JOY Full Horses Part 3: Going Micro: Unit 1 – The Many Forms of Micro

This begins Part 3 of JOY FULL Horses.  I ended Part 1 by posing the question: what are ten things you would want someone who is new to clicker training to understand about cues?  I asked you to make your own list.   In Part 2, unit by unit, I shared my answer to this question.  How did my list match up with yours?

The exploration of cues took us on quite a journey.  In any journey, once you’ve taken in the overall look of a landscape, you can begin to focus in on the finer details.  That’s what we’ll be doing in Part 3.  We’re going Micro.

The Many Forms of Micro

monty-with-miniWhy Micro
Going Micro doesn’t mean we’re all going to take up training miniature horses.  Going Micro refers to the level of focus we bring to the training.

At first blush becoming more detail-oriented would seem to be anti-play.  It’s easy to visualize a horse cantering through an agility-style obstacle course and think of that as play.

We tend to be very goal oriented.  We see someone “playing” tennis, and we think that individual is having fun.  But when that individual is a professional tennis player who spent his childhood being forced to practice for hours at a time every day, there is nothing playful in the behavior.  It is work, work, and more work.  Read Andre Agassi’s autobiography,  Open, to discover how far from Play this form of forced practice can take you.

HOW something has been taught is much more important than WHAT the behavior is.  A horse trotting through a series of obstacles may be doing so because he loves the game.  Or he may be trying hard to avoid the sharp lash of his trainer’s whip.  In this section we’re going to look at what it means to go MICRO and how that can lead directly to a creative Play state for both the handler and the horse.

Kay Laurence coined the term MicroShaping.  For her it refers to a very specific form of training.  The conversation I was having with Poco, the ear-shy horse you met at the end of Part 2, depended upon my being able to ask small questions.  In clicker training we often call this thin slicing.

Kay Laurence uses this term in her training, but when Kay talks about microshaping, she doesn’t just mean breaking the training down into super small steps.  She means setting the training up so the success rate is 98% or higher.

Yes, you read that correctly.  98%.

If you want a 98% success rate, you need a well thought out training plan.  You aren’t waiting, waiting, waiting, hoping that your horse will give you something you want.  You are setting up the training environment in such a way that, of course, he presents clickable moment after clickable moment.

It also means you are looking for underlying reaction patterns – not the final outcome behavior.

Outcome Versus Reaction Pattern
When you focus on reaction patterns versus outcome, what difference does it make to your training?

If you want your horse to back up in a square, you won’t simply ask your horse to back up, and then back up some more until you have somehow gotten him around the pattern. (Or more likely trapped in a corner.)  That’s being goal driven.

If you are training reaction patterns, you’ll view backing as a movement cycle. Movement cycles are just that.  They don’t have a linear beginning, middle and end.  Rather the behaviors within the cycle loop back to the beginning point so the whole pattern can occur again.  A cycle is not complete until the individual is in position to repeat the entire pattern.  Sitting in a chair from a standing position isn’t the complete movement cycle.  You’re only half way there.  The person needs to stand up again, returning him to a position from which he can sit down.  Only then can he begin the next loop in the cycle.

So with backing you’ll begin with a very small unit.  You’ll ask your horse to shift his weight slightly back.  Click.  You’ll feed so that he’s brought forward again.  In this way you can keep repeating this small unit.  You will know you can expand to the next criterion when it is already occurring on a consistent basis.  You’ll end up with a clean, finished behavior because you trained clean throughout.

It’s easy to read fast through this last paragraph and miss completely the significance of what I am saying.  Suppose you are reinforcing your horse for standing beside you in the stationary behavior of the “grown-ups are talking”.  You want him to keep his head balanced evenly between his shoulders.  Check, he’s doing that consistently.

Behavior varies.  Doing the same exact thing over and over again just doesn’t happen.  Even Olympic athletes, as consistent as they are, show some slight variability performance to performance.  So, while your horse is standing beside you, your eye may be caught by the movement of his ear flicking forward.  He may have been listening to the sounds of horses moving in a paddock behind him, and that’s why his ears were back.  Now something has caught his attention in front of him, and his ear flicks forward to listen.  You’ve been focused on his head position.  Now that that overall position is becoming consistent, your attention can broaden out to include the flick of his ears.

If his ears were always back, it would be hard to make that the next criterion.   If a behavior isn’t happening at all, waiting for some piece of it to pop out can take your learner straight into the frustration of an extinction process.  Your learner will begin throwing behaviors at you trying to get you to click.  One of those behaviors just might be a flick of an ear, but it’s a messy process.  You’re more likely to get pinned ears as he becomes increasingly frustrated trying to figure out what you want.  Frustration can lead to a whole lot of behaviors you don’t want. They’ll become unwanted guests attaching themselves at odd times to the desired behavior.

Instead of this form of hit or miss shaping, you’ll wait until the behavior begins to pop out as you consistently reinforce your current criterion.  If the new behavior begins to happen often enough for you to notice it, then it is likely that it will happen again fairly soon.  So even if you go a tiny bit down the extinction road by withholding your click as the previous criterion occurs, your learner will very quickly land on the right answer.  Click then treat.  He won’t feel the frustration of an unsolvable puzzle.  Instead he’ll experience the pleasure of another successful answer.

Waiting until the next shift in criterion is already occurring removes a lot of training frustration for everyone – horse and handler alike.  Once you get the hang of this approach, you’ll begin to understand what it means to train via reaction patterns.  With that shift you’ll also discover that you are reaching your overall training goals faster.

Kay Laurence has a great video example illustrating the difference between training that is goal driven versus training for reaction patterns.  The final outcome that she is working towards is having her dog put his foot up on a small box.  In the goal-driven example, Kay waits to click until her dog lifts his paw onto the box.  Her dog doesn’t understand that the box is important or that she wants him to put his paw on it, so even though he has received a click for approximating that behavior, he’s not sure what he should do next.

In the video Kay trains in sixty second units.   During his first session, he presents many behaviors.  He looks around, he noses the box, he lifts his other foot, he paws at the box, he walks sideways, he backs up, etc..  At the end of the sixty seconds the number of behaviors he’s offered versus the number that were clicked puts him down around a 20% success rate.  But you don’t need to do the math to know that he’s a confused dog who isn’t having much fun.  You just have to watch the clip to see that he’s teetering on the brink of shutting down altogether and going off to have a nap.

In the second video the box is still there, but now Kay is looking for something very different.  In order for the dog to put his front foot up on the box, he first has to lift his leg up.  So she is clicking for any shift of balance through his shoulder that brings his foot up off the ground.

This transforms the training.  Suddenly the dog is getting click after click.  It’s as though you’ve walked into a convenience store to buy a scratch-off lottery ticket only to discover that every card is printed with the winning numbers!  I would eagerly buy that kind of lottery ticket.  I like knowing I’m going to win, and so do our animals.

In this second video clip instead of looking lost, the dog is fully engaged.  Very quickly he’s consistently lifting his paw.  So now it’s an easy step to move the box so it’s in the path of the paw lift.  Click, treat – you have your outcome behavior.

The dog didn’t begin by putting his paw on the box.  Kay wasn’t waiting, hoping he would do something, anything she could click.  He was set up to succeed at a 98% or higher success rate.

An important element in creating this kind of training success is the use of base behaviors.  I’ll define what that means and give some training examples in the next section.

Coming Next: Part 3: Going Micro: Base Behaviors

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:          

2 thoughts on “JOY Full Horses Part 3: Going Micro: Unit 1 – The Many Forms of Micro

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s