In this video clip I give Melissa some suggestions to help her hose-phobic horse get past his anxiety. I have found positive reinforcement to be the very best way to overcome spookiness issues in horses, it really helps them to choose to face their fears….and fear of hoses are no exception. To watch them make a decision to relax and let go of their worry is hugely reinforcing for me. Also, a huge benefit of the training is the level of the confidence that your horse will gain through the process. Offering something that your horse finds valuable will really grab his attention and help him to enjoy the learning process.
Before you begin working directly with the hose desensitization, I suggest you be sure he is solid with the bridge signal (clicker) as well as with the target training. Sometimes I just make an assumption that people know this part, so I forget to mention it! By getting a good start, and NOT cutting corners, you will make quicker progress. I am often heard saying “slow down, you’ll go faster” but it is true!! If you need more info on this process you may go to my blog post “Get your horse off to the right start for clicker training”. For an even better explanation of the science behind the training you may want to get my DVD and/or book “You Can train Your Horse to Do Anything”. I also forget that not everyone knows that I have a book or DVDs, so I thought I should mention it here just in case.
Whenever we are dealing with fear in our horses it is very important to keep the training within their comfort range, giving them time to slowly acclimate as we go. As I mention in the video clip, we need to look for signs of worry as well as relaxation. If a horse is standing looking soft and neutral, then he lifts his head as if something got his attention…that, to me, is the threshold that I want to recognize. This small action is communication pure and simple. It tells me that he may have become slightly concerned. I will not move forward with the next step in training until he looks totally relaxed again. Progressing nice and slowly will allow him time to acclimate. If we move too fast we will likely lose ground, as well as trust.
Some of the signs of relaxation might be…exhaling, relaxed head position or casual stance, soft focus, soft eyes, ears, jowls, lips and muscles, etc. These are not the only indicators, however they are some of the more common signs. Seeing some tension in any of these areas doesn’t necessarily mean that their mind is worried. My horse, Bugs has busy lips, they rarely look soft but it doesn’t mean he is uptight…it is just part of his personality. The same goes for the signs of relaxation. For example, a head down doesn’t necessarily mean a horse is relaxed. Horses are individuals so you need to know your horse and what his body language is saying. If this is a new concept for you, than I suggest you get an experienced horse person to help you recognize your particular horse’s body language. Also, watching him when he is turned out or interacting with his environment will also tell you a lot about your horse and how he deals with new situations.
I recommend you build relaxation into the criteria of every behavior you teach. Your horse may not be perfectly calm at first but you can look for little improvements. Bridging (clicking) and reinforcing for the smallest approximations toward your goal. After a while, being attentive and settled will just be a habit for him. However, it is important to only work on one criteria at a time. I recommend you start by working on one a particular element of the target behavior. Relaxation will be an ongoing criteria. So I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you focus on it completely, but keep a vigilant eye out for the times when it is offered. When you get a good approximation that is also calm I would draw a lot of attention to it by rewarding handsomely.
As with every new behavior, we really want to consider what we can do to set them up for success. Is there a place where your horse is more composed? Maybe the wash stall already has an unpleasant association, so starting somewhere else may help to put him more at ease. Hopefully you will get better responses and more opportunities to reinforce. Maybe he will be better after some exercise to take the edge off. Using a little common sense always helps!!
If you follow your horses lead by not going over threshold, while also using a high rate of reinforcement and keeping the sessions brief, you should be able to move forward without a hitch. If you go too fast and lose some ground, don’t sweat (we all do it sometimes), just take a step back and work a little slower, allowing your horse time to process the lessons. The next thing you know your horse will see a hose and think “hose=reinforcement”…you will be dragging him away from the hose! The video will give you a lot more info. Just holler if you have questions or comments!
In this video, I answer Karen’s question about upward transitions. This seems to be a recurring theme that is difficult for us humans to grasp…as far as positive reinforcement goes. Historically, we have used pressure/release to teach horses to do just about everything. I want you to consider something in regard to traditional training and “going forward”. What is in it for your horse? Why should he want to put in the extra effort to go forward? What does he get out of it? There isn’t much incentive for the horse outside of us using our aids to create pressure. Then we leave them alone when they respond correctly. On the other side of the coin, with positive reinforcement we can bring something that our horse values and this dramatically changes the horse’s enthusiasm. Because there is something in it for them, they become invested in the training program and enjoy the learning process. They are as interested in the outcome as we are….how’s that for a partnership? It sure does make for a happier horse and it makes our job a heck of a lot easier too.
Once we get started with the positive reinforcement training basics (bridge conditioning and target training) we are ready to advance in our training. While we can move right into under saddle work following that initial phase, I recommend that you train a behavior on the ground first. Let me explain….the better their experience with the learning, the stronger their effort will be when things begin to get a little more difficult. So I like them to get hooked, to really enjoy the training. The best way to do this is to be certain that they experience a lot of success and very little frustration. By teaching them one simple behavior, and getting it solid, we have helped them to get all they way on board with the training. Something simple, like going to a stationary target or picking up their feet on their own. Additionally, teach the behavior of leading at liberty incorporating upward and downward transitions. Since we are discussing upward transitions, I recommend most reinforcements come for upward transitions….just something to keep in mind.
Usually, under saddle work has a long history with traditional training. If our horse doesn’t fully comprehend how good the new training can be, then he won’t know that good things lie ahead for him. He may check out before we have a chance to get his attention. In this post we are addressing a bit of an issue with upward transitions…that means we have probably gone through the pressure release route without much success. This let’s us know that we are dealing with a particular mind set and he has probably developed a habit of resistance to going forward. It doesn’t mean that he is trying to be bad, it just means he doesn’t find it reinforcing enough to do what we are asking. It is more reinforcing to plod along or ignore our aids. In any case the reluctance usually has a pretty well developed history. We need to get him out of his old mindset and ready to play the new “game”, that he finds so reinforcing, under saddle. I suggest you keep your first under saddle sessions particularly short and sweet…. this means maintaining a high rate of reinforcement! This will help to grab your horses attention. Getting him engaged and keeping his focus is the first goal. To ensure that he is putting two and two together, I encourage you to only work on one behavior under saddle at first. You want to see him making the connection and having success with this behavior. Pretty soon you will feel him offering the new behavior just like when we were teaching the behaviors on the ground.
Somethings to keep in mind… We are exercising their minds, not their bodies. For a lazy, balky horse, we can offer a huge reinforcement by just getting off and calling it a day when they give us a good effort. For this first stage of training, if they still need additional exercise I will turn out, lunge, etc, AFTER we do our under saddle training session.
This brings me to the next point. We ALWAYS want to set them up for success. What can you do to create more energy, a better response or a better attitude? Often it is better to ride them before they have had too much exercise so we utilize their extra energy and enthusiasm. Of course you have to evaluate your particular horse to determine what will work best for the two of you.
Be sure you don’t skimp on the time you put into the bridge conditioning (clicker) and target training. This is often something that gets overlooked. It may seem a little repetitive, but it is supposed to be! For one thing, we are conditioning the clicker, thereby giving it value. This is classic conditioning and it takes repetition. The clicker needs to have a very strong association before we move on to more difficult behaviors, like your under saddle work. We want to be sure that they recognize the clicker as the reinforcer. That is why the stopping to reinforce doesn’t matter…. they are working for the sound of the clicker. The stopping is an incidental that we initiated by our clicking. When properly conditioned, they will remember what earned them the click. It is called abridge signal because it bridges the gap between the moment of behavior (that earned the bridge signal) and the time when we can deliver the reinforcement. It bookmarks that moment in time.
This bridge conditioning process helps to get them really solid on relaxing and also respecting our space. We want this to become their default behavior…down the road you will be glad you did. When I see a horse who has resorted back to being pushy it is often a result of too little time with the basic manners or not maintaining this behavior.
The target work allows them to become more engaged in the training. It helps them develop better problem solving skills. It also continues to improve our relationship and trust.
And one last thought for you before you watch the video…Doing upward transitions from the ground while liberty leading can be very helpful under saddle as well. The goal is for them to mimic my movements. The signal is my speed and movement, so when I trot they trot, when I walk they walk, when I turn right, they turn right, when I stop they stop, etc. I also start pairing a verbal signal in here as well. This way we can utilize the signal from the saddle as well. In this situation I bridge (click) upward transitions. So as soon as the spring into the next gait or even increase within their gait. What is happening in this process is that we are building a good reinforcement history with upward transitions. Even though it is seems out of context, they often times will generalize. What has happened when we work on it from the ground, they begin to realize that when I am asked to go forward, I may get a reinforcement. They recognize the cue as an opportunity for reinforcement…after some repetition it actually becomes a conditioned reinforcer (that classic conditioning is always at work!)
One final reminder…they remember what earns them the click…don’t worry about the stopping!! The duration is easy once they understand the concept and are offering the behavior. If you can find it, there is an old, and helpful article that was featured in Practical Horseman in June of 1999, It chronicles one of my students progress with teaching her horse to move forward. Pretty soon she called to tell me she had to slow him down!!
Barbara asks some questions that are hot buttons for a lot of people coming from the school of “clicker training”. She is inquiring about the use of the bridge signal(clicker) and not following every single bridge with food. In the marine mammal industry we don’t call it clicker training…in fact most people don’t use clickers. The term was derived and introduced into the dog world some years ago. With it came a set of rules that aren’t used in the marine mammal training industry. That has lead to some confusion as to what is “allowed” when using positive reinforcement. At Sea World we studied and utilized behavioral principles and applied learning theory. The marine mammal industry is on the cutting edge of positive reinforcement training. I know from a previous conversation that some of the rules of clicker training, as it applies to dogs, were created for the neophyte dog owner/trainer. I understand why they were implemented but I also realize that we have come a long way since then. People are now much further along in their education and understanding so they can easily handle some of the more “advanced” concepts of training. I address the questions and give more info in this video clip, but I wanted to touch on some of the points here in the post as well.
One is the concept of not feeding every bridge signal (clicker). The bridge signal/clicker is a conditioned reinforcer also known as a secondary reinforcer. This means we have given the clicker value through classic conditioning (think Pavlov’s dogs). Once that happens it then serves as a reinforcer, all by itself. Occasionally reinforcing with a scratch, game, toy, turn out, activity, another signal or any other conditioned/secondary reinforcer does not diminish the value of the clicker or any other bridge signal. If the ratio became out of balance then that would be a different story, but as long as the ratio is skewed toward most of the bridges being followed by food we keep the value quite high. There are plenty of benefits to using secondary reinforcers and it definitely enhances your relationship.
Next Barbara brings up cues. There is a “rule” that you can’t add a cue until the behavior is almost completely trained. That is not necessarily true. In fact in most cases we are instituting some sort of cue (discriminative stimulus) as we start to train a new behavior…otherwise how would they have a clue what to do? So you have a cue from the get go. Often times I will slightly modify the original cue or simply make it more and more subtle. I give the example of my spin cue in the video. At first it was a point to the target, pretty quickly I started adding two fingers pointing to the target. I kept the same signal that I used from day one but it got smaller and smaller so that it is subtle, this helps to keep them more watchful. If I need to take a step back to remind them, I am still using the same working signal that was a part of the initial lessons. It is easy to slowly get bigger to remind them. If I want a different signal altogether, I will start to pair it with the working cue as soon as they start getting successful approximations. With a target to guide them through it starts pretty darn quick. Free shaping and capturing will be a different process. Since there will likely be more guesswork on the horse’s part, I will add the cue later in these cases.
The third thing that Barbara asks about is the use of a magnitude reinforcement…AKA jackpot feed. She wanted to know if I use a jackpot on Mint’s back up (video: “Now that’s a backup!!” on my YouTube Channel) I definitely use jackpots during the training process, especially for the smallest improvements when working on a new behavior. This seems to keep them highly motivated to work through the rough spots. I actually use the magnitude feed quite a bit. I like to make a big impact and allow latent learning to take effect. I believe quite strongly in having short and sweet sessions and I end every session with a magnitude reinforcement. Well, let me clarify, I end every successful session with a magnitude reinforcement.
Okay, that may about cover it, the rest is in the video…If you have any questions or comments please let me know!
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…
“Girthiness” is a fairly common issue, especially with mares. However, this behavior is often overlooked instead of being addressed. Their responses may vary; it may be anything from biting, kicking, fussiness or pinned ears. But in any case we can change our horses attitude about the girth or surcingle. And the good news is that it isn’t difficult to do! In this case, Willow’s horse is just learning about this new sensation so it is going to be a quicker fix than a horse who has been habitually grumpy when the girth is tightened. However, it will still be a similar process. One thing to remember, that isn’t addressed in the video answer, tightening the girth in small increments is going to be one of the ways that you can set your horse up for success, so remember to go slow. Also, as a standing rule…before getting started with training, always rule out any physical cause when your horse shows any change in behavior or has a cranky reaction.
In this video answer I address Debby’s question about her new horse. Debby’s horse doesn’t understand the usual leg cue for moving forward. She would like to use positive reinforcement to teach her horse to move forward rather than using pressure/release. For those of you who are familiar with positive reinforcement/clicker training, you already know what a difference it makes in the horses attitude when they are given a choice. You will see a marked improvement in attitude, performance, enthusiasm, retention and focus. By using positive reinforcement you are putting something in the training equation that your horse finds valuable. They become invested in the training process…and it’s outcome! It is amazing how willing, soft and responsive the horses become. This is why more and more professionals are incorporating positive reinforcement into their training protocols. With Debby’s horse we are starting with some basics. This takes a little thinking outside of the box. If you have any questions or want to learn more about the training please don’t hesitate to ask. “>
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:
Want to go on a vacation somewhere warm? What about one with horses? Well, me too. These Southern California winters are brutal. Okay, maybe that is a bit of an overstatement, but it is all relative. Us Southern Californians get tired of our colder weather too. Maybe it is all those years I spent in the cold water and a wetsuit or maybe I am just a wimp…but I can’t wait for the warmer weather. This year I am going to do something about it….I am going to go to Central America!
That’s right. I am really excited to let you know that we just finalized the dates for my clinic in Costa Rica. Well, actually it is more than a clinic…I will be there all week. From May 1st – 7th. It will be so much fun!! Discovery Horseback Tours, run by Andrea and Chris Wady, is a top notch operation. There are some great reviews from people who have had the time of their life. If you want to learn more here is a link to their website. Wait till you read about all of the things you can do. I hope you will join me, Andrea and Chris in Costa Rica! http://www.horseridecostarica.com/vacationpkgs.php
Jen asks a question about creating a bond with her off track Thoroughbred. She is just getting to know her new horse and wants to get started using positive reinforcement training. Using the click/reward techniques will help to build trust incredibly fast. The trust and respect will grow stronger each and every day.
In addition to what I said in the video, I always recommend reinforcing for relaxation. Building it into your criteria from the start will be a big help. Typically, a horse right off the track has a tendency toward being full of energy and not very quick to settle. So as you start the basics (bridge, and target training) watch his eyes, ears, mouth, jaw, head position and body for signs of softness. At first he may not be very relaxed but look for small improvements…tiny little approximation toward settling. By clicking and reinforcing for these increments you will see him becoming more and more relaxed. With relaxation comes focus, manners, sensibility, and a good attitude.
I am really excited for the two of you because I know the amazing journey that lies ahead. Jenn, please keep me posted of your progress and congratulations on your new horse!
Stephanie asks a question about stiffness in her horse’s neck. As always you want to rule out any physical causes by having your vet give your horse a good once over. Also, it is prudent to re-check the fit of your saddle. Okay once we have that sorted out it is time to see what we can do to encourage our horses to bend. Relaxation is the key. From what I hear, Stephanie’s horse seems to be beyond the usual rigidness. In any case I share my initial thoughts on the video. Remember to never use force or coercion to create softness. Using positive reinforcement we can teach our horse to bring it from the inside out. Stephanie, please keep me posted. Let me know how these suggestions work out. If you have questions or want to try something different I have more ideas up my sleeve.
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:
Solving Horse Behavior Problems and Me
Pressure – Positive or Negative?
November 15, 2012 by Equi-libre Horses
There has been much talk on the internet recently about the use of pressure in training and whether it is viewed by the horse as pleasant and helpful guidance or instead something that the animal is in fact working to avoid or get rid of – thereby an unpleasant aversive; its termination acting as a negative reinforcer.
It is well known that an important type of learning that ALL species experience is about concequences. Everything we do has concequences! And changing our behaviour changes those concequences!
Whether a behaviour has increased due to a positive reinforcer or a negative reinforcer can be difficult to determine in some situations – especially if a click (followed by food) has marked the response for the horse at the same time as pressure being released.
Is the horse offering the response because it finds the guidance reassuring, pleasant and helpful as well as seeking the click and the food (positive reinforcement)? Or is it instead responding to the pressure which it knows will go away when it offers the correct response (negative reinforcement); the click and treat being overpowered by the horse’s motivation to avoid the aversive?
Both of these concequences reinforce the behavioural response we are looking for meaning it will INCREASE and happen MORE frequently. So some of you may be wondering what is the point in these online debates are anyway, since the outcome in both cases gets us what we want – an increase in the desired behavioural response! And after all, if we feel that the level of pressure we are using to achieve that isn’t aversive or unpleasant…then it must be ok – right?
Hmm – sadly not. I believe this is the crux of the matter actually. Humans tend to get very focussed on what WE want when training our horses, how WE feel about the tools we are using such as body language pressure and physical pressure. If it feels like soft, light, guidance to us we assume that we can safely say the same for the horse.
Ironically, this is exactly my point. Training isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) about how we feel about it.
Conversely, training is actually about the HORSE learning through changingITS behaviours as a result of ITS experience.
“Learning is an adaptive process in which the tendency to perform a particular behaviour is changed by experience.” – Carlson, Buskist and Martin (2004)
Almost more important is to realise that the experiences that drive changes in behaviour of the horse are defined according to how the HORSE feels about them, not US.
It isn’t about what WE believe, think or feel about what we are doing, using or even intending to use.
As humans we have a fabulous ability to justify our own behaviours in an anthropomorphistic manner; superimposing our own feelings and experiences onto our animals as a means of justifying our actions. In some cases, we even go as far as to reinscribe technology as a way of re-wording something to make us feel better about it as in this case – ‘pressure and release’, as Jenni Nellist so brilliantly explained in her recent blog post.
But how can we tell how the horse feels in order to work out whether pressure is viewed by them as a positive stimulus acting as a positive conditioned reinforcer or an unpleasant aversive acting as a negative conditioned reinforcer? Their subtle body language signals give us a window into their souls and can enlighten us pretty clearly when we know what to look for – low level anxiety body language signals stand out pretty radically when compared to horses happily responding to light pressure as a positive discriminative stimulus (cue).
It is indeed possible to train a horse to view extremely light pressure as pleasant stimulus that has positive associations attached.
The key is in understanding how the HORSE really feels about that pressure…and US leaving how we feel out of the equation!
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.
I think it is funny that I am releasing my trailer loading DVD while in the middle of a HUGE trip for 6 rescue horses…well, it is a big trip for their humans too!
So much planning and care has gone into preparing these horses for this expedition. 1200 miles from Colorado to California…we are almost there!!
Just in case some of you don’t know, these horses have had been through some tough times. Most of them have had some sort of abuse or neglect. There is one horse who is an experienced trailer gal. But the others, have had very little experience trailering and the small amount they did have was not good. So, for months now their loving humans have devoted their time to help these horses get acclimated to trailering and all that goes with it.
Given their past, the project was a big one for everyone. I have come in every now and then to help give guidance along the way but the credit goes to the humans that worked with them all. Well, that and the training!
Using positive reinforcement they were able to get the horses to open up, to trust people and to enjoy being in the trailer. However, 4 days on the road is another issue for any horse, let alone this posse of horses.
Well, today is the home stretch!! We broke the days down into small increments, averaging 300 miles a day. Did I mention one of these horses is 26 and another is 29!!! That meant we really wanted to give them short days with plenty of rest in between.
We weren’t sure how they would respond to all of the new sights and sounds or how they would do getting on and off at new places after their big ships. So much uncertainty! We did all we could to prepare them for these unforeseeable challenges.
I am so happy to report that they have been amazing!! I am so proud of all that are involved. These gals did a great job getting these horses with a great foundation. The horses have seen/heard, semi tractor trailers, air brakes, trains, freeways, tunnels, stop lights, traffic and skateboarders doing tricks right next to their trailer.
They are so solid and seem to be enjoying the whole process. I see this as such a big testament to the power of positive reinforcement training. As I always say, I didn’t create the training. It is applied learning theory, I just help to facilitate it, to put it to work in the real world with real horses in real situations.
Just a reminder, I am running a special on my new trailer loading DVD if you would like to learn more about the training. The special will be running through Wednesday and then it is going up in price. So, if are wanting to get your horse trailering like a pro, please visit the link below:
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.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of horses out there who are not as happy as they could be or who, even worse, resent the training process. We must always rule out physical causes but once we have done all we can physically we may find the problem is with their mental attitude. The great news is we can change this by adding something to the equation that the horses finds valuable. Something that he perceives as valuable, not something that we assign value to for them. By using positive reinforcement in their training program you can bring about big changes in your horse. You will get a relaxed but eager partner.
Here is a link for the early stages of getting started. Once you get the foundational work in place you will start to see a change in your horse’s attitude, even without taking it to under saddle work. But taking it to your riding you will be addressing his demeanor directly and you will start to feel and see a happier horse. http://on-target-training.com/freetraining/ If you have more questions or would like more information please don’t hesitate to comment or get ahold of me.
As a side note, I recommend Gerd Heuschmann’s work for some great insights into physical relaxation through bio mechanics. This also brings about mental relaxation which of course, is what we want.
Part two: Combining traditional training with “clicker “ training…
I talked about the different ways that people apply clicker training with their horses. Ideally, I like to teach behaviors using positive reinforcement, yet most of the horses I encounter are cross-over horses. This means the horse has already been trained through pressure/release training and is now being introduced to the use of positive reinforcement in his training protocol. A large number of the people I meet are not interested in letting go of their pressure/release training. That is okay, so long as the horse isn’t showing any worry about the traditional training. As people have the chance to understand the training and see it put to use, they often start shifting to using more and more of the clicker training in their day to day work with their horses.
It is harder for some people to recognize when their horse is not content with certain aspects of his pressure/release training until the tell-tale signs are pointed out to them. People, often times, think their horse is doing well because he is quiet, however, sometimes their horse is actually shut down. It takes a bit of awareness to see that they have checked out. If that is the case I suggest going way back and essentially starting over. Using positive reinforcement and rebuilding a new, better reinforcement history with the behaviors they know, will help them to become more invested in the training process. They will be down right enthusiastic!
One the other hand, if things seem to be on a pretty good level with their horse and his training we can simply add clicker training to increase the horses motivation, performance, capacity for learning and especially their relationship with the owner. You can do this by adding positive reinforcement to what he already knows or by training new behaviors. All of this dramatically improves their attitude across the board. Often times when I am called in there is a problem with some facet of training and they seem to be stuck. The first thing I like to do is go to liberty work for their particular issue, if possible. If it is not an option, I will work the horse in a halter and lead rope, being careful to not apply any pressure via halter, lead rope or body position. This equipment is simply to keep them from wandering too far astray. They may wander to the end of the lead rope, yet I still won’t correct their actions by applying pressure or pulling. I prefer a long lead rope so they feel they have some liberty to move away. This freedom (preferably at total liberty)really gives the horse a chance to show us where they are comfortable and where they are having troubles. Often times to the owners surprise it is a much different picture than what they anticipate. Usually as the owner sees the dramatic improvement, they begin to use clicker training in other facets of their training program.
As we begin combining the two systems I usually don’t see any bad attitudes or grumpiness as a norm. However, some horses will start out a little possessive of food and this can cause some stress and uncertainty at first that can be carried over to the whole training process. Then there are also some horses who just seem to have a sour attitude toward training, being ridden and people in general. Even though they may be compliant, that attitude is a pretty big indicator that something is up that needs to be addressed. First, be sure that there is not a physical cause behind their disgruntled attitude or a sudden change in behavior. I always recommend having your vet, dentist, farrier check to be sure all is well with the horse physically. Let’s say there is a physical problem and you correct the situation, they may still keep the association with the pain and the undesirable attitude may continue.
With a little awareness and good timing it is not so hard to reshape these grumpy attitudes into a consistently soft, happy demeanor. Yet, if they are not addressed right away they can become a normal part of the training equation, even when we are using positive reinforcement. If we reinforce them with this attitude we may be unintentionally telling them that this is part of the criteria. By recognizing it and addressing it we can correct this behavior. To be continued….
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.
We have two small terriers who ride around in the vet truck all day on calls. Anyone who runs errand with their dog will know that a number of places hand out biscuits to dogs in cars. The bank teller gives them biscuits. The lady at the pharmacy drive through gives them biscuits. Occassionally at a fast food window a stray French fry will come their way. The result is that any time we pull up to any drive-thru before we have even rolled down the truck window, they are both up and alert, wagging tails vigorously, waiting for the biscuit. What does this have to do with horses you ask? Well, it is in excellent example of an idea called “reinforcement history”. Previous experience has led my dogs to believe good things will happen when we pull up to a window in the car. The result of this experience is that they respond positively to every window we stop at. It now no longer matters if they do or do not get a biscuit. The history means they are excited and happy about the trip to the drive up window, even before the biscuit ever shows up. The very experience of approaching the drive up window is now a happy one, all by itself. We will see how our hero, the Brony, relied on reinforcement history to get his human through a difficult spot.
Reinforcement history is a key part of why clicker training works as well as it does, and its an idea Shawna has returned to repeatedly as we have attempted to build Brennir’s confidence. This time, though, we would need reinforcement history to help us with the one thing I really never thought we’d need help with. Brennir has been loading onto trailers since he was a yearling, usually with little to no difficulty. All I have to do is walk him up to the trailer , toss the rope at the manger and wait 20 seconds while he climbs on. However, I have always continued to click and treat him for loading, every time he does it. Although I would not have applied that specific term to it, what I was looking to do was to create that reinforcement history. I wanted Brennir walking up to the trailer like the dogs at the drive up window, eager for a good thing to happen. Just in case something ever, ever went wrong.
Last week we decided to take Brennir and my partner’s horse Hekili to a local rescue I volunteer for . The rescue has lots of land and trails, as well as a lake with a beach that is perfect for swimming horses. I have always wanted a horse who would swim, and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to do a little riding and introduce Brennir to the water. And it was! With patience and the clicker, I had him in the water just to where his hooves came off the bottom. That scared him and he did not want to go deeper, but that was ok. He seemed to be having a great time. We went for a short ride, and I rode him out a short ways into the water under saddle. Coming from where we had, all this seemed like nothing less than a small miracle, and I was elated as we went to load the horses to go home. For the most part I do not think anything that happened next was anyone’s fault or due to any sort of error, with the exception of the fact that we had become so used to them loading flawlessly that I used all but one of my treats up playing in the lake. One treat, surely , was enough . He would walk right on without the treat. The treat was just to keep him thinking positive thoughts about the trailer.
I walked him up to the ramp, just like always. His front feet went up onto the ramp, and his head shot up. His eyes were terrified. He backed up rapidly and stood shaking a little. Perturbed, I led him back to the ramp and tried to coax him back up into the trailer. This time he reared up, pulling back wildly. When I ran backwards with him, he turned into old, wild Brennir. Spinning his shoulder into me, he tried to knock me down, then pulled back, snapping out to the end of the rope and then calming when we were 30 or so feet from the trailer. I led him back to the trailer. He put his feet on the ramp, and then, ignoring every effort of mine to calm him, shot backwards at warp speed. Once out in the open field he slammed me with his head, bruising my shoulder, then calmed some distance from the trailer. Over the next two hours, we would repeat this dance uncounted times. My nose and legs and arms would be bruised, my right foot bleeding from a well placed stomp, my muscles yanked to utter soreness. As anyone who has been in a similar situation will know, my partner and I snapped at each other. We tried his target, then his ball he plays fetch with, but he would not even look at them. We tried a trail of fresh corn greens. We tried tying him up and letting him cool off for 15 minute spans. It did not matter what we did. He was utterly terrified of the trailer, for reasons I could not figure out, and he could not explain to me. Katie tried wrapping the rope around the trailer divider so he could not back up, but a determined horse will get free and when he did, he was out of his mind, rearing and striking at me, pummeling me with his head. Finally, exhausted and overcome by his anger at me, I just fell to my knees, sobbing so hard I’d later realize I’d pulled all the muscles in my stomach. This , apparently , was finally something that scared him more than whatever he thought was in the trailer. My partner picked up the rope, and he walked on.
Here, I will say to all you clicker trainers, who I know sometimes feel alone, that your riding buddies don’t necessarily have to be clicker trainers, but they do need to be people willing to respect your choices and your journey with your horse. Distraught, I called my best friend and riding buddy, who came over. After two hours of listening to me cry, and say my horse hated me, and I should give him to someone else who could help him, when I was finally a little calmer, my dear friend, who is NOT a clicker trainer said “ well, try loading him at home. Do your clicker thing. When he gets on the trailer give him his cookies and clicks and love. “ She was right , of course. I had to do something, since as raw as my heart was my head knew the Brony would be with me forever, and if I didn’t help him, no one would. Besides, although circumstances didn’t allow me to discuss this particular event with Shawna, I knew that the principle we always worked with was ‘ go back to what he does well”. And the Brony always loaded well at home.
A few days later, when I was less raw emotionally, I took him over to the trailer with lots of high value treats in hand. His first attempt looked very much like our failure a few days before. At the second attempt though, a softening moved through him. I believe this was the cumulative effect of ALL the clicks and cookies and love he has ever gotten for loading up. His reinforcement history, returned like a friendly ghost to help us. Here, I really saw the effect Shawna had spoken of , the effect of changing an horse’s perception of an event through repeated reinforcement.
He was soon halfway on the trailer, eyeing the manger with a nervous look. I wondered again what happened, although likely I will never know. With every click and treat , though, I saw the long history of positive experiences with the trailer pushing out that one memorable but horrid experience. After ten minutes of work, hewalked up and put his head in the manger. Click, lot of treats, lots of praise. I backed him off and brought him on again. And again. Each time he got a click and huge jackpot of treats. Soon, I saw the old relaxation come over him, his usual attitude toward loading “ This ain’t nothing. I’ve got this , mom!”
The next day we had planned to ride with my best friend and her husband at the rescue, back before the loading horror happened. I was hesitant, but I also knew that staying home forever was not going to help anything. Brennir walked up on the trailer as happy as could be, anxious for his click and his big treat jackpot. Before we left, my friend said “ it will be fine. Katie and I will be here. Just do what you always do with him. Just do your clicker thing”. Again, I cannot say enough how important it is to have riding partners who respect your journey. I knew I had the space to do whatever I needed to with Brennir, and that there would only be support, not criticism. I also knew we had returned to what he could do well, and rebuilt his confidence. We had the tools and support to succeed.
Arriving at the venue Brennir was anxious to unload and see my friend’s husband’s mare, whom he has a crush on. However, we had work to do first. After backing him off , I asked him to load back on. He did, and again got a click, a ton of treats, and praise. My friends were happy to wait and let him practice.
Despite an unexpected party at the lake, with quads, people and a blasting radio, he did great. We rode around on the trails for about an hour together, then untacked and took the horses swimming in the lake. For the first time I got to enjoy the experience of swimming in water over my head, while my pony strode out beside me. He got lots of treats for that too, the ones that did not float away. Picking the correct treats, I have since learned, is essential for swimming practice.
When it was time to leave, I was nervous, and everyone gave a little space for me to try putting Brennir on first. He walked right on with no urging, making a bee line for the manger as if asking “What is on today’s menu?”. Click, lots of treats, lots of praise, because I want to continue to build his reinforcement history.
I am not sure what the moral of this story is. I don’t know what made him so frightened of the trailer that day. I may never know. I DO know that what he did that day did not predict what he would continue to do. Part of the reason for that was the strong reinforcement history he had for trailer loading. That history had changed his very perception of the trailer, and that one bad experience just COULD NOT dilute the years of happy trailer loading experiences, with clicks and treats, we had behind us, enough to make a difference. I also know that we could not have succeeded without friends who believed in our journey, even if it is different from their own. Lastly, I know that every horse owner has that moment, when they think its time to give up. So maybe the moral of this story is “Don’t”. Just do your clicker thing.
After all the ground work and individual steps, in February it was finally time to think about riding the Brony again. The safest place I could think of to do that was my friend’s dressage arena. Should I come off, the sand would be more forgiving than the frozen ground outside. Plus, an indoor arena has fewer distractions, and he should be less likely to be spooked or overwhelmed there. In theory, at least.
The reality was rather different. Now, faithful readers will remember from the first post that our accident involved a sand hill crane that flew at us, screaming. The incident had left Brennir with a fear of all birds. A group of Canada geese flying overhead would send him spooking and snorting. If a sparrow came too close, he would turn and run. So, riding inside, where no birds should be, was a great idea. In theory. In reality, a family of pigeons had taken refuge from the cold in the arena rafters. I had no sooner led him quietly into the arena than a pigeon flew overhead with their distinctive, drumming sound. Brennir startled, going up on his hind legs and running out as far as the lead would let him. “Brennir! Calm down!” I reeled him in, but I could see he was still terrified. He yanked me toward the other end of the arena. I yanked him back. Stamping his foot, Brennir dropped his head and spun toward the other end of the arena so hard I almost lost my footing and fell. Our much prepared for, clicker-centered return to riding was off to an awesome start.
I got him calmed down and took him over to the mounting block, where we practiced standing quietly for a few minutes. I got on and off him repeatedly, rewarding him for his good behavior. Then, I mounted up. I was unprepared for what happened next.
Before the accident, I had always been a fearless rider. Now, though, as we moved off from the mounting block, my body felt awkward and stiff, my thighs too tight on his flanks, my hips locked up. I could not find his rhythm even at an easy walk. Fear, for me, has always been an emotion I considered unacceptable, a weakness I despised in myself. Disturbed by the crawling apprehension in my body, I tried to tell myself I was not afraid, that nothing had changed. My horse, however, knew differently. His head started to come up high, his nostrils flaring. He jigged under me, and when a pigeon fluttered overhead, he bolted suddenly sideways and though I stayed with him without a problem, I had what I can only describe as a flash back. Over and over in my head I heard the sound my body had made when it hit the ground, like firewood being split, the sound of my bones breaking. All my muscles clamped down on him and his reaction was to get more upset, lunging sideways again. I spun him around, hard, digging a heel into his flank. Suddenly I was angry, at my horse, but even more at myself, for being afraid. I halted us along the wall, breathing unevenly, trying to will the fear from both of us, but I couldn’t. A sense of failure overwhelmed me. I didn’t know what to do, and the self-hatred surging in me was doing neither of us any good. I choked back a few sobs, grateful for the empty arena.
There is a central idea in clicker training “Reward what you want.”. It sounds simple, and it is. Except that we as humans tend to be really, really focused on getting rid of the things we DON’T want. At least, I often am. We often hear from our horse friends “My horse won’t load”. “My horse won’t take the correct lead” “My horse won’t stand well for the farrier”. We as horse people tend to spend a lot of time focusing on what our horses can’t, won’t, or don’t do. I realized, as I sat there, rubbing Brennir’s neck and trying to calm him, that all I was seeing was what we were doing wrong. He wasn’t staying calm, I wasn’t staying calm, and nothing was going right. I was unhappy with my fear, with his fear, with my memory of getting hurt. There had to be one thing, one positive thing, we could focus on, and build on. Surely, I thought, we were doing at least ONE thing right.
As I thought that, Brennir turned around, biting the toe of my boot and tugging gently on my leg with his eyes soft and wide. This is my pony asking “are you mad at me? Because I tried. I really did.” I wiped away my tears. Of course I wasn’t mad at him. I loved him more than anything, and what I could not do for myself, I could do for him. “I know, pony boy. I tried too. Let’s do this, together’
Just as it can on the ground, every behavior in the saddle can be broken down into tiny, achievable steps, and that was what we needed now. We both needed to be reminded of what we could do, of what a great team we were together. Breathing deep, I relaxed my body, and then asked him to take one step forward at a walk. For one step, he could stay calm, and so could I. Click, treat. Then two steps. Then three. I kept clicking and treating, and he started to become less afraid, and more engaged. So did I. By the time we had made a slow circuit of the arena this way, I was relaxed, moving easily with Brennir’s stride. A pigeon flew over again, and he jumped.
He could not walk past the pigeon without startling, but we were not focusing on what he couldn’t do anymore. What could he do? Stand quietly under the pigeons in the rafters while they cooed and flapped their wings? Yes. That he could do. Click, treat. Accentuate the positive. After a few minutes of practicing standing quietly he felt more confident. We began to slowly follow the pigeons as they flew around above us. Every time he stepped calmly, I would click and treat. Soon, I was enjoying the transformation of my horse so much that I forgot my own fear. His confidence returning brought me such joy, and he knew it. His old pony self started to show through.
As our ride drew to a close, I asked him to trot a few feet several times, clicking and treating for his calm controlled movement, trying to forgive myself for the rush of adrenaline I felt when he sped up. Just as I was about to halt him for the day, a pigeon fluttered down onto the sand in the middle of the arena, strutting and pecking. Without thinking I immediately clicked for Brennir, who was quietly standing and watching. He took his treat, and when I asked him to walk toward the pigeon he did. Click, treat. Then, the pigeon took a few steps. Brennir sped up to follow it, and soon my bird phobic horse was stalking the pigeon all around the arena, until it had had enough and flew back up into the rafters. I got off, and he stepped up behind me, locking his head over my shoulder in a Brony hug.
I had seen what he had done right, and he loved me for it. In finding mercy for his fear, I started to find mercy for my own. We’d both been hurt, and now, together, we were healing.
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 wanted to say thank you to everyone for your great feedback and sharing your stories. It really is my reinforcement. Lately I have been busy with filming/editing for new DVD’s…boy is it hard work!! Today, I did an interview for Jane Savoie’s Dressage Mentor. That was fun and a welcome break from the technical challenges of DVD production. I also wanted to take a minute and make sure you were all aware of the new clinic dates on the calendar…
-Southern Pines, NC, June 9-10, Jane McClaren, email@example.com (910) 528-1308
-Olivehein, CA, June 30, July 1, Kimberly Hart, firstname.lastname@example.org (858) 472-1626
-Santa Fe, NM, August 11-12, Gilly Slayter-Voightlander, email@example.com (505) 670-2325
-Adena, OH, September 15-16, Dianne Kirk, (740) 546-4538
I love teaching clinic…they are all different and always full of fun (and Learning) If you have questions or would like to inquire about organizing a clinic in your area, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I look forward to seeing some of you at these venues.
Bye for now!!
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 LOVE doing clinics, demos and lectures so I am excited to be able to share the dates and venues for clinics and demos in England and Ireland. There are people from all over the world that visit the blog so I thought I would share this info in case you are near the UK and would like to learn more. I also want to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone for reading my blog, sending in questions and for your feedback. It is amazing and humbling to be able to reach so many people in over 75 different countries! So, a big giant THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart!! If you are interested in attending a clinic or demo and would like more information please contact:
Helen Spence: firstname.lastname@example.org. Also you may contact Anita Kania: email@example.com Anita is helping Helen and organizing the dates in England.
Cheshire (16th-18th April)
Northern Ireland (26th-29th April)
I look forward to meeting some of my internet/Social media friends who I have chatted with via computer. It will be nice to put a face and voice with the name…that includes the horses too!
Well, that is it for now. If you have questions for me or want to book your own clinic please don’t hesitate to contact me. However, as far as the clinic venues in the UK it would be best to contact Helen or Anita.
Warm wishes everyone,
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.
I try to address Vic’s question regarding positive reinforcement training and training “Whoa”. It is a basic question and it may be very helpful for those that are unfamiliar with how it all fits together.
QUESTION: What does your training do that teaching the command “whoa” does not?
RESPONSE: Hi Vic and thank you for the opportunity to address your question. The training, which is based in proven behavior principles, teaches a horse so much more than “Whoa” that it is hard to even know where to begin. I imagine you are talking about the sound of the clicker vs the entire training. Depending on how it is trained, generally “Whoa” asks them to stop. While the clicker does end a behavior, more importantly, it tells them they have done something correctly and have earned some sort of a reward. It is a “Yes” signal. The click also draws attention to a particular moment in time. They remember what earns them the click. So, if I like a canter depart or a flying lead change I can draw attention to that particular action. I may not be able to deliver a reward at that point in time but I can bookmark that moment in time. Technically speaking, the sound of the clicker is called a “bridge signal”. This is because it bridges the moments between the correct behavior and the and the moment when I can deliver a positive reinforcement. Another example of the clicker at work happened with a women who was teaching her filly to lift her legs. She had the idea to use carrots as a reinforcement when she was good. She did not use a bridge signal (the clicker). Instead she just fed when she was done holding her leg up. The women reported that her horse seemed to be pulling her leg out of her hand and placing it back on the ground. I asked what her horse was doing when she got her carrot. She told me that it was when her leg was back on the ground. The horse had made the association that her foot back on the ground equals reward. We fixed the problem by introducing the clicker into the equation. That way she could click when her foot was in her hand and communicate that this is the behavior that has earned the reward. I think it is important to note that she was still feeding the filly when her foot was on the ground but she now had a way to communicate which part of that equation she was rewarding. She quickly and easily changed the behavior. Better yet, she opened up a new way to communicate with her filly. I hope this answers your question an clears things up a bit. If you have more questions please let me know. This barely scratches the surface. If you would like to learn more about positive reinforcement training there is a lot more information and even some video sessions on this blog. A good place to start might be a clip that Rick Lamb did for his television show. If you are interested you may go to this link: http://shawnakarrasch.com/blog/2011/11/08/the-horse-show-with-rick-lamb-2/ or enter “Rick Lamb” on the blog’s search bar.
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.
I posted this comment about Tom Dorrance in a group discussion but thought I would share it here too. He was a man who influenced many a horse trainer!
When I was still at Sea World and looking into horse training and realized it was WAY different than what I knew as animal training, I read an article about a man named Tom Dorrance.
I hadn’t started riding yet. I was still researching the subject. I couldn’t figure out why no one in the horse world was using positive reinforcement. So, I called this man. We talked on the phone for a while about horses and marine mammal training. Tom was quite open to the idea of incorporating positive reinforcement into horse training. He invited me to come to his farm. He sent me a signed copy of his book True Unity. I was still just looking and trying to figure things out. I was entrenched in my Sea World career so I didn’t take him up on his offer. I didn’t really know much about the man or the cowboy mentality at the time but he was never condescending or dismissive. He was soft, kind and open to a new method. He certainly didn’t fit the stereo type. It doesn’t seem to me that the trainers that have studied under him have that same quality about them that I heard on the phone. Tom was unique. He really seemed to be a gentle soul who cared about the horse’s well being. If there was possibly a better way to train a horse, he was eager to learn about it with an open mind. I applaud his spirit.
This was featured on The Horse Show with Rick Lamb (RFD-TV and Rural TV in Europe). It ws great fun and Rick was a natural with Mint and free jumping. He did great with the clicker training and he is not too bad at the interview either! Rick is curious and always learning so it made it a ton of fun. I received a lot of great feedback and requests to post it here on my blog. So if you haven’t had a chance to view it, well, now you can. Mint seemed to have fun…He always does. Enjoy!! As usual, I love comments or questions.