JOY Full Horses: Tagteaching – You Can’t Train My Child Like A Dog!

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.

Chapter 2 of this section on Non-Verbal Cues was about habits.  What began as a simple question – how do you turn being PLAY FULL into a habit – took us down many paths.  We looked at habit loops, cravings, changing your habits, the power of community, small wins and keystone habits.  That led us back to horse training.  I shared with you some of the most important lessons my own horses have taught me.  That highlighted the contrast between clicker training and the force-based training many of us started with.  These were heavy topics to consider. Now in Chapter 3, I’m turning the spotlight entirely on what we do want: which is effective ways to teach our learners – horses and humans alike.

Chapter 3
Tagteaching – You can’t train my child like a dog!

Tagteaching stands for teaching with acoustical guidance.  It is often described as clicker training for people, but really Tagteaching is it’s own self.  It evolved out of clicker training, so it is a relative, but not a clone.

Tagteaching was developed by Theresa Mckeon.  Theresa was a gymnastic coach.  We’ve all watched the Olympics and seen the intensity of the coaching.  This goes on at all levels, and in all sports.  Under the intense pressure of competition, students are hammered with all the things they are doing wrong, and all the things they need to do to correct them – everything – all at once.

At one point or another you may have been in a riding lesson that was like this.  The instructor was giving you a barrage of instructions – all at full volume.  Put your hands forward, no back, shoulders UP! Sit BACK! Why are you leaning to the side!? No! Don’t pull back.  Kick him HARDER!

I’ve certainly seen plenty of these lessons, and even taken a few.

Theresa was also familiar with this sort of lesson.  She has a horse, so I’m sure she’s seen this kind of instruction. She was certainly seeing it in the gymnastics coaching.  When my first book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, came out in 1998, Theresa read it with interest.  She was familiar with clicker training in dogs, and now here it was for horses.  Why couldn’t she do something like this for her gymnastics students?

Excited to try the experiment, she introduced the concept to her students.

“Oh, yuck, you can’t treat us like dogs!” was the reaction.

Theresa was surprised and disappointed. She was sure adding a marker signal would help the training.  She went home that night and started thinking of other ways she could get the kids to buy into the idea.  Maybe if she didn’t tell them it was clicker training, she’d be all right.  What else could she call it?

The way Theresa tells the story, she says she always liked words beginning with T.  Ts made a sharp, clear sound.  So she started thinking up T words and came up with the acronym TAG – Teaching with Acoustical Guidance.

In clicker training we work non-verbally.  We can’t say to our horses we want you to walk over there and pick up that plastic cone and bring it back to me.  We have to shape that behavior through a series of small approximations.

Tag Points
In TAG Teaching we have the advantage of words.  We can tell our human students exactly what we want them to do.  But that description can turn into a verbal barrage.  So part of the brilliance of TAGteaching is the coach learns to pare down the instruction to just the core key phrases that the student most needs to focus on next.

Whether the student is a young gymnast attempting her first somersault, a golfer perfecting his swing, or a child with disabilities learning to walk, the coach is looking for one specific skill that the student will concentrate on for this next turn.  This skill is referred to as the TAG point.  When the learner is successful, that will be indicated with a TAG – an agreed upon marker signal that indicates success.

WOOF Criteria
A good TAG point meets the four WOOF criteria.

1.) Ask for what you Want.  Just as in clicker training, the focus is on what you want your learner To Do.  You don’t focus on what is wrong, what you don’t want to see.  Instead you define in clear, precise ways what you WANT your learner to do in the next round. Your instruction needs to strip away all the clutter that comes from describing all the ways things can go wrong.

2.)  Ask for One thing at a time.  You will be identifying one key element that the learner should focus on in this next trial.  Think about this in terms of the keystone habits and small wins that were covered in the previous section. Can you identify an element that will have a ripple effect and help to create many of the other good habits you would like to see developing?

3.) The behavior you choose needs to be Observable and Measurable.  This allows you to mark the exact moment when your learner is successful.  Saying “lift your arms up” is too vague.  The learner doesn’t know how far or in what direction?  Instead you might put a target on a wall and say: “finger tips to target.”  Which brings us to the fourth and often the most challenging criterion.

4.) Five words or less.  You may be prepping your instruction by giving a detailed description of what is wanted.  You may be modeling what you want your students to do and then describing it for them, but once you’ve done this, you want to pare down your instruction to five words or less.  That’s what your learner will remember.

Five words or less also obliges you to focus on what is really important and to come up with a clear and simple way of describing it.  It promotes creativity.

In the previous example: “lift your arms up” really is too vague.  But how are you going to say what you want in five words or less?

“Lift your arms up straight out to your side so you end up with your arm parallel to the ground” doesn’t cut it.  But putting a target on the wall and saying: “finger tips to target” is not only short and simple, it’s an elegant way to get exactly what you want and for your learner to know instantly when she has been successful.

These four criteria become the WOOF points.

What we want
One thing at a time
Five words or less.

Tag!  You got it.

Coming Next: The Focus Funnel

To learn more about Tagteaching visit:

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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