In my mind this is cutting edge training that horse trainers will find compelling when they invest the time and energy to learn the process.
Laurie Higgins started a thread on our Facebook group in the January challenge and it is the beginning process of how to develop a Start Button behavior of moving forward. I invite you to check out the challenge and participate.
In this thread I’m going to post an overview and a video of the process.
CAVEAT: Before I go on and explain this, there are some pre-requisites to how I teach this. You need to have a cue for “whoa” in place. I teach the whoa behavior without pressure, along with all of the other necessary movement behaviors I use in my training. Be sure you have already trained the action of “whoa” and its cue.
Also your horse and you need to understand the basic principles of operant conditioning. Your horse needs to know that his behavior has an effect on you and the outcome of his efforts bring him something he wants. He should understand that he needs to repeat behavior he was doing when he hears the click. Teaching a Start Button is not a technique for newbie horses or newbie owners.
Moving on, why do we teach a start button for walking forward?
People do this for many reasons. They have been taught that walking ahead without regard to the level of preparedness from the horse is one sign of being a good leader. They think making the horse feel the pressure and yielding to it is a “must” if they’re ever going to ride. For some, they think the horse needs to learn it has no choice. People also walk away before the horse is ready because they’re distracted; they have grown to EXPECT the horse to follow, because they were told to ignore signals that the horse might be bothered and just keep walking forward with focus. The list is endless.
So my first goal in this lesson is to slow down the person and help them wait until the horse actually initiates the forward motion. It is not the end goal, but an important step. This can be a real eye opener.
The order is: Watch the horse. Follow the horse when he starts to move. Resist the temptation to make the horse move forward with your body language. Right now you are following the horse.
Take two or three steps with him, then begin to cue the stop. Click/treat the stop.
Repeat the exercise several times.
NOW, HERE IS THE PART THAT TAKES SKILL.
Observe your horse very, very carefully. You will notice that after the horse has stopped, it will begin to prepare to walk forward again. This is your magic moment.
Once you have identified the repeating behavior, use that behavior as your signal to move with the horse.
If you would like a concept to make this exercise more salient, think of “moving forward” as a primary reinforcer. You are reinforcing the ear flick or rock-back by moving forward with the horse.
In the process of building this behavior, I will often do several repetitions of waiting for the signal or start button from the horse and then I move forward.
I also include a few sessions where I reinforce their understanding of the “Start Button”/rock back by clicking the actual rock-back itself.
As is the case with teaching cues, I add some sessions where I begin to move my own body forward slightly ahead of their “Start Button” behavior. In this manner, I am giving my own cue to their behavior. However I continue to train this with many repetitions of allowing them to initiate forward motion after they give the their Start Button signal.
So the next question is why?
My answer would be in the form of the examples. I have used this technique in situations where horses are fearful. Previously while they might have gone forward with a cue, the fear would begin to build. Sometimes they would become more tense as we progressed. Now when I’m in a situation where I think the horse might be fearful, I cue the stop, click/treat, and I wait for them to initiate forward motion.
Now when I take my horses out to go for a hack or a walk-about, they are eager to go and forward motion is very reinforcing for them. As soon as they feel comfortable, they want to move forward. Giving them the opportunity to express their choice in these situations has created even more safe and calm behaviors in my horses and the horses I work with.