Target or Mat Training, Attitude is the Most Important!

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.

Is Your Horse Unruly on the Longe Line?

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?

Mounting: Look No Hands!!

There is nothing more annoying than a horse who walks off, or worse, acts up, while you are mounting. Bugs, being a bit of a fuss budget was not the worst, but he wasn’t the most accomodating horse to mount. He would turn to face me, refuse to give to the pressure of the reins and wouldn’t move up or would just be fidgety. I could always get on him but it wasn’t always pretty. Athletic? Yes. Pretty? Not so much!

Sometimes these issues need sessions devoted to improving the situation ASAP. But in his case, I simply addressed it a little bit every time I mounted. I started by clicking when he would follow me to the mounting block. I’d click once more when he would happen to be lined up nicely, and again when he would be still. I would really draw attention to reinforcing him once I was in the saddle. Pretty quickly they start to figure out that the sooner you are in the saddle the quicker they can get reinforced. I would proportionately feed more once I was in the saddle. Horses figure out pretty quickly how to accommodate and expedite the process. Next thing you know, they are bounding right up to the mounting block with hopes of you getting on!

Super Simple Flexion Exercise

This is so simple but very effective. It is actually a byproduct of offering reinforcement under saddle. Being a positive reinforcement based trainer, I feed from the saddle. Often horses demonstrate a favorite side. It may not be so much their favorite as the more limber side. They will turn to take the treat from the easier, more flexible side. I immediately start to balance out the two sides by feeding (usually) from the side we are bending towards. For example, if I am going to the right with a right bend that is the side I will feed from following the click or bridge signal. I often find that one side is noticeably more rigid than the other. This usually coincides with the them being more resistant to bending in that direction as well. After a couple weeks I will notice a huge difference in both the turning to take the treat as well as the softness in the bridle when asking to bend. They are actually stretching and improving their own range of motion. Super simple, super effective!!

Ask Shawna Question re: Continuing After the Click

Hi Everyone,

This question was posted on my Facebook page by Lydia. In this video I am addressing how to teach your horse to continue on with a good attitude following the click. I focus on teaching this under saddle but the same techniques work from the ground. Simply ask for a behavior that has a well established reinforcement history. In other words, a behavior that your horse readily offers and seems to enjoy doing. Anyway, Lydia, I hope that this helps you to move to the next level. Thank you for the question and the opportunity to help you progress! Enjoy getting your horse On Target.

Flying Lead Change-One and Done!

Well, as you can tell from the title we have started a new and exciting phase of training! Flying lead chages are a pretty big mile marker. It seems like Bugs is ready to put on his “big boy pants”!! When we were at the show we were great but he didn’t know changes yet. I want to state loud and clear that I never want to over face a horse. I know that consistant success is built on a solid foundation. No two horses are the same. Recognizing when your horse is ready to move forward comes from a close relationship, one that is part instruction and part listening, a conversation if you will.

That being said, Marcy (my hunter/jumper trainer) and I feel that Bugs is ready. He routinely makes good decisions and doesn’t get flustered when he doesn’t understand a new lesson. He focuses and tries to solve the puzzle. The positive reinforcement really helps him to be involved and to perservere.

We had a flat lesson with Jan and her green horse, Annie. Marcy has been helping me to adjust my position and my seat is getting more solid with every lesson, well, nearly every lesson. Bugs was good, listening and soft. He had a bit of extra energy but he mostly keeps that to himself at this point. As Jan and I finished up, Marcy put a pole on the ground (across the diagnal) for Bugs and myself to work on a flying change. We discussed the next part of the lesson, the shifts in balance and positioning necessary to allow him and to support him through the change in his lead. My goal was to shift the balance as we crossed the pole. This can be a challenging proposition. You are channeling a lot of energy and horses can get excited, sometimes too excited. A flying change, when new, is a bold manuever and you need that energy, but it helps to know that you can bring your horse back to a soft, listening mindset.

Bugs seems to pick up the left lead easier than the right so we start off on the right lead. This way we can try to set him up for success when we are asking to change his lead. So, off we go! As we come across the diagnol I have got my ears pealed and a big smile on my face. It seems to me that Bugs likes to figure things out and finds comfort in being compliant. This moved him out of his comfort zone. He was not sure what was going on. He was trying to do something, but just wasn’t right. I think he feared that his actions might be taken as disobedience. The first couple of times he was a little wound up, maybe even a little worried. I just stayed very relaxed and focused on getting him back after the attempt. Then we started again, giving him time to settle into a nice calm, controlled canter. The next couple times he still didn’t get it but he seemed a little more settled. I knew that we were on the right path. His mind was more settled and processing as opposed to reactionary. On about the 5th time he got it right! I clicked, reinforced with a few handfuls of treats and lots of praise (he responds well to verbal praise too).

It is tempting to want to do it again right away but I recognize that the better thing to do is to let him rest in his success. I am very poud of Bugs and his good decisions. He really seems to enjoy the challenges that come with training. I am excited for this next week. We have trailer loading, backing up and flying lead changes to look forward to!!

Developing Feel

March 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Han Senn Inspiration

Feeling is as important to the rider as hearing is to a musician. Only time spent in the saddle will develop feel. Feel cannot be taught, only further developed and polished. Feel may be the most important quality in riding well. Your ability to feel will improve when you are totally relaxed. –Hans Senn–

Photos of Bugs

Here are some photos of Bugs that were taken last week.

Bugs: A Rescue Gone Right

March, 15, 2011

It has been about a year now since I first fell off of Bugs.  That, of course, was the first time I met Bugs and decided I have the tools to rebuild his trust (see “Bugs:  A Horse with Big Shoes to fill” for more about his beginnings).  What an amazing journey it has been so far!  It struck me how much one learns through the process of bringing a green horse along.  I learn something everyday, Doesn’t that sound cliche?  But it is true!  It reminds me how much I take for granted dealing with an experienced horse. There are so many firsts.   Watching him mature and learn to deal with new obstacles.  This, to me, is the most joyous part of the training process
I realized that this journey is one that should be documented. I plan to keep a journal of our progress, along with my thoughts and observations so that I never forget our shared exprience.  This will also provide an opportunity that others can learn more about using positive reinforcemen,t together with some traditional training,  to accomplish these goals..   I want to share our triumphs as well as our challenges.  I would love for you to come along!  It would be great to hear comments, questions and suggestions as we grow together.
Here is a short recap with a little bit of new information.  Bugs  grew up in a pasture without much in the way of human interaction.  At the ripe old age of 4, Bug’s owner pulled him from the pasture and gave him to his adult grandson as a roping horse prospect.  Bugs didn’t take too well to his training and being ridden.  He continued to buck until his rider’s fell off.  Mind you his owner was not new to breaking horses but Bugs wasn’t responding well to training.  The owner thought that Bugs needed to have a different career.  He decided he should try him out as a bucking horse.  The irony is that he wouldn’t buck out of the bucking chute!  Bugs ended up with a pretty good scar on his face from an injury sustained in the bucking chute.  This career wasn’t panning out either.  The decision was made to take him to the auction.  He was reedy, had a scar on his face and just seemed like he was not going to trust anyone enough to make any friends.  I don’t think the auction would have ended well for Bugs.  But, thank God, my friend Marcy intervened and gave him another chance.  He was kind of a back burner project.  The low key and consistent routine  really seemed to help him settle.
It was just last December that we really began to get started together undersaddle. I am going to start the journal from that point and post on some of the major highlights to bring us up to date.  I will journal about progress undersaddle and from the ground.   Again, I would love to hear from you, questions, comments, thoughts, suggestions or share your own experiences.  I hope that sharing this journey together helps to open a dialogue with each other and our horses!

Controlling a horse…

March 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Han Senn Inspiration

You may control a horse with gimmicks; those however, will not change him mentally. It is not a good idea to distance yourself from the horse by domination.
–Hans Senn–

A thought about aids…

You should make your horse responsive to fewer aids, not more. Above all, free the horse from the paralyzing effect of resistance.
–Hans Senn–

Another quote from Han Senn

As soon as the horse feels the rider’s distraction, he will promptly join in.
–Hans Senn–

A High Point (but not too high!)

