Clicker training is not a quick fix for problems. It is a carefully crafted language between horse and handler used during every interaction. People often have to let go of what they have always done in order to make room for a new way of interacting with their horse(s).
If frustration becomes part of the equation, for the horse or the handler or both, it is usually a sign of going too fast and expecting too much too soon.
The solution is usually to slow down, think things through, decide on the exact behavior required and write a careful shaping plan to achieve that behavior.
Keeping emotions (horse and person) on the calm/relaxed/joyful side of the emotional continuum is a major part of effective clicker training.
Add a new aspect to a task, e.g. different handler position.
Do tasks in a different order.
Introduce new tasks.
Add trot to some of the tasks.
This routine links together a finesse back-up, targeting shoulder to hand, sidestepping, counterturn circle, ‘wait’ while the handler walks around the horse plus signaling a back-up from behind the horse.
This routine presents a novel way to walk ever-decreasing circles. It also includes weaving and 180-degree turns.
Smoothly carry out a routine walking together in a variety of configurations.
Walking together shoulder-to-shoulder. Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions. Click here.
While walking shoulder-to-shoulder, the horse changes direction in response to the handler moving his/her body axis toward the horse or away from the horse. #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation Signals; Click here.
Weaving. #70 HorseGym with Boots: Only Horse Weaves;Click here.
I like to memorize the sequence of tasks by walking the pattern without the horse and/or with a person standing in for the horse. It also works to visualize the sequence often.
Make the circle a size that suits your horse. We want him to be able to do the weave part easily. As he gets more adepts, you can gradually make the circle smaller to encourage more bend.
I found it a challenge to remember which rag we were going to leave out next as we made the circle smaller. Having different colored rags made it easier.
Boots is now so good about recognizing that the rags are not mats, that I could walk on the rags or inside the rag circle without her stepping on them. If your horse tends to step on the rags, walk on the outside of the rags so he is further away from them.
Use a rate of reinforcement that keeps your horse continually successful. This can be very often when you first introduce the routine. As the horse gets to know the routine, gradually decrease your rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat).
Be careful not to drill. Multiple short sessions will keep the horse keen to do it again next time.
On the horse’s left side, starting from the center of the circle, ask the horse to weave the rags while you remain walking inside the rags.
When you’ve weaved through all the rags, walk a full circle around all the rags.
Walk a second circle leaving out one rag.
Walk a third circle leaving out two rags, and so on, systematically, until you reach your last circle around just one rag.
Walk to the center of the circle for a rest; click&treat.
From the center, walk straight ahead and do a U-turn around the nearest rag and return to the center.
You’re now facing the opposite direction, so choose another rag in front of you, walk toward it and do a U-turn and return to the center.
Use your ‘end of routine’ routine so the horse knows it is the end of the routine. I use a Triple Treat.
Repeat on the horse’s right side. You may want to do something else before you repeat this on the other side because it is such concentrated work.
When it feels smooth, work at liberty.
If you are able, set up a big circle and do some of the routine at trot.
Add the task of ever-increasing circles.
Work on a slope if you have one handy.
Use more rags.
Set the rags into a rectangle or a triangle to encourage more variety of movement. Or have one end round and the other end with two right angles.
Hoops are handy obstacles to use for teaching a variety of skills. They are easy to set up and store. We can use them in numerous contexts. They can help us achieve a variety of objectives. For example:
Identify prerequisites for each exercise.
Practice thin-slicing the tasks.
Practice writing a training (shaping) plan for each configuration.
Hone our timing of the click.
Make our signals as clear and consistent as possible.
Develop foot awareness.
Gives a defined spot to learn the ‘wait’.
Generalize signals (cues) to new situations.
New puzzles to work through – mental stimulation.
Boots and I have played with hoops on and off for quite a while, as in the following video clips. For a 15hh horse hoops about one metre across work well for trotting through, but we also use smaller ones for some of the other activities.
The hoops are made with plastic water pipe with the ends held together either with the right-sized twig pushed into the ends or a stretch of hose either one size smaller to fit inside the ends or one size larger to form a sleeve across the ends. To make them more visible I wound electrical tape around them.
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.
Photo above: Boots gained the confidence to step up on this balance beam by being rewarded for venturing one step at a time. After many short, successful sessions, she felt secure enough to target individual legs to my hand.
The skill of being able to ask your horse to move one specific foot at a time is worthy of time and attention. It is a task that can be used and refined when riding or doing groundwork, including Horse Agility competition. It starts with being able to visualize the pattern in which horses move their feet.
Carefully observe the footfall sequences when horses walk, back-up, trot and canter. Reviewing slow motion video is best. Learn the footfall (foot-rise) for walk and trot, one gait at a time. When they are clear in your mind, add the canter.
Get down on all fours so you can mimic the pattern with your limbs. That helps put the patterns into your deep memory. Once you can easily replay the memory tape for each gait in your mind, you can give your horse much clearer signals.
Perfecting this helps to build the feel you need in order to time your riding or leading signals to the horse’s feet.
This is a great task for teaching us to carefully note the horse’s intent and time our click&treat to the moment a foot is lifting. The ability to see and feel footfall (foot-rise) is a huge bonus in a horse training kit.
It is actually the moment of foot-rise that we need to learn because it is only when the foot is lifted that we can influence where it goes next. Therefore during this exercise we want to click&treat as the foot is lifting.
Directing our horse’s feet one at a time has many uses. For example:
Positioning for mounting.
Backing into stalls/wash bays.
Breed and showmanship classes .
Leading through narrow spaces.
Trailer loading and unloading.
Precision riding or long-reining/driving.
Placing a foot for an x-ray.
Precise mat or hoop work.
Horse Agility obstacles
Getting out of tricky situations on the trail.
Stepping up and down a pedestal or balance beam or bridge.
Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
The horse responds willingly to light pressure on the halter via the lead rope. (See ‘Related Resource’ 1 at the end of this post.)
We have taught the ‘finesse back up’. (See ‘Related Resource’ 2 at the end of this post.)
ENVIRONMENT AND 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. A shorter lead is easier to use for this task.
To create signals for asking the horse to move either front foot one step at a time, both back and forward.
Keep each session working with short – three minutes is plenty. Three minutes of focused work over many sessions will get you the result without lapsing into human or horse frustration.
To lift and move a front foot, the horse must first shift his balance to take the weight off that foot.
Unless the horse is pacing, the hind feet move in unison with the diagonal front foot.
I’m not good with left/right or 3-dimensional thinking so it took me a long time to get these moves firmly into my muscle memory. I had to learn to carefully note where the horse’s feet were and how he was balanced before I asked a foot to move. Then I could decide which way I needed to tilt the horse’s head to move a particular foot.
Remember to click&treat the moment the foot is lifting during this exercise.
One Step Back
In order to lift his right front foot, the horse must shift his weight to his left shoulder and slightly back.
Face the horse, slightly to the right side of his head and orientate your belly button toward his nose (when his head is straight).
Hold the rope about an arm’s length from the halter, lightly draped, in the hand nearest the horse’s shoulder (rope hand).
Reach across with the other hand (sliding hand) and slide it gently up the rope toward the halter. If you’ve taught a ‘back’ voice signal, use it as well.
At some stage, you will reach a point of contact to which the horse responds.
When you reach the point of contact tilt his nose/neck slightly to the left and put a bit of backward pressure on the halter. Release immediately when you feel his intent to move back (click&treat). Relax, then ask again.
When you get a whole step, release (click&treat), relax. Maybe rub him if you are not using Clicker Training and he likes to be touched. If you get more than one step, accept it, reward it, and then adjust your signal so it has less energy.
Some horses may at first respond by leaning forward into the backward pressure you are putting on the halter. They are not ‘wrong’ because moving into pressure is a natural horse response. They are also not wrong because they don’t yet understand what you want.
If your horse leans into the pressure:
Take up a power position (feet shoulder-width apart, one slightly ahead, hips dropped).
Hold the rope in the hand nearest the horse, about 2’-3’ from the halter with a bit of slack in it.
Reach across with your other hand and softly run it up the rope toward the halter until you meet resistance from the horse.
At that point, simply ‘hold’ just strongly enough to make the horse feel unbalanced.
The moment he shows the slightest tendency to shift backwards to regain his balance, release the pressure (click&treat).
Repeat. If you are clear and consistent and release (click&treat) promptly, the horse will soon read your body language energy and intent and step back before you can even slide your fingers up the rope.
During multiple short practices, also introduce a voice ‘back’ signal.
When you reach a reliable response as in 6 above, you have created a gesture signal you can use at liberty to ask the horse to step back. Keep the gesture exactly as it was, i.e. running your hand up an imaginary rope.
When you have one step back at a light signal, ask for two steps back. It’s important to ‘release’ the halter pressure slightly after the first step, then increase the pressure slightly to ask again for the second step before a bigger release (click&treat).
Once that is smooth, ask for three steps, then four, and so on until you have as many individual steps as you like. Release the pressure at each step, then apply it again lightly to ask for another step. The horse will soon read the intent in your body language and will step back by reading your ‘intent’.
Pressure on the rope will no longer be necessary except maybe in unusual situations of high stress. In such situations the horse will have an advantage over horses who don’t understand this part of the task because he will remember what the rope pressure means and how to respond to it.
To move his left front foot back, tilt his nose/neck slightly to the right, i.e. always tilt the nose away from the foot you want him to move.
If the horse tends to push forward into the handler, it can help to have a rail in front of the horse or start in a blocked-off lane, so that stepping back is the easiest and common-sense thing to do.
When backing from the halt feels easy, we can expand and generalize the task by walking along beside the horse, halting and smoothly pivoting into position to face the horse and ask him to back up. Teach this first along a safe fence to encourage the horse to back up in a straight line.
One Step Forward
To move one step forward, tilt his nose slightly away from the foot you want to move (to take the weight off it) and put gentle forward pressure on the halter.
Be sure to teach ‘one step at a time’ standing on the horse’s left side and on his right side. If he finds one side harder, work at bit more on that side.
Most people find giving signals with their less dominant hand harder as well. When each side feels the same, you’ve reached a big milestone.
When we can use a light signal to ask the horse to glide from walk into a halt, then as we turn to face him, we can ask for an individual step back or forward, we have achieved our task.
Eventually, get him to put a specific front foot on things. Start with a largish item like a doormat or a piece of carpet. Work toward smaller things like paper plates, Frisbees and leaves, then higher things like stumps, steps, pedestals, ramps, balance beams, hoof stands if he doesn’t already know all these things.
Be aware that once the horse is close to the object, he can’t see it, but is working from memory. The area directly under his head/neck is a blind spot.
Be particular but not critical. Always relax, pause and reset if the horse gets confused. After a good effort, go away from the site and do other things the horse already knows.
Then come back to moving one foot until you get another good effort. Don’t drill. After you’ve had two or three good attempts, stop and come back to it another time.
The essence of this teaching is that you create mutually-understood signals that communicate to the horse about moving individual feet.
This task continues the attention we gave the ‘halt’ and ‘walk on’. We also add a ‘back up’ and pay a bit more attention to ‘wait time’.
There are five different tasks, but since we do them in the horse’s left and right eyes, they are actually ten tasks. Then we consolidate the tasks by doing them in two directions, so we have a total of 20 tasks, or 10 tasks which each have two variations.
Once all the tasks are going smoothly, we can mix them up in any order, which teaches us to be crystal clear for the horse and has the horse watch us carefully to pick up our next signal.
When confusion arises, it is because we are not clear enough. Horses working for a food reward are usually super-observant of all our body language as well as carefully taught voice and gesture signals.
When we use our less dominant side, it’s common for our body language and gesture signals to be less clear until we become more conscious of what we are doing. If you haven’t usually done much on your horse’s right side, there will be a lot of learning going on.
Horse leads smoothly beside the handler’s shoulder. (See Additional Resource 1 at the end of the post.)
Handler and horse agree on clear ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals. (See Additional Resource 2 at the end of the post.)
Horse and handler agree on a ‘back up’ signal. (See Additional Resources 3 & 4 at the end of the post.)
ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:
A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
Horse is not hungry.
Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
Halter and lead or liberty.
A rail. I use a round rail in the clip, but using a half-round rail that doesn’t roll is ideal to teach this. Or we can put blocks under a round rail. In the clip, I put my foot on it to stop it rolling.
One or two of these tasks during one segment of a training session is plenty. If it’s all done quietly with no fuss or drilling, the horse will think on it and remember what behaviors will earn a click&treat. It works best to do a little bit often.
Handler works on smooth ‘walk on’, ‘halt’ and ‘back up’ signals using a single rail as a focal point.
Handler builds small pauses into the work to encourage the horse to relax while waiting for the next set of signals.
Horse develops confidence with standing over a rail under his belly.
Horse has practice to place his feet carefully in response to handler signals.
With halter and lead:
In the video clip, I change between left eye and right eye for each task. An option is to teach them all smoothly with the handler on one side of the horse and then teach them again from the other side.
I didn’t film the tasks using a mat destination between repeats of the task, but when first beginning to teach the tasks, it can help to have a familiar mat some distance from the rail and head to it for an extra click&treat between repeats.
For challenges like this with multiple parts, I find it useful to carry a written memo card in my pocket.
Walk right over the rail, halt a few paces beyond the rail (or at a destination mat/target), click&treat.
Halt with the rail under the horse’s belly, click&treat; pause, walk on forward over the rail.
Halt before stepping over the rail, click&treat; pause, walk on over the rail.
Halt after all four feet have stepped over the rail, click&treat; pause, walk on.
Halt with the rail under the horse’s belly, click&treat. Pause, ask the horse to back his front feet over the rail, click&treat; pause, walk on forward over the rail. If you have not taught backing up, add this slice later when the horse already backs confidently in different situations.
Approach the rail from different directions.
Put the rail in different venues.
Use different rails.
Do it at liberty or add halter and lead if you taught at liberty.
Work on a slope.
Use a similar exercise to get a horse comfortable with stepping into and out of a hoop on the ground with front feet, then with back feet.
I learned this exercise from Alex Kurland. It seems simple but is enormously useful in maintaining both physical and mental suppleness for the horse and handler.
It also serves to practice our ‘walk on’ signals and allows us to consolidate our ‘halt’ signals each time we approach the mat, with special emphasis on our voice ‘whoa’ signal.
It is a super exercise to check the flexibility of our horse and we may also gain insight into the flexibility of our own body as we improve the timing of shifting our body axis on the approach to each marker. We are usually more flexible bending either right or left, just like horses are.
If we consistently do short bursts of this exercise over many sessions, we’ll notice that it gets easier and easier to do tighter, elegant 180-degree turns (unless horse or handler are restricted due to past injury or arthritis).
Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
Horse willingly moves to target his front feet on a mat. (There is a relevant link under ‘Addition Resources’ at the end of this post.)
Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals when the handler is beside his neck/shoulder. (There is a relevant link under ‘Addition Resources’ at the end of this post.)
Handler understands the skill of maintaining ‘forward energy’ at the same time as slowing down to give the horse time to scribe the bigger arc of the turn. This can be improved by practice with another person standing in for the horse. We have to remember that the horse has four legs to organize and a long body that more resembles an ocean-liner than a ballerina.
Handler is aware of using the orientation of his/her body axis as a key body language signal for the horse.
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 (lead kept loose as much as possible. We want to use orientation and body language for communication, not touch signals via the rope, but we may use these when we first teach teach this pattern).
6 or 8 markers set out in a relatively large circle. The markers can be anything safe: cones, stones, pieces of firewood, tread-in posts if working on grass, jump stands, barrels, 5-liter containers of water, cardboard boxes, rags. In the beginning, it’s easiest if the markers are relatively large, so the horse sees the sense in walking around them rather than across or through them.
Different-colored markers make it easier to keep track of where we are heading and where we have been. If they are the same size and shape, they give continuity to the development of the horse’s fluidity since it needs the same body adjustment around each marker. Therefore, identical markers are best to first teach this exercise.
Different-sized markers encourage the horse to vary his body adjustment to navigate each one, so they are a good generalization.
A familiar mat placed in the center of the circle.
To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth 180-degree turns (U-turns) with the horse on the outside of the turn; handler on the LEFT side of the horse.
To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth U-turns – horse on the outside of the turn, handler on the RIGHT side of the horse.
Handler becomes super conscious of the position and timing of his/her body axis orientation to signal the turn coming up.
What you see Boots doing in the video clip is a result many very short sessions over a long time. I’m always striving to improve the timing of my body axis turned away from the horse as a signal for the turn.
If the horse has been resting or contained, it’s important to walk around for a general overall body warm-up before asking for this sort of flexion. A companionable walk or moving over rails and weaving obstacles are good warm-up exercises.
Walk on the left side of the horse to target the mat in the middle of the circle; click&treat.
Focus on one of the markers ahead of you of the circle and ‘walk on’ toward it. Ensure that you walk off together by using all your ‘walk on’ multi-signals. We don’t want the horse surprised and left behind.
Walk around the marker and back to the mat; click&treat.
Did you manage to keep up your energy while walking the inner curve around the marker? If we let our energy drop, the horse can fade out too. In the learning phase, it can help to raise our knees as in ‘marching on the spot’ to keep our energy up, as demonstrated in the video clip.
Not only does the horse have further to travel, he must organize two pairs of legs and a non-bendy torso to navigate the corner, so we have to give him time.
At first the U-turns might be wide and/or sloppy. Don’t worry, you will both gradually improve if you stick with the task over many short sessions.
The horse will soon work out that each time you go around a marker, you head straight back to the mat where he will earn another click&treat. This realization motivates him to begin making his U-turns more efficient and elegant.
As you begin the change of direction at each marker, turn the axis of your body away from the horse. This will become a body language signal you can eventually use later in many different situations and to communicate at liberty.
Add a voice signal at some point. I use “Round”. Choose a word that is short, clear, and not used in other contexts.
As you notice improvement in his flexion during the turns, you can begin to selectively click&treat nice tight ones as he comes out of the turn, then carry on for another click&treat at the mat.
After each return to the mat (click&treat), choose a different marker and repeat.
After navigating all the markers walking on the left side of the horse, repeat walking on his right side. Once around each marker on each side of the horse is usually enough of this exercise during one session.
Often it is harder for the horse and/or the handler when they are using the non-dominant sides of their bodies. With patience and extra practice on the harder side(s), it will start to feel more equal.
Signals given with the handler’s non-dominant side are often not as fluid or well timed as signals given on the dominant side. Once we become aware of this, we can focus on it as necessary.
The first generalization is to repeat walking on the horse’s right side.
Begin to focus on using body axis orientation in other contexts such as weaving obstacles
The clip below demonstrates how Boots and I use my body axis orientation to work on flexion during our walks down the road.
‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ are the foundation of pretty much everything we want a horse to do with us. Even teaching ‘parking’ starts with a solid, confident ‘halt’.
Teaching the basic ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ is most easily done in position beside the horse’s neck or shoulder. I like to teach these with a ‘multi-signal’ or ‘signal bundle’. In the science literature multi-signals are referred to as “a compound stimulus”.
Using the multi-signals consistently from the beginning means that once the horse knows them well, I can use any one of them, or any combination of them, depending on what best suits the situation. It makes it easier for the horse to recognize the signals when I am walking beside his ribs or behind him (outside his blind spot).
Horse and handler are clicker-savvy.
Horse readily targets stationary objects with his nose and/or feet. (See ADDITIONAL RESOURCE 5. at the end of this post.)
Horse is comfortable wearing a halter and lead rope.
It’s highly recommended to practice the rope handling mechanical skills to signal ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ first with a person standing in for the horse. Simulations are a wonderful way to get our body language and rope handling skills organized and smooth before we inflict ourselves on the horse.
MATERIALS AND ENVIRONMENT:
Horse in a familiar area where he is comfortable.
Other horse buddies in view, but not able to interfere.
Horse is not hungry and in a relaxed frame of mind.
Halter and lead. A relatively short lead rope is easier to manage.
Destination objects. These can be a series of stationary nose targets, mats as foot targets. Alternatively, we can use a Frisbee or old cap thrown out ahead for the horse to target, then thrown forward again.
Elegant ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions with the horse and handler staying shoulder-to-shoulder, with the handler on either side of the horse.
‘Walk on’ signals are illustrated in HorseGym with Boots clip #129.
‘Halt’ signals are illustrated in HorseGym with Boots clip #131.
What you see Boots doing in the video clip is a result many short sessions over a long time.
We can aid the horse’s understanding if we begin teaching this along a safe fence to remove the horse’s option of swinging the hindquarters away from the handler.
We want to strive for consistently staying in the area alongside the horse’s neck and shoulder.
Photo to illustrate Slice 3 below. A ‘halt’ signal without pulling on the halter: hold the rope straight up into the air and jiggle it lightly. We can use this as part of our ‘halt’ multi-signal if necessary. We can also use it during the process of teaching backing up with a hand gesture signal staying shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse. Teach it as a ‘halt’ signal by using it as the horse approaches a fence or other dead-end where it makes total sense for him to halt .
Hold the rope in the hand nearest the horse with no pressure on the halter. If you need to send a ‘halt’ signal with the rope, hold the rope straight upwards and jiggle it. The instant the horse responds, stop jiggling, breathe out and lower your hand.
Halt: Ask the horse to walk beside you toward a familiar mat. As you approach the mat, use the following multi-signals almost simultaneously:
Visibly drop your weight down into your hips (like we want the horse to do).
Breathe out audibly.
Say ‘whoa’ or whatever halt voice signal you decided.
Only if necessary, raise the inside hand holding the rope straight up into the air and jiggle the rope. If the horse is initially taught the ‘rope jiggle’ halt signal using a fence or a blocked-off lane, there will be little need to jiggle the rope. As the horse halts on the mat, immediately relax your body language; breathe out; click&treat.
At first, pause briefly before walking on to the next mat; click&treat. Gradually, over many sessions, teach the horse to wait confidently for up to 10 seconds.
Walk On: Ensure you are holding the rope in the hand nearest the horse with no pressure on the halter. To send a ‘walk on’ signal along the rope, reach across with your outside hand and run it gently up the rope toward the halter. As soon as the horse moves, take away your outside hand.
We use our ‘walk on’ multi-signals almost simultaneously:
Look up toward the next destination.
Breathe in audibly and raise your body energy. Horses are very conscious about our breathing, so this can become an important signal if we use it consistently.
Run your outside hand gently up the rope toward halter to a point to which the horse responds by shifting his weight to step forward. This will eventually become a simple arm gesture without needing to touch the rope.
Step off with your outside leg (easier for horse to see).
Say ‘walk-on’ (or whatever voice signal you’ve decided). A voice signal is useful later when working at liberty, exercising on a long line, or guiding from behind, as in long-reining.
Our aim is to initiate the first intention of movement, then move in synchronization with the horse. It’s important not to move off without the horse, so losing our position beside the horse’s neck or shoulder.
People often tend to start walking without first inviting the horse to move in sync with them. The whole point of this exercise is to move forward together companionably, staying shoulder-to-shoulder.
Each time you halt, you have another opportunity to practice the ‘walk on’ multi-signals. Each time you ‘walk on’, you have another opportunity to practice your ‘halt’ multi-signals.
Every time you come to a destination marker, drop your hips and your energy, breathe out, say your voice signal and relax; click&treat. Pause, then politely use your ‘walk on’ multi-signal to ask the horse to walk forward with you to the next destination marker.
It won’t take the horse long to realize that each destination marker is a ‘click point’. He will soon begin to look forward to reaching each destination. He will also begin to organize his body to halt efficiently. Horses love to know what will happen before it happens. Remember, they have four legs and a long body to organize, so begin your ‘halt’ signals well before you reach the destination.
Many short sessions will show improvement in suppleness and body management more quickly than occasional long sessions.
Be sure to teach this in both directions and on each side of the horse. Spending a little time on this, over many sessions, will build a lovely habit of walking with you on a loose rope.
In a way, although you have the horse on a rope, you are allowing him to self-shape the most efficient way to set himself up to halt at the next marker ready for his click/treat. Because the horse has worked out his way of halting for himself, he has more ‘ownership’ of the task.
Over time, walking together companionably will become a strongly established habit. As mentioned in Generalization 2. below, we can gradually introduce the ‘whoa’ as our click point, which means we can phase out using destination targets. The horse will comfortably walk with us until we signal for a ‘halt’. Of course, we must reliably reinforce each halt request with a click&treat.
Gradually increase distances between destinations.
Gradually introduce ‘whoa’ as the click&treat indicator to replace nose or foot targets. Start by asking for ‘whoa’ between destinations. (See ADDITIONAL RESOURCE 2. below.)
Add objects and obstacles to your training spaces to walk through, across, over, weave among. (See ADDITIONAL RESOURCES 3. & 4. below.)
Walk together at liberty. (See ADDITIONAL RESOURCE 1. below.)
Walk together in different venues including public places with slopes, water, trees.
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 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 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)
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.
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.
Horse is comfortable wearing a halter.
Horse is comfortable with a lead rope.
Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
Horse has established the behavior of touching his nose to a target to earn a click&treat.
Horse understands standing on a mat with duration.
For the early sessions, it’s helpful to have the horse standing with his butt in a safe corner so that backing up and swinging the hind end away are not options. The first slices will therefore involve making sure the horse is comfortable and relaxed standing in a corner.
ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:
A work area where the horse is relaxed.
The horse is not hungry.
Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
A safe corner the horse can stand in confidently. A safe corner is one where there is no chance of the horse putting a leg through wire or rails if he steps back or sideways. Hedges, sides of buildings or a corner made with barrels or jump stands plus rails tend to be the safest. Even a raised rail or a log behind the horse with a small barrier on the far side of the horse might be enough of a corner.
A familiar mat to ‘station’ or ‘park’ the horse.
A familiar hand-held target.
When using the halter touch signal via the rope, be ready to click&treat for even the tiniest turn of the head at first. If we miss the horse’s first attempt to solve a puzzle, he can think his idea was wrong, and it can take a while for him to try it again.
When we lead, long-rein or ride a horse, it does not take much movement of the head to cause the horse to change direction. What we are doing here is not an extreme flexion exercise. It is an exercise to see how softly we can give what will become our ‘please change direction’ signals once the horse is moving.
To have the horse comfortable standing in a safe corner.
To teach an ‘anchor task’ that precedes our request to turn the head.
Use a target to teach head flexion to right and left; no rope.
Add ‘right’ and ‘left’ voice signals to the task.
Teach soft lateral flexion (turning the head right or left) using gentle touch on the halter via a rope until it feels equally smooth to the right and the left.
Generalize the task to different places and situations.
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.
If the horse readily yields hindquarters and forequarters we can use these to adjust his position.
Or we can lead him through the corner and back him into it.
If using a rail, we can walk him over the rail and halt with the rail behind him .
Play with as many safe corners as you can find or set up, to generalize the ‘corner task’ to different situations.
B: TEACH AN ANCHOR TASK
VIDEO CLIPS 1 & 2 (Right side)
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.
Stand beside horse’s withers.
Lightly rest your near hand on the withers.
Click&treat when the horse’s head is straight, or he is in the process of moving his head into the ‘straight’ position.
Step forward to deliver the treat so the horse keeps his head straight, then step back into position beside the withers.
Repeat until the horse confidently stays facing forward for 3-4 seconds until you click&treat .
C: LATERAL FLEXION TO A TARGET and D. THE VOICE SIGNAL
VIDEO CLIPS 1 & 2 (Left side)
Hold the target out of sight behind your back and review the anchor task.
When the horse stands reliably with his head forward in the anchor position, bring the target forward so he has to turn his head a little bit to touch it: click&treat & step forward so the horse straightens his head to receive the treat, putting the target out of sight behind your back as you step forward.
Step back beside the withers and put your hand back on his withers: click&treat for head forward until that is firmly established again (3-4 seconds). Be patient about establishing (and frequently re-establishing) this step because clever horses will want to skip straight from your anchor (hand on withers) to telling you that they know what to do – turn toward you (as Boots does in Clip Two).
Repeat 2 and 3 above until the horse reliably waits for you to produce the target before turning his head. If he turns without your signal, spend more click&treat on facing forward. Make sure you keep the target out of view behind your back. If turning his head is harder, spend more click&treat on asking for the bend.
ADD VOICE SIGNAL
You will obviously want different voice signals for right and left. Voice signals need to be short, clear, and sound different from other voice signals you use. I use “and Gee” for right. I use “and Left” for left. “Haw” for left sounds too much like “Whoa” which we use a lot. The “and” in front of the key word is a bit of a preparatory signal that lets the horse know a request is coming. My voice emphasis is on the key word.
Some horses do better if you teach something thoroughly on one side, then repeat from the beginning on the other side.
Some horses may cope well with doing a little bit on each side from the beginning.
Some handlers do better when teaching the task thoroughly on one side first.
E. RESPONSE TO ROPE or REINS SIGNALS
VIDEO CLIPS 3 & 4
Stand beside the horse’s ribs just behind the withers, facing forward, rope in the hand closest to the horse. Keep a drape or ‘smile’ in the rope. Ensure that the horse can stay facing forward with relaxed body language for 3-4 seconds in the presence of the rope: (click&treat).
When 1 above is ho-hum, say your voice signal and gently use both hands to ‘milk’ the rope, putting light pressure on the halter, looking for the slightest ‘give’ of the horse’s nose toward you. Release (click&treat). Step forward to deliver the treat in a way that has the horse straighten his head again.
Work with 1 and 2 above until the horse waits for the touch signal on the halter and willingly yields his nose. If he turns before you give the rope signal, spend more click&treat time on keeping the nose forward.
If he begins to turn his head as soon as you move back into position behind his withers, also go back to click&treat more for a head kept straight.
Some horses catch on very quickly. Others may need multiple short sessions.
Teaching a horse with no rope experience is usually easier than teaching a horse who has had rough treatment with ropes. In the second case, you must adjust your training plan to help overcome any anxiety the horse carries from previous handling.
Some of these are shown in clip 4:
Once the whole task is smooth and ho-hum on both sides of the horse, move away from the corner but still use a mat. Do the task in a variety of different places.
Once 1 above is good in a variety of places, omit the mat and again work in a variety of places and spaces.
Replace the rope/halter touch signal with a distinctive hand signal that can be used to draw the horse right or left at liberty.
Once the horse understands the halter touch signal via the rope, plus the voice signal, the anchor task can morph into just standing quietly together.
Use the touch and voice signals while in motion to change direction, keeping the pressure on the rope as light as possible.
The YouTube playlist called Developing Soft Rein Response (see Further Resources at the end of the post for the link) gives further ideas about how we can generalize the task further using reins but without being mounted.
Building a strong history of response to directional voice signals is most helpful if you are planning to teach long-reining and if you take part in Horse Agility. The following clips suggest ways of strengthening the voice signals.
Clicker training is also called Positive Reinforcement Training. It is a way of establishing 2-way communication with a horse.
When the horse presents a behavior that we want to encourage, we use a special sound followed right away with a small food treat that the horse really likes. Like all of us, horses will seek to re-create a behavior that gives them a positive result.
The special sound can be made mechanically with a ‘clicker’ or it can be a ‘tongue click’ or a special sound/word that we never use any other time. Often a mechanical clicker is useful to first teach a new behavior. Then it is easy to change to a tongue click or our chosen sound/word. This makes it easier because working with horses we usually need our hands free to use ropes and body extensions.
Since horses are designed to eat much of the time, a food treat is usually appreciated as long as we make sure it is something they really like. It’s important to keep each treat very small and to include the treats in the horse’s daily calorie intake.
A good way to learn clicker training skills is to start with the Target Game. Before communication can start, the horse has to understand the connection between the marker sound and the treat that will follow. Some people call this ‘charging the clicker’. It just means that the horse has learned that if he hears that particular sound, a treat will always follow.
It’s a good idea to first practice the mechanics of this with another person standing in as the horse. Well-timed food delivery is a key to success with this way of training. It is easier for the horse if the handler had muddled through the learning of the mechanics of treat delivery. At the beginning it can feel a bit like tapping ones head and rubbing ones belly at the same time.
Ideally have the horse in view of his friends, but separated from them. He will learn best if he is not hungry or thirsty and if he is in a relaxed frame of mind. I always ensure that the horse has been grazing or had access to hay before I train.
We’d like the horse to put his nose on a ‘target’ that we present near his nose.
The handler’s task is to:
Have a hand ready on the clicker, if using one.
Have a safe barrier between you and the horse. Present the target – gently to one side of his nose, not thrust directly at him. A plastic drink bottle or a safe object taped onto a stick is good to start with.
Wait patiently until the horse touches the target with his nose or whisker at which point CLICK, move the target down out of the way
And promptly reach into a pocket or pouch to get out a treat. Use a pocket or pouch that allows the hand to smoothly slip in and out. Be careful never to reach into the pocket or pound until after you’ve clicked. This gets important later.
Present the treat to the horse in a firm, totally flat hand so it is easy for him to retrieve the treat. For some horses it may work better at first to toss the treat into a nearby familiar food bucket. The skill of taking a treat politely from the hand can be learned later. If he pushes your hand down, gently push upwards with equal pressure.
When he’s eaten his treat, present the target again.
If we keep each targeting session short (3-4 minutes) and are able to repeat them 2 or 3 times in a day, the horse will learn quickly and look forward to each session.
The Target Game is a good one to start with because when you finish you simply put the target away. Using the Target Game will let you decide whether Clicker Training (Training with Positive Reinforcement) is something you’d like to carry on with. It can be done alongside anything else you do with your horse.
The little clip below shows the beginnings and how it might develop over time. The horses in the clip are already clicker-savvy. Be aware that at first we should always present the target in the same place. When the horse consistently gets 10/10 for that, we can change to holding it higher up. Then eventually lower down and to the side and requiring the horse to move to reach it. But it’s important to get 10/10 for each of these, before we make a change.
Photo: Using targets as ‘destinations’ makes it much easier to give meaning to our request in a way that the horse easily understands. Reaching the target, whether it is putting the front feet on a mat or touching the nose on a stationary object, earns the horse a click&treat. We can then move between targets to encourage the horse to come with us willingly because there is always something for him to look forward to – the next click&treat when we reach the next destination.
Training with a Marker Signal and Positive Reinforcement
Training with the click&treat dynamic is a skill worth learning well, but it is not the only thing we have to learn well.
Some people handle/condition a horse’s behavior in a way that encourages the horse to always look to the handler – a form of ‘learned helplessness’. The horse is asked to subjugate his own observations, feelings and natural responses in favor of what the handler requires him to do.
Other people set themselves the interesting challenge of doing everything with their horses using only positive reinforcement training (often called ‘clicker training’). They pair each desired response with a marker signal (click) followed immediately by a food treat. They feel that this is the only way to keep a horse’s ‘sparkle’ alive.
Somewhere between these two extremes, fall the people who teach many things with the click&treat dynamic, but they also understand, respect, learn and use universal horse language. In their view, any horse education system that fails to acknowledge group social order, different horse character types and how horses succinctly communicate with body language, will have limited success.
From our human standpoint, we could define ‘success‘ as having a horse that is safe and fun to be with and that we can take places for exercise to maintain blood circulation health, overall fitness and mental stimulation.
Success could mean that the horse:
greets us willingly
enters our space politely
offers feet confidently for foot care
accepts gear on and off comfortably
leads safely and willingly in a variety of positions
responds equally well to upward and downward transition requests
confidently accepts touch and grooming all over its body
confidently accepts ropes draped all over its body and legs
willingly, at request, moves away from a food dish, pile of hay or grazing spot
not unduly spooked by dragging ropes, wheelbarrows, flapping things, balls, bicycles, vehicles
able to stay ‘parked’ quietly or stand and ‘wait’ for a further signal
confident moving through gates/narrow spaces/lanes and over water/unusual surfaces at our request
approaches new/spooky things as long as we give him the approach & retreat time to convince himself it is harmless
at ease with any body extensions the handler might use to clarify or accentuate signals
Once we have all that, we can endlessly refine the basics and teach new patterns and tricks.
Teaching with the click&treat dynamic is hugely helpful to horse handlers for two main reasons:
Encourages accurate observation of what the horse is doing in order to pick the ‘clickable moments‘, which are also the moments that signal/cue pressure is released. Therefore becoming a good clicker trainer also hones the skill of becoming an excellent trainer with simple ‘release reinforcement’.
It teaches ‘thin-slicing’ — the cutting of a large task into its smallest ‘clickable’ components so that we can get the horse confident with each tiny ‘slice’. Then we can chain the slices together until the whole task is achieved. This way of teaching/learning, often called ‘mastery learning‘ keeps the horse successful all the way through the process. A clicker-savvy horse knows that if the click&treat is withheld, they need to try something else.
Developing the two skills above will greatly increase the ‘feel‘ of the handler. That ‘feel‘ will translate to the times when a good choice is use of ‘release reinforcement’ by itself. Feeling what the horse is doing — understanding what his body language is saying and knowing how to respond to that with our feel and body language, is the key to training with signal pressure and release of signal pressure (‘release reinforcement’).
What horses gain from positive reinforcement Horses trained with the click&treat dynamic discover that they can have a voice. Once they learn that a certain behavior will earn them a click&treat, they can become pro-active in offering that behavior. For many horses this is huge because in the past things have only been done to them or demanded of them — they could only be re-active.
When a task is thin-sliced so they understand each part of the training process, the horse’s learning can progress in leaps and bounds. We’d all rather work for a boss who praises what he likes rather than one who only criticizes what he doesn’t like.
Horses are not blank pages on which we write what we want. They already have a perfectly good language. It seems logical to learn it and use it as best as we can with our non horse-shaped bodies. Horses are very generous with their interpretation of what we mean. No doubt we have a very funny accent, but unless they have been traumatized by humans, they are happy to learn new things and accept us as part of their personal herd.
Social Group Once the horse accepts us as part of her personal ‘ in-group’, we have a position in the group social order. The two things go together. We can’t form a bond of understanding with a horse unless he or she lets us into their social group. Once we are part of the social group, we have a ranking within it. If the horse can move our feet at will, she or he stands above us in the social order. If we can ask move the horse’s feet, we rank above him her in the social grouping recognized by the horse. When people don’t understand this dynamic, or chose to deny/ignore it, things might not go well.
Horse Character Types Like us, horses can be innately anxious or innately confident and imaginative. They come as extroverts who like to/need to move their feet a lot and they come as introverts who prefer the quiet life. A careful look at how our horse perceives and reacts to things can give us insight into how we can best proceed with an individualized training program. What works perfectly with one horse can be quite problematic with another.
Universal Horse LanguageHorses have a complex communication system using their body language and a few vocalizations. They ‘message’ other horses with body tension, body orientation, neck position/movement, ear position, tail activity, posturing, striking out, kicking, biting, nibbling. How they use each of these depends on their intent at the time. An ‘alarm snort’ will instantly have the whole herd on alert. Quietly turning the head away as another horse (or a person) approaches is an appeasement signal.
With the aid of body extensions which make us as tall and long as a horse, and simulate a horse’s expressive tail, we can more clearly emulating universal horse language. If we are good at it and use our movements consistently, any horse will understand our intent without us ever needing to touch the horse or use a rope. We can establish our position in the social order by ensuring we can move the horse’s feet in a variety of situations while the horse is at liberty to move away, as it would be in a natural herd situation.
Once we have established our social position, we maintain it by the way we behave. Anxious type horses may rarely challenge our position. Confident, imaginative type horses may well challenge our position regularly. In a natural herd situation, they have the drive and sparkle to work their way up the group’s social order.
With an understanding of, horse character types, equine body language, and how the social order works, we can flow with the information the horse gives us via his behavior and body language. Skills of observation, timing and ‘feel’ allow us to decide how we will use clicker training to make his life in his strange human-dominated world a little bit more interesting and understandable.
With equine clicker training, we experiment to find out what the horse can already do, then build his skills in a way that has him being continually successful.
The link below contains a bit more information about horse character types.
Photo: I’m teaching my horse, Boots, to back up to a mounting block. My parameters include backing straight (hence the guide rails for this early lesson), backing for 6-8 steps (she started at the fence on the right) and halting with her withers just in front of the two tubs. This time she moved back an extra step, but it was a very good response for early in the training of this task. I’ve stepped off the black tub so I could deliver the treat while she stayed in the position I wanted.
Parameters: Setting the Rules for the Games we Play
Because of their role in the web of life — to be a meal for predators — horses are so much more observant than we are. They read our mood the moment we appear. They read our body language with exquisite care. When something in the environment is different from last time, they notice instantly.
If we want to become good at communicating with our horse, it helps to become more aware of what our mood, our body orientation and our body energy may be saying to the horse. Horses get confused and worried when our body language does not agree with what we are asking them to do. Or if we use a similar message to mean two different things.
As horsemen often say, “Nothing means nothing to a horse”. So if everything means something, it is good to be aware of the parameters we are setting when we interact with a horse. Here is a bit more detail about what parameters are, and things to remember to become better teachers for our horse.
A parameter is something we decide to keep the same or constant.
Walking on the horse’s left side would be a constant or parameter you have chosen.
If you then change to walking on his right side, that is a new parameter.
If you decide to walk beside the horse’s ribs (where you will be if you ride) rather than beside his neck, you have changed a parameter.
If you decide to walk behind the horse rather than beside him, you have changed a major parameter.
When you ask the horse to walk with you on the road rather than at home in his paddock or arena, you have changed a major parameter.
Walking on an unfamiliar road or track is changing a parameter.
If you are walking together toward a familiar destination, where he knows he will halt to earn a click&treat, the first time you ask him to halt before he reaches the destination, you have changed a parameter.
If you are walking and change to asking for a trot or jog, you are changing a parameter.
Whenever we change a parameter, it is important that we increase the rate of reinforcement (i.e. click&treat more often) and work our way forward again until we and the horse are both confident in the new situation, with one click&treat at the end of a task or a series of tasks. For example, relating to the photo above, once Boots confidently backed up in a straight line to stand between the two tubs, I removes the rails (one at a time) and ask her to back up for just a step or two, then work forward again to get 6-8 steps straight back.
Horses are super observant of all changes, large or small, and can often be ‘thrown’ by them if we proceed too fast or ask for too much too soon. They also immediately pick up if we are unsure about what we are doing.
This is why it’s important to have a written Individual Education Program suited to this horse in this environment before we delve into teaching our horse something new. If we are clear in our mind about what we are working on, that confidence will be picked up by the horse.
If you want to look at 20+ training sessions to achieve the objective outlined in the photo above, done at liberty with no extra props, here is the link to the very first session (lessons were mostly one a day, weather willing and lasted about three minutes each day). I can’t ride any more (dodgy hips & knees) so we did this as a just an interesting training project. The second video clip below takes you to the last clip in the series, in case you don’t want to see all the others in between!
Photo: Sitting with the horse in a roomy, enclosed area, asking nothing of him except politeness. This is a superb way to build a new relationship with a new horse or to to build an improved relationship with a horse we have already.
It’s only when we feel safe with our horse and our horse feels safe with us that real teaching and learning can go on. If our horse makes us feel worried or afraid, we need to take heed of the feeling and organize our environment so that we can be with the horse in a way that allows us to regain our safe, calm, centered core. Maybe we need to sit in our chair just outside the horse’s enclosure to start with.
It will be difficult for a horse to remain in his calm, centered core in our presence if we are sending out vibes that tell him we are uneasy and nervous. A good first step is to spend undemanding time with the horse, in his home if we feel safe there, or on the other side of a fence or gate if we don’t. We need to carry a swishy type body extension so that we can enlarge our bubble without offending the horse by striking out toward him. Horses are very sensitive to the air movement of two swishy twigs or dressage whips, or the swishing of a string rotated like a helicopter blade.
Horses easily understand when we are merely enlarging our bubble of personal space. If we strike out toward their personal bubble rather than just protect our own space, the horse will realize it instantly. It is important to be aware of the difference between acting in an assertive way and acting in an aggressive way, and to be mindful of which one we are doing.
As we sit with our horse, we can read, meditate or just enjoy the quiet of being in the moment, looking and listening and breathing. It’s nice if the horse can be in a roomy area where he is comfortable, able to see his companions but not where they can interfere with your special time together.
It works well to set a time limit. It doesn’t matter what the horse does. We are there as a companion, a paddock mate for the time we have set. We expect nothing of the horse except politeness. If he becomes overbearing, we move away with our chair or ask him to back off by swishing the air toward his feet to protect our personal bubble.
The PDF attached has a look at ways to ensure our safety.
Over the last few years I have created a series of clicker training activities posted as clips on YouTube. They can be reached by putting HorseGym with Boots or HerthaMuddyHorse into the YouTube search engine.
If you click on the HorseGym with Boots playlist in my channel, they should line up in number order as I’ve created them through the years.
There are a number of other playlists devoted to specific topics. Clips are kept short, usually under five minutes long, to make them easy to find and review. New clips are added each month. Many are being incorporated into my blog posts.
See the Books section for books available from Amazon as e-books or paperbacks. On Amazon you can ‘Look Inside’ each one. The notes mentioned at the end of the clips have been superseded by my books.
Bursting a balloon is not an every-day thing a horse does. Teaching it requires a careful plan of ‘thin slices’ that allows the horse to master the task being continually successful and so remaining motivated to try again.
What is Thin-Slicing?
When we want to teach our horse something, the first thing we need is a PLAN. A plan written down has the advantage that we can look back on it. As we get feedback from the horse and our own actions, we can go back and tweak our original plan. Or we can throw it out and start again.
One way to create a plan is to:
Visualize the finished task.
Experiment gently to see what the horse can already offer in relation to the desired task.
Brainstorm all the individual specific actions the horse needs to be able to do to complete the whole task.
Put the actions from 2. above into an order that seems logical. Each specific action will have one or more ‘click points’ where we click&treat. This allows the horse to pro-actively seek the hot ‘click point’ of the moment and makes training fun for everyone involved. This is the thin-slicing part.
Decide how we might teach each specific action (by free-shaping, guided shaping, using a nose or foot target, or even modeling for the horse what we would like him to do).
Organize environmental props that make each part of the task easier for the horse to learn (e.g., rails, markers, barriers, lane-ways, corners).
Start with the first slice of your plan, watching for feedback to see what is working and what needs rethinking and tweaking [or starting over with a new idea 🙂 ].
Gradually chain the slices of the task together until the horse knows the pattern and willingly carries out the whole task with one ‘click point’ at the end.
My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans covers this topic in great detail. (See the BOOKS link at the top.)
The video clip link below is a bit long (9 min) but it demonstrates all the parts of a PLAN and it uses various teaching methods to get to the final successful outcome.