In positive reinforcement training we need our horse to think about what we want and to make a conscious decision to do it.
We don’t push, pull, force or threaten our horse in the right direction and release the pressure, force or take away the threat when he performs the desired behaviour. No, we have to create an environment in which he can use his brain, so that he can choose to do what we want.
In order to learn, your horse needs to be in thinking mode.
This self-imposed challenge to ask the horse to use his brain, demands proper preparation from the trainer:
- We need to think about we want in advance, in order to
- Set our horses up for Success.
How do you Set your Horse up for Success?
You only have a marker (to mark the behaviour), a reinforcer (to strengthen the behaviour) and your brain to make it happen.
You have to guide your horse with your clicks from where he is to where you want him to be, the desired behaviour. In order to do that successfully you need a plan. This is called a ‘shaping plan’. You need to shape the behaviour step by step.
A shaping plan is your written approach to train a specific behaviour.
It describes every little step (criterion) in the process to train the desired behaviour. This process is called ‘splitting’ behaviour.
When you split the behaviour in small enough steps, it is easy for your horse to understand what you want (and what he will be reinforced for).
It gives in detail an objective description of the desired behaviour, your goal behaviour. A good shaping plan also contains a description of the circumstances of the training: where you train, the date, the name of the horse, the trainer, what reinforcers will be used and how many good tries will lead to the next criterion.
With a good shaping plan you can guide your horse with clicks to the desired behaviour.
If you split the behaviour in small enough steps, you create enough stepping stones to go from A to B to C to D (Desired behaviour).
If you don’t have enough steps, you get stuck. That is called ‘lumping’ behaviour and your horse can’t make the jump from behaviour A to C. He gets stuck and doesn’t understand anymore where you want him to go.
If you go back to your shaping plan you can see that B is missing. It is easy to come up with an extra stepping stone if you already have a direction of where you want to go.
Purpose of a Shaping Plan
- You know what your criterion for a click is
- You know after how many successful tries you go to the next criterion
- You know what the next criterion is (for what behaviour you will click and reinforce)
- You know what reinforcers you are going to use and which ones you’ve used in the past
- You know when to give your horse a break.
Training without a shaping plan
What happens if you don’t make a shaping plan? You set yourself up for failure and frustration.
- Without a plan of approach it is much harder to recognize if you are making progress.
- Without a written plan you easily forget what your starting point was and you might not celebrate your successes enough
- You will miss ‘click-worthy’ moments because you haven’t set parameters what is click worthy and what is not.
- It is harder to raise your criteria
- It is also harder to be flexible in your training and adjust as soon as frustration in you of your horse occurs. You don’t have an alternative ready and it is harder to go back to the step where your horse still was successful. As you get more experienced in writing shaping plans, you will notice that you become way more creative in finding solutions to challenges that occur in training.
5 Benefits of a Shaping Plan
- If you get stuck you get yourself unstuck way faster because it is easier to see where you need to add an extra step, need to change your reinforcer and/or go back to where your horse was still successful.
- The more you practise the more experience you get in splitting behaviour. You will ‘lump’ less and prevent frustration and other undesired emotions and feelings in training
- Once you’ve written a good shaping plan you can re-create your training successes with other horses. Even years later, just because you’ve written it down.
- It is easier to be flexible in training and come up with an alternative step if you get stuck because you’ve given your training approach already so much thought.
- A good plan will speed up your training.
One of the Key Lesson I teach is how to write and use a shaping plan. Shaping plans are your Key to Success in Positive Reinforcement training.
Read this blog too: Key to Success is Making a Shaping Plan
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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners create the relationship with their horse they really, really want and teach them how to get results in training.
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