equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

ASAT 2020: Alexandra Kurland – Shaping on a point of contact

This is the fifth in a series of posts based on my notes from the 2020 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference that was held in Hurst, Texas on February 22-23, 2020.  To learn more about the conference, you can visit the conference website.

While I try to take accurate notes, it is possible that there are errors or that some detail is lacking.  If you post a comment or email me, I can try to clarify or provide some additional information. Many thanks to the speakers and organizers who allow me to share.

Alex’s talk contained a number of videos and pictures. I’ve included some of the pictures but they don’t tell the whole story. If you are interested in learning more about shaping on a point of contact, I suggest you check out her DVD on the subject, available through her website www.theclickercenter.com.


Alexandra Kurland: Shaping on a point of contact

Pressure and Release: The elephant in the room

Alex started off her talk by describing some of her early exposure to traditional horse training. She remembers watching a trainer who was training Off Track Thoroughbreds for jumping. She saw how much was expected of the horses in a short period of time. Watching a variety of trainers she saw how quickly they would resort to more and more forceful training methods and how dangerous horse training could become.

In that world, the predominant training technique is the use of pressure and release. The trainer would apply pressure to ask for something and then take the pressure off when the horse gave the right answer. This addition and removal of a stimulus (the pressure) falls into the category of negative reinforcement. In search of a better way to train horses, clicker trainers focus on using positive reinforcement. But, should we throw negative reinforcement out entirely? Can we? Maybe it’s there even if we don’t want to acknowledge it.

Negative reinforcement is the elephant in the room. Everyone is trying to ignore it, but that’s not really a solution. Perhaps it would be better to learn to recognize it and become more educated about it. Then we can decide if we do need to throw it out or if we can modify it so that it is compatible with clicker training.

Clicker compatible negative reinforcement

What does this mean? First, it means that we aren’t abandoning the use of lead ropes and reins. They are useful tools and necessary when we take our animals out and about. Think about all those dogs on leashes at ClickerExpo. That is accepted as a safe and normal way to take dogs out in public. So it’s not that leashes are inherently bad. Instead, the critical question is:

Does a lead represent cues or commands?

To answer this we have to look at the teaching process. That is what matters. A good example is the technique she calls “Shaping on a point of contact.”

What is shaping on a point of contact?

It’s based on the idea that a little bit of pressure over a long period of time will create a desire for change. The basic idea is that you make contact with the horse, either through your own body (usually,but not always, the hands) or equipment (lead ropes, halters, etc.) and wait – maintaining that gentle contact until the horse responds with some small change in his posture, balance, or movement.

Alex actually illustrated this by asking everyone to stand up at the beginning of her talk. Then she never told the audience to sit down. As the minutes passed, people started to fidget and then sit. Standing up is not inherently aversive, but eventually everyone will sit down.

  • The skills that allow you to use pressure and release without escalating are the keys to the kingdom in terms of understanding how to be patient and persistent.
  • It’s what you need to know to use pressure and release so it remains clicker compatible.
  • Shaping on a point of contact belongs to the splitter, to the artist, to the handler who cares. (escalating pressure belongs to the lumper)

So what is it?

  • It’s good rope handling. It’s a physical skill.
  • It’s good puzzle setting. It’s thoughtful planning. One door is open, others are closed. Find the open door, solve the puzzle – click/treat.
  • It’s about going to the point of contact and waiting for the horse to move – you don’t move the horse, the horse moves to seek the answer
  • It’s a desire to communicate clearly, kindly – it’s part of your core values.

But there are questions. Is it…

  • A tactile cue or command?
  • A transferred cue or negative reinforcement

You don’t know until you know the context and the horse’s experience. Alex shared some examples with pictures and video.

Targeting and Food delivery

Alex showed a video of targeting, and how she uses food delivery, to illustrate the use of pre-requisite skills and transferred cues.

When she teaches a horse to touch a target, she asks the horse to come forward to the target and uses food delivery to ask him to step back. This sets up a movement pattern that she can use as a pre-requisite for teaching backing. It also makes it easy to use transferred cues – the hand movement to deliver the food becomes the hand movement to ask the horse to step back. The video showed the following progression:

  • The horse touches the target
  • She feeds by delivering the food to the horse where he is standing
  • The horse touches the target
  • She feeds so the horse has to take one step back to get his food
  • The horse touches the target
  • She feeds so the horse has to take two steps back to get his food

Once backing for food delivery is confirmed, she can step into the horse’s space with an extended arm and he will step back. This looks like it was trained with negative reinforcement – the horse moves away from her extended arm – but was it? Not as an intentional part of her teaching process.

