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:
Love seeing your pics from the UK. Maybe one day you’ll make it to Australia! I just have a quick question. I am working with a horse that has a lot of nervous energy. I am just starting target training and he isn’t entirely relaxed about the target yet. He comes over to me in the paddock to do it, but I can see he’s got an eye on his escape route the whole time. I am doing short frequent sessions but I want to bring attention to when he is softening and relaxing (which isn’t really happening at all yet) but when it does I want to bring attention to that as you often say to do in your answer blogs. However, I’m not sure how best to do that. He’s still learning that the click means he’s performed the correct behaviour, ie touching the target. So I’m not sure if I should click when I see him just relax a little (and not neccessarily touched the target) or just feed and say good boy. Will he relate the click to the relaxation? I’m afraid he’ll relate it to something entirely different and I might inadvertently create a alternate behaviour. Thanks Leone (I guess not such a quick question).
I must sing your praises for a moment…That is an exceptional observation and one that a lot of people overlook!! You can build tension into behaviors that may overtly look calm. Standing quietly with their jaw clenched, or head raised up, or tension in their body is definitely not the same as standing quietly with relaxation and softness. Swinging their head at a target is not the same as gently touching the target. This goes with any behavior. Attitude is the most important element of any behavior, period. A great looking behavior is nothing unless it is done with a good attitude. That is why I am such a big proponent of working at liberty. It gives them the freedom to express their worries or concerns as well as there is no subtle coercion. What may appear subtle to us is often deep rooted for the horse trained with pressure and release. Working at liberty just builds a better attitude. I must say I am impressed with your awareness to those details and that alone tells me you are going to go very far with your horse (I am still smiling!)
I recommend that you don’t work on the targeting with him yet but instead just focus on the standing and relaxing while you condition him to the sound of the clicker. Just wait for him to soften, exhale, any sign of relaxation. Even the slightest bit. I try to watch the ears, the eyes, the mouth, nose, jaw, head carriage and body language. The softness will increase once he gets the idea. There is a point when even the most worried of horses gets tired of holding in all of that tension and takes a break. Draw attention to that moment.
Since it seems like he is keeping his escape route open, I suggest maybe starting on the other side of the fence. Maybe this way he will feel a little safer and more relaxed. Also, sometimes squatting down (if you feel it is safe to do with him) will help to remove some suspiciousness and again help him to feel more comfortable. The lower you are the less threatening you will seem. Maybe even sit down outside the fence line if your situation still allows you to feed him from there. Another thing that works for some horses it to walk a bit. Sometimes just the act of walking can help them to focus on walking instead of their tension. Also, when you walk away, you are retreating which can build his confidence. I am confident you will be able to read him and see which thing (or combination of things) works best for him. As you see him consistently being soft and settled, slowly fade out the tools you used to help set him up for success. For example, when he is routinely nice and calm with you outside of the paddock then step inside the paddock and follow the same steps until he is staying calm again.
Once he is consistent with relaxing and seems more trustful, with you two standing together, then I would re-introduce the target. I suggest starting with the target in your hand, down by your side, and continue with the relaxation exercises while not drawing attention to the target. Some horses view something in your hands as a threat. So, for the next step I recommend you keep it slow and low until he learns the target is a safe thing. That usually doesn’t take too long. Also it may help to go back to the early steps you used to help set him up for success. If he was more comfortable with you sitting or squatting, start the target while sitting or squatting, or outside of the paddock or whatever seems to help. You have also got the right idea with the short and very reinforcing sessions. However, it may take a bit longer to wait out his tension until he finally relaxes a bit. I know you will get it worked out, especially since you recognized it on your own in the first place.
As for a visit down under…I have been getting a lot of interest from Australia and requests for clinics. If you know of a group of people or a facility that may be interested in hosting a clinic I think it would not be too hard to organize. Just something to keep in mind. Otherwise, please keep me posted of your progress with your wary horse. I am here to help along the way. Keep up the good work and exceptional observations!!
I just had a colt born on 4/14/12. He is 9 days old now. Up to now, I have been going to the paddock area where he and his mother are and fairly easily catching him and holding him and petting him and talking to him for a few minutes twice a day. (I did imprint him about 2 hours after he was born). Today (at 9 days), I could not catch him — he is running away. My husband did catch him, and we both held him and petted him and talked to him. Should I be leaving him alone at this point and NOT chasing him? Am I reinforcing inappropriate behavior with him running away from me? Aren’t I supposed to be petting and handling him at this stage daily to get him used to it, or should I lay off? If so, for how long? For several days, we have also been putting a halter on him and then removing it, just to get him used to it. Obviously, we are new at this. What should and shouldn’t we be doing at this stage — just sitting in the paddock and watching him and letting him get used to us and see that we won’t hurt him? Help! Thanks very much!
I am very happy to hear of your new addition!! Okay let’s get down to business…definitely stop chasing him. He is clearly expressing how he feels about being handled. I imagine it is too much stimulus right now. It is probably overwhelming him and he is trying to avoid it. I think you have the right idea just hanging out with him and his mom in the paddock. Let him get to know you on his own terms. Since he is now a little wary of your presence it may take him a little time until he begins to relax around you. There are some things I would suggest you try. First, stop trying to pursue him but instead have good quality, relaxed time with mom. Horses, being social animals, are vicarious learners. This means they learn through observation. Your little guy will learn a lot about life (and survival) by watching and mimicking his mom. If she is calm, relaxed and interested in you, he will, more than likely, become that way too. If she approaches you and looks forward to your presence, he will learn that this is how to respond to humans. I recommend working on building that bond with her and let him observe her interest in you. I would also suggest having him watch you put the halter on and off of mom, handling her feet, touching her all over, etc. I would do these things at liberty, in the paddock, where he is free to watch and see her choice to stand quietly. This is only if she is good and relaxed with these things (I am assuming that she is) otherwise he will remember her fear and worry. If she is not comfortable with theses things, I would definitely work on it ASAP utilizing positive reinforcement and progressing in small steps to get her relaxed, but that would be an issue to be addressed in a separate post.
Also, I suggest not trying to approach him. In fact I think if he approaches you, that you should calmly retreat a bit. This will build his confidence around you. I suspect right now he is probably a little fearful of being handled and chased but when you change your demeanor and your intent he will start to build trust. When hanging out try being low to the ground. It is less intimidating to the young or worried horse. When you squat or sit down they will feel safer and become bolder. Of course you need to be sure that it is safe to do this in your environment. When he is very comfortable around you again, try scratching his withers. Most babies find this very enjoyable and will scratch each others withers. However, be aware that he may want to reciprocate by scratching you back. Quietly reposition yourself (or his head) so he can’t reach you. I know from experience that these things will help you re-establish a good relationship with your new colt. On my blog, I have suggestions for useful things to teach young horses once they are weaned, well, you may actually start before they are weaned. Use the search bar and search: Teaching a Foal: Starting Them off Right. It is an exiting time. Enjoy the journey with your new foal. Please keep me posted on your progress.
I imagine that this wash stall reminds him of something from his past. Maybe he had some medical procedure or wound tended to while in a similar wash stall and he associates this situation with an unpleasant experience. We will be working toward building a new reinforcement history with this wash stall, one that has a good association. Before you begin think of what you can do to help set him up for success. Anything that may help him out for now. For example, maybe turn him out before hand so he has a chance to burn off some extra energy. What ever you think may help him out. We will fade these things out later as he gets more comfortable but for now they may serve him well. There is also more than one reinforcer, or even two reinforcers at work here. One is the use of food as a positive reinforcement for relaxed behavior. The second is your presence (since he seems to get worried when he is left alone) and the third is taking him out of the wash stall. So be aware what he is doing when any of these reinforcers happen.
I am thinking that he gets pretty worried when he is left alone. So we want to work within his comfort zone. I would suggest working his time in the wash stall as a training session for now. This will usually help to keep you focused on his behavior and not distracted by doing other tasks. You may do a little grooming but it should not really be your objective for now. The small snippets of grooming tasks will actually serve to be building blocks for the end product of standing quietly while being groomed, tacked up or bathed but more importantly standing quietly when on his own.
Since it seems he is quiet when you are in very close proximately I would suggest grooming and then stepping back a bit. It may help at first to step away to the back and sides as opposed to walking away from the front which may cause more anxiety. This part will take a little testing to determine what is the most uncomfortable and then break that down to smaller steps or things that cause less worry. Okay, so let’s say, when you step away from him in the wash stall, he is good for 30 seconds and then he starts worrying. Click and reinforce (with food) at 28 seconds, while he is still relaxed. Your presence will also serve as a reinforcement. If that goes well, move to 30 seconds, if that goes well maybe go to 32 seconds. I would then take him out of the wash stall which is another reinforcement for his good performance. Keeping the sessions short and sweet helps him to succeed. He learns that if I am good this will all be over. Slowly build and build, more time and further away. Too slow is better than too fast for this kind of issue. Again, we are looking for him to practice the correct behavior, to form new habits. As you build more and more time I would also suggest approximations that are short in duration as well as the longer ones. This helps to keep you from being too predictable. It kind of keeps them guessing and on their toes. Also you may step back up to him and sometimes work on something he knows or is learning. However, keep it simple, successful and reinforcing.
Now let’s say, you unintentionally push it too far and he gets worried, I would not approach until he settles down, at least somewhat. If you constantly come to his rescue when he acts up he will think that this is how I get comfort (or relief) and his behavior will increase in frequency. That being said, you also don’t want him, or anyone else, to get hurt, so if he gets downright panicked you will need to keep safety in mind and step in, Then take some steps back to rebuild his confidence.
Another thing that can help is if at the end of these good sessions, have his dinner or breakfast ready and let him eat his dinner in the wash stall. I would put it in a tub on the ground so you are not holding it. We want to build up a bit of independence. Pretty soon he will look forward to his time in the wash stall since good things happen there. Well Leone, these are my suggestions for tonight. I may have more thoughts later…I usually do but I think this will get you going in the right direction. Please let me know how things are going and give me some updates! :0)
This question was posted on my Facebook page and I thought this will help some of you who have similar issues. Please let me know if you have questions or comments!
QUESTION: Carrie asks:
Hi, i’m hoping you can help as my daughter needs a bit of advice. My friend has bought a Welsh Sec D 4yr old mare, she was apparently broken though i think to fast to soon. Two wks ago she bucked my friends husband off, for apparently no reason. My Georgie, is starting from the beginning, by backing her again & doing things very slowly. Millie the mare doesn’t have a nasty bone in her body but she gets scared very easily which makes us wonder what was done to her in her short life. She was sold as a yearling at the Welsh sales by the breeder, a friends granddaughter bought her, but they are a bit heavy handed which makes me wonder just what they did to her. She will lunge on the left rein but is terrified on the right, also terrified of any whips, to the point i think she has been hit badly hit by one. What can you suggest to take her forward successfully. xx
ANSWER: Ask Shawna-On Target Training says:
Hi Carrie, I am so glad Millie is with you. She will make real strides and I have found the horses who have been through tough times often become the most devoted students when you shift to positive reinforcement. You are on the right track. Start her like she is learning it for the first time but this time slower and let her get her head around each step. Remember to never move to the next step until she is solid on the previous step. enjoy the journey with her. Lot’s of ground work will help to earn her trust.
If you haven’t already, I would suggest having your veterinarian check her out to be sure she isn’t having some physical discomfort before you proceed any further. This will only add to her unpleasant association with working and people if she does have some pain. I always prefer to rule this out first.
She sounds like the type of her horse who may stand quietly on the outside while inside she may be quite worried and even fearful. Watch for any signs of relaxation. Her eye, nostrils and ears to soften. Look for her head to lower a bit and neck muscles to relax. Click and reinforce (C/R) her for this and she will start to offer it more often. This behavior will serve itself since she will be relieved to be able to relax. You can click and reinforce this anytime you see her offer this behavior. Always keep an eye out for signs of relaxation. I can’t imagine how horrible it must feel to not understand what is going on around you and yet fear the repercussions of your not knowing. A clear training program shouldn’t be scary but encouraging. You will gain her trust.
I think the whip should serve as an extension of our hands and shouldn’t be someting used to instill fear. Teaching her to touch the whip may help her to acclimate to it a bit too. You can do this like teaching her to target. It may also help to have her follow the whip. Sometimes having the whip retreat helps her to feel that she is pursuing it and it isn’t pursuing her. This often changes the mind set and builds boldness. You don’t want to over train the targeting on the whip. We just want her to learn it has several purposes and they are all safe. You got off to a good start and I suggest follow through with that desensitization training you have started with the whip touching her all over.
As far as longeing goes, I suggest you start with her on a lead rope. I suggest not using longeing equipment at first. The equipment may trigger the fear she has with longeing to the right so let’s not go there yet. Ask her to go the good way (to her left) at a walk and reinforce her for responding correctly. I would suggest using your hand and raise it slow and calm toward her barrel (where the leg will eventually be asking her to move forward) I would suggest using an auditory cue like a cluck as well. This may help to communicate what you are asking. You may also use a target for the early stages and ask her to follow the target (with her nose) as well as moving off of your hand and cluck. This may help her to focus more on the target then the scary aspects of longeing. I say your hand but I mean Georgie’s hand! I know she is good on this side but it will help her learn this new fun training is in effect and build up a new better association with this behavior. Next, I would start just leading her from the other side reinforce her for walking nicely. Next step back a little and slowly, calmly and confidently raise your hand slightly toward her barrel(cluck) and ask her to walk on just a little. It is like a micro longeing session. As soon as she walks forward and relaxes a little bit C/R. Feed her handsomely for this. You are going to be rebuilding a new reinforcement history with this right side. You will rebalance the scales so instead of fear she knows what to do and she looks forward to it since there may be something in it for her that she values. I would keep these sessions short and sweet. Sometimes it even helps to ask her with a smile on your face. It sounds kind of weird but it can change our subtle body language. Believe me she is paying attention to the subtlest changes in her humans and smiling often times changes us from intense to more relaxed. Later we will re-introduce the whip and faster gaits but for now I would suggest working on getting the walk solid. I suggest pogressing like this through the next portions as well.
This is where I suggest you start. I wish I was there and could watch as you progress but I know you and Georgie are going to do great. Horse’s being individuals sometimes respond a little differently and need some adjustments in training. Please keep me posted. I am here to help every step of the way if you need it!
I’m really excited!! The next FREE video on de-spooking your horse is up! Today we move onto introducing William to a new object. I am using a cluster of milk jugs for this exercise. I’m so proud of how much more confident William already is.
I know this next video will give you some great ideas for building confidence in your horse. It’s such a great feeling. I can’t wait to hear your success stories!
Enjoy getting your horse On Target!!
P.S. If you know of someone that could use some help de-spooking their horse or building boldness and confidence,
please feel free to pass this link onto them too!
I am so pleased with all the interest in the De-spooking video series. I know you are on your way to great success and it will result in a more confident horse. If you haven’t had a chance to check out these complimentary videos, go here now:
In the first video I work with Lucky Jack to demonstrate the basics. In the next video I move to ground work with William. I switched horses because William already knew the early part of the training and I really wanted you to see how to teach these manners with a brand new horse. After all, that is probably more what you will experience with your horse. I knew William would be more reactive to the ground work so I wanted to work through the more challenging lessons with him. So stay tuned.
Video 2 – Ground Work will be posted tomorrow, September 29. I would really love to hear your thoughts or questions as you follow along. Also, if you know of someone who may be interested in teaching their horse to be bolder and more confident please pass this on to them! If you haven’t had a chance to watch yet you can still join in. Just go to the link above.
And a big “Thank You” to you for tuning in. Pretty soon you are going to have yourself a trustworthy horse….what could feel better than that?
Remember, enjoy getting your horse On Target!!
Video answer: I address how to teach a horse to walk quietly on the way to the paddock and when being released for turn out. Jeffery has an Arab who gets too excited, bolts and doesn’t know to rein in her energy. This is an issue that comes up often with horse owners. The good news is: This is very easy to fix using positive reinforcement (clicker training). By putting something into the training equation that your horse truly values, you will get her to be an active participant in the re-training process. If you are there most everyday you can get it under control in about a week once you have the basics trained (clicker and target). If you go to the barn less often it may take longer for the reinforcement history to be established. It is really a matter of repetition vs. duration when it comes to this type of training. The horses remember these lessons for years. So she won’t forget what you have taught her if you get to the barn more sporadically.
You can also work on her relaxation in all that she does. Focus on reinforcing her when ever you feel or see her relax or soften, even the slightest bit. The beauty of the clicker is that it is a great tool for communication (at Sea World we used a whistle). While you will most likely not be able to offer reinforcement her at the exact moment she does something you like, you will be able to book mark that moment with the sound of the clicker. Once she knows the clicker it will be a sound she will strive to hear. The clicker tells her “yes, what you just did is correct and you have earned yourself the potential for a reward” So always click on the behavior that you want to see more of and follow it up with a reward. If you always click when she is relaxed or in the process of relaxing she will put together that all clicks(read: Reinforcements) come when she is calm. That is the attitude that will soon be the norm for her. As you see this change in her demeanor you can then begin to fade out the clicker and the high reinforcement schedule.
If you don’t know about the clicker or target portion of the training don’t worry it is simple and your horse will enjoy it. It teaches your horse to be patient about the reinforcement, establishes a solid form of communication, the target gives you a way to help set her up for success when walking to the paddock. In addition, the task of targeting teaches her to think and become engaged in the learning process. This early training also strengthens the trust and focus that she has on you. This new focus and desire to please you will have a profound impact on your relationship with your horse. It doesn’t take long, about 10 minutes a day for 3 or 4 days. You can do the training where they live whether it be paddock or stall. For more on this watch for a FREE 3-part video series I have coming out in the next couple days. It is on spookiness and shying but it also addresses the basic lessons of clicker and target training. The first video is the one that covers this simple and fun process. If you are on my mailing list you will get a link for the video sent to you. Okay Jeffery, I hope this has helped you out. I know that you will be quite pleased with her progress. Thank you for letting me offer assistance. Please keep me updated and if you have more questions as you progress, please don’t hesitate to ask. Enjoy getting your horse On Target!
In this video answer I address the horse who avoids being caught or who panics once caught. It is a quick and easy process to rebalance the scales and have your horse coming to you!!
This video is from my helmet cam and shows Bugs first exposure to the tarp. The positive reinforcement training has gone along way toward building his confidence with new objects. How is your horse with new objects?
As soon as the horse feels the rider’s distraction, he will promptly join in.
I was asked “Who is this Hans Senn?” I have been posting some of his quotes…because I love them!! So here is a story about the author:
“Riding and competing in Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France and Germany gave Hans a broad exposure of different styles, methods and philosophies.
Hans came to the USA in 1952 where he became active in show jumping, dressage, eventing and fox hunting. He also learned to ride show hunters and competed many years in the Midwest, Florida, Devon and the indoor circuit.
Eventually, Hans started to judge hunters, jumpers, equitation, dressage and became a course designer.
In 1990, he was the coordinator of the Equestrian Events of the Olympic Festival.”
Sadly, Hans passed away a few months (or so) ago.
My Hunter/Jumper trainer and good friend Marcy Gehrke rode with Hans when she was young. She is responsible for getting me hooked on his little book of wisdom. So, I will continue to post his quotes as there are a ton of great ones in there!!
December, 14, 2010
Bugs is like a big kid. Bugs has been with me since early last spring. He is a 7 year old, 16.3 Chestnut appendix quarter horse. Both his dam and sire were appendix so he has his fair share of thoroughbred in him. I love this about him, since I have a real affinity for thoroughbreds. Mint is a thoroughbred you know. And you know I love my Mint! Mint has been my shining example of positive reinforcement. He has a huge repertoire of behaviors both from the ground and undersaddle. He embodies On Target Training with his huge heart and great disposition. He is a pleasure for anyone to be around and I hear it from people all the time. He is light and responsive in the saddle, making me feel like a highly effective rider even on my worst day. This is what I wanted, another Mint! Of course, this is not how Mint started out.
Let’s start with Bugs beginnings… He was in a pasture with very little interaction until he was 4 years old. That is a long time. There is a window when young horses are very trainable and then there is a time when they are more set in their ways. Bugs kinda missed that window. At 4 he was taken from the pasture and it was decided he was going to be a roping horse. Talk about a square peg in a round hole. Needless to say this didn’t go so well for Bugs. I don’t know all of the details but he came away with a scar on his face and a suspicious disposition.
My friend Marcy had been around Bugs and saw that he wasn’t going down a good path. He was off to the horse auction. She stepped in and took him to her barn, which is a hunter/jumper barn. This is not something that Marcy had done before. She was not sure how this would end or where he was going to go, she just felt it in her heart to give him a chance. For the next couple of years he was in a low pressure program and taught the basics. It was clear to her that he really wanted to please but he still needed a gentle touch. She had invested too much to just let anyone have him and felt somewhat protective of her charge.
This is when I enter the picture. Due to personal reasons Mint had been turned out for 7 years and I had barely ridden. Mint was newly out of retirement but he is getting older and I thought it was time to have a new addition, not only for riding but for the positive reinforcement training. I asked her about buying a horse. Marcy saw a potentially good fit with me and Bugs. I dusted off my chaps and showed up at Marcy’s barn to try Bugs. I wasn’t on him for a minute when he spooked and wheeled. Poof, I’m on the ground. Me being newly back in the saddle, my seat wasn’t real solid. He ended up by the rail, as I went to go get him he was visibly trembling with fear, afraid of the repercussions.
At that instant, I knew he was meant for me. It broke my heart to see him so worried. I knew I had the tools to help him. Now, this is not how one should choose their horses. Bugs had been doing great with Jenn, who rides for Marcy. He felt safe with Jenn and his routine. This, clearly, did not carry over to me.
Marcy, being the voice of reason, wouldn’t let me make a decision until I spent more time with Bugs. He came to the barn where I was boarding. He showed me how suspicious he seemed to feel in the new situation. He broke through two leather halters in two days by pulling back in the cross ties. I never became disheartened and he began to trust me and even more, to look forward to time with me. When I would pull up in my truck both of my horses would start whinnying. I got some riding in but not on a consistent basis. I knew we were moving to a new barn in October, a really nice barn I might add. Marcy is the trainer at the new barn and we were getting into a riding/training program together and utilizing the positive reinforcement. We are both doing great and making great strides. Bugs is growing up!!
Patty, who owns the barn was hosting an elaborate Christmas party the other day at the barn. This meant trucks and workmen were everywhere. They were decorating, hanging plastic to tent the barn areas, putting in a dance floor, bar, hanging lights and bringing in a mechanical bull. This was seemed to be sheer terror for some horses(and rider’s). But Bugs was totally sensible and calm. He made me feel really proud. I think Bugs is a great edition to On Target Training. We have a lot to learn together but he, like Mint, is showing that love of learning and growing a big heart. There is a part of me that wanted him to be all done, just like Mint is now, and then I realized what a great journey it is and wondered why it is I always want to hurry. Bugs will never be just like Mint, but that is fine with me, he is going to be just like Bugs and that is shaping up to be great news. He is a Blessing and I am ever thankful that he is in my life. Bugs has a shining future and I look forward to the journey that lies ahead of us.
Correct training makes a horse systematically better. Training should be progressive; however, it is better to progress one year too late than one day too early. More demands may produce more resistance. Sometimes it is wiser to reach a temporary compromise and look for a solution later than provoke a major problem. Give your horse the benefit of the doubt. Go slowly.
- Hans Senn
Well, it is high time I get started fielding some of these great questions that keep coming to me through Ask Shawna. There are so many great topics that I wasn’t sure where to begin, so I just pulled from the top. Here is today’s question sent in by Susanna:
“I have a one year old filly who hates it when her legs and feet are handled. Especially hind-legs. I’ve tried to let her get used to it slowly and she gets a click and treat for it. Short touches are ok, but she has to cope with trimmings every couple weeks and gets very nervous and you have to start all over again.”
You are off to a good start. That she will let you handle her legs and feet even for short spells says that you are making progress, so kudos to you for that. Now we need to focus on longevity and acclimating her to the tasks that the farrier performs during the trimmings. Keep in mind that all of our horses learn through operant conditioning. This means they are constantly trying to figure out how to either get things that they want or how to avoid the things that they don’t want. They build up is what is referred to as a reinforcement history. They form associations with the things that they experience. The good news is, with the correct amount of reinforcement we can change these associations for the better. I think of them as scales that are out of balance. With the use of reinforcement we can put more weight on the side of the scale that represents the desired behavior. You are certainly on the right track.
Be sure that you have taken the time to really be sure that she understands the clicker and it’s significance. She should always stand with her head forward with proper manners without getting pushy or mouthy when food is present. Also, I recommend target training. I recommend it for every behavior even if it will not physically be used for a particular behavior. The process teaches them how to engage in the learning process and is, in my opinion, an essential part of teaching our horses a work ethic. In this particular case I recommend using the target as we build up her tolerance. The target becomes a familiar object with a very strong reinforcement history. It can serve as a pacifier of sorts. We will want to fade it out of the picture later but for now it will help serve our purpose. So be sure she is strong with touching her nose to a target. I am making an assumption that you know what the heck I’m talking about but if you don’t just let me know or check out the web site or video for more instruction about proper clicker or target training.
I also recommend doing the sessions right before feeding time if your schedule allows. The food will have a higher perceived value for her at this time. I also recommend using a mix of reinforcements. Choose several treats that she likes. This changes up the anticipation of what comes next. Volumes have been written about schedules of reinforcement. It has been proven that the more predictable is not always the best way to raise criteria, and what we want to do is to step up her eagerness to stand still and be patient. By changing how much and what type of treat, we will peak her interest. I want you to sometimes feed a small handful and sometimes feed a couple handfuls. She will work harder to achieve her favorite and to get the larger amount. On those days when you don’t have a lot of time I would, at the least, ask her to lift a foot or two before each feeding. Also, be sure that she has had some exercise or turn out before her training sessions so she isn’t a ball of energy, this will help set her up to succeed.
