On The Ground
This question was sent in by Alicia. Her horse Sox has some separation issues. They are really coming to light when she is out on the trail. While the situation seems more evident on the trail, I suspect that this a problem that Sox has in other situations as well but her reaction is much more subtle. The unknowns that she encounters on the trail probably ramp her insecurities up to a level that bring out the more dramatic reactions like bucking, bolting and rearing. So I suggest we start with smaller exercises around the barn before moving back to the trail.
This subject brings up what I consider to be a VERY important concept and I talk about quite often. It is the idea of determining thresholds. This has a lot to do with timing and observation, which is key to any good training program. This topic could use it’s own blog post. However, I want to cover it here too since it is such an important concept to embrace and it is a big part of sorting out the issue of separation anxiety.
When we bring our horse to a new situation or stimuli that might worry him, we want to start with him in his comfort zone. I consider his comfort zone to be when he doesn’t change or tense up one little bit in the presence of a new object or situation. Essentially, he shows no reaction what-so-ever. By incrementally taking very small steps closer to the situation that causes worry we will be able to determine at what point (threshold) his anxiety changes. By this I mean the SLIGHTEST raising of his head or change in alertness toward the object/situation. The place where his comfort level begins to change is his threshold.
For many people this slight change isn’t even considered a reaction or perhaps it is just overlooked. To me, I see this as communication, loud and clear . He has just told me he is beginning to enter potentially worrisome territory. My job is to listen and meet him at that place. I want to build up his confidence at this point, however we will move at his pace…not mine. By starting at his comfort zone I can get him to try a little bit more and say “yes” throughout the process.
I try not to get “greedy trainer syndrome” by asking for too much. It is far better to take very small steps and spread it out over a few days or sessions. Us humans tend to hurry, set our own agendas and push it too far. This will often backfire on us by compromising their confidence. If we can go in small steps, quitting on a good note, followed by a magnitude (jackpot) reinforcement, we will make a much bigger impact. We should also allow them time to process this new information before the next session. The more they rehearse ANY behavior the stronger it develops as part of their repertoire. So our goal is to get correct responses repeated without pushing them to rehearse incorrect responses. We don’t want them getting into the habit of performing the wrong behavior. That is why it is so important to work sub-threshold, using successive approximations to slowly stretch their comfort level and helping them to make the right choices. As they learn to face their fears, in their own time, their confidence level will increase exponentially. Okay, enough about that for now.
In the video answer I give an outline of some steps to take and exercises that will help to bolster Sox’s independence.
Another thing I repeat often throughout my teaching, is that we want to do all we can to help set our horses up for success. By starting around the barn and in the areas that may feel safer for Sox, we can start below threshold. This will set her up for success and give us a chance to build a good foundation and history with doing the correct thing. As our horses get better we will slowly, over time, move to the more challenging areas (like the trail) and be able to fade some of the tools we used to help set them up for success. Once on the trail, I encourage starting with the smallest space between the horses. If you go too far too soon you probably go over threshold and cause undue stress and even anxiety. You will have better success if you keep the steps on the conservative side.
It is also important to be aware that putting the horses back together can be a huge reinforcement for the horse with separation anxiety issues, especially in the beginning when he hasn’t developed a good reinforcement history with being apart from the others. So when Sox gets to be right next to the other horses on the trail, we are reinforcing her behavior, whatever that might be. Ideally it will happen when she is nice and calm. When you are ready to do a training session on the trail with another person, it is very important to have good communication with the other rider. It would be best to discuss your plans ahead of time. I also recommend that the goal for the first few sessions on the trail, is not about going on a long trail ride, but as an opportunity to teach your horse.
Okay, well that went a little longer than I thought it would!! I hope it helps to give you some fresh ideas. If you have any questions or comments…well, you know what to do!
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!
Sabrina has a horse and and pony that she is getting started with positive reinforcement training. The first portion of this training is the trickiest for a lot of horses…or ponies. Her horse responded quite nicely and sorted it out quickly. However, her persistent pony is a different story. She is being kind of tenacious, instead of patient. A pony tenacious…now there’s a surprise! This first portion takes some good timing and looking for the smallest approximations toward turning their head away. This is the most important lesson they need to learn since it sets the tone for future interactions. The good news is that it doesn’t take long for them to get this skill worked out. Take a look at my last blog post to see a horse learning this task for the first time.
Often times people choose to ignore this unwanted behavior and not bring food around their horses at all, except for at feeding time. That is one way to deal with it but certainly teaching them how to behave correctly makes for a more well rounded horse, whether you plan to use positive reinforcement or not. When I watch a horse who is pushy when food is around, I will usually observe this same demeanor at feeding time. This attitude gets reinforced everyday when they get fed, so they have a strong reinforcement history with this unpleasant behavior. These horses are slower to give up on what has worked so well, for so long. So remember, every time you feed your horse you are reinforcing them for SOMETHING! If they are standing quietly, then you will see more of this behavior, if they are pawing or diving at the food then you will see more of this behavior. By simply being aware of what is happening you will be able to change their habits. I can go on and on about manners at feeding time but for this post I want to focus on Sabrina and her pushy pony learning to be polite in the presence of food.
