Shaping is the act of reinforcing small steps that progressively lead towards an end goal.
The end goal of shaping can be relatively simple, or very complex. Do you want to teach a horse to lift a hoof, or do a flying lead change? Both end goals can be done using shaping.
You can write a shaping plan down, listing each step towards your end goal, or you can just have a rough plan in your head. Each step in a shaping plan is a 'successive approximation' - a small step that looks progressively more and more like the end goal.
You get to the end goal by asking a little more of the horse each step along the way. If your horse gets stuck or has trouble with a step, you simply break that step down into smaller steps so that your horse can still find the right answer, and be reinforced for any attempt towards the end goal. Using the concept of shaping, you can teach your horse anything that he is capable of doing.
Teaching A Horse To Back Up, Using Shaping
For example, if you want to teach a young horse to back up under saddle when you apply light rein pressure, your shaping plan to teach it might look like the following.
When you apply light rein pressure, your horse:
Flicks his ears backwards
Slightly shifts his weight backwards
Shifts more of his weight backwards
Shifts his weight and lifts a foot
Shifts his weight, lifts a foot, and moves it back
When your horse does anything in your plan, you would instantly release the rein pressure to reinforce the desired behavior. When we reinforce behaviors we make them more likely to happen again in the future. During horse training, we should instantly release pressure that we apply the moment the horse does what it is we want.
Successive Approximations - A $10 Word For 'You're Getting Closer'
Notice that each step in the above plan is progressively more challenging, and leading towards your end goal. You are asking your horse to do a little more each time, and delaying the release of light pressure until the new step is achieved. Also notice that if you looked at a step in isolation - for example, 'slightly shifts his weight backwards' - it may at first glance seem not to be what your end goal 'back up under saddle' is. "Why am I reinforcing something that isn't exactly what I want?" you might be asking. By releasing pressure at the shift in weight you are reinforcing an approximation - something that is nearly, but not exactly what you want - because your horse doesn't yet know how to do the full end goal of backing up under saddle. To get a horse to back up under saddle for the first time without using shaping would likely require a large amount of physical or mental pressure from you to instantly achieve that end goal.
Minimize Unwanted Side-Effects During Training
When trainers use large amounts of physical or mental pressure during training they create a situation where the horse thinks only of escaping the painful or scary pressure, and in doing so he accidentally stumbles on what it is the human wants in the process. This approach is frequently seen when people attempt to teach a horse to trailer load by using flags, carrot sticks, whips etc. The horse isn't thinking in these instances - he is only attempting to escape the pain or threats of pain.
Teaching a horse to stumble on an end goal by escaping comes with a whole host of unwanted side-effects, many of which are very hard to undo once created. Approaching training from a shaping perspective, on the other hand, carries minimal risk of creating such problems and is still incredibly effective.
Learning about shaping and applying it to your horse training can not only make you a more effective trainer, it is more likely to leave your horse with a good feeling about being trained.
Happy horse training!