Joy Full Horses: Tag Teaching and Keystone Habits

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, “JOY Full Horses”.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

The previous section highlighted the importance of separating feedback from instruction.  We’re all teachers whether we give ourselves that label or not.  We give feedback and instruction all the time – and often we fall into the trap of combining them together:  “That was great, but . . .”  It’s easy to find yourself doing this since that’s what most of us have had modeled for us by our own teachers.

So suppose you notice that this is indeed your pattern.  You’re one of the legions of people who negate all the “that was great” with that irresistible “but . . . “.  You want to change.  In this section we’ll look at several key elements that help transform that good intention into a well-formed habit.

Tag Teaching and Keystone Habits
As you’ve seen, thinking about TAGpoints helps keep your training positive.  You don’t have to limit yourself to tagging other people. You can build great habits by tagging yourself.

Pick something you want to work on, and identify achievable, measurable, realistic goals for yourself.  Now be your own best coach.  When you meet your criterion, acknowledge it, then observe your own self-talk.  You want to move from: “Okay, you did it, but . . .” to “That was great! I just met that goal.  Now in this next round I’m going to monitor this criterion and tag myself for . . .”  That’s the good coaching habit you want to build.

Remember you are looking for the keystone habits and those small wins that begin to accumulate into transformative changes. One of the great values of TAGteaching is it focuses the spotlight on what you want.  As you go through the focus-funnel process looking for a way to say what you want in five words or less, you’ll find yourself discarding all the “yeah, buts” and “don’t wants”.  Instead your attention will be drawn to that one key behavior you can consistently change.

Suppose you are feeling guilty because work has been so crazy recently that you haven’t had much time for your horse.  Instead of beating yourself up because you feel that you are neglecting him, what could you tag yourself for?  Maybe instead of checking your personal emails over lunch, you decide to write a training plan for five minutes of clicker play later that day.  Tag for you!

When you spend those few minutes during the day thinking about your horse, you may find that you return to work feeling refreshed and ready for the rest of the day.  There’s the reward that is going to support this new habit!

When you concentrate on these tiny moments of success, they become mental triggers.  Instead of beating yourself up because you aren’t able to spend as much time with your horses as you’d like, you’re preparing yourself well for the time you do have.

With that training plan in mind, you’ll be more productive.  You and your horse will have a great time together.  You’ll leave the barn on a euphoric high feeling as though you have accomplished something. That provides you with more rewards for a routine that’s becoming filled with good habits.  Eventually these habits will take over, and you will discover that you are not only enjoying work more, you’re creating more and more barn time, as well.

Keeping a journal is a great way to track these changes – and to build even more good habits.  Journaling seems to be one of those world divides sorts of activities.  Either you are a record keeper, have stacks of diaries sitting in your bookshelf, or you have one notebook with half a page filled out and the rest is a blank testament to good intentions gone astray.

It’s probably no surprise that I’m a record keeper.  I have stacks of training journals.  They make dull as dishwater reading, but then they aren’t intended to be read.  They are there for record keeping only.

When I was first starting out with Peregrine’s mother, I kept a daily log of every one of our sessions.  I knew in the evening I would be recording whatever training choices I made.  If I got mad and whacked her with a whip, I knew I would have to write about it that night.  More than that I would have to explain my actions. Saying I got mad and vented my frustration on my horse wasn’t anything I ever wanted to be writing in my journal.  So just the knowledge that I was keeping this journal, kept me from reaching for those “knee-jerk solutions”.  It helped mold the pattern of thought that became a pattern of habit that turned into the foundation of clicker training.

It turns out there is plenty of evidence to support the value of journaling.  In “The Power of Habits”, Charles Duhigg cites a study in which 1600 people kept food journals.  At least one day per week they recorded everything that they ate during that day.

When they did this, they became much more aware of their patterns, and they were able to lose significantly more weight than people who used other methods.

“It was hard at first.  The subjects forgot to carry their food journals, or would snack and not note it. Slowly, however, people started recording their meals once a week – and sometimes more often. . . . Eventually, it became a habit. Then something unexpected happened.  The participants started looking at their entries and finding patterns they didn’t know existed.  Some noticed they always seemed to snack at about 10:00 am so they began keeping an apple or a banana on their desk for mid-morning munchies.

The researchers hadn’t suggested any of these behaviors. They had simply asked everyone to write down what they ate once a week.  But this keystone habit – food journaling – created a structure that helped other habits to flourish. Six months into the study, people who kept daily food records had lost twice as much weight as everyone else.”

