The concept of giving our horse a choice about whether or not he wants to do things with us is a novel idea at first. Until we delve into training with positive reinforcement, it is the norm to expect the horse to put up and shut up when we want to ride him or do anything else with him.
Horses are recreation or sport for us, but often we are not recreation or enrichment in their lives. In many situations, horses generally either learn to put up with human demands, no matter how painful or stressful for them, or they are passed over for a more ‘willing’ horse.
By learning about ‘consent signals’ and learning to wait for them, we can enhance a horse’s well-being by giving him back a little bit of the choice we remove from him when we keep him captive, away from the natural dynamics of life in the wild.
- To develop the handler’s ability to switch into neutral (to show the horse zero intent) by taking up a distinct body position, removing attention from the horse and draining energy out of the body.
- Improving how well we tune in to a horse’s consent signals and noticing more quickly when he shows us that he is not ready or able to proceed.
- Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
- Horse has learned to ‘wait’ until handler gives a new signal or clicks&treats. Number 9 in my Blog Contents List: Mats: Parking or Stationing and Much More. Mainly this clip: #8 HorseGym with Boots: Duration on the Mat. Click here.
- Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. Number 10 in my Blog Contents List: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here. This clip is also the second clip below.
- Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Number 11 in my Blog Contents List: Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals. Click here.
- Handler understands ‘Trigger Stacking’: This is a situation faced by people and horses. If we are in a calm mood, we usually handle a first stress event easily. If soon after, a second stress happens, then maybe a third and fourth (as easily can happen with horses in captivity), the limit of stress tolerance for that individual is eventually reached and the person or animal reacts. The reaction can be violent outward expression of anger and frustration (tantrum). The reaction can also be retreat from interaction with the external world, as seen in horses who have ‘shut down’. Each of the stress-causing events or items is called a ‘trigger’, hence the term, ‘trigger-stacking’.
- Walking shoulder-to-shoulder. Number 16 in my Blog Contents List: Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions. Click here.
- Triple Treat to celebrate a good effort: #16 HorseGym with Boots: Triple Treat. Click here.
- Number 46 in my Blog Contents List: Rule of Three. Click here.
#243 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent in Action
#153 HorseGym with Boots: “Zero Intent” and “Intent”
Materials and Environment
- A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
- Horse is not hungry.
- Hand-held target to start with.
- Barrier between person and horse to start with.
- Once mastered, we can apply these skills to any activity.
- The horse may communicate with more than one consent signal. The nature of the consent signal might depend on the nature of the activity you are doing.
- The two AIMS above work together. Once the horse understands that you will wait until he is ready, he will become more and more adept at using his ‘Green Light’ go-ahead signal or telling you that he is not ready to proceed. You may pick up his earlier signals that he prefers to exit the activity (either mentally or physically).
- If the horse feels he gains something from an interaction, he will tend to want to stay and play. At first we use rewards (usually treats) that he finds reinforcing. Once a horse learns a few tasks and routines, doing them also has a reinforcing effect, but we have to keep using the primary reinforcer (usually food) judiciously. This means that we have to click&treat often enough to keep the horse successfully doing what we are asking.
- Video clip #243 uses an extremely specific behavior as an example. But we can develop and recognize a variety of consent signals.
- Consent might be turning the nose toward the handler to indicate that chewing is finished and the horse is ready to repeat whatever we are doing. Boots demonstrates this on the video clip. Important not to confuse this with the horse mugging for treats. You’ll notice that after turning to me she turns her head away again.
- Consent might be willingly staying ‘parked’ in a relaxed manner while we groom, tend feet, gear on and off, mount and dismount, ask for a ‘wait’, ground tie, stand tied up, travel or do a parked mobility task like ‘counting’ as in my clip.
- Consent might be willingly walking or trotting with us on the ground, with or without halter and lead.
- Consent might be willingly coming to a mounting block, lining up and standing so the handler can mount.
- Consent might be putting the head down so that we can rub inside the ear or put head gear on more easily.
- Consent might be dropping the nose into a halter.
- Consent might be a quirky behavior like a smile or lowering the head.
Slices Part A: The Handler’s Red Light and Green Light
1. When we begin clicker training, our first task is to establish politeness about receiving treats. Even when clicker training is well established, it is useful to review this exercise regularly.
Standing on the other side of a safe barrier, we ask the horse to do something simple he does naturally, like touch his nose to a target. We click for the action and remove the target out of play (out of sight behind us) as we deliver the treat with a firm, flat outstretched hand that causes the horse to keep his head straight and away from us. Repeat over many short sessions (about 10 treats-worth).If the horse is first learning this, we promptly present the target again, until the horse clearly understands that when he touches the target and keeps his head facing forward, he will hear our marker sound and we will deliver the treat to him – i.e. he doesn’t reach toward us searching for the treat.
2. When 2 is smooth, we begin to take up a ‘zero intent’ body position for a second or two after we’ve delivered the treat and before we present the target again.
3. ‘Zero intent’ is the handler’s Red Light (relax). It means that what we want is to stand quietly together. When the horse remains standing with his head straight we present the target again as our Green Light (action) that lets the horse know we are asking him to repeat touching the target to earn another click&treat. Gradually, one second at a time, lengthen the time you stay at ‘zero intent’ (Red Light) until 5 seconds is easy.
4. We do a little bit of ‘stand together with click&treat for keeping your head straight‘ every time we are with the horse.
5. When the slices above are smooth, we can apply ‘zero intent’ to walking along together (Prerequisite 4). Walk on, halt, click&treat for the halt, take up ‘zero intent’ posture for X number of seconds. Start with one second again and lengthen time gradually. Then walk on to another pre-set destination.
6. Walking between mats is a good way to start this exercise, but soon your voice and body language will be enough, as long as you are consistent. See Number 68 in my Blog Contents List: 20 Steps Exercise. Click here.If you are not consistent with your voice, gesture, breathing and body language signals, the horse will hear you like a ‘mumble’. And we know how frustrating it is to listen to someone who is mumbling so we can’t make out the message.
7. As you get adept with dropping into ‘zero intent’ body language, you will notice more and more places you can apply it.
8. In summary, standing or walking with zero intent is our Red Light (relax). The horse knows he is not being asked to do anything except stand or walk quietly beside us. We change to Green Light (action) whenever we signal the horse to do a specific behavior or chain of behaviors that will result in a click&treat.
Slices Part B: The Horse’s Red Light and Green Light
- The horse’s Red Light is different from the handler ‘zero intent’ Red Light. The horse’s Red Light is either inactivity or excessive activity due to distraction, changes, hunger, confusion, pain, boredom, exhaustion, trigger stacking. It is a caution/stop signal from the horse to us.
In the video clip, Boots’ Red Light was the distraction caused by interesting activity on the road while she was safely at home. It caused her full attention to drift to the road activity.
2. Out in other environments, a horse’s Red Light could be stopping for observation, or running the Red Light if the situation causes him to move suddenly.
3. The horse’s Red Light tells us that he is either momentarily distracted or he is out of his comfort zone. We can either wait out the distraction, as I do on video clip #243, or we can change what we are doing until the horse can return to his comfort zone.
A distracted horse is not in learning mode (responsive). He is concerned for his safety (reactive). We must organize things so he can change from reactive to responsive as best as we can in any given situation.
4. The horse’s Green Light is when he can bring his attention back to the handler and can respond to handler signals, rather than react to other things in the environment.
5. If we want to get along with our horse by listening to him, we acknowledge what is causing his distraction with our attention and body language. Then we wait (wait = our Red Light), taking up as close to zero intent body language as we can in the situation.
6. As we wait, we watch for the horse’s Green Light to tell us that he is ready to carry on with what we were doing. At that point, we can activate our Green Light – our signal to the horse for whatever activity or task we are doing which will yield a click&treat.
7. We can sometimes help the horse switch from his Red-Light alert to Green- Light readiness if we click&treat the moment his attention comes back to us. I didn’t do it in the video clip, but I often do this when we are out on the road.
- Red Light = standing or walking together quietly, relaxation – nothing else required.
- Green Light = signal/cue asking the horse to do something else.
- Red Light = I’m distracted, unable, anxious, fearful – please give me time. It might also be a question: we don’t usually do this, do we? We always stop here, don’t we?
- Green Light = I’m ready to listen and respond to your signals.
- Orange/amber light = first signs of the horse’s unease.
As mentioned already, the more you practice your ‘no intent’ body language, the clarity of your signals, and the more accurate you get listening to the horse’s body language. You will notice the horse’s Orange/Amber light before it turns into Red Light. It becomes easier to apply the Red Light/Green Light concept to any activity.