equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Duration: What is it? How do I get more of it?

I originally wrote this article in 2006, when the clickryder yahoo list was very active. There were many great members who were willing to share their experiences and I wrote this article because I wanted to combine their thoughts with my own experiences. It is now 2021, and time for me to update this article, but I wanted to keep some of the original flavor of it. To do this, I’ve left some parts of it alone. But, I’ve also added a lot of new information so you can learn some of the newer strategies. More details and tips on training duration can be found in my book Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement.

Duration is useful for photos

It is common for new clicker trainers to have questions about duration and confusion about how to build it.  Since these issues come up again and again on the clicker lists, I thought it would be practical to have an article listing all the duration building strategies.  In the process of organizing them, I found myself thinking a lot about how I train and use duration, and how interwoven it is into all the training I do.  There are many little ways in which horses learn about duration, and so many ways to think about duration. The longer I thought about it, the longer the article got! This should tell you that training duration is not always easy, but it should also tell you that there are lots of options. By sharing all of them, I hope that readers will be able to find something that works for them.

This is a long article. I suggest that you read it once to get the general idea. Then you might want to just concentrate on the sections that are relevant to where you are in your training. You can skip directly to the individual sections which are:

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What is duration?

The simplest definition of duration is “the time during which something exists or lasts. ” By that definition, duration could be any length of time. But, when clicker trainers talk about training for duration, they are talking specifically about training an animal to do one behavior for longer. Note that this is different than chaining, where the trainer teaches the horse to do more than one behavior behavior before being reinforced. It’s also different than clicking and treating less often for already trained behaviors. In all these cases, the trainer is increasing the time between the first cue and the delivery of the reinforcer, but there will be differences in how the trainer teaches and maintains the behaviors. If you are not familiar with chaining, you can find information on chaining in my blog What can I train? C is for ….

Some behaviors come with a certain amount of duration and we don’t have to think specifically about duration when we train them. A single target touch is going to be of short duration and that’s fine if I am teaching individual target touches. But, most behaviors are more useful if we build duration so that the horse will do it for longer. If I want my horse to stand at the mounting block, I need to build duration so he stays there long enough for me to mount. When I teach a horse to pick up his feet for hoof care, I want to build duration so that he holds up (or lets me hold up) his foot long enough that I can do something with it.

Interestingly, while clicker trained horses love to offer and do behavior, building duration can be challenging. Unlike more traditionally trained horses who quickly learn to keep doing something until told otherwise, clicker trained horses are more likely to get frustrated or offer a different behavior when the trainer first starts building duration. Therefore, it’s important to introduce duration gradually and it helps to have a number of different strategies for building it.

We’re going to look at some of these strategies, but before we get to them, let’s talk about when to start working on duration.

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When do I start working on duration?

If you are new to clicker training and your previous experience has been with more traditional types of training, the training progression for an individual behavior may be different than the one you are used to following. This can make things a little confusing, so I’m going to take a moment here to describe the general progression I use for training new behaviors and how I decide when I am ready to work on duration.

For the purpose of this article, the main point is that I want to get the behavior well started before I focus specifically on duration. I also want to have a cue so I can ask for the behavior. It doesn’t have to be the final cue and I may be flexible about whether or not I always want the horse to wait for the cue, but I still find it is much easier to build duration if I have a good working cue.

The progression I’m describing is a good one for many behaviors. However, as trainers become more experienced, they may find that the lines between each step are flexible and it’s not always a linear progression. I may go back and forth between the different stages if I find I have missed something or the horse learns something unexpected – or doesn’t learn something in the way I had hoped. With duration, I’ve found it’s often possible to build a little duration much earlier, if I am looking out for opportunities to do it. This makes it possible to avoid a sharp transition when you go from shaping the behavior to maintaining the behavior.

A typical training progression:

  • Teach the horse the behavior. The behavior doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be “clean” – meaning it doesn’t contain unwanted behaviors and is reasonably consistent in quality.
  • Work on stimulus control. Once I have the behavior, I want to put it under stimulus control so I can ask for it when I want it. I can do this by either adding a new cue or by selecting the cue I want to use.
  • Build Duration – I teach the horse to maintain the behavior for longer. This is step is not necessary for all behaviors.
  • Finishing (fine tuning, generalizing, building fluency) – I’ve lumped a lot of stuff in here. This is the stage at which I make changes that improve the functionality of the behavior.
  • Transition out of the teaching phase – This step takes me from teaching the behavior to using the behavior. The transition might include changing reinforcers, adjusting cues (if I find there is confusion), and any adjustments I need to make as I use the behavior more.

