Q1 MUDDYHORSE STUDIO
Good analysis of tasks leads to better Training Plans.
Gate Safety: Spot the Prerequisites
What are the individual tasks that make up this little behavior chain?
Q1 MUDDYHORSE STUDIO
Gate Safety: Spot the Prerequisites
What are the individual tasks that make up this little behavior chain?
How do we become truly fluid with a specific task or series of tasks?
How can the handler practice a clear, consistent signal or group of signals?
How can we engage the horse to willingly carrying out tasks confidently at our request?
It’s natural to want to ‘practice’ to get better. It’s especially challenging when it’s the handler that needs/wants the practice to improve:
The temptation is to get the horse to ‘do it again’ so we can practice. However, if a horse had carried out a complex task to a good standard, does it make sense to him to have to do it again right away?
Probably not. He may instead think that he didn’t get it right the first time. He may try a different variation in good faith and become confused if it does not result in a click&treat.
We acquire a complex task by teaching it via thin-slicing. The ACQUISITION STAGE is finished when our signals are relatively consistent, and the horse’s response is accurate about 90% of the time. Then we enter the STAGE OF BUILDING FLUIDITY with the task.
Gaining fluidity, with either new thought processes or new movements, means building up nerve connections. The only way to build up nerve connections is to apply our full attention to repeating the learning process.
Once we have a general idea about what we are learning, we focus our attention on the detail by reviewing the new skills often enough to put them into our long-term mental and muscle memory.
This involves repetition. How we do the repetition can vary.
Not recommeded – Drilling:
Drilling involves repeating something over and over. Good point: it will become habitual. Bad point: it can kill enthusiasm for both that task and learning anything else by drilling.
For example, horses who are routinely made to move endless circles in a round pen, or constantly repeat dressage movements, often form an aversion to going into a round pen or arena.
Recommended – Cherishing each Mini-Objective:
To put a behavior into the horse’s long- term memory and have it ‘on signal’ or ‘on cue’ seems to be best done with 1-3 repeats each session over the number of days, weeks, or months that it might take, depending on the complexity of the final objective.
If the horse does a behavior to a pleasing standard the first time we ask, it is often a good idea to wait until the next session or later in the same session before asking for it again.
Helpful – Visualizing:
there is evidence (human studies) to suggest that if we focus on clearly visualizing the muscular movements needed to achieve an outcome, the brain views this as almost as good as actually doing it.
We can’t know whether horses visualize things, but my experience with teaching horses in mini-sessions or 1-3 repeats suggests that they do seem to ‘mull over’ new learning and bring a brighter response to the next time we do it.
This is especially noticeable if we can have a short repeat most days. Once the horse shows a good knowledge of a task, a break of 2-3 days between requests often brings even more keenness to have ‘another go’ to earn a special high-value treat.
My horse, Boots, has a distinct little smug expression when she nails something especially well, earning approbation, applause, and a triple treat, a jackpot or a very special treat like a peppermint.
Helpful – Simulation:
To improve our expertise with the task, we can ask another person to stand in for our horse so we can practice developing clear signals and build up our mental and muscle memory for our part of the equation. The horse can only be as smooth in his responses as we are smooth and clear (fluid) with our signals.
If we are lucky enough to have an older, more experienced horse available, we can practice with him so we can be more coherent for a young or new horse.
To have a way of steadily improving the fluidity of challenging tasks, I decide on what mini-objectives I want to play with today, before we begin a session.
I pocket the exact number of higher-value treats to cover those objectives; usually one peppermint for a spot-on effort. In addition, I have un-shelled peanuts or carrot strips for good attempts. This stops me from being tempted to ‘do it again’ once we have a peppermint-worthy response.
I also carry (horse pellets) for getting organized with resets and for when we do more relaxing things between the mini-objective items for the day.
In a way, it’s an example of getting more by doing less.
The video clip below shows three examples. They are either fun tricks to keep us amused, moving and supple, or they are Horse Agility tasks that are getting rather tricky because we have reached the higher-level ‘walk only’ class. Instead of increasing task difficulty with trot or canter, the tasks get more convoluted.
I’ve chosen relatively complex tasks. To reach the point shown in the video, the prerequisites for each task were taught with thin-slicing over a long time.
One peppermint for a 180-degree turn and back through a gate. Previously she learned a 360-degree turn by following the feel of a rope, then learned hand and voice signals and willingly did it at liberty during a recall. Some people teach this using a target. Boots also has had many practices backing up when I stand behind her, including months of long-reining training.
A jackpot of five rapid treats for backing 8 steps in a straight line to end up in a 2.5-foot space between a barrel and me on a mounting block or between two barrels. In a session I did this once in each direction, so she could earn two peppermints. She knows ‘park and wait’ thoroughly as well as backing up with me behind her. She also has a strong background in backing out of narrow dead-end lanes as part of trailer loading preparation, which is how we started training this task. I simply added the barrel on one side and me on a mounting block on the other side.
An un-shelled peanut for our line-dancing move while I’m on the right side of the horse and another while I’m on her left side. We’ve been doing this for only a few months. She understood yielding the shoulder to touch or gesture as well as targeting her shoulder to my hand before we started. She had also learned to target her knee to my hand, so I had to be careful about developing a distinctly different hand signal. For a long time, I asked for only one repeat before the click&treat. We are now gradually building in more repeats before the click&treat.
#163 HorseGym with Boots: Gaining Fluidity without Drilling.
If our first attempt at a task is a bit sketchy, we do a quiet reset and try again, looking for improvement, click&treat for the improvement and usually we don’t repeat it again until later in the session or next day.
Instead, we go on to one of the other things we are working on, or just do activities that are well-established.
It seems that after a few weeks of repeating a complex task once daily, the horse often begins to look forward to doing it, knowing that a higher-value treat follows.
Cherishing each mini-objective set for the day’s session and rewarding it with a higher-value treat keeps alive the fresh desire to do it again tomorrow.
If you are really keen, you can watch the whole filmed video series from which I took example two in the clip above, showing Boots backing up to eight steps to end up between a barrel and me on a mounting block. This is what we did for the first 30 days. During days 31-38 we practiced Boots backing up to stand between two barrels when I stood in front, facing her.
I filmed each of the first 30 training sessions. Over 38 days we trained an average of 5 minute on this task per day, so the total training time was 3 hours, 10 minutes.
She already knew about backing up when I stood behind her, so we were adding more detail to the task. She had to learn to stay straight and to target her withers to my hand.
The clips clearly show how we were both learning stuff each day. I was learning how to be clearer in my teaching and she was figuring out exactly what she had to do to earn the click&treat. Before and after each short session we did other things.
This is the first clip in the series. They all follow in a playlist called Backing Up to a Mounting Block. Each clip is quite short.
Chaining behaviors refers to linking together individual tasks into a flow of activity. The photo above shows how we chained repetitions of the task, “Go touch the cone” in order to build confidence walking down the road away from home. Once the horse understands this game, the cones can be put further apart, less in number and eventually phased out and replaced with items naturally found along the route to use as click&treat spots.
We might aim for one click&treat at the end of a series of behaviors. Alternatively, we might click for each specific behavior in the chain, or for two or three behaviors within the chain that easily link into each other.
We can also back-chain, where we begin with the last behavior in the series, and gradually link in each previous behavior. If we specifically want the horse to do a series of behaviors with only one click&treat at the end, this method can work well.
People who have spent more time studying ‘chaining’ in detail prefer to start with a concept called ‘sequencing’. They then describe different kinds of sequences.
Tandem Units – when each part of the sequence is exactly the same. Examples are the ‘cone-to -cone’ exercise in the photo above and the 20 Steps Exercise outlined below.
Conjunctive Units – when there is a sequence to be done, but they could be done in any order. For example, if we have a selection of obstacles set out to do gymnastic exercises with our horse, we can do them in any order.
Chained Units – step one of the sequence must occur before step, 2, step 2 before step 3, and so on. For example, saddling or harnessing a horse. Another example might be walking into the pasture, haltering the horse, walking back to the gate with the horse, opening the gate, asking the horse to walk through the gate, closing the gate, which is outlined in one of the clips below.
When we train by splitting a goal behavior into its smallest teachable units (slices), we link the slices together as the horse becomes competent with each bit of new learning. In most cases, the sequence is important, so each slice is part of a chained unit. The example below about Head Rocking illustrates.
Something like a dressage test, horse agility course, jumping course or western equitation course is made up of discrete units or behavior (conjunctive) but the competition requires them to be done in a strict order, so they become ‘chained’. We can train each unit in a ‘conjunctive’ context, then present them in the required chain for the competition.
This clip clearly shows how we can create a chain of ‘duration’ of the same behavior (tandem units). 20 Steps Exercise
This clip is the same as the one above but done with halter and lead and a handler new to the exercise. #30 HorseGym with Boots: Leading Position Three Duration Exercise. Increasing duration of a behavior is basically increasing the number of ‘tandem units’ before we click&treat. The units might be steps, as in this exercise, or they might be increasing time staying parked or they might be the number of times your horse paws if you are teaching him to count.
This clip shows how we first train, then chain, tiny components of a task (slices). As the horse understands each slice, we ask for a bit more or a new variation before the next click&treat. This clip is an introduction to building confidence with pushing through pairs of horizontally set pool noodles. We start with the simplest unit and gradually work up to more complexity, so this is an example of mostly chained units
This clip is an introduction to head rocking. The slices are quite tiny and are steadily chained together to accomplish the final task. Since the order or units matters, it is a true chained sequence.
This clip looks at how we chain a series of tasks when we do something like bringing our horse in from a paddock. Usually I would do the whole process with one click&treat after putting on the halter, and another when I take off the halter. The horse has previously (separately) learned each of the tasks that make up this chain of events.
The clip below looks at using a mat to help chain a series of tasks. #12 HorseGym with Boots: CHAINING TASKS. This could be seen as an ‘artificial’ chain because we have decided on the order of the tasks. They could be done in any order so turning it into a conjunctive chain.
The clip below shows a series of more difficult tasks. Each task is individually taught to a high standard. Then I forward chain or back-chain them together according to the requirement of that month’s competition.The order of the tasks has been arbitrarily set for the competition, so this too is an ‘artificial’ chain made up of a series of unrelated tasks.
Back-chaining simply means that we begin with the final behavior in a series and work backward toward the eventual starting point.
The horse moves willingly on the outside of a circle of objects, firs to mat destination, later listening for a ‘whoa’ signal.
Back-Chaining Circle Work with a Mat (see video below)
If we want to teach a horse to move in a circle around the outside of a round pen, we can use a mat as the horse’s destination and back-chain a whole circle at walk and a whole circle at trot (energetic horses may offer a canter).
The set-up requires a round pen of ground or raised rails or tape on uprights or a collection of items to outline the circle. The horse walks around the outside of the barrier and the handler walks on the inside of the barrier.
Note: Keep the sessions very short – just a few minutes. We never want to turn anything into a drill. Five minutes a day over a few weeks will give a lot of results.
Stay with each slice until both you and the horse are totally comfortable with it.
With halter and lead:
This is back-chaining because you have shown the horse the final result which will earn the click&treat (targeting the mat) and then added in the previous requirements, which in this case were increasing distances from the mat. In the final behavior, the mat is both the starting point and the end point.
If you are wondering about how we can get multiple circles this way, we can eventually use our ‘halt’ signal to replace the mat and ask the horse to do more than one circle (in gradual increments) before asking him to halt for his click&treat.
Example 2: Back-chaining a 10-task Horse Agility Course (based on the clip before the one immediately above)
Back-chaining works well when we want/need to consolidate the place and time for the click&treat at the very end of a sequence of events.
One horse may learn to sniff his halter (click&treat) and put his head in the halter (click&treat) in less than two minutes. Another horse may take weeks of short sessions to just approach a halter lying on the ground or hanging on a fence. An Individual Education Program (IEP) for such a horse might be sliced to include click&treat for each of the slices outlined below.
We stay with each slice until the horse is ho-hum with it.
One main element of teaching like this is that the handler maintains a relaxed attitude and observes the horse closely to see when he’s had enough for one session. The sessions are usually very short – maybe three minutes. Ideally three sets of two-three minutes among other things being done with or around the horse during any one visit.
A second main element is for the handler to keep a relaxed, consistent body position, orientation and way of presenting the halter (hoop) during the teaching/learning stage. Our focus is on what the horse CAN do (click&treat), not on what he can’t do YET.
We start with teaching the most basic prerequisite behavior. When the horse clearly understands our request for that behavior (which could take a couple of minutes or up to many, many sessions), we add in the next ‘slice’ of behavior that will lead to our ultimate goal.
We can and should move on when:
If the situation becomes confused, it is usually because we have not cut the whole task into thin enough slices. Although we have an ultimate goal, the ultimate goal is not where we put our attention. Our attention is directed at each ‘slice’ or mini-skill.
Mastering these one by one and linking them together, as the horse is ready, will seamlessly bring us to our ultimate goal – the whole task that we thin-sliced at the beginning is performed smoothly with one click&treat at the end.
When confusion arises (in either the horse or the handler or both), it is essential to return to previous work until we find the ‘slice’ at which both the horse and the handler can regain their confidence. Then we simply work forward again from that point. This is Mastery Learning. Each small part is mastered before moving on to the next part.
By slicing the overall goal small enough, we can gradually create a positive association with a halter.
If the horse is wary about the look of a halter, for whatever reason, we can replace it with a small hula hoop or similar made with a piece of hose.
At this point we may want to teach the horse to be proactive about putting his nose into the halter/hoop. Something like a small hula hoop is easier to hold into position to teach the idea of dropping the nose into the hoop/halter.
#65 HorseGym with Boots illustrates. In this clip I cut out the chewing and waiting time between trials to make the clip shorter, but didn’t really like the result as much as if I had left them all in, which would give a better overview of the pace of the session.
It’s easier to hold a small hoop when we first teach the horse to drop his head into an opening. This will eventually be the nosepiece of a halter. I also have to build confidence about having my right arm lying across the horse’s neck.
Eventually we can click&treat the following slices.
To teach sidestepping, we carefully and quietly add the forequarter yield and the hindquarter yield together until the horse is able to move sideways in a straight line.
Teaching willing hindquarter yields on request is one of the essentials for safety around horses. Anything unexpected can cause serious harm around the most benign horse. A willing hindquarter yield eases daily care and husbandry, especially around gates, stables, or any tight space.
Teaching the forequarter yield makes it easy to ask our horse to stand in the best position for foot care, grooming or saddling. Teaching these yields on both sides of the horse aids in strengthening proprioception.
Proprioception is an animal’s clear perception about where various body parts are, what they are doing, and the amount of energy needed to carry out a specific activity.
Sportspeople tend to have much better proprioception than people who spend most of their times sitting. Horses raised in flat paddocks and stables lack the proprioception evident in horses who grew up moving extensively in rugged, hilly country.
When our horse can co-ordinate the front-end and hind-end yields to smoothly sidestep on one plane, his proprioception will have improved considerably. Some horses almost fall over when first asked to step across sideways with a front foot, so we have to be gentle and take the time it takes with short, frequent sidestepping sessions.
In horse language, yielding the quarters seems to be an appeasement action. The horse is willing to shift his personal space away from you. Horses with a relatively timid or anxious nature are usually quick to grant you this space.
Horses with a bold or exuberant nature may be less willing (or extremely resistant) when this task is first introduced. They are more prepared to ‘stand their ground’. Who moves whose feet is highly significant in the horse word. Much the same is true for people.
How readily a horse sidesteps on request depends on his innate nature, his opinion of the handler and how he is being (or has been) taught the tasks.
Forequarter Yield: April 2018 Challenge: https://youtu.be/eSlin8ZYcRA
Hindquarter Yield: May 2018 Challenge: https://youtu.be/AkjIT8Tjxw0
ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:
To have the horse willingly yield six to eight steps sideways away from the handler, in a variety of contexts.
GETTING STARTED WITH A BARRIER IN FRONT:
SLICES (Illustrated in Clip 1)
Clips 2, 3 and 4 look at generalizations
Generalizations on the video clips include:
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 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:
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:
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 Language Horses 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.
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. The PDF below looks at more detail on what parameters are and what to remember if we want to become better teachers for our horse.