I ended the previous section by saying the lead tells a story. I want my lead rope to be a welcome tool, one my clicker-trained horse is completely comfortable with. That’s the goal, but it’s often not where we begin. Often when I first attach a lead to a horse, what I encounter is resistance and concern. Lead ropes have been used for correction and punishment – so the horse is defensive. He’s telling me about is history, and I need to listen. I also need to respond in a way that doesn’t prove to him that he was right to be guarded.
I want to show him that the defenses he’s thrown up aren’t necessary. The castle walls, the moat with the sharks, the draw bridge, the boiling oil, the iron portcullis, and all the armored men lined up behind can all vanish, whisked away not through force, but through play. Mats are going to be the training tool I use.
To introduce a horse and handler to clicker training I focus on six foundation lessons. Teaching a horse to stand on a mat is one of those lessons. The mat is what the word implies. Think door mat, and you’ll have the right sort of size. You can use plywood, carpet squares, rubber mats. They all work as long as they contrast well with the surface they are on.
They are lots of different ways that you can teach a horse to step on a mat. Over the years I have used a variety of approaches, tailoring the choice to the needs of the team. But my favorite way, and the way I generally choose first is to imagine that the mat sits at the end of a runway of cones. I am trying to line up straight to my runway so I can bring my horse to a safe landing on the mat in the same way a plane would line up to a real runway. Here’s the lesson:
Instead of castle walls with the mat as a drawbridge, I imagine an airplane runway. The sides of the runway are lined with cones that form an open V, funneling us down towards the mat at the end.
If Robin is one of our equine teachers, let’s suppose the other is a pushy, somewhat nervous horse who has gotten into the habit over several years of dragging his person pretty much wherever he wants to go. In this lesson the pilot (me) is approaching in her single engine little plane (the horse). I’m being buffeted by strong winds. The plane (my horse) is rocking from side to side, trying to drag me off course. Can I even make the top of the runway? No! I abort to try again. I circle around, and this time I manage to get the nose of the plane, i.e. this horse, pointing into the open V of the runway. Click and treat. The wide end of the funnel helps me to be successful. I want to find ways to say ‘yes” to this horse, so I make the lesson as easy as possible by making the opening of the funnel extra wide. I’m setting up the environment to help ensure success. A narrow funnel would be much harder to get to with my determinedly pushy horse.
I had originally wanted to show a video of an inexperienced horse using the runway lesson, but computers being computers my editing program isn’t cooperating with that intent. So instead I enlisted Robin’s help. He’s my “dance partner”, or to stick with my metaphor of the runway, my copilot. I filmed him going through the pattern, and I’ve pulled still photos from the video to describe some of the key elements of this lesson.
It’s been a very long time since I have worked Robin through this foundation lesson. As always, I found it was worth revisiting the basics with him. No matter how skilled a horse becomes, the basics always reveal details that need polishing. So whether you and your horse are a novice team or one that is very experienced, the runway is a great lesson to explore.
Please note: This is not a stand alone lesson, nor is this JOYFULL Horses book intended as a clicker training how-to instruction manual. The prerequisites and a description of the handling skills needed for this lesson are presented in my DVD lesson series and in the on-line course. I am describing this lesson in detail here not not so much to teach you how to use it, but to illustrate some important concepts that are relevant to all good clicker lessons.
I’ll start with a short video which will give you a quick overview of the lesson.
There are a lot of important details in this 3 minute clip. I’m going to take the lesson apart literally frame by frame. I’ll be using stills pulled from the video to point out the key elements of this lesson. Enjoy!
You’re in the runway. Now what? This lesson is like a dream where you drift from one scene to another – never questioning the odd juxtaposition of images. In this part of the lesson I am doing “needlepoint” with this horse. That’s the image.
Each stitch is an individual action. Each stitch must be carefully thought through before beginning the next. I may have to change colour often. I may only want one or two stitches of green before I switch to red. That’s how this part of the lesson feels to me. I will be asking for tiny shifts of weight. Each balance shift forms one stitch in this larger tapestry.
When I ask my horse for one tiny step forward, that’s one green stitch. If I’m working with a poorly balanced or pushy horse, I don’t want to take a step and then follow it with many more. Instead, just as this horse begins to lift his leg, I’m going to click. The click interrupts one thought – move forward – and replaces it with another – get your reinforcer. Before he has even really begun to move, he’s at a standstill again waiting for his treat He was thinking of barging past me, but that would have crashed our little “plane”. Instead disaster has been averted. He has taken a half step forward, and now he’s shifted his weight back slightly to get his treat.
He’s beautifully set up for the next stitch in our tapestry. I ask for another forward step. Click! Again, the power of the click interrupts him before he can charge forward. He is learning patience. He is learning self-control. He is learning to control his movements. He began with a throttle that was either at full power or completely turned off. Now we are gaining some adjustability. I can ask for a tiny amount of energy, and he can give me a soft, half step forward. Click and treat.
He is doing so well, it is time to land “the plane”. I put aside one image – the needle point – and we walk casually forward down the rest of the runway. As we approach the mat, I realize my co-pilot isn’t ready to stop. I walk over the mat myself and keep going, letting my co-pilot walk beside me.
We circle around back to the top of the runway. My co-pilot learns fast. The little plane is steadier now as we bank around the turn and face into the top of the V. Click and treat. This time I put red thread into my needle. I ask for backing. Again, I click on that single stitch. The plane wobbles a bit and goes off course. We are no longer pointing straight down the runway. It doesn’t matter. The pattern allows for many stitches of red.
Click by click we lay down a line of red stitches. The backing is smoother now, less hesitant, less wobbly. We have backed ourselves in a squarish turn that takes us out of the top part of the runway. I am using skills learned in previous lessons. My “copilot” may not be able to back straight yet, but I can still keep us in the vicinity of the runway by having him back in a square pattern. Straight will emerge as he learns how to handle these larger course corrections.
When you put enough of these fine needlepoint stitches together, you get a picture that looks like the one Robin is illustrating for us in this series of photos:
In the photos it was time to release Robin to the mat. It is time to do the same for my less experienced horse. Once again, I’ll set the needle work image aside. I have asked this horse to stay focused with me through several steps. We have put down enough concentrated stitches. Now it’s time to move. We’ll walk casually towards the tip of the V and the mat. This time instead of walking over the mat, I may choose to stop on it. My co-pilot misses the stop and over swings past me. No problem. It’s a sloppy landing, but it won’t bring out the fire brigade, at least not this time. I am standing on the mat, clicking and treating my horse for standing quietly beside me. He can see that the mat did not swallow me up. Instead standing next to it produces lots of clicks and treats.
In contrast to a green horse Robin shows us a beautifully on-the-spot landing on the mat.
My green horse has also been standing beside me practicing good grown-ups. It’s time to walk off again and head back to the top of the runway. This time our entry into the V comes out perfectly. Click! That brings him to a halt so he can get his treat. I don’t have to actively stop him, cues he may not yet understand. That’s what the runway is going to teach him – whoa and go. As I give him his treat, I am deciding which colour thread to pick up, meaning should I ask him to go forward or back? I may decide to ask for a couple of green stitches, and then I’ll switch to red. It all depends upon the response I get from my “co-pilot” and where we are in the runway.
As my co-pilot becomes steadier and better balanced, we can work on an intricate pattern – one stitch forward, one stitch back, each one separated by a click and a treat. We are building control – not the force-based control of do-it-or-else, but the self-control of good balance. He is gaining the ability to change his balance – forward or back within a single stride. He doesn’t have to barge past me any more because he can regulate both his emotions and his balance.
Give Them What They Want
For the horse who prefers nothing better than to nap under a tree, all this slow, step by step work is easy-peasy. It’s all that walking forward stuff to get to the top of the runway that this horse finds wearisome. So what this game sets up is a bargain. I’ll let him get all these easy clicks and treats for walking one step at a time provided he will walk with me when I ask him to head back to the top of the runway.
Remember the Premack principle from the previous article? (https://theclickercenterblog/2016/06/09) I’m reinforcing a lower valued behavior – marching on around the outside of my pattern – with a higher valued behavior – getting loads of clicks and treats for taking one small, low energy step after another followed by a chance to stand still at the mat. What could be better!
For the high-energy, foot moving, impatient horse Premack also works. I’m saying to this horse: if you will indulge me by giving me a couple of needlepoint stitches, I will not only make it worth your while by clicking and treating each one (thereby upping their value), I will also let you march forward down the rest of the runway. And if you will further indulge me by standing still on the mat where again I pay really well, I will let you march on, uninterrupted back to the top of the mat.
In both cases the Premack principle is at work. And in both cases I am turning all the segments of the loop into activities that gain value. Pretty soon, my slow-moving horse will be looking forward to the march back to the top of the runway, and my impatient horse will be showing me how softly and with such delicate control he can creep down the runway.
Stopping on Mats
For my inexperienced horse it’s time for the game to change again. I’m going to start using the skills he’s been learning in the runway.
When we get to the mat, instead of stopping so my feet are on the mat, now I’ll change course slightly in the runway so the mat is in line with my horse. If he steps over it the first time or two so his feet never touch it, that’s all right. We aren’t yet ready to land. But eventually, on one of the passes, I’ll do a test run. As we approach the mat, I’ll rotate slightly towards him as I slide up the lead. I’m indicating that we will be stopping. Our needle point has taught him how to listen to these signals. He’ll stop with his front feet just shy of the mat. Click and treat.
Here is Robin again showing us how much control and refinement the runway can help us build into leading:
These photos were all pulled from a video. Now that we’ve gone through the details of this lesson, let’s have you watch the video again. How many of the photos you’ve been studying can you spot? They are just still frames taken from the video. How much more detail are you seeing now than you did when you watched this video the first time through at the beginning of the article? How many of the points that I covered are you spotting? I’ll bet you’re seeing the very deliberate release of my right hand and the use of the food delivery to help build good balance. What else pops out at you now that I’ve been pointing out the details of this lesson?
For the inexperienced horse, as well as for Robin, the work in the runway builds the skills that are needed for the mat. That’s the strength of this approach. I haven’t started with the mat where a horse’s concern over stepping on an unknown surface might create problems. The focus of this lesson is to teach the horse to step on the mat, but that isn’t my end goal. The mat is a tool. Stepping on the mat is a way to get that energetic walk and those “needle point” skills that I’ll be using elsewhere in his training. And once my horse is comfortable with the mat, I can use it throughout his training as a reinforcer.
When I first introduced my horse to the overall game which we call clicker training, I had to deal with the food. It started out as a distraction. I held a target up for my horse to touch – which he did, eagerly enough. His curiosity served me well. Click and treat. Treat! You have food in your pockets. Never mind the target, I’ll have more of those!
The initial stages of clicker training are really a teaching process that transforms the food from a distraction into a useful tool. Once my horse understands that he gets the treats by taking his focus off my pockets and offering instead other behaviors that I like, then the game can really expand. It truly does become a game, a treasure hunt where solving the puzzle becomes even more reinforcing than the treat itself.
The mat works in a similar way. At first it is something to be avoided – stepped over or around, but never actually on. Then it becomes something to put a tentative, testing toe on. Clicks and treats! This isn’t so bad. What was all the fuss about!
Pretty soon you’ll have a horse who isn’t just stepping gingerly onto the mat, he’s rushing down the runway to get to it. Hurray!
Coming Next: Mat Manners. For every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance. The mat lesson helps you understand the importance of this statement. The runway lesson has helped create a horse who is eager to get to the mat. Now you need to explain that you’d like him to walk with you to the mat.
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: