JOY Full Horses: Part 2: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, “JOY Full Horses”.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

In the preceding section I asked: “What happens if you don’t like the habit you’ve formed?  How do you change a habit?”  That’s what I’ll be exploring in this next post.

Changing Habits
What happens if you want to change a habit?  If you understand the habit loop (cue leads to routine leads to reward), you can begin to see different strategies that will work. Many fit into what we are already doing via clicker training.  Thinking about the habit loop gives us a different perspective on why some of the teaching strategies we employ work so well.  One way to alter behavior is to keep the old cue and deliver the same reward, but insert a new routine.

You’re doing this all the time with clicker training.  Your horse presents you with an old cue – crowding into your space.  The habit you’d like to change is punishing the behavior by jerking on his lead.  The reward for this old behavior was a feeling of satisfaction when he moved away.  But instead of jerking on the lead, you fold your hands together in the “grown-ups-are-talking position”.

Your horse responds by shifting out of your space and standing still.  This creates a wonderful feeling of satisfaction for you. It isn’t tinged with any feelings of guilt or anger that the jerking on the lead created.  Instead you’re laughing at how easy it is to create the polite manners you want.

Natalie Harrison grown ups

“The grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt” is the name I’ve given to one of the clicker training foundation lessons. At it’s most basic you are reinforcing the horse for looking straight ahead so his nose stays well away from your treat pouch. It begins with this very stylized base position for the handler in which the hands are held folded together at waist height. This creates a new routine for the handler. Instead of correcting her horse for the unwanted behavior of crowding into her, her new routine cues the horse to present her with this very polite, desirable behavior. The handler’s reward is twofold. She gets the result she wanted – her horse’s head is out of her space AND she feels good about the process.


Do You Believe?
The old knee-jerk reaction of correcting your horse for misbehavior is being replaced by this new clicker-friendly response.  But Duhigg asserts there’s one more ingredient that’s needed to make the new habit stick, and that’s belief.  This additional element is needed to get rid of the “yeah buts” that creep in when things are getting tough.

In other words, you’ll trust your new clicker skills in the security of your home paddock, but out in the real world – at a show or on a trail – when others are watching and distractions are high, you find yourself reverting back to old habits.  You can’t quite believe that all this click and treat stuff will actually work.

What Duhigg asserts is that “replacement habits only become durable new behaviors when they are accompanied by belief.”

This statement grew out of an examination of Alcoholics Anonymous.  There the belief was in a higher power, but what has emerged is it is belief itself that makes a difference.   In other words you have to be able to believe that things will get better.

The Power of Community
We are a social species.  What that means for our ability to change habits is this:

“There’s something very powerful about groups and shared experiences.  People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief.”

Communities, even if it is a community made up of just one other person, “make change believable.”  For habits to change permanently people must believe that change is possible.  “Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.”

Every time someone shares a clicker success story they are helping someone else cross that bridge into belief.  The success story says change is possible.  It’s important to hear someone else say: “My horse may have started out with all these horrific behaviors, but I can handle him now.  In fact, more than that, I have a great relationship.  He’s so good! I just love him.”

Sharing that story is sharing a belief in the process.  It is helping someone else change a habit pattern of violence or learned helplessness into one of empowerment and support.

“The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group.  Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.” Charles Duhigg

I have always said it would take a community to bring clicker training into the horse world.  It turns out I was more right than I knew.

Coming Next:

Keystone Habits
If our lives are made up of a series of habits, which ones do we work on to create widespread change?  In other words, is there a habit that you can create or change that would spark a chain reaction generating even more changes?  That’s the question I’ll be exploring in the next section.

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:          

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