How Food Puzzles helped Rita the Unapproachable Mule

In this blog I shared how I was plateauing in clicker training Rita. Rita is still unapproachable at this point, however we made great progress in the weeks I’ve been training her!

Only two weeks ago I started to realize that I was starting to plateau in training. I didn’t see progress anymore, something that is a clear sign of heading towards the end of a dead end street. You need to turn around! That’s hard because you have to let go of your approach and that can be a psychological threshold for a trainer!

How the Food Puzzles helped

Read here how the food puzzles helped decrease stress and increase learning. One of the milestones was that Rita stepped on the mat! Not once, but multiple times! I couldn’t bridge it (that would be too stressful for Rita, see this blog), but the fact that she offer this totally new behaviour multiple times is a huge leap forward!

Key Lesson Mat training

The HippoLogic Clicker Training method I teach 6 Key Lessons, basic behaviours for horses, so that you can easily train complex behaviours in the future. For Rita I thought Mat training would be too advanced, but she proved me wrong! She stepped onto the mat multiple times. Only because I shifted my focus from Results (and using bridges (Clicks) and Appetitives (food rewards to reinforce the desired behaviour) to Relationship (how can I make her feel more comfortable with me).

The other milestone: another new behaviour

The other thing Rita surprised me with was that she picked up the cloth that I hid food under! For a moment I feared it was unintentional and made her spook, but luckily that didn’t happen!

This tells me so much, that I can use in her training:

  • She’s learning and her mind is opening up. She offers new behaviours! Which is great news for her further training process
  • She doesn’t spook as much by items that are unexpectedly moved by herself as the ones that are moved by humans (still working on that)
  • She’s not afraid of items she moves deliberately (has control over)
  • She’s way less stressed with the food puzzles, so bridging and offering food is off the table in near future training sessions.

Trick training

Trick training can be another approach to get an animal engaged in training (again). The fact that Rita loved touching the mats with her lips and stepping onto them and that she took the cloth in her mouth, gives me plenty ideas of keeping her engaged in training.

Control as Appetitive

Also, if she can use tricks as a way to communicate and initiate interactions with humans, that would give her a powerful tool in hands! Then she’s more in control and in a more positive way than using her flight to keep control over the situation. Now she just runs always if she doesn’t want to engage (and she chooses musts often not to at this point).

Giving your animal Control (over their body’s, the trainer, the situation) and choices, you give the animal powerful tools. Tools that help build trust where there is none and ways to communicate. This will decrease overall stress in a traumatized animal and enhance their welfare. This is what I’ve seen over and over working with traumatized animals and the power of positive reinforcement. Let me know if you want me to elaborate on that. I’ve plenty of experiences to share about this topic.

Join the Clicker Training Academy

Are you a compassionate horse owner who loves to learn and would like to get personal coaching in a group? Do you want to have access to online clicker training courses and a fabulous, supportive R+ community, then join our HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy. Check out the link!

Or start with a free clicker training assessment to get taste of what it feels like to work with me. Discover your strong points and weaker points in training (if you have some) so that you know what to focus more on, in order to get the results you want. 

After your assessment you have a clear plan and know exactly what your next step will be in order to accomplish your dream behaviours with your horse. Book here

Happy Horse training!
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc., founder of HippoLogic & HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy

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