. Since I don’t find memorizing a sequence of tasks easy, I use a ruler as a fence and practice the movements with my small toy hippopotamus. Then I walk the sequence outside by myself, practicing the signals I will use, accompanied by an invisible unicorn.
  2. While working out the plan with Boots’ help, I’ve usually managed to confuse her to some extent, so once the plan feels right, I wait a few days before starting to do the final version with her. Meanwhile we have been practicing the tasks separately.
  3. For the first task, walk as few or many steps as you like. I walked only a few steps in the video to make it easier to film. Vary how long you stand at halt before asking for the next walk transition. Work to get the ‘walk on’ transition with raising your chest, breathing in deeply plus your voice signal. Work on refining your body language and voice signal for each halt.
  4. How often you click&treat depends on where you are with each skill. I always begin with click&treat for each portion of each task. As the horse gets the hang of what we are doing, I move the click point along so the horse does more for each click&treat. I like to eventually be able to do the whole chain with one click point at the end.
  5. As with everything, we keep the sessions short in among other things we are doing. I often do it just once, sometimes twice and rarely three times in a row.
  6. There is no need to rush through the chain of tasks. Walk slowly. Give the horse time put the pattern into his mind and from there into his muscle memory.
  7. Stay’ means that the horse understands that you can walk away while he stays put. ‘Wait’ means that the horse is able to keep standing still for a specific length of time until you click&treat or give another signal. They may appear to be the same at first glance, but teaching/learning ‘Wait’ with duration is a skill set that goes beyond the idea of ‘stay’ for a short period.
  8. For the ‘wait’ task, gradually work up to ten seconds, but be sure to stay well within the time the horse is comfortable with. Better to recall sooner rather than after the horse moves. If he moves, go back to working on the ‘wait’ task by itself for several days. In the video clip, you will note that on the day we filmed at liberty, Boots found it hard to relax into the ‘wait’. There was a lot of commotion including a huge noisy hedge clipping machine working close by.
  9. The more time we spend playing with exercises like this, which look relatively simple on the surface, the more positive spin-offs there will be to the other things we do with the horse.

SLICES

  1. Memorize the sequence of tasks.
  2. Play with each of the skills separately until you and the horse feel fluent. This might take one session or a long time if some of the tasks are new to you.
  3. Walking with the horse nearest the fence, chain the first two tasks together (3 x walk & halt plus change of direction and sides).
  4. When 3 is smooth, chain the last three mini-tasks together (stay plus wait plus recall).
  5. When both 3 and 4 are going well, chain it all together.
  6. Always adjust your rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat) to what the horse is able to offer on the day. If he seems unsure, click&treat more of the slices. If he is showing keenness and understanding about what comes next, use your voice to praise and move the click&treat further along the chain.

We can’t expect our horse to be the same every day, just as we are not the same every day. Good training adjusts what we do to what the horse is telling us. Some days it will feel very smooth. Other days parts will feel sticky. This is normal ebb and flow.

The day will come when you do it all with one click and treat at the end, but it may not happen again the day after that. Horses read our tension or relaxation in a nanosecond. Often what is happening with the horse relates to ourselves, our emotional state, and how the horse perceives us that day.

Other times, the horse may be tired or anxious due to rough weather or other changes in his external and/or internal environment.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1. If you usually start walking on the horse’s left side, start instead walking on his right side. Be aware of keeping your signals equally clear on the side you use less often.
  2. Practice alongside as many different fences as you can.
  3. Once the horse shows that he knows the pattern, play with it at liberty along fences using the same signals you have used all along.
  4. Once the routine is smooth along the fence, play with it out in the open, first with the lead rope and then at liberty. Alternate on which side of the horse you begin the routine.

RELATED RESOURCES

  1. Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
  3. Changing Sides in Motion: https://youtu.be/3oqPs4LM5AM
  4. Park and Wait (Stay): https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
  5. Wait Duration: https://youtu.be/jVn3WBuqpno
  6. Recall Clip 1: https://youtu.be/XuBo07q8g24     Recall Clip 2: https://youtu.be/5BQCB2Fe5RE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Step at a Time

Photo above: Boots gained the confidence to step up on this balance beam by being rewarded for venturing one step at a time. After many short, successful sessions, she felt secure enough to target individual legs to my hand.

INTRODUCTION

The skill of being able to ask your horse to move one specific foot at a time is worthy of time and attention. It is a task that can be used and refined when riding or doing groundwork, including Horse Agility competition. It starts with being able to visualize the pattern in which horses move their feet.

Carefully observe the footfall sequences when horses walk, back-up, trot and canter. Reviewing slow motion video is best. Learn the footfall (foot-rise) for walk and trot, one gait at a time. When they are clear in your mind, add the canter.

