Shopping Basket
Your shopping basket is empty
There is no coming to consciousness without pain.
Quote Mark


Why use a shaping plan



For many years I have been extolling the tremendous benefits of writing and using shaping plans in the training of equines. A good shaping plan creates safety due to the small steps it uses; they increase the ability of the animal to learn more effectively if the behaviours are broken down enough to be easily comprehended by the equine mind. Shaping plans create freedom for the trainer allowing them to be more in the moment with their horse, donkey or mule. Using the same principles, a good shaping plan can also bestow similar benefits on human behaviour and changing anything they want from increasing confidence and building trust, weight loss, exercise and smoking. It is not difficult to see the significance and value of this common sense approach while appreciating and understanding the benefits to equine learning and training.

Unfortunately, actually writing a shaping plan is not as easy as it sounds and most people never get around to it. People tell me that the most difficult thing in writing a plan is knowing what the steps actually should be and how small they are and this concern stops them from ever starting the process. I understand why, writing out a formal plan of our animal’s training is something we have never grown up with. Sitting down and spending an hour or two preparing a shaping plan is just not as exciting as being with our equines. It is easy to think “oh! I have it in my head.”  Unfortunately, through experience I know that having it in your head really is not as effective as having it on a sheet of paper.

For years I have resisted the requests of owners and trainers to write a comprehensive range of shaping plans for them, believing that if people wrote their own plans, then they would get the most from them. I still feel that by writing and using their own shaping plan owners will learn about how to write and use a shaping plan, which then becomes a skill they can use whenever they need. I hope that is a skill you can develop so that the process of shaping can be come second nature to you. I believe that good shaping is one of the most important skills in modern ethical equine training. However, I have learnt that most people don’t have the time or confidence to write their own plans. So, I have decided, I must change my position and write shaping plans so that owners and trainers will at least have one to work to and perhaps in using mine they will be inspired to develop their own.

One of the other reasons that I have resisted previous requests for written plans is the difficultly in writing plans that are suitable for all situations and all owners. A shaping plan is best if it is unique to each situation and environment and depends on the level of skill of the trainer. To overcome this problem I think it is important to understand that these plans are not universal methods to fix all problems. They are guides in the different steps any horse will need to take, in order to perform and to learn safely and successfully. Sometimes two or more plans may be needed in order to achieve the final goal. If you have a young horse that is nervous or lacks confidence and you want to teach them to load, then developing confidence in the horse might require shaping plans for obstacles and leading before you try the loading shaping plan. Obviously, a very experienced trainer might be able to use just the loading plan but best results for any equine training will always be achieved from teaching the basics of domestication first, such as, leading and confidence.

All my training is based on the premise that the true nature of equines is to be fearful of new situations and even familiar ones sometimes. Equines are compliant if they understand what is required of them and when they are not afraid of a situation. The reasons equines don’t do what we want them to, are generally limited to the following reasons, because they don’t understand what is required, have not been taught what they are required to do, they physically can’t do it, they are in pain, it does not make sense to their limited problem solving abilities to perform a certain task the required way or finally, if they are fearful of the situation.
Changing behaviour
Whether you want to change behaviour or simply to train a new behaviour in a young or inexperienced animal there are several aspects of training that we need to understand in order to get the best out of your shaping plan. Having ensured that our animal’s behaviour is not related to pain, medical conditions or that any environmental factors are not limiting the animal’s performance, time must be taken to investigate the most likely motivation for the behaviour.

Horses, donkeys and mules can all kick harder than we do, bite harder and run faster, they do not have to comply with humans at all, yet in the majority of cases they willingly do so.  It is important at this point to dispel the myth that equines deliberately do things to annoy us humans.  The act of getting pleasure from human discomfort or anger is an extremely complicated human mental process and one that is unproven in equines.  If horses, donkeys or mules were capable of deliberately deceiving us, then why do they carry heavy loads and suffer the burdens of hard work in so many countries around the world? The true nature of equines, as a species, is to be compliant and adapt to the requirements of domestication.  If this were not the case we would not have continued to domesticate them over the last 6000 years. The three most common reasons equines do not perform the behaviours we want of them are because of pain, fear or because they do not know what is required of them (they simply haven’t learnt it yet). It is often the case that they have previously learnt their current behaviour because of one of these three causes, even though the original cause may no longer be present.

The best approach to solving problems is to work on several areas at once. It is often not enough just to train in one area of the animal’s learning or performance. Working with just the one area of behaviour, although a common approach, is the most difficult and often most dangerous one. Going to the trailer to solve a loading problem or trying to pick up the foot to solve a kicking problem seem to be a reasonable approach and with a great deal of experience it is possible. However, it is far safer and more successful to develop a longer term approach to changing equine behaviour by working on several areas at once.

The areas that should be considered are creating a safe environment, trust, confidence, standing still, creating acceptance

Shaping plans do not have to be cast in stone, so if we find that one way of eliciting behaviour does not work then we can try another. We should not chop and change at the drop of a hat, but if we use our intuition, we will know when to try something new. We must give the animal time to think and offer appropriate responses, but if it is clear the animal is struggling to learn the required behaviour is good to try something else to see if that might help. The only limitation to this process is our imagination.
The first part of the plan, the foundation, is crucial to the success of the rest of the plan. Don’t be tempted to skip any of the time and training required in these early stages. Unfortunately, these early steps can the least rewarding for the trainer. We must be happy to enjoy the journey and reward the try. Generally, as the animal begins to learn the progression through the steps accelerates to where they make huge amounts of progress in relatively few lessons. Our use of the shaping plan at this point is crucial to ensure that we do not miss out any vital elements of our training, and that we actually finish everything we set out to achieve.

How long will it take? It really depends on the skills of the trainer and the individual nature of the animal being trained. Some times five-ten steps might be achieved in one twenty minute session, other times one step might take twenty minutes. The speed of advancement is not as important as the quality of the progress. One thing is for sure following the steps carefully will result in safer training and a more confident horse who trusts their trainer.

The use of a shaping plan is the single most important practical tool a horseman can use. We all use shaping and we all have shaped behaviour before in one way or another. We grew up knowing, you must learn to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. Shaping is not new but understanding the process more clearly and using the principles more accurately allows us to communicate with our equines and allows them to understand us more easily.


[ View All Thoughts ]