In the first three principles, we covered:

It’s a long way from a horse just touching a target with its nose to a complex behavior like jumping a course or performing a piaffe or roll back! But by using our first three principles, we give ourselves a big advantage.

When trained using positive reinforcement, a horse wants to get the answer because it’s rewarding. So they’ll seek and try to predict what behavior to offer. In essence, the trainer and horse play a game of Hotter-Colder as the trainer rewards and reinforces small moves that are closer and closer to the final behavior. We call this “Shaping.”

In the behavior world, you’ll sometimes hear about Lumpers and Splitters. Lumpers look at behavior as big chunks versus Splitters, who look at what appears to be a single behavior and recognize the kernels of movement that compromise it.

When it comes to shaping behavior, we want to be Splitters. By breaking down complex behaviors into individual pieces and teaching one piece at a time, we’ll help our horses understand. We may even teach these steps out of the final order, creating a repertoire of small, well-practiced behaviors that will be the building blocks for our final goal. All the positive reinforcement tools and skills come together to help shape a final behavior, with lots of small successes along the way.

Often this means that even a behavior the horse didn’t choose at the beginning is backed up by so much success that it becomes rewarding in itself.

Check out this example of how a Splitter might approach teaching a horse to self-halter.

Where Science Meets Art

The key is creating small, attainable steps to bring clarity as we progress. This is the shaping process. At times these steps may be so small that they almost seem more like nuances, but these are the building blocks on which the final behavior is built.

Be Creative! It’s Fun for both horses & humans!

When we shape behavior using positive reinforcement, it’s all about opportunity instead of compulsion. It is a fun and rewarding process, but it takes some planning. The more clearly you can break down the final behavior into small steps before you begin training, the faster your horse will learn. The shaping plan helps any behavior but especially when we are charting a new course.

When using the marker signal, which we reviewed in Principle 3, we can create laser focus on the smallest steps or specific movements that are part of the behavior. This allows the horse to understand a key piece, and then we can build upon it, raising criteria as we aim toward our final behavior.

The trainer’s ability to break down behaviors into small pieces is an essential part of good R+ training. It creates clear steps that minimize frustration for both horse and human. The results are an engaged horse who enjoys playing the game and solving the puzzle. This makes all the difference! At Via Nova, we focus on creating a solid understanding of shaping behavior and how to achieve our training goals successfully utilizing R+ training.

But…what if our shaping plan doesn’t go quite as we hoped? In our final principle, Set Up for Success, we’ll help you focus on how to get back on track.



Jasmine working with Primo on hand feeding