Animals are learning constantly. The dinosaurs were learning and adapting their behaviour as a result of consequence and association long before humans came along to peer at lab rats in boxes and write papers about operant and classical conditioning and argue endlessly online about quadrants.
For this reason, I define “training” as simply “learning that happens in the direct presence of a human”. Broad? Yes, intentionally so. Any time we are interacting with our horses, we are potentially training them. If a human allows a horse to learn that shoving or biting or pinning ears is an effective way of getting what they want, then it is not deliberate training on the part of the human but it is training nonetheless. As the incomparable Dr Susan Friedman says, "Reinforcement is a natural process like gravity - it's in effect whether or not you notice it and make good use of it".
Most of you reading this have handled and/or ridden horses for years, or decades, and thus have spent an equal amount of time TRAINING those same horses. That training is not always deliberate, or conscious. Whether on the ground or in the saddle, we may well be getting good results, and yet often we still don’t truly know WHY it is working (or not working, as the case may be). I say “we” because this was me, from when I got my first pony as a child and on right through the next 10 years or so, despite plenty of coaching and relative success in both dressage and show jumping. I was working on gut feel and instinct, combined with some basic “recipes” given to me by instructors.
It doesn't matter at all that I didn't know the proper terms for what it was I was doing, what matters is that it worked. However, I lacked clarity about why it worked and how I might apply the same principles to different scenarios or different horses or different training problems. Looking back, it feels like I was operating in a bit of a fog, riding and training quite effectively, but without a conscious understanding of how I was doing it. After teaching many hundreds of humans to train their horses and dogs, I believe this is the way many (or perhaps most) people are, to some extent.
The thing is, if we don’t have the ability to observe and analyse behaviour, and a clear understanding of how to gain the animal's cooperation to influence that behaviour, then we’re missing out on the real magic. There’s plenty of instructors that can teach you HOW to achieve a certain outcome, just as I can buy a recipe book and bake quite a good cake by following the instructions exactly. But I don't understand the science behind baking. I can't invent a recipe, or substitute important ingredients. I don't know why one recipe calls for 1 tsp bicarb soda and another one calls for 2 tsp of baking powder, and if my scones end up hard as a rock I don't always know what to do differently next time to fix it.
We can learn specific techniques to fairly reliably get our horse to back up, or go in a “frame” before a dressage test or get him over a jump etc, but it is understanding the WHY of learning that enables our efforts to be more efficient, repeatable, and transferable to other horses and other behaviours. And importantly, this is also what enables us to train ethically and consistently, with clear communication in both directions, and ultimately giving our horse the best chance of succeeding each step of the way. And that right there is the foundation of true partnership and trust.
I want to pass on some tips at this point, in case you feel like you're experiencing a bit of fog yourself, or if you have students or friends who could do with some blue skies and clarity.
Get your hands on as many different animals as you can! The video above is of an impromptu training session with a friend's new kitten. The photos below are from the multi-species clinic I ran last year at Bullswool Farm Park. Training other species is an opportunity to improve technique, cement concepts and underlying training principles, and makes us more creative and flexible as trainers.
What experiences have you had that have caused those "pennies to drop from the heavens"? Have you got any tips to share on how to help lift the fog and start having more clarity and consciousness around the training that is happening every time we interact with our horses? Leave a comment below!
'til next time,
I don't know about you, but I've constantly got ideas for new things I want to train churning around in my head. I'll discover a training gap which is causing me problems, or identify a new ridden goal, or see a friend doing something cool with their dog and think "I bet I could train a horse to do that". But once you've thought up the latest, greatest thing you want your horse to be able to do, are you clear on next steps to turn it into reality? Or does it all feel a little murky? Do you find yourself thinking "where do I even start?!"
The great Bob Bailey knows a thing or two about good training, and his famous mantra is "Think! Plan! Do!". For most people the "Think" part (what I've described above) is the easy part. It's the fun daydream of "how great would it be if my horse did X". However, it's all the bits that come next, to turn the vision into reality, that a lot of people get stuck on.
This is actually one of my favourite parts. The creative process combined with the logical problem solving. The science, and the art. Turning fanciful ideas into plans for action. That’s what I’m hoping to shed some light on with this blog.
"Two minutes of training with a solid plan is equivalent to at least twenty minutes without"
We must remember, that as the trainer we are standing in front of the metaphorical mountain, looking up at our goal. It's a bright sunny day, and we can see the various roads winding their way up. It is clear to us where we're headed, and we're anticipating our arrival. The horse, on the other hand, is standing at the bottom in the dark, with a spotlight shining only a metre or so in front of his hooves. He can only see far enough to take one step at a time, and has no idea what the end goal is. It's crucial that we retain our empathy for just how difficult the learner's job actually is, and if we ever find ourselves beginning to think "oh come on! Why don't you just do it! It's obvious what I want you to do!", we should go away and smack our heads against the wall, then come back, apologise to our horse, and train better.
(If you haven't played the Training Game before, you must try it! It's great fun and it gives you a real insight into what it actually feels like to be an animal being trained).
One more thing I’ll just put upfront right now: there are no fixed formulas. Many people seem to want a recipe - simply complete step 1, then step 2, and you will have x result. But it doesn’t really work like that. Sorry. Behaviour and training is a study of one (Dr Susan Friedman said that!). Each animal has different skill sets, talents and temperament, as do us trainers, and all these factors (and more) influence the outcome of each session. Bottom line is, there's many roads up the mountain. Treat your barn/arena/paddock as your laboratory - get out there and experiment. But! Do your horse and yourself a favour, and do some thinking and some PLANNING first, before unleashing your fanciful ideas and hopes and wishes upon your unsuspecting equine.
So, having just said above that a "step 1, step 2" approach is not appropriate, I am now going to set out some numbered steps for you to follow. Ha!
So you have an idea of something you want to train. That being the case, here's some questions and prompts you can now ask yourself, so that you are clear and confident on how to get to your end goal. If you're not clear on how to get there, then how is your poor horse ever going to be successful? Don't leave him floundering in the dark while you wander around aimlessly.
1. What’s the end goal? Be specific!
You’re not married to every detail, things may change as you go but you should be clear on how you want the behaviour to look when you’re finished. This clarity is what enables you to make decisions as the shaping session progresses, rewarding one attempt but not another, gently steering the horse in the right direction as you build the picture you want to see.
Specifics are important! So don't just say "teach him to bow". Instead say "bow with left cannon-bone resting on the ground, head lowered, with nose at knee level". It's a really good idea to google images or video so you can see the different variations and visualise your end result. To some extent your horse will decide how he wants to do it, and you can be guided by him, but it's best to start out with an idea at least.
By way of example, below I have put a collection of bow photos (I googled 'horse trick "take a bow"'). This is just a few of the possible variations. I have sorted them according to my personal preferences. Look at the top row versus the bottom row - does one look more elegant and the other more effortful or extreme? It does to me. This is not a criticism of the trainers in question but simply a matter of style. In many cases the photographs are a "moment in time" and the horse has probably moved through a variety of different angles and positions on its way into and out of the bow. I have to admit though, some of these look downright dangerous to me (e.g. the ones where the front plane of the head is lying flat along the ground). Regardless, you can see how this exercise helps you to build a picture of where you want to end up (and therefore, how you will get there).
2. Where is your horse at right now?
We shape any new behaviour by breaking it down into small pieces and building slowly toward our goal. Visualise those small pieces as steps on a staircase. The smaller the steps, the easier and faster the staircase is to climb. Since your end goal is at the top of the shaping staircase, we need to figure out where on the staircase your horse is today. Always ask the horse this question, as he may surprise you! I have often gone out with a plan to train steps A, B, and C, and in the first two minutes my horse tells me he is actually already at step J or K and would you please keep up mum!!
