Get your horse off to the right start for clicker training

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!!

Is Your Horse Happy? (Part 3 of 5)

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….

Teaching a Timid (or Fearful) Horse to be Braver

This is an issue that happens with horses who have had very little interaction with humans (often young and feral horses) and horses who have had some trauma associated with training. This is a question from my Facebook Ask Shawna/ On Target Training page…


My new horse backs away into corner when I enter stable. I kept staying in one place and clicking and rewarding for last few visits but He still won’t come forward to me if I have no food!!!


Okay, Please remind me what you are looking for from your new horse. To approach you? Is he being stand-offish? What have you done with him up to this point? Clicker and target? I have some ideas but want to be sure I have a good understanding of the situation. Thank Maeve! :0)


Yes, I have done clicker and just started target. He is a worrier and spooks a lot so I have been trying to install trust for me. It’s kinda working. I will e-mail you to-morrow more details. Lately, He is backing into corner when I enter stable, I stand and wait till he does one step forward at a time to me and click and reward but its not working. Also I have used the target-touch, target-click-reward but the minute I step to him he backs again!! I am going to try again and again but I thought you may have some other ideas or info that I don’t know that are probably on your DVDs.


Another suggestion that may help if he is feeling wary is to squat down in a corner of the stall. If you feel confident he will be calm you can sit on the ground in his stall. If you are not feeling safe squatting or sitting, just lean against a wall and relax. Don’t ask him to do anything. Just sit, wait and be quiet. Click and reinforce when he takes a step toward you. Stay where you are (nice and low) and let him do the approaching.

I use this approach, or more correctly a lack of approach, on feral horses or naive marine mammals. It helps the timid animals to build confidence. Being lower helps horses to feel safer and there is no approaching them, which can feel imposing to some horses. It will let him feel like it is really his choice. There are no expectations. You don’t need to look at him the whole time. Just kind of do your own thing, relax and be patient. Offer reinforcement to him when he gets closer or shows interest.

Don’t worry that he is only approaching when there is food present. I think right now, it seems, he is not so sure about people. He may start out wanting the food but soon the association will change and he will look to people as a good thing, as opposed to something to avoid. The food will become less important and he will just seek human interaction. When he starts to come over more and feels safe enough to actually be interested in you, I would encourage you to sometimes just go into his stall and hang out, maybe read a book. Just let him be in close proximity with you. You don’t need to have food (maybe just a carrot or two) as it is less of a training session and more about bonding time.

Anyway, I think this will help to build his trust and ultimately his interest in people. This will help to build a better foundation to work from. As always…Keep me posted!


Thanks a mill, thats great. Will do that today. He does love people He is 14 but sooo soft and sensitive. He just isn’t sure. I have him only 5 months. I am nervous riding him as I am always waiting for a spook but I have to just get through that. It’s me as usual not the horse. I am not nervous on the ground at all have been around horses all my life. My last horse I had for 14 yrs. and I feel like I’m starting all over again and I’m getting older !!!! πŸ™ Thanks again M.


It worked Shawna, in one minute. What a clever horse, thnx


New horses can do that to us! It is like starting over on a lot of levels. Especially when you have been with one horse for so long. They are a familiar friend with whom you share a bond and understanding. The new guy is full of unknowns. It sounds like you are on the right track with him. Go slow and let him set the schedule for this exercise. You will know when he turns that corner and seems to look forward to time with you. Then I suggest going back to the target and moving onto other behaviors. At this point, I suspect his training will move along a bit quicker. Remember to be flexible and adjust to his pace. You are doing a great job!!

I am sure we will have more but that’s where we are in the training right now. Hopefully the story will be never ending. As Maeve helps her horse to overcome this issue she will move on to another task, continuing to grow as they move along in training and building their relationship.

Ask Shawna: My Horse Won’t Drink Water at Shows!

Question from Stacy:

Hi Shawna, I can’t wait to get the training package! I am having trouble getting my horse to drink water at shows. She won’t drink til we get home. Can you help me encourage my horse to drink?

