JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

Today’s installment begins a new unit.  So far in my list of ten things you should know about cues I have: 1.) Cues are not commands. 2.) Cues can be non-verbal

This brings us to:

Number 3: The Environment is a Cue

Panda zebra crossing

This mini is a guide horse for the blind.  She’s just done a beautiful stop at the curb, and now she’s guiding her handler across the entrance to a busy parking lot.  Just to add to the complexity of the task, the parking lot is under construction.


Chapter 1:  Emotions and Environmental Triggers

Environmental Cues
We seem to have wandered a long way from the ten things I would want a beginner to know about cues.  So let me pull us back to that list for a moment.

Beginners tend to think of cues as something they present to the animal, but cues can also come from inanimate objects.  In fact much more than we may be aware of these environmental cues move us through our day from one habit pattern to the next.

Many of us have experienced this with our horses.  If you work in an arena, you may have found that there is one corner where your horse’s balance makes it easiest to ask for a canter.  Maybe you’re starting a youngster, so setting up the canter out of the short side makes sense.  He pops up nicely into the canter which is reinforcing for both of you.  It gets easier and easier to ask for the canter out of that corner, except now, even when you aren’t wanting to canter, that’s what he’s offering.  That corner has become the cue, not your riding aids.

We often experience the same thing riding out.  The stretch of trail where the path widens out into a gently rising slope over good footing just invites a canter.  Both you and your horse enjoy a good run up the hill.  You don’t even notice that the trail has taken over control of your horse – until you are riding out with a friend who is on a young horse that she doesn’t yet want to canter.  You get to the bottom of that hill, and your horse is off and running – following instructions that you helped to write.

Here’s the mantra to remember:

“Never make your horse wrong for something you have taught him.”

Punishing the canter isn’t the solution.  That may squash the behavior for the moment, but it will have fallout.  For one thing punishment takes you a long way from play.  You may stop the canter in that moment, but the damage you do to your relationship is a price you may not want to pay.

In a later section I’ll describe how you can manage these environmental cues by teaching cues in pairs.  But before I get to the solution to the problem, let’s first dig down a little deeper to see how environmental cues work.

Guide Horses

Panda sidewalk construction

The “Equine Poster Child” for environmental cues is Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide for her blind owner, Ann Edie.

Guide work is dependent upon environmental cues.  It’s the job of the guide to spot changes in elevation, overhead obstacles, moving cars, other pedestrians; to find the door, the stairs, an empty chair; and to point out designated landmarks that the blind handler uses to navigate, such as driveways and street crossings.

The different triggers elicit different responses.  When Panda spots a section of sidewalk that’s been pushed up by a tree root and that might trip her person, she stops and waits for her handler to find it.

As Panda approaches a street crossing where there is no raised curb, she will pull her handler to the left hand edge of the sidewalk.

At the opposite side of the street if she encounters a raised  curb, Panda will stop and tap the curb with her hoof.

Out in the country where there is no sidewalk to follow, Panda will follow the curve of the road past a street crossing and then stop.  She will not go directly across or stop as she might at a driveway.  Following the curve of the corner lets her handler know that they have come to an intersection.

At street corners with traffic lights, her handler will direct Panda to “find the button”, and Panda will take her to the pole with the pedestrian crossing signals.

If they encounter an overhead obstacle such as a tree branch weighed down with snow that her handler won’t fit under, Panda will stop and look up.  The movement tells her handler what sort of obstacle is in front of them.


Coming next: More Panda stories.

IMG_1989 Panda Ann construction

Even when the familiar environmental cues are obscured by construction, Panda still finds the way from curb to curb.


You can read about Panda’s early training on my web site: Visit:

Also, there is an excellent children’s book that was written about Panda:  Panda: A Guide for Ann written by Rosanna Hansen with photographs by Neil Soderstrom, published by Boyd Mills Press 2005.

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: