Category Archives: Clicker Training Skills

Gaining Fluidity without Drilling

Questions:

How do we become truly fluid with a specific task or series of tasks?

How can the handler practice a clear, consistent signal or group of signals?

How can we engage the horse to willingly carrying out tasks confidently at our request?

It’s natural to want to ‘practice’ to get better. It’s especially challenging when it’s the handler that needs/wants the practice to improve:

  • Optimum body orientation.
  • Moving easily between ‘no intent’ and ‘intent’ body language.
  • Gesture signal clarity.
  • Consistent voice signal.
  • Timing of the click to truly mark the desired behavior.
  • Prompt treat delivery.

The temptation is to get the horse to ‘do it again’ so we can practice. However, if a horse had carried out a complex task to a good standard, does it make sense to him to have to do it again right away?

Probably not. He may instead think that he didn’t get it right the first time. He may try a different variation in good faith and become confused if it does not result in a click&treat.

We acquire a complex task by teaching it via thin-slicing. The ACQUISITION STAGE is finished when our signals are relatively consistent, and the horse’s response is accurate about 90% of the time. Then we enter the STAGE OF BUILDING FLUIDITY with the task.

Gaining fluidity, with either new thought processes or new movements, means building up nerve connections. The only way to build up nerve connections is to apply our full attention to repeating the learning process.

Once we have a general idea about what we are learning, we focus our attention on the detail by reviewing the new skills often enough to put them into our long-term mental and muscle memory.

This involves repetition. How we do the repetition can vary.

Not recommeded – Drilling:

Drilling involves repeating something over and over. Good point: it will become habitual. Bad point: it can kill enthusiasm for both that task and learning anything else by drilling.

For example, horses who are routinely made to move endless circles in a round pen, or constantly repeat dressage movements, often form an aversion to going into a round pen or arena.

Recommended – Cherishing each Mini-Objective:

To put a behavior into the horse’s long- term memory and have it ‘on signal’ or ‘on cue’ seems to be best done with 1-3 repeats each session over the number of days, weeks, or months that it might take, depending on the complexity of the final objective.

If the horse does a behavior to a pleasing standard the first time we ask, it is often a good idea to wait until the next session or later in the same session before asking for it again.

Helpful – Visualizing:

there is evidence (human studies) to suggest that if we focus on clearly visualizing the muscular movements needed to achieve an outcome, the brain views this as almost as good as actually doing it.

We can’t know whether horses visualize things, but my experience with teaching horses in mini-sessions or 1-3 repeats suggests that they do seem to ‘mull over’ new learning and bring a brighter response to the next time we do it.

This is especially noticeable if we can have a short repeat most days. Once the horse shows a good knowledge of a task, a break of 2-3 days between requests often brings even more keenness to have ‘another go’ to earn a special high-value treat.

My horse, Boots, has a distinct little smug expression when she nails something especially well, earning approbation, applause, and a triple treat, a jackpot or a very special treat like a peppermint.

Helpful – Simulation:

To improve our expertise with the task, we can ask another person to stand in for our horse so we can practice developing clear signals and build up our mental and muscle memory for our part of the equation. The horse can only be as smooth in his responses as we are smooth and clear (fluid) with our signals.

If we are lucky enough to have an older, more experienced horse available, we can practice with him so we can be more coherent for a young or new horse.

A Possible Solution

To have a way of steadily improving the fluidity of challenging tasks, I decide on what mini-objectives I want to play with today, before we begin a session.

I pocket the exact number of higher-value treats to cover those objectives; usually one peppermint for a spot-on effort. In addition, I have un-shelled peanuts or carrot strips for good attempts. This stops me from being tempted to ‘do it again’ once we have a peppermint-worthy response.

I also carry (horse pellets) for getting organized with resets and for when we do more relaxing things between the mini-objective items for the day.

In a way, it’s an example of getting more by doing less.

The video clip below shows three examples. They are either fun tricks to keep us amused, moving and supple, or they are Horse Agility tasks that are getting rather tricky because we have reached the higher-level ‘walk only’ class. Instead of increasing task difficulty with trot or canter, the tasks get more convoluted.

I’ve chosen relatively complex tasks. To reach the point shown in the video, the prerequisites for each task were taught with thin-slicing over a long time.

Example One

One peppermint for a 180-degree turn and back through a gate. Previously she learned a 360-degree turn by following the feel of a rope, then learned hand and voice signals and willingly did it at liberty during a recall. Some people teach this using a target. Boots also has had many practices backing up when I stand behind her, including months of long-reining training.

Example Two

A jackpot of five rapid treats for backing 8 steps in a straight line to end up in a 2.5-foot space between a barrel and me on a mounting block or between two barrels. In a session I did this once in each direction, so she could earn two peppermints. She knows ‘park and wait’ thoroughly as well as backing up with me behind her. She also has a strong background in backing out of narrow dead-end lanes as part of trailer loading preparation, which is how we started training this task. I simply added the barrel on one side and me on a mounting block on the other side.

Example Three

An un-shelled peanut for our line-dancing move while I’m on the right side of the horse and another while I’m on her left side. We’ve been doing this for only a few months. She understood yielding the shoulder to touch or gesture as well as targeting her shoulder to my hand before we started. She had also learned to target her knee to my hand, so I had to be careful about developing a distinctly different hand signal. For a long time, I asked for only one repeat before the click&treat. We are now gradually building in more repeats before the click&treat.

 

Video Clip:

#163 HorseGym with Boots: Gaining Fluidity without Drilling.

 

In Addition:

If our first attempt at a task is a bit sketchy, we do a quiet reset and try again, looking for improvement, click&treat for the improvement and usually we don’t repeat it again until later in the session or next day.

Instead, we go on to one of the other things we are working on, or just do activities that are well-established.

It seems that after a few weeks of repeating a complex task once daily, the horse often begins to look forward to doing it, knowing that a higher-value treat follows.

Cherishing each mini-objective set for the day’s session and rewarding it with a higher-value treat keeps alive the fresh desire to do it again tomorrow.

 

Extra:

If you are really keen, you can watch the whole filmed video series from which I took example two in the clip above, showing Boots backing up to eight steps to end up between a barrel and me on a mounting block. This is what we did for the first 30 days. During days 31-38 we practiced Boots backing up to stand between two barrels when I stood in front, facing her.

I filmed each of the first 30 training sessions. Over 38 days we trained an average of 5 minute on this task per day, so the total training time was 3 hours, 10 minutes.

She already knew about backing up when I stood behind her, so we were adding more detail to the task. She had to learn to stay straight and to target her withers to my hand.

The clips clearly show how we were both learning stuff each day. I was learning how to be clearer in my teaching and she was figuring out exactly what she had to do to earn the click&treat. Before and after each short session we did other things.

This is the first clip in the series. They all follow in a playlist called Backing Up to a Mounting Block.  Each clip is quite short.

 

 

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TARGET SHOULDER TO HAND

INTRODUCTION:

In the photo above Boots is leaning her weight toward me to connect with my hand which I held a small distance away from her shoulder.

Teaching the horse a signal to target his shoulder to our hand fits in nicely after we have taught him a signal to yield his shoulder away from us.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse is mat-savvy.
  • Horse is comfortable standing ‘parked’ with the handler standing alongside. To review, check out my ‘Using Mats’ blog.
  • Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. To review, see the clip #153 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent and Intent toward the end of this blog or check out the ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’ blog.

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.
  • Halter and lead (kept loose) and a safe, enclosed area for working at liberty, if possible.
  • Mat.
  • For generalization, a hoop, ground rail, mounting block or similar.

AIM:

Horse confidently moves his left or right shoulder toward the handler’s ‘outstretched hand’ gesture signal.

Video Clip:  #160 HorseGym with Boots: TARGET SHOULDER TO HAND

 

Note:

When we request the shoulder to yield away, we project energy at the horse’s shoulder from our body’s core at the belly-button which causes our posture to be upright.

When we request the shoulder to move toward us, it is important to pull our belly-button back so that we create a ‘draw toward me’ energy with our whole body. Horses are so sensitive to advancing and receding energy from another body, that they easily read the intent of our posture as long as we are totally consistent and not sloppy.

SLICES:

Stay with each slice until it feels ho-hum and smooth for both of you.

Make each session extremely short, 2-3 minutes. The magic is not in the final result as much as it is in the process of helping the horse figure it out.

  1. Ask the horse to park squarely; click&treat.
  2. Take up a position shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse and relax; click&treat. Work up to standing together quietly for five seconds before the click&treat, on each side of the horse.
  3. Reach out the flat back of your hand to lightly touch the horse’s shoulder; click&treat the moment your hand makes contact.
  4. Take up the ‘no intent’ or ‘zero intent’ body position and wait to see if the horse is okay for you to carry on. If he continues to stand in a relaxed manner, he is probably okay to carry on, or you may have sorted out one or more ‘okay to proceed’ signals.

ZERO or ‘NO’ INTENT POSITION

  1. Repeat 3 and 4 above, watching for any weight shift the horse makes toward your hand as you move it toward his shoulder. If he does, celebrate hugely with happy words and a jackpot or triple treat. Avoid the urge to see if he will do it again. Wait until your next session.
  2. When you feel the time is right, hold your hand a tiny distance away from touching the shoulder and WAIT for the horse to shift his weight to make the contact; click&treat. Some horses may step toward you to make the contact right away. For either one, celebrate hugely once again. Maybe do it once or twice more to consolidate the idea.
  3. It took Boots a couple of weeks of daily mini-sessions before she consistently leaned toward my hand to make the contact. Then it took more days before she confidently stepped toward my hand when I held it further away.
  4. Decide whether you want to continue teaching on the side you started with, or if you want to teach slices 1-6 on the other side of the horse before proceeding.
  5. When 6 is ho-hum, gradually hold your hand a little bit further away so the horse must take a sideways step to contact your hand; click&treat.
  6. Whenever the response seems slow or unsure (or is missing), go back to touch the shoulder; click&treat. Then work forward again at a rate that keeps the horse being continually successful as much as possible.
  7. When starting a new session, always introduce the task with a shoulder touch; click&treat, to let the horse know which game you are playing.
  8. Work to having the response equally smooth on either side of the horse.
  9. If the horse is mat-savvy, lay a mat beside the horse to act as a destination. Place the mat so the horse takes one step over to reach it. Gradually increase the distance to get two steps, then three steps.