Answer from Shawna:

This is a new scenario for me but I know we can get her to learn to drink as a trained behavior. I have never had a horse who won’t drink any old water you put in front of him. So I have not experimented with these tactics myself. But I imagine you have heard of putting something in the water (like mint extract or electrolytes) while at home. It will be more familiar and a stronger association when she gets water that may taste and smell different than her usual water. That may help if you haven’t tried this. However, her problem may be related to nervousness and being in a new environment.

We will start at home and get it on a signal. Okay, the first thing to think about is if you know a time that she is likely to drink water. Maybe it is after eating or after being ridden or when she first comes in from the paddock. I have a couple things to try. The first one is called “capturing” and it can be done in conjunction with the other plan I will out-line. I suggest watching her at the times that you think she may drink. When she does, click and feed. It may help to be further away at first if she gets distracted by your presence. You can click as soon as she goes to her water. I am thinking she will stop and watch you. Step away but still watch. Just wait, she is still thirsty and will eventually go back click again, etc. This is how we teach the Sea Lions to holler. We just reinforce them and pretty soon they are doing it all the time (a little annoying at first) then we put it on a signal. Pretty soon she will be drinking water for your attention and reinforcement. Start getting closer and putting a signal in just before you think she is going to drink. She will associate that signal(maybe it is a point to the water and verbal “drink”, it can be whatever you would like)

The other approach I suggest is get a bucket to be her drinking bucket. At the times when she tends to be thirsty enter her stall with the water, set it on the ground and give her a point to the water, tap the water or even use a target to get her nose to the water. Click and reinforce. When she is consistent with touching look for any movement of her lips. It may mean you splash a bit take the water to her lips so she can kind of taste it or lick, reinforce any licking or moving lips. Keep along these lines and I imagine she will soon turn that lipping/licking into actual drinking. At first, I would interrupt it with a click. Then let it go a little bit, letting her drink longer and longer. Remember to click on the behavior you want to see more of, when she is drinking(or even flapping lips in the beginning) not when she has quit or moved away from the bucket. I also suggest you feed her alot for each of these approximations so it makes a bigger impression on her. When she is consistently responding correctly I suggest trying at different times of day so she learns to respond to your cue vs. her thirst. Next, I suggest moving just outside of the stall or paddock where ever she lives. Use the same bucket and the same cue. She may be a little slower again. Look for those baby steps we took to help her in the beginning to build up her confidence. When she is good there try someplace else. Pretty soon she should be drinking any place, any time around the barn. You can even have her do it just before feeding time. she drinks and she gets a jackpot of food. When you go to the show take the same bucket and take some of your water if you can for the first lessons. It will be the most familiar and will help to set her up for success. Set it on the ground and give her the cue. Go back to the baby steps if necessary. She’ll get it figured out. The good thing about using the positive reinforcement is that it also promotes relaxation within the horse and it may even help to settle her nerves at the show. Felling more settled will also allow her to respond to her natural thirst.

Well, I have never had to teach a horse to drink but I have taught a whale to urinate on command! I am confident we can get it figured out, though it may take a little tinkering here and there. Pay attention to her habits, what she seems to respond to and adapt the training to what seems to be working for her and your situation. Please keep me updated. I am here to help you along the way. I am excited to see this through to the end!

Stall Manners-Stationary Target/Trailer Loading

Just a quick little video (30 seconds) to show you Bugs targeting on his Stationary target in his stall. This helps when I point out the stationary target mounted in the trailer. This session was done right before we went to the trailer to serve as a fresh reminder for Bugs. I want to reiterate this is an easy behavior to train. If you have questions or want more info please don’t hesitate to ask.

Frozen Carrot Stew (aka: environmental enrichment)

November 9, 2010 by  
Filed under On Target Training

When I was at Sea World we utilized “Environmental Enrichment Devices” to help keep our animals thinking and engaged in constructive activities. Horses who live in stalls are faced with the same challenges.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, or have you share your own ideas to keep horses mentally engaged, in the comments!

(please note – the audio goes quiet for a little bit while I’m walking to the barn, but it does come back when I give the frozen treats to the horses!)

On Target Training, Shawna Karrasch

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