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. 🙂