Rehabilitating Horses with Clicker Training

Is that possible? Yes, it is! In my years working for the SPCA I trained many horses and barn animals with positive reinforcement (R+). Some horses needed to be rehabilitated mentally, some physically and some both.

I also taught employees and volunteers the basics of clicker training and together we trained the horses in order to make them more adoptable. These experiences helped me develop my own R+ training system and special tools that now help horse owners all over the world.

Using positive reinforcement to administer medication

Many of the horses at the SPCA needed medication when they were brought in: deworming and other oral medication like anti-inflammatory pills or pain killers. Some animals needed eye ointments or other wound care.

 

Using positive reinforcement in such situations was a real benefit. With coercion you might get it done once or twice before the animal smartens up and it becomes a struggle. The small amount of training time you put in with clicker training before or during administering medication, saves you time and effort in the future.

Building trust with R+

Using positive reinforcement also means giving a horse a voice and a choice in training. These things help building trust and a positive relationship with the animal. This also contributes to a positive view about humans in general.

Whenever a horse or other animal escaped everybody stayed relaxed. There was no chasing or shooing the animal back into his habitat. We usually used food or a friend to bring them back or sometimes we were just being patient. I really liked that way of handling animals. No screaming, no panic and we never had to corner an escaped animal.

We always joked that they where in a spa. The horses didn’t have to work, they got to exercise themselves in the pasture and they all loved their clicker training sessions.

Clicker conference 2.0

In 2019 I gave a presentation at the Dutch Clicker Conference 2.0 A New Way of Rehabilitating Horses in which I shared examples of rehabilitating horses with clicker training.  I’ve seen many benefits the use of positive reinforcement brings.

By listening to your animal in training you can spot problems early on. When my own horse got sore hoofs I noticed right away that she wasn’t as forward as she usually was. Kyra normally is really cooperative and when she is not, I know I have to investigate what is going on. The vet told me she had EMS (Equine Metabolic Syndrome) and laminitis.

Using R+ to rehabilitate a laminitis horse

I used positive reinforcement to exercise Kyra despite her sore hoofs. I hand walked her on the road.

A year earlier I taught Kyra to graze and stop grazing on cue and therefor I didn’t need to worry about the juicy grass next to the road. Yes, this amazed me too since she was also on a restrictive diet.

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Clicker training helped me to lift her feet (she didn’t want to lift her front hoof because it caused more pain in the other hoof she was standing on), helped me get her used to wearing hoof shoes and a grazing mask.

Positive reinforcement to reduce stereotypical behaviours

Some horses I worked with at the SPCA had stereotypical behaviours. Well suited environment (proper housing, management, care) in combination with clicker training helped greatly in diminishing those kind of behaviours.

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I have seen horses that were weaving, cribbing or displayed other neurotic behaviour in training change. They stopped displaying their stereotypical behaviours in training and it greatly reduced altogether.

Although this is purely my experience I would love to see some research done on this. I think the horse world is ready to accept a broader view on positive reinforcement.

Conclusion

The more I work with R+, the more I see how much influence this kind of training really has on the animal. Positive reinforcement has more benefits than just training the desired behaviour. It can be a great way to reduce stress, restore and built trust and improve their welfare by offering the animal choices and ways to influence his environment.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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