I suggest to work her as much as possible in the same place where the farrier is working with her so she builds up a desirable reinforcement history with this spot. Also, to mimic the things that the farrier does. Go slow and build up her confidence with each of these tasks. Sometimes they can feel insecure about not being able to have all four feet available to flee so we need to build her trust. I may be reiterating a bit here but I don’t really know what steps you have taken so I’m just going to cover some steps. Start by making sure that she is comfortable with you handling her all over her body not just her legs. Start where she is most comfortable and click and treat when she is standing still AND relaxed. Relaxed is really our focus. We can teach her to stand still but if she is not truly relaxed then we may be reinforcing the wrong attitude and it will come to a head somewhere down the line. Only move on when she is relaxed and calm. Watch her eyes, ears, body language and feel those muscles. When she softens click and feed. Continue this process to the legs and feet. Remember to go at her speed. At first short sessions with a lot of reinforcement will be the best. Quit while she still wants more. Again this will peak her interest and anticipation. In her head we want her thinking… “come back and touch my legs!!” I have found I make MUCH more progress with three 5 minute sessions than with one 30 or 40 minute session. Build up the time once she is comfortable with this phase. Then vary the length of the sessions sometimes quick and sometimes long.
Next is handling her feet. Begin each step by reinforcing the smallest steps. As you begin to teach her to pick up her feet or to allow you to pick them up, think of the small steps in between. For example look for her knee to bend. This indicates that she took the weight off of this foot. This is worthy of a pretty good sized reinforcement. Give her a couple handfuls. The more she participates the faster the progress. Once you have the foot try to put it down only when she softens and relaxes the foot and leg. Remember to click while you have the foot in your hand. You want to click on the behavior that you want to see more of, she will remember what she was doing when she heard the click. If you click when she has her foot on the ground she will try to get her foot back on the ground so she gets the click. Once she is relaxed with this behavior begin to move the feet around a bit. Your farrier will stretch her out pretty good but we want to build up to that degree. Again click and feed small steps and relaxation. If she gets tense back up a little and rebuild the step before and go a little slower. Try to hold until you feel relaxation. When she is good with this and trusting you to do this I would introduce someone else into the equation. The point is to mimic the farrier in this equation. I would choose someone who is familiar with horses and their body language. Start back at the beginning, even though she has been good . This way you set her up for success by going back to her most comfortable place. You will quickly move through the paces. I would use the target at this point. You work the target while your friend handles her legs. This will give her something else to focus on and often helps to prevent horses from getting too wound up. If she is doing good I would suggest intermittent use of the target. This sounds like a lot of steps but I suspect she will go pretty quick.
Just when you get it worked out, get her nice and calm… here comes the farrier! Talk to your farrier and tell him/her what you are working on. After all, this investment of time will make his/her life easier down the road. Farriers want our horses to be good about trims and shoeing even more than we do! As he steps up to her ask her to target and click and reinforce. This will put her in the “work” mode. The target will be like an old familiar friend and will help give her a place to put some of that nervous energy. I have found that the target helps the farrier become more of an incidental just like in her sessions. If she is pretty nervous stay close and ask her to target now and then and reinforce. If she is somewhat calm I would stay nearby but not right at her head since she may fidget just trying to do something to please you. As things are going good with the farrier ask if it is okay to click and reinforce. Make sure that she is doing something worth reinforcing. Feed her well. If possible I would maybe do a foot or two, have him/her work on another horse and then get back to her after she has had a break. As time goes by she will get better and better and you can fade yourself out of this equation. She will realize that there isn’t anything to fear and it will just be part of her routine. Taking the time now will build her confidence. Continue the sessions between the farrier visits even if she is perfect. Remember the scale illustration? This will build up the reinforcement on the correct side of the scales giving her a reason to want to stand still.
Well Susanna, I find my self wanting to go on and on but should wrap it up. I hope this helped give you some ideas for making progress with your filly. Thank you for sending in your question.
I will continue to answer some of the questions sent into Ask Shawna. There is much more to come so stay tuned and enjoy getting your horse On Target!
This question was sent to me in FaceBook and I thought I would post it here for others who may have similar situations. I am glad to have a place to share. I removed her name just in case she wanted anonymity!!
So here is the question and response:
I hope you don’t mind such a silly question in your inbox, but I was just wondering what size treats you use and if it matters as long as the horse can smell/taste it and take it from the hand without problem. Also, how can you tell if the horse is being motivated?