Get down on all fours so you can mimic the pattern with your limbs. That helps put the patterns into your deep memory. Once you can easily replay the memory tape for each gait in your mind, you can give your horse much clearer signals.

Perfecting this helps to build the feel you need in order to time your riding or leading signals to the horse’s feet.

This is a great task for teaching us to carefully note the horse’s intent and time our click&treat to the moment a foot is lifting. The ability to see and feel footfall (foot-rise) is a huge bonus in a horse training kit.

It is actually the moment of foot-rise that we need to learn because it is only when the foot is lifted that we can influence where it goes next. Therefore during this exercise we want to click&treat as the foot is lifting.

Directing our horse’s feet one at a time has many uses. For example:

  • Cleaning/trimming feet.
  • Positioning for mounting.
  • Backing into stalls/wash bays.
  • Breed and showmanship classes .
  • Leading through narrow spaces.
  • Trailer loading and unloading.
  • Precision riding or long-reining/driving.
  • Placing a foot for an x-ray.
  • Precise mat or hoop work.
  • Pedestals.
  • Bridges.
  • Water obstacles.
  • Horse Agility obstacles
  • Getting out of tricky situations on the trail.
  • Stepping up and down a pedestal or balance beam or bridge.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. The horse responds willingly to light pressure on the halter via the lead rope. (See ‘Related Resource’ 1 at the end of this post.)
  3. We have taught the ‘finesse back up’. (See ‘Related Resource’ 2 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 lead. A shorter lead is easier to use for this task.

AIM

To create signals for asking the horse to move either front foot one step at a time, both back and forward.

VIDEO CLIP

https://youtu.be/http://A6RUNijvf18

NOTES

  1. Ensure the horse is in a learning frame of mind.
  2. Keep each session working with short – three minutes is plenty. Three minutes of focused work over many sessions will get you the result without lapsing into human or horse frustration.
  3. To lift and move a front foot, the horse must first shift his balance to take the weight off that foot.
  4. Unless the horse is pacing, the hind feet move in unison with the diagonal front foot.
  5. I’m not good with left/right or 3-dimensional thinking so it took me a long time to get these moves firmly into my muscle memory. I had to learn to carefully note where the horse’s feet were and how he was balanced before I asked a foot to move. Then I could decide which way I needed to tilt the horse’s head to move a particular foot.
  6. Remember to click&treat the moment the foot is lifting during this exercise.

SLICES

One Step Back

In order to lift his right front foot, the horse must shift his weight to his left shoulder and slightly back.

  1. Face the horse, slightly to the right side of his head and orientate your belly button toward his nose (when his head is straight).
  2. Hold the rope about an arm’s length from the halter, lightly draped, in the hand nearest the horse’s shoulder (rope hand).
  3. Reach across with the other hand (sliding hand) and slide it gently up the rope toward the halter. If you’ve taught a ‘back’ voice signal, use it as well.
  4. At some stage, you will reach a point of contact to which the horse responds.
  5. When you reach the point of contact tilt his nose/neck slightly to the left and put a bit of backward pressure on the halter. Release immediately when you feel his intent to move back (click&treat). Relax, then ask again.
  6. When you get a whole step, release (click&treat), relax. Maybe rub him if you are not using Clicker Training and he likes to be touched. If you get more than one step, accept it, reward it, and then adjust your signal so it has less energy.

Some horses may at first respond by leaning forward into the backward pressure you are putting on the halter. They are not ‘wrong’ because moving into pressure is a natural horse response. They are also not wrong because they don’t yet understand what you want.

If your horse leans into the pressure:

  1. Take up a power position (feet shoulder-width apart, one slightly ahead, hips dropped).
  2. Hold the rope in the hand nearest the horse, about 2’-3’ from the halter with a bit of slack in it.
  3. Reach across with your other hand and softly run it up the rope toward the halter until you meet resistance from the horse.
  4. At that point, simply ‘hold’ just strongly enough to make the horse feel unbalanced.
  5. The moment he shows the slightest tendency to shift backwards to regain his balance, release the pressure (click&treat).
  6. Repeat. If you are clear and consistent and release (click&treat) promptly, the horse will soon read your body language energy and intent and step back before you can even slide your fingers up the rope.
  7. During multiple short practices, also introduce a voice ‘back’ signal.

When you reach a reliable response as in 6 above, you have created a gesture signal you can use at liberty to ask the horse to step back. Keep the gesture exactly as it was, i.e. running your hand up an imaginary rope.

When you have one step back at a light signal, ask for two steps back. It’s important to ‘release’ the halter pressure slightly after the first step, then increase the pressure slightly to ask again for the second step before a bigger release (click&treat).

Once that is smooth, ask for three steps, then four, and so on until you have as many individual steps as you like. Release the pressure at each step, then apply it again lightly to ask for another step. The horse will soon read the intent in your body language and will step back by reading your ‘intent’.

Pressure on the rope will no longer be necessary except maybe in unusual situations of high stress. In such situations the horse will have an advantage over horses who don’t understand this part of the task because he will remember what the rope pressure means and how to respond to it.

To move his left front foot back, tilt his nose/neck slightly to the right, i.e. always tilt the nose away from the foot you want him to move.

If the horse tends to push forward into the handler, it can help to have a rail in front of the horse or start in a blocked-off lane, so that stepping back is the easiest and common-sense thing to do.

When backing from the halt feels easy, we can expand and generalize the task by walking along beside the horse, halting and smoothly pivoting into position to face the horse and ask him to back up. Teach this first along a safe fence to encourage the horse to back up in a straight line.

One Step Forward

To move one step forward, tilt his nose slightly away from the foot you want to move (to take the weight off it) and put gentle forward pressure on the halter.

GENERALIZATIONS

Be sure to teach ‘one step at a time’ standing on the horse’s left side and on his right side. If he finds one side harder, work at bit more on that side.

Most people find giving signals with their less dominant hand harder as well. When each side feels the same, you’ve reached a big milestone.

When we can use a light signal to ask the horse to glide from walk into a halt, then as we turn to face him, we can ask for an individual step back or forward, we have achieved our task.

Eventually, get him to put a specific front foot on things. Start with a largish item like a doormat or a piece of carpet. Work toward smaller things like paper plates, Frisbees and leaves, then higher things like stumps, steps, pedestals, ramps, balance beams, hoof stands if he doesn’t already know all these things.

Be aware that once the horse is close to the object, he can’t see it, but is working from memory. The area directly under his head/neck is a blind spot.

Be particular but not critical. Always relax, pause and reset if the horse gets confused. After a good effort, go away from the site and do other things the horse already knows.

Then come back to moving one foot until you get another good effort. Don’t drill. After you’ve had two or three good attempts, stop and come back to it another time.

The essence of this teaching is that you create mutually-understood signals that communicate to the horse about moving individual feet.

This clip shows some possible generalizations.

RELATED RESOURCES

  1. Blog: Soft Response to Rope Pressure: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sq
  2. March 2018 Challenge; Backing Up Part 2; FINESSE BACK-UP https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA

 

GROUND-TYING

INTRODUCTION

Having a horse stop and wait when his lead rope is dropped onto the ground is useful for management around home as well as out on the trail. It pops up occasionally as a challenge in Horse Agility competitions.

SAFETY

When first teaching this I prefer to use a wide webbing or leather halter. If the horse moves he may step on his rope and react by jerking his head up. With a wide halter there is less chance of spinal trauma. Alternately, we can attach the rope to the halter with a bit of wool that will break in such a situation.

I also suggest using a soft, thick rope not longer than 12 feet. If something causes the horse to move, it’s better if there isn’t a long, thin rope chasing him.

First we must of course make sure that the horse is totally relaxed with ropes dragging all around his body and legs. He must be cool with ropes moving in front of him, behind him and dragging alongside while attached to his halter.

PREREQUISITES

  • Rope relaxation and rope calmness in various situations. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 5, 6, and 7 at the end of this post.)
  • Able to stand still in relaxed mode while things are happening around him. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 8, 9 and 10 at the end of this post.)
  • Stop willingly to target his front feet to a mat. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 1 at the end of this post.)
  • Smooth ‘walk-on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying beside the handler on a draped lead rope. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 2 at the end of this post.)
  • Willing response to a “Whoa” voice signal. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 3 at the end of this post.)
  • Smooth ‘back-up’ with the handler beside the horse or in front facing the horse. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 4 at the end of this post.)

ENVIRONMENT & 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; he’s had ample time to graze or eat hay right before the training session.
  • Halter and lead kept loose (draped) as much as possible, because as much as possible, we want to use body language for communication, not rope pressure.
  • Two or more familiar mats.
  • A second rope.

AIM

When we drop the lead rope and give our horse a ‘wait’ hand signal, we would like him to stay parked in that spot until we return.

VIDEO CLIPS

#72 HorseGym with Boots: Ground-tie Clip 1 GETTING STARTED:

 

#73 HorseGym with Boots: Ground-tie Clip 2 ANOTHER VENUE:

NOTES

  1. Boots’ demonstration on the video clips is the sum of many short sessions over a long time. When teaching something new, we stay with each slice of the task over as many short sessions as necessary until it feels ho-hum (easy and smooth). Then we link in the next slice.
  2. Teach the whole process from the horse’s left side, then teach it again walking on his right side. Alternatively, teach each slice on both sides before adding in the next slice.

