Is it how I FEEL or what the horse is learning?

I’m always looking for ways to share how a behavior, learned without pressure, combined with the click/reinforcer, can be powerfully significant to a horse. In part, I do this to help people see the difference between what they might believe the horse is “thinking” and what the horse is actually offering in terms of behavior.


I had a wonderful example present itself the other day. My friend and client who comes to train with my horses on a weekly basis, was working with my littlest mini, Magnified, doing some liberty walking and liberty trailer loading.


She did a lot of the “Bridesmaid Walk,” which I define as one step, click/treat, one step, click/treat. After practicing the “Bridesmaid Walk,” Magnified would jump into the trailer, receive a little bonus and come out when he was ready to work with her again. All-in-all they trained for well over an hour; he is a very diligent people trainer.


Fast forward a week. My friend came back and Magnified was loose in the same area in which we had trained the previous week. My friend strolled over and gave him a scratch while we talked for a minute. As we talked, I watched that little horse assess her body language and very carefully line himself up in the exact same position that he had assumed when they worked the week before.


His approach to her, his stance, the way he held his head, the way he lined up his feet and the position relative to her body was absolutely, clearly an indicator to me that he remembered what she had done the week before and was ready to pick up right where they had left off.


I was happy to see this and mentioned what I saw. Here was a horse who was so clear about the task, so clearly wanted to OFFER the task in an effort to engage my friend in training, and did so even though it had been a week since he had done this behavior.


This is typical of the patterns I see in clicker-trained horses. This is also what I have spent a good deal of time learning to observe. It takes work on the part of the human to take note of and remember the subtle repetitive moves the horse is offering. It takes work to set aside the assumption that I know what the horse is thinking, and instead focus on the visible behaviors that repeat.


Watching for repetition and how a horse moves through a specific series of behaviors requires human focus. It’s much harder to connect the dots from an event that happened a week ago than it is to assume some intended emotion in the moment. So in other words, with my friend and her interaction with Magnified, I could have said ” He’s just trying to crowd you because he’s feeling possessive, don’t let him get away with that.” However, because I have learned to turn on a mental video camera to capture repeated behaviors, I have learned to see what the horses are offering or learning in a different way.


This type of seeing has changed how I view horses. It really is amazing how much they are giving us on a daily basis. It just takes looking for patterns of behavior.


About clickertraininghorses - Peggy Hogan

I teach people and train horses using positive reinforcement. The horses I work with are given choice, the freedom to volunteer behavior. The joy is that they strive to volunteer what works for both of us.
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