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.
My horse, Robin is going to be our equine teacher for this lesson. He’s going to show you what the lesson looks like with an experienced “copilot”. I’ll also be describing what the lesson is like when you’re working with an inexperienced horse. I’ll be taking you from the first wobbly “flights” down the runway to the finessed balance that evolves over time. For now Robin is waiting expectantly for the game to begin.
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!
The runway is part of a larger loop. There’s no beginning, middle, and end. A horse that is familiar with mats might begin, as Robin did, on the mat. The pushy horse I am starting with has never stepped on a mat and is worried by them. I would begin with that horse where we are picking up the pattern here, with Robin turning with me into the top of the runway. Note the slack in the lead. I probably would not be giving this much freedom to my pushy horse. he wouldn’t yet know how to read and respond to the subtle signals from my lead and body language. I would need to slide up the lead to signal my intent to turn. I would click and reinforce the horse as he responded to my request. This would bring him to a halt, ready for the next phase of the lesson.
Note how I have brought Robin into the runway. I’ve been mindful of the placement of the V. I’ve given us enough room to turn so Robin ends up in line with the mat. This exercise is about straightness. It is a wonderful lesson for helping crooked, pushy, unbalanced, nervous, or just plain wiggly horses.
Here Robin is beautifully lined up to the mat as he completes his turn into the runway.
In contrast here I’ve made my turn too early so there isn’t time to line Robin up straight to the runway. I originally taught the mat lesson without any cones for markers. People would walk their horses off from the mat and then come back around in too tight of a turn. There was no way their horses could line up to the mat and approach it on a straight path. These handlers were setting their horses up for a wiggly, crooked approach. The mat is about lining up straight to a mounting block, approaching the center of a jump on a straight path, crossing streams and other obstacles, stopping square at X in a dressage test, and performing any other task where precision and accuracy in the approach are needed. A novice horse needs the extra help that a long runway approach gives him. I set the cones out as guides for the handlers. They have to take their horses back to the mat by walking all the way out and around the line of cones. Targets aren’t just for our horses. Sometimes they are for us, as well.
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.
Needlepoint may not seem relevant to horse training, but the individual balance shifts we teach in the runway always make me think of the intricate stitches in a needlepoint tapestry.
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:
Robin’s adjustability and good balance has allowed him to come in straight to the mat. I’ve turned toward him to ask for one step back with his right front foot.
Robin has initiated a step back. As he does, I click and prepare to release the lead.
Robin has completed the single step back. You can’t see it, but my hand is opening on the lead even before his foot lands. What goes up must come down. It’s important to let go as I click and not to wait for the foot to land. If I stay on the line, I would be holding on way too long, giving my horse something annoying that he would need to push against. The timing needed to release a horse into the action you want takes deep practice focus. If you aren’t sure what I mean by deep practice, read my blog on this subject. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16/)
I’ve already clicked. Now it’s time to reinforce Robin with some hay stretcher pellets.
My “needlepoint tapestry” is made up of many stitches. I’ll ask Robin for another, single step back.
It may not look as though anything has changed, but Robin has unweighted his right front in preparation for backing. That’s my cue to be ready to click.
Robin has begun to take a step back – Click! Remember it’s important to click as he initiates movement. I’m not waiting to see the outcome of the weight shift (meaning the completed step back.) If I click as he initiates a movement, I am saying “yes” to that movement. This lesson is not about blocking or shutting down energy. I want energy. I want behavior. I want to say “yes” to moving even if the moving is being done by a pushy, inexperienced horse. When I click as he begins to take a step, I am saying “yes” to movement that in the past someone else may have punished. An inexperienced horse is expecting a “no”. Part of his pushiness comes from trying to rush past the obstacles he’s expecting me to throw in his path. Instead he hears a click! Surprise, surprise! He brings himself to a stop to get his treat. Self control and good balance will emerge out of saying “yes” when what his history tells him to expect is a “no”.
I’ve clicked Robin as he began to take a step back. The click is a cue to me to begin my reinforcement cycle. I’m reaching into my pocket to get a treat. But note also what my right hand is doing. I have moved it forward so the snap hangs straight down. I am giving Robin the full freedom of the lead. This is an important part of this lesson and one many people struggle with so I’ll be pointing it out again in other photos. The snap on my lead is going to become a tactile target for my horse to orient to. Moving my right hand towards Robin as I get the treat with my left is part of the teaching process that helps Robin tune in to the significance of the snap and it’s orientation.
Here’s the contrast. As I ask Robin to take a step, I’m using my right hand more actively on the lead. If he were a more inexperienced horse, I might need my hand here to help him maintain his balance as he takes a step forward. Otherwise, he might be falling into me with his left shoulder. (Note: if I were on Robin’s right side, things would be reversed. I would be feeding with my right hand and releasing the lead fully with my left.)
Here’s a common mistake. I’ve released with my left hand, but I’ve kept my right hand in place on his neck.
Even while I am reaching for the food, I am keeping my right hand in place. I refer to this as driving down a motorway with your emergency brake on. When a horse is unbalanced and pushing through you, it can feel as though you can’t let go completely. It takes focus to remember to release the lead completely with your right as well as your left hand. This is where you learn to truly let go. This is the beginning of floating on a point of contact – a heavenly feel for both horse and handler.
After all, you’ve got treats in your hand. Where is your horse going to go? This is the perfect time to experience letting go of him.
The runway lesson teaches the handler to be an agile thinker. Depending upon what happens with my horse’s balance, I may need to change in an instant the direction I want him to go. So while I am giving him his treat, I am already thinking about what I am going to do next. I don’t wait for him to fill in the “dance card” through my indecision. My body language is signaling the next clear intent. Can you tell what I’m going to ask him to do next? Answer: walk forward with me to the mat.
Robin has done a nice unit of “needlepoint stitches”. Now it’s time to let him move. I am releasing him to the mat.
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.
Robin is showing perfect mat manners. Even though he is eager to get to the mat because it represents an opportunity for reinforcement, he is walking with me on a slack lead. Mats are a great tool for teaching horses the emotional control they need to walk politely out to turnout and other exciting places. If your horse pulls or dances around you when you lead him, working with mats is a great lesson to teach.
Robin knows how to land on a mat. First, one foot . . .
Then a second foot . . .
Both front feet on the mat. Click! and . . .
. . . and initiate the reinforcement process. Note how I release the lead fully to Robin WHILE I reach into my pocket with my left hand to get the treat. Coordinating these two actions takes deep practice concentration. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16)
. . . Feed. Note how balanced we both are. I am encouraging good balance in Robin, AND I am also building a feel for good riding balance for myself. The mantra is: feed where the perfect horse would be. In this case that means Robin’s head is in line with his shoulders – not pulled off to the side towards me. I feed at a height that encourages him to lift up from the base of his neck. I want to feel him lifting up, supporting his own weight as I feed him. As he takes his treat, if I feel him leaning down onto my hand, that should signal to me that I need to change what I’m doing to encourage better balance in both of us.
I want to turn the mat into a conditioned reinforcer. If it becomes a predictor of good things, my horse will want to go to the mat. He’ll enjoy being on the mat. That means I’ll be able to reinforce other activities with an opportunity to return to the mat. So before we head back to the top of the runway, I cue Robin to give me a very familiar behavior, one I call: “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”. Than means Robin is standing in his own space. My pockets are full of treats, but I am not being mugged. Robin adds the extra flourish of his beautifully calm focus and good balance to this important base behavior.
It’s click then feed for beautiful grown-ups, and then . . .
I invite Robin to leave the mat and walk off casually with me back to the top of the runway.
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.
So far I’ve asked Robin for a lot of backing. I need to balance that with requests to go forward – but remember, in the “needlepoint” phase of this pattern I am asking for only one step at a time.
As soon as he begins to initiate a step, it’s click . . .
. . . release the lead and begin the reinforcement process.
Again note how my right hand moves towards Robin releasing the lead fully to him. I have pointed this out before because it is a detail many find very difficult to coordinate. Their focus is on getting the food. It takes focused practice to coordinate the separate tasks both hands are doing. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16)
Many people push against the use of food during training, but clicker trainers have such an advantage because we feed treats. In this photo series you’ve seen how I can use the food delivery to help my horse become better balanced. Here I’ve drawn Robin slightly forward with my food delivery. This sets me up well to be able to turn into him to ask for my next request – backing.
As he begins to lift his left front foot, I am ready to click and release the lead.
Again, my right hand moves towards Robin to release the lead AS my left hand gets the food.
Even as he is taking the food from my hand, I am setting up my next request. Can you tell which direction we’ll be heading? Forward or back?
As soon as I’ve given him his treat, I release him to the mat. Note: this release to the mat is an important element. I don’t ask him to keep doing “needlepoint” all the way to the mat. I want to reinforce the concentrated work with an opportunity to move forward freely. The mat gives us a destination that offers even more reinforcement opportunities.
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:
I’ve released Robin to the mat. Note the slack in the lead. There’s no pulling to the mat, no forging ahead of me. We are walking together towards the mat. Exactly right.
I’ve brought Robin up to the mat, but I am deliberately asking him to stop just shy of it.
Frame 1: His front end stops beautifully, but . . .
Frame 2: Robin wasn’t expecting to stop before the mat. His front end stopped in response to my request, but his hind end took an extra moment to catch up to the change in the pattern. It’s a bit like a rear end collision at a traffic light. The first car stopped, but the second one didn’t. The result: Robin has stepped out to the side with his right hind. He could have plowed past me to continue on to the mat, but instead he has managed to stop his front end in response to my request. It’s only his back end that couldn’t quite stop in time.
He may have landed slightly out of balance, but he still responded perfectly to my request to stop his right front and then his left front foot, so he gets clicked. That’s my cue to begin the reinforcement process. I surprised him with a sudden change in pattern. That resulted in less than perfect balance in the stop, but he still gets reinforced for a correct response to my cues.
Feed so his head stays lined up with the rest of his body.
Now I’ll use his “needlepoint” skills to bring him the rest of the way onto the mat. That was the point of my abrupt halt. I wanted to create an opportunity to show you how these skills work.
Robin responds to very light cues on the lead. A very small change in my hand position is all that is needed to request a single, forward step with the right front.
Job done with the right front.
Now I ask for one step forward with the left front.
Job done again. With a very inexperienced horse I would have clicked and reinforced each footfall. With Robin I can connect these requests together via cues. Cues act as both prompts and reinforcers. I am only clicking after he has both feet on the mat, but I am still giving him plenty of “yes” information via the cues from the lead. Those cues contain an additional “yes” every time I release the lead.
I’ve clicked so now it’s time to feed.
I’ll further reinforce his good efforts to get on the mat by asking for “grown-ups”, a well known and highly reinforced behavior. Note how beautifully he maintains his balance, and his very calm, focused demeanor even though he is just inches away from the treats in my pockets.
I continue to use his “needlepoint skills” to ask him to take one step back off the mat.
Once he’s stepped back off the mat, I can ask him to come forward again. An inexperienced horse might become frustrated by all this toing and froing. He might be wanting me to make up my mind and decide which way I want him to go. But the “needlepoint” lesson in the runway has familiarized Robin with this type of request. They are just a series of changing dance steps. They were never taught as corrections. I want him to see them as a path towards reinforcement – never as a way to avoid punishment.
His front feet are back on the mat. Now I’m asking him to step up with his left hind. Click as the leg begins to lift.
Again the reminder to release with right hand as well as the left.
Feed for a job well done.
Ask for grown-ups to create added value for landing on the mat. Why go through all of this? Compare this photo with the one taken just moments before I asked Robin to step off the mat.
In both photos Robin is in grown-ups. He’s showing the calm focus and good balance that has been consistent throughout this session. But in the photo on the right Robin shows slightly more lift from the base of his neck. The difference is subtle, but it is there. It was created out of the rebalancing steps he took to back off and then, weight shift by weight shift, return to the mat. The control he has over his footfalls leads to the consistency we see throughout this lesson in his balance.
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: