Category Archives: Training Plans

TARGET FLEXIONS

INTRODUCTION:

This is one of those activities that we can do:

  • As part of a cool-down after active work.
  • As an interlude between other activities.
  • As an ‘end of session’ routine.
  • As purposeful gymnastics to help our horse keep flexible.
  • When it is too cold, hot, wet or windy to be out and about.
  • As a ‘stall rest’ activity as much as the recuperation allows.
  • When we feel low energy but want to do something with our horse.
  • The knee and hock targeting, done regularly, ensure adequate balance when we ask the horse to stand on three legs for foot care.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse is comfortable standing ‘parked’ with the handler standing and moving around the horse. A link to a post about relaxed ‘Parking’ is added at the end of this post.
  3. Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. Links are added at the end of this post.
  4. Horse confidently touches a variety of targets with his nose.
  5. We can teach targeting with the knees and hocks in the same way as outlined in the Targeting the Hindquarters to our Hand post. See the link at the end of this post.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • A safe, enclosed area for working at liberty, if possible. Otherwise, halter and lead (kept loose or the rope safely draped over the horse’s neck).
  • A hand-held target on a long stick and a short target like a plastic bottle.
  • A familiar mat to park on when first teaching this.

AIMS:

  1. The horse moves his nose to touch a target held in different positions while keeping his feet still.
  2. Horse lifts his knees to touch a target.
  3. Horse lifts his hocks to touch a target.

VIDEO CLIP: #166 HorseGym with Boots TARGET FLEXION

Notes:

  1. What you see Boots doing in the video clip is a result of lots of very short sessions over a long time. I had to consciously improve the consistency of my body orientation and how I presented the target to make what I wanted as clear as possible for the horse.
  2. If the horse has been resting or contained, we must do a general overall body warm-up before asking for these flexions. Walking over rails and weaving obstacles make great warm-up exercises. If this is not possible, adjust your flexion expectations accordingly.

SLICES:

Neck Flexion High and Low

  1. As per prerequisite 2, ensure that the horse is totally comfortable standing parked while you move and stand in a variety of positions around his body.
  2. Ask the horse to stand squarely with his front feet on a familiar mat; click&treat.
  3. Let him know what game you are about to play by having him touch a familiar long-handled target held near his nose; click&treat.
  4. Gradually, making sure to stay within the boundary of the horse’s comfort zone for this type of activity, hold the target progressively a little higher while you stand facing him slightly to the left side of his nose; click&treat every time he touches the target.
  5. Ideally, do three or four repeats on each side of the horse, before moving to the other side.
  6. Repeat 4 holding the target progressively a little higher while you stand facing him slightly to the right side of his nose.
  7. You may not get a full upward stretch as Boots shows on the video clip until you’ve done it for several sessions, but on the other hand, you may get it quickly.
  8. Stay with 4, 5 and 6 until the horse is ho-hum with them.
  9. Then move on to progressively hold the target a bit lower to the ground; click&treat for each touch standing slightly to the left of his nose, then stretch out your arm so the horse’s nose stays straight in front is he lowers it.
  10. Repeat 9 standing slightly to the right of the horse’s nose.
  11. For each new session, begin with the upward stretches done previously, then add the downward stretches until the horse is ho-hum with them also

Lateral (Sideways) Neck Flexion

  1. Have the horse stand as squarely as possible.
  2. Present the target so the horse must bend his neck a little bit to the left toward his ribs to put his nose on it; click&treat. Repeat two or three times.
  3. Repeat 2 on the right side.
  4. Present the target so the horse must bend his neck to the left a little further to touch the target; click&treat. Repeat two or three times.
  5. Repeat 4 on the right side.
  6. Present the target so the horse must bend his neck to the left as far as he comfortably can to touch the target; click&treat. Repeat two or three times.
  7. Repeat 6 to the right.

How far a horse can bend his neck laterally will depend on a variety of factors such as age, health, overall fitness, frequency and type of flexion exercises, breed conformation, past injuries, arthritis, and so on. Healthy horses can reach around to scratch an itch on a lifted hock with their teeth. Observe carefully to find out how far the horse you are working with can reach in comparative comfort.

You may find considerable difference between the right and left sides if the horse has not been trained to accomplish a variety of exercises with either side of his body leading. Most horses have right or left dominance, just as people do.

