“Practice Makes Perfect,” how many times have you heard that saying? Have you ever seriously considered how the concept applies to your horse? You see it all the time; horses asked to do many, many repetitions of whatever move their rider is fixated on.Humans have the mental drive and ability to commit themselves to multiple repetitions or “practice” but do animals? Animal behavioral scientists say too many repetitions can create stress, discouragement and loss of desire to perform yet short sessions of only a few repetitions can keep a horse engaged. Adding food treats to your training also helps to keep your horse focused and willing.
At our ranch, we practice “error free learning” or “perfect practice.” This means to teach in a way that sets the horse up for success by presenting each new move in tiny, incremental steps with just a few repetitions.
Recognize each try or approximation and reward your horse. Use food treats generously during the learning phase and then diminish them over time and reward him with stroking or verbal praise.
Let’s apply Error Free Learning as we teach a horse to stand quietly next to a block for mounting. The goal is to teach him each tiny step of the entire process in successive days. Then we’ll connect or link them together in a Behavior Chain that will culminate in the desired move. With just a couple of sessions a day, your horse will be standing at the mounting block like a pro in a week!
We’ll teach from the ground, then transfer it to mounted work so this is an appropriate lesson for any age horse, even a weanling.
Bring him into an enclosure where the mounting block or step is and lead him around the perimeter so he can look at it from various angles. Walk him in a circle around the block and then halt even with it and let him stand for perhaps 30 seconds.
Repeat this 3 times and ask him to stand slightly longer with each repetition. Reward him with a food treat – “cookie time” at the end of the sequence. If he moves out of place, calmly reposition him and try again.
As he stands next to the block, drop his lead and slowly step a few feet from him adding a cue such as “stand” or “wait.” This is the beginning step to ground tying. If he moves out of position, re-position him calmly and tell him “no.” He will soon learn that he will only be rewarded if he actually tries. Increase the time that he is expected to stand and reward him at the very end. Repeat three times, slightly increasing the standing time.
Today, try dropping the lead as he stands at the block and walk a few steps away from him. If he stands quietly, try walking out to his side (either direction) and then slowly return before returning to his head. Wait a few seconds and reward him.
As his reliability increases, continue to add stand time to the ground tie position. If he needs improvement on any of the elements, go back and help him understand what you are asking him.
Try standing on the mounting block and give him his favorite type of scratches on his back or withers. You may begin leaning across his back and stroking the far side of his neck. You’ll want him to have only good experiences while standing for mounting at a later date.
Some tricks that help with my horses:
- Slower is usually faster when teaching a new move or behavior, take your time.
- Your patient coaching is important to his success.
- Never reprimand him for not understanding and if at any point you feel he is not understanding your requests, go back a step or two in the process.
Help him be successful by asking for tiny steps of the whole process.
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