Welcome to the Cardinal Points Farm blog !

Dear friends and fellow animal lovers, here it is ... a blog to discuss training.

My specialty is horse training and dressage, but I’ve applied to my horses many invaluable lessons from other animal trainers. Together we can create a greater awareness of the unlimited potential for greatness that your animals (and you) possess, once you acknowledge that many animal species are intelligent and capable of reasoning and communication.

So let’s get started ! Let's share insights, lesson plans, techniques, videos, pics, stories ... what have you.


Sian Min The
Cardinal Points Farm

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Shaping behaviors using targets

... Continuing from my previous post Start communicating!

Once the horse is thoroughly conditioned to the bridge (both the Terminal Bridge or TB, and the Intermediate Bridge or IB), you can teach the horse to target an object of your choosing with some part of his/her body.  It’s natural for a horse to investigate new things by sniffing, so it’s easiest to teach a horse to target with his/her nose.

1. Make a two-finger target, or TFT (see picture below)
2. Position the tip of the TFT in front of the horse’s muzzle, and say "Here!"
3. When s/he touches the TFT say "X", and give a treat immediately.
4. Repeat 3 times each with the TFT in front, to the left, and to the right of the muzzle.
5. Repeat, varying the distance of the TFT from the muzzle (if the horse is new at this, don’t go further than a foot or so from the muzzle.

Two-finger target (TFT)

In the beginning, be alert to what may seem like an accidental touch by the horse’s nose to the TFT.  Be ready to bridge with a TB even if this is all s/he does.  Lavish praise on the horse when this happens.  As the horse gains confidence the targeting will become more deliberate.

Teaching duration

You can also use bridging to maintain a behavior for an extended period of time. For example, you can ask the horse to keep its nose on the target for several seconds. 

1. Make a TFT
2. With my TFT held in front of her muzzle, say "Here"
3. As soon as s/he touches the TFT say "xxxx..." (this is the IB) for as long as she keeps contact with the TFT.
4. The first time you do this, withdraw your TFT after 1 second of contact, then say "X" (this is the TB), and treat.
5. Repeat, asking for 2 seconds of contact.
6. Repeat, asking for 4 seconds of contact.

You want to be the one to end the duration of contact by giving the horse the TB.  If s/he stops touching the TFT before you can give the TB, cease bridging with the IB, and repeat steps 1 through 4.  Don’t ask for longer duration until the horse understands that it must wait for your TB to move its nose away from the target.

A common mistake for trainers is to push the TFT into the horse’s nose, so that it’s the trainer who initiates and maintains the contact, instead of the horse.  Stand your ground, and keep your target steady in one spot.  This will become even more important when you use other objects as the target, such as the tip of a long stick.

Next post, naming objects …

Training Approaches – creating a slave or partner?

As a horse trainer my fundamental goal is for the horse to do certain behaviors upon my request; whether it's to come to me, to walk, to halt, etc.  This can be achieved in different ways.  One is by physical force and contact, (this includes gentle touches, and stronger contact with training aids and equipment).  Another way is where, even without physical contact, the horse does the behavior of its own volition because of the promise of a reward.  Most training approaches use some combination of the two techniques. How much of each depends on a slew of factors that make up an individual training case.

For the horse, the process of learning what its trainer means involves trial-and-error, and guess work.  This is stressful. Uncertainty and doubt are always stressful.  The trainer can minimize the guesswork (and thus the stress) by guiding the horse towards the correct response, in the form of hints.  Then, when the horse submits a correct or incorrect response, the trainer gives immediate unambiguous feedback.

Inconsistent feedback can lead to the horse experiencing repeated failures, frustration and losing confidence.  The horse may then express this as anxiety and fear. Horses with a strong flight response may try to escape the situation mentally and/or physically.

There is no doubt that certain training methods rely on removing independent thought and free will from the animal. These methods aim to instill learned helplessness where the horse feels it has no control over its fate, leaving it no option but to do what the trainer demands.  In these cases when a horse allows itself to be led, or obediently stands motionless during saddling, it may actually feel it has no other choice.  In the uneducated public perception, these essentially enslaved horses are the "good" horses.  But some horses rebel, and these are the "bad" horses who need to be taught "respect".  More on respect in a later post.

I firmly believe that horses, being the intelligent creatures that they are, do not thrive when they feel helpless and enslaved.  A horse will display joy and beauty in its movements, if it performs them because it wants to, rather than because it’s been made to.  The opposite would be behavior that, while obedient, is mechanical and tense.

