Learned Helplessness and What It Taught Me About Training Horses.

IMG_5960I recently read an article about learned helplessness and it got me thinking. Here is a basic description: “Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated aversive stimuli (painful or fearful) which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.”

Sadly, learned helplessness is quite common in the world of horses and horse training. How many times have you heard about someone having a horse on a lead rope and they keep stimulating them with, say, a bag on a stick? At first the horse is terrified and trying to get away. Pretty soon the horse is standing quietly. The horse has not decided the bag (or attached human) is safe, they have learned that they can’t get away from the terror. They have learned to give up. This serves our purpose as far as getting the horse to be still but it definitely does not serve the horse’s confidence or mental well-being. I have always felt like the purpose of training animals is to help them to thrive in their environment. So to use training methods that would cause mental or physical damage is clearly not contributing to the animal’s well-being.

As a very young child I experienced learned helplessness first hand. Being so young, I was without physical or psychological means to truly have a choice in my situation. As the years passed and I physically grew, the situation never changed. It was too late, my brain had already succumbed to the prison of learned helplessness.

Meanwhile, I would spend time with the horses at my grandfather’s hobby farm. When I was around 6 years old, I realized that these horses weren’t actually happy to see us. They were evasive when it came to catching them but once we caught them, they were totally safe and compliant. They were what many people deem as “good” horses. However, from my own experiences, I recognized what they were going through. I knew that we were imposing our will on them and that was a bit too familiar. Well, that was that, I never wanted to ride them again. It was at that point that I decided that I did not want to be a part of an human or animal’s life if I didn’t improve their quality of life in some way. Then I decided that humans have a choice to stay or go so they could decide for themselves whether they wanted me in their lives or not. But I knew that animals don’t really have a choice about where they live or who owns them so I was going to see to it that I was a good steward. Don’t get me wrong, I loved our horses and wanted to have a relationship with them…but not at their expense. If they came along and wanted to interact I would have been thrilled but the damage was done and they didn’t see humans as a source of good things. I see this type of horse all the time in my work, the shut down horses that silently endure their human encounters.

For me, the sad part is that the well-meaning humans that own them usually cannot recognize that the horse is shut down. Mostly, these are people who have done what they have been taught do in order to create an agreeable, safe horse. There was no malice or ill intentions. They simply didn’t know the damage that they were doing or that there was another way to do things. Up until recently, there wasn’t really another option readily available to horse people.

While in my twenties and pursuing my education, I discovered positive reinforcement training while training marine mammals. The dog community has more recently taken to using positive reinforcement training as well, but it was the marine mammal community that is responsible for taking the science out of the text books and putting it into use, over 50 years ago! I was blessed to be able to spend ten years being entrenched with the practical application of the techniques. It was an intense time and I was regularly given text books, engaged in deep discussions and even tested on the subject. I also had a world of experience all around me that I could draw on everyday. My understanding was not something that I took lightly…it was the only technique that we used with the marine mammals so there were no other options. I wanted to be sure that I gave them my best. We were expected to understand it inside and out and not just on paper. We needed to effectively use the training to create animals that happily engaged in the training. After all, they got all of their food each and every day regardless of what they did or didn’t do. Therefore, the onus of making the training fun for each individual was up to us trainers.

When I looked back into horses and their training, I was now an adult and thoroughly understood positive reinforcement training better than most people. So to me, it was an obvious and simple solution to avoid the potential pitfalls of Pressure/release and the more traditional training methods. I thought the horse world would be tickled to learn about this simple and effective training. HA!! Over 20 years later and I am still climbing a pretty big hill.

Fortunately, times are changing and positive reinforcement is becoming much more understood. Resources are popping up all over the place to help people not only understand the science behind it but to help folks put it into use in the real world. Understanding the theory is terrific but it doesn’t do you any good unless you can see where to begin and how to incorporate it into your training program. I have been practicing and teaching positive reinforcement training to people for over 30 years. I can tell you that once people get a taste of the training and see the results they yearn for more and begin integrate it on an ever-broadening scale.

I have long related to horses because of my similar experiences with learned helplessness. On the other hand, I am careful not to pass judgment on the people who have unintentionally imposed themselves on their horses in the name of training. As with me, the humans in my life were doing the best they could with what they knew. Now that we have a new awareness and more information available to us, it is time that we do better.

Horse is terrified of Clipper’s: discussing threshold and desensitization.

Well, it has been a while! I have been entrenched in Connection Training…and horses, of course! I am trying to get all pieces of my life working in unison but all of this juggling is tricky business. I have some updates coming in the near future.

Meanwhile, I have some Ask Shawna questions and answers to share. Here is Kathleen’s question:

“I want to teach my horse to not be fearful of the clippers. He is an Icelandic and has to be trace and body clipped at certain times of the year. He is SO fearful he strikes at me in defense. Very dangerous. He clamps his mouth at times when i try to reward with a tiny carrot.”


Teaching a slow trail horse to be more responsive.

August 24, 2014 by  
Filed under Ask Shawna, Under Saddle

This question addresses a tricky situation. The horses in question are at a ranch that allows the public to go on trail rides. So there is more to consider than just getting the horses to go forward…maybe it isn’t going to be best for safety reasons. But we can always add positive reinforcement into their lives to help them to enjoy their time with people, even unskilled riders. It might even be a great way to help people learn more about equine behavior and to use something besides pressure/aversive when interacting with horses. If you decide to teach them to go forward, I would suggest also reinforcing the cue for downward transitions so that you don’t lose this valuable safety tool.

Use the search bar to search my blog for more on teaching a horse to go forward.

Also, check out: wwwconnectiontraining.com. Connection Training is a community for discovering about and applying positive reinforcement training. It is a safe place to learn and share as you go.

Why I Don’t do “Clicker Training” by Helen Spence PhD

As many of you realize I also tend to veer away from the term “Clicker Trainer”. It is a loaded and inaccurate term. The people that are familiar with the term are very opinionated one way or another-they either love it or hate it. So the term may drum up interest or disdain. If they are familiar with the term than they typically know what the term positive reinforcement training indicates. However, plenty of people have obviously seen some not so great “clicker training”. For them the term has been poisoned. Teaching them will first take prying their minds open so that proper teaching can happen. But if we don’t start with that term we may start fresh with an open mind. Then we can help them to develop a true understanding of the science behind positive reinforcement training. For me, that is where we should focus, not on a label but a concept. In the marine mammal world (where the training was first put into action) we never called it “clicker training”. Most marine mammal trainers don’t use a clicker. It is a term that started many years later in the dog world.. Anyhoo, as usual, Helen can teach us a lot through her wonderful insight and knowledge. So here is her Blog post: http://clickerhappyhorse.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/why-i-dont-do-clicker-training/

Can you Teach a Horse to Jump with Better Form?

You can use positive reinforcement to change a horse’s jumping style. People tend to leave it up to luck but we can help a horse to improve his technique. Positive reinforcement has proven to be a phenomenal tool for helping horses to overcome water and stopping issues. It can help a horse to become bolder, braver, more relaxed or more energetic depending on what we focus on. . With the positive reinforcement we can motivate them to WANT to jump and the use of a bridge signal allows us to draw attention specific body parts or actions.

When and How to Use Something Other Than Food as a Reinforcer.

I put up a new blog post/video on Connection Training. When and how to use secondary (conditioned) reinforcers with your horse? This is a fantastic question and worthy of much more than this little video response. Using positive reinforcement/clicker training isn’t always as simple as it might seem. There are lots of layers and this question delves into one of those layers. There are a couple of points that I didn’t cover in the video, that I will elaborate on in a blog post. One is the other side of “try”, which is focus and the other point that I want to cover is dealing with incorrect responses…consistency is key. www.shawnakarrasch.comhttp://connectiontraining.com/when-and-how-to-use-secondary-conditioned-reinforcers-with-your-horse/

Using Positive Reinforcement to Overcome a Horse’s Separation Anxiety

When using positive reinforcement we can help our horses to overcome separation anxiety much easier than without the use of a desirable reinforcer. Think about traditional training, what is in it for your horse? Why would he want to overcome his fear? When we put something into the training equation that our horses truly value, we give them much more motivation to address their fears. They become invested in the training equation (and the outcome) no matter what the task might be. You may practice the exercise that I mentioned in the video, with traditional tasks like grooming or leading or you may use some of the tools associated with positive reinforcement training, like targeting or any other behavior you have trained using positive reinforcement. I would suggest that if your horse is unfamiliar with positive reinforcement training that you start him and get a good foundation started before you address the separation anxiety issue, or any other stressful behavior for that matter. Our horses are always making choices and they will choose the behavior with the strongest reinforcement history. So, by teaching a behavior and building a strong positive reinforcement history we will help them want to choose the learned or constructive behavior over other, less desirable behaviors. This only begins to scratch the surface but it gives you the idea. This concept also applies when another horse is taken away from the herd and your horse is left behind. If you want to join a community of positive reinforcement trainers or learn more about the training go to : www.connectiontraining.com

Abused Pony Can’t Get Past the Food

This is from a post that I posted on Connection Training. For those of you who don’t know, Connection Training is a fantastic site. We have worked to create a community of horse people who want to incorporate positive reinforcement training into their current training program. Some people want to use only positive reinforcement and some folks are just beginning to dabble in the training and are combining it with some of the more traditional training. In either case, you will find support and lots of info to help you along the way. It is free to sign up and there is a whole bunch of info ad resources to help you learn more about your horse and how he thinks. For more info go to www.connectiontraining.com

Okay, here is a link to the blog post: I posted about helping a horse to get focused on you and to relax…especially around food. http://connectiontraining.com/abused-pony-cant-get-past-the-food/

Using Positive Reinforcement to Correct a Horse’s Mounting Problem

This video answer offers some suggestions for teaching a horse to stand quietly for mounting. Using positive reinforcement/clicker training we can help to make the lesson clear and help our horses to LOVE mounting. As always, double check to be sure that your horse doesn’t physical issues causing pain. Once he is checked out and healthy proceed with these behavioral suggestions. To learn more or for help implementing positive reinforcement/clicker training to your training protocol go to www.connectiontraining.com Once you are there check out this link for Hannah and a video on mounting!! http://connectiontraining.com/video-library/lining-up-at-the-mounting-block/

Can You Teach Your Horse Olympic Level Piaffe or Passage using the Clicker?

Okay, my animals are doing well right now. So after a long and challenging spring, I FINALLY have time to post some more Ask Shawna questions and answers(recorded last winter)…yay! This is from Jacob who asks about teaching an Olympic level piaffe or passage using only positive reinforcement training (no negative reinforcement). There are a number of factors that have to be considered but I know it can be done for any performance oriented behavior… or even jumping style. For more info or help with applying positive reinforcement to your training program go to www.connectiontraining.com. What are your thoughts? Or experiences?

“Repetition is the Enemy of Wonder”

“Repetition is the enemy of wonder.” This got me to thinking. Can you think of something that was once exciting and new and pretty soon it was rather ordinary and barely noticed? I think of living by the ocean in San Diego. I lived in a little beach town for about 30 years, driving by the “wonder” filled ocean everyday. Sadly, there are a lot of days when I wouldn’t really stop and be filled with wonder. It was just a part of my day and I drove by all the time running errands, going back and forth to work or visit friends. It becomes so mundane that it was not the same as when it was new or novel. Now, I don’t dislike the ocean, in fact I love it, I just got to where it didn’t drum up the awe it once did. When I spend some time away and get back to it, I am once again overwhelmed with appreciation. Have you ever heard a song that struck a chord with you? You want to hear it all of the time. Then the novelty wears off and you don’t really “hear” it anymore when it plays? Then pretty soon you hear the song and it has become so familiar that you don’t even WANT to hear it any longer and you’ve become are sick of it. Think about your favorite food. What if you had it everyday at every meal? After a while it would most likely become your least favorite food.

I think we’ve all had experiences like this in our lives. Well, when I heard this quote the other day, being the training geek that I am, my mind immediately thought of horse training. I thought about how easy it is for us to take a good thing, something special and fun and turn it into something dreadful. This not only holds true with traditional training but also with positive reinforcement/clicker training. We think it is all honky dory because we are putting something in it that they have shown us they value. Often times we are using food and most horses love food! However, we can override the joy (or wonder) when we practice the same behavior or use the same reinforcer over and over. It then becomes a form of drilling, not anything fun, new or novel. In my opinion, this concept is quite important when we consider training our horses. Repetition and predictability are not as stimulating as variety. That is why a variable schedule/ratio of reinforcement is much stronger that a fixed schedule/ratio of reinforcement. In a nut shell, it means we should be creative when considering our horses lives and when we interact with our horses. By changing things up and trying not to develop predictable patterns we will help to minimize the vises or sourness that can come from boredom. Horses, especially ones who have been taught through negative reinforcement may tend to like the predictability of routine since it can keep them out of trouble…it helps them know exactly what to do to avoid a correction. They are usually happier when the people drop the food (or attention) and leave them alone. Depressed people tend to act the same way. Most emotionally balanced horses thrive with stimulation…they are curious and like to explore and interact with their environment. Since we are the biggest influence on their environment we have a lot of potential for providing their mental stimulation. Being that we have domestic horses in our care, we are responsible not only for their physical well-being but also their mental well-being.

By adding variety into their lives you can improve their over all attitude and quality of life. When I began working with John and Beezie Madden one of the first things Beezie commented on during that first week was that the horses who were being taught to do the positive reinforcement training were markedly better in the arena. At this point, these two events did not intersect at all. I was working on the very beginning of the training, conditioning them to the sound of the clicker and then teaching them to touch their nose to a target. These activities were only done with me while in their stalls. I had not yet done these sessions in the arena and Beezie was not a part of this phase of the training. They were two separate events, yet their attitude had changed in the arena. The change in routine was a welcome change that effected the way they perceived the other aspects of their lives.

More importantly, I think we should consider how we undertake the concept of training. We have a strong tendency to want to work on a behavior until it is perfect. This often results in drilling and can actually reduce the performance as well as attitude associated with a behavior or task. I have experimented with this concept and found that I make much more progress, both in quality as well as effort when I let a behavior go and focus on some other behavior for a while. If I really want to make progress with a behavior I will work on it maybe 25% of the time or less when I am doing sessions. That’s right…by letting it go and working on some entirely separate behaviors, the target behavior (no pun intended!) will improve more than if it is worked on every session or even everyday. According to the rules of “traditional” horse training it seems counter productive. However, as far as their mental stimulation and keeping it fresh, novelty is our friend. John Madden also recognized this and wanted the horses to learn ANY behavior, silly or not, as it improved their attitude about the other aspects of their training.

There are times when we have to help our horse to develop through some repetition, things such as physically building muscles and athletic endurance or things such as husbandry and day to day behaviors. By changing up the other aspects of their training as well as introducing new behaviors, we can keep them looking forward to all of the training. Also, for the behaviors that need to be repeated for physical reasons, varying the reinforcement, changing when, where and for how long, we can still avoid monotony. Mixing in other behaviors to this equation will help to keep things fresh as well. This includes the things we use as reinforcement. Using the same thing over and over can cause something that the horse once valued to lose it’s value…including food. Mix it up. What you feed, how much you feed (per delivery) and how often you feed. Utilize other reinforcers besides food.

This also makes me think of the other habits we get into with our horses. We tend to create habits rather easily. By switching up things like who lives next to whom, when they are exercised, where and when they get turned out or come in (do they come in by themselves or is it always the same routine? Do you always groom first and ride later?) what they do (cross training) and what toys they have…etc. By checking your patterns and mixing it up you will provide much more mental stimulation for your horse.

Remember to slowly introduce change into your horse’s life. If you have taught your horse to expect a certain fixed routine they will be rigid since they rely on the fixed events. Start with slight changes at first. Pretty soon you will see a more engaged horse…not only with you and your training program but with a lot of the other elements of his life too. Your horse will learn that new things are good. He will also begin to adapt better in novel environments and situations, creating a bolder and more confident horse. Variety in itself is reinforcing and will create a more flexible and engaged attitude in your horse when you bother to change things up. Their mental balance and psychological well-being is paramount. It takes time and real effort but the benefits are worth it. What habits have you developed? What can you do to add more variety to your horse’s life?

Teaching your horse to lead without crowding your space

Leading is much more complex then it might seem at first glance. It involves a lot of small lessons that help to lay a good foundation. The concept of space is one, the ability to focus is another and then there is impulse control, these are huge and carry over to many other areas of our relationship. I prefer to do leading at liberty to start. It really makes it clear that they mentally understand these concepts. The choices they make when they are working at liberty gives us an enormous amount of information. Using equipment to facilitate leading can actually inhibit their understanding of space since we often rely on the equipment instead of teaching them to use their minds to truly think through the process. When they have it solid at liberty, then they will be really solid when we do use the halter and lead or if something goes awry.

In the video answer I talk about using the target. However, sometimes I forget that not everyone is familiar with the target or how to use it…that is what happens after 30 years of target training! I have had tremendous success using the target to teach them to maintain a comfortable distance when walking together. If you aren’t familiar with the target or bridge conditioning (clicker) you can learn more by going to my blog post entitled “Getting your horse off to the right start for clicker training” Here is a link: http://shawnakarrasch.com/blog/2013/01/22/get-your-horse-off-to-the-right-start-for-clicker-training/

Since they learn to follow the target I hold it out to the side to create the distance I want. I reinforce them when they are maintaining that space, at first for short distances and then I like to build duration. I am trying to develop a strong reinforcement history with the correct behavior. I also want to draw attention, via positive reinforcement (reward) to the transitions while leading at liberty. When they get the idea to stop with you, walk slow, speed up, and eventually trot with you then I begin to fade the target. As the target gets faded they begin to focus more on what you are doing since this is now the cue for what to do. This is the beginning of a very good habit…watching you for information.

As they are learning this new skill they may not have a clear understanding of what is expected, even though they seem to be good on the halter and lead. They may want to turn to face you when you stop or cut you off as you walk with them. If they try to cut me off I tend to just keep on my track and may walk into them. I think it is important to mention that I don’t do it in a confrontational or brusk way, I am soft and a bit slow but keep going. If they don’t respond by correcting their position with this then they probably need more time with the target. So take a step back and go a bit slower. Remember, one of my mottos is: “Slow down, you’ll go faster”. Also, they probably need to be stronger with the skill of keeping their head to themselves when just standing next to you (bridge conditioning 101). When they are well versed in the art of standing politely next to you, they will assume that position when you stop. Then they start to create this situation in the leading exercise as well. It becomes a concept that they understand. So if you walk toward them, they will want to maintain this space so they begin to yield, not to the pressure but because they are choosing to get lined up in the correct position. That choice is the best part of liberty work, they can stay or walk away.

The target can help to make the lesson clear for them as we begin to shift from the standing to the moving. This shift in context ups the ante, since they may have to relearn the criteria in the new situation. The target will help set them up for success so that we have something worth rewarding. It is up to us to be sure that our horses understand what we are asking of them. The target can also help to direct them as we teach them to stop next to us, nice and square but not on top of us. By holding it out to the side we can help to direct where their heads and shoulders go. Okay, I think that covers the things that I forgot to mention in the video. By the way…I apologize for the poor lighting in the video but it gets a little better than it looks from the screenshot. It is hard to monitor that when you are the director as well as the subject!

Helping your horse to overcome separation anxiety…staying below threshold.

This question was sent in by Alicia. Her horse Sox has some separation issues. They are really coming to light when she is out on the trail. While the situation seems more evident on the trail, I suspect that this a problem that Sox has in other situations as well but her reaction is much more subtle. The unknowns that she encounters on the trail probably ramp her insecurities up to a level that bring out the more dramatic reactions like bucking, bolting and rearing. So I suggest we start with smaller exercises around the barn before moving back to the trail.

This subject brings up what I consider to be a VERY important concept and I talk about quite often. It is the idea of determining thresholds. This has a lot to do with timing and observation, which is key to any good training program. This topic could use it’s own blog post. However, I want to cover it here too since it is such an important concept to embrace and it is a big part of sorting out the issue of separation anxiety.

When we bring our horse to a new situation or stimuli that might worry him, we want to start with him in his comfort zone. I consider his comfort zone to be when he doesn’t change or tense up one little bit in the presence of a new object or situation. Essentially, he shows no reaction what-so-ever. By incrementally taking very small steps closer to the situation that causes worry we will be able to determine at what point (threshold) his anxiety changes. By this I mean the SLIGHTEST raising of his head or change in alertness toward the object/situation. The place where his comfort level begins to change is his threshold.

For many people this slight change isn’t even considered a reaction or perhaps it is just overlooked. To me, I see this as communication, loud and clear . He has just told me he is beginning to enter potentially worrisome territory. My job is to listen and meet him at that place. I want to build up his confidence at this point, however we will move at his pace…not mine. By starting at his comfort zone I can get him to try a little bit more and say “yes” throughout the process.

I try not to get “greedy trainer syndrome” by asking for too much.   It is far better to take very small steps and spread it out over a few days or sessions. Us humans tend to hurry, set our own agendas and push it too far. This will often backfire on us by compromising their confidence. If we can go in small steps, quitting on a good note, followed by a magnitude (jackpot) reinforcement, we will make a much bigger impact. We should also allow them time to process this new information before the next session. The more they rehearse ANY behavior the stronger it develops as part of their repertoire. So our goal is to get correct responses repeated without pushing them to rehearse incorrect responses. We don’t want them getting into the habit of performing the wrong behavior. That is why it is so important to work sub-threshold, using successive approximations to slowly stretch their comfort level and helping them to make the right choices. As they learn to face their fears, in their own time, their confidence level will increase exponentially. Okay, enough about that for now.

In the video answer I give an outline of some steps to take and exercises that will help to bolster Sox’s independence.

Another thing I repeat often throughout my teaching, is that we want to do all we can to help set our horses up for success. By starting around the barn and in the areas that may feel safer for Sox, we can start below threshold. This will set her up for success and give us a chance to build a good foundation and history with doing the correct thing. As our horses get better we will slowly, over time, move to the more challenging areas (like the trail) and be able to fade some of the tools we used to help set them up for success.   Once on the trail, I encourage starting with the smallest space between the horses. If you go too far too soon you probably go over threshold and cause undue stress and even anxiety. You will have better success if you keep the steps on the conservative side.

It is also important to be aware that putting the horses back together can be a huge reinforcement for the horse with separation anxiety issues, especially in the beginning when he hasn’t developed a good reinforcement history with being apart from the others. So when Sox gets to be right next to the other horses on the trail, we are reinforcing her behavior, whatever that might be.   Ideally it will happen when she is nice and calm. When you are ready to do a training session on the trail with another person, it is very important to have good communication with the other rider. It would be best to discuss your plans ahead of time. I also recommend that the goal for the first few sessions on the trail, is not about going on a long trail ride, but as an opportunity to teach your horse.

Okay, well that went a little longer than I thought it would!! I hope it helps to give you some fresh ideas. If you have any questions or comments…well, you know what to do!

Teaching your horse to stand quietly (not sidle away)

This Question comes from Odile (pronounced Oh Dill…thank you Odile for clearing that up for me!) She wants to know how to teach her pony, Diego, to stand still when she approaches his side or walks around him. This will also be helpful for mounting issues and for teaching a “stay”.

At this point Diego finds it more reinforcing to turn and face Odile. With positive reinforcement we can turn this around. By the end of the exercise he will find it more reinforcing to stand quietly. Our job is to make the lesson clear, easy to follow and to help him make the correct choices along the way.

First, as I mention in the video, it isn’t uncommon for the horses to want to stay with you when they get started with this training. They want to keep you at their head. Also a lot of the natural horsemanship/round pen work teaches the horse to turn and face you. So this lesson may seem a bit confusing for your horse in the beginning.

I have found that often times a flat hand on their shoulder seems to help them to settle a bit. So this is the first thing I try. I try to calmly put a steady, but soft hand on their shoulder. I don’t want it to be confused with pressure that they may interpret as a signal to move away. If they start to get too active I don’t recommend that you persist. If this isn’t helping them to settle, than “chasing” them around, trying to touch their shoulder can make them feel nervous or confused. Remember relaxation is an important component in all of the training and this is no exception. Brining about the quiet relaxed mind will help you to have more success with teaching this behavior.

Think of what you can do to set them up to succeed. For example, is there an area of the barn where he is more relaxed? Maybe a certain time of day? Perhaps he is more relaxed after he has had exercise or after he has eaten. These are things that you will need to figure out about your horse in order to help him be relaxed and more apt to stand quietly.

In the beginning you want to bridge(click) and reinforce(feed) the smallest approximations toward your end goal. By drawing attention to the little steps along the way you will help to make the lesson more clear, as well as to help minimize frustration.

If you have a horse who is more of a busy body and likes to move, then asking him to stand still for a long time may be more challenging for him than for a horse with a more docile personality, especially in the beginning. Breaking it up with a little bit of activity may help him to be able to settle more easily. It may also serve as a form of reinforcement for him, if it is something he finds enjoyable. Slowly we can build up the amount of time that he stands quietly and fade out the need for the activity breaks.

The end behavior should be that your horse stands still while you walk all the way around him, being able to touch anywhere on his body. It is a skill that every horse should master. Standing quiet and relaxed is invaluable.

I hope this helps you out. As always…if you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you.

Dealing with your horses’s fear of hoses/hosing

In this video clip I give Melissa some suggestions to help her hose-phobic horse get past his anxiety. I have found positive reinforcement to be the very best way to overcome spookiness issues in horses, it really helps them to choose to face their fears….and fear of hoses are no exception. To watch them make a decision to relax and let go of their worry is hugely reinforcing for me. Also, a huge benefit of the training is the level of the confidence that your horse will gain through the process. Offering something that your horse finds valuable will really grab his attention and help him to enjoy the learning process.

Before you begin working directly with the hose desensitization, I suggest you be sure he is solid with the bridge signal (clicker) as well as with the target training. Sometimes I just make an assumption that people know this part, so I forget to mention it!  By getting a good start, and NOT cutting corners, you will make quicker progress. I am often heard saying “slow down, you’ll go faster” but it is true!!  If you need more info on this process you may go to my blog post “Get your horse off to the right start for clicker training”. For an even better explanation of the science behind the training you may want to get my DVD and/or book “You Can train Your Horse to Do Anything”. I also forget that not everyone knows that I have a book or DVDs, so I thought I should mention it here just in case.

Whenever we are dealing with fear in our horses it is very important to keep the training within their comfort range, giving them time to slowly acclimate as we go. As I mention in the video clip, we need to look for signs of worry as well as relaxation. If a horse is standing looking soft and neutral, then he lifts his head as if something got his attention…that, to me, is the threshold that I want to recognize. This small action is communication pure and simple. It tells me that he may have become slightly concerned. I will not move forward with the next step in training until he looks totally relaxed again. Progressing nice and slowly will allow him time to acclimate. If we move too fast we will likely lose ground, as well as trust.

Some of the signs of relaxation might be…exhaling, relaxed head position or casual stance, soft focus, soft eyes, ears, jowls, lips and muscles, etc. These are not the only indicators, however they are some of the more common signs.  Seeing some tension in any of these areas doesn’t necessarily mean that their mind is worried. My horse, Bugs has busy lips, they rarely look soft but it doesn’t mean he is uptight…it is just part of his personality.  The same goes for the signs of relaxation.  For example, a head down doesn’t necessarily mean a horse is relaxed.  Horses are individuals so you need to know your horse and what his body language is saying.  If this is a new concept for you, than I suggest you get an experienced horse person to help you recognize your particular horse’s body language.  Also, watching him when he is turned out or interacting with his environment will also tell you a lot about your horse and how he deals with new situations.

I recommend you build relaxation into the criteria of every behavior you teach.  Your horse may not be perfectly calm at first but you can look for little improvements. Bridging (clicking) and reinforcing for the smallest approximations toward your goal.  After a while, being attentive and settled will just be a habit for him.  However, it is important to only work on one criteria at a time.  I recommend you start by working on one a particular element of the target behavior.  Relaxation will be an ongoing criteria.  So I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you focus on it completely, but keep a vigilant eye out for the times when it is offered.  When you get a good approximation that is also calm I would draw a lot of attention to it by rewarding handsomely.

As with every new behavior, we really want to consider what we can do to set them up for success. Is there a place where your horse is more composed?  Maybe the wash stall already has an unpleasant association, so starting somewhere else may help to put him more at ease.  Hopefully you will get better responses and more opportunities to reinforce.  Maybe he will be better after some exercise to take the edge off.  Using a little common sense always helps!!

If you follow your horses lead by not going over threshold, while also using a high rate of reinforcement and keeping the sessions brief, you should be able to move forward without a hitch. If you go too fast and lose some ground, don’t sweat (we all do it sometimes), just take a step back and work a little slower, allowing your horse time to process the lessons.  The next thing you know your horse will see a hose and think “hose=reinforcement”…you will be dragging him away from the hose!  The video will give you a lot more info. Just holler if you have questions or comments!

Polishing (and maintaining) your horses upward transitions.

In this video, I answer Karen’s question about upward transitions. This seems to be a recurring theme that is difficult for us humans to grasp…as far as positive reinforcement goes. Historically, we have used pressure/release to teach horses to do just about everything. I want you to consider something in regard to traditional training and “going forward”. What is in it for your horse? Why should he want to put in the extra effort to go forward?  What does he get out of it? There isn’t much incentive for the horse outside of us using our aids to create pressure. Then we leave them alone when they respond correctly.  On the other side of the coin,  with positive reinforcement  we can bring something that our horse values and this dramatically changes the horse’s enthusiasm. Because there is something in it for them, they become invested in the training program and enjoy the learning process. They are as interested in the outcome as we are….how’s that for a partnership? It sure does make for a happier horse and it makes our job a heck of a lot easier too.

Once we get started with the positive reinforcement training basics (bridge conditioning and target training) we are ready to advance in our training. While we can move right into under saddle work following that initial phase, I recommend that you train a behavior on the ground first. Let me explain….the better their experience with the learning, the stronger their effort will be when things begin to get a little more difficult. So I like them to get hooked, to really enjoy the training. The best way to do this is to be certain that they experience a lot of success and very little frustration. By teaching them one simple behavior, and getting it solid, we have helped them to get all they way on board with the training. Something simple, like going to a stationary target or picking up their feet on their own. Additionally, teach the behavior of leading at liberty incorporating upward and downward transitions. Since we are discussing upward transitions, I recommend most reinforcements come for upward transitions….just something to keep in mind.

Usually, under saddle work has a long history with traditional training. If our horse doesn’t fully comprehend how good the new training can be, then he won’t know that good things lie ahead for him. He may check out before we have a chance to get his attention. In this post we are addressing a bit of an issue with upward transitions…that means we have probably gone through the pressure release route without much success. This let’s us know that we are dealing with a particular mind set and  he has probably developed a habit of resistance to going forward.  It doesn’t mean that he is trying to be bad, it just means he doesn’t find it reinforcing enough to do what we are asking. It is more reinforcing to plod along or ignore our aids. In any case the reluctance usually has a pretty well developed history. We need to get him out of his old mindset and ready to play the new “game”, that he finds so reinforcing, under saddle.  I suggest you keep your first under saddle sessions particularly short and sweet…. this means maintaining a high rate of reinforcement! This will help to grab your horses attention. Getting him engaged and keeping his focus is the first goal. To ensure that he is putting two and two together, I encourage you to only work on one behavior under saddle at first. You want to see him making the connection and having success with this behavior. Pretty soon you will feel him offering the new behavior just like when we were teaching the behaviors on the ground.

Somethings to keep in mind… We are exercising their minds, not their bodies. For a lazy, balky horse, we can offer a huge reinforcement by just getting off and calling it a day when they give us a good effort. For this first stage of training, if they still need additional exercise I will turn out, lunge, etc, AFTER we do our under saddle training session.

This brings me to the next point. We ALWAYS want to set them up for success. What can you do to create more energy, a better response or a better attitude? Often it is better to ride them before they have had too much exercise so we utilize their extra energy and enthusiasm. Of course you have to evaluate your particular horse to determine what will work best for the two of you.

Be sure you don’t skimp on the time you put into the bridge conditioning (clicker) and target training. This is often something that gets overlooked. It may seem a little repetitive, but it is supposed to be! For one thing, we are conditioning the clicker, thereby giving it value. This is classic conditioning and it takes repetition. The clicker needs to have a very strong association before we move on to more difficult behaviors, like your under saddle work. We want to be sure that they recognize the clicker as the reinforcer. That is why the stopping to reinforce doesn’t matter…. they are working for the sound of the clicker. The stopping is an incidental that we initiated by our clicking. When properly conditioned, they will remember what earned them the click. It is called abridge signal because it bridges the gap between the moment of behavior (that earned the bridge signal) and the time when we can deliver the reinforcement. It bookmarks that moment in time.

This bridge conditioning process helps to get them really solid on relaxing and also respecting our space. We want this to become their default behavior…down the road you will be glad you did. When I see a horse who has resorted back to being pushy it is often a result of too little time with the basic manners or not maintaining this behavior.

The target work allows them to become more engaged in the training. It helps them develop better problem solving skills. It also continues to improve our relationship and trust.

And one last thought for you before you watch the video…Doing upward transitions from the ground while liberty leading can be very helpful under saddle as well. The goal is for them to mimic my movements. The signal is my speed and movement, so when I trot they trot, when I walk they walk, when I turn right, they turn right, when I stop they stop, etc. I also start pairing a verbal signal in here as well. This way we can utilize the signal from the saddle as well. In this situation I bridge (click) upward transitions. So as soon as the spring into the next gait or even increase within their gait. What is happening in this process is that we are building a good reinforcement history with upward transitions. Even though it is seems out of context, they often times will generalize. What has happened when we work on it from the ground, they begin to realize that when I am asked to go forward, I may get a reinforcement. They recognize the cue as an opportunity for reinforcement…after some repetition it actually becomes a conditioned reinforcer (that classic conditioning is always at work!)

One final reminder…they remember what earns them the click…don’t worry about the stopping!! The duration is easy once they understand the concept and are offering the behavior. If you can find it, there is an old, and helpful article that was featured in Practical Horseman in June of 1999, It chronicles one of my students progress with teaching her horse to move forward. Pretty soon she called to tell me she had to slow him down!!

Do you have to feed every click? What about cues? Jackpots?

Barbara asks some questions that are hot buttons for a lot of people coming from the school of “clicker training”. She is inquiring about the use of the bridge signal(clicker) and not following every single bridge with food. In the marine mammal industry we don’t call it clicker training…in fact most people don’t use clickers. The term was derived and introduced into the dog world some years ago. With it came a set of rules that aren’t used in the marine mammal training industry. That has lead to some confusion as to what is “allowed” when using positive reinforcement. At Sea World we studied and utilized behavioral principles and applied learning theory. The marine mammal industry is on the cutting edge of positive reinforcement training. I know from a previous conversation that some of the rules of clicker training, as it applies to dogs, were created for the neophyte dog owner/trainer. I understand why they were implemented but I also realize that we have come a long way since then. People are now much further along in their education and understanding so they can easily handle some of the more “advanced” concepts of training. I address the questions and give more info in this video clip, but I wanted to touch on some of the points here in the post as well.