GENERALIZATION:

  1. Turn on the haunches: ask the horse to step around to complete one/quarter of a circle (90 degrees). When that is smooth, work toward 180 degrees, and finally a full turn on the haunches (360 degrees). It can take a while to build confidence to do more than a quarter or half circle keeping the hind feet relatively in one place.
  2. Repeat 1 above on the other side of the horse. Because our bodies and the horse’s body are asymmetrical, one side is usually easier. It helps to do a bit more on the harder side until, after lots of short sessions, both sides feel smooth.
  3. Add a hoop (made so it comes apart if it catches on the horse’s leg) to the turn on the haunches exercise. This increases the level of difficulty, so start at the beginning with just one step and work up very gradually. Be careful not to make the horse feel wrong if he steps out of the hoop with a hind foot. If he does step out, quietly walk away together and return for a reset. The video clip demonstrates where I got too greedy, wanting too much, and it blew Boots’ confidence for a while.
  4. Keep each session super short and celebrate each new success hugely. This exercise enhances foot awareness.
  5. Stand the horse with his hind end nearer the mounting block than his shoulder, step on the block and ask him to bring his shoulder over so he is in the mounting position.
  6. If you want to focus on the horse moving toward you in a straight line, rather than in a circular pattern as above, stand the horse over a rail and see if he will bring his hind end along. If not, leave moving straight for now until you teach the ‘ribs toward me’ lessons.
  7. When shoulder to hand is smooth, start again at the beginning with ‘ribs to hand’. Follow the exact same procedure but start with a touch to the center of the ribs instead of the shoulder.

 

THE FOUR STAGES OF NEW LEARNING

Acquisition, Fluidity, Generalization and Maintenance

Acquisition

Acquisition includes getting our head around how we will ask for a unique behavior and then explaining what we want to the horse.

The way we first present new material to the horse is crucial. As much as possible, we want the horse to be continuously successful.

It’s helpful to practice our ideas and techniques first on a person standing in for the horse. If you are lucky enough to have an experienced horse, it also helps to work out techniques with him before moving on to a novice horse.

Even a well-educated, experienced horse appreciates learning new things in small slices. This allows him to build confidence and expertise with each step toward being able to carry out the whole task smoothly with one click&treat at the end.

We always begin with low-key experimentation to see what the horse can already offer. We may find that some of the basic elements in our Individual Education Program  are missing or not quite good enough. We might find some major training holes that need to be addressed.

For example, before we can teach our horse to weave a series of objects, have we taught him to confidently walk with us on a loose lead rope? Does he easily stay beside us, stepping off when we step off, halting when we halt and turning when we turn?

Gentle experimentation may also lead us to discover that the horse already has a solid foundation on which we can easily build a new task.

How we first present the halter to a horse and the way we handle the rope will have a huge influence on how confident the horse will be about joining in with activities that include the halter and lead.

 

Fluency

Once we have created an Individual Education Program and carefully taken the horse through it, we have acquired the ability to carry out a specific behavior together.

If the task is part of daily general care and recreation, such as safety around gates, the horse will have ample opportunity to use the new behavior often and receive reinforcement for it. His response to the signal will become more fluent as long as the handler’s signals are consistent.

If, on the other hand, the new behavior is for a specific purpose, such as loading onto a trailer or trotting through a tunnel for Horse Agility, we have to set up special training opportunities to allow the horse to become fluent.

Thin-slicing the many skills required for trailer-loading leads to fluency. Here we are using a trailer simulation to build duration while standing in a closed-off spot.

In my experience, if we train a new behavior to the point of fluency, the horse tends to remember it forever.

If a behavior is unreliable, it was not originally taught to the point of fluency and was not adequately generalized or maintained.

GENERALIZATION

Once the horse understands a new task or a new skill, it is important to take it out into the world. Through generalization, the horse gains further fluency with a task.

Generalization includes:

  1. Asking for the behavior in different places but still at home.
  2. Using different props.
  3. Working at different times of the day.
  4. Asking for the behavior away from home.
  5. Working with unusual distractions.
  6. Working at a different gait.
  7. Handler using a different body orientation.
  8. Fading out a signal and replacing it with a new one.
  9. Requesting more repeats or duration before the click&treat.
  10. Working with a different handler (who uses the same signals).

Generalization helps the horse put the new learning into his long-term memory. Each time we quietly repeat the task, we help build the horse’s confidence. If the horse is unable to do the task in a specific situation or context, it gives us vital information about where we are in our Education Program* with this horse for this task.

