The Art of Shaping

Being able to shape a behaviour is imperative for any trainer. Without the ability to read our minds, animals can’t offer us a perfect, exactly correct behaviour on the first try, especially when the training progresses to complicated movements. Instead, the trainer has a picture in mind of the end behaviour and progressively rewards behaviours closer and closer to the end goal. This is called ‘successive approximation’.

Artists use this too, and an analogy from art may make the art of shaping easier to understand.

The End Goal

When an artist begins work, there is a goal. This goal may be a photograph they are trying to emulate, or a picture in their head.

The trainer must also have a goal as specific as a photograph, down to the last detail. Where is the horse’s focus, where are the feet, what exactly starts the behaviour and what exactly stops it?

The Basic Attempt

The artist starts with a rough sketch. It is in the right direction, it has many of the characteristics of the photo, but is also very different. Only a few details are present, and only faintly. There is a lot of work to be done.

The trainer sees the horse begin to understand the basic concept and rewards the horse’s tries.


In art, this stage is the one where I notice mistakes in the original pencil sketch. After putting it away for a day or two, I see things that don’t look quite right or aren’t proportional. I fix these as I move on to adding bolder outlines of the key areas.

In training, obedience is the level that breaks most often when something goes wrong in training. This is the level to come back to and refine from.


Each medium is different, but in art with coloured pencils you start with a base layer of the lightest colour to be found and progressively darken and shade from there.

In training, rhythm is the base layer, required for balance and cadence and willingness in any trained response.


I don’t get the correct shade right away, and have to keep layering colours to produce the desired tone. Sometimes I have to go back to the base layer and add more in certain areas, sometimes using creativity when I am not getting quite the effect I want. There are often unexpected colours in a sketch. This one uses some blue and green!

This goes for training as well, when training rhythm in a movement, straightness is required to maintain it. When training straightness, rhythm is required to maintain it. Creative exercises help to progress this area of training.


Most places on the drawing are finished, or nearly so. Some refinement remains on the outline or key parts to make sure they stand out properly, and look just the way I want them.

Contact in training refines the last portions of the horse’s posture that have not yet fallen into place. Very often they are already partially present due to the previous correct training.


The drawing is complete. The last details are in place. The colour is true—and because the artist had a clear goal (photo) in the first place, the drawing is actually nicer than the original. The lighting is better, and there is no noisy background.

Shaping a behaviour slowly over time may actually give you a better result than you had pictured!

And that drawing of course is of Tesla, my beautiful mare.

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