Friday, November 12, 2010

27. Targeting Level 3

Foot Targeting a Mat
Goal: Horse stands with both front feet on wood or rubber mat approx 18 inches square 2 cues (one of them is the presence of the mat) for 10 seconds

This behavior is the early beginnings of standing still, walking across objects, ground tie, stepping into trailers and small spaces and teaching a front foot pivot.

For this behavior, you need a square of mat, rubber or plywood about 18inches square.

Start this session with some targeting of a familiar object with his nose x5.

Next, place the mat on the ground just in front of your horse’s front feet. Stand off to the side and make eye contact with your horse, then look down at the square with your eyes. C/t for any movement your horse makes toward the square. He might lower his head to sniff, try to touch it, shift his weight forward or take a step towards it. All of these would be clickable behaviors in the early stages of training.

What if He’s Afraid of The Mat?
If he shows any fear of the mat, you might want to place it higher (on a fence or trough) where you can c/t for interacting with it more easily. Lower it to the ground as his confidence with it grows. Now try for movement towards it again. You can also use this technique to get him interested in it.

What if He Gets Stuck and Won’t Move?
Try taking a step forward to see if he will come with you and accidentally touch the mat. If not, turn around and take a step backward to see if he might follow your movement. Keep an eye on him so you can click any leg or foot movement toward the square. C/t if he lifts his foot, grazes the mat with his hoof or places his foot onto it fully. When he is moving on his own, fade your movement.

You can pick up the mat and move it a short distance between c/t if he doesn’t show much interest in it. Fade this behavior once he is showing consistent interest in interacting with it in some way.

When he has one paw placed on it fully, use reward placement to get him off the mat and restart the behavior. Make sure he is clear that the foot flat on the mat is what you are looking for.

Pawing the Mat
If he starts pawing the mat, c/t a little early just as the tip of his hoof touches the mat but before he can paw it. Later on, make sure not to c/t any pawing movements as well.

When he is consistently placing one front hoof anywhere on the mat, start waiting a little before you click to see if he’ll start bringing his other foot. C/t any movement of that second foot towards or on the mat. Reward him off the mat so he has to move off and make the choice to get back on. Aim for two front feet flat on the mat.

Adding Duration
When he is placing both front feet on the mat, start adding duration. Count using the 300 Peck method:
that is count
one, one thousand, c/t, reset (move him off the amt by offering treat to the side or front of the mat)
one, one thousand, two, one thousand, c/t, reset
one, one thousand, two, one thousand, c/t, three, one thousand, reset
Work your way up to 12 seconds.

If he moves off the mat before the numnber you are aiming for, start again back at one, one thousand and work your way up as you did before. This gives him successful practice at what he can do. This builds confidence and keeps your reinforcement rate high which keeps his interest.

Every now and then, ask for a shorter duration so the activity isn't always getting harder. For example, you are aiming for 7 seconds and you instead stop at 3 seconds and c/t.
Take the training to several other locations in your home location and start training from the beginning. Likely the third and subsequent times, he will progress more quickly.

Adding the Cue
When he can offer the two front feet on in several locations, it’s time to add the cue.
Lay the mat down, and just before you know he is going to do the behavior, give the cue (verbal or hand signal) and c/t for his response after just one second. Keep pairing the cue with his predictable response for several short training sessions. Slowly add duration back in.

When you have done about 100 repetitions (some need more) and built back up to at least 10 seconds of target time on the mat, you will want to test to see if he understands your cue. Try cueing the behavior on a new training day. If he can do it the first time, he likely knows the behavior. Try testing in the different locations you trained around his home location. If he doesn’t seem to know what the cue means, retrain in that location, pairing the cue with the behavior and try testing later.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What Skills Do My Horse and I Need to Start the Program?

