Question about treats, mounting and progress with a worried horse

This question was sent to me in FaceBook and I thought I would post it here for others who may have similar situations. I am glad to have a place to share. I removed her name just in case she wanted anonymity!!

So here is the question and response:


I hope you don’t mind such a silly question in your inbox, but I was just wondering what size treats you use and if it matters as long as the horse can smell/taste it and take it from the hand without problem. Also, how can you tell if the horse is being motivated?

I cut my carrot treats pretty small for one horse…My clicker practice horse, a horse that is extremely sound and quite loving/affectionate. I wanted to gain some experience with her first since she is an easy horse to deal with. It was obvious that she thought this new game was just too cool and she was clearly motivated. We got down target training easily along with some basic ground manners, ground tying, backing up without contact, and better leading She does not belong to me, but my neighbors kindly let me borrow her for this experiment.

I recently started working on my own horse, who has many problems, is overall high strung, and is extremely nervous in general from past abuse from a previous owner. She’s a much different horse temperament wise than the one I started out with. I really can’t tell if she is motivated. I did make progress the first day unless it was a fluke. She won’t stand still for mounting and I have neither a mounting block nor a saddle. She just dances around nervously and then takes off as soon as I get on. I tried to target train her first so I could clearly tell that she was understanding, but she didn’t seem interested at all.

I decided to try again with mounting and told her to stand, then rewarded her after just a couple seconds. I gradually increased the time and started touching her, then moving towards her side, putting a hand on her back, arm over her back, and I finally got to being able to stand on one foot and have my other leg completely over her. This was all in a matter of 10 minutes. I’m not sure if she was more motivated by the treat (small carrot pieces) or by the fact that she is desperate for two way communication after being abused and misunderstood. I just can’t tell with her, she’s always so nervous and stand off-ish. She wasn’t reaching back for the treats or turning her head much either, I was just basically putting them in her mouth. It doesn’t sound like she’s really that motivated, yet, she stood there completely still and about as relaxed as I’ve ever seen her in the round pen.

Am I doing this right so far or do I need to find a treat that she is more enthused about? It would be nice if she could act like a normal horse for once in her life lol.

Shawna Corrin Karrasch July 31 at 7:29am:

I am glad that your horse is with you. I would suggest that you try other treats and see if you can find something that she seems to respond to with more enthusiasm. Size and flavor can make a difference for some horses. Sometimes just peaking their interest at first and then they become more interested in the training process and you can then vary treats or just use some of their grain. When I am working with a bit in their mouth I recommend using something that will dissolve, like pelleted grain or sugar. Carrots will stay in chunks and they may not be able to chew thoroughly before I ask them to work.

However, I think the real issue is her sounds more like internal worry than the actual treat. You are making good strides with her relaxation but her apprehension may run deep. I recommend making the sessions be shorter and easier. Move a little slower and expect a little less with more reinforcement. Your on the right track but I suspect that she still feels a good deal of suspicion. Be patient and only move forward when you feel more boldness on her part. Often times horses won’t embrace eating treats when they feel some anxiety. The choice to take any treat shows some relaxation but that she doesn’t just get right to enjoying them could be a sign of some conflict in her psychological state. Maybe it is as simple as a better treat but I suspect not. I have also seen a number of horses be great on the ground but when the rider gets on they can shut down a bit. Take itty bitty baby steps (called successive approximations) Also it may help if you have someone get on with you on the ground doing target work. Essentially you are saying don’t worry about the rider just focus on me and the target and ignore the rider. This can help to change her association and to rebalance an established history and to re-establish a new, more positive reinforcement history. I suggest you move forward only when you have a enthusiastic attitude during the target sessions.

Shorter and more reinforcement per attempt will help. Also doing sessions before meals (or even using part of her rationed food) may help her food motivation. Eventually you will be able to do the sessions anytime or place but at first this may help you to set her up for success.

I also think that, if possible, using some kind of mounting block, step ladder, fence, something safe for her, will take a lot of the physical challenge out of the mounting process and can allow you to gently place your weight on her back. It can be very taxing on our horses. Also be sure there is not some sort of injury or pain adding to her discomfort. Check with your vet to rule out physical causes. Even though she may get a clean bill of health it doesn’t rule out the possibility of some past association with pain making her worry every time someone gets on her back. Fearful that the pain will return.. Whether it is physical or psychological, you can rebalance the scales for her and teach her to stand quietly.

You are on the right track. They are all such individuals. You will get there. If it is any consolation, my main horse Mint (he is in lots of videos from my website and in the book and DVD) was one of the worst horses I had ever worked. He would walk away from target training. He was very indifferent and a real quitter with no heart. You see quite the opposite now. Well, I hope that this helps you out and gives you some new ideas. It is hard sometimes to evaluate without physically seeing the situation. Let me know how it goes for the next step. I look forward to hearing of your progress.

Getting my clicker/horse training blog going!!

Hey Everyone,

I am technically challenged and yet I am choosing to tackle all kinds of new technology. I love how connected I feel to so many people with all of the options available these days. However it is tricky to balance out my time at the barn and working horses with my time at the computer. But here I go… First I want to give you a run down of the horses I am working and the issues I am addressing with each of them. I, personally, have two horses who are constantly being trained.

There is Mint, who is a 19-year-old thoroughbred. He seems as young as ever. He was at John and Beezie Maddens when I started really doing the On Target Training in a professional sense back in 1994. He has been there from the beginning. He was turned out for 7 years while I went through some of life’s tougher times. As I came out on the other side of life I brought Mint back and he is as good as ever. With him I am focusing on fun behaviors. He is past his performance prime but a great example of positive reinforcement training. I must say he was the worst horse I ever worked way back when. He was such a quitter. You don’t see that anymore but I keep that tendency in my mind as I work on new behaviors with him. I always encourage his efforts and try.

My other horse is Bugs. He is a 6-year-old appendix quarter horse. He has a lot of Thoroughbred in him and is at least 16.3 hands. He spent the first 4 years of his life turned out. When it was time to find him a job it didn’t go so well at first. He was too big for the typical quarter horses activities and bucked pretty good. He seemed to be a square peg who didn’t really fit with his owners. My friend Marcy took him to her barn and focused on getting him started under saddle. He was rather suspicious, willful and sensitive all at the same time. I came along and it has been a great fit. He presents some challenges but I feel well equipped to help him grow. Positive reinforcement has made a big difference in his attitude and he continues to make good progress. He has a lot to learn and I will continue to keep you updated through video and blog as we move forward.

There is also Haley. She is my dog, she is a Rottweiler and about a year and a half. She is pretty much a clown. She is also a bit of a chicken and totally sweet. She goes with me everywhere.

As for me… You probably already know about my history from my website but here it is in a nut shell… I worked at Sea World in San Diego for 10 years. I trained whales, dolphins, sea lions, walruses and otters. I trained them and did the shows with them. All of the training is based in positive reinforcement training. I recognized that these techniques were not being used with horses. I saw such a gap in the training equation. Horses had had great success without the use of positive reinforcement and I knew that incorporating what I had learned at Sea World would really improve things. I focused on learning how it was done through traditional training and then in 1994 John and Beezie Madden invited me (and my ex husband, Vinton) to move to their farm and work with them and their horses. That is where it started. The term clicker training came to horses from the dog training world and seems to have stuck.

I will use my blog for the sole purpose of being able to educate and share progress through on going training. I work other horses besides my own with various training issues. I will tell you about them next time. I also will share progress and I often film these with helmet cam so you can learn as we go. I also have a tele-training seminar/webinar each month. I get a lot of great questions and I will address some of these questions in the blog and some in the webinars. I really see this being a great resource for learning more about positive reinforcement/clicker training. I hope that you find this engaging and helpful. I will love to hear some questions and feedback from you. I feel like we are starting an exciting journey together and I am glad that you are here. Now let’s go get On Target!!

Stable Scoop on Horse Radio Network

Stable Scoop - Horse Radio Network

The Stable Scoop Radio Show discusses a “different topic each week, you’ll get the scoop on what’s new, who’s interesting, and everything in between.”

On this episode, I talked about the resurgence of Target Training (clicker training) and your horse.

Free Jumping from Mint’s Helmet Cam

I have started filming, well actually Mint started filming from his helmet cam. It is a fresh perspective on training. I enjoy seeing where he is looking and his view of things. This is only the beginning of many more clips from Mint (and eventually Bugs). The audio is a little quiet since I am not always right beside him.

I have posted the video from my helmet cam first so you can see my perspective and hear the audio portion. The second clip is from Mint. I hope that you enjoy this and I would love your feedback!

On Target Training, Shawna Karrasch

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