Proof and Consolidating a Behaviour
When the horse is getting really good at responding to a particular cue we can then deepen the horse’s understanding of this cue
by doing lots of repetitions of this behaviour being performed perfectly. We should try to get 5-7 repetitions of the behaviour at its best and then have a rest or change of subject.
Remember that when the horse learns a behaviour it is learning the behaviour in the context of the environment it is in at the time of learning. So the horse learns to perform a behaviour in the context of that environment. For example if we teach the horse a response such as stepping backwards, we will need to then teach the horse to step backwards in other parts of the arena and in other enrivoments outside the arena, in the stable, at the wash bay, in the float, etc. Each time you take the horse to a new environment you will need to train the behaviour as if the horse has never done the behaviour before. Take the time and patience to teach the horse to do the behaviour in each new location. Expect that the horse may not perform the behaviour in the new location, use the same steps to get the horse offering the behaviour as you did when you initially taught the behaviour at home. Understanding that horses learn thing in a very context specific way allows you to understand why it is important to train any new behaviour in at least 10 different locations and with increasing distractions. This then teaches the horse to respond in any virtually any situation.
Proof is when we can ask/cue the horse for a behaviour and it responds by performing the correct corresponding behaviour every time. If the horse gets confused and sometimes offers the wrong behaviour or sometimes does nothing then the behaviour needs more training to get to the proof stage.
A cue is signal we use to to ask the horse to perform a specific behaviour.
For example with my horse Rumba if I raise both arms above my head and this is the signal that will cause him to rear. He has learned that rearing in response to that cue will have rewarding consequences.
If I stand in front of him and gently wave my finger side to side he will go backwards.
If I say “smile” in a specific tone he will raise his top lip. If I touch his left front leg in a specific spot below the knee he will bow.
These are all cues that ask the horse to perform certain behaviours.
Cues can be anything the horse can see, hear or feel. A cue might even be something in the horse’s environment rather than something we do. Such as the appearance of a dog, a sound such as a siren.
If we give the horse a signal to perform a behaviour we generally use visual, verbal or pressure/touch cues.
A visual cue is something the horse can see, for example a specific change in my posture, such as raising one arm out to the side at shoulder height.
A verbal cue is when we say a word or use a sound to trigger a particular behaviour.
For example if we say the word “whoa” when we want the horse to stop and stand still. Many people use the word “back” to ask the horse to go backwards, or the word “over” to get the horse to move over when it is tied up.
A pressure/touch cue is something the horse can feel for example I apply light downwards pressure behind the horse’s ears with my hand to ask the horse to lower his head. We also use pressure cues when we are riding, for example we use pressure on two reins to ask the horse to stop and leg pressure to ask the horse to walk on.
To Teach the Horse a New Cue
The best way to teach a new cue is to already have the horse offering the behaviour by shaping the behaviour with positive and negative reinforcement. For example if I want to teach my horse to put its head down in response to the words “head down”.
First I would shape the behaviour by rewarding any downwards movements of the horse’s head. I could free shape this behaviour and click and reward any time the horse lowers its head. I could also use a halter and lead rope to apply gentle negative reinforcement. Using gentle downwards pressure on the lead rope and releasing the pressure when the horse lowers its head. I could combine positive and negative reinforcement together by using gentle pressure on the lead rope and then releasing and clicking and giving the horse a treat when it lowers its head. I could then gradually increase the amount the horse has to lower its head to earn a release, click, treat. Within a few repetitions the horse will be willingly lowering its head all the way to the ground.
Once I have the behaviour established I do lots of repetitions of the behavior, click, treat.
I can then start to add a cue to the behaviour in the moment just after the horse has been rewarded and before it offers the behaviour again. So I begin to add the cue just before the behaviour happens. With repetition the cue will be able to trigger the behaviour.
For example when I have the horse offering to lower its head all the way to the ground I can then give this behaviour a cue.
I could say “head down” immediately before the horse puts its head down then reward the behaviour with a click and treat.
If I give the cue and the behaviour doesn’t happen don’t give the cue again because the horse will lose the connection between the cue and the behaviour. Instead try to get the horse to offer the behaviour so that you can reward it. You might need to go back a step and reinforce the head down behaviour more and then try adding the cue again when the behaviour is more established.
You can add any cue to a behaviour.
It is very important that cues are easy for the horse to distinguish between. If you are using hand signals make sure they are big and clear. If you are using verbal cues always say them the same way in the same tone and pitch. If you are using pressure cues such as reins or seat/leg aids always make the cue/aid as subtle and gentle as possible.
It is important each cue is only linked to one specific behaviour. Cues that are similar or cues that have more than one associated behaviour will cause stress and anxiety in the horse. For this reason keep cues clear and consistent.
When teaching the horse a new cue it only works if you give the cue/signal before the behaviour happens. If you give the signal after the horse has already performed the behaviour the horse will not connect the cue with the behaviour.
As a brief overview we simply get the behaviour happening and then reward it until the horse is offering it on purpose. We can set the horse up to make it easy for the horse to offer the behaviour. When we can reliably predict when the behaviour is about to happen that is when we give the cue, the behaviour happens and we reward the horse with a click and treat.
You can set a behaviour up for example when teaching the horse to lay down. If you hose the horse down and then put it in a sand yard or arena it will probably want to immediately have a roll. When you see the horse buckling at the knees give the signal to lay down “tap the ground with your hand”, then when the horse lays down click and give the horse a treat. It won’t matter if the horse gets up first and then gets the treat. If you set the horse up to want to roll, (hose them put in sand yard), give the signal to roll, then reward the horse when it rolls. Pretty soon the horse will lay down on cue. There are many ways you can capture behaviours like this. It is a fun thing to think of creative new cues that you can add to a behaviour. 🙂
Shaping a behavior
The way to improve a behavior or response is through shaping.
Shaping means to gradually change the standards of behavior that are rewarded.
Most tasks can be broken down into smaller learning components that allow the horse to learn each individual part. We can then put behaviors together to produce another more complex behavior.
Targeting is when we get the horse to touch it’s nose on an object.
Targeting is a great way to get the horse used to scary things. It is also an important part of teaching the horse to really understand clicker training.
Step 4. Park – Stand still and stay there
The next step is to teach your horse to stand still while you walk away from them.
Teaching a horse to stand still and stay there is probably one of the most important and useful things you can teach your horse. It is often assumed that a horse will know this when actually very few people take the time to teach the horse this important lesson.
To teach the horse to stand still they first need to know how to step forwards and backwards in response to pressure on the halter and lead rope or halter. The horse will need to know how to back off, and how to back off from a visual cue.
We begin by teaching the horse to stay while we take just one little step away from them.
Have the horse standing next to you on a halter and lead rope.
Have the lead rope hanging loosely with no pressure, with a safe length of lead rope.
Step away from the horse quickly, click then step back to the horse and give them a treat.
If you step away quickly enough you will be able to click and step back to them before they have even moved anywhere.
Repeat this as many times as you can in quick succession. Ideally, 3 sets of ten repetitions. (30 repetitions in total).
If the horse moves when you step away from them, immediately step back in and use the halter to cue the horse to step backwards one step, or as many steps as the horse has moved. For example if the horse takes three steps, then correct them by gently getting them to take three steps back.
Then immediately try again, step away one step, click, then step back in and give them a treat.
Every time they move, immediately correct them by stepping them backwards to where they were.
Within a short time the horse will figure out that if it just stands there you will keep click and treating!
This becomes a fantastic thing for the horse, all it has to do is stand there and you click and feed them, woohoo!!!
The horse will love this exercise.
With practice you will soon be able to progress until you can take two steps away from the horse without the horse moving.
Click when you step away if the horse stands still, then give the horse a treat.
Repeat the exercise gradually getting further away from the horse.
If the horse moves, immediately put them back to where they where then repeat the exercise.
Don’t click for the reinback if you have to put the horse back. Only click if the horse stands still while you walk away.
You can then start to introduce a cue. Hold up your hand with your palm flat facing the horse and say “stand”, then take a step away from the horse. Click and then go to the horse and give them the treat.
Use the verbal cue “stand” and the visual cue at the same time (stop type gesture, hand out with flat palm).
Then step away from the horse. Click and treat if they stand still.
Gradually progress until you can walk further away from the horse without it moving.
Then progress until you can walk, run jump, skip or hop around them.
It is important to retrain this exercise from scratch in at least 10 different locations.
With each training session or each different location the horse will respond more quickly.
By training this behaviour in a variety of locations and with increasing distractions the horse will learn to stand
and stay until you ask it to move again.
This is one of the most important things to teach every horse.
You can also improve this lesson by ensuring that the horse is really wanting to stand still.
If the horse is really fresh and full of energy it will help to lunge the horse a bit first so that they are more likely to stand still when you are trying to teach the correct response to this cue.
This is just like teaching a dog to “stay”….
Step 3. Back Off From a Visual Cue
Now you have taught your horse to look away and to back off, the next step is to teach the horse to back off in response to a visual cue. The visual cue we are going to use is you holding your hand straight out towards the horse and waving your finger up and down.
Step 1. Look Away
To begin clicker training the first thing we need to teach the horse is to turn their head away from us to earn a click and treat. It is important that this is the first thing that the horse learns with clicker training because this will keep you safe and will ensure that the horse learns to take treats gently. Continue reading
Operant Conditioning (Trial and Error Learning)
Behaviour = Consequenses
- Operant conditioning forms an association between a behavior and a consequence.