JOY Full Horses: Tagteaching – The Focus Funnel

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 previous post I introduced you to TagTeaching which stands for teaching with acoustical guidance.  Tagteaching takes the excess words out of coaching and shifts the focus from what a student is doing wrong and needs to correct to what is wanted.  Instruction can be pared down to the four WOOF criteria:

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

I described what each of those meant in the previous installment.  Now in this section, I’ll introduce you to another tagteaching tool: the focus funnel.

The Focus Funnel
The founder of Tagteaching,  Theresa Mckeon, developed the concept of the focus funnel for TAG instruction.

A funnel is wide at the top and narrows down at the bottom.

So at the top of the focus funnel is a broad description of the lesson.  This is the part most of us find easy.  We like our words!

Next the coach reduces this general description of the task down to clear instructions about what is wanted.  Lastly she reduces this even further down to a point of focus which can be described in five words or less.

The Focus Funnel Applied to Horse Training
Suppose you are introducing a friend to clicker training.  You’re going to show her how to ask her horse to touch a target.  You’ve probably already given her a general overview of targeting and explained why it’s important, why it makes a great introduction to clicker training.

You’ve gone through the basic prep.  You’ve practiced the lesson letting her rehearse with you how she’s going to hold the clicker and the target, how she’s going to feed her horse.

You’ve found a good area to work with her horse.  He’s loose in a small paddock so he’s free to move about and interact with her, but there is a fence separating her from him just in case he gets pushy or overly excited about the food.  The barrier means she can step back out of his reach instead of correcting him.  That keeps the lesson focused on the behavior she wants – touching the target.

So now she’s ready for the lesson description.

“You’re going to ask your horse to touch the target.  When he does, click and treat.  Repeat this several times, then drop some treats in his food bucket and step away from his paddock.

Your tag point is: Click as nose touches target.”

Constructive Feedback
Tagteaching, like its cousin clicker training, keeps us focused on the positive.  How do we say things so they are clear, to the point and non critical?

One of the tripping up points in coaching is what happens after the handler completes this first round of training.  As you watch her work, suppose you noticed that she was reaching into her treat pouch a second or two before she clicked.

Horses miss nothing. Her horse is going to see that movement, and he’s very quickly going to connect the dots.  Whatever he was doing just as her hand started to move is what he’s going to repeat.  If that was touching the target, that’s the behavior she’ll get more of.  The click will be extraneous information that gets filtered out.  She’ll be clicking the clicker, but it will have less and less meaning as her horse begins to rely on the movement of her hand.  For him that’s the true marker signal.

Now you could say – what’s wrong with that?   Isn’t that easier than all this clicking nonsense?

You could absolutely decide that the movement of your hand is going to be your marker.  There is nothing in clicker training that says you have to use a clicker, or even an auditory marker.  If you were working with a deaf horse, you’d have to come up with some other way to mark behavior.

The problem isn’t that a different marker is being used.  It’s that the handler isn’t aware that’s what is going on.  She isn’t being deliberate in her use of that signal so it will become inconsistent.  If she watched a video of herself, she might notice her hand movement and decide to make that her marker signal, but it’s one I would advise against.  There are so many times in horse training where your hands are going to be busy doing other things.  If your hand is your marker signal, you’re going to run into major timing problems.

You’re seeing these potential pitfalls ahead for your friend so you decide to say something about it.  Here’s how this normally plays out:

“That was good.  You timed the click well, but I noticed that your hand was creeping into your treat pouch.”

Oops.  You’ve just fallen through the trap door that catches so many of us out.  You’ve mixed reinforcement with instruction, and the result is that “but” just negated all the good things you said about her performance.  She isn’t going to hear that she did a good job.  What will stick is she got something wrong.

So what do you do instead?  You put a pause between the assessment and the next set of instruction.

“That was great. You timed the click perfectly each time he touched the target.”


Lesson description: “Now in the next round of targeting we’re going to focus on a different element.  It’s important that you wait until after the click to reach into your treat pocket.  This keeps the meaning of the click really clear.”

Directions:  “You’re going to repeat the targeting.  Your feeding hand will stay at your side until you click.”

Tag Point: “What would be a good tag point for you?  “Food delivery after the click.” Or perhaps “Hand on hip” might work better.  You tell me which one works best for you.”

Having the learner identify her own tag point makes it even stronger.  This is something that means something to her, that she can relate to.  So involve your learner in creating her own tag points.  It’s a great way to check that she really does understand what you want her to do, and because she helped create the tag point, she is more likely to remember it.

Try It Out
One of the reasons for publishing this book in small installments is it gives you time to think about each section and to try things out for yourself.  How many times during the coming day will you find yourself commenting on someone’s performance?

Your answer may be: “but I’m not a teacher.”

Hah!  We’re all teaching – all the time.  It may be with your children, or a co-worker – or yourself, but we all offer instruction and give feedback.  Do you fall into the trap of mixing feedback with instruction?  Are you letting: “that was great, but . . .” slip in and disrupt  what you intended as praise?

For today take the time to notice what you are currently doing.  What is your existing habit pattern?  Once you’ve observed what you do, you can take action to change any patterns you aren’t liking.  Use what you’ve been learning about habits from the previous chapters to help you create a plan for developing the good habit of separating feedback from instruction.  What new habit loop are you going to create for yourself?

Keeping track of the changes you see is a good way to build new habits that last.  That’s what we’ll be exploring in the next installment.

(P.S. If you are new to clicker training horses and would like to see what these first targeting lessons that I referred to in this post look like, in November of 2015 I posted a four part series on introducing a horse to clicker training.)

Coming soon: Tagteaching and Keystone Habits

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: