Photo: changing direction by targeting shoulder-to-hand.
This routine combines quite a sophisticated series of tasks. Putting it together encourages the handler to make signals are as clear as possible. It encourages the horse to be mentally alert and as physically adept as possible. It wasn’t possible to do warm-up activities with Boots before my videographer was available for the first video clip. Doing general warm-up first is always recommended.
To link a series of tasks into a sequence: stand together politely, back away from handler, recall, target shoulder to hand, lateral movement, walk-on signals from behind the withers.
‘Walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
Horse and Handler have developed good table manners standing quietly together. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
Horse and handler agree on a back-up signal when face-to-face. This clip is in my ‘Backing Up’ playlist. March 2018 Challenge: Backing Up Part 1; https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y
Ensure confidence with each task before starting to link them together. If things don’t go to plan, do a quiet reset and start again.
Link pairs of tasks at first, then add the first pair to the second pair, and so on.
First, memorize the sequence of events by walking the pattern without the horse or ask a person to stand in for the horse.
Use a rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat) that keeps your horse being continually successful as much as possible. As he learns the routine, ask for a bit more before the next click&treat but always be prepared to click&treat more often if the horse needs you to clarify your intent.
Walk along shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse nearest the fence.
Halt and stand together quietly for up to ten seconds before the click&treat.
Step around to face the front of the horse and ask for several steps of backing up and halt. Eventually aim for ten steps back while you keep your own feet still. When first teaching this, go to the horse to deliver a click&treat for the backing, then return to where you were.
Ask the horse to ‘wait’ for up to ten seconds while he is away from you. Increase the time gradually, going to him to deliver a click&treat during the teaching stage.
Ask for a recall. Click&treat when he reaches you. Eventually you will be able to do tasks 3, 4 and 5 with only one click&treat after the recall, but to begin with these are three distinct tasks.
Move in front of the horse to face him, ask him to walk forward toward you as you walk backwards, then use your ‘hindquarters toward me’ signal to ask for lateral movement toward you as you step backwards. Be happy with a few steps at first. Gradually ask for more steps as the horse develops these muscles over time.
After the click&treat for 6, ask the horse to change direction by targeting his shoulder to your hand.
Repeat 6 in the opposite direction.
Relax and lead the horse to line up next to the fence. Halt with the horse nearest the fence and the handler standing just behind the horse’s withers.
Ask the horse to ‘walk on’ away from you with a voice signal and/or a touch signal behind the withers. The idea is not to move your own feet. Celebrate even one step forward away from you. Gradually, over multiple sessions ask for more steps, one step at a time. I like to teach an auxiliary touch signal on the rump for ‘walk on’, which is useful for long-reining or driving. See Prerequisite 7.
Celebrate the end of the sequence with a Triple Treat or jackpot.
Practice in different venues if you can.
When it is super smooth with rope and halter, play at liberty.
The Greet & Go process is based on how horses who know each other greet upon meeting. In this exercise, the horse can choose to greet us. If he decides not to greet us, nothing happens, so this exercise shows the horse that it is okay to say, ‘No, not right now’. It helps to build trust because the horse gains a sense of control in the situation.
It seems that control over one’s actions is a primary reinforcing element in life, whether one is human or any other critter. A sense of having control is probably strongly related to routine. A sense of well-being arises if we can move, eat/drink, sleep, seek shelter, choose our company (if a gregarious species) according to our daily and seasonal rhythms and our personal preferences.
Any departure from having control about what happens next induces unpleasant stress (‘distress’, as opposed to ‘eustress’, the useful stress involved with learning new things at a rate we can easily absorb). For horses, any sort of containment causes distress because they are adapted for freedom of movement over 24 hours, strong environmental awareness and the ability to flee rapidly if a worrying situation arises.
The more we can allow our horses control over their lives, the better the probability that they will be relatively comfortable in captivity and willing to form working relationships with people.
The human-horse interaction dynamic is always problematic for the horse. By introducing the Greet & Go to every meeting with a horse, we relate to him in a way that acknowledges his reality rather than imposing only our desires.
Greet & Go is an activity done every single time we meet a horse.
The Human Tendency
When I introduce this exercise to people, they invariably want to pat the horse’s face after the horse has politely put his nose on their hand. In terms of horse etiquette, I have the feeling that horses find this distinctly impolite. Most horses dislike it, especially from a stranger.
They often try to move their head away. Some horses have learned to stop people doing this by using their teeth if a warning with the ears is ignored.
As already mentioned, new horses greeting each other often put their foreheads together, check each other’s breath and push to help get the measure of the other horse. I think putting our hand onto the horse’s face might feel to them like a dominating gesture.
The Greet & Go exercise does not include any fondling of the horse’s head or ears.
The Greet & Go Process
We can do this across a fence or in with the horse. The key is to always let the horse close the last 2 inches of space. If he chooses not to connect, we walk away.
Wait with zero intent while the horse decides whether he wants to make contact or not.
Smoky making contact with the back of Bridget’s hand. We always allow the horse to close the last two inches of space between his nose and our hand.
The Greet & Go exercise is simple but profound. You can do it across a fence or while in with the horse. You approach the horse from the front in a quiet, relaxed, friendly manner and before you quite reach him, you hold out your arm with a lightly curled fist, and invite the horse to touch the back of your hand. Your hand stands in as another horse’s nose. Horses use their noses to explore like we use our hands.
As soon as the horse has touched your hand, which is the Greet, you quietly walk away. Walking away is the Go part of the process. You approach the horse, Greet, then immediately do the opposite, Go, by walking away. You are showing the horse that you respect his space and his place in the universe and in your life. You no longer approach his bubble only when you want to halter him and make him do things.
Horses appreciate the opportunity to greet us politely. The act of turning and walking away (Go) is a neutral act another horse might do, i.e. touch noses and share breath to say hello and then move away to mind his own business because he is secure in the relationship. It shows that neither party is looking for any sort of further interaction or confrontation.
The whole dynamic is like the friendly recognition we give to colleagues as we walk past them at work or when we briefly greet a neighbor out shopping.
Here is an important point that runs through all our interactions with a horse. If the horse comes into our space (our bubble) of his free will, he needs to do so politely. If he’s not polite, it’s fair for us to send him away. If we go into our horse’s space (bubble) we need to do so politely. If we intend to ask him to do something, we need to ask politely, giving the horse time to think about our signal and respond to it.
Do the Greet & Go routine as often as you can during your usual interactions with your horse. Approach the horse from the front offering your outstretched hand. A horse that wants to greet you will put his nose on your hand. As soon as he does, walk away and carry on doing what you were doing. If you clean your own paddocks every day, it is a nice way of recognizing the horse and letting him know it is not time to play clicker games.
Bridget and Boots having a greeting during Quiet Sharing of Time and Space.
Stopping for a greeting during a filming session.
If the horse does not want to put his nose on your hand, that’s okay. Go away and carry on what you were doing or go do something else. The horse will appreciate that you understood his feelings at that moment in time.
The greeting is also a good way to begin further contact, such as clicker training, grooming or getting ready for an activity.
If your horse does not want to greet you, you have instant feedback on his mood of the moment and can adjust your plans accordingly.
If the horse does not want to greet you (ignores you or walks off) you can choose to carry on the interaction by walking a loop away from the horse and approaching him again, creating another opportunity to offer your hand. Allowing the horse to say, “No,” without consequences builds his self-confidence.
It may take just a couple of approaches before he is willing to greet you, or it may take more than ten relaxed approaches spread over one or more sessions. Eventually he will. Meanwhile, you are learning how to relax yourself out of frustration.
Relaxing Ourselves out of Frustration
Pause and turn away from the horse.
Breathe deeply and slowly, in and out.
Roll your shoulders slowly until they can stay in a relaxed, down position.
Gently bend your neck up and down, right and left.
Stretch both arms straight up and down again – slowly.
If the situation allows, sit for a while in the horse’s area, watching the clouds, noting your breathing, meditating.
Walk around the horse’s enclosure, noting specifics. If the horse comes over to you at any point, Greet & Go.
Breathe while doing all the above.
Sometimes it is good to quietly finish the session and go away.
The Horse Unwilling to Greet the Human
Horses with unknown histories can have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to greet a person. If you make five or ten approaches every day and they are all rejected, keep a written log. At some point, it will happen. Celebrate quietly and Go away. If you feed hay, offer to Greet & Go before you put down the hay.
Remember, horses have all day every day. If you have the time and good humor to persist, the horse will eventually greet you. A treat offered after the greeting (put on the ground if the horse does not accept food from your hand) can amplify the importance of your offer to greet.
If you don’t have all day, you might decide to simply go away. The horse misses out on attention and treats. Maybe you can openly give your treats to another horse before you go. Horses will observe this and think on it overnight. Or you can move away and put a treat on the grass or in a feed bin well away from the horse before you leave. The horse will also think about that.
If the horse usually moves away at your approach, you probably need to go back and spend more time with Quiet Sharing of Time and Space to build the bond. Most likely he has benefited from human avoidance behavior in the past – he was able to control the interaction by moving away.
If he seems to have an “I’d rather avoid you” habit, there are ways of making yourself more interesting. If they are around, you could pay attention to other horses or pets or things. Sit down and eat an apple or a carrot. Go back to Quiet Sharing of Time and Space and ignore him.
If you’ve set up the usual environment for a one-on-one date, the horse may initiate an interaction as more interesting than ignoring you. Whenever something seems broken, go back to Quiet Sharing of Time and Space to re-forge the bond.
You can also, if your environment allows, hide behind trees, buildings, vehicles or barrels to pique your horse’s curiosity. Sitting or reclining on the ground changes our profile and may encourage curiosity. I had great fun running from tree to tree and hiding for a while behind each one. My horse couldn’t stand watching this novelty without coming over to investigate. Make yourself interesting. Seek ideas outside the square.
The point of the Greet & Go exercise is that the horse is free to choose whether he wants to greet you. If you’ve approached him several times and he’s wandered away rather than touch your outstretched hand, you are receiving a clear message.
The challenge becomes to consciously change your behavior and observe closely to see how the horse responds. How does his behavior change when you act differently? Such experimentation is fun. There is no right and wrong. At any time, your horse unbounded by ropes is free to choose what he thinks is the best thing to do at that moment.
These exercises allow you to see what works to your advantage and what doesn’t. It’s very different from making horses do things when you decide they’ll do it because you have a rope on them, and/or they are contained in a small area.
Used every time you approach your horse; the Greet & Go exercise helps build a powerful connection. If you include a gift with the greeting (food treat or a scratch and rub and eventually putting on the halter and going for a grazing walk), it becomes even more powerful. If you do clicker training, the Greet habit can be strengthened using click&treat whenever the horse approaches you at the beginning of a clicker training session.
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.
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.
For generalization, a hoop, ground rail, mounting block or similar.
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
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.
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.
Ask the horse to park squarely; click&treat.
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.
Reach out the flat back of your hand to lightly touch the horse’s shoulder; click&treat the moment your hand makes contact.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Work to having the response equally smooth on either side of the horse.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Keep each session super short and celebrate each new success hugely. This exercise enhances foot awareness.
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.
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.
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.
Acquisition, Fluidity, Generalization and Maintenance
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.
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.
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.
Asking for the behavior in different places but still at home.
Using different props.
Working at different times of the day.
Asking for the behavior away from home.
Working with unusual distractions.
Working at a different gait.
Handler using a different body orientation.
Fading out a signal and replacing it with a new one.
Requesting more repeats or duration before the click&treat.
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.
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 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 or duration 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 lifts his foot 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 of 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, making it 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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Walk the horse and halt a few steps away from the mat. (Horse is on the outside of the barrier, handler on the inside.)
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.
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.
If the horse offers a trot at any time (or a canter) and stays on the circle, celebrate hugely. Such willingness is precious.
When the horse willingly offers a whole circle, celebrate large with happy words and a jackpot or triple treat.
When it is good in one direction, teach it again, from the beginning, walking in the other direction.
Make the task more interesting by putting the mat in different places on the circle.
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.
Play with 9 until you can just rotate in the center of the circle as the horse walks around.
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.
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). Each of the tasks has already been taught to a high degree of proficiency.
Consolidate the final task: Trot through the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a click&treat.
Back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
Trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo: Teaching the horse to target a pool noodle with his hind foot to help his confidence with standing on three legs is one half of the task.
Photo: The other half of the task is to teach relaxation while being rubbed all over with a pool noodle, keeping all feet on the ground.
Keeping the Balance
For everything we teach our horse, we have to be mindful of also teaching the opposite. If we teach a very good ‘whoa’, it is also important to teach an excellent ‘walk on’ signal.
For most things we teach, we have to also teach a counter-balancing task.
If we teach ‘head down please’, we also need to teach ‘head up please’.
If we teach ‘back up please’, we need to teach, ‘come forward please’.
If we teach targeting a mat with the front feet, we have to teach happily stepping off the mat and walking away from it. Some horses get strongly attached to their mats.
If we teach a turn followed by a ‘halt’, we have to teach a turn followed by a brisk ‘walk on please’.
If we teach entering a trailer, we need to carefully teach exiting the trailer.
If we teach the horse to ground tie, we also need to teach him how to move with a dragging rope so he learns not to step on it and isn’t frightened if something happens to make him move dragging his rope.
If we teach the horse to come to us when we are playing at liberty, we also need to teach him to go away from us in a way that is fun rather than seen as a punishment. Being sent away to the outskirts of the ‘herd’ can be seen by horses as a punitive action because it’s a less safe place to be.
If we teach a move or behavior on one side of the horse, we need to teach it again on the other side of the horse. Maybe also from in front of the horse and from behind the horse. This concept is explored in detail in my book, Walking with Horses:The Eight Leading Positions (see the BOOKS link above).
If we don’t do these things, the horse will become fixated on one way of doing a task. He’ll be determined that he’ll always do it this way. In some situations, the power of the click&treat dynamic can work against us rather than for us.
So, for everything we teach, we need to counterbalance it with another task. How much time we spend balancing out these sorts of tasks depends on many factors. As we get better at understanding our horse, it will get easier to know when we’ve done too much of one dimension and need to consider the other dimension. We’ll find it easier and easier to keep a better balance.
The clip below looks at how we can generalize working with mats to balance the expectation of landing front feet on a mat to earn a click&treat, which we teach first. Once the horse heads straight to a mat as soon as he sees it, we can use tasks like this to balance out his eagerness.