Struggling to get my fat horse fit with clicker training

When Kyra got laminitis one of the things I had to do was exercise her!

It was such a nightmare falling back onto negative reinforcement that after 2 days of lunging, I decided to try to get her moving using clicker training.

I did this because Kyra was really agitated with me. She was telling me she didn’t like to be suddenly coerced. At. All.

I never seen her making those faces to me, see photo. ->

It broke my heart, seeing Kyra so unhappy.

Falling of the Exercise Wagon

I tried many times before she got laminitis to exercise Kyra with the aim of weight lost. I fell of the exercise wagon over and over. Then there was this, then that. ‘Life happened’, and so on.

Real reason -in hind sight- was that I didn’t know how to train a whoa horse and turn her into a go horse with positive reinforcement.

Kyra didn’t offer forward movement in the first place. She was never a forward horse (so I thought). Over time, this changed by the way!

Duration in movement: Training for Trot

Duration was a struggle (trotting for more than a few steps was hard at first), to get her moving at all was a struggle.

Getting ‘more movement’, for less treats wasn’t really happening. Normally I hadn’t any trouble fading out treats after behaviours got consistent and on cue.

These things made me feel like I couldn’t do this, so I quit. I told myself: She’s happy like she is, so…

I also wanted to believe: It ‘s not as important because, she’s always been ‘chubby’, it’s her breed (Exmoor pony x Andalusian) and she was happy and healthy…. Right? (I was wrong!)

So she slowly gained weight over the years, and I kept looking away. I literally didn’t ‘see’ how overweight she really had become! The master’s eye fattens the horse: we see what we want to see.

Exercising became matter of life and death

When Kyra got laminitis I had to rethink my movement training! I had to prioritize it!

The vet told me to stop giving treats and start exercising her. Weight loss became a matter healthy or sick and even a matter of life and death. He gave her a body score of 9 (the highest score there is!)

I tired lunging and round penning twice. It broke my heart to see that R- damaged our relationship, that I had so carefully build over the years with clicker training.

What I leaned using R+ to get fat Kyra fit

I decided to change back and use R+ in exercising her. One I made a firm decision I found ways to exercise Kyra and to help her loose weight. Learned a ton. It wasn’t always easy, but now I know what works and what doesn’t I help other horse owners who are struggling to exercise their overweight horses with positive reinforcement.

Here is a video of 5 things I learned using positive reinforcement to exercise Kyra and let her lose weight.

Helping Kyra loose weight with my Movement Training strengthened our bond. Over time, she turned into a happy, forward moving horse! She became fit and recovered from het laminitis!

Join our Force Free Exercising for Laminitis Horses Facebook group

If you struggle getting your overweight horse fit with clicker training, join our support group.

Happy Horse training!


5 Tips to get a fat horse fit with clicker training

Do I need to switch over to 100% Clicker Training? Or can I do both?

When people start using positive reinforcement correctly, they’ll soon notice that their horse is more enthusiastic and more engaged in their clicker training than in their other training. Trouble starts…

Starting with Clicker Training

At first most people choose a fun or easy behaviour to teach. Maybe they start with some trick training and before they know it, they have a very engaged horse. Their horse has discovered that he ‘suddenly’ (in his eyes!) gets treats! Yes, of course that get his attention! He wants more!

Struggles due to Clicker Training

  • Your horse starts to mugging for treats or is very focussed on them and can’t concentrate on anything else
  • He starts to show off his new tricks (or behaviours), even when not asked. This can be annoying, distracting and sometimes potentially dangerous (an un-cued Spanish Walk during grooming for instance)
  • Your horse stops doing what he was doing, because he expects a treat and he’s performing less
  • He offers less quality behaviours once you stop offering treats. Treats can become a bribe and no one likes that, so most trainers stop giving treats and then the horse doesn’t understand why the ‘system’ is broken.

Teaching Your Horse the Principles of Positive Reinforcement

When you teach your horse the Principles, you give him clarity and you prevent a lot of frustration.

How you can help your Horse

  • Teach your horse to pay attention to the click. It’s the click that predicts the reward, not your hand in your pocket. When that happens and he starts mugging: click before you reach for a treat.
  • Teach him an End of Session signal, so that there will be no doubt about when and when not to expect food rewards
  • Put behaviours on cue as soon as they are 90% solid and then stop clicking and offering treats for spontaneously offered behaviours. This way your horse starts to pay attention to your cues and stops offering the newly trained behaviour spontaneously all the time. This prevents frustration in your horse
  • Fade out clicks once the behaviour is solid and on cue
  • Change from 100% reinforcement schedule (reward slighted try) to intermittent or variable reward schedule (only best behaviours get reinforced)

Do I need to switch over to 100% Clicker Training?

When people run into struggles like above, they get hesitant to implement (more) positive reinforcement (R+) in the rest of their training.

I would like to say: solve the struggles you encounter first, so you get confident in your skills. Then decide if you would like to use clicker training in other areas of your training.

I like R+ very much, because it’s really a good two-way communication with your horse. Trainers have to listen, otherwise they won’t get the results. When the horse is not doing what they, want they have to do a little detective work: why isn’t the horse doing what you want? Doesn’t he understand it (are you making the steps too big? That’s called lumping), is he nervous or fearful (how to make him calm), are you clear? And so on.

You don’t need to switch over to 100% clicker training in order to have a good relationship with your horse. I will share how you can do both, but first I would like to explain why you can use traditional/NH with clicker training together. Something you see more and more.

Don’t mix R- and R+!

I don’t recommend mixing R- (negative reinforcement) and R+ in training one behaviour.

Why not: understanding ‘motivation’

There is only one motivation at play: it’s either positive reinforcement OR negative reinforcement.

The horse either does the behaviour because he wants something: an appetitive. This is R+. Or he does something to avoid an unpleasant consequence: an aversive. This is R-.

When we would use pressure to ask our horse to lower his head, it’s the need to avoid pressure that makes him do so. Giving your horse a click & treat on top of that doesn’t change the fact that he’s behaving in order to avoid something really unpleasant that you are applying! No matter how big the food reward afterwards is: you have just taught your horse to respond to negative reinforcement.

Confusing your horse when mixing R+ and R-

In positive reinforcement we:

  • Encourage the horse to offer behaviour
  • Want the horse to take initiative (we can only reinforce after the behaviour)
  • Add a cue once the behaviour is trained
  • He horse expects something really pleasant to happen when he’s offering behaviour. This is a mental start that makes him feel good

In negative reinforcement we:

  • Want the horse to respond to us and do ‘nothing’ unless we tell him to do something (usually the horse’s initiative is systematically punished in the past)
  • The horse must wait for our command (pressure)
  • so that we can release it (reinforcement!)
  • The anticipation on the aversive, becomes the command. The horse responds before the aversive is applied: He feels a light pressure from your leg and anticipates already on the aversive that will follow when he won’t move forward. This is a mental state: expecting something unpleasant to happen.

When we add appetitives (things the horse wants, like a treat) after something unpleasant has happened (aversive in order to make the horse do what you want), the horse can become really confused.

It can happen that the treat becomes ‘poisoned’. The connection of enjoying the treat can become so intertwined with the aversive that he wants to avoid, that he really gets confused. When that happens, trust disappears.

Example: Going to the Dentist

Imagine you need to the dentist. You’re scared because your teeth hurt and feel nervous about what the dentist might do to you.

In positive reinforcement the trainer would give you something wonderful (compliment, money, cookie) when you’re willing to say the word ‘dentist.

Then make it a bit more challenging and give you something worthy when you would call the dentist to make an appointment (you don’t have to go yet!).

Every step towards the goal behaviour (lying in the chair with your mouth open and be able to relax and let the dentist do his job to help you). Receiving the appetitives makes you feel good! Going to the dentist when you want, makes you feel in control and makes it not so bad. Right?

When you would use negative reinforcement the trainer would apply an aversive (pook you in your ribs) until you say the word dentist. Now the fearful word is also connected to a physical feeling: the poking in your ribs.

Next time the trainer wants you to pick up the phone. You’ll be poked until you do so.

Also for making the appointment you’ll be poked in your ribs until you’ve done it.

By the time you are in the dentist chair a lot of aversive things happened that made you go there. These are now associated with the dentist. You’re in the chair because the trainer made you. How would you feel? Confident? Relaxed? Would you like it?

Using R- first and adding R+ would be like the second example. Only you would get a treat every time you would listen to your trainer.

I truly believe that it wouldn’t make the aversive less aversive because the trainer would apply more when the learner wouldn’t listen (that’s the principle of R-: the aversive *must* be aversive or arouse aversive feelings in order to make it work)!

Receiving something wonderful after something bad happened consistently (poking in your ribs) doesn’t make the bad feeling go away or make it less. It will do something else: It will make the wonderful experience of receiving an appetitive change! You wouldn’t care about the money/the cookie/the compliment after you’ve been poked in your ribs to get in the dentist chair! You would happily give up the good in order to avoid the bad (self preservation). The reason you took action was because of the aversive (R-)!

How to use Positive and Negative Reinforcement in training

When you start clicker training and seeing results, you might be worried that you need to do everything with R+. I don’t think you need to.

