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.

Shaping a behavior is how to teach the horse a more complex task. This is done by breaking the goal behavior down into little tiny pieces. You start by reinforcing the horse for doing a simple task. Then you change the requirements for a click gradually (!) in very small steps.
For example you could start by reinforcing the horse when the horse sniffs an object or goes near it with its nose. touches its nose on an object. The horse could progress to holding its nose on the object for longer and longer periods of time to earn a click. The next step could be moving the object slightly further away so that the horse has to take a small step to touch the object. Then two steps, then three, etc.
The final behavior could be you throwing the object and the horse cantering to it and touching it with his nose.

So the horse starts off being rewarded for an easy task, but has to progressively do more and more to earn a click and treat and is eventually performing a more complex task.

When you shape behavior, you reinforce closer and closer approximations of the actual behavior you are looking for. Breaking the behavior down into TINY steps allows progress to be made quickly. Look for the smallest improvements and click & treat!

Rules for Shaping a behavior
When shaping a behavior keep these things in mind:

– Reinforce and train ONE behavior at a time. (This is the most important rule).
This means click and reward for one specific behavior, get five good repetitions then have a rest.

– Get a response, get it CONSISTENTLY, then improve on it.
Reinforce a behavior many times before improving on it. When it is consistent, then try raising the bar.

– Don’t raise the bar to quickly. Accept tiny improvements on the behavior, and reinforce them.
We want the horse to be reinforced frequently, to assist in learning. If you raise the criteria for a click to quickly, then there will be long delays between clicks. This can cause the horse to lose interest, because it is not sure how to earn the reinforcements. Be generous, click and reward small improvements.

– If a behavior deteriorates, go back to a step where the horse was doing well, then progress again from there. You might just need to add more steps between the basic attempt and the finished behavior.

– If one shaping method is not making progress, find another.
There are many roads that lead to Rome, there are also many ways to shape a behavior.

– Try to stay ahead of your horse
Think of the steps you could use to achieve your goal, then if your horse makes sudden progress you will know what to reinforce next.

– End every session on a high note. End the session while your horse is going well.
If something causes the horse to get worried, work on a behavior they do well, so that you can reinforce them, build their confidence and keep them in a calm, learning, frame of mind.

Setting Training & Shaping Goals
It seems to be true in life, that you create what you focus on, I believe this is also true in training horses.
When we are setting training goals, it is important that we focus on “what we want the horse to do”, instead of “what we don’t want the horse to do”.

The first thing you need to do is visualize how the finished behavior will look, what movements precisely will the horse have to do and in what sequence.

e.g. Goal is for the horse to reach for the bridle, open it’s mouth around the bit, take the bit into their mouth, then lower their head and keep it down there, so that we can put the head piece over their ears and do up the buckles.

Notice that this goal clearly describes exactly what I want the horse “to do”.
This type of goal makes it easy for me to identify all the steps I will need to train for that goal.
This then gives me some concrete plans about how I could shape the behavior from start to finish..

Now consider this goal: “I want to be able to get the bridle on my horse”.
Notice that this is much less specific about what movements the horse will do, and how it will look.
It will be much harder for us to think of the steps that will lead to this kind of goal.

Listen to people talking about their horses, you might notice that many spend a considerable amount of time talking about what they don’t want the horse to do, and all the things the horse does wrong.
They tend to be very critical of themselves and their horse noticing every minor imperfection.
This type of focus and attitude is not conducive to finding training solutions, or creative shaping strategies.

Our brain is like a computer that uses questions as a laser beam to focus our creative energy.
The type of questions we ask will limit our brains capacity to find creative solutions to problems.

Consider the following two questions:

1. “Why is my horse such a jerk, why can’t he just stand still when I get on???”
2. “How can I teach my horse to stand still while I gather up the reins, put my foot in the stirrup and mount?”

Notice how each statement makes you feel, and how it might influence your ability to train your horse effectively.

Make it your intention to ask better questions, set clearer goals and work towards goals with an attitude of appreciation for every effort your horse makes. Reward the slightest try and gradually increase the criteria for a reward in very small stages.

Happy Clicking,

from Georgia

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