Using clicker training to get my fat horse fit

Kyra was always prone to being overweight. When she turned 8 she got laminitis and the vet diagnosed her with Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). That explained a lot: why she got so easily overweight and was always hungry. EMS is like diabetes 2 in humans.

Exercise advice: lunging or round penning

Getting the advice from the vet to “go lunge” or “round pen” my horse, in combination of the crash diet he subscribed didn’t work for Kyra. She was very reluctant and unhappy to do so. I was miserable chasing her around with a whip. She always had listened super well, but these traditional ways were absolutely not good for her. She became very reluctant, even after one time to go in the round pen.

Reluctant horse

She tried to escape, didn’t want to go in the round pen and she basically screamed “NO!, NO, NO” at me. It stressed her out, to be coerced into movement and it stressed me out. I felt it damaged my relationship I carefully build over the years with positive reinforcement as training and two-way method of communication.

All the changes were super stressful

She went from pasture with her herd to solitary confinement. A small paddock (in comparison to the huge pasture she was in before) by herself.

The crash diet was eaten in 2-3 hours or so, which meant that she was not eating for about 20 hours a day. It’s very bad for horses to have empty stomach, because they make stomach acid 24/7. They can get ulcers when there is no food to protect the stomach lining.

The crash diet lead to wood chewing. She ate a hole in her shelter in just one afternoon, she started chewing wood and all the fences were munched on.

She chewed the slow feeder net the next day!

On top of that she started pacing and walked a deep trench along the fence. All in the first couple of days after her diagnoses.

I followed the vet’s advice

I tried lunging (I hadn’t lunged her for 7 years after she had told me clearly she didn’t like the NH method of mr P.) Kyra was very upset about it. She didn’t listen to me any more (yes with a whip she did do it, but that made me feel uncomfortable.

As you can imagine, I felt miserable seeing my horse so unhappy.

Things to improve welfare

These new (undesired) behaviours told me her welfare was compromised and I had to take action and change things. Which was scary… At the same time I noticed clearly how much stress all these changed were causing her.

Avoid long term stress

Long term stress is one of the things you want to avoid when a horse has inflammation in the body. Long term stress alone can lead to inflammation or prevent inflammation to heal. Since laminitis is inflammation of the lamellae, the tissue between the hoof and the underlying coffin bone horses benefit from a stress free environment.

Having a (former wild horse in solitary confinement (paddock) and putting her on a crash diet, was taking away 3 of the 3 F’s. Her freedom to roam in the pasture, her friends, who she could only see from a distance and forage. The wood chewing was a clear indication of having not enough chewing time/fibres.

Her friends in the field

So I changed her diet and gave her more food, more fibre and I started to hand walk her instead of lunging. Every. Single, Day. Until she got better, less pain and wanted to move.

This is what I did (R+ Movement Training)

I used positive reinforcement (clicker) training (R+) to encourage her to move. Yes, I used food rewards! Vet had forbidden to give her “treats”. 😱

Using Treats in Training for laminitis horses

I went very slowly with building exercise and training for forward movement, in comparison with the advice I was given.

I have been using R+ since to tame Kyra (she was born and raised in a nature reserve). Then I switched over to NH, but she quickly let me know she didn’t like the NH exercises nor the way I was “asking” her to do them. (That’s a whole other story).

I used fibre rich foods to reinforce the behaviours I wanted: forward movement, steady pace and later speed and distance (time).

I used grass (yes a handful of long grass for a good effort), triple soaked beet pulp pellets (to soak the binding agents out. Shredded beet pulp is better, but that wasn’t available in Canada at that time) and hay cubes (not all hay cubes are the same and some horses can’t have them because they choke in them!).

Going against the vet’s advice

Going against the professional advice ,I changed her diet. I still gave her way less than before, but enough to keep her stomach going 24/7, since I was afraid of ulcers and gut ulcers. I also used food in training with my Movement Training..

It was a huge gamble, but it worked. Kyra became interested in moving (duh! With food! LOL) and she also started to loose significant amount of weight. Maybe a bit slower than with the professional advice I was given, but she was happier and all her newly developed stereotypical behaviours disappeared!

Kyra stopped wood chewing, pacing, and started to be her lovely self again.

From Whoa Horse to Go Horse

eBook getting my Fat Horse Fit with clicker training

Before her laminitis Kyra was a very “whoa-horse” and not a “go horse” at all. Since she was healthy (so I thought) I didn’t make exercising a priority. Until I had to…

The method I developed over the years after her laminitis is based on positive reinforcement to get the horse moving willingly. All the things to make this succeed, I have written down in the eBook I wrote Getting my Fat Horse Fit.


I didn’t do it alone, I had a support system (also in the book) and a plan!

Having a clear plan was so helpful! I had been going on and off with exercising Kyra in the previous years. She has always been ‘chubby’ or ‘barok’ (Kyra’s sire is an Andalusian), but since she was healthy I started an exercise regime, got distracted, stopped, a few week later started again. I never followed through so she did lose weight and stayed fit and slim.

In my eBook I wrote all the things I learned to be successful to keep the weight off of her with Movement Training. It was a process of developing Movement Training with positive reinforcement and setting up everything else so I wouldn’t fall of the wagon again.

Having the fear of laminitis really pushed me to take action and get Kyra fit. Now I help people do the same. If you’re interested in my course, follow this link.


I don’t recommend going against the advice of experienced professionals! Absolutely not!
In this blog I’m sharing my journey and what I did to get my horse from fat (and with laminitis) to fit and healthy.

Exercising played a major role in our success. That’s the message I would like to convey: exercise your overweight horse!

Please do everything you can t prevent your overweight horse from getting laminitis! I didn’t and I regret not doing enough. It might have been different if I would have had a way (back then) to make movement for my who horse fun and interesting! So that I enjoyed it more and would have kept going. Now I have that, and it has been a joy to exercise horses with clicker training.

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Rehabilitating Horses with Clicker Training