Forming The Record Keeping Habit
If you don’t already keep a journal, the next question would be how do you form that good habit?

What cue can you establish for yourself that will trigger journal writing?  It might be putting your training log on your bedside table so you write in it every evening before going to sleep.

white board for record keepingIt might be a white board that you keep in your barn aisle with a check list of things accomplished during the day.

Maybe you are less of a dinosaur than I am and you have an app on your computer that cues you first thing in the morning to open your journal.  Or maybe it is that first cup of coffee in the morning that you have associated with sitting down and writing.

When you pick up your journal and begin writing, remember to give yourself a mental “yes, I did it!” TAG.

You pick the cue that starts the behavior.  You also get to pick the reward.  It might be as simple as checking off boxes on your white board and seeing the board fill up.  It might be the pleasure you gain reliving the day’s successes.  Or you might give yourself a more concrete reward. Maybe you fill out your journal in the evening while you have a relaxing cup of tea.

Forming a Journaling Community
Earlier I wrote about the importance of community.  The dieters wrote a log of their food habits one day per week. Perhaps you might decide that one day a week you will write a summary of the week’s training and email it to a friend. What have you been working on? What discoveries did you make? What connections between the lessons did you see?  What successes did you have?  What questions arose out of all this?

Your friend can be enlisted as a training partner.  She doesn’t necessarily have to be another horse person, just someone you enjoy sharing with.  She might have a project of her own that she’d like to keep track of.  Together you can help each other build the good habit of journaling. Writing a quick email at the end of the day to a friend describing the day’s training can be a wonderful way to keep a record.  This is different from blogging. This is private.  It doesn’t need to be long or insightful.  You can keep it simple because it is just a quick note between friends.

Key Stone Habits for Life
Establishing the journal habit is a good way to learn how to deliberately build a good habit. Building that first habit prepares you to move on to other keystone habits.  You’ll begin to see how all these small wins contribute to good changes in your life.

The next time you’re feeling frustrated with your horse, your kids, your co-workers, your significant other – instead of reaching for the old knee-jerk reaction, you’ll catch yourself.  You’ll be asking: what do I want to be writing in my journal tonight? Do I want to say I lost my temper and yelled at my co-worker for misfiling a document?  Or do I want to be describing the TAG points I came up with to help her become more organized?

We’ll let Charles Duhigg have the last word in this chapter:

“Keystone habits transform us by creating cultures that make clear the values that, in the heat of a difficult decision or moment of uncertainty, we might otherwise forget”

Isn’t this exactly what we want for our horses?  Oops.  I got the last word in.  I couldn’t help myself, so I’ll add a couple more!  As I’ve said before, the advantage of presenting this book in small installments is it creates pauses. So in this pause, I hope you’ll consider your journaling habit.

If you’re already a record keeper, how could you use it to help create other good training habits?  And if you aren’t yet a record keeper, what routine could you begin today to get that habit loop going?  One thing good trainers have in common is they value record keeping.  So give journaling a try.  You may be surprised by all the good things that come from this one keystone habit.

This ends the section on Non-verbal Cues.  Up next is the third in my list of ten things you should know about cues.


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

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: Tagteaching – The Focus Funnel

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, “JOY Full Horses”.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

In the previous post I introduced you to TagTeaching which stands for teaching with acoustical guidance.  Tagteaching takes the excess words out of coaching and shifts the focus from what a student is doing wrong and needs to correct to what is wanted.  Instruction can be pared down to the four WOOF criteria:

What we want
One thing at a time
Five words or less.

I described what each of those meant in the previous installment.  Now in this section, I’ll introduce you to another tagteaching tool: the focus funnel.

The Focus Funnel
The founder of Tagteaching,  Theresa Mckeon, developed the concept of the focus funnel for TAG instruction.

A funnel is wide at the top and narrows down at the bottom.

So at the top of the focus funnel is a broad description of the lesson.  This is the part most of us find easy.  We like our words!

Next the coach reduces this general description of the task down to clear instructions about what is wanted.  Lastly she reduces this even further down to a point of focus which can be described in five words or less.

The Focus Funnel Applied to Horse Training
Suppose you are introducing a friend to clicker training.  You’re going to show her how to ask her horse to touch a target.  You’ve probably already given her a general overview of targeting and explained why it’s important, why it makes a great introduction to clicker training.

You’ve gone through the basic prep.  You’ve practiced the lesson letting her rehearse with you how she’s going to hold the clicker and the target, how she’s going to feed her horse.

