After all the ground work and individual steps, in February it was finally time to think about riding the Brony again. The safest place I could think of to do that was my friend’s dressage arena. Should I come off, the sand would be more forgiving than the frozen ground outside. Plus, an indoor arena has fewer distractions, and he should be less likely to be spooked or overwhelmed there. In theory, at least.
The reality was rather different. Now, faithful readers will remember from the first post that our accident involved a sand hill crane that flew at us, screaming. The incident had left Brennir with a fear of all birds. A group of Canada geese flying overhead would send him spooking and snorting. If a sparrow came too close, he would turn and run. So, riding inside, where no birds should be, was a great idea. In theory. In reality, a family of pigeons had taken refuge from the cold in the arena rafters. I had no sooner led him quietly into the arena than a pigeon flew overhead with their distinctive, drumming sound. Brennir startled, going up on his hind legs and running out as far as the lead would let him. “Brennir! Calm down!” I reeled him in, but I could see he was still terrified. He yanked me toward the other end of the arena. I yanked him back. Stamping his foot, Brennir dropped his head and spun toward the other end of the arena so hard I almost lost my footing and fell. Our much prepared for, clicker-centered return to riding was off to an awesome start.
I got him calmed down and took him over to the mounting block, where we practiced standing quietly for a few minutes. I got on and off him repeatedly, rewarding him for his good behavior. Then, I mounted up. I was unprepared for what happened next.
Before the accident, I had always been a fearless rider. Now, though, as we moved off from the mounting block, my body felt awkward and stiff, my thighs too tight on his flanks, my hips locked up. I could not find his rhythm even at an easy walk. Fear, for me, has always been an emotion I considered unacceptable, a weakness I despised in myself. Disturbed by the crawling apprehension in my body, I tried to tell myself I was not afraid, that nothing had changed. My horse, however, knew differently. His head started to come up high, his nostrils flaring. He jigged under me, and when a pigeon fluttered overhead, he bolted suddenly sideways and though I stayed with him without a problem, I had what I can only describe as a flash back. Over and over in my head I heard the sound my body had made when it hit the ground, like firewood being split, the sound of my bones breaking. All my muscles clamped down on him and his reaction was to get more upset, lunging sideways again. I spun him around, hard, digging a heel into his flank. Suddenly I was angry, at my horse, but even more at myself, for being afraid. I halted us along the wall, breathing unevenly, trying to will the fear from both of us, but I couldn’t. A sense of failure overwhelmed me. I didn’t know what to do, and the self-hatred surging in me was doing neither of us any good. I choked back a few sobs, grateful for the empty arena.
There is a central idea in clicker training “Reward what you want.”. It sounds simple, and it is. Except that we as humans tend to be really, really focused on getting rid of the things we DON’T want. At least, I often am. We often hear from our horse friends “My horse won’t load”. “My horse won’t take the correct lead” “My horse won’t stand well for the farrier”. We as horse people tend to spend a lot of time focusing on what our horses can’t, won’t, or don’t do. I realized, as I sat there, rubbing Brennir’s neck and trying to calm him, that all I was seeing was what we were doing wrong. He wasn’t staying calm, I wasn’t staying calm, and nothing was going right. I was unhappy with my fear, with his fear, with my memory of getting hurt. There had to be one thing, one positive thing, we could focus on, and build on. Surely, I thought, we were doing at least ONE thing right.
As I thought that, Brennir turned around, biting the toe of my boot and tugging gently on my leg with his eyes soft and wide. This is my pony asking “are you mad at me? Because I tried. I really did.” I wiped away my tears. Of course I wasn’t mad at him. I loved him more than anything, and what I could not do for myself, I could do for him. “I know, pony boy. I tried too. Let’s do this, together’
Just as it can on the ground, every behavior in the saddle can be broken down into tiny, achievable steps, and that was what we needed now. We both needed to be reminded of what we could do, of what a great team we were together. Breathing deep, I relaxed my body, and then asked him to take one step forward at a walk. For one step, he could stay calm, and so could I. Click, treat. Then two steps. Then three. I kept clicking and treating, and he started to become less afraid, and more engaged. So did I. By the time we had made a slow circuit of the arena this way, I was relaxed, moving easily with Brennir’s stride. A pigeon flew over again, and he jumped.
He could not walk past the pigeon without startling, but we were not focusing on what he couldn’t do anymore. What could he do? Stand quietly under the pigeons in the rafters while they cooed and flapped their wings? Yes. That he could do. Click, treat. Accentuate the positive. After a few minutes of practicing standing quietly he felt more confident. We began to slowly follow the pigeons as they flew around above us. Every time he stepped calmly, I would click and treat. Soon, I was enjoying the transformation of my horse so much that I forgot my own fear. His confidence returning brought me such joy, and he knew it. His old pony self started to show through.
As our ride drew to a close, I asked him to trot a few feet several times, clicking and treating for his calm controlled movement, trying to forgive myself for the rush of adrenaline I felt when he sped up. Just as I was about to halt him for the day, a pigeon fluttered down onto the sand in the middle of the arena, strutting and pecking. Without thinking I immediately clicked for Brennir, who was quietly standing and watching. He took his treat, and when I asked him to walk toward the pigeon he did. Click, treat. Then, the pigeon took a few steps. Brennir sped up to follow it, and soon my bird phobic horse was stalking the pigeon all around the arena, until it had had enough and flew back up into the rafters. I got off, and he stepped up behind me, locking his head over my shoulder in a Brony hug.
I had seen what he had done right, and he loved me for it. In finding mercy for his fear, I started to find mercy for my own. We’d both been hurt, and now, together, we were healing.
Over the past few weeks I have gotten wonderful feedback from people who were very moved by The Brony’s story. However, I have also gotten a number of messages from people with difficult horses who are struggling. Since I really, truly believe that positive reinforcement training with the clicker is the absolute best way to train, I thought we would use today’s blog as a flash-forward to the present, rather than a flash-back. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress in only six months, and I would like today’s post to serve as encouragement to those who are struggling. The basic clicker principles: small steps reward what you want not what you don’t, find the tiny tries the horse gives you, along with patience and love, can solve any problem.
This morning was a bright July day, a bit hot, but with a gentle breeze and a blue sky, and I headed out to the barn to spend my morning time with The Brony. When I started working with Shawna, I realized having a troubled horse was a big commitment, and if I was going to keep him, I had to give him my all. After making the decision I was going to work with him every single day no matter what, I was surprised how easy it became to find the training time I didn’t think I had. Now it is just our routine. I get up extra early and schedule my appointments to carve out an hour or so each morning. He can see me as I let the dogs out, and feed the ducks, and he calls for me joyfully. My once fearful horse can’t wait to work.
When I get there he is waiting, standing at the gate. I hold out his halter and he drops his head and slips into it for me, then lifts his head up so I can fasten it. He follows me at liberty to the post where I usually tie him for grooming and tacking. We are going to ride, so I tack him up. I throw the reins over his head and go to stand at the mounting block for him to come to me. However, we went for a long ride the day before, and the bugs were bad. He ignores me, cropping grass near the mounting block. “Brennir, step up!” I tell him, but he doesn’t. I could grab the reins and lead him over, but we have been in a process of using less and less pressure, with better and better results, so instead I take him, fully tacked , and turn him out in the pasture with his morning hay and his brother. At one time I would have thought this the absolute wrong thing to do, rewarding the horse for being disobedient by setting him free. Now, though, the Brony and I have a completely different relationship, one based on mutual respect and enjoyment of the learning process and being together. He stands at the gate, perturbed. He does not want hay or to go and graze with his brother. He wants to play the clicker game. After a moment I let him out and walk back to the mounting block. He follows, lining his body up so I can mount.
I want to go for a ride in the woods today, but a short one. The deer flies are bad, and he worked hard the day before. In order to preserve some challenge, I decide to ride a small loop I do not usually ride, with several steep downhills. He happily moves out, heading down the first slope without a hitch even though a large branch has fallen in the path at the bottom of the hill, sticking up like a scary monster. He is alert as we pass through an area of trail thickly walled with tall brambles. He snorts a little, lifting his head up, but I feel no fear as his muscles start to tighten under me. I have abandoned all use of force with him as I’ve moved forward with the clicker, even little kicks and squeezes, and his response has been to relax utterly and give me more confident, forward enthusiasm than ever. Although once a frightening bucker and bolter under saddle, he has now learned that we speak the same language. All of those behaviors came from a horse who’s every reaction to the world was based on an overwhelming fear he did not know how to communicate. He doesn’t need to scream with his body by bucking, bolting and rearing now. He knows I hear him, so he can speak with a softer voice.
Up ahead the trail goes down a steep but short incline into a narrow wash-out and then back up again, and he navigates this without difficulty. We ride a ways along the hill top, thick brambles on either side again. Then we come to the second downhill. It’s a steep slope, descending from the sunny hill top to the shadowy woods in a straight line, brambles rising to above horse height on either side of the trail. Here, he balks, snorting as he looks down the hill, which has overgrown a bit since we were last here. Once upon a time, a situation like this would have been scary for me. Asked to do anything that frightened him, Brennir was apt to meltdown and try to bolt. Now he can tell me of his fear more softly, because I am listening. He knows I will not force him to give me anything he is not ready and able to give me. Neither one of us needs to be afraid. We are a team, supporting each other. He turns his head away from the hill, and drops it low in a head down stance. Much work with the clicker and patience on both our parts has taught him that his is an ok way to say “I’m scared to do this. I need a little time” I sit quietly for a minute, asking nothing of him, just letting him feel me with him. He takes a breath and relaxes.
We have eliminated all pressure cues for forward movement, as it has become clear over the past month that Brennir finds them aversive. Instead, I use the verbal cue we conditioned while shaping the forward behaviors. “You can do it!” He turns his head to face downhill again. He is not convinced he can do it, though. I can see the fear in his eyes. Just like when the four wheeler would run him down as a colt, here was something scary he must escape from, as fast as possible. Once, at this point, he would have bucked me off and ran. Instead, he takes a few slow steps backwards, another movement we have established to mean ‘I’m scared’. I stop the verbal urging and wait again. Finally he takes a step forward. He gets a click and a lot of treats. He has made as excellent choice, the choice to calmly move forward. He takes another step. Click, treat. Then he sighs, and his whole posture changes, his ears perking forward. I can feel his hind end engage under me. It is Brennir saying “I CAN do it”. He sets off down the slope with no more hesitation and no drama. Without my ever having applied the slightest pressure, he has, of his own accord, faced the thing that scared him, and moved past it. At the bottom of the hill, in the shadows of the trees, I click and give him treat after treat, scratching his neck and telling him what a brave pony he is. This is one of my greatest joys in life now, when he has given me his very best, and i know he has done it with a whole and willing heart.
For Brennir and me, I have learned that the most important thing the clicker does is give us a mutually understood language. He never bucked or bolted because he was a bad horse, or a mean horse, or even a horse who lacked that elusive “try” people speak of. He did it because he was afraid, and I had given him no other way to tell me that. Now every ride is a conversation and the more we talk, the closer we move to the place I want to be, where the many barriers between our separate species fall away, and we are just two friends who need each other, on a journey together.
Brennir and I had a new start, thanks to Shawna’s help, but as we started to move forward I had to let go of a whole lot of ideas that were more deeply rooted inside me than I had ever realized. Although if you had asked me, I would have said I understood what Shawna meant when she said Brennir was afraid of everything, the understanding would take a little while to move from my brain to my heart. Though I knew he wasn’t trying to be bad or to put me in danger, it would take time to replace my frustration and anxiety with love, and patience
Whoever said “the longest journey begins with a single step” must have been a clicker trainer. That idea, that everything we intend to do with a horse can be broken down into the smallest, achievable increments, is a key concept in positive reinforcement training. The idea is that by breaking behaviors down into small steps, we can communicate very clearly what we want, and build a positive foundation for the behavior without ever overwhelming the horse, or making them feel frightened or anxious. I knew I had to start breaking the behaviors I wanted down into very small steps, but I did not yet understand how small, or how this effort would change me as much as it changed my horse.
We had been working for about a week on just leading calmly and rewarding Brennir profusely for returning to the paddock calmly. He was more settled. We began taking forays in hand down the drive toward the trails into the woods, and for a while, everything seemed to go quite well.
Then, one very cold Michigan morning in January, I was leading him down the drive and he balked, less than 25 feet from his own pasture gate. “Come on, Brennir!” He was ignoring the target I used for leading, so I gave a little tug on the lead rope attached to his halter. That one little tug unglued him, and he spun, tearing the rope from me and running back to the barn door, shaking. For a moment, I was SO angry at him. We had been walking down this hill for the past week, had walked down it hundreds of times in the four years I had owned him. Why couldn’t he just do this? Why couldn’t he just lead like every other horse in the world? I marched up toward the barn prepared to get him and drag him back down the hill. Then I saw him, maybe REALLY saw him for the first time, and my heart just broke, with pain for him, and shame for my own human arrogance.
His head was tucked toward the corner of his stall, his body shivering. He looked up when I came closer, drew back from me for a moment, and then, when I made no move to grab him, leaned his head against my chest, shutting out the world. It was so cold; the tears were almost freezing on my eyelashes, a great cloud of white breath pluming as I tried to synchronize my breathing with his. What had I been thinking? I tried to imagine what it would be like, to be a 3 or 4 month old baby, with no one to protect him, being chased by a quad with the engine gunning, with no idea why or if he would live through the next moments. I suddenly realized, with my heart, that it didn’t matter that my human mind knew there was nothing here that could hurt him. What HE knew was that scary, deadly things can happen any day, any time, when he least expected it. He, I realized, with a great turning of my heart inside me, had a RIGHT to be terrified. It was my job to teach him that the world was safe. On that day, he started making me both a better trainer, and a better person, a person slower to judge and quicker to help.
After comforting him for a few minutes, I picked up the lead again and started to bring him outside. While still in the barn, though, I remembered more of the guidelines Shawna had left us with. “Keep inside his comfort zone’. “Make him feel successful so he is encouraged instead of discouraged”. “Click and treat him a LOT’. These were all positive ideas, completely at odds with pushing my horse through something that terrified him. There was another shift inside of me, more of my frustration at his behavior replaced with a kind of graceful love for this beautiful, intelligent, but wounded friend of mine.
‘One step, buddy. How about that?” We took one step. Click and treat. His ears perked forward. He had been prepared for a challenge, but not for this. We took two more steps. Click and treat. Then three. We continued that way to the top of the drive, but there he balked, afraid. “It’s ok, pony boy. Just do what you can” He hesitated so I turned us around, walked a few feet back toward the barn, and then pointed us toward he drive again. “One step, okay?” He nickered softly and took a step. Click and treat. Another step, click and treat. Once he realized I was not going to push him into anything scary his whole posture changed. He rounded his neck and flicked his ears forward, his eagerness showing. It was a completely different horse than I had had ten minutes earlier.
Soon we had clicked our way part way down the drive, but he balked again at a concrete pad visible through the light snow. My neighbor had planned to keep pigs there and a big metal automatic watered sprouted from the center. He had seen it a hundred times, but for some reason today Brennir was terrified of it. He balked. I thought he had shown enough courage for the day, so after asking for one more step and giving him a click, a treat, and a lot of praise, I turned him around to go back to the field.
Suddenly, he pulled on the rope, and I got scared, thinking he was going to bolt. He didn’t tear it from my grasp though, just spun us around where we stood. I looked around trying to figure out what was the matter, but then I saw his forward-tipped ears and the look of intense determination in his eyes. With no urging from me, he leaned into the halter, climbing over some dead weeds to the concrete pad, stepping up onto it, and touching the waterer with his nose. If horses could smile he would have. ‘Look what I did, mom! Look how brave I am!” he was so pleased with himself, so proud, and so was I. I gave him a click, followed by a ton of praise and treats. His lips quivered, which they do when he is happy, and he bobbed his head up and down and nickered in a self-satisfied way. When I turned back toward the paddock he followed me with no urging, having done what he intended to do.
When I had put him back in the field and given him more treats and love, I sat down and cried again, but this time it was from utter joy. Brennir had given me his heart and all the try he had, and though compared to the things other horses do it was tiny, for us, it was as special as winning the Kentucky Derby. We’d taken the first steps on a long journey together.
Hi everyone! Shawna is really busy getting ready for clinics, so I’ll be doing some guest blog posts. My name is Denise Bickel, and for the last six months Shawna has been helping me with my 5 yr old mustang gelding Brennir ( also known as the Brony), who was an orphan foal and has had a lot of behavior issues. I’ll be sharing his story in parts to show both how the insight Shawna brought to our troubles helped change things, and how we used positive reinforcement methods to help build Brennir’s confidence in himself and me. I hope you‘ll follow us on our journey! As I say when I we start our sessions, “It’s Brony Time!”
There are horses, and then there are horses. Every horse person knows what I mean. That one horse that looks in your eyes and sees straight into your heart, that you love like crazy, your heart horse. Except what happens when you find that horse, the horse of your dreams, and they turn troubled and angry and sometimes dangerous? It wasn’t the path I was looking for. It wasn’t even the horse I was looking for. Once I looked in his eyes for the first time though, I felt like I had already known him for a thousand lifetimes. He had my heart, from the very beginning.
I found my heart horse in a scraggly little mustang foal whose mother didn’t want him. He was about 40 lbs. at birth and looked like a bald, starving goat. His mother had been rounded up by the BLM not a few months prior. She had gone crazy, attacking another mare’s foal and killing it, and no one was sure how to handle her or what to do with the foal. That first day I saw him while attempting to give him a new foal exam, I offered to buy him, but the owners were convinced they would love and keep him forever.
Everyone knows orphan horses can have issues, and Brennir certainly did. In the intervening year between when I met this baby and he became mine, he had some experiences I wish I could erase. He was isolated from other horses. They chased him with the 4-wheeler as a “game” almost every day. I am sure now that he was lost in the world. When they decided to get rid of him, I only found out about it because I was there looking at another horse. I offered to take him that day. I borrowed a trailer, and he got in without any hesitation, never looking back once. Even then I loved him with my whole heart, and I promised him and myself I would do whatever he needed to help him overcome his rough start in life, and be the horse I knew he could be, the horse my heart saw.
As promises of that sort often do, my promise soon proved harder to keep than I had anticipated. Brennir had a lot of behavior issues, some of them dangerous. When I first got him, he would aggressively charge anything that threatened him: humans with lunge whips, humans with ropes, dogs, chickens, anything. He would knock you down at an all-out gallop in the field, bite, kick, rear and stomp if he was afraid. He was alternately aggressive with other horses or completely detached from them. I was already familiar with clicker training at that time, and since any type of pressure provoked an aggressive response from Brennir, I gravitated toward that for safety reasons. While it definitely worked better than anything else had, we struggled.
Four years together passed.. He learned to lead, to move his body, to tolerate scary objects, stand for grooming and hoof trimming, load on the trailer, all the things a horse needs to know. He could be difficult though. I could not lunge him because he would charge me. He could be fine under saddle and then suddenly explode. I was told he was spoiled, disrespectful, dominant, that I needed to put him in his place. However, when I tried to assert dominance his behavior just deteriorated. Eventually, he became a riding horse, although not without his issues. I loved him, and he was a good horse, but I felt like we lacked the connection I really wanted, and I never felt like I could completely trust him. Most painfully, I never quite felt that I had fulfilled my promise to him. Then, something happened that changed everything.
I was in a bad riding accident. The details are unimportant except to say it was NOT Brennir’s fault. We were attacked by a large crane who was guarding a nest and I doubt the most seasoned horse would have kept it together. I ended up with a dislocated collar bone that was broken into several pieces, 6 broken ribs, and a punctured lung. I spent a week in the hospital, had surgery and it was over a month before I could do anything with my horse at all.
When I was finally able to start working with him again, I found everything we had worked so hard to achieve was gone. He had reverted back to his earliest behavior issues, acting flighty and frightened, aggressive and difficult to control. Instead of a skinny yearling though, I now had a 900 lb. animal with the strength, will and agility of an adult, charging, striking, rearing and biting at me. Riding was out of the question. I was now struggling with fear issues I’d never had before my accident, and he was completely unpredictable. Soon, I could not even lead him safely. He would behave until it was time to return to his paddock, but then he would have a tantrum, rearing and striking. He would knock me down and break away from me, for reasons I didn’t understand. Every day I would find myself in tears. I tried nose chains, the round pen, various exercises trainers I knew suggested, and his behavior just got worse, and his heart more distant. Finally, on a very cold day right before Christmas, as I was trying to put him back in the field, he knocked me down and tore away, running so far and fast he went across the very busy road we live on. By some miracle he was unhurt, but I no longer knew what to do. Defeated, I sat down in the snow and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. I felt I had failed him completely. I knew if I sold him or gave him away he’d end up dead, but I didn’t know how to help him, and we were both miserable.
I knew I needed someone to help me, but every trainer I knew locally used some kind of pressure training, whether it was natural horsemanship of various flavors, or a more traditional approach. We had already tried so much of that with abysmal results. I knew I had to approach him with positive reinforcement but I was so defeated and confused, I no longer trusted myself or my horse. A desperate internet search on equine clicker training led me to Shawna. I saw she was a professional clicker trainer. However she was in California and we were in Michigan. Never mind, I was willing to try anything at all. I emailed her asking if there was any way she would do an internet consult. To my surprise, she said yes.
We set up a time to talk on the phone, and that conversation would change my relationship with my horse forever. I had already sent her information on his history and the problems we were having so she had had time to become familiar with his issues. We made some small talk, I made some comment about his bad behavior, and she replied “well, you have to understand. He’s afraid of everything”. For a moment it felt like my whole world was turning around those words. This horse, MY horse, who charged anything that looked at him cross eyed, who would rear up and strike at you like a wild stallion, was afraid? I had thought he was aggressive, dominant, willful…but not afraid, not that.
