In this series I will be sharing 6 interesting facts I didn’t know about when I started using positive reinforcement in training animals. This is part 6. This one is really an eye-opener! This is a phenomenon you only see in R+ training! Continue reading
Some of these are common misunderstandings people have about clicker training while others are facts most equestrians don’t know at all.
The goal of this blog is to help more people understand how well positive reinforcement (R+) works in training our horses. I want every one to know that clicker training offers more great benefits besides training your goal behaviour. Positive side-effects you won’t get in negative reinforcement (R-) based training methods (traditional and natural horsemanship). I wish I had known these benefits earlier in life.
# 2: Clicker training will make you more resourceful
When using pressure-release in training and the horse doesn’t cooperate, the go-to strategy is to increase pressure until the horse does what you want. This is actually the only strategy I they taught me, when I was learning traditional and later on natural horsemanship training.
When you decide to use less pressure-release in training and focus more on positive reinforcement, you give your horse a voice and a choice in training. Therefor you have to learn to listen what your horse is communicating to you if things don’t go as planned.
If you know the reason your horse does not follow your cue, you need to come up with a way to address his feelings or concerns first. It helps if you have knowledge about (natural) horse behaviour and natural needs horses have.
What if my horse doesn’t want to do what I want?
Depending to the cause of saying ‘No’ you can come up with another way, a new strategy to make it easier for your horse to say ‘Yes’ (without making something else more difficult!).
Possible causes of not cooperating are:
- something else is more reinforcing
- something else is more urgent (e.g danger, internal processes like hunger, pain)
- your horse doesn’t understand what he has to do
- and so on.
You have to come up with strategies that will be:
- Addressing the reason your horse said ‘No’ so he gets into learning mode again.
- Easier to understand (splitting behaviour and making a shaping plan)
- Worthwhile for your horse to participate (it’s the receiver that determines the reward, not the trainer!). You don’t want him to ‘zone out’ (and go into learned helplessness)
- Interesting and fun for your horse, so he will stay engaged
So you have to become very creative! That is the fun part of training animals!
When you allow your horse to say ‘no’ in training, you have to accept that ‘no’. Treat the ‘no’ for what it is: valuable feedback from your horse. It is ‘just information’. Information you can use to benefit you and your horse!
You have to find out why: What is causing your horse to say ‘No’?
If you figure that out, you listened to your horse. This helps you come up with a strategy to entice him to say ‘yes’, without forcing him.
Read his body language
It can be as easy as recognizing that he is just tired. Simply ending the training session will give you more of the desired behaviour next time.
If it is mental fatigue, you can focus on a well known and established behaviour that take no thinking effort. And so on.
Tell me your story
Share your story (use the comment section at the bottom) about one time you had to come up with an alternative strategy. What did you do differently than you would have done traditionally?
What was the situation and what do you think caused your horses to say ‘No’ ? What solution did you come up with and what was the result? Do you think it benefited your relationship with your horse?
Read the other articles in this series:
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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!
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In horse training we often have to be creative if we encounter resistance, fear, frustration or if something else is just so much more reinforcing than you. You have to be even more creative, if you want to come up with a force free and horse friendly training solution. Here are some tips that can help you become creative.
Occupy your conscious
Occupy your conscious so your unconscious can come up with a solution. Do something completely different. Go draw a horse or colour a colouring sheet. I made one for you, see the download at the bottom of the page.
Listen to yourself
Talk your training problems over with a good friend. When you hear yourself talk you can put things in perspective and come up with a solution.
If that doesn’t work, your friend might have a solution for you or you can ask yourself: ‘What advise would I give if it wasn’t me, but a friend with this problem with her horse?’
If you are not looking to solve a particular training problem, just download my colouring sheet and relax. Have some fun.
I would really appreciate if you upload your colouring sheet and show it to me. You can send me an email email@example.com or put a link in the comments below. I’m looking forward to seeing your creativity!
