One of the biggest mistakes I see people make in horse training is that they don’t set their horse (or themselves) up for success. Once you know some basics about horse training, setting it up for succes becomes easier. A common mistake is not visualizing what the goal is and planning how to communicate it to your horse.
If you have a goal in mind to teach your horse, the first step to set yourself up for success is making a shaping plan. In your shaping plan you describe your goal, your starting point and how you are going to divide the goal into baby steps in order to built this new behaviour.
Split your goal behaviour into enough baby steps and train every step separately until it is mastered before you raise a criterion. In this way you train (shape) your goal behaviour in a systematic way. Each baby step is in fact a building block of the desired behaviour. So far the theory.
Splitting behaviour is not easy and this is a continues aspect to work on. Even me, after more than 16 years of experience with positive reinforcement training, I catch myself lumping behaviour. Why? Because every horse, every behaviour and every situation is different.
You can’t possibly know beforehand what your horse is capable off, physically or mentally. You only know that until you reach a boundary. Also the training circumstances have a great influence on the learning capability of humans and horses. Teaching your horse something new in stormy weather is probably not setting yourself up for success.
The most common mistake is that the steps trainers make are too big for the horse. This is called lumping. The horse doesn’t understand what is expected from him. When you lump, you simply have raised (too many) criteria, too soon.
How to recognize lumping
It is quit easy to recognize if you know what to look for. You know it is time to adjust your criteria or tweak the setting of your training if your horse shows signs of:
- shutting down
Your horse can get disinterested in you and your training because he thinks he will never earn a treat and simply gives up. Or he can get frustrated: ‘Why don’t I get that treat now, when I did this just a minute ago I got it.’
This also goes for the trainer. If you feel frustrated, anxious, despair, anger or other undesired emotions, just stop for a moment. Take a break and take few deep breaths. Get yourself into thinking mode again. Then figure out a way to split the training into more steps and start over.
Lowering your criteria is not the same as ‘failing’, on the contrary: lowering your criteria in order to follow your horses (or your own) learning curve is setting your horse up for success. A side effect is that you will succeed quicker, too
I don’t think it is realistic to expect we’ll never lump behaviour anymore. It is part of the learning experience: split behaviour enough until you notice a bump in the road. This is when you know you’re lumping. Then you split the ‘lump’ and go on until you encounter the next bump. That is ‘learning’ and it is fun.
Every time you notice that you’re lumping it is a sign that you have experience. Why? Otherwise you wouldn’t notice it and might try to solve the problem with a bit more tack, a whip or other ways to make the horse do what you desire. That is what most people do, I see this happening in the most experienced clinicians too.
Here is a video in which you can see what splitting and lumping can look like:
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Science of learning
I am grateful I have learned a bit about horse behaviour/body language, learning theory, learning processes and how to motivate a learner (human and horse). I don’t need to force my goals onto my horse anymore now that I have these tool of knowledge and experience.
If my training is not getting me the results I wanted or expected I take a break and regroup. Sometimes my break lasts for a few day or even a week. It doesn’t matter. My horse doesn’t win, if I stop training just because I don’t know what to do at that moment. I am always aiming for a win-win.
Force is never the (right) answer in my opinion. I treasure the bond with my horse too much for that.