Category Archives: MuddyHorse Studio

Fitting Head Gear

Many people know the structure of the horse’s skull, but some people don’t. It’s possible to unknowingly inflict discomfort and pain, sometimes causing severe physical trauma to the soft tissues and nerves that lasts the horse’s lifetime.

We can see that the solid bone on the front of the horse’s nose does not go all the way down. The bone down from where the molars start is thin and precarious. It is surrounded by cartilage carrying the many nerves from the horse’s lips and whiskers.

These nerves of touch, smell and taste enable the horse to graze safely – both the horse’s physical safety in terms of touch and relaying information about smell and taste.

Even if we prefer to play with our horse(s) at liberty, it is essential for their life in captivity that we take the time and make the effort to ensure that they are comfortable having head gear put on and taken off. And be confident with ropes and leading.

It is traumatic to see a young horse who was haltered and the halter left on until it deformed the growing skull. The pain involved is unthinkable.

There are numerous risks involved with leaving halters on. Breakaway attachments can be an option if leaving a halter on can’t be totally avoided.

The following video takes a quick look at making sure that our head gear fits well with minimum discomfort.

It is hard to overstate the sensitivity of the horse’s mouth and muzzle area. While bits cause mouth trauma (physical, mental and emotional), headgear like knotted rope halters, cross-over nosebands or regular nosebands fitted too low also cause discomfort and pain.

It pays to remember that a horse with his mouth tied shut can’t ‘blow out’ freely, or cough to clear his trachea. Rope halters with knots need to be treated with gentle hands. Side-pull halters or bridles pull the inside of the cheek against the horse’s teeth, so must also be used with gentle hands. We all know what an ulcer inside our mouth feels like.

It is the nature of horses to suffer silently. Perhaps if they squealed like pigs it would be easier for us to refine our way of being with horses.

Human-Horse Disfunction

Photo above. Boots in a moment of worry when her hind end touched the pipe. We were practicing backing into a dead-end space.

A momentary disconnect as Boots checks out the lovely smell of chaff in the barrel.

Horse-Human disfunction

Most horse-human dysfunction is due to lack of clarity from the human side of the relationship due to one or more of the following reasons.

  1. Our behavior around the horse is inconsistent.
  2. We are not able to read the horse’s body language well enough to understand what he is communicating to us about his physical, emotional and mental state.
  3. We have not set up the environment to make it easy for the horse to understand what we want him to do.
  4. Our signals to ask the horse to do something are inconsistent, poorly thought out or poorly taught.
  5. The task is not thin-sliced enough.
  6. Prerequisites are missing.
  7. We expect too much too soon.
  8. Human emotions get in the way.

Most horses are happy to comply with our requests if:

  • We teach what we want thoughtfully and carefully in a way that the horse can understand.
  • We ensure our signals are clear and consistent.
  • We have well-timed release of signal pressure/click followed by the treat.
  • We teach at a pace that the horse can absorb; not too fast.
  • We teach at a pace that maintains the horse’s interest; not too slowly.

As the handler gets better and better at thin-slicing* a large task into its smallest teachable parts, it becomes easier and easier for the horse to learn by being continually successful. It’s this aspect of learning that makes a horse look forward to his sessions.

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.

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.

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.

The Planning Process

Our training behavior and the horse’s response behavior are totally intertwined.

Creating a detailed but flexible training or ‘shaping’ plan is essential for successful progression. A good plan helps us develop our training skills, and through our skills we show the horse how to relate confidently to what people ask of him.

A written plan lets us to look both forward and backward, giving us a good idea of where we have been as well as where we are heading.

If we keep records of each session, we can easily see where we must tweak our plan; where we must slow down and where it is going smoothly.

Difference between a Training Plan and an Individual Education Plan (IEP)

A Training Plan is an outline of the possible thin-slices (click points) that we might be able to use to teach a horse a particular skill. We can share training plans with other people to adapt to their own horses in their own environment.

A Training Plan is the starting point for writing an Individual Education Program (IEP) that suits a specific handler, the specific horse and the specific training environments that they have available.

An Individual Education Program (IEP) is a Training Plan carefully customized to suit the character type, age, health and background experience of the individual horse to be educated.

The IEP must also consider the same factors in relation to the handler. For example, although I was athletic in my youth, bionic knees now set a limit to how fast and far I can move.

My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans has much more detail than I can fit into this blog post.

If you would like  a hand developing your next plan after reading this post, send me an email at: herthamuddyhorse@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to have a look at it.

