When tricks “out-trick” fear.

I had the most interesting experience today. I have a little horse, McKee, who has learned to do some scent work. It is a limited behavior in that the scent is on a mat, placed among other mats. He searches each mat until he smells the lavender scent (daubed on the mat on the underside) and then he stops and paws the mat.
It’s a fun behavior to watch, and even more fun because I can put that trick on the shelf for months at a time and yet he will still perform the behavior as soon as he sees the mats and gets the signal from me to start.
So today we had an interesting event. McKee had started to search for the mat for the third time; we had moved the mat to a new location and re-set the area. Just as he moved towards the mats my friend’s tabby cat went streaking by McKee, up the small path and climbed the tree. This startled the heck out of McKee who bolted off down the footpath about 50 feet.
Then he did something interesting. He skidded to a stop, turned around with tail flagged and trotted back to finish his task of finding the mat and indicating on it. We were pleased and bit surprised at his speedy recovery from that scary event. I hadn’t even had the time to call out “McKee” before he had rebounded.
I have clicker trained my horses since the late nineties. Time and again they’ve shown just how resilient they become once we start them on clicker training. I have all sorts of hypotheses as to why this occurs but the top of my list is because a behavior that’s built with positive reinforcement is very potent. As I see it, the hundreds of performances of a behavior creates a high likelihood of it being repeated. But it also overrides a fear response and the need to run away.
That’s the beauty. With McKee I didn’t do a thing in that moment. I didn’t analyze him to decide if he was afraid and then try to train him to be calm. The history with the behavior, the history of the all of our positively reinforced behaviors and the existing conditions combined to make the scary event fade quickly.
These kinds of events truly do reaffirm the many reasons why I train this way.
Here’s a video from several years ago, when he was just learning the behavior.


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I so wish

Every week I am presented with the lovely opportunity to work with four horses, two Friesians, and two minis. They live in the same location and I have more fun working with these horses.
The numbers of clicker trained behaviors in place are extensive; the training process is comfortable and the communication is easy and focused. They are all different, yet a joy to work with.
By contrast, I watch the next door neighbor work with two horses. Several months after the acquisition of the second horse the owner is still in the paddock driving the horse away in a round-pen manner in hopes of having the horse come back to her so that she can put a halter on it.
She has seen the profound results of how clicker training made catching and haltering easy for my friend’s horse. She has seen how many behaviors are being offered at liberty. We’ve chatted about clicker training and what it has done for the four I work with.

Still, she won’t bring herself down to the level of using food in her training. It makes my heart hurt.
My friend who owns the four horses I work with can toss a treat to this same horse who can’t be caught and does so maybe 3 times a day. The horse now walks up to within 10 feet of her.
But the owner won’t budge, after months of little result from chasing the horse around. Like I said, it makes my heart hurt. I so wish I could find a way to help people see the joyful possibilities of clicker training. I so wish this.
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The Wildfire Diaries – Emergency recalls.

I haven’t shared this story yet because I’m still trying to grapple with how profoundly this experience affected me.

This event occurred Friday the 23rd. I had just brought four of the minis back to their home. My friend and I were in the process of releasing them into the pasture where they spend their days. We had let three of them go and the fourth was still on a lead. I already posted some fun video of three of the horses romping around the pasture in total celebration of their freedom and being home. I posted this on FB.

What I didn’t post because again, I was still in shock that it happened and I wanted to share it when I could make it a teaching lesson,  was that at the end of the video as I’m panning across the pasture, suddenly I noticed that three little horses were no longer in the pasture but running up the mountain side to a Destination Unknown.

Apparently the fireman had opened up the gate at the far end of the pasture, something none of us would have even thought to check. So I stood there filming with complete joy and profound relief only to watch these horses take off on a wild goose chase in unknown and unprotected areas, including a runaway that leads to a street. That’s about as much shock and I think I’ve ever experienced.

But here is the good part. It’s quite amazing and very profound as well. I started running down the street trying to keep track of where these horses were going but I knew I had one Ace in the Hole. I have trained my horses an emergency recall. This is a very specialized sound that I use only in a training scenario that lets the horses know I want them to come to me NOW.

I must admit they did not return to me on the 1st recall attempt. There are a couple reasons why in my mind. 1) There was one horse in the herd of three running around that has not been trained a recall. He’s my friend’s horse and we’ve been slowly starting to build it, but it was not in place. 2) These horses are outdoor horses and they had been locked in a stall for 2 weeks with very little exercise compared to what they’re used to. I can laugh about it now but they were acting like little crazy horses, just so glad to be loose and free to run around. Returning to me at that moment was certainly being overshadowed by the joy of movement.

While still in a personal state of panic I managed to stay with the horses and on the third attempt of my emergency whistle McKee turned around and ran right straight back to me. One down, two to go.

I whistled again and Handsome ran halfway to me, tossed to his head and chased off after his buddy again. I do think in that moment, after having spent two weeks in the stall with this buddy, my recall was temporarily overshadowed by the other horse, who did not have a recall. Another lesson learned: sometimes the horse will respond to a recall because of the motion of another horse, so the recalls needs to be taught individually, then proofed in a herd.

Normally when I practice the the recalls in our pasture usually all three horses come running up, but conditions made this too difficult and the individual recall wasn’t strong enough for that situation. So I will practice the individual recalls again.

The good news is that the third time I offered my recall whistle Handsome turned and cantered right up to me in his normal fashion. I had a lead rope in my hand and McKee was with me, so I was able to put the lead rope around Handsome’s neck and go in search of the third horse.

We watched the third horse, Magnifico, disappear around behind the neighbor’s house and in reality what stopped that horse was a combination of fatigue and some nice green grass, LOL. Still, I’m pleased he was able to be caught because when I first met him he would run away from anyone while in the pasture, not wanting to be caught at all. So I know some of our recall work was helping in that moment.

I guess the most obvious moral of the story is check your fencing if you’ve been away. Truly, that was the last thing either my friend or I expected and we couldn’t see the open gate from our position. But more important is that had I not developed and practiced a recall with these horses I’m not sure what the results would have been and there certainly was a possibility that horses could have been injured.

I’ve included a link to a video I made awhile back on recalls. Below that is the video I took JUST before Magnifico saw the open gate and led them on their merry chase.


Please go out and teach your horse a recall, you never know when you’ll need it.



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The Wildfire diaries – when the conditions change the horses change.


Number 2 lesson – When the conditions change the horses change.

So far I’ve had to evacuate twice for the same fire. I even had to keep horses in two different locations at the same time, 4 were in one location, 4 were in another. I have learned that it’s important to assess the evacuation areas in your community. We moved twice and the horses behaved entirely differently in those two locations. I will be a bit better prepared for this experience.

In the first location, some of my horses were in outdoor paddocks with a metal roof. There were maybe 10 paddocks in a row and there were two rows. My two full-sized horses and two bigger minis were at this location (SB Polo and racquet club).

There were definitely some “not-so-fun” moments watching the horses meet and greet their new paddock neighbors. Even pipe corral doesn’t deter horses who want to fence fight. My horses were settling in part because I flanked my mare, Nikki, with familiar horses on two sides and in front of her. She has always used her hind legs to back other horses off when they get too close. She is truly one of the sweetest mares I’ve ever met unless she’s in a paddock next to another horse bugging her. Since she has not been exposed to a “new” horse in 10+ years this wasn’t an issue. During this evacuation, it was a behavior the re-emerged. So this was a challenge to set things up for success. I was very fortunate to have those paddocks for those horses and was able to at least arrange the horses to meet the needs of my mare.

Some of what I did to alleviate the situation was to strategically place where I fed her and where I fed my other horses. If you find yourself faced with horse interaction situations, strategic placement of the food and water can help you ease tensions in the beginning.

I also went out of my way to ask for easy familiar behaviors with a high rate of reinforcement. I did this in areas that directed the horse’s attention away from their new neighbors. That demanded some intense, quick-paced training for all horses involved, yet that was what helped us settle into the first location better.
There was one very scary situation that happened where my big horses were staying. There were two very big horses in an adjacent paddock, one was a big warmblood the other a massive draft horse. I heard later that they were familiar paddock buddies, but the change in location frayed those ties. The warmblood was clearly distressed as he aggressively moved towards each horse surrounding him.

At one point the big draft horse had had enough and grabbed the warm blood by the edge of his horse blanket and shook him back and forth like a rag doll. The pipe corral between them looked like it was going to collapse under the weight of this draft horse. Fortunately, they looked like neither was hurt when they separated. But at that point, I moved to find the caretakers or intervene and separate them.
One of the helpers from the facility came in to move the warmblood, who promptly turned his butt to the helper. Not a good sign. After some “Good boys” and “Ahh, Ahh” depending on what the horse did, it was clear that the butt was the chosen body part this horse was going to present. So I finally spoke up. 
Because I know that the use of food in the horse world is still considered ridiculous by many, I hesitated, but I had to try to help this horse. I grabbed a few low-calorie pellets and approached this horse carefully. I had observed this horse before and felt I could approach it and hand feed. The horse was very comfortable taking the food from my hands. 
We needed to get a halter on this horse and I thought we stood a good chance of accomplishing this goal if we used the little bit of food wisely. 

After offering him the pellets, I decided to try a different flavored treat called Apple smacks. They are their slightly sweeter and generally horses love them. I brought them back and offered them to the warmblood but clearly, as I saw the Apple smacks fall back out of his mouth; I had offered him something he did not like at all. The moral of that story is: make sure you have something in the refrigerator that is desirable to your guest 😉
So I went back to the pellets and slowly but surely began to move so that the horse would follow me to get the pellets. This is all it took; it was so simple to just allow the horse the opportunity to be in control of something it wanted. I gave him a chance to get the pellets comfortably and easily without moving quickly towards him. We got the halter on the horse, he calmed down and they were able to move it to a different paddock. Choice, control and a good reinforcer. Yep.

As I said, I had horses housed in two different places at this point, my other four minis were at Seaside Gardens. This is also the location where the deaf mini and her buddy stays. Nick Sebastian and the https://m.facebook.com/seasidewellnessgardens/ welcomed my pint-sized crew into the facility. What a blessing. By the way, Seaside is another great charity organization and we would love support. They generously welcomed me and my minis with open arms and I am very, very grateful.

Boys meet girls

The adjustment for the other minis, McKee, Handsome, PeeWee and Magnifico was a little easier as they were all turned out together in a large paddock. They were used to being together because they all stay in a pasture together daily. The little mares at Seaside were quite curious, and being young, they were quite interested in the “boys.”

The horses adapted to the new location quickly but I do have some input I’d like to offer later about working with multiple horses during feeding times. That whole issue of resource guarding is very important. Once again the safe behaviors that I had established in our home environment needed to be quickly reviewed and reshaped in a new environment because it was, well, a new environment. I expected that, but I still had to be careful and had a few moments where I was worried about my kneecaps because of the interaction of the minis in the new environment. Again this is a topic worth discussing completely in a separate thread and I’d love to do so. It’s also a topic I’ve covered in ongoing online courses because it takes some depth of understanding of clicker training principles.

In the meantime, I hope these training logs are helpful. Thank you again for your continued support.


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The Wildfire Diaries – horse training lessons learned from a crisis

I’ve decided it’s important to reach out to anybody and everybody who will listen to and learn from some of the experiences I’ve had recently with my horses. All of this experience was thrust upon me because of a wildfire situation where I had to evacuate 10 horses. I hope this information will spare you some of the angst I experienced because while all of my horses are currently fine and we escaped the fire (as of this moment) it was so extremely stressful. I hope you can learn from my experience.

Now I’m one of those kinds of people who will avoid watching videos or bypass reading certain stories that I know are tragic, simply because it’s too painful to bear. What I’m presenting is not a tragedy, the animals in my stories are safe. So far I have been blessed, while there have been problems, all of the horses are okay, so I urge you to read the information here you so you can learn.

Number 1 lesson. Train your horse to Trailer Load.

I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care about why it’s hard. If you start small and work a little daily (5 minutes) on the tasks and components you need to trailer load you will be prepared for an emergency. Trailer loading is not about making horse go in the trailer. Think of trailer loading as training a gazillion little components that will lead up to one long behavior chain. Most of the training can be done away from the trailer.

Don’t have a trailer? You don’t need one for the daily buildup of learning games that can prepare your horse for riding in a trailer. Break the components into small tasks and work them for 5 minutes a day.

Using the stuff in your yard shape your horse to negotiate obstacles by backing over around and on top of them. Have your horse back towards platforms, planks or anything you can create. You can build small enclosed areas and practice in those. Practice backing into your stall if you have one; just spend a little time working with something that will help your horse get accustomed to moving all four feet with precision around obstacles. Please.

Once backing is easy it’s pretty simple to teach the horse to move forward on the platforms and items that you’ve already been using for backing. It’s about training a horse that food reinforcers happen when they move their feet.  Front or back feet, it doesn’t matter it’s just about being reinforced for moving the feet. The trailer really just becomes another obstacle after you’ve done your homework with these other easy items. 5 minutes a day will get you there.

Please, I’m starting with this lesson because it’s the most critical. On the plus side, when we were evacuated from the second location someone actually haltered my full sized horses, loaded them and took them with the rest of the horses at that barn to the new site. Thankfully my full sized horses are easy loaders. 

On the down side, I know in some situations horses were left behind to suffer whatever fate awaited them because they hadn’t been trained to load in a trailer. Don’t be caught by this heartbreaking trap.
I’m looking forward to sharing some of the other lessons and training situations I’ve learned through this process. Thanks for reading.

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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 occurring 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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