In shaping the trainer splits the goal behaviour into easy achievable steps for the horse. Each step is rehearsed and reinforced until the animal fully understands what is expected. Then the criterion will be raised and the next step towards the end behaviour is trained. And so on, until you’ve trained the desired behaviour.
In this way you can train very complex behaviours and put them on cue.
Pros and cons of shaping
Shaping a behaviour can be very difficult if you don’t know how to split the behaviour into small enough steps for your horse to understand and be successful. Become a ‘splitter’ and practise dividing every behaviour into tiny steps. Everyone can learn it.
Shaping behaviour also requires good timing and a keen eye to see and bridge the subtle nuances of a behaviour. Each small change that brings the horse towards the end behaviour must be bridged and reinforced.
If the trainer doesn’t ‘guide’ his horse enough through that process, both can become confused or frustrated. They might even end up giving up.
The opposite of ‘splitting’ is lumping. If you’re a ‘lumper’, you make the steps too big or you raise your criterion too soon. Don’t be a lumper.
Shaping isn’t easy or quick for inexperienced trainers. You have to be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them. A shaping plan will help you.
Shaping isn’t easy for horses that are afraid to be punished if they try new behaviours or simply aren’t used to it. But once you overcome these hurdles it can be a very quick way to train your horse new things.
It is a process
Shaping teaches the horse to use his brain and will encourage him to experiment. In other words he will ‘learn to learn’ and try out new behaviours. He has to learn to search for the right behaviour that will be bridged and reinforced. Once horses have learned how they get reinforced, they will never forget and this really speeds up their learning process. So be patient.
Shaping requires a lot of creativity of the trainer. Knowledge of the natural behaviour of horses also helps tremendously in splitting the desired behaviour into little steps and in predicting how the horse will react in training. Think out of the box in order to create ‘extra’ training steps. The more steps, the better.
Don’t forget to write the steps down your horse already masters, but are still an important part of the process. Maybe your horse already has looked at the target or approached it. Still write it down, so you can tick it off already. This gives your brain the feeling of a head start and you already feel successful immediately.
The trainer also needs to be very flexible. He needs to adjust his plan according to the horse. If the horse learns slower than expected, the trainer has to think of extra steps, changing rewards, adjust the circumstances, give the horse a break a little bit sooner and so on. Also if the horse learn quicker than expected, be prepared to skip steps in your shaping plan.
The key to success in shaping is to make a plan before you start and write it down. Writing your steps down will help you:
- to think in advance about every detail you have to be aware of
- to get a clear picture in your head of clickable criteria
- to give you a guideline if things go different then expected
- to become aware of skipping steps while you are training
- to go back to a previous step if your horse gets frustrated or confused
- to know where to start next time you are training
- evaluate your training more easily
Make notes in your shaping plan of the training circumstances that can be an influence on your training: are you training inside, outside, working with or without a barrier, time of day etc. Don’t forget to write down what your criteria are for going to the next step in your plan, for instance after 3 well performed actions.
After your training write down immediately all the things that went well and the things you have to keep in mind for next time. This will speed up the whole learning process for both you and your horse.
Making a shaping plan will also help for a next time you have to train the same behaviour with another animal. You will soon notice that different horses learn at different speeds and that a lot of circumstances can influence your training sessions. This will make you more alert next time and you can anticipate the variables that you encounter and set your horse and your training up for success.
The sky is the limit
Shaping has an endless scala of possibilities and therefor it is a very powerful technique. The only limits are the horses’ physical limitations and the trainers skills and creativity.
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve horse-human relationships by educating equestrians about ethical and horse friendly training. I offer coaching to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that empowers both you and your horse.
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