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.

Early Training of Foals

Foals are cute, high energy, and very trainable. The same principles apply to training older, naive horses as to training foals, but there are some special considerations to keep in mind because of the stage of development foals are in.

Using the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES) 10 Principles of Equitation Science in the training of foals has proven effective at producing horses that are safe and easy to handle. Because early training experiences have been demonstrated to affect a horse’s behaviour without any further handling for up to two years, the foal’s first experiences of training are critical.

This article is a brief breakdown of what foals should learn and how they can be taught.

Principle 1: Account for the Horse’s Ethology and Cognition

The naive, three-year-old horse can focus enough to learn for approximately 20-30 minutes at first, and this time is slowly extended through training. The foal, therefore, has a shorter attention span lasting only 10-15 minutes. Training can begin at the foal’s third week of life, and should not be conducted daily. Two to three days in a row with at least one rest day in between has been shown to be effective.

Training sessions should take place in a small enclosed area with the mare present. The mare can have a positive effect on how the foal perceives human contact, provided she has a positive relationship with people herself. Two handlers are required for foal training sessions: the mare’s handler keeps her close to the foal during the training session and can feed, groom, or stroke her while the foal’s handler conducts the training.

Being in a small enclosure with the mare makes it easier for the foal’s handler to ensure that the foal does not learn to run away from people or to move away from their touch or their presence. Each session should focus on one very basic and simple task, such as moving towards a light sideways and forward pull on the lead rope. When the task has been repeated successfully or nearly successfully three times in a row, the learning session is finished for that day.

Principle 2: Use Learning Theory Appropriately

The foal can quickly learn to go, stop, back up, and turn from light pressures on the halter and lead rope.

The foal can be taught to stand still for very short periods of time, and to be handled all over, including picking up feet.

The foal should learn that interactions with people are positive and enjoyable, so the foal’s handler must be consistent and a competent trainer. Through this consistent training, the foal will learn that people must be treated differently than the other foals it is growing up with.

Habituation to lightweight objects such as blankets can also be undertaken with a foal, once basic responses to halter pressures have been trained.

All of these things can be trained using the framework of stimulus (pressure or cue), response (behaviour), and reinforcement (reward). Rewards for proper behaviour can be the release of pressure and withers scratching.

Principle 3: Train Cues that are Easy to Tell Apart

Each of the above responses that the foal will learn needs a distinct cue so the foal does not become confused or stressed by cues for different responses that feel too similar.

Principle 4: Correct Use of Shaping

Shaping transforms a newly learned behaviour from an initial first attempt that may not be entirely correct to the final correctly trained behaviour. To do this, the handler must slowly and progressively increase expectations of the desired behaviour and reward for ever-improving responses.

Principle 5: Ask for Responses One at a Time

Horses can only attend to one stimulus at a time and can, therefore, become overwhelmed by simultaneous cues. Cueing for two responses will either confuse the horse or cause stress and potentially conflict behaviours such as rearing, biting, kicking, bolting, or bucking as the foal tries to escape the stressful situation. In training sessions, ensure that one response is completely finished before asking for the next one.

Principle 6: Train One Response per Signal

In early training it is helpful to reduce to a minimum the number of signals that the foal is taught, and to ensure that each signal only means one thing. Other signals can be added later on as needed, but the basic requirements of handling a foal are such that the cues and responses can remain quite simple until it is time for further training.

Principle 7: Form Habits

Keeping training consistent as to handler, cues, and environment allows the foal to more quickly absorb the training. Once each response is consolidated in this consistent context, a new environmental feature or different handler can be substituted one at a time to expand the breadth of training.

Principle 8: Train Self-Carriage

The foal should learn right away to continue offering the response last asked for until something else is requested. This is an important skill for all future training, so the horse does not have to be constantly signalled to keep going. Constant signalling will result in habituation to the cue, and the horse will eventually stop responding to that cue entirely.

At this point in training, the mare can be used to help the foal learn to continue walking by following his mother after receiving the go signal, and to stand still following a stop cue because the mare is stationary.

Principle 9: Avoid Flight Responses

Foals should not learn to play with people like they would play with another foal. It is cute while the foal is small, but he will not understand that he has grown and cannot leap up on a person when he is older. Foal play also includes practice of flight responses such as running, bucking, and rearing, and learning to perform these behaviours in the presence of people is not something to encourage.

