BARKS from the Guild March 2018

Page 42


A Natural Kind of Training

In the final part of this three-part article, Max Easey talks target training and choice, and

attempts to answer the original question: What’s in it for the horse?


© Can Stock Photo/chalabala

Targeting can be used to teach all ground work and ridden movements

n the second part of this three-part article (see Teaching the Cue, BARKS from the Guild, January 2018), I discussed the application of force-free training to horse training. I will now continue the discussion by focusing on targeting, and the importance of choice. Aside from setting up the horse to do a behavior and then waiting for her to do it, the second and by far most useful way to get her to do something we can mark and reinforce with food or a scratch is to use a target (i.e. an object we can teach her to touch or follow). This is a natural type of training when it comes down to it, because horses and ponies naturally investigate (by looking at or sniffing) any new object that is presented to them. Anyone who has tried to take a selfie with their horse or a photo of their horse will know the horse is forever trying to put her nose on the camera or phone! We can use that natural tendency to sniff and touch new things to teach a horse to touch an object as a target. You can use a fly swatter, a plastic water bottle, a plastic traffic cone, or a supplement lid hung on the fence or wall. What you use as a target will depend on the behavior you want to teach the horse to do. To get started all we need to do is to present the object to the horse, and as soon as she sniffs or even looks at the object, we can mark that moment of curiosity with a clicker, a tongue click or marker word, and then give her some food. After a few practices, we can present the target

When we use pressure or discomfort to get what we want, then what’s in it for the horse to do things with us? Isn’t she just “behaving” because it is unpleasant for her if she does not? Isn’t it that she acts to avoid things becoming more unpleasant for her if she doesn’t do what we want? The reality is that when someone is only doing something to escape or avoid something unpleasant, they are not likely to be doing it for fun or enjoyment. And that does not feel good. 42

BARKS from the Guild/March 2018

© Can Stock Photo/edu1971

Positive reinforcement training helps horses associate their owner with good things

a little way ahead of the horse so she will take a step forward to go to the target. Now the horse has learned that this behavior will be marked and positively reinforced, she will want to touch the target when she sees it wherever it is presented – in front, to the side, up higher or down lower. We can also train her to back up by putting the target slightly under her chin and towards her chest – but without touching her with it – so she will step back to touch it. With a little more practice we can have a horse who will walk with us to follow the target rather than because we will pull on the lead rope if she doesn’t come with us. We can use target training (i.e. using a target prop to produce behaviors we want, so that we can get them on cue) in much the same way as we would with the gate pushing I discussed in Part Two of this article. Once we know the horse will walk towards a target when we hold it out, we can say “walk on,” hold out the target to cause the horse to start walking, then click and reinforce her for walking. Targeting can be used to teach all ground work and ridden movements: catching, haltering, leading over any surface or into a trailer, for teaching halt and standing still, standing tied, standing by the mounting block and keeping still to be mounted, backing up, moving the front end away, disengaging or moving the hindquarters over, stepping under behind, crossing over in front, circling, straightness on circles, long lining, moving in a forward-down stretched posture, lifting shoulders and being less on the forehand, for shoulder in, haunches in, side pass, rein cues for turns to left and right, shifting the weight back, lateral and vertical flexion, walk, trot, canter, jumping, back, leg and abdominal muscle engagement, to train horses for hoof cleaning, hoof soaking, trimming or farriery, being clipped, having baths, injections, having wounds cleaned or dressed stitched, for worming, and for eye drops. The list is endless and there is nothing you cannot teach using food as reinforcement or for what we sometimes call candy comfort – helping a horse to develop some optimism and happy associations with places and things they may otherwise fear. Name something that you want the horse to do by way of moving her body (or keeping it still) and it can be trained with imagination, a marker signal, and target training. Something even