I gave Sabrina a number of suggestions for how to handle this situation. One is to feed her pony before her session. Ponies are often on restricted diets and this can make the value of food skyrocket. By feeding her before the session, this is one ways we can set her up for success. I failed to mention another way that we might be able to set her up for success, would be by doing a session after she has had some exercise. This can take the edge off of their energy level and minimize the frantic seeking of food. Anyway that is something you may try and see if it helps her focus. As she gets the lesson worked out and knows what is expected of her we can fade out these tools that we used in the beginning to help make the learning less frustrating.
Watch the video for more suggestions. Anyone who is new to this training may go to my last blog post for more info for getting your horse off to a good start. Sabrina, please keep me posted and let me know how things are going.
Let’s face it…hand feeding is one of the biggest concerns people have about using a positive reinforcement training program. In reality, it isn’t very difficult at all to teach your horse excellent manners when they are in the presence of food. It just takes some awareness of what behaviors are happening when you are offering food. Each time you give your horse a treat, you are actually telling him that the behavior he is performing at that moment is something that you want to see repeated. If you watch the average person feeding a horse a carrot, the horse usually has their head and neck stretched out toward the person. The horse has learned to pursue the food by reaching toward the person. By simply being aware of what is happening and feeding when a different response is occurring, we can teach a completely different behavior.
In my eyes, this is one of the most important lessons. It establishes good ground manners, patience, and if done correctly, relaxation. Too many people, as they get started with using positive reinforcement, don’t spend enough time here (making this lesson a strong one and teaching the horse to make a conscious choice to keep his head and mouth to himself)
I made this video as part of a short series about de-spooking your horse. This was to serve as a brief introduction to help show people how to get started. Since that time I have had LOTS of requests for this video clip. As I look back, I see things that aren’t explained as well as I do in my DVD You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything. I also see so much that I was processing in my head and some are judgement calls based on my decades of experience. Being that this was to be a short piece, I didn’t really have the time to share my thoughts about these decisions. Being my own best critic, this kind of makes me cringe. Yet I also want everyone to get off to a good start. I often see people who don’t understand how to approach the first and most crucial lesson. So I figure, while it is important for everyone to have a more thorough understanding, at least this little bit of knowledge will help give them a good “jump start”.
Lucky Jack is the horse in the clip and he starts off feeling more mouthy than most horses. He wasn’t as aggressive as some but I felt he needed more direction than some so I “shushed” him away. This is not a normal tactic I use, but in some cases it seems to help distract them slightly, thereby setting them up for success. I also pause longer between some of the clicks…again this was a call I made. I felt it would be best for him because I was able to recognize a familiar and probable behavior pattern. So, I am recommending that you don’t let too much time go between clicks in the beginning. As you are both new to the process, this will help to make it a little bit more black and white for the both of you.
In this video clip you see me walking with LJ as he moves around the stall. I will only do this if the horse is calm and confident. If the horse seems even the slightest bit nervous I tend to stay more still, since excessive moving may cause some horse’s nerves to escalate. I tried to move slowly and calmly with him so he didn’t perceive me as tense. They are very responsive to our moods. If we get more anxiety, they usually respond in kind. However, if we remain calm they tend to feed off of that as well. So being quieter and allowing them to sort it out on their own, combined with a high rate of reinforcement for even the slightest effort, is a good rule of thumb to follow.
When feeding our horses try to remember to feed them out in front where you would like their head to be. Step up to feed them where they are as much as you can. This will help to reinforce the position even more and it will help to prevent drawing more undue attention to the food source. So reach out, under, forward…whatever the situation requires to feed him.
One of the fundamental things to look for during this process is relaxation. I can not emphasize this one enough. Looking for relaxation in all that you do will help to keep them even, calm, deliberate and polite. A calm mind is much more lucid so it helps our horse to make better decisions….and it is all about teaching, and allowing them the chance to make decisions. At first they may be a little more excited but if we focus on the slightest improvement, and draw attention to calm, we will see more and more calm… It will just become part of the criteria. At this point you may have no idea, how important this will be down the road. But remember it is all about the smallest steps. These are called “successive approximations”.
On to the target…This is a little more straight forward. I try different positions to see how I can help him to make the best choices.
I must reiterate, that LJ does not have the bridge signal (clicker) part down yet so I normally would not have moved on to the target so quickly. Please do yourself and your horse a huge favor and complete 8 or 9 short sessions (5 minutes) of just the bridge conditioning and manners before moving on to the target. I see people who have troubles with their horse’s manners and it is usually because they have moved on too quickly without getting this foundation solid. When you have done those sessions, it is then time for the target. I recommend the same amount of time and repetitions.
Finally, If you feel uncomfortable with your horse’s assertiveness when starting him with the manners/bridge signal portion, you may work from the other side of a stall door or fence. This protected contact will keep you out of his reach while still being able to work his manners. Be certain that he’s good and solid on the outside of his enclosure before you work into closer contact. Once you can be right next to him and he is being calm, I recommend you start the same number of repetitions as above. Though it will be a little longer process, we should never be in a hurry or take short cuts. They set the pace of the training.
As I mentioned, this is part of a 3 part series in a brief de-spooking your horse exercise, using milk jugs. We will be working through some ground work with a spooky horse named William in part 2 and then in part 3 we move to the milk jugs under saddle. For more info about getting started and the behavior principles please check out my website or look for my DVD and book entitled You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything. For more info about de-spooking your horse there is a 6 DVD set full of exercises to help your horse become more brave and trustworthy. The set is called DeSpooking Your Horse: Building Boldness & Confidence. I think of them as team building exercises since they help to build the trust on both sides of the partnership.
Okey dokey…If you have questions or comments please don’t hesitate to ask. Enjoy!!
Not all biting is about food. There are many possible reasons why a horse may bite…there is always a reason. Though we may not know what the cause might be, we can change this behavior.
When starting a horse with positive reinforcement there is an easy way to create great manners and a relaxed demeanor when food is around. Clearly this is important since food is often present. The method used for creating good manners can also be implemented to address problematic biting. In fact, I have helped horses who are very mouthy and even aggressive, using food based training. Because most horses put a very high value on food, it is important to have some awareness of how to use it in a constructive way before getting started with a positive reinforcement training program.
Rachel’s horse, Trigger, seems to be making a habit of biting, though food doesn’t seem to be what is motivating his mouthiness. In the video answer I offer a possible cause and solution.
This is not a problem that we often encounter. I mean, how many horses have a trauma related to saddling? But the solution is applicable to all types of situations. Anything that has your horse reacting with fear and avoidance can be addressed using this basic de-sensitzation exercise. Not to get you too caught up in technical terms, but what we are doing is actually called counter conditioning. We are taking something that has an unpleasant association and turning it around by pairing it with positive reinforcement, thus creating a pleasant association.
Of course, and this is a standing order with me, always be certain that there aren’t any physical issues causing the strong reaction. But let’s say their behavior did have a physical origin, often times once the problem is remedied, they still retain the painful memory. We will need to build a new, better reinforcement history with the object or action that caused the worry.
It is very important that we start this process within their comfort zone, progressing only as they show complete comfort with the previous step. It is important to do this in very small increments (successive approximations).
Their fear is a very clear form of communication. Respecting their concerns and exercising patience as we help them to overcome these fears, does amazing things for their degree of trust. If you follow these steps, reinforcing relaxation and paying close attention to your horse’s comfort level you will help to build their boldness and confidence. Okay enough of Psychology 101, let’s watch the video…
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.
Years ago my friend Jane Savoie got a new horse from another successful, international Dressage rider. To say the horse wasn’t so good at clipping would be a understatement. She was told that she would never be able to clip the horse without first medicating her (the horse, not Jane!)Jane was familiar with what I was doing and began to put the training techniques into action with clipping her new horse.
In 3 days she was clipping the horse without medication or restraint. She went from being panicky when being clipped to being calm and trustful. Her horse was actually choosing to stand quietly, relaxed and willing. She wasn’t opting for the less worrisome of two different forms of pressure….the lesser of two “evils”, so to speak. There was no coercion or pressure involved.
Of course, all horses are different and their training paths will differ depending on their experiences but with positive
reinforcement training you can really change the way your horse looks at clipping.
Are you ready to have a horse who is calm and confident about clipping?
To learn more click on the link below:
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!
People just don’t seem to talk about that awkward subject of sheath cleaning! I have learned that most people don’t know how to do this or how often it should be done. Well, I think that should change so I have made a DVD on the subject. It is like sheath cleaning 101.
You will learn not only the anatomical side of sheath cleaning but the behavioral side as well. I have found that most people haven’t learned how to do this basic husbandry task because they don’t know how to get their horse to stand quietly for the procedure. All of that is about to change.
Your horse will learn to stand quiet and relaxed while you get to the business of sheath cleaning. In the process you will develop a great rapport with your horse and you will find that the training principles will reach beyond just sheath cleaning.
I have had a great amount of interest in this DVD…matter of fact it kind of surpassed me. I am happy to finally have it available. If you would like to learn more visit the link below:
I want to formally say a big thank to everyone for your support regarding our westward migration. It was touching to read all of the well wishing thoughts and comments.
Will your horse load in the trailer anytime, anywhere?
I recognize that this is a problem for a lot of horse owners. Well, guess what? I decided to make a DVD that will show you how to teach your horse to become the best loader in town!
You will learn how to use the proven behavior principles behind positive reinforcement training. It is simple and easy with no resistance, no balking and no long drawn out sessions. The best part is your horse will enjoy the whole training process…he will love being the trailer!
Plus, when all is said and done, you will realize that the training is great for so much more than just trailer loading. You will find about a million situations with your horse where the principles will come in handy.
I am really excited to finally be releasing this new DVD set that I decided to celebrate by offering you an amazing deal. But only for the next week, then the price will go up, so don’t dawdle!! Get more info and checking out the link below.
