Category Archives: MuddyHorse Studio

Foot Awareness for Improving Proprioception

Introduction

Proprioception is the awareness of where our body parts are in space, what each is doing, and how much energy the movement is using.

Here is a definition from the Internet:

Proprioception enables us to judge limb movements and positions, force, heaviness, stiffness, and viscosity. It combines with other senses to locate external objects relative to the body and contributes to body image. Proprioception is closely tied to the control of movement.

I’ve collected together an assortment of video clips I’ve made over the years that include ideas we can use to encourage the horse to be aware of where his feet are and what they are doing.

Quite a few of the clips are part of a training series and I’ve chosen just one of the series to illustrate the overall task. By going to my YouTube channel – herthamuddyhorse – you can find my assortment of playlists containing series of numbered clips to show the thin-slicing I used to achieve the final task. Message me if you need help to find a particular series.

Good proprioception relates to all sorts of things, but mainly to overall balance and suppleness.

Horses that grow up in rough hill country develop good proprioception as a necessity for survival. Horses raised in confined areas without needing to move much to find enough food don’t have the opportunity to develop excellent proprioception.

In the same way, athletes become good at their sport by developing the aspects of proprioception that especially relate to that sport. If our lifestyle lacks regular movement, our body suffers the same way as that of a stabled horse.

Video Clips

#88 HorseGym with Boots: Foot Awareness. https://youtu.be/7bEkFk0w_gk

A few tasks that play with improving foot awareness.

#89 HorseGym with Boots: Balance on 3 Legs. https://youtu.be/x1WKppV3N_0

Playlist: Challenges for Clicker Trainers: August 2017 Challenge: Precision with a Single Rail. https://youtu.be/bJzwDq-NvtE

Playlist: Foot Awareness: Thin-slicing the 1m Board. https://youtu.be/pLLqtbQJqMs

#220 HorseGym with Boots: Counting with the Front Feet Clip 1. https://youtu.be/hHpQgsUOINA

#246 HorseGym with Boots: Counting with the Hind Feet. https://youtu.be/rMsRVL_M33w

Playlist: Foot Awareness: Single Obstacle Challenges Hoops 3. https://youtu.be/xc-4yGiWDxk

Playlist: Challenges for Clicker Trainers: September 2017 Challenge: Figure 8. https://youtu.be/QrberCzAO6c

Playlist: Challenges for Clicker Trainers: November 18, Sidestepping Clip 1. https://youtu.be/Joxp9bYzMRc

Playlist: Foot Awareness: S-Bend Final Clip. Click here.

#199 HorseGym with Boots: Unusual Surface with Bottles. https://youtu.be/3LTmUSa0Y1M

#184 HorseGym with Boots: Back Between Rails. https://youtu.be/FGh7_MeFHcQ

#95 HorseGym with Boots: Backing down Slopes. https://youtu.be/M9pEFnDSbwc

Signals versus ‘Cues’ or ‘Stimuli’

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

Defining a Signal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To do this we need to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overview of Equine Clicker Training

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Combined Reinforcement

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

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

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

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

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

Video Clip: Target & Tickle

Capturing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free-Shaping

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

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

Here are a few examples of free-shaping:

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

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

Luring

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

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

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

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

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

Modelling

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

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

Examples include:

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

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

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

Guided Shaping

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

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

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

Guided Shaping with Targets

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

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

Here are some examples:

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

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

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

Our Hand as a Target

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

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

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

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

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

Guided Shaping with Touch and Gesture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zero Intent in Action: Red Lights and Green Lights

Introduction

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

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

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

Aims

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

Prerequisites

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

Videos

#243 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent in Action

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

Materials and Environment

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

 Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUMMARY

Handler

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

Horse

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

Illustrations

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

Generalizations

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

Keeping Track of Our Progress

The format below 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 sessions we did to get from introduction of a new task to having 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 second chart below is an outline showing 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.

Resetting Tasks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Features of Equine Clicker Training

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

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

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

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

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?