It seems a bit counter-intuitive. If we break a training task down into more steps, it should take longer. However, the opposite is usually true. Smaller steps can get us to our goal quicker and often result in better quality behavior.
This came in handy several weeks ago when we picked up Connor from the sheriff’s department. Small steps are essential when training or retraining a horse, especially when the horse is hesitant or skeptical about the training goal.
When we picked up Connor, he absolutely did not want to be haltered or petted. He was fine with someone standing in front of him, but was really uncomfortable with a person at his neck or shoulder. We wanted to halter him and lead him into the trailer, instead of having to chase him in.
The woman at the sheriff’s who was helping us could not get close enough to get a halter on him. Instead of everything all at once, he needed lots of small steps. This would help him be successful, build his confidence, and show him that we weren’t trying to harm him.
I starting by approaching him, giving him a treat, then backing away. I gradually got closer, until he was letting me stand at his shoulder. After that I started rubbing on his shoulder, then his neck, then over his neck.
Once he was okay with all of that, we ran back through all of those little steps. This time, however, I approaching him and then rubbed him all over with the halter. Pretty soon he stood still and let me put the halter on. He was still a bit tense, but he understood what I wanted.
If I had the luxury of several days to work with him, I would have broken this down into even more steps. I would have waited to make sure that he was not only standing still, but that he was more calm and relaxed at each step. Since picking him up, we’ve been working on some of this and he’s getting more relaxed about being approached and haltered. However, on the day we picked him up, we just wanted to be able to halter him as calmly and stress-free as possible.
Trailer loading was a similar process. We knew he had been in a trailer before, but he certainly was pretty hesitant about stepping into ours. So, we asked him to step as far as he would, then rewarded any effort with a treat and a break. Every time he took several steps forward, we backed up and started again. Lots of repetition with the first few steps at the beginning can really help build confidence. We gave him plenty of time to sniff the trailer, paw at the ramp and think about what was going on. Eventually, after just several approaches, he walked all the way into the trailer. He’ll need more training later on to gain more confidence with a variety of different trailers.
However, by asking him to do just a bit at each step, we were able to get a hesitant stallion haltered and loaded into a trailer in less than half an hour. The horse (as well as the people) remained calm and relaxed throughout the experience and no one got injured or stressed.
Small steps help us communicate exactly what we want and help our animal enjoy the training process. If a training task isn’t working or you find yourself getting frustrated, evaluate if you need to break your goal down into even smaller steps.
P.S. This beautiful boy is looking for a home. He has been gelding and we are currently evaluating him to see how much previous training he has had. He should be a great horse with further clicker training!