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!

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Whips and carrots

Sometimes I get caught up in conversations where people devalue the use of food as a training tool and then I stop and remind them what I’ve accomplished. I have worked with many, many horses who were very troubled. Some of them had dangerous behaviors and I could have gotten seriously hurt or killed. When I started with these horses I used protected contact and food, that was it. In every case  I eventually ended up with a horse that was safe, cooperative and a joy to be around. Make no mistake, I have no doubt that if the horse was confronted with the kinds of abuse that created the behaviors to begin with, it would have most likely reverted to the behaviors it offered during the initial abuse. Regression is a fact of training life.

Then I look at the people who are criticizing me or making fun of my methods and I see them approach dangerous horses with whips, sticks, swinging ropes and round pens where the horse is driven to a point of exhaustion or is running from fright with eyes wide and nostrils flared. That’s when I ask myself who has the better training methods? I would certainly be able to get changes in behavior using all of the same tools they use, but would they be able to get behavior without using those tools? Would they be able to produce changes in a horse if they had to face the horse alone, with food as their only tool. That’s really the big question.


I have walked both paths. I would love to see the naysayers take the same journey as I did and approach a horse with food only. They will learn a lot about horses and behavior if they try that course of action. I will also be far more inclined to listen to their input if they take the time to learn more about training using positive reinforcement.
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Saying Goodbye and reflecting on the good.



I got word that at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow morning they’re going to put down one of my horse friends. He’s a retired jumper and he’s had a severe injury, apparently he keeps falling and has a very difficult time getting up. I’m not going to go into the Rights and Wrongs of his life and the decision to put him down. This is really from my own viewpoint. It’s about me, and I’m sad to lose another horse friend.

I met him a little over a year ago. He was a retired jumper and he was leading a fairly sedentary life because of the stresses of jumping on his body. His owner wanted to provide some enrichment and change of pace and she thought clicker training would be a good way to do this.

When I arrived I found a horse that was not overly enthusiastic about the presence of humans in his stall. The owner told me that sometimes it was even difficult getting a halter on him. So I began the task of letting him know that I would be a very dependable human and provide him opportunities to earn what he wanted with very little effort on his part.

I kept my promise. I started with easy behaviors, in fact sometimes I just clicked him for being a horse. We expanded to include targeting and one of his favorite things of all time was to offer an auto back that we shaped; he was so enthusiastic about offering the backup. We expanded the training to include some targeting, then I combined the halter and the target. I also included some casual touching combined with food reinforcers.

This process gave me some interesting information as it became pretty clear that touching was not his favorite thing either. However, that began to change with CHOICE and a change in how touch was offered.

Over the course of the year he became more and more receptive to earning reinforcers for activities he thought were worth his effort. I even expanded his repertoire to include putting on the halter.

I did not see this horse on a weekly basis but what I can say is that the combinaion of what I did and what the owner followed through with, made this horse begin to blossom in this last year. I was more recently privileged to be in his presence to see the change to soft eyes, a calm demeanor and the “Ooh-so-willing-effort” that I’ve grown accustomed to seeing in horses who are clicker trained, as he put his head in the halter and held it very still while the owner buckled the buckle. And added to that, he reached out and wiggled his lip as the owner scratched his neck and fed him a bite of pellets.

So I spent time with a horse improving elements of his daily life during the last year of his life. I was a part of a process that allowed him to view humans in a different way. More important it empowered him to gain things he wanted as he offered Behavior that was good for the human.

Horses are the most amazingly gracious creatures I have had the privilege of knowing. I will miss this horse. And I will miss what I think could have unfolded for him in the following months. But one thing I’m sure of, his quality of life was improved in this last year. Many thanks as you fly over the Rainbow Bridge, my friend. You take a piece of my heart with you.

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The Ons and Offs of Mat training

In my training plan there are three features to mat training.

1) GETTING ON the mat

2) STAYING ON the mat

3) GETTING OFF of the mat


Each of the components needs to be trained. With getting ON the mat, you want lots of repetitions of stepping on the mat. I like to train the “GETTING ON” to include a range so that the horse can see the mat from 10 feet and still be drawn to it. So my GETTING ON training sessions involve paying in a position that allows the horse to go BACK to the mat, many times. I use the clicker extensively here because I’m marking the hoof touching the mat. Later I shape the behavior to have both front feet touch the mat. The key point of this element is returning to the mat, many times.


Mats and pedestals are all the same technique

STAYING ON the mat involves training duration. With this form of mat training I do not click. I just feed them in a position that maintains the behavior of staying on the mat. I might ask them to do a few static behaviors like smile, stand for brushing or wait in position while I leave the immediate area and get something from the nearby barn. It’s like being ground tied. It can also be generalized to stationing on a “virtual mat” meaning they have learned to stay put in one place, wherever they are parked. The key point of this element is staying on the mat once they’re there.

Minis autostationing

Staying on the mat means the person can move around

STAYING ON the mat is going to necessitate another step, which is GETTING OFF the mat. You haven’t lived until you realize that you have turned your horse into a statue because of an enthusiastic determination to train your horse to stay on a mat. It’s like a horse that can’t seem to walk by a target without bumping it, or won’t leave the target because the history of reinforcement is so rich.

McKee loads in the van_0000006867_1 (1)

Staying on is a key point in the training, but so is getting off

So while you begin to work with STAYING ON and GETTING ON, you will need to add balance by training and using some sort of cue that either releases them off of the mat or calls them off of the mat to do a different behavior (say touching a target for example). I approach this fairly soon after I see the horse is beginning to return to the mat easily and stand for at least 15 seconds. it’s a judgment call. The key element of this task is to leave the mat and move onto other tasks.


Oh, and these three principles are the same that I use when teaching trailer loading. It’s all the same concept rolled into one complete training plan.

Here is a video showing some relevant aspects of mat training.

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A closer look at food reinforcers

I have a friend who is a wonderful trainer. More recently she noticed that her animal had begun to change in response to the available reinforcers. Because the animal knew that sometimes there were other more tasty treats available, and being a smart and clever animal, she began to hold out for the higher value reinforcers. In other words she was negotiating a “pay raise.” My response to her question was in the form of stories taken from my own experience and what I had learned from others.

1. Not long ago I took McKee out of his normal paddock and began to train in a different area. He has seen this area, but it is distracting at times. Still, we’ve had enough history I felt I could do this at liberty (the area is not fenced in, but I’ve no road traffic to speak of, but I still don’t want him to trot off in search of the next fun adventure).

After a couple of minutes of training be just walked away from me. I was stunned. This horse never walks away from training.

I had to really think about the situation, and it dawned on me quickly that I had changed pelleted feeds. McKee accepted the feed, but he didn’t really like it as much as his other pellets, it was not strong enough to motivate him. These were just ordinary hay pellets, but he preferred the taste of the other brand of ordinary hay pellets. When I switched back to his other pellets he turned on the training button again.

These were just grass hay pellets, not carrots or whatever, but it was a significant change for him.

Moral: Be careful about changing the reinforcers. The “expectation” is a significant feature in the history of a reinforcer.

2. I heard a great story from Ken while I was at the Shedd. The sea otters had to be fed a variety of fish in their diet. They preferred one type of fish to the exclusion of the others. So they would basically reject the lessor fish in hopes (or in protest) of the higher value fish. So when they trained the otters, they had to condition the lesser value fish by pairing it with the higher value. So eating three pieces ordinary fish meant they could had one piece of the favored stuff.

Talk about a tough sell, however they did become trainable with the new protocol. They would work for the lower value knowing that the higher value would be forthcoming, but it did take some training to get to that point.

Moral: you CAN condition an animal to take lower value reinforcers and it takes skill.


3. I work with a VERY clever little horse owned by a friend and client. The mini is an Einstein, the older full sized gelding she owns is a saint.

The mini will do ANYTHING for a bite of grass. Further more, he will take his owner sand skiing to get to whatever looks remotely green. We’ve worked really, really hard to show him he didn’t need to fight us over the grass, and that if he’d just lift his head an 1/8 of an inch good things would happen. That 1/8 inch of offered head up was expanded to include a few minutes of continuous behavior before we stopped to let him graze on the grass he was working so hard to get.

It took months but now he will graze, easily lift his head to the cue, work until he hears the click and then he can get his yummy stuff.

When I first started training him on grass what would I use is carrot bites. This was the only thing that would compete with the grass. I would also return his head right to the grass if he would lift it at all.

Oh, and this little horse is the type that would sort through the pellets I offered him to get to the tiny morsel of carrot. He would even spit out the pellets that would normally work for him at dinner time.

Eventually when he realized he COULD get the higher value reinforcer, through his behavior, he began to accept whatever I offered him, which worked until I released him to the grass.

By the way, this SAME little horse is nuts about sweet feed. He gets a little bit when he loads into the trailer. He will TROT past the available grass to go load in the trailer. The history of the trailer experience and the value of getting this sweet feed trumps all other reinforcers and distractions. (I’m sure you’ve seen the video)

Moral: The history of the behavior, the expectation of the type of reinforcer comes into play at all levels. This is one of the art forms of training in my book. Finding out what motivates when, at what time of day, in what circumstances.


4. When I first started clicker training (this was back in the late 90’s and I only had full sized horses) I used a high value reinforcer, mostly carrots. I learned that it was better to start with as low a value reinforcer as you could. It took a bit of time to work backwards, adding more pellets and decreasing the carrots in my pouch. I mixed them together and made the carrot pieces really, really small.

When I got the minis I fell off the wagon and used a higher value reinforcer, and then had to go through the same weaning process. Now I recommend that people use the lowest value reinforcer that the horse likes. This usually ends up as a hay pellet.

Sometimes I mix a little bit of a different pellet in the pouch, but mostly I try to be consistent and make the WORK fun. On occasion, when I have an event that lasts all day, I will bring some higher value reinforcers. That’s mostly because I know at some point they will get satiated with the pellets. If I were to do performances as a regular way of life, I’d probably have to change that.

Again, at the Shedd, they measure out the daily allotment of food and train with it. Whatever is left over the animal gets at night. Really, overall, I would adopt this if I were performing daily.

As it is the horses get hay, a bit of grazing, and on my busy days, maybe only a few minutes of specialized training. They almost ALWAYS run to me from the pasture to work. Even when I have just hay pellets.

horse pellets

So my overall suggestion would be to take a step back. I would take whatever feed you have and see if you can combine it to a form where your animal can’t pick out the good parts. She will probably go through some form of extinction, she may not work as well for a bit. That’s OK, just train short sessions, offer what you have, quit EARLY and keep the sessions fun. Ultimately it’s the fun, the relationship and the food combined that will keep her wanting more.

Hope this helps.

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