Once the horse confidently jumps simple obstacles, we generalize the skill to different-looking obstacles and obstacles in different venues.

MAINTENANCE

As already mentioned under Fluency, some behaviors become and remain fluent because we use them a lot, for example, putting on and taking off a halter or cleaning out the feet every day.

Other behaviors are specialized, and we have to create a plan to refresh and use them occasionally so that they stay in our repertoire. Vet procedures usually come into this category.

If we teach our horse to flex toward the prick of a toothpick, so his muscles are loose rather than taut, we need to do such needle simulations on a regular basis. Likewise, if we want the horse to be confident with a worming tube, we can practice with applesauce as frequently as we like.

Hoof trimming, whether we do it ourselves or hire someone, can cause anxiety for a horse if it suddenly happens out of the blue. It’s much easier for us and the horse if we pick up feet regularly and move the feet into trimming positions to make it a normal request. We can also introduce the horse to a variety of different people who are allowed to touch him and handle his legs and feet.

My friend Bridget helping Boots get used to other people handling her feet.

 

Willing Haltering

Willing Haltering

One horse may learn to sniff his halter (click&treat) and put his head in the halter (click&treat) in less than two minutes.  Another horse may take weeks of short sessions to just approach a halter lying on the ground or hanging on a fence.  An Individual Education Program (IEP) for such a horse might be sliced to include click&treat for each of the slices outlined below.

We stay with each slice until the horse is ho-hum with it.

One main element of teaching like this is that the handler maintains a relaxed attitude and observes the horse closely to see when he’s had enough for one session. The sessions are usually very short – maybe three minutes. Ideally three sets of two-three minutes among other things being done with or around the horse during any one visit.

A second main element is for the handler to keep a relaxed, consistent body position, orientation and way of presenting the halter (hoop) during the teaching/learning stage. Our focus is on what the horse CAN do (click&treat), not on what he can’t do YET.

We start with teaching the most basic prerequisite behavior.  When the horse clearly understands our request for that behavior (which could take a couple of minutes or up to many, many sessions), we add in the next ‘slice’ of behavior that will lead to our ultimate goal.

We can and should move on when:

  • The way we give the signal is consistent and clear (e.g., put our right arm over his neck and hold the halter open so the horse can put his nose into it).
  • The horse presents the behavior we want 99% of the time (when we hold the halter open, he puts his nose into it).
  • The horse does not add in any unwanted behavior (e.g. running away first, chewing on the halter).

If the situation becomes confused, it is usually because we have not cut the whole task into thin enough slices. Although we have an ultimate goal, the ultimate goal is not where we put our attention. Our attention is directed at each ‘slice’ or mini-skill.

Mastering these one by one and linking them together, as the horse is ready, will seamlessly bring us to our ultimate goal – the whole task that we thin-sliced at the beginning is performed smoothly with one click&treat at the end.

When confusion arises (in either the horse or the handler or both), it is essential to return to previous work until we find the ‘slice’ at which both the horse and the handler can regain their confidence. Then we simply work forward again from that point. This is Mastery Learning. Each small part is mastered before moving on to the next part.

By slicing the overall goal small enough, we can gradually create a positive association with a halter.

SLICES

If the horse is wary about the look of a halter, for whatever reason, we can replace it with a small hula hoop or similar made with a piece of hose.

  1. The horse looks toward the halter/hoop.
  2. The horse steps even the tiniest step toward the halter/hoop (Note that for very anxious horses, we can provide encouragement by putting the halter/hoop beside a familiar dish of feed or a pile of hay. In other words, we use complementary motivating environmental signals to help initiate a response that we can click&treat).
  3. He confidently touches his nose to the halter/hoop.
  4. As 3. when the halter/hoop is in different places.
  5. As 3. when the halter/hoop is in a person’s hand.
  6. Confidence when the halter/hoop in the hand is moved.
  7. Confidence with allowing himself to be touched on the neck with the halter/hoop.
  8. Confident with the halter/hoop touching his face.
  9. Confident with the handler putting and resting one arm up over his neck.

At this point we may want to teach the horse to be proactive about putting his nose into the halter/hoop. Something like a small hula hoop is easier to hold into position to teach the idea of dropping the nose into the hoop/halter.

#65 HorseGym with Boots illustrates.  In this clip I cut out the chewing and waiting time between trials to make the clip shorter, but didn’t really like the result as much as if I had left them all in, which would give a better overview of the pace of the session.

It’s easier to hold a small hoop when we first teach the horse to drop his head into an opening. This will eventually be the nosepiece of a halter. I also have to  build confidence about having my right arm lying across the horse’s neck.

Eventually we can click&treat the following slices.