What Skills Do My Horse and I Need to Start the Program?This program assumes that you and horse have some basic skills:

Trainer needs:
*A basic ability to read your horse and know when he’s approaching his threshold for ability to focus, fear, arousal etc and know when it may become a safety issue for you.
*Safety is the most important aspect when training a horse so plan your lessons accordingly and keep it in mind at all times. If the situation changes, be prepared to get yourself to safety and forget the lesson.
*You are comfortable around horses and are physically able to train the behaviors in the program or get help to do so.
*Be able to create a quiet and relatively distraction-free environment to train new behaviors. (corner of a barn, round pen etc)
*That you know at least 3 food rewards he enjoys and can tolerate without stomach upset and 2 other reinforcers such as neck scratch etc.

Horse Needs:
*Horse is comfortable around most people, other common animals in your environment and normal events in his stall, barn and paddock.
*Shows predictable, safe behaviors in the same environment.
*Can safely eat food from your hand.
*Is respectful of your personal space when in a pen with him (does not run into you or push you around).

Any of the above behaviors that are an issue with your horse need to be directly addressed first and made a priority. Call in professional help, if you don’t have the skills to address them yourself. Have your horse assessed to see if he is safe to work with. Find out his limitations and work within them.

What if My Horse Does Not Have all the Basic Skills?
If your horse does not have the skills listed above, it does not mean you cannot train him with this program, it just means you will have to take extra care in choosing the physical space you train in-one with a barrier such as a fence or gate between you and him, for example.

Also carefully choose which behaviors you start with. Any of the behaviors that can be taught from behind a fence are good ones to start with. As you train each behavior (while working on his other issues) and he becomes more comfortable with you and trusts you, and you feel that you are safe with him, you can progress carefully to training easy behaviors without physical barriers. These basic skills become the foundation for other behaviors.

The Clicker Training Levels Program for Horses has Three Groundwork parts A though C, and one Saddlework part. If you want to train a behavior in Part B but are not yet done all of Part A yet, you need to make sure that prerequisite behaviors have been trained from part A to the level you need them for part B behavior. This will be indicated in the description for each behavior. The same applies for Part C. Groundwork behaviors are taught before moving into the saddle (Part D). This is so your horse has a firm understand ing of the behaviors with you on the ground and speeds his learning (and your control) when you get in the saddle.

Should I Retrain all the Behaviors from Scratch?
You may find it valuable to train your horse all the behaviors from the beginning, even if he has been taught some or all of them using other methods. The more different ways you train a behavior, the better he will understand what you want and be able to perform them.

Working this process also allows you to learn how to make the best use of the clicker. Working through the entire process with at least one horse may also add to your training knowledge & experience as well. You may find that the clicker allows you to train to a higher level of precision in each behavior than your previous methods.

What If I want to Pick and Choose Behaviors to Train?
If your horse has some of the skills, but not others, you can choose to do only the behaviors he needs to learn. It is, however, a very good exercise to teach each behavior from the beginning as you will learn how to train that behavior using the clicker.

Choose a behavior and test your horse to see if he is able to do each level for that behavior and start training from his highest level of success. If you are going to do this option, it is recommended that you read all the previous levels for that behavior so you will know how to apply the training to other behaviors later on or do any remedial work should it be required.

How do I test to see if my horse knows the behaviors already?
Start with the first training session of the day (if you do more than one).

Get him set up for training (with clicker and trat pouch ready, quiet training environment) and cue the behavior as described. If he does it the first time you cue, he passes. If not, he needs more training at the previous level. Your can train him that day and test him cold the next dayif you are eager to move ahead in the levels. If you keep testing and he passes the second time, this becomes part of your training session. It's that simple.

Monday, November 8, 2010

26. Lumping, Splitting and Criteria

These three commonly-used terms are very important when training animals.

Most people naturally lump when they train. What this means is that they are asking for several different parts of a behavior at once or several behaviors at once.

If the animal they are training cannot succeed at learning a given behavior (barring other environmental reasons), it is usually because of lumping. The trainer asks for too much, too soon. Asking for the horse to follow a target stick for 10 feet when he can’t yet do 2 feet consistently is lumping. Asking for a horse to step backward out of the trainer’s way as a default when the horse does not know how to back a few steps on cue is lumping. Asking for a horse to accept the weight of a rider when he is not yet comfortable with the saddle or a bareback rider is lumping.

All successful clicker trainers are good splitters. They look at a finished behavior and can quickly identify what smaller parts of the behavior make up the complete one. These small parts ore called ‘criteria’.  Good trainers know that if their horse cannot be successful with the smaller behavior they are currently training, they need to break it into smaller, more achievable criteria for their horse. That might mean they only ask for the horse to take a half step towards them, or simply turns their head towards them. Maybe instead of a minute duration, they go back to 10 seconds. They go to whatever level their horse needs to succeed and build each criteria from there.

The Importance of Criteria
This is where an examination of the criteria is needed. Criteria are the smaller parts of each behavior that build on each other for the behavior to be complete and the horse to be able to perform it reliably.

There are many criteria that need to be taught separately to horses and vary depending on the behavior being trained and the location where it is trained. Here are some common ones:

Distance- how many steps the horse can do the behavior, how far way the handler is from the horse when the horse does a behavior, how far away the horse is from a distraction etc.

Duration-length of time a behavior is performed

Degree of Difficulty-how complex is the behavior, how much is being asked of the horse

Degree of Pressure or force (needed by the horse-for example-nose pushing a ball)

Distractions-sounds, sights, smells, tactile, taste etc.

Direction-of travel, orientation etc

Position of the horse- in relation to something else: handler, cart, fence etc

Number of Repetitions of a part of the behavior-needed by the horse to complete a behavior

Height-of a jump or leg lift, for example

Cuing-what types of cues are needed (visual, physical or verbal)

Value of Rewards-matching the value with the difficulty or level of distractions

Number of Behaviors needed in a chain (retrieving is actually a complex chain of at least 7 smaller behaviors)

Proficiency of a behavior-percentage of times a horse can reliably perform a learned behavior in a given training session

Latency-the time between when the cue is given and the horse performs the behavior

Speed-the speed that a horse performs a behavior: does he walk to a distant target or trot to the target? Does he slowly come to a ‘whoa’ or does he stop suddenly? (Think of reining competitions for both speed and latency)

Enthusiasm-for performing a behavior

Arousal level

Level of Stress experienced by horse


And many others!

Clicker Training is generally more successful than other types of training because trainers are aware of, plan for and train the different criteria separately before they pair them in various combinations. Then they add the criteria together in threes etc. At each step, the horse is successful and the trainer can build on this success. By the time the horse has been trained for all criteria, he is confident and ready to offer any behavior on cue and all ‘kinks’ have been worked through.

Lumping, however, can be useful when making a shaping plan for a behavior or teaching a horse to learn a concept.

By looking at the whole behavior and other similar behaviors, the trainer knows exactly what criteria are needed to train the behavior. They have a final goal behavior in mind and know what they are training towards. Any smaller behavior that leads to that final behavior can be focused on as training criteria and be rewarded.

In knowing that complete behavior of a equestrian sidepass is for the horse to
-move both front and back end in tandem,
-with the front feet crossing each other
-lifted at least 12 inches off the ground
-and back feet crossing each other
-lifted at least 12 inches off the ground
-for 10 steps
-in both left and right directions
-on verbal cue
-with trainer on the ground
-in front of the horse
will allow the trainer to select for and shape any movement that leads to the final behavior.
For example: any movement to one side by the front legs and feet, then by the back legs and feet.

This also allows them to look even smaller at tightening of muscles on the shoulder and haunches that indicate the horse is leaning or preparing to move to one side if their horse doesn’t understand the larger lump that sideways movement is wanted. Any movement indicating forward or backward movement would be ignored.

What other criteria could you select for in this behavior?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Introducing...Horse Clicker Training Levels Program

Modeled after Sue Ailsby's Training Levels for Dogs (old version), this program provides a basic framework to train a horse foundation behaviors for life and sport.

It is designed to help the trainer learn how to train a horse using the clicker, as well as train the horse. You'll find that many of the behaviors at each level reinforce each other. For example there are several behaviors that focus on increasing duration at level 3. This helps the horse to learn the concept more easily as he is getting multiple exposures to that concept through various behaviors.

