Modern Horse Training – Today’s Post: Cue Communication

The new book: Coming April 26

When I talk about Modern Horse Training, I’m referring to a shift away from command-based training to cue communication.

What does that mean?

Commands represent where we were in the horse and buggy era of horse training. Horses were a tool we used to plow fields, to provide transportation, and sadly to wage wars. Orders were given and orders were obeyed – or else.

Commands do not invite a conversation. They are a one way street. Within this frame of reference, a failure to respond is considered the fault of the horse. Riders are told a horse is being lazy, or stubborn. He’s testing you. You need to show him who is the boss.

Cues take us to a different way of thinking. Cues invite a conversation. I signal to my horse. His response in turn cues me. It’s a back and forth flow where I allow my behavior to be influenced by my horse. The behaviors we teach become the “vocabulary” our animals use to communicate with us.

It wasn’t a horse, but one of my cats who pointed this out to me. When she and her sister joined the family, I had just begun to explore clicker training. One of my clients found them starving in a barn, and I took them in.

Once she had been with me for a few weeks, this particular kitten decided she wanted to share in my breakfast. She would hop up next to me and nose her way towards my plate. I didn’t want to encourage that kind of sharing, but I also didn’t want to push her away. Instead I experimented with a technique I had seen dog trainers use to teach dogs to sit. They would use a food lure held above the dog’s head to encourage the head to go up and the rear end to go down.

I tried it. I put a dab of margarine on the tip of my finger and held it up above my kitten’s nose. As she looked up, her rear end went down. Click, I let her lick the margarine off my finger. Two clicks later and she was satisfied. She left me in peace to finish my breakfast.

The next morning she was back. I repeated the process. Her rear end was now sinking all the way down so she was in a sitting position. Click and treat. A couple of clicks later and she was again satisfied.

We continued with this breakfast ritual. Now she would jump up next to me and sit. Click, I would give her a dab of margarine. One morning she lifted a front paw up slightly up off the seat cushion. I liked the possibilities that this opened up so I clicked and gave her a treat. Soon she was not only sitting, she was rocking back on her haunches and sitting upright with both front paws up above her head. I was charmed. She wasn’t being a pest at breakfast time. Instead, I was getting this very fun behavior.

But cats being cats, that wasn’t the end. They are such good trainers!

A few days later I was in the kitchen. When my kitten came into the room, I was over by the sink. She stopped near the refrigerator. When I glanced in her direction, she sat down, rocked back on her haunches and lifted both paws up in the air. I had to laugh. She was cueing me!

Dog trainers use hand cues to signal to their dogs. She was using paw cues.

I could be a well-trained human.

I walked over to the refrigerator, opened the door, reached in and took out the tub of margarine. I opened the lid, put a little dab of margarine on my fingertip and offered it to my kitten. That was quite the complex behavior chain she had just cued!

I recognized that she had turned the tables on me. She was using a behavior I had taught her, but she was using it in a new context to get what she wanted from me. Clever cat!

This is what Modern Training shows us. If we are open to it, the behaviors we teach our animals can be used by them to communicate back to us.

They can say: “Yes, please, come and interact with me. I want more of this particular activity.” Or they can say: “No, I don’t want that right now.” They can add nuance: “Wait! I’m not ready! I’m confused.” We can read all this and more when we recognize that they are using behaviors we have taught them to communicate with us.

Modern Horse Training recognizes that saying “no” is an acceptable response. Horses have always had ways to say “No.” When handler’s aren’t tuned in, horses “raise their voices” by threatening to bite, pawing, looking away, acting bored, etc. They “shout” by rearing, spooking, bolting, bucking, kicking, and not just threatening to bite, but actually doing so.

In Modern Horse Training handlers learn to listen to whispers so their learning partners don’t have to “shout”. They adjust their behavior and willingly let themselves be cued by their horses.

For many people who have been brought up in the command-based paradigm, saying “No” isn’t an option for a horse. If a horse refuses a fence or baulks at the bottom of the trailer ramp, the whips come out. For those trained in this type of handling this is standard practice. Enforcing your commands isn’t abuse. It’s considered good training.

We’re taking a different training path. In the cultural norm that I started out in there was no safe way for a horse to say “No”. Now in the clicker training world, we’re giving our horses a rich vocabulary that expands the conversations. We’re creating a safety net for both the horse and the handler. Fear and confusion are replaced with confidence and enthusiasm – on both sides.

By expanding the repertoire of behaviors that are available to them, handlers can become much more nuanced in their reading of a horse’s emotional state. Body language expands to include all the behaviors that training has generated. The horse can use this richer “vocabulary” to engage in conversations with us.

At this point I expect every one of you are now saying: “I recognize what you’re talking about! My animals do that. My horses, my iguana, my parrots, my guinea pigs, my cat, my dog, my sea lion all use the behaviors that I’ve taught them to let me know what they want. Here, let me give you these ten anecdotes that show how my animals are using the behaviors I’ve taught them to communicate with me.”

All our animals use the behaviors we’ve taught them to communicate with us. We just need to learn to listen to them as much as they listen to us.

Modern Horse Training reminds us to look for the ways in which our animal learners are using the behaviors we have taught them. Often they will be using them in unique situations, or in ways that we had not originally intended the behavior to be used.

One of the most important aspects not just of Modern Horse Training, but Modern Animal Training in general, is this: good training expands the conversation. It makes us partners in creating choice and control for both of us. That truly is a great basis for a life-long friendship.

