Transferring Cues: Shaking their head for “No!”

Something that we refer to a lot is transferring your cues to a new cue. What does this mean? How do you do it? It is really very simple! Some things are easier to teach with a direct physical motion as a cue, possibly involving touching your horse to cue a certain behavior or trick. But usually we want our horses to do these things from a more subtle cue. For example, for the trick where the horse shakes their head "no" it can be fun to teach your horse to shake their head when you shake your head. The easiest way to teach this trick however, is to tickle the hair right outside their ear. So how do you get from ear tickling to head shaking?

Step One: The Direct Cue

Teach the trick the best way for your horse to learn. You always want to figure out the least frustrating method for your horse! Try to figure out what naturally causes your horse to do the thing you want them to do. For our example, to get your horse to shake their head you can just tickle the hairs outside their ear. If they do not react to this, you can put your finger just inside their ear a little bit and they will usually shake their head right away. Click and reward!

Step Two: The Transitional Cue [optional]

The transitional cue usually serves as a bridge to the final cue you were aiming for. In some cases, the trick might be easy enough to do just the direct cue and the final cue simultaneously as the transfer method. In this case you would just skip to the next step. Practice enough that your horse understands the direct cue. They will likely start responding to your motion of going for the cue, before you even get to doing it! This is what we call the transitional cue. Instead of waiting to shake their head when you tickle their ear, they will start shaking their head just when you reach for their ear, or when you point to their ear. You can develop this transitional cue further if you choose to, so that you can point to their ear from a greater distance and still trigger the response. It might be a good idea to add a shaking motion to your hand as you point, to prepare them for more subtle cueing.

Step Three: The New Cue

Once your horse can shake their head from just you pointing to their ear or shaking your hand, you can start shaking your head while also cueing using your transitional cue (or direct cue). The goal is to gradually reduce the transitional cue and depend only on the new cue. After doing them together several times, you can start doing the new cue first then add the transitional or direct cue, and soon when you do the new cue they will already expect the transitional cue which has already been trained to trigger the desired response!

When transferring cues, well-timed praise is especially important so pay extra close attention and be sure to reward every effort, not just the big responses when first starting the process.

Here is a video showing the process for teaching "no" and then changing the cue to shaking your head!