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It was 1999 when I heard about clicker training for horses. I knew dolphins were trained with a whistle and fish to reward them, but that was about everything I knew. I decided to try it out with my 21 year old pony Sholto. I learned about learning theory during my study Animal Management, but no one could tell me how to start with Sholto. So I just started…
How I started clicker training
I can’t really remember what my thoughts were at the time, but I do remember I started with some really difficult trick training exercises: touching a skippy ball, Spanish walk and a Classical bow. The skippy ball became a ‘target’ and it was really hard to change ‘touching’ the ball into pushing the ball. That didn’t take my pleasure away, though. The Classical bow was a coincidence and I was lucky to ‘capture’ that behaviour. I can’t recall how we got to a Spanish walk.
What I learned using R+
When I started clicker training I had no idea what impact it would have on my future and my whole training approach. The most remarkable changes (in hindsight) are:
- I learned to ‘listen to my horse‘ by studying his body language
- I learned a lot about learning theory.
- I love to approach behaviour now as a matter of motivation: is the horse moving away from something or moving towards something? Is something else (than the training/trainer) more enticing? By looking at the motivation of the horse, I can now skip the whole ‘leadership’ and ‘dominance’ discussion in training.
- I learned to think out of the box and became more creative in training. I now have so many different ways to elicit behaviour and put it on cue.
- Shaping. I learned the power of shaping, a wonderful tool in training.
- The power of using a marker to mark (a step towards) the desired behaviour.
- Planning and the power of keeping a journal.
I truly believe that I wouldn’t have grown so much as a horse trainer if it wasn’t for positive reinforcement. One of the best changes is that I learned to focus on what goes well instead of what went wrong! A change that bears fruit in all facets of my life!
How about you?
What are your most remarkable changes since you started using positive reinforcement for your horse? How did clicker training influenced you as trainer, horse lover or in your personal life?
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to firstname.lastname@example.org
Haven’t we all experienced that a horse pulled you towards some grass in order to grab a few bites? Isn’t that annoying? I think it is!
I didn’t want to be pushed around anymore by my horse every time there was some juicy patch of grass growing around. Grass is everywhere! I decided to look for a proper, force-free way to teach my horse more desired behaviour around grass.
I tried a few different approaches, before I found one that works well, gave me a solid result and is totally force-free. I would like to share it with you.
Define ‘proper behaviour around grass’
It took me a while to teach Kyra to behave ‘properly’ around grass. With ‘properly’ I mean: no more pulling me towards grass, wait until I give the ‘graze’ cue and ‘stop grazing and come along’ if I ask her to. I was tired of pulling Kyra off the grass.
I must say before you can start training this you need a bit of preparation and… lots of practice time. After all, what is more enticing than grass? Well, a click can be…
What really helps is already have a solid history of click & reinforce. Secondly a horse that walks with you properly and the key lessons ‘head lowering’, ‘patience’ and ‘targeting’ are required to make this challenge most likely to succeed.
Here is a summary of my shaping plan:
- solid reinforcement history of the clicker
- teach Kyra to walk on a lead rope
- key lesson patience
- key lesson targeting
- key lesson head lowering
How I trained it
I started to reinforce lifting Kyra’s head while grazing. Why? Because this is the first step to move away from the grass. I began with leading her to grass and I would cue her to graze. Then I just waited (very, very patiently) until she lifted her head by herself. That is the moment I wanted to capture and reinforce.
I can’t stress how important it is to wait until the horse moves (his head) away himself. I tried other methods like pulling the head up/preventing the head from going down or asking Kyra to target while grazing in order to lift her head, but reinforcing her own head raise worked best.
High value treats
Every time she would lift her head , I clicked and reinforced Kyra with a very high value treat. One that could compete with grass. After she ate the treat I immediately gave her the cue to ‘graze’. Here is when the key lesson ‘head lowering’ comes is really handy.
I also clicked and reinforced the ‘graze’ cue. But instead of offering a treat off of my hand, the reward was to graze as long as she wanted.
Every time she would lift her head again, I clicked, reinforced and would then give her the ‘graze’ cue.
After a certain amount of training sessions, which Kyra enjoyed very much (!), I noticed that she started to lift her head more often during grazing sessions. This is a perfect time to add a ‘lift head up’ cue. The key lesson targeting helped me a lot.
So my next clicker session looked like this:
- walk to the grass
- give the cue ‘graze’
- wait until Kyra lifts her head
- click and reinforce
- give her the cue ‘graze’
- let her graze until I thought she was likely to lift her head up again, ask ‘touch’ target stick
- click and reinforce
- cue ‘graze’
- et cetera.
In this way she is always reinforced for whatever I ask.
Raising the criterion
After several sessions I noticed that Kyra didn’t seem to mind lifting her head up anymore. She was eager to see what I had to offer her. The ‘diving into the grass’ behaviour was gone. She seemed so much more relaxed on grass.
I thought this would be the perfect time to raise a criterion. Now I wanted to lift her head and take one step forward before I gave the ‘graze’ cue again. I literally built this behaviour step-by-step.
The final step in this process was to teach her to wait for the ‘graze’ cue when we would walk on or approach grass.
Now I can ask Kyra to leave grass at any time. She is very willing to come with me. She never pulls me towards a patch of grass and I never have to pull her off of the grass. Win-win, for her and for me.
Kyra turned from a I-need-to-graze-now-and-store-fat-before-winter-comes-horse into a I-see-grass-so-what-horse. She knows she can trust me and is allowed to have her share… only when I say so.
Join my free Transform Your Horse – Grass Training
Today I wanted to make a video for the FB Grass Training FB Group. Kyra didn’t want to graze, so I couldn’t show how to start walking on grass when all your horse wants to do is graze. Never thought I could be in that position: a horse that doesn’t want to graze because training is way more valuable.
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!
Sign up for my newsletter (it comes with a gift) here: HippoLogic’s website.
From a traditional point of view one would say: “Just make him stop.” How? Well, let’s talk about ways that makes the horse understand. I don’t believe in punishment, because punishment is not telling the horse what you do expect from him, it only tells him to stop the behaviour in the moment.
First step in re-training undesirable behaviour should be: finding the cause of the behaviour. If you know the cause, it is easier to solve it. For instance: if a horse bucks under saddle and the rider punishes the horse by whipping him, it didn’t solve the root of the problem and probably it won’t prevent this behaviour in the future.
Causes can be: pain, fear or the horse has been rewarded for that behaviour in the past. Remember: the receiver (horse) determines if something is rewarding for him.
If the horse bucks under saddle and this behaviour is caused by pain, the horse doesn’t need training to solve the behaviour. Treating the pain will be sufficient in most cases. Check your horse and equipment and get to know his normal behaviour, learn to listen to your horse. It can be caused by poorly fitted saddles, something bothering the horse in the saddle pad, like a splinter, it can be the bridle, the bit that has been put back upside down in the bridle after cleaning, the rider is out of balance, muscle ache, back pain and so on.
Horses can buck because they want to run away from something scary and the rider is trying to prevent it. Here the solution would be to let the horse investigate the fearful thing at his own speed. For the future: practise scary things by doing a lot of de-spooking training.
It can also be a one time scare because another horse was scared or another horse scared him. Anticipate and expose your horse more to these kinds of experiences.
Imagine the horse is ridden by a novice rider or a rider that has been a bit too rough. The horse bucks and the rider is gone. Ping! Rewarded! Or the horse has been bucking in the past, rider fell off and the horse had a chance to go to that juicy patch of grass which he wasn’t allowed to touch by the rider. Ping. Reward. Or the horse bucks and he can run back to his herd once the rider has fallen off.
In these situations make the opposite behaviour more rewarding: change the rough rider into a balanced, light rider who gives lots of rewards, work on the herd bound behaviour.
One of the most underestimated challenges of positive reinforcement training can be… people in your environment.
It is a journey
The journey to switch from negative reinforcement (most traditional and natural horsemanship methods) to positive reinforcement training (clicker training, on target training) is instructive and beautiful.
It is not always a straight, fast or smooth road. It is often a winding, bumpy road with lots of ups and downs, but the views are astonishing. You will see many positive changes in your horse and your relationship.
On your journey you will learn how to think outside of the box, it will teach you to become more creative. It will teach you how to think in solutions instead of problems and it will alter the relationship with your horse in an extraordinarily beautiful way.
Slowly you start using more and more rewards to reinforce your horse to do things for you. Then you might slowly stop using the tools that your horse experiences as aversive, like a whip, rope halter, training stick or spurs. So far so good, until… you encounter a hiccup.
Believe me when I tell you: this day will happen. Your horse doesn’t do what you ask him to do. You can’t figure out why or you can’t figure out a way to ask him differently so he will understand. You don’t have enough tools yet, so you don’t have an answer right away. That’s OK. It is OK to not know everything right away. What to do?
Back to default
It is perfectly normal to fall back to your old tools or habits of using pressure, force or even to inflict pain. Don’t blame yourself for it. Becoming aware is the first step in changing! Hooray!
If you are prepared for this day, and it will happen, you can just simply say to yourself. “Hey, you know what? I don’t know what to do. Let’s figure it out first. Let’s find help and try again another time.” Really, it is OK not to know what to do! And it is also OK to stop your training until you do know how to solve your training problem in a way that is acceptable for you and your horse”.
Remember what is most important
Choosing to make your horse your priority can be extremely hard to do. Especially when other people are watching you work. Imagine that the farrier has come to trim your horses’ feet. Your horse is afraid of the farrier or there is something else that causes your horse not to cooperate the way he normally does. It can be hard to listen to your horse and figure out the ‘why’. Your horse probably has a very good reason.
In most cases it is OK to say: “Sorry, my horse is not prepared enough yet. Let’s do this another time.” Do what you need to do in order to protect your relationship and the trust you have build with positive reinforcement. In Dutch we have a saying:
Trust arrives walking and departs riding. Which means that trust is hard to build and easy to loose.
Do you really want to risk your relationship with your horse so the farrier can do his/her job right now? It can be dangerous for everyone if the farrier is more a traditional person. Or would you rather choose to make sure the farrier and your horse are safe next time?
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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
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If you are serious about making your equestrian dreams come true in the future start planning it today. Make it easy for yourself and start really easy if you are not yet in the habit of writing your equestrian goals down.
It can be scary to make a training plan for a whole year or multiple year. If that is the case, you can start simple and try planning just one week for your horse. Here are some ideas on how you can start.
Evaluate at the end of the week: was is nice to have some kind of schedule? Was it hard? What made it hard to stick with it? Did you like it? Did you feel like you were working on your long term goals?
Step 1 List goals
You can just start making a list of 5 things you would like to do in the future with your horse. You can also put things on your list that you are already doing, but want to do more often. There is no particular order.
Step 2 Specify preparations
What steps do you need to take in order to reach these goals? In my case I have to go by trailer to the nearest forest, so trailer loading is very useful for multiple goals. Another preparation could be working on Kyra’s stamina under saddle.
In order to cross a shallow river for the first time I would like Kyra to go with an experienced trail horse. And I would like an experienced guide with me because I have no experience crossing rivers on my own. Another preparation is making Kyra water savvy of course. The same preparations would apply for swimming in a lake or the sea with Kyra. And so on.
These are just examples to give you an rough idea and hopefully give your some inspiration to make a training plan for one week.
Step 3 Evaluating week schedule
Think of your own week schedule and about what days and times you would go to the barn. Maybe there are days you have less time to train your horse. Do you go mornings, afternoons or evenings. In summer it can be hot so mornings and evenings are best for riding or intense training. Keep that in mind when making your schedule.
On the days I am taking my 4 year old son to the barn, I don’t plan to ride Kyra. Usually I stick to groundwork exercises on those days in order to avoid stress and frustration.
My week evaluation looks like this in the summer:
– Monday I take my son to the barn: groundwork to practise a new skill/do a short repetition of one behaviour/ do something that involves my son (let him ride)
– Tuesday I have 1- 2 hours so I could plan a trail ride or ride in the arena
– Wednesday: same as Tuesday
– Thursday: same as Monday so I stick to a little groundwork, working in hand/long reins or hand grazing
– Friday, Saturday, Sunday: I have 2 or more hours so I could plan a trail ride or ride in the arena
In winter when days are short, trail riding is only possible during daylight hours, so I can only plan them in weekends. Now I can take another look at my goals and start planing my week.
