JOY Full Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

Number 3: The Environment can be a Cue
Chapter 1:  Emotions and Environmental Triggers

The previous section began a discussion of environmental cues.

Panda environmental cues

Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide, provides us with lots of examples of environmental cues.  In this photo there’s no real curb to mark where the sidewalk ends and the driveway begins,  but Panda has stopped exactly where she should.  This section of their daily walk had been under construction for months.  Every day the landscape was different.  In this photo the pavement has been newly patched.  The appearance of the intersection has changed dramatically from it’s previous state, but Panda still knows what to do at this intersection.

Looking ahead to the opposite side of the driveway we see another place where the environment will cue a stop.  Stopping at the far side of the driveway helps her blind handler stay oriented.  The stop on the up-curb side of the driveway lets her know when they have come to the beginning of the next section of sidewalk.

The sidewalk itself is another environmental cue, one which overrides the pull of the grass to the side.  Panda will guide her handler straight along the sidewalk to the next curb crossing.  There are lots of cues being exchanged between Panda and her handler, but it is Panda’s responsibility to respond correctly to the environmental cues which her handler cannot see, and to alert her to any changes or obstacles in their path.

I ended the previous installment by promising you some more Panda stories and here they are:

Goose Neck Trailers
I can’t resist telling one of my favorite Panda stories.  When Panda was first being paired up with Ann, we spent a day at the Equine Affaire, a giant horse expo and trade show that is held every year in western Massachusetts.  It’s a wonderful place to take a guide-in-training.  The concentration of challenging obstacles is a trainer’s delight.  We had loading ramps that could substitute for railway platforms, and garage doors that gave us lots of practice with overhead obstacles, not to mention the crowds of people in the trade show to navigate through.

Panda handled it all with ease.  Late in the day as we were walking through the back parking lot area, we passed a goose neck trailer that was parked alongside the sidewalk.  I decided to put Panda through one more challenge.  I instructed Ann to stop at this point and cross the street.  This would take them directly under the front of the trailer.

gooseneck trailer

The goose neck portion was right at forehead-hitting height, but I had no worries.  Of course, Panda would stop.  Except she didn’t.  I was about to cry out an alarm.  It looked as though Panda was going to crash Ann straight into trailer. But before I could get the words out to say STOP! Panda slammed on the brakes, looked up at the trailer hitch and hastily backed Ann away.

The double take she did was priceless. It was as if she was saying: “Where did that come from! How could I have missed that?!”

It reminded me of those times when I’m driving, and I’ve been so focused on the road ahead that I have completely failed to see a car coming up alongside me.  “How could I have missed that!?” I’ll exclaim as the car comes into view.  I could sympathize with Panda’s surprised reaction to the goose neck.

Now for Panda the goose neck trailer was not a hazard.  She could easily fit under the hitch, but Ann would most certainly have hit her head.  When Panda looked up, it was clear to me that she had seen the overhead obstacle and was backing up to avoid it.

Every class of obstacle requires a different type of response.  Find an empty chair means Panda scans the available seats and takes Ann to an empty one.  She alerts her to the presence of the chair by putting her nose on it.

For doors Panda finds the door and then orients her body sideways towards it so it is easy for Ann to reach out and find the handle.

A Trainer’s Play Ground

Panda descending museum stairs
Stairs present a special hazard.  It’s important that the handler understands that the guide is stopping at a flight of stairs and not at a single curb.  Towards the end of Panda’s training we spent a fun day practicing stairs during a visit to Albany, the capital of New York State.


A photo of the Empire State Plaza taken from the steps of the State Museum. The State Capital is straight ahead. To the right is The Egg, the Center for Performing Arts.

We turned the state plaza into our personal playground.  We were in a huge concourse that serves as a public park.  Underneath the plaza is a maze of offices and shops.  At one end is the state library and museum.  At the other end the State Capital.

state museum

The State Museum with its imposing flight of steps leading up to the entrance.

state capital building

The State Capital Building at stands at the opposite end of the Concourse

These are beautiful buildings, but we were not there for the sight seeing.  The plaza provided us with a wonderful array of training obstacles.  There were stairs everywhere – stairs going up, stairs going down, stairs in all sorts of unexpected places.

Ann wasn’t familiar with the area, so she never knew for certain what was coming up next. I was having a grand time directing her towards every unexpected obstacle I could find, the more challenging, the better.  If you’re given a playground, you should play in it!

Stairs cue a distinct set of responses from Panda.  When she comes to a set of stairs, she will stop before the first step.  At this point Ann will not know what is in front of them.  She will tell Panda to go forward.  In response Panda will put one foot on the first step – either up or down – and again stop.  She will not go forward until Ann has also placed her foot on the step and given her the verbal cue to go. Panda is not to proceed until both of these things have happened.  It’s important that Ann not only knows there’s a set of stairs in front of her, but that she also has time to prepare herself for them.  Panda is not to go forward until Ann tells her she’s ready.

I think we found every set of stairs in the concourse that day, including the long flight that takes you up to the State Library.  I especially liked pointing Ann and Panda towards the stairs that led down into the underground concourse.  Up stairs are more expected.  It’s the ones that took them down below the Plaza that really tested them as a team.

The Herd Horse Advantage
Pedestrians, bikes in motion, dogs being walked, baby carriages, parked cars are all obstacles that cue specific responses.  One of the things that I most enjoy is watching Panda maneuver Ann through a crowd of people.  I will sometimes position myself far enough ahead so that I can see Panda and Ann approaching.

Panda will be scanning what is in front of her.  You can see her eyes moving, taking in all the activity that’s coming up.  She’ll make little course adjustments so there is never a collision.  As a herd animal, she is superb at being able to judge where she is going to be relative to people who are moving towards her from the opposite direction.  The course corrections are seamless.  The only ones swerving abruptly are the people doing double takes when they realize what has just passed them!

Coming Next: Intelligent Disobedience   This is the name given for those times when a guide does not respond to a cue the handler has given, but instead responds to environmental cues.  It might be ignoring the cue to go forward and instead backing up out of the path of an approaching car.  Intelligent disobedience is an important part of every guide’s training.  It is also something we would do well to be aware of in the training of our full-sized horses.

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.

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

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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