How Does Connection Training Work?
The Heart and Science of Positive Horse Training
Connection Training is reward-based training that is part ‘art’, part ‘science’ and a lot of ‘heart’.
Here’s how we put it all together in the 4 Elements of Connection Training:
1. The Power of Rewards
Using rewards has been shown to be the most effective way to teach horses in terms of how quickly the horse learns and how well the horse retains the skill.
Reward-based training is also known as positive reinforcement training. ‘Positive’ is used in the mathematical sense, so you’re adding something into the training. ‘Reinforcement’ refers to strengthening (as in reinforcing a structure, for example). In practical terms, it means that when your horse does something you like, you give her a reward. This will strengthen the behaviour, meaning she will be eager and happy to do it again.
Rewards can be anything your horse wants and values in that moment. We use a wide variety of rewards, from food treats to scratches to favourite behaviours that the horse loves doing. Rewards will always be tailored to each horse. For example, one horse might value a stand and a scratch as a reward, whereas another may love to pop over a jump. Varying the rewards will keep your horse’s interest and motivation high, and you’ll find different rewards will work better at different times. Skilful understanding and use of rewards will transform your horse’s motivation and enjoyment through learning.
2. Clear Communication
Another key piece of Connection Training is the use of a marker signal. The marker is a sound or signal that means ‘Yes! What you just did was correct, and you’ve earned a reward.’ You can use a whistle, a pat, or a certain word, but we often use a clicker for this signal.
When you’re training your horse, timing is everything. Being able to communicate clearly to your horse allows you to quickly and easily explain exactly what movement you want.
The marker signal is also called a ‘bridge’ signal. It’s called this because it bridges the time gap between when your horse does the right thing and when you can reward him. For example, if you’re teaching your horse to pick up the correct canter lead, you can’t reward him the moment he does it. However, you can mark the moment, which tells the horse exactly what movement was the right one. Then you can bring him down from canter to halt and reward him. Although the reward is given at halt, your horse’s brain will have registered what he was doing at the time the signal was given, and this will be the behaviour he learns to repeat.
The marker is a training tool for precisely explaining to your horse what behaviour you’re looking for. But you don’t want to be clicking every tiny thing forever. Once your horse knows and understands the behaviour and is happy to do it, you will fade out the click and the reward. Fading out the click keeps its meaning as a tool for training clear and strong. It’s also part of the process of bringing variability into your training to maintain that two-way communication and relationship between you and your horse.
3. Finding the Connection
One of the main benefits of using a marker signal is that you will look out for and notice all the best moments your horse offers. Simply looking for things to say ‘yes’ to, rather than things to correct, adds a huge amount of positivity and joy to your time with your horse.
You both feel better when you realize how many things you did well in each session. You’ll also both be more clear about what the right answer is and be eager to repeat it next time. Training sessions should be joyful, fun, and progressive. Horses should come running when they see their halter and be keen to get to the arena. Saying ‘yes’ to your horse helps you both feel great about your training sessions and really does mean both of you look forward to your time together.
And enjoying your time together is the ‘connection’ in Connection Training. The relationship you create with your horse is the most important aspect of CT. When you’re connected, your horse will be relaxed and responsive, and you’ll both look forward to your time together. In this state, you achieve incredible results from problem solving to performance. What’s more, you both love the process. This is what we prioritise through our training techniques.
4. The Emotional Horse
Emotions really are at the core of everything as they drive your horse’s behaviour and influence your relationship. At CT, we prioritise a positive emotional state in our horses, helping them to feel relaxed, willing and clear. In this state, they’re happy to connect with you, whether overcoming a problem or boosting performance.
Why does your horse run from a plastic bag or tractor? It’s because he’s scared. Why does your horse prance and pull when you’re leading him out to the field? It’s because he’s excited. It’s taken a while for science to catch up with what any animal lover has always known – that all animals have a wide range of emotions. Luckily, science has now proven it and has given us some really useful and interesting details about how emotions work in the brain, too.
Find out more about the science of emotions in equine learning through Rachel’s blog series on the Emotional Systems of Horses.
At Connection Training, we always looks at the emotional aspect of training, asking “how is this horse feeling?” We prioritise relaxation and joy above all else. As you change your horse’s emotions from confusion to clarity, fear to confidence and tension to relaxation, you’ll find that you have a horse who is safe to handle, eager to learn and fun to be with.
Together, we have pioneered the emotional aspect of positive horse training and we teach techniques for building in relaxation and connection from the very first CT sessions with your horse.
Getting Started with Connection Training
The first steps to getting started with Connection Training involve teaching your horse how to learn in this new way. This means that your horse is an active participant, working with you to figure out the answer. Introducing CT is also about helping your horse come into emotional balance. This means that your horse is relaxed and motivated. When your horse understands how to learn and is in this emotional state, your training will be smooth and joyful.
There are a few aspects to building a strong foundation with CT:
Give the marker meaning.
Your horse must learn that the marker (such as a click or a certain word) means that he’s doing the right thing. Usually, you begin this by giving your marker and then feeding your horse. As you can imagine, very quickly he learns that tthe specific noise means something good is coming and he’ll begin to pay close attention to it.
Make you mark
Your horse has to learn that what he does is what gets you to mark something and reward it. This is really key for the training – your horse must understand that he can get you to mark and reward him by doing specific behaviours. The behaviour we always start with is standing quietly by your side. Since the first behaviour you teach is usually the strongest, this is a great one to start with and will become a default behaviour for your horse to return to. It’s safe, clear and gives you both time to connect before moving onto anything else.
Get on target
Targeting is a fundamental exercise used throughout Connection Training and is one we teach all horses when getting started. Targeting is when your horse touches an object with his nose when you ask. Once your horse understands this behaviour, you can use it to train so many other things as he’ll move enthusiastically towards it. It is this clarity, confidence and joy that the target brings that means you can easily use it to teach your horse to lead, lunge and load.
The principles of getting started with reward-based training in this way are fairly straightforward – you mark moments you like and reward your horse for them. However, it can be easy to unintentionally create tension, anxiety or frustration in horses when training this way, too. At Connection Training, we focus strongly on getting a solid base of relaxation in our horses right from the very start. This emotional emphasis within the training keeps them soft, calm, polite and really focused on you, rather than the food.
To achieve this, you really have to tailor the training to the individual horse you’re working with. You’ll need a different approach wne working with a horse who is timid and afraid of people than working with one who is bargey and pushy. You’ll need a different approach if you’re working with an older horse who lacks enthusiasm in his work, compared to a younger horse who is generally over-keen and excitable.
There are many aspects you can change in the training, even in these early stages, to help set your horse up for success and create the best emotional associations with you and the training. You can vary everything from the rewards you use (both food and alternatives), length of sessions, the exercises you include, how fast you move on, the marker you use and how you use, when and where you train and loads more.
Watch our blog on building your horse’s relaxation.
Our Complete Training Foundation Home Study Course is dedicated to showing you exactly how to get started using Connection Training successfully with your horse. We have hours of step-by-step video showing a wide range of real horses and their humans at different stages in the learning process. This is real-time learning where it’s often a little messier in real life than it sounds on paper and unexpected things crop up and different horses react in different ways. We also have a whole module in our Foundation Course on finding the balance between relaxation and motivation with loads of case studies and practical techniques to help your horse find his emotional balance and strong communication adn connection with you. We want to give you the knowledge and tools to be able to train your horse to do anything you wish and this broad perspective is vital to help you be successful.
Or perhaps you’ve already started out with positive reinforcement but feel you’re missing that relaxation, softness and connection you wanted? Don’t worry – we’ve been there! Many of our students come to Connection Training when they’ve found that reward-based training has certainly brought enthusiasm and excitement to their horse, but maybe a little too much! If your horse is struggling with over-arousal, our Foundation Course will also help you to bring back the emotional balance and ensure that your horse is soft, polite, calm and relaxed in training, too.