If you are new to clicker training, you may want to read these articles:

According to the training progression I presented above, I can start training for duration as soon as the behavior consistently meets my criteria and is on cue. For some behaviors, this can take longer than I might like and it’s often tempting to work on duration a little prematurely. One of the challenges of clicker training is developing the patience and willingness to work at the horse’s pace.  When I first started clicker training, I was in a hurry to be able to ask Rosie to maintain behaviors for longer periods of time so that I didn’t have to click and treat as often. I really thought that if I clicked her once for standing still, she should know what I wanted and keep standings still, instead of offering to do other things. 

But, horses have to learn about duration.  Sometimes new trainers don’t realize that training for duration is significantly different than shaping new behaviors. When I shape a new behavior, I want the horse to offer something different if I don’t click. When I shape for duration, I want the horse to keep doing the same behavior if I don’t click. No wonder, it can be confusing for the horse and challenging for the trainer.

Horses can respond in different ways when I first introduce the idea of duration. Some horses will be quick to offer alternate behaviors because they are used to being clicked and treated immediately as soon as they respond correctly to the cue. Other horses will get frustrated and show stress behaviors like mugging, nipping, pawing. A frustrated horse might also leave or shut down and stop offering any behavior at all. The good news is that once I train duration in several behaviors, my horse will start to understand that sometimes I just want him to keep doing what he is doing. 

How do I know if I am ready to introduce duration or start training for duration on a particular behavior? I have found there a few things to consider.

  • Does the horse respond promptly to the cue for the behavior? Or… can I set up the environment so the horse reliably offers the behavior.
  • In a shaping session, where I want the horse to immediately repeat the behavior again after I click, does he do so? This could be cued or uncued. Some people never want horses to offer behavior without being cued, but I like to see the horse is eager to repeat the behavior under certain conditions so I do relax stimulus control and allow uncued behavior during some shaping sessions.
  • What kind of learner is my horse? Will the horse keep offering behaviors if he is not clicked or does he shut down? If the horse tends to shut down (stop offering behaviors, stare off into space, zone out..), then I need to keep his reinforcement level high until he gets braver. This is common in crossover horses (those started with traditional methods) and I am very careful to keep them actively focused on me by keeping efforts short and reinforcing a lot.
  • What does the horse do when he gets frustrated? If he gets aggressive or unsafe, then I want to keep his reinforcement level high and extend duration very slowly. I can still do it, but I need to be careful to monitor his body language.
  • Does he correct himself if he stops performing the behavior before the click and misses his reinforcement?  An example of this would be if I am working on head lowering and he picks his head up before I click, but then puts it right back down. I might not have been specifically working on duration (maybe I was looking for straightness), but the fact he “self-corrected” means he’s likely to return to the behavior if I extend the time between clicks when working on duration.

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Training for duration: strategies and tips

When I was originally taught to build duration, I was told to wait for more behavior before clicking. If I was teaching head lowering and I had been clicking as soon as the horse’s nose was near the ground, I was now supposed to wait until the horse held his nose near the ground, for a fraction of a second longer, and then click. This can work, but it was very frustrating for the horse as the behavior that had been reinforced a moment ago (nose near the ground) was now “not working.” In scientific terms, I had put the behavior of “nose touching the ground” in extinction. Extinction is not a pleasant experience for animals, and most clicker trainers now try to avoid it when building duration. Yes, our goal is to get more behavior before we click, but we now know how important it is to prepare the horse and build duration systematically and gradually.

Many trainers have their own training strategies and preferences for how to build duration, but I think they can be grouped into three general categories.

  • Teach the horse to do multiple repetitions of the behavior and allow them to “blend” over time so I get one longer behavior.
  • Vary the timing of the click so that the amount of duration is slightly variable, but the general trend is increasing.
  • Change the environment in such a way that it sets the horse up to do the behavior for longer.
  • Indirectly. Sometimes we can build duration while focusing on other criteria.

I’m going to share specific examples of how I train behavior using each strategy. But first, I want to share some general tips on how to be successful when you start training for duration. Many of these are ones I originally learned from the clickryder list on yahoo groups.  I am presenting this information before I share sample training plans because I think it will help you to understand the examples better.

1. Start with a behavior that is easy for the horse. I want to pick a behavior that is not physically or mentally demanding, that the horse knows well, and that has a large reinforcement history. It helps if it has simple, clear criteria. Often we want to start training duration on a behavior because we really need it, but that may not be the best behavior to choose for introducing duration. For example, if my horse doesn’t want to stand still, I may think “I need duration for standing still,” but starting with a behavior that the horse is struggling to do is not the best option. You might be better off introducing duration during movement.

I think it helps to start with a behavior that has a definite physical cue. This could be a mat, target, or some other object. The object itself functions as a constant reminder about what behavior is going to be reinforced; information that is useful to the horse when the time between clicks is extended.

2. Start where the horse can be successful. Before I start building duration, I need to determine what my starting point should be. Many people skip this step because they have a general feeling about what the horse can do, but I’ve found it’s very easy to overestimate. You could certainly time it, but I find counting is usually sufficient. What I do is cue the behavior a few times and count how long I wait before I click. For example, if I’ve been training my horse to pick up his feet and hold them up, I do a few reps and see if I can ask him to pick up his foot and keep it up while I count 1, then click and treat. On the next rep, I might try to count 1, 2, then click and treat. By doing this systematically, I can usually determine how much duration I’ve already built.

3.  Use strategic food delivery. How I deliver the reinforcer can have a significant impact on my success training duration. For many behaviors, it helps to feed in position, so that the horse is ready to resume the behavior immediately after getting his treat. For example, if I am working on head lowering, I will feed the horse with his head low, in about the same place he had it when I clicked. In the beginning, he will probably pick his head up to eat. That’s fine. But, over time, I should see him choose to keep his head down so he can get to the next click and treat sooner.

I will mention that I think it’s important to give the horse a break every few repetitions if the behavior is difficult. If I am building duration in head down, I may feed low a few times, but then I’ll feed higher once or twice or do something else to break it up. I don’t know that this increases the speed of learning, but I think it’s good to give the horse a mental and physical break from holding one position for a long time.

4. Adjust your reinforcement to reflect the amount of effort. When I am building duration in a behavior, I want to make sure I provide enough reinforcement to keep the horse motivated. I think of this as keeping the horse on the same “pay rate,” for at least the initial sessions. Then, as doing the behavior for longer duration becomes normal and easier for the horse (physically and mentally), I will slowly adjust the amount of reinforcement to wherever I want it to be for maintenance. For example, if my horse is used to standing at the mounting block for 2 seconds and I want him to stand for 4 seconds, I will pay twice as much for the longer duration behavior the first time I ask for it. I tend to do this more for behaviors that are harder to increase gradually and I will also adjust the reinforcement based on other factors, but I do try to show the horse that more effort equals more reinforcement.

5. Make it different. If you’ve been training a behavior for a while and the horse is used to being clicked and treated as soon as he does the behavior, you may find it hard to communicate to him that you want the same behavior for longer. This can create a lot of frustration and he may offer other behaviors, show unwanted behaviors, or lose interest completely. From his point of view, everything is the same, but now you want something different. Well, there’s an easy solution to this. Change something about the training environment so that it is different. Different environment = different expectations = success. It doesn’t have to be complicated. If you’ve taught targeting as a single touch, use a different target when you introduce duration. Or, if you’ve been practicing backing in the stall, start building duration by practicing in the aisle or the ring. Yes, your horse may offer the “usual” duration at first, but if you immediately start shaping for duration, you may find he catches on quickly.

6.  Watch out for creating unwanted chains. When training duration, I want to avoid having extra or unwanted behavior become attached to the behavior I do want. This can happen if there is a disruption in the continuity of the behavior and I click the horse when he resumes the cue behavior. Let’s say I want to train duration on a mat and I am looking for the horse to stand on it for a count of 5. My horse starts off standing with both feet on the mat, paws the mat, and then goes back to standing with both feet on the mat. I might click, thinking “well, he went back to the behavior I want,” but if I click, my horse has been reinforced for the chain: stand -> paw -> stand, which is not what I want. Yes, occasionally an unwanted behavior will drop out over time, but it’s risky to count on that happening. It’s better to go back and start with a shorter duration and reinforce before the unwanted behavior can occur. A longer explanation about why and how to address this problem can be found in the article Loopy Training. If you are not familiar with chains, you may want to read about chains in the blog, What can I train? C is for …

7. Don’t rely on your intuition. I got this tip from Kathy Sdao. When training for duration, decide ahead of time when you are going to click. You should start the repetition with a number (x) in your head and plan to click at the count of “x.” Our natural tendency is to try to get as much duration as we can, and click before the horse stops doing the behavior. But, when we rely on our own intuition about how much behavior we can get, we tend to end up clicking just as the behavior is deteriorating. This happens because when that little voice in your head says “you better click now,” it’s already too late. The little voice indicates that you have (on a subconscious level) seen changes that indicate the animal is about to stop doing the behavior. If you click at that moment, you will be clicking for ending the behavior, not for maintaining it.

8. Keep track of your duration. It may seem obvious to say that you need to keep track of how your training is progressing, but I find people can be very sloppy when training duration. They ask the horse to do it for a little longer, and then a little longer, but they don’t keep track of how much “a little longer” is, or how often the horse manages to do it. Usually what happens is the horse stops doing the behavior and then they regroup. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, so I’ve learned to be very conscientious about keeping track of how duration I have in each repetition. The simplest way to do this is by counting. I can just count out loud, picking a consistent tempo. Or, I can count steps or strides – mine or the horses. If I am working on duration for a movement behavior, I can measure distances. The nice thing about counting is that if I do it out loud, the horse will start to use it as information that we are building duration. I think it functions as a bit of a constant on cue for the behavior.

9. Use a keep going signal. If my horse is new to clicker training, I’ve probably been training him with a fairly high rate of reinforcement. This means he is used to getting regular information about how he is doing. When I start to build duration, he may not know how to respond to the sudden absence of information and may start to offer other behaviors, looking for the one that will get clicked. If this happens, it can be helpful to teach him a keep going signal. A keep going signal is a specific marker (word, sound) that tells your horse he is on the right track and that if he continues with the behavior, he will be reinforced.

If you want to read more about keep going signals, I have a blog post on Steve White’s ASAT presentation on Keep Going Signals. I want to mention that some clicker trainers use the clicker as both a keep going signal and as a terminal bridge (the marker that predicts reinforcement). I do not recommend doing this as it will confuse your horse. It’s better to have a separate keep going signal. If you want to know why I don’t recommend using a clicker as a keep going signal, read by blog post on Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz’s ASAT presentation on conditioned reinforcers.

I should mention that it can sometimes be enough to provide encouragement through either verbal or tactile reassurance. Ideally, I would need to condition these stimuli so that I knew they were effective reinforcers, but I find most horses understand and accept them when used within the context of building duration. With both keep going signals and other more general forms of encouragement, there is the potential for the horse to become dependent upon them. If that happens, the horse will not learn to do the behavior without “trainer assistance.” So, I think you have to consider whether or not you want to use them long term. There are some behaviors which I am perfectly happy to support with additional information. If not, then I slowly fade them out.

10. Know your goal. Spend some time thinking about how you are going to use the behavior and what kind of duration you need. One of the challenges of teaching duration is that we often train duration for our current task and then stop there. Then, later we realize we need the horse to do the behavior for longer, and we find that we have created a “glass ceiling” because the horse is so used to only standing for 1 minute, or backing up for 4 steps, or cantering half way around the ring. Planning ahead can save you a lot of trouble because it’s easier to build more duration when your horse is used to doing a behavior for slightly variable amounts of time, than it is to go back to building duration if your horse has been reinforced for “x” amount of behavior many times in a row. If you do get in a situation where you need more behavior, changing the context (something about the set-up) can help.

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Building duration with multiple repetitions

In this strategy, my goal is to get the horse used to doing more repetitions of the same behavior before I click. Initially, I click and treat each response. Then, I start to mix in times where I ask the horse to do the same behavior twice before clicking. I can cue the behavior again, or I can set it up so the horse anticipates and repeats the behavior, even if I don’t click it. Initially the horse will repeat the behavior as discrete units, but with repetition, he will start to blend them together to create one longer unit of behavior. I use this strategy mostly when I am first building duration and I need to get the horse past that initial transition from clicking for doing a behavior, to clicking for maintaining a behavior.

Example 1: Building duration on a target

I have taught my horse to touch a stationary target with his nose. I have been clicking as he touches the target. Now I would like him to keep his nose on the target for a count of 3.

My training might look like this:

  • cue the horse to touch the target.He touches -> click -> treat
    • repeat a few times until there is a nice rhythm of cue -> touch -> click -> treat -> cue …
  • cue the horse to touch the target and when he takes his nose away, immediately cue him again.
    • It looks like this: cue – > touch -> ….-> touch -> click -> treat
    • during the >…->, the horse may take his nose away, look at me, or do some other behavior. If he just takes his nose away or looks, I will continue. If he shows unwanted behavior (mugging me, pawing, ear pinning, etc.), I will go back to reinforcing single target touches.
  • If the horse did two target touches without any difficulty, then I will continue the session by sometimes clicking after the first touch, sometimes after the second. With some horses, I will shift to always asking for two target touches. With others I will continue to mix in some clicks for the first touch and shift more gradually.

Up to this point, I have been clicking as the horse touches the target. Once I am regularly asking for two touches, I start to look for variations in the touches. I watch both how he touches the target and what happens between touches. Often the horse will stay closer to the target if he knows he will have to do it twice, or he will stop removing his nose from the target between touches. I have to be a bit opportunistic here and click for any variation in target touching that suggests staying in contact longer or staying closer between touches.

Sometimes I have to experiment a bit to see how I can use the timing of the click to show the horse I want him to stay on the target. I don’t worry if the nose contact with the target is on-off-on-off as long as the horse’s nose is staying fairly close and his body language is calm. If the behavior deteriorates at any point, I can go back to single target touches.

Once I am seeing some longer touches, I have a few choices about what to do next. I can:

  • Tighten my criteria and only click for touches where the horse keeps his nose on the target for a count of 1, then a count of 2. . You can read how to do this in the section on “Varying the timing of the click.”
  • Start asking for two longer touches and repeat the process again until I have sustained contact that is equal to two long touches.

In the example, I am cuing the behavior. I do prefer to have a behavior on a cue before I build duration because if my horses gets confused by the absence of the click, I can cue him again. If I don’t have a cue that I can use, then I have to wait to see what he offers and that can lead to frustration. However…. (there’s always a but!), just because I have a cue doesn’t mean I have to use it every time. In some cases, I may use the cue to get the behavior going, but allow the horse to offer the behavior (without me actively cueing it) once we are in a set of repetitions. This would look like this:

  • cue touch -> horse touches -> click -> treat – > horse touches-> click -> treat -> horse touches -> click -> treat
  • take a break
  • cue touch -> horse touches -> click -> treat – > horse touches-> click -> treat -> horse touches -> click -> trea

The advantage to doing this is that some horses will offer more and be more persistent about repeating a behavior if they are not waiting for a cue.

Example 2: building duration in head lowering

I would follow exactly the same process as with targeting, but I could assist the transition by:

  • Using strategic food delivery – feeding low can help the horse learn to stay in position
  • Relaxing my criteria for nose height – I often train head lowering with the horse’s nose close to the ground because it makes the criteria very clear to the horse. But, some horses find it too challenging to maintain that position for long. In those cases, I teach duration in head lowering with the nose higher. Later, I can slowly adjust my criteria so the nose is lower, if I think it would be beneficial.

Kay Laurence uses this strategy for movement behaviors by re-cuing before the dog gets to the end of the behavior. For example, if she has taught the dog to heel for 4 seconds, she will build duration by asking the dog to heel, re-cuing at 3 seconds (to start another 4 second behavior) and clicking at 7 seconds. She has a very specific protocol for how and when she removes the clicks, but it’s the same basic idea of cuing the behavior multiple times before clicking. She likes to click before the end of the “unit of behavior” so there is no hesitation between each unit. She has presented this at various conferences and if I can dig up the notes, I’ll post a link to them here.

Additional resources:

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Building duration by varying the timing of the click

This is the original method I learned for building duration. It’s been around for a long time under different names (ping-ponging, withholding the click, bouncing) and works well, but I think it can be challenging to use it when first building duration if you have a very fast discrete behavior. In those cases, I start with the multiple repetitions method.

The basic idea is that I click and reinforce repetitions of the behavior that fall within a certain range, instead of increasing the duration in a linear manner. This adds some unpredictability and makes it easier to keep the training moving along toward higher numbers. It also makes it so the difficulty of the task is not steadily increasing.

This approach works well for stationary behaviors or simple movement behaviors. I’ve used it for behaviors like:

  • standing on a mat
  • standing at a mounting block
  • leading
  • groundwork and riding at different gaits
  • backing
  • hoof care (holding up the foot)

Example 1: Building duration in walking forward

I have taught my horse to walk forward on cue and continue for 2 or 3 steps. I’d like him to walk 10 steps. A linear progression would be asking for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 10 steps. Instead of doing this, I am going to click and reinforce for steps within a small range, but keep shifting that range. My first range might be 1, 2, 3. My second range is 2, 3, 4. My third is 3, 4, 5 and so on. When I click, I want to click as he takes a step, not as he finishes it. When I click for 5 steps, I am clicking as he picks up his foot to take the fifth step. To get movement, I need to click during movement. Here’s a possible training progression:

  • cue forward -> horse walks 1 step -> click -> treat
  • cue forward -> horse walks 2 steps -> click -> treat
  • cue forward -> horse walks 3 steps -> click -> treat
  • cue forward -> horse walks 2 steps -> click -> treat
  • cue forward -> horse walks 3 steps -> click -> treat
  • cue forward -> horse walks 4 steps -> click -> treat
  • cue forward -> horse walks 3 steps -> click -> treat
  • ….continue asking for steps within a small range, but slowly shifting

Depending upon the horse and the behavior, I might be able to move quite quickly. If my horse tends to prefer movement behaviors and I am building duration in walking, the progression listed above would probably work fine. But, if he tends to be a reluctant mover, I might need to go more slowly and do something like: 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3, 2, 1 – where I make most repetitions “easy” with an occasional harder one so the range shifts more slowly.

Once horses understand about duration, it is possible to build duration very quickly for an easy behavior. Usually I can start to increase the criteria in bigger increments, maybe by 5 units instead of 1. I also think that horses recognize when I am working on duration as opposed to shaping because of the reinforcement pattern.

A note about building duration in stationary behaviors

The example I just described is a movement behavior. I can use the same strategy with stationary behaviors like standing still or holding a foot up. Stationary behaviors are often more challenging for clicker trained horses because they are used to the idea of “doing something” in order to get clicked. I think the hardest behavior for a novice clicker trainer and novice horse is for both of them to stand still. There’s a significant lack of information for the horse about what to do. Yes, we want the horse to use our stillness as information, but many of them confuse that with shaping where we are still when we are waiting for the horse to do something.

I’ve always thought of this as “nature abhors a vacuum). If I stand still, my horse tends to want to move. Rather than set him up for failure, I ask him to stand still, while I move – or while I do things. I do need to be careful that I add movement in such a way that he doesn’t think he should come with me, but most horses catch on quickly that their job is to stand still while Katie “does stuff.” Then, over time I can add in moments when I am still and build duration so I have the option of standing with my horse, or moving around him.

Example 2: Building duration for hoof care

I have taught my horse to pick up his foot. Now I would like to teach him to hold it up while I do something to it (clean it, trim it, mark it, etc.). The temptation is to teach duration by asking the horse to hold it up while I do these other things, but I find it’s easier on everyone if I build a little duration first before I ask him to hold it up while I do something that might upset his balance or be an unusual sensation. When I train this, I am going to cue the horse to pick up his foot and then let him put it back down between each repetition.

Here’s a possible training progression:

  • cue -> he picks it up -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 1 -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 2 -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 1 -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 2 -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 2 -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 1 -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 3 -> click -> put the foot down -> treat

I continue in this manner until I have enough duration that I can consider doing something simple while he is holding the foot up. I often start by just rubbing the bottom or brushing it – something that is not unpleasant and I can do quickly and easily. Then, I can continue to build duration and/or introduce other aspects of hoof care. When I introduce something new, I always reduce the duration. So, even if my horse will hold his foot up for a count of 20 while I clean it, I will ask for less time the first time I use a hoof rasp.

Additional resources:

  • 300 Peck Pigeon is one of Alexandra Kurland‘s strategies for building duration. When using it, you increase the duration in a more linear approach and is best suited for easy behaviors, but it can be effective with some horses. She describes it on the Equiosity podcast #49 “300 Peck Pigeon” Horses. Mary Hunter has a blog post on it.

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Building duration by changing the environment

In the previous two strategies for building duration, the horse learns to keep doing the behavior until I click. He doesn’t know exactly how long he will have to do it and from his point of view, the criteria are always changing – walk for 1 step, walk for 2 steps, walk for 1 step, walk for 3 steps. There is an element of unpredictability about it. This can be very effective but it can also create frustration, especially with novice trainers and learners.

Building duration by changing the environment uses a different approach. Instead of extending the behavior, we teach an end point (a terminal behavior) and then increase the amount of behavior the horse has to do in order to teach it. I think this adds a level of predictability and clarity that makes learning easier. This strategy uses backchaining. What’s nice is that if your behavior doesn’t come with an obvious terminal behavior/end point, you can add one. I routinely do this by teaching the horse to do a behavior until I do “x” which could be as simple as a tactile stimulus or a change in my own behavior. I’ll describe this in the hoof care example below.

Example 1: Trotting the long side of the arena (150 feet)

I have taught my horse to trot under saddle and now I’d like him to trot for longer distances. I could build duration with the previous method (varying the timing of the click) but that feels a lot like making him do more and more to earn his click. If he’s an energy conserver, I might find he is losing enthusiasm. Instead I could set up a fixed end point and teach him to trot to it. Then, I could move his starting position so that I slowly increase how far he has to trot to get to his end point. Here’s how it would look:

I set up a mat or cone target near the end of the arena. That’s my destination or terminal behavior.

  • walk the horse so he’s about 10 feet away – far enough that he can pick up a trot and trot a few strides before he does a smooth down transition to the mat or cone target
    • cue trot -> horse trots 10 feet to mat- > click -> treat
    • walk the horse back to the starting point and repeat a few times
  • pick a new starting point – maybe 12 feet away
    • cue trot -> horse trots 12 feet to the mat -> click -> treat
    • walk the horse back to the starting point (or within a stride or two) and repeat a few times
  • continue moving the starting point farther away from the mat until the horse is trotting the long side down to the mat.

Depending upon my horse’s fitness level and balance, I might do this in one session or over several sessions. If he shows any reluctance by being slower to pick up the trot or stops trotting part way to the mat, then I know I have increased the distance too quickly.

Example 2: Building duration in hoof care

I’ve already shared one example of building duration in hoof care by varying the timing of the click. Now, I’m going to show how adding a terminal behavior to that same training plan can make it easier for the horse. In this case, the terminal behavior is me patting the hoof. One might think that the obvious terminal behavior to use is putting the foot back down. This can be done, but I’ve learned to be careful about using terminal behaviors that the horse might try to offer prematurely. I prefer to use ones that only I can initiate or that are fixed in the environment.

Here’s what the training plan would look like with a terminal behavior:

  • cue -> he picks it up -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I pat the bottom of the foot -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 1 -> pat the bottom of the foot -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 2 -> pat the bottom of the foot -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 1 -> pat the bottom of the foot -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 2 -> pat the bottom of the foot -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 2 -> pat the bottom of the foot -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 3 -> pat the bottom of the foot -> click -> put the foot down -> treat
  • cue -> he picks it up -> I count to 1 -> I use the hoof pick once -> pat the bottom of the foot -> click -> put the foot down -> treat

With the addition of a terminal behavior, I find I can start adding in more activities (brushing it off, picking it out more quickly). I think this is because the horse knows what will happen right before the click and he relaxes a little more. I’m not sure why it is, but there seems to be a difference in tension level between a horse that is hyper-focused on listening for the click and one that is waiting for me to perform an action that indicates he is done.

Additional resources:

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Building duration indirectly

When I wrote the original version of this article in 2006, I spent a long time writing about what I called “building duration indirectly.” What I had discovered was that I could get a lot of duration in a behavior even if most of my training was focusing on quality, not on quantity. I should mention here that a lot did not mean trotting for 5 minutes. To me, a lot of duration was going from trotting 5 or 10 steps to trotting 40 steps.

Anyway, what I found was the even though I was stopping regularly to click and treat, my horse was building up her fitness and I was building a reinforcement history for trotting. This meant she was more likely to keep trotting because she knew that eventually she would be clicked for something at the trot. I believe this came about because I had created what Alexandra Kurland calls “clickable moments.”

Here’s what I wrote about it in 2006. I used the term “underlying default” behavior, which is equivalent to what I would now call a “base behavior” – which is the behavior out of which I am selecting good moments.

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I have taught my horse to walk on a loose lead (no tension in the line) walking to the field and he maintains that behavior, but I am clicking him every 3 steps and it is 100 steps to the field. I would like to be able to walk to the field and just click him at the gate. I need to build duration into leading on a loose lead.  One option would be to actively train for duration by increasing the number of steps before I click. And, It is true that I need duration, but I think that what I really want is for “walk on a loose lead” to be an underlying default behavior that I can then add layers to, as needed. I want to strengthen the behavior of walking on a loose lead, but I can do that without just concentrating on time or number of steps. 