3. Sketch out all the steps in between.
What’s the basic strategy here? Can we train different pieces of the behaviour and then put them together? What order should we do that? Will we back chain? What alternative ways can we think of to reach the same goal?
Let's say you want to teach your horse to fetch (aka retrieve). Fetch is a behaviour chain - in order to fetch, the horse must sight the object as it's thrown, walk away from the trainer to the object, pick up the object, turn around and return to the trainer (without dropping the object), and place it in the trainer's hand. That's a whole bunch of little behaviours strung together. If we don't reinforce the right part of this chain, we will never have a retrieving horse.
4. How can we ensure a high likelihood of success for each little step?
Other than breaking the behaviour down into tiny pieces (if you're new to this, break it down even more. Just don't get stuck; once the horse is giving you clean repetitions, move up to the next step). Reduce distance and duration and build those up slowly too.
Teach one criteria at a time. If training spanish walk, don't click for leg height and forward movement and hindquarter engagement and headset all at the same time, the poor horse will have no idea what you're on about. It's like a jigsaw puzzle - do all the edge pieces, then the windmill, then the flowers, then the sky. If you just pick up random puzzle pieces and try to fit them into other random pieces, you'll be there a long time.
Session 1 of teaching Minstrel to find a toy under a cone (this will eventually become a scent-work exercise).
4a. What are his existing skill sets that can contribute?
Depending on the behaviour you're training, useful existing skill sets may include targeting, mats, liberty leading, picking up/holding objects, following a feel on a rope or mirroring your body movements etc. How can we use these to our advantage, to make it easier for our horse to be successful (and therefore make our training more efficient)?
For example, if I want my horse to retrieve a letter from a letterbox, and he already knows how to pick up and hold an object, we are halfway there before we've even started. If I want to hold a target near my horses hip and have him perform "carrot stretches" by keeping his nose on the target, I need to find a way to explain that he should keep his feet still and bend his neck around rather than disengage the hindquarters to follow the target as he naturally would want to do. So I put a mat down and have him stand on that, before presenting the target where I want his nose to be for the stretch.
It is the trainer's responsibility to alter the environment, the props, the surroundings, the training space to ensure success for the horse. Think creatively and constantly about this.
5. What objects or props do we need? How shall we set them up?
In this context I am talking about objects we might be using as part of the behaviour. So the letterbox or basketball hoop or pedestal etc. Before you start training, and throughout the training process, examine how you can set these up to best help the horse. For example, when I first taught Hokey to fetch a bottle from the chilly bin, I propped the lid up with a towel so he could more easily nudge it open. I then quickly discovered I needed a way to hold the bottle upright inside the chilly bin, because he can only pick it up from the neck when it's sitting vertically and he often knocked it with his nose before getting a hold on it. So I sat it in a small bucket wedged between two bricks. Once we had the set-up working well, the training progress accelerated markedly.
"Execute! Time is your most precious resource - don't waste it!"
Depending on what sort of person you are, you might like to write this stuff down, do a mind-map, brainstorm it out on a whiteboard, throw ideas around with a trainer friend, or go out there and physically rehearse it without your horse. Do whatever works for you, I just want to encourage you not to inflict the messy experimental bits on your horse more than necessary. If you can predict that your horse will probably knock the basketball hoop over, then you can save him from the experience of frustration and failure by rectifying the issue before it happens or at least before it happens too often.
My hope is that these questions help you to progress past the "wouldn't it be cool if..." stage, and into the "omg look what my horse can do!" stage. Think things through, make a plan, and then go out there and DO IT! Don't labour every point - we don't want "paralysis by analysis", and I know ALL about the strategy of "planning as a form of procrastination", so catch yourself if you find you're doing either of those. To quote Bob Bailey yet again, "Thinking about good training, believing in good training, planning to do good training, is NOT the same as DOING good training!".
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback and questions.