You Can’t Not Cue: Part 1 of 12

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 1 of 12

Using the Cues Your Horse Discovers

Collecting Gems
I began with the intent of introducing a beginner clicker trainer to the concept of cues.  Look where it’s taken us!  The first post in this unit was put up on Feb. 10, 2016.  Look at all the things I’ve covered since then.  I may have started out really simple, but as I’ve marched through the list, I’ve covered some very complex concepts.

That’s very much like training in general.  Focus on one particular exercise over a period of time, and you’ll ALWAYS get many more good things emerging from it than that one simple beginning point.

The more we look at cues, the more good things we see that are connected to this “green light” concept.

So far we’ve looked at:
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.

Now for number nine I would say to my novice clicker trainer:

9.) You can’t not cue.

Your horse is a grandmaster at reading humans.  And he’s also great at predicting the future.  He knows your patterns even if you don’t.  He knows when you’re about to ask him for head lowering, for backing, etc..  Before you can give what you think is the cue, he’s already worked out what you want.  It’s time to notice those cues so you can play with them and have some fun as you solve some common training problems.

Clever Hans
I wrote about Clever Hans earlier.  ( Clever Hans was a horse who gained fame in Germany in the early years of the 20th century.  It was said he could do basic arithmetic, including multiplying and dividing.  He could tell time; he could keep track of the days in a week and solve other puzzles that were asked of him.  Ask him how much 3 times 9 was, and Clever Hans would tap out the right answer.  Of course, it had to be a trick. Horses couldn’t do math or know the answers to these other questions.  But how was he doing it?  Even when they took his owner away, Clever Hans would still tap out the correct answers.

A panel of experts examined him, but couldn’t solve the puzzle.  And then in 1907 a psychologist named Oskar Pfungst cracked the code.  Clever Hans didn’t need his owner to be present.  As long as the other people watching knew the answer, Clever Hans would stop tapping at the correct moment.  It wasn’t magic or a hoax, just a horse who was extremely good at reading body language.

He couldn’t do arithmetic and all of those other intellectual feats. People could go right back to their firmly held belief that horses were indeed stupid animals.

How sad.  There is another conclusion they could have drawn – and celebrated. Horses are brilliant at reading body language.

We are training the species that is represented by Clever Hans.  You can fight your horse’s ability to read even the subtlest of cues, or you can put it to good use.

Working WITH Your Own Clever Hans
If I were setting up a scientific study to test a horse’s ability to differentiate colours, I might want to be very rigid in my experimental design.  I would want to know that I wasn’t giving away the answer through some subtle hints I might not even be aware of.  I would have to work hard to take my body language out of the picture.  I might wear dark glasses so my horses couldn’t see where I was looking, but even that wouldn’t be enough. Horses are such masters at reading subtle signals, any tilt of my head would be a giveaway.

Fighting against my horse’s ability to read me is NOT how I train. I’m not training my horses so I can pass the scrutiny of some scientific standard.  Instead of fighting my horse’s ability to read body language, I’m going to make use of it.  I WANT my horses to read me.  And I want my horses to be successful.

So I’m going to embrace a very basic understanding of cues which is: you can’t not cue.

Canine Teachers
Several years back at the Clicker Expo Morten and Cecilia Egverdt did a series of presentations on teaching canine obedience using backchaining.  They want high energy, enthusiastic dogs who can perform with great accuracy and precision.  When a signal is given in competition, they expect an immediate response.

They taught their dogs via clicker training.  The end result was sharp, accurate performance at the highest levels of competition.  In a competition if you were comparing one of Morten’s clicker-trained dogs with other dogs that were more conventionally trained, you would see all the dogs working with extreme accuracy and precision.  They would all respond immediately to the signals they were given. They would all work at speed.  They would all work accurately.  Stimulus control would create in all the dogs very polished performances.

But Morten stressed that he didn’t want to end up with a dog that was indistinguishable from the more conventionally-trained dogs.  He wanted his clicker-trained dogs to retain the enthusiasm for their work that they displayed when they were first learning new skills.  He wanted to keep the creativity and joy even as he developed the unwavering precision in response.  He wanted his dogs to know that offering behavior was still okay.

At the start of a work session his dogs could offer behaviors that were appropriate to that particular environment.  If they were out in their training arena, they could sit, lie down, spin, run in a big circle, leap over a jump, etc..  Any and all of these behaviors would be reinforced.

It was as if the dogs had a menu from which to choose.  In this environment barking, digging holes in the footing, biting the handler – these are NOT behaviors which will ever be reinforced.  But sitting, lying down, running backwards, jumping over the jump, retrieving the dumbbell, these are all behaviors which will earn clicks and treats – until . . .

Until the handler gives the first definite cue.  After that ONLY the behaviors which are cued will be reinforced.  No off-cue behaviors will earn a click and treat.

Selecting from the Menu
I loved the concept of the menu.  In this context, these are the behaviors that have a high probability of being reinforced.  This is something I very much want my horses to understand.  It is the basis for what I refer to as default behaviors.

A horse can’t do nothing – not unless he is dead.  Your horse is always doing something.  When I’m in the barn doing chores and my horses are in their stalls, there are lots of possible “somethings” they could be doing.  Some of the “somethings” would be behaviors that I wouldn’t want – banging on the stall door or raking their teeth across the metal bars to get my attention.  I also wouldn’t want them pacing, attacking their neighbors, rearing up, etc..

I wouldn’t mind if they took a nap, ate their hay, drank from their water bucket.  Those are all perfectly acceptable behaviors.  If they want me to interact with them, they could pose, or put their ears forward.  They don’t have to wait for a specific cue from me.  I am the cue.  If I walk past my horse’s stall and he wants to initiate a conversation, all he has to do is arch his neck in what I consider to be a pretty pose.  Click – he has my attention.

I’m not under perfect stimulus control. Sometimes I’m carrying two water buckets which makes stopping to give a treat difficult.  But I think my horses would tell you, they have me pretty well trained.

What Morton and Cecilie’s work suggests is that the dogs (and horses) are learning the concept of putting individual behaviors into categories.  Under these conditions these behaviors are acceptable.  If you want reinforcement, offer me behaviors from within this class.  Cantering is a wonderful behavior to offer out here in the arena, but I don’t want to see it in the barn aisle or in your stall!

Use Your Cues
The only place where I parted company with what they were saying was their comment that they weren’t cueing these behaviors.  I watched a video clip showing one of their dogs offering behavior after behavior while Cecilie stood in a rigid position, arms at her side, feet together.  Of course she was cueing!  That body position was the cue for her dogs to offer behavior.

I don’t want to fight these cues, or pretend that they aren’t there.  The previous section looked at how cues evolve out of the shaping process.  I want to put them to work.  As soon as I recognize how fast cues emerge out of the shaping process, I can begin to use them to solve some very common behavior problems.

Coming Next: An Accident Waiting To Happen

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:          

JOY Full Horses: Pt 2: Part 2: Playing with Cues: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

Number 2: Non-Verbal Cues

Mary pointing to chair

Chapter 1: Shh.  Don’t Talk.  I’m Listening To Your Body.

Clever Hans
There are many things in addition to verbal cues which can act as “green lights”

We’re such a verbal species many beginners forget that there are many things that can act as cues.  They feel as though a behavior isn’t really “on cue” until they have a verbal cue attached to it.  Until they can say “sit” to their dog or “trot” to their horse and have them respond, they don’t really believe they have the behavior on cue.

They are forgetting that with horses they are working with the species that is represented by Clever Hans, that master of reading human body language.

Clever Hans gained fame in the early 1900s.  His owner, Wilhelm von Osten, showed him off across Germany.  Clever Hans was said to be able to do complex mathematics.  He dumbfounded the nay sayers.  Even when his owner was out of sight, Clever Hans could still get the right answer.  How was this done? The answer was what you would expect from a clever horse.  He was a master at reading very subtle body language.

He was not alone.  So are most horses.  Hand gestures, where you’re looking, a raised eyebrow, a slight shift in balance: these will all be noticed by a horse, and they can easily become cues.  In fact these subtle signals are often acting as cues long before the human handlers realize what’s going on.

So part of playing with cues is noticing how good your horse is at spotting little changes.  You can easily turn this into a game and certainly a source of laughter.

Unintended Cues
So once again, we are back to play and yet another reason we want to turn being PLAY FULL into a habit.  Here’s another: with so many potential triggers for a behavior you may not be able to detect or deliberately control all the signals your horse is responding to.

Not long ago I was listening to a series of lectures given by Stanford University professor, Robert Sapolsky.  Sapolsky is a primatologist and a specialist in the physiology of stress.  He’s written a widely read book on the subject: “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”.

In his lecture Sapolsky described a study in which people were exposed to two different samples of sweat. Brain scans recorded their reactions.  The first sample was collected from people who were afraid, and the second sample came from people who were simply exerting themselves.  People in this later group were exercising on a treadmill.   People in the first group were about to jump out of an airplane.  They were having their very first sky diving lesson.  Sweat samples were collected from their arm pits moments before they jumped.

Later when people were asked to smell the two samples, they said they smelled the same.  But their brain scans told a different story.  Even though they didn’t report a difference, different parts of their brains were lighting up. This suggests that they were having very different emotional reactions to the two samples.

If humans can detect such differences, just imagine what our horses and our dogs must be detecting.  So consider this scenario:

It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon.  The weather is perfect.  It’s a bright, sunny day, and you’ve gone out to the barn to work with your horse.  You have one of those glorious sessions where your horse almost seems to read your mind.  It’s the kind of session that gives you a euphoric high for the rest of the day.  You can hardly wait for your next visit to the barn.

The next day is Monday, and it’s one of “those” days.  There are people out sick at work.  The computers are down.  Your whole day is spent going from one crisis to another.  The traffic driving home is terrible.  It’s just a high stress day from start to finish.  Thank goodness for your horse.  At least your ride will be relaxing.  But when you ask your horse to follow you over to the mounting block, he plants his feet and looks at you as if you’re from Mars, and he hasn’t got a clue what you want him to do.

It’s tempting to throw a fit.  After all, it’s been that kind of a day.  He knows what you want.  He lined himself up perfectly yesterday.

But yesterday you were relaxed.  Now you’re stressed and the signals you’re giving off aren’t the same.  You aren’t moving in the same relaxed way, and you don’t smell the same.  You’re giving off stress pheromones that weren’t there yesterday.  When your horse detects these, they tell him to stay put.  You aren’t someone he feels comfortable allowing on his back.

This is why it is so important to be Playful – remember that means full of Play.

You want to build a conditioned response for yourself.  No matter what sort of a day you’ve had, as soon as you head out to the barn – your mood shifts.

The good news is you really can deliberately build triggers for yourself that turn this into a habit.  In the next section I’ll be explaining how.

Coming next: Chapter 2: Turning being PLAY FULL into a Habit

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

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: