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How to change emotions in your horse during training

 

Sometimes a horse shows undesired emotions during training, like biting, mugging, signs of frustration or even aggression. What can you do to change it? My mentor always told me it is foolish to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results. How do you break this circle?

 

Change the setup

Take a break and rethink your approach. Go back to the point where the behaviour (emotion) was still desirable. Do do know what has changed? Change it back and see what happens.

Maybe you have to change the setup of your training entirely so you won’t trigger the undesired emotion/behaviour(s). In this way you can first ‘work around it’ until there is a more desired emotion or behaviour associated with the behaviour.

Find the cause of the undesired emotion

If you change your training approach you might find the cause of the frustration, boredom or other undesired emotion/behaviour in your horse.

When I encountered a lot of frustration in a horse I used this approach. I didn’t realize what had changed at first.

_low-value-treats-vs-high-value-treats_hippologic

Change one variable at a time

At first I experimented with a different target, a different area to train, hand feeding instead of feeding her from a  bucket and so on. I talked it over with someone who watched the whole session and we figured out it might be the high value food I was using as a reinforcer.

The mare got so excited by the very  yummie treats, she couldn’t wait (anymore) until the target was presented to earn a click and reinforcer. Because she ‘couldn’t wait’, she started to display all her impatience by pacing up en down the fence, tossing her head and pinning her ears. She soon got so frustrated she couldn’t pay attention to what behaviour lead to presenting the target (ears forward, standing still, head at medium height or below) and a click. She went back to her ‘old ways’ to get what she wanted: displaying her unhappiness. This worked for her in the past and she just went back to her default behaviour, as we all do from time to time.

It was only when I changed the food reward to a lesser value food that we immediately saw a huge difference in her behaviour. Apparently the food I was using was really high value for her, so she literally couldn’t wait for another opportunity to earn more clicks and more high value treats. That’s what caused her frustration.

As soon as I offered her much lower value treats, she went back to thinking mode and she was open to learning again.

_treats_in_training_hippologic

I never met a horse that showed me so clearly that a high value treat can cause so much frustration.

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

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How to Turn ‘training’ into ‘fun time’ for your horse

I see a lot of people who are struggling with riding or training their horse. For example, they would love to ride a certain discipline, let’s say dressage, but their horse ‘doesn’t like it’. Would you like to change that if you could? If the answer is yes, keep on reading, if your answer is no, I am curious why not.

Motivation

Is it really your horses’ motivation that is standing in your way or is it maybe your own (lack of) motivation that is holding you back? How does one change motivation?

1_treatOver the years many riders told me that their horse doesn’t like to work in the arena or doesn’t like to do dressage. If I asked for more information it was often the rider who actually didn’t like to work in the arena or do ‘dressage’ as opposed to the horse. The times it was the horse, there was an existing negative association with the arena.

Rewards

If you think your horse doesn’t like to work in the arena ask yourself if you are ‘paying a decent salary’ to do the job. What is in it for your horse?

Is his only reward after walking with a stretched neck on a long rein a few pats on the neck at the end of your ride? How do you motivate your horse? Or do you motivate him with pressure-release? What is his reward? If his reward is not having to work anymore it is not good motivation to get started.

Reinforcers

Do you realize in order to turn a reward into a reinforcer you have to deliver the reward during the desired behaviour or within seconds after the behaviour ended. If the reward comes too late, the horse doesn’t associate the behaviour with the reward and your desired behaviour will not get stronger. That is why a bucket of grain after riding doesn’t improve your horses motivation to go to the arena or perform better in trot next time you ride. It only reinforces him to go back to his stall (where the good thing is happening).

A bucket of food after riding is usually not associated with all the exercises the horse had to perform in the arena. It is simply too long after the desired behaviour and it is not paired with one behaviour. It is more likely that he sees it as a reward for putting him back in his stall or taking the saddle off or doing whatever you where doing in the three seconds before you allow him eating his food.

Associate the reward to the right behaviour

_Ifahorselovestheirjob_hippologicIn order to motivate your horse in the arena, you have to make sure the reward is coupled to the behaviour you want to see more of. The same goes for the rider: pointing out their successes (small or bigger) while they are performing, make them feel that they are achieving something in that moment. After the ride they have the feeling they accomplished something and that they are getting closer to their riding goals.

For a horse it works similar. He wants to know what he does well in that moment. If you  use positive reinforcement you have a powerful communication and motivation tool in hands.

Working in the arena

The secret of enjoying the arena work more is learning what your horse likes and pairing it with the things you like. As soon as horses learn that ‘working’ in the arena equals being paid in a currency of their choice, their association with riding, arena work or dressage will turn around. Turn training into a positive experience with positive reinforcement.

Have more fun in the arena next time!

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

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How to… make the arena more appealing

In my previous post What if your horse doesn’t like arena work I already mentioned that the first step is to find out the reason why.

If you can exclude physical reasons like pain from the saddle, medical reasons like hoof cracks or maybe an unskillful (or rude) rider and so on, you can look for solutions to make your horse more happy in the arena.

What floats his boat?

It is obvious: positive reinforcement (+R) of course. This way of training will make your horse more eager to work for you. With +R you will trigger your horses brain. He has to find out what made him earn that bridge signal (paired with a lovely reward). He will be challenged to think. Horses like that. Really they do!

Variation

If your horse gets bored in the arena because everything you do is very predictable, try something new. If you always ride him, try some at liberty work, long reining or horse agility. Variety is the spice of life.

Use more positive reinforcement to create a better association with the arena or ‘work’ he has to do. Change your Rate of Reinforcement, your treats or your exercises. Raise your criteria (slowly). Trick training is a lot of fun.

Challenge your horse and do something crazy together like ‘101 things to do with a cardboard box’. You can bridge & reward him for every new exercise he comes up with: touch the box with his nose, left hoof, right hoof, kick it forward, play fetch with it, shake it and so on. Don’t bridge a second time for the same idea.

Give him a ball (small or huge) to play with, or to wake his curiosity. Make sure he is not afraid of it.

Relax time

Don’t forget: there is a time to work and a time to play. Do nice relaxing activities in the arena.

I like to let Kyra roll before we ride in the indoor arena on a rainy day (she loves rolling in hog fuel when she has a wet coat) or after our ride.

If your horse likes to be groomed, groom him more often in the arena. Spend time scratching his favourite spots. Watch a video about TTouch or horse massage and try if your horse likes that. 

Feed him in the arena. If you have an outdoor arena where patches of grass grow, let him find them. So he can display his exploration behaviour.
_positive associations with arena_hippologic
Don’t forget: it can take some time before a negative association changes into a positive one. Make haste slowly.

 

What do you do to create variation or make the arena more appealing to your horse? Share it in the comments!

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

 

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What if… your horse doesn’t like arena work?

This is a common statement in the equestrian world: ‘I don’t ride dressage because my horse doesn’t like it’ or ‘I don’t use the arena because my horse hates it’ or… Who hasn’t heard this? Can you do something about it? Yes, you can!

Find the reason

First question I always ask people when they say this is:’Do you like to ride in the arena?’ When the rider says ‘no’ it is usually because it is hard to believe your horse enjoys riding in the arena if they don’t.

If the answer is ‘I know this because my horse refuses to go into the arena’ it is more likely that the horse indeed has a negative association with the arena.

What is associated with arena work?

If you don’t like to ride in the arena, you may have some negative associations with riding in the arena yourself. What happened? Did you fall off of your horse? Does it reminds you of shouting, angry instructors you have had in the past? Is it because you are ‘lumping’ (=making too big a steps and you set yourself and your horse up for failure) your building blocks in training and get frustrated or discouraged?

If the horse doesn’t want to go into the arena, what happened to him? Do you know? Do you think you can counter condition him?

Change associations

If it is about you, try to find out what it is you don’t like about the arena a_arena_work_hippologicnd why. If you were hurt due to a fall, try to take a step back in riding until you find your confidence back in the saddle. Find an instructor who is specialized in anxious riders. If you don’t know where to find one, search for an instructor with a Centered Riding or Murdoch method background. They can help you get your self-confidence back.

If riding in an arena is associated with instructors who seem never satisfied with little improvements, find some one else. You pay, you choose.

Is arena work associated with some frustration, desperation or feelings of anger? Maybe you were never taught you how to split your training goals properly into small steps to set you and your horse up for success. I can help you make a training plan.

Maybe you don’t have a goal in mind and that makes arena work feel purposeless. What are your dreams and how can you change them into goals?

Maybe you love trail riding more because you have the feeling that you are not training your horse and you don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations on the trail. Even if trail riding or endurance is your goal, you can still think of many exercises to do to prepared your horse properly.

Change your horses associations

If your horse doesn’t want to go into the arena or is a bit reluctant to enter, work on making his associations more positive. Just enter the arena to do things he enjoys. If your horse loves to be groomed, just groom him for a couple of weeks in the arena. Or just let him in for a roll. Find out what he likes and use that to your advantage!

_tricktraining_pedestal_hippologic

You can also make the work more attractive by using appetitives (adding rewards) in your training instead of using aversives (unpleasant things) in training. If you don’t know how to start using positive reinforcement start with something fun, like trick training.

I think in 99% of the cases it is not about the arena, I think it is about the associations a rider or horse have with the arena. You can change the associations and make it fun (again).