You’ve found a good area to work with her horse.  He’s loose in a small paddock so he’s free to move about and interact with her, but there is a fence separating her from him just in case he gets pushy or overly excited about the food.  The barrier means she can step back out of his reach instead of correcting him.  That keeps the lesson focused on the behavior she wants – touching the target.

So now she’s ready for the lesson description.

“You’re going to ask your horse to touch the target.  When he does, click and treat.  Repeat this several times, then drop some treats in his food bucket and step away from his paddock.

Your tag point is: Click as nose touches target.”

Constructive Feedback
Tagteaching, like its cousin clicker training, keeps us focused on the positive.  How do we say things so they are clear, to the point and non critical?

One of the tripping up points in coaching is what happens after the handler completes this first round of training.  As you watch her work, suppose you noticed that she was reaching into her treat pouch a second or two before she clicked.

Horses miss nothing. Her horse is going to see that movement, and he’s very quickly going to connect the dots.  Whatever he was doing just as her hand started to move is what he’s going to repeat.  If that was touching the target, that’s the behavior she’ll get more of.  The click will be extraneous information that gets filtered out.  She’ll be clicking the clicker, but it will have less and less meaning as her horse begins to rely on the movement of her hand.  For him that’s the true marker signal.

Now you could say – what’s wrong with that?   Isn’t that easier than all this clicking nonsense?

You could absolutely decide that the movement of your hand is going to be your marker.  There is nothing in clicker training that says you have to use a clicker, or even an auditory marker.  If you were working with a deaf horse, you’d have to come up with some other way to mark behavior.

The problem isn’t that a different marker is being used.  It’s that the handler isn’t aware that’s what is going on.  She isn’t being deliberate in her use of that signal so it will become inconsistent.  If she watched a video of herself, she might notice her hand movement and decide to make that her marker signal, but it’s one I would advise against.  There are so many times in horse training where your hands are going to be busy doing other things.  If your hand is your marker signal, you’re going to run into major timing problems.

You’re seeing these potential pitfalls ahead for your friend so you decide to say something about it.  Here’s how this normally plays out:

“That was good.  You timed the click well, but I noticed that your hand was creeping into your treat pouch.”

Oops.  You’ve just fallen through the trap door that catches so many of us out.  You’ve mixed reinforcement with instruction, and the result is that “but” just negated all the good things you said about her performance.  She isn’t going to hear that she did a good job.  What will stick is she got something wrong.

So what do you do instead?  You put a pause between the assessment and the next set of instruction.

“That was great. You timed the click perfectly each time he touched the target.”


Lesson description: “Now in the next round of targeting we’re going to focus on a different element.  It’s important that you wait until after the click to reach into your treat pocket.  This keeps the meaning of the click really clear.”

Directions:  “You’re going to repeat the targeting.  Your feeding hand will stay at your side until you click.”

Tag Point: “What would be a good tag point for you?  “Food delivery after the click.” Or perhaps “Hand on hip” might work better.  You tell me which one works best for you.”

Having the learner identify her own tag point makes it even stronger.  This is something that means something to her, that she can relate to.  So involve your learner in creating her own tag points.  It’s a great way to check that she really does understand what you want her to do, and because she helped create the tag point, she is more likely to remember it.

Try It Out
One of the reasons for publishing this book in small installments is it gives you time to think about each section and to try things out for yourself.  How many times during the coming day will you find yourself commenting on someone’s performance?

Your answer may be: “but I’m not a teacher.”

Hah!  We’re all teaching – all the time.  It may be with your children, or a co-worker – or yourself, but we all offer instruction and give feedback.  Do you fall into the trap of mixing feedback with instruction?  Are you letting: “that was great, but . . .” slip in and disrupt  what you intended as praise?

For today take the time to notice what you are currently doing.  What is your existing habit pattern?  Once you’ve observed what you do, you can take action to change any patterns you aren’t liking.  Use what you’ve been learning about habits from the previous chapters to help you create a plan for developing the good habit of separating feedback from instruction.  What new habit loop are you going to create for yourself?

Keeping track of the changes you see is a good way to build new habits that last.  That’s what we’ll be exploring in the next installment.

(P.S. If you are new to clicker training horses and would like to see what these first targeting lessons that I referred to in this post look like, in November of 2015 I posted a four part series on introducing a horse to clicker training.)

Coming soon: Tagteaching and Keystone Habits

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

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: