This Question comes from Odile (pronounced Oh Dill…thank you Odile for clearing that up for me!) She wants to know how to teach her pony, Diego, to stand still when she approaches his side or walks around him. This will also be helpful for mounting issues and for teaching a “stay”.
At this point Diego finds it more reinforcing to turn and face Odile. With positive reinforcement we can turn this around. By the end of the exercise he will find it more reinforcing to stand quietly. Our job is to make the lesson clear, easy to follow and to help him make the correct choices along the way.
First, as I mention in the video, it isn’t uncommon for the horses to want to stay with you when they get started with this training. They want to keep you at their head. Also a lot of the natural horsemanship/round pen work teaches the horse to turn and face you. So this lesson may seem a bit confusing for your horse in the beginning.
I have found that often times a flat hand on their shoulder seems to help them to settle a bit. So this is the first thing I try. I try to calmly put a steady, but soft hand on their shoulder. I don’t want it to be confused with pressure that they may interpret as a signal to move away. If they start to get too active I don’t recommend that you persist. If this isn’t helping them to settle, than “chasing” them around, trying to touch their shoulder can make them feel nervous or confused. Remember relaxation is an important component in all of the training and this is no exception. Brining about the quiet relaxed mind will help you to have more success with teaching this behavior.
Think of what you can do to set them up to succeed. For example, is there an area of the barn where he is more relaxed? Maybe a certain time of day? Perhaps he is more relaxed after he has had exercise or after he has eaten. These are things that you will need to figure out about your horse in order to help him be relaxed and more apt to stand quietly.
In the beginning you want to bridge(click) and reinforce(feed) the smallest approximations toward your end goal. By drawing attention to the little steps along the way you will help to make the lesson more clear, as well as to help minimize frustration.
If you have a horse who is more of a busy body and likes to move, then asking him to stand still for a long time may be more challenging for him than for a horse with a more docile personality, especially in the beginning. Breaking it up with a little bit of activity may help him to be able to settle more easily. It may also serve as a form of reinforcement for him, if it is something he finds enjoyable. Slowly we can build up the amount of time that he stands quietly and fade out the need for the activity breaks.
The end behavior should be that your horse stands still while you walk all the way around him, being able to touch anywhere on his body. It is a skill that every horse should master. Standing quiet and relaxed is invaluable.
I hope this helps you out. As always…if you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you.
In this video clip I give Melissa some suggestions to help her hose-phobic horse get past his anxiety. I have found positive reinforcement to be the very best way to overcome spookiness issues in horses, it really helps them to choose to face their fears….and fear of hoses are no exception. To watch them make a decision to relax and let go of their worry is hugely reinforcing for me. Also, a huge benefit of the training is the level of the confidence that your horse will gain through the process. Offering something that your horse finds valuable will really grab his attention and help him to enjoy the learning process.
Before you begin working directly with the hose desensitization, I suggest you be sure he is solid with the bridge signal (clicker) as well as with the target training. Sometimes I just make an assumption that people know this part, so I forget to mention it! By getting a good start, and NOT cutting corners, you will make quicker progress. I am often heard saying “slow down, you’ll go faster” but it is true!! If you need more info on this process you may go to my blog post “Get your horse off to the right start for clicker training”. For an even better explanation of the science behind the training you may want to get my DVD and/or book “You Can train Your Horse to Do Anything”. I also forget that not everyone knows that I have a book or DVDs, so I thought I should mention it here just in case.
Whenever we are dealing with fear in our horses it is very important to keep the training within their comfort range, giving them time to slowly acclimate as we go. As I mention in the video clip, we need to look for signs of worry as well as relaxation. If a horse is standing looking soft and neutral, then he lifts his head as if something got his attention…that, to me, is the threshold that I want to recognize. This small action is communication pure and simple. It tells me that he may have become slightly concerned. I will not move forward with the next step in training until he looks totally relaxed again. Progressing nice and slowly will allow him time to acclimate. If we move too fast we will likely lose ground, as well as trust.
Some of the signs of relaxation might be…exhaling, relaxed head position or casual stance, soft focus, soft eyes, ears, jowls, lips and muscles, etc. These are not the only indicators, however they are some of the more common signs. Seeing some tension in any of these areas doesn’t necessarily mean that their mind is worried. My horse, Bugs has busy lips, they rarely look soft but it doesn’t mean he is uptight…it is just part of his personality. The same goes for the signs of relaxation. For example, a head down doesn’t necessarily mean a horse is relaxed. Horses are individuals so you need to know your horse and what his body language is saying. If this is a new concept for you, than I suggest you get an experienced horse person to help you recognize your particular horse’s body language. Also, watching him when he is turned out or interacting with his environment will also tell you a lot about your horse and how he deals with new situations.
I recommend you build relaxation into the criteria of every behavior you teach. Your horse may not be perfectly calm at first but you can look for little improvements. Bridging (clicking) and reinforcing for the smallest approximations toward your goal. After a while, being attentive and settled will just be a habit for him. However, it is important to only work on one criteria at a time. I recommend you start by working on one a particular element of the target behavior. Relaxation will be an ongoing criteria. So I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you focus on it completely, but keep a vigilant eye out for the times when it is offered. When you get a good approximation that is also calm I would draw a lot of attention to it by rewarding handsomely.
As with every new behavior, we really want to consider what we can do to set them up for success. Is there a place where your horse is more composed? Maybe the wash stall already has an unpleasant association, so starting somewhere else may help to put him more at ease. Hopefully you will get better responses and more opportunities to reinforce. Maybe he will be better after some exercise to take the edge off. Using a little common sense always helps!!
If you follow your horses lead by not going over threshold, while also using a high rate of reinforcement and keeping the sessions brief, you should be able to move forward without a hitch. If you go too fast and lose some ground, don’t sweat (we all do it sometimes), just take a step back and work a little slower, allowing your horse time to process the lessons. The next thing you know your horse will see a hose and think “hose=reinforcement”…you will be dragging him away from the hose! The video will give you a lot more info. Just holler if you have questions or comments!
In this video, I answer Karen’s question about upward transitions. This seems to be a recurring theme that is difficult for us humans to grasp…as far as positive reinforcement goes. Historically, we have used pressure/release to teach horses to do just about everything. I want you to consider something in regard to traditional training and “going forward”. What is in it for your horse? Why should he want to put in the extra effort to go forward? What does he get out of it? There isn’t much incentive for the horse outside of us using our aids to create pressure. Then we leave them alone when they respond correctly. On the other side of the coin, with positive reinforcement we can bring something that our horse values and this dramatically changes the horse’s enthusiasm. Because there is something in it for them, they become invested in the training program and enjoy the learning process. They are as interested in the outcome as we are….how’s that for a partnership? It sure does make for a happier horse and it makes our job a heck of a lot easier too.
Once we get started with the positive reinforcement training basics (bridge conditioning and target training) we are ready to advance in our training. While we can move right into under saddle work following that initial phase, I recommend that you train a behavior on the ground first. Let me explain….the better their experience with the learning, the stronger their effort will be when things begin to get a little more difficult. So I like them to get hooked, to really enjoy the training. The best way to do this is to be certain that they experience a lot of success and very little frustration. By teaching them one simple behavior, and getting it solid, we have helped them to get all they way on board with the training. Something simple, like going to a stationary target or picking up their feet on their own. Additionally, teach the behavior of leading at liberty incorporating upward and downward transitions. Since we are discussing upward transitions, I recommend most reinforcements come for upward transitions….just something to keep in mind.
Usually, under saddle work has a long history with traditional training. If our horse doesn’t fully comprehend how good the new training can be, then he won’t know that good things lie ahead for him. He may check out before we have a chance to get his attention. In this post we are addressing a bit of an issue with upward transitions…that means we have probably gone through the pressure release route without much success. This let’s us know that we are dealing with a particular mind set and he has probably developed a habit of resistance to going forward. It doesn’t mean that he is trying to be bad, it just means he doesn’t find it reinforcing enough to do what we are asking. It is more reinforcing to plod along or ignore our aids. In any case the reluctance usually has a pretty well developed history. We need to get him out of his old mindset and ready to play the new “game”, that he finds so reinforcing, under saddle. I suggest you keep your first under saddle sessions particularly short and sweet…. this means maintaining a high rate of reinforcement! This will help to grab your horses attention. Getting him engaged and keeping his focus is the first goal. To ensure that he is putting two and two together, I encourage you to only work on one behavior under saddle at first. You want to see him making the connection and having success with this behavior. Pretty soon you will feel him offering the new behavior just like when we were teaching the behaviors on the ground.
Somethings to keep in mind… We are exercising their minds, not their bodies. For a lazy, balky horse, we can offer a huge reinforcement by just getting off and calling it a day when they give us a good effort. For this first stage of training, if they still need additional exercise I will turn out, lunge, etc, AFTER we do our under saddle training session.
This brings me to the next point. We ALWAYS want to set them up for success. What can you do to create more energy, a better response or a better attitude? Often it is better to ride them before they have had too much exercise so we utilize their extra energy and enthusiasm. Of course you have to evaluate your particular horse to determine what will work best for the two of you.
Be sure you don’t skimp on the time you put into the bridge conditioning (clicker) and target training. This is often something that gets overlooked. It may seem a little repetitive, but it is supposed to be! For one thing, we are conditioning the clicker, thereby giving it value. This is classic conditioning and it takes repetition. The clicker needs to have a very strong association before we move on to more difficult behaviors, like your under saddle work. We want to be sure that they recognize the clicker as the reinforcer. That is why the stopping to reinforce doesn’t matter…. they are working for the sound of the clicker. The stopping is an incidental that we initiated by our clicking. When properly conditioned, they will remember what earned them the click. It is called abridge signal because it bridges the gap between the moment of behavior (that earned the bridge signal) and the time when we can deliver the reinforcement. It bookmarks that moment in time.
This bridge conditioning process helps to get them really solid on relaxing and also respecting our space. We want this to become their default behavior…down the road you will be glad you did. When I see a horse who has resorted back to being pushy it is often a result of too little time with the basic manners or not maintaining this behavior.
The target work allows them to become more engaged in the training. It helps them develop better problem solving skills. It also continues to improve our relationship and trust.
And one last thought for you before you watch the video…Doing upward transitions from the ground while liberty leading can be very helpful under saddle as well. The goal is for them to mimic my movements. The signal is my speed and movement, so when I trot they trot, when I walk they walk, when I turn right, they turn right, when I stop they stop, etc. I also start pairing a verbal signal in here as well. This way we can utilize the signal from the saddle as well. In this situation I bridge (click) upward transitions. So as soon as the spring into the next gait or even increase within their gait. What is happening in this process is that we are building a good reinforcement history with upward transitions. Even though it is seems out of context, they often times will generalize. What has happened when we work on it from the ground, they begin to realize that when I am asked to go forward, I may get a reinforcement. They recognize the cue as an opportunity for reinforcement…after some repetition it actually becomes a conditioned reinforcer (that classic conditioning is always at work!)
One final reminder…they remember what earns them the click…don’t worry about the stopping!! The duration is easy once they understand the concept and are offering the behavior. If you can find it, there is an old, and helpful article that was featured in Practical Horseman in June of 1999, It chronicles one of my students progress with teaching her horse to move forward. Pretty soon she called to tell me she had to slow him down!!
Let’s face it…hand feeding is one of the biggest concerns people have about using a positive reinforcement training program. In reality, it isn’t very difficult at all to teach your horse excellent manners when they are in the presence of food. It just takes some awareness of what behaviors are happening when you are offering food. Each time you give your horse a treat, you are actually telling him that the behavior he is performing at that moment is something that you want to see repeated. If you watch the average person feeding a horse a carrot, the horse usually has their head and neck stretched out toward the person. The horse has learned to pursue the food by reaching toward the person. By simply being aware of what is happening and feeding when a different response is occurring, we can teach a completely different behavior.
In my eyes, this is one of the most important lessons. It establishes good ground manners, patience, and if done correctly, relaxation. Too many people, as they get started with using positive reinforcement, don’t spend enough time here (making this lesson a strong one and teaching the horse to make a conscious choice to keep his head and mouth to himself)
I made this video as part of a short series about de-spooking your horse. This was to serve as a brief introduction to help show people how to get started. Since that time I have had LOTS of requests for this video clip. As I look back, I see things that aren’t explained as well as I do in my DVD You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything. I also see so much that I was processing in my head and some are judgement calls based on my decades of experience. Being that this was to be a short piece, I didn’t really have the time to share my thoughts about these decisions. Being my own best critic, this kind of makes me cringe. Yet I also want everyone to get off to a good start. I often see people who don’t understand how to approach the first and most crucial lesson. So I figure, while it is important for everyone to have a more thorough understanding, at least this little bit of knowledge will help give them a good “jump start”.
Lucky Jack is the horse in the clip and he starts off feeling more mouthy than most horses. He wasn’t as aggressive as some but I felt he needed more direction than some so I “shushed” him away. This is not a normal tactic I use, but in some cases it seems to help distract them slightly, thereby setting them up for success. I also pause longer between some of the clicks…again this was a call I made. I felt it would be best for him because I was able to recognize a familiar and probable behavior pattern. So, I am recommending that you don’t let too much time go between clicks in the beginning. As you are both new to the process, this will help to make it a little bit more black and white for the both of you.
In this video clip you see me walking with LJ as he moves around the stall. I will only do this if the horse is calm and confident. If the horse seems even the slightest bit nervous I tend to stay more still, since excessive moving may cause some horse’s nerves to escalate. I tried to move slowly and calmly with him so he didn’t perceive me as tense. They are very responsive to our moods. If we get more anxiety, they usually respond in kind. However, if we remain calm they tend to feed off of that as well. So being quieter and allowing them to sort it out on their own, combined with a high rate of reinforcement for even the slightest effort, is a good rule of thumb to follow.
When feeding our horses try to remember to feed them out in front where you would like their head to be. Step up to feed them where they are as much as you can. This will help to reinforce the position even more and it will help to prevent drawing more undue attention to the food source. So reach out, under, forward…whatever the situation requires to feed him.
One of the fundamental things to look for during this process is relaxation. I can not emphasize this one enough. Looking for relaxation in all that you do will help to keep them even, calm, deliberate and polite. A calm mind is much more lucid so it helps our horse to make better decisions….and it is all about teaching, and allowing them the chance to make decisions. At first they may be a little more excited but if we focus on the slightest improvement, and draw attention to calm, we will see more and more calm… It will just become part of the criteria. At this point you may have no idea, how important this will be down the road. But remember it is all about the smallest steps. These are called “successive approximations”.
On to the target…This is a little more straight forward. I try different positions to see how I can help him to make the best choices.
I must reiterate, that LJ does not have the bridge signal (clicker) part down yet so I normally would not have moved on to the target so quickly. Please do yourself and your horse a huge favor and complete 8 or 9 short sessions (5 minutes) of just the bridge conditioning and manners before moving on to the target. I see people who have troubles with their horse’s manners and it is usually because they have moved on too quickly without getting this foundation solid. When you have done those sessions, it is then time for the target. I recommend the same amount of time and repetitions.
Finally, If you feel uncomfortable with your horse’s assertiveness when starting him with the manners/bridge signal portion, you may work from the other side of a stall door or fence. This protected contact will keep you out of his reach while still being able to work his manners. Be certain that he’s good and solid on the outside of his enclosure before you work into closer contact. Once you can be right next to him and he is being calm, I recommend you start the same number of repetitions as above. Though it will be a little longer process, we should never be in a hurry or take short cuts. They set the pace of the training.
As I mentioned, this is part of a 3 part series in a brief de-spooking your horse exercise, using milk jugs. We will be working through some ground work with a spooky horse named William in part 2 and then in part 3 we move to the milk jugs under saddle. For more info about getting started and the behavior principles please check out my website or look for my DVD and book entitled You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything. For more info about de-spooking your horse there is a 6 DVD set full of exercises to help your horse become more brave and trustworthy. The set is called DeSpooking Your Horse: Building Boldness & Confidence. I think of them as team building exercises since they help to build the trust on both sides of the partnership.
Okey dokey…If you have questions or comments please don’t hesitate to ask. Enjoy!!
Not all biting is about food. There are many possible reasons why a horse may bite…there is always a reason. Though we may not know what the cause might be, we can change this behavior.
When starting a horse with positive reinforcement there is an easy way to create great manners and a relaxed demeanor when food is around. Clearly this is important since food is often present. The method used for creating good manners can also be implemented to address problematic biting. In fact, I have helped horses who are very mouthy and even aggressive, using food based training. Because most horses put a very high value on food, it is important to have some awareness of how to use it in a constructive way before getting started with a positive reinforcement training program.
Rachel’s horse, Trigger, seems to be making a habit of biting, though food doesn’t seem to be what is motivating his mouthiness. In the video answer I offer a possible cause and solution.
This is not a problem that we often encounter. I mean, how many horses have a trauma related to saddling? But the solution is applicable to all types of situations. Anything that has your horse reacting with fear and avoidance can be addressed using this basic de-sensitzation exercise. Not to get you too caught up in technical terms, but what we are doing is actually called counter conditioning. We are taking something that has an unpleasant association and turning it around by pairing it with positive reinforcement, thus creating a pleasant association.
Of course, and this is a standing order with me, always be certain that there aren’t any physical issues causing the strong reaction. But let’s say their behavior did have a physical origin, often times once the problem is remedied, they still retain the painful memory. We will need to build a new, better reinforcement history with the object or action that caused the worry.
It is very important that we start this process within their comfort zone, progressing only as they show complete comfort with the previous step. It is important to do this in very small increments (successive approximations).
Their fear is a very clear form of communication. Respecting their concerns and exercising patience as we help them to overcome these fears, does amazing things for their degree of trust. If you follow these steps, reinforcing relaxation and paying close attention to your horse’s comfort level you will help to build their boldness and confidence. Okay enough of Psychology 101, let’s watch the video…
Wow, this is a big broad topic! I address some of Holly’s specific issues that have caused her concern in the past. These issues have led to a lack of confidence when she is handling horses. Safety is always first and foremost but I want to help her have some tools that will help her stay safe while building a more trusting relationship with her new horse. Remember, the help of the professional is also another option as you learn how to get a feel for a new horse, or any time you feel unsure.
“Girthiness” is a fairly common issue, especially with mares. However, this behavior is often overlooked instead of being addressed. Their responses may vary; it may be anything from biting, kicking, fussiness or pinned ears. But in any case we can change our horses attitude about the girth or surcingle. And the good news is that it isn’t difficult to do! In this case, Willow’s horse is just learning about this new sensation so it is going to be a quicker fix than a horse who has been habitually grumpy when the girth is tightened. However, it will still be a similar process. One thing to remember, that isn’t addressed in the video answer, tightening the girth in small increments is going to be one of the ways that you can set your horse up for success, so remember to go slow. Also, as a standing rule…before getting started with training, always rule out any physical cause when your horse shows any change in behavior or has a cranky reaction.
This is for my South African friends…We are working on organizing a clinic (or two) in South Africa this March!! I have heard from several people in the past who have been interested in attending or hosting a clinic. I will be down that way so now is a great time to get something organized. I am very excited to have the opportunity to work with some of you…and your horses. If you would like more information please get ahold of Krizelda. Here is her FB page if you would like to send her a message. https://www.facebook.com/krizelda.carelse
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:
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
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 5: The emotional component
The most impressive and elaborate behavior is worthless to me if it is done with a poor attitude. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to focus on the activity being performed rather than the demeanor they have while doing the behavior. We also tend to reinforce these behaviors at a higher ratio than we do for standing quietly. When I say quietly, I am referring to internal as well as an external calm and relaxation. One of the best ways to teach our horses patience and emotional/impulse control is to focus on this steady, even keeled attitude and reinforce it accordingly. It should be the foundation behind any behavior, even the most active. Doing a piaffe, sliding stop, jumping or any behavior that requires a high level of activity is still best done with relaxation. Therefore, I strongly recommend paying a tremendous amount of attention to shaping a calm and relaxed demeanor throughout your training. Yet, keep in mind we can also teach them to be flat, dull and barely trying if we reinforce behaviors that are done with this attitude. It is all about the balance.
Getting back to the original question…when they are calm and relaxed, they cannot be wound up and cranky. These two things are opposites and incompatible. Technically, we should use something called a DRI or Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior. We should reinforce the response we would like to see more often. They can’t do both of these behaviors at once so they will have to make a choice…do I scowl, act snarky and tense or do I choose to soften and relax? If we have done our jobs correctly they will choose settling since this is the behavior that has the better reinforcement history and association…pretty soon it is a habit. It becomes the attitude they associate with training.
Well, those are some of my thoughts about creating a horse with a happy attitude. The options are endless but if we pay attention to these things it will help us to recognize the subtle changes in our horses behavior. Only then can we create a happy balanced partner.
Part four: The Holy Grail of training
As I mentioned, in the very earliest sessions I find it is necessary to establish some healthy boundaries when it comes to food. It is up to us to help them learn the correct way to behave when food is in their presence. This can be a real trouble spot if not done correctly and thoroughly established. Fortunately it is simple but needs some repetition. While they are they learning to turn/ keep their head away during the first stages, I begin to work on the behavior I consider the holy grail of training…drum roll please…Standing calm, relaxed, yet attentive.
Standing quietly and relaxed is imperative for training a good attitude. So this is one of the first things I begin to shape while conditioning the clicker. If they learn to be relaxed with a calm focus, most everything will take care of itself. You are beginning to establish a good work ethic and it will carry over to most everything they do. Let us not forget that turning their head away or putting their head down or even standing quietly, does not necessarily equate to relaxed. They can do these behaviors with all sorts of tension and it can easily escalate to a cranky or even a dulled demeanor if it goes unchecked.
We are responsible for recognizing and encouraging a settled, attentive demeanor and emotional control with all that they do. Standing quietly can play a big part in training this healthy attitude. Something to keep in mind is that standing calmly may be very hard for some horses to do at first. Particularly young horses or those horses who are busy bodies and tend to constantly be in motion. It will work best to shape standing quietly and getting to a relaxed state of mind in small steps…just like with any behavior.
This brings me to another aspect that I touched on briefly, yet I also find very important for developing a great attitude, that being Setting them up for success. I strive to create as few errors as possible while learning. I know there is no way to minimize all of the errors and in fact the mistakes are part of the process. They allow the horse a chance to rule something out as an option. However, I try to make the approximations as clear as possible. The target is an invaluable tool for helping to make the steps clearly defined and simple to understand for the horses. As I have previously stated, I find liberty work to be the best way to go so, I think of the target as a replacement for the halter and lead rope. The target effectively eliminates the guess work for the horses while still allowing them to make their own decisions. It helps them have success while training and helps them to enjoy the learning process. To be continued….
Part three: Manners and getting started
Training has some inherent, built in stress. That is just the nature of learning. We are moving out of our comfort zone and into an unknown. It is not clear what is expected, what will work or how to do it. In addition, the first part of the clicker training starts out with free shaping which can be the most stressful type of positive reinforcement training. We are looking for them to turn their head away from us so they are not bowling us over for the food. This is a very important skill for them to learn right off the bat, yet there is not an easy way to help them understand what we are looking for. Well, there are some things we can do to help them out but by and large they are on their own. We are building a new form of communication(bridge signal)but those pieces aren’t in place yet so we have to be quick with our timing and taking advantage of the opportunity to draw attention to the new behavior. It would be much easier if they knew about the target and the clicker but of course that is not the case yet
By being consistent, setting them up for success, establishing a high rate of reinforcement, and more importantly…taking the smallest steps, these steps can all help to minimize the frustration associated with the early steps of training with the clicker. This time is critical as we are wanting to grab their attention but we still need to establish some healthy boundaries and proper manners. We need to do all we can to make this a pleasant and successful experience. This is what will help them build a good attitude toward learning…and a good work ethic…To be continued….
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.
I have been a bit busy but I am getting back to my blog. First, I want to give a shout out to Denise Bickel DVM for stepping in to be my guest blogger. She did an outstanding job. She is quite a writer!! I heard comments from many of you so I know everyone thoroughly enjoyed reading about her journey with Brennir. I would love to incorporate more real stories or experiences on my blog. So, if you have a story (or stories) about using clicker/positive reinforcement that you would like to share, I would love to get them out there. I think it is a huge help for everyone to hear stories of how “real” people put the training to use with their horse in their situation. There are millions of ways to use the training and I LOVE hearing about them. Let’s get some of those stories out there so we can spread the word. You don’t need to be a great writer, in other words, don’t compare yourself to Denise and her writing…if we did I wouldn’t be writing on my blog either…and if you have pictures to include that would be great too. If you are interested please let me know. Come on guys…don’t let me down, I know there are some great stories lurking out there!
Okay, on a more somber note. Denise and her horse Brennir are having a very difficult time. This past week has been touch and go for Brennir. They suspect he ate a toxic plant. He almost passed a couple times this week. He has had exceptional care between Denise and MSU’s equine clinic but his prognosis is uncertain right now. Please take a moment and say a prayer for them both. We can all relate to the pain and worry that she is feeling right now. Brennir is a very dear part of her family. The blog posts gave us a glimpse into her heart and she clearly has a very special bond with him. It breaks my heart just thinking about their situation. Thanks guys for being such a compassionate and caring group of horse people.
This is an Ask Shawna video answer to a question, sent in by Lucy, about a horse who has had some trauma related to the trailer. I discuss some ideas about how to get back on target. BTW, I have a trailer loading video coming out some time in the next week or two so keep your eyes peeled if this is something you want to learn more about.
The Brony is not an arena horse, and I am not an arena girl. We both crave the outdoors, open spaces. We had been circling around the arena for several weeks in late February of this year, and I almost felt like myself on him. I had healed a great deal, and had almost full use of my injured arm by then. We were walking, trotting and cantering on both leads calmly indoors. We were also, even with the challenge of working on our fears, both bored.
This past winter was an unusual one in Michigan, and most of February and March were absolutely balmy, with temperatures in the 60s and bright sunny skies. Although everyone waited for winter to come crashing back down on us, it never did. The ice-blue sky and spring –scented breezes held a siren song for me. I was terrified, but I wanted to ride outside again. Shawna and I discussed it. She felt as long as I kept him within his comfort zone, maintained a high rate of reinforcement, and worked in very small steps, we’d be fine. No problem. I could do that. I always under-estimate the irrational force of my own ambition.
At my neighbor’s farm where I keep the Brony, there are limited facilities for outdoor riding. I have my choice of the back pasture, or the barn drive, and beyond it, the open fields and woods that made up my neighbor’s 90 acres. The drive seemed full of peril, but the back pasture was unrideable. Warm days and nights below freezing meant that is was a muddy, rough, rutted mess that was hard to walk across. The horses had been avoiding it, picking their way carefully through the humps and ditches when they got too tired of the front pasture and needed a change. The drive was our only option, and I put off trying. Every time I thought about riding Brennir out there, I grew uncomfortably aware of the plate and screws just under the skin that held my collar bone together, and the stiffness where a few of my ribs were still broken. Still, one bright day when the sky was like an unblemished sapphire, my desire overcame my fear. It was time.
Even as I walked over to the barn, I could feel the anxiety crawling in my stomach. I tried to will myself to relax, but anyone who has tried to do that knows that it rarely works. Brennir did not help the situation. I had tied him up to the hitching post to brush him. Walking around behind him to move from his left side to his right, he spooked, as far as I could tell at me. “Okay” I told myself “Just reward what you want”. When he settled I clicked and treated for him. I started reinforcing him for standing calmly as I brushed and tacked him, and he relaxed, nickering softly. Before long, he was tacked up and ready to go.
I ride with only a suede bareback pad. Initially, I had trouble finding a saddle that fit Brennir. Once I got used to the pad, I no longer wanted one. It does make mounting from the ground much harder, though. I walked a relatively calm Brennir up to the bucket I usually used as a mounting block and set him up. He stood quietly for a moment. I should have remembered, at that moment, to reward small things, but like many humans, I had set my eye on a goal, and I intended to achieve it. I moved to mount, and my shadow on the ground sent him spinning, wide eyed and snorting. Calming him, I walked him back to the mounting block. “Small steps” I thought. I clicked and treated him for several minutes straight just for standing at the mounting block. Finally, when he was relaxed, I mounted him, my adrenaline pumping.
Anyone who has come back from a significant riding injury will understand what a victory it was to me just to be sitting on my horse under an open sky, and I felt a momentary flash of joy. Now, my human ego took over. I was back on my horse, outside. I needed to ride. Considering for a moment, I decided anything less than a ride all the way to the end of the barn drive would be a failure. I resolved not to fail.
Asking him to move forward, I let ambition override the caution in my gut. Forget small steps. Already in my mind I was heightening the criteria. I expected him to go at least part way down the barn drive to get a click. After all, before the accident, we had done that many times, I reasoned. Then the crow showed up, one of the birds that could still terrify him. At first, I grew stern, hard, telling him to ignore his fear, just as I told myself to ignore my own. More honest than me, the Brony could not do that. When pushed past his limits, Brennir would dissociate from everything. His eyes would glaze over and go distant, and nothing that I did, not calling his name, not using the reins, not thumping his neck with my hand, nothing could draw his attention back to me. Sometimes he would bolt, as if he was fleeing an unseen predator.
Now, I sat on his back, painfully aware of my still-healing body, and watched his eyes start to look somewhere far away. “Brennir!” He seemed to shake his head as if awakening from a day dream, and tilted his head toward me. Click and treat. He took a shuddering breath, and rolled his eye back toward the crow. A slight pull on the rein, and the moment he looked back at me, I clicked and treated him. My heart softened. He needed me to praise his smallest efforts. He was giving me everything he had to give. I could feel a turning of energy, as his focus shifted back to me. I asked him to take a step. Click, treat. The crow flapped its wings, and his body braced underneath me, ready to run. “Brennir!” He snorted, and turned his head toward me again. Click, treat. He sighed, and I did too. As he understood that his was all I would ask of him, his muscles loosened. He took a few steps forward on his own. I rewarded them, but he had done enough. He had faced his fear.
This then, would be our starting place. That first day, under that clear sky, we hardly moved a few feet. But every time some terrible beast caught his eye, I called him back to me, and he came. The whole world frightened him, full of a thousand enemies. I would love him as he was. I would stand beside him patiently while he faced his fears. I would give him my heart, and he, in turn, would give me his.
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.
Brennir and I had a new start, thanks to Shawna’s help, but as we started to move forward I had to let go of a whole lot of ideas that were more deeply rooted inside me than I had ever realized. Although if you had asked me, I would have said I understood what Shawna meant when she said Brennir was afraid of everything, the understanding would take a little while to move from my brain to my heart. Though I knew he wasn’t trying to be bad or to put me in danger, it would take time to replace my frustration and anxiety with love, and patience
Whoever said “the longest journey begins with a single step” must have been a clicker trainer. That idea, that everything we intend to do with a horse can be broken down into the smallest, achievable increments, is a key concept in positive reinforcement training. The idea is that by breaking behaviors down into small steps, we can communicate very clearly what we want, and build a positive foundation for the behavior without ever overwhelming the horse, or making them feel frightened or anxious. I knew I had to start breaking the behaviors I wanted down into very small steps, but I did not yet understand how small, or how this effort would change me as much as it changed my horse.
We had been working for about a week on just leading calmly and rewarding Brennir profusely for returning to the paddock calmly. He was more settled. We began taking forays in hand down the drive toward the trails into the woods, and for a while, everything seemed to go quite well.
Then, one very cold Michigan morning in January, I was leading him down the drive and he balked, less than 25 feet from his own pasture gate. “Come on, Brennir!” He was ignoring the target I used for leading, so I gave a little tug on the lead rope attached to his halter. That one little tug unglued him, and he spun, tearing the rope from me and running back to the barn door, shaking. For a moment, I was SO angry at him. We had been walking down this hill for the past week, had walked down it hundreds of times in the four years I had owned him. Why couldn’t he just do this? Why couldn’t he just lead like every other horse in the world? I marched up toward the barn prepared to get him and drag him back down the hill. Then I saw him, maybe REALLY saw him for the first time, and my heart just broke, with pain for him, and shame for my own human arrogance.
His head was tucked toward the corner of his stall, his body shivering. He looked up when I came closer, drew back from me for a moment, and then, when I made no move to grab him, leaned his head against my chest, shutting out the world. It was so cold; the tears were almost freezing on my eyelashes, a great cloud of white breath pluming as I tried to synchronize my breathing with his. What had I been thinking? I tried to imagine what it would be like, to be a 3 or 4 month old baby, with no one to protect him, being chased by a quad with the engine gunning, with no idea why or if he would live through the next moments. I suddenly realized, with my heart, that it didn’t matter that my human mind knew there was nothing here that could hurt him. What HE knew was that scary, deadly things can happen any day, any time, when he least expected it. He, I realized, with a great turning of my heart inside me, had a RIGHT to be terrified. It was my job to teach him that the world was safe. On that day, he started making me both a better trainer, and a better person, a person slower to judge and quicker to help.
After comforting him for a few minutes, I picked up the lead again and started to bring him outside. While still in the barn, though, I remembered more of the guidelines Shawna had left us with. “Keep inside his comfort zone’. “Make him feel successful so he is encouraged instead of discouraged”. “Click and treat him a LOT’. These were all positive ideas, completely at odds with pushing my horse through something that terrified him. There was another shift inside of me, more of my frustration at his behavior replaced with a kind of graceful love for this beautiful, intelligent, but wounded friend of mine.
‘One step, buddy. How about that?” We took one step. Click and treat. His ears perked forward. He had been prepared for a challenge, but not for this. We took two more steps. Click and treat. Then three. We continued that way to the top of the drive, but there he balked, afraid. “It’s ok, pony boy. Just do what you can” He hesitated so I turned us around, walked a few feet back toward the barn, and then pointed us toward he drive again. “One step, okay?” He nickered softly and took a step. Click and treat. Another step, click and treat. Once he realized I was not going to push him into anything scary his whole posture changed. He rounded his neck and flicked his ears forward, his eagerness showing. It was a completely different horse than I had had ten minutes earlier.
Soon we had clicked our way part way down the drive, but he balked again at a concrete pad visible through the light snow. My neighbor had planned to keep pigs there and a big metal automatic watered sprouted from the center. He had seen it a hundred times, but for some reason today Brennir was terrified of it. He balked. I thought he had shown enough courage for the day, so after asking for one more step and giving him a click, a treat, and a lot of praise, I turned him around to go back to the field.
Suddenly, he pulled on the rope, and I got scared, thinking he was going to bolt. He didn’t tear it from my grasp though, just spun us around where we stood. I looked around trying to figure out what was the matter, but then I saw his forward-tipped ears and the look of intense determination in his eyes. With no urging from me, he leaned into the halter, climbing over some dead weeds to the concrete pad, stepping up onto it, and touching the waterer with his nose. If horses could smile he would have. ‘Look what I did, mom! Look how brave I am!” he was so pleased with himself, so proud, and so was I. I gave him a click, followed by a ton of praise and treats. His lips quivered, which they do when he is happy, and he bobbed his head up and down and nickered in a self-satisfied way. When I turned back toward the paddock he followed me with no urging, having done what he intended to do.
When I had put him back in the field and given him more treats and love, I sat down and cried again, but this time it was from utter joy. Brennir had given me his heart and all the try he had, and though compared to the things other horses do it was tiny, for us, it was as special as winning the Kentucky Derby. We’d taken the first steps on a long journey together.
Hi everyone! Shawna is really busy getting ready for clinics, so I’ll be doing some guest blog posts. My name is Denise Bickel, and for the last six months Shawna has been helping me with my 5 yr old mustang gelding Brennir ( also known as the Brony), who was an orphan foal and has had a lot of behavior issues. I’ll be sharing his story in parts to show both how the insight Shawna brought to our troubles helped change things, and how we used positive reinforcement methods to help build Brennir’s confidence in himself and me. I hope you‘ll follow us on our journey! As I say when I we start our sessions, “It’s Brony Time!”
There are horses, and then there are horses. Every horse person knows what I mean. That one horse that looks in your eyes and sees straight into your heart, that you love like crazy, your heart horse. Except what happens when you find that horse, the horse of your dreams, and they turn troubled and angry and sometimes dangerous? It wasn’t the path I was looking for. It wasn’t even the horse I was looking for. Once I looked in his eyes for the first time though, I felt like I had already known him for a thousand lifetimes. He had my heart, from the very beginning.
I found my heart horse in a scraggly little mustang foal whose mother didn’t want him. He was about 40 lbs. at birth and looked like a bald, starving goat. His mother had been rounded up by the BLM not a few months prior. She had gone crazy, attacking another mare’s foal and killing it, and no one was sure how to handle her or what to do with the foal. That first day I saw him while attempting to give him a new foal exam, I offered to buy him, but the owners were convinced they would love and keep him forever.
Everyone knows orphan horses can have issues, and Brennir certainly did. In the intervening year between when I met this baby and he became mine, he had some experiences I wish I could erase. He was isolated from other horses. They chased him with the 4-wheeler as a “game” almost every day. I am sure now that he was lost in the world. When they decided to get rid of him, I only found out about it because I was there looking at another horse. I offered to take him that day. I borrowed a trailer, and he got in without any hesitation, never looking back once. Even then I loved him with my whole heart, and I promised him and myself I would do whatever he needed to help him overcome his rough start in life, and be the horse I knew he could be, the horse my heart saw.
As promises of that sort often do, my promise soon proved harder to keep than I had anticipated. Brennir had a lot of behavior issues, some of them dangerous. When I first got him, he would aggressively charge anything that threatened him: humans with lunge whips, humans with ropes, dogs, chickens, anything. He would knock you down at an all-out gallop in the field, bite, kick, rear and stomp if he was afraid. He was alternately aggressive with other horses or completely detached from them. I was already familiar with clicker training at that time, and since any type of pressure provoked an aggressive response from Brennir, I gravitated toward that for safety reasons. While it definitely worked better than anything else had, we struggled.
Four years together passed.. He learned to lead, to move his body, to tolerate scary objects, stand for grooming and hoof trimming, load on the trailer, all the things a horse needs to know. He could be difficult though. I could not lunge him because he would charge me. He could be fine under saddle and then suddenly explode. I was told he was spoiled, disrespectful, dominant, that I needed to put him in his place. However, when I tried to assert dominance his behavior just deteriorated. Eventually, he became a riding horse, although not without his issues. I loved him, and he was a good horse, but I felt like we lacked the connection I really wanted, and I never felt like I could completely trust him. Most painfully, I never quite felt that I had fulfilled my promise to him. Then, something happened that changed everything.
I was in a bad riding accident. The details are unimportant except to say it was NOT Brennir’s fault. We were attacked by a large crane who was guarding a nest and I doubt the most seasoned horse would have kept it together. I ended up with a dislocated collar bone that was broken into several pieces, 6 broken ribs, and a punctured lung. I spent a week in the hospital, had surgery and it was over a month before I could do anything with my horse at all.
When I was finally able to start working with him again, I found everything we had worked so hard to achieve was gone. He had reverted back to his earliest behavior issues, acting flighty and frightened, aggressive and difficult to control. Instead of a skinny yearling though, I now had a 900 lb. animal with the strength, will and agility of an adult, charging, striking, rearing and biting at me. Riding was out of the question. I was now struggling with fear issues I’d never had before my accident, and he was completely unpredictable. Soon, I could not even lead him safely. He would behave until it was time to return to his paddock, but then he would have a tantrum, rearing and striking. He would knock me down and break away from me, for reasons I didn’t understand. Every day I would find myself in tears. I tried nose chains, the round pen, various exercises trainers I knew suggested, and his behavior just got worse, and his heart more distant. Finally, on a very cold day right before Christmas, as I was trying to put him back in the field, he knocked me down and tore away, running so far and fast he went across the very busy road we live on. By some miracle he was unhurt, but I no longer knew what to do. Defeated, I sat down in the snow and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. I felt I had failed him completely. I knew if I sold him or gave him away he’d end up dead, but I didn’t know how to help him, and we were both miserable.
I knew I needed someone to help me, but every trainer I knew locally used some kind of pressure training, whether it was natural horsemanship of various flavors, or a more traditional approach. We had already tried so much of that with abysmal results. I knew I had to approach him with positive reinforcement but I was so defeated and confused, I no longer trusted myself or my horse. A desperate internet search on equine clicker training led me to Shawna. I saw she was a professional clicker trainer. However she was in California and we were in Michigan. Never mind, I was willing to try anything at all. I emailed her asking if there was any way she would do an internet consult. To my surprise, she said yes.
We set up a time to talk on the phone, and that conversation would change my relationship with my horse forever. I had already sent her information on his history and the problems we were having so she had had time to become familiar with his issues. We made some small talk, I made some comment about his bad behavior, and she replied “well, you have to understand. He’s afraid of everything”. For a moment it felt like my whole world was turning around those words. This horse, MY horse, who charged anything that looked at him cross eyed, who would rear up and strike at you like a wild stallion, was afraid? I had thought he was aggressive, dominant, willful…but not afraid, not that.
I paused, giving her a chance to expand on this. She explained that orphan horses have no solid foundation from which to navigate the world. They have no herd, no sense of security. For whatever reason, genetics, personality or some effect of his early experiences he expressed his fear as aggression, but he was afraid. “ And then you disappeared, and he didn’t know why. His herd, his one secure thing, disappeared. He’s terrified. You go to put him in the paddock, and he doesn’t know if you are ever coming back. Of course he doesn’t want to go”. My heart broke for my poor, lonesome horse, as every problem we had ever had suddenly made perfect sense. I was crying, but trying not to let it show. I am a veterinarian. I know lots of trainers. I had talked to so many people, read so many books and internet articles, tried so many approaches. Yet no one had ever seen into my horse’s heart before. Shawna did, and in those four words “ He’s afraid of everything” I found the key to opening up Brennir’s heart to me. Somehow, without even meeting him, she knew more about him than I did.
We made a plan for working with him. I would click and treat calm leading behavior within his comfort zone. I’d reward him lavishly for the return to the paddock in order to make the separation less painful. It was not so different from what we had done before, except that, because I understood now that he was afraid, when he started to lash out I was patient and reassuring, using the target to draw him back into his comfort zone, trying to calm his fear. In two days, he was leading like a docile puppy, returning to the paddock without any resistance. On the third day after my conversation with Shawna, when I was finally starting to be convinced the improvement wasn’t just a fluke, I stood in the pasture while snow came down and put my forehead on his. I scratched his neck, remembering how much I loved him, remembering that I was still keeping my promise. He nuzzled me, and I told him“It’ll be okay, pony boy. I understand now. I’ve got us some help. You don’t need to be scared anymore’. He sighed, leaning into me. The connection I felt at that moment was indescribable; his posture so soft, his heart turned toward me in a way it had never been before. He knew I heard him, finally knew how much I loved him, thanks to those words, that insight no one else had had. “He’s afraid of everything”. There was a lot more work to come, but we had the new beginning we needed.
If you want to learn how to improve communication, performance or overcome issues with your horse this is a great opportunity. You will emerge with a better understanding of how your horse thinks and learns. I will address the behavior principles behind “clicker” training. Learn how to put positive reinforcement training techniques put into action. You will also learn how to establish develop a phenomenal relationship with your horse. So, for all of you located in Southern California…next weekend I will be doing a clinic in the San Diego area. It will be a lot of fun and I will be bringing my horses too! For more info please about participating or auditing please contact Kimberly Hart, email@example.com or (858) 472-1626. See you there!!
I wanted to say thank you to everyone for your great feedback and sharing your stories. It really is my reinforcement. Lately I have been busy with filming/editing for new DVD’s…boy is it hard work!! Today, I did an interview for Jane Savoie’s Dressage Mentor. That was fun and a welcome break from the technical challenges of DVD production. I also wanted to take a minute and make sure you were all aware of the new clinic dates on the calendar…
-Southern Pines, NC, June 9-10, Jane McClaren, firstname.lastname@example.org (910) 528-1308
-Olivehein, CA, June 30, July 1, Kimberly Hart, email@example.com (858) 472-1626
-Santa Fe, NM, August 11-12, Gilly Slayter-Voightlander, firstname.lastname@example.org (505) 670-2325
-Adena, OH, September 15-16, Dianne Kirk, (740) 546-4538
I love teaching clinic…they are all different and always full of fun (and Learning) If you have questions or would like to inquire about organizing a clinic in your area, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I look forward to seeing some of you at these venues.
Bye for now!!
Love seeing your pics from the UK. Maybe one day you’ll make it to Australia! I just have a quick question. I am working with a horse that has a lot of nervous energy. I am just starting target training and he isn’t entirely relaxed about the target yet. He comes over to me in the paddock to do it, but I can see he’s got an eye on his escape route the whole time. I am doing short frequent sessions but I want to bring attention to when he is softening and relaxing (which isn’t really happening at all yet) but when it does I want to bring attention to that as you often say to do in your answer blogs. However, I’m not sure how best to do that. He’s still learning that the click means he’s performed the correct behaviour, ie touching the target. So I’m not sure if I should click when I see him just relax a little (and not neccessarily touched the target) or just feed and say good boy. Will he relate the click to the relaxation? I’m afraid he’ll relate it to something entirely different and I might inadvertently create a alternate behaviour. Thanks Leone (I guess not such a quick question).
I must sing your praises for a moment…That is an exceptional observation and one that a lot of people overlook!! You can build tension into behaviors that may overtly look calm. Standing quietly with their jaw clenched, or head raised up, or tension in their body is definitely not the same as standing quietly with relaxation and softness. Swinging their head at a target is not the same as gently touching the target. This goes with any behavior. Attitude is the most important element of any behavior, period. A great looking behavior is nothing unless it is done with a good attitude. That is why I am such a big proponent of working at liberty. It gives them the freedom to express their worries or concerns as well as there is no subtle coercion. What may appear subtle to us is often deep rooted for the horse trained with pressure and release. Working at liberty just builds a better attitude. I must say I am impressed with your awareness to those details and that alone tells me you are going to go very far with your horse (I am still smiling!)
I recommend that you don’t work on the targeting with him yet but instead just focus on the standing and relaxing while you condition him to the sound of the clicker. Just wait for him to soften, exhale, any sign of relaxation. Even the slightest bit. I try to watch the ears, the eyes, the mouth, nose, jaw, head carriage and body language. The softness will increase once he gets the idea. There is a point when even the most worried of horses gets tired of holding in all of that tension and takes a break. Draw attention to that moment.
Since it seems like he is keeping his escape route open, I suggest maybe starting on the other side of the fence. Maybe this way he will feel a little safer and more relaxed. Also, sometimes squatting down (if you feel it is safe to do with him) will help to remove some suspiciousness and again help him to feel more comfortable. The lower you are the less threatening you will seem. Maybe even sit down outside the fence line if your situation still allows you to feed him from there. Another thing that works for some horses it to walk a bit. Sometimes just the act of walking can help them to focus on walking instead of their tension. Also, when you walk away, you are retreating which can build his confidence. I am confident you will be able to read him and see which thing (or combination of things) works best for him. As you see him consistently being soft and settled, slowly fade out the tools you used to help set him up for success. For example, when he is routinely nice and calm with you outside of the paddock then step inside the paddock and follow the same steps until he is staying calm again.
Once he is consistent with relaxing and seems more trustful, with you two standing together, then I would re-introduce the target. I suggest starting with the target in your hand, down by your side, and continue with the relaxation exercises while not drawing attention to the target. Some horses view something in your hands as a threat. So, for the next step I recommend you keep it slow and low until he learns the target is a safe thing. That usually doesn’t take too long. Also it may help to go back to the early steps you used to help set him up for success. If he was more comfortable with you sitting or squatting, start the target while sitting or squatting, or outside of the paddock or whatever seems to help. You have also got the right idea with the short and very reinforcing sessions. However, it may take a bit longer to wait out his tension until he finally relaxes a bit. I know you will get it worked out, especially since you recognized it on your own in the first place.
As for a visit down under…I have been getting a lot of interest from Australia and requests for clinics. If you know of a group of people or a facility that may be interested in hosting a clinic I think it would not be too hard to organize. Just something to keep in mind. Otherwise, please keep me posted of your progress with your wary horse. I am here to help along the way. Keep up the good work and exceptional observations!!
I just had a colt born on 4/14/12. He is 9 days old now. Up to now, I have been going to the paddock area where he and his mother are and fairly easily catching him and holding him and petting him and talking to him for a few minutes twice a day. (I did imprint him about 2 hours after he was born). Today (at 9 days), I could not catch him — he is running away. My husband did catch him, and we both held him and petted him and talked to him. Should I be leaving him alone at this point and NOT chasing him? Am I reinforcing inappropriate behavior with him running away from me? Aren’t I supposed to be petting and handling him at this stage daily to get him used to it, or should I lay off? If so, for how long? For several days, we have also been putting a halter on him and then removing it, just to get him used to it. Obviously, we are new at this. What should and shouldn’t we be doing at this stage — just sitting in the paddock and watching him and letting him get used to us and see that we won’t hurt him? Help! Thanks very much!
I am very happy to hear of your new addition!! Okay let’s get down to business…definitely stop chasing him. He is clearly expressing how he feels about being handled. I imagine it is too much stimulus right now. It is probably overwhelming him and he is trying to avoid it. I think you have the right idea just hanging out with him and his mom in the paddock. Let him get to know you on his own terms. Since he is now a little wary of your presence it may take him a little time until he begins to relax around you. There are some things I would suggest you try. First, stop trying to pursue him but instead have good quality, relaxed time with mom. Horses, being social animals, are vicarious learners. This means they learn through observation. Your little guy will learn a lot about life (and survival) by watching and mimicking his mom. If she is calm, relaxed and interested in you, he will, more than likely, become that way too. If she approaches you and looks forward to your presence, he will learn that this is how to respond to humans. I recommend working on building that bond with her and let him observe her interest in you. I would also suggest having him watch you put the halter on and off of mom, handling her feet, touching her all over, etc. I would do these things at liberty, in the paddock, where he is free to watch and see her choice to stand quietly. This is only if she is good and relaxed with these things (I am assuming that she is) otherwise he will remember her fear and worry. If she is not comfortable with theses things, I would definitely work on it ASAP utilizing positive reinforcement and progressing in small steps to get her relaxed, but that would be an issue to be addressed in a separate post.
Also, I suggest not trying to approach him. In fact I think if he approaches you, that you should calmly retreat a bit. This will build his confidence around you. I suspect right now he is probably a little fearful of being handled and chased but when you change your demeanor and your intent he will start to build trust. When hanging out try being low to the ground. It is less intimidating to the young or worried horse. When you squat or sit down they will feel safer and become bolder. Of course you need to be sure that it is safe to do this in your environment. When he is very comfortable around you again, try scratching his withers. Most babies find this very enjoyable and will scratch each others withers. However, be aware that he may want to reciprocate by scratching you back. Quietly reposition yourself (or his head) so he can’t reach you. I know from experience that these things will help you re-establish a good relationship with your new colt. On my blog, I have suggestions for useful things to teach young horses once they are weaned, well, you may actually start before they are weaned. Use the search bar and search: Teaching a Foal: Starting Them off Right. It is an exiting time. Enjoy the journey with your new foal. Please keep me posted on your progress.
Jane McClaren commented:
Hello, I have for the first time in my riding life (50 years) an under motivated horse. He is sweet, kind beyond imagination, but doesn’t like to be schooled/ridden. A hack is sometimes OK, but he might tend towards distraction and consequently become fixated on something else, then fear follows, and, well you know. We have found his attitude might be caused by physical discomfort, such as ulcers. In early January I put him on a months treatment of Ulcer Guard. Dramatic changes followed. He was happy and forward. Now in early April the old signs are coming back, particularly when grooming him around his gut he is agitated, and snarly. Here’s my take on all this. Shawna has the answers to motivate your horse, no doubt about it. I’ve used clicker training and it works, and now I am reminded to get it out again. It takes a lot of time and patience. Two keys to good horsemanship. But, I wonder Shawna and all your followers, are you finding ulcers more often than not? I will do the above suggestions, small steps, lots of reward, and I particularly like: doing something after that the horse clearly enjoys. Jesse and I love hanging out together. I sit in a chair and he grazes. Sometimes he comes close so I can scratch his poll, he seems to like that too. I agree with Shawna, spending time with our horses, doing something they enjoy too, something other than being on their backs and asking and asking, this is precious and award-filled time to spend.
As always, you bring up some great points!! I was responding to your comment on a previous post when I realized I should turn it into new blog post. As I followed my train of thought I realized I didn’t want people to miss your comment since you touch on some important topics. I am hoping others will chime in with their thoughts and observations.
First point, I want to to remind everyone to always check for physical causes when you are seeing a behavioral change, or any issue, with your horses. This is very important. It is always my first thought when I am trying to figure out what is going on with my horses. I will discuss the behavior with my veterinarian. It may be that the behavior change is the first alert to a physical issue. Pain is their bodies way of telling our horses to avoid certain activities so they have a chance to heal. The resulting behavior change can communicate this pain or discomfort to us if we are paying attention. As their stewards we are responsible for recognizing possible problems since they cannot verbalize what is bothering them. Also, keep in mind, for survival reasons they are hard wired to mask the pain so they would not appear vulnerable to predators, if they were living the wild. Once we have ruled out any physical discomfort, injury, illness or even nutritional needs, then I move onto dealing with it behaviorally.
However, in some cases the behavioral change starts because of pain or discomfort but the behavior may continue after the initial, physical cause has been addressed. The unpleasant association (reinforcement history) still remains. For instance, let’s say your horse has a sore back and each time you get in the saddle the pain becomes worse. This may manifest in a behavioral issue with mounting. He may not show any other overt symptoms. So, you talk to your vet and report the changes you have noticed in your horse. Together you determine there is an issue with his back, you come up with a plan for recovery and he is given time to heal. After some time your horse seems to feel better and doesn’t show any signs of soreness. However, when you try to mount, you are seeing the same unpleasant mounting issue. He remembers that the mounting process resulted in pain and he is anticipating the same old pain. Double check to be sure there isn’t another underlying issue. If all checks out it is time to address this behaviorally to rebuild a good association (reinforcement history). Mounting/sore back is an example that I see often but it can happen with a whole slew of physical ailments. The main point I want to make here is that we need to always rule out a physical cause for a change in behavior. Especially before we move onto a training plan to address a new, problematic behavior.
Now your question about ulcers…I would love to hear from others on their experience about this subject. I have only had one horse that has taken me down similar road. He came in and he was a real curmudgeon on the outside, until you got to know him. Then he was pretty sweet. He had been a high level show horse and he had some issues with jumping. The first day I groomed him I thought “How do they get him groomed everyday!?” He was fidgety, sometimes he would groan and, as you said Jane, he was snarky. But this seemed to be his behavior with a lot of things, not just grooming. He was progressing along nicely with training and his personality was getting sweeter but he still had the grumpy grooming attitude. I called the vet and we decided to give him a thorough exam including scoping his stomach. Ulcers was on our list of concerns. It turned out he had a lot of scarring from previous ulcers. It seems it had been a previous, chronic condition but he was healing. This probably explains his cranky grooming behavior and he had to relearn a new set of rules since he was getting better. He continued to jump, travel and learn but he never had ulcers again….nor stopped at a fence again!! That is my only experience with ulcers. I know there can be different causes for ulcers and I am certainly no expert. In my limited understanding stress can contribute to the condition. I find the positive reinforcement/clicker training reduces stress in training as well as with new situations. Traveling and competing can become a joy instead of a worry if we create a good association. We can also re-train a new, better association if, as you pointed out, we take the time and practice patience.
Let’s face it, as an industry, there is a great deal of focus on the horses physical well being. I mean, just look through any horse magazine or website, a large majority of the ads are addressing physical needs. It is all about the best supplements, medications, feed, tack, blankets, boots, pest control, grooming products, footing, bedding, barns, fencing, trailers, the list goes on and on. These are all important considerations. Next you see a lot of articles geared for the rider. How to get more control, how to get a better half pass, sliding stop, jumping, rider position, flying changes, shoulder in, safe stops, trailer loading, how to be more effective with your aids, this is another list that goes on and on. Again, this also important information. After all the better we are at teaching and executing these things the safer and more enjoyable our horses are to ride. However, relatively speaking, very little is aimed at the horse’s mental well-being or on what would help the horse to be happier for his sake, not ours. There is a tendency to focus on their physical well being or what we need them to do for us. Their psychological well being seems to fall by the wayside. I am a big believer in balance. All work and no play can indeed make Jack a dull boy, or a grouchy, sour boy. It is not enough to say they get turned out or live outside, or in a dry, well-bedded stall. I think it is important to spend time with our horses that they value and find enjoyable. If we are always seen as work and pressure/release training we are not exactly going to be the highlight of their day…in fact we may be their least favorite part of the day. Who wants their horse to run away from them when they go to catch them? Or one who just gives up and abides because they have no other choice? No one wants that kind of relationship with their horse. But who can blame them if all we do is take, take, take but don’t give back? If we never give our horses something that they value or find enjoyable? A reminder…this does not mean something we perceive as valuable but that our horses find enjoyable. I have found if I keep a balance between work, play, quiet time, they are much happier about all elements of their lives. I think it is important to do some of these activities together so the association becomes associated with you and enhances your bond. Turning them out is great (and necessary) but if all of the fun stuff happens when you are not around it can strengthen their desire to spent time away from you. I try to have half of our time together include something besides riding or prepping for riding. Training sessions using positive reinforcement are great since they really enjoy these for the rewards but also for the psychological stimulation. But so are some other activities like hand walks, exploring new things, and sitting quietly with your horse. This depends on what your horse seems to enjoy. If he has been subject to a lot of work and not so much quality time it may not be that fun for him to spend time with your right off the bat. As the balance shifts he will learn it is not all work and no play and begin to enjoy your time together. Anyway, some food for thought. Thank you Jane for your comments and question. Okay gang…I would love to hear what you have observed with your horse, what you do for fun or what you have experienced with ulcers…whatever is on your mind.
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!!