January 25th, 2011
Bugs and I have been focusing on our flat work. I am working on his progress while also working on my own position and getting all my parts back under control. Riding horses is definitely not like riding a bike. My position and balance have improved drastically and Bugs is also coming along nicely. We seem to be having a great conversation. We listen to each other and work together well. Have I mentioned how well he is doing? Oh yes I have, about 87 times!!
One of my goals is to get back to jumping. Since Bugs is green and done so little, it is kind of a hope as well as a goal.  Let’s be honest, Mint didn’t turn out to be a good jumper for me. He likes to hang his legs and crack his back and that makes him difficult to stay with. Therefore,  I focused on jumping with my other horses as Mint shined in his role as the star of On Target Training.
It is uncertain how Bugs will handle all the challenges that jumping brings, let alone with someone who hasn’t jumped in quite a while. I am learning too. Im sure you’d agree its not always the best combination.
Marcy, who rescued Bugs and is also my Hunter/Jumper trainer, is a great trainer, she is well educated and very experienced. She is good at minimizing risks and making sure that we don’t move ahead too fast. This is good for me since I have a tendency to be a little too game. I make a point of trying not to set goals as jumping goes, but simply put my progress in Marcy’s capable hands. I try my best to be a true student, listening and learning. This is a funny mix since on one hand I am a teacher/ trainer in my own right. However, my expertise is from the behaviorist perspective, utilizing positive reinforcement. Marcy embraces what I am doing and we work together well to blend the two methods.
During my lesson today, Marcy asked me to jump the little “x” in the ring. Uh Oh!! My eyes got pretty big, but I have to confess so did my smile!  That “x” seemed kind of big, but of course, it was barely bigger than a rail on the ground.
Bugs had jumped a little bit with Jenn, who works for Marcy. We knew he was relaxed, game and capable. This also gave him some good rides since… well… at this point he wouldn’t be getting them from me. I had also taught him to free jump. This is with positive reinforcement which means no chute or whip, just him jumping an obstacle in the middle of the ring completely loose. This goes a long way toward building a horses confidence over fences. I will tell you more about that process on another day.
It can be a little daunting to jump for the first time on a horse. Especially one who isn’t well versed in this area, not to mention when you add a new rider to the equation.  He went boldly to the jumps (well, it was barely a jump) and I didn’t feel any hesitation or apprehension on his part. He seemed to be responsive to every adjustment all the way through. We had a great time together as he handled it really well! He didn’t get flustered or nervous. He was totally listening and would return immediately back to our flat work between the cross rails. He built up my confidence today. It was a huge step for us both and the beginning of the next chapter. I can’t seem to wipe the smile off of my face.

A Turning Point

January 5, 2011

I must say Mint is a joy to ride. He is soft and responsive and this makes me feel incredibly effective as a rider. It is a bit of an illusion but I am okay with that. For that bit of time I get to forget that I am struggling to recall how to ride correctly again.
I came to know Mint when was at John and Beezie Madden’s Farm In Cazenovia, New York. He was very green broke. He didn’t know how to go in a straight line or to maintain a pace. Since he had just turned 3 and he was always home, he was available for training, which allowed me the opportunity to bring Mint along. This terrified and elated me all at the same time. I had only been riding for about a year. Well, I had ridden Killer Whale’s but this was different. Riding Mint at that point made me feel useless.
I was at John and Beezie’s to further explore the possibility of positive reinforcement (clicker training) with horses. It was unheard of at this point! As Mint goes, I had some pretty good tools in my tool box, Positive reinforcement and great instruction for traditional training. I was learning how the two could fit together.
One time I had the opportunity to ride one of Beezie’s Grand Prix horses and I remember thinking that this is the nicest horse I have ever ridden. He did whatever you asked, without a fight and he maintained it until you asked him to do something different. He did this for ME, a novice adult rider! It was amazing!
Mint and I were both improving, as the positive reinforcement helped him to progress at a extrordinary rate. He seemed mature beyond his years. One day I realized he was like that Grand Prix horse (okay, not as jumping goes) but as far as riding is concerned, he was a delight and a willing student. I eventually bought Mint from John and Beezie.
Enter Bugs… Here I was with a relatively green horse again. He didn’t feel like Mint at all. He kept his head kind of high and seemed rather stiff. Keep in mind that I had just started riding again after 8 years, so I’m sure my flopping about in the saddle had nothing to do with his defensiveness. (Yes, that was slightly sarcastic!)
It was a little discouraging and I found myself enjoying my time on Mint much more than my time in the saddle with Bugs. I needed to remind myself that there was a day when I didn’t exactly look forward to climbing in the saddle on Mint. That being said, it had been a great journey and look how far we had come! I tried to keep my current discouragement at bay by saying to myself “enjoy the journey, enjoy the journey, enjoy the journey” like a mantra.
Today, I realize Bugs is a lot like Mint! He is soft and responsive. He is a great student who seems to love his job. This seemed to happen so fast. I feel at home on Bugs. I have the same tools: great ground training and of course, positive reinforcement. This short little journey (so far anyway) Has been such a joy it brings tears to my eyes! I know we have a lot of bridges to cross but we are off to a great start. Bringing Bugs along makes me feel that I am right where I am supposed to be. I feel Blessed to have him in my life.

