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.
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!
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!!
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!
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.
“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.
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. “>
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!
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.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of horses out there who are not as happy as they could be or who, even worse, resent the training process. We must always rule out physical causes but once we have done all we can physically we may find the problem is with their mental attitude. The great news is we can change this by adding something to the equation that the horses finds valuable. Something that he perceives as valuable, not something that we assign value to for them. By using positive reinforcement in their training program you can bring about big changes in your horse. You will get a relaxed but eager partner.
Here is a link for the early stages of getting started. Once you get the foundational work in place you will start to see a change in your horse’s attitude, even without taking it to under saddle work. But taking it to your riding you will be addressing his demeanor directly and you will start to feel and see a happier horse. http://on-target-training.com/freetraining/ If you have more questions or would like more information please don’t hesitate to comment or get ahold of me.
As a side note, I recommend Gerd Heuschmann’s work for some great insights into physical relaxation through bio mechanics. This also brings about mental relaxation which of course, is what we want.
Here is another Ask Shawna video answer. This is one of my favorite issues to deal with…jumping! The use of clicker training to help horses overcome jumping fears is amazingly effective. It helps the horse (and rider) to develop or restore boldness and confidence.
I have been a bit busy but I am getting back to my blog. First, I want to give a shout out to Denise Bickel DVM for stepping in to be my guest blogger. She did an outstanding job. She is quite a writer!! I heard comments from many of you so I know everyone thoroughly enjoyed reading about her journey with Brennir. I would love to incorporate more real stories or experiences on my blog. So, if you have a story (or stories) about using clicker/positive reinforcement that you would like to share, I would love to get them out there. I think it is a huge help for everyone to hear stories of how “real” people put the training to use with their horse in their situation. There are millions of ways to use the training and I LOVE hearing about them. Let’s get some of those stories out there so we can spread the word. You don’t need to be a great writer, in other words, don’t compare yourself to Denise and her writing…if we did I wouldn’t be writing on my blog either…and if you have pictures to include that would be great too. If you are interested please let me know. Come on guys…don’t let me down, I know there are some great stories lurking out there!
Okay, on a more somber note. Denise and her horse Brennir are having a very difficult time. This past week has been touch and go for Brennir. They suspect he ate a toxic plant. He almost passed a couple times this week. He has had exceptional care between Denise and MSU’s equine clinic but his prognosis is uncertain right now. Please take a moment and say a prayer for them both. We can all relate to the pain and worry that she is feeling right now. Brennir is a very dear part of her family. The blog posts gave us a glimpse into her heart and she clearly has a very special bond with him. It breaks my heart just thinking about their situation. Thanks guys for being such a compassionate and caring group of horse people.
This is an Ask Shawna video answer to a question, sent in by Lucy, about a horse who has had some trauma related to the trailer. I discuss some ideas about how to get back on target. BTW, I have a trailer loading video coming out some time in the next week or two so keep your eyes peeled if this is something you want to learn more about.
I wanted to say thank you to everyone for your great feedback and sharing your stories. It really is my reinforcement. Lately I have been busy with filming/editing for new DVD’s…boy is it hard work!! Today, I did an interview for Jane Savoie’s Dressage Mentor. That was fun and a welcome break from the technical challenges of DVD production. I also wanted to take a minute and make sure you were all aware of the new clinic dates on the calendar…
-Southern Pines, NC, June 9-10, Jane McClaren, firstname.lastname@example.org (910) 528-1308
-Olivehein, CA, June 30, July 1, Kimberly Hart, email@example.com (858) 472-1626
-Santa Fe, NM, August 11-12, Gilly Slayter-Voightlander, firstname.lastname@example.org (505) 670-2325
-Adena, OH, September 15-16, Dianne Kirk, (740) 546-4538
I love teaching clinic…they are all different and always full of fun (and Learning) If you have questions or would like to inquire about organizing a clinic in your area, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I look forward to seeing some of you at these venues.
Bye for now!!
Love seeing your pics from the UK. Maybe one day you’ll make it to Australia! I just have a quick question. I am working with a horse that has a lot of nervous energy. I am just starting target training and he isn’t entirely relaxed about the target yet. He comes over to me in the paddock to do it, but I can see he’s got an eye on his escape route the whole time. I am doing short frequent sessions but I want to bring attention to when he is softening and relaxing (which isn’t really happening at all yet) but when it does I want to bring attention to that as you often say to do in your answer blogs. However, I’m not sure how best to do that. He’s still learning that the click means he’s performed the correct behaviour, ie touching the target. So I’m not sure if I should click when I see him just relax a little (and not neccessarily touched the target) or just feed and say good boy. Will he relate the click to the relaxation? I’m afraid he’ll relate it to something entirely different and I might inadvertently create a alternate behaviour. Thanks Leone (I guess not such a quick question).
I must sing your praises for a moment…That is an exceptional observation and one that a lot of people overlook!! You can build tension into behaviors that may overtly look calm. Standing quietly with their jaw clenched, or head raised up, or tension in their body is definitely not the same as standing quietly with relaxation and softness. Swinging their head at a target is not the same as gently touching the target. This goes with any behavior. Attitude is the most important element of any behavior, period. A great looking behavior is nothing unless it is done with a good attitude. That is why I am such a big proponent of working at liberty. It gives them the freedom to express their worries or concerns as well as there is no subtle coercion. What may appear subtle to us is often deep rooted for the horse trained with pressure and release. Working at liberty just builds a better attitude. I must say I am impressed with your awareness to those details and that alone tells me you are going to go very far with your horse (I am still smiling!)
I recommend that you don’t work on the targeting with him yet but instead just focus on the standing and relaxing while you condition him to the sound of the clicker. Just wait for him to soften, exhale, any sign of relaxation. Even the slightest bit. I try to watch the ears, the eyes, the mouth, nose, jaw, head carriage and body language. The softness will increase once he gets the idea. There is a point when even the most worried of horses gets tired of holding in all of that tension and takes a break. Draw attention to that moment.
Since it seems like he is keeping his escape route open, I suggest maybe starting on the other side of the fence. Maybe this way he will feel a little safer and more relaxed. Also, sometimes squatting down (if you feel it is safe to do with him) will help to remove some suspiciousness and again help him to feel more comfortable. The lower you are the less threatening you will seem. Maybe even sit down outside the fence line if your situation still allows you to feed him from there. Another thing that works for some horses it to walk a bit. Sometimes just the act of walking can help them to focus on walking instead of their tension. Also, when you walk away, you are retreating which can build his confidence. I am confident you will be able to read him and see which thing (or combination of things) works best for him. As you see him consistently being soft and settled, slowly fade out the tools you used to help set him up for success. For example, when he is routinely nice and calm with you outside of the paddock then step inside the paddock and follow the same steps until he is staying calm again.
Once he is consistent with relaxing and seems more trustful, with you two standing together, then I would re-introduce the target. I suggest starting with the target in your hand, down by your side, and continue with the relaxation exercises while not drawing attention to the target. Some horses view something in your hands as a threat. So, for the next step I recommend you keep it slow and low until he learns the target is a safe thing. That usually doesn’t take too long. Also it may help to go back to the early steps you used to help set him up for success. If he was more comfortable with you sitting or squatting, start the target while sitting or squatting, or outside of the paddock or whatever seems to help. You have also got the right idea with the short and very reinforcing sessions. However, it may take a bit longer to wait out his tension until he finally relaxes a bit. I know you will get it worked out, especially since you recognized it on your own in the first place.
As for a visit down under…I have been getting a lot of interest from Australia and requests for clinics. If you know of a group of people or a facility that may be interested in hosting a clinic I think it would not be too hard to organize. Just something to keep in mind. Otherwise, please keep me posted of your progress with your wary horse. I am here to help along the way. Keep up the good work and exceptional observations!!
I just had a colt born on 4/14/12. He is 9 days old now. Up to now, I have been going to the paddock area where he and his mother are and fairly easily catching him and holding him and petting him and talking to him for a few minutes twice a day. (I did imprint him about 2 hours after he was born). Today (at 9 days), I could not catch him — he is running away. My husband did catch him, and we both held him and petted him and talked to him. Should I be leaving him alone at this point and NOT chasing him? Am I reinforcing inappropriate behavior with him running away from me? Aren’t I supposed to be petting and handling him at this stage daily to get him used to it, or should I lay off? If so, for how long? For several days, we have also been putting a halter on him and then removing it, just to get him used to it. Obviously, we are new at this. What should and shouldn’t we be doing at this stage — just sitting in the paddock and watching him and letting him get used to us and see that we won’t hurt him? Help! Thanks very much!
I am very happy to hear of your new addition!! Okay let’s get down to business…definitely stop chasing him. He is clearly expressing how he feels about being handled. I imagine it is too much stimulus right now. It is probably overwhelming him and he is trying to avoid it. I think you have the right idea just hanging out with him and his mom in the paddock. Let him get to know you on his own terms. Since he is now a little wary of your presence it may take him a little time until he begins to relax around you. There are some things I would suggest you try. First, stop trying to pursue him but instead have good quality, relaxed time with mom. Horses, being social animals, are vicarious learners. This means they learn through observation. Your little guy will learn a lot about life (and survival) by watching and mimicking his mom. If she is calm, relaxed and interested in you, he will, more than likely, become that way too. If she approaches you and looks forward to your presence, he will learn that this is how to respond to humans. I recommend working on building that bond with her and let him observe her interest in you. I would also suggest having him watch you put the halter on and off of mom, handling her feet, touching her all over, etc. I would do these things at liberty, in the paddock, where he is free to watch and see her choice to stand quietly. This is only if she is good and relaxed with these things (I am assuming that she is) otherwise he will remember her fear and worry. If she is not comfortable with theses things, I would definitely work on it ASAP utilizing positive reinforcement and progressing in small steps to get her relaxed, but that would be an issue to be addressed in a separate post.
Also, I suggest not trying to approach him. In fact I think if he approaches you, that you should calmly retreat a bit. This will build his confidence around you. I suspect right now he is probably a little fearful of being handled and chased but when you change your demeanor and your intent he will start to build trust. When hanging out try being low to the ground. It is less intimidating to the young or worried horse. When you squat or sit down they will feel safer and become bolder. Of course you need to be sure that it is safe to do this in your environment. When he is very comfortable around you again, try scratching his withers. Most babies find this very enjoyable and will scratch each others withers. However, be aware that he may want to reciprocate by scratching you back. Quietly reposition yourself (or his head) so he can’t reach you. I know from experience that these things will help you re-establish a good relationship with your new colt. On my blog, I have suggestions for useful things to teach young horses once they are weaned, well, you may actually start before they are weaned. Use the search bar and search: Teaching a Foal: Starting Them off Right. It is an exiting time. Enjoy the journey with your new foal. Please keep me posted on your progress.
I recently adopted a 5 year old Morgan who is terrified of the fly spray bottle. He tries to turn and bolt if he just hears it spray. I’ve gotten him to allow me to spray him on his left side but when I try to spray his right side he again, tries to bolt or if I’m holding him he’ll act like he wants to rear up. Any suggestions on how I can help him?
Well, it is that time of year again, well at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. This is a common dilemma and one that is easily remedied using positive reinforcement. Horses, often times, don’t seem to like the feel of the spray touching them. Then they start putting together that sound (of the spray bottle) means I am about to have the feeling of being sprayed that I don’t like. Next thing you know they start identifying the bottle that leads to the sound, which leads to the feeling they don’t like. It is a whole process of association. Utilizing positive reinforcement we can rebuild the association with fly spray to one that they look forward to instead of one they want to avoid. Since food is a very strong motivator it goes a long way toward building a new reinforcement history. Everything our horses do is because of an existing reinforcement history, either they are seeking something they want (positive reinforcement) or they are avoiding something the don’t want (negative reinforcement). Every behavior your horse does or doesn’t do is because of this associative learning. Okay, enough of the Psych 101 lesson…let’s get down to what can be done.
So, Brandi, I suggest starting with a spray bottle filled with water so you are not wasting fly spray during the training process. I know the bigger problem is on his right side but I would suggest starting on the left side. We want to go through the small steps on the left side first since we will have the most success there and this will allow us the most opportunity for reinforcement. During this process we will be building a good association with the fly spray, so by the time we get to the more troublesome right side we have a little more…well, clout. You may also let him smell the bottle before you get started, sometimes this helps them settle a bit. I usually start by standing next to the horse with one hand on his shoulder or flank. Touching them usually has a calming effect but it also allows me to feel their level of anxiety. With the other hand I reach out and spray the bottle in the opposite direction. I try to make it as far away as I can reach at first. Since his reaction to the spraying seems to be a bit more severe, I suspect he may get a bit tense. Keep spraying until you detect the slightest bit of relaxation. Often times I feel it first in their bodies but it may be that you see the head lower slightly or the eyes and nostrils soften. When you sense relaxation you want to click and reinforce. You may use another bridge signal besides a clicker (verbal, whistle, etc) but I will refer to the bridge signal as a click for this post. It is important to keep in mind that your horse will remember what he was doing when he earned the click so you want to click on the behavior you would like to see repeated. In this case you want relaxation.
We are starting where he is most comfortable because it is one of the ways you can set him up for success. If you start with the troubled side you probably wouldn’t get a chance to draw attention to the correct behavior since he is less likely to stand still. Also try to think what other things you can do to ensure his success. Does he have a place he is more comfortable? Is he better after a turn out or some exercise? You may fade these things out down the line but for now if it may help him to be more relaxed. Another thing I would recommend is to give him a choice. If you can work him without a halter and lead rope that would be the best way to start. Maybe in a stall or round pen or even a paddock. But at the very least have him in a halter with a lead rope but don’t use it to restrain him. Keep it as slack as possible and allow him to wander to the end of the lead rope if he chooses. He will be more relaxed and progress faster when he feels he has options. When using positive reinforcement the horse is very interested in training since their is something in it for him so he will make good decisions as he builds a new reinforcement history.
Next, when he is consistently standing quietly for this spraying into the air, slowly begin closing the angle getting nearer to his body. You may also start with spraying it downward and slowly move it upward. Never move the spray bottle closer until he is absolutely relaxed with the previous step. Continue with this process. When he is ready for the spray to touch him I recommend starting with the lower legs. They are usually the least reactive to the spray touching their legs, however, they are individuals and he may respond differently. The idea is to start where he will be the most relaxed. By now he should have the idea that relaxation is what gets him rewarded so he will be trying to practice this new behavior. Continue with the same slow, gradual process while spraying different areas of his body. Reinforce for relaxation and good choices.
It is important to allow him time to process his lessons. Don’t start out with the expectation of spraying him on the first day. All good training is a series of small, clear steps called successive approximations. I recommend allowing him to set the pace. It may be a few days or maybe a week. It is better to go too slow then too fast. I also suggest doing short sweet sessions. Keep them around 5 minutes and lots of food reinforcement. Since the presence of the fly spray bottle probably still brings him some anxiety at this point the short session can serve as a reinforcement in the early stages.
Okay, once he is rock solid on the left side it is time to start the process again but this time on the right side. The left side probably went pretty well since he isn’t as worried about that side. However, the time spent on the left side will serve us well on the right. We have taught him how to behave when he is being sprayed, to stand quietly and not because he has no choice but because there is something in it for him. In the process he has learned that the spray bottle is a good thing, not to be feared. However, we should not assume the same lesson will carry directly over to the right side, often times it doesn’t at first. I suspect he will progress quickly through the steps this time but, again, I let him dictate the pace. As you get him solid on both sides, I would suggest trying not to startle him by spraying him when he isn’t expecting it. Maybe give him a bit of a warning shot off to the side. This way he know what is coming next. Even the most seasoned horse can still be startled by a sudden spray. When he is calm and confident about the whole process I suggest moving to actual fly spray. Keep in mind the smell may remind him of the old association. So take a couple steps back to start. This will help remind him of the new process. Also, this is pretty much a no brainer, but I want to remind everyone to never spray fly spray around your horse’s face or eyes. Spraying a little on a washcloth and rubbing the areas will be a better solution.
I made an assumption that your horse knows about the early stages of clicker training…if not, there is a little more info on the first video in this free series: DeSpooking Your Horse 3-part video series.
Okay Brandi, I know this sounds like a lot of steps but I just wanted to cover as many steps as possible. Your horse will probably fly right through some parts and slower at others but it won’t be long until fly spray is a non-issue. As he has consistently shown he is unfazed by the whole process you may slowly start to fade how often you feed him for the correct behavior. I would still recommend feeding him now and then, as a way to say thank you but it won’t be necessary to maintain his calm attitude about fly spray. If you have more questions or need some help along the way please let me know, I am happy to help. The same goes for anyone else reading this post. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. If you know of someone who is having a similar issue, feel free to share this post with them via the Facebook, Twitter or email buttons below. Thanks guys!!
I am addressing two questions in this blog post. One was sent in after the video was recorded but they are both along the same lines. Here they are:
1) How do I get my horse to stop biting me while leading?
2)I have a new horse and want to start him on target training. He’s very mouthy and nips alot, is there something besides treats and pellets I can use that is as effective to give as a reward?
I have addressed some of this in the video below. But, as usual, I want to expound on my answer a bit.
Did you know I have fixed mouthiness and biting in horses by hand feeding? Hand feeding is not the problem it is whatever behavior is happening when we offer the food. Us humans often times, unintentionally, feed our horses for unwanted behavior. It all comes down to our awareness of the behavior principles that govern our horses lives. Something I want you to keep in mind…If any behavior increases in frequency, then something is reinforcing that behavior. If you are seeing more mouthiness and biting it is because that behavior is resulting in some sort reinforcement. However, it is not always easy to identify the reinforcer.
There are two types of reinforcers: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement means they are seeking something they want, something is added to the equation. Negative means they are trying to avoid something they don’t want, it is removed from the equation. This is a tricky concept for some folks since we tend to think of these terms with an emotional slant. People interpret negative reinforcement as punishment or other harsh methods and they think positive reinforcement means anything we offer with good intentions. Both of these descriptions is incorrect. These terms were written by people with a math/science orientation. The positive reinforcement indicates something that your horse wants and will seek out on his own. When this is added to the training equation it increases the frequency of the behavior that precedes the reinforcer. Negative reinforcement means something they want to avoid. When this is removed from the equation it increases the frequency of the behavior that precedes it’s removal. For example, when we are teaching our horse to stop or slow down, using traditional training, we apply pressure to the halter (via lead rope) or bit (via reins). When they respond correctly we remove the pressure, we soften. Our horses are working for the removal of this pressure, the softening of our hands. When our horses are learning to lunge or do round pen work we apply pressure via lunge whip and or body position. When they respond correctly we relent with the driving pressure by dropping our hand or changing the position of our bodies. This change serves to reinforce the horse. The legs and seat serve the same purpose when riding. Our horses are trying to figure out what to do to have the pressure go away…to be subtracted from the training equation. I always suggest we try to think of positive and negative reinforcement the same way we think about positive and negative numbers. There is no good or bad number but instead numbers that are added or subtracted from the equation. The above examples are all negative reinforcement. It is a very effective training tool when used correctly. I think it is very important to understand the behavior principles that apply when we are training our horses. These principles were not made up or invented by anyone and they are in effect whether we are aware of them or not. If we want to be the best trainers we can be I think we should understand what motivates our horses. Okay, this may be old hat for some of you by now. However, there are always people who are just learning about behavior principles. So, thank you for indulging me! :0)
Back to the use of food…it is a very powerful motivator. One of the strongest for most all animals. The trick is how to use it in a constructive way and not let it’s presence become a distraction. Horses put a very high value on food. The value of a positive reinforcers is established by your horse and not by our human perceptions. Food is needed by every living thing to ensure their survival. They are innately wired to look for food beginning in their first hours of life. This makes it’s value, as a motivator, unrivaled by anything we have in our training programs. The problem often comes in when we underestimate the horses desire for food. They become very focused on what they were doing when they received the food. Their instinct directs them to search for food at all times, to remember where to find it and how to get it. They naturally seek it out with their noses and mouths. This has served them well their entire lives. Often times a horse reaches out for a “treat” and we give it to him. And there it begins… The good news is that it isn’t hard to teach them a new behavior. A constructive behavior that will serve us as well as them. I am going to post a link to a 3-part video series (on de-spooking your horse) at the bottom of this post. You may find it helpful to watch the first video. It shows some of this early lessons of teaching your horse to mind his manners and respect your space. This will help you to see it in action, which is most effective, and save me some typing and you some reading!
The premise is quite simple. They will do what it takes to get the food since it is so high on their list of priorities. By giving them a new, better behavior, they will start to form a new routine. Everything our horses do is because they establish a reinforcement history (association) with behaviors/tasks/scenarios. Each time we have a chance to reinforce a behavior, we have just increased the likelihood of seeing that behavior repeated. Over time they establish new habits. The things they learn with positive reinforcement have lasting results. They will begin to look forward to all parts of the training since it all forms good associations and this includes our presence. All of the elements become conditioned reinforcers. See the video answer posted below to see learn more about some things you can do to start working on changing their behavior..
Okay question number two. I address some of this second question in the text above and in the video answer. Remember the axiom I pointed out earlier…If any behavior increases in frequency than something in the environment is reinforcing it. This is in effect here too. By changing when he gets fed and being aware of his behavior when food is delivered, you will change his behavior.
However, often times our reaction to the biting may also be serving as a reinforcer. Young horses have a instinct to play as part of their social development. They need to learn how to fight for their place in the herd, to fight for/with females and defend themselves. If you watch horses together, especially young horses, they tend to spar and bite at each other until they get a reaction. Usually it is not a sincere act of aggression but more instigative in nature. Most young horse will try this with their humans at some point. Often times our reaction to this behavior can serve to reinforce them. We think we are correcting them but we may actually be engaging in their game of sparring. If the biting and nipping is increasing in frequency…something is reinforcing the behavior. I see this behavior all of the time even when food is not part of the equation. This is a possible cause and something to watch for and if applicable, adjust how you react. As I stated in the video the best thing to do is ignore it or walk away. By not engaging you will stop reinforcing them for this behavior. If they have done it for a while it will take a bit until they finally get the idea that this doesn’t get them the desired response anymore. This in conjunction with the teaching of a new, constructive, behavior is the quickest and most effective. This technique, in behavior terms, is called a Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible behavior (DRI) It simply means you give them a choice between two behaviors. They can’t do both behaviors simultaneously so they will make a choice. They will opt for the one with the strongest reinforcement history. It is pretty simple and very effective.
Next, as for alternative reinforcers. Food, air, water, sleep and procreation (to maintain the species) are the strongest motivators. Horses are hard wired for these things since they need them to survive. Other reinforcers are on an individual basis and take some experimenting to test their value for that individual horse. A lot of horse respond to tactile stimuli like scratching withers or other areas of their bodies yet I have found some horses find this just a notch above neutral. Some horse like to play with toys, some prefer turn out, etc. This part takes some knowledge and observation of the horse as an individual. However, none of these things will have the same value as food. I have found it useful to offer these other things as a positive reinforcement in addition to food. You can also strengthen these things by pairing them with a primary reinforcer to build a stronger association. Then they become conditioned reinforcers. But, again, we are back to food as part of the equation.
I hope this information helps you. Here is a link to the video series I mentioned earlier that shows the early part of the training to establish manners and to respect your space.
I am also going to post an article (below the video) from The Horse.com. It was posted by Dr. Sue McDonnell from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She heads up their Equine Behavior Program. Dr. McDonnell’s post outlines some suggestions about how to avoid feeding directly from your hand. It is more food for thought. Please keep me posted. I would love to her your thought, questions or experiences with your horse.
Hand-Feeding Treats (from The Horse.com)
by: Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB
February 01 2012, Article # 19536
QUESTION to The Horse.com
I manage a small boarding and training barn. In recent years our clientele has become mostly comprised of kids whose families are pretty new to owning or even being around ponies and horses. On the one hand these folks have been a lot of fun and very satisfying to work with, but on the other hand I feel especially responsible for and concerned about their safety in ordinary horse handling. In this regard I have been fretting more and more about the whole deal of hand-feeding treats. I am old-school and prefer to never hand-feed treats to horses, particularly ponies. But lately I’ve more or less had to give up trying to convince clients of that. The current trend seems to be a belief that a horse or pony without treats is unloved.
Hand-feeding treats creates the nuisance of horses and ponies constantly nudging and nipping at people. It’s bad enough for our skilled staff to deal with it, but my greatest concern is that somebody who is not able to deal with that safely, or even one of the barn girls caught off guard, is going to get hurt. I am especially nervous about the kids who like to hug and kiss, so are right there face-to-face with a nippy pony. Or, as is usually the case, when a pony or horse gets nippy for treats, the unskilled treat-givers often react in ways that create a head-shy, anxious horse. What are your comments? Any ideas on how to convince people that treats are not the best way to show affection?
ANSWER from Dr. Sue McDonnell:
I certainly agree that unskilled hand-feeding of horses can very quickly create a huge safety concern, and not just with kids. This issue is not much different from so many things skilled horse handlers do every day and take for granted, but then can be shocked to find that inexperienced folks are unfamiliar with potential safety concerns and can easily and unknowingly put themselves at high risk of injury.
You might wish to consider a method I have found relatively effective for teaching how to hand-feed treats more safely. Usually, this method avoids encouraging nudging and nipping behaviors. It involves delivering the treat in a very specific manner: Stand at the shoulder ¬facing the same direction as the horse, reach under the neck, and offer the treat when the horse’s muzzle is just off center to the opposite side.
This also is a great example of counter-conditioning: training or substituting a desirable behavior that is incompatible with an undesirable one. The horse cannot nudge or nip at you and instead turns and holds his head slightly away from you. You can continue by shaping the horse to hold that position quietly for longer and longer, just as a dog is trained to sit-stay. You can also add in the verbal prompt to let the pony know it is treat time (e.g., “Treat!”). Another instruction to stress to your clients is that if the pony gets in any way food aggressive–pushy or anxious for a treat–to just back off, say nothing, and walk away calmly if possible. Simply ignoring that undesirable behavior should help extinguish it more rapidly.
Read the unlikely story of a woman who quit her Washington, D.C., area office job to open the racehorse placement program LOPE in Beyond the Homestretch.
I learned the specific method of reaching under the neck with the treat from “On Target” trainer Shawna Karrasch, who effectively uses food tidbits to clicker- and target-train horses. Here at the New Bolton Center we use hand-fed treats in the hospital to avoid or overcome patients’ aversions to repeated mildly uncomfortable treatments such as injections, eye treatments, or oral medications. And even with skilled horse handlers, an obvious side effect of giving treats any old way is that some patients become so happy to see us for treats that it becomes bothersome to staff.
I have also taught the above treat-feeding method to a fair number of kids and ponies. It has been relatively easy for handlers, even those new to horse handling, to learn and use. In a situation such as yours it might be an acceptable compromise compared to never hand-feeding treats. It also helps kids and people new to horses learn some of the universal principles of behavior modification–getting them thinking about stimulus response relationships and how they shape behavior, how our behavior affects an animal’s behavior, the importance of good timing, and how to avoid inadvertent training of an undesirable behavior.
Before recommending this method, my standard suggestion previously was to only feed treats from a particular feed pan and to place that pan on the ground. When the pan was not available, he received no treats. This seemed to reduce the likelihood that a pony would become nippy in general and aim his treat-seeking nudginess toward the upper body and face of the child. In most cases it limited the amount of treats the pony received simply by being less convenient for the handler (the pan had to be present), which was both good and problematic. It cut down on the treats, but handlers had more of a tendency to “break the rules.” And, as you likely know, ponies are brilliant at simple associative learning.
Hi Shawna, Just a quick question don’t want to take up to much of your time. Do you have any info/videos pertaining specifically to training young horse with clicker to jump. Have put my fellow on the lunge over a cavaletti the other day and used the clicker over the jump to show him that is what i was after. Just not sure the path to take from here?? It sure stops them from thinking go crazy after the jump but also don’t want him thinking we come to a stop after every jump so let him to 2 rounds sometimes and clicked if he was steady and jumped it with out fuss??????? Any reading resource on this would be great??????? Thanks and have a nice weekend.
Jumping is one of my favorite things to teach horses. I am working on a DVD for teaching free jumping and addressing jumping issues. Positive reinforcement training with jumping just hasn’t been done too much. It is amazingly effective for horses of all levels. It builds such confidence in the horse. Like you mentioned, it helps them to settle and not get overly nervous or excited. Getting them started right helps to prevent issues from coming up later. So I am very excited about helping horses (and rider’s) learn how to jump.
I don’t know if you have the ability to teach him free jumping at liberty but it is a great tool. Not everyone has an open arena to work a loose horse or a second person available to help. You can teach them to jump with one person but there are a lot of other components to the one person behavior. This results in more attention to maintaining the other elements of the behavior and less on the actual jumping. The free jumping allows them to completely make the choice to jump, and it also helps to teach them about finding a distance. This latter skill comes in handy and helps to avoid some jumping issues down the road. If you can and want to teach this part let me know and I will tell you more about how to proceed. Also, I have some videos and blog posts on jumping that may give you some more info. They are not all perfect but the mistakes they make a part of the learning process. Here is the link if you want to take a look and haven’t seen them already: http://shawnakarrasch.com/blog/category/jumping/ (These are under the jumping category on this Blog)
It sounds like you are doing great. I recommend adding to the duration. If I click I anticipate them stopping. When under saddle I teach them to continue but that is a different scenario. We can discuss that another time. :0) So like it sounds like you are doing, I would ask him to jump then remain supportive with your signal that asked him to jump in the first place. When he accepted and jumped the next jump well, I would click and reinforce that. In the beginning this click is coming, mostly, for his continuation. As he grasps this concept and is jumping two jumps confidently and consistently then it is time to add another. continue on this path until you have built it up to where you want. Here is a caveat, I recommend still occasionally clicking and reinforcing the early jumps. If all of the clicks come at the latter jumps he will tend to put less effort into the early jumps since it seems the last jump is the only one that will get reinforced. It keeps it things from being too predictable.
When he is doing this well it is time to add more height. Go back to simple one jump at first. Then progress through the training exercise. When you change an element you want to recognize that this one little change maybe a huge change for your horse. You will then progress through the exercise. Remember to keep things short and positive by doing small, short session rather than long sessions. I have found things move faster and the horses stays interested.
Next thing I would consider is introducing the weight of a rider. You want him to keep the same mind set as the earlier exercises. We don’t want the rider to be giving any signals at this point as this may be distracting. We want to allow him to get accustomed to the new weight and balance. Still focusing on the ground person reminds him to practice his familiar exercise. Again, progress through the steps. Next add the rider’s cues (softly) while still on a lunge line. The ground person should still be doing the clicking but have the rider do the reinforcing from the saddle. We are slowly shifting the focus to the rider so we can fade the ground person out. Next the rider does the clicking and reinforcing. Then remove the lunge line. These small steps, that may not seem like a big deal to us, help ensure a smooth transition for your horse. This kind of process helps to set them up for success. It also sounds like a long drawn out process but it usually goes pretty quickly. I just like to be sure that I cover them all.
Alright, let me know how it goes and if you have more questions. It is an exciting time for you and your horse and I am glad to be a part of your journey!
REPLY: (to my response)
Wow Shawna Thanks for such a HUGE reply.lol You are obviously very keen on jumping and clicker. I was having seeds of ideas of how it could get the horse so much more confident about jumping. I want to really be able to let him know that was how you do it as you can’t really do that in the air over a jump! I do have an area that is big enough and, at present, my neighbour could help me a bit (she may be moving ??) She is also a clicker person ( you answered her question about her horse in the washbay. Leone) It would just be getting it set up right and if I have enough gear to do so?? I will look at the links to see if that helps me with the set up! This fellow is bred to jump but that does not mean he will love to jump. I think by doing as you have outlined above and clicker jump training him it will avoid the all to often situation that the horse gets scared and doesn’t enjoy the situation. Then only a strong jump ridder can get them around the course. I want the both of us to love a little jump course with a relaxed mind. Thanks and will be looking forward to you proposed jump DVD!!
RESPONSE: (from me to Sharon’s reply)
Beezie Madden, who is a two time olympic gold medalist, is who worked with when I started applying clicker training to horses back in 1994. She and her husband had a famous jumper named Judgement. He had a huge water jumping issue and clicker/target training helped him to overcome his fear. So it really works for every level. A little addendum…Remember to click on the behavior what you want to see more often. For jumping it is when they commit to leaving the ground. They remember what earned them the click. Since the it is uncomfortable for them to come to screeching halt so they figure out to come to a normal stop on the other side of the jump after they hear the click.
Having recently purchased a very feral 5year old who had belonged to travelers, I too have found it extremly helpful to use food as a motivator. After 3 months i have achieved so much with this horse through the use of treats as a reward. He backs up away from the gate to allow me in, stands when asked, lowers his head to put the headcollar on. I will state that i do not feed from the hand the treat always goes onto the floor for him. He whinnys as soon as he hears my voice and comes to my call now at quite some speed sometimes. If im out he watch’s my ever move and follows me every where. I have never experience such a bond with a horse before in such a short space of time. I am now trying to tackle his main issue – his feet. Due to him being tethered by the method of tying his front two feet together i can not get near his feet, instead he trys to rear up, snatch them away, kick out. Any ideas on how to tackle this would be much appreciated.
Hi Paula, You are off to a great start. It sounds like you have developed a great bond with your horse. Now let’s get to those feet. Right now he has an unpleasant association with his feet being handled. The best way I have found to address this is to start with an area that is comfortable being touched. Our objective is to get him to associate having his feet touched as a good thing. First, I suggest doing what you can to set him up for success. When does he tend to be the quietest? After exercise? Does he have a place that he is more comfortable? Is a certain time of day better for him? Find whatever may help him to be more relaxed. Next, I would work him without a halter and lead rope. This ensures he has a choice and works to build a horses confidence. Also, in his past when they tethered his feet, I imagine they had him in a headstall with a lead rope. That means there would be an association between the headstall and being tethered. We will address that down the road but for now we want to avoid things that may trigger his defensive reaction.
To begin, I suggest touching him where he is comfortable being handled. Our goal is to move down his leg, so maybe you start at the top of the legs. I suggest choosing either working the front legs or the back legs. Pick the ones that he is the least sensitive about and alternate between the right and the left. If all is going well, wrap your hands around his leg so it feels like it is being held and massage the upper leg. You may reinforce him for good relaxed responses.
I should add that having a cue that tells him when he did something correct will be very helpful for this exercise. It will tell him that what he just did was correct and a reward is coming. It effectively bridges that gap between those two moments in time. Without the bridge signal he will associate what is happening when the food is delivered rather than his desired behavior. If you can’t feed in the middle of the activity, you miss the moment and it can lead to an unintentended result. Here is an example: Once upon a time a woman was working on teaching her young horse how to lift her legs. She was feeding a reward without using a bridge signal. She came to me as she was baffled why her horse was pulling her leg out of her hand and promptly putting it on the ground. I asked her when she was feeding the filly. She reported as soon as she was done. Here was the problem, she was feeding the horse for her foot being on the ground. The young horse put two and two together…the sooner my foot hits the ground the sooner I get reinforced. She was pulling her foot so she could do what got her fed. By adding a bridge signal, in this case a clicker, she could communicate that holding her foot was the behavior that was earning her a reward even though the food came when her foot was on the ground. The clicker worked as a bookmark to pinpoint a moment in time. I think in your situation it would help quite a bit. I have a three part video that will show you the clicker conditioning process (and some basic de-spooking work) if you want to learn more about teaching a bridge signal. Here is a link: http://despookingyourhorse.com.
I am going to use the term bridge signal (click) in the rest of the post. So, when he is standing quietly and relaxed for the upper leg move down a bit and repeat. The best way to do this in the beginning is in quick short sessions. Lot’s of reinforcement in short order. So maybe you leave it here for the first day. Start again and repeat, making progress. Never move to the next place until there is no reaction to the previous level. Always click on the behavior you want to see more of, in this case relaxation. This whole process starts with him relaxed and builds a good association with his leg being touched. As you work down the leg he will recall the previous exercise. When you get to his sensitive area (probably below the knee or hock) start just touching at first, don’t try to hold or massage yet. We have to take small steps (successive approximations) with the more sensitive areas. Slower is better. If he allows you to touch his leg and remains relaxed, click and reinforce. If he gets kind of tense look for the slightest relaxation then click and reinforce this relaxation. Slowly progress to more massaging and then eventually to lifting the leg and holding the leg/foot. Always click relaxation and softness during this process. Slowly increase the handling and manipulating of his leg position. I would also work on teaching him to lift his foot when you tap or point to his foot. This must be taught to be very soft, relaxed and not lifting it to high. Too much energy in this and you may be reinforcing his lifting/cocking his leg. Before I go on I want to add: ALWAYS keep safety in mind when dealing with a worried horses legs. Keep yourself positioned out of possible flying feet. Dealing with this situation can be dangerous and unpredictable. It may be best to have a qualified professional assist you, so please, if you are the slightest bit uncertain, get professional help.
When you have had success with the first pair of legs, move to the other pair and start the exercise from the beginning. Success is handling with no tension or worried reaction. When you have all feet handled without a halter, it is time to try the exercise with the halter and lead rope. This may alter things more than you expect. We have a tendency to think like humans but for your horse this might be a significant change. When this is good, move to different areas and then different times of day. If you have any setbacks just back up a bit with the training steps and remind him. I know this sounds as if l like a lot of steps but it will go faster than it seems. Depending on the individual horse, they tend to move fast through some parts and slower through others. Okay, Paula I hope this gives you some ideas of how to maximize the positive reinforcement training for dealing with your horses fears. If you have any questions or would like more help please don’t hesitate to ask. I would love to hear feedback, progress or comments.
ADDENDUM: Utilizing something to touch his legs could be a good intermediate step if he is sensitive to touch in general. This keeps you away from his feet but allows you to desensitize his legs to touch. It may still be a different story when you are manually handling his legs but it will be a good approximation. I find the lunge whip is a good choice since it is flexible and will not harm the horse if he kicks out. Someone (Tina) had suggested using a glove on a stick. She stuffs the glove so it keeps it’s form. I think that is a clever idea too.
I imagine that this wash stall reminds him of something from his past. Maybe he had some medical procedure or wound tended to while in a similar wash stall and he associates this situation with an unpleasant experience. We will be working toward building a new reinforcement history with this wash stall, one that has a good association. Before you begin think of what you can do to help set him up for success. Anything that may help him out for now. For example, maybe turn him out before hand so he has a chance to burn off some extra energy. What ever you think may help him out. We will fade these things out later as he gets more comfortable but for now they may serve him well. There is also more than one reinforcer, or even two reinforcers at work here. One is the use of food as a positive reinforcement for relaxed behavior. The second is your presence (since he seems to get worried when he is left alone) and the third is taking him out of the wash stall. So be aware what he is doing when any of these reinforcers happen.
I am thinking that he gets pretty worried when he is left alone. So we want to work within his comfort zone. I would suggest working his time in the wash stall as a training session for now. This will usually help to keep you focused on his behavior and not distracted by doing other tasks. You may do a little grooming but it should not really be your objective for now. The small snippets of grooming tasks will actually serve to be building blocks for the end product of standing quietly while being groomed, tacked up or bathed but more importantly standing quietly when on his own.
Since it seems he is quiet when you are in very close proximately I would suggest grooming and then stepping back a bit. It may help at first to step away to the back and sides as opposed to walking away from the front which may cause more anxiety. This part will take a little testing to determine what is the most uncomfortable and then break that down to smaller steps or things that cause less worry. Okay, so let’s say, when you step away from him in the wash stall, he is good for 30 seconds and then he starts worrying. Click and reinforce (with food) at 28 seconds, while he is still relaxed. Your presence will also serve as a reinforcement. If that goes well, move to 30 seconds, if that goes well maybe go to 32 seconds. I would then take him out of the wash stall which is another reinforcement for his good performance. Keeping the sessions short and sweet helps him to succeed. He learns that if I am good this will all be over. Slowly build and build, more time and further away. Too slow is better than too fast for this kind of issue. Again, we are looking for him to practice the correct behavior, to form new habits. As you build more and more time I would also suggest approximations that are short in duration as well as the longer ones. This helps to keep you from being too predictable. It kind of keeps them guessing and on their toes. Also you may step back up to him and sometimes work on something he knows or is learning. However, keep it simple, successful and reinforcing.
Now let’s say, you unintentionally push it too far and he gets worried, I would not approach until he settles down, at least somewhat. If you constantly come to his rescue when he acts up he will think that this is how I get comfort (or relief) and his behavior will increase in frequency. That being said, you also don’t want him, or anyone else, to get hurt, so if he gets downright panicked you will need to keep safety in mind and step in, Then take some steps back to rebuild his confidence.
Another thing that can help is if at the end of these good sessions, have his dinner or breakfast ready and let him eat his dinner in the wash stall. I would put it in a tub on the ground so you are not holding it. We want to build up a bit of independence. Pretty soon he will look forward to his time in the wash stall since good things happen there. Well Leone, these are my suggestions for tonight. I may have more thoughts later…I usually do but I think this will get you going in the right direction. Please let me know how things are going and give me some updates! :0)
I address a question about a young/green horse who isn’t so good at going straight yet. I have some ideas and suggestions how to utilize positive reinforcement to help her focus on the training. I’d love it it you would,” share”, “like”, +1 or comment. I enjoy your feedback and participation! QUESTION:
Hi Shawna! We bought a five year old appendix in June under the assumption she was green under saddle but not as green as we have found. Luckily she is super brave and confident and loves to jump but obviously we want her flat work to be just as good. Jazzy is in human terms ADD she gets distracted easily and seems to literally lose her train of thought. While flatting to the left there are two spots in the arena where she forgets to continue going straight. And if I circle her and take her right back she is normally fine. Any ideas? We were thinking of longing in side reins because she may not be as balanced as I think. I also need to get a better set of spurs. I was just wondering if there was a training technique to help a baby focus a little better.
I hope this helps, I would love to hear how things are going with her. :0)
I love this question! Tiffany asks about teaching her horse to accept hot shoeing. Her farrier is coming on this day. She has started the target training so her mare has a good start. Implementing basic target work and positive reinforcement while she is being shod will help her today but I also give her some ideas for addressing the issue a little more systematically for the long run. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!
Shawna- I have just received my clicker and treat bucket and love implementing them into my play/ ground work time! My mare, who many have told me to sell her, is responding very well! It also allows me to know I am not sending her a mixed signal She is not a big fan of hot shoeing, sometimes she will stand but not always! Often pulling away I am excited to implement the clicker in today’s visit! Any suggestions would be great Thank you for your knowledge and helpful tips!
Hi Tiffany, I am so glad to hear how well your mare is responding. It always does my heart such good.
I do have some ideas for her shoeing. There are many different sensations associated with this process. There is the sound. That sizzling when the shoe is pressed on their hoof, the sight of the smoke, the smell and the hammering can’ be very settling if they are already feeling suspicious. When I watch a young horse transition from trimming to getting their first pair of shoes I am always kind of impressed when they stand quietly. If I were a horse I am not sure I would be so calm.
Since we don’t really know which part she is most worried about we will have to assume they all need work. I am making an assumption that she is relaxed with trimming and general farrier work. In either case I would still recommend building up a good association with these tasks. If she is worried, even slightly, it will help her to feel more comfortable with these elements. Actually, she will not simply tolerate these procedures but actually look forward to them. If she is completely relaxed it will still establish a stronger reinforcement history (association) with this part of the process and that will help for the hot shoeing.
For these exercises I recommend picking up her feet, moving them around, stretching them forward like you are going to be putting them on the stand, put them between your legs and tap on he hoof, to mimic the hammering of nails, etc. All the while you will want to reinforce when she is soft, relaxed and let’s you manipulate her feet. If she feels resistance, gently continue what you are doing until she feels relaxed. Remember that letting go is a form of reinforcement (avoidance). Of course, always keep safety in mind. Dealing with feet has some inherent risks. Break it down to small steps going slow enough that she is comfortable. Never move to the next step until she is comfortable with the previous step. THe progress will depend on how comfortable she was when you began these exercises. You may start this in her stall or paddock. When she is good and solid I would also do some sessions in the place where she gets shod. You may also have a second person play the part of the farrier. You wait by the side and step up to reinforce randomly but she should always look relaxed, soft eyes, lips, ears and lower head carriage.
A good intermediate step would be to have her watch as other horses are getting their shoes re-done. Keep in mind horses, or any social animal, are vicarious learners. This means they learn by watching and react to the reactions of those around them so I wouldn’t have her watch a horse who was not so good with the farrier. Pick ones that are nice and relaxed. You may start with her back a bit and if she is calm move closer. While she is watching I would ask her to target, lift her feet and generally relax. Reinforce her when she is relaxed and when she is focusing on the things you are asking her to do and not when she is looking worried at the smoke, let’s say. If she gets a little big eyed simply and calmly ask her to target and get back to something safe and familiar. I would also give her some time just watching and relaxing, this will help to build her patience. This allowing her to witness the procedure without being the “customer” or maybe she would use the word “victim” gives her a chance to see what is happening but also to build a relaxed and positive association with the whole process (sight, sounds and smells). Sometimes just being able to see it helps them. When it is their turn they can’t really look at what maybe worrying them and this may add to their suspicion. Do this as often as you can. Always check with the farrier so you are not in their way.
Next step, when she is in need of being shod, I would first let your farrier know what you are doing and been doing. Even if they don’t understand the training they are appreciative of your effort and they are VERY appreciative when the horses have overcome their fear. I usually tell them that I will want to reinforce through the process but communicate with them before you actually click so they can anticipate the shift that may happen when your horse hears the bridge signal. So, it usually goes something like this: I take her to the farrier stall/ wash rack…where ever they usually work. I would have the target and ask her to target, click and feed a good relaxed response. This is to let her know that the target training session is in effect. It tends to help them shift from their old mind set (association) to a the new one they have with the target. I usually stand off to the side, a few feet away. If you are too close it may be distracting for her and she may be too much of a busy body. As he/she starts the early stuff I would find a point, communicate that you are going to click and feed. The farrier doesn’t need to stop what he/she is doing. I would then retreat and wait a bit longer. When all is calm again repeat the process. I would suggest putting more time between clicks during the first part, saving more reinforcement for her more challenging part. If it you like (and it works out with your farrier) you may also give her a short break. Remember that the break should only be initiated when she is calm since it is a form of reinforcement. If she looks totally calm I would just keep her where she is and let the process continue. THe goal is to fade out all of these tools down the road. If all went well, the next time I would put more time in between clicks/rewards. Then, the time after that, I would start being further away, etc. You are fading yourself out of the picture. When she gets over it and realizes the whole process is not threatening or worth worrying about she will just stand quietly like other horses.
I know it always sounds like a lot of steps but I like to break it down the best i can. These are called successive approximations and they usually go pretty quickly. If you think about it, right now there is no real motivation for her to get over this fear. However, when you add the positive reinforcement it changes her focus and it helps her to become an active part of the training process. She is wanting to succeed as well.
Well, I hope this helps to give you some direction. If you have more questions as you progress please let me know. Okay, Tiffany, i look forward to hearing from you along the way! :0)
You have been a huge help! Thank you for the direction I will work with her before he comes today so she will have something positive to look forward to while he is working. I will also build on the tools you have given me over the next 6 weeks until he arrives again. I will keep you posted! Thank you again for your wonderful advise to help me and my horsey journey!
UPDATE FROM TIFFANY:
Hey I am sure you will not be surprised that it went wonderful Before he arrived I went went into the stall to pick her feet. I clicked during the picking and rewarded with a treat, and I also clicked when I released her hoof. By her 3 foot I would say “foot” and she would shift her weight ready for me to pick up her foot. Also licking and chewing When my farrier arrived I told him that I was starting to use clicker training, he said he also has another client using it as well (he is very open to the natural approach). He informed me he was out of propane so we wouldn’t be hot shoeing today. I was thinking this might be a good building point. I followed your instructions rewarding when she was relaxed, head down. The first 3 feet went great! I found I couldn’t stand right next to her because she would search for the treat and I didn’t want her to be off balanced for him as he was under her. Her last foot she pulled her foot from him, I asked why he thought she did that? He said he thought she just got lazy. After the Farrier was done I asked how he thought she did? ( I already had my WOW moment ) he said she was “night and day!”
Thank you so very much for your help and enlightenment! I feel that because of people like you the horse world has been blessed I will keep you posted when he comes back and hot shoes Thanks again.
I try to address Vic’s question regarding positive reinforcement training and training “Whoa”. It is a basic question and it may be very helpful for those that are unfamiliar with how it all fits together.
QUESTION: What does your training do that teaching the command “whoa” does not?
RESPONSE: Hi Vic and thank you for the opportunity to address your question. The training, which is based in proven behavior principles, teaches a horse so much more than “Whoa” that it is hard to even know where to begin. I imagine you are talking about the sound of the clicker vs the entire training. Depending on how it is trained, generally “Whoa” asks them to stop. While the clicker does end a behavior, more importantly, it tells them they have done something correctly and have earned some sort of a reward. It is a “Yes” signal. The click also draws attention to a particular moment in time. They remember what earns them the click. So, if I like a canter depart or a flying lead change I can draw attention to that particular action. I may not be able to deliver a reward at that point in time but I can bookmark that moment in time. Technically speaking, the sound of the clicker is called a “bridge signal”. This is because it bridges the moments between the correct behavior and the and the moment when I can deliver a positive reinforcement. Another example of the clicker at work happened with a women who was teaching her filly to lift her legs. She had the idea to use carrots as a reinforcement when she was good. She did not use a bridge signal (the clicker). Instead she just fed when she was done holding her leg up. The women reported that her horse seemed to be pulling her leg out of her hand and placing it back on the ground. I asked what her horse was doing when she got her carrot. She told me that it was when her leg was back on the ground. The horse had made the association that her foot back on the ground equals reward. We fixed the problem by introducing the clicker into the equation. That way she could click when her foot was in her hand and communicate that this is the behavior that has earned the reward. I think it is important to note that she was still feeding the filly when her foot was on the ground but she now had a way to communicate which part of that equation she was rewarding. She quickly and easily changed the behavior. Better yet, she opened up a new way to communicate with her filly. I hope this answers your question an clears things up a bit. If you have more questions please let me know. This barely scratches the surface. If you would like to learn more about positive reinforcement training there is a lot more information and even some video sessions on this blog. A good place to start might be a clip that Rick Lamb did for his television show. If you are interested you may go to this link: http://shawnakarrasch.com/blog/2011/11/08/the-horse-show-with-rick-lamb-2/ or enter “Rick Lamb” on the blog’s search bar.
I address Marjorie’s question about maintaining her Foxtrotter’s gait. However, this really applies to any horse having trouble with his gait. One of the things I enjoy most about my position is that I have the opportunity to work with horses and riders from all different disciplines and levels of training. While I may not have expertise in that particular discipline, as a behaviorist, I can still make a difference in the horse’s performance. It all boils down to some basics in behavioral principles. I think this might be a good time for a brief review for those of you who are new to the blog and a reminder for you old pros!
The key is to draw attention (via a reward) to the small steps that are taken to create the behavior. These building blocks are called successive approximations. By recreating this progression of steps we are reminding our horses of the training which led to the final product. Furthermore, by adding positive reinforcement (reward) to the equation, we build a new reinforcement history with the correct behavior. Everything our horses do is because of an association they have established with behavior. An important axiom to keep in mind is: If any behavior increases in frequency, then something in the environment is reinforcing the behavior. This means they are either seeking something they want or avoiding something they don’t want. That is the bottom line. Sounds pretty simple when you think of it that way, don’t you think?
By stepping into any training situation and ramping up the amount of positive reinforcement associated with a task or performance you can modify behavior. A lot of people believe they are using positive reinforcement but true positive reinforcement is something that the horse holds in high regard. Us humans tend to use something we hold in high regard. Primary reinforcers are the most effective. Particularly the things that are required for survival. These primary reinforcers are: food, air, water, sleep and procreation. The first 4 refer to the things needed for the horse to survive as an individual while the 5th, procreation, refers to survival of the species. Since our horses are hard-wired for these things, their power as a motivator is unrivaled by anything else we currently use in our training programs. Food is clearly the easiest to implement and hugely effective. Of course, as I have explained before, there are boundaries to establish and maintain when we utilize food as training tool. Alright, I think that is enough for now. I can go on and on. Heck, I have taught a week long college course so I can talk behavior for a week straight! Understanding these principles is the first step to becoming a better trainer. Let’s watch the video…
I have tended to steer clear of teaching people how to teach their horse to do “tricks”. There are so many practical uses for positive reinforcement that I stay busy teaching people how to address their everyday horse issues. Also, I must admit that I dislike the word “tricks” when referring to training. Tricks are slights of hand and things that fool the observer. These are just behaviors like everything else we teach them to do. These are “just for fun” behaviors. Let’s face it, the horse doesn’t see the difference between a bow and a half pass. One doesn’t make any more sense to them than the other, yet from our perspective there seems to be a world of difference. The relationship we build with our horses is not based on things that horses naturally do in their world. When is the last time you saw a horse saddling up and riding another horse or a horse picking out another horses feet? We establish a rapport with our horses that is unique to us humans. I have found that teaching anything from the ground really enhances our relationship with our horses. Teaching “tricks” through positive reinforcement not only strengthens our bond it stimulates our horses mentally and teaches them how to learn. The last part of that statement may seem like an odd thing to say but horses who have not been exposed to positive reinforcement training have not previously been given the opportunity to make real choices in regards to training. “Trick” training helps to build their confidence and it actually tells you a lot about how your horse processes information. I have taught “tricks” for the sake of demonstrations. I have found that when I ask Mint to back up and the observer watches him back up for 50 yards, or until I ask him to come back to me, it makes a impact. If I were riding him it wouldn’t be as clear as to how much was the use of my aids and how much was really coming from his free choice. His Back-up is not any different than asking for a nice forward canter with a slight bend and having him maintain it without having to remind him, until I ask him to do something else. Having him perform it at liberty, without goading, intimidation or repercussions, demonstrates the horse’s willingness and desire to perform. And finally, let’s face it…it is just plain fun to watch your horse ham it up!
If you would like to see some video of the leg cross or other fun behaviors go to (search) this post on my blog: The Horse Show with Rick Lamb
In this video I address Vicky’s question about her horse who has been bucking when transitioning from trot to canter. I posted this to You Tube back in November. Then the holidays and moving took over my life. So, now I am getting this posted here on my Blog. Often times I film these short clips and realize I have not addressed some important points. I then pair the video up with the written part of the post which will address some of these issue. But I think this one pretty much covers it. However, I did get a question posted on FB the other day that is addressing bucking with the flying lead change. They are slightly different scenarios but the underlying issues are the same, bucking during a transition. I am going to post the question and response so you can get another case scenario. After all, the more information you have the better equipped you will be to think on your feet when an issue arises.
Something to keep in mind…Bucking can also be a way your horse communicates that he is in pain or having discomfort so be sure to eliminate any possible physical causes for this behavior before you address it through training. Once he has a clean bill of health you are ready to proceed. However, let’s say your horse had a physical cause for his bucking. Maybe he had an injury or an ill fitting saddle. So, you do what it takes to remedy the situation. Just because the pain has gone away doesn’t necessarily mean the bucking will go away. He may still remember the pain and associate it with a particular activity and continue to avoid that activity. You will probably still have to address it from a behavioral stand point. That being said, let’s get to Shari and Vicky’s questions.
QUESTION: How do you respond when your horse does something really good, you click, but before you reward him he does something really bad? For example: teaching a flying lead change. He does it perfect for the first time, you click, then he starts bucking. Would you still reward? Would you ignore it all together and try again? Or something else?
ANSWER: Hi Shari, That is a really good question. I would not recommend rewarding him for the behavior. Granted you clicked, which is drawing attention to the target behavior but you don’t want him to inadvertently associate the unwanted behavior with the reward. It could turn into what is called a “superstitious behavior” which means he may think it is part of the whole chain.
I would try to make a mental note of when the unwanted behavior happens. I would look for an opportunity to draw attention to that behavior in another circumstance. For example: go back to the simple change and click when he settles after the change to the new lead. I know he probably doesn’t have a problem with this behavior during the simple change, but it will help to build a reinforcement history with this part of the behavior. We want to teach him that relaxation is an important part of the criteria for reinforcement. This will help him to relax and settle as soon as the change is done since this is when the click/reinforcement happens.
Now, let’s say that he keeps being too excited after the flying change. In that case I would suggest not drawing attention to the actual change itself but instead once he settles after the change.
I hope this helps clear things up a bit. If you have more questions please don’t hesitate. I have some other tools to use under saddle that I will address in the next tele-seminar. It is just too much writing to discuss here! Please keep me posted on your progress.
This letter was forwarded to me by my friend Jane (Savoie) who is a big advocate of positive reinforcement/clicker training. We go way back and she knows how much I enjoy helping people to embrace clicker training.
I have listened to all of the audios on the Dressage Mentor site and they are fantastically helpful. In a couple of them, you mentioned clicker training and instances in which you used clicker training help horses get used to clippers, perform square halts, etc.
Hearing you talk about clicker training inspired me to try it with my horses. Thanks to clicker training, they now look away from a treat on command and can “talk” on command. I even am using clicker training in groundwork to help one of my horses learn how to perform a correct turn on the haunches.
I also have been getting my trainer to use the clicker to train me while we work on the timing of my aids, my position, etc. I think that it is helping me a lot!
I was wondering if you could share more advice about clicker training in general and if you had any advice or thoughts about how to use clicker training to help a horse learn how to do flying lead changes.
In the case of using clicker training for flying lead changes, do you think a horse could learn commands that instruct them to move their bodies in very specific ways (such as the command “left” to bring their left hind leg under them to switch to a new lead)? Or “switch” to switch leads?
Thanks so much for all the wonderful information that you share–every time I read your articles or listen to your audios I feel that you have given me a beautiful gift! I truly appreciate it so much.
I am so excited for you getting familiar with clicker training. A big thank you to Jane for introducing you! As it sounds like, you have discovered that it helps to change the relationship between horse and human. I also love that you have started taking it to other areas of training. Positive reinforcement training is something that I am passionate about. It can be used for teaching horses to do just about anything within their physical capacity. That in itself is pretty exciting and the possibilities seem to be endless. I am not sure what general questions you might have but if you let me know I will be glad to address them. If you want more info please feel free to go to my website. My Blog also covers a lot of areas. The Blog has a search bar which makes it easier to find particular topics or you can scroll through and see what strikes your fancy.
Okay let’s get down to flying lead changes. Positive reinforcement can be used with any behavior we want to teach our horses and this of course includes flying lead changes. You may follow traditional methods simply adding in the positive reinforcement or you can think completely outside the box or you may utilize a combination of the two. That is really your choice. My expertise is not in the steps to take to achieve the lead change but in breaking down the process and adding in the positive reinforcement. You have some great ideas and you are on the right track. One place I tend to start is with the simple change (I ride with a waist pack and a clicker attached to a riding stick). I click and reinforce (C/R) at the point when he has switched to the new lead. This helps to draw attention to this behavior as well as to build up a good reinforcement history associated with the change. One caveat, I would C/R once he feels relaxed with the new change. If he feels too revved up, I wait for him to settle into the canter. Since many horses get a little wound up when they are learning changes I want to teach relaxation with the behavior. I also suggest clicking and reinforcing all of the behaviors that prepare them for changes. Counter canter, counter bend, haunches in, haunches out and collection would all help to get him responsive to switching his balance and preparing for changes. Balancing out the reinforcement between all elements of the change helps them to stay focused and on track. This is a huge help. It takes some of the arbitrariness out of the equation. Sometimes when they are getting started it takes a big effort for them to shift their weight. Once they gain their confidence their changes usually get much smoother. I will C/R the first few changes as soon as the change is complete (no cross cantering). Then I shift to clicking once when they are settled after the change. This helps them to realize that the quicker I settle the sooner I may get feed. This helps the changes to get smoother faster. Once your horse is solid with his changes it is time to build the duration.
You can definitely work with verbal cues to accompany your aids or just on their own. Something to keep in mind as you start to use verbal signals, you want to choose words that don’t sound alike. For instance, sit down and lie down may sound very similar to a dog and this makes it hard for them to distinguish between the two. Since he is already under saddle with traditional aids you might want to use the language that he understands (aids), paired with his new signals (verbal) to get started. It is a great tool for helping things to be clear, thereby, helping to set him up for success. I would begin to teach him some verbal cues with something like lungeing. I assume he knows how to lunge and that it was taught through traditional training (if not, that will be a different conversation and may also be taught through positive reinforcement). I like to teach “walk”, “trot”, “canter”, “whoa” and “back up” on the lunge line or in a round pen. You are certainly not limited to these signals as this is just an example. This gets him used to the practice of listening to verbal signals related to the gaits and helps to set him up for success when you move to under saddle. I would ask him to walk saying the verbal signal just a moment before you ask him to move forward to the walk using the signal he already knows. C/R his correct responses. He will begin to put it together pretty quickly. By putting something in it that he values, he becomes invested in the training process and it’s outcome. Next, move to the other gaits. Change it up a bit to be certain that he is listening to your words. Also, don’t overlook the value of standing quietly. There is a tendency to focus on action and forget to balance out the behaviors with being quiet and relaxed between activities. When all is good and solid at this level it is time to go under saddle. Once under saddle I suggest you start introducing the verbal cue just before you use your aids. This will help him to begin to pair the verbal with the appropriate action. You should feel when he starts to respond to the verbal cues and this allows you to start fading the use of the traditional aids. You could add the intermediate step of having a rider getting on and having him respond to the verbals given by you and being able to support him from the ground since this is most familiar at this point. Then you switch the control/focus to the rider. However, I have found it usually translates pretty seamlessly and the extra step isn’t necessary.
To answer your question, yes, you can teach him to move a particular foot underneath himself. If you want to go this direction, I encourage you to start this on the ground and remember to C/R through out the process, break it down to small steps, do “short and sweet” sessions and do what you can to set him up for success. First at the stand still, to isolate the movement you are looking for, then I would begin to work it at the walk. When the behavior is where you would like it to be and he is consistently responding correctly I would get someone to be in the saddle and you on the ground. You will be offering support form the ground by being able to take a step back in the training be applying the steps that helped him to learn it in the first place. This will help make it clear for him and to his minimize his potential for frustration. He may be a little confused at first since he may not be sure who to listen to. First it should be you, ask him to perform the behavior as he normally does, basically ignoring the rider to start. When he has that worked out, I recommend you begin to introduce the under saddle signal whether it is verbal, physical or both. You should do this by using the new under saddle signal, promptly followed by the established signal from the ground. When he responds correctly I would suggest you reinforce from the ground the first couple of times. When you feel like he is listening to the rider consistently then it is time to fade the ground person out of the equation and have the rider do the reinforcing from horseback. When he is clearly understanding this at the walk, it is time to introduce higher gaits, starting slow and only moving up as he understands the concept at the previous gait.
These are some ideas and guidelines but by no means the only way or the only answer. There are so many options it can make my head spin! Also with individual personalities, sometimes the training process moves a little differently than you anticipated, be flexible. I hope this gave you some ideas and answered some of your questions. If you have more questions or want some help as you move along, please do not hesitate to ask. I love your creative thinking and look forward to hearing from you as you progress.
This is a question about using clicker training/positive reinforcement under saddle to help horses become more relaxed.
Shawna, can I ask- can you use clicker training to promote relaxation under saddle??
ANSWER-Ask Shawna-On Target Training:
Yes, it is great for relaxation. The positive reinforcement training helps build their confidence and trust so the relaxation really starts within them.
First I always recommend thinking what you can do to set him up for success, when is he most likely to be the most relaxed. Maybe after a turn out or longe? maybe it is a particular time of day or a certain ring? Whatever may help him to be his calmest. Later you we can fade these tools out of the picture but for now they can be useful. Once clicker and target training/conditioning is done you are ready take it under saddle.
I ride with a waist pack for grain or treats and I attach a stick clicker to my riding stick so it is easy to get to. As you are in the saddle look for the slightest relaxation. It is usually easily felt by the rider. As you feel the slightest softening of the muscles, lowering of the head or even an exhale, click and feed (C/R). Sometimes horses will soften more after a warm up, if that is the case warm him up a bit and then focus on those moments of relaxation. Some horses will be better before their adrenaline gets going, if that is the case I recommend starting right off looking for softening. Well, you should be watching/feeling for it all along, but try to identify what you can do to help him get to that place. So anytime you feel relaxation draw attention to it with the C/R.
The more you get a chance to reinforce him for softening the more often you will see it. He will most likely get the idea pretty quickly. Working downward transitions should also help. Starting with the slower gaits is usually the most successful with the nervous horse. Start with the walk to the halt. Look for the slightest softening or even the slowing. You may also teach him to lower his head as a behavior from the ground first. As he builds up a reinforcement history with this behavior he will be more apt to do it at other times too.
It is an amazing tool for helping the horses to relax yet be able to transition between work and relaxation. Let me know if you want more guidance as you get started or if you have more questions. :0)
This is an issue that happens with horses who have had very little interaction with humans (often young and feral horses) and horses who have had some trauma associated with training. This is a question from my Facebook Ask Shawna/ On Target Training page…
My new horse backs away into corner when I enter stable. I kept staying in one place and clicking and rewarding for last few visits but He still won’t come forward to me if I have no food!!!
Okay, Please remind me what you are looking for from your new horse. To approach you? Is he being stand-offish? What have you done with him up to this point? Clicker and target? I have some ideas but want to be sure I have a good understanding of the situation. Thank Maeve! :0)
Yes, I have done clicker and just started target. He is a worrier and spooks a lot so I have been trying to install trust for me. It’s kinda working. I will e-mail you to-morrow more details. Lately, He is backing into corner when I enter stable, I stand and wait till he does one step forward at a time to me and click and reward but its not working. Also I have used the target-touch, target-click-reward but the minute I step to him he backs again!! I am going to try again and again but I thought you may have some other ideas or info that I don’t know that are probably on your DVDs.
Another suggestion that may help if he is feeling wary is to squat down in a corner of the stall. If you feel confident he will be calm you can sit on the ground in his stall. If you are not feeling safe squatting or sitting, just lean against a wall and relax. Don’t ask him to do anything. Just sit, wait and be quiet. Click and reinforce when he takes a step toward you. Stay where you are (nice and low) and let him do the approaching.
I use this approach, or more correctly a lack of approach, on feral horses or naive marine mammals. It helps the timid animals to build confidence. Being lower helps horses to feel safer and there is no approaching them, which can feel imposing to some horses. It will let him feel like it is really his choice. There are no expectations. You don’t need to look at him the whole time. Just kind of do your own thing, relax and be patient. Offer reinforcement to him when he gets closer or shows interest.
Don’t worry that he is only approaching when there is food present. I think right now, it seems, he is not so sure about people. He may start out wanting the food but soon the association will change and he will look to people as a good thing, as opposed to something to avoid. The food will become less important and he will just seek human interaction. When he starts to come over more and feels safe enough to actually be interested in you, I would encourage you to sometimes just go into his stall and hang out, maybe read a book. Just let him be in close proximity with you. You don’t need to have food (maybe just a carrot or two) as it is less of a training session and more about bonding time.
Anyway, I think this will help to build his trust and ultimately his interest in people. This will help to build a better foundation to work from. As always…Keep me posted!
Thanks a mill, thats great. Will do that today. He does love people He is 14 but sooo soft and sensitive. He just isn’t sure. I have him only 5 months. I am nervous riding him as I am always waiting for a spook but I have to just get through that. It’s me as usual not the horse. I am not nervous on the ground at all have been around horses all my life. My last horse I had for 14 yrs. and I feel like I’m starting all over again and I’m getting older !!!! Thanks again M.
It worked Shawna, in one minute. What a clever horse, thnx
New horses can do that to us! It is like starting over on a lot of levels. Especially when you have been with one horse for so long. They are a familiar friend with whom you share a bond and understanding. The new guy is full of unknowns. It sounds like you are on the right track with him. Go slow and let him set the schedule for this exercise. You will know when he turns that corner and seems to look forward to time with you. Then I suggest going back to the target and moving onto other behaviors. At this point, I suspect his training will move along a bit quicker. Remember to be flexible and adjust to his pace. You are doing a great job!!
I am sure we will have more but that’s where we are in the training right now. Hopefully the story will be never ending. As Maeve helps her horse to overcome this issue she will move on to another task, continuing to grow as they move along in training and building their relationship.