  1. When the horse moves his head toward the hoop.
  2. When the horse moves his head to the left and drops his nose into the hoop.
  3. When we can lift the hoop up toward his eyes and take it away again.
  4. When we can lift the hoop up over his eyes and take it away again.
  5. When we can lift the hoop past his ears and take it away again.
  6. When we can lift the hoop over his ears and lay it on his neck and take it away again.
  7. When we can do the steps above with a halter rather than a hoop.
  8. When we can slip on the halter and lay the halter strap behind his ears and take it away again.
  9. When we can hold the halter strap in position for longer.
  10. When we can do up the halter strap and undo it again and take the halter off.
  11. When we can put on the halter and leave it on for a short time.
  12. When we can put the halter on and take it off two or three times in a row.

 

Soft Response to Rope Pressure and Voice Direction Signals

INTRODUCTION:

It’s not uncommon for a horse to have bad feelings or mixed emotions about halters and ropes. My book, WALKING WITH HORSES has a detailed section about developing a horse’s willingness to put his nose into a halter.

To help horses deal well with captivity, confidence with halter and lead rope needs careful attention. Essentially, putting a halter and rope on our horse is similar to putting on our ‘work clothes’, which will be an outfit or uniform suitable for the type of work we do. When we work for an organization or with other people, we adjust our behavior to what is appropriate at our job.

In the same way, a horse carefully educated about halters and ropes will recognize that he is wearing his ‘uniform’ and relate it to certain ways of behaving. Mainly, it limits his behavior choices. Ideally it also encourages him to pay careful attention to requests made via messages send along the rope.

We can use the rope to send text messages. But, obviously, we must first carefully teach the horse what the ‘letters’ of our text mean. The lighter the pressure of our ‘texting’, the lighter the horse’s responses can be. In other words, the horse can only be as light in his responses to rope messages as we are light in sending them.

A rope is a way of ‘holding hands’ with our horse, not a tether kept tight to stop the horse escaping our influence. There is nothing so heartbreaking as see a gasping dog at the end of a tight leash or a horse struggling to understand why the tightness of the rope won’t go away, no matter what he does.

The key to lead rope handling is that the rope is always slack except for the brief moments it is sending a message to the horse. The instant the horse complies with our request, the slack is returned to the rope. It is the instant release of rope pressure plus the simultaneous click (and the accompanying treat) that enables the horse to understand which task we are requesting.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse is comfortable wearing a halter.
  • Horse is comfortable with a lead rope.
  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse understands standing on a mat with duration.
  • For the early sessions, it’s helpful to have the horse standing with his butt in a safe corner so that backing up and swinging the hind end away are not options. The first slices will therefore involve making sure the horse is comfortable and relaxed standing in a corner.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  1. A work area where the horse is relaxed.
  2. Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  3. A safe corner the horse can stand in confidently. A safe corner is one where there is no chance of the horse putting a leg through wire or rails if he steps back or sideways. Hedges, sides of buildings or a corner made with barrels or jump stands plus rails tend to be the safest. Even a raised rail or a log behind the horse with a small barrier on the far side of the horse might be enough of a corner.
  4. A familiar mat to ‘station’ or ‘park’ the horse.
  5. A familiar hand-held target.
  6. When using the halter touch signal via the rope, be ready to click&treat for even the tiniest turn of the head at first. If we miss the horse’s first attempt to solve a puzzle, he can think his idea was wrong, and it can take a while for him to try it again.
  7. When we lead, long-rein or ride a horse, it does not take much movement of the head to cause the horse to change direction. What we are doing here is not an extreme flexion exercise. It is an exercise to see how softly we can give what will become our ‘please change direction’ signals once the horse is moving.

AIMS:

  1. To have the horse comfortable standing in a safe corner.
  2. To teach an ‘anchor task’ that precedes our request to turn the head.
  3. Use a target to teach head flexion to right and left; no rope.
  4. Add ‘right’ and ‘left’ voice signals to the task.
  5. Teach soft lateral flexion (turning the head right or left) using gentle touch on the halter via a rope until it feels equally smooth to the right and the left.
  6. Generalize the task to different places and situations.

SLICES:

A: STANDING COMFORTABLY IN A CORNER

Introduce the horse to each corner in small, easy steps. Thin-slice the process to what your horse needs. Use a familiar mat to indicate where you would like his front feet to be (see October 2017 Obstacle Challenge). Three  kinds of corners are shown in the videos clips.

  • If the horse readily yields hindquarters and forequarters we can use these to adjust his position.
  • Or we can lead him through the corner and back him into it.
  • If using a rail, we can walk him over the rail and halt with the rail behind him .
  • Play with as many safe corners as you can find or set up, to generalize the ‘corner task’ to different situations.

B: TEACH AN ANCHOR TASK

VIDEO CLIPS 1 & 2 (Right side)

Clip 1:

 

Clip 2:

In the same way that music is made up of notes and the pauses between the notes, we must have pauses between asking the horse to repeat the same task. Because the horse is at halt for this challenge, the anchor task creates the pauses between our requests.

We begin teaching the anchor task once the horse is comfortable standing in a corner, on a mat, with reasonable duration.

An anchor task is what we do to ‘set the stage’ for what we will do next. For example, when I play with targeting body parts to my hand with Boots, our anchor task is lifting a front knee to my hand. It tells her what game we are about to play. (See January 2018 Obstacle Challenge.)