Step 4 Planning
Now I know what I want to accomplish and how much time I can spent, it is so much easier to make a schedule for the week.
If I have to or want to adjust my schedule that is ok. Since I have written down my goals in step 1, I will find something to practise that will support my goals in one way or another. If someone has left a few small jumps in the arena I can practice jumping or do some flat work because I can see how that would be helpful in my future trail rides. It can help build muscle and stamina too.
It is also possible that I would choose not to practice jumping because there are more urgent goals to work on and I know that the forest or park I am going to ride in on Sunday doesn’t have any jumps on the trail.
Step 5 Writing it down
Last step is to write it down. Take your plan to the barn and hang it in your locker or another place where you can see it.
It helps me to have a copy of my plan at home in a visible spot, so I won’t forget what I have planned. The best thing of making a plan is crossing off the things I scheduled! It makes it easier to journal about it too.
Good luck planning your week schedule and let me know how it went.
Enjoy your horse!
Read more: Key to Success: Make a Plan
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Are you inspired and interested in personal coaching or do you want to sign up for the next online course ‘Set Your Equestrian Goals & Achieve them‘, please visit my website
What is a training plan? Is it really necessary to write it down? Isn’t that time consuming? These are the things people ask when I talk about training plans and shaping plans.
How a training plan can help you (purpose)
You don’t have to make a training plan, but it will help you become a better clicker trainer faster. Why? Because it forces you to think about your training goal, your approach and all the steps you need to take to get to your goal.
If you are at the barn and you don’t know what to do, a plan can help you move in the right direction.
Difference between a training plan and a shaping plan
Your training plan contains all the behaviours you want to teach your horse, in your shaping plan you write down the step-by-step approach of each behaviour.
First thing you have to think about and write down is your goal. What it is it and how would you recognize it when you achieve it? That is a hard question to begin with. That is one of the reasons people would like to skip this step. If you avoid it, it doesn’t exists, right? Wrong!
How can you achieve your goal if you don’t know what it is you’re looking for? How can you enjoy a satisfied feeling of accomplishing something if your goal is so vague you can’t even write it down? I know it is hard, but when you practise it this will become easier and easier over time.
It’s OK to start ‘big’ and write down a vague goal, the next steps will help you through the process of making it more clear.
Once you have determined a goal it is easy to divide it into little training steps, the building blocks of your end behaviour. This is how you shape a behaviour.
Ask questions like: what does my horse need to do in order to achieve the goal? What skills must I train first? And think about the training tools that can help in this process.
Try to visualize and write down how many times your horse must do a certain behaviour before you raise the criterion. It doesn’t have to be accurate right away, but thinking about it helps when you are at the barn training your horse.
If you have set the criterion ‘Horse touches target when it’s near the ground’ you can raise it after he has done it three times. Then you hold the target in another place where the horse has to reach for it: maybe more to the left and then more to the right.
It is also very important to write down which reward and how much of that reward you will be using. Some rewards will wear down their value over time in some horses. Some horses are more motivated if they get a variation of rewards.
Experiment and write down what you’ve learned about your horse. It is fun and very educational to read it back one day.
Personalize your plan
Another very important part of your training plan is to put in specific information about the target animal and things for the trainer to remember. If you read your training plan before you start training it can help you remind you of certain things like: I have to click first and take the reward out my pocket (instead of taking the treat before I click). Or remember that this horse has separation anxiety and training him works best if there are other horses in sight.
Write down your results in order to start the next training at the point where you stopped or so you can take one step back to refresh the horses memory and raise the first criterion after one time instead of three times to improve and get to the next steps.
Starting a training journal can be very simple and it doesn’t have to take much time. Sometimes a few simple keywords or just circling the training step where you have stopped is enough to help you remember.
Have a creative clicker training!
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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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!
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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.
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When I was looking for a horse a few years ago a friend of mine kept
asking nagging me about my ‘goals’. What was my purpose with this soon to buy horse? She was not satisfied by my vague answer ‘I just want to ride dressage’. She kept asking ‘What do you mean by ‘just’ and what does ‘dressage’ mean to you?’.
I remembered vividly the poster in my room when I was a little girl. Annemarie Sanders-Keyzer was in that picture with Amon. She rode in the Dutch dressage team in 1986 and they won a silver medal at the World Championship Dressage. In 1988 she rode in the Olympic Games in Seoul. That’s what I wanted! At least that was my dream when I was a young girl.
Many years later I still held on to this dream ‘to become a dressage rider’. In reality I don’t like competitions with animals! There is too much stress for the rider(s) and therefor too much stress for the horse(s). This is why I had to revise this equestrian dream.
I still enjoy watching good dressage. I mean: when the horse is dancing and horse and rider become one. The riding which gives you goosebumps if you watch it. Pure balance and beauty. I want this without the competition part where the riders ego often gets priority over the horses well-being.
I also have a love for classical dressage like the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. I am intrigued by the ‘airs above the ground’. There is more: I love trick training. We have a lovely word for it in Dutch that embodies the concept very well. We call it ‘freedom dressage’ and it implies that the horses are taught tricks without force or fear.
I searched for a way to get all these different dressage parts and showing it to a public, without the downsides of a competition in one goal. I found that in a demonstration/show team ‘Alegría‘.
I am the woman in the yellow Spanish dress at 0:10-0:15
I joined them while I was ‘in between horses’. I was looking for a horse and I already knew that a Lusitano or Andalusian horse would be my next choice. Show team Alegría has as mission to promote the Iberian horse breeds. This was my chance to get a preview of what it would be like to ride dressage on an Andalusian horse in front of a public and do trick training. I really loved being part of the team. Unfortunately I immigrated to Canada before Kyra was started under saddle and I have never ridden in front of a public. But this is still my dream. I am working every day on tiny goals that help me prepare Kyra for this.
So my thought of today is: What are your dreams? Maybe you still have an old dream from your childhood? Are those dreams still valid? If not, can you adjust your dream somehow so it fits into your standards and values you have today?
Are you running out of ideas what to do with your horse? Especially in winter? I am never out of ideas when I am with Kyra. I always have many suggestions what to work on.
How do I do that? Well, I make goals. Long-term goals and I divide those into short-time goals. Then I divide those into even smaller building blocks, which are my every day ideas to choose from. I write them down in my training journal and then I print out a list to hang in my tack locker.
When Kyra was a still a feral filly I had many little goals to work on every day. Coming towards me instead of jumping into a corner of her stall when I opened a door, touching my hand/target stick/halter, standing still while being touched and so on. These where obvious goals.
What about my daily goals after 5 years of training? Kyra is 6 years old now and she is almost fully bomb-proof, very athletic and sensible and knows a lot of tricks. Are there any goals left for us to work on? Yes, plenty. If I get stuck I take a look at my long-term goals (10 year plan, 5 year plan, 1 year plan, 12 monthly goals) and I know what to do.
Every ‘dream goal’ has many ‘pillars’, take for instance a dressage level 4 test as one of my ‘ultimate’ goals. One pillar is a collection of all the exercises in that test (half pass, half pirouettes, collected walk, trot, canter, etc).
Another pillar contains all the building blocks to prepare a horse mentally for a competition. At a competition terrain there are many unfamiliar things happening, like music, flags, strange horses, white fences, flower pots and so on.
A third pillar could consist of all the building blocks required to make your horse a happy traveller. A fourth pillar could contain all husbandry skills, like standing still while saddling, braiding, or saddling in a strange environment.
There are hundreds of building blocks one can distill from just one long term goal, like riding a level 4 dressage test. If you make a sketch, it would look like this:
If you do the same thing with one behaviour and divide it into very small baby steps, you’ve created a shaping plan.
A shaping plan for ‘targeting‘ can look like this:
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