When you discover the power of using a target to train a horse, it is amazing. You can use it to teach a horse to lead, to stay, to load, to stand tied. The list goes on. As the title of Shawna Karrasch’s book says, “You Can Teach Your Horse to Do Anything”. The target is a magnificent tool and we all love it. But there is one problem. It is so helpful in getting behaviours, we can become a bit dependent on it and forget that its role is to prompt a behaviour. To initiate it and to add clarity so our horses understand what we want them to do.
But then, we need to fade the target and create understanding without it. And that is a point where many people get stuck and continue to use a target when the horse would easily do the behaviour without it. In fact, when a horse really understands what we want, they can get frustrated if we keep targeting them as a prompt when they don’t need it.
Learning the behaviour.
If we think about another situation where prompts are used, it’s easy to understand the process of fading the target and why the overuse of it may cause frustration. Imagine learning to play Romeo or Juliet in the play. At the beginning, you would have a copy of the script so that you could learn your lines. At first rehearsals all the actors would read their parts from the script to get a feel for the text and begin the process of learning their lines and the cues for their lines. (This is like using a target to initiate behaviour.) But soon the actors are expected to learn their lines. During this process, they are encouraged to put the script down and to rely on the use of a prompt. The prompter follows the script and comes in to remind them of their lines when they forget. A good prompter works on giving the least clue possible; enough to help the actor pick up the lines but not so much the actor remains reliant upon the prompter.
This is the second role of the target. Once the horse begins to understand and be slightly confident with the behaviour, the target needs to be a prompt. To be used as little as possible to just remind the horse of the behaviour so the horse can learn it without the prompt.
This is the part that new trainers may get stuck on. Experienced trainers are more comfortable with their horse struggling s little to remember what to do. They will wait a bit longer before presenting the prompt and will fade it quicker. To improve your ability as a trainer, try fading your prompts quicker. Learn to become comfortable with your horse making some mistakes even though you know you could prevent that by bringing back the prompt. It’s in the trial and error process that learning takes place so don’t be too worried about a few failed attempts.
Over-prompting kills the romance.
Why is it so important to fade the prompts at all? Usually we want behaviours to be complete without the prompt. We want the horse to really know the behaviours and perform them fluently and confidently. Imagine watching the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet where the actors were still highly dependent on the prompter for their lines. It would hardly be the romantic performance Shakespeare created! It would be stilted; we would not believe their passion and we would leave the performance quite dissatisfied. This is the same with our horse performance. When the horse is not dependent on the prompt, it means the communication between you is clear. The performance of the behaviour becomes prompted by a conversation between you. Your horse connects more to you and less to the objects which have created the behaviour. This is where the magic lies.
Try this at home.
So why not try it? Take a behaviour where you are still using a prompt and see how it goes without the prompt. Does your horse understand your other cues, or do you lose the behaviour? If so, can you work on fading the prompt by making your other cues clearer and more consistent? The sooner you can fade prompts, the sooner your horse will connect directly with you and will learn to pay more attention to your voice and body cues than to an external object. And then, like Shakespearean actors, you can focus on the feeling between you and create the magic that comes with developing your connection.
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