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.
Hi everyone! Shawna is really busy getting ready for clinics, so I’ll be doing some guest blog posts. My name is Denise Bickel, and for the last six months Shawna has been helping me with my 5 yr old mustang gelding Brennir ( also known as the Brony), who was an orphan foal and has had a lot of behavior issues. I’ll be sharing his story in parts to show both how the insight Shawna brought to our troubles helped change things, and how we used positive reinforcement methods to help build Brennir’s confidence in himself and me. I hope you‘ll follow us on our journey! As I say when I we start our sessions, “It’s Brony Time!”
There are horses, and then there are horses. Every horse person knows what I mean. That one horse that looks in your eyes and sees straight into your heart, that you love like crazy, your heart horse. Except what happens when you find that horse, the horse of your dreams, and they turn troubled and angry and sometimes dangerous? It wasn’t the path I was looking for. It wasn’t even the horse I was looking for. Once I looked in his eyes for the first time though, I felt like I had already known him for a thousand lifetimes. He had my heart, from the very beginning.
I found my heart horse in a scraggly little mustang foal whose mother didn’t want him. He was about 40 lbs. at birth and looked like a bald, starving goat. His mother had been rounded up by the BLM not a few months prior. She had gone crazy, attacking another mare’s foal and killing it, and no one was sure how to handle her or what to do with the foal. That first day I saw him while attempting to give him a new foal exam, I offered to buy him, but the owners were convinced they would love and keep him forever.
Everyone knows orphan horses can have issues, and Brennir certainly did. In the intervening year between when I met this baby and he became mine, he had some experiences I wish I could erase. He was isolated from other horses. They chased him with the 4-wheeler as a “game” almost every day. I am sure now that he was lost in the world. When they decided to get rid of him, I only found out about it because I was there looking at another horse. I offered to take him that day. I borrowed a trailer, and he got in without any hesitation, never looking back once. Even then I loved him with my whole heart, and I promised him and myself I would do whatever he needed to help him overcome his rough start in life, and be the horse I knew he could be, the horse my heart saw.
As promises of that sort often do, my promise soon proved harder to keep than I had anticipated. Brennir had a lot of behavior issues, some of them dangerous. When I first got him, he would aggressively charge anything that threatened him: humans with lunge whips, humans with ropes, dogs, chickens, anything. He would knock you down at an all-out gallop in the field, bite, kick, rear and stomp if he was afraid. He was alternately aggressive with other horses or completely detached from them. I was already familiar with clicker training at that time, and since any type of pressure provoked an aggressive response from Brennir, I gravitated toward that for safety reasons. While it definitely worked better than anything else had, we struggled.
Four years together passed.. He learned to lead, to move his body, to tolerate scary objects, stand for grooming and hoof trimming, load on the trailer, all the things a horse needs to know. He could be difficult though. I could not lunge him because he would charge me. He could be fine under saddle and then suddenly explode. I was told he was spoiled, disrespectful, dominant, that I needed to put him in his place. However, when I tried to assert dominance his behavior just deteriorated. Eventually, he became a riding horse, although not without his issues. I loved him, and he was a good horse, but I felt like we lacked the connection I really wanted, and I never felt like I could completely trust him. Most painfully, I never quite felt that I had fulfilled my promise to him. Then, something happened that changed everything.
I was in a bad riding accident. The details are unimportant except to say it was NOT Brennir’s fault. We were attacked by a large crane who was guarding a nest and I doubt the most seasoned horse would have kept it together. I ended up with a dislocated collar bone that was broken into several pieces, 6 broken ribs, and a punctured lung. I spent a week in the hospital, had surgery and it was over a month before I could do anything with my horse at all.
When I was finally able to start working with him again, I found everything we had worked so hard to achieve was gone. He had reverted back to his earliest behavior issues, acting flighty and frightened, aggressive and difficult to control. Instead of a skinny yearling though, I now had a 900 lb. animal with the strength, will and agility of an adult, charging, striking, rearing and biting at me. Riding was out of the question. I was now struggling with fear issues I’d never had before my accident, and he was completely unpredictable. Soon, I could not even lead him safely. He would behave until it was time to return to his paddock, but then he would have a tantrum, rearing and striking. He would knock me down and break away from me, for reasons I didn’t understand. Every day I would find myself in tears. I tried nose chains, the round pen, various exercises trainers I knew suggested, and his behavior just got worse, and his heart more distant. Finally, on a very cold day right before Christmas, as I was trying to put him back in the field, he knocked me down and tore away, running so far and fast he went across the very busy road we live on. By some miracle he was unhurt, but I no longer knew what to do. Defeated, I sat down in the snow and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. I felt I had failed him completely. I knew if I sold him or gave him away he’d end up dead, but I didn’t know how to help him, and we were both miserable.