If you adopt these flexion exercises and do them several times a week, or a few daily, you may notice increased suppleness in your horse if restrictions due to past injury or chronic conditions such as arthritis are not limiting factors.

  1. Once the extreme bend (however far that is for a particular horse) is going well on either side, ask for a bend to the left, then step behind the horse to his right side and ask for the extreme bend to the right before the click&treat.

Knee and Hock Flexion

1. At the start of each session of flexion work with a target, I ask the horse to put his nose on the target; click&treat. This lets him know what game we are playing.

2.  Teach ‘knee-to-target’ by touching the target gently above the horse’s knee; click&treat. Repeat several times.

If the horse thinks you want his nose on the target when it touches his leg above the knee, don’t click&treat. Remove the target out of sight behind you and take up the ‘no intent’ position for about three seconds. Then begin again. Repeat until the horse realizes that you are not asking for nose to target in this situation. The lack of click&treat gives him this information.

It may help the horse if you use a different, shorter target to teach ‘knee to target’.

3.  After several successful mini-sessions with 2 above, hold the target just a tiny bit above the horse’s knee and see if the horse will lift his knee to make the contact; click&treat the instant he does. The basic technique is the same as in my clip, Targeting the Hindquarters to our Hand to which there is a link at the end of this post. Some horses will pick up the idea quickly and some will need many days of quiet, relaxed, short repeats. A clip about teaching ‘Target Chin to Hand‘ posted at the end, may also be helpful.

4.  Repeat on the horse’s other side.

5.  Once 3 and 4 above are ho-hum, teach ‘hock-to-target’ in the same way, using your long-handled target. Mixing up knee and hock too soon can lead to confusion, so keep the daily focus on the knee targeting only (on both sides of the horse) until your orientation and signals are truly consistent and the horse shows he is truly confident by being 99% accurate with his responses. Then change your focus to hock-targeting and stick with only that until it is ho-hum. Then you can begin to ask them in random order.

Head Between Legs Flexion

For this, a shorter target like the plastic bottle I use in the video clip is easier to use than a long-handled target.

  1. Ask the horse to stand squarely.
  2. Ask him to touch the target with his nose while you hold it down and straight in front of him; click&treat when he touches it. Be sure to keep your head to the side of the horse’s head so you don’t get knocked in case he brings his head up quickly.
  3. When 2 is good, switch to holding the target forward between his front legs. You may need to wiggle it a bit to get his attention. Click&treat the moment he puts his nose or whiskers on the target.
  4. Present the target between his front legs standing on either side of the horse. Two or three of these per session is plenty.

Links to other resources:

This video clip looks at making the horse feel comfortable staying parked on a mat while we move into different orientations around him: Challenge: Park and Wait: https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys

This video clip looks at teaching targeting the chin to our hand, which is a nice way to introduce the whole idea of targeting body parts to our hand or a target. https://youtu.be/Fsigp8wB0LU

Blog: Targeting Hindquarters to our Hand: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Tk

Blog: Using Mats for Targeting and Stationing and Much more: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9

Blog: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO

 

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Targeting Hindquarters to our Hand

INTRODUCTION:

Once the horse understands targeting his shoulder to our hand, we might like to teach targeting his hindquarters to our hand. If we can ask for ‘shoulder to hand’ and ‘hip to hand’ we have a way of asking the horse to bring his whole body toward us.

It’s a useful maneuver when we would like him to line up at a mounting block, fence or bank and he’s not quite close enough. It is also a gymnastic exercise and one that encourages handlers to develop their timing plus clear, consistent body language.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse is comfortable standing ‘parked’ with the handler standing alongside facing behind the horse.
  • Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. To review, see the clip or blog link at the end of this post.
  • Signals for moving the hip away from the handler are well established. There are various ways to teaching this. A clip demonstrating one way is also added at the end of this post.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • A safe, enclosed area for working at liberty, if possible. Otherwise, halter and lead (kept loose or the rope safely draped over the horse’s neck).
  • A hand-held target on a long stick, a mid-length target and a short target.
  • For generalizations, pedestal, mounting block or similar, hoop.

My current collection of targets. In the video below, I used the three on the right-hand side of the photo. The others come in handy in various contexts.

AIM:

Horse confidently moves his hindquarters toward the handler’s ‘outstretched hand’ signal.

Video Clip: #164 HorseGym with Boots: TARGET HIPS TO HAND  https://youtu.be/aYlILbkwsBA

 

Note: When we request the horse to yield his hip away from us, we project energy toward the horse’s hindquarters from our body’s core at the belly-button, which causes our posture to be upright.

When we request the horse to move toward us, it’s important to pull our belly-button back so that we shrink back and create a ‘draw toward me’ energy with our whole body.

Horses are so sensitive to advancing and receding energy from another body, that they easily read the intent of our posture as long as we are consistent and not sloppy.

SLICES:

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

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

  1. Choose a spot where you can easily stand the horse alongside a safe fence, wall, or similar with the barrier on the horse’s far side. The barrier discourages the option of moving the hindquarters away, which is something you have hopefully taught previously.
  2. Ask the horse to stand squarely beside the fence; click&treat.
  3. Take up a ‘zero intent’ position standing beside the horse’s neck, facing behind the horse, holding the target down by your side ‘out of play’ and relax; click&treat. Work up to standing together quietly like this for three or four seconds before the click&treat, on either side of the horse. Have the space between you and the horse’s neck at a distance comfortable for both of you. Close is usually safer than standing away, but it depends.
  4. Stretch your arm to gently touch the long-handled target to the side of the horse’s hindquarters. Click just as the target makes contact; deliver the treat.
  5. Move the target down behind your leg to take it ‘out of play’ and resume the ‘zero intent’ body position. Observe to see if the horse is okay for you to carry on. If he continues to stand in a relaxed manner, he is probably okay to carry on, or you may have sorted out one or more ‘okay to proceed’ signals. A link to information about these is at the end of this post.
  6. Repeat 4 and 5 above, watching for any weight shift the horse might make toward the target as you move it toward his hindquarters. If he does, celebrate hugely with happy words and a jackpot or triple treat. Maybe ask for one or two repeats, then wait until your next session to do more.
  7. When you feel the time is right, hold the target a tiny distance away from touching the hindquarters and WAIT for the horse to shift his weight to make the contact; click&treat. Some horses may step over to make the contact right away. For either a weight shift or a whole step toward the target, celebrate hugely again. Maybe repeat the request once or twice more to consolidate the idea. If you have waited 3-4 seconds and nothing happens, simply return to slices 4, 5, 6 above.
  8. It took Boots a good number of daily mini-sessions before she a) consistently leaned toward the target and  b) consistently moved a tiny distance toward the target to make the contact. Then it took more days before she confidently stepped toward the target when I held it further away.
  9. Decide whether you want to continue teaching on the side you started with, or if you want to teach slices 1-7 on the other side of the horse before proceeding.
  10. When 7 is ho-hum, gradually hold your target a little bit further away so the horse must take a full step to contact the target; click&treat.
  11. Whenever the response seems slow or unsure (or is missing), go back to touch the target to the hindquarters; click&treat. Then work forward again at a rate that keeps the horse being continually successful as much as possible.
  12. This willingness to back up in the teaching is sometimes hard, but we always must go where the horse tell us he is, not where we want him to be.
  13. When starting a new session, always introduce the task with a touch of the target (and eventually your hand) to the hindquarters; click&treat, to let the horse know which game you are playing.
  14. Work to having the response equally smooth on either side of the horse.
  15. You may want to introduce a voice signal to go along with your body language and orientation signals.
  16. When all is smooth using your long-handled hand-held target, repeat the slices using a shorter target. The one I use in the clip is a soft plastic toy sword.
  17. When all is smooth with the mid-length target, reach out with an even shorter target. You may have to move from beside his neck to beside his shoulder or ribs, depending on the size of the horse.
  18. When 16 and 17 are smooth on either side of the horse, ask for the hindquarters over using just your arm lifted up in the same way you did when holding a target. Most horses will respond readily to the arm movement. I personally hold my hand open with my palm facing the horse. Handler body position is upright. By pulling back our belly-button area we create a ‘draw toward me’ energy.

When we ask for hindquarters to yield away, we send energy toward the horse and look down and gesture toward his hocks, so it is a very different body orientation and energy. Plus, we may have added distinct and different voice signals for each one.

It’s good to frequently practice ‘hip away’ and ‘hip toward’ as a little sequence to make sure our signals stay true and the horse easily responds to either one without confusion.

Left photo: ‘hip toward me’ signal and body language. Right photo: ‘hip away please’ signal and body language.

GENERALIZATIONS:

Clip: #165 HorseGym with Boots TARGET BUTT TO HAND:

 

Generalizations:

  1. Stand the horse so his shoulder is near a mounting block, but his hindquarters are angled away. Ask him to bring his butt (hip) toward your hand. If he gets confused, return to using your long, medium and short targets, fading out each one as his confidence returns, until your outstretched arm and hand are sufficient.
  2. Generalize the ‘bring your hip over’ skill to different venues and different mounting situations, e.g. fences, gates, stumps, banks – especially if you ride out in wider and varied environments. Before my hips gave up riding, I would often have been totally grounded after dismounting if Boots wasn’t 100% confident about lining up quietly alongside a gate or any other raised surface in the vicinity.
  3. If you have a pedestal on which the horse puts his front feet, you can ask him to bring his hindquarters toward you in a circle while his front feet stay on the pedestal.
  4. Alternately, if you have a soft rubber tub, ask the horse to put his front feet into the tub and repeat 3 above.
  5. To increase the expertise required (by horse and handler) ask the horse to place his front feet into a hoop and keep them in the hoop while moving his butt to target the handler’s arm (or a target) moving in a circular pattern, both clockwise and anti-clockwise. Start with one step and a high rate of reinforcement.
  6. Be careful not to ask too much at first. A frequent minute or two of exercises such as these is enough to have a worthwhile gymnastic effect.
  7. Whenever you do ‘hip toward me’, balance it with ‘hip away please’.

BACKGROUND CLIPS FOR QUICK REVIEW:

Clip: #153 HorseGym with Boots: ZERO INTENT AND INTENT

https://youtu.be/3ATsdPvld4Q

Clip: May 2018 Challenge: YIELD HINDQUARTERS: https://youtu.be/AkjIT8Tjxw0

Clip: #154 HorseGym with Boots: OKAY TO REPEAT SIGNALS

https://youtu.be/W3-Pw6d-Gic

BLOG LINKS FOR MORE DETAILED REVIEW:

Blog: No Intent and Intent

https://herthamuddyhorse.com/2018/11/30/dec-2018-challenge-no-intent-and-intent/

Blog: Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals.

https://herthamuddyhorse.com/2018/12/22/seeking-the-horses-consent-signals/)

 

Gaining Fluidity without Drilling

Questions:

  1. How do we become truly fluid with a specific task or series of tasks?
  2. How can the handler practice a clear, consistent signal or group of signals?
  3. How can we engage the horse to willingly carrying out tasks confidently at our request?

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

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

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

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

We acquire a complex task by teaching it via thin-slicing. The ACQUISITION STAGE is finished when our signals are relatively consistent, and the horse’s response is accurate about 90% of the time. Then we enter the STAGE OF BUILDING FLUIDITY with the task. (There is a link at the end of this post about ‘The Four Stages of Learning’.)

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

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

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

Not recommended – DRILLING:

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

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

Recommended – CHERISHING EACH MINI-OBJECTIVE:

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

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

Helpful – Visualizing:

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

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

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

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

Helpful – SIMULATION:

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

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

A Possible Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example One

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

Example Two

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

Example Three

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

Video Clip:

#163 HorseGym with Boots: Gaining Fluidity without Drilling.

In Addition:

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

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

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

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

Extra:

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

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

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

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

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

ADDITIONAL RESOURCE:

The Four Stages of Learning: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5SO

TARGET SHOULDER TO HAND

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

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

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead (kept loose) and a safe, enclosed area for working at liberty, if possible.
  • Mat.
  • For generalization, a hoop, ground rail, mounting block or similar.

AIM:

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

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

 

Note:

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

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

SLICES:

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

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

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

ZERO or ‘NO’ INTENT POSITION

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

GENERALIZATIONS:

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

 

THE FOUR STAGES OF NEW LEARNING

Acquisition, Fluidity, Generalization and Maintenance

Acquisition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fluency

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

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

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

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

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

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

GENERALIZATION

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

Generalization includes:

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

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

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

MAINTENANCE

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chaining Behaviors

INTRODUCTION:

Chaining behaviors refers to linking together individual tasks into a flow of activity. The photo above shows how we chained repetitions of the task, “Go touch the cone” in order to build confidence walking down the road away from home. Once the horse understands this game, the cones can be put further apart, less in number and eventually phased out and replaced with items naturally found along the route to use as click&treat spots.

We might aim for one click&treat at the end of a series of behaviors. Alternatively, we might click for each specific behavior in the chain, or for two or three behaviors within the chain that easily link into each other.

We can also back-chain, where we begin with the last behavior in the series, and gradually link in each previous behavior. If we specifically want the horse to do a series of behaviors with only one click&treat at the end, this method can work well.

People who have spent more time studying ‘chaining’ in detail prefer to start with a concept called ‘sequencing’.  They then describe different kinds of sequences.

Tandem Units – when each part of the sequence is exactly the same. Examples are  the ‘cone-to -cone’ exercise in the photo above and the 20 Steps Exercise outlined below.

Conjunctive Units – when there is a sequence to be done, but they could be done in any order. For example, if we have a selection of obstacles set out to do gymnastic exercises with our horse, we can do them in any order.

Chained Units – step one of the sequence must occur before step, 2, step 2 before step 3, and so on. For example, saddling or harnessing a horse. Another example might be walking into the pasture, haltering the horse, walking back to the gate with the horse, opening the gate, asking the horse to walk through the gate, closing the gate, which is outlined in one of the clips below.

When we train by splitting a goal behavior into its smallest teachable units (slices), we link the slices together as the horse becomes competent with each bit of new learning. In most cases, the sequence is important, so each slice is part of a chained unit. The example below about Head Rocking illustrates.

Something like a dressage test, horse agility course, jumping course or western equitation course is made up of discrete units or behavior (conjunctive) but the competition requires them to be done in a strict order, so they become ‘chained’. We can train each unit in a ‘conjunctive’ context, then present them in the required chain for the competition.

CHAINING FORWARD TO CREATE DURATION (A sequence of ‘tandem units’)

This clip clearly shows how we can create a chain of ‘duration’ of the same behavior (tandem units). 20 Steps Exercise

 

This clip is the same as the one above but done with halter and lead and a handler new to the exercise. #30 HorseGym with Boots: Leading Position Three Duration Exercise. Increasing duration of a behavior is basically increasing the number of ‘tandem units’ before we click&treat. The units might be steps, as in this exercise, or they might be increasing time staying parked or they might be the number of times your horse paws if you are teaching him to count.

CHAINING THIN-SLICES TO CREATE A COMPLEX TASK

This clip shows how we first train, then chain, tiny components of a task (slices). As the horse understands each slice, we ask for a bit more or a new variation before the next click&treat. This clip is an introduction to building confidence with pushing through pairs of horizontally set pool noodles. We start with the simplest unit and gradually work up to more complexity, so this is an example of mostly chained units

 

This clip is an introduction to head rocking. The slices are quite tiny and are steadily chained together to accomplish the final task. Since the order or units matters, it is a true chained sequence.

CHAINING A SERIES OF TASKS THAT OCCUR IN A PARTICULAR ORDER

This clip looks at how we chain a series of tasks when we do something like bringing our horse in from a paddock. Usually I would do the whole process with one click&treat after putting on the halter, and another when I take off the halter. The horse has previously (separately) learned each of the tasks that make up this chain of events.

 

The clip below looks at using a mat to help chain a series of tasks. #12 HorseGym with Boots: CHAINING TASKS. This could be seen as an ‘artificial’ chain because we have decided on the order of the tasks. They could be done in any order so turning it into a conjunctive chain.

 

The clip below shows a series of more difficult tasks. Each task is individually taught to a high standard. Then I forward chain or back-chain them together according to the requirement of that month’s competition.The order of the tasks has been arbitrarily set for the competition, so this too is an ‘artificial’ chain made up of a series of unrelated tasks.

TRAINING PLAN FOR BACK-CHAINING ROPE-FREE CIRCLE WORK

Back-chaining simply means that we begin with the final behavior in a series and work backward toward the eventual starting point.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead to introduce the idea to the horse.
  • Safe, enclosed area for working at liberty.
  • Objects to create the circle outline, as in the video clip or set up a raised barrier.

AIMS:

The horse moves willingly on the outside of a circle of objects, firs to  mat destination, later listening for a ‘whoa’ signal.

Back-Chaining Circle Work with a Mat (see video below)

If we want to teach a horse to move in a circle around the outside of a round pen, we can use a mat as the horse’s destination and back-chain a whole circle at walk and a whole circle at trot (energetic horses may offer a canter).

The set-up requires a round pen of ground or raised rails or tape on uprights or a collection of items to outline the circle. The horse walks around the outside of the barrier and the handler walks on the inside of the barrier.

SLICES:

Note: Keep the sessions very short – just a few minutes. We never want to turn anything into a drill. Five minutes a day over a few weeks will give a lot of results.

Stay with each slice until both you and the horse are totally comfortable with it.

With halter and lead:

  1. Lead the horse around the circle and have him target the mat with his feet; click&treat. Repeat until the horse has a strong association with the mat due to always receiving a click&treat there.
  2. Walk the horse and halt a few steps away from the mat. (Horse is on the outside of the barrier, handler on the inside.)
  3. With a looped rope (or unclip the rope if you are in a safe, enclosed area) ask the horse to ‘walk on’ to the mat; click&treat. Snap on the lead rope, walk around the circle and repeat 2 at the same distance until the horse keenly heads to the mat. Walk along with the horse, at the horse’s pace, inside the barrier.
  4. Gradually halt further from the mat before asking the horse to go target the mat. If he loses confidence, return to a smaller distance. Better to increase the distance by very small increments rather than ask for too much too soon. Click&treat each arrival at the mat.
  5. If the horse offers a trot at any time (or a canter) and stays on the circle, celebrate hugely. Such willingness is precious.
  6. When the horse willingly offers a whole circle, celebrate large with happy words and a jackpot or triple treat.
  7. When it is good in one direction, teach it again, from the beginning, walking in the other direction.
  8. Make the task more interesting by putting the mat in different places on the circle.
  9. Once you have whole circles, and you are in a safe area where you can work without the lead, leave it off. This allows you to gradually walk a much smaller circle as the horse stays on his big circle on the outside of the barrier. Click&treat each time the horse reaches the mat. He will soon realize that even if you are a distance away from him when you click, you will quickly walk to him to deliver the treat. Some horses get anxious when they can’t stay right next to the handler.
  10. Play with 9 until you can just rotate in the center of the circle as the horse walks around.
  11. If you’d like to work with trot, and the horse has not already offered it, start again with slice 2 and use your body energy to suggest a trot. If your horse knows a voice ‘trot’ signal, use that too. Celebrate if he trots to the mat.
  12. If you like, gradually make your circle larger.

This is back-chaining because you have shown the horse the final result which will earn the click&treat (targeting the mat) and then added in the previous requirements, which in this case were increasing distances from the mat. In the final behavior, the mat is both the starting point and the end point.

If you are wondering about how we can get multiple circles this way, we can eventually use our ‘halt’ signal to replace the mat and ask the horse to do more than one circle (in gradual increments) before asking him to halt for his click&treat.

 

Example 2:  Back-chaining a 10-task Horse Agility Course (based on the clip before the one immediately above)

  1. Consolidate the final task: Trot through the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a click&treat.
  2. Back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  3. Trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  4. Trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  5. Through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  6. Trot through scary corridor of flags, through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  7. Drag the bottles, trot through scary corridor of flags, through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  8. Weave five markers, drag the bottles, trot through scary corridor of flags, through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  9. From halt, trot off the tarp, weave five markers, drag the bottles, trot through scary corridor of flags, through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  10. Walk onto the tarp and halt, trot off the tarp, weave five markers, drag the bottles, trot through scary corridor of flags, through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.

Back-chaining works well when we want/need to consolidate the place and time for the click&treat at the very end of a sequence of events.

 

Willing Haltering

Willing Haltering

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

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

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

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

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

We can and should move on when:

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

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

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

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

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

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

#168 HorseGym with Boots illustrates an early lesson using a hoop to introduce the idea or something moving around the head, across the eyes and over the ears.

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

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

SLICES

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

Stay with each slice of the task until your body language and orientation are consistent and the horse is ho-hum with what you are doing.

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

Eventually we can click&treat the following slices.

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