Another ‘stand quietly waiting’ anchor task might be to always hang a special nose target in the spot you would like the horse to stand (park) while you tack up.

As an anchor task for this behavior, I’ve chosen to rest my nearest hand lightly on Boots’ withers while she keeps her head forward. It is the position my hand would be if I were to lift the reins in preparation to giving a signal while riding. You might prefer a different anchor task.

In our case, this is a bit tricky because I use the same anchor position I use when we do belly crunches while standing beside the horse. The handler’s body orientation is often a large part of an anchor task.

I decided that Boots is far enough along in her training to learn to pause in this anchor position and wait for the next signal to find out whether a crunch or head flexion is the hot topic of the moment. You’ll see that we have a couple of conversations about this.

SLICES:

  • Stand beside horse’s withers.
  • Lightly rest your near hand on the withers.
  • Click&treat when the horse’s head is straight, or he is in the process of moving his head into the ‘straight’ position.
  • Step forward to deliver the treat so the horse keeps his head straight, then step back into position beside the withers.
  • Repeat until the horse confidently stays facing forward until you click&treat for 3-4 seconds.

C: LATERAL FLEXION TO A TARGET and D. THE VOICE SIGNAL

VIDEO CLIPS 1 & 2 (Left side)

  1. Hold the target out of sight behind your back and review the anchor task.
  2. When the horse stands reliably with his head forward in the anchor position, bring the target forward so he has to turn his head a little bit to touch it: click&treat & step forward so the horse straightens his head to receive the treat, putting the target out of sight behind your back.
  3. Step back beside the withers and put your hand back on his withers: click&treat for head forward until that is firmly established again (3-4 seconds). Be patient about establishing (and frequently re-establishing) this step because clever horses will want to skip straight from your anchor (hand on withers) to telling you that they know what to do – turn toward you (as Boots does in Clip Two).
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 above until the horse reliably waits for you to produce the target before turning his head. If he turns without your signal, spend more click&treat on facing forward. Make sure you keep the target out of view behind your back. If bending is harder, spend more click&treat on asking for the bend.
  5. ADD VOICE SIGNAL
  • You will obviously want different voice signals for right and left. Voice signals need to be short, clear, and sound different from other voice signals you use. I use “and Gee” for right. I use “and Left” for left. “Haw” for left sounds too much like “Whoa” which we use a lot. The “and” in front of the key word is a bit of a preparatory signal that lets the horse know a request is coming. My voice emphasis is on the key word.
  • Some horses do better if you teach something thoroughly on one side, then repeat from the beginning on the other side.
  • Some horses may cope well with doing a little bit on each side from the beginning.
  • Some handlers do better when teaching the task thoroughly on one side first.
  1. RESPONSE TO ROPE OR REIN SIGNALS

VIDEO CLIPS 3 & 4

Clip 3:

  1. Stand beside the horse’s ribs just behind the withers, facing forward, rope in the hand closest to the horse. Keep a drape or ‘smile’ in the rope. Ensure that the horse can stay facing forward with relaxed body language for 3-4 seconds in the presence of the rope: (click&treat).
  2. When 1 above is ho-hum, say your voice signal and gently use both hands to ‘milk’ the rope, putting light pressure on the halter, looking for the slightest ‘give’ of the horse’s nose toward you. Release (click&treat). Step forward to deliver the treat in a way that has the horse straighten his head again.
  3. Work with 1 and 2 above until the horse waits for the touch signal on the halter and willingly yields his nose. If he turns before you give the rope signal, spend more click&treat time on keeping the nose forward.
  4. If he begins to turn his head as soon as you move back into position behind his withers, also go back to click&treat for a straight head.
  5. Some horses catch on very quickly. Others may need multiple short sessions.
  6. Teaching a horse with no rope experience is usually easier than teaching a horse who has had rough treatment with ropes. In the second case, you must adjust your training plan to help overcome any anxiety the horse carries from previous handling.

Clip 4:

F: GENERALIZATION

Some of these are shown in clip 4:

  1. Once the whole task is smooth and ho-hum on both sides of the horse, move away from the corner but still use a mat. Do the task in a variety of different places.
  2. Once 1 above is good in a variety of places, omit the mat and again work in a variety of places and spaces.
  3. Replace the rope/halter touch signal with a distinctive hand signal that can be used to draw the horse right or left at liberty.
  4. Once the horse understands the halter touch signal via the rope, plus the voice signal, the anchor task can morph into just standing quietly together.
  5. Use the touch and voice signals while in motion to change direction, keeping the pressure on the rope as light as possible.
  6. The YouTube playlist called Developing Soft Rein Response gives further ideas about how we can generalize the task further using reins but without being mounted.
  7. Building a strong history of response to directional voice signals is most helpful if you are planning to teach long-reining and if you take part in Horse Agility. The following clips suggest ways of strengthening the voice signals.

