Best Clicker Training Tip for Advanced Horse Trainers

advanced clickertraining tips hippologicOne 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.

A Shaping plan consist of enough small steps for your horse to be successful in your training

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

 
Lumping in clicker training means that you make the steps too big for your horse to be successfulThe 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).
 
_clickertraining_hippologic_reinforce2) 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 this

 
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!
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Shaping Plan for Haltering in 3 Steps (Clicker Training Horses)

What is your biggest struggle in clicker training? Splitting behaviour? Do you catch yourself sometimes lumping behaviour?

The most challenging task for a positive reinforcement trainer is to ‘thin slice’ your goal behaviour into trainable steps. This process is called a shaping plan.

Key Lesson for Trainers: Shaping plan

One of the 6 Key Lessons for Trainers in HippoLogic’s horse training system is teaching horse people how they can make good shaping plans for their horses.

Shaping plan in 3 easy steps

Step 1 Determine your goal behaviour

Step 2 Divide it into smaller steps. And even smaller. If you can, even more baby steps.

Step 3 Write them all down

#1 Determine Your Goal behaviour

Describe your goal behaviour in a detailed way. Asking questions will help you with this description:

  1. How does the horse behave (describe)
  2. Does your horse move slow, fast or not at all in the goal behaviour
  3. Where are his feet ideally?
  4. Where is is head
  5. How does he use his neck
  6. What about his other body parts: what are they doing and how do they move
  7. Where are you: in front of your horse, next to your horse (left or right) or on your horse (riding)
  8. And so on

Example: Haltering

  1. The horse is calm and is relaxed
  2. Horse stands still (otherwise halter becomes challenging)
  3. His feet are on the ground (not on my feet), so no pawing or moving around
  4. His head is relatively low
  5. Neck horizontal (horses that keep their head high or moving are hard to halter)
  6. Tail doesn’t move (no swishing)
  7. I am in front of the horse (I know traditionally you need to stay at the left. Clicker training is not traditional. It’s OK to break some rules. I like to be in front so it’s easy to teach horses to ‘self halter’.)

#2 Divide Goal into Trainable Steps

When you did a good job describing the behaviour you have a lot of starting points to make a good shaping plan.
In your shaping plan you write down every step you need to teach your horse in order to train your goal behaviour.

It helps to remember that your horse has no clue what you want to accomplish!

Every step in the description above can help you divide the goal behaviour ‘haltering’ into smaller steps.

The first step has to be that the horse stands still and is approachable. We all know how hard it is to halter a walking or trotting running horse, don’t we?

So all the above steps in the description of the goal behaviour can be steps in your shaping plan. If you think this is undue than you’ve probably never tamed and trained a wild horse. Also for halter shy and ear and head shy horses these steps all can be necessary.

Now you have the perfect body posture trained the next step is to bring in the halter. Some of the other steps in the shaping plan of training haltering are:

  • Horse stands still and keeps his head still when he sees the halter
  • Halter can move towards the horse and the horse keeps his head still
  • Head is at a height that is convenient to halter
  • Horse keeps his head still or
  • moves slightly down when the noseband is around his nose (Key Lesson Head lowering and Key Lesson Targeting are excellent training tools to train this part)
  • Horse keeps head still when head piece touches ears (for head and ear shy horses you need to thin slice this even further!)
  • Horse keeps head still when head piece goes over his ears
  • Horse keeps head still when handler closes the halter

Each and every step in the above list can be divided even small if the horse needs it.
In your shaping plan you also write down when you want to move to the next step, what reinforcers you use and what the set up of the training environment is.

#3 Write it Down!

Studies have proven that writing your goals down help improve accomplishing it with 39%. People who share their goals and make themselves accountable (by sharing their goal with their coach or close friend) even increase their chances to 79%!

If you’ve written your shaping plan down it’s also way easier to remember. You’ve already visualized it in detail in order to write it down. Don’t underestimate the power of the pen! If you need help writing shaping plans, I happen to be a star in it! I also offer accountability for my students, so if you want to increase your chances of success, you know how to find me, right?

Read on

Smart strategy to re-train a halter shy horse with video.

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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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6 steps to start riding with the clicker (3/6)

‘How do you implement clicker training under saddle?’, is a question many equestrians ask themselves. The answer is simple: the same way you implemented it from the ground! Sounds logical. How do we start best?

First you have to learn the principles of Learning and Motivation, see this part 1 of this series.

Step 2 is to set a riding goal.

Now you have set a goal, it’s time to stake step 3; you have to split it into tiny baby steps. This is called a shaping plan. How are you going to shape the behaviour into your goal behaviour?

After I share the 6 basics (Key Lessons for Riders) with you, I will start a blog about how to implement all of this in practise.

Key Lesson for Riders #3: Shaping Plan

Now you’ve a clear vision of what you want to accomplish under saddle you can start breaking it down in super small increments. Those will become your stepping stones to your goal.

A Shaping plan consist of enough small steps for your horse to be successful in your training

Break up your clicker training so every step leads you closer to success

Tip #1 for a Shaping plan that works

Each baby step must be small enough to be understood by your horse, keep your horse engaged and big enough to be a bit of a challenge (just a bit, you don’t want to frustrate or discourage him).

Your shaping plan consist everything that is going to happen in your training:

  • what you will use as reinforcement
  • how often you will repeat a criterion before moving on to the next one
  • details about where you are going to train the behaviour
  • how the set up of your training area will be
  • all criteria that are needed in order to reach your goal: duration, distance and quality.

This is a very important step! It’s also difficult therefor I give all my students a template that they can use to practise.

  • what bridge signal you’ll use
  • your cue (verbal, body langues, props)
  • duration of your session
  • if you are going to use jackpots and what for
  • and every other detail that is or can be important

Making a shaping plan and splitting behaviour is one of the most important steps in positive reinforcement. If you think too lightly about this and are not going to sit down and think it over, discuss it with your mentor/coach/instructor/friend you will get stuck later in your training process!

So take the time it takes to do it right, it will save lots of time (and frustration!) later!

Lumping in our training (by not making a shaping plan) is a huge pitfall for all of us (including me)! We think we can skip this step or ‘do it in our head’. That’s not true. Making a good shaping plan is the best investment you can make in your training!

I recommend training all behaviour you want to see under saddle from the ground first. Include these steps in your shaping plan, too. Example: to teach rein aids with R+ from the ground, then from the saddle in all gaits and the steps in between.

Tip #2 for a Shaping plan that works

Thinking about how you are going to split the behaviour and envisioning all the steps is great. Another success tip is to write it down.

It’s proven that this will increase the likelihood of success. When you write down your goal and your steps it will become clear if and where you need to be a little more specific.

If you’ve written something down you will remember it better. So when you are actually training and your horse leaps, you still know what your next step is going to be! Or, if you’re lumping, you know what your previous steps were suppose to be. It will be way easier to go back where your horse was still successful.

Tip #3 for a Shaping plan that works

Keep your shaping plans together in a designated place. The more shaping plans you make, the better. I recommend to make one for every behaviour you train, whether it’s a simple or complex behaviour._Key Lesson for Trainers_shaping plan clickertraining hippologic

After a while you will forget how you exactly trained behaviour X, Y or Z. So if someone asks you: ‘How did you train that?’ you can actually look it up and tell them!

Or when you are going to train another horse the same behaviour, you already have your shaping plan ready. You might need to tweak it a bit according to the circumstances, but it will definitely help you re-create your successes!

When can I start riding?

This is the perfect moment to go to your horse and try out your shaping plan. In my next blog I will share with you what you need to know after you’ve been riding (training).

Enjoy your ride!_cooperative_horse_hippologic

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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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Setting your horse up for success: splitting behaviour

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.

_splitting-and-lumping-HippoLogic

Splitting behaviour

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.

Lumping behaviour

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:

  • fear
  • frustration
  • disinterest
  • distraction
  • anger
  • 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.’

Trainer

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

Mastering splitting

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:

[Readers who get my blog via their email won’t see the video embedded. Sorry about this. If you want to see it, follow this link to my blog https://hippologic.wordpress.com]

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.

Related articles

Setting your horse up for success: Context shift

Setting your horse up for Succes: Short sessions

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve human-horse relationships. I connect horse women with their inner wisdom and teach them the principles of learning and motivation, so they become confident and skilled to train their horse in a safe and effective way that is a lot of FUN for both human and horse. Win-win.
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Technieken om gedrag te verkrijgen: shaping, targeting en capturing

[Click here for the English version of this article]

Deel I van deze serie ging over de voor- en nadelen van luring en moulding.  In dit tweede deel licht ik de begrippen shaping, targeting en capturing toe.

Shaping
Shaping betekent ‘vormen’. Shaping houdt in dat het eindgedrag wordt bereikt door het op te delen in zoveel mogelijk kleine stapjes. Elk stapje naar het gewenste gedrag wordt afzonderlijk getraind (geclickt en beloond). Het criterium wordt pas verhoogd als de vorige stap goed bevestigd is.

Door het doelgedrag in vele trainbare stappen te verdelen, kan elk gewenst gedrag vanuit het ‘niets’ aangeleerd worden. Dit heet free shaping.

Shaping kan ook worden gebruikt om al bestaand gedrag verder te trainen. Zo kan men langzaam elementen als duur, afleidingen of afstand erbij in trainen.

Voordelen van shaping
Het is een veilige en zekere manier om elk gewenst gedrag te trainen.

Het is een goede manier om je paard op te zetten voor succes. Elke stap van het shaping proces is gemakkelijk te begrijpen voor het paard en makkelijk uit te voeren. Het brugsignaal (de click) begeleid het paard door het gehele proces, zodat hij voldoende informatie krijgt over wat er van hem verwacht wordt.

Shaping kan gebruikt worden om complexe gedragingen aan te leren.

Het paard werkt in vrijheid. Dit maakt het gemakkelijker om mentale veranderingen in het paard op te merken (emoties) of fysieke veranderingen zoals vermoeidheid of fysieke beperkingen op te merken.

Nadelen van shaping
Het kan erg lastig zijn voor de trainer om het doelgedrag in voldoende kleine stappen te verdelen. ‘Splitting’ heet dat in het Engels. Als de trainer de stappen te groot maakt (‘lumping’) of zijn criteria te snel verhoogd, kunnen paard en/of trainer gemakkelijk gefrustreerd raken.

Afhankelijk van de complexiteit van het gedrag wat men wil trainen, kan shaping enige tijd in beslag nemen. Elke kleine stap moet immers afzonderlijk getraind worden.

De beloningen moeten voldoende waarde hebben voor het paard en de taken moeten voldoende uitdaging bieden om het paard geïnteresseerd te houden. Dat kan een uitdaging op zich zijn.

De trainer moet een goed observatievermogen en goede timing hebben om elke kleine voortgang naar het eindgedrag op te merken, direct te clicken en te belonen.

Targeting
Targeting is het aanraken van een bepaald object (bv de bal aan een stok, de targetstick) met een specifiek lichaamsdeel. Het paard moet bijvoorbeeld met zijn neus de targetstick aanraken.

De targetstick is niet hetzelfde als luring of lokaas gebruiken omdat de targetstick geen primaire reinforcer (voer) is. Targeting wordt aangeleerd met behulp van shaping.

 

hippologic key lesson targeting

Voordelen van targeting
Targeting is een oneindig veelzijdig omdat bijna elk gewenst gedrag met targeting aangeleerd kan worden.

Het is een veilige trainingsmethode. Er hoeft geen fysiek contact te zijn tussen het paard en de trainer. Je kan zelfs trainen met een hek tussen jou en je paard als dat wenselijk is of noodzakelijk.

De target heeft niet zo’n grote aantrekkingskracht als lokaas en leidt het paard daardoor minder af van het te leren gedrag.

Een targetstick kan je bereik vergroten (je arm verlengen). Je kunt met een lange targetstick je paard van je af leiden, dus weg van je zakken vol met lekkers en uit je persoonlijke cirkel. Zie foto hierboven.

Het paard kan vrij lopen tijdens de training waardoor het gemakkelijker is om emoties in het paard op te merken zoals angst, nieuwsgierigheid, frustratie enzovoort. Ook is het gemakkelijker om te zien of het paard fysiek in staat is de opdracht uit te voeren.

Nadelen van targeting
Je moet de target afbouwen. Dat kan een uitdaging zijn. De gemakkelijkste manier is om het gewenste gedrag eerst goed op cue te zetten.

De targetstick is een extra stuk gereedschap in je handen.

Targeting wordt aangeleerd door middel van shaping, zie nadelen van shaping.

Capturing
Capturing betekent letterlijk het ‘vangen’ van het doelgedrag met de clicker (markeren) en het versterken (belonen). Voorbeeld: de klassieke buiging lijkt erg op het natuurlijke gedrag van een paard dat zich uitrekt na een dutje. Click en beloon terwijl je paard zich uitrekt.

Voordelen van capturing
Het grootste voordeel is dat het een snelle manier is van iets nieuws aanleren, aangezien je paard het eindgedrag al vertoont.

Het is een veilige manier van trainen, het kan van een afstand.

Onervaren trainers kunnen het gebruiken. Je timing hoeft niet heel nauwkeurig te zijn om het (hele) gedrag te markeren.

Nadelen van capturing
De gehele training staat of valt met de bereidheid van het paard het gewenste gedrag te vertonen als de trainer aanwezig is. De trainer moet altijd zijn brugsignaal en beloning bij de hand hebben.

Het kan lastig zijn om het paard achter een nieuwe cue voor het gewenste gedrag aan te leren. Tijdens het aanleerproces kan je paard iets al als een cue hebben opgevat. Aangezien de trainer niet weet wat het paard als cue opgevat heeft, kan de trainer dit niet in zijn voordeel gebruiken om van de ‘werk cue’ over te switchen naar de ‘definitive (opzettelijke) cue’. Zie ook Introducing and using cues.

Mijn favoriete training methodes
Bovenstaande drie methodes zijn mijn meest gebruikte technieken in paardentraining. Targeting en shaping gebruik ik dagelijks. Ik ben altijd alert om gewenste gedraging te ‘vangen’ (capturing).

Ik heb capturing gebruikt om Sholto de klassieke buiging aan te leren (zie onderstaande foto) en het flehmen op commando. Bij Kyra heb ik het liggen en het naar mij hinniken met capturing aangeleerd.

_classical bow_buiging_hippologic

Kyra’s flemen en haar klassieke buiging heb ik haar stap-voor-stap met een combinatie van shaping en targeting aangeleerd (zie onderstaande foto).

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Welke methode gebruik jij het meeste om nieuw gedrag aan te leren?

Sandra Poppema
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Techniques to get behaviour part II: shaping, targeting & capturing

[Click hier voor de Nederlandse versie van dit artikel]

In part I of this series I discussed the pros and cons of luring and moulding. In this part I will talk about shaping, targeting and capturing.

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). One can also shape existing behaviours. This is when elements like distractions or duration are gradually added.

Pros of shaping
It is a safe and sure way to train any behaviour.

It is a good way of setting the horse up for success: each step of the process is easy to understand and easy to perform. The bridge signal ‘guides’ the horse through the process, so he gets lots of information about what is expected.

It can be used to train very difficult and complex behaviours.

The horse is not restrained in any way. This makes it easier to notice mental changes (emotions) or physical changes like fatigue in your horse.

Cons of shaping
It can be hard for a trainer to split the behaviour into small enough steps. If the trainer is ‘lumping’ (making the steps too big, raising the criteria too fast) shaping can cause frustration in trainer and horse.

Depending on the behaviour, the process can take a while since every step of it has to be trained separately.

The rewards must be reinforcing enough and the tasks must be challenging enough to keep the horse engaged. That can be a challenge.

Trainer must have a keen eye and perfect timing to observe and click the tiniest steps towards the goal behaviour.

Targeting
Targeting is touching a specified surface (eg a target stick) with a particular body part. Example: teaching your horse to touch a target stick with his nose. The target is not a lure because it is not a primary reinforcer. Targeting is taught through shaping.

hippologic key lesson targeting

Pros of targeting
Targeting has a lot of practical uses and you can train almost any behaviour with it.

It is a safe training method. There is no need for physical contact, so you can train even your horse from behind a barrier if necessary or desirably.

The target is not distracting the horse like a lure would.

A target on a stick can enlarge your reach. You can send your horse away from you and your pocket full of treats.