One is the concept of not feeding every bridge signal (clicker). The bridge signal/clicker is a conditioned reinforcer also known as a secondary reinforcer. This means we have given the clicker value through classic conditioning (think Pavlov’s dogs). Once that happens it then serves as a reinforcer, all by itself. Occasionally reinforcing with a scratch, game, toy, turn out, activity, another signal or any other conditioned/secondary reinforcer does not diminish the value of the clicker or any other bridge signal. If the ratio became out of balance then that would be a different story, but as long as the ratio is skewed toward most of the bridges being followed by food we keep the value quite high. There are plenty of benefits to using secondary reinforcers and it definitely enhances your relationship.

Next Barbara brings up cues. There is a “rule” that you can’t add a cue until the behavior is almost completely trained. That is not necessarily true. In fact in most cases we are instituting some sort of cue (discriminative stimulus) as we start to train a new behavior…otherwise how would they have a clue what to do? So you have a cue from the get go. Often times I will slightly modify the original cue or simply make it more and more subtle. I give the example of my spin cue in the video. At first it was a point to the target, pretty quickly I started adding two fingers pointing to the target. I kept the same signal that I used from day one but it got smaller and smaller so that it is subtle, this helps to keep them more watchful. If I need to take a step back to remind them, I am still using the same working signal that was a part of the initial lessons. It is easy to slowly get bigger to remind them. If I want a different signal altogether, I will start to pair it with the working cue as soon as they start getting successful approximations. With a target to guide them through it starts pretty darn quick. Free shaping and capturing will be a different process. Since there will likely be more guesswork on the horse’s part, I will add the cue later in these cases.

The third thing that Barbara asks about is the use of a magnitude reinforcement…AKA jackpot feed. She wanted to know if I use a jackpot on Mint’s back up (video: “Now that’s a backup!!” on my YouTube Channel) I definitely use jackpots during the training process, especially for the smallest improvements when working on a new behavior. This seems to keep them highly motivated to work through the rough spots. I actually use the magnitude feed quite a bit. I like to make a big impact and allow latent learning to take effect. I believe quite strongly in having short and sweet sessions and I end every session with a magnitude reinforcement. Well, let me clarify, I end every successful session with a magnitude reinforcement.

Okay, that may about cover it, the rest is in the video…If you have any questions or comments please let me know!

Good horse…Pushy pony

Sabrina has a horse and and pony that she is getting started with positive reinforcement training. The first portion of this training is the trickiest for a lot of horses…or ponies. Her horse responded quite nicely and sorted it out quickly. However, her persistent pony is a different story. She is being kind of tenacious, instead of patient. A pony tenacious…now there’s a surprise! This first portion takes some good timing and looking for the smallest approximations toward turning their head away. This is the most important lesson they need to learn since it sets the tone for future interactions. The good news is that it doesn’t take long for them to get this skill worked out. Take a look at my last blog post to see a horse learning this task for the first time.

Often times people choose to ignore this unwanted behavior and not bring food around their horses at all, except for at feeding time. That is one way to deal with it but certainly teaching them how to behave correctly makes for a more well rounded horse, whether you plan to use positive reinforcement or not. When I watch a horse who is pushy when food is around, I will usually observe this same demeanor at feeding time. This attitude gets reinforced everyday when they get fed, so they have a strong reinforcement history with this unpleasant behavior. These horses are slower to give up on what has worked so well, for so long. So remember, every time you feed your horse you are reinforcing them for SOMETHING! If they are standing quietly, then you will see more of this behavior, if they are pawing or diving at the food then you will see more of this behavior. By simply being aware of what is happening you will be able to change their habits. I can go on and on about manners at feeding time but for this post I want to focus on Sabrina and her pushy pony learning to be polite in the presence of food.

I gave Sabrina a number of suggestions for how to handle this situation. One is to feed her pony before her session. Ponies are often on restricted diets and this can make the value of food skyrocket. By feeding her before the session, this is one ways we can set her up for success. I failed to mention another way that we might be able to set her up for success, would be by doing a session after she has had some exercise. This can take the edge off of their energy level and minimize the frantic seeking of food. Anyway that is something you may try and see if it helps her focus. As she gets the lesson worked out and knows what is expected of her we can fade out these tools that we used in the beginning to help make the learning less frustrating.

Watch the video for more suggestions. Anyone who is new to this training may go to my last blog post for more info for getting your horse off to a good start. Sabrina, please keep me posted and let me know how things are going.

Get your horse off to the right start for clicker training

Let’s face it…hand feeding is one of the biggest concerns people have about using a positive reinforcement training program. In reality, it isn’t very difficult at all to teach your horse excellent manners when they are in the presence of food. It just takes some awareness of what behaviors are happening when you are offering food. Each time you give your horse a treat, you are actually telling him that the behavior he is performing at that moment is something that you want to see repeated. If you watch the average person feeding a horse a carrot, the horse usually has their head and neck stretched out toward the person. The horse has learned to pursue the food by reaching toward the person. By simply being aware of what is happening and feeding when a different response is occurring, we can teach a completely different behavior.

In my eyes, this is one of the most important lessons. It establishes good ground manners, patience, and if done correctly, relaxation. Too many people, as they get started with using positive reinforcement, don’t spend enough time here (making this lesson a strong one and teaching the horse to make a conscious choice to keep his head and mouth to himself)

I made this video as part of a short series about de-spooking your horse. This was to serve as a brief introduction to help show people how to get started. Since that time I have had LOTS of requests for this video clip. As I look back, I see things that aren’t explained as well as I do in my DVD You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything. I also see so much that I was processing in my head and some are judgement calls based on my decades of experience. Being that this was to be a short piece, I didn’t really have the time to share my thoughts about these decisions. Being my own best critic, this kind of makes me cringe. Yet I also want everyone to get off to a good start. I often see people who don’t understand how to approach the first and most crucial lesson. So I figure, while it is important for everyone to have a more thorough understanding, at least this little bit of knowledge will help give them a good “jump start”.

Lucky Jack is the horse in the clip and he starts off feeling more mouthy than most horses. He wasn’t as aggressive as some but I felt he needed more direction than some so I “shushed” him away. This is not a normal tactic I use, but in some cases it seems to help distract them slightly, thereby setting them up for success. I also pause longer between some of the clicks…again this was a call I made. I felt it would be best for him because I was able to recognize a familiar and probable behavior pattern. So, I am recommending that you don’t let too much time go between clicks in the beginning. As you are both new to the process, this will help to make it a little bit more black and white for the both of you.

In this video clip you see me walking with LJ as he moves around the stall. I will only do this if the horse is calm and confident. If the horse seems even the slightest bit nervous I tend to stay more still, since excessive moving may cause some horse’s nerves to escalate. I tried to move slowly and calmly with him so he didn’t perceive me as tense. They are very responsive to our moods. If we get more anxiety, they usually respond in kind. However, if we remain calm they tend to feed off of that as well. So being quieter and allowing them to sort it out on their own, combined with a high rate of reinforcement for even the slightest effort, is a good rule of thumb to follow.

When feeding our horses try to remember to feed them out in front where you would like their head to be. Step up to feed them where they are as much as you can. This will help to reinforce the position even more and it will help to prevent drawing more undue attention to the food source. So reach out, under, forward…whatever the situation requires to feed him.

One of the fundamental things to look for during this process is relaxation. I can not emphasize this one enough. Looking for relaxation in all that you do will help to keep them even, calm, deliberate and polite. A calm mind is much more lucid so it helps our horse to make better decisions….and it is all about teaching, and allowing them the chance to make decisions. At first they may be a little more excited but if we focus on the slightest improvement, and draw attention to calm, we will see more and more calm… It will just become part of the criteria. At this point you may have no idea, how important this will be down the road. But remember it is all about the smallest steps. These are called “successive approximations”.

On to the target…This is a little more straight forward. I try different positions to see how I can help him to make the best choices.

I must reiterate, that LJ does not have the bridge signal (clicker) part down yet so I normally would not have moved on to the target so quickly. Please do yourself and your horse a huge favor and complete 8 or 9 short sessions (5 minutes) of just the bridge conditioning and manners before moving on to the target. I see people who have troubles with their horse’s manners and it is usually because they have moved on too quickly without getting this foundation solid. When you have done those sessions, it is then time for the target. I recommend the same amount of time and repetitions.

Finally, If you feel uncomfortable with your horse’s assertiveness when starting him with the manners/bridge signal portion, you may work from the other side of a stall door or fence. This protected contact will keep you out of his reach while still being able to work his manners. Be certain that he’s good and solid on the outside of his enclosure before you work into closer contact. Once you can be right next to him and he is being calm, I recommend you start the same number of repetitions as above. Though it will be a little longer process, we should never be in a hurry or take short cuts. They set the pace of the training.

As I mentioned, this is part of a 3 part series in a brief de-spooking your horse exercise, using milk jugs. We will be working through some ground work with a spooky horse named William in part 2 and then in part 3 we move to the milk jugs under saddle. For more info about getting started and the behavior principles please check out my website or look for my DVD and book entitled You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything. For more info about de-spooking your horse there is a 6 DVD set full of exercises to help your horse become more brave and trustworthy. The set is called DeSpooking Your Horse: Building Boldness & Confidence. I think of them as team building exercises since they help to build the trust on both sides of the partnership.

Okey dokey…If you have questions or comments please don’t hesitate to ask. Enjoy!!

Why does my horse bite?

Not all biting is about food. There are many possible reasons why a horse may bite…there is always a reason. Though we may not know what the cause might be, we can change this behavior.

When starting a horse with positive reinforcement there is an easy way to create great manners and a relaxed demeanor when food is around. Clearly this is important since food is often present. The method used for creating good manners can also be implemented to address problematic biting. In fact, I have helped horses who are very mouthy and even aggressive, using food based training. Because most horses put a very high value on food, it is important to have some awareness of how to use it in a constructive way before getting started with a positive reinforcement training program.

Rachel’s horse, Trigger, seems to be making a habit of biting, though food doesn’t seem to be what is motivating his mouthiness. In the video answer I offer a possible cause and solution.

Overcoming a Fear of saddling (accident related)

This is not a problem that we often encounter. I mean, how many horses have a trauma related to saddling? But the solution is applicable to all types of situations. Anything that has your horse reacting with fear and avoidance can be addressed using this basic de-sensitzation exercise. Not to get you too caught up in technical terms, but what we are doing is actually called counter conditioning. We are taking something that has an unpleasant association and turning it around by pairing it with positive reinforcement, thus creating a pleasant association.

Of course, and this is a standing order with me, always be certain that there aren’t any physical issues causing the strong reaction. But let’s say their behavior did have a physical origin, often times once the problem is remedied, they still retain the painful memory. We will need to build a new, better reinforcement history with the object or action that caused the worry.

It is very important that we start this process within their comfort zone, progressing only as they show complete comfort with the previous step. It is important to do this in very small increments (successive approximations).

Their fear is a very clear form of communication. Respecting their concerns and exercising patience as we help them to overcome these fears, does amazing things for their degree of trust. If you follow these steps, reinforcing relaxation and paying close attention to your horse’s comfort level you will help to build their boldness and confidence. Okay enough of Psychology 101, let’s watch the video…

General horse handling tips, building confidence and safety.

Wow, this is a big broad topic! I address some of Holly’s specific issues that have caused her concern in the past. These issues have led to a lack of confidence when she is handling horses. Safety is always first and foremost but I want to help her have some tools that will help her stay safe while building a more trusting relationship with her new horse. Remember, the help of the professional is also another option as you learn how to get a feel for a new horse, or any time you feel unsure.

Teaching your horse to have a good attitude about a surcingle/girth

“Girthiness” is a fairly common issue, especially with mares. However, this behavior is often overlooked instead of being addressed. Their responses may vary; it may be anything from biting, kicking, fussiness or pinned ears. But in any case we can change our horses attitude about the girth or surcingle. And the good news is that it isn’t difficult to do! In this case, Willow’s horse is just learning about this new sensation so it is going to be a quicker fix than a horse who has been habitually grumpy when the girth is tightened. However, it will still be a similar process. One thing to remember, that isn’t addressed in the video answer, tightening the girth in small increments is going to be one of the ways that you can set your horse up for success, so remember to go slow. Also, as a standing rule…before getting started with training, always rule out any physical cause when your horse shows any change in behavior or has a cranky reaction.

South Africa, here I come!!

This is for my South African friends…We are working on organizing a clinic (or two) in South Africa this March!! I have heard from several people in the past who have been interested in attending or hosting a clinic. I will be down that way so now is a great time to get something organized. I am very excited to have the opportunity to work with some of you…and your horses. If you would like more information please get ahold of Krizelda. Here is her FB page if you would like to send her a message. https://www.facebook.com/krizelda.carelse

Horse doesn’t move forward from leg cue….or to a cluck

In this video answer I address Debby’s question about her new horse.  Debby’s horse doesn’t understand the usual leg cue for moving forward.  She would like to use positive reinforcement to teach her horse  to move forward rather than using pressure/release.  For those of you who are familiar with positive reinforcement/clicker training, you already know what a difference it makes in the horses attitude when they are given a choice.  You will see a marked improvement in attitude, performance, enthusiasm, retention and focus.  By using positive reinforcement you are putting something in the training equation that your horse finds  valuable.  They become invested in the training process…and it’s outcome!  It is amazing how willing, soft and responsive the horses become.   This is why more and more professionals are incorporating positive reinforcement into their training protocols.  With Debby’s horse we are starting with some basics.  This takes a little thinking outside of the box.   If you have any questions or want to learn more about the training please don’t hesitate to ask. “>

Jane’s horse learns to be calm & confident about clipping

Years ago my friend Jane Savoie got a new horse from another successful, international Dressage rider. To say the horse wasn’t so good at clipping would be a understatement. She was told that she would never be able to clip the horse without first medicating her (the horse, not Jane!)Jane was familiar with what I was doing and began to put the training techniques into action with clipping her new horse.

In 3 days she was clipping the horse without medication or restraint. She went from being panicky when being clipped to being calm and trustful.  Her horse was actually choosing to stand quietly, relaxed and willing. She wasn’t opting for the less worrisome of two different forms of pressure….the lesser of two “evils”, so to speak. There was no coercion or pressure involved.

Of course, all horses are different and their training paths will differ depending on their experiences but with positive
reinforcement training you can really change the way your horse looks at clipping.

Are you ready to have a horse who is calm and confident about clipping?

To learn more click on the link below:


BTW…Yesterday as I was sending out an announcement of my new clipping DVD offer, I accidentally sent a email that said “This is a test” That is all the email said. This went out to thousands of people! I felt really bad, I couldn’t imagine

what was going through peoples heads as they read that cryptic email.But since these(you) people know me and my sense of humor, I received a lot of emails from people who got a kick out of it, they thought it was some sort of weird Shawna joke. That sure did cheer me up. So if you are one of those people, Thank you!!

Already tired of the cold? Meet me in Costa Rica!!

Want to go on a vacation somewhere warm? What about one with horses? Well, me too.  These Southern California winters are brutal. Okay, maybe that is a bit of an overstatement, but it is all relative. Us Southern Californians get tired of our colder weather too.  Maybe it is all those years I spent in the cold water  and a wetsuit or maybe I am just a wimp…but I can’t wait for the warmer weather.  This year I am going to do something about it….I am going to go to Central America!

That’s right.  I am really excited to let you know that we just finalized the dates for my clinic in Costa Rica. Well, actually it is more than a clinic…I will be there all week. From May 1st – 7th. It will be so much fun!!  Discovery Horseback Tours, run by Andrea and Chris Wady, is a top notch operation.  There are some great reviews from people who have had the time of their life.   If you want to learn more here is a link to their website. Wait till you read about all of the things you can do.   I hope you will join me, Andrea and Chris in Costa Rica!    http://www.horseridecostarica.com/vacationpkgs.php

You can easily build trust with your OTTB using positive reinforcement

Jen asks a question about creating a bond with her off track Thoroughbred. She is just getting to know her new horse and wants to get started using positive reinforcement training.  Using the click/reward techniques will help to build trust incredibly fast.  The trust and respect will grow stronger each and every day.

In addition to what I said in the video, I always recommend reinforcing for relaxation.  Building it into your criteria from the start will be a big help. Typically, a horse right off the track has a tendency toward being full of energy and not very quick to settle. So as you start the basics (bridge, and target training) watch his eyes, ears, mouth, jaw, head position and body for signs of softness.  At first he may not be very relaxed but look for small improvements…tiny little approximation toward settling.  By clicking and reinforcing for these increments you will see him becoming more and more relaxed.  With relaxation comes focus, manners, sensibility, and a good attitude.

I am really excited for the two of you because I know the amazing journey that lies ahead.  Jenn, please keep me posted of your progress and congratulations on your new horse!


Horse with a rigid neck…creating softness

November 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Ask Shawna, On Target Training, Under Saddle

Stephanie asks a question about stiffness in her horse’s neck. As always you want to rule out any physical causes by having your vet give your horse a good once over.   Also, it is prudent to re-check the fit of your saddle.  Okay once we have that sorted out it is time to see what we can do to encourage our horses to bend.  Relaxation is the key.  From what I hear, Stephanie’s horse seems to be beyond the usual rigidness. In any case  I share my initial thoughts on the video. Remember to never use force or coercion to create softness.  Using positive reinforcement we can teach our horse to bring it from the inside out.  Stephanie, please keep me posted. Let me know how these suggestions work out. If you have questions or want to try something different I have more ideas up my sleeve.


Horse is aggressive about…everything! (Food too)

Question sent in by Theresa:
Do you have any material on horses that are aggressive?  Bite and or kick when asked to do something as simple as move over.  We have a rescue exhibiting this.  Haltering also an issue…
Response from Shawna:
I haven’t made a DVD on this topic yet.  This behavior is challenging because the aggressive ones are all over the map…both mentally as well as physically!  However, I have dealt with this sort of thing occasionally  and have found the best success with starting as if the horse were green and didn’t know anything.  In a way they are indeed  green, because they haven’t learned how to have healthy, balanced interactions with people.   Though we can address each issue individually,  when everything seems to be an issue, it seems like it is all a symptom of a bigger, underlying problem. That fundamental problem being the horse’s perception of people.   I like to start from the basics using only positive reinforcement.  This way we are able to build a new, better reinforcement history with everything.  Once the new history is established the horse will approach training with a new and improved, more cooperative attitude.
When horses have this aggressive attitude toward training (or doing anything that humans ask of them!), it is usually rooted in fear.  At some point they were left with no other option, other then to protect themselves.  Once they learn how well being aggressive works for them, the behavior tends to  escalate.  Once the’ve reached this point they offer resistance without even thinking.  As far as they are  concerned there is nothing in it for them except the possibility of fear and worry.  By putting something in it that he values, he will become invested in the training equation and will even look forward to his time with people.  I highly recommend dropping all of the old stuff and start over again, this time with pressure not being part of the equation.  I think this is important since it sounds like even minor pressure triggers his aggressive attitude.  I suggest using only positive reinforcement training.  Also, teaching him to be very strong with his targeting skills will be a huge benefit.  The target can serve as the new halter and lead rope, allowing you to get him to move and adjust without the need to use pressure.  I know it sounds like a lot of work, however you will find that some parts will go quite quickly and some will jut take a little longer. The places where it tends to takes longer is because these places have more baggage attached.  By allowing him to make choices (and not coercing him  to do things) he will gain a whole slew of trust, minimizing his need to resort to aggressive behavior.  Please keep me posted.  I would love to see you help him get past this destructive habit.  It will help him to be happier and more well adjusted with all parts of his life.  The training also has a lot of unanticipated benefits, you will see parts of his personality blossom as the trust builds.
Thank you so much.  I am a believer in positive reinforcement big time and have worked with a lot of abused horses but this guy is the most aggressive with small things.  I wondered about fear being the root do will pursue based on that.  I’m still waiting for my order to arrive.. I have the basic info and clicker but not the target.  
Would associating food with the clicker make him worse?  If he gets a treat now for just standing politely it seems to trigger pinning and teeth to get another treat which he does not get.  I am expecting very little right now… Just to walk without nipping.  Standing head forward and waiting to the count of 5 then getting petted.  If his head is turned at all toward you while leading he takes opportunity to nip.  I just move his head over with the back of my hand and continue.
You are SO right about being all over the map!!!!!  Describing tiny behavior exhibited is difficult but I am very in tune with that.  This one is very challenging for me and he does scare me which is NOT helping!!!!  This is the first horse in my life that actually made full contact and bit me on the leg!
Any ideas are greatly appreciated … This horse was taken back to the rescue place 5 times in 2 1/2 months likely from his behavior…  So I bet he was hit a lot…
I’ll continue to work on the trust which I know is THE most important issue with horses.
Thanks again!
First of all, I LOVE your dedication to helping this horse.  Too many horses get discarded for “bad” behavior and the sad fact is that nearly all of the problems were unintentionally taught by humans in the first place.  Kudos to you and thank you for being there for him…even if he doesn’t appreciate it yet!
Okay, the first thing to do will be to establish a proper attitude about food and feeding.  Often times this sour attitude is also displayed at feeding time.  I recommend that you keep an eye on that behavior as well.  If he is surly, just wait him out (while outside his stall or paddock).  As soon as he softens his demeanor, deliver the food promptly.
Relaxation is the key, it will help him to settle.  We need to teach him that relaxation is part of the equation with food.  He values food, but we need to establish appropriate behavior around food.  You can do this from outside of his stall or paddock.  Simply stand nearby, at first he may be a little worked up, since he knows you have food.  Look for turning his head away and/or softening.  We will want to shape this toward more relaxation but at first we need to communicate to keep your head away from the food source.  In the case I suggest doing this outside of his enclosure so that you can let him process all of his bullish behavior while still being in a safe place.
The initial goal is for him to stop focusing on getting the food, when he softens, relaxes, or gives up and becomes less interested, even just a little, that is when you should click and feed.  Remember it is an approximation toward our goal.  As soon as you click, feed promptly and feed a big handful.  Meager amounts often times seem to exacerbate tension and the feeling of wanting more.  We want him to get a good dose of reinforcement at the moment he softens.  Also, I have found that while they are still chewing that huge handful of feed, they are content (relaxed) because they are not actively seeking more food yet.  Even though they are still chewing, this is a great opportunity to click and feed again, as long as they are offering the soft demeanor.   After 3 or 4 good handfuls for exhibiting softness, give him a moment to process again.  He may stay a little relaxed for a short time, so if this is the case, even for even a moment, click and reinforce again promptly.
What we are looking for is the smallest increments of improvement.  We are shaping the new, correct behavior so we shouldn’t be too strict with our criteria at first.  If he gets wound up pretty quickly, just step back out of his reach and repeat the process and  wait  for the softer, more relaxed  attitude.  Eventually, we will fade away from this incessant feeding but for now we need to help build a solid reinforcement history with the correct behavior.  Right now he has a strong relationship with being pushy and aggressive to get what he wants.  We are looking to rebalance the scales.  It will take some repetition at first.  I would suggest continuing with this exercise.  Start with very short and highly reinforcing sessions.  End the session with a jackpot or magnitude feed.   Often I will pour the rest of the food from the bucket into his feeder or on the ground.   He wants the food, we just need to help him learn what will work…and that the old stuff won’t work.  Because his old habits have worked for so long, he will resort to them rather quickly for a while until he figures out that it works no longer.  The more repetitions we can do to reinforce the attitude we are looking for  the quicker we can get him turned around.   I have found it is better to do short sessions more often, rather than doing longer sessions.
Another good thing to keep in mind…if any behavior increases(or maintains) in frequency, then something in the environment is reinforcing that behavior.  That is the bottom line.  It is up to us to figure out how to change things around.   It may be a bit different for every horse but there is a way to come to a better place.  One caveat: safety is first, always!!  So do what you can to keep you and others safe.  If you need to employ further professional help, please don’t hesitate.  When we can get him taking food nicely I suggest we move onto target training, but for now you have your work cut out for you. 🙂  Again,  we will want to associate targeting with relaxation.  You will find that relaxation will be an ongoing theme!   In my opinion, relaxation is paramount in all that we do with our horses, even for the biggest, boldest, most energetic behaviors.  Well, all right then, that is all for now.
Oh thanks again!  You hit the nail on the head!  He is food aggressive and I tried the wait but did not give a big treat and yes, you are right about that making him worse.  Fortunately I stopped immediately when I realized it didn’t work so that only happened once.  
I will try this new technique with larger amounts for sure.  I know there is a good horse in there somewhere… I haven’t to date given up on a horse but do need help as each one of us has a little different skill set!
I live to learn and am open to trying as it seems the more I learn the more there is to learn!!
You have a great attitude.  I too, never want to stop learning!  🙂
I have gotten rid of mouthiness, biting and aggression using positive reinforcement/hand feeding.  As you know, it is not the food that is the problem, it is the people who have unintentionally reinforced the wrong attitude.  The good news is we have sorted it out, rebuilding trust and manners using positive reinforcement/clicker training.  Hang in there…and keep me posted on your progress!

The one topic horse people don’t talk about…sheath cleaning!

People just don’t seem to talk about that awkward subject of sheath cleaning! I have learned that most people don’t know how to do this or how often it should be done. Well, I think that should change so I have made a DVD on the subject. It is like sheath cleaning 101.

You will learn not only the anatomical side of sheath cleaning but the behavioral side as well. I have found that most people haven’t learned how to do this basic husbandry task because they don’t know how to get their horse to stand quietly for the procedure. All of that is about to change.

Your horse will learn to stand quiet and relaxed while you get to the business of sheath cleaning. In the process you will develop a great rapport with your horse and you will find that the training principles will reach beyond just sheath cleaning.

I have had a great amount of interest in this DVD…matter of fact it kind of surpassed me. I am happy to finally have it available. If you would like to learn more visit the link below:

http://www.on-target-training.com/sheath-cleaning-video.php” title=”Positively Simple Sheath Cleaning”


Stormy won’t jump Liverpools…oh, wait…he does now!!

I just wanted to share this sequence of pictures.  Too often there isn’t anyone taking pictures of the amazing things that happen with the positive reinforcement training. Bernard of Deamphoto.biz happened to be at this clinic/demo.  He did a great job getting some fun pictures so I wanted to share them.  He is a great photographer as well as a great guy!  Also, he invented some clever things, like the salad spinner for one!  I hope that you enjoy the pictures.
As many of you know jumping issues are one of my favorite things to address with horses. Given my history and where I got started with horses, that probably isn’t too surprising. As for Stormy…I start this process going from point A to point B (person to person), at liberty. As they get the A to Bs worked out from a good distance, I introduce jump standards with a pole on the ground. I begin to turn it into a jump. The criteria slowly increases. The positive reinforcement keeps them engaged and enjoying the process even though it becomes more difficult. They become invested in the training process so they will make choices to face their fears (for Stormy it was the liverpool). He had a free choice the entire time…no whips, chutes, body positioning, no coercing at all. This makes the behavior solid since it is truly a choice…not the lesser of two evils, so to speak. When they go through this process, the change in confidence is amazing and it carries over to more than the jumping issue. If you have any questions about the free jumping and overcoming any jumping issues please  don’t hestitiate to ask or comment.

Heroes and Gurus: How The Guru Syndrome© Stops you Getting True Confidence by Effective Horsemanship

November 18, 2012 by  
Filed under On Target Training

I think this is a great post from Confidence Blog by Effective Horsemanship (see link below).  It is full of food for thought.  My goal has always been to help people learn the principles of behavior so that they may continue on their own with confidence.  At Sea World I felt like I had done my job when I could sit back and watch  a sea lion that I trained, successfully do a show (over 100 trained behaviors) with another trainer.  Then I knew I had succeeded.  The goal is to fade myself out of the equation.  The same is true for people.  I feel like I have made good progress when people truly understand the principles and can think through them on their own.  I want them to take the concepts and run with them.  Applying positive reinforcement to the training equation takes a shift in thinking since it is very different then traditional horse protocols.  So there is a learning curve.  However, I didn’t create positive reinforcement training.   It is based in solid science and research done over decades.  I am just helping to facilitate the understanding of how our horses learn and how to apply it to everyday situations.  I continue to learn with every horse and every person.  Anyway, I wanted to share it with you.  I would love to hear your thoughts.  Enjoy…

Here is a link:  http://www.effectivehorsemanship.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/hereos-and-gurus-how-the-guru-syndrome-stops-you-getting-true-confidence/

Equestrian Clinic Pricing…

I have given this a lot of thought and I have decided to list my clinic prices on my website. I know this is not the usual practice for clinicians but I have found that many people have been surprised that I don’t charge more for clinics. Some of these people almost didn’t even bother to call figuring it would be out of their price range, only to be surprised how reasonable the clinics are priced. While other clinicians often charge twice as much, I have tried to keep the cost as low as I can while still being able to ensure that I can reach as many people as possible (without going belly up!) My plan is to keep these prices through the next year.

Some of the horses I work with are in the six figure range (and above) and then some are horses who have been rescued. To me, they are all priceless, so I want to be sure that everyone has the opportunity to learn about the amazing benefits of positive reinforcement training. While awareness is growing, I feel that there are still too few good resources out there. My ultimate goal is to help broaden awareness of learning theory and how it applies to real horses in real life situations. I am happy to work with people to make this happen. For non-profits organizations and those that are scheduling more than one clinic we can work together to make it more affordable.I hope this helps to clarify things, so if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to get ahold of me.

Solving Horse Behaviour Problems and Me by Jenni Nellist

November 16, 2012 by  
Filed under Clicker and Target Issues

Here is another blog post that I think you would enjoy.  This one is by Jenni Nellist and her blog is always a good read.  Here is a link:  

Solving Horse Behavior Problems and Me

Being someone who helped others solve equine behavioural problems was an attractive career prospect for me. I already had an enduring fascination with the equine mind and the rise and rise of ‘natural horsemanship’. Reaching the equine mind was a dream that was becoming more and more of a reality for me. I discovered that this was a dream best realised through dedication to educating myself and translating that acquired knowledge to experience andvice versa. This process was my way of experiencing and understanding the whole purpose of ‘evidence based horsemanship’.
I very quickly found out that the role of equine behaviourist carried with it a great responsibility; to the animal in question and the people associated with it. The old saying, ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ particularly stuck out in my mind. I didn’t want to be the individual who had little knowledge and no realisation that this was the case! I became almost hyper aware of what I didn’t know just by questioning my own knowledge and practise. This didn’t put me off from trying, I just made sure that I plugged gaps in my knowledge and understanding with further learning whenever I found them. And I still do, the whole point of CPD!.
I found that a lot of knowledge derived from academia was essential, but absolutely useless when isolated from experience. I also found that while experience was also essential, it was also absolutely useless when isolated from knowledge and understanding gained from academic application. I discovered as much in the classroom as I did in the field… and still do! I’d now ask anyone who questions my ‘paper’ qualifications, “is it not best to be fully cognizant of what one is actually witnessing and practising, rather than to take a more blinkered approach and thinking one is fully knowledgeable of what one doing based on personal experience alone?”
I would like to think that an accomplished horse behaviour consultant is not only an experienced and effective horseperson, but is also knowledgeable of ethology, psychology, neuropsychology, physiology and animal welfare science. And is able to apply the fruits of scientific endeavour to the practise of resolving horse behaviour issues through effective, safe and humane teaching methods. And continue to question current practise so that knowledge and practise can be improved for the future of all horses and their people. What I did yesterday might not be the same as I do today since new findings may have come to my attention that can improve my application!
It was during my studies under Dr Anne McBride and her team at the University of Southampton that I learned that the art and science of resolving horse behaviour problems relied on the correct diagnosis of the causes of behavioural issues. And that appropriate tailoring of behaviour modification relied on that differential diagnosis. This skilled undertaking relies on knowledge and understanding of both horse and human behaviour. This almost harks back to Barbara Woodhouse claiming that there were no such thing as bad dogs, only bad owners. I wouldn’t go so far as to label the owners of ‘misbehaving’ horses as ‘bad’, horse behaviour can appear to ‘go wrong’ for many reasons, but one thing is certain: The horse’s behaviour is unlikely to change unless its human changes their behaviour first. The owner leads the way in behaviour modification since they are the one who calls me in to facilitate the process. If I fail to undertake full assessment before starting retraining, the less efficient, ‘therapeutic’ approach, ‘sucking it and see’, is the (usually) less satisfactory or humane result.
Another thing I learned pretty early on is that behaviour always happens for a reason, even if the humans around can’t identify one. Horses act to gain things they need or to avoid things they don’t. These reasons are purely equine and reside in the horse’s mind; my job is to translate ‘horse’ into ‘human’. Horses are only capable of equine behaviour, thoughts and emotions, and all too often humans give human reasons for horse behaviour. The concept of horses being ‘bad actors’ and performing bad behaviour on purpose just to get the better of people is probably as old as equine domestication itself. But I ask, “is that fair?” All horses want is to stay alive, eat and procreate. They don’t lose sleep over lost ribbons or the next show. Most problem behaviour comes from a conflict of interest between what horses were born to do, and human ambition. Compromises can be made, and there are good examples of them everywhere, its just that there are bad compromises too. Just as a plumber sees more faulty toilets than the average human population, so I see more horses where it’s all gone horribly wrong.
Good equine reasons for unwanted behaviour are fear of pain, loss of life and the unknown, frustration and confusion regarding trained behaviour, bad handling and social mismatching. Every behaviour has an emotional and cognitive reason behind it, I like to understand how the horse feels and thinks as well as what it does.
In my opinion good training is an art where the end goal is presented in successive, achievable chunks. Some horses require smaller chunks than others, especially where emotional problems such as intense fear or anxiety are a primary concern. I’ve learned that proper diagnosis enables finer tailoring of any training plan before it’s begun.
Any behavioural problem, be it excessive aggression towards other horses, refusing to load into the box, or napping on rides out, will have the following elements in its past and present. There will be an emotional reason for the behaviour – the psychological state that motivates its performance. I have found that I can ascertain such a reason from the triggers for the behaviour and from its consequences. There will be elements in the horse’s temperament, breeding and past experiences that predispose it to the particular behaviour. There will be a learning experience that started the problem in the first place. And there will be factors and circumstances in the horse’s day to day life causing the behavioural problem to continue.
When these things are known it is possible to do that fine tailoring, creating the individual rehabilitation programme. And this is where I’m able to use my creative streak alongside good instructional and coaching skills. In my experience rehabilitation usually requires husbandry and handling changes as well as specific retraining. I’m glad that these days I have a large tool box to facilitate this. I’ve found this toolbox necessary to maximise the potential for change without harm to the safety and welfare of both horses and people.

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On Target Training, Shawna Karrasch

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