In positive reinforcement training one of the techniques to get behaviour is called ‘shaping’. In shaping the goal behaviour is achieved by splitting the desired behaviour into many tiny steps. Each step is trained separately (clicked and reinforced).
A criterion is only raised if the previous tiny step is confirmed. In this way you can build a behaviour from scratch (free shaping). You can also shape existing behaviours. This is when elements like distractions, distance or duration are gradually added.
It is not very common in horse training, but writing down your training steps in a shaping plan is a very valuable tool. It will help you become better at splitting behaviour faster.
If you think before you train, you know what to do when things don’t work out the way you expect. It is much easier to understand/find which steps you skipped and what you can do next time. Even if you don’t bring your shaping plan to the barn, it is much clearer in your head once you’ve written it down.
The questions are:
What is the tiniest step you can think of to train behaviour X?
Next question is: can you split that step into smaller steps?
Then: Can you make it even smaller?
It is not relevant if you think your horse already mastered a particular step. Write them all down. One day you might train another horse that needs step 1 to start.
The easiest way to get experience in shaping is to build on existing behaviour and modify it.
You can work on duration. Example: your horse already knows to lift his foot for cleaning but he is not yet ready for the farrier. You can shape the behaviour into holding his foot for longer periods of time. Each second can be one of the steps to bridge and reinforce.
Not only lifting his foot is important for a farrier, but also stretching the front leg forward will help the farrier trim the hoof properly. Once your horse can do that, you can also start building duration.
You can also shape ‘distractions’ into his training. Your horse can already lift his feet for trimming, but now you want to add people and or horses walking by while you’re hold your horses foot up. Or your horse needs shoes and you want him to get used to the hammering on the hoof or the smell of a hot shoe burning the hoof. Again, start with very tiny steps to implement these kinds of distractions.
In free shaping the trainer teaches a completely new behaviour to the horse, for instance teaching a horse to jump at liberty over a low jump. A horse will naturally avoid a jump if he can walk around it. That is why people build chutes and chase the horses over it with a lunge whip.
Wouldn’t it be great if you can teach him to jump over it because he chooses to? If you can positively reinforce him to go over a jump he learns to like it in the process. After all: there is something in it for the horse (other than the relief of any pressure or threats taken away).
In order to shape the goal behaviour the trainer has to divide this complex behaviour into baby steps. What are the tiniest steps you can think of?
It depends on the horses attitude towards jumps and his experience with them. A general shaping plan for teaching to jump at liberty could look like this.
Each step can be divided into as many steps as your horse needs, for instance moving one step towards the pole must be repeated until the horse is so close he can step over it.
- Look at the pole
- Move towards the pole
- Step over the pole with one foot
- Step over the pole with two feet
- Step over the pole with three feet
- Step over the pole with four feet
- Walk over the pole
- Walk over the pole and keep walking for 1 metre
- Walk over the pole and keep walking for 1 + x metres
- Trot over the pole
- Keep trotting after the pole for 1 metre (1+x metres et cetera)
- Change the pole for a caveletti/low jump and start from the beginning
- Change the place of the pole/jump and move it from the rail a bit more to the middle
- et cetera
Until your horse can trot or canter the arena at liberty and jumps freely and enthusiastically over all the jumps.
Have fun shaping!
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