Most horse owners struggle with overcoming ‘problem behaviours’ with their horse at some point. Loading problems, farrier issues, fear of clippers, vets or hosing, spooking problems, planting, barging, bolting, won’t stand tied, can’t tack them up, can’t catch your horse… The list goes on. Many of our members come to Connection Training while looking to solve a problem with their horse in a way which is gentle, effective and a long-term solution.
All ‘problem behaviours’ occur because the horse is feeling some kind of negative emotion – fear, anxiety, confusion, frustration, boredom etc. With our emphasis on how the horse feels, we can use the training to change these emotions to confidence, relaxation, clarity, joy and enthusiasm.
For example, if your horse has suffered from saddle pain in the past, he might now associate all saddles with that pain, even though the pain has now been removed. This horse will see a saddle and begin to feel afraid that it will hurt, often moving away or getting defensive if he’s unable to leave. We need to change the horse’s emotional associations with saddles from fear to relaxation and joy, so that when he now sees a saddle he feels totally relaxed and happy about having it placed on his back and will no longer move away or get defensive about being tacked up.
Watch this in action with this zebra x Arab:
Or, if your horse is frightened about being shut in the trailer, we need to find a way to build his confidence around loading and come to see the trailer as a great place to be. Once he feels confident and enthusiastic about it, he’ll want to load.
Watch our video on training a horse to load the CT way:
Or, if your horse is spooky and gets anxious about styrange objects or situations, we need to find a way to change that fear of the unknown into curiosity. Once he learns that exploring new things is a fiun and rewarding experience, his fear will change to curiosity and he’ll stop spooking from them.
Or, perhaps your horse is reluctant to be caught due to past experiences. We need to find a way to show him that being around people is relaxing and fun. Once he wants to be with you, he’ll come running when you call.
Reward-based training has been shown to be the most effective way to change your horse’s emotions to confidence and enthusiasm. In practice, for this approach to be succesful, you must be aware of your horse’s emotional threshold. Your horse is ‘under threshold’ when he’s relaxed, confident and thinking through the situation. He’s ‘approaching threshold’ when he begins to show signs of tension such as staring at an object, tightening his nose and muzzle, disconnecting slightly from you etc. And, he’s ‘over threshold’ when he’s reacting without thinking such as when he’s bolting, bucking, kicking out, shying and running backwards.
Unfortunately, many people don’t recognise the signs of building tension in their horse until theit horse is way over threshold and reacting strongly. However, there is usually a long period of time when the horse is apprioaching threshold, from small signs such as when the horse is keeping an eye or an ear on something spooky to bigger signs such as finding it hard to stand still. In this time, there is plenty you can do to help your horse to relax and re-connect with you. This both prevents your horse from having a big reaction and means that he has a more positive experience overall, building better positive emotional associations with the situation.
At Connection Training, the process of overcoming problems is enjoyable for you and your horse. As you help your horse to overcome fear, confusion or tension, you will strengthen his confidence and your relationship together.
You’ve probably heard of ‘gymnastic jumping’, where you use poles and jump grids to build suppleness strength and body awareness in horses. Gymnastic groundwork achieves the same goal, but uses a variety of dismounted exercises to get your horse moving beautufully and feeling great.
Healthy movement is key for a happy, sound horse, especially in preparation for riding, and we are passsionate about teaching horses to become supple, straight and strong. Of course, it’s always important to use that horses love their work, so we teach these gymnastic exercises in a way which is horse-centred – relaxing, fun, interesting and joyful for your horse.
Stiffness, imbalance and lack of awareness can cause horses to fall in, be one-sided, rush, pull, resist and even buck, bolt and rear. As you teach your horse to become more supple, balanced and aware, you will find that he relaxes, becomes more connected and responsive to you, is happy to go and stop when you ask and becomes soft and balanced to work and ride.
Our gymnastic groundwork exercises include:
Starting from a basic leading position, in-hand work incorporates the basics such as walk, halt and back up and builds to incorporate bending and lateral movements, such as leg yield, shoulder-in, haunches-in and half-pass. We also use in-hand work to teach horses how to lengthen or collect their movement, teaching them stretch, engage and come into self-carriage.