Step Aerobics

 

INTRODUCTION:

This exercise developed from something my horse offered when I was in the tack room where there is a wooden platform in front of the door. While I was in the tack room getting organized, Boots would step up onto the wooden platform to see what I was doing.

I recognized the beneficial gymnastic effect when I asked her to back off the platform and step up again in a rhythmic pattern. It became one of her favorite things to do. Interestingly, she never seems to have enough of it, and I have to be the one to suggest that we should do something else.

This Step Aerobics task has become our go-too exercise when time is limited but we want a bit of a warm-up before cleaning her feet or doing other tasks. When it’s too wet or hot or windy for much else, it’s a fun way to build some movement into our time together.

Step Aerobics, just like the human version, is an exercise that requires whole-body movement and flexion of all the joints, so it is an ideal task to do often in short bursts.

Items with an asterisk (*) are training plans covered in detail in my book, Precision Horse Training with Positive Reinforcement: 12 Thin-Sliced Groundwork Plans, available as e-book or paperback via Amazon.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement for placing his front feet on a mat, so he is keen to stand on a mat whenever we put one out. #124 HorseGym with Boots: Free-Shaping Mat Targets* illustrates: https://youtu.be/xMaZWt5gK2o
  • Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. #153 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent and Intent* illustrates: https://youtu.be/3ATsdPvld4Q
  • The ‘Finesse Back-Up’ exercise is ideal to teach a reliable back-up while we are facing the horse. The description and two clips below show how we evolved it.
  1. Working across a barrier, using a hand-held target for stepping forward, and using body language, breathing, intent and voice signals for backing up.
  2. Adding a halter and rope signal to the back-up so we can use it anywhere. Once the horse knows the task, the rope pressure signal usually isn’t needed because the horse responds to the breathing, body language, voice and distinct orientation signals.
  3. Once voice, body language, intent and orientation signals are well established, we have a reliable back up at liberty while we are facing the horse.
  4. To the signals in 3 above, we add a clear ‘raised fingers’ gesture signal to the back-up while we are facing the horse, allowing us to communicate clearly from further away.

Back-Up Part 1*:  https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y

Back-Up Part 2*:  https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA

  • The other part of Step Aerobics is a recall signal. Teaching and consolidating a recall signal are outlined in these video clips.

Recall Clip 1: https://youtu.be/XuBo07q8g24

Recall Clip 2: https://youtu.be/5BQCB2Fe5RE

My ‘recall’ gesture signal in this context is a movement where I shrink backwards and drop my energy and make a circle with my arms.

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.
  • Halter and lead (as minimal pressure as possible on the lead, but enough to be effective) and a safe, enclosed area for working at liberty.
  • Materials to build a simple lane (one side can be a safe fence) and to block off one end of it.
  • Different mats familiar to the horse.
  • A pedestal or a step-up situation safe for the horse. A step-up trailer is an option, or setting up the trailer ramp as a step.

AIM:

Boots has taken herself to stand on a tire-pedestal while I organize the camera.

Horse steps up onto a pedestal (or step), then steps backwards down again, in a rhythmic pattern repeated several times.

SLICES:

A simple lane made with two rails, blocked off at one end with two tall cones, and a mat in the lane, demonstrating Slice 4 of the training plan.

Video Clip: #159 HorseGym with Boots: STEP AEROBICS

  1. Set up a simple lane. My lane in the video is two ground rails. You may want to begin with a higher-sided lane to make the behavior option we want as clear as possible for the horse. One side can be a safe fence.
  2. Ensure that the horse can walk right through the lane confidently; click&treat each time he calmly passes right through the lane. Handler walks on the outside of the lane. Walk a loop with the horse to repeat.
  3. Set a target mat near the end of the lane. Walk the horse into the lane and ask him to halt with his feet on the mat; click&treat. Walk him out of the lane forward, making a circuit to repeat targeting the mat.
  4. When 3 is done reliably with confidence, block off the lane at the end nearest the mat. Ask the horse to walk into the lane and target the mat; click&treat. Position yourself facing the horse, a bit to one side.
  5. Review the ‘Finesse Back-Up procedure as outline in the prerequisites. Click&treat for one or two steps back on request.
  6. When you no longer need to run your hand up the rope because the horse responds to your body language, inward breath, intent, and voice signals, begin holding your hands up higher until eventually your gesture signal morphs into your fingers held up beside your ears waggling to suggest backward movement; click&treat and celebrate hugely when he does (triple treat or jackpot or special treat). Keep a non-influencing loop in the rope or lay the rope over the horse’s neck out of the way.
  7. We want the raised fingers to become a main ‘back up please’ gesture. But at this point we still emphasize our inward breath, posture expressing intent and voice along with the gesture.
  8. If the horse comes forward to target the mat again right away, accept this with a click&treat the first time, but ideally, we want him to wait to be asked to move forward. You may, at first, need to invite him forward again very quickly after delivering the treat for backing up. If you have taught him a ‘wait’ signal, you can use it here. The October 2017 Challenge: Park and Wait* illustrates creating duration with the ‘wait’;
  9. Use your recall signal to ask the horse to come forward onto the mat again; click&treat. My recall signal as shown in the clips is a movement where I shrink backwards and drop my energy and make a circle with my arms. I learned it from Sharon Wilsie’s book, HorseSpeak.
  10. Alternate the back-up (click&treat) with the recall (click&treat). The aim is to smoothly get a series of these one after the other.
  11. Eventually, when 10 is really solid, you can ask for a back-up and a recall before the click&treat. Or ask for a recall followed by a back-up before the click&treat, moving toward the horse to deliver the treat.
  12. Once 10 is smooth, practice with a barrier on only one side of the horse.
  13. When 12 is smooth, practice with no barriers.
  14. When 13 is smooth, practice with a variety of mats and in a variety of different places.
  15. When 14 is smooth, introduce a pedestal or step. If the ‘step up’ idea is new to your horse, it can be helpful if you place a familiar mat on the pedestal the first time you ask.
  16. For some horses, it may help to begin with a relatively low ‘step up’ situation, such as a plank or thick board before asking for a higher step.
  17. At first be careful about asking for too many repeats. For some horses it will be an unaccustomed way of using their joints. Three repeats at one time is plenty to start with. Doing a little bit often is ideal. Once you are doing it at liberty the horse will probably let you know if he’s done enough.