A small area for initial training helps to prevent the expression of flight responses, and training methods should never seek to intentionally trigger a fear response.

Principle 10: Keep Arousal to a Minimum During Training

In order to learn, the foal should be as relaxed as possible, but not to the point of falling asleep. The handler should pay attention to signs of stress in the foal and be ready to take a break, allow the foal physical contact with its mother, or go back to easier, previously learned responses in order to reduce stress and promote learning.


Mini training sessions following these principles will set the foal up for positive future learning experiences. These early sessions are teaching the foal how to learn from and interact with people, which are crucial skills for every horse to know.


ISES. (2017) Principles of Learning Theory in Equitation. Accessed August 5, 2021 from (this article based on the 2017 version of the principles, as is the study by King et al.)

King, S., Wills, L., and Randle, H. (2019) Early training of foals using the ISES training principles. J. Vet. Behav. 29, 140-146.

Expanding the Window of Tolerance

The aim of good training is to expand the horse’s ‘window of tolerance‘ so the normal, every day stressors don’t bother him so much and there is room for his nervous system to take in and process unexpected or new experiences.

Horses are always moving between arousal states, from more aroused to less, and this often occurs within the window of tolerance so riders don’t often notice the process. But when these stimuli stack too high, they fill up the window and push the horse over the edge.

The rider’s reaction to that will either help to expand the window of tolerance, or push the horse farther above the threshold.

Growing the window can be done using three concepts: pendulation, titration, and self-regulation.


A pendulation is a swing or a cycle. It is returning to the point you started from. This tool to grow the window of tolerance requires patience. It takes time for the horse to return to a parasympathetic nervous state after being pushed up to or above the threshold of his window of tolerance and into a sympathetic state.

Adrenaline is the result of being pushed too far, and the half-life of adrenaline in the body is about 2.5 minutes. Allowing for a full pendulation of the horse’s nervous system then will take at least that long. Some wise old cowboys would call this ‘giving the horse some time to think’.

Trying to control the horse in a situation of high arousal can actually stack more stimuli up and push him over threshold. But this isn’t to say that you should leave your horse alone in a frightening situation. Backing off to where everyone was last comfortable, remaining calm, being reassuring, and waiting for signs of returning to a lower level of arousal is helpful. Being aware of stimulus stacking and trying to avoid stacking too high in the first place is even better. This takes time and practice.


Titration is a concept in where the balance is continuously adjusted by very tiny increments. In horse training, this is seen in progressing in a logical fashion through training, building in small steps through the training scale.

It can also be used when you start to see signs of stress responses in the horse. Consider what might be causing the response. Then use a tiny amount of that cause, not enough to make a response. Wait for pendulation and add a tiny bit more. In this way, the horse’s window of tolerance grows and expands through thoughtful training.


This part is for the rider or trainer and not so much for the horse. Horses are actually quite good at self-regulation within their window of tolerance, which is why stress responses often seem out of the blue to riders.

Taking a step back from training when you feel yourself becoming annoyed can help to give clarity to the situation before you and your horse get pushed about threshold. It is better to take the time to grow the window than to risk narrowing it by doing the same old things in the same old way.


Draaisma, Rachaël (2018) Communication Ladder: Recovery after Tension and Shock. In: Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses, Taylor & Francis Group.

Thompson, Kirrilly. (2020) Growing your Horse’s Window of Tolerance. Horses and People, May-June.

Training Foals

Handling Foals

When a foal is born, it is so tempting to get right in there. We want to help the mother, make sure the baby is well, and even start training it right away with the imprinting method popularized by Miller and Close (1991). Miller hypothesized that foals would be accepting of handling and new situations later in life if they were flooded at birth with things they will experience later. Flooding is a desensitizing method that works by overwhelming the animal’s defences until it gives up. Newer research is suggesting that, unless the foal needs immediate intervention to survive, letting mother and baby be alone together is actually the best course of action (Henry et al, 2009). The consequences of just one hour of neonatal handling are astounding.

Short Term Effects of Immediate Handling

In the study, nine foals were left alone with their dams immediately after birth and nine foals received about an hour of imprint training within ten minutes after foaling following the method described by RM Miller. After this one hour treatment, both groups were treated the same, being turned out in social groups and observed periodically.

Foals that received imprint training for an hour in their mother’s presence took longer to stand for the first time and nurse for the first time than foals left undisturbed with their mothers. The imprinted foals also showed trembling, fast breathing, and abnormal sucking. This included directing sucking behaviour at the air or the handler rather than the dam.

Mid Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At six months of age, differences were still observable between experimentally handled foals and those left alone after birth. The imprinted foals were more dependent on their mothers, staying closer on average, exploring less readily, interacting more with their mothers than with others in their social group, and even playing less. They were also less likely to approach an unfamiliar human. These results show that early handling affected the imprinted foals both socially and emotionally.

During weaning at seven months of age, both groups of weanlings showed the same level of whinnying for the first day. After the second day however, the weanlings that were not handled at birth were much calmer and were playing with their peers, while the imprinted weanlings continued in distress even four days after weaning, and also showed aggression towards their peers.

Long Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At one year of age, in social groups with other horses of the same age, differences between imprinted and unhandled horses were still visible. The imprinted horses spent less time in proximity to their peers, and also tended to be more aggressive with their peers.


Even one hour of interference with the earliest interactions between mare and foal has long lasting effects that are not yet fully known. If the effects of the early separation and human handling are still so strongly visible at one year of age, it is possible that the effects will continue through the horse’s life, though further research is needed to confirm this.

Imprinting foals seems to create social misfits in the herd that are insecurely attached to their dam, and have difficulty exchanging the maternal relationship for relationships with peers as normally happens. These differences occurred even though the lives of the imprinted foals after the one hour of handling was exactly the same as that of the control group foals.

Practical Suggestions

For the welfare and proper development of a foal into a healthy and socially well adjusted individual, mares and foals should be allowed to interact alone on their own time scale as much as possible for the critical first hours. This time is essential in forming an appropriate bond with the mother and with peers later in life, and also in fostering a positive relationship with humans.

Another study (Henry et al, 2005) has shown that if the mare has a healthy relationship with humans through calm, daily handling, the foal initiates more interactions with the handler at a young age, is more accepting of touch and novel situations, and at one year old is easy to approach and handle. The daily handling of the dam in this study was very simple, involving hand feeding and soft brushing for fifteen minutes per day on the first five days of the foal’s life. Their findings suggest that short, unobtrusive handling of the dam has a positive effect on the foal’s relationship with people that lasts just as long as the negative effects of imprint training. This could be a more ethical solution than imprinting is to the desire for foals to accept human contact and form a relationship with us.


Henry, S; Hemery, D; Richard-Yris, M-A; Hausberger, M. (2005) Human-mare relationships and behaviour of foals toward humans. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 93:341–362.

Henry, S; Richard-Yris, M-A; Tordjman, S; and Hausberger, M. (2009) Neonatal handling affects durably bonding and social development. PLoS ONE, 4:4.

Miller RM; Close, P. (1991) Imprint training of the newborn foal. Western Horseman, 1991

How to Turn a Horse

Often when a new client brings me a horse of theirs for a training lesson I ask a few simple questions to make sure all three of us (them, their horse, and I) are all on the same page. Their responses are interesting and surprisingly consistent:

Me: How do you tell your horse to go?

Client: I speed up my seat and then squeeze my legs.

Me: How do you tell your horse to stop?

Client: I slow down my seat and then squeeze the reins.

Me: [So far so good…] And how do you tell your horse to turn?

Client: First I half halt with my reins and legs at the same time, then I turn my head and put my inside hip forward, with my inside leg at the girth and my outside leg back. Then my outside hip pushes forward and around, my inside rein opens, and my outside rein pushes while both legs squeeze alternately and I close my left eye and wiggle my right big toe.

Right. That was confusing. Do you think perhaps the horse is confused too?

Having different cues for different responses that are clearly separated from one another is incredibly important for our horses’ mental well-being. If pressure from the rider’s lower leg sometimes means ‘go’ and sometimes means ‘turn’ in a slightly different combination, it is easy to get a confused horse, and confused horses generally cope in one of two ways: they shut down and stop responding, or they overreact and develop unwanted behaviour.

This isn’t to say that cues can’t become more complicated and closer together as horse and rider both progress. The most physically complicated movement in dressage is the pirouette, a turn on the spot at either walk or canter, which combines three basic responses in the space of three steps—less than one stride! Even then, the cues do not come at the same time. The rider cues for each response one at a time to build it into the pirouette.

What does it take to get to that point?

For both training the horse and training a riding student, I start at the very beginning with the simplest cues, which are pressure-based. In a new or frightening situation, the pressure-based cues are what the horse can fall back on and respond to reliably. I always start, then, with leg pressure for go, rein pressure for stop, and a single rein to the side for turn.

If horse and rider were to stay at this stage, that would be alright, though a bit rustic. But neither would improve, and it is better for the horse to reduce pressure cues. When the basic pressure cues are understood and are becoming reliable, I start to introduce seat cues. These are the rider’s movement patterns in the saddle that the horse can feel and respond to before receiving pressure from the bit or legs. A rider may speed up the movement of the seat for ‘go’, slow it down for ‘stop’, or turn the torso for ‘turn’. The horse quickly learns to feel the weight shift and predict what pressure will come next, allowing him to act first and avoid the pressure. This learning process is called classical conditioning.

Classically conditioned cues like seat or voice cues are less reliable than pressure cues in a new or scary situation. That is why I do not begin with classical cues. I prefer to have a solid foundation for horse and rider that I can build on to create beautiful movement and mutual understanding.

Teaching Yield

It’s cold. There’s no better time to do some slow, finicky training like lateral movements. It’ll improve performance when you can get sweaty again!


Dressage whip

Horse in a halter or bridle

Helmet and Gloves


To learn this exercise successfully, your horse needs to know to not run away from the whip, how to go from two light whip taps, and how to stop from light halter or bit pressure. If he doesn’t, go back to this post first:

Training Yield

Using a series of light taps with a dressage whip on your horse’s stifle, get him to step away from the taps with that leg by quitting the taps as soon as he moves the leg away, crossing it underneath himself in front of the other one. Reward only one step, or even half a step at first, especially if your horse is prone to getting anxious. Next walk forward five steps and stop. This will set up his legs to be in a good position for your next ask. Ask again for one step to the side. See how precise you can be with one step sideways and five steps forward.

Teach this on both sides.

It will be easier to transfer this to your riding once you can do this sequence calmly, slowly, and thoughtfully. Sidepass, leg yield, haunches in, shoulder in, renvers, and pirouettes all use yield to some extent!

Training Exercise: Slow Down!

You’ll see it in sales ads: forward horse, requires experienced rider.

Read: this horse has a tendency to go faster than you’d like and doesn’t slow down if you want to.

This isn’t a safe problem to have with a horse, and it can be scary too.

Here is a simple training exercise to begin installing better brakes on a more-go-than-whoa horse.

Set Up

You’ll want a safe, enclosed area to work in. This exercise can be done ridden or on the ground, depending on the horse’s and handler’s ability levels. For a horse that bolts, the smaller the area, the better. Always wear a helmet, appropriate shoes, and gloves.


You will walk the horse forward exactly six steps of the forelegs and then stop. No more, no less. Not five, not five and a half, six. Right front leg is one, left front leg is two, and so on.

This will take some planning ahead on your part. You will begin cuing for a stop as step number four is in the air. If you are on the ground, walking backwards can be helpful so you can see the front legs.

Step four: light stop pressure begins. Always start with light pressure.

Step five: pressure increases smoothly and steadily to a point that motivates the horse to stop.

Step six: release pressure completely.

Aim for three improved repetitions before working on something else or finishing the session.


Horse keeps walking after step six: It is likely for the first few repetitions that the forward horse will continue walking through the pressure past the sixth step. Continue to increase pressure until the stop is achieved and release immediately. Next time, make sure your pressure gets up to the effective level faster during the fifth step so you can release on the sixth.

Horse takes five steps: You can use less pressure. Try maintaining the same light pressure you started with on the fourth step instead of increasing pressure. Play with the amount of pressure needed to reach exactly six steps.

Horse walks again immediately after stopping: Make sure you aren’t releasing pressure too early. Apply pressure to stop again if he moves before you cue. Also make sure you aren’t expecting the horse to stay immobile for too long. When just starting the exercise, one to two seconds is long enough. Then have him take six steps forward again. As he gets better at stopping, you can increase the time you expect him to wait.

But I want the horse to stop when I say whoa/lean back/use other classical cue: Classically conditioned cues like voice or seat cues are wonderful. Every horse should learn them. But if the horse does not respond to light pressure, teaching a reliable classically conditioned cue is not possible. In a stressful or different situation, the cue will fade. I always teach response to light pressure first. Then it is very easy to add a voice or seat cue that is reliable.