Achieving my equestrian dreams, using horse friendly training methods. Sharing my experience with you

Since I was a little girl, I was fascinated by horses. Every year on my birthday and every Christmas I asked for a pony. I dreamt about riding and training horses at liberty. Of course in these fantasies the horse and I were one.

We could communicate in a way that the horse would do everything voluntarily and with ease. I never needed to use force, or use training aids like a bit, a whip or spurs. I dreamt about being friends with my horse and that he would trust me in every situation. That we really could rely on each other…

When I was older I chose to study animal management. A study in which animal-human relationships and animal welfare were key subjects.  After my bachelor degree I became a certified riding instructor. I trained horses, but I still had the feeling there should be something else out there, something better…

The traditional and classical ways of training and riding horses were too focused on getting results. There seemed no place to spent time and effort on the relationship between the horse and the rider. Something I was still longing for. I wanted to train and ride my horse, but wanted to have a solid foundation of trust and friendship first. No one seemed to teach this…

Move away from pain or move towards pleasure

When I started studying learning theory, I learned that there are basically two ways to train behaviour. We all have this in common. We either want to move away from/avoid discomfort or pain or we want to move towards pleasure.  This was when it hit me:  I was still using discomfort to train my horse. Even though I was told I was playing a ‘game’ with my horse, he was still learning by moving away from discomfort (which was called ‘yielding to pressure’ to make it sound more humane).

Apparently you can also do the opposite in order to teach behavior and use ‘pleasure’ to teach your horse new skills. Horses are like humans: we share the same emotions. Like us, horses also like to move towards pleasure.___clickertraining_hippologic

Change the foundation of your relationship

What really amazed me when I started changing my ways is that the relationship with my pony also totally changed. I used to think that I had a good bond with my pony because I trained him from the day he was born. We spent 18 years together. After changing my training approach and using positive reinforcement, I noticed that my pony was also changing. He became eager to work with me, he started whinnying as soon as he saw me coming and he even started to canter to me in the pasture. Something he normally didn’t do. He didn’t walk away, but I always had to come over and get him. In a short period of time we became really good friends and developed a partnership based on trust, which is an excellent basis for all training.

Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t easy to throw out all the equipment that I used to force a horse into doing things. It was a process. A long process with lots of ups and downs.

_carrot_or_stick_hippologicAre you ready to change your ways?

If you are ready to make the change to a more ethical approach of horse training and improve your bond with your horse and have more fun together, let me know by sending me an email.

I offer personal coaching in which I help you train your own horse. I believe that you know your horse best. I think there is more value in you training your own horse than sending your horse to a stranger to get trained. I want you to gain the knowledge and the experience so you become the best friend you can be for your horse.

I wish for every equestrian to have a click with his or her horse.  Visit my website if you want to learn more about me or my training method.

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

The first thought that comes to my mind when a person tells me ‘Clicker training doesn’t work for my horse’ is ‘Why not? Is he sleeping?’ Just kidding. (Klik hier voor de Nederlandse versie van dit artikel).

Listen to this blog on YouTube:

Horses can be trained either by using an aversive to reinforce behaviour (negative reinforcement, -R) or using an appetitive to reinforce behaviour (positive reinforcement,+R).

What does the statement ‘Clicker training doesn’t work for my horse’ mean, when someone says that? Does it mean that:

  • The trainer doesn’t understand the concept of +R and therefor is not applying it properly?
  • The horse doesn’t respond to the marker, the clicker?
  • The horse is not interested in the reward the trainer offers?
  • The horse is not paying attention to the trainer and therefor doesn’t respond to the cues and/or clicker?
  • It only seems to works part of the time (with some behaviours)
  • The horse (sometimes) performs ‘worse’ during clicker training


#1 Trainer doesn’t understand the concept
A lot can go ‘wrong’ if the trainer isn’t conscious of what he is doing or doesn’t understand what he is doing and expects a different result. The basic terms to understand are: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcementmarker or bridge signaltimingshaping behaviourproper hand-feeding, cues, reinforcer and learning theory.

#2 The horse does not respond to the clicker
Can your horse hear the marker (the click)? Does he knows what your marker/bridge signal means? It usually takes 30 – 50 repetitions (marker+reinforcer, marker+reinforcer etc.) before the animal has learned that the marker is an announcement of an appetitive.

Does your marker sounds the same every time? A clicker always makes the same sound, therefor it ‘travels’ the same pathways in the brain. If you use a special word, it can take longer for your horse to generalize the marker sound, so it can take a little longer for your horse to respond and repeat the behaviour you’ve marked. If you use different markers make sure your horse has been introduced properly to each of them.

The marker is not (yet) paired associated with an appetitive or the trainer has not yet figured out what the horse considers a reward, see #3.

#3 Horse is not interested in rewards
The key is that the reward must be reinforcing the behaviour. ‘The receiver determines the reward’. If the behaviour is not getting stronger, the reward did not reinforce the behaviour so it wasn’t a real reward.

Pay attention to your horses needs and wants. A reward can also vary in value: a tuft of hay can be reinforcing in winter, but not in Spring when you keep your horse in a field full of juicy grass. It is the trainers responsibility to find out what the horse wants to work for at that moment.

#4 The horse is not paying attention
Why not? Is there something more urgent going on for the horse than the trainers cues? Can the distraction be removed or the horse taken somewhere else to train? Does the horse think he’s in danger? It doesn’t matter if the trainer doesn’t see the danger, for the horse it is real. Is the horse in ‘learning mode‘? Is he relaxed and engaged enough to learn?

Does the horse responds to the marker, see #2? Are the cues clear and fully understood by the horse? Does the trainer keeps the horse involved or is he distracted himself? Is the horse frustrated or maybe has mentally shut down for one reason or the other? Are the rewards reinforcing? Is the proper behaviour reinforced? It is all about timing: you get what you reinforce.


#5 It only seems to works part of the time
The horse is not interested in the ‘rewards’ you are offering that day, see #3. He might be distracted, see #4.  The cue is not yet established in a different context. The horse doesn’t respond well because the training steps are too big, the criterion has been raised to quickly (also known as ‘lumping’). Or your rewarding schedule is too predictable, see #6.

#6 The horse performs ‘worse’ during clicker training
The rewards have lost their value or the reinforcement schedule is too predictable for the horse and therefor the behaviour becomes extinct. In other words: the click doesn’t motivate the horse anymore.

Of course this is only the tip of the iceberg for the many reasons that positive reinforcement aka clicker training doesn’t work for you(r horse). Can you name another reason? Please share!

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

One of the key lessons in my positive reinforcement course is mat training. In mat training you teach your horse to stand on a mat with the two front feet. Once your horse knows what is expected of him, you can turn this exercise into a powerful tool to teach new behaviours.

Applying Mat Training

Once your horse is happy to stand on a mat you can:

  • Build ‘duration’. This will help to teach your horse to ground tie.
  • Use the mat as indicator for your horse where to stand, aligning next to the mounting block
  • Teach him to step onto other objects like a pedestal, tarp or trailer ramp. You can start placing the mat on or next to the new object first if your horse doesn’t respond to the cue for ‘step up’ or if he is nervous
  • Teach him to put one foot on a stool as preparation for the farriers hoof stand
  • Place mats in the arena and use them to send your horse from mat to mat.
  • teach your horse to go over bridges or step into water
  • Send your horse from mat to mat with a pole or small jump in between
  • And so on

If you want to know how to start mat training with your horse, read this post.


Every horse has a different learning curve

At the SPCA barn were I teach the horses with positive reinforcement, I work with 5 horses. Last week I introduced the mat (a foam puzzle mat) to four of them. It was really interesting to see how each horse reacts in a different way to the mat.

Horse #1

Horse #1 tried to avoid the mat in the beginning and did everything not to step on it. He didn’t even sniff the mat at first. So my first criterion with him was clicking for ‘moving a hoof closer to the mat’. It didn’t take long before he figured out that the mat had something to do with the clicks and he started pawing the mat. Well done!

Horse #2

Horse #2 sniffed the mat right away. It could be that she had seen that the mat had something to do with earning a click and reinforcer or maybe she just has a different personality and training history.

After sniffing, she started touching the mat with her nose. She knows how to target a target stick and a cone with her nose. My first criterion is always ‘interact with the mat’, so I reinforced the sniffing and touching with the nose.

Then I raised the criterion to ‘touch with a hoof’ and I had to ‘set it up for success’ by manipulating the environment a bit. I put the mat in front of her feet and asked to touch the target stick which I held far enough for her to do one step. Indeed she touched the target and stepped onto the mat with one hoof. Then I faded out the target stick and she figured out quickly that touching the mat with her hooves was the way to earn clicks and food.

