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.

Posted in clicker training horses | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in clicker training horses, The Volunteering Horse, Training blogs | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Start Button Behaviors

The whole process of creating a Start Button for moving forward is an exciting concept. I have been working with Start Button behaviors for many years and I am extremely excited to be participating with Eva Bertelsen and Emelie Johnson Vegh at this year’s Clicker Expos, giving lectures on just how potent CHOICE and Start Button behaviors are when dealing with horses.

In my mind this is cutting edge training that horse trainers will find compelling when they invest the time and energy to learn the process.

Laurie Higgins started a thread on our Facebook group in the January challenge and it is the beginning process of how to develop a Start Button behavior of moving forward. I invite you to check out the challenge and participate.

In this thread I’m going to post an overview and a video of the process.

CAVEAT: Before I go on and explain this, there are some pre-requisites to how I teach this. You need to have a cue for “whoa” in place. I teach the whoa behavior without pressure, along with all of the other necessary movement behaviors I use in my training. Be sure you have already trained the action of “whoa” and its cue.

Also your horse and you need to understand the basic principles of operant conditioning. Your horse needs to know that his behavior has an effect on you and the outcome of his efforts bring him something he wants. He should understand that he needs to repeat behavior he was doing when he hears the click. Teaching a Start Button is not a technique for newbie horses or newbie owners.

Moving on, why do we teach a start button for walking forward?

First the lesson for the human is to pay more attention to the horse and when the horse is ready to move. Many of us have heard of “Why Would You Leave Me” (WWYLM) a great technique by Alexandra Kurland. I like to challenge people and have them learn the flip side,  “Why Would I Leave You?”
I teach this because of the numbers of people I see who walk off ahead of their horses allowing the lead rope to tighten so that the first step the horse takes is because it feels the forward pull on the halter. It not only adds unnecessary pressure to the poll, head and neck, over time this kind of repeated action sets up the horse to be heavy on the forehand.

People do this for many reasons. They have been taught that walking ahead without regard to the level of preparedness from the horse is one sign of being a good leader. They think making the horse feel the pressure and yielding to it is a “must” if they’re ever going to ride. For some, they think the horse needs to learn it has no choice. People also walk away before the horse is ready because they’re distracted; they have grown to EXPECT the horse to follow, because they were told to ignore signals that the horse might be bothered and just keep walking forward with focus. The list is endless.

So my first goal in this lesson is to slow down the person and help them wait until the horse actually initiates the forward motion. It is not the end goal, but an important step. This can be a real eye opener.

Another goal is to have the horse learn through their own experience that the desired behavior is moving forward. In the beginning, I just watch the horse very closely for a sign that it’s going to move forward.  When it does, I follow the horse. We only go maybe two or three steps.  At this point, I cue the horse to stop and click and treat when he does.

The order is: Watch the horse. Follow the horse when he starts to move. Resist the temptation to make the horse move forward with your body language.  Right now you are following the horse.

Take two or three steps with him, then begin to cue the stop. Click/treat the stop.

Repeat the exercise several times.


Observe your horse very, very carefully. You will notice that after the horse has stopped, it will begin to prepare to walk forward again. This is your magic moment.

WATCH for any kind of repeating behavior. Sometimes it’s a head turn.  Sometimes it’s a slight rock back.  Sometimes the eyes look forward as if seeking a new goal. It can even be an ear flick.

Once you have identified the repeating behavior, use that behavior as your signal to move with the horse.

It will look something like this:  The horse is stationary.  She flicks the ear forward or rocks back. Then she begins to move.  At the moment she begins to move, follow her.

If you would like a concept to make this exercise more salient, think of “moving forward” as a primary reinforcer. You are reinforcing the ear flick or rock-back by moving forward with the horse.

In the process of building this behavior, I will often do several repetitions of waiting for the signal or start button from the horse and then I move forward.

I also include a few sessions where I reinforce their understanding of the “Start Button”/rock back by clicking the actual rock-back itself.

As is the case with teaching cues, I add some sessions where I begin to move my own body forward slightly ahead of their “Start Button” behavior. In this manner, I am giving my own cue to their behavior. However I continue to train this with many repetitions of allowing them to initiate forward motion after they give the their Start Button signal.

So the next question is why?

My answer would be in the form of the examples. I have used this technique in situations where horses are fearful.  Previously while they might have gone forward with a cue, the fear would begin to build. Sometimes they would become more tense as we progressed. Now when I’m in a situation where I think the horse might be fearful, I cue the stop, click/treat, and I wait for them to initiate forward motion.

In my experience, once they have a chance to look around, they turn to me and signal that they are ready to move forward. Really it’s a form of a mutual agreement to move forward. At this stage the Start Button is a two way street. Sometimes the horse is given the opportunity to initiate forward motion, and I also have a chance to initiate forward motion with an established formal cue.

Now when I take my horses out to go for a hack or a walk-about, they are eager to go and forward motion is very reinforcing for them. As soon as they feel comfortable, they want to move forward. Giving them the opportunity to express their choice in these situations has created even more safe and calm behaviors in my horses and the horses I work with.

You can see an example of this on YouTube

Posted in clicker training horses | Leave a comment

The gift of a lifetime


What has your clicker trained horse offered?

This little horse is named McKee. He was given to me as a yearling from someone who said “See if you can help him, he’s not right in the head.”

There’s no doubt he was a handful; I was always careful when I was around him. Protective contact and slow, methodical training of alternative behaviors turned him around.

What I love about this little horse is his intense curiosity; in so many ways he is fearless. Today the training was no exception.

We wandered around the area that surrounds his turn-out pasture. We began to explore the various farm equipment that helps make the human’s part of horse ownership work more smoothly. In this case we let the quad and attached trailer be the focal point of our games.

McKee has some reliable cues like “Step up” “touch” “walk-on” “back” and “whoa” that are a part of how we check out new things. Today he let it be known just how brave he was when, after using the little tool trailer as a pedestal, he decided to step up INTO the back of the trailer. No problem.

Despite being treated to thousands of little gifts of offered behavior from horses, I am STILL in awe of what a horse will give  when he has choice, time and a strong history of being reinforced for his efforts.

Lucky me. Truly a gift of a lifetime.

Posted in clicker training horses | 3 Comments

How to use a colored target to teach multiple horses to station


To review, I have decided to teach 4 horses, in a herd environment to go to station that is marked by a colored item, in this case a frisbee attached to a board. So the first step is teaching them to discriminate which is their assigned color.

I’ve used the color yellow for Magnified. We have already started shaping him to touch the color yellow and have added the two other colors of red and blue. He is coming along nicely with this, and was very quickly getting a big percentage of yellow touches, even when I moved the colors around.

I was fortunate enough to have another trainer visiting, and it’s worth noting that the training seemed to progress more quickly when we had a second person who delivered the treat in a location other than right above the frisbees. Paying in this position allowed the main trainer to move the frisbees while the horse was out of range of the frisbees. That was accomplished by delivering the food so that the horse’s head was turned away.

I have now progressed to where I can put the colored frisbees on the ground and he can walk from different places to target them.

Here is a quick video showing this process.

The next step will be to hang the frisbee vertically, so he can find it easily.

Posted in clicker training horses | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Using colors for station training

I’ve been working on a project but haven’t spoken much about it. Since my move with my 7 horses I’ve been presented with a training opportunity, working up close and personal with resource guarding.

In my other setup, it evolved into a situation where no more than two were interacting while I was in with them. Now I have situations where there are as many as 5 at once.

Since they all see me as a valuable resource, I am fully aware of the potential dangers, even from the minis. Trust me, they can remove a knee cap in an instant; they move faster than full sized horses and they require as much diligence as any full sized horse. They are NOT just big dogs LOL.

So I’ve had some fun trying out a wide variety of techniques, including management, and I’m getting some interesting results.


My LATEST project involves having each horse learn to target a specific color. Then I’m going to use those colored targets as stations for them to go to when I enter the big paddock.

Gotta tell you, the project is so very fun. I’m looking forward to sharing some of the adventure with you.
Posted in clicker training horses, Training blogs | Tagged | Leave a comment

The bigger picture of training with food.

Several years ago I took a 2 day course with Ken Ramirez on teaching secondary reinforcers. I also had the good fortune to hear this lecture at Clicker Expo; it is one of my favorite lectures. He describes in depth just how to condition these subtle yet powerful secondary reinforcers (think reinforcement variety) as well as how to integrate them into a reinforcement routine.

With the process of conditioning a secondary reinforcer, we basically pair a neutral stimulus with a primary reinforcer. An example of this would be clapping your hands, then feeding the horse and repeating this process several times. Over time, this creates an association between clapping hands and receiving food.

This concept isn’t new to us as clicker trainers, since that is a part of what we do when we condition the clicker. Click/feed. Right?

Let’s take a look at another look at the click. One of the functions of the click is to provide great precision so the horse can understand that we like what he was doing at the time of the click and he can expect to receive reinforcement for that activity.

However, you might not have realized that even if we do not click, we can still be inadvertently encouraging the horse to offer behavior, especially when food is involved. If you need an example of that, watch how many stalled horses paw around meal time even though they don’t hear a clicker.

There is a LOT of repeating behavior and the creation of new behavior that occurs with a horse that is anticipating or receiving food. The repetition lets you know something is maintaining the behavior. So the horse learns behavior without the click as well as with the click.

Ken Ramirez stressed that, during the conditioning phase of a secondary reinforcer, it is important to be aware of whether or not the animal is beginning to offer behavior WHILE we are doing the clapping/feeding. The idea is that animals want to gain control of reinforcers and why they happen, so they will begin to offer little bits of behavior in hopes of learning WHY, WHAT, WHERE and HOW this new event is making the person feed.

With clicker savvy horses it can be quite a challenge for the human to do something like clapping, while the horse stands there and does “nothing.” Most often you will see little bits of behavior creeping in, repeating, and this defeats the purpose of conditioning a new secondary reinforcer. In the conditioning phase, we want the animal to think “wow, this is the easiest trick I’ve ever learned. Just stand while they clap.”

Later when this association between clapping and food is strong, we will be able to work it into our routine and even use it in place of a primary reinforcer on occasion.

That brings us back to the topic of giving lots of food while a horse is standing or doing something stationary. If we are free feeding to keep them in a position and not carefully observing, we also run the risk of reinforcing unintended behavior (sometimes called superstitious behavior).

An example of this potentially dicey situation occurs when we hold the horse for a farrier. We feed for “still” but the horse really hasn’t learned duration on stillness or maybe doesn’t have clear cue control for the behaviors he knows (meaning there is no “off” button to the behaviors) and so he will begin to get “fussy.” This means he begins to offer familiar behaviors or sometimes he will get creative and offer new ones. Whatever the gift, most of the time the horse does NOT think the farrier is part of the package and will begin to want to extract the leg in order to pay more attention to the handler.

It can get even more complicated if we think we are training our horse to be “calm.”

I say this because “calm” can fall into that category of human interpretation and it is comprised of several ingredients at once. What does “calm” look like in terms of visible behavior? Does it mean holding the feet still? Does it mean holding the head still? If we are not careful, we will stack up several criteria at once, frustrating the horse because we feed for head still once, then feet still the next, then ears forward the next. In this context we think we’re feeding for calm, but the horse is clueless as to what he’s supposed to be doing and probably has never learned a cue for any of those behaviors. The poor horse has no way of knowing how or why he is being fed or what he needs to repeat to make it happen again. I’ve seen horses develop all sorts of extraneous head movements or other movements because they didn’t have clear criteria when the person was training for attitude, calm or less defined behaviors. It can become quite pronounced in terms of what they offer.

So where are we with all of this? I still free feed without the click for certain kinds of behaviors. I do it a lot in certain situations like asking a horse to station for long periods of time. I do sort of “drive by feedings” when they are at work stationing. But I’m also aware of the need to watch like a hawk for any repeating behaviors. Just remember the clap/feed illustration. If we can condition clapping as a reinforcer, think how easy it would be to condition something we’re not even paying attention to.

2015-03-11 17.19.38

Minis autostationing

Train visible, repeating behaviors. Look for those and reinforce those. Realize that behavior changes and morphs. Just because we click something doesn’t mean the horse has learned what we want. Repetition is our best ally in trying to determine what a horse knows.


Posted in clicker training horses | Leave a comment