I paused, giving her a chance to expand on this. She explained that orphan horses have no solid foundation from which to navigate the world. They have no herd, no sense of security. For whatever reason, genetics, personality or some effect of his early experiences he expressed his fear as aggression, but he was afraid. “ And then you disappeared, and he didn’t know why. His herd, his one secure thing, disappeared. He’s terrified. You go to put him in the paddock, and he doesn’t know if you are ever coming back. Of course he doesn’t want to go”. My heart broke for my poor, lonesome horse, as every problem we had ever had suddenly made perfect sense. I was crying, but trying not to let it show. I am a veterinarian. I know lots of trainers. I had talked to so many people, read so many books and internet articles, tried so many approaches. Yet no one had ever seen into my horse’s heart before. Shawna did, and in those four words “ He’s afraid of everything” I found the key to opening up Brennir’s heart to me. Somehow, without even meeting him, she knew more about him than I did.
We made a plan for working with him. I would click and treat calm leading behavior within his comfort zone. I’d reward him lavishly for the return to the paddock in order to make the separation less painful. It was not so different from what we had done before, except that, because I understood now that he was afraid, when he started to lash out I was patient and reassuring, using the target to draw him back into his comfort zone, trying to calm his fear. In two days, he was leading like a docile puppy, returning to the paddock without any resistance. On the third day after my conversation with Shawna, when I was finally starting to be convinced the improvement wasn’t just a fluke, I stood in the pasture while snow came down and put my forehead on his. I scratched his neck, remembering how much I loved him, remembering that I was still keeping my promise. He nuzzled me, and I told him“It’ll be okay, pony boy. I understand now. I’ve got us some help. You don’t need to be scared anymore’. He sighed, leaning into me. The connection I felt at that moment was indescribable; his posture so soft, his heart turned toward me in a way it had never been before. He knew I heard him, finally knew how much I loved him, thanks to those words, that insight no one else had had. “He’s afraid of everything”. There was a lot more work to come, but we had the new beginning we needed.
Listen in to the show and learn about how to encourage your horse to become an A student! I share about both Mint and Bugs’ personalities and progress of On Target Training and how we overcame distraction and disinterest and developed an motivating, successful and positive session every time. Click here for the link to the show!
What a great show! Listen to this week’s show where I address a hot topic in how to teach your horse to give into pressure through positive reinforcement. Click here for the link to the show!
Listen in on my interview with Speaking of Horses host, Wayne Williams. We talk about the origin and the latest updates to On Target Training! Click here for the link to the show!
Great show! I talked with Glenn and Jamie about how to desensitize and de-spook your horse. Click here for the link to the show!
Listen in to Friday’s show and hear all about how Bugs did at his first show! Click here for the link to the show.
Listen in and learn how to take advantage of the daily lessons we learn from our horses. We are always learning from each other and thats something that should always be reinforced. Click here for a link to the tip!
Listen and let me know your thoughts – click HERE for a link to the show!
What’s interesting about a Shop Vac? Listen in on the Horse Radio Network and see - click HERE for a link to the training tips!
On this episode, I touch on the common confusion between reward vs. bride when using reward reinforcement. Listen in by clicking HERE for a link to the show!
Here’s a tip on keeping an open mind on business plans for your horse business. click HERE for a link to the tip!
I got to kick off the new year on Rick Lamb’s radio show! Listen to my radio segment with Rick discussing clicker training and On Target Training. Click HERE for the link to the 1/1/11 radio show!
Horses In The Morning is “the first live morning show with an equine theme. A light, lively, entertaining daily look at the horse world and the people in it. Hosted by Glenn the Geek and Jamie Jennings and produced by Jennifer H. The show will include entertaining conversation, out of the ordinary guests, numerous regular horse related segments, listener call in, contests, giveaways and so much more.” I am now a monthly guest on Horses In The Morning and will discuss various horse issues through the use of On Target Training!
On this episode, I discuss how to begin On-Target Training. Just click HERE for a link to the show!
Here’s the introduction to my new video on Mounting – using positive reinforcement to help with horses that are young and new to mounting, or horses that have issues with mounting.
To view the full video, please sign up here and confirm the email sent to your inbox. After you confirm, you’ll then receive an email with the link to the full video. We will never share your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
Whether your horse is standing for the farrier, tacking up, or mounting, it is important for your horse to know how to hold still. Listen in and learn by clicking HERE for a link to the training tip!
In this tip, I discuss setting you and your horse up for success through the use of positive reinforcement. To listen in, click HERE for a link to the training tip!
