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.

When you want to change a habit, community is important.  In the preceding section I wrote: “Communities make change believable.  For habits to change permanently people must believe that change is possible. . . . 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.”

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?  Such a habit is referred to as a “keystone habit.” That’s what I’ll be exploring in this section.

keystone round arch 2

Keystone Habits
Keystone habits provide what are referred to as “small wins”.  These are small successes that help other habits take hold and flourish.  Small wins have “enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.”

Duhigg cited a reference from a Cornell study which concluded that:
“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage.  Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.  Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.”

(I can’t help but add here that this description could easily be applied to the shaping process we use in clicker training.)

Small Wins or Big Fights – You Choose
“Small wins” are at the heart and center of my training.  Early on in my horse training experience I was able to spend time with some very skilled horsemen.  They didn’t mess around with small wins.  They went straight to the big stuff.  Most of the time they were successful because they had the skills to get into a fight with a horse and win.  But occasionally things would turn into a train wreck.

I remember one such occasion where a trainer was trying to “sort out” a mustang.  This was a powerfully built draft type horse.  He’d already come to grief with several other trainers, and now this man was trying out his skills.  The mustang came within a hair’s breath of kicking his head in.

I was watching this as a very young and very inexperienced horse owner.  My takeaway message was I didn’t want to get into a fight with a horse.  Apart from the fact that it was just too dangerous, even then I knew it didn’t create the kind of relationship that I wanted.

I also knew that I didn’t have the skills or the strength to guarantee that I would win.  If you can’t guarantee a victory in the big battle – don’t start it in the first place.

I concentrated instead on the little victories.  I was boarding at the time in a hunter jumper barn.  I saw horses who had never been jumped before being sent over enormous fences.  Most of the time they were athletic enough to make it over, but sometimes they would simply crash through the fence or refuse to jump altogether.  The horses that stopped or tried to run out past the jump were all treated in the same way.  They were punished.  They learned fast that no matter how scared they were about jumping, the only safe route for them was straight over the fence.

Again, I thought of my small victories.  My own, beloved horse – Peregrine’s mother – had neurological damage.  She couldn’t jump.  In fact she couldn’t even go over a ground pole without panicking, but she could go over a line drawn in the dirt.  So that’s where we began.  Stepping over that line was a major small win that snowballed into many others.

Brick Walls
The image I have is of a huge brick wall.  There will be a few horses who are athletic enough and riders who are skilled enough to go directly over the wall.  If they’re successful, that will tempt them to take the next horse straight over, and the next.  And it will also tempt them to make the wall ever higher.  Eventually they will either make the wall so high no horse can jump it, or they will try and force a horse over the wall who truly can’t make it.  Either way, eventually they will crash.

If you lower that fence, more horses and more riders will be able to jump it successfully, but there will still be some who can’t.  They either lack the physical ability, the skills or the confidence to jump it.

Lower it a bit more and some who couldn’t jump it before will now be successful.  Turn it into a cross rail and even more will manage it, but even there, you will have some individuals who can’t manage even a small jump.  You may have to turn it into a ground pole, or draw a line in the dirt – or you may need to find a way to go around the jump altogether rather than over it.

Finding these alternatives are the “small wins”.  They build the habit of confidence and saying “yes” instead of “no” to simple requests.

Coming Next:

Dismantling The Brick Walls
When I’m confronted by a “brick wall” of a behavioral problem, I prefer either to find a way around it, or to dismantle it so I only have to ask my horse to go over a few small bricks.  If you pull enough layers off the brick wall, you will eventually get to the point where every horse and every handler can be successful. In the next section I’ll explore further what that means.

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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