Author Archives: herthajames

About herthajames

* BSc Zoology, University of Calgary, Canada * Lifelong interest in animal behavior * 5 years working as a zookeeper and movie set animal handler * Diploma of Secondary School Teaching, Christchurch, New Zealand * 23 years teaching high school Biology and Science * Diploma of Information and Library Science, Wellington, NZ * Writer specializing in creating teaching and learning resources * Lifelong student of horsemanship in its many guises * Began study of 'natural horsemanship' in early 1990's * Author of NATURAL HORSEMANSHIP STUDY GUIDE * Took up Equine Clicker Training in 2008 * Author of Obstacle Challenges for Equine Clicker Trainers on Facebook. * Author of nine books about training horses with positive reinforcement available as e-books or paperbacks from Amazon.

Importance of Putting Behaviors On Signal or On Cue

In the above photo, if I did not have ‘PICKING UP A CONE’ so it happens only when I give the Cue/Signal for picking it up, it would be hard to use cones as arena markers for other activities.

To become an adept and safe equine clicker trainer, it is essential to learn to put learned behaviors ‘on signal’ or ‘on cue’ as quickly as possible. We want the horse to wait for our signal before offering the behavior.

A horse throwing his learned behaviors at us might feel like fun at first, but it can rapidly get out of hand and become dangerous when the horse choses an inappropriate moment. For example, when I taught Boots to ‘spin’, it was quite startling when she wanted to show it to me and visitors all the time, while standing right beside us!

It pays to think carefully about the possible consequences of specific behaviors before we teach them. It pays to be aware that we can get into trouble, especially if the horse is a confident, imaginative and high-energy type of horse. 

The most recent thing you have taught your horse often becomes his favorite move because that behavior has recently been strongly rewarded.

Such horses may perform a learned behavior then ‘demand’ the treat. It’s important to make sure the horse does not develop this option. The treat is always a reward for something you have asked the horse to do. It can’t be demanded.

Reminder, always Click BEFORE you reach your hand toward your treat pouch or pocket. If you don’t, the horse’s attention will be on watching your hand rather than focused on what you want him to learn.

Once you have a strong relationship and your clicker training repertoire is well established, you will have built up a connection that suits you and a particular horse. For example, if I sometimes forget to click&treat a behavior that falls into our list of things I usually/always click&treat, Boots makes sure to remind me with a gentle nudge.

No other training method elicits the enthusiasm and fun that can be had with well-planned and well-executed clicker training. Many horses playing click&treat games never want their sessions to end. Rather than having to worry about ‘ending the session on a good note’, clicker trainers must teach an ‘end of session’ routine to let the horse gently and clearly know that the session is finishing.

Although the ‘marker’ does not have to be the sound of a mechanical clicker, using a distinctive mechanical clicker when first teaching something new has the advantage of greater clarity for the horse. It also helps make the handler extremely observant about where to place the current click point.

Once the horse knows a behavior and your signal for it, it doesn’t seem to matter if a tongue click or a unique, consistent sound/word is used as a bridging signal instead of a mechanical clicker.

Putting every new behavior ‘on signal’ as soon as you can, will gradually reduce the horse’s desire to throw the new move at us as soon as he sees us (much like a child dying to show us his new painting).

Usually, a horse will have one or two favorite behaviors that he pulls out to see if he can get the vending machine to pay attention. Boots’ smile is the one she always tries first. It’s good to develop a few relatively quiet ‘default’ behaviors like this that you can reward when just going to say hello to your horse or generally checking up on him.

Boots using her smile to see if a treat will be forthcoming.

The following two clips are from a while ago. The detailed notes mentioned at the end have now morphed into my books.

Foot Awareness for Improving Proprioception

Introduction

Proprioception is the awareness of where our body parts are in space, what each is doing, and how much energy the movement is using.

Here is a definition from the Internet:

Proprioception enables us to judge limb movements and positions, force, heaviness, stiffness, and viscosity. It combines with other senses to locate external objects relative to the body and contributes to body image. Proprioception is closely tied to the control of movement.

I’ve collected together an assortment of video clips I’ve made over the years that include ideas we can use to encourage the horse to be aware of where his feet are and what they are doing.

Quite a few of the clips are part of a training series and I’ve chosen just one of the series to illustrate the overall task. By going to my YouTube channel – herthamuddyhorse – you can find my assortment of playlists containing series of numbered clips to show the thin-slicing I used to achieve the final task. Message me if you need help to find a particular series.

Good proprioception relates to all sorts of things, but mainly to overall balance and suppleness.

Horses that grow up in rough hill country develop good proprioception as a necessity for survival. Horses raised in confined areas without needing to move much to find enough food don’t have the opportunity to develop excellent proprioception.

In the same way, athletes become good at their sport by developing the aspects of proprioception that especially relate to that sport. If our lifestyle lacks regular movement, our body suffers the same way as that of a stabled horse.

Video Clips

#88 HorseGym with Boots: Foot Awareness. https://youtu.be/7bEkFk0w_gk

A few tasks that play with improving foot awareness.

#89 HorseGym with Boots: Balance on 3 Legs. https://youtu.be/x1WKppV3N_0

Playlist: Challenges for Clicker Trainers: August 2017 Challenge: Precision with a Single Rail. https://youtu.be/bJzwDq-NvtE

Playlist: Foot Awareness: Thin-slicing the 1m Board. https://youtu.be/pLLqtbQJqMs

#220 HorseGym with Boots: Counting with the Front Feet Clip 1. https://youtu.be/hHpQgsUOINA

#246 HorseGym with Boots: Counting with the Hind Feet. https://youtu.be/rMsRVL_M33w

Playlist: Foot Awareness: Single Obstacle Challenges Hoops 3. https://youtu.be/xc-4yGiWDxk

Playlist: Challenges for Clicker Trainers: September 2017 Challenge: Figure 8. https://youtu.be/QrberCzAO6c

Playlist: Challenges for Clicker Trainers: November 18, Sidestepping Clip 1. https://youtu.be/Joxp9bYzMRc

Playlist: Foot Awareness: S-Bend Final Clip. Click here.

#199 HorseGym with Boots: Unusual Surface with Bottles. https://youtu.be/3LTmUSa0Y1M

#184 HorseGym with Boots: Back Between Rails. https://youtu.be/FGh7_MeFHcQ

#95 HorseGym with Boots: Backing down Slopes. https://youtu.be/M9pEFnDSbwc

Ponying from a Bike or Scooter

Introduction

When my hips gave up riding horses but not riding my bike, it made sense to teach Boots to ‘pony’ from my bike. Usually people ‘pony’ a second horse while riding another horse.

It’s a skill developed for pack horses or to exercise two horses at the same time. When my son was very small we rode together with his pony on a lead. Leading a horse from a bike or scooter rather than another horse comes with its own hazards and challenges.

Aim

The horse walks/trots confidently and safely led by a person on a bike or a scooter.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse and handler agree on voice and breathing signals for ‘walk on’, ‘halt’ with the handler beside the horse. Number 16 in the Blog Contents List.
  3. Horse and handler agree on voice and gesture signals for ‘back up’ while the handler is beside the horse. Number 32 in the Blog Contents list.
  4. Horse and handler have a good command of prompt transitions upward and downward using voice signals.
  5. Horse is relaxed about a dragging rope. It’s inevitable that we will drop the rope at some point to stop being pulled off our bike. #60 HorseGym with Boots – specifically the second half of this clip. Click Here.
  6. Horse and handler agree on voice signals for ‘right turn’ and ‘left turn’. #137 HorseGym with Boots: Click here.
  7. Horse and handler agree on signals for ‘go around and turn’. This is important to have smooth because as much as possible, we want ourselves between the horse and anything ahead that he might find worrisome. If he needs more space, we want him to move away from us, not into us. # 250 HorseGym with Boots: https://youtu.be/3oqPs4LM5AM and video clip #251 below.
  8. If riding on public roads or tracks, we must ensure that the horse has been given the time and opportunity to be comfortable around cars, motorbikes, trucks, dogs, pushchairs, other people on bikes, tractors, hikers, and children while the handler is walking with the horse. We need to feel secure with other road users approaching from in front or from behind. Trailers with flapping plastic are an ultimate test. Essential to get used to flapping plastic at home.

Videos

#247 HorseGym with Boots: Boots and Bicycle. Older video – short.

#228 HorseGym with Boots: Intro to Bike. Recent video.

#230 HorseGym with Boots: Bike on the Road. Recent video.

#251 HorseGym with Boots: Changing Sides. Recent video.

#249 HorseGym with Boots: Scooter Outings. Recent video.

#248 HorseGym with Boots: Bob meets Bicycle. Click here. Older video featuring a young horse seeing a bike for the first time.

Materials and Environment

  • We need a safe enclosed place where it’s possible to use free-shaping to introduce the horse to the bicycle and establish the basic protocols using a lead rope.
  • A helper is great to have at the beginning.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Quiet tracks, trails or roads to expand confidence. For public roads, the key is usually choosing the quietest part of the day.
  • Walk with the horse on the routes you will take, for many days, weeks, months, so the route is as familiar as possible. I’d walked or ridden our routes for a long time before ponying on my bike.
  • Bicycle or mobility scooter or similar.
  • Be especially sure the horse is not hungry before you set off. For some horses, a light mesh grazing muzzle can be a safety feature if the horse tends to dive for grass. Use it first walking out so it is not directly related to the bike. Munch-N-Go make a muzzle that is light and its easy to slip a treat into the side.

Notes

  1. It’s important to take the time to get all the prerequisites established. Although I put up monthly challenges, each challenge is just an idea that you may like to work toward. The real magic is in getting the prerequisites into good shape, which can take months or years, depending on many factors.
  2. Keep each session short. Three repeats is often plenty. Many short sessions keep the horse keen to ‘do it again’ next time.
  3. Click&treat often enough to keep the horse continually successful with what you are asking him to learn. Build duration gradually, but always be conscious of increasing duration as you can.
  4. Create a strong habit of using your voice signals all the time when they are appropriate, not just with the bike. Our “Whoa” response has saved my bacon numerous times. The “Back-up” with voice and gesture signals is essential. We don’t want the horse crossing in front of us unless we are inviting him to change sides.
  5. You may be fortunate enough to have tracks and trails where the horse can accompany you on your bike without the need for a lead rope. Some horses, like mine, will gravitate to the closest grass and stay there. If you are limited to public roads or tracks, safety with the lead rope is a must.
  6. When I take my horse out and about in the neighborhood, we have grazing destinations. If there is no grass, I take an ample supply of carrots and horse pellets which we stop to enjoy at the furthest point of our outing. In other words, I don’t expect the horse to randomly go with me. I give her a destination that makes sense to her. Horses who can move freely always know where they are going and why. We remove much of this self-determination from them when we want to do something with the horse. Working with destinations is a way to return it in a small way. See also Number 17 in my Blog Contents List: Destination Training.

Slices

  1. Have someone walk with your bike and you follow behind with your horse wearing halter and lead. Allow the horse to decide how close (or not) he will get to the bike. As soon as you see/feel interest or less tension (sighing, blowing out, lower head, softer body) – click&treat.
  2. Repeat 1 above until the horse is confident enough to walk right up close to the back of the bike, with click&treat for each sign of greater confidence.
  3. Ask the person wheeling the bike to slow gradually to a stop so the horse can touch his nose to the bike if he’s ready for that step; click&treat. Repeat a few times to consolidate.
  4. Have your helper ride the bike and repeat 1-3 above.
  5. At this point, if it feels safe, take off the lead rope so the horse makes his own decisions about approaching and/or following the bike.
  6. Without a helper: Walk with the bike yourself. Click&treat any movement of the horse toward you and the bike. The aim here is for him to want to come and target your hand or the bike to earn a click&treat.
  7. When 6 is smooth, ride the bike. Click&treat coming over plus any offer to move with you and the bike. At this point, it’s helpful to expect little but click&treat each tiny sign of increasing interest and confidence.
  8. Gradually work on duration of staying with you and the bike. Setting up a roomy reverse round pen is helpful at this stage – protected contact for you as the horse gains confidence. You bike inside the barrier while the horse follows outside the barrier. You can use foot targets in set places on the path of travel where you will always stop to click&treat, so the horse knows that there is a destination – a stop point if he stays with you. Eventually have just one foot target on the perimeter of the reverse pen.
  9. When the horse stays with you on the bike willingly and with confidence, see if you can speed it up so he trots. Sometimes transitioning to a higher gait brings out a spurt of excited energy. It’s good to test this out while you are in protected contact inside the reverse pen. It’s also a good place to work with upward and downward transitions using voice signals. Use your downward transition (trot-walk or walk-halt) voice signals as you approach the foot target when slowing down makes sense to the horse. Use your upward transition signal (halt-walk) as you leave the mat and your walk-trot signal a little while after you leave the foot target when the horse is anticipating reaching it again.
  10. Build duration without the reverse round pen by using foot or nose targets as destinations. Start with them close together and gradually put them further apart. If you used this method for teaching good leading behavior while walking with the horse, the horse will already be familiar with the concept.
  11. Introduce the lead rope into the situation. At first, walk the bike while leading the horse. When you introduce a new element to a situation, always go back to click&treat more often (in this case, anytime the horse is coming along smoothly for a few steps), then gradually less often as the horse gains confidence.
  12. When ponying from the bike at home in familiar places is smooth, venture out on the road first walking the bike. As mentioned in the prerequisites, ensure that you have walked with the horse many times on the public roads you plan to bike with your horse, so that dogs running out, horses or cattle galloping in adjoining paddocks, vehicles, children, and so on, have all been met before and worked through.
  13. When walking with the horse and bike is smooth, one day it will feel right to get on your bike. Keep the early sessions going away from home and returning home short – celebrate your safe return. It takes a long time to build confidence (yours and the horse’s) but it can be lost in a nanosecond.
  14. When you reach the farthest point of your day’s outing, allow the horse grazing time or stop for a generous jackpot of treats, before heading home again. This gives the horse a sense of ‘destination’ as outlined in NOTE 6.
  15. Slowly build up confidence with the types of landscapes you have for biking or scootering with your horse. Shorter distances done often are preferable to long distances less often.
  16. If you have graduated to a mobility scooter or similar, play with it at home first. Play with having the horse follow it with you while another person drives it. Walk the horse on the left side and the right side of the scooter, first with you nearest the scooter, then with the horse nearest the scooter. Practice the ‘walk on’, ‘halt’, ‘back-up’ transitions. Practice the ‘go around in front and turn to change sides’ maneuver (Prerequisite 7) from both sides until both sides feel smooth.

Generalizations

  1. Different venues.
  2. Electric bike.
  3. Four-wheeler – avoid horse having to breathe in exhaust.
  4. Golf cart.
  5. Introduce a rider to horse’s movement without having to ‘be in charge’.
  6. Ride one horse and lead a second horse.

Signals versus ‘Cues’ or ‘Stimuli’

This is an extract from my book, Conversations with Horses: an in-depth look at signals and cues between horses and their handlers. Please see the BOOKS tab above to easily preview any of my books.

Defining a Signal

In the horse world, there are several terms used for the signals we give horses. One is ‘aids’ which is commonly used when riding. The term ‘cue’ seems to have become popular with clicker trainers.

Much more about Clicker Training is available in my book, How to Begin Equine Clicker Training. The term ‘stimulus’ comes from animal behavior laboratories.

I prefer the term ‘signal’ because it suggests that a message is sent and the ‘correct’ or intended message is received by the other party.

If a Morse code sender carefully sends his message, but the person at the other end does not know Morse code well enough to decode the message accurately, then the signal has failed. The garbled message may well lead to troubled times.

In other words, if a signal does not relay the desired message, then whatever we have used as a signal is not acting as a signal. By definition, a signal must communicate the person’s message and be received as such by the other party, in this case, the horse.

If it is not working as intended, the signal needs to be adjusted or changed so the message sent equals the message received.

When we are with the horse, he is busy sending us signals about his emotional, mental and physical well-being. If we can’t pick up these signals accurately, then the horse becomes frustrated and misunderstood and often retreats from willing interaction by trying to leave or ‘shutting down’. He becomes reactive rather than responsive.

Cues and stimuli are constantly bombarding all of us. A signal is something we want to stand out from everything else the horse is noticing and everything else we are noticing. We want the horse to easily separate our signal from all the other many cues that are constantly flowing in.

At the same time as we are communicating our intent with our signals, the horse is trying hard to communicate his intent and his feelings with his body language. The more ‘in tune’ we can get with the signals our horse sends us, the better our two-way communication can become.

In this work, I will use the term ‘signal’ rather than ‘aid’, ‘cue’ or ‘stimulus’. I’ll also refer to all horses as ‘he’ for ease of reading, unless I’m talking about a specific mare or filly.

Like the rest of us, horses thrive on clarity and consistency of communication. 

Building a relationship with a horse is like locating a set of keys to unlock a door so the horse’s true nature can come out.

The horse’s total well-being depends on how well we can help him adapt to the peculiar life a horse must live in a human-centered world.

While we are trying to get to know our horse better and understand his emotional, mental and physical boundaries, the horse is doing exactly the same with us.

He is trying to read our intentions so he can be ready to react or respond, according to his perceptions. The more we understand about the signals we are giving the horse, the more we can develop a mutual language.

Boots is reading my body language and gesture signals for stepping onto the balance beam.

The more we realize that much of what we are communicating to the horse is in our unconscious body language, the more we can ‘still’ our body between meaningful signals. 

‘No Intent’ body language tell the horse that all we are doing is standing together quietly.

We would like the horse to respond confidently to our requests rather than become anxious, reactive and bracing against the pressure of our signals. 

The horse would also prefer to respond rather than become anxious, adrenalized and feeling the need to react by trying to escape, push through pressure or mentally and physically ‘shut down’ – hiding inside himself. 

A horse needs a sound foundation of knowledge to enable him to cope with the very strange things people expect of their captive horses. 

To do this we need to:

  • Take the horse through a careful education program 
  • Set up a teaching schedule suited to the individual horse’s background and ability and adapted continually to the feedback the horse gives us 
  • Give him every opportunity to master each small step of a large task, before asking him to string all the parts of a big task together. 

This cutting of a whole task into its smallest teachable parts can be referred to as ‘thin-slicing the task’. 

My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans, looks in detail at thin-slicing and writing Individual Education Programs (IEPs).

For each step of the teaching process, we must make sure we are sending a clear message rather than a confusing mumble. Therefore, a key element for the success of any teaching and learning program is ensuring that our signals are consistent and clear.

Horses are so sensitive that if we alter a signal even a little bit, they often think it means something else. The more things we teach our horse, the more carefully we need to think about the signals we use.

We can give our horse the best deal by becoming more aware about:

  • The specific types of signals we can use
  • How we are orientating our body
  • How we can refine our signals as the horse becomes confident
  • How to use a ‘signal bundle’ or ‘multi-signal’
  • When we are ‘nagging’ rather than communicating.

As mentioned earlier, it is the most natural thing in the world to expect the horse to change so it does what we want. However, in reality, it is by changing what we do that yields the results we want. 

There will be variations in horse behavior based on each horse’s innate character type, his personal history, his relationship with the handler and the situation of the moment.

Horses will always be horses and will respond in the way that horses respond. Being prey animals, their main concern is safety.

Before we can cause change in the horse, we must become hyper aware of what we are doing while the horse is watching.

Whenever we are in our horse’s view, he is picking up all sorts of signals from us – our posture, our energy level, our intent, what we usually do that time of day, any specific signal we may be giving and so on.

Once we learn to pay close attention to the horse’s body language, we get better at understanding the signals the horse is sending us.

A signal is a direct, purposeful communication between horse and handler. If we’ve carefully taught a signal for backing up, then the horse will back up when we give that signal. 

Boots understand the ‘raised fingers’ signal to mean ‘please back up’. I may be using a “Back” voice signal at the same time, which means I’m using a multi-signal to be especially clear.

If the horse raises his head and points his ears with strong concentration, we pick up his signal that something in the environment has his full attention. 

The horse’s body language of raised head and ears focused strongly forward tells us that some cue or stimulus in the distance has captured his whole attention.

First, we learn the horse’s language – his signals. Then it is up to us to teach the horse the language he needs to remain safe and comfortable in the human world – our signals.

Since we have taken the horse away from his natural lifestyle and made him our captive, it is up to us to become fluent in Universal Horse Language and learn to use it effectively. To be effective we need:

  • An understanding of different horse character types.
  • An understanding of our particular horse’s character type.
  • Awareness of our body language and the different ways we use signals.
  • Knowledge about horse senses and sensitivity.
  • As much knowledge as possible about a particular horse’s background experiences.
  • To write good training plans which can be turned into individual education programs (IEPS) designed for a specific horse.
  • Adept use of body language, body extensions, ropes, reins.
  • Timely application of release reinforcement.
  • Adept use of reward reinforcement along with release reinforcement.

There is detailed information about using reward reinforce-ment in my book, How to Begin Equine Clicker Training.

The more fluent we are about understanding horse body language and the mechanics of both release (negative) and reward (positive) reinforcement, the better a teacher we can be for our horse.

It is hard for the horse to learn from someone who doesn’t have a good understanding of who and what they are teaching.

Before we head into an overview of the signals we use with horses, followed by a detailed look at each signal type, we need to look in detail at how horses sense and perceive their environment. (The next part of the book delves into this.)

 Once we are conscious of the biological differences between horse and human perception, it is easier to allow horses the leeway they need to feel safer in our company.

Counting with the Hind Feet

This task is an excellent exercise to work on the timing of our ‘click’ and melting into ‘zero intent’ to wait for the horse’s ‘consent signal’ to do a repeat. The task forces us to focus on the timing and consistency of our On/Off gesture signals. It is also an excellent mobilization exercise for the horse.

Boots and I played with this occasionally for over a year, especially when time was short or the weather was rough, but also as a regular ‘end of session’ exercise. We did this after a year of working on confident ‘counting’ with the front feet as in Prerequisite 3 below.

Aim

When I face the back of the horse and point to his hind feet with my inside hand, using an On/Off gesture signal, the horse lifts a hind foot when I point and sets it down when I remove my hand signal.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and Handler have developed good table manners standing quietly together. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.
  2. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: Click here.
  3. Horse and handler are already confident ‘counting’ with the front feet. Click here.
  4. Triple Treat: #16 HorseGym with Boots. Click here.
  5. Horse is comfortable rubbed all over with a long object (video clip below).

Videos: Counting with Hind Feet

#246 HorseGym with Boots

#243 HorseGym with Boots. The following clip shows the detail of working with ‘zero intent’ and waiting for the horse to give a ‘consent signal’ that tells us he is ready to try again.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A long-handled target to introduce the idea of lifting a hind foot to touch a target (which we eventually fade out).
  • A shorter target to accentuate the On/Off gesture signal (also gradually faded out).
  • A mat at first, to help the horse understand that we want him to stand still.
  • A safe fence or barrier alongside which we can stand the horse.
  • A variety of other barriers to use for generalization.
  • Two raised rails (or similar) to stand between.

Notes

  1. It’s important to stay with each slice of this task until the horse is fully ho-hum with it. In other words, repeat each slice a few time over as many short sessions as it takes for the horse to respond smoothly to your ON/OFF signal. If we take the time it takes to establish each slice, all steps of the overall task will be embedded in the horse’s long-term memory, giving us relaxed responses.
  2. Timing of the click is essential at first. It is the only way the horse can understand what you want him to do (lift his foot). Try hard to click as the foot is coming UP. If you’re unsure about your timing, practice by bouncing a ball and clicking when it leaves the ground. Or practice with a person standing in for the horse. Eventually we can relax the timing and click for the completion of one UP and DOWN movement. In the video clip you will notice that at one point I had to specifically wait to click after the foot returned to earth. Each horse will show his own little foibles.
  3. I don’t mind which foot the horse lifts. I prefer if he uses both. If a horse seems to use the same leg most of the time, make a big deal (triple treat / celebration) when he uses the other one. This is a mobilization exercise, so using both legs is good.
  4. When starting with this task, use the same location, same mat, same targets (until faded out) until the horse is truly confident with what you are asking.
  5. Often, it’s helpful to start on the horse’s left side, but we need to build the pattern standing on his right side as well. Spend a little more time on the side that feels harder. I like to teach each slice on both sides as we go along. An option is to teach all the slices on one side then teach them all again from the beginning on the other side. Or teach several slices on one side and then on the other side.
  6. Any time there is confusion (horse and/or handler), return to where you both feel confident and gradually work forward again. I had a terrible time remembering to use my inside hand for the gesture signal. When I used my outside hand I thoroughly confused my horse because gestures with my outside hand already had two different meanings, as shown on the video clip.
  7. Consistently use the hand closest to the horse (the inside hand) for your signal.
  8. A major part of the signal is the turning of our body to face the horse’s hind feet while we remain at his shoulder. As I turn, I add a voice signal, “Counting Rear”, to help differentiate this task from other things I do facing the back of the horse.
  9. It took us a long time (months) to put all these pieces together, with a short practice most days. I started in a consistent place as mentioned in Note 4.

Slices

  1. Stand the horse alongside a safe barrier in a place that you can use consistently for each session. The barrier stops the horse thinking we want him to move his hind end away. Ask him to park his front feet on a mat.
  2. Set the stage for the exercise by asking the horse to count with his front feet – a major prerequisite for success with this task.
  3. Turn so you are facing his hind end. Holding your long-handled target in the hand nearest the horse (inside hand) gently touch it to his hock; click as you touch and deliver the treat as you move the target out of play behind you.
  4. Repeat 3 above with Click&treat for any movement, even a shift of weight off that foot. When first teaching this, remember to click as the foot lifts UP.
  5. As the horse begins to understand that you click&treat when his foot comes up, hold the target near his hock, not touching it. The movement of your arm will become the horse’s clue.
  6. When 5 above is good, use a shorter target to point to the hind foot. Or shorten the target you have been using – or use the same-looking end on a shorter stick (a different-looking target may confuse an extremely sharp horse). Boots did not find this a problem.
  7. When 6 above feels ho-hum, go to an even shorter target and/or introduce the wiggling of your finger along with the target.
  8. When 7 above feels confident, refine your gesture to just lifting your arm and wiggling your finger. Immediately the horse lifts his foot, click, return your signaling hand to its OFF position lying on your belly, feed the treat with your other hand.
  9. When getting one foot-lift is reliable, and it feels right, ask for a second lift before the click&treat. Huge celebration if you get it. Remember we are using an ON/OFF signal, so put your signal hand into neutral on your belly before asking for the second lift.
  10. Vary between asking for one lift and two lifts. I count out loud as the horse lifts the foot: “One, Two” with a voice emphasis on the number I will click&treat if it is more than one. The horse learns that a soft counting voice means a request for another ‘lift’ is coming up.
  11. When 10 above feels ho-hum, ask for a third lift before the click&treat. Again, a huge celebration.
  12. Over time work up to as many lifts as you want. I usually stick with a maximum of five standing on the left and five standing on the right, but I vary the number requested each time we do it and might occasionally ask for six or seven.
  13. Once you have reliable lifts standing alongside a familiar barrier, generalize to other locations where you can stand the horse with a safe barrier along his far side to maintain the idea that he doesn’t need to move his body.
  14. Once 13 above is relaxed, stand the horse between rails raised to gradually wean away from a high barrier.
  15. The task is ‘finished’ when you can easily count your decided number of lifts on either side of the horse without needing any props.

Generalizations

  1. Play with the exercise in different venues.
  2. Play on a slope.
  3. Incorporate it into your WAIT game or your Four Corners Exercise. Click on the Blog Contents List at the top of the page to access these (Number 65 and Number 71 on the list).
  4. Use it as a mobilization exercise when it’s too hot, cold, windy, wet to do much else.

Picking Things Up

Introduction

Some horses show a natural inclination to pick things up, in which case we can ‘capture’ the behavior with well-timed click&treat. The challenge with such horses is to quickly put the task ‘on signal’ or ‘on cue’ to counteract a tendency to pick up anything and everything in the hope of earning a treat.

Others, like my horse Boots, learn to pick things up because it earns a click&treat. For such horses, we can thin-slice the whole process, starting with sniffing an item, taking an item out of our hand, and so on. Such thin slices might also help to put the task ‘on signal’ for the keen horse.

Aim

On request, the horse picks up items , holds them, and presents them to our hand.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement for standing with front feet on a mat. #8 HorseGym with Boots: Duration on the Mat. Click here.
  2. Horse and Handler have developed good table manners standing quietly together. Number 10 in my Blog Contents List: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.
  3. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: Click here.
  4. For Generalization with the bell as in the second video clip, handler and horse agree on a clear ‘recall’ signal. February 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Simple Recall Pt. 1. Click here.

Videos

#224 HorseGym with Boots: Picking Things Up.

#231 HorseGym with Boots: Picking Up a Bell.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse can relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A variety of items safe and easy for a horse to pick up.
  • One or two objects that can serve as platforms so we can gradually put the items closer and closer to the ground. E.g. chair or a tub turned over.
  • Horse at liberty if possible.
  • For some horses, rubbing something that smells nice to the horse on the item can gain initial interest, but make sure it does not encourage the horse to eat your item, especially if it is something like a cloth.

Notes

  1. Three repeats of the slice you are currently working with is usually plenty. A tiny bit often is the key. The horse will think about it and be willing to try again next time. If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose willingness to engage again.
  2. Each time you click, remove the item behind you to take it ‘out of play’. This will give the horse time to enjoy his treat and let you know with a consent signal (Prerequisite 3) when he is ready to do a repeat. Also, it will be obvious to him when you preset the item into view again.
  3. Some horses quickly progress through the early slices as soon as you start. Others need a great deal of patience over may days of mini-sessions.
  4. Any time the horse loses confidence, go back to what he can do confidently and gradually work forward again. Horses instantly pick up any emotion of frustration or annoyance or anger, so be sure to practice emotional neutrality except for gleeful celebration when things go well.
  5. A horse can’t be ‘wrong’ until we have carefully taught him what we want in a way that he can understand and does not make him anxious.
  6. We are building a little chain of behaviors: pick up – hold – move item to my hand – release item to my hand.

Slices

  1. With the horse parked confidently on a mat so he knows you want him to stand still, offer your item: click&treat any willingness to sniff the item.
  2. Look for and click&treat any tendency to move his lips around the item. As always, take the item ‘out of play’ as you click&treat
  3. Look for and click&treat any tendency to open the mouth and use the teeth to investigate the item.
  4. Look for and click&treat any instance that you can momentarily remove your hand and the horse doesn’t drop the item. If he drops it, have zero reaction, pick it up, and go back to click&treat a couple of times for the previous slice the horse IS able to do, before finishing the session.
  5. Once you can remove your hand momentarily, gradually build duration of him holding the item one second at a time. We want the horse to eventually hold the item until we put our hand out to receive it. Three seconds is good. Five seconds is great. Also praise and click&treat any indication that the horse is moving his head toward your hand to deliver the item to you.
  6. At this point, we can introduce a voice signal for picking up an item. I use the word, “Pick”. I also eventually introduce the voice signal, “Hold”, once the horse can hold the item for three or more seconds without dropping it.
  7. Once 5 above is smooth and reliable over several mini-sessions, introduce something that can act as a platform about halfway to the ground and put the item on it. At first you may need to keep your hand on it or near it by pointing to it and using your voice signal. Gradually move your hand further away. Pointing to the object along with the voice signal makes a useful multi-signal.
  8. We’d like the horse to move his head toward our hand to ‘deliver’ the item to us. Gradually move your receiving hand a bit further away so the horse raises/turns his head a bit more to ‘deliver’ the item to you. If he drops it, have zero reaction, pick it up and return to the slice where he can be successful.
  9. When 7 and 8 above are smooth, organize a platform a bit closer to the ground and repeat.
  10. When 9 above is smooth, put the item on the ground and ask him to pick it up and hand it to you.

Generalizations

  1. Set out a series of items and move along to to pick each one up.
  2. Ask the horse to pick objects like ropes or rags off a fence or similar. Some people have fun setting up a ‘clothes line’ with cloths for the horse to take off.
  3. Ask the horse to walk a step or two holding the object. Boots had great difficulty with this. She happily picked things up and gave them to me, but the idea of moving holding something in her mouth was totally foreign to her, maybe because we never used a bit when riding. I started out asking her to walk-on after giving her a willow twig which she ate as she walked. Then we progressed to one step holding an old riding crop; click&treat. When one step was solid we added steps one at a time. It took us all winter of playing with this during our morning walks before she felt comfortable carrying an object for about 15 steps.
  4. Ask the horse to recall a few steps, to ‘deliver’ the object to you. This is the beginning of teaching ‘fetch’.

Navigating Gates and Gaps

Introduction

Gates come in a variety of shapes, orientations, and sizes. Teaching our horses to calmly negotiate gates in different situations gives us excellent training opportunities.

Aims

Horse confidently:

  1. Waits while the handler passes through the gate, comes through on request and turns 180 degrees once through the gate.
  2. Moves though a gate ahead of the handler and turns 180 degrees to face the handler.
  3. Moves though a gate ahead of the handler and waits without turning.
  4. Backs through a gate.

Prerequisites

  1. Smooth walking shoulder-to-shoulder and confident HALT. Number 16 in my Blog Contents List: Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions. Click here.
  2. Horse has learned to ‘wait’ until handler gives a new signal or clicks&treats. Mainly as in this clip: #8 HorseGym with Boots: Duration on the Mat. Click here.
  3. Smooth 180-degree turns. Number 23 in my Blog Contents List: 180 Degree Turns. Click here.
  4. Handler and horse agree on a clear ‘recall’ signal. February 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Simple Recall Pt. 1.Click here.
  5. Horse and handler have a ‘move away from me please’ signal paired with a ‘whoa’ signal while the handler is behind the horse. #213 HorseGym with Boots: Send & Halt. Click here.
  6. For generalizations, we have taught the finesse back-up. Number 40 in my Blog Contents List: Finesse Back-Up. Click here.
  7. For generalizations, the horse understands a back-up signal when the handler is behind the horse. #105 HorseGym with Boots: Trailer Simulation with Dead End. Click here.

Videos

Clip 1: #237 HorseGym with Boots

Clip 2: #238 HorseGym with Boots

Clip 3:  #239 HorseGym with Boots: Click here.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Six or eight low markers around which the horse can turn 180 degrees without the lead rope getting snagged. 5L containers of water or blocks of firewood work well.
  • A familiar mat.
  • Halter and lead at least 12 feet or 4 meters long. Light cord works fine.
  • Two tall objects to create a gap (gate simulation) or a fence/wall and one tall object.
  • A rope or similar to simulate a gate.
  • A variety of real gates.

Notes

  1. Navigating a gate requires a chain of small individual tasks. We teach the individual tasks, then link them together.
  2. As we link the small tasks, our Click Point* shifts along so the horse does progressively more before each click&treat.
  3. It’s important to stay with each slice and each small task until our signals are clear and consistent and the horse responds readily.
  4. Once a maneuver is smooth on one side of the horse, we teach it again on the other side of the horse. I like to teach each small task on both sides as we go along.

Slices

  1. Ensure that the horse confidently targets a mat with his feet to earn a click&treat.
  2. Set up a low marker object with a mat nearby. Start at the mat and ask the horse to walk around the marker with you and return to the mat, so you are doing a 180-degree turn together. Click&treat at the mat.
  3. When 2 above is smooth, do the same exercise without the mat. At first, ask for a HALT about where the mat used to be; click&treat the halt.
  4. Set up a line or circuit of objects to walk around to practice 3 above. And also generalize to different places if you can.
  5. When 3 and 4 above are smooth, hang back a bit and send the horse around the marker on his own. The Click Point is now shifted to when the horse returns to you after walking around the marker.
  6. Once 5 above is solid, send the horse away from you between two markers instead of around a marker. This is the first approximation of a gate.
  7. When 6 above is smooth, ask the horse to HALT and WAIT on the other side of the gap from you. The ‘halt and wait’ becomes your new Click Point. Go to the horse to deliver the treat.
  8. Create an obvious gap with two tall objects (or fence/wall and one tall object). Place a low markers on either side of the gap for the horse to walk around as he did in 3 above. Repeat 7 above using this gap.
  9. Negotiate the gap in both directions.
  10. Introduce the idea of the horse waiting on one side of the gap while you walk through the gap first. Once you’ve walked through, pause, then invite the horse through the gap and around the marker so he ends up beside you. This becomes the new Click Point when the handler goes through the gate first.
  11. When 10 above feels smooth, add a rope to simulate a gate. Play with opening the gate toward you and away from you.
  12. When the gate opens toward you, ask the horse to go through the gap first plus turn to face you and WAIT. Then you go through the gate and shut it. Click&treat.
  13. When the gate opens away from you, ask the horse to WAIT while you move through first, then ask him to come through and turn so he is beside you and facing the gate as you close it. Click&treat.
  14. Use a ‘gate’ gap to teach sending the horse through the gate but not turning around. If we long-rein or drive our horse, we won’t want him to turn after going through the gate. So teach him to walk through the gap while you stay behind him, plus halt and WAIT in the facing away position (Prerequisite 5). Go to the horse to deliver the treat.
  15. Ask the horse to back through a gate. Begin with walking him through the gate, then back up through it. Eventually walk to the gate, then ask him to turn so the gate is behind him and ask him to back through.
  16. When all the above are going smoothly, move on to practicing with as many real gates as you can.

Generalizations

  1. Play with simulation gates at liberty.
  2. Play with real gates at liberty if you can safely do that.
  3. Ask the horse to WAIT on one side of the gap while you walk through it and turn to face him. Ask the horse to recall through the gate. (Prerequisite 4).
  4. Play with simulation gates on a slope.
  5. Gradually make your ‘gate spaces’ narrower and narrower.
  6. Teach backing through gates with a signal while you face the front of the horse (Prerequisite 6).
  7. Teach backing through gates with a signal from behind the horse (Prerequisite 7).

4 Corners Pattern for Exercise

Introduction

If we have a non-ridden horse because we prefer not to ride, our horse is retired or recovering from injury, or we love small ponies, donkeys, or mules, it can be tricky to ensure regular adequate continuous movement in a way that is not boring.

Walking out in-hand is ideal if we have safe places to go. But lack of time or weather might not make this a regular option. Or the handler may not be able to walk long distances due to injury, infirmity, or age.

Horses in the wild move a lot, especially during the seasons when fodder is scarce and water sources are limited. Grazing horses continually move along one step at a time as they search out the nicest grass.

When we have to restrict grass, feed hay, and keep our horse in a relatively small space, we obviously also severely restrict the natural continuous gentle movement that accompanies grazing and life unrestricted by fences.

In a natural situation, most horse movement is walking. Occasionally they trot. Gallop is generally in response to a perceived threat. The play drive of younger horses may initiate occasional energetic movement. Some horses are by nature more energetic than others. As with people, daily sustained movement is a cornerstone of good health.


If we can’t do sustained walking out and about, we can organize novel walking patterns at home in a limited space.

Wanting horses to move consistently at faster gaits is a human construct. While brisk trotting and a good canter or gallop are great to occasionally increase the heart rate and clear out the lungs, we can easily maintain or improve our horse’s welfare with regular sustained walking and a bit of trotting.

Sustained walking means twenty or thirty minutes of continuous movement. Steady walking increases circulation and helps the horse ‘blow out’ to clear his breathing system. Horses living in a peaceful group in a paddock will do some walking, but it is not usually sustained.

Aim

To create interesting walking and movement routines for our horse in a relatively small area.

Prerequisites

  1. Confident with walking shoulder-to-shoulder. Number 16 in my Blog Contents List: Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions. Click here.
  2. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. Number 10 in my Blog Contents List: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.
  3. Horse is comfortable standing across and walking across solid rails. Number 18 in my Blog Contents List: Placing the Feet Accurately Using a Rail. Click here.
  4. While walking shoulder-to-shoulder, the horse follows the movement of the handler’s body axis away from the horse to navigate turns. Number 31 in my Blog Contents List: Smooth 90-Degree Turns. Click here.
  5. Established clear signals for weaving obstacles. #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation Signals. Click here. There are more clips about weaving in my YouTube playlist called: Weave and Tight Turns.
  6. If you want to add in the ‘wait’ game for variety, ensure the horse understands a ‘wait’ signal to stay parked while we move away. This clip is in my playlist called Obstacle Challenges for Clicker Trainers: October 2017 Challenge Park & Wait. Click here.
  7. If you want to walk or trot together at liberty: see Number 68 in my Blog Contents List: 20 Steps Exercise: Click here.

Videos

#169 HorseGym with Boots: Walk and Hock Gym with Obstacles is found as Number 21 in my Blog Contents List. It is a simple circuit around the perimeter of a defined area.

The next two video clips divide a defined area into four quarters and describe a pattern of movement that makes exercising our horse more interesting. We can add moves our horse knows into the pattern and change our obstacles and objects around to create a variety of novel situations.

This clip demonstrates the pattern of movement through the ‘four corners’ arrangement. #232 HorseGym with Boots.

This clip shows the pattern walking with a horse. #233 HorseGym with Boots.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue with good or reasonable footing. If it’s dry, the corner of a grazed paddock can work well. An arena is excellent. A round pen can also be cut into quarters. Once the handler has the pattern in memory, it can be carried out anywhere and include natural features of the landscape.
  • Ideally the horse can see his buddies but they can’t or don’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • An assortment of safe objects and obstacles. The only limit is our imagination.
  • Halter and lead, with the lead kept draped unless used momentarily to give the horse directional information.

Notes

  1. The prerequisites above cover the basics. We can, of course, add other tasks our horse knows. Or we can use one part of the pattern to work on something new.
  2. The idea is to use voice, gesture, body language, breathing and energy changes to signal the horse, not halter pressure via the rope. However, we can use rope pressure to give the horse momentary guidance so that he can more quickly figure out what will result in the click&treat.
  3. Each pattern contains 12 right angle turns. When we’ve mastered the basic pattern we can factor in halts, back-ups, sidestepping and a variety of other movements.
  4. To begin with, have the horse on the outside of the turns. Eventually you may want to do the pattern with counter-turns at each corner.
  5. The pattern is done once on the left side of the horse and again on the right side of the horse. It’s easiest to start in the center each time.
  6. When you begin to do the pattern with counter-turns, start again at the beginning with click&treat for each elegant turn.
  7. The arena in the video clips is 30 meters long and 20 meters wide. Therefore walking this pattern once is about 200 meters. Walking it on either side of the horse gives us 400 meters. If we walk the pattern first with no stops for special tasks (400 meters) and again on right and left sides adding special tasks, we’ve walked 800 meters. If you have a larger area, it will be easy to walk over a kilometer within your restricted space.
  8. To first learn the pattern, it’s helpful if the handler walks the basic pattern on their own or with another person (or dog) standing in for the horse. There are 12 corners in the pattern. We don’t stop in the center again until we’ve walked the whole pattern. We can add variation by facing any one of the four directions to begin the pattern.

The pattern starts and finishes in the middle of the area. The 12 turns are numbered. We don’t stop in the middle until we’ve completed the whole pattern. We can add variety by facing a different direction to begin the pattern.

Slices

  1. You may want to begin by asking the horse to walk the basic pattern with you for several days, before introducing objects and obstacles. It can be helpful to have markers at the four turning points which are not in the four corners, as well as a center marker.
  2. Stand in the center with zero intent. Click&treat for standing quietly. If you are on the horse’s left side, you will be turning left 12 times. If you want to teach a ‘turn left’ voice signal, use it just before your body language shifts into the turn. At first, exaggerate the shift of your body axis into the turn. We want the horse to shadow our movement so that touch on the halter via the lead rope is seldom needed. Click&treat each smooth turn. The stop for delivering the treat and walking on again add another dimension of flexibility. Eventually click&treat only for especially crisp turns.
  3. As the horse becomes familiar with the pattern and all the turns are nice and clean, I tend to click&treat only for the specific tasks I’ve added into the pattern.

Standing in the middle of our work area, ready to start. Bridget is on the horse’s left side and they will turn left 12 times. The open hoop is our center marker.
  • Match your walk to the horse’s natural walk. Boots’ natural walk is 5km/h. Smoky’s natural walk is about 7km/h. It was always interesting when leading both of them at the same time.
  • Once you know the pattern, set up the obstacles you want to begin with. Start with items your horse knows well. To maintain interest over time, add new things and/or change where they are in the circuit.
  • Click&treat often enough to keep the horse walking with you in a willing manner. To begin with, I click&treat each brisk right-angle turn as well as successful negotiation of every obstacle. Once the pattern is well-known, I tend to click&treat for the more challenging obstacles or any new ones I’ve added since last time.
  • Once it is smooth walking on the horse’s left side, repeat on his right side. That will include 12 turns to the right. We can add a ‘turn right’ voice signal.

Generalizations

  1. Once the horse understands the pattern we can use it at liberty (Prerequisite 7). Some people may like to teach the whole thing at liberty.
  2. Add objects to weave along the center lines.
  3. Teach again asking for counter-turns at each corner.
  4. Add trotting if you are fit to run with your horse or are riding the exercise. Begin with trotting the straight lines through the center. That will give you four upward and four downward transitions within each circuit.
  5. Add challenge with sloping ground.
  6. If you’ve taught your horse to lead smoothly when you ride a bike, the pattern can be adapted.
  7. We can use one or two of the corners in the pattern to ask the horse for any behaviors we have in our repertoire. They could be stationary behaviors or movement we can do in a smallish space. This video clip illustrates some of the things Boots and I sometimes practice in the corners (#235 HorseGym with Boots: 4 Square Generalizations.)

Drive-By Grooming

Introduction

This is a fun way to work on the clarity of our voice, touch, and gesture signals for walk on, halt, and back up. If we have a tall horse (or we are short) it can make grooming the upper parts of the horse much easier.

Having our feet ‘planted’ in one place means we have to refine our signals to make them super clear for the horse.

Aim

To groom the upper areas of both sides of our horse while standing on a raised platform (or keeping our feet on a mark on the ground if we have small equines).

Prerequisites

  1. Horse confidently comes to a mounting block or similar structure without the need for a mat. #240 HorseGym with Boots: Wait and Recall. Click here.
  2. Horse confidently targets his cheek to a brush. #242 HorseGym with Boots: Target Cheek to Brush. Click here.
  3. Horse understands a ‘move forward please’ signal paired with a ‘whoa’ signal while the handler remains in one spot. #213 HorseGym with Boots: Send & Halt. Click here.
  4. Horse is familiar with backing up one step at a time and moving forward one step at a time. Number 37 in my Blog Contents List. One Step at a Time. Click here.
  5. Horse understands hand and voice signals for backing up when the handler is beside the withers. #173 HorseGym with Boots: Balancera Clip 1 of 2. Click here.
  6. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: Click here.
  7. Number 46 in my Blog Contents List: Rule of Three: Click here.

Video

#194 HorseGym with Boots:

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse and Handler are clicker-savvy.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A mounting block or anything safe for the handler to stand on. If you have a small pony, stand on a marker of some sort, so you are not tempted to move your feet other than turning as necessary.
  • A safe fence or similar barrier.
  • Grooming gear.
  • To start with guided shaping, use a target that’s easy to handle and take out of play (tuck into a belt or pocket), or a halter and lead.

Notes

  1. Short sessions of Slice 1 can be done alongside the other slices. But stay with each of the other slices until you are both confident with it. Better to go a bit too slow than to go too fast.
  2. Have each task working smoothly on the ground before putting them together and eventually adding the platform to stand on.
  3. The timing of the click is the only thing that tells the horse how to earn the treat, so strive to get your timing as accurate as you can.
  4. When the horse moves ahead of you, or backs up so he is behind you, we want him to halt and wait ‘on the spot’ when he hears the click. You go to him to deliver the treat.
  5. Remember to celebrate each approximation toward the final goal. Start with a high rate of reinforcement. As the horse gets to understand each task, ask for a bit more before each click&treat.
  6. But always be prepared to slow down and increase the rate of reinforcement if the horse (or the handler) gets lost. I always do this task with a high rate of reinforcement because Boots has never been keen on grooming.

Slices

  1. Ensure that your horse willingly comes to you when you call him while you stand on a pedestal, mounting block or marker. Usually this includes have taught a ‘wait’ so that you can move easily between your standing places (Prerequisite 1).
  2. On the ground, ensure that your horse willingly targets a brush in your hand, both with his nose and with his cheek (Prerequisite 2). This is a great task to teach your horse about consent signals (Prerequisite 6) by doing a little bit often (Prerequisite 7). A consent signal for brushing by the horse might be touching his cheek to your brush. Do all this standing on the ground.
  3. On the ground, ensure that your horse understands a signal for moving forward one step and back one step while you are beside him (Prerequisites 3, 4, 5).
  4. On the ground, play with asking the horse to move forward one or two steps with an arm gesture or a touch signal just behind the withers. We can teach this by standing back from a nose target and using the gesture or touch signal to request the horse to move to the target and wait there for you to move to him to deliver the treat. (Prerequisite 3). Eventually phase out the nose target. Click for one or two steps forward away from you when you use your touch signal behind the withers.
  5. On the ground, play with asking the horse to back up a few steps while you are at or behind his withers (Prerequisite 5). Work alongside a fence in a corner or build a dead-end lane to make it easier for the horse to understand what you want.
  6. Once all the tasks above are in place on the ground, add the mounting block or pedestal.
  7. When 6 above is smooth on one side of the horse, ask the horse to back up far enough so you can ask him to walk forward on the other side of the mounting block so his other side is nearest you.
  8. Once you have your ‘ready to brush’ Consent Signal in place (Prerequisite 6), use it for drive-by grooming while you stand on the mounting block or pedestal. Boots’ consent signals are coming over to me on the mounting block or pedestal and touching the brush with her cheek when I hold it out.

Generalizations

  • Move your mounting block to different locations.
  • Vary whether you start grooming on the left side or right side.
  • Stand on different pedestals to do drive-by grooming.
  • Play with asking him to come to the mounting block from further and further away.
  • Teach another person the signals so they can brush your horse.

Overview of Equine Clicker Training

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

People are often confused with the scientific/mathematical terms: Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement used in the study of behavior.

‘Negative’ means ‘bad’ in much of everyday language, but used in the mathematical sense, as it is here, it simply means removing (subtracting) something from a situation.

We touch the horse’s chest to ask him to step back and when he does, we remove our hand from his chest and drop our energy (-R).

‘Positive’ in everyday language means something ‘good’. But used in the mathematical sense, as it is here, it simply means adding something to a situation.

The horse comes to us and we give him a strip of carrot. We have added the carrot to the situation (+R).

Horses (as do we) behave in ways that stop/lessen the pressure of directional touch, gesture, voice, or energy sent toward them. This is negative reinforcement (-R): we remove the pressure of the signal when the horse complies.

Of course, horses may also seek touch if they love to be groomed, scratched or massaged, so some forms of touch may be positive reinforcement (+R). Young foals often find scratching very reinforcing. They quickly learn to repeat behaviors that result in a good scratch.

Horses (as do we) behave in ways that ensure they get more of something they like. When we train horses, we usually use a small food treat to reward a behavior that we want. This is positive reinforcement (+R): i.e., we add the treat to the situation.

We build up complex behaviors by marking each tiny step of the learning process with the marker sound we’ve chosen (click or word) and delivering a treat. Eventually the horse will be able do the whole task smoothly with one click&treat at the end.

How often we click&treat (rate of reinforcement) depends on the complexity of the behavior we are working with. We have to click&treat often enough to keep the horse being continually successful with working out what will earn his next click&treat.

Combined Reinforcement

We can use a touch on the chest, remove our touch as the horse steps back (-R), plus mark the stepping back behavior with our special sound, then deliver a treat (+R). This is ‘combined reinforcement’ because we have used -R and +R together to help the horse understand just what he needs to do to earn another click&treat.

It could be that if -R is reinforcing and +R is reinforcing, using both together in the name of clarity is more than twice as reinforcing for the horse.

Because we are essentially asking the horse to learn a foreign language, striving for clarity is essential. If a horse can only perceive a vague mumble, he will be inclined to zone out, either with his feet, or mentally if he is held by ropes or fences.

When we are riding, we use the energy and inclination of our body as signals for the horse. We use reins or a neck rope to give touch signals. When we train with touch, gesture, voice, body language and our body’s energy, we are using negative reinforcement. When the horse responds, we remove the signal. If we add click&treat to develop the response we want, we are using combined reinforcement.

Combined Reinforcement: Boots learned to ‘smile’ when she reached up to my hand held aloft and I tickled her Upper lip. When she moved her lips, I clicked and gave her a treat. Soon she was offering the smile, and now uses it as one of her ‘consent signals’*

Video Clip: Target & Tickle

Capturing

Some equine clicker trainers try hard to teach everything using only what they see as being +R (positive reinforcement). This has led to a burst of creativity to work out how we can teach horses by giving them a choice about taking part in what we want to do.

Capturing a complete behavior with a click&treat is possible for some behaviors. Things that horses do naturally can be captured. For example:

  • Touching the nose to a target.
  • Downward dog stretching.
  • Lying down.
  • Staying in the ‘sit’ position which is part of a horse getting up from lying down.
  • Walking along with us.
  • Investigative behavior with new objects.
  • Coming when called.
  • Head down. Click here.
  • Backing up – if we are patient enough to wait until it happens naturally.

There are probably others, but for more most things we want to teach we use free-shaping* and guided shaping*. Items with an asterisk (*) are defined in the Glossary section.

Capturing a behavior: A horse’s natural curiosity will cause him to investigate something new with his nose. We can capture this moment with a click&treat. Once targeting is established with a strong history of positive reinforcement, we can use the willingness to touch or follow a target to train a variety of more complex behaviors. In other words, we can use the target for ‘guided shaping’*.

Capturing a behavior: Boots has learned that this stretch always earns a click&treat. I noticed she usually stretched like this after a nap and managed to ‘capture’ it three days in a row with click&treat. Then she began offering it often.

Capturing a behavior: If the horse will walk one step beside us, we click&treat after one step. Gradually we build up the ‘walking together’ by click&treat for two steps, then three steps, and so on, staying within the horse’s comfort zone and understanding. If we lose the behavior, we’ve gone too fast.

Free-Shaping

For free-shaping we click successive approximations of what we eventually want. For example: look at tarp, walk toward tarp, sniff tarp, put one foot on tarp, walk onto tarp, trot across tarp. We stay with each approximation until the horse is ho-hum with it, then move our click point along the continuum.

Free-shaping allows us more of an agenda than capturing a finished behavior.

Here are a few examples of free-shaping:

  • Approaching a mat or a tarp. We click&treat each tiny step toward the horse confidently standing on these. Click here.
  • Putting on a halter. We start with a horse willingly targeting a halter, then proceed from there. Click here.
  • Playing Step Aerobics: Click here.
  • Walking along with a bike: Click here.
  • Belly Crunches: Click here.
  • Developing consent signals: Click here.
  • Picking something up. Ideally we don’t want the horse tied up as in this clip, but in some situations we don’t have a choice. Click here.

Free-shaping: We are playing with picking up a cone and bringing it to me.

Luring

Luring can be useful in some situations. If the horse is anxious about approaching a tarp, we can put a treat near the tarp and eventually on the tarp, then let the horse make up his mind about stepping on the tarp in his own time.

We can teach a horse to self-load into a trailer using luring by feeding first near the trailer, then on the ramp, then progressively more in the trailer until the horse is right in and the bucket of feed and hay are at the front of the trailer.

Using this system means the horse has time to overcome his anxiety about entering and exiting a small space. It takes careful planning, but the result can be a horse totally calm about entering and backing out of a trailer.

When I used this method, the horses managed their daily trailer loading sessions independently while I did the chores. By allowing horses the time to make up their own minds about a situation, we give them back some of the control we take from them by having them in captivity.

Luring: We can add a treat to a new situation and let the horse build his confidence in his own time.

Modelling

Horses are experts at reading the body language of their herd members. After all, a foal raised with his mother and other herd members learns what to do and what not to do by observation and modelling their behaviors.

A handler that the horse knows and trusts can tap into this by modelling the behavior she’d like the horse to copy. When a click&treat follows the horse’s first attempt to model a behavior, he often picks up the new move with enthusiasm.

Examples include:

  • Putting the feet on an obstacle.
  • Standing quietly with no intent.
  • Walk/jog when we walk/jog.
  • Halt when we halt.
  • Turn when we turn.
  • Beginnings of jambette.

Modelling: Boots was keen to follow my suggestion when I put my foot up on the object.

Modelling: If we click&treat the first effort at matching leg-lifts, the horse often becomes keen to do it again to earn another click&treat.

Guided Shaping

For guided shaping, we use a target, gesture, hand touch, touch on a halter via a lead rope, and energy changes in our body to give the horse information about what will earn him his next click&treat.

We click&treat each small step toward the finished behavior. Then we gradually link the small steps together until the horse can carry out the whole behavior with one click&treat at the end.

These cues we start with, once refined and once the horse understands and accepts them, become signals for requesting the specific behavior. We must be careful to put each behavior ‘on cue’ so the horse understands that a click&treat only happen if the task has been requested.

Guided Shaping with Targets

Using targets is a great way to motivate horses. This is +R where we add two things. The target to gain the horse’s interest, then the click&treat when the horse meets our objective. In a way, using targets is a specific type of luring.

We can use hand-held targets, stationary targets set at nose height, and foot targets.

Here are some examples:

  • Follow a hand-held target.
  • Walk/trot between stationary targets.
  • Follow target onto a trailer, wash-bay or stall.
  • Introduce movement around a reverse pen. Click here.
  • Voluntary stretches to reach a target. Click here.
  • We ask the horse to target gear we want to use before we use it, e.g., halters, ropes, covers, saddle blankets, saddles, harness parts, balls, wheelbarrows, vets, worming syringes. When I put gear on my horse, I always ask her to target each piece of it (click&treat) before we use it.
  • Come to a mounting block.

Once the horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement for touching his nose to a target, we can use it to encourage him to explore new situations.

Using a target for stationary flexion of parts of the body. Note that we are using a mat target to build the idea of keeping the feet still to do the stretching.

Our Hand as a Target

Although targets are super useful to teach the horse a variety of movements, they are an intermediate stage of training. We don’t want to have to carry a target with us forever.

We can begin to teach the horse to walk with us by presenting a target, click after a pre-decided number of steps, remove the target out of play behind us and deliver a treat.

As we present the target, we also use body language, breathing, voice, energy level changes. Once these are well established using the target, the target is easily replaced by an arm gesture to accompany the body language, breathing and energy change (energy up for ‘walk on’ and energy down for ‘halt’).

We can use our extended hand as a recall target. And we can use our hand to teach the horse to target various of his body parts to our hand. These include chin to hand, ear to hand, cheek to hand, knee to hand, shoulder to hand, hip to hand. Click here.

Hand as Target: Boots has moved her head to target her ear to my hand. I click, then feed the treat in a position that has her straighten her head again.

Guided Shaping with Touch and Gesture

When we use touch and gesture to explain to the horse what will result in a click&treat, we use ‘combined reinforcement’. We add the touch or gesture energy, remove it as the horse complies and simultaneously click&treat.

At first the horse often gives us just an approximation of what we want as the finished behavior. We click&treat all of these approximations. This is often called ‘rewarding the smallest try’. The horse is then usually keen to repeat the behavior and over time the click&treat point moves closer and closer to the ‘finished’ behavior.

When the touch and/or gesture signals (-R) are intricately linked with marking & rewarding (+R), the touch and gesture are information for the horse about how to earn his next click&treat.

Used thoughtfully in this way, negative reinforcement gives clarity to our teaching. The energy of our touch/gesture signals is minimal.

We can often teach a task or behavior using Capturing, Free-Shaping, Luring, Modelling, and Shaping with a Target. Once the horse understands the task, we add distinct, consistent voice, touch, and gesture signals.

Gesture Signal: I’m using my focus, arm gesture and energy to ask Boots to move her hind end across. This was one of the steps in the process of teaching her to sidestep along a rail.

Touch signal: Asking the horse to back up using touch on the halter via a lead rope. She is about to step back with her left front and right hind legs. We should teach our horse a variety of signals for backing up, both at liberty and with rope or reins.

Summary

It is an interesting learning experience to work out how we can use just positive reinforcement (+R) to teach our horse many of the things he needs to know. Once he understands the task, we add consistent voice, touch, gesture, breathing, body language signals so that we can put the task ‘on cue’ or ‘on signal only’ or under ‘stimulus control’.

When we begin using positive reinforcement, many horses become very keen and begin to throw behaviors at their handler in the hope of scoring a click&treat. This has to be handled carefully by only clicking&treating when an action has been requested. If we randomly hand feed at other times, the horse will of course be confused.

Some horses find this process of ‘putting a task on cue’ very frustrating so we have to plan our training carefully. We need to work in small bursts, develop ‘end of this session’ signals and ensure that the horse is never hungry before we begin a clicker training session. Click here.

Once the horse knows several tasks, we can switch between tasks to avoid this sort of frustration.

Equine clicker training is fun and built on a simple scientific principle, but it is never easy. Horses are complex beings and each horse brings his own twist to the table, as does each handler.

On top of all this, we have to be realistic about the situations most horses face sooner or later. We have to carefully prepare them to understand how to respond to various forms of negative reinforcement. We need to do this at home so when a tricky situation arises away from home, we have a full toolbox to deal with it.

Zero Intent in Action: Red Lights and Green Lights

Introduction

The concept of giving our horse a choice about whether or not he wants to do things with us is a novel idea at first. Until we delve into training with positive reinforcement, it is the norm to expect the horse to put up and shut up when we want to ride him or do anything else with him.

Horses are recreation or sport for us, but often we are not recreation or enrichment in their lives. In many situations, horses generally either learn to put up with human demands, no matter how painful or stressful for them, or they are passed over for a more ‘willing’ horse.

By learning about ‘consent signals’ and learning to wait for them, we can enhance a horse’s well-being by giving him back a little bit of the choice we remove from him when we keep him captive, away from the natural dynamics of life in the wild.

Aims

  1. To develop the handler’s ability to switch into neutral (to show the horse zero intent) by taking up a distinct body position, removing attention from the horse and draining energy out of the body.
  2. Improving how well we tune in to a horse’s consent signals and noticing more quickly when he shows us that he is not ready or able to proceed.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse has learned to ‘wait’ until handler gives a new signal or clicks&treats. Number 9 in my Blog Contents List: Mats: Parking or Stationing and Much More. Mainly this clip: #8 HorseGym with Boots: Duration on the Mat. Click here.
  3. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. Number 10 in my Blog Contents List: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here. This clip is also the second clip below.
  4. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Number 11 in my Blog Contents List: Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals. Click here.
  5. Handler understands ‘Trigger Stacking’: This is a situation faced by people and horses. If we are in a calm mood, we usually handle a first stress event easily. If soon after, a second stress happens, then maybe a third and fourth (as easily can happen with horses in captivity), the limit of stress tolerance for that individual is eventually reached and the person or animal reacts. The reaction can be violent outward expression of anger and frustration (tantrum). The reaction can also be retreat from interaction with the external world, as seen in horses who have ‘shut down’. Each of the stress-causing events or items is called a ‘trigger’, hence the term, ‘trigger-stacking’.
  6. Walking shoulder-to-shoulder. Number 16 in my Blog Contents List: Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions. Click here.
  7. Triple Treat to celebrate a good effort: #16 HorseGym with Boots: Triple Treat. Click here.
  8. Number 46 in my Blog Contents List: Rule of Three. Click here.

Videos

#243 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent in Action

#153 HorseGym with Boots: “Zero Intent” and “Intent”

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Hand-held target to start with.
  • Barrier between person and horse to start with.
  • Once mastered, we can apply these skills to any activity.

 Notes

  1. The horse may communicate with more than one consent signal. The nature of the consent signal might depend on the nature of the activity you are doing.
  2. The two AIMS above work together. Once the horse understands that you will wait until he is ready, he will become more and more adept at using his ‘Green Light’ go-ahead signal or telling you that he is not ready to proceed. You may pick up his earlier signals that he prefers to exit the activity (either mentally or physically).
  3. If the horse feels he gains something from an interaction, he will tend to want to stay and play. At first we use rewards (usually treats) that he finds reinforcing. Once a horse learns a few tasks and routines, doing them also has a reinforcing effect, but we have to keep using the primary reinforcer (usually food) judiciously. This means that we have to click&treat often enough to keep the horse successfully doing what we are asking.
  4. Video clip #243 uses an extremely specific behavior as an example. But we can develop and recognize a variety of consent signals.
  5. Consent might be turning the nose toward the handler to indicate that chewing is finished and the horse is ready to repeat whatever we are doing. Boots demonstrates this on the video clip. Important not to confuse this with the horse mugging for treats. You’ll notice that after turning to me she turns her head away again.
  6. Consent might be willingly staying ‘parked’ in a relaxed manner while we groom, tend feet, gear on and off, mount and dismount, ask for a ‘wait’, ground tie, stand tied up, travel or do a parked mobility task like ‘counting’ as in my clip.
  7. Consent might be willingly walking or trotting with us on the ground, with or without halter and lead.
  8. Consent might be willingly coming to a mounting block, lining up and standing so the handler can mount.
  9. Consent might be putting the head down so that we can rub inside the ear or put head gear on more easily.
  10. Consent might be dropping the nose into a halter.
  11. Consent might be a quirky behavior like a smile or lowering the head.

Slices Part A: The Handler’s Red Light and Green Light

1. When we begin clicker training, our first task is to establish politeness about receiving treats. Even when clicker training is well established, it is useful to review this exercise regularly.

Standing on the other side of a safe barrier, we ask the horse to do something simple he does naturally, like touch his nose to a target. We click for the action and remove the target out of play (out of sight behind us) as we deliver the treat with a firm, flat outstretched hand that causes the horse to keep his head straight and away from us. Repeat over many short sessions (about 10 treats-worth).If the horse is first learning this, we promptly present the target again, until the horse clearly understands that when he touches the target and keeps his head facing forward, he will hear our marker sound and we will deliver the treat to him – i.e. he doesn’t reach toward us searching for the treat.

2. When 2 is smooth, we begin to take up a ‘zero intent’ body position for a second or two after we’ve delivered the treat and before we present the target again.

3. ‘Zero intent’ is the handler’s Red Light (relax). It means that what we want is to stand quietly together. When the horse remains standing with his head straight we present the target again as our Green Light (action) that lets the horse know we are asking him to repeat touching the target to earn another click&treat. Gradually, one second at a time, lengthen the time you stay at ‘zero intent’ (Red Light) until 5 seconds is easy.

4. We do a little bit of ‘stand together with click&treat for keeping your head straight‘ every time we are with the horse.

5. When the slices above are smooth, we can apply ‘zero intent’ to walking along together (Prerequisite 4). Walk on, halt, click&treat for the halt, take up ‘zero intent’ posture for X number of seconds. Start with one second again and lengthen time gradually. Then walk on to another pre-set destination.

6. Walking between mats is a good way to start this exercise, but soon your voice and body language will be enough, as long as you are consistent. See Number 68 in my Blog Contents List: 20 Steps Exercise. Click here.If you are not consistent with your voice, gesture, breathing and body language signals, the horse will hear you like a ‘mumble’. And we know how frustrating it is to listen to someone who is mumbling so we can’t make out the message.

7. As you get adept with dropping into ‘zero intent’ body language, you will notice more and more places you can apply it.

8. In summary, standing or walking with zero intent is our Red Light (relax). The horse knows he is not being asked to do anything except stand or walk quietly beside us. We change to Green Light (action) whenever we signal the horse to do a specific behavior or chain of behaviors that will result in a click&treat.

Slices Part B: The Horse’s Red Light and Green Light

  1. The horse’s Red Light is different from the handler ‘zero intent’ Red Light. The horse’s Red Light is either inactivity or excessive activity due to distraction, changes, hunger, confusion, pain, boredom, exhaustion, trigger stacking. It is a caution/stop signal from the horse to us.

In the video clip, Boots’ Red Light was the distraction caused by interesting activity on the road while she was safely at home. It caused her full attention to drift to the road activity.

2. Out in other environments, a horse’s Red Light could be stopping for observation, or running the Red Light if the situation causes him to move suddenly.

3. The horse’s Red Light tells us that he is either momentarily distracted or he is out of his comfort zone. We can either wait out the distraction, as I do on video clip #243, or we can change what we are doing until the horse can return to his comfort zone.

A distracted horse is not in learning mode (responsive). He is concerned for his safety (reactive). We must organize things so he can change from reactive to responsive as best as we can in any given situation.

4. The horse’s Green Light is when he can bring his attention back to the handler and can respond to handler signals, rather than react to other things in the environment.

5. If we want to get along with our horse by listening to him, we acknowledge what is causing his distraction with our attention and body language. Then we wait (wait = our Red Light), taking up as close to zero intent body language as we can in the situation.

6. As we wait, we watch for the horse’s Green Light to tell us that he is ready to carry on with what we were doing. At that point, we can activate our Green Light – our signal to the horse for whatever activity or task we are doing which will yield a click&treat.

7. We can sometimes help the horse switch from his Red-Light alert to Green- Light readiness if we click&treat the moment his attention comes back to us. I didn’t do it in the video clip, but I often do this when we are out on the road.

SUMMARY

Handler

  • Red Light = standing or walking together quietly, relaxation – nothing else required.
  • Green Light = signal/cue asking the horse to do something else.

Horse

  • Red Light = I’m distracted, unable, anxious, fearful – please give me time. It might also be a question: we don’t usually do this, do we? We always stop here, don’t we?
  • Green Light = I’m ready to listen and respond to your signals.
  • Orange/amber light = first signs of the horse’s unease.

Illustrations

‘No Intent’ body posture: hands quiet on belly, attention off horse, cocked knee, energy drained from body, looking nowhere.
Intent: very beginning of asking her to move her shoulder away – hands moving in a gesture signal, body upright, focus on horse’s neck, breathing in.
Zero intent sitting down while teaching lip-lifting to check teeth. Note her ‘lip wiggle’ consent signal telling me she is ready to repeat.
We gradually moved from touching her muzzle, putting both hands around her muzzle, momentarily lifting a lip, to holding her lips apart for longer and longer, adding one second at a time.
Staying parked on a mat despite distractions can be a consent signal.
This is a Red Light moment with Boots. Jogging along calmly with the bike changed into excessive energy.
When I got off the bike and walked, she was able to relax and give me her ‘smile’ consent signal – her Green Light to carry on. This earned a click&treat.
We were then able to finish the session with her walking calmly alongside the bike.
Practice at home allowed us to eventually bike safely on the road.

Generalizations

As mentioned already, the more you practice your ‘no intent’ body language, the clarity of your signals, and the more accurate you get listening to the horse’s body language. You will notice the horse’s Orange/Amber light before it turns into Red Light. It becomes easier to apply the Red Light/Green Light concept to any activity.

Consent Signals: Target Cheek to Brush for Grooming

Introduction

When we want to give a horse the option to take part in an activity or not, we can learn to wait for the horse to give us a consent signal that tells us when he is comfortable for us to go ahead.

This task looks at setting up a consent signal for grooming. Some horses love to be groomed. Others not so much.

There are a variety of reasons why a horse may not be relaxed about grooming.

  • A traumatic grooming experience, e.g. punishment for restless movement. ‘One Time’ trauma learning is a real thing.
  • Grooming while tied up if tying up itself causes anxiety. Being in cross-ties may feel a bit like a straightjacket – we have removed all options for movement.
  • Grooming before activities that the make the horse feel nervous, afraid, uncomfortable, in pain, and/or exhausted.
  • Grooming with tools the horse finds uncomfortable.
  • General inexperience or discomfort with being around people or a certain person.
  • A combination of any of the above.

Aim

To establish the horse targeting his cheek to a brush as a consent signal that he is okay for us to proceed with grooming.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. Number 10 in my Blog Contents List: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.
  3. Horse understands the concept of targeting body parts to our hand. Click here.
  4. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: Click here.

Videos

#241 HorseGym with Boots: https://youtu.be/-TK4VqCnvL4

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A soft brush.
  • Mat (optional).

Notes

  1. Your horse may develop more than one consent signal. You will note in the video that Boots uses two. One is turning toward me to let me know she is finished chewing and ready to repeat. The other is moving her lips in what we call a ‘smile’ but sometimes she does it very discretely and it is just a wiggle of her lips.
  2. Note that we are chaining two tasks. Consent for one (target cheek to brush) becomes the consent for the second task (grooming).
  3. Notice how her body language changes when I start grooming.
  4. If the horse is mat savvy (parks willingly on a mat) you can use a mat when you begin this exercise. But if the horse is worried about grooming, we may not want to make the mat part of a worrying process.

Slices

  1. Begin with asking the horse to target his chin to your hand as per Prerequisite 3. This lets him know which game you are about to play.
  2. Change to asking him to target his cheek to your hand, using the process outlined for the chin.
  3. Once 2 is ho-hum, hold a soft brush for him to target with his cheek.
  4. Once 3 is ho-hum, brush a few strokes after the click&treat for targeting cheek to brush. Sometimes I begin brushing while delivering the treat with my other hand, then click&treat again for accepting the brush strokes.
  5. Gradually brush a bit more before the second click&treat (the first is for touching cheek to brush). Be super aware of thresholds of discomfort. If the horse needs to move, he is over threshold and we’ve gone too fast.
  6. Depending on how the horse feels about brushing, it may take many short sessions for him to become more comfortable with brushing, or it might happen very quickly. Spring shedding time is often when grooming is appreciated most.
  7. Teach the whole process from the beginning on the horse’s other side.

Generalizations

  1. Practice in different places.
  2. Add a variety of brushes.
  3. Use a similar process to get the horse comfortable with cloths, ropes, sticks rubbed all over his body.

Straddling a Rail

Introduction

This is an interesting exercise to help refine the timing of our signals and the ‘click’ (or whatever marker sound we have chosen) that lets the horse know when he is doing exactly what will result in a treat.

Boots and I first learned this task years ago and play with it occasionally. If a task is taught well enough to be in a horse’s deep memory, it seems it is never forgotten. Usually a bit of guidance to clarify which task I’m asking for is enough to bring back the memory. When I made these video clips we hadn’t revisited straddling a rail for several months.

However, we play with ‘shoulder/hip yield’ and ‘shoulder/hip toward me’ often, so our signals for these are current – well-honed and well-practiced.

Straddling a rail is an exercise useful for balance, foot awareness and general proprioception. We teach it in tiny slices that keep the horse being continually successful. In other words, we celebrate each approximation.

Aim

The horse confidently moves his feet individually to straddle a rail lengthwise.

Prerequisites

  1. The horse understands yielding the shoulder. This clip is in my Obstacle Challenges for Clicker Trainers PLAYLIST: April 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Yield the Shoulder. Click here.
  2. The horse understands targeting the shoulder to our hand. Number 27 in my Blog Contents List: Target Shoulder to Hand. Click here. 
  3. The horse understands yielding the hindquarters. This clip is in my Obstacle Challenges for Clicker Trainers PLAYLIST: May 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Yield the Hindquarters. Click here.
  4. Horse understands bringing hip toward hand. Number 28 in my Blog Contents List: Targeting Hindquarters to Our Hand. Click here.
  5. Horse is comfortable standing across and walking across solid rails. Number 18 in my Blog Contents List: Placing the Feet Accurately Using a Rail. Click here.
  6. Horse understands a signal for sidestepping. Number 29 in my Blog Contents List: Sidestepping. Click here.
  7. Handler is aware of teaching in short segments. Number 46 in my Blog Contents List. Click here.
  8. Triple Treat for celebration: #16 HorseGym with Boots: Triple Treat. Click here.

Videos

#222 HorseGym with Boots: Prep for Straddling Rails

#223 HorseGym with Boots: Straddling Rails

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead to clarify signals during the teaching (acquisition) stage unless you prefer to teach everything at liberty.
  • Rail: a half-round rail is ideal because it doesn’t roll/move while the horse is figuring out where and how to move his feet.

We can mound sand at the ends of a round rail to minimize rolling or chock round rails with bits of wood or stones at either end.

A long rail, or two short rails end-to-end, make it easier for the horse at the beginning. We could also use a tightly rolled tarp to stand in for a rail, or a thick rope/hose.

Notes

  1. Ensure that the horse can carry out the prerequisite tasks calmly and accurately.
  2. Give each slice of the ‘straddle’ the time it takes rather than focus on the end behavior.
  3. Doing a few repeats of ‘hip/shoulder away’ and ‘hip/shoulder toward me’ each session will keep them topical and smooth.
  4. Click and treat each approximation at first. Celebrate when you get either front feet or hind feet (or both) straddling the rail.
  5. Three repeats at one time are usually plenty to start with. The horse will think about it and be willing to try again next day. If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose willingness to engage again. (See Prerequisite 7.)
  6. Decide whether you will initially teach the task by asking the horse to yield shoulder/hip away from you or if you will ask the horse to bring shoulder/hip toward you. Don’t mix them up until the horse has a sound understanding about where you want his feet.
  7. Be careful to not ‘correct’ or make the horse feel wrong as he figures out what you want him to do with his feet to earn his next click&treat. He can’t be wrong because he doesn’t yet know what you want him to do.

The lack of ‘click’ tells the horse that he hasn’t quite got it yet. If he feels lost, increase your rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat) and lower your criteria – i.e., click for all approximations toward the finished task and stop after a good effort for that session. Then he will be keen to try again next session.

Slices

  1. Run through your ‘hip/shoulder away’ and/or ‘hip/shoulder toward me’ routines away from the rail, to set the scene.
  2. Introduce the rail by walking across it in both directions. Then park parallel to it several times — on both sides and facing both directions.
  3. Start with the side and direction that feel easiest.
  4. Ask for either front or hind end to straddle the rail. Click&treat for all and any approximations. Your horse may offer to do the full straddle right away – major celebration.
  5. Then quietly ask for the other end to straddle the rail. Don’t worry if he moves one end off the straddle to adjust his balance so he can straddle with the other end. You will notice in #223 video clip that Boots does this a couple of times.
  6. Also don’t worry if he steps his whole body across the rail. Simply breathe deeply, relax, and reset the task. If the horse moves both front or hind feet across the rail, try giving a less-energetic signal.
  7. The key is to quietly reset and try again. Finish on a good effort and go away from the rail to do something else.
  8. Resist the temptation to ask again to see if you can do it again. At first a ‘good effort’ may still be far from the finished movement. That doesn’t matter. If the horse is willing to try in a relaxed manner, you have a ‘good effort’.
  9. If it becomes a muddle, walk away, do something easy with a high rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat). Then return to the rail and start again or leave it until the next session. (See number 5 in the NOTES.)
  10. Explore different ways of coming off the straddle – turn and sidestep off, back off, walk forward with the feet staying on either side of the rail, and so on.
  11. Once the horse is adept at straddling the rail, click&treat for duration. Start with one second and increase duration one second at a time.

Generalizations

  1. Once the horse understands the task, it can be fun to also explore other ways of signaling the ‘straddle a rail’ task.
  2. I was delighted when Boots offered to sidestep into the straddle as at the end of clip #223, because I’d never asked her to do that before. We do, however, practice plain sidestepping regularly.
  3. Walk forward to straddle the rail.
  4. Back up to straddle the rail.
  5. Mix up ‘hip/shoulder away’ and hip/shoulder toward me’.
  6. Straddle different kinds of rails.
  7. Different venues.
  8. On a slope – facing downhill and facing uphill.

Treasure Hunt

Introduction

This is a fun activity when we don’t have a lot of time with our horse. Or we can use it to begin or finish a longer training session.

We can expand the task as much as we like, depending on the space we have available to lay out the ‘treasures’.

Aim

Horse confidently follows a trail of markers to find a treat under or alongside each marker.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse is relaxed enough in the venue for his curiosity to be engaged.
  2. Horse readily targets the ‘markers’ you will use when you hold them in your hand. In the clip I used small plastic plant pots that are easy for the horse to push aside and easy to see.
  3. Horse is used to picking treats off the ground (not sand or open soil).
  4. Horse understands a signal to move away from the handler so we can ask him to explore markers on the ground. This clip demonstrates touch and voice signals to ask the horse to move forward away from me. Instead of a halt signal, the horse moves on to seek out the circuit of treasures. Click here.
  5. A strong WAIT with duration is helpful if we want to set up a treasure trail without having to contain the horse physically. See The Wait Game: Click here. Alternately, we can teach ground-tying to a high standard: Click here.

Videos

#227 HorseGym with Boots: TREASURE HUNT

#236 HorseGym with Boots: TREASURE HUNT GENERALIZATIONS

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Ideally the horse is at liberty, but if that’s not possible, the horse can be on a long light lead and encouraged to do the exploring for each treasure while we tag along behind keeping the lead out of his way.
  • Targets we can place or hang around our training area, e.g. rags or plastic drink bottles if we need to teach the horse to move out ahead of us.
  • A surface from which the horse can safely pick up treats, e.g. grazed paddock, solid footing areas (not sand). If only a sand or soft soil area is available, we can lay out mats or similar to put under each marker.
  • Markers to put over each treat. The purpose of the markers is to have the horse use his initiative to move the marker to find the treat. In the video clips I use small plastic plant pots. Any small pot or pottle will do – margarine containers, even something as large as one-liter ice cream containers or cut down milk containers. Make sure that it is safe and easy for the horse to move the container aside with his nose to reach the treat, especially when first introducing the task.
  • Treats to put with each marker. These can be carrot/apple strips, pieces of celery, an unshelled peanut, horse pellets.
  • Halter and long, light lead if you can’t have the horse at liberty.
  • Halter and short lead if you want to ask the horse to wait while ground-tied.
  • Mat, pedestal, or balance beam if you want to use a WAIT spot while you set out the treasure trail.
  • For generalization, stones or pieces of wood to set out as marking points.

Notes

  1. At first, use single obvious treats such as a large strip of carrot or any vegetable or fruit your horse likes. Once the horse understands the game, it is easy to switch to a few horse pellets or an unshelled peanut under each marker.
  2. Ensure the horse can easily move the marker with his nose.

Slices

  1. As a first task, we have to teach the horse (or refresh) a signal indicating to ‘seek’ by moving away from us toward a target. Begin by hanging targets at nose level around your training area and have the horse walk with you between the targets, with a click&treat for putting his nose on each one. Rags or plastic drink bottles make good targets.
  2. Once 1 above is ho-hum, stay back a little bit as you approach each target and develop a hand gesture paired with a voice signal to let the horse know you would like him to move ahead of you to ‘seek’ the target. I use a light tap behind the withers as a touch signal, as well as an arm/hand gesture. Click when he touches the target and walk forward to his head to deliver the treat. This builds up Prerequisite 4 – horse confidently moves forward away from you.
  3. Play with having the horse target the type of marker you will use on the ground, while you hold it in your hand.
  4. With the horse nearby and watching (behind a gate or tied or held by a helper), be obvious about putting a treat on the ground nearby and cover it with the marker the horse has been targeting in your hand.
  5. Encourage the horse to move forward away from you to ‘seek’ and explore the marker to discover the treat under it. Some horses may need you to ‘help’ move the marker during the first one or two trials. As the horse begins to understand the game, gradually hang back until he can do it on his own.
  6. Begin to create a trail of multiple markers. Put them close together at first, then gradually further and further apart. If your horse lives on a track, you might lay the trail around corners.

Generalizations

  1. Lay out the treasure hunt in different venues.
  2. We can use rocks or pieces of firewood to mark the site of each ‘treasure’ and occasionally move these around to change the puzzle. We may need to guide the horse from marker to marker the first few times. Start with them close together and gradually put them further apart. This system means we don’t have to pick up the markers each time.
  3. We can add complexity by using a variety of markers as long as we teach each one separately at first.
  4. We can add interest by putting a variety of treats or fresh herbs/willow twigs into a series of cardboard boxes scattered around in different places each time. These are more visible and work well if we set them up before releasing the horse(s) into the space. However, be careful not to use boxes with staples and the glue in the carboard is not safe to eat. Some boxes will also have been sprayed.
  5. When the horse finishes seeking out a line of treasures, we can add a recall back to us, which earns a click&treat celebration.
  6. When trailering a horse to a venue, have him wait in the trailer while you set out a circuit of treats with familiar markers. Then as soon as he exits the trailer, encourage him to come with you to do the treasure hunt. By having something familiar to do right away, the idea of a new/different place can be less worrying for the horse. I used to do this without markers and found it hard to remember exactly where I’d put the strips of carrot, so markers are helpful.
  7. We can ground-tie the horse or ask him to stand on a mat, pedestal, or beam for the ‘WAIT’ while we set out the treasure hunt. This gives him a definite place to be. Of course, we’d have to spend time teaching ground-tying or WAIT duration first.
  8. We can set out rails between the markers to encourage more varied movement. The horse will usually step across them if they are in direct line to reach the next marker.

The WAIT Game

Introduction

Once we have taught our horse to park on a mat, we can begin to teach WAIT. WAIT is parking with duration. Along with duration, we can teach WAIT while we go further and further away from the horse.

We can then generalize by asking the horse to:

  • Wait in unusual places including over, between or on obstacles.
  • Wait to be invited through gates, into and out of wash-bays and stalls.
  • Wait as a way to explain ‘being tied up’ to the horse.
  • Wait for mounting/dismounting or harnessing/unharnessing.
  • Wait while we go out of sight.
  • Wait to enter a trailer/truck and wait to be asked to exit a trailer/truck.
  • Wait during husbandry care – grooming, tending feet, vet procedures.
  • Wait while we adjust our camera position.
  • Wait while we move around obstacles we are using for training.
  • Wait anytime and anywhere. Maybe paired with ground-tying.
  • Wait while we talk to another person.
  • Wait for our turn at a competition.

AIM

Horse and handler agree on WAIT signals and horse is able to WAIT in a variety of situations.

PREREQUISITES

Horse understands that going to a mat yields a click&treat. https://youtu.be/xMaZWt5gK2o

Horse is keen to target feet to a variety of mats in a variety of venues. https://youtu.be/GotLjG8931I

Generalizing mats to different places.

https://youtu.be/wdptBQ0EtK4

VIDEOS

Park and Wait: https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys

The horse can’t be wrong when he is learning something new. We have simply not YET explained what we want clearly enough in a way that he can understand. Never make him feel wrong if he needs to move.

Wait: https://youtu.be/ktwTUGvXNwM

Once it is solid with halter and lead, it is fun to generalize to liberty.

Parking out of Sight: https://youtu.be/X4rmbVvE6nw

You can see that Boots is not yet comfortable with me staying out of sight for long. We are in her paddock, not somewhere strange and new.

Movement Routine 12 – Rags as Focus

INTRODUCTION

For this routine we lay the rags out in a line. Only the horse weaves the rags while the handler walks parallel to the rags. Each request for sidestepping is followed by walking a circle, to give variety and vary the flexion throughout the routine.

AIM

To link weaving, standing together quietly, walking circles together and sidestepping.

PREREQUISITES

  1. We have stepping on a mat strongly ‘on cue’ or ‘on signal’ or ‘under stimulus control’. #9 HorseGym with Boots: Putting Targets ‘On Cue’: Click here. More info about putting targets ‘on cue’: #5 HorseGym with Boots: Putting Nose Targeting ‘On Cue’. Click here.
  2. Smooth transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions. Click here.
  3. While walking shoulder-to-shoulder, the horse changes direction in response to handler moving his/her body axis toward the horse or away from the horse. #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation Signals. Click here.
  4. Weaving. #70 HorseGym with Boots: Only Horse Weaves. Click here.
  5. Horse understands a signal for sidestepping. Sidestepping. Click here.
  6. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and relatively short lead (~8′) when not working at liberty.
  • Six rags (or any even number) laid out in a straight line with enough space between them so the horse can easily weave the rags.

VIDEO CLIP

NOTES

  1. Only the horse weaves the rags. The handler walks a line parallel to the rags.
  2. Click&treat as often as appropriate to keep the horse continually successful.
  3. This is concentrated work, so after doing the routine on one side of the horse, it’s best to do something relaxing before working on the other side.
  4. For the sidestepping tasks, you could be in front of the horse as I am in the video clip, or on the side asking the horse to either move away from you or toward you.

TASKS

  1. On the left side of the horse, weave the rags in both directions. Put in a halt and a few seconds of ‘wait together’ at each end of the weave.
  2. Walk a circle to line the horse up with his belly beside the first rag.
  3. Ask the horse to sidestep so the first two rags pass under his belly.
  4. Walk a circle to line up the horse’s belly with the third rag.
  5. Repeat the sidestepping across two rags followed by a circle to line up for the next two rags until you reach the end of the rags.
  6. Use a jackpot or Triple Treat to indicate the end of the routine on the left side of the horse.
  7. Repeat on the horse’s right side.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • If you can run with your horse, trot the weaves.
  • If the horse understands sidestepping with various signals, mix up the way you ask for it.
  • Work on a slope if you have one handy.
  • Do the routine with imaginary rags. I do this often and if I’m careful to keep my signals consistent, it’s amazing how well it works once the horse knows the routine.

Keeping Track of Our Progress

The format below has the benefit of being quick to fill in. Most of us have busy lives into which we must fit our horse time. Once our mind switches over to other parts of our life, it is easy to forget the detail of what we specifically did with our horse and how the session felt. The horse and the handler each get a ‘score’ which is just a shorthand way of recording a ‘session assessment’.

We can use symbols or emoticons to indicate how we felt, how we thought the horse felt and weather details (make sure you create a key for your symbols). Hot, cold, wind, wet all affect how a session goes. If we train in various places, we can have a symbol for each place. If there is a time-break in our training due to life and/or weather interfering, we can note this as well.

The sort of detail mentioned above is priceless when we look back on it. We can see how many sessions we did to get from introduction of a new task to having it fluent and generalized to different situations.

If we keep charts like this in our tack room or car there is an increased chance that we will fill it in right away while the session is still fresh in our mind.

The second chart below is an outline showing one possible way to score each session’s progress. Some people may prefer a ten-point scale so more nuances can be recorded.

It probably works best for each person to make up a scoring details page that best suits their environment and their horse and how they like to record things.

Note that the ‘score’ is just a quick way to define our assessment of a session. It helps indicate where we are while working through a process.

Resetting Tasks

We first played with this task at liberty and Boots scared herself when her leg touched the pipe on her left as she backed into the space. She jumped forward.
She jumped forward a step or two and then stopped. I was standing well back (you can just see the toe of my shoe) in case this happened.
We quietly reset the task with the help of halter and lead, with click&treat for each step back and she quickly regained her confidence. I’m standing to the side in case she feels the need to suddenly come forward.

The task above is a good one to prepare a horse for being restricted behind, as in a horse trailer. It is also a task for preparing a horse to back between cart shafts.

Rather than correct something that did not go well, we learn to reset* a task without placing a negative value judgement on what the horse just did. This makes a huge difference to how horses perceive their training.

While he is learning a new task, a horse can’t be wrong, because he does not yet know what you want.

Clicker-savvy* horses often don’t want their sessions to end. The positive vibrations that go with good clicker training make it fun rather than a chore.

Clicker training gives us a way to let the horse know instantly, by the sound of the marker signal* (click), when he is right. It takes away much of the guessing horses must do as they strive to read our intent* (which is often fuzzy to them).

A horse’s perceptions and world view are quite different from human perception and world view. While we are with our horse, the more closely we can align our world view with that of the horse, the easier it is for him to understand us and comply with our requests.

There is much more about this in my book: Conversations with Horses: An In-depth look at the Signals & Cues between Horses and their Handlers available as an e-book or a paperback.

Key Features of Equine Clicker Training

Clicker training is not a quick fix for problems. It is a carefully crafted language between horse and handler used during every interaction. People often have to let go of what they have always done in order to make room for a new way of interacting with their horse(s).

If frustration becomes part of the equation, for the horse or the handler or both, it is usually a sign of going too fast and expecting too much too soon.

The solution is usually to slow down, think things through, decide on the exact behavior required and write a careful shaping plan to achieve that behavior.

Keeping emotions (horse and person) on the calm/relaxed/joyful side of the emotional continuum is a major part of effective clicker training.

Movement Routine 11: Fence for Focus

INTRODUCTION

As we build up a collection of routines, we can:

  • Improve on tasks we’ve done before.
  • Add a new aspect to a task, e.g. different handler position.
  • Do tasks in a different order.
  • Introduce new tasks.
  • Add trot to some of the tasks.

AIM

This routine links together a finesse back-up, targeting shoulder to hand, sidestepping, counterturn circle, ‘wait’ while the handler walks around the horse plus signaling a back-up from behind the horse.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Smooth ‘Walk on’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions (staying shoulder-to-shoulder). https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Finesse Back-Up. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5XL
  3. Target Shoulder to Hand. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5SH
  4. Smooth Counterturns. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5WK
  5. Horse has learned to ‘wait’ until handler gives a new signal or clicks&treats. Mats: Parking or Stationing and Much More. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9
  6. Horse and handler agree on clear ‘stay’ signals. https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
  7. Horse understands a back-up signal when the handler is behind the horse. https://youtu.be/501PSnAA-po
  8. Triple Treat. https://youtu.be/FaIajCMKDDU

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and 12′ (4m) or longer lead if not working at liberty.
  • A safe fence line to work alongside.

VIDEO CLIP

Movement Routine 11: Fence as Focus (filmed at liberty)

NOTES

  • Be sure that you have mastered each task before chaining them together.
  • Chain pairs of tasks to begin with, then gradually join the pairs together.
  • Click&treat at a rate that keeps your horse being continually successful. As he learns the routine, ask for a bit more before each click&treat.

TASKS

  1. Walk shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse nearest the fence.
  2. Smoothly turn to face the horse and ask for a Finesse Back-up. Eventually work up to ten steps back.
  3. Ask the horse to target your hand with his shoulder to turn him 90 degrees so his butt is against the fence.
  4. Ask the horse to sidestep one direction, then in the other direction. You could be facing the horse, at his side asking him to yield away or at his side asking him to step toward you.
  5. Take position alongside the horse’s head/neck so you can ask him to walk a counterturn half-circle with you, then halt. A counterturn has the handler on the outside of the turn.
  6. Put the rope over the horse’s back, take if off, or ground-tie if your horse knows that. Ask the horse to ‘wait’. Walk forward and right around the horse. Click&treat when you return.
  7. Complete the counterturn circle so you are both once again parallel to the fence; the handler will be nearest the fence.
  8. Ask the horse to ‘wait’ with clear voice and gesture signals. Walk backwards and around behind the horse to end up standing beside his hip furthest from the fence.
  9. Ask the horse to back up while you move to remain beside his hip. Alternately, you could keep your feet still and ask the horse to back up until his head is at your shoulder.
  10. Use your ‘end of routine’ routine to let the horse know the routine is finished for now.
  11. If you started walking on the horse’s left side, teach it again walking on his right side. One side may feel harder.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • Work alongside as many different safe fences as you can find.
  • When it is super smooth with halter and lead, play at liberty.
  • Use a line of ground rails instead of a fence.
  • Do the routine in an open area with no fence or ground rails.

Counting with the Front Feet

Introduction

You may have heard the story about a horse called Clever Hans who could add, subtract, multiply and divide. I think it was eventually found that Hans responded to eyebrow signals from his person to let him know when he should start and stop lifting his foot.

My horse, Boots, and I won’t reach such a level of sophistication, but teaching ‘counting’ can be fun. It also forced me to refine and clarify the way I presented my signals, as well as improve the timing of my ‘click’.

Leg lifts without moving are a good way to play with mobilization. Viewing the video clips, I notice that lifting one leg engages her whole body.

‘Counting’ is a game we developed over many months with several starts and stops to focus on other things. It’s an engaging game for a few minutes at a time when the weather is too hot, wet, windy, or cold to be out and about.

The key, as for most of equine clicker training, is to have many short sessions, two or three minutes long, over many, days. By keeping it short, the horse begins to look forward to the new game as a relatively easy way to earn clicks&treats.

NOTE: Items with an asterisk {*} are described in the GLOSSARY which you can access at the top of the home page.

Developing Boots’ Individual Education Program* for ‘Counting’ helped me:

  • Be more aware of deciding and stabilizing my body orientation, which is a key part of any signal. Horses are super aware of body positioning.
  • Refine the nature and energy of my signal for this task. We do a lot of different things, so it is tricky to keep all my signals ‘clean’.
  • Improve the timing for when I turn the signal on and off.
  • Remember to take up my ‘zero intent*’ position to wait for the horse to tell me when she is ‘ready to repeat’ (Consent Signals*)
  • Relax when the horse attends to external distractions and wait for her to bring her attention back to me.

This exercise is an extension of tasks we developed to create confidence with standing on three legs for hoof care. Details of this are available in my book, Confident Foot Care using Reward Reinforcement.

Once Boots readily lifted a leg when I pointed to it, it was not a big leap to ask for two lifts in a row before the click&treat*. She is presently on her way to counting to ten. Which lets us have fun doing simple math questions when the grandchildren visit.

Aim

To have the horse understand a signal for lifting a front leg (either one) and able to repeat lifting the leg up to ten times on request (number is optional) before a click&treat.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and handler are clicker-savvy.
  2. Handler uses clear body language to indicate ‘intent’ and ‘zero intent’. Click here.
  3. Horse is relaxed about foot care and willingly lifts his feet for cleaning/trimming. Or this task can also be part of improving balance on three legs.
  4. Horse has developed one or more ‘Consent Signals*’ to let the handler know when he is ready to go ahead with what we are doing. Click here.
  5. Horse understands touching a target with his nose, his knee, and his foot. #89 HorseGym with Boots: Balance on Three Legs looks at foot targeting. Click here.

Videos

MATERIALS AND ENVIRONMENT

  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • A space where the horse can stand relaxed and confident.
  • A safe fence (not electrified or wire) or similar barrier.
  • A target safe for foot targeting and easy to handle. I find a piece of cloth slipped into the leather end loop of an old riding crop makes a nice lightweight target. Bulky things like pool noodles are harder to hold and harder to remove from view to ‘take out of play’.
  • A rail on the ground may be helpful in some cases.

Notes

  1. Using props when we begin a new task makes it much easier for the horse to understand what to do to earn his next click&treat. Use of well-planned props takes us halfway to achieving our aim.
  2. Once the horse understands the task, we gradually fade out the props.
  3. Pawing is not the same as counting with a discreet signal from the handler for each ‘number’ counted. If pawing becomes an issue, repeated click&treat for ONE lift of the foot may (over many short sessions) may make it clearer for the horse.
  4. I start each session (once we can count more than ONE) with click&treat for ONE, and work up the numbers to our present limit.
  5. I like to encourage the horse to use both front feet for the counting. Boots sometimes uses both and sometimes mostly one foot. Using both gives better distribution of the muscle movement throughout the body.
  6. HANDLER SKILL: Your horse may begin to offer foot lifts once you’ve started this game. Boots does it in the video clips. This ‘offering’ is precious. It shows you that the horse understands the game and is volunteering to start. If I’m ready, I count such an ‘offer’ as ONE and begin to signal for TWO and so on.
  7. HANDLER SKILL: Click as the horse is in the act of lifting his foot. Good timing is not always easy and can always be improved. Don’t worry if you don’t get it exactly right each time. Focus on the upward movement of the foot. Once you are conscious of this, and with practice, your timing will improve.
  8. HANDLER SKILL: Carefully check your body orientation to keep it the same each time you begin to ask for ‘counting’. Horses are super aware of how our body is orientated. Consistent orientation is a large part of signal clarity.
  9. HANDLER SKILL: Ensure that you always use the hand closest to the horse to give the ‘lift foot’ signal. Which hand you use is highly significant to the horse. I use the hand furthest from the horse to give a signal for ‘shoulder away’.
  10. HANDLER SKILL: The signal for each ‘foot lift’ is an ON-OFF signal.
  11. HANDLER SKILL: As you click, remove the target (and later your hand/finger) to behind your body to consciously take it ‘out of play’ – the OFF part of the signal. When you present it again for the next ‘repeat’ it will catch the horse’s attention as your ON signal. Once you are using your finger, make your moving finger the ON signal and learn to tuck your finger way for the OFF signal.
  12. HANDLER SKILL: I begin the task by using a voice signal. I say, “Counting – Fronts” and quietly count each foot lift, exaggerating my voice for the number I will click. Boots has learned that while I say the number softly, she will need to do another one – in other words, she listens for my loud, happy final number plus click. I’m also teaching her to count with the back feet, where I start by saying, “Counting – Rear” and my body orientation is quite different.
  13. HANDLER SKILL: In the clips you will notice that occasionally Boots pauses. She is not being slow or stubborn, she is thinking. Be sure to give your horse ample thinking time and sometimes they like a bit of time to enjoy their last treat before resuming the game.
  14. HANDLER SKILL: Always click before you reach for the treat or the horse will learn to watch your hand rather than focus on what you are teaching. This is especially important for this task because your hand moving slightly forward with a finger wiggling will become the ON signal as you fade out the target prop.
  15. HANDLER SKILL: Feed the treat away from your body. Try to position your treat hand so the horse straightens his head to retrieve the treat.
  16. HANDLER SKILL: If the horse is distracted, wait with ‘zero intent*’ body language until the horse brings his attention back to you – hopefully using a ‘consent’ signal*. Sometimes the waiting feels like a long time, but it is usually only a few seconds. Pay attention to whatever has caught the horse’s attention by looking at it keenly, then breathe out deeply. This shows the horse that you have noticed his concern but are not worried about it.
  17. HANDLER SKILL: Teach everything on either side of the horse. One side may feel more difficult. The horse may be less comfortable with you on one side. We are usually less smooth giving signals when we use the non-dominant side of our body. I like to teach each slice of this task on both sides before moving on to the next slice. While the horse is learning, I am learning to be more particular about everything mentioned in these notes.
  18. HANDLER SKILL: Stay with X-number of leg lifts until it feels like the horse is ho-hum with that number, even if you stay at ONE or TWO for what feels like ages. Nothing derails our training as quickly as going faster than the horse is able to absorb each new slice and put it into deep memory.
  19. HANDLER SKILL: If you get a nice series of ‘counting’, resist the natural urge to ‘do it again to see if we can do it again’. Stop when it feels really nice and wait until your next session.

Slices

  1. If you already have a space where the horse stands comfortably relaxed, start with Slice 2. If not, we first need to establish a place we can use consistently for teaching this task. One way is to ensure your horse is comfortable standing between a safe fence and a rail on the ground. Walk him through the space in both directions. Then halt in the space; click&treat, in both directions. The fence and rail help show the horse that you don’t want him to move sideways. When he is relaxed in the space, start with Slice 2.
  2. Set the scene to let the horse know that ‘targeting’ is the game of the moment by asking him to target his nose, a knee, then the back of a front foot to your target.
  3. Repeat touching the foot to the target ONCE with a click&treat each time. Somewhere between three and five repeats is plenty at one time. (See The Rule of Three. Click here. )
  4. When the horse readily lifts his foot once, ask for twice before the click&treat.
  5. When the horse readily ‘counts’ to TWO, ask for THREE before the click and treat.
  6. And so on, to as high a number as you like, always staying within the horse’s ability and interest level.
  7. As you reach a higher number (over five), the horse may pause more often to think. He may be thinking about which foot to lift next.
  8. When it feels like the horse has a good understanding of the task, gradually introduce a finger wiggle with the hand holding the target. Horse peripheral vision is magic at picking up movement, so they will notice the finger wiggle easily.
  9. Gradually lessen the movement of the target stick toward the horse as you wiggle your finger. Eventually you’ll realize that you no longer need the target stick – that your hand/finger movement has become the signal.
  10. Remember, bringing your hand forward and the wiggling your finger is your ON signal. Put your hand ‘away’ and out of play is your OFF signal. Then when you bring your hand with wiggling finger forward again, the horse will notice it as your ON signal to do another ‘count’.

Generalizations

  1. When the horse is ho-hum about his ‘counting’ task in the familiar spot you have been using, move to different venues. You may want to begin with fence and rail props in a new venue. Horses let us know when the props are no longer needed.
  2. At some point you can begin to mix up the number you ask for – sometimes THREE, sometimes FIVE, occasionally SEVEN, and so on.

Fitting Head Gear

Many people know the structure of the horse’s skull, but some people don’t. It’s possible to unknowingly inflict discomfort and pain, sometimes causing severe physical trauma to the soft tissues and nerves that lasts the horse’s lifetime.

We can see that the solid bone on the front of the horse’s nose does not go all the way down. The bone down from where the molars start is thin and precarious. It is surrounded by cartilage carrying the many nerves from the horse’s lips and whiskers.

These nerves of touch, smell and taste enable the horse to graze safely – both the horse’s physical safety in terms of touch and relaying information about smell and taste.

Even if we prefer to play with our horse(s) at liberty, it is essential for their life in captivity that we take the time and make the effort to ensure that they are comfortable having head gear put on and taken off. And be confident with ropes and leading.

It is traumatic to see a young horse who was haltered and the halter left on until it deformed the growing skull. The pain involved is unthinkable.

There are numerous risks involved with leaving halters on. Breakaway attachments can be an option if leaving a halter on can’t be totally avoided.

The following video takes a quick look at making sure that our head gear fits well with minimum discomfort.

It is hard to overstate the sensitivity of the horse’s mouth and muzzle area. While bits cause mouth trauma (physical, mental and emotional), headgear like knotted rope halters, cross-over nosebands or regular nosebands fitted too low also cause discomfort and pain.

It pays to remember that a horse with his mouth tied shut can’t ‘blow out’ freely, or cough to clear his trachea. Rope halters with knots need to be treated with gentle hands. Side-pull halters or bridles pull the inside of the cheek against the horse’s teeth, so must also be used with gentle hands. We all know what an ulcer inside our mouth feels like.

It is the nature of horses to suffer silently. Perhaps if they squealed like pigs it would be easier for us to refine our way of being with horses.

Human-Horse Disfunction

Photo above. Boots in a moment of worry when her hind end touched the pipe. We were practicing backing into a dead-end space.

A momentary disconnect as Boots checks out the lovely smell of chaff in the barrel.

Horse-Human disfunction

Most horse-human dysfunction is due to lack of clarity from the human side of the relationship due to one or more of the following reasons.

  1. Our behavior around the horse is inconsistent.
  2. We are not able to read the horse’s body language well enough to understand what he is communicating to us about his physical, emotional and mental state.
  3. We have not set up the environment to make it easy for the horse to understand what we want him to do.
  4. Our signals to ask the horse to do something are inconsistent, poorly thought out or poorly taught.
  5. The task is not thin-sliced enough.
  6. Prerequisites are missing.
  7. We expect too much too soon.
  8. Human emotions get in the way.

Most horses are happy to comply with our requests if:

  • We teach what we want thoughtfully and carefully in a way that the horse can understand.
  • We ensure our signals are clear and consistent.
  • We have well-timed release of signal pressure/click followed by the treat.
  • We teach at a pace that the horse can absorb; not too fast.
  • We teach at a pace that maintains the horse’s interest; not too slowly.

As the handler gets better and better at thin-slicing* a large task into its smallest teachable parts, it becomes easier and easier for the horse to learn by being continually successful. It’s this aspect of learning that makes a horse look forward to his sessions.

Learning the Mechanics of Clicker Training

Timing of the click and smooth, prompt treat delivery are harder than it looks at first glance.

Practice with a Person

It’s ideal (perhaps even essential) to learn the process of when/how to click and how to deliver the treat with a person standing in for the horse. The more adept we are with the mechanics of treat delivery before heading out to the horse, the more our horse will buy into our confidence that we know what we are doing.

We want to practice with another person until we have the mechanics of click timing and treat delivery in our muscle memory. Then, when we start with the horse, we can focus more clearly on the horse and the consistency of our actions.

Simulation with a Person

The first step to becoming a clicker trainer with good timing skills is to get our head around how to carry out the click&treat routine smoothly.

We need to practice enough to put the sequence of events into our muscle memory. If we are familiar and confident with what we are doing, the horse will buy into our confidence.

Neither person is allowed to speak.

You can put the clicker on a string around your neck or on a string around your wrist so you can let go of it to use your hand. However it takes lots of practice to smoothly slip the clicker back into position so that ‘letting go’ doesn’t interfere with good timing* of your next click.

Slices:

  1. Have your hand ready on the clicker (if using a clicker).
  2. Present the target a little bit away from the person, so he or she must reach toward it slightly, to touch it.
  3. Wait for the person to touch the target with their hand (be patient).
  4. The instant they touch it, click or say your chosen word or sound.
  5. Lower the target down and behind your body to take it out of play.
  6. Reach into your pocket/pouch for the treat (maybe use coins or bits of cardboard or mini chocolates).
  7. Extend your arm fully to deliver the treat.
  8. Stretch your treat hand out flat so it is like a dinner plate with the treat on it.
  9. Keep your arm and flat hand firm, so your pretend horse can’t push it down as he takes the treat.
  10. When your pretend horse has taken the treat, relax and pause briefly, then begin again with slices one and two (hand on clicker, present target).
  11. Ignore any unwanted behavior as much as possible.
  12. Turn a shoulder or move your body/pouch out of reach if the person pretending to be your horse tries to mug you for a treat (in case you are using chocolate). Your pretend horse must learn that he or she earns the click&treat only by touching the target. If your ‘pretend horse’ is strongly invasive, put a barrier between you.
  13. Multiple short sessions (up to three minutes long) at different times during the day allow your brain and your muscle memory to absorb the technique, especially the finer points of timing.
  14. If your helper is willing, let him/her be the teacher and you take a turn being the horse. Playing with ‘being the horse’ is often a huge eye-opener. The ‘horse’ is not allowed to ask questions or make comments but he can use body language to express his opinions.
Playing with different people will be as different as playing with different horses.

Movement Routine 10 – Rags as Focus

Photo: Task 6; U-turn around one rag.

INTRODUCTION

This routine presents a novel way to walk ever-decreasing circles. It also includes weaving and 180-degree turns.

AIM

Smoothly carry out a routine walking together in a variety of configurations.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Walking together shoulder-to-shoulder. Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions. Click here.
  2. While walking shoulder-to-shoulder, the horse changes direction in response to the handler moving his/her body axis toward the horse or away from the horse. #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation Signals; Click here.
  3. Weaving. #70 HorseGym with Boots: Only Horse Weaves; Click here.
  4. Smooth 180 Degree Turns: Click here.

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and relatively short lead rope (8′).
  • Rags: I used six rags in this video clip for easier filming and to avoid boring viewers, but you can use as many as you like and make the circle as large as you like.

VIDEO CLIP

#215 HorseGym with Boots: Movement Routine 10 Rags as Focus; https://youtu.be/HpMSjqYdagk

NOTES

  1. I like to memorize the sequence of tasks by walking the pattern without the horse and/or with a person standing in for the horse. It also works to visualize the sequence often.
  2. Make the circle a size that suits your horse. We want him to be able to do the weave part easily. As he gets more adepts, you can gradually make the circle smaller to encourage more bend.
  3. I found it a challenge to remember which rag we were going to leave out next as we made the circle smaller. Having different colored rags made it easier.
  4. Boots is now so good about recognizing that the rags are not mats, that I could walk on the rags or inside the rag circle without her stepping on them. If your horse tends to step on the rags, walk on the outside of the rags so he is further away from them.
  5. Use a rate of reinforcement that keeps your horse continually successful. This can be very often when you first introduce the routine. As the horse gets to know the routine, gradually decrease your rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat).
  6. Be careful not to drill. Multiple short sessions will keep the horse keen to do it again next time.

TASKS

  1. On the horse’s left side, starting from the center of the circle, ask the horse to weave the rags while you remain walking inside the rags.
  2. When you’ve weaved through all the rags, walk a full circle around all the rags.
  3. Walk a second circle leaving out one rag.
  4. Walk a third circle leaving out two rags, and so on, systematically, until you reach your last circle around just one rag.
  5. Walk to the center of the circle for a rest; click&treat.
  6. From the center, walk straight ahead and do a U-turn around the nearest rag and return to the center.
  7. You’re now facing the opposite direction, so choose another rag in front of you, walk toward it and do a U-turn and return to the center.
  8. Use your ‘end of routine’ routine so the horse knows it is the end of the routine. I use a Triple Treat.
  9. Repeat on the horse’s right side. You may want to do something else before you repeat this on the other side because it is such concentrated work.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1. When it feels smooth, work at liberty.
  2. If you are able, set up a big circle and do some of the routine at trot.
  3. Add the task of ever-increasing circles.
  4. Work on a slope if you have one handy.
  5. Use more rags.
  6. Set the rags into a rectangle or a triangle to encourage more variety of movement. Or have one end round and the other end with two right angles.

Using Hoops for Foot Awareness – and More

Hoops are handy obstacles to use for teaching a variety of skills. They are easy to set up and store. We can use them in numerous contexts. They can help us achieve a variety of objectives. For example:

Handler:

  • Identify prerequisites for each exercise.
  • Practice thin-slicing the tasks.
  • Practice writing a training (shaping) plan for each configuration.
  • Hone our timing of the click.
  • Make our signals as clear and consistent as possible.

Horse:

  • Develop foot awareness.
  • Gives a defined spot to learn the ‘wait’.
  • Generalize signals (cues) to new situations.
  • New puzzles to work through – mental stimulation.
  • Flexion exercises.

Boots and I have played with hoops on and off for quite a while, as in the following video clips.  For a 15hh horse hoops about one metre across work well for trotting through, but we also use smaller ones for some of the other activities.

The hoops are made with plastic water pipe with the ends held together either with the right-sized twig pushed into the ends or a stretch of hose either one size smaller to fit inside the ends or one size larger to form a sleeve across the ends. To make them more visible I wound electrical tape around them.

Clip 1

 

Clip 2

 

Clip 3

 

Clip 4

 

Clip 5

Developing Relaxed Food Retrieval

Photo: Relaxed treat retrieval is the essence of clicker training.

Lunging for the Treat = Anxiety or Assertive Horse Behavior

Some horses are always polite, others not so. Something in their background may have created anxiety around food. But the character type of the horse is also involved. Each horse lies somewhere along a shy ——– assertive continuum. A horse on the assertive end will be keen to follow his nose to the source of the food, which is obviously a helpful survival behavior.

For effective clicker training we have to carefully navigate this crucial aspect of using positive reinforcement in the form of food. The handler must feel safe and the horse must feel safe and have a sound understanding of when a food treat will be offered. It requires us to be careful and consistent and willing to explore options.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of having a way to let the horse know when we want him to stand with us quietly. We need to teach him when our body language indicates that all we want is to stand together in a relaxed manner, and when our body language is asking him to do something which will earn a click&treat.

  1. Be safe. Organize a barrier between you and the horse so you can move back out of range if he gets excited about the idea of food rewards. Depending on the horse and your expertise, you may not need the barrier for long, or you may need it for quite a while.

If your horse is energetic, use the energy by setting up a roomy reverse round pen and teach the horse to follow your target as you walk or jog along.

A reverse round pen is one where the handler stays inside the pen and the horse moves around the outside of it. Or you can do the same on the other side of an existing fence. For this, you want to click for the actual movement, rather than catching up with the target. For example, click after three steps, then five steps, and so on until you get whole circuits or stretches of fence before the click&treat. Find out more about using reverse pens here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-64e

  1. Make sure that the horse is not hungry. We want the horse interested in clicker work, but not over-excited or aroused by the thought of food tit-bits. In other words, make sure he has ample access to grazing or hay before you start a clicker training session.
  2. Check out your food delivery technique.
  3. Does it take too long to get your hand into and out of your pocket or pouch? Can you find easier pockets or a more open pouch?
  4. Do you move your hand toward your treats before you’ve clicked? This causes problems because the horse will watch your hand rather than focusing on what you are teaching.
  5. Be sure to only feed treats if they have been earned and you have clicked. Ask the horse to do something before giving a treat, either have him touch a target or take a step or two backwards; click for the action and deliver the treat.
  6. Avoid feeding any treats by hand unless you have asked for a behavior and clicked for it. When not clicker training, put treats in a feed dish or on the grass.
  7. Often, we can influence the horse’s position by holding our treat-delivery hand where we want the horse’s head to be rather than where he has stuck his nose.

In the beginning, we ideally want him to have his head straight to retrieve the treat. If he is over-eager, it can help to hold the treat toward his chest, so he must shift backwards to receive it.

This is the clearest way to let the horse know that lunging at your hand for the treat won’t benefit him. It also begins to build the habit of stepping back when you shift your weight toward him, as in the photo coming up. It’s a great way to begin teaching the ‘back’ voice and body language signal.

Video: Encouraging stepping back to retrieve the treat.

In some cases, it can help to have a halter on the horse, so we can take hold of the side of the halter after the click, giving us some control of where the horse puts his mouth. See the section called ‘Developing Good Table Manners’ that is coming.

It can help to run your closed treat hand down the horse’s nose from above, asking him to target your fist before you open your hand right under his lips so he can retrieve the treat.

When you do this, use a bit of upward pressure to stop the horse pushing your hand down. If your hand does not stay firm, it can cause a horse to get anxious about where his treat is and cause him to push down harder or become grabby.

  1. It may also work to bring your fist (closed around the treat) up under his chin and have him target your fist before you flatten your hand (and apply upward pressure) so he can retrieve the treat. Often one of these little intervening steps can help build the habit of polite treat-taking.
  2. A bit of experimentation will determine what works best with a specific horse.
  3. If the horse is overly keen, try using treats that he doesn’t consider quite so yummy. Be sure to set up your routines so the horse has ample time to graze or eat hay before each session.
  4. With consistency and patience on the handler’s part, over-enthusiastic treat-taking usually improves once:
  5. The horse understands that a click only happens when he carries out a request you have made.
  6. A treat always follows the click.He’ll learn that a treat will only follow if there has been a click first. That is why we must be totally consistent with when and how we click&treat.
  7. The horse’s character type and current emotional state will influence how he takes the treat. If a horse who usually takes the treat softly becomes grabbier, he is giving us information to take on board. Alternately, a horse who starts out grabby may over many sessions become relaxed about retrieving his treat, once he understands how the system works.
  8. Prompt, cleanly-executed treat delivery is always important. If things are not going smoothly, the first things to check are inconsistency and sloppy treat delivery. It helps to video what is happening, so you can look closely at your body position, orientation, timing* and treat delivery.
  9. Another approach is to put the treat in a container after each click. It can either be a food bucket in the horse’s pen, into which we toss the treat, or a flat dish or scoop we hold out for the horse to retrieve the treat, then remove again. Some boarding facilities have a ban on hand feeding, which is a little hurdle to overcome. There is a video clip about this here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-651

What to Check for:

  1. Timing of your click to the action you want.
  2. Smoothness getting the treat out of pocket or pouch while you take the target ‘out of play’.
  3. How promptly you present the treat to the horse.
  4. How you hold out the treat to the horse and how firm you keep your hand so the horse doesn’t push it down.

 

Developing Good Table Manners

A video clip called Table Manners for Clicker Training in my Starting Clicker Training playlist illustrates how we can use the timing of the click to improve politeness around treat retrieval. The clip shows Smoky, early in his clicker training education, with Zoë who had never done it before. Click here.

The method shown on the clip can be improved by not waiting so long to click&treat again. When we begin teaching a horse about keeping his head facing forward rather than toward us, we want to click&treat the moments when the horse remains facing forward and the moments when he turns his head away from the food source.

In some parts of the clip we waited for Smoky to turn toward Zoë and then turn away again before she clicked. Doing this runs the risk of having the horse think that turning toward the handler first is part of what we want him to do. In this exercise, we also want to mainly click&treat the act of keeping his head facing forward.

Summary: to develop good table manners while we stand beside the horse’s neck or shoulder, we click&treat for:

  • The horse turning his head away from us into the ‘straight forward’ position.
  • The horse keeping his head straight, away from us.
  • The horse keeping his head straight for longer, building up duration one second at a time.

Be sure to teach good table manners standing on either side of the horse as well as facing the horse. Begin the table manners training in protected contact, i.e. standing on the other side of a fence, gate, or stall guard.

Or have the horse tied up if that is your safest choice. When it is all going well with protected contact and you feel safe, change to standing with the horse.

It may take lots of very short sessions before the horse is able to relax into the ‘head forward’ position while we stand with zero intent* beside his shoulder.

Do a little bit of this ‘Polite Table Manners’ exercise every time you are with your horse to keep it strong in the repertoire.

As mentioned earlier, I prefer to introduce the idea of click&treat by asking the horse to do something more specific such as touch his nose to a target object.

Whether or not we are using protected contact in the form of a fence or gate, it’s easier to introduce the target if we stand in front of the horse and a little bit to one side.

If the horse is tied up, it may be easier to stand beside the horse to present the target.

Maintaining politeness around food is always part of the clicker training equation. It’s good to teach food manners standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse as soon as the horse has clearly made the connection between the click and the treat.

  1. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’

It’s hard to overstate the importance of having a way to let the horse know when we want him to stand beside us quietly. We need to teach him when our body language indicates that all we want is to stand together in a relaxed manner.

One way to do this is to stand with both hands laid flat across our belly button, and our energy as close to zero (deflated) as possible, breathing quietly, relaxing our hips. We look down or gaze softly into the distance.

If you do this consistently, the horse will soon recognize this posture as your ‘neutral’ signal when you have zero intent and all you want is for him to stay quietly parked. (See the Blog: ‘Zero Intent and ‘Intent’: Click here.)

My body language is at ‘zero intent’. My stance and hands lying quietly on my belly tell Boots that the task is to stand quietly. My focus is soft and away from the horse. My breathing is quiet.

 Every time we are with our horse, we should spend a few minutes focused on taking up our ‘zero intent’ position with click&treat reinforcement for the horse standing quietly without offering any behavior except standing quietly.

Over many sessions, we build up the ‘waiting quietly’ time, second by second, to fifteen or twenty seconds.

It is hard to overemphasize how important this is as part of our everyday interactions.

Hand Feeding at Other Times

It’s important not to hand feed the horse unless we have asked for something specific which we can click&treat. If we randomly hand feed when we are not clicker training, the horse will be confused, and problems can arise.

As with everything, it is up to us to be clear and consistent all the time. If we visit the horse or check up on him and want to give him a treat, we can put it in a feed bin or on the grass.

20 Steps Exercise

Photo: Our horse walking with us confidently is basic to everything else we want to do.

INTRODUCTION

This is one of my favorite exercises. It is fun to do as a warm-up or a cool-down or if horse time is short. If you are energetic you can eventually do it trotting.

This exercise encourages the horse to walk with us in position beside his neck or shoulder. It is a way of teaching ‘leading’ without the need to put pressure on the lead rope or use a lead rope at all. We can teach this exercise totally at liberty once the horse is clicker-savvy.

The more precise we can be with our body language, the easier it is for the horse to read our intent.

When we invite the horse to walk with us in the ’20 Steps Exercise’ we adjust our pace to the horse’s natural pace, so we can walk ‘in step’ with each other.

When we do this task at liberty, it’s easy for the horse to let us know if he is not in the mood to do things with us because he can peel off in his own direction.

If you have a safe, enclosed area, and protected contact is no longer needed, starting at liberty is ideal.

If the horse is exuberant and protected contact remains a good idea, you can still do this exercise with the horse at liberty by using a reverse round pen (person in the pen, horse moves around the outside of it) or a stretch of paddock fence. If your fencing is electric tape, make sure it is turned off. Lots more about reverse pens here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-64e

Doing a little at a time keeps this exercise fresh and lively in the repertoire.

If protected contact is a good idea, we can set up a reverse round pen with uprights and fencing tape. The horse moves around the outside of the ‘pen’ while the handler stays inside. We can make it a size that best suits the task we are working with.

AIMS

  1. Handler refines clear ‘walk-on’ and ‘halt’ body language, energy level and voice signals.
  2. Horse willingly mirrors the handler’s energy changes and stays in position with his neck/shoulder area beside the handler.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Handler is aware of using breathing and body energy level to indicate ‘energy up’ before moving off and ‘energy down’ before coming to a halt.
  2. Handler had decided on clear ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ voice signals.
  3. Handler has developed a consistent ‘walk on’ arm gesture.
  4. Handler uses clear preparatory body language before coming to a ‘halt’, e.g. slowing down, breathing out and dropping weight into the hips.

Optional: These prerequisites are nice but not essential. This task is a way of achieving or improving the three skills below.

  1. Horse walks smoothly beside the handler’s shoulder.
  2. Horse understands ‘Whoa’ voice, breathing and body language signals.
  3. Horse willingly responds to ‘Walk On’ voice, breathing, gesture and body language signals.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A safe, enclosed area for working at liberty.
  • If protected contact is the best choice, use a reverse round pen or use a paddock fence, whichever suits your situation best.
  • If there are no other options, use halter and lead, keeping a non-influencing drape in the lead rope. A light-weight lead is preferable.

VIDEO CLIPS

December 2017 Obstacle Challenge: 20 Steps Exercise.

 

#30 HorseGym with Boots illustrates Boots helping Zoë learn the process with halter and lead.

SLICES

  1. Standing beside the horse’s neck/shoulder, do the following pretty much all at the same time:
  • Raise torso and look ahead.
  • Breathe in deeply.
  • Gesture forward with the hand furthest from the horse.
  • Step off with your outside leg to walk one step using ‘draw energy’ to encourage the horse to move with you. The horse can more easily see movement of your outside leg.
  • Halt after one step by breathing out and releasing your energy; click&treat when your feet are stopped. If the horse has moved out of position accept that for now – deliver the treat as close as possible to where you want him to be.
  1. We will click&treat for EACH halt.
  2. If the horse is a bit surprised and moves out of position, move YOURSELF back into position beside his neck/shoulder and start again, raising torso breathing in, gesturing and stepping off to walk on. Slow down, breathe out, and drop into your hips to stop. If you are consistent, the horse will begin to take note of your breathing and posture.

If you are on the other side of a barrier or fence from the horse, walk on and click&treat any indication that the horse is willing to come join you, then start again with 1 above.

  1. If you are not in protected contact, it’s ideal to start with the horse between the handler and a safe fence, so the option of swinging the hindquarters away is removed. I didn’t show this part in the video clip.

If protected contact is necessary and the horse is unsure about what you want to do if you try using a reverse round pen or paddock fence, we can use a lane. A lane can work well because it reduces the horse’s options. The horse walks in the lane and the handler walks on the outside of the lane.

Lanes can be set up with fencing tape and uprights next to an existing fence or made with bits and pieces like the one in the photo below.

We can usually make learning easier for the horse by organizing our training environment so that what we will click&treat is easy for the horse to discover. Here ware are using a lane to initiate walking side-by-side together.

Next Slices

  1. When one or two steps together is smooth, take three steps before the halt, click&treat.
  2. When three steps together are smooth, take four steps before the halt, click&treat, and so on.
  3. Each time you walk on, begin counting at ‘one’ again.
  4. Stay with four-five steps until moving off together is smooth and the horse stays in position beside you for the halt.
  5. Adjust how many steps you add before each halt and click&treat. It will depend on how fast the horse catches on to the pattern, the clarity and consistency of your signals, as well as how the horse is feeling that day.
  6. With some horses you can soon add steps in 2’s, 3’s or 5’s to reach the twenty steps.
  7. If the horse gets lost or seems to forget, go back to where he can be successful and work with a smaller number of steps until you gain true confidence.
  8. Gradually work up to 10, 15, then 20 steps before each halt, click&treat.
  9. Asking for 20 steps before the click&treat, carried out on both sides of the horse, is usually plenty at one time. But there is no reason we can’t do several sets of 20 steps if the horse stays keen.

Be sure to teach this walking on either side of the horse. One side may be easier. Start again from the beginning (along a fence or in a lane) for the second side. Some horses easily transfer new learning to the other side. Other horses find everything harder on one side.

Handlers usually must also focus to consciously produce clear, consistent body language with the less dominant side of their body. If the horse’s and handler’s stiffer sides coincide, everything will feel a bit harder at first.

When a task feels equally smooth on either side of the horse, a big milestone has been achieved.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • If you started with a lane, move from the lane to working alongside a fence.
  • Play the game in an open area, away from a fence-line.
  • Teach, then add drawing the horse into arcs and turns with the horse on the outside of the turn. See also: Smooth 90-Degree Turns: Handler on the Inside: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5VM
  • Teach, then add walking arcs and turns toward the horse (counter-turns). See also: Smooth Counter Turns: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5WK
  • If you can run, play with it at trot. It’s best to begin this in protected contact in case the horse finds it exciting.

 

 

Alternative to Hand-Feeding Food Reinforcement

REASONS

There are several reasons why feeding the treat from our hand may not be the way forward with either a person or a horse new to clicker training.

For example:

  • The horse is new to people and has no idea about eating from a person’s hand.
  • The person is nervous about offering food from their hand.
  • The horse tends to mug the person once he realizes they have food in a pocket or pouch.
  • The horse is not gentle about taking the food from the hand.
  • Some horses are shy of people’s hands due to experience, or they don’t like taking food from a person’s hand.

In such situations, we can set up protected contact with a handy bucket or dish into which we toss the treat after the click.

We want the container situated so it’s easy to toss in the treats. We also want to use a container from which the horse can easily retrieve the treats.

In the video I’ve put a shallow round-bottomed bowl into the trough that sits on the gate. The depth and corners of the trough make it hard for the horse to retrieve a small strip of carrot or horse pellets.

In the video, I use the word CLICK (and clicker) to stand in for any marker sound you have chosen to use with your horse.

Charging the Clicker

‘Charging the Clicker’ is the first thing we must do when be begin clicker training. We want the horse to relate the sound of our ‘marker sound’ with the idea that a bit of food always follows that sound.

Some horses pick this up very quickly. Others need many short repeat sessions before they make the connection. For horses taught to wait to be told what to do next or get into trouble, the idea of offering a behavior may be a new idea.

This video clip demonstrates just one way of ‘Charging the Clicker’. It has the advantage of using protected contact – a barrier between horse and person. Until we start using food reinforcers with a horse, we don’t know how he will respond to the idea.

Protected contact keeps the person safe and some horses feel safer if a handler is on the other side of a fence. Using a hand-held target means the horse can easily find the YES answer that results in a click&treat.

To me, it feels more meaningful to the horse to ‘charge the clicker’ this way, rather than by waiting for the horse to move his head away from the handler. Using a target gives the horse a tangible destination for his behavior. Asking him to keep his head away from the treats goes totally against the nature of how horses find nourishment. It requires a ‘no’ answer rather than the ‘yes’ answer provided by touching nose to a target.

Once the horse understands the click&treat dynamic, we can work on keeping the head facing forward rather than seeking out the treat pouch.

We can also use this set-up when things are not going well. The horse may have developed the habit of mugging for the treats – pushing his nose into the person. It is totally normal horse foraging behavior – to follow their nose to a likely food source.

By using a bucket or dish, we separate the location of the retrievable food from the person’s body. That alone is a good reason to begin with this technique. Once the horse understands the concept and we understand how the horse is responding to the idea of working for food reinforcement, we can work toward offering the food in our outstretched hand. We can make the switch to hand-feeding while still in protected contact.

Video Clip