Shaping on a Point of Contact

Alexandra Kurland
Presentation given at the 2020 Conference

Tactile communication. What is it? Horse training provides us with the perfect opportunity to explore this question. We lead horses. We ride horses. All of this involves the use of tactile communication – pressure and release of pressure. When new riders first sit on a horse, they are normally told: you kick to make the horse go, and you pull back to make it stop. If the horse does not respond promptly enough, the stimulus is increased to a level that generates the desired response. Horses learn to respond promptly to avoid the escalating pressure. The initial training is often lumped and fear is used to generate movement.

However, we want pressure cues to become tools the learner uses to get to his reinforcement faster, not aversives that he works hard to avoid. But for a horse that has been trained with escalating pressure, the tools we use – leads, reins, body orientation – are initially seen as threats. 

An alternative approach is shaping on a point of contact. Here the horse is taught how to respond to tactile cues by beginning with very small approximations towards the desired behavior. Pressure is not escalated. Instead the horse is prepared through a series of preliminary exercises so that it is even easier for him to respond correctly when a tactile cue is presented. When the horse responds in the desired way, – click – he is given a treat. This accelerates the learning and results in horses who are eager to “play.”

But the question remains – how would we classify it? Is it simply a clever process in which transferred cues are used to teach a horse how to respond to tactile cues, or is it negative reinforcement as we normally define it? I would argue it can be both depending upon the learner and the skills of the handler. 

Shaping on a point of contact is best understood by feeling it for yourself – which isn’t possible to do for a lecture hall full of people. But video examples, demos, and some exercises that everyone can participate in will help people understand how shaping on a point of contact works to create a positive learning experience.

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