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

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How to … teach your horse anything

Whenever an idea forms about what I want to teach my horse Kyra I set it as a goal. I then start writing a training plan and make a shaping plan to achieve this goal.

Goal setting

My goal in this example is teaching Kyra to stand still, next to a mounting block, until I mounted and give the cue to walk.

Shaping plan

After I set my goal I make a shaping plan. I think about all the possible steps I have to teach Kyra to achieve my final behaviour: standing parallel to the mounting block so mounting is safe and easy for me. I have to teach her to stand still when I’m mounting, put my feet into the stirrups, taken the reins and I am ready to ask her to walk.

I write all these steps down. I don’t even have to bring it to the barn. Just writing it down makes me focused.

A few of the building blocks of this goal are:

  • making her comfortable near the mounting block
  • halting
  • mat training
  • hip targetting (to be able to align her to the mounting block)
  • aligning with the  mounting block without stress
  • waiting until I have mounted
  • and walking on queue

_mountainblock_hippologic

Context learning

Horses learn in a certain context. I use this into my advantage when I am teaching Kyra something new. I practise as much as possible in the same circumstance (context).

If I have a portable mounting block I always put it in the same place in the arena to practise. I will only put it in another place if she has already mastered lining up in the first spot.

I lower my criteria a bit when I change something in the context she learned the behaviour. In this way I always set Kyra up for success and I always have a good feeling too!

Set it up for success

I always take into account my horses emotions when I teach her something new. I recently saw a video in which the trainer put the mounting block next to the track in order to mount. Unfortunately this was the place where her horse was the most nervous (‘trapped in between the fence and the mounting block.) She made her training much more difficult than it needed to be.

For Kyra the most comfortable spot in the arena was in the middle where she has the most space and couldn’t hurt herself. Secondly I noticed that facing the door was more comfortable for her than facing the opposite side of the arena. I guess she likes to know where the exit is… After all it is an enclosed area and horses are flight animals.

Practising

Then I started to practise the steps in my shaping plan. I usually go up one criterion if Kyra masters it three times in a row.

Latent learning

After a few days of practise I give Kyra a break or I train something completely different. Often something she has already mastered. After giving her a ‘weekend’ off she performs much better. This latent learning is very valuable to me. It saves time!

Rinse and repeat

After a short break I lower my criteria a bit and start with some repetition to give her the confidence that she knows what is expected. After that I can move on very quickly.

Context shift

After Kyra has mastered the basics of the new behaviour, I change one thing in the context. I put the mounting block somewhere else in the arena. Not too far away from where she was used to.

Generalize

After a few times of putting the mounting block in different spots in the arena, I noticed that Kyra generalized the mounting block. Time for a real change: a different kind of mounting block.

I started practising with benches in the park, fences, rocks etc. Now Kyra is used to all kinds of mounting blocks and she is very safe to mount.

This is the general ‘recipe’ I use in teaching my horse new behaviours. You don’t have to use positive reinforcement training to use this in your training.

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

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What if your horse bites you?

What if your horse has a tendency to bite you? How can you solve this behaviour?

The first question that has to be answered is: ‘Why does a horse bite people?’ If you want to solve a problem behaviour start with finding the cause and work from there.

Possible causes

There are many reasons horses bite people. In some cases it is just play or asking attention. Stallions and geldings can play for hours the ‘I bite you, try to get me back’-game. The reaction to the behaviour is usually also the reinforcer. In my experience stallions don’t care about pain during this game, so punishment will have very slim chances to stop this behaviour.

_playful_biting_HippoLogic

Horses can also bite because they feel a need to defend themselves and all the other body language that they displayed to warn you, has been ignored. The horse is not ‘whispering’ anymore but now he is ‘shouting’ in order to express himself. If horses are consequently punished for giving warning signs, they might decide one day to skip the warning signals and start attacking right away.

A horse can also start biting because he is in pain, for example a poorly fitting saddle or bridle. The horse starts to bite in reaction to the saddle during saddling, cinching or a mounting rider.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAMaybe the horse is not biting but nibbling and that is mistaken for biting. Horses nibble out of curiosity, they nibble during mutual grooming or because they like to take objects into their mouths due to teething or being playful.

Biting also can become learned behaviour if the cause of the behaviour is long gone, but they still gain something by it. Horses that are stabled in a very busy environment and are being touched by people all the time without liking it can start biting out of agitation in order for people to let them alone. They can still bite people even if they have moved out of that situation, just because it became a habit.

Mugging behaviour can also turn into biting behaviour if it has been reinforced or if the horse gets frustrated because he doesn’t understand when to expect a food reward and when not to expect it. Some people stop feeding treats altogether, but I would suggest instead of avoiding the problem, solve it.

Sometimes we simply don’t know the cause but we still want to find a solution.

Solutions

The best solutions are tailored to the cause. If a horse is playful, it won’t help if we buy another saddle for him. If the horse is in pain, solve the pain and make adjustments to prevent more pain.

It isn’t always easy to know or make an educated guess about the cause of the problem. Ask for a professional opinion of a horse behaviour specialist or ethologist to help you find solutions that are tailored to the cause and not just solved by punishing or avoiding the behaviour all together.

Biting can be a very dangerous behaviour. Always take (an attempt) to bite you seriously, even if it is play. It still can be dangerous. I personally know three people who lost a (part of their) finger, two due to their own horse.

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

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How to… teach your horse to ignore grass

Here is the audio blog of this article:

 

_teach your horse to ignore grass_hippologic_grazing_mannersHaven’t we all experienced that a horse pulled you towards some grass in order to grab a few bites? Isn’t that annoying? I think it is.

I didn’t want to be pushed around anymore by my horse every time there was some juicy patch of grass growing around. Grass is everywhere! I decided to look for a proper, force-free way to teach my horse more desired behaviour around grass.

I tried a few different approaches, before I found one that works well, gave me a solid result and is totally force-free. I would like to share it with you.

Define ‘proper behaviour around grass’

It took me a while to teach Kyra to behave ‘properly’ around grass. With ‘properly’ I mean: no more pulling me towards grass, wait until I give the ‘graze’ cue and ‘stop grazing and come along’ if I ask her to. I was tired of pulling Kyra off the grass.

Preparation

I must say before you can start training this you need a bit of preparation and… lots of practice time. After all, what is more enticing than grass? Well, a click can be…

What really helps is already have a solid history of click & reinforce. Secondly a horse that walks with you properly and the key lessons ‘head lowering’, ‘patience’ and ‘targeting’ are required to make this challenge most likely to succeed.

Shaping plan

Here is a summary of my shaping plan:

How I trained it

I started to reinforce lifting Kyra’s head while grazing. Why? Because this is the first step to move away from the grass. I began with leading her to grass and I would cue her to graze. Then I just waited (very, very patiently) until she lifted her head by herself. That is the moment I wanted to capture and reinforce.

I can’t stress how important it is to wait until the horse moves (his head) away himself. I tried other methods like pulling the head up/preventing the head from going down or asking Kyra to target while grazing in order to lift her head, but reinforcing her own head raise worked best.

High value treats

Every time she would lift her head , I clicked and reinforced Kyra with a very high value treat. One that could compete with grass. After she ate the treat I immediately gave her the cue to ‘graze’. Here is when the key lesson ‘head lowering’ comes is really handy.

I also clicked and reinforced the ‘graze’ cue. But instead of offering a treat off of my hand, the reward was to graze as long as she wanted.

Every time she would lift her head again, I clicked, reinforced and would then give her the ‘graze’ cue.

Next step

After a certain amount of training sessions, which Kyra enjoyed very much (!), I noticed that she started to lift her head more often during grazing sessions. This is a perfect time to add a ‘lift head up’ cue. The key lesson targeting helped me a lot.

So my next clicker session looked like this:

  • walk to the grass
  • give the cue ‘graze’
  • wait until Kyra lifts her head
  • click and reinforce
  • give her the cue ‘graze’
  • let her graze until I thought she was likely to lift her head up again, ask ‘touch’ target stick
  • click and reinforce
  • cue ‘graze’
  • et cetera.

In this way she is always reinforced for whatever I ask.

Raising the criterion

After several sessions I noticed that Kyra didn’t seem to mind lifting her head up anymore. She was eager to see what I had to offer her. The ‘diving into the grass’ behaviour was gone. She seemed so much more relaxed on grass.

I thought this would be the perfect time to raise a criterion. Now I wanted to lift her head and take one step forward before I gave the ‘graze’ cue again. I literally built this behaviour step-by-step.

The final step in this process was to teach her to wait for the ‘graze’ cue when we would walk on or approach grass.

Result

Now I can ask Kyra to leave grass at any time. She is very willing to come with me. She never pulls me towards a patch of grass and I never have to pull her off of the grass. Win-win, for her and for me.

Kyra turned from a I-need-to-graze-now-and-store-fat-before-winter-comes-horse into a I-see-grass-so-what-horse. She knows she can trust me and is allowed to have her share… only when I say so.

How did you teach your horse to ignore grass?

Sandra Poppema
For tailored positive reinforcement training advise, please visit my website

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Learn more

If you would like a more detailed step-by-step training program to teach your horse to ignore grass, you can book a personal consult or you can participate in my online course Set Your Equestrian Goals & Achieve them.

 

 

 

 

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