It is intended to be a starting point for horses to fill in any gaps in existing training foundation skills or to provide a framework for those new to clicker training. From here, you can advance and train in any discipline that you and your horse enjoy as you will have a good partnership with your horse and will know how to train almost any behavior you dream up and your horse will be a willing partner in the process. .

I make no claims in regards to the effectiveness of this program, nor claim any liability for its use. I am putting it out there as a framework of ideas for horse clicker trainers wanting some structure for their training. Use it how you want.

I found Sue's program incredibly useful for training my own dogs (who I have and plan to compete with in a variety of dog sports), foster dogs and even visiting dogs.

The program has 4 parts:
Groundwork Part A -basic behaviors to start with
Groundwork Part B-more complex behaviors to continue training
Groundwork Part C- higher level behaviors
Saddlework Part D-transitions groundwork behaviors into the saddle (as appropriate)
Ideally, you will start training yuor horse by completing all of the behavior in Part A before moving to Part B. But more on this in the next psot.

Each part has 5 levels plus continuing education.
Level 1 is an easy behavior to get, level two will take a few more steps. Level 3 and up will take many more training sessions to achieve and need to be broken down further into smaller steps as you train. Each level are (mostly) goals in the process of training a more complex behavior by level 5.

Homework section assures that you the trainer understand the concepts you are applying & Handling section ensures the horse is getting continuous exposure to being handled. That is why they are in all parts of groundwork.

Continuing Education offers ideas of how to generalize the behavior and apply the behaviors in real life.

On the Road means that you take your horse to a less familiar place to train that level.

Following this post is a quick summary of each behavior and the goals for each level in table form. These are simply goals for each level and are part of the development of each behavior. Links will be added over time to explain how to train to each goal for that level. The beginnings of Food Zen and Targeting have already been descibed.

At the moment, I am still evaluating the basic framework to ensure the program is practical and applicable to all horses, be they young, rescued or retired.   If you have suggestions or questions, please ask.

As any any good horseman knows, start with the groundwork, spend time perfecting behaviors on the ground and you will reap huge rewards when in the saddle. There are no short cuts in training, only re-training.

If you video tape your progress as you work through this and would like to let me know of a link to your video, I'd love to add them to the blog under each behavior training description. This would be a great to have this resource for everyone to see the training process as well as see the goal for each level.

In case you are wondering why I am doing this. I am helping my sister train her horse with the clicker and the process of designing a program from one species (dogs) to another (horses) helps me to see how the principles apply across the board. As a zoologist and teacher (who uses a form of clicker training with children (called TAG Teaching), this fascinates me!

I also like to promote humane reward-based training for all animals and would like to put this program forward as a tribute to Sue Ailsby who so freely shares her knowledge and skill of both dogs and clicker training by creating the original 'Training Levels' for dogs.

Donna Hill B.Sc. B.Ed. CHI
Nanaimo, BC Canada Nov. 2010

25.Targeting Level 2

Stick Targeting
Goal: Horse nose targets the larger end of the target stick from 5 feet away, 2 cues (the stick is one cue)

This tool is useful for adding distance to a hand target. This skill will allow you to cue him to target objects further away than your arm can reach, can be used while on his back, get him moving in a specific direction from behind, teach him to turn his head and body around and many other uses, trailering a fearful horse etc. Think of it as an extension of your arm for hand targeting.

What Kind of Stick?
First, make a target stick. It needs to be made of a lightweight material, ideally telescopes for further reach, and has a surface on one end that is too large for him to bite. An old light-weight handle (such as from a Swiffer or Vileda product) with a 2 cup or larger rounded plastic container duct-taped on the end works well. An extendable golf ball retriever works very well too. Once your horse understands how to use at target stick, you can try the end of a whip that has some tape on the tip as a target (as long as he is not afraid of the whip and you teach him not to bite it).

