Category Archives: Thin Slicing a Task

Parameters: Setting the Rules for the Games we Play

Because of their role in the web of life —  to be a meal for predators — horses are so much more observant than we are.  They read our mood the moment we appear.  They read our body language with exquisite care.  When something in the environment is different from last time, they notice instantly.

If we want to become good at communicating with our horse, it helps to become more aware of what our mood, our body orientation and our body energy may be saying.  Horses get confused and worried when our body language does not agree with what we are asking them to do.  Or if we use a similar message to mean two different things.

As horsemen often say, “Nothing means nothing to a horse”.  So if everything means something, it is good to be aware of the parameters we are setting when we interact with a horse.  The PDF below looks at more detail on what parameters are and what to remember if we want to become better teachers for our horse.

Parameters on pub


THE PLAN: Thin-Slicing the Tasks We Want to Teach

What is Thin-Slicing?

When we want to teach our horse something, the first thing we need is a PLAN.  A plan written down has the advantage that we can look back on it.  As we get feedback from the horse and our own actions, we can go back and tweak our original plan.  Or we can throw it out and start again :-).

One way to create a plan is to:

  1. Visualize the finished task.
  2. Brainstorm all the individual specific actions the horse needs to be able to do to complete the whole task.
  3. Put the actions from 2. above into an order that seems logical.  Each specific action will have one or more ‘click points’ where we click&treat.  This allows the horse to pro-actively seek the hot ‘click point’ of the moment and makes training fun for everyone involved.  This is the thin-slicing part.
  4. Decide how we might teach each specific action (by free-shaping, pressure & release, using a nose or foot target, or even modeling for the horse what we would like him to do).  This part of the plan includes thinking about what sort of environmental props would make each part of the task easier for the horse to learn (e.g., rails, markers, barriers, lane-ways, corners).
  5. Experiment with the horse and gain feedback to see what is working and what needs rethinking and tweaking [or starting over with a new idea  🙂 ].
  6. Gradually chain the specific actions together until the horse knows the pattern and willingly carries out the whole task with one ‘click point’ at the end.

The video clip link below is a bit long (9 min) but it demonstrates all the parts of a PLAN and it uses various teaching methods to get to the final successful outcome.




Introducing Myself

I’m Hertha James and delving deeply into Equine Clicker Training is the purpose of this blog.

From 1995 I studied natural horsemanship and spent 2009-2010 researching various practitioners of this and writing a fully referenced book, Natural Horsemanship Study Guide, with the hope of making the best parts of it (in my opinion, of course) more accessible to the average person.

The book is a home-study course in two volumes.  Volume 1 presents the information and Volume 2 is a write-on workbook.  It can take 6 months to a year or more to work through the course, depending on the time a person is able to devote to it.  The course covers groundwork including trailer loading and mounting preparation.  It suits pre-ride education for a young horse and helps keep an older horse supple and interested in life.  It can be done alongside any type of riding.

From about 2006 I’ve studied Equine Clicker Training also known as Positive Reinforcement Training.  It can easily be built into natural horsemanship.  But clicker training also has depths not found in any other behaviour shaping methods I’ve come across.

I have a degree in zoology and spent the first years of my working life as a zookeeper and animal handler on movie sets.  Then I switched to the human zoo and taught Science and Biology for 23 years.  This was followed by a qualification in Information and Library Science and 12 years work in a high school library.

To test how far my horse, Boots, and I could go with clicker training, we devoted a winter to learn  about wearing harness and pulling a cart – all done with clicker training.  Each step was filmed to create 2 DVDs, Harness Pony Preparation, and Long-Reining.cropped-dsc_0373.jpg