Summary of the Planning Process

  1. Decide Your Overall Objective

Everything we do with our horse needs to be designed to increase his confidence with the human-dominated world he has to live in. If we are watching and listening, the horse will usually tell us what we should work on next to reach the overall objective we have set.

Training that relates to the care, welfare and safety of all horses includes:

  • Haltering.
  • Rope relaxation and calmness.
  • Leading along and backing up.
  • Staying parked at a target or ground-tied.
  • Grooming.
  • Feeding time behavior.
  • Specifics like safely navigating gates and other tight spots.
  • Understanding the handler’s various leading or guiding positions.
  • Hoof care.
  • Vet procedures.
  • Being tied up.
  • Ground-work skills.
  • Gymnastic exercises for general fitness.
  • Road and traffic confidence.
  • Walking or driving out without other horses.
  • Walking or driving out with other horses.
  • Water and hill confidence.
  • Trailer loading, travelling and unloading if we intend to go elsewhere or if we need to evacuate due to flood, fire, earthquake
  1. Scope your Overall Objective

A. Decide on your Overall Objective

Now is the time to create a mind map or make a list of all the aspects of teaching  our overall objective that we can think of. We write down all our ideas, large and small, without giving them a value judgement at this point. Also pick the brains of other people you trust, especially if they also use positive reinforcement training.

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

B. Next we define and sort specific GOALS that fit under our TOPICS.

If our overall objective is complex, we achieve it by first teasing out the topics involved as in the mindmap above. Then we decide what goals fit within each topic.

If we let the ideas ferment in our mind for a while and revisit them over several days, we usually end up with a more comprehensive plan. Every time I revise my initial lists or mindmaps, I have a few more ideas to add or I see new connections between things that I didn’t notice before.

  1. Break Down Each Goal

It is helpful to have an overview of the whole planning process. We can outline the decreasing complexity of what we are teaching like this:

  • overall objective (most complex)
    • topics
      • goals within the topic
        • tasks to achieve a specific goal
          • thin-slices to achieve each task. (least complex)

If we read this from the bottom up, thin-slices allow us to achieve a task. Several tasks allow us to achieve a goal. The goal is part of a larger training topic. Good training in all the topics allows us to achieve our overall objective.

It’s important to set tasks that can be achieved in a relatively short time frame. Some goals might be so small that they easily become one task.

On the other hand, a major goal may take months or years to achieve. But the individual tasks leading to that goal should be small enough so that the horse and the handler have a continuous experience of small achievements.

  1. Define the Tasks that will Achieve each Goal

For each goal we teach a set of related tasks. When we have achieved all the tasks for each goal in a topic, we have mastered that topic. All the topics together achieve our overall objective.

To review where tasks sit, let’s quickly revisit this outline of the decreasing complexity of what we are teaching:

  • overall objective e.g. FOR YOU TO DECIDE.
    • topics are all relevant to teaching confidence with the overall objective.
      • goals which all relate to a specific topic
        • tasks we need to master to reach a goal
          • thin-slices organized to achieve each task.

Defining specific tasks is made easier by using a format called the ABCD method.

A = Audience (of our teaching), B = exact Behavior we are seeking, C = in what Conditions will we ask for the specified behavior, D = what Degree of proficiency does the behavior need to achieve our purpose.

A = Audience: your horse is the audience of your teaching. Think of the horse’s character type and what best motivates him. What do you think he may find easy or hard? If you are coaching another person, consider the character type of the person too. If you are working by yourself, consider your own character type.

B = Behavior: exactly what do you want to see when the horse is carrying out the task the way you want? Sometimes as well as seeing, we can feel the horse’s response through the rope or reins, or we feel his body energy, relaxation or tension. Additionally, how do you want your signals for the horse to look and feel?

C = Conditions: in what venues, with what props, in what environment(s)?

D = Degree of Perfection or Proficiency: how are you going to measure what you are doing? Decide on how long, how many strides, how many rails, zero tight lead-ropes, how far, how fast?

Once you have taught the basic task, it can be further developed to be performed more proficiently or to a higher standard as well as in different contexts and environments.

When you describe each task with these ABCD points in place, your Individual Education Plan will progress nicely.

Not defining tasks clearly is a major hurdle to good planning and good training outcomes.

5. Brainstorm Possible Thin-Slices for Each Task

Now all your thinking about your defined tasks can be put to work to create a brainstorm mind map or list of the smallest parts (slices) that make up each task.

We can begin this part of the planning by writing down all the possible slices of the task as they came to mind, without putting them in any specific order.

Remember, it’s easy to have too few slices, but we can never have too many. The more we can keep the horse feeling successful, the more he will enjoy his sessions (and so will we). If the horse is not being successful, we must adjust our plan so he can be almost continuously successful.

Pretty much everything we ask horse in captivity to do is entirely unrelated to their natural life in the wild. If we always keep this in mind during our training, it is easy to cherish each small accomplishment toward our final objective.

6. List your thin-slices in an order that might work

Once you have a brainstormed list/mindmap of the smallest slices you can think of, it’s time to put them into an order that might work nicely for you and the horse.

If the slices have been clearly thought out on paper, it’s easier to know what we are doing while we’re out with the horse. We can stay in the moment and our mind is free to interact with the horse rather than wonder what we are doing next.

Pocket cue cards with the slices listed in order can be helpful. I generally use these if I’m working on a complex task.

None of the sequences in a plan are written in stone. We get important feedback from each session with the horse. Either things went smoothly, or we need to tweak something.

Maybe we need to spend a lot more time on a certain slice. We are always free to add, delete, expand or move our ideas around.

When we have thin-sliced all the tasks for all the goals in each topic leading to our overall objective, our Training Plan is written! More accurately, the first version of a Training Plan for the overall objective is written.

We don’t have to write the whole plan all at once. We can simply choose the first topic to work on, set the goals for that, work out the tasks needed to achieve one of the goals, then thin-slice the tasks one at a time.

Thin-slicing tasks gets easier as we practice it. We get better at imagining all the pieces that make up the puzzle we have set for ourselves and the horse.

7. Venues, Props and Time

Think about:

  • The training venue(s) you have available.
  • The time you can spend with your horse.
  • How long you think it may take the horse to learn the task you are currently working on?
  • How long might it take the horse to learn all the tasks relating to the goal you are presently working on?
  • What props and helpers do you have available?

You outlined the Conditions for teaching when you defined your task with the ABCD format. Now is the time to work out the detail of where and when and how you can set up the conditions that will make the teaching and learning as easy as possible for you and your horse.

This is especially important if you must book venues or check when your helper(s) will be available.

  1. Decide How You Will Document Your Progress

As part of your Training Plan, decide how you will keep a record of what you’re doing, when you did it and how it went during each session.

My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans: The Art of Thin-Slicing outlines a variety of ways to document progress. There are digital record-keeping formats that some people find useful. One possibility is illustrated below.

This format has numbered spaces to record ‘session scores’ – one for the horse and one for the handler, to fill in after each training session. This chart has spaces to record 18 training sessions.

The format above has the benefit of being quick to fill in. Most of us have busy lives into which we must fit our horse time. Once our mind switches over to other parts of our life, it is easy to forget the detail of what we specifically did with our horse and how the session felt. The horse and the handler each get a ‘score’ which is just a shorthand way of recording a ‘session assessment’.

We can use symbols or emoticons to indicate how we felt, how we thought the horse felt and weather details (make sure you create a key for your symbols). Hot, cold, wind, wet all affect how a session goes. If we train in various places, we can have a symbol for each place. If there is a time-break in our training due to life and/or weather interfering, we can note this as well.

The sort of detail mentioned above is priceless when we look back on it. We can see how many repeats we did to get from introduction of a new task to getting it fluent and generalized to different situations.

If we keep charts like this in our tack room or car there is an increased chance that we will fill it in right away while the session is still fresh in our mind.

The following chart shows one possible way to score each session’s progress. Some people may prefer a ten-point scale so more nuances can be recorded.

It probably works best for each person to make up a scoring details page that best suits their environment and their horse and how they like to record things.

Note that the ‘score’ is just a quick way to define our assessment of a session. It helps indicate where we are while working through a process.

There is no other value judgement added to the score numbers. For some tasks the handler may stay at ‘1’ for a while until he/she has sorted out the best way to introduce an idea to the horse.

Every task we undertake will have its own time-frame to move from Score 1 to Score 5, depending on the many variables that relate to the horse and the handler.

A possible scoring (session assessment) range may look something like this:

   Score    Horse’s Score (session assessment)      Person’s Score (session assessment)
      1 Situation and signals are unfamiliar to the horse. Experimenting to find best props/gear, best orientation, clearest signal and best timing.
      2 Horse is experimenting with responses to find those that yield a click&treat.

 

Gear, body orientation and body language, voice and other signals are developing to be as clear as possible for the horse.
      3 Noticeably more fluent with the requested movements (or stillness).

