Category Archives: Thin Slicing a Task

Willing Response to a Voice Halt Signal

barrel whoa 1 08-30-2018_135400

Photo: This is the moment I will ask for ‘whoa’ if I want her to stop with just front feet over the barrels.

INTRODUCTION

This month’s challenge is to refine a voice “Whoa” signal so that it works in a variety of situations. If we want to work on the halt, we will obviously also need our ‘walk on’ signals to be solid. These two tasks are the foundation of pretty much everything we want a horse to do with us. Even teaching ‘parking’ starts with a solid, confident ‘halt’.

Teaching the basic ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ is easiest done in position beside the horse’s neck or shoulder. I like to teach these with a ‘multi-signal’ or ‘signal bundle’. Using the multi-signals consistently at the beginning means that once the horse knows them well, I can use any one of them, or any combination of them, depending on what best suits the situation. The horse will also recognize the signals if I am walking beside his ribs or behind him.

These two clips look at the signal bundles I like to use.

‘Walk On’ multi-signals:  Click here.

‘Halt’ or ‘Whoa’ multi-signals:  Click Here.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Handler has developed both ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ multi signals.
  • Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals.
  • Decide on a consistent voice ‘whoa’ signal that does not sound like any of the other voice signals you use.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  1. Work area where the horse is relaxed.
  2. Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  3. Depending on what you choose to do: halter and lead or safe enclosed area for working at liberty plus buckets or tubs, familiar stationary nose targets, familiar mat targets, lunging or circle work gear.

AIM:

To have the horse halt promptly in a variety of situations when he hears a voice ‘whoa’ signal.

GETTING STARTED:

The flow charts at the end of the post outline all the options we could use. To find a good starting point, do low-key experimentation with the horse to find out what he can offer already.

  • Look through the flow charts and decide which route would be easiest for you and your horse to tackle first.
  • Your first decision is whether you are going to use targets or teach without targets. You can easily add in targets in strategic places but not use them all the time. While targets are often good to initially teach something, they can get in the way of making progress.
  • Decide if you will teach at liberty or with halter and lead. You can easily do some of each, whatever makes most sense to you and your horse. Some people don’t have the facility to work easily and safely at liberty.
  • Develop possible thin slices for your chosen route before you start.
  • Practice harder bits with a willing human if you have one.
  • Some of the tasks, like backing up, recall, working on a circle and guiding the horse from beside ribs/butt/behind, need a good level of proficiency before you add in ‘Whoa’. The flow charts therefore cover much more than a month’s work if some of these things are new to your horse.

To use the flow charts at the end of the post, track a single route from left to right. When one sequence becomes ho-hum, chose another sequence and design a thin-sliced plan for it.

For example, in the first video clip I choose: STATIONARY TARGETS — LIBERTY – TUBS – BESIDE NECK/SHOULDER – TARGETS RELATIVELY CLOSE TOGETHER. I modified it during the clip to walking beside Boots’ ribs or butt, mainly because I can’t yet walk very fast (I have two new knees) and she was keen to get to the next tub 😊.

Clip 1:  Click Here.

Clip 2:  Click Here.

Clip 3:  Click Here.

GENERALIZATION:

The second video clip illustrates some of the generalizations. As with everything we train, once a task has been acquired and become fluid, we want to generalize it to as many situations as we can find and set up. Plus, we want to ask for it frequently, so it settles into the horse’s long-term memory.

One of my favorite generalization examples is from when I was long-reining Boots everywhere to establish long-reining firmly as part of our repertoire.

During an outing on a large farm with huge paddocks, we had to cross a stream. Usually the water was low enough to allow me to jump over without getting my feet wet. But on this day, I underestimated the depth of the water.

Boots willingly long-reined through the water in front of me. As I tried to leap over, I hit the water, lost my balance and dropped the reins. Boots kept on walking straight ahead. By the time I had pulled myself upright and out of the water, she was a good twenty meters away dragging the reins. I called out, “Whoooaaa”, and she immediately stopped and waited for me to catch up with her.

It was a great outcome compared to a fright about dragging reins and a panic run through hilly terrain with open gates connecting several fields.

flow charts Oct 2018 no targets

flow charts Oct 2018 Targets

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Parameters: Setting the Rules for the Games we Play

Parameters

Photo: I’m teaching my horse, Boots, to back up to a mounting block. My parameters include backing straight (hence the guide rails for this early lesson), backing for 6-8 steps (she started at the fence on the right) and halting with her withers just in front of the two tubs. This time she moved back an extra step, but it was a very good response for early in the training of this task. I’ve stepped off the black tub so I could deliver the treat while she stayed in the position I wanted.

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 to the horse.  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.  Here is a bit more detail about what parameters are, and things to remember to become better teachers for our horse.

A parameter is something we decide to keep the same or constant.

For example:

  • Walking on the horse’s left side would be a constant or parameter you have chosen.
  • If you then change to walking on his right side, that is a new parameter.
  • If you decide to walk beside the horse’s ribs (where you will be if you ride) rather than beside his neck, you have changed a parameter.
  • If you decide to walk behind the horse rather than beside him, you have changed a major parameter.
  • When you ask the horse to walk with you on the road rather than at home in his paddock or arena, you have changed a major parameter.
  • Walking on an unfamiliar road or track is changing a parameter.
  • If you are walking together toward a familiar destination, where he knows he will halt to earn a click&treat, the first time you ask him to halt before he reaches the destination, you have changed a parameter.
  • If you are walking and change to asking for a trot or jog, you are changing a parameter.