Author of those great Quotes: Han Senn Bio

December 30, 2010 by  
Filed under Han Senn Inspiration, On Target Training

I was asked “Who is this Hans Senn?” I have been posting some of his quotes…because I love them!! So here is a story about the author:

“Riding and competing in Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France and Germany gave Hans a broad exposure of different styles, methods and philosophies.

Hans came to the USA in 1952 where he became active in show jumping, dressage, eventing and fox hunting. He also learned to ride show hunters and competed many years in the Midwest, Florida, Devon and the indoor circuit.

Eventually, Hans started to judge hunters, jumpers, equitation, dressage and became a course designer.

In 1990, he was the coordinator of the Equestrian Events of the Olympic Festival.”

Sadly, Hans passed away a few months (or so) ago.

My Hunter/Jumper trainer and good friend Marcy Gehrke rode with Hans when she was young. She is responsible for getting me hooked on his little book of wisdom. So, I will continue to post his quotes as there are a ton of great ones in there!!

Addressing Bugs Spookiness

December 16, 2010

After yesterday’s episode I decided to use a tactic that has worked with lots of horses before Bugs.  My plan was to go into the ring on a loose rein, then click and reward his calm demeanor.  This has commonly worked to reinforce horses for being relaxed and the result is a head that drops lower and lower.  I love having a plan!

I am also teaching Bugs to hold still for mounting.  Actually, I am not just teaching him to hold still but to walk out of the cross ties without me touching the reins.  He is learning to line up next to the mounting block and hold still while I get in the saddle.  He is coming along, yet still has a tendency to turn and face me once I am at the mounting block.  This, of course, doesn’t work well for mounting so I realign him and he is usually better on the second try.  His other issue is to get distracted on the way to the mounting block then stop to smell and investigate things.  This little goal is just something I like my horses to do and despite his occasional lapses, Bugs is now coming along nicely.

Okay, so mounting and walking to the ring were pretty normal.  We get to the ring and I promptly give him a loose rein, only to realize that he is not really responding like most horses.  Instead of being relaxed he is getting increasingly wound up as I notice that his head and ears are scanning for trouble.  I realize this a little too late,  as he gets too revved up again.  This time I get off of Bugs and Marcy (my Hunter/Jumper trainer and good friend) advises a lunge and some ear plugs, so off he goes.

As you might guess, I am feeling the need to express my thoughts on these two tools.  Let’s start with lunging.  I am not a big proponent of lunging for quietness as a matter of course.  I think it is a good tool for teaching green horses, to work on verbal cues, to teach new riders, as well as prepping for being ridden for the first time.  I also think it is a good tool for eliminating all that excess energy when turnout is limited.  I’m just not that comfortable with excessive lunging. It’s just my take on it and of course, this is just one gal’s opinion. Anyway, in this situation I see that Bugs does indeed seem to have too much energy. I need to help get him to a better mind-set so I can set him up for success, so as to get him to do something worth reinforcing.  At this point, my goal is anything with four feet on the ground!  I see lunging as a tool that I want to not use on a daily basis. For now though, it may help me work towards my end-goal of having a horse that not only knows how, but also chooses to harness that energy into something constructive. ThoughI keep chanting to myself  “enjoy the journey, enjoy the journey, enjoy the journey,” it is sometimes not quite as enjoyable as I might hope.

Now, let’s talk earplugs… It is not an uncommon practice to use earplugs to muffle the auditory stimuli that may cause a horse to startle.  It is simply a practice I am not accustomed to.  Marcy is really good at keeping her Adult Amateur women out of harm’s way.  This is one of the tools that she has had success with.  I try to be a good student, so I do say “okay” when Marcy gives me advice and instruction.  Of course, from the instant we put them in I’m thinking of how I’m going to wean Bugs off of these new pacifiers.  Again, I view them as an initial tool to set him up for success, but just for now.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure they would be that effective anyway.  Further down the road I will re-address the earplugs.

So finally, after the adjustments Bugs is much, much better!!  We are still very new together and Bugs doesn’t have a strong foundation yet.  I was very thankful for the tools of traditional training which allowed me to get my horse good enough to reward with positive reinforcement.

Too Revved Up!!

December 15th(ish) 2010

Okay,  so my first post was referring to how good Bugs was about all of the commotion, from guys hanging lights in trees to a new course being built in the ring, jump rails tumbling. Well, the very next day Bugs went into the ring and was spooky and wild!!  He wanted and to whirl and hop and bolt away.  There was no reasoning with him at this point.  I always try to remind myself to not rely on emotion at this point but to go to my head and to recall the best way to deal with the erratic behavior.  I immediately thought about sinking my weight down in to my heels to assure a nice low center of gravity.  I reminded myself to keep my head and shoulders up and to look ahead and finally to keep him moving forward on a circle.  Fortunately, I stayed in the saddle.  It made me think of a quote from Hans Senn(I love his quotes) it goes something like this: When your horse is at his worst you need to be at your best.  Don’t panic together.  Good advice if you ask me.

I couldn’t really tell what had caused Bugs behavior. It seemed to be a culmination of a little of this and a little of that.   Fortunately, we happened to have a visiting rider who is very experienced and is good with horses who are too wound up.  He got on and rode through his issues.

This was a side of Bugs that I hadn’t seen.  We had some rain and the horses were on the walker as opposed to being ridden so he may have been a little fresher than usual.  But still, that is no excuse but rather a reminder of what I need to work on with him.  I want Bugs to have all of that energy but learn to use it constructive ways, like moving forward in a big bold trot, or jumping (soon, we’ll get to that in a few entries).  Well, it is definitely something to work on.

Bugs: A Horse with Big Shoes to Fill!