The horse is free (not restrained) during training and it is easier to notice emotions in training like fear, curiosity, frustration and so on. It is also easier to notice if your assignment is physically (im)possible to perform for your horse or to notice fatigue.

Cons of targeting
You have to fade out the target. That can be a bit of a challenge. The best way to do this is to put a cue on the behaviour first.

It is an extra tool in your hands.

Targeting is taught through shaping, see cons of shaping.

Capturing
Capturing is ‘catching’ the end behaviour as it happens with your bridge signal and reinforcing it. Example: the classical bow looks very much like the natural behaviour of a stretch after a nap.  Click and reward your horse while he is stretching. Capture the behaviour several times. Then add a cue. See also Introducing and using cues.

Pros of capturing
The most obvious pro is that it is a really fast way to get a new behaviour, since the horse is already displaying the ‘goal behaviour’.

It is a safe method to train the behaviour.

Novice trainers can use it. Timing doesn’t have to be very accurate.

Cons of capturing
The training is totally dependant on the horses willingness to perform the behaviour and the chances of the trainer being present at the time. The trainer must have a bridge signal and reward present.

It can be hard to communicate a (new) cue to your horse. While training you may have accidentally introduced one already.  You might not know what it is as a horse is very perceptive of your unconscious movements. This might be difficult to change afterwards.

My favourite training methods
These three are my favourite ways of getting a behaviour. I use targeting and shaping on a daily basis.

I used capturing to teach Sholto the classical bow (see picture below) and flehmen on command. Kyra’s lying down and nickering to me are also taught through capturing.

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Kyra’s flemen and her classical bow (see picture below) are taught with shaping and targeting.

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What is your most used method to teach your horse behaviours?

Safe the date: Thursday March 7, 2019

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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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Less is more

It sounds contradictory: how can less be more? In horse training it often is true. We try too hard. Three examples of less is more.

Don’t over ask
We expect too much of our horses. We don’t realize during training that a learning process consist out of many, many baby steps, which shapes a behaviour. Work on one criteria at a time. Only after the horse masters a set of different criteria is it time to combine them.

If we are ‘lumpers’ instead of ‘splitters’ we ask too much. Less is more: work on one criterion at a time. Get faster to the end behaviour, by skipping the frustration part which will set the horse back a few steps.

Example: if you want to teach a very mouthy horse to target, you can work a few sessions on just the criterion ‘keeping lips together’ or ‘relaxed muzzle’ and other sessions on ‘looking at target’, ‘moving nose towards target’ and ‘touching target’. After the horse masters these criteria separately can you combine them to ‘touching the target with a relaxed muzzle’.

Teach one criterion per session. In this way you can click and reward your horse more often and training will feel more successful and is more fun. For both of you! Less is more: teach less criteria at once.

Adjust criteria to circumstances
People don’t realize that horses do not easily generalize behaviour or cues as humans do. In other words, we don’t take into account that our horse is learning in a specific context. That’s why we don’t lower our criteria and expectations if we ask the same behaviour in another context. We are skipping steps in the learning process and don’t set our horses up for success.

Example: you have taught your horse to touch a target stick. You’ve always practised in the pasture. Now your friend is visiting and you want to show your horses’ progress.

Today it is rainy and instead of working in the pasture as usual, you decide to work in the barn. If you are asking your horse to touch the target, he might not perform as well as in the context where the behaviour was taught (pasture).

If you aren’t anticipating this context shift and you don’t lower your criteria momentarily, you might be disappointed about your horse’s performance. Less is more: lower criteria if context changes.

Keep cues as light as possible
People don’t realize that if they make their cues or riding aids ‘clearer’ (read: stronger or: bigger) if the horse doesn’t respond well, they are not the same anymore as the light cues the horse is used to.

Horse riding is not like tennis: if the ball isn’t going over the net, smack it harder. Figure out what the reason is the horse isn’t responding to your cue (read How to… listen to Horses). Adjust to the situation and work on the source of the problem rather than working on the symptoms (obeying your cues). If you’ve solved that, you can keep your cues and riding aids light.

Less is more: stay with light cues and the chance the horse responds correctly increases.

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In what circumstances are you thinking: ‘Less is more’?

Sandra Poppema

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