#WednesdayWords are words to add to your horse training vocabulary and practice. Today’s word is Shaping.
Shaping is the act of reinforcing small steps that progressively lead towards an end goal.
The end goal of shaping can be relatively simple, or very complex. Do you want to teach a horse to lift a hoof, or do a flying lead change? Both end goals can be done using shaping.
You can write a shaping plan down, listing each step towards your end goal, or you can just have a rough plan in your head. Each step in a shaping plan is a ‘successive approximation’ – a small step that looks progressively more and more like the end goal.
You get to the end goal by asking a little more of the horse each step along the way. If your horse gets stuck or has trouble with a step, you simply break that step down into smaller steps so that your horse can still find the right answer, and be reinforced for any attempt towards the end goal. Using the concept of shaping, you can teach your horse anything that he is capable of doing.
For example, if you want to teach a young horse to back up under saddle when you apply light rein pressure, your shaping plan for starting to teach it might look like the following.
When you apply light rein pressure, your horse:
When your horse does anything in your plan, you would instantly release the rein pressure to reinforce the desired behavior. When we reinforce behaviors we make them more likely to happen again in the future. In horse training, we instantly release pressure that we apply (often from a leg or rein) the moment the horse does what it is we want.
Notice that each step in the above plan is progressively more challenging, and leading towards your end goal. You are asking your horse to do a little more each time, and delaying the release of light pressure until the new step is achieved. Also notice that if you looked at a step in isolation – for example, ‘slightly shifts his weight backwards’ – it may at first glance seem not to be what your end goal ‘back up under saddle’ is. “Why am I reinforcing something that isn’t exactly what I want?” you might be asking. By releasing pressure at the shift in weight you are reinforcing an approximation – something that is nearly, but not exactly what you want – because your horse doesn’t yet know how to do the full end goal of backing up under saddle. To get a horse to back up under saddle for the first time without using shaping would likely require a large amount of physical or mental pressure from you to instantly achieve that end goal.
When trainers use large amounts of physical or mental pressure during training they create a situation where the horse thinks only of escaping the painful or scary pressure, and in doing so he accidently stumbles on what it is the human wants in the process. This approach is frequently seen when people attempt to teach a horse to trailer load by using flags, carrot sticks, whips etc. The horse isn’t thinking in these instances – he is only attempting to escape the pain or threats of pain.
Teaching a horse to stumble on an end goal by escaping comes with a whole host of unwanted side-effects, many of which are very hard to undo once created. Approaching training from a shaping perspective, on the other hand, carries minimal risk of creating such problems and is still incredibly effective.
Learning about shaping and applying it to your horse training can not only make you a more effective trainer, it is more likely to leave your horse with a good feeling about being trained.
Happy horse training!
Lauren Fraser, CHBC offers relationship-based horse training that blends the art of horsemanship with behavioral science and the practical application of learning theory. She provides horsemanship coaching, behavioral consultations, solutions to problem behaviors, foundation training, clinics, and educational presentations.
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True narcolepsy is rare in horses, but sleep deprivation is not.
This video shows an older mare who is sleep deprived, falling into REM sleep while standing. Horses must lay down to achieve REM sleep, and when deprived from doing so it may manifest as the behaviors you see here. Sleep deprivation is harmful to the health of all animals, so it is very important that your horse has the ability to lay down each day, and feels safe to do so.
Horses won't lay down to sleep for a number of reasons such as pain, lack of suitable resting sites, or when they don't feel safe to lay down. It's reported that two factors resulted in this mare not laying down to sleep - the arrival of a new horse, and undiagnosed arthritis pain ... See MoreSee Less
Sleep Disorder Case : Horses require 30mins/day REM sleep. Siri is a 22 year old Arab X mare. Last summer after a new, dominant horse was introduced to the herd, she lost weight and was seen to have frequent episodes of partial collapse, once falling onto her side. The episodes resolved, but a couple of weeks ago the same behaviour was observed again and New Forest Equine Vets were called in to investigate. Collapse in horses is fortunately uncommon, but when it does occur can obviously be hazardous to both horse and handlers. Three types of 'collapsing' are seen in horses; seizures, syncope (fainting) and sleep disorders. Siri underwent a very thorough clinical examination including neurological and musculoskeletal assessments, and had a range of blood tests performed. The most significant findings were; The original association of the behaviour with the arrival of a new field-mate. A low grade right hind lameness, with severe persistent right hind pain with flexion tests. The gradual lowering of the head, before the front legs buckle. We also found a cardiac arrhythmia; Siri has a second degree AV block, but this is a normal finding in horses and would not cause fainting. Siri's condition is a Sleep Disorder. True narcolepsy can occur in horses, and is usually associated with events like grooming or saddling. Siri is most likely suffering from sleep deprivation. Horses require 30 minutes of REM sleep per day and although they can doze standing up, they need to lie down for REM sleep. We expect that when the new dominant herd-mate arrived, Siri was not comfortable to lie down in the field with him. Now she has lameness and finds it painful to flex her right hindlimb, which is likely to be preventing her from wanting to lie down to sleep. She is currently on a bute (pain relief) trial, and her owner has made her a lovely deep stable bed that she is coming into daily to encourage her to lie down – so far, no further collapsing episodes have been seen. A very interesting case and a good reminder of how important it is for horses to feel comfortable, physically and psychologically in their herd/environment, so that they don't miss out on their REM sleep.
3 days ago ·