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!!