I cut my carrot treats pretty small for one horse…My clicker practice horse, a horse that is extremely sound and quite loving/affectionate. I wanted to gain some experience with her first since she is an easy horse to deal with. It was obvious that she thought this new game was just too cool and she was clearly motivated. We got down target training easily along with some basic ground manners, ground tying, backing up without contact, and better leading She does not belong to me, but my neighbors kindly let me borrow her for this experiment.
I recently started working on my own horse, who has many problems, is overall high strung, and is extremely nervous in general from past abuse from a previous owner. She’s a much different horse temperament wise than the one I started out with. I really can’t tell if she is motivated. I did make progress the first day unless it was a fluke. She won’t stand still for mounting and I have neither a mounting block nor a saddle. She just dances around nervously and then takes off as soon as I get on. I tried to target train her first so I could clearly tell that she was understanding, but she didn’t seem interested at all.
I decided to try again with mounting and told her to stand, then rewarded her after just a couple seconds. I gradually increased the time and started touching her, then moving towards her side, putting a hand on her back, arm over her back, and I finally got to being able to stand on one foot and have my other leg completely over her. This was all in a matter of 10 minutes. I’m not sure if she was more motivated by the treat (small carrot pieces) or by the fact that she is desperate for two way communication after being abused and misunderstood. I just can’t tell with her, she’s always so nervous and stand off-ish. She wasn’t reaching back for the treats or turning her head much either, I was just basically putting them in her mouth. It doesn’t sound like she’s really that motivated, yet, she stood there completely still and about as relaxed as I’ve ever seen her in the round pen.
Am I doing this right so far or do I need to find a treat that she is more enthused about? It would be nice if she could act like a normal horse for once in her life lol.
Shawna Corrin Karrasch July 31 at 7:29am:
I am glad that your horse is with you. I would suggest that you try other treats and see if you can find something that she seems to respond to with more enthusiasm. Size and flavor can make a difference for some horses. Sometimes just peaking their interest at first and then they become more interested in the training process and you can then vary treats or just use some of their grain. When I am working with a bit in their mouth I recommend using something that will dissolve, like pelleted grain or sugar. Carrots will stay in chunks and they may not be able to chew thoroughly before I ask them to work.
However, I think the real issue is her sounds more like internal worry than the actual treat. You are making good strides with her relaxation but her apprehension may run deep. I recommend making the sessions be shorter and easier. Move a little slower and expect a little less with more reinforcement. Your on the right track but I suspect that she still feels a good deal of suspicion. Be patient and only move forward when you feel more boldness on her part. Often times horses won’t embrace eating treats when they feel some anxiety. The choice to take any treat shows some relaxation but that she doesn’t just get right to enjoying them could be a sign of some conflict in her psychological state. Maybe it is as simple as a better treat but I suspect not. I have also seen a number of horses be great on the ground but when the rider gets on they can shut down a bit. Take itty bitty baby steps (called successive approximations) Also it may help if you have someone get on with you on the ground doing target work. Essentially you are saying don’t worry about the rider just focus on me and the target and ignore the rider. This can help to change her association and to rebalance an established history and to re-establish a new, more positive reinforcement history. I suggest you move forward only when you have a enthusiastic attitude during the target sessions.
Shorter and more reinforcement per attempt will help. Also doing sessions before meals (or even using part of her rationed food) may help her food motivation. Eventually you will be able to do the sessions anytime or place but at first this may help you to set her up for success.
I also think that, if possible, using some kind of mounting block, step ladder, fence, something safe for her, will take a lot of the physical challenge out of the mounting process and can allow you to gently place your weight on her back. It can be very taxing on our horses. Also be sure there is not some sort of injury or pain adding to her discomfort. Check with your vet to rule out physical causes. Even though she may get a clean bill of health it doesn’t rule out the possibility of some past association with pain making her worry every time someone gets on her back. Fearful that the pain will return.. Whether it is physical or psychological, you can rebalance the scales for her and teach her to stand quietly.
You are on the right track. They are all such individuals. You will get there. If it is any consolation, my main horse Mint (he is in lots of videos from my website and in the book and DVD) was one of the worst horses I had ever worked. He would walk away from target training. He was very indifferent and a real quitter with no heart. You see quite the opposite now. Well, I hope that this helps you out and gives you some new ideas. It is hard sometimes to evaluate without physically seeing the situation. Let me know how it goes for the next step. I look forward to hearing of your progress.
In this clip, Shawna explains the reasoning behind using a ‘clicker’ or bridge signal and why it is an essential step to getting your horse On Target.