Video answer. The real take-away from this question is the importance of a horse’s attitude during the training process. A good demeanor gets you a relaxed, focused and responsive horse. Positive reinforcement goes a long way towards building a good attitude and work ethic in your horse. Training is not only easier but your horse becomes as interested as you are in making progress. This carries over to every interaction that we have with our horses. What could be better than that? A sour attitude about training also spills over to our every interaction. As trainers we can and should focus on this as much as we do on training a specific task.
This video was made a couple weeks ago. Then I addressed a question via Facebook and reposted it on my blog. So these two posts go nicely together to cover similar yet a little different longeing scenarios. It seems to me that the motivation is different for the two horses. This horse of Evelyn’s is choosing to do her own style of longeing, er, water skiing while Carrie’s horse (from the other post) seems to have a fear based reaction. The other post is entitled: Horse Who is Nervous / Afraid of Longeing and Whips. Have a look AND listen. Questions? Comments?
Here is a question sent in by Peggy, but I have heard from a couple other people with very similar issues so I thought it was a good time to address this potentially dangerous issue.
QUESTION: I have a spanish (?) mustang mare who is 7 years old who I rescued from the slaughter house last year. She definitely has had some past traumas. She has come so far in terms of trust and settling since I’ve had her but the one thing I really want to “fix” is her tendency to bolt or buck when mounting….she is quiet and relaxed up to that point when you swing your leg over (the point of no return!) I have worked extensively with her on the ground, desentisizing her even to a dummy that I throw over her back (stuffed jeans with boots attached). I have begun the target training with her and she is VERY food motivated so I’m hoping I can somehow use this to solve this problem. The question I have though is How? Thanks so much! you have already been a great help.
This is was an update as Peggy got a start on things: At this point I can stand in the stirrup with her for quite a while without any worries from her. I praise her and rub her all over and then when I get down I give her small little bits of carrot. This is how she learned to pick her feet up for trimming and now she is a pro at it…with just little bits of carrot!
ANSWER: First of all I want to say kudos to you for rescuing this mare and for taking the time to discover the horse that is under all of the trauma. I have found, over and over, that the horses who have been abused or have suffered under harsh training, respond VERY well to positive reinforcement. They usually end up being the most loyal and committed horses. They have found a safe harbor and they never want to let it go. The rehabilitated horse can be a real diamond in the rough.
Your mare seems to have a trauma of some sort related to the rider getting on her back. It is important to first rule out any physical cause. Be certain that there is not an injury or soreness in her back, that the saddle isn’t causing her any pain. These things can certainly cause pain and a drastic reaction. Often times the rider getting in the saddle can exaserbate the pain. The association is made with the mounting process. Even when the problem has been resolved the horse is now anticipating the pain. Horses make these associations all the time. This is part of the learning process.
In your horse’s case there is certainly some unpleasant association with mounting. Whether the origin is physical pain or emotional trauma does not really matter as we will address it the same way. We will rebuild a new, better association with the mounting process. You are on the right track with the dummy. I love that you put boots on it!! You are also on the right track with introducing the carrots. We are just going to tweek this a little bit. The best thing to do is to break it down to little steps and to create the mounting as closely as possible. It helps that you have recognized a specific action that seems to set her off. It makes it easier to pinpoint this particular issue. Sometimes it isn’t so clear and you need to break down all the little steps along the way. We want to establish a good reinforcement history with not only the leg swinging over but the actions that happen before and after as well. We don’t want her to just stand there and tolerate the mounting, although for a little bit she will be in this phase, we want her to look forward to mounting. By using the positive reinforcement, we have a great motivator to re-balance the scales and her association.
So here is what I recommend:
Start doing her target work at the mounting block. This gets her attention out of defensive mode and onto something that she has had success with and enjoys doing. This means she has a good association with target training. This will start to change her view of the mounting block. She may not be showing anxiety with being at the mounting block but that doesn’t matter. The stronger we get the association with the whole process the better. Next, do the dummy thing again, this time with positive reinforcement being a part of the equation. So click and reinforce each time the dummy swings that leg over. Here is a crucial factor. Renforce while the dummy is still on her not when it has been removed. You want the association when the pressure or weight is on her. If you reinforce when it is removed she may make the association that as soon as the weight is off it will get reinforced.
At ths point I would recommend, if possible get someone else to help you for 2 or 3 sessions. You choose who would be better mounting and who would be better on the ground. It is easy to direct from above if you feel you are the better choice for mounting. I would have the person on the ground asking her to target. Clicking and feeding correct responses. You want to see her attention on the target and not paying attention to the rider. The rider’s actions seemed to have caused her bucking and bolting in the first place so we want to help her focus on something besides the rider. Start with the weight in the stirrup. If she is quiet and solid bounce around a bit shifting weight without swinging a leg over. If she is good for this I would suggest feeding her well and leaving it here for the day. You have given her food reinforcement but also quit trying to mount which will be reinforcing to her as well.
Next day you might try leaning your body accross the saddle. It is more weight but isn’t the leg yet and it isn’t such a vulnerable position. Always keep safety in mind as you progress. Keep her focusing on target training. Feeding her well for her good choices. Never move to the next step until she is solid with the previous step. I think at this point she will be focused on the trainer with the target.
As you progress, look for her to be relaxed always reinforcing her for soft eyes, soft lips, low head carriage. Try to reinforce as ears and eyes are on the ground trainer vs. the rider. Since the issue stems from the riders’s activity we want the focus off of the rider at this point. Progress slowly. It is always better to go to slow then too fast.
This next part has to be your call as it is a feeling as opposed to something I can lay out in steps. When you feel she is ready to try the leg over, do it slow and low while the ground person is asking her to target. This is a behvioral tool with a long technical name but in a nutshell you are giving something to do that has a strong reinforcement history. She has a decision to make, touch the target or go off bucking. She can’t do both. At this point in time she is loving the target and will most likely stay completely focused on the target. When she lets you in the saddle have the ground person reinforce her a LOT. You want to build a strong association,i.e. “Rider in the saddle is GOOD!!” The first couple of times I would have the ground person reinforce. Even lead her around a bit, click and reinforce her, have her touch the target. When she has been good you will begin to shift the focus to the rider. Have her target as the rider gets on (this will help to set her up for success) and now the rider reinforces from the saddle. I ride with a waist/fanny pack and a clicker on a riding stick or in your hand. Lean forward and reinforce her. If that goes well the next time have the ground person there with the target but not asking her to target when the rider mounts. The rider will click and feed once in the saddle. Then ask her to walk off, click and reinforce her again for responding well.
Well there is a pretty detailed plan for you. Of course horse are individuals and you may choose to modify as you move along. I know you will have success. I wish I was there to see her attitude turn around, that is the best part!! It is such a great feeling. I can’t wait to hear how it all goes!
Question from Stacy:
Hi Shawna, I can’t wait to get the training package! I am having trouble getting my horse to drink water at shows. She won’t drink til we get home. Can you help me encourage my horse to drink?
Answer from Shawna:
This is a new scenario for me but I know we can get her to learn to drink as a trained behavior. I have never had a horse who won’t drink any old water you put in front of him. So I have not experimented with these tactics myself. But I imagine you have heard of putting something in the water (like mint extract or electrolytes) while at home. It will be more familiar and a stronger association when she gets water that may taste and smell different than her usual water. That may help if you haven’t tried this. However, her problem may be related to nervousness and being in a new environment.
We will start at home and get it on a signal. Okay, the first thing to think about is if you know a time that she is likely to drink water. Maybe it is after eating or after being ridden or when she first comes in from the paddock. I have a couple things to try. The first one is called “capturing” and it can be done in conjunction with the other plan I will out-line. I suggest watching her at the times that you think she may drink. When she does, click and feed. It may help to be further away at first if she gets distracted by your presence. You can click as soon as she goes to her water. I am thinking she will stop and watch you. Step away but still watch. Just wait, she is still thirsty and will eventually go back click again, etc. This is how we teach the Sea Lions to holler. We just reinforce them and pretty soon they are doing it all the time (a little annoying at first) then we put it on a signal. Pretty soon she will be drinking water for your attention and reinforcement. Start getting closer and putting a signal in just before you think she is going to drink. She will associate that signal(maybe it is a point to the water and verbal “drink”, it can be whatever you would like)
The other approach I suggest is get a bucket to be her drinking bucket. At the times when she tends to be thirsty enter her stall with the water, set it on the ground and give her a point to the water, tap the water or even use a target to get her nose to the water. Click and reinforce. When she is consistent with touching look for any movement of her lips. It may mean you splash a bit take the water to her lips so she can kind of taste it or lick, reinforce any licking or moving lips. Keep along these lines and I imagine she will soon turn that lipping/licking into actual drinking. At first, I would interrupt it with a click. Then let it go a little bit, letting her drink longer and longer. Remember to click on the behavior you want to see more of, when she is drinking(or even flapping lips in the beginning) not when she has quit or moved away from the bucket. I also suggest you feed her alot for each of these approximations so it makes a bigger impression on her. When she is consistently responding correctly I suggest trying at different times of day so she learns to respond to your cue vs. her thirst. Next, I suggest moving just outside of the stall or paddock where ever she lives. Use the same bucket and the same cue. She may be a little slower again. Look for those baby steps we took to help her in the beginning to build up her confidence. When she is good there try someplace else. Pretty soon she should be drinking any place, any time around the barn. You can even have her do it just before feeding time. she drinks and she gets a jackpot of food. When you go to the show take the same bucket and take some of your water if you can for the first lessons. It will be the most familiar and will help to set her up for success. Set it on the ground and give her the cue. Go back to the baby steps if necessary. She’ll get it figured out. The good thing about using the positive reinforcement is that it also promotes relaxation within the horse and it may even help to settle her nerves at the show. Felling more settled will also allow her to respond to her natural thirst.
Well, I have never had to teach a horse to drink but I have taught a whale to urinate on command! I am confident we can get it figured out, though it may take a little tinkering here and there. Pay attention to her habits, what she seems to respond to and adapt the training to what seems to be working for her and your situation. Please keep me updated. I am here to help you along the way. I am excited to see this through to the end!