I knew I needed someone to help me, but every trainer I knew locally used some kind of pressure training, whether it was natural horsemanship of various flavors, or a more traditional approach. We had already tried so much of that with abysmal results. I knew I had to approach him with positive reinforcement but I was so defeated and confused, I no longer trusted myself or my horse. A desperate internet search on equine clicker training led me to Shawna. I saw she was a professional clicker trainer. However she was in California and we were in Michigan. Never mind, I was willing to try anything at all. I emailed her asking if there was any way she would do an internet consult. To my surprise, she said yes.
We set up a time to talk on the phone, and that conversation would change my relationship with my horse forever. I had already sent her information on his history and the problems we were having so she had had time to become familiar with his issues. We made some small talk, I made some comment about his bad behavior, and she replied “well, you have to understand. He’s afraid of everything”. For a moment it felt like my whole world was turning around those words. This horse, MY horse, who charged anything that looked at him cross eyed, who would rear up and strike at you like a wild stallion, was afraid? I had thought he was aggressive, dominant, willful…but not afraid, not that.
I paused, giving her a chance to expand on this. She explained that orphan horses have no solid foundation from which to navigate the world. They have no herd, no sense of security. For whatever reason, genetics, personality or some effect of his early experiences he expressed his fear as aggression, but he was afraid. “ And then you disappeared, and he didn’t know why. His herd, his one secure thing, disappeared. He’s terrified. You go to put him in the paddock, and he doesn’t know if you are ever coming back. Of course he doesn’t want to go”. My heart broke for my poor, lonesome horse, as every problem we had ever had suddenly made perfect sense. I was crying, but trying not to let it show. I am a veterinarian. I know lots of trainers. I had talked to so many people, read so many books and internet articles, tried so many approaches. Yet no one had ever seen into my horse’s heart before. Shawna did, and in those four words “ He’s afraid of everything” I found the key to opening up Brennir’s heart to me. Somehow, without even meeting him, she knew more about him than I did.
We made a plan for working with him. I would click and treat calm leading behavior within his comfort zone. I’d reward him lavishly for the return to the paddock in order to make the separation less painful. It was not so different from what we had done before, except that, because I understood now that he was afraid, when he started to lash out I was patient and reassuring, using the target to draw him back into his comfort zone, trying to calm his fear. In two days, he was leading like a docile puppy, returning to the paddock without any resistance. On the third day after my conversation with Shawna, when I was finally starting to be convinced the improvement wasn’t just a fluke, I stood in the pasture while snow came down and put my forehead on his. I scratched his neck, remembering how much I loved him, remembering that I was still keeping my promise. He nuzzled me, and I told him“It’ll be okay, pony boy. I understand now. I’ve got us some help. You don’t need to be scared anymore’. He sighed, leaning into me. The connection I felt at that moment was indescribable; his posture so soft, his heart turned toward me in a way it had never been before. He knew I heard him, finally knew how much I loved him, thanks to those words, that insight no one else had had. “He’s afraid of everything”. There was a lot more work to come, but we had the new beginning we needed.
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.
Hi Shawna, I was wondering what you do about a horse that isn’t willing to try. An example is – now that there is grass outside and Mr. Horse is not as hungry, his willingness has diminished. Now, I realize that I could take him off the grass and make him more hungry. But, what I am looking for is him to be more willing whether he is hungry or not. This particular horse is also one that will constantly test and see who is the “boss” that day. So, I am thinking part of it is his way to try to be in control of the situation as well. I can “make him do it” by insisting with more pressure. But, I am wondering if you have a better way of handling a horse that likes to try to control the training session with either a complete refusal, or just a lack of energy. Hope that makes enough sense. Thanks!!!
Hi Tina, The first suggestion I have is try to find a reinforcer that your horse enjoys more than grass. Does he love apples? Carrots? A certain treat or grain? By using something that he finds more valuable the more motivated he will be. You may have to experiment a bit to figure out which he seems to prefer.
You also seem to have some other issues going on here as well. It could be a number of causes and it isn’t always easy to know what is really going on inside his head. Sometimes we read one thing as the cause when it may be something different altogether. Often times when a horse is shut down it ends up looking like different things with different horses. A lack of motivation is definitely one of these symptoms. Often times people think the horse is just quiet or obedient but given a choice he would rather not participate. Since traditional training doesn’t really give them a choice we don’t see the symptoms of a horse who has shut down. The same holds true for round pen work. They don’t really have many choices without repercussions. If they respond incorrectly they are displaced, via body position and driven around the round pen. With clicker training they are given an absolute choice and sometimes we see horses who won’t respond, unless you use some sort of pressure. They have been taught “don’t do anything until I tell you” and the primary training tool has been pressure, both physical and psychological. If he is a horse who resented his training he may balk, refuse and look at training with suspicion. He may also resent that he has been forced to submit. Whatever the cause, don’t despair there is a way to overcome this disengaged attitude.
I often tell the story of Mint and when I first started working with him. He was the worst horse I have ever worked. He would not try at all, he just didn’t seem interested. For the longest time I didn’t even think he had a personality since he didn’t seem to enjoy any part of his life. He would walk away from target training and that is the easiest thing ever. Most horse can figure it out within minutes. The horse in the next paddock would reach over the fence and try to touch the target and I wasn’t even working with him!! So, I made things very, very easy for a while. I would put the target two inches in front of his nose. One touch of the target and I would dump the whole session’s food on the ground. He needed big motivation at first to get his attention. I did this 3 times a day, after about a week I move up to two target touches and then the whole amount. I gradually increased the duration and what I was asking from him once I started seeing him consistently coming over when I arrived. Today, you don’t see the quitter Mint once was, instead he is the epitome of heart and try.
Also doing his training session just before you feed his breakfast/dinner can help. So you may go to him with his food ask for a target touch and then feed him his dinner. Some horses need to learn how to learn, think and make decisions. This takes small steps since they often feel safer doing nothing until they’re told to do something. Once they get engaged in the training process, even slightly, they move right along. There are all sorts of psychological needs that are being met when we train using positive reinforcement so they learn to enjoy the process. They will then start to work anytime and anywhere. If I ever see a break down in the training process I assume the criteria is too much and I need to re-evaluate what I am doing. They are such individuals there is not set plan to follow. Sometimes I find myself doing something that has worked 1000 times before, however, it may not work with the next horse. Instead of thinking “what is wrong with this horse?” I remind myself to think “what am I doing that isn’t working?” There is a way to teach him, I just have to figure out how. I always break it down to smaller steps and increase the amount of reinforcement and that usually always works, but there are times when I need to break it down even further. I always let the horse’s progress dictate the path.
This same process for getting them engaged and enjoying their work also puts you in the driver’s seat. He will start to look forward to the training since there is something in it for him. This includes pleasing you since you bring the opportunity to play the game (called training) that they enjoy. Your presence becomes associated with the whole process. They quickly begin to look at the training as a privilege and a highlight in their day. Often times horse start nickering when they see you and some of them nicker when they see you pulling out the saddle. All signs of how much they look forward to learning. They soon realize the opportunity is there, if they are minding their manners and focusing on what is being asked of them. They are no longer trying to challenge you but instead trying to please you. You are now the leader, not by force but by election. There is no need for overt “dominance”, in fact I never think about it. It just happens.
Also, try to think of what you can do to help set him up for success. Try to think where he is most comfortable, maybe a smaller area will help, are there other horses intimidating him, so maybe he would be better without the other horses around. Maybe try him right before feeding time when he is the most food motivated, maybe he is better after he has had some work, maybe he is better before work, or a certain time of day. Also in addition to a food reinforcement do something he likes after the good (albeit brief) session. Perhaps turn him out or offer his favorite toy or scratch his favorite place, take him to a sand ring to roll or hand walk around the property…whatever your horse seems to enjoy. It is important to make certain it is something that he enjoys and not something that we humans perceive as a reward. We humans have a tendency to assign value to things that the horse may not think of as a reward. This will all be based on your individual horses preferences and it takes some observation on your part.
Once you get him over this hump he will become much more engaged in the training and learning process. He will take food more regularly and you may start to fade out some of the things you used to set him up for success in the early stages. Okay, Tina, I hope this helps give you some ideas…as always, I am here for support along your journey so if you have questions please don’t hesitate to ask. If anyone else has questions, the same goes for you. I would love to hear your thoughts, questions or ideas. Bye for now!!
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.
This video addresses a question about a donkey who is fearful of humans. The donkey has made some progress but it is going slower than anticipated. It seems he has some fear of humans in general as well as in association with ropes, hoses, etc. I suggest some ideas in the video for helping him to grow more comfortable. I have to admit…I video my answer straight off the cuff. Then I watch it later and have more thoughts and ideas. So I write the text portion to add to my initial response. My head never stops processing ideas. It seems that you are on the right track, so here are some ideas to help you break down this particular behavior to smaller steps. It is the successive approximations that ensure success so if you ever hit a roadblock try to address the issue with even smaller steps. If you need help thinking how to do this I am always here to help. :0)
One suggestion is to utilize the target. I know he is worried about things in human hands but if you keep the target low and slow he will grow braver. Usually the real fear isn’t the object but the human holding the object. Horses often feel safer when they poke their head out to touch the target. Once they learn how to touch the target it starts to become conditioned. They grow increasingly more comfortable with the target. Pretty soon it becomes a familiar and safe behavior/object. It will also help him to grow more comfortable with the humans presence since we are also associated with the target. We will be able to fade the target out of the picture but for now it works to help bridge the gap. When he is consistently and boldly approaching the target it is time to introduce some touching.
In the video I suggest letting them pursue your hand verses always trying to reach out to them. In addition, when you see they are confident with following you as well as the target work. I recommend holding your hand out to the side. You may ask the horse (or donkey) to target in a position that encourages him to walk past/near your outstretched hand. However, I still do not suggest reaching out to touch him for a while. Since they are such individuals there is no set recipe for the plan to move forward. It will be something that you will read in his demeanor. He will have soft eyes, mouth, lower head carriage and general relaxed attitude. He will not be stand offish or seem like he is about to flee. However, when they have grown comfortable with your presence they usually progress much quicker. I always recommend letting the horse dictate the pace. Going too slow is better then too fast. Cara, I hope this helps with your newest donkey. I would love to hear thoughts and comments.
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 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 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.
Stephanie posted a question about her colt. When to start training and behaviors to work on to prepare him for adulthood. I, as usual, have a ton of ideas and I am know I am just scratching the surface!
I’ve just purchased your Despooking DVD’s & am excitedly pouring over them. As yet I have not used clicker training with any of my horses although I have fun playing with it with my rescue dog. My 2 questions are , at what age can a horse be introduced to clicker training as we have now have a7 day old colt & what are some examples of uses for a youngster?
Congratulations Stephanie! What an exciting time for you!
I am a big proponent of handling them from the moment they are born. There is a lot of conditioning that will help them to get comfortable with people. However, I start a positive reinforcement training plan as soon as they are weaned. After Bridge (clicker) conditioning and target training I teach them to lead. I tend to start with the target so they get the concept to stay with you. Stop when you stop, turn when you turn, etc. Then, I introduce the the halter and lead rope and teach them how to respond to the pressure. You can also incorporate the target at this point so it helps them to know what to do instead of the resistance/fear that most babies exhibit. I teach them anything they may need to do as an adult. Certainly teach him to accept being touched everywhere including the sheath, ears and mouth. You can teach him to accept oral syringes (wormers). Lifting his legs and letting you move his feet to and fro. Prep him for the things they farrier will eventually be doing. You can do de-spooking work with tarps, bridges…whatever you can think of to expose him to. Teach him to soak his foot in a bucket of water. You can teach him to put his head in the halter. This concept carries over to the bridle/ bit when the time comes. You can teach him to be clipped and trailer load. You can teach him to walk with a saddle pad secured with a surcingle. This helps with blanketing and certainly saddling later. The more consistent you can be the better. It would be good to teach him to be comfortable away from other horses and to be in a stall. I know there will be periods of time that his training will take a back burner while he is growing but if you can, set a bit of a schedule for him to have some training exercises on a consistant basis.
The best part of a baby is you can plan ahead and circumvent a lot of issues that tend to come up in adulthood. You may not have a need to do a lot of these tasks yet (clipping, soaking his foot, trailer loading etc). However, teaching him these things now will pave the way for him to progress seamlessly down the road. I also recommend keeping some sort of journal so you can keep track of what he has learned, how he responded. As time passes you may forget some of the details.
These things all serve a practical purpose but they also set him up for a lifetime of learning. You are going to find that he enjoys learning and he will learn much faster then the horses who were not trained with positive reinforcement. He will be more sensible mature(mentally) beyond his years.
I have found that the babies are not too spooky when they are young. They are just full of curiosity and they don’t seem to know enough to be fearful yet. This is a big bonus for the training process. They seem to go through a more reactive phase between one and two years of age. If you play your cards right he will sail right through this without letting spookiness get a foothold. Granted he will still startle at things but his reaction will be minimal.
Keep in mind babies have a lot of energy. Teaching him to be patient and still is harder for the rambunctious little horses. I incorporate some retrieving and targeting further away between the standing still type behaviors. This willl give him an outlet that you get to initiate. They can run after a ball a few times and expend some energy in a safe and controlled manner. It is a reinforcement for them and helps to set them up for success when you get back to standing still. Because you initiated the behavior it strengthens your relationship. This will help to keep his attention from wavering. Start with short sessions. Their attention span is short at first. You can build up the time in between and pretty soon he will be able to stand patiently for long periods of time.
Another thing to keep in mind is they learn quite a bit vicariously. This means he will learn socially, by watching the others around him. His biggest role model is going to be his mom. Things that mom does well, I would make a point of exposing him to on regular basis while he is young and soaking up mom’s reactions . If she is good with clipping expose him to her being clipped (or just the body of the clipper touching as if you were clipping). The more you can do the better. He will emulate her reactions to everything. Including how she reacts when people are around and when they approach her in the pasture. If there are things that she is not so good at, I suggest you try to minimize his exposure to those things.
This is important too! Don’t forget he will also need healthy boundaries as he grows. Babies (both equine and human!) like to test their world and everything in it. I have found if you give him lots of time to play and be a horse he will learn to keep that play for his social situations and not with you. Babies are cute. The ornery little things that they do when they are young are often overlooked or excused because they are such cute little guys. They are learning right away. Young horses are hard wired to play and learn the skills that they will need as adults. This means sparring with one another. It is reinforcing for them. At some point he may try to engage you in this game. Do not fall pray to this by reacting and sparring with him.
I got a little horse who was weaned at four months. At less then five months old he went and did his first clinic with the big horses. He was too small to cross tie so we had to push tack trunks in front of standing stall. He just curled up on the floor and slept! He came right out of the trailer at the clinic with no halter, went right to the ring and stayed with me the whole time. He couldn’t have been cuter.
Okay those are some ideas and food for thought. I certainly don’t have all the answers but I hope this helps you out a bit. Please don’t forget I am here if you ever want some input. What an exciting journey that lies ahead of you! :0)
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 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?
This question was posted on my Facebook page and I thought this will help some of you who have similar issues. Please let me know if you have questions or comments!
QUESTION: Carrie asks:
Hi, i’m hoping you can help as my daughter needs a bit of advice. My friend has bought a Welsh Sec D 4yr old mare, she was apparently broken though i think to fast to soon. Two wks ago she bucked my friends husband off, for apparently no reason. My Georgie, is starting from the beginning, by backing her again & doing things very slowly. Millie the mare doesn’t have a nasty bone in her body but she gets scared very easily which makes us wonder what was done to her in her short life. She was sold as a yearling at the Welsh sales by the breeder, a friends granddaughter bought her, but they are a bit heavy handed which makes me wonder just what they did to her. She will lunge on the left rein but is terrified on the right, also terrified of any whips, to the point i think she has been hit badly hit by one. What can you suggest to take her forward successfully. xx
ANSWER: Ask Shawna-On Target Training says:
Hi Carrie, I am so glad Millie is with you. She will make real strides and I have found the horses who have been through tough times often become the most devoted students when you shift to positive reinforcement. You are on the right track. Start her like she is learning it for the first time but this time slower and let her get her head around each step. Remember to never move to the next step until she is solid on the previous step. enjoy the journey with her. Lot’s of ground work will help to earn her trust.
If you haven’t already, I would suggest having your veterinarian check her out to be sure she isn’t having some physical discomfort before you proceed any further. This will only add to her unpleasant association with working and people if she does have some pain. I always prefer to rule this out first.
She sounds like the type of her horse who may stand quietly on the outside while inside she may be quite worried and even fearful. Watch for any signs of relaxation. Her eye, nostrils and ears to soften. Look for her head to lower a bit and neck muscles to relax. Click and reinforce (C/R) her for this and she will start to offer it more often. This behavior will serve itself since she will be relieved to be able to relax. You can click and reinforce this anytime you see her offer this behavior. Always keep an eye out for signs of relaxation. I can’t imagine how horrible it must feel to not understand what is going on around you and yet fear the repercussions of your not knowing. A clear training program shouldn’t be scary but encouraging. You will gain her trust.
I think the whip should serve as an extension of our hands and shouldn’t be someting used to instill fear. Teaching her to touch the whip may help her to acclimate to it a bit too. You can do this like teaching her to target. It may also help to have her follow the whip. Sometimes having the whip retreat helps her to feel that she is pursuing it and it isn’t pursuing her. This often changes the mind set and builds boldness. You don’t want to over train the targeting on the whip. We just want her to learn it has several purposes and they are all safe. You got off to a good start and I suggest follow through with that desensitization training you have started with the whip touching her all over.
As far as longeing goes, I suggest you start with her on a lead rope. I suggest not using longeing equipment at first. The equipment may trigger the fear she has with longeing to the right so let’s not go there yet. Ask her to go the good way (to her left) at a walk and reinforce her for responding correctly. I would suggest using your hand and raise it slow and calm toward her barrel (where the leg will eventually be asking her to move forward) I would suggest using an auditory cue like a cluck as well. This may help to communicate what you are asking. You may also use a target for the early stages and ask her to follow the target (with her nose) as well as moving off of your hand and cluck. This may help her to focus more on the target then the scary aspects of longeing. I say your hand but I mean Georgie’s hand! I know she is good on this side but it will help her learn this new fun training is in effect and build up a new better association with this behavior. Next, I would start just leading her from the other side reinforce her for walking nicely. Next step back a little and slowly, calmly and confidently raise your hand slightly toward her barrel(cluck) and ask her to walk on just a little. It is like a micro longeing session. As soon as she walks forward and relaxes a little bit C/R. Feed her handsomely for this. You are going to be rebuilding a new reinforcement history with this right side. You will rebalance the scales so instead of fear she knows what to do and she looks forward to it since there may be something in it for her that she values. I would keep these sessions short and sweet. Sometimes it even helps to ask her with a smile on your face. It sounds kind of weird but it can change our subtle body language. Believe me she is paying attention to the subtlest changes in her humans and smiling often times changes us from intense to more relaxed. Later we will re-introduce the whip and faster gaits but for now I would suggest working on getting the walk solid. I suggest pogressing like this through the next portions as well.
This is where I suggest you start. I wish I was there and could watch as you progress but I know you and Georgie are going to do great. Horse’s being individuals sometimes respond a little differently and need some adjustments in training. Please keep me posted. I am here to help every step of the way if you need it!
I’m really excited!! The next FREE video on de-spooking your horse is up! Today we move onto introducing William to a new object. I am using a cluster of milk jugs for this exercise. I’m so proud of how much more confident William already is.
I know this next video will give you some great ideas for building confidence in your horse. It’s such a great feeling. I can’t wait to hear your success stories!
Enjoy getting your horse On Target!!
P.S. If you know of someone that could use some help de-spooking their horse or building boldness and confidence,
please feel free to pass this link onto them too!