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.