Horse #3

Horse #3 started pawing the mat right away. This horse has a habit of lifting her legs in order to ask for attention, during feeding time or if she is stressed. If she doesn’t get what she wants, she often alternates legs.

Mat training is a good way to teach her to ‘keep her 2 front feet on the floor’ since this is incompatible behaviour with the leg lifting she does. She is amazingly smart and was the first horse that stood properly with both of her feet on the mat within the first session. It seemed to ‘click’. I have clicked for ‘4 feet on the ground’ many times during previous training sessions. The mat clearly helped her to focus on ‘standing’. I can’t wait until our next sessions to build duration.

Horse #4

Horse #4 stepped on the mat right away as if he wasn’t aware of it. Of course I clicked and reinforced for stepping onto the mat, even though it really looked like he didn’t see the mat. After reinforcing stepping onto the mat a few times I placed the mat a bit further away and he immediately walked over there to stand on it. Bravo! He did step on the mat on purpose.


Mat training was an excellent preparation for stepping on a horse scale. Our clicker trained horses were the best behaving clients that day

Each horse reacts differently to a mat, depending on his character, history, experience with new objects, clicker experience and so on.

How did your horse do in the first session with the mat? How did mat training helped you in other situations? Please share your story in the comments below. Thank you.

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question

Follow my blog with Bloglovin





We can’t always choose to keep our horses the way we would like, but there are some simple improvements you can make to make life nicer for your horse.

Horses are herd animals and for them belonging to a group means safety, companionship, play,  grooming, mates and more. So being among other horses is a must for them. We humans are herd animals, too. If we want to punish someone we lock them up and if we want to KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERApunish a person severely we put them into solitary. Maybe horses experience the same feelings if they are being locked up alone in a stall. See if you can make a change to let your horse spent more time amongst his own species. Look for a boarding facility where they provide group housing.

Horses are animals that by nature are used to move around a lot. They need to…

View original post 350 more words

Recently I have received the same question from several people. Why do you need a clicker when you could just use your voice as a bridging signal? What are the advantages of a clicker?

Why a bridging signal is needed
If you want to reinforce certain behaviour one has to reward the horse at the moment the behaviour is still going on or within a few seconds the behaviour has stopped in order for the animal to associate the behaviour with the reward he is receiving. It is almost impossible to give the horse his reward during the behaviour, which is why positive reinforcement trainers use a bridge signal.


A bridge or bridging signal is a specific signal for the horse that connects the moment the reward is given to the behaviour he was doing. Most clicker trainers use a special device named a clicker as bridge. The clicker makes a click sound.

When the horse has learned that a click is always followed by a reward, the horse starts to pay really good attention to the behaviour he was displaying at the time of the click. He is smart and he wants to train you to give him more clicks. This makes the bridge signal a powerful tool in horse training: it is a simple but clear way of communicating what you want.

Animals like it when they have the feeling they can control the environment (you and the reinforcer).

Advantage of a clicker
_secret_horsetraining_hippologicA clicker always makes the same sound and therefor it ‘travels’ the same path in the brain. The horse understands quickly what the sounds means. A click is not influenced by emotions of the human voice. It doesn’t matter who presses the clicker, it still sounds the same. So other people can ride and train your horse without confusing the horse about the bridge signal. The click of a clicker can be delivered instantly. Timing is everything. The more accurate your bridge is, the easier the horse learns what you want to reward him for.

Other bridges
As long as the bridge signal  is a specific sound it can be used. I taught my horse to respond to different bridges. I use the high pitched and long stretched word “Good” as bridge and Kyra also knows that my tongue click is a bridge.

Advantages of other bridges
The main advantages of a verbal bridge and a tongue click are obvious. The first is that you always have it with you. No matter where you go you can always use your bridging signal.

The second is being able to keep your hands free. Using a clicker always requires a hand to click with. In some situations being able to use both hands can have be a huge advantage.

Disadvantages of a vocal bridge
A vocal bridge always has a little delay, because before you can speak you have to inhale fist. Your voice also can differ according to circumstances: a cold may effect your voice, but also your emotions. When I am excited or annoyed the pitch can change, for us it means the same thing because we know the meaning of the letter of a word. A horse knows the meaning of the sounds of a word. Because your voice sounds only “generally” the same every time, it makes a different, wider pathway in the brain. This sound means: a reward is coming. And this one too. And this one means the same thing. The horse needs to decide every time he hears your voice: was this a bridge or not? Therefor it can take a little longer for the horse to become “clicker savvy” with a voice bridge.

When I introduced the word ‘Good’ I still lived in The Netherlands. They generally don’t speak English to horses, so it was a safe word to use. It was a unique sound. I was the only one who used it and my horse was never trained by someone else. The difficultly with the word “Good” in Canada is that other people use it as praise (reward) instead as bridge signal. That means it might not always be followed by a reward. This can confuse the horse.

Another reason to teach your horse the click of a clicker as the bridge: other people can train or ride your horse and communicate clearly. The click sounds the same every time.

Related post: Introduce your horse to the click

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

One of the most fun tricks I ever taught Kyra is to pick up items. It is very versatile too because once your horse can pick up stuff, you can teach them to hand it over.

Kyra can now pick up and hand over a flower, her food bowl, my clicker, a dog toy, a whip and anything else she can grab with her teeth._trick_training_play_fetch_hippologic

How to start

I started with something really easy to pick up for Kyra: a piece of cloth. In the beginning Kyra didn’t know what to do with it, so I knotted a carrot in it. That stimulated her interest.

I clicked and reinforced for small steps like touching and sniffing the cloth, then examining it with her lips and after a while she tried to grab it with her teeth. Yeey: jackpot! This took a lot of sessions to be honest.

Putting a cue on the behaviour

Once she knew this new trick she wanted to grab everything off of the floor. That is the reason I started with an item that was easy to distinguish: the cloth. I didn’t want her to grab my brushes or other day-to-day items.

Once she learned what to do with the cloth I added a cue to it, the verbal command ‘pick up’ with me pointing to the object I want her to pick up. After Kyra learned the cue I started teaching her to pick up other items. I bought a dog rope toy that is safe and easy to grab.

Shaping the behaviour

Later on I practised with her empty food bowl, my gloves in winter, her halter, the lead rope and so on. It turned out that it is a very versatile exercise. Then I raised my criteria and I threw the item a step away. Now I only clicked and reinforced after picking up the item that was one step away.

The next criterion was to move towards me one step with the item in her mouth. Then I taught her to hold the item until I could grab it. In this way she learned to put it in my hand instead of dropping it in front of me.

Play fetch with your horse

Now Kyra can fetch an item that I have thrown several meters away and bring it back to me. One day I asked her to pick up her toy while sitting on her back. She did it!  I use a treeless saddle, so I have to use a mounting block to get in the saddle.Wow, now I don’t have to dismount anymore whenever I drop something from the saddle. Bonus!

This week I stumbled upon a lovely video of a horse that picked up three rubber rings and put them on a cone. I don’t have rubber rings, but I asked Kyra to put her toy in a bucket. That was fun too.

Here are the videos of Kyra’s tricks.

Video 1: Kyra playing fetch from the saddle


Video 2: Kyra giving me flowers (that would be a nice trick to perform one day)

Video 3: Kyra putting her toy in a bucket


Video 4: Kyra handing over her food bowl after eating


If you like the videos go to YouTube and subscribe to my channel. I will upload more clicker training videos.

Sandra Poppema

Are you interested in online personal coaching, please visit my website or send me an email with your question to

Follow my blog with Bloglovin





Which horse changed your life? Was it a challenging horse? I bet he wasn’t cooperative all the time, was he? The horses that changed my life were ‘stubborn’, ‘difficult’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘challenging’. Some horses had ‘character’ according to the salesperson, which usually meant that they are not very cooperative.

‘Stubborn’, ‘difficult’ or ‘dangerous’

ChicaSholtoBoy_HippoLogic.jpgWhat does a horse have to do to earn a label like that?  In most cases the horse desperately tries to communicate something to humans: pain, fear, discomfort. Horses want to please and cooperate. Since they are herd animals, it is in their nature to do so. If they are very uncooperative or dangerous the horse generally is in pain or he is very, very confused.


Horses that don’t ‘follow the rules’ have a special message. Are you listening? tell me about the most extraordinary horse you ever met. What did he do that was so special?


Sandra Poppema
For tailored positive reinforcement training advise, please visit my website and book a free intake consult!

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: