A QUICK GUIDE TO: Positive Reinforcement

Defined simply, when you ADD a positive reinforcer to a training situation, you look to see if the behavior INCREASES, at which point you can say the thing you added was reinforcing.

However, don’t be fooled. You are training your horse all the time, even if you don’t think you are. Many things can be reinforcing behavior in your horse’s life, so we need to look at many levels when analyzing behavior.

Positive reinforcers vary, depending on the species. 

Dogs love food

Dogs love play (usually)

Horses love food

Horses love food

Horses love scratching (sometimes)

Horses love food

Food is often used because it’s quick, easily delivered, and considered a Primary reinforcer.

You can “condition” a reinforcer. Scratching can be made into a stronger reinforcer by pairing it with food. ANYTHING can be made stronger by pairing it with food. Even applause. This trick is knowing how to condition it.

Since reinforcement is in the eye of the recipient, you can train with anything the horse wants, but I caution you to see if the behavior is strengthened or is repeating with your reinforcer. If not, you might need to re-considered what you’re using as reinforcement. You also might want to re-read that sentence, it’s important.

Here’s another way to look at it. If an animal does something in an effort to get what he wants, and is successful, then chances are he’ll have learned from his experience and try it again. That is an inherent learning process built into all species.
Here are some other thoughts on reinforcers.


Sounds self-evident, but some people try to start training with a food they haven’t tested to see if it is something the horse likes. In contrast, some people actually place many different types of food reinforcers in front of a horse to see what the horse chooses first! 



As trainers we rely on the fact that behavior is strengthened by what follows it. 

In order to maintain a behavior, a primary reinforcer is required at least once in awhile. It depends on the horse and what behavior you’re maintaining. If you’re maintaining the behavior of being groomed, you may not need to reinforce much. If it’s a medical procedure, you might need a really high rate of reinforcement.

There is a complete and thorough way to vary your reinforcers if you want to take the time to learn the process. If you are at all new to the process, if you want to train a horse with a positive reinforcement, many advocate continuing with the food reinforcers. 



Using food without training food handling protocols may increase biting. That can happen even if the only time you feed the horse is once or twice a day. 

Food reinforcers are effective. People are using them in a huge variety of circumstances including zoos, marine mammal shows and advanced dog training. Using food for training a horse is a newer technique and I will forever be grateful to the pioneers of this technique. However, people need to learn how to use this tool just like they need to learn ANY tool.

Food is a resource a horse will fight to control. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see this; just look at a herd in the paddock and watch. If you add food as a training tool you need to learn how to use it EFFECTIVELY.

The good news is horses can learn safe and easy behaviors to work around food. It DOES take some knowledge to make that happen. If you are new to the process, LEARN from other people and research how to achieve a good working relationship with your horse around food. 


Wrong again.

It takes skill to learn to train with naturally recurring reinforcers. Hey, it takes skill to learn to successfully train with FOOD! However, if you start to explore the science behind the training you will learn tools that make this technology even MORE exciting. 

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The Beginning

I thoroughly love starting a new horse with clicker training. It is the beginning of a grand adventure; I am confident the experience will be positive for the horse.

All of my background of valuable horse clicker training experience recently came into play with a deaf 2 year old horse. At the time I started the horse, I did NOT know she was deaf, nobody did. But the process of discovering she was deaf has been quite validating for many reasons.

I was called to work with this horse (and her stall mate) because she was young, mostly untrained and needed to be taught the many skill sets required of a horse living in a human world.

I started in protected contact, to give her time to get used to me as well as to train the food delivery process I use. I like to use a sequence of “back of hand/flip/feed” when training horses, especially horses new to hand feeding. (For more you can download this Clicker Tip). Follow the site to the “Instant download training plans” tab.

We worked it out so my hand feeding was comfortable to both of us, then I began to add the criteria of touching the target. I started clicking at this point. With our close proximity, it was very easy to get into a training rhythm and it was clear the horse was learning because she was repeating the task reliably and accurately. So far, so good and there was no reason to suspect she was deaf.

I moved on to basic head forward and again because I quickly delivered the food after I clicked and the food delivery happened quickly while the behavior occurred (the reinforcer was contiguous with the behavior) I continued to see rapid progress and nicely repeated behaviors. So far, so good again.

I followed with halter targeting. During this phase, I would “chuck food,” meaning, once the horse had put her nose near the halter, I would continue to give her a small amount of food while maintaining that position of the nose in the halter.  Again the reinforcer was contingent AND contiguous. I did not repeatedly click because she wasn’t doing a specific behavior that needed to be marked; she was just staying basically still as I fed her while her nose was in the noseband (more in keeping with classical conditioning).

All of these behaviors I had started developed nicely. I was very pleased with the halter training because she was somewhat afraid of the halter when we started and she showed improvement quickly. During this time I also used scratching as a reinforcer for standing during the stationary sessions.

Next, I added touching her legs in preparation for foot care. I “chucked food” (as Bob Bailey would say) when my hand was on her leg. I would click for the leg lift, again, the proximity to her mouth made the delivery of the reinforcer quick, so there was no reason to doubt the process.


There is an entire protocol which has been sometimes labeled as “manding” that I, along with Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh have been lecturing about. We have also used the label of a “Start Button” to describe how we can train an animal to participate, have choice and control in a procedure. This is especially effective when training a potentially aversive procedure.

While I won’t get into the specific details of the Start Button within this blog, I do encourage you to check out the process. Much of my training with this horse included developing signals that the horse gave ME that she was ready to continue with the current training process. You can see a video on Start Buttons here.

So how does this fit in with clicker training the deaf horse? While I was making a LOT of progress in all avenues of behaviors being trained, I began to get a sense that I didn’t have quite the precision I’ve grown to expect, especially when I was slightly farther away from the horse’s head. Of course being further from the horse’s head meant it took slightly longer to deliver the food.

I also wasn’t seeing the telltale physiological manifestations I’m used to seeing once the horse begins to understand the purpose of the click. Usually, there is an ear flick, a flash of the eye, a slight head move or SOME change when the horse hears the click.

Probably one of the most noticeable manifestations people notice when a horse begins to learn about clicker training is the telltale turning of the head towards the person after it hears the click. Having the head turn a lot towards the person is something I tend to avoid in the beginning because for newbie horses it can lead to mugging behaviors. So I very carefully deliver the food in a position that helps the horse keeps its head forward to eat. However, I am still used to seeing a least a little bit of a head motion that shows me the horse clearly recognized the click.

Another factor began to emerge; when we are in the beginning stages of teaching a horse an intricate training system like clicker training, I usually expect that the horse needs to learn several behaviors before it really begins to understand the system. But we had passed that introductory phase, and I just wasn’t seeing the telltale signs common to clicker trained animals.

Because the horse wasn’t noticeably responding to the sound of the click I began to wonder if the horse was hearing impaired. I DID have previous experience with a horse I got when he was 16 years old. Within a few years, I realized he was gradually having problems hearing, so I went to a tactile bridge signal. But with Buck, I SAW the changes in him as he became deaf. His whole demeanor changed as he struggled to deal with this issue. The tactile bridge and the process of training with positive reinforcement were helpful to my old gelding and I was glad I could make his life more comfortable by adding a new bridge signal.

With this two-year-old, she seemed quite calm and relatively easy going for a young horse. No one who had met her suspected that she was deaf.

I did some quick empirical tests. I put the clicker behind her head so she couldn’t see it. Nothing. No motion or recognition. On one occasion she was sleeping when I arrived and she did not wake, even when I made some very loud banging noises on the gate. I talked to my vet, Steve Goss, who is a great vet and an outstanding individual. He had some creative ways of testing and sure enough, the tests were pretty conclusive. She was for all intents and purposes, deaf.

So where does that leave us? How was I going to add the precision I normally experienced with the click? The first thing I started to do was condition a tactile bridge signal. Three quick taps on her back signaled that the behavior had met criteria and food was on its way. That process has been started and we are well on our way to revisiting our early behaviors and introducing new behaviors with our new bridge signal.

It is an exciting journey for me, and I’m seeing some clarity in our training already. She is showing the typical signs of a horse who knows what a click means. We’re even beginning to have breakthroughs on some behaviors that were more difficult for her.

I’m hoping you’ll check in on my blog, for the process is quite informative and we’re well on our way in this grand adventure of building a reliable form of communication between this little horse and her surrounding caregivers.

Peggy Hogan will be speaking at Clicker Expo 2018
and has been a speaker at Clicker Expo since 2013.
There’s always more to learn at Clicker Expo!
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Reflections on the Stamford Expo.

Sitting here in the Denver airport with a looooong layover before the last leg of my trip home. Spent the last few days working and lecturing at the Stamford Clicker Expo.

It was such a joy to see so many more people who are working to expand other people’s awareness and use of clicker training principles with their horses. One of the reasons I like to see horse people at Clicker Expo is because I’m confident they are getting information that is “vetted” by the scientific community. Vetting our information is important for me because I was misled in my Natural Horsemanship days with so much information that “sounded” right and “seemed logical” but was really just based on many ideas that someone thought of, but were untested and unsubstantiated. That experience was a big wake-up call for me.

I  would like to think we in the clicker training community could avoid this pitfall but I think it will take work. There are many innovative trainers who are experimenting and sharing, but can we all share and still remain open to the light that might be shed on our methods once someone is able to test our ideas? Do we have the integrity to say “Oops, I might need to re-think that?”

Trust me, like many others I am always trying to improve my training and expand my ability, I want my horses to experience our contact as clear, concise and easy to understand.

I also know that I cannot practically speaking, have absolute confirmation of my horse’s experience when I’m training (well, OK, short of having some sort of electrode to his brain that confirms what he’s feeling.) HOWEVER, I do know I can learn to read the external responses of the individual’s behavior to the best of my ability, and based on the collection of this array of data, I can begin to create some overall signals that help me read my horse better and hopefully improve that individual’s life with me.

At the Expo I have found so many “go to” people, other speakers who have a varied background and can support this desire to keep my training out of the “fog zone” of untested assumption. I still find myself in awe of their collective knowledge. Susan Friedman, Kathy Sdao and Jesus Rosales Ruiz are some of my “go to” people when it comes to supporting, refreshing and updating my continuing understanding of the science. I love having these “reality checks” as well as lengthy behind the scenes chats.

Ken Ramirez is so inspiring. The man has trained more species than just about anyone and he always has a practical yet inspiring outlook on how to enrich and make our animal’s lives better. His application of clicker training principles is so diverse. This Expo we got to hear of his extensive project work with elephant conservation; it was touching, heartwarming and inspiring.

Sarah Owings and Laura VanArondonk Baugh are two other speakers with a wealth of experience and a way of presenting the material that makes these important distinctions so clear for people.

Another element that made this Expo exciting for me was the opportunity to co-present a lecture and lab with Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh. These women are very dynamic, but their fun and dynamic nature is backed by incredible experience and knowledge. Our current project “Animals in Control” is a lecture we’ve given for the last 2 years and reflects a wealth of information. We were able to show video from multiple species, some gathered from our own training, showing the process of creating cues the animals give US that signal their readiness to cooperate in a process, procedure or training experience.

Every time I’ve presented this information I’ve had people come up to me and express how glad they were we presented it, how much more they want of this kind of information, how much they value the idea of giving the animal choice and how they want to learn more so they can incorporate the material into their own training. This is really exciting for me and I look forward to the opportunity to be able to teach ongoing classes on this way of organizing sound training principles.

Be sure to watch for announcements about this new course. Hope to see you online.

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It’s all about shaping

From time to time I read something posted that suggests that guessing during the shaping process is frustrating for the horse. My experience is that we can easily teach our horses to be creative if we set it up to follow their direction and encourage their interaction with some item in the environment. This is especially true when they’re beginning to learn to offer behavior. Once a horse learns to play the game of “show me something different” it can totally change their understanding of how shaping works.

Truthfully, I think the horses are capable of understanding shaping quickly, but WE need to understand that they also explore new things in their own individual manner. Some make bold, easily recognizable efforts, others make very small moves to investigate.

It can be hard to sort through what we’re seeing and sometimes the human withholds the click, either wanting too much change in the variations of behavior, or they wait for something that the horse cannot give in the moment. “Different” doesn’t have to be grandiose, it can literally be a shift in eye movement.

Watch this video of my friend’s horse. You’ll see this horse try a variety of ways to interact with a box. He’s quite clever at offering different behaviors, but this process was LEARNED. There are some moments where you might see behavior offered that is clicked after it is finished, or you might see the horse continue to offer the behavior after the click has happened.

With the exploratory games where behavior is offered spontaneously we are encouraging variety. Sometimes that variety is also very reinforcing to the horse. If he ignores the click, I let him explore, but I let him explore without clicking. Sometimes I interrupt the exploring, sometimes I let them move to a new behavior after they have exhausted the current interest PROVIDING it’s not a behavior that can lead to some useful behavior I might want to capture and shape in the future.

I have ALSO done this type of exporatory training with no click at all, just feeding them as they continue to investigate.

creative shaping  Watch this video to see more about shaping games.

Once there is some variety to the horse’s offerings, we can begin to shape behaviors that are useful to us that range from husbandry to riding.

So the next time you read an article that suggests that horses NEED to have R- in their lives because they get too stressed by guessing, come back to this page and learn how you can make the process fun and easy for both of you.

There is an ongoing resource of information in my groups and online classes as well.

SHAPING!!! It’s a GREAT tool to have in your toolkit.

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Are you teaching your horse to brace?

If someone said “We need to scrutinize the effect of every single item we use in our interaction with a horse, whether it be a halter, saddle or bridle,” I would whole-heartedly agree. In fact I would probably expand on that to include everyday items we use around them, say a grooming brush for example. But maybe even more significant is how we use our bodies in our interactions with the horse.


The reason I say this is because ultimately, it’s the QUALITY of touch, or how we connect to our own bodies when we connect to our horses that makes the real difference. Let me give you an example. Take the difference between a flat halter or rope halter. The flat halter is usually made of a web material, compared to a rope halter, which is often yacht braid with knots on the nose. The knots can be aversive and potentially severe and the thinner braid can put painful pressure on the poll.




Because of this feature people tend to prefer flat halters. But wait, let’s take a deeper look at those as well.

In my work with Peggy Cummings I learned to watch how horses braced against contact from the human, whether it was from a halter or the human’s touch. I witnessed, participated and finally assisted in clinics where horses arrived stiff, rigid and fully braced against the feel of the flat halter. Not only were the horses dull to the cues given by the handler using the flat halter, their necks reflected years of muscle development that was created by the effort of pulling against the human who was unconsciously adding unnecessary pressure on the halter, or, was consciously adding unnecessary amounts of pressure in an effort to control the horse. The evidence showed that it was people really just ended up building more brace and resistance in the horse.


I’ve watched well-intentioned horse-loving people reach up and touch a web halter and in the first moments of contact I could see the horse brace. It was the HUMAN’S touch that triggered the brace. In fact even reaching for the halter caused some of these horses to lift the head and try to evade the touch. The flat halter allowed the horse to pull even more resolutely in the opposite direction than where the handler was suggesting through her use of the tool. This reinforced the brace and the vicious cycle continued.


Be assured, I’m confident those same horses would have been resisting and bracing if they were wearing a rope halter. My point is this had less to do with the equipment being used and MORE to do with how the person had learning gaps in how to use their bodies when handling this equipment.


The truth is the people approach horses with braced bodies; their own bodies are disunited or rigid and this rigidity gets relayed to the horse. Furthermore they are often completely unconscious of their own movements. They turn and walk away from the horse, fully expecting the horse should follow, even if the horse is unprepared to follow. Consequently the lead rope tightens, the halter exerts pressure, the horse’s head lifts higher with the nose moving forward, the neck stretches and finally the horse takes a couple of awkward steps setting him up to be heavy on the forehand. The lack of balance, softness and feel in the handlers touch of the lead or halter is often combined with a mindset that suggests that if the horse is unprepared to follow it deserves to feel the halter tighten. This absolutely builds layer after layer of brace into the horse.


The problem is seen in every discipline with horses wearing every type of halter. Even people who are trying to train their horses with kindness and positive techniques, can be seen turning and walking away while they unconsciously pull, manipulate or handle the lead in such a way that the horse is feeling pressure, not the good kind of pressure, but the kind that builds brace. Remember, our pulling creates their brace. Our handling creates resistance.


The same can be said of saddles. One might think that a bareback pad would guarantee comfort for the horse, yet if the horse has to drag around a  someone who is so tight that the compression alone creates discomfort, then the bareback pad is not the answer. Changing the rider’s body awareness and use IS the answer.


People also use their body language to cue the horse to do something, yet they move faster than the horse, or they try to push the horse with their energy. They also use tactile cues that, instead of being inviting, are poking, prodding or otherwise stiff and rigid.


So I would like to offer this suggestion. Instead of trying to blame a piece of equipment, as if somehow switching halters is the answer to a horse’s comfort,  I would vote for taking it a step further advocating an intense focus on teaching the HUMAN how to connect with their own body in a fully balanced, healthy way, then take that conscious awareness and connect with the horse. Our timing, rhythm, balance and integrated movements are ALWAYS either adding suppleness or brace to a horse. It is up to us to keep ourselves conscious of this fact.


Remember every time you ask something of your horse, whether it’s through your touch or a piece of equipment, you are either building more softness or building more brace.

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Shaping is very potent art form in training. It involves the use of certain tools and concepts.
There is a specific function of the click with shaping; it adds precision to our training by marking the exact moment we want the horse to remember what its body was doing at the time it heard the sound, then come get the reinforcer.
One of the specific uses of the click is to aid in teaching behavior. One of the most well-established protocols in shaping is to get successive approximations in which we mark a current level of interpretation of the behavior. During the learning phase we expect the animal to repeat what it was doing when it heard the click, but because behavior VARIES we can select shifts in the performance of the behavior and begin to work towards creating new approximations.
Repetition is the measuring tool by which the human can assess whether or not the animal is learning what we want them to learn. If I were to click for every behavior my horse offered, I might have a horse that’s happier in training but I will have lost the potency of the click. If I use the click to mean “Keep going, I like that,” once again I will have lost the precision the click gives me. With the precision of the click I can shape a canter departure, levade, gait transitions, an eye brow lift, scent work or match to sample. It’s all just behavior and it’s all behavior I have shaped.
Shaping allows the student, in this case a horse, to learn what’s required without unnecessary intervention from the human.
Shaping allows the animal to integrate and organize its own body to perform a task in a way that we could might have difficulty creating with our external aides. In my personal opinion humans create brace, unnecessary resistance, disorganization and akward movements in the horse because we are too quick to get our hands on the lead or reins attached to the animal and try to create a look that might please our eye, but it is costly to the animal in terms of its freedom of motion. Shaping allows the animal to figure out its own coordination. Once that is done the cues for those coordinated efforts make more sense and can then be accessed by the human.
Shaping teaches the animal to think. Part of clicker training is the process of creating a language that includes the animal’s efforts to understand how to gain access to what it wants. It’s not a matter of the human petting the horse on the head and handing it a cookie, it’s a matter of engaging that thinking part of the horse that wants to be involved in its own training because there is something in it for him besides relief of pressure. We’re engaging the part of the horse that wants to solve the puzzle. This is one of the most powerful components of shaping. The animal is working with us and participates in its own training.
There is one type of shaping protocol where the trainer stands back and is completely uninvolved while the animal is learning. The person is only involved by making the sound of the click and placing the food. I do not personally often use shaping in that manner. I have done free shaping, as it is called, I have sat in a chair and waited for the animal to figure out the behavior which I then clicked. However, before I attempted that, my animal had a rich reinforcement history and understood the process of learning and guessing games that help make free-shaping easier.
Free-shaping takes skill and a complete understanding of what the animal needs to do with its body movement to achieve a behavior. Free-shaping can be fun for both horse and human, it does not need to illicit frustration. In fact no training needs to illicit frustration. You can be shaping, capturing, targeting or even luring and find a way to do it without frustrating the animal. In my mind it is a given that we’re trying to train without frustration.
The process of using shaping to train DOES need to be learned. The animal DOES need to be taught how the system works. They need to feel safe offering behavior and they need to learn when and where shaping games can be offered. We need to make it clear that every time we engage with the animal we will be training differently, and that when we are shaping new behavior the setup will make that clear.
If you have not tried much shaping, I would WHOLE HEARTEDLY SUGGEST IT. I think it makes better trainers out of us. When we get our hands off the leads, targets, wands or swinging ropes we HAVE to understand the bio-mechanics of what we’re trying to train. We HAVE to find a way to engage our horse without pressure, and doing so makes us more aware of what the horse is actually doing.
I run clicker training online study groups all the time and I have seen it happen with countless clients. Once they learn how to set it up so the horse has a reasonable chance to guess the beginnings of the desired behavior, and then they witness the enthusiastic offering of that newly aquired ability of their horse as it begins to suss out the nature of the puzzle, they are almost always blown away by how little they need to do, and just how SMART their horse can be.
I love shaping because of what it has taught me about allowing the horse to set the pace and learn. It has taught ME to HONOR and RESPECT the horse even more, for all of its generosity and willingness to keep interacting with humans.
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Trained to endure or trained to participate?

In the 2016 Clicker Expos Eva Bertilsson, Emelie Johnson-Vegh and I gave a lecture on the topic of giving animals choice and control in their training. For me it is a significant way to refine and optimize how we use clicker training in our daily lives with horses. I would like to describe more about the process, but first a bit of background.

We’ve been taught that classical conditioning and operant conditioning are always part our training. They “team up”, so to speak, when we train. For example, the sound of the click means food is coming and the animal begins to anticipate the arrival of food after it has experienced enough pairings of the sound/food combination. The sound is “classically conditioned” as a predictor of food.

On the other hand, when a behavior is trained with operant conditioning, the animal needs to respond to a given situation by presenting a behavior which, in turn, results in receiving a reinforcer. In other words, the consequence of the behavior (usually food) strengthens the behavior that happened before the food arrived and the animal is more likely to repeat what it did before it got the food.

OK, that’s sort of the “cliff notes” of the process. Now I’d like to share some thoughts on how I see this information interpreted. For example, I hear people talk about wanting to “desensitize” their horse to something, like a plastic bag, tarp or maybe clippers. They go about the process by taking that item and, hopefully in a skilled manner, they introduce that item until the animal no longer perceives it as a threat. Some people try to use flooding to desensitize the animal, and often times this becomes traumatic or harsh. In a more passive manner, the desensitization process can occur over time and presentation of the item in the environment can predict the arrival of good things.

This latter kind of training is very effective when done well. However, the situation I see often with horse owners is that they tend to progress too quickly. The horse is restrained by the halter/lead and the owner will walk directly into the horse’s space and rub the plastic bag on the horse, then try to offset the fear of the item by handing the horse food. I see this often online and I don’t think the handlers/owners realize that they can actually nullify the value of the food as a training tool if they continue to associate it with something the horse really doesn’t like.

Because of the availability of videos on the internet, I know that the visual input of people walking to their horses with a tarp in one hand and food in the other is seen everywhere. In some ways I think this interpretation of Classical Conditioning got started within our horse circles because of our former training backgrounds. We are USED to seeing people hang onto the lead and let the horse “drift” or “move his feet” as an attempt to avoid the scary item. Plus everyone knows that if you release the pressure when the horse is pulling, you increase the likelihood of reinforcing the pulling, so we’re not supposed to let go when they pull. The halter/lead is held tightly so the horse cannot escape, then the clippers are presented and the pressure is released when the horse stops moving, even slightly. Clicker trainers see this and, trying to introduce food into the training environment, they will then give the horse food after the release of pressure. This method is sort of a cross between negative reinforcement and systematic desensitization with a few bites of goodies thrown in for good measure.

There is an alternative way to help an animal become used to the things humans introduce to the environment. One can focus on using Operant Conditioning, and more specifically positive reinforcement. This is the manner in which I do almost all of my training for potentially scary items. A great example of using R+ in training a different response to a situation was shown in a video during a class I took with Dr. Susan Friedman. In the video we saw a lion who was reacting aggressively (loud vocalizations, lunging at the caregiver). Using a target, the keeper was able to train the lion to wait in a down-stay position and earn reinforcement. The lion learned that the down-stay earned reinforcement, henceforth at the onset of the session there was a marked change in the lion’s behavior. It became “calm.” (It stationed near the bars with its nose near the target, no vocalizations and no lunging.) This is an example of training a behavior that produced a safer environment for the handler and involved less stress for the lion. Again, the technique used was based on Operant conditioning, not Classical.

This takes us back to the opening paragraph, and the explanation of an ever more refined approach. I have taken this type of training technique and added some dimensions which give the animal even MORE control over the process, meaning the HORSE is in charge of the pace. I let the horse determine whether or not to proceed. I do this by setting up a series of “start button” behaviors that signal to me that the animal is receptive to a process and is inviting me to continue with whatever I’m doing. Once the horse initiates the signal, I then introduce whatever item or event I want to work with.

I’ve got some video which shows a horse having a fly mask put on. In the video the behavior looks so easy, fluid and well trained. The process of getting there included many steps of allowing the horse to approach the fly mask and those efforts were reinforced with food. This means I was clicking him for any approach to the fly mask, and allowing him to leave if he showed signs of fear. In fact I took him OUT of the environment, away from the mask, many times during the training, so that he could choose to approach the mask again.

I included ways for the horse to refuse the process if he was concerned. This ability to refuse or back away is the aspect that I personally found sped up the process and made the behavior very solid. The HORSE remained in control of how, when and how fast the mask was put on. One might say that this choice “empowers” the horse; it certainly appears that way to me.

Some of the behaviors are complex and involve creating several built in opportunities where the horse can signal that he is ready to continue at various stages in the procedure. An example of this is creating a behavior that allows a dental exam. The sequence looks like this on video and has many steps to the overall behavior.

1. I position myself in front of the horse.

2. When the horse looks at me I put my hand up with my thumb near his upper lip.

3. The horse puts his upper lip on my thumb, which is his signal to me that I can continue.

4. I then spread his lips and can begin to open his mouth.

I’m building duration and variety into this technique. At any point he can stop. I just go back to an earlier level where he can accomplish the goal.

The point is we are not just teaching the horse to ENDURE the process, we are teaching him to actively engage in it, complete with choosing to participate or not. This type of positive reinforcement helps in building every type of behavior, not just ones that contain a possible aversive.

Please take the time to explore the videos and see the subtle differences. Enjoy!

Posted in clicker training horses, The Volunteering Horse | 9 Comments