SLICES

  1. Walk on the horse’s left side with a loose lead toward a mat. Hold the horse’s lead rope in the hand nearest the horse. Carry a second rope in your other hand.
  • Halt with the horse at the mat using your halt voice signal and body language.
  • Drop your second rope on the ground under the horse’s nose.
  • Allow him to satisfy his curiosity about it (sniff it, put a foot on it, and so on); relax (click&treat.)
  • Keep a drape or ‘smile’ in your actual lead rope.

Pick up the dropped rope and walk together to another mat, or walk a large loop that returns you to the same mat.

Looking for: Horse halts with front feet on the mat and remains relaxed when the second rope is dropped and picked up again.

If you set up a circuit of several mats, you can move from mat to mat.

Remember to do something easy the horse already knows and build in ‘down time’ in between bursts of activity with this new task.

If you have a circuit of several mats, do the circuit once. Then do something else that’s easy and come back to the circuit again if it feels right to do more.

  1. As 1, but without using mats. Everything stays the same except that we have removed the prop of the mat or mats. It may help the horse at first if you walk the same circuit as you walked when you were using the mat(s). Halt and drop the second rope where the mats were during the previous lessons.

Once the horse seems to recognize the dropped rope as a place to stop and stand, gradually generalize to dropping the second rope in new places.

  1. As 2, but now drop the lead rope itself: relax as the horse halts; pause for a second or two, with neutral (no intent) body language. We want to begin building duration into the time the horse stands quietly after the lead rope is dropped. Be sure to click&treat well before the horse shows any tendency to move.

Looking for: Horse halts when you use body language and voice signal plus drop the lead rope and relax (click&treat). Horse relaxes too.

  1. It’s helpful if we can ground-tie the horse after we’ve asked him to back up. Ask the horse to back up and while he is backing drop the lead rope and at the same time use your halt voice signal, relax (click&treat) when the horse halts. Intersperse these requests with walking forward.

Looking for: Horse backs up on request and halts with the handler’s voice halt signal plus the dropped rope.

  1. Experiment to see what happens when:
  • Walking along you slow to a halt and gently drop the lead rope without using your voice signal as well.
  • If you have developed clear body language to communicate that you are going to stop, the horse will respond to just your body language and the dropped rope.
  • Relax (click&treat) at the first sign of a halt.

If the horse finds this difficult, leave it out for now and maybe return to it as part of your generalization when he knows the ground-tying task better.

Looking for: Horse brings himself to a halt when the handler halts and the rope is gently dropped in even in the absence of a voice signal.

  1. Bring back the mats and the second rope. Ask the horse to jog (or trot) with you and halt with you when you halt beside the mat. Use your voice signal plus drop the second lead rope from the jog. When it feels smooth, phase out the second rope and drop the horse’s lead rope.

Looking for: Horse willingly halts at the mat from jog/trot when the handler halts, gives the voice halt signal and drops the lead rope.

  1. Slices 1-6 above have the handler stopping with the horse. Now we want to generalize the skill so the horse stops when rope is dropped plus stays parked while handler keeps walking. Ask the horse to halt at a mat, drop the lead rope, and use your ‘wait’ signal to let the horse know you want him to remain parked while you walk away from him. For the ‘wait’ I use a gesture and voice signal at the same time.

For the early lessons with this generalization, it’s good to use a circuit of mats again, until you see that the horse understands the new nuances of the task consistently over several sessions.

Walk with a loose lead toward a mat. Halt with horse at the mat using:

  • Halt voice signal
  • Dropped lead rope
  • Give your voice and gesture ‘wait’ signals Then walk forward a few steps away from the horse.
  • Turn to face the horse and take up a neutral (no intent) body language position – place both hands flat over your belly button, drop your shoulders and have a soft focus not looking at the horse.
  • Wait a second or two, be sure to return before the horse even thinks about moving. Count the seconds. Start with one second and don’t wait longer until one second is completely okay with the horse.
  • If the horse moves, gently return to him, pick up the lead rope, walk together in a relaxed manner and start again. This is a re-set. Don’t make the horse feel wrong. He can’t be wrong because he doesn’t yet know what you want. Next time don’t go as far away and return to him sooner rather than waiting that extra moment.
  • Pick up the lead rope and walk on to the next mat to repeat, or walk a loop to return to the same mat.

Looking for: Horse halts at mat and remains there confidently while the handler walks on a few steps, turns, pauses, and walks back to the horse.

  1. Gradually walk a few more steps away from the horse and increase how long you wait before returning to the horse; relax (click&treat). Click&treat after you return to the horse.

If he loses confidence, immediately return to the distance and time he can cope with. Add distance and duration very slowly – one second and/or half a step at a time over many, many short sessions.

Looking for: Horse stays with the mat and the dropped rope until the handler returns.

  1. This slice asks the horse to halt at the mat while you keep on walking without stopping first. You drop the lead rope and use  your voice & gesture ‘stay’ signals but you don’t halt yourself – you keep on walking.

If the horse has been mainly watching your body language as his signal to halt, it could be hard for him at first until he realizes that,

  • the mat
  • dropped lead rope
  • voice signal

all mean he still should halt, even if you keep moving.

The Task: Walk toward a mat with a loose lead. When you reach the mat, simultaneously:

  • use your halt voice signal
  • drop the lead rope
  • give your ‘wait’ signal without stopping your feet when the horse stops
  • walk on a few steps.

Turn and face the horse, then:

  • wait a second or two
  • return to the horse
  • relax (click&treat).

Pick up the lead rope and walk on to the next mat.

Looking for: Horse stays halted on the mat while the handler walks on, halts, turns, pauses and walks back to the horse.

Play with this by gradually moving further away from the horse.

  1. Still using a mat, play with 9 above at the trot. Handler keeps jogging forward while the horse halts on the mat.
  2. Repeat 9 above without the mat, at walking pace.
  3. Repeat 9 above without the mat at jog or trot.
  4. Make sure the horse is comfortable when you leave from his left eye and from his right eye. Spend a bit more time with the harder side, if there is one.

Further Generalization

Generalize ground-tying to new venues and around new distractions, as long as it’s safe. Include mats initially if it helps the horse, then phase them out.

Additional Resources

  1. Blog: Using Mats: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9
  2. Blog: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  3. Blog: Willing Response to a Voice Halt Signal: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5R9
  4. Video Clip: #27 HorseGym with Boots: Good Backing = Good Leading: https://youtu.be/M6gxa2iriQ8
  5. Video Clip: #121 HorseGym with Boots; Stick and Rope Confidence: https://youtu.be/WIpsT4PPiXo
  6. Video Clip: #22 HorseGym with Boots; Rope Relaxation: https://youtu.be/6Y34VlUk0Iw
  7. Video Clip: #60 HorseGym with Boots; Rope Calmness: https://youtu.be/9WC_7d8M6lQ
  8. Video Clip: #22 HorseGym with Boots: The Art of Standing Still: https://youtu.be/F4Rn9kIc7FQ
  9. Video Clip: October 2017 Challenge: Park and Wait: https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
  10. Video Clip: #22 HorseGym with Boots: Parking with Commotion: https://youtu.be/M6p5w8QZaIA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Balancera Exercise

INTRODUCTION:

Horses have an inbuilt action pattern for moving in synchronization with each other. One way to play with this wonderful ability is to devise an exercise where the ‘walk on’ signal balances rhythmically with the ‘back up’ signal.

First, we ensure that our ‘walk on’ and ‘back up’ signals, used individually, give us fluid movement together staying shoulder-to-shoulder. Then we link these two tasks together to form a sequence of dance-like steps.

While walking forward, we pause momentarily before shifting our energy to step backward. The pause gives the horse time to re-organize his body to step back with us. The message to shift gears must travel a lot further in a horse than in our smaller body. Also, the horse has four legs to organize, so it is important to build in a pause long enough for the horse to accomplish the change.

It can look and feel rough at first, but by spending a short time with this exercise often, the shift from forward to reverse gear can become fluid and polished. The two video clips below show the stages of training that Boots and I went through.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ signals and walks in a relaxed manner with the handler beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ 1 at end of this post.)
  3. Horse responds easily to ‘back-up’ signals and walks backward willingly with the handler staying in position beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ 2 at end of this post.)
  4. Horse and handler understand the ‘Zero Intent’ dynamic. (See ‘Related Resources’ 3 at end of this post.)

ENVIRONMENT & 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; he’s had ample time to graze or eat hay right before the training session.
  • Halter and lead (kept draped as much as possible, as we want to use body language for communication, not rope pressure). If the horse already backs up easily with the handler in the shoulder-to-shoulder position, you can teach this task at liberty.
  • A selection of barriers which we walk toward and ask for a ‘halt’.
  • A safe fence or similar to work alongside.
  • Supports and rails to build a dead-end lane.

AIM:

To smoothly change from walking forward ten steps to backing up ten steps in a straight line, staying together in the shoulder-to-shoulder position.

VIDEO CLIPS:

Balancera Clip 1 of 2: #173 HorseGym with Boots

 

Balancera Clip 2 of 2. #174 HorseGym with Boots

NOTES:

  1. The slice numbers on the clips don’t correspond to the slice numbers below.
  2. Boots’ demonstration on the video is the sum of many short sessions over a long time. When teaching something new, we stay with each slice of the task over as many short sessions as necessary until it feels ho-hum (easy and smooth). Then we move on to the next slice.

SLICES:

  1. Ensure that you can ‘walk on’ together fluidly toward a destination, staying in position shoulder-to-shoulder (as for this whole exercise).
  2. Ensure that you can ‘halt’ together fluidly, staying in position shoulder-to-shoulder.
  3. Set up a lane and walk the horse through it in both directions. The horse walks inside the lane, handler walks on the outside.
  4. When 3 is ho-hum, walk the horse into the lane and ask for a halt about halfway along; click&treat. Do this in both directions.
  5. Repeat 4 above, asking the horse to wait a second longer before the click&treat, until he can comfortably wait 4 or 5 seconds while you relax with Zero Intent.
  6. Block off one end of the lane with a barrier placed about half a horse’s length inside the lane. Walk the horse into the lane and halt at the barrier; click&treat.
  7. Hold the rope in the hand nearest the horse. Lift your rope hand straight up and jiggle the rope lightly to put a distinctive touch signal on the halter. If your horse already understands a voice ‘back’ signal, use this as well. Watch for any movement backwards, even a body shift back; click&treat. If your horse already responds reliably to a back-up gesture and/or voice signal, you can probably teach this at liberty.
  8. Walk the horse into the lane again, to halt at the barrier; click&treat. Repeat 7 above, gradually building up to several steps back.
  9. Block off the lane a little further along so the horse is halting with his whole body inside the lane. Repeat backing out, aiming for a fluid, confident back-up of 5-6 steps. Make sure the handler remains shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse during the backing steps.
  10. Now we want to switch the halter jiggle signal to a hand signal. As you lift the rope-hand straight up to jiggle the rope, also lift your outside hand to the horse’s eye level and make a backward gesture with it. And use your voice signal. Click&treat for any stepping back.
  11. When 10 is good, repeat, using the outside hand and voice signal BEFORE you lift your rope-hand to put jiggle energy into the halter. The moment the horse begins to step back, stop jiggling the rope but ask for another step or two with the outside hand and voice signals.
  12. When the horse moves back readily with your outside hand gesture and voice signal, fade out the rope-jiggle. You have taught what it means, and it is there as a reminding-signal in times of need.
  13. Now we want to combine walk forward, pause, back-up with one click&treat after the whole task. This is the Balancera. Walk into the lane, halt at the barrier, signal for the back-up; click&treat for any back-up that is offered. Because we are introducing new complexity, we relax our criteria for number of steps back.
  14. Gradually, over many very short sessions that always end on a good note, ask for more steps back after the halt before you click&treat. 5-6 steps are good during the learning process.
  15. Practice with a lane of ground rails. Most horses will tend to veer right or left when they back up, due to the natural asymmetry of their bodies. One hind leg pushes off harder, so their hind end veers away from the stronger leg. By frequent backing through a lane of ground rails or between barrels, we help the horse organize his body to stay straighter. I often practice this slice as part of our regular gymnastic work.
  16. Practice with one barrier on the far side of the horse but still halting at a barrier. This gives you another opportunity to note which way his hind end tends to veer.
  17. Work on all the above on both sides of the horse. Each slice has two parts – handler in the left eye and handler in the right eye.
  18. When you feel the time is right, repeat 15 and 16 without a barrier at the end of the lane or along the fence.
  19. Play with halting facing a fence followed by a back-up without the prop of a lane or rails.
  20. When you feel the time is right, ask for a halt away from any barriers, followed by a back-up. Celebrate hugely when you get this. Done with finesse, the horse becomes light and keeps his full attention on your body language so he can maintain the synchronization. I always click&treat after this task.
  21. Gradually build up to 10 steps forward and 10 steps back but vary the number of steps each time you do it. He will be listening for your click to know when he can stop backing.
  22. Whenever it feels ‘broken’, go back to whatever slice the horse feels confident with and work forward from there.
  23. Ask for two ‘forward & back’ repeats before the click&treat.
  24. Ask for three ‘forward & back’ repeats before the click&treat.

GENERALIZATIONS:

  • Adopt doing the Balancera between two ground rails as a regular part of your gymnastic warm-up and cool-down routines.
  • Play with this in new venues.
  • Play with it around new distractions.
  • Play at liberty.
  • Play with it to and from paddocks or while out on a walk.
  • Play with it on slopes, both backing down and backing up the slope.
  • Play with it long-reining using your voice and hand signal from behind the horse rather than beside him.
  • If you ride, play with it ridden. You can use the straight upward jiggle of your rope or rein to remind the horse about what you want, along with your voice signal and your body weight shift signal. If you use a cordeo (neck rope) while riding, you have probably already taught a touch signal with that for the back-up. If you begin by riding into a corner, it will easily make sense to the horse that you want him to back up.

RELATED RESOURCES:

  1. Blog: Smooth Walk-On and Halt Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Playlist: Backing-Up: This is the link to the first clip in the playlist: https://youtu.be/wZ7hnFSkxUU
  3. Blog: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO

Target Chin to Hand: Begin Targeting of Body Parts

Targeting body parts is fun to do when we are short on time or it’s too hot, wet, cold, or muddy to be out and about, which is often the case in January.

I’ve started with targeting chin to hand, because it is probably the easiest one to establish the IDEA of targeting a body part to our hand. It gives us a simple task to practice good timing of the click, plus consistent treat-delivery that keeps or returns the horse’s head to facing forward.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse confidently touches his nose to a variety of different targets held in a variety of positions. In other words, he seeks out the target.
  2. Horse confidently touches his nose to our outstretched fist in a variety of positions and with us standing beside him or in front of him.
  3. Handler has developed a clear ‘zero intent’ body language stance. (See Related Resources 1.)
  4. Horse understands the handler’s ‘zero intent’ position, by remaining calmly facing forward for several seconds, rather than turning toward the treat pouch or pocket when the handler stands beside the horse’s neck. There are training plans for these prerequisite skills in my book: “How to Begin Equine Clicker Training” (See the link to BOOKS at the top of the screen).

I have to presume that everyone is already familiar with the basics of clicker training, since the new shaping plans I share here build on those basics. If you are not familiar, the information in the book is a great place to start.

ENVIRONMENT:

  • Horse is not hungry, so he can focus on what we are teaching, rather than the treats.
  • Horse at liberty in an area he finds comfortable.
  • Ideally, herd mates in view but not able to interfere.

AIMS:

  • The horse willingly moves his chin to touch our hand held toward his chest from his chin.
  • The handler becomes more confident with slipping into and out of a ‘zero intent’ posture. (See Related Resources 1 at the end of this post.)

NOTES:

  1. Play with this in very short sessions. Stop when it feels good. Sessions can be before or between other things that you are doing.
  2. Have the short sessions as frequent as possible. Every day is good, twice a day is even better.
  3. Stick with one body part until you and horse are totally ho-hum with it.
  4. When you are ready to introduce a second body part, the PROCESS is exactly the same as the one outlined below for the chin.
  5. To introduce another body part, begin each session with the one(s) you have already taught, then suggest the new spot by touching it: click&treat, and progress through the same thin-sliced process.

VIDEO CLIP:

SLICES:

  1. Touch the flat palm of your hand to the horse’s chin; click&treat.
  2. Repeat several times so the horse can make the connection between the ‘touch’ and the click&treat.
  3. Hold your hand a tiny distance back from the chin (toward the horse’s chest) and wait for the horse to close the distance so he touches your hand: click the instant you feel the touch & treat plus celebrate largely (happy praise and a triple treat or jackpot).
  4. If you do slice 3 above, and the horse does not make the connection, resume with slice 2.
  5. Once the horse is making the connection over a tiny distance, gradually increase the distance one millimeter at a time.
  6. Early on in your teaching program, start each new session with a touch to the chin, to remind the horse about which task you are doing.
  7. Once the horse clearly understands the task, take up the ‘zero intent’ position between repeats, to build a bit of ‘wait duration’ between your requests. Build up the ‘wait time’ in one second increments.
  8. Some horses will develop a little signal to tell you when they have finished chewing and are ready for a repeat. (See Related Resource 6.) Watch out for these and value them by doing a repeat. Boots illustrates this in the video clip.

GENERALIZATION:

We can use how the chin (lower lip) feels to our touch to estimate the horse’s relaxation level. It’s easier to feel the chin (lower lip) tension than to see it when we are actively doing things with the horse.

While interacting with the horse, occasionally pause and feel his chin (lower lip). A soft, floppy lower lip suggests a horse relaxed about what is going on.

With increasing anxiety, the lip tightens, so it might be:

  • Very Loose
  • Moderately loose
  • A little bit tight
  • Quite tight
  • Very hard indeed.

Likewise, as anxiety reduces and relaxation returns, a tight lip will loosen up.

Add Pics of chin

A very relaxed, loose chin/lower lip.

A tighter chin/lower lip. When with the horse, it is easier to feel the difference than to see it.

RELATED RESOURCES:

  1. Blog: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
  2. Blog: Target Shoulder to Hand: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5SH
  3. Blog: Target Hindquarters to our Hand: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Tk
  4. Blog: Target Flexions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Ty
  5. Blog: Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RV

 

RAINY DAY and STALL REST ACTIVITIES

INTRODUCTION:

These activities are all based on equine clicker training. Please see my book, How to Begin Equine Clicker Training: Improve Horse-Human Communication if you would like to investigate clicker training with horses. Details of my books are on the ‘BOOKS’ page link above. The books are all available via Amazon.com. Topics in the books contain free links to relevant YouTube video clips.

I keep the clips short – most are under five minutes. Each relates to a specific skill. Keeping them short makes them easier to find and review.

Each of the activities listed below has one or more accompanying video clips. Depending on the reason a horse is on stall rest, some  tasks may be a more useful than others.

  1. Nose to Target

This is fully discussed and explained in the book mentioned above. It is usually one of the first tasks when we introduce clicker training with horses.

Once the horse understands that touching his nose to a target held out by the handler earns him a click&treat, and he has a strong history of reinforcement for the task, we can use it to gradually develop flexion.

This clip shows a way to introduce the ‘nose to target’ task with the handler in protected contact (i.e. on the other side of a barrier). It’s good to use protected contact until we know how the horse responds to food being part of the training process. https://youtu.be/Rat3P1pGKjU

  1. Head Lowering (and Head Up)

This illustrates the process of free-shaping a behavior. Free-shaping means that we wait for the horse to do something it naturally does (e.g. lower the head) and ‘mark’ that behavior with a click&treat. It’s important to accurately ‘mark’ and treat each little approximation toward the final behavior we want, so timing of the click and smooth treat delivery are necessary. It’s helpful to work on these away from the horse by asking another person to stand in for the horse.

Clip One: https://youtu.be/AoqtJj2X1bU

Clip Two: https://youtu.be/Ol-BHB1QCnw

Clip Three: https://youtu.be/CYhgwlmrfps

  1. Okay to Repeat Signals and Grooming with ‘Okay to Repeat’ Signals

This post contains the background and video clip links.  https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RV

  1. “Intent and Zero Intent”

This post contains the background and video clip links. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO

  1. Target Feet to Mat and Duration on the Mat

This post with clips introduces the idea of mats. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9

  1. Target Flexions

This post contains the background and video clip. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Ty

  1. Target Chin to Hand

Clip: https://youtu.be/Fsigp8wB0LU

  1. Target Shoulder to Hand

This post contains the background and video clip. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5SH

  1. Targeting Body Parts Overview

This clip shows an overview. Each body part would be taught separately following the outline for targeting chin or shoulder to our hand, as in items 7 and 8 above. https://youtu.be/tFGvmRRYdHQ

  1. Bell Ringing

Clip: a thin-slicing technique to teach bell ringing: https://youtu.be/wBdJMgtHU6A

Clip: bell and horn playing: https://youtu.be/pHvgJxJsmc4

  1. Picking Things Up

This clip looks at a first lesson: https://youtu.be/EDGRpM2yLBo

This clip is with a horse a bit further into the process. https://youtu.be/FCQrlMc01RE

This clip shows the skill generalized to picking up and carrying a feed bucket. https://youtu.be/zRM8kO992EY

The two clips below demonstrate the final slices of our process for learning to retrieve a cap tossed away.

Clip 1: https://youtu.be/bvRkCk___3M

Clip 2: https://youtu.be/hMIB5mlx65E

  1. Willing Haltering

Clip showing ‘halter prep’ using a hoop.  https://youtu.be/WKeLxfpBFAo

This post contains the background and video clip. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sw

  1. Relaxation with Body Extensions

Clip: https://youtu.be/nkwxYwtCP_Y

Clip: Stick and Rope Confidence: https://youtu.be/WIpsT4PPiXo

  1. Balance on Three Legs

Clip: https://youtu.be/x1WKppV3N_0

  1. Clean all Feet from One Side

Clip: https://youtu.be/UMyApCj9wBQ

  1. Hoof Stand Confidence

Clip: https://youtu.be/khsEm1YBtLs

  1. Head Rocking

Clip: https://youtu.be/-2VjmbfkfS4

  1. One Step at a Time

Clip: https://youtu.be/wStHxqNs7nk

  1. Soft Response to Rope Pressure

This post contains the background and video clips. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sq

  1. In-Hand Back-Up

Clip: https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y

  1. Step Aerobics

This post contains the background and video clip. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sf

  1. Foot Awareness (Proprioception)

Some of the little tasks in this clip can be done in a restricted space. https://youtu.be/7bEkFk0w_gk

  1. Counting

This clip looks at the beginning of teaching ‘counting’: https://youtu.be/2os0DTE2SoE

  1. Kill the Tiger

This clip shows the final task. It was thin-sliced to first teach it. Be aware that some horses might generalize this bit of fun to pulling off their saddle pads unless you put it on cue or ‘on signal’. https://youtu.be/M8vzn1JsR_k

  1. Bursting Balloons

This clip shows Smoky after a few sessions when he is just beginning to get the hang of it. https://youtu.be/Md7ui1DejaI

  1. Target Hindquarters to our Hand

https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Tk