Moving my horses and how it affects their cues

I have been in the process of moving two full-sized horses and five minis for several months now. The move has occurred in two stages, and in many ways it’s as if we’ve moved twice. I’m still not complete with the process, having three more minis to move to the new digs.

During this process I’ve been reminded again how much I rely on the cues and signals that help my horses understand what to do, as well as how much the context in which they occur influences their choices. So with a brand new place, many of the contextual cues are gone.

When I look at how horses respond to pressure cues in new places I often see that people require more pressure to create the same level or quality of response to a cue. For example, if the horse is leading next to me and I ask him to slow down using pressure on the lead rope and halter, he might not be as soft as he was at home or in a familiar place.

Now I’m not telling any of you anything you don’t already know. We all hopefully have clear signals that we give to our horses that mean “Do this behavior,” so that the horse isn’t always having to guess on the spot what we want. The majority of people use pressure as their signal and the release serves as the reinforcer for that behavior. The question is how do we handle the missed cue and how do we prepare our horses to be able to respond to their cues in a variety of places?

When I am using or accessing a behavior as a clicker trainer, I respond differently than I would with methods used in pressure/release. The differences start at the very beginning, when the behaviors are being taught. First, I train a behavior using shaping and the behavior is strengthened with a positive reinforcer. Then I add cues to those behaviors; these cues facilitate clear communication with the horse, and even extend into riding cues. I begin to expand the depth of the behavior by accessing it in different places.

However, like trainers who use pressure/release, my horse can also misunderstand or not respond to a cue. I think the place where I might differ is how I interpret those slow efforts or non-responses, and what I do if that happens. Part of my response depends on the cue and the behavior itself.

The context is an important part of your training.

I have different types of cues – ones that have evolved from consistent use in a given context and others that are direct signals that mean perform a given behavior regardless of context.

An example of a contextual cue might be when I approach a gate where I am on one side of the gate and the horse is on the other. Normally I can expect the horse to offer an automatic backup. In other words, the horse offers this backup without needing me to gesture or say “back.” I also understand that the auto-back might have a lot of contextual components, so I do not assume that the auto-back will work at ALL gates.

So when I moved the horses and we were facing each other at a gate, I needed to reshape this auto-behavior in this new location. My experience with this kind of cue rebuild is that the process goes pretty quickly, and soon they will be offering the auto-back in that new location. One thing for certain, I don’t expect the auto-back in a new situation because I’ve learned that auto-behaviors can be heavily dependent on the context unless I’ve generalized them with the horses.

Cue control is probably the one area of training where I see the most confusion and misapplication with horse owners.

That brings us to the other kind of cue I use, which has more strict guidelines. We often see the guidelines called stimulus control. These are not auto-behaviors, these are not ones the horse freely offers as a means to gain reinforcement. These are behaviors that have a specific cue, the horse understands this cue in many different situations (it has been generalized), the horse doesn’t offer this behavior when it isn’t cued, the horse responds quickly when he does receive the cue and he doesn’t offer it if I cue something different.

This level of cue response is a tall order for anyone training their horse, whether they use pressure (negative reinforcement) or positive reinforcement. In my experience, it takes skill, patience and understanding of both the process of teaching cues and how horses, or the individual horse learns cues. 

So what do I do if my horse misses a cue?

The behaviors I have taught my horses based on positive reinforcement techniques, shaped without coercion, then given a cue, are like precious jewels to me. I want to keep the responses quick, well understood, and perceived with joy as an opportunity to earn something they value. I do not punish or correct the horse if he misses a cue, I just pause slightly, offer a cue I think he CAN respond to successfully, then move on.

You won’t hear me say “back, back, back” repeatedly, as if my horse had developed a hearing problem. This only serves to weaken my cue.

I will also look at why my horse missed that cue because, remember, this is a behavior I have trained well, generalized, and rely on the fact that the horse is eager to respond to this cue. So I’m expecting success.

If I think I’m at risk because I’m in a situation where I am desperately needing my horse to respond to my cue, I will use an established pressure cue. I’m not advocating we take unnecessary risks.

However, this level of cue control is where I spend a fair amount of training time with my own horses. I am very careful, for their sake, to proof the cues as much as possible. I spend time generalizing them, in a variety of contexts, practicing successful repetitions and setting them up for real success.

With the move into a new place I’m pleased that these cues are understood. Yes, the distractions are there, my horses are showing some latency in the cue response when they’re afraid, but overall, their responses to the cues we crafted together are yet another affirmation as to why I’m such an advocate of training horses this way.


About clickertraininghorses - Peggy Hogan

I teach people and train horses using positive reinforcement. The horses I work with are given choice, the freedom to volunteer behavior. The joy is that they strive to volunteer what works for both of us.
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