Whenever we change a parameter, it is important that we increase the rate of reinforcement (i.e. click&treat more often) and work our way forward again until we and the horse are both confident in the new situation, with one click&treat at the end of a task or a series of tasks. For example, relating to the photo above, once Boots confidently backed up in a straight line to stand between the two tubs, I removes the rails (one at a time) and ask her to back up for just a step or two, then work forward again to get 6-8 steps straight back.

Horses are super observant of all changes, large or small, and can often be ‘thrown’ by them if we proceed too fast or ask for too much too soon. They also immediately pick up if we are unsure about what we are doing.

This is why it’s important to have a written Individual Education Program suited to this horse in this environment before we delve into teaching our horse something new. If we are clear in our mind about what we are working on, that confidence will be picked up by the horse.

If you want to look at 20+ training sessions to achieve the objective outlined in the photo above, done at liberty with no extra props, here is the link to the very first session (lessons were mostly one a day, weather willing and lasted about three minutes each day). I can’t ride any more (dodgy hips & knees) so we did this as a just an interesting training project. The second video clip below takes you to the last clip in the series, in case you don’t want to see all the others in between!

 

 

What is Equine Clicker Training or Training with Positive Reinforcement?

cone pick up 4 01-06-2017_091234 (2)

This article gives a brief overview about what is involved with using markers and treats to make it easier for a horse to understand what we would like it to do.

What is Positive Reinforcement Training
also known as Equine Clicker Training or Reward Reinforcement?

‘Clicker training’ or ‘reward reinforcement’ is also called ‘positive reinforcement’ because we add something (usually a small morsel of food the horse likes) to the situation. ‘Release reinforcement’ is also called ‘negative reinforcement’ because we put signal pressure on the horse to do something. When we ‘release’ the pressure we remove something from the situation.

The terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, in the field of animal behavior, are used in
a mathematical sense, not in the sense of being ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Clicker training can work with ‘reward reinforcement’ only. You can observe and wait for the horse to do something, and click him for it. For example, you can click and treat each time he itches himself. Once he’s made the connection, you can put a signal (either a gesture or a word or both) on that action, and then you can ask him to do it whenever you like.

This is called ‘free shaping’. Once he responds correctly to your signal most of the time, you have created a ‘conditioned response’. If your horse comes to you every day at feeding time, you have created a ‘conditioned response’. If he sees you with a halter or bridle and moves away so you can’t catch him, you have a ‘conditioned response’.

However, to progress a bit faster, we mostly pair up ‘release’ and ‘reward’ reinforcement when we use clicker training. We apply some sort of gentle pressure to the horse to cause it to do something we want. This is called ‘guided shaping’. When the horse does his best to comply with our request, we both release the pressure and click&treat. The ‘click’ is the ‘bridge’ between what the horse has done and the treat he will get for it right after the click. It allows us to ‘mark’ the exact behavior we would like the horse to do, or at least a first approximation of the behavior we would eventually like him to carry out.

The click/treat system causes the horse to be strongly focused on finding out what earns the click and treat. He’ll start to offer behaviors to ‘earn’ the treat. It gives him a way to communicate with us. It also allows him a stronger ownership of the new learning. Soon after starting to learn things with click&treat, the horse will begin to offer the  behaviors we have taught this way, hoping to motivate us to ‘pay’ for his effort with a click&treat.

At this point, it is important to put a new task ‘on signal’. A signal can be a gesture, a touch or verbal. Often it’s nice to use touch or gesture and voice together. Signals usually arise naturally out of the nature of the task we are teaching. For picking things up, I ask Boots to, “Pick!” and point to the object. At the end of a session, she likes to come around with me to pick up all the cones and rags we were using as arena markers.

Once the horse knows the task and the signal, it is important to only click/treat when you have asked for it by giving the signal. Otherwise it might be hard to use cones as arena markers while riding or doing ground work exercises!

Using the click&treat only when we’ve asked for the behavior, will slowly tone down the horse’s desire to ‘throw the new move at you’ as soon as he sees you (much like a child dying to show you his new painting). When I taught Boots to ‘spin’, it was quite startling when she wanted to show it to me and visitors all the time, while standing right beside us!

There is more information in the GLOSSARY which you can access with a link at the top of the page.

 

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

LP8 3 05-31-2015_225803

Bursting a balloon is not an every-day thing a horse does. Teaching it requires a careful plan of ‘thin slices’ that allows the horse to master the task being continually successful and so remaining motivated to try again.

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. Experiment gently to see what the horse can already offer in relation to the desired task.
  3. Brainstorm all the individual specific actions the horse needs to be able to do to complete the whole task.
  4. 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.
  5. Decide how we might teach each specific action (by free-shaping, guided shaping, using a nose or foot target, or even modeling for the horse what we would like him to do).
  6. Organize environmental props that make each part of the task easier for the horse to learn (e.g., rails, markers, barriers, lane-ways, corners).
  7. Start with the first slice of your plan, watching for feedback to see what is working and what needs rethinking and tweaking [or starting over with a new idea  🙂 ].
  8. Gradually chain the slices of the task together until the horse knows the pattern and willingly carries out the whole task with one ‘click point’ at the end.

My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans covers this topic in great detail. (See the BOOKS link at the top.)

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.

Clip: Thin-slicing the Water Obstacle

http://youtu.be/ojOaYaq8ItQ?list=UUGMJ0ZTjACQ2Ok8civ_9IVQ