Shaping on a point of contact using the lead

However, when the there is prior history, no matter how skilled you are, your learner is starting out expecting the worst. That means that with some learners we have to be VERY careful that we don’t present information in such a way that it looks like traditional negative reinforcement.

We want to be sure that:

  • A door is left wide open. The lead rope provides lots of hints.
  • It’s up to the horse to figure out the puzzle.
  • Initially we are looking for a tiny change.

Remember – eventually everyone will sit down. We can be patient. Shaping on a point of contact relies upon an understanding of movement cycles. You expand out in clean loops. Make the first approximations small enough and your learner will succeed.

She showed some pictures of a horse where the trainer was using shaping on a point of contact using a lead rope. The horse started out standing “higgledy-piggledy” with no sense of being positioned evenly over his legs in good balance. The trainer used the lead to suggest that he alter his balance. In the pictures below she has slid down the lead to the point of contact and is waiting for the horse to change.

The pressure from your lead will transform from something your learner wants to avoid to a clue your learner uses to get his reinforcement faster.

The result:

Shaping on a point of contact using body part targets

You can use shaping on a point of contact without using a lead. In this example she taught the horse to soften when the handler created contact points with her hands and head. One advantage to using your hands is that you can feel things with your hands that you might miss if you were just observing the horse with your eyes.

Remember you are closing some doors, leaving others wide open. You begin by focusing on initiation of movement. Again, you are looking for tiny beginning points. The goal is to ride in good balance.

prerequisite skills:

  • stand on a mat
  • grown-ups
  • food delivery

Because these three elements are in repertoire, we can quickly build these skills:

  • nose target
  • chin target
  • head target

We can combine them to establish contact points that help the horse release the tension he holds around his poll. She had video of the changes. These pictures shows the contact points. Again, you are looking for tiny beginning changes.

That works leads to this change:

These small changes create a cascade of other changes in the horse’s bodies and horses learn to love this work. It feels better to stand in good balance and when horses are in good physical balance, they can find good emotional balance.

She finished her talk by going back to the question of whether you are training with cues of commands.

How can you tell if you are using cues or commands?

If you are using cues….

Continuing on in the training is what your horse wants. Staying in the pattern creates predictable opportunities for positive reinforcement. The lead is a source of clues not threats.

Commands vs. Cues

If you are interested in learning more about Alexandra Kurland, visit her website www.theclickercenter.com. She also produces two podcasts – Equiosity and Horses for Future.


Katie’s notes: Alex’s presentation was the third talk of the day – right after we learned negative reinforcement could be benign and positive reinforcement could be coercive. So, it was the first chance for the audience to see training that incorporated negative reinforcement and analyze it in light of the previous lectures.

What I saw was that the horses in the videos were not reacting as if an aversive had been implied. They recognized that the trainer was asking for something, thought about it, and offered some behavior. As Alex pointed out, every horse comes with his own learning history and experience and it’s important to proceed carefully when introducing the use of contact, but that doesn’t mean horses can’t learn to recognize contact as useful information that leads to reinforcement.

When I first met Alex twenty years ago, my only riding experience was with traditional English riding. I rode on a contact. I didn’t think anything of having tight leads and tight reins. Yes – I appreciated if I could lead or ride a horse without one of us pulling, but I had no idea about the subtleties of contact and how to use reins and leads as cues. I used them to manage horses, direct them, and make them do things. Not in a mean way (I hope) but that’s just what they were for.

Her work, which has been evolving since I met her, has profoundly changed how I think about the physical connections I have with my animals. I should probably add mental connections too. When I am waiting for the animal to respond, I can feel her under my hand, I can see the wheels spinning in her head, and I can sense the moment when she says “is this it?” For me, there’s still something magical about being able to connect with a horse in that way.

At the same time, I recognize that there are times when I ask and the answer is “no” or “go away” and I need to present the question differently or go back and fill in some missing pieces. If I want to use negative reinforcement in a “positive” way, it’s my job to learn the skills I need to use it well and to recognize when it is aversive, despite my best intentions.

Whether or not you choose to use negative reinforcement, I think Alex’s talk nicely described good training. What is good training?

  • Learn the mechanical skills you need – whether it is rope handling, target use, food delivery, or …
  • Teach foundation behaviors. These are the building blocks for further work (pre-requisites).
  • Carefully consider how you present information (puzzles) so that there is a clear answer and the learner can be successful.
  • Shaping in small approximations.
  • Remember that you are using cues – you want the horse to want to stay IN the game, not opt out.

I’ve been blogging about the ASAT conference for several years now. You can find a list of them in the articles page on this blog, but some older ones are on my website, www.equineclickertraining.com.

If you are interested in learning more about how to clicker train your horse, check out my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement, available on Amazon.

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  1. CLICKER COMPATIBLE NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT – Mills Horsemanship & Hoofcare

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