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Are Ben's shaping plans worth it?

Ben Hart's Shaping Plans

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I've done a lot of workshops with Ben Hart over the past 10 years and shaping plans has been a recurring theme. Like too many of Ben's clients, I have tended to take in what he said, agreed with it, but then not quite actually done it, preferring instead to 'do the shaping in my head'. 

Then at one workshop Ben decided he'd had enough. He sent us out to work with some horses, teaching them something new, complete with blank shaping plan and a pen. A group of us were working with my horse and we wrote that shaping plan to teach him a clicker trained discrimination task. The shaping plan took a number of iterations but we did it. And we recognised that it had been vital. 

Not everyone is given the opportunity for such epiphany moments and many people still just don't quite get round to doing them. So Ben has gone for the 'if you can't beat them join them' approach and written a set of shaping plans so you don't have to. 

I must confess, I was sceptical on two counts when Ben first told me about them. Firstly, every horse is an individual and so how can you produce a training program for all horses? And secondly I thought they looked expensive, the cost of a book but not actually books. 

I put this to Ben and he sent me a sample shaping plan. I was an immediate convert. Of course it's not trying to be a book. This is a private training session with Ben for any horse. This is a month's worth of training for you to do with your horse, as though you have Ben there on your shoulder hinting at what you need to do. This is step-by-step training by one of the few trainers who actually understand how small those steps need to be so that the horse can learn, unhindered by fear and confusion. That is why it can work for any horse. All the possible steps that any horse needs are accounted for; if you complete a step unnecessarily because the horse didn't need it, you have lost nothing. 

Shaping plans are crucial yet overlooked parts of training programmes and Ben is one of the few people to teach them. He may be better-known for working with positive reinforcement and clicker training but actually shaping is for everyone. I would argue that if you use negative reinforcement and/or punishment then shaping is even more important; that way you can keep the pressure to a minimum and give your horse the best chance of working out what you want. 

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