You can teach these either with or without a rope – we show how to teach all these exercises both at liberty and on a rein in our Home Study Courses. In fact, we tend to teach it both ways to our horses to keep it varied and fun, as well as to find the best appraoch for each horse.
Lunging is a great exercise to connect with your horse at a greater distance and speed, improving balance, suppleness and teaching great voice cues for transitions. By using a marker and rewards, you can begin to teach horses to understand to walk a circle around you, to bend to the inside, to halt and trot on voice cues. From there, you can build to teaching smooth changes of direction, balance and relaxation at higher gaits and to collect and extend his frame when we ask.
Throughout, your horse will be listening to you and understanding how to move in balance and engagement.
A-B Freejumping involves your horse going from point A to point B, such as being sent from one person to another. This becomes A-B Freejumping when your horse jumps a fence when going between the two points. This is Shawna’s signature exercise and is a fun and versatile exercise to get horses moving, to build up confidence over poles and jumps and to really improve their strength and body awareness.
Object and Body Awareness Exercises
Objects are a fantastic way to build your horse’s body awareness and confidence and there are loads of different objects you can use in a wide varoety of ways. Some of our object and body awareness exercises include polework, pedestal work, obstacles such as see-saws, bending and bridges and body isolations such as leg lifts, rock-backs and hip and shoulder targeting.
All of these exercises increase your horse’s physical control, awareness, suppleness and athleticism, making him more gymnastic and ready for any task you’d like to give him. The Connection Training approach means that your horse will enjoy the process, will be engaged and enthusiastic and you’ll have strong communication thanks to the use of the marker and your relationship with your horse.
Riding with Connection
Riding in harmony with your horse takes your connection to the saddle. Riding is a joy when your horse is relaxed, happy and listening – again it comes back to creating the best emotions in your horse and buliding your connection together.
Riding is complex, with many different elements combining to make it fun for both you and your horse. Aside from physical issues such as nutrition, soundness and tack fit, training encompasses understanding how to use your seat and weight aids, teaching new behaviours and cues from the leg, voice and rein and understanding which exercises are right for your horse. Connection Training addresses all these training areas, to teach you how to have calm, confident and connected rides with your horse.
You can use Connection Training techniques to solve problems, improve responsiveness and relaxation when ridden and teach new behaviours such as lateral work, jumping and riding out. (If you struggle to get a calm and connected walk, halt and turn with your horse, the section on Re-starting your horse is for you.)
The Mounting Block
This first step is getting connected with your horse as you move into the saddle. This transition begins at the mounting block. Many horses are different when ridden than when handled on the ground as they lose their connection with their human as soon as they mount. Working at the mounting block ensures that your horse knows it’s you up there and stays just as relaxed and tuned in when you’re on his back than when you’re on the ground. The mounting block work also ensures your horse is happy for you to mount as he lines up for you to get on.
Find out more about the CT approach to mounting in this video and watch our members demonstrate it all over the world:
Horses need to be supple, straight and strong to carry a rider healthily. We have a progressive programme of exercises to improve your horse’s way of going, building from the very basics of bending and turning to teaching lateral exercises.
When teaching new movements, we always prioritise the horse’s relaxation and joy, making it gentle and fun for him to learn, so he can’t wait to get back to it next time you ride!
Many of our ridden exercises build on the Gymnastic Groundwork.
Creating the best feelings in your horse is just the same when riding as it is on the ground. We set horses up for success by using objects such as targets, poles and cones to explain what we’d like them to do and to make it more fun and interesting, too.
The marker works just as well in the saddle to pinpoint the best responses from your horse, backed up with plenty of rewards. As well as teaching new behaviours from scratch, you can improve and refine existing behaviours. You can refine specific movements such as sharper transitions or the best steps of a shoulder in or improve responsiveness by highlighting light, prompt responses to your cues.
Horses should love being ridden and it’s up to us to make his riding experiences successful and joyful. Adding in more games, clarity and rewards is a great way to boost motivation in the saddle.
