Modern Horse Training: What is Constructional Training?

I’m counting down the days to the publication of my new book: “Modern Horse Training A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend”.

Everything is set to go (I hope). The publication date is April 26. While we are waiting, I’ve been sharing with you, not excerpts from the book, but some stories that explain the genesis of my training choices. Here’s today’s installment:

Yesterday I wrote about the link between ground work and riding. That sits at the core of the constructional approach to training that my horses have been teaching me. Here’s an example to help you understand how this works.

Suppose you are working with a youngster who hasn’t had much handling. You want this horse to pick up his feet for cleaning. That’s one of the universals we all need to teach our horses. It doesn’t matter if you want to ride English or western, or you don’t ride at all, horses need regular foot care.

But before you can pick up your horse’s feet, you need him to stand still and to be comfortable being handled. So there are some component skills that are handy to teach before you start trying to handle his feet.

You’ll be starting with the foundation lessons. You’ll be teaching him to stand still, to back up and come forward, to orient to targets, to stand on a mat. You’ll be starting in simple environments that make these lessons easier to teach. The new book covers this in detail so I won’t say more here. Let’s assume that you have taught your horse to stand on a mat, and you are now teaching him front leg flexions. As you develop this lesson, you are able to point at his shoulder and your horse will lift his foot up well off the ground into your waiting hand.

Robin shows a good example of a leg flexion. He’s targeting his knee to my hand. The balance these leg flexions teach make routine foot care very easy, and they also contribute to the good balance I look for under saddle.

Teaching leg flexions to your young horse will mean foot cleaning is easy. He’s lifting his foot up for you, and he’s become so well balanced he’s not leaning on you for support.

Foot care may not seem to be connected to riding, but it very much is. Those leg flexions are a wonderful prep for riding. They help your horse find the good balance that makes riding easier for both of you.

When you clean your horse’s feet, you could skip all this training. You could pry his feet up off the ground and accept having him shifting around and leaning on you for support. Cleaning his feet would be a chore, but you’d get it done.

You could skip all the “niceties” of the preliminary groundwork and get straight on, but your job will be much harder. You’ll be getting on an unbalanced horse who is much more of a challenge to ride.

I prefer to stack the deck more in favor of both my horse and myself. So another important lesson my horses have taught me is: If a lesson is becoming difficult for either the horse or the handler, it’s time to break the lesson down into smaller steps.

Remember I want to avoid “brick-wall” training. The sooner I recognize that a lesson is presenting puzzles my horse and I aren’t ready to solve, the easier it becomes to avoid crashing into metaphorical brick walls. I want to fine tune my detectors so long before a puzzle begins to generate frustration, anxiety, fear, or any other emotion that could get us into trouble, I’m already looking for the smaller, easier-to-teach underlying steps.

My horses have taught me to keep looking for smaller steps. If I break a lesson down into what I think is a small step, if it is still too hard, I will keep looking for the even smaller step that it can be divided into. Sometimes finding the smaller step means asking for less. It means asking for just a weight shift instead of a full step. It can also mean looking for the missing component part that is needed to make the lesson easier to understand. What do I need to teach first? If I haven’t introduced my horse to basic targeting, asking him to target his knee to my hand could easily become a frustrating lesson for both of us.

Looking for the smaller step has evolved into this “loopy training” guideline: To find a starting place for your training, you will keep dividing a lesson into smaller and smaller component parts, until you find something your learner CAN consistently do, even if that step seems very small and very far away from your goal behavior.

What am I describing?

Constructional training. This term comes from the work of Dr. Goldiamond, a behavior analyst and clinical psychologist. In a nutshell Goldiamond didn’t want to “fix” behavior. He wanted to build new repertoires of behavior – hence the name constructional training.

This fits perfectly with clicker training. Instead of focusing on what you aren’t liking, and setting goals that are centered around eliminating unwanted behavior, you reframe everything. You focus on what you want your horse TO DO, and you teach that. A constructional training approach matches the approach to training that for me began to evolve over 40 years ago.

Something else I learned a long time ago is good ideas are good ideas. They aren’t unique to any one person or any one source. When you find a convergence like this coming from two very different sources – clinical patients in Goldiamond’s case, and horses in mine, that’s a good indicator that you are on the right track.

The new book, “Modern Horse Training” is designed to help you become a skilled constructional trainer. It explains in detail how the concept of constructional training provides a wonderful framework for positive reinforcement training. Everything is connected to everything else makes perfect sense when you see your training from this perspective.

“Modern Horse Training” will be available as a hardcover, a paperback, and as an ebook. The publication date is April 26. You’ll be able to order it through my web site, and also through Amazon and other booksellers.