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May I Have This Dance?

This article will show how to go about splitting a behaviour down into smaller steps so as to make the learning easier and more successful. Within the article, I will also explain how back-chaining can be used in teaching behaviours.

Most of the time, you will see behaviours being taught by the lumping method. Lumping is when the whole behaviour is taught at once. With clicker training, our aim is to teach the component parts of a behaviour and then link those parts back together to get a much better result. However, as goal-oriented humans, we oft en have great trouble being happy with just getting the small parts of a behaviour. We end up lumping, even though we know we should be splitting.

How would a lumped behaviour look compared to one that has been taught with splitting? For this, let’s look at an exercise that can be done both on the ground and under saddle. Alexandra Kurland, author of many books and DVDs on horse clicker training, calls this exercise “hip-shoulder-shoulder.” I believe the original idea for it came from John Lyon’s work. When this exercise is done correctly, it produces a lovely flowing movement that Alex has coined the “Gene Kelly Glide.” It encourages lovely shifts in balance that produce great self carriage in the horse.

Self carriage in the horse. This exercise begins with walking forward, then asking with a lift of the rein for the inside hind leg to come up and cross under the belly, slightly disengaging the hip. This is followed by two backward steps. There should be no disruption in the flow of the feet, and the energy should just be redirected from forward to backwards. Regarding the name of this exercise, the “shoulder” refers to the backward movement of the shoulders.

Often, the horse and handler seem to rush through the exercise and it doesn’t flow or have the lovely shifts in balance that we are striving for. This happens because there is no clarity about the different parts of the behaviour; it has most likely been taught by lumping. Ideally, we should be able to stop the sequence of steps at any point along the way and start again at any point. If you can’t do this, you are both “on autopilot” - perhaps because it has been taught in a lump, like my introduction to the baler in the last article. When things get out of balance, we need to go back and rebalance by splitting it down.

How would I train, or retrain, this movement? In clicker training, we can remove the horse from the learning equation to start with. By removing the horse, we can help the handler focus on improving her mechanical skills without the added stress of having to teach her horse.

Starting with one person acting as the horse and the other as the handler, I would teach each part of the sequence. I would teach this by back-chaining the behaviour, which means teaching the last step in the sequence first. Think about learning your ABC’s. When you were first learning them, the first part was easy, because it had been repeated so often, but by the time you got to the middle of the alphabet, it got harder. If you had been taught the alphabet with back-chaining, you would have been taught the end of it first, then the next-to-last section, and then the earlier letters. Your confidence, as you went through the list, would actually be increasing because you had practiced the last ones more. Rather than getting harder, it became easier and you had more confidence that you could do it. Too bad our school system doesn’t use it more!

We would start with the very last part of the movement, which is the final backward step. The handler would get feedback from his human “horse” with regards to his timing, feel, etc, while asking his “horse” to back. (Each person would have a turn as the horse.) Common problems I have heard voiced by the human horses during this exercise are that the handler did not release between each step, and that they felt a downward and backwards drag from the handler when asked to back.

After gathering data from the human horses, we would refine our cues and try again. We want a soft upwards lift when asking for the back step, and a release of the rein after the step happens. The sequence is: lift rein, horse moves one step back, click, release rein, and feed your treat. After this is smooth, we add in the first back step. We make sure there is a release between the two steps and a click and treat for each step. Slowing down the process allows thinking time for everyone. We next add in the hip step which comes just before the backward steps. This is taught on its own and then added into the sequence, so we now have hip, back, back. All that is left to add would be the walking forward part and then asking for just the hip. When this is smooth, we could piece it all together to make the sequence complete. If all went well, we would be able to stop the sequence at any time. No more lumped behaviour.

Then, with our handlers’ improved mechanical skills, we would return to the real horse, and start with the final back step and build from there. This technique results in a much cleaner and smoother behaviour. Both horse and handler become more confident and relaxed by the end of the lesson - a sign of good training. Watching good training should be like watching paint dry. The results of good training should produce a lovely dance between two partners, just like Fred and Ginger. A short video clip of what this should look like with a horse can be found below.

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Until next month - keep it positive.

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