JOY FULL Horses: Cues Evolve

Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed: Part 1

Change Happens
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.) You need to get what you want when you want it.  That is you need stimulus control.
7.) You can teach behavior in pairs to build stimulus control.

So now you have a cue attached to a behavior and the behavior is under some level of stimulus control.  But is that really the case?  Cues not only evolve out of the shaping process.  They keep on evolving.  The cue you started out with is probably not the cue you’ll end up with.

There are many reasons why cues change.  Some are deliberate.  We changed them.  And sometimes cues change because we weren’t paying attention.  Change happens.  Cues evolve out of the shaping process, and they keep on evolving. So number 8 becomes:

8.) Cues Can Change and Be Changed.

What Comes Before What Comes Before

Panda Catch gallop with caption
Horses are very clever at figuring out what comes before the behavior that comes before the behavior that comes before the behavior you want.  Did you follow all of that?  Your horse will.

Suppose you’ve been sliding down a lead to ask your horse to go forward.  He responds.  Click and treat.

He’s eager to get his treat, so he’s watching you.  You start to slide down the lead.  He knows the answer.  He’s like the smart kid in class who has his hand up even before the teacher has finished asking the question.  “I know the answer!  Pick me! Pick me!”

Your horse knows the answer.  He’s walking off before you can get even half way down the lead.  You love the promptness and softness of his response.  Click and treat.

You ask again and your horse responds even sooner.  He’s noticing the slight rise of your shoulders just before you begin sliding down the lead.

And then he notices the little intake of breath that precedes the lift of your shoulders.

And now you just begin to think about asking him to walk off, and he’s already doing it!

Whoa! Stop!  This is a little too light!

How Light is Too Light?
At some point you have to set some boundaries around how far back in the chain you want him to go.  You need to establish where you want to position your “get ready, get set, go” cues.  Maybe you enjoy a horse who is so super light no one can see how you’re asking.  Or maybe you want your horse to wait until you give a more definite, concrete, visible cue.  In either case, you get to decide.

Learning to wait for a cue is part of stimulus control.  Again, you can be a “drill sergeant” or a “game master”.

“Wait” is a great cue to have.

So are “Get Ready” and “Get Set”.

These aren’t necessarily verbal cues.  “Get ready” may be a glance in his direction.  “Get set” might be a shift in your balance.  “Go” is your raised eyebrow.  That’s how sensitive and tuned in horses can become.

The problem is your horse will keep moving your “Get ready, get set, go!” cues.  He’ll be ready to go on the “Get set” of your shift of balance, and he’ll have found a new, even more subtle “Get ready” cue.  At some point you’re going to need to tell him to “Wait”.  When he starts to jump the gun, you’ll need to reset him back into your base position.

“Wait” stabilizes your cues at a level of response you can manage.  What does wait mean to your horse?  What are you waiting for?  Signs of relaxation.  Teach your horse to settle.  You don’t want him always on edge waiting for the next cue.  Can he relax, take a breath, stand quietly?

Now get ready.  Remember the effect of cues works in two directions so waiting will be reinforced by the cue to get ready.

Get set.


The game is on.  Have fun!

Coming next: Changing Cues and Tap Root 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: