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.
Posted in clicker training horses, The Volunteering Horse, Thinking Out Loud | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in clicker training horses | 1 Comment

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