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?


  1. "Asking for a horse to accept the weight of a rider when he is not yet comfortable with the saddle is lumping."

    This might not be the clearest example for lumping vs. splitting. Many of us back our horses (backing = start riding) bareback, without a saddle.

    For three horses, I've gotten on them without them ever having had a saddle on. Teaching the horse to accept weight can be done very gradually without the saddle having to come first.


  2. We'd love to read a clearer related example if you have one!

  3. Your water and hose post is a really good example of splitting. You should put a link to it in this post.