JOY FULL Horses: Unit 10 – Part 1 of 5: Creating Change Through Chains

JOYFULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 10: Playing With Chains – Cues Evolve into Chains

The List of Ten
We’re coming to the final element in our list of ten things you should know about cues.  What began as a basic introduction has taken us to some complex concepts and sophisticated uses for cues.

We began with the fundamentals:

1.) Cues and commands are not the same.
2.) Not all cues are verbal.
3.) Cues can come from inanimate objects.  You can have environmental cues.
4.) Our animals can cue us.
5.) Cues evolve out of the shaping process.
6.) Having a cue attached to a behavior isn’t enough.  We need stimulus control – a fancy term for saying you get the behavior you want when you want it and only when you want it.
7.) We can use cues to counter balance one another to create stimulus control.
8.) Cues change and evolve. You can use this to create the degree of lightness you want.  You can also create new cues for existing behaviors.
9) You can’t not cue.  You saw this applied to the “play” session with Poco, the ear-shy horse.

This naturally brings us to:

10.) What’s more fun than playing with cues? Playing with Chains.

Creating Change Through Chains
In the previous unit I introduced you to Poco, an ear-shy horse.  I described a series of sessions in which I combined clicker training with body work.   Poco wasn’t just ear shy.  He was tight throughout his whole body.  Backing was hard.  Turning was hard. Yielding his hips was hard.

It may be that all that worry over his ears made him generally tight, or the ears were the red flag telling us that there was much more going on that we couldn’t see.

The Story for Poco
Remember we want to tell stories that help our horses.  So here’s the story I told about Poco.  Horses who are ear shy often get wrestled with.  They get jerked on and pulled around and told to STAND STILL OR ELSE!  At best they simply become wary and defensive.  At worst they can sustain serious injuries, especially if they are pulled off their feet in their struggles.

The story I told for Poco is that he was one of the horses who was wrestled with and who may have sustained some injuries.  We needed to ask him some questions to find out if we were dealing with simple tension or something more serious.  I suspected that part of the reason the ear shyness remained a persistent problem was because it hurt every time he threw his head up to avoid being touched.  That predictable spike of pain convinced that being handled around his ears was a bad deal.

I wanted to get to his ears, and I also wanted to get to his tail.  Most of us have seen frightened dogs with their tails tucked between their legs.  When they’re afraid, animals from many species clamp their tails tight to their bodies.  The best explanation I’ve heard for this behavior is it blocks the release of pheromones into the air.  When an animal is afraid, it may not want to broadcast that fear to everyone in the neighborhood, so it clamps down on its tail to cover the anal glands.

Whatever the reason, horses certainly do carry a great deal of tension in their tails.  Working the tail can help release that tension and free up the hind end.

Poco’s Learning Loop
Under saddle you learn to free up a horse’s hindquarters by working from the front end first.  And to soften the front end, you begin with the hind end.  So what do you do when you need to gain access to both ends and both have “do not trespass” signs posted?  The answer with Poco was I set up a predictable pattern.  Poco always knew what I was going to do next.  Because he knew what to expect, he could let me know when he was ready for me to move on. Until I got a sign from him that he was comfortable with what I was doing, I did not move deeper into the cycle of behaviors.

Step one began with a hug.  Standing at his side, I used the components I had built earlier to ask Poco to rest his nose in my hands.  I could then press my head against the side of his face.  A casual spectator would have seen me hugging Poco.  What a lovely picture!  But look more closely, and you would see that I was also asking for a lateral give at his poll.

I was placing my head on his forehead.  It gave him a reference place around which to soften into a bend.  The give was tiny.  Gives are.  But I could feel him release through the poll – a release that traveled down his spine towards his withers.

That was my cue to step in front of him and ask for the next link in the chain: the forward stretch that asked for another give at the poll.  I was inviting him to lengthen forward, down and out.  I could feel the release so clearly as he melted into my hands.


The third link in this sequence was long strokes across his back and down his hindquarters asking him to drop his head.


His response told me how ready or not he was for me to go on.  As he took down his “no trespassing” signs, I was able to slip in behind him.  I was being given tentative permission to proceed.


I used TTEAM body work techniques to lift his tail.

I slid my hand gently under his tail and lifted up.  The muscles of his hindquarters spasmed, and he stepped quickly away swinging his tail away from me.

Clearly my “story” had some merit to it.  He was showing me places where there were huge questions.


He was facing me again.  I reached up as though nothing had happened and asked for another hug. The chain began again.

Link 1 was the hug asking for a lateral bend.

Link 2 was the forward stretch and release through the poll.

Link 3 was the stroking across his back looking for head lowering.

His response gave me permission to move onto his tail.

Link 4 was working his tail looking for a release through his whole spine.

The result: Poco felt soft as butter.  Instead of a wary, tense horse keeping himself well removed from me, he was seeking out my company, melting into my hands.  We were having a conversation.  These gives were asked for, not demanded. I was asking the questions.  He was finding the changes.  He was coming up with the answers. That changes everything – not just in his body but in the relationship.

Coming Next: What we Say

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 “JOY Full 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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