December, 14, 2010

Bugs is like a big kid.  Bugs has been with me since early last spring.  He is a 7 year old, 16.3 Chestnut appendix quarter horse.  Both his dam and sire were appendix so he has his fair share of thoroughbred in him.  I love this about him, since I have a real affinity for thoroughbreds.  Mint is a thoroughbred you know.   And you know I love my Mint!  Mint has been my shining example of  positive reinforcement.  He has a huge repertoire of behaviors both from the ground and undersaddle.  He embodies On Target Training with his huge heart and  great disposition.  He is a pleasure for anyone to be around and I hear it from people all the time.  He is light and responsive in the saddle, making me feel like a highly effective rider even on my worst day.  This is what I wanted, another Mint!  Of course, this is not how Mint started out.
Let’s start with Bugs beginnings… He was in a pasture with very little interaction until he was 4 years old.  That is a long time. There is a window when young horses are very trainable and then there is a time when they are more set in their ways.  Bugs kinda missed that window.  At 4 he was taken from the pasture and it was decided he was going to be a roping horse.  Talk about a square peg in a round hole.  Needless to say this didn’t go so well for Bugs.  I don’t know all of the details but he came away with a scar on his face and a suspicious disposition.
My friend Marcy had been around Bugs and saw that he wasn’t going down a good path.  He was off to the horse auction.  She stepped in and took him to her barn, which is a hunter/jumper barn.  This is not something that Marcy had done before.  She was not sure how this would end or where he was going to go, she just felt it in her heart to give him a chance. For the next couple of years he was in a low pressure program and taught the basics.  It was clear to her that he really wanted to please but he still needed a gentle touch.  She had invested too much to just let anyone have him and felt somewhat protective of her charge.
This is when I enter the picture.  Due to personal reasons Mint had been turned out for 7 years and I had barely ridden.  Mint was newly out of retirement but he is getting older and I thought it was time to have a new addition, not only for riding but for the positive reinforcement training.  I asked her about buying a horse.  Marcy saw a potentially good fit with me and Bugs.  I dusted off my chaps and showed up at Marcy’s barn to try Bugs.  I wasn’t on him for a minute when he spooked and wheeled.  Poof, I’m on the ground.  Me being newly back in the saddle, my seat wasn’t real solid.  He ended up by the rail, as I went to go get him he was visibly trembling with fear, afraid of the repercussions.
At that instant, I knew he was meant for me.  It broke my heart to see him so worried.  I knew I had the tools to help him.  Now, this is not how one should choose their horses. Bugs had been doing great with Jenn, who rides for Marcy.  He felt safe with Jenn and his routine.  This, clearly, did not carry over to me.
Marcy, being the voice of reason, wouldn’t let me make a decision until I spent more time with Bugs.  He came to the barn where I was boarding.  He showed me how suspicious he seemed to feel in the new situation.  He broke through two leather halters in two days by pulling back in the cross ties.  I never became disheartened and he began to trust me and even more, to look forward to time with me.  When I would pull up in my truck both of my horses would start whinnying.  I got some riding in but not on a consistent basis.  I knew we were moving to a new barn in October, a really nice barn I might add.  Marcy is the trainer at the new barn and we were getting into a riding/training program together and utilizing the positive reinforcement.  We are both doing great and making great strides.  Bugs is growing up!!
Patty, who owns the barn was hosting an elaborate Christmas party the other day at the barn.  This meant trucks and workmen were everywhere.  They were decorating, hanging plastic to tent the barn areas, putting in a dance floor, bar, hanging lights and bringing in a mechanical bull.  This was seemed to be sheer terror for some horses(and rider’s).  But Bugs was totally sensible and calm.  He made me feel really proud.  I think Bugs is a great edition to On Target Training.  We have a lot to learn together but he, like Mint, is showing that love of learning and growing a big heart.  There is a part of me that wanted him to be all done, just like Mint is now, and then I realized what a great journey it is and wondered why it is I always want to hurry.  Bugs will never be just like Mint, but that is fine with me, he is going to be just like Bugs and that is shaping up to be great news.  He is a Blessing and I am ever thankful that he is in my life.  Bugs has a shining future and I look forward to the journey that lies ahead of us.

Progress in training – Hans Senn

Correct training makes a horse systematically better. Training should be progressive; however, it is better to progress one year too late than one day too early. More demands may produce more resistance. Sometimes it is wiser to reach a temporary compromise and look for a solution later than provoke a major problem. Give your horse the benefit of the doubt. Go slowly.
– Hans Senn

Fear vs. Punishment – Hans Senn

Your horse learns more from praise than from punishment. Teach your horse to respect and like you, not to fear and mistrust you. Make your horse comfortable and he will make you comfortable.
– Hans Senn

Teaching Your Horse to Stand Quietly for the Farrier

Well, it is high time I get started fielding some of these great questions that keep coming to me through Ask Shawna. There are so many great topics that I wasn’t sure where to begin, so I just pulled from the top. Here is today’s question sent in by Susanna:

“I have a one year old filly who hates it when her legs and feet are handled. Especially hind-legs. I’ve tried to let her get used to it slowly and she gets a click and treat for it. Short touches are ok, but she has to cope with trimmings every couple weeks and gets very nervous and you have to start all over again.”

Hi Susanna,

You are off to a good start. That she will let you handle her legs and feet even for short spells says that you are making progress, so kudos to you for that. Now we need to focus on longevity and acclimating her to the tasks that the farrier performs during the trimmings. Keep in mind that all of our horses learn through operant conditioning. This means they are constantly trying to figure out how to either get things that they want or how to avoid the things that they don’t want. They build up is what is referred to as a reinforcement history. They form associations with the things that they experience. The good news is, with the correct amount of reinforcement we can change these associations for the better. I think of them as scales that are out of balance. With the use of reinforcement we can put more weight on the side of the scale that represents the desired behavior. You are certainly on the right track.

Be sure that you have taken the time to really be sure that she understands the clicker and it’s significance. She should always stand with her head forward with proper manners without getting pushy or mouthy when food is present. Also, I recommend target training. I recommend it for every behavior even if it will not physically be used for a particular behavior. The process teaches them how to engage in the learning process and is, in my opinion, an essential part of teaching our horses a work ethic. In this particular case I recommend using the target as we build up her tolerance. The target becomes a familiar object with a very strong reinforcement history. It can serve as a pacifier of sorts. We will want to fade it out of the picture later but for now it will help serve our purpose. So be sure she is strong with touching her nose to a target. I am making an assumption that you know what the heck I’m talking about but if you don’t just let me know or check out the web site or video for more instruction about proper clicker or target training.

I also recommend doing the sessions right before feeding time if your schedule allows. The food will have a higher perceived value for her at this time. I also recommend using a mix of reinforcements. Choose several treats that she likes. This changes up the anticipation of what comes next. Volumes have been written about schedules of reinforcement. It has been proven that the more predictable is not always the best way to raise criteria, and  what we want to do is to step up her eagerness to stand still and be patient. By changing how much and what type of treat, we will peak her interest. I want you to sometimes feed a small handful and sometimes feed a couple handfuls. She will work harder to achieve her favorite and to get the larger amount. On those days when you don’t have a lot of time I would, at the least, ask her to lift a foot  or two before each feeding.  Also, be sure that she has had some exercise or turn out before her training sessions so she isn’t a ball of energy, this will help set her up to succeed.

I suggest to work her as much as possible in the same place where the farrier is working with her so she builds up a desirable reinforcement history with this spot. Also, to mimic the things that the farrier does. Go slow and build up her confidence with each of these tasks. Sometimes they can feel insecure about not being able to have all four feet available to flee so we need to build her trust. I may be reiterating a bit here but I don’t really know what steps you have taken so I’m just going to cover some steps. Start by making sure that she is comfortable with you handling her all over her body not just her legs. Start where she is most comfortable and click and treat when she is standing still AND relaxed. Relaxed is really our focus. We can teach her to stand still but if she is not truly relaxed then we may be reinforcing the wrong attitude and it will come to a head somewhere down the line. Only move on when she is relaxed and calm. Watch her eyes, ears, body language and feel those muscles. When she softens click and feed. Continue this process to the legs and feet. Remember to go at her speed. At first short sessions with a lot of reinforcement will be the best. Quit while she still wants more. Again this will peak her interest and anticipation. In her head we want her thinking… “come back and touch my legs!!” I have found I make MUCH more progress with three 5 minute sessions than with one 30 or 40 minute session. Build up the time once she is comfortable with this phase. Then vary the length of the sessions sometimes quick and sometimes long.

Next is handling her feet. Begin each step by reinforcing the smallest steps. As you begin to teach her to pick up her feet or to allow you to pick them up, think of the small steps in between. For example look for her knee to bend. This indicates that she took the weight off of this foot. This is worthy of a pretty good sized reinforcement. Give her a couple handfuls. The more she participates the faster the progress. Once you have the foot try to put it down only when she softens and relaxes the foot and leg. Remember to click while you have the foot in your hand. You want to click on the behavior that you want to see more of, she will remember what she was doing when she heard the click. If you click when she has her foot on the ground she will try to get her foot back on the ground so she gets the click. Once she is relaxed with this behavior begin to move the feet around a bit. Your farrier will stretch her out pretty good but we want to build up to that degree. Again click and feed small steps and relaxation. If she gets tense back up a little and rebuild the step before and go a little slower. Try to hold until you feel relaxation. When she is good with this and trusting you to do this I would introduce someone else into the equation. The point is to mimic the farrier in this equation. I would choose someone who is familiar with horses and their body language. Start back at the beginning, even though she has been good . This way you set her up for success by going back to her most comfortable place. You will quickly move through the paces. I would use the target at this point. You work the target while your friend handles her legs. This will give her something else to focus on and often helps to prevent horses from getting too wound up. If she is doing good I would suggest intermittent use of the target. This sounds like a lot of steps but I suspect she will go pretty quick.

Just when you get it worked out, get her nice and calm… here comes the farrier! Talk to your farrier and tell him/her what you are working on. After all, this investment of time will make his/her life easier down the road. Farriers want our horses to be good about trims and shoeing even more than we do! As he steps up to her ask her to target and click and reinforce. This will put her in the “work” mode. The target will be like an old familiar friend and will help give her a place to put some of that nervous energy.  I have found that the target helps the farrier become more of an incidental just like in her sessions.   If she is pretty nervous stay close and ask her to target now and then and reinforce. If she is somewhat calm I would stay nearby but not right at her head since she may fidget just trying to do something to please you. As things are going good with the farrier ask if it is okay to click and reinforce. Make sure that she is doing something worth reinforcing. Feed her well. If possible I would maybe do a foot or two, have him/her work on another horse and then get back to her after she has had a break. As time goes by she will get better and better and you can fade yourself out of this equation. She will realize that there isn’t anything to fear and it will just be part of her routine. Taking the time now will build her confidence.  Continue the sessions between the farrier visits even if she is perfect.  Remember the scale illustration?  This will build up the reinforcement on the correct side of the scales giving her a reason to want to stand still.

Well Susanna, I find my self wanting to go on and on but should wrap it up.   I hope this helped give you some ideas for making progress with your filly.  Thank you for sending in your question.

I will continue to answer some of the questions sent into Ask Shawna. There is much more to come so stay tuned and enjoy getting your horse On Target!

Question about treats, mounting and progress with a worried horse

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

So here is the question and response:


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

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

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

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

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

Shawna Corrin Karrasch July 31 at 7:29am:

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

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

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

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

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

Getting my clicker/horse training blog going!!

Hey Everyone,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Your Horse’s Behavior

June 18, 2010 by  
Filed under On Target Training

Understanding your horse’s behaviors, as well as what motivates and reinforces these behaviors is important. Watch this clip for one of the Golden Rules to the On Target Training system, Operant Conditioning.

*Video:understanding your horse's behavior – operant conditioning

Positive Reinforcement in Horse Training

There are different ways to reward your horse for a job well done. In this clip Shawna explains the importance of reward reinforcement in order to achieve consistent training success.

*Video:positive reward reinforcement

Recognizing, Reinforcing and Rewarding the Right Attitude

May 10, 2010 by  
Filed under On Target Training

It’s important to think about and understand your horse’s attitude when you’re teaching him to do something new. In this video, Shawna discusses recognizing how your horse responds to training and how to reinforce and reward accordingly.

*Video:attitude awareness

Clicker Trained Horse Remembers After 7 Years!

After almost seven years apart, Shawna and her horse Mint reunite. Watch how much Mint remembers his On Target Training on his first day back with Shawna.

*Video:on target – mint's arrival

Bridge the Horse Training Gap

In this clip, Shawna explains the reasoning behind using a ‘clicker’ or bridge signal and why it is an essential step to getting your horse On Target.

*Video:bridge the horse training gap – clicker basics

Building Blocks for Training Your Horse

April 5, 2010 by  
Filed under On Target Training

Whether you use On Target Training or another training method, take small steps to build your horse’s foundation for learning. The term used for this is Successive Approximation.

*Video:building blocks for training your horse

Ask Shawna

April 1, 2010 by  
Filed under Ask Shawna

Shawna is excited to share her knowledge with you via tele-seminars, as she explains in this video clip. Click on the Ask Shawna button above to participate and the seminar details will come to your email.

*Video:ask shawna tele-seminars

On Target Training, Shawna Karrasch

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