Start by holding the stick near the container and place it just to one side and in front of your horse where he can see it. If he has been taught ‘food zen’ or ‘hand targeting’, he will be curious and will probably approach it to sniff. When he does, c/t just as he is about to touch it and remove it out of sight and reach (behind you back may work if the stick is not too long). Present the stick to him until he is consistently touching it with his nose.

He Tries to Mouth or Bite It!
If he tries to grab for the object at any time with his lips or tires to bite it, remove it out of reach (behind your back), wait a few seconds and try again. If he continues to grab for it, place the target part towards him but at a slight angle from above his head or from below. When he reaches for it, be ready to c/t just as he grazes it with his nose so he doesn’t have a chance to grab for it. Practice this several times until he seems to understand that a touch, not a grab, of the object is what you are looking for. Test this by bringing it into his reach. If he still grabs for it, you need to continue practicing just the glancing nose touch.

Video from cwagner87's channel on

Generalizing the Behavior
When he is consistently touching it with just his nose, Start moving it around. A little to the right, a little to the left. A little upwards and a little downwards. Increase the distance as long as he is successful.
Now, move your hand back on the handle of the stick a few inches from the target end. Practice the above again.
Keep moving back a few more inches at a time until you are holding it at least 3 feet from the end and your horse is consistently targeting the object on the end, not the stick itself. Train your way until you are holding the other end of the target stick if it’s longer than 3 feet.
At this point, your horse should be reaching for the end of the target stick when you present it to him, while you hold the other end.

He Noses the Stick Shaft, Not the End!
Start with a shorter hold on the stick (only exposing a nose width of the stick and the target on the end). C/t for him choosing to nose target the end only. Move your hand away from the end 3 more inches and try again. Only move your hand back if he is touching only the tip at least 8/10 times. If he is trying to touch the stick itself, keep shortening the distance to where he can be successful and work at that for awhile. Try adding a little more length again and see if he gets it.

Let’s Get Him Moving
Now you can start to get him moving with the stick. Stand with your back to the open part of his yard or stand and walk parallel to the fence. This will allow you to safely back up without getting penned or cornered by your horse.

Place the target end of the stick just out of easy touch range and to the side of his nose. If he attempts to nose touch it and shifts his weight towards it, c/t. Now ask for a leg movement towards the stick. Then a small step. Then a normal step. Then 1.5 steps, then 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,  etc. Stop at each click to reward, then step backwards, making sure you have room to move behind you. Again, start back in front of his nose and ask him to move towards it on the other side. Ask him to reach up above his head and down to the ground. A useful tool here is to ‘work the clock’ as you did for the cone target.

Next, start by placing the end of the stick just off to one side and slightly behind his ears. Move it a little further each time towards his shoulder.  Soon, he will be turning his head around and touching his shoulder. This is helpful skill to train for neck stretches and also for treat delivery when you are in the saddle.

Next, can you shape him to walk in a tight circle while following the target stick?
How about a figure 8 around some barrels?

Video from cheerioTrainer's channel on

What other things can you do with this on the ground?
While in saddle?

24. Targeting Level 1

Nose Targeting: a Very Useful Foundation Skill
Goal: Horse nose targets one object on 2 cues (the object is one cue)

Targeting is a useful tool for her horse to know. You can use it to lead him around, teach him to move his body in ways he never though possible, teach him tricks such as bowing, send him ahead of you through gates and into stalls and trailers, pick up his feet, stand stationary, retrieve objects off the ground while you are in saddle, come when called and much more! We typically start with teaching a horse to nose target our hand and a stick, but once he understands the more common target points, he can learn to target with other parts of his body as well, such as feet, shoulder, hips, rump etc.

Targeting can also be used to help train him not to be fearful of specific objects.

In Post 5, you learned how to shape a nose target to your fist. Here’s how to do it a little differently with an object.

Nose Targeting  An Object
Many people start training this behavior with a traffic cone or similar sized object such as a plastic milk jug, inverted plant pot or an old soccer or basketball.
Ideally, if you start with an object that is new to him, you will have his interest and it makes your job easier.  If he has cones in his pen, remove them for a few days before trying this with him. Otherwise use a milk jug or other object.

Make sure you do not progress too quickly (do too few repetitions at each level) or you will find the behavior falls apart (he misses it, mouths or bites it etc) when the horse is more excited or with higher level of distractions. If you find this does occur, go back to the start and retrain and do more repetitions until he is confident and focused enough to do the behavior correctly.

If this is the first object you have ever encouraged him to actively touch, you will need to shape the nose touch. This ‘touch’ is the beginning of him being able to explore novel objects and the beginning of shaping many other behaviors so it will become a ‘default’ behavior for when he is presented with new objects, especially if he has not been taught many other behaviors with the clicker.

Be ready with your treats in a pouch, clicker in one hand, and object (cone) in the other hand. Timing is important when your horse is first learning what you want. With your horse standing in front of you just at the edge of arm distance (or your and his personal space), and off to the side slightly so he can see it, present the cone by bringing it from behind you. You want to mark and reward any small behavior that will end up with him gently touching the object with his nose. As soon as your horse looks at it, sniffs it or even touches it gently with his nose, c/t. Remove the cone from his sight and try again. The first few times, he may only sniff it, or he may lick it etc. Click only those behaviors that lead to his nose making contact with the cone.

He’s Biting the Cone!
If he bites at it, do not click and remove the object from his sight. Try again. This may be an indication he is excited about the object, be generally aroused or later on in training, he may think you are wanting him to offer a different behavior (such as biting it) if you are withholding the click after he touches it. If he continues to bite it, end the session and try again later when he is calm.

If he persists in biting it, you need to present the cone in such as way that he can only lightly graze it with his nose and make sure you c/t before he bites it. You may have to present it at an angle so just the tip is available,  present the wider bottom end so it is too wide to bite or maybe present it from a direction (above, or to the side) where he is less likely to bite at it. Experiment with your horse to see what works.

If at any time, he gets excited and starts biting the cone, remove it, calm him down and try again. Go back to basics if he keeps biting it.

Once he is confidently nose touching the cone, you can start presenting it in slightly different directions. A useful tool here is to ‘work the clock’ in a small circle in front of your horse. Start with the cone at 9 on the clock face and work your way to 10, 11, 12, 1, 2 and around to nine. Using this method, you have tried all possible directions he may be asked to reach in later training sessions.
Next time around, make the circle a little bigger diameter so he has to reach a little. Again, a little bigger.

Keep working your way out from a center point (his nose) until your arm is stretch out straight as you present the cone.

Next work down towards the ground, In small increments, lower the cone towards the ground so your horse has to lean down to touch it. Eventually you can place it on the ground. Now you can add distance place the cone one step in front of your horse. Can he move to it and touch it? Move it 2 steps etc.

How about Nose Targeting a Ball?

Video from modrono's channel on

What Else Can We Do?
A follow-up nose targeting behavior (or some teach this first if their horse is gentle with his mouth and calm with food so there is no risk of getting bitten) is to teach a nose touch of your hand so you don’t have to carry a target stick for training short-reach behaviors such as leading. Use your hand for the target and repeat the same procedure as nose targeting an object. Your horse will likely learn it more quickly as once he realizes that your hand is just another object to touch, all the same ‘rules’ apply. Just be sure to not use the fist or palm-up open hand cue you used for ‘food Zen’ or your horse will be confused and not want to touch your hand. A vertical palm facing the horse and fingers pointing to the ground is different enough that your horse will notice.

Targeting Helps Overcome Fears
The process of interacting with unfamiliar objects can change fears into confidence with some practice. The horse is focussed on doing a behavior (nose targeting) with the object, instead of being fearful of it and stays in operant mode. Start with nose targeting other objects near the object of fear. If there is nothing to target, use your hand as the target object. Move closer until the target is touching the fearful object. Eventually you can directly nose target the object of fear.
In this video, the riders target other objects such as trees and stumps as they apporach the scarey vehicle. Eventually the horse nose targets the vehicle itself.

Video from markkcpt's channel on