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Tap Root Behaviors

Posted on March 21, 2018

Written By Alexandra Kurland


There’s always more to say!  Here’s your bonus material for Podcast #2: The Companions of Our Hearts

You can listen to the audio via the soundcloud player or read it here in the Equiosity Library.  Enjoy!

With your pockets filled with treats, suppose you were to walk into the stall or home paddock of a horse who isn’t clicker trained. What’s likely to happen?  You’ll be mugged.  That’s especially true if you give him one of those treats.  He’ll be sniffing around your pockets wondering how he can get to the rest of what you’re hiding.

Now walk into the paddock of a clicker-trained horse. What is likely to happen?  He’ll back up. He’ll pose for you.  He’ll fetch the hat you dropped on the ground.  He’ll do anything but mug your pockets.  He’s learned that’s not how the game is played.

Mugging you, nudging your hands looking for goodies, biting at your sleeve, pawing in frustration – none of these behaviors will get you to reach into your pocket and hand him treats.  But moving out of your space and standing politely at your side will.

I call this base behavior of standing in neutral balance “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.”  I gave it this name very deliberately.  I wanted to say to people we may be feeding lots of treats, but we aren’t permissive.  Our clicker horses have great manners.  They are first and foremost safe and easy to be around.

We don’t have to be strict to teach these good manners.  We just have to be consistent.  In fact, with a little strategic planning we can turn grown-ups into one of your horse’s favorite clicker games.

Tap Root Behaviors

“The grown-ups are talking” is at the core of all clicker ground manners.  Canine clicker trainer, Steve White, has a great image for connecting the calm balance of grown-ups to the other, more active behaviors you are teaching.  He calls behaviors like grown-ups tap root behaviors.

Think of the tap root a plant puts down.  It goes deep into the ground with many smaller roots branching off from it.  Pull up a young plant before it has time to develop, and the tap root will be very small.  But give that plant time to grow, and the tap root will grow thick and reach deep into the ground.  It will have a complex network of smaller roots branching off from it.

In training we want to grow strong tap root behaviors.  The idea is simple.  You have a core tap root behavior, such as grown-ups. Every time you work on some other behavior, you’ll return afterwards to the tap root.

So you might start with grown-ups and then add in a little head lowering.

Return to grown-ups.

Next you’ll ask for backing.

Return to grown ups.

Now for some targeting.

Return to grown ups.

By returning each time to grown ups, you are strengthening this core behavior.  Like a tap root, it will grow stronger each time you return to it.  The reinforcement history becomes extra deep, and you’ll have a rich network of behaviors branching off from it.

Over time this deep reinforcement history will mean you can use your tap root behavior as a conditioned reinforcer. Here’s how this works: Your horse has just given you an amazing trot. He’s so beautiful, of course, you want to reinforce it, but somehow just giving him his usual treat doesn’t feel sufficient. You want bells and whistles to be going off. You want a real celebration. So what do you do? You ask for grown-ups.

Standing quietly in grown-ups may not seem like much of a party to you, but to your horse it means Christmas has arrived early. He knows grown-ups is well reinforced. If that glorious trot gets you to ask for grown-ups, well then he’ll be happy to produce it again!

That’s how cues tie behaviors together. You’re no longer teaching behaviors isolated one from the other. You are tying them together via teaching strategies that bring emotional stability to your training. You can ask for the added energy of that trot and then balance it with the calm of grown-ups.

The key to this is an understanding that cues do more than just give a green light to the next behavior. They also reinforce the preceding behavior. Why? Because the cue leads to an opportunity for reinforcement. Your horse knows that you “pay” well for the cued behavior. If giving you a glorious trot gets you to ask for grown-ups, then that glorious trot is something he’ll be happy to offer again.

The foundation lessons let you explore these teaching strategies. You’ll use them to create balance in your training. You can ask for brilliance and then balance that with calm. The end result will be superstar performance coupled with superstar manners.

Written by Alexandra Kurland - Copyright 2018

This is the Bonus Article for Podcast #2: The Companions of our Heart.

Coming Soon: The Bonus Material for Podcast # 3: "What is Clicker Training?" and "Clicker Training Super Glue"

Listen - Read - Enjoy!

To learn more about clicker training visit:,,

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