Horse clicker trainer Alexandra Kurland often speaks of splitters and lumpers. These are funny words, but they refer to an often serious training problem!
Most behaviors can be broken down into many smaller pieces and approximations. When we break our goal down into tiny chunks and build gradually to a target behavior, we’re being a splitter. When we lump everything together and try to teach the behavior in large chunks, we’re being lumpers. Training difficulties often arise when we do too much lumping and not enough splitting.
When we lump, we ask for too much too soon. The animal often becomes confused or frustrated and the trainer is liable to become frustrated if the animal does not respond correctly.
When we split the behavior into tiny chunks, we can build the behavior gradually, always setting the animal up for success. Since each new thing we ask is similar to other things we have taught, the animal is able to understand what we ask. Being a good splitter means you know how to use the principles of shaping to get to your target behavior. Here are two examples from the horse world. Can you think of ways you’ve been a splitter or a lumper recently?
Standing Tied for Grooming
Standing tied for grooming, hoof care, saddling and other procedures is important for any young horse. However, if we go to fast and teach too much at once, it’s easy to create a horse that pulls back and won’t stand tied. Don’t teach tying and grooming at the same time to a horse that’s skeptical about being touched, as then the horse has too many things to deal with. Break it down, get the horse use to human contact and being touched, then work on tying, the work on grooming untied. Once the horse is comfortable being groomed and comfortable being tied, it’s much easier to combine the two together!
A trailer is a big dark box on wheels. The horse has to step up and walk across a strange surface that sounds and feels pretty weird, into a dark, confined space with tight walls and a low ceiling. Pretty scary for a prey animal! If we break this obstacle down into tiny components, it becomes easier for the horse to be comfortable with trailer.
First, we need a horse who will follow reliably where we lead and understands cues for moving forward, stopping and moving backwards. Then, we can begin simulating the various aspects of the trailer that the horse must be comfortable with such as:
Walking over strange surfaces: tarps, boards, bridges, rain jackets.
Going through narrow spaces: narrow gates, between 2 barrels, wash stalls and grooming stalls, horse stocks.
Stepping up onto objects: pedestals, flatbed trailers, bridges, raised platforms, solid wooden pallets.
It’s also helpful practicing having the horse walk ahead of us in these simulations to help build confidence and practicing having the horse go backwards through these obstacles. Once the horse is comfortable, it’s easy to start combining some of these to more closely approximate the trailer. If we start with components of the behavior, we’ll have a lot easier time when we actually get to the trailer.
So, are you more of a splitter or a lumper? Think about this the next time you go to train!