How to Implement a Bridge-Signal in your horse Training Program


A fundamental clement of any successful training program is clear com­munication. A good line of communication hastens the training process. Without it, you set your horse and yourself up for frustration and disap­pointment. We use a bridge-signal to communicate with the horses in our training program. This signal is an integral component of our system. Il relays to the horse a clear, consistent message. “Yes, what you are doing at this moment is correct. Return to me for a reward.”

The bridge-signal got its name from its function. It actually bridges the gap between the moment the animal in training responds correctly, and the moment of reinforcement of that behavior. It also tells the animal that it has completed the behavior, and it can expect its reward. You will need to give another cue for the next behavior you want. Without the bridge-signal, reward-reinforcement can be ambiguous to the horse. In fact, offering a reward-reinforcement without the use of a bridge-signal can result in undesired behavior. When you offer reward-reinforcement without using the bridge-signal, the time gap between the performance of desired behavior and the opportunity to offer the reinforcement creates an opportunity for the horse to misinterpret which behavior is being rewarded.

Bridge horse Training

Suppose you are teaching your horse to do canter departs without using a bridge-signal. He gives you the correct response. You stop your horse and reinforce him. He could very well associate the act of stopping with the reward, without making the connection to the correct canter depart. In this case, you may have just taught your horse to halt after each canter depart. I’ve seen a number of situations where horses would repeat the behavior immediately preceding reinforcement.

When implementing a bridge-signal in your training program, you eliminate some of the uncertainty for the horse. When a bridge-signal is used to identify the desired behavior prior to offering reward-reinforce­ment, you have clearly indicated the exact behavior you would like to see repeated. In the case of the canter depart, you would bridge to tell your horse that he’s performing the action you desire the moment he responds correctly to your cue to canter. A bridge-signal helps to establish a clear and comprehensive system of communication by drawing your horse’s attention to very specific behavior.

A rein­forcer will increase the frequency of the behavior that occurred just before the reinforcer was offered. The bridge-signal itself has no meaning until it is paired with a primary reinforcer such as a carrot, a sugar cube, or a hand­ful of grain. When the bridge-signal is paired with a primary reinforcer such as food, it takes on the same value as the food. Once that association is made, the bridge-signal itself becomes a reinforcer, just as the sound of the bell did for Pavlov’s dogs. The same idea holds true for household cats who dash eagerly into the kitchen at the sound of a can opener. These cats have come to associate the sound of the can opener with getting food.

The bridge-signal can be just about anything you choose. It can be the sound of a whistle, a clicker, a snap of the fingers, a spoken word, or a touch. Whichever you choose, keep your bridge-signal distinct and quick to allow you to be precise with your communication.

If you’ve ever been to Sea World or another facility that trains marine mammals, you may remember hearing the sound of a high-pitched whis­tle at the whale or dolphin show. That sound was a bridge-signal. The sound of a whistle is distinct and it carries across the water. walruses, sea lions, and otters. These types of bridge-signals work well because these animals tend to stay in closer proximity to the trainers than the larger marine mammals.

Horses also tend to stay in close proximity to their trainers. With horses, we prefer to use a clicker as a bridge-signal. The sound of a clicker is easy for them to identify, and is a distinct sound they would not usually hear that draws their immediate attention. We discovered that the clicker works well at the beginning because horses are somewhat desensitized to the sound of human voices. They are accustomed to hear­ing us talking to them and people talking to each other. Later, when horses are further along in the On Target Training program, we usually switch to a distinct verbal bridge-signal. The advantage, once your horse fully understands the concept, is that you don’t have to hold a clicker, free­ing your hands for riding, longeing, clipping, and other activities.

However, when you start using the bridge-signal while riding, you should use the clicker to help your horse make the transition from ground­work to under-saddle work. Attach the clicker to a whip or riding crop to make signaling easier for you and clearer for him

Once your horse has mastered the concept of bridge-conditioning, it’s time to teach him to do something worth bridging. If the only tool you had was a bridge-signal, you might wait all day to see the behavior you wanted to bridge. It helps to have tools to move the process along and guide your horse in the right direction. An excellent tool to accomplish this goal is the target, which we use as an extension of our hands. With a target, you can physically guide a horse through behaviors, after you teach him to touch it. You can use a target to teach horses to lift their legs for hoof picking, lower their heads for clipping, and load easily into a trailer. Horses can be taught to hold on a target while being blan­keted or when their stalls are picked out. You can teach them to lead or to stretch. The options are unlimited.

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About the Author: Fred Goodson has a passion for pets and animals. He has 4 dogs and is planning to have another one. He is also a blogger who writes about pets and animals. Currently, he is living in New Jersey.

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