The Rider’s Cues
Connection goes two ways and this is even more important in the saddle. We teach riders how to use both their internal and external cues (aids) together to build the best communication and results under saddle. Internal cues are ones your horse responds to naturally without being taught such as moving in the direction of your weight in the saddle, or tensing up if you do. External cues are the ones you’ve taught your horse their meaning, such as to move forward when you squeeze with your leg and to turn when you squeeze one rein. These need to be telling your horse the same thing in order for him to get a clear signal from you and to keep him happy, relaxed and comfortable when being ridden.
Many riders are not taught about how to feel and use their internal cues when riding movements from basic turning to lateral work, and they often have natural imbalances or tensions themselves. In our Riding with Connection Home Study Course, we cover all these in detail, giving you simple exercises to begin to release tension and become balanced in the saddle.
Connection Creates Confidence
Many riders lack confidence in the saddle. This can be due to past experiences, or from the awful feeling of riding a horse who doesn’t feel like he’s listening, or even really wants you on his back. When you’re constantly fighting a horse who is resisting you, it’s no fun for either of you.
Re-building confidence in both horse and rider is a speciality at Connection Training. We teach you all the steps to get connected with your horse in the saddle and encourage you to take the time it takes for you both to feel relaxed and happy.
When your horse is emotionally balanced, understands what you’re asking for when you ride and wants to go riding as much as you do, you’ll find that confidence has grown from your partnership together.
De-spooking Under Saddle
As prey animals, horses are notoriously spooky. When riding, this can be dangerous for both of you. It’s not fun, either.
Following on from the despooking exercises on the ground, you can build your horse’s confidence in the saddle, too. Our approach is to a) teach our horses to find novel objects or situations generally rewarding to build their curiosity and reduce their fear and b) to teach them that tuning into their rider when in a scary situation is the best thing they can do.
We do this through progressive exercises, beginning small and easy and gradually getting more challenging as our horses gain confidence. We recommend dismounting if your horse needs extra support through a tricky situation – this will bulid his trust in you and positive history for next time.
Riding your horse is a great way to give him exercise, enrich his life, improve his physical well-being and have fun together. Focusing on strengthening the connection between you is the best way to ensure you both look forward to your riding sessions. And, there really is no better feeling in the world than when your horse eagerly lines up at the mounting block and is soft, willing and communicating with you throughout.
Starting Your Horse Under Saddle
Teaching a young horse everything he knows is a rewarding experience. Starting horses under saddle, however, is typically quite a stressful experience for many youngsters and can be very dangerous for all involved. Luckily, starting a horse under saddle the Connection Training way is actually gentle, quiet, straightforward and as safe as possible.
We also have many students (and some of our own horses) who have needed re-starting. We recommend re-starting your horse if you struggle to get a calm, connected walk, halt and turn with your horse. If these basics are missing, it’s usually because the horse has experienced a lot of confusion, pain, discomfort or a trauma when being ridden. Sometimes it stems from a horse being introduced to riding too quickly and being over-faced, other times horses have been ridden with ill-fitting tack or an imbalanced, heavy-handed rider. This can lead to tension and extreme behaviours such as bucking, rearing or bolting with a rider, as well as signs of stress such as rushing, head tossing and napping. In these cases, it’s often best to go back to scratch and re-train your horse how to be ridden in a way which prioritises your horse’s relaxation and enjoyment of the process. .
Starting your horse the CT way is clear, progressive and fun for both of you!
In our Starting Your Horse Home Study Course, we take you step-by-step through each stage of the backing (starting) process with both young horses new to being ridden and older horses with a strong negative reaction to being ridden. We cover:
> Groundwork preparation such as voice cues and short-reining
> Introducing the saddle in a way which is calm, relaxed and your horse enjoys
> Working at the mounting block
> First ridden steps
> Teaching halt, rein-back and turning
From the Ground to the Saddle
Our process to start a horse under saddle often involves teaching a horse a behaviour on the ground and then transferring it to the rider’s cue.
This process is straightforward using Connection Training and is a great way to train your horse all kinds of ridden behaviours. We use it both for starting horses and also to teach more experienced horses new behaviours, too.
In our Course, you can see many young horses taking their first steps with a rider quietly and confidently and can learn all the steps to be confident to do this yourself at home. The only requirement is that you’re prepared to take as long as your horse needs at each step of the process.
Seeing young horses take their very first steps with a rider quietly, calmly and confidently is a joy to see. It’s also very rewarding to see horses overcome past tensions and fears about riding and learn to love it. Our process is progressive and simple and is a fantastic riding foundation for any horse.
Trick Training, Obstacle Courses and Brain Games
Connection Training is all about building the best relationship possible with your horse. As well as solving problems and boosting performance, that also means having lots of fun! Your horse is very intelligent and will appreciate variety and light-hearted times in his training and trick or obstacle training is a great way to do this.
Trick Training can range from anything from a ‘smile’ to ‘fetch’. Not only are these games fun for you and your horse (you can’t help but smile when your horse does!), they also improve his ability to learn.
Obstacle Courses have many benefits, too – exposing your horse to a variety of challenges and obstacles is great for building body awareness, despooking and a fun way of exercising your horse.
And there are some more unusual exercises to stretch your horse’s brain, too – you know dogs are good at scent detection, but did you know your horse is, too? Or how about teaching your horse his colours or to select the correct object from a selection? Some horses are real brainiacs and love puzzles like this and they’re also great for entertainment while your horse is on box rest or in the stable when it’s the middle of winter outside.
The more you train your horse to do, no matter what it is, the stronger your communication becomes and the better your horse gets at problem-solving. Spending time teaching your horse games that are also no-pressure and pure fun for both of you builds your bond and keeps up motivation for some of the other more challenging behaviours, too.
Advanced Positive Reinforcement Training
Often, we’re teaching people right form the start of introducing reward-based training to their horse. However, many of our members come to us with plenty of experience already. If that’s you, rest assured we have plenty to keep you occupied, too!
One of the main reasons that we get experienced reward-bsed trainers coming to us is for practical knowledge and input on the emotional side of teh training. Clicker training can be done with all the focus on the behaviour and can be quite mechanistic. Without actually looking at how your horse is feeling, and what you can do to create relaxation and connection in the training, this can lead to tension in the horses. This usually shows in a horse who can do many behaviours, but rushes through them, can’t stand quietly, pins his ears in training and is generally over-aroused. If this is your horse, don’t worry – we’ve been there! Our Complete Training Foundation Course covers all the emotional aspects of training in detail. You can learn a variety of techniques to help get back that softness, relaxation and connection you’re looking for and we have an enture module of videos covering ways you can adapt the training to get relaxation and motivation in balance in your horse.
On top of that, in our Training Techniques Course, you can see the full step-by-step process Hannah went through tackling this very issue in Overcoming Over-arousal and watch her Equine Clicker Conference presentation on Tailored Training, which looks at how to adapt the training to the individual horse you’re working with to get the best results.
Wide Range of Info
Another reason many experienced positive trainers come to us is to get more information on how to use reward-based training in areas such as jumping, groundwork and riding. Our holistic approach at looking at the biomechanics of horse and rider, combined with the positive training means that you have a wide range of exercises and techniques to use with your horse.
Or, perhaps you’ve had great results in the past but have come across a new horse or situation which is proving trickier than you expected. We’ve had people train 1,2 or 3 horses successfully and then one comes along who simply doesn’t react like the others. This can be really hard when all your tools that have worked so successfully in the past, just don’t seem to be getting the results you want. Every horse is different and therefore they can need different approaches. The good news is, that with your strong positive background, you probably only need to tweak a few things to start seeing progress.
Or, maybe you’re just looking for some steps on how to train something specific, want some more training ideas or want to join a friendly bunch of horse trainers for training chat and inspiration. With our Courses full of videos and a lively forum and Q&A’s, we’d love to welcome you to CT. You can share your knowledge and experience, too!
Whether you’re looking for more ideas, a specific solution or want to join a friendly, supportive and diverse reward-based training group, we’d love for you to join us!