I train my horses to know that they have a say in what's happening to them.  While some may caution that this could lead to dangerous defiant behavior, I have never encountered that.  While there must exist genuinely rank horses, I believe that for the vast majority, a horse will repay treatment in kind.  This earlier post is an example of  a horse who decides, on his own, to agree to a procedure that must be unpleasant to him: paste worming.   The trainer (me) is actually the one confined, while the horse is at liberty and free to stay or leave.

How do I do this?  The simple answer is through a relationship with the horse on the basis of a clear two-way communication (no ambiguity as to the rules of the game, and the empowerment of the horse to “tell” me what it needs/feels), trust (consistency and fairness in implementing the rules, and TIME to allow the relationship to develop (patience) and prove itself.

When I ask the horse to do something, I need to be able to tell it when it’s done the correct thing, AND encourage it towards doing the correct thing.  This is done with bridges and targets, Bridges are promises of reward (think of a paycheck: low intrinsic value, but it guarantees something of value). Targets are physical objects/locations that have been identified to the horse to guide its behavior. You may have heard of these terms, but here's how I use them:

My bridges are vocal sounds, and sound like the letter X.  I either say it emphatically as one syllable, or as a string of "x"s strung togeter "xxxx..." (it will sound like you're saying "sex-sex-sex-sex..", so be prepared for others giving you strange looks!).  So my vocal bridge is much like a clicker, except I don’t always have to remember to carry a clicker.  Plus, I can vary the quality of the sound of the bridge.

Next post, the detailed how-to … 

Start communicating!

... Continuing from my previous post Training Approaches – creating a slave or partner?

In the previous post I explained how bridges work.  I use a Terminal Bridge (TB) to tell the horse that s/he made the correct response.  It’s the Stamp of Approval, so to speak.  If the horse almost gets it right, but isn’t quite “there” yet, I encourage using an Intermediate Bridge (IB).  The intensity and enthusiasm of my IB is like the crowd cheering an imminent touchdown.  Judicious use of the IB and TB dramatically reduces the guess work (and the resulting frustration) for the horse.

In order for the bridge have significance for the horse you must first associate the sound "X" with a reward (treat).  This is a crucial first step, as this association must be so strong that the horse will actually choose his/her actions in order to elicit the sound "X" from you.

Conditioning the bridges

Where safety to the trainer is a concern this activty can be done through a physical barrier (such as the enclosure of a pen or stall), until the horse-trainer relationship has progressed to allow closer contact.

The Terminal Bridge

1. Face the horse
2. Make an emphatic, sharp sound: "X"!
3. Immediately present a treat so s/he can receive it immediately (i.e don’t make the horse “hunt” for it).
4. Repeat 3 times.
5. wait until s/he looks away (is distracted).
6. Say "X"!
7. As soon as s/he returns his attention back to you, give the treat.  If s/he does not, repeat steps 1-4.

The horse MUST be convinced that every time s/he hears you say "X" s/he will get a treat.  Without this association, subsequent steps will not work well, or at all.

The Intermediate Bridge

1. Hide a treat behind your back.
2. Say "X", and reveal the treat but at arm's length from the horse's muzzle.
3. As s/he reaches for it, keep the treat steady, and say "xxxxx..." (sounds like little "x"s strung together), increasing the volume and pitch of the sound as s/he approaches the treat.
4. Allow the horse to take the treat, and say "X"!
If s/he stops reaching for the treat, or goes in the wrong direction, immediately stop making the “xxx” sound.  When s/he resumes on the right path, you resume the IB.
5. Repeat 3 times.

Stop for the day!  Time to absorb

This absorption interval is very important for the learning process: it allows the horse's brain to process his/her new experiences. I work newbies for only a few minutes per session, but I may do a couple of sessions in a day.  If I sense burn-out or any sign of stress I quit for the day.  Never let it get to burn-out. This is supposed to be fun and interesting for the horse, and it’s better to stop with him/her still wanting to do more.  NEVER DRILL - three successful trials of any exercise will be more beneficial than twenty.

Start each new day with a brief review of the previous day.  Progress of some behaviors may be unbelievably fast (the horse will “get it” in a few minutes); others will be like watching grass grow.  Always remember that training is a never-ending process that lasts the life time of your relationship with the horse.

Next post, shaping behaviors …

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