In this tip, I address the importance of breaking down training into baby steps so your horse can understand what is being asked and at the same time your timing of cues improves. Listen in by clicking HERE for a link to the training tip!
I just wanted to share this link with everyone. It is Daily training tips for horsemen on a wide range of topics. A lot of good information there! Also the Horse Radio Network has several radio shows…all really interesting. They are going to be broadcasting from the WEG next month. Live broadcasts with interviews and a live audience!! I suggest tuning in!! This tip addresses the basics of positive and and negative reinforcement. Just click HERE for a link to the training tips!
This question was sent to me in FaceBook and I thought I would post it here for others who may have similar situations. I am glad to have a place to share. I removed her name just in case she wanted anonymity!!
So here is the question and response:
I hope you don’t mind such a silly question in your inbox, but I was just wondering what size treats you use and if it matters as long as the horse can smell/taste it and take it from the hand without problem. Also, how can you tell if the horse is being motivated?
I cut my carrot treats pretty small for one horse…My clicker practice horse, a horse that is extremely sound and quite loving/affectionate. I wanted to gain some experience with her first since she is an easy horse to deal with. It was obvious that she thought this new game was just too cool and she was clearly motivated. We got down target training easily along with some basic ground manners, ground tying, backing up without contact, and better leading She does not belong to me, but my neighbors kindly let me borrow her for this experiment.
I recently started working on my own horse, who has many problems, is overall high strung, and is extremely nervous in general from past abuse from a previous owner. She’s a much different horse temperament wise than the one I started out with. I really can’t tell if she is motivated. I did make progress the first day unless it was a fluke. She won’t stand still for mounting and I have neither a mounting block nor a saddle. She just dances around nervously and then takes off as soon as I get on. I tried to target train her first so I could clearly tell that she was understanding, but she didn’t seem interested at all.
I decided to try again with mounting and told her to stand, then rewarded her after just a couple seconds. I gradually increased the time and started touching her, then moving towards her side, putting a hand on her back, arm over her back, and I finally got to being able to stand on one foot and have my other leg completely over her. This was all in a matter of 10 minutes. I’m not sure if she was more motivated by the treat (small carrot pieces) or by the fact that she is desperate for two way communication after being abused and misunderstood. I just can’t tell with her, she’s always so nervous and stand off-ish. She wasn’t reaching back for the treats or turning her head much either, I was just basically putting them in her mouth. It doesn’t sound like she’s really that motivated, yet, she stood there completely still and about as relaxed as I’ve ever seen her in the round pen.
Am I doing this right so far or do I need to find a treat that she is more enthused about? It would be nice if she could act like a normal horse for once in her life lol.
Shawna Corrin Karrasch July 31 at 7:29am:
I am glad that your horse is with you. I would suggest that you try other treats and see if you can find something that she seems to respond to with more enthusiasm. Size and flavor can make a difference for some horses. Sometimes just peaking their interest at first and then they become more interested in the training process and you can then vary treats or just use some of their grain. When I am working with a bit in their mouth I recommend using something that will dissolve, like pelleted grain or sugar. Carrots will stay in chunks and they may not be able to chew thoroughly before I ask them to work.
However, I think the real issue is her sounds more like internal worry than the actual treat. You are making good strides with her relaxation but her apprehension may run deep. I recommend making the sessions be shorter and easier. Move a little slower and expect a little less with more reinforcement. Your on the right track but I suspect that she still feels a good deal of suspicion. Be patient and only move forward when you feel more boldness on her part. Often times horses won’t embrace eating treats when they feel some anxiety. The choice to take any treat shows some relaxation but that she doesn’t just get right to enjoying them could be a sign of some conflict in her psychological state. Maybe it is as simple as a better treat but I suspect not. I have also seen a number of horses be great on the ground but when the rider gets on they can shut down a bit. Take itty bitty baby steps (called successive approximations) Also it may help if you have someone get on with you on the ground doing target work. Essentially you are saying don’t worry about the rider just focus on me and the target and ignore the rider. This can help to change her association and to rebalance an established history and to re-establish a new, more positive reinforcement history. I suggest you move forward only when you have a enthusiastic attitude during the target sessions.
Shorter and more reinforcement per attempt will help. Also doing sessions before meals (or even using part of her rationed food) may help her food motivation. Eventually you will be able to do the sessions anytime or place but at first this may help you to set her up for success.
I also think that, if possible, using some kind of mounting block, step ladder, fence, something safe for her, will take a lot of the physical challenge out of the mounting process and can allow you to gently place your weight on her back. It can be very taxing on our horses. Also be sure there is not some sort of injury or pain adding to her discomfort. Check with your vet to rule out physical causes. Even though she may get a clean bill of health it doesn’t rule out the possibility of some past association with pain making her worry every time someone gets on her back. Fearful that the pain will return.. Whether it is physical or psychological, you can rebalance the scales for her and teach her to stand quietly.
You are on the right track. They are all such individuals. You will get there. If it is any consolation, my main horse Mint (he is in lots of videos from my website and in the book and DVD) was one of the worst horses I had ever worked. He would walk away from target training. He was very indifferent and a real quitter with no heart. You see quite the opposite now. Well, I hope that this helps you out and gives you some new ideas. It is hard sometimes to evaluate without physically seeing the situation. Let me know how it goes for the next step. I look forward to hearing of your progress.
I am technically challenged and yet I am choosing to tackle all kinds of new technology. I love how connected I feel to so many people with all of the options available these days. However it is tricky to balance out my time at the barn and working horses with my time at the computer. But here I go… First I want to give you a run down of the horses I am working and the issues I am addressing with each of them. I, personally, have two horses who are constantly being trained.
There is Mint, who is a 19-year-old thoroughbred. He seems as young as ever. He was at John and Beezie Maddens when I started really doing the On Target Training in a professional sense back in 1994. He has been there from the beginning. He was turned out for 7 years while I went through some of life’s tougher times. As I came out on the other side of life I brought Mint back and he is as good as ever. With him I am focusing on fun behaviors. He is past his performance prime but a great example of positive reinforcement training. I must say he was the worst horse I ever worked way back when. He was such a quitter. You don’t see that anymore but I keep that tendency in my mind as I work on new behaviors with him. I always encourage his efforts and try.
My other horse is Bugs. He is a 6-year-old appendix quarter horse. He has a lot of Thoroughbred in him and is at least 16.3 hands. He spent the first 4 years of his life turned out. When it was time to find him a job it didn’t go so well at first. He was too big for the typical quarter horses activities and bucked pretty good. He seemed to be a square peg who didn’t really fit with his owners. My friend Marcy took him to her barn and focused on getting him started under saddle. He was rather suspicious, willful and sensitive all at the same time. I came along and it has been a great fit. He presents some challenges but I feel well equipped to help him grow. Positive reinforcement has made a big difference in his attitude and he continues to make good progress. He has a lot to learn and I will continue to keep you updated through video and blog as we move forward.
There is also Haley. She is my dog, she is a Rottweiler and about a year and a half. She is pretty much a clown. She is also a bit of a chicken and totally sweet. She goes with me everywhere.
As for me… You probably already know about my history from my website but here it is in a nut shell… I worked at Sea World in San Diego for 10 years. I trained whales, dolphins, sea lions, walruses and otters. I trained them and did the shows with them. All of the training is based in positive reinforcement training. I recognized that these techniques were not being used with horses. I saw such a gap in the training equation. Horses had had great success without the use of positive reinforcement and I knew that incorporating what I had learned at Sea World would really improve things. I focused on learning how it was done through traditional training and then in 1994 John and Beezie Madden invited me (and my ex husband, Vinton) to move to their farm and work with them and their horses. That is where it started. The term clicker training came to horses from the dog training world and seems to have stuck.
I will use my blog for the sole purpose of being able to educate and share progress through on going training. I work other horses besides my own with various training issues. I will tell you about them next time. I also will share progress and I often film these with helmet cam so you can learn as we go. I also have a tele-training seminar/webinar each month. I get a lot of great questions and I will address some of these questions in the blog and some in the webinars. I really see this being a great resource for learning more about positive reinforcement/clicker training. I hope that you find this engaging and helpful. I will love to hear some questions and feedback from you. I feel like we are starting an exciting journey together and I am glad that you are here. Now let’s go get On Target!!
The Stable Scoop Radio Show discusses a ”different topic each week, you’ll get the scoop on what’s new, who’s interesting, and everything in between.”
I have started filming, well actually Mint started filming from his helmet cam. It is a fresh perspective on training. I enjoy seeing where he is looking and his view of things. This is only the beginning of many more clips from Mint (and eventually Bugs). The audio is a little quiet since I am not always right beside him.
I have posted the video from my helmet cam first so you can see my perspective and hear the audio portion. The second clip is from Mint. I hope that you enjoy this and I would love your feedback!