Q1 MUDDYHORSE STUDIO
Good analysis of tasks leads to better Training Plans.
Gate Safety: Spot the Prerequisites
What are the individual tasks that make up this little behavior chain?
Gate Safety: Spot the Prerequisites
What are the individual tasks that make up this little behavior chain?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
#163 HorseGym with Boots: Gaining Fluidity without Drilling.
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.
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.
The Four Stages of Learning: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5SO
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 confidently moves his left or right shoulder toward the handler’s ‘outstretched hand’ gesture signal.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Back-chaining simply means that we begin with the final behavior in a series and work backward toward the eventual starting point.
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:
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)
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.
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:
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.
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.
Eventually we can click&treat the following slices.
It’s not uncommon for a horse to have bad feelings or mixed emotions about halters and ropes. My book, WALKING WITH HORSES has a detailed section about developing a horse’s willingness to put his nose into a halter. For more details, click on the BOOKS section above. Also, see ‘Willing Haltering‘ in the Further Resources section at the end of this post.
To help horses deal well with captivity, confidence with halter and lead rope needs careful attention. Essentially, putting a halter and rope on our horse is similar to putting on our ‘work clothes’, which will be an outfit or uniform suitable for the type of work we do. When we work for an organization or with other people, we adjust our behavior to what is appropriate at our job.
In the same way, a horse carefully educated about halters and ropes will recognize that he is wearing his ‘uniform’ and relate it to certain ways of behaving. Mainly, it limits his behavior choices. Ideally it also encourages him to pay careful attention to requests made via messages sent along the rope.
We can use the rope to send text messages. But, obviously, we must first carefully teach the horse what the ‘letters’ of our text mean. The lighter the pressure of our ‘texting’, the lighter the horse’s responses can be. In other words, the horse can only be as light in his responses to rope messages as we are light in sending them.
A rope is a way of ‘holding hands’ with our horse, not a tether kept tight to stop the horse escaping our influence. There is nothing so heartbreaking as see a gasping dog at the end of a tight leash or a horse struggling to understand why the tightness of the rope won’t go away, no matter what he does.
The key to lead rope handling is that the rope is always slack except for the brief moments it is sending a message to the horse. The instant the horse complies with our request, the slack is returned to the rope. It is the instant release of rope pressure plus the simultaneous click (and the accompanying treat) that enables the horse to understand which task we are requesting.
A: STANDING COMFORTABLY IN A CORNER
Introduce the horse to each corner in small, easy steps. Thin-slice the process to what your horse needs. Use a familiar mat to indicate where you would like his front feet to be . Three kinds of corners are shown in the videos clips.
B: TEACH AN ANCHOR TASK
In the same way that music is made up of notes and the pauses between the notes, we must have pauses between asking the horse to repeat the same task. Because the horse is at halt for this challenge, the anchor task creates the pauses between our requests.
We begin teaching the anchor task once the horse is comfortable standing in a corner, on a mat, with reasonable duration.
An anchor task is what we do to ‘set the stage’ for what we will do next. For example, when I play with targeting body parts to my hand with Boots, our anchor task is lifting a front knee to my hand. It tells her what game we are about to play.
Another example of a ‘stand quietly waiting’ anchor task might be to hang a special nose target in the spot you would like the horse to stand (park) while you tack up. Used like this, the foot or nose targets become a way that the horse can tell us that he is okay with us to proceed with what we are doing. There is a link to more about this in the Further Resources section at the end of the post.
As an anchor task for this behavior, I’ve chosen to rest my nearest hand lightly on Boots’ withers while she keeps her head forward. It is the position my hand would be if I were resting my reins while not giving a rein signal while riding. You might prefer a different anchor task.
In our case, this is a bit tricky because I use the same anchor position I use when we do belly crunches while standing beside the horse. The handler’s body orientation is often a large part of an anchor task.
I decided that Boots is far enough along in her training to learn to pause in this anchor position and wait for the next signal to find out whether a crunch or head flexion is the hot topic of the moment. You’ll see that we have a couple of conversations about this.
C: LATERAL FLEXION TO A TARGET and D. THE VOICE SIGNAL
VIDEO CLIPS 1 & 2 (Left side)
E. RESPONSE TO ROPE or REINS SIGNALS
Some of these are shown in clip 4:
Blog: Willing Haltering: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sw
Clip: Park & Wait: https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
Blog: Okay to proceed or ‘Seeking the Horse’s Consent‘: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RV
First clip (of six) in the Playlist: Developing Soft Rein Response: https://youtu.be/6nP2XU2urak