Using Environmental Cues
Spring is clinic season which means a lot of traveling for me. I haven’t been able to post anything since the beginning of April which also means some of you may have lost track of where we are in the book. At the end of Part One I asked the question: what are ten things you would want a novice trainer to know about cues? In Part Two I began to answer that question. So far my list includes:
1.) Cues are not Commands.
2.) Cues can be non-verbal.
3.) The environment can be a cue.
In the first chapter of this section on environmental cues I shared some stories about Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide. Her work illustrates well the many ways in which the environment can cue behavior.
Now in this post I’ll be looking at ways we can all use environmental cues in our training.
Every Day Environmental Cues
Panda’s training shows how much inanimate objects can cue behavior. You may never ask your horse for the kind of work that is expected of a guide, but you can still make effective use of environmental cues. They can help turn a frustrating or even dangerous situation into play.
Here are a few examples:
For a horse who rushes out to turnout – even to the point of rearing if you try to slow him down – teach him to stand on a mat. Then put out a series of mats on his way out to turnout. Now instead of trying to keep things calm over the long stretch to turnout, all he has to do is walk a couple steps to the next mat – click and treat! Turn each mat into a station where he can engage in some favorite game. That takes the focus off the turnout. In fact when you do finally get to the paddock, you may find your horse doesn’t want you to leave.
“Must I go eat grass? This is so much more fun!”
For the barn-sour, herd-bound horse who doesn’t want to leave the comfort zone of his friends, hang targets at strategic points around the barnyard and along the driveway. Click and reinforce him for walking to the target.
For the horse who worries out on trails, take his toys out with him so he can play familiar games.
Combine mats with a circle of cones to teach a horse how to trot around a circle. Lay out a small circle made up of cones and one mat. Your horse will begin on the mat and end up back at the mat – click and treat. As you gradually expand the circle, he’ll understand that his job is to stay out around the the outside of the cones.
For the horse who fidgets and fusses to be groomed, hang a stationary target or give him a mat to stand on.
Mounting blocks become wonderful environmental cues. Teach your horse to bring himself over to your mounting block and line himself up so it is easy to get on. It’s not only a fun behavior to “show off”, it’s also a great way to measure how ready – or not – he is to ride.
(Note: This video features Michaela Hempen, one of my coaches for the on-line course. I almost didn’t use this video because she wasn’t wearing a hard hat. When I mentioned it to her, she said she normally wears a hard hat. She just couldn’t resist getting on. I decided to use the clip after all because it is a great example of the joy this training brings to both horses and handlers. And it also gives me an opportunity to say safety always comes first. Certainly good preparation contributes to safety, but hard hats are still important.)
These are just a few training suggestions. The more creative you are, the more playful you can be with your horse.
When you have a training challenge, instead of tackling it head on with your normal “horse training” solutions, think instead about how you might use props. If your horse has trouble turning to move out of your space, how could you use mats to help with this?
Maybe you have large cones or temporary fence posts that can be used like gates on a slalom course. How could you use them to explain the patterns you want to your horse?
If forward is an issue, teach him to retrieve, and then toss a cone out in front of his path.
If stopping is the problem, set out lots of mats. Give him a positive reason to stop. That’s a lot better than the “horse training” solutions of harsher bits and running horses into fences.
If you want your horse to get more exercise, but for some reason you can’t ride, use targets to teach your horse to go from person to person. This can easily be turned into a game Panda would say she invented and which we named after her: “Panda catch”. She “taught” us this game when she was a yearling. At thirteen she plays it with every bit as much gusto as she did then.
As you can see from this article, teaching your horse to stand quietly on a mat has many uses. What I haven’t included here are the how-to instructions for introducing your horse to mats. You can find detailed instructions for teaching this lesson in my books and DVDs and in my on-line course. Visit my web sites to learn more:
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 theclickercenter.com
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: