One of the first skills I teach advanced clicker trainers is to write a shaping plan. Or shall I say: as soon as they are able to write successful shaping plans, they are advanced… Not sure.
The most common pitfall in clicker training is that people tend to ‘lump’ and make the steps too big. Their horses can’t follow and get frustrated why they don’t get clicks anymore for what they offer. All kinds of undesired and sometimes even dangerous behaviour can happen if that happens too often.
The trainer gets frustrated too: why is their horse not cooperating? They have treats for them… (if they do the right thing). The solution is to thin slice your training. That’s called a shaping plan.
Break up your clickertraining so every step leads to success
Shaping Plans, Do You Think it’s Difficult?
The challenge with writing a shaping plan for a behaviour you want to train is that you have to think about something that hasn’t happened yet.
Writing a Shaping Plan is a skill
You need imagination and visualisation skills, and
You need to know how a horse moves and reacts.
In order to write a good shaping plan for your horse you need to be a skilled horse person.
Why people get stuck
The reason many of my clients find it difficult and get stuck (or skip this process in training) is that they are new to it and don’t realize that they need to learn this skill. Mastering a skill takes time.
I have several techniques developed that I teach so that they can make a shaping plan on their own. The clients that went through my Ultimate Horse Training Formula, an 8-week online course with live classes became stars at writing their own shaping plans! That makes a HUGE difference for them in becoming autonomous trainers.
Not many people have in person clicker instructors available
As we all know clicker instructors are still a rare species in the off line world and for my clients it’s really important that they can train (/play with!) their horses in a safe way. They like to bond and getting results with their horses.
Why a Shaping Plan is an essential Training Tool
Realizing why making a plan is so important helps in motivating my students to keep developing this skill. The reason is simple: in positive reinforcement you need to know exactly what you will click (before it happens) because:
1) The desired behaviour happens first, then you reinforce. Therefore you NEED to know what will happen.
In R- you can easily skip this step and if you don’t get what you want you make the aversive stronger (“just a bit more pressure, if he doesn’t listen”) to force the horse into the behaviour, then let the pressure go and VOILA: the desired behaviour.
In R+ you need to WAIT until you GET (= are given) the behaviour before you can reinforce it. HOW can you make that happen? By clicking and reinforcing (saying”Yes!” to your horse) and guide him with clicks and treats to where he needs to be (goal behaviour).
2) You get what you reinforce, so timing is of the essence.
If you have no clue of what your horse will do before he does it, do you think your timing will be good enough to get what you want?
Writing a shaping plan for behaviour is one of the 6 HippoLogic Key Lessons for Trainers. It’s their key to success in clicker training.
Imagine a very young child, let’s say 4 years old, with a clicker and treats training her Shetland pony. Do you think a 4 year old is able to clicker train her little horse successfully on her own? Why not? What skills does she miss?
Name one skills she misses and she needs to clicker train a horse on her own in the comments. Just name one and let other people chime in, too. 😉
Read more about shaping plans on my blog. Use the search tool in the menu on your right or start here.
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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
When I put a picture on Facebook of Kyra pooping next to the poop bin in the indoor arena, a lot of people asked me how I potty trained my pony.
Kyra was already clicker savvy, so she knows really well that after a click of my clicker, she will get a reward. The click pinpoints the behaviour. In order to get more of the wanted behaviour, the best results are obtained by rewarding the animal while (s)he is doing the wanted behaviour or within 3 seconds after the wanted behaviour.
A clicker acts as a bridge between the wanted behaviour and the moment of giving the reward. So I didn’t have to reward her within or during the wanted behaviour, I only had to ‘bridge’ (click) during the behaviour that I wanted to capture and then bring her the reward. That came in handy at liberty.
In the beginning my criterion was really low. In my mind I divided the indoor arena in two halves: the half with the poop bin (light green rectangle) in it and the other half.
Every time she needed to poop I asked her very gently to maintain gait until she was in the “proper half” of the arena if possible. Often we didn’t reach that half. Maintaining a trot was never possible, but at least she kept walking. A few steps.
It wasn’t really about maintaining gait, but more about making the wanted behaviour easy.
If she needed to go poop and we were in the half of the arena where the poop bin is located (green striped area), she was allowed to stand still to take her washroom break. Why? Because pooping while walking, trotting or cantering leaves a long trail of poop.
Like I said, I don’t like to waste time on poop scooping in the arena. On top of that I clicked and rewarded her with a handful of treats during pooping. She learned that pooping was rewarded sometimes, whereas other times it was not. It was up to Kyra to figure this out. And she did!
Raising my criteria
After a certain period I realized that Kyra was 100% of the time pooping in the half of the arena where the bin is located. That was a sign for me to raise my criterion.
I divided the “designated poop area” in half again (pink striped area). So now the space where I let her stand still to poop and click and reward her for pooping was about a quarter of the arena size.
After a while she discovered that the had to go poop in a certain corner of the arena. Every time I had the feeling that she “got it”, I raised the criterion and made the “allowed area” a bit smaller in my mind (dark blue striped area).
Correcting my mistake
The poop bin is located in the same corner where the shavings are stored. Kyra thought she had to poop in the shavings, which was an obvious mistake (yellow/orange area). After all, her stall is full of shavings where she poops in. So I began to watch her closely, because she usually pooped in the shavings when she was in the arena all by herself. This was a learning point and failure is the best way to success (I decided to ‘fail forward’ and adjusted my training).
Under saddle I could catch her going in the shavings one time and gently let her out of it. She only had to take one or two steps (towards the bin). Then she pooped next to the bin and not in the shavings. She had earned herself a jackpot. [read here more about -> “rewards and jackpots“<-] After a few times she learned that “in the shavings” wouldn’t get her a reward.
Now my goal is to let her poop in the bin, so I don’t have to clean up at all. Wouldn’t that be awesome? I’ll let you know when we get there.
UPDATE (Jan 2017)
Here is the sequence on this blog: I accomplished my shittiest goal ever! In which I tell you about how I taught Kyra to poop in the manure wheelbarrow. It even has a video! Go on and check it out!