 

Signals are becoming smoother. Beginning to link one or more thin-slices of a complex task.
      4 Getting it right in a familiar area most of the time. Feeling the rapport of two-way communication with the horse.

 

      5 Desired responses are reliable in various situations and venues. Signals are fluid and consistent.

 

Remember, the ‘scores’ are session assessments which are simply points along a continuum ranging from first introduction to something new all the way to smooth execution of the task. We are assessing the session, not critiquing it.

Most things we want to do with a horse is a trick/game to the horse – something he would rarely do on his own. To teach the rules of our games fairly we need to be aware of the following questions that underpin all training.

  • What thin-slices do I needed in order to teach this horse this task?
  • How little or how much does this horse already understand about the task?
  • What gaps are there in my knowledge, gear handling and training skills that I should address first?
  • Am I aware of how am I orientating my body in relation to the horse?
  • How consistent are my signals?
  • How good is the timing of my release (click&treat)?
  • How good and consistent are my rope handling skills?
  • How well and consistently do I handle my body extensions (including rope/reins)?
  • How good am I at using my breathing and core body energy to show intent or relaxation?

The horse can only be as smooth as the handler is smooth. The horse can only learn as smoothly as we can teach smoothly.

9. Experiment with Horse and Self to Find a Starting Point

This is where you find out whether your proposed thin-slices are thin enough and whether you have thought through the prerequisites carefully enough. The aim is to begin each task at a point where both you and the horse are relaxed and confident.

You can, of course, do gentle experimentation all the time during the planning process. If you mostly work with the same horse, your starting point for a specific task may become obvious while you are doing other things.

For example, if your horse is not able to easily lift each leg in turn to touch a target, then he may find it difficult to sort out his balance on three legs when you want to tend a foot. So addressing this would be a starting point for relaxed hoof care.

10. Create your Individual Education Program (IEP)

Now is the time to tailor your Training Plan by considering the character type, health, age, fitness level, and background experience of your horse and yourself.

You already considered this to some extent when you thought about the Audience portion of the ABCD used for defining your task.

Consider the time you can put into the project. Be careful to link your expectations realistically to the time you have available to be with the horse.

Your experimentation may show that your Training Plan is too ambitious, and you need to slow down and do more thin-slicing of certain parts. Or you may discover that the horse already knows more than you realized, allowing you to move quickly through some of the foundation lessons from your IEP.

It is important to still work through the exercises that already feel easy, rather than leave them out.

You may discover that your horse finds something particularly difficult, so you give that more time and attention. Life, weather or injury may interfere, forcing you to adjust the time frame.

As mentioned earlier, it’s important that the tasks you set are achievable in a relatively short time frame. Each small success is worth its weight in gold for motivation to keep learning, for both the handler and the horse.

You may decide that some of your defined tasks are too large, so you go back to redefine them, slice them more thinly, until you have tasks that you can master in a comfortable, shorter time frame.

11. Tweak Your Individual Education Program (IEP)

Every horse, every handler, and every horse-handler combination are unique. What works magically with one horse may be a total dead-end with another horse. Each horse brings new challenges and triumphs.

Every session with a horse gives you valuable feedback and new ideas. Things that don’t work are just as valuable as things that do work. By using a pre-planned set of thin-slices, we avoid a lot of unfocused activity that confuses the horse and leads to handler frustration.

Inevitably, we’ll still get confusion. The IEP is always a work in progress. Tweak it as you get new information by listening to your horse, and when you make new connections as you think through a challenge.

CONCLUSION

A good plan does the following:

  1. Decides on the overall objective and expresses it clearly.
  2. Scopes the topics that fall withing the overall objective and decides which topic might be best tackled first.
  3. Works out the individual goals that are part of each topic and decides on an order in which you will tackled the goals – but stays flexible.
  4. Carefully defines the tasks you need to master in order to achieve each goal and decides the order in which you will work with the tasks. You might work to develop elements of one, two or three different tasks during one training session.
  5. Diligently thin-slices each task into its smallest teachable/clickable portions and organizes these slices into an order that will probably make sense to the horse. Again, we must stay flexible and adjust our training to the horse that shows up on the day.
  6. Experiments gently with the horse to find a starting point at which you both feel comfortable. We do this for each task within each goal.
  7. Sets up your Individual Education Program (IEP), once you know your starting point, by customizing your plan to suit the horse you are working with.
  8. Tweaks your IEP to make learning easier for the horse any time you and the horse are not being continually successful most of the time. A vibrant planner is always thinking of different ways to approach things. If we are listening, the horse usually shows us the direction we should take.

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?