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Understanding Shaping Behaviours

Shaping is one of the most important educational tools in ethical horsemanship, and it's not only essential in force-free and/or reward based training, but Traditional methods also can benefit massively from using shaping in its approach!!

It is also one of the reason we can use positive reinforcement to build behaviours, without having to resort to P-, or why we can stop unwanted behaviours without P+.


So, what is Shaping?


The definition of Shaping is “the act of reinforcement of successive approximations of a behaviour

In layman’s terms: it’s the act of continuously or consecutively reinforcing small slices of a behaviour, usually until a final behaviour is achieved.


This means that if we have a new behaviour or concept we want to teach, instead of trying to teach them the final behaviour, we break the behaviour down into small steps, and start out with the smallest step and teach the horse the behaviour in stages. Starting out with something that the horse can already do easily.


For example if we’re teaching a horse to backup, instead of asking them for several steps first time. We may just start out asking for a weight shift backwards a few times, Then a weight shift and lift one foot, then Shift weight and place one foot further back, then take one whole step backwards, then two steps, three, five, until the horse can confidently step back however many steps we require.

Or if we're asking our horse to walk forward under saddle, we ask for just a step at first, then two, then 5 steps, 7, 10 steps, before eventually we can ask them to walk forward however long we need them to.


Why Shape behaviours?


  • Firstly it allows us to teach even difficult or intimidating behaviours very effectively. You can’t imagine your horse ever wanting to get into the trailer? Break it down into tiny steps. Are they able to just look at the trailer? There’s your first step.

  • Secondly, it minimizes mistakes, and creates more solid end behaviours. Since the horse is taught these small, achievable steps, they are frequently successful, which increases confidence & willingness in the wanted behaviour. Steps should be small and achievable enough that unwanted behaviours don’t even occur. This means the horse can’t accidentally get reinforcements for the unwanted behaviours, and those will have no motivation to occur.

  • Lastly, it lowers incidences of frustrations, stress, and an anxiety. Making these small slices achievable, gives the horse confidence, and avoids triggering any fear reactions. Since the horse can learn these steps without having to go through several wrong answers, we can avoid the frustration or anxiety that comes with making these mistakes. This is especially important with horses who come from backgrounds where mistakes were followed with negative consequences.


How to create your own Shaping plan


When you create your own shaping plan, first think of what you want your horse to learn/do.


Take for example trailer loading


Imagine a 10step plan.

At step 10, write down your end goal, that what it is you'd like to achieve.

For this scenario we'll write:

10. walks into the trailer, stays calm in the trailer, with door closed.


Now at step 1. You're going to write whatever it is your horse can already do that is the closest to that final step.

In our imaginary case we'll assume & write that the

1. horse can look at the trailer


Now in between those, you'll write step 2 - 9. And you'll fill in the steps it'll take to get there. So the end it should look about like this👇🏻



Now you can make these plans with less steps or more steps.

It'll all depend on your horse and what you'd like to teach. But the basic idea remains the same.


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So next time when you’re trying to teach your horse something new, try to break the behaviour down. Start with what your horse can already achieve, and make a step by step plan to the end behaviour 🥕

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