I do recommend using either using R+ to train a behaviour or R-. Don’t combine them when you train one behaviour. Give your horse clarity when to expect aversives (riding, in the arena etc) and when to expect appetitives (trick training, grooming). Be clear!

Do you struggle with this? Book a free connection call and we can talk about how I can help you get clarity in clicker training. No one switched over to clicker training in a day! All their horses turned out great!

When you’re ready to do more with clicker training, join our community!

Need help training your horse?

Are you a compassionate horse owner who wants to build a strong friendship with your horse? Would you like to understand your horse better and help your horse to understand YOU better? Get access to many online clicker training courses and a fabulous, supportive R+ community in our HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy. Check out the link!

Not sure? Start with a free clicker training assessment to get taste of what it feels like to work with me. When you have a specific struggle that you want to overcome, don’t hesitate to contact me. In this assessment you’ll discover what’s holding you back from accomplishing the things you want with your horse. After our conversation you’ll know exactly what to do, in order to move forward towards your goals.

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

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6 Things That You Might Not Know About Clicker Training (5/6)


In this series I will be sharing 6 interesting facts I didn’t know about when I started using positive reinforcement in training animals. This is part 5. I like this one!

Some of these are common misunderstandings people have about clicker training while others are facts most equestrians don’t know at all.

The goal of this blog is to help more people understand how well positive reinforcement (R+) works in training our horses. I want every one to know that clicker training offers more great benefits besides training your goal behaviour. Positive side-effects you won’t get in negative reinforcement (R-) based training methods (traditional and natural horsemanship). I wish I had known these benefits earlier in life.

#5 Positive reinforcement has many smart training strategies that I haven’t found in other training methods


In the decades that I have been using positive reinforcement training I have discovered so many smart training strategies that I haven’t heard of in other methods.

This is what I learned in the first 20 years in horses

In traditional and natural horsemanship training the aim was to create more of the desired behaviour by taking away something the horse dislikes (an aversive). Therefor, the solution I was offered ,when a horse wouldn’t obey, was to ‘ask again but increase the pressure’ (the aversive): eg more leg! If that didn’t work: a tap with the whip. Increasing the command until my horse would go. The myth I learned was: ‘He (your horse) knows what to do.’

If a horse didn’t cooperated in taking an oral de-wormer, you just tied him up so he couldn’t pull his head away. Which most of the time resulted in a bigger struggle next time. The myth I was told (and I believed) was: ‘He will soon learn that this doesn’t kill him’.

Sounds familiar?


In general the ‘solution’ was often the same (more ‘pressure’) and only aimed to short-term success (the now). Basically the go-to solution was using more coercion, often painful. Rewards must be ‘only sparingly used’ otherwise ‘I would spoil the horse’.

Positive reinforcement expands your horizon

In positive reinforcement the aim is to train the horse by reinforcing the desired behaviour with something the horse wants to receive/have (appetitive). You focus on the good things!

So, when my horse doesn’t offer the desired behaviour I immediately start asking questions. Not the “How can I make the good thing easy and the bad thing difficult?”-question (which often means “How can I -the trainer- get to my goals ASAP?), but many questions. Horse-centered questions:

  • Why does my horse not cooperate?
  • Has my reinforcer (my reward) lost it’s value?
  • Is something else more reinforcing or urgent?
  • Am I clear in what I want my horse to do?
  • How can I make it easier and more fun (!) for my horse?
  • Does my horse understands what I want (Am I lumping? Is there a context shift? Is he distracted? Bored? Anxious or in flight mode?)
  • and so on

Training strategies

Then you have those smart training strategies that really help achieving your goals and goal behaviour, like:

  • positive reinforcement: reinforcing with appetitives (something the horse really wants to have and want to make an effort for to get it)
  • 5 strategies to get your goal behaviour with R+
  • writing a shaping plan (detailed step-by-step approach of training your goal behaviour)
  • the use of a bridge/marker signal to pinpoint exactly what you want to see more of
  • the use of high and low value reinforcers to increase engagement, decrease stress levels, prevent boredom and predictability in training and so on
  • ‘jackpots’
  • chaining behaviour
  • back chaining behaviour

Except for the use of rewards I never heard of any of the above strategies until I learned more about positive reinforcement. A few of these are really your Key to Success in Equine Clicker Training. If you want to learn more join my Clicker Training Academy where you learn all 12 Keys to Success in Clicker Training.

It makes life so much easier that I can’t picture training horses or coaching people without these strategies.

Read the other articles in this series:

part 1 of 6 Things You Might Not Know About Clicker Training
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6

Sandra Poppema, BSc
Founder of HippoLogic
Enhancing Horse-Human connections through clicker training


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