GENERALIZATIONS:

We can use the back or sides of a trailer ramps as our ‘step’. I have used a solid piece of timber under the end of the ramp to create a step-up situation.

  • If you’re able to move your pedestal, move it to different locations. I have three ‘tire-pedestals’ set up in different parts of our training areas.
  • A step-up trailer is another option.
  • If you have a trailer with a ramp, and there are no jagged bits on the sides of the ramp, use the sides of the ramp as a ‘step-up’ spot.
  • If you ride or walk with your horse out in the countryside, look for spots that create a natural safe step. I’ve used our concrete front door step in the past.
  • Some people fill different-sized tires giving different heights for a step or build a series of pedestals.
  • If your pedestal is large enough, or you have a spot like the one in the photo below, ask the whole horse to step up and step down again.

I’ve asked Boots to step up with all four feet, then step back down again. The wooden lip and uneven ground make it more challenging.

I look forward to hearing and seeing  how you get on if you take up this challenge.

Using Mats: Parking or ‘Stationing’ and Much More

An easy way to teach parking with duration is to use mats as foot targets. Mats can be anything safe for the horse to put his feet on. My horses were especially fond of a small piece of foam mattress.

The series of video clips in this post begin with introducing a horse to mats, and go on to explore building duration on the mat.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse understands the basics of clicker work.
  • Handler can consistently time the click/marker sound to the desired action.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • Halter and lead (with no pressure on lead) if you don’t have a space where the horse can be at liberty.
  • One mat to begin with, then a variety of different mats.

AIMS:

  • To encourage the horse to explore an object and make up his own mind that it is harmless.
  • To encourage the horse to see a mat as a desirable spot because standing on it always results in a click&treat.
  • To build duration stayed relaxed standing on a mat.

SLICES:

  1. Lay out a mat well away from the horse while the horse is watching.
  2. Stand back and observe the horse’s responses.
  3. Click & walk to the horse to deliver the treat if:   a) he looks at the mat.   b) he steps toward the mat.   c) he sniffs the mat.   d) he touches the mat with a foot.   e) he paws at the mat, click the moment he stops pawing.
  4. One he has put a foot on the mat, move the horse or pick up the mat and toss it away, and go back to observing, repeating 3 above.
  5. If the horse shows little interest in the mat, put a treat he really likes on it and show him it is there.
  6. If you are working alone, it may be easier to have two mats and as he eats the treat on one mat, you can be putting another treat on the other mat.
  7. #6 HorseGym with Boots demonstrates introducing the mat target after the horse has learned about nose targets.
  8. #124 HorseGym with Boots is another look at introducing the mat.
  9. Once the horse confidently heads over to put his feet on a mat as soon as we set one out, we can begin to build duration staying on the mat. #8 HorseGym with Boots looks at building duration.
  10. Once the horse loves going to mats due to a strong history of reward reinforcement, we can use mats as parking spots for things like waiting tied up, grooming, foot care, vet care.

I’ve found that carpet stores are happy to give away their old carpet sample books. They are amused when I tell them what I want them for.

#14 HorseGym with Boots is the very first introduction of a young horse to the idea of stepping on something and it was also new for the young handler. 

The following videos look at generalizing mats to a variety of situations.

 

#9 HorseGym with Boots looks at putting mats ‘on cue’ or ‘on signal’.

 

#10 HorseGym with Boots looks at mats in different places and using different kinds of mats.

 

#11 HorseGym with Boots looks at more generalization with a ‘Mat-a-thon’.

 

#15 HorseGym with Boots looks at the horse staying parked at a distance.

 

#18 HorseGym with Boots looks at the horse staying parked while the handler goes out of sight.