What I teach is more important than showing a horse how to do a few tricks.
The message I am delivering in regards to using shaping, capturing and targeting to teach your horse behaviors has far-reaching implications. For example, one such benefit of shaping is the elimination of much of the man-made bracing that is built into our horses’ movement.
Most people, on a daily basis, access movement and direction with the halter/lead in such a manner that they build rigidity into their horses’ bodies. We have all seen horses who are stiff and slow to respond to the aids or who drag people around while being led. It is my contention that a lot of this is caused because the technique used to teach the horse the purpose of the pressure was done in such a way the horse never fully understood, and that the ensuing misunderstanding created tension and bracing in the horse. Once a horse is bracing, it’s pretty hard for him to receive light cues from us and pretty hard for him to respond in a way that doesn’t include bracing.
I spent many years following the work of Peggy Cummings and learned and observed just how much damage the human does to the horse’s body through our own bracing, tension, and disconnected lead/rein movements. Her work was very instrumental in my desire to show people how to be with their horses without creating bracing.
A lot of training methods are focused on correcting “disrespectful” behaviors that are actually due to the bracing that the human created. That is why I have structured my Clicker Tips and training style to teach the horse and the owner to find a mutual ground of creating movement in such a manner that the horse is relaxed and soft.
I start the training process using positive reinforcement, usually the technique of shaping, to teach the behaviors we need to access our horses’ feet and movement. Forwards, backwards, rotations, and yields are all behaviors that can be taught at liberty without any tools that might cause the horse to brace.
Doing this without hands on the lead rope can be a real eye-opener to people. After all, how do you teach a horse to follow you if you don’t have a whip, wand, rope, or halter on the horse?
So if I can train the human to work with the horse without pressure, then the horse will have two kinds of relief: 1) He’ll be relieved from the pressure the human is intentionally applying and, 2) He’ll be relieved from the pressure the person is unintentionally applying.
For example, we train the horse through shaping to follow the person’s body motion and the person learns to reinforce the horse for maintaining a consistent positioning relative to the person’s side. This is accomplished without the additional issue of the person who accidentally loses focus and starts pulling the halter to get results.
When the horse understands through shaping that “heeling” is the focus of the training, then when we go back and add our halters, leads, and head gear as “cues” to access the “heeling” behaviors. This is a great tool for reducing or eliminating the bracing in horses.
So the next time you take a hold of the lead, watch your horse’s head and neck. Does he have tension? Does he lift it slightly in response to the feel? When you walk off does he wait and then move once he feels the bump of the halter on his poll? If you notice these things, then you will find an amazing difference if you go back and re-train your heeling behaviors using shaping and the clicker. Get those new behaviors on cue and watch how differently your horse responds. It puts a whole new spin on the power of clicker training.