I had already started the training process by reinforcing my horse for walking on a loose lead every 3 steps for a week going back and forth to the field.  In the very beginning, when I am working on a new behavior, I will withhold the click a bit to see what the horse does, because this can give me some insight into what kinds of variations the horse has within that behavior, or what I might want to click for next.  But, in a situation such as leading to the field, where I really want my horse to stay focused on me and I don’t want to create any frustration,  I am much more likely to click and reinforce many times and see what kind of variation I see over various efforts.  This is usually less frustrating for the horse than if I withhold the click to see the variation that shows up if I ask for the behavior for a longer period of time. 

During the time that I was clicking every 3 steps, I had also been making mental notes about other pieces I might need to add, and in what order.  I will now start to select for the new criteria even though my horse is still working in short efforts.  I think this keeps the horse’s frustration level down because the reinforcement rate is still high.  This works very well with impatient horses and helps them learn to focus. Learning to focus leads to emotional stability which will help the horse later if I decide I want to go back to actively training for duration.  What I often find is that I don’t need to take that step, because the duration is already there, built while I was refining the behavior.

To continue with my example, I have found that there are a lot of details in walking nicely to the field. I have to decide how I want the horse positioned and what other behaviors I might need to have available. I like my horses to lead so that their shoulders are out of my space and their heads are slightly toward me. With the greener horses, I will start by leading them so that they are almost in a shoulder-in bend. As their behavior improves, I will allow them to straighten and walk more forward as long as the “feeling’ is of them moving out of my space. I want to be able to walk at their shoulder without them lagging behind or barging in front. So in this example, there are six clickable criteria: loose lead, matching my pace, flat footed walk, at my shoulder, head level with their withers, yielding their shoulder, nose slightly toward me.

Even though I don’t have much duration (only have 3 steps) on a loose lead, I am going to decide what my next criteria will be.  This allows me to continue reinforcing as frequently. So, in my week, I might have discovered that my horse tends to crowd me with his shoulders.  I will now walk to the field clicking for moments when he yields his shoulders. One interesting thing that will happen is that in searching for the correct answer (yielding the shoulders),  my horse will sometimes offer a variation that meets one of my other criteria for walking. I click and reinforce that. Or, he might walk on a loose lead for longer. I click that too! 

What makes this work is that when I set my criteria for walking, the criteria were not entirely independent. In this case, it’s easier for my horse to meet most of my criteria if he is already walking on a loose lead. This means that if I click when he walks in position next to me, I am also clicking for being on a loose lead. If he maintains that position for the next click or two, then I can start thinking about what criteria I would like to go for next. As long as I have already introduced each criteria separately (in other training sessions), it’s ok to click for different ones as we walk to the field. If my horse gets confused, I may have to go back to focusing on one or two criteria.

As the horse gets better at consistently meeting all of the criteria, I will find that I am just fine tuning how he walks to the field. Because he understands the basic criteria for walking to the field, I can pick and choose which ones I want to reinforce. These are what Alex calls clickable moments and on any given day, there will be a number of these moments while we walk to the field. Most days, I will click one or two of them, maybe a moment when the horse adjusted his pace to mine, or moved slightly out of my space. This creates varying amounts of duration and depending upon how much time I want to spend walking to the field, I can click and treat for several good moments or just pick one or two of the better ones. I might not even click at all and just click and treat when he stops at the gate. I now have a horse that will walk 100 steps to the field on a loose lead and I did it without focusing on duration.

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Summary

When I was first learning about duration, I really struggled with it. I didn’t know how to ask for more behavior without frustrating my horse and I also felt like it was unfair to stop clicking and reinforcing for effort that had previously been reinforced. It didn’t help that Rosie had trained me to keep her on a pretty high rate of reinforcement so when I tried to build duration, she would either offer another behavior or find something else more interesting (usually something in the environment).

I worked away at duration consistently with a few behaviors, but I also set it aside for others and decided to focus on quality. What’s interesting is that focusing on quality did give me more duration (in some cases) and it also made me re-evaluate why trainers, particularly horse trainers, want the horse to just keep going around and around with no change. I had to step back and think about why trainers want duration, particularly in riding, and whether or not it was necessary. In the end, I decided that while I do need my horse to keep going, it was more important to focus on chaining that on duration in one behavior. That mental shift has worked well for me and it turns out that chains are really the key to riding.

I’ve presented a lot of information because building duration can be challenging for some horses and trainers. If you are struggling with it, I suggest you pick one strategy and try using it on some easy behaviors. You will figure out what works for you and your horse. Then, you might want to try using another of the strategies with a few different behaviors. As you do this, you will start to get a feel for which strategies work well in different situations and you may even come up with your own combinations.