Shaping ……What is it?

‘Shaping’ is the process of growing a behaviour in small increments.

It’s a little bit like the children’s game where you are directed to a place by someone saying that you’re cool (not too close) cold (wrong direction altogether), warm (right general direction) or hot (right there!).

The main difference is that when we shape a behaviour with animals, we only use ‘yes’ (warm/hot) answers.  We start by capturing a tiny bit of the behaviour we want to shape.  So, for example, if we want to shape head lowering to the ground, we simply observe the horse until we see his head dip down a fraction…click and treat.  Then watch to see if this is repeated, CT.  Capture this a few times and then wait for the horse to drop his head a little lower before clicking.  Very quickly your horse will recognise what’s happening and we continue clicking and treating each increment of head lowering until the horse is consistently lowering his head to the ground.

Aoife Stephens used this technique as part of her Young Scientist project in 2011 while she was in transition year in school  This video shows her working with a pony with no previous clicker training experience.

We can use as many steps or thin-slices as needed to go from the start to a finished behaviour….In scientific terms these are known as successive approximations.

Guidelines for successful shaping:

  • For this exercise, it’s important that your horse is completely free to leave the game. He can be at liberty in a paddock or loose in his stable.  The space doesn’t have to be huge but if he chooses to walk away, he must be free to do so.  In the video above you see Aoife working with a pony in an open shed where the pony can move away from her.
  • For a novice horse/pony or an animal you don’t know well, use protective contact. This means work behind a barrier as Aoife is doing here.  In this case it’s a very simple set-up with a rope strung across the front of the shed so that she can stay out of the pony’s space if he starts to mug her for food.  You can work behind a gate to a field, over a fence etc.
  • Keep your sessions short.  Take about twenty treats and when they’re all gone, finish your session (use a consistent signal to show the session is over e.g. show your empty hands)
  • When you finish a session move well away so as not to tease your horse.  This gives your horse a mental break.  The break need only be a few minutes…enough time to refill your pocket/pouch and assess how your session went.
  • Accept the slightest try to start with….a muscle twitch, or a few millimetres of movement, etc
  • Festina Lente…for the latin scholars.  It means make haste slowly.  Be prepared to put in lots and lots of steps/thin slices between the starting point and the finished behaviour.  It may seem like you’re taking longer but the learning is much better and its often quicker.
  • Have fun!  Think of this as a game, not work and it becomes a pleasure for both you and your horse!!

 

The Dreaded Donkey…and Rope-Handling skills

donkeyMIsty never liked donkeys.  She hated the noise they made and even the look of them. For years, our normally calm, relaxed, easy-going family cob became distinctly upset in the vicinity of donkeys.  This has mellowed over the years but I have always, for the past 18 or so years, been ‘donkey aware’ when out riding.

Newbie is a thoroughbred, with all the excitable and quick characteristics of the breed.  The first time we met a donkey, out walking in hand, I became anxious.  This was in our early months together and we were doing lots of targetting (can you touch the gate, scary bag in the ditch, dustbin, etc) for clicks and treats…….I could hardly ask him to touch the donkey!  However, much to my amazement, he was completely unfazed by the donkey once he spotted him.  I was always conscious of giving him time to see and observe other animals, donkeys, goats, sheep etc, as we came across them though.

Roll on many years to recently when we were returning home after an enjoyable hack around the parish. I knew that one of my neighbours had a donkey in his garden on temporary lawnmower duty and so as we came up to the house I made Newbie stop and look over the wall at said donkey who was tethered to a large metal pole in the centre of the lawn. The donkey looked at us but he was safely ensconsed behind a cattle grid. Calm and relaxed, we pottered on. Thirty or so yards down the road we heard an horrendous noise of metal banging on metal then metal on concrete and we both whirled around to see donkey galloping down the road towards us followed by a length of rope and metal pole hopping, banging and clanging behind him.

Newby dismount 2 (800x600) (2)We both reacted….Newbie’s thought was to wheel around and head for the hills, while my reaction was to slide down the reins and ask for head lowering. To my relief and delight, the head lowering response outweighed the “I’m out of here” response and Newbie stopped and dropped his head long enough for me to slide off his back.  Phew!!!!!

Donkey had now caught up with us and was quite determined to check out Newbie’s rear end.  So now Newbie was trying to avoid being followed by this creature while kicking out and circling me all at the same time.  I kept Newbie from running over me using my tai-chi rope handling skills (taught by Alexandra Kurland – the Tai Chi Wall keeps the horse’s shoulder over and away from the handler….more of this later).

Fortunately for us, another neighbour pulled up in her car, jumped out and asked how she could help.  I asked her to open the gate to an adjacent field and lead Newbie in, closely followed by donkey.  We had to move well into the field to allow donkey, rope and metal pole all get inside.  Newbie and I then made a dash for the gate and the neighbour closed it just in time to keep donkey in.

We then stood catching our breath while I repeatedly had Newbie drop his head CT, drop head CT, until we were both calm enough to walk on.  I was never more grateful for having practised a technique as much as I had practised head-lowering!