My new book, Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend” will be published on April 26, 2023. Just a week to wait!

It will be available through my web site,, and through amazon and other book sellers.

JOYFULL Horses: Unit 4: Cue Communication

Everything  You Need to Know About Cues
At the end of Part 1 I asked: What are ten things you would want a beginner to know about cues?  That seemed like a simple enough question, but look where it has taken us – to neuroscience and the affective emotional systems, to habits and what maintains them, to TAGteaching and the focus funnel, to guide training for horses, to Feldenkrais work and asking questions, to the Premack principle and the creative use of imagery in training.

All that and we still have only three things on our list:

1.) Cues and commands are not synonyms.
2.) Cues are not just verbal signals.  They can include weight shifts, hand gestures and other body language signals.  
3.) Cues can come from the environment.

And now here’s number 4.) Cue Communication

Icky mounting block - hands up

Cue Communication
We tend to think of cues as coming from us, but cues can also be given by our animals.  The behaviors we teach them can be turned around and used by them to communicate back to us.

When we recognize that cues are a two way street, we become much more aware of what are animals are trying to communicate to us.

Panda was the poster child for environmental cues.  She can serve the same function for cue communication.  Guide work is dependent upon the back and forth exchange of cues.  I described earlier Panda’s traffic checks.  That’s a great example both of environmental cues and cue communication.  The moving car is the signal for Panda to stop and back up.  Her actions cue Ann.  Ann must interpret Panda’s sudden change of behavior correctly and allow her to move her out of harm’s way.


Everyday Conversations
Good training is about cue communication.  It’s a two way street.

When novice trainers first encounter cues, they often think that they are something only they give.  Most of us have spent time around dogs, either our own or a friend’s.  We’re used to telling dogs to sit, to lie down, to come, to leave it!  These are all cues (or possibly commands – depending upon how they were taught) that we’re giving to the dog.

But what about that sad-eyed look the dog is giving you that gets you to stop working on the computer, get up, walk to the coat closet, put on your jacket and your outside shoes, take the leash off the hook where it’s hanging, attach it to your dog’s collar, open the back door and take him out for a walk.  That was quite the complex chain the dog set in motion just by raising his eyebrows and giving you “that look”.

He probably further cued the internal components of the chain by jumping up, wagging his tail, running to the back door, sitting quietly while you put on shoes and jacket and attached the lead.

Back and forth throughout this sequence there was a dance of cues.  Some were given by you, some by the dog.  It is so like talking on the phone.  You have a long story to tell.  What maintains the conversation?  The little interjections your listener gives you that tell you she’s still on the line, still listening to you.  The call hasn’t been dropped by your cell phone network, nor has she gone off to feed her horses.  Without those little sounds cueing you that the connection is still active, and she’s still on the other end of the line, your story would stutter to a stop.

“Are you still there?” You may find yourself asking this as you talk on the cell phone.

“Are you still walking to the door?”  Your dog wags  his tail, or goes into a play bow.  Yes!  That just redirected the human from the kitchen back on track to the door.

We tend to think of cues as coming from us, but cues can also be given by our animals. When you live with animals, you become as much cued by their behavior as they are cued by you.  We know the look our cats give us when they want to be picked up for a cuddle, when they want to be set down again, or let out, or fed.  We become well-trained humans.

Animal Trainers – The Ones to Really Learn From!
I have always known how much my behavior is being cued by my animals.  I know those “looks”.  I have learned to interpret them and respond appropriately to them.  It’s no good picking your cat up for a cuddle when what she wants is to go out.  She’ll simply squirm out of your arms to repeat – louder – her cue.  She knows what many people who travel in foreign countries also believe.  If the foreigner doesn’t understand your language, repeat what you just said, only louder.  In the cat’s case, this often works!

Cats are superb trainers.  They are experts at arranging their households to their liking.  If you want to learn about training – watch your cats.  You don’t need to go any further to find a master trainer!

A Well-Trained Human
Cats are very good at taking the behaviors we have taught them, and turning them around to cue us.  I became very aware of this when one of my cats was a small kitten.  She wanted to see what I was having for breakfast and perhaps share it with me.  I didn’t want to encourage this behavior, so I took advantage of her interest to teach her to sit.  I followed the same procedure I had seen dog trainers use.  I held a small tidbit over her head.  As she looked up to see what was in my fingers, her hindquarters sank towards the floor.  Click!  I gave her a tiny bit of the buttered toast she was so interested in.

Two or three reps were usually enough to satisfy her curiosity. She would go off and leave me alone to enjoy my breakfast without the constant interruption of a too inquisitive paw pushing its way onto my plate.

Over the course of several days the sit began to evolve.  Now we had a proper down on your rump sit.  Click and treat.

One morning she added a slight paw lift.  I grew that from a slight lift of her front foot into a “high five” wave.   It was very cute.

And that’s when she turned the tables on me.  I was in the kitchen not far from the refrigerator.  She very deliberately sat down, lifted her paw and gave me my cue.  It was so like the dog handlers who cue “sit” and “down” with a hand signal, only in my case the cue set in motion a much more complex chain.  I walked to the refrigerator, opened the door, reached in, lifted out the tub of margarine, took off the lid, put a small dollop on the tip of my finger, reached down and let her lick it off my finger.

I had to laugh.  I knew exactly what had just happened.  She had turned everything around, and she was cueing me!

I also understood more clearly than I ever had before that the behaviors we teach our animals can be used by them to cue us.