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.

Support

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.

Warning!

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.

Join Force Free Exercising Laminitis Horses on Facebook

Happy Horse training you all!

Sandra

Exercising your laminitis horse

When your horse has or had laminitis, one of the recommendations you’ll get from your vet is to exercise your horse, so he’ll lose weight.
Where to start?

Before you start exercising

  • Make sure that the trigger for laminitis is identified and removed
  • Your horse is off all pain medication
  • You have a tested (low sugar) and balanced diet in place
  • Your vet has given you clearance for exercising your horse

Start where your horse is at

You may have to start really short walks in hand. With short I mean 5 minute walks. You can gradually build duration. Keep in mind that even a little exercise is better than none!

We have to start our horse somewhere. Starting with a short exercise regime can also help us build the habit of exercising our horse on a very regular basis!

Make exercising appetitive (fun!) for your horse

Exercising can be hard for overweight horses! They might not enjoy it. Using positive reinforcement can really help shift this for your horse.

In positive reinforcement training, you strengthen a behaviour by giving your horse something valuable for what he just did. When you use a bridge signal to ‘bridge’ the time gap between the desired behaviour and the moment you’re able to deliver a treat, your horse will pay attention to what he just did and do more of that behaviour.

Here is how you start clicker training your horse.

Use positive reinforcement to help your horse move

When your horse doesn’t want to move you can wait until he does a slight weight shift forwards, then click and give a treat. With a ‘treat’ I mean a sugar free food reward, something that is low calorie, yet still yummie for your horse.

The next step is to click for a step forwards. This way you can literary raise your criteria for a click and treat, step-by-step. That’s how I did it with Kyra. She was already clicker trained, so she understood that she had to take initiative and move.

I found it very rewarding to use clicker training to exercise my laminitis horse, because she didn’t want to move in the first place. Using force would have negatively impacted my good relationship with Kyra and I didn’t want that to happen. I’ve tried it at first, but it was clearly the wrong choice for us! She resented lunging and working at liberty in the round pen, so I had to come up with alternative ways. And I did.

Do you struggle with exercising your overweight horse and help get your fat horse fit?

Make sure you find a tribe that understand the struggles that you’re going through. When you are a clicker trainer, it can be extra challenging to exercise your horse using food rewards, because the majority of people, including vets an farriers, don’t understand this training method. They only see a horse that struggles with movement AND that gets ‘treats’.

Contact me if you would love to have support in getting your overweight horse in shape with clicker training.

Happy Horse training!

Sandra Poppema, HippoLogic

Move Your Horse with a Click

How often are you adjusting your training in order to make it easier for your horse? If you want to avoid frustration for your horse, I bet this is on your mind all the time! But…

You can make it easy the wrong way and the right way.

Read on to discover if you’ve fallen into the pitfall of doing it ‘for your horse’.

Biggest mistake

The biggest mistake you can make in positive reinforcement training is that you reinforce “not offering behaviour”.  People do this often by ‘doing the behaviour for the horse’ in the hope the horse gets (copies) it.

Let me explain… This is a common pitfall I see many, many clicker trainers fall into. We often do this unconsciously because we still think like a traditional trainer. That’s what makes clicker training sometimes seems to give slower results. Or that it takes longer to teach a horse something new.

Fallacies in Horse Training

In traditional training (R-) you almost always ‘get’ the goal behaviour instantaneously: you give pressure and when your horse yields, you release.

Clicker training needs adjustment in the way of Thinking about training

You wiggle your training stick closer and closer and more forcefully, until your horse moves forward. Voila! You immediately get your end goal results: walk, trot or even canter within minutes.

It’s a fallacy to think we can use the same approach without force. We’ll show the horse what he needs to do and then click for it. If you’re one of those people, you’re not the only one. Go on YouTube and search for ‘reverse round pen’ and find dozens of clicker trainers that move as much or more(!) than their horses, when exercising their horses.

How to get movement with R+

The biggest difference is that in R+ (clicker training, positive reinforcement training) you only can reinforce the DESIRED behaviour when (or immediately after) it’s happening.

Therefor we need to get the behaviour first, so that we can offer the horse an appetitive to strengthen the behaviour. Something he wants to have and is willing to work for.

It’s a thinking mistake that when we tell the learner the right answer (trot), he’ll learn quicker. What you want to do is to help the horse figure out what you want and reinforce his decision to trot.

Teach your horse to move

Next time you teach your horse to walk, trot or canter or you’re watching someone teaching a horse to exercise with clicker training, pay close attention. Often, we want to make training easier by doing it for them, instead of teaching them to offer walk, trot and canter.

When a horse doesn’t start walking, trotting or cantering right away, people often try to ‘help’ their horse by showing them what they want. They move, their horse moves and click! They click the horse for walk, trot or canter, right?

Place yourself into your horse’s shoes

 I can’t tell you how often I see people make the mistake to click for ‘following’ (a target or the trainer), instead of clicking for offering walk, trot or canter. That’s exactly what you’re teaching the horse if you do this: you’re teaching him to follow the target or trainer. And this becomes the cue!

It’s the opposite of what you want. It’s very similar to what people do in traditional training: teaching the horse to stay passive and re-act only of the trainer is doing something. To me “training” is teaching, not simply “reacting”. It will take a bit more effort in the beginning of the training, but it will pay off tenfold later on when your horse starts to enjoy his exercises!

Who is successful? You or your horse

If you think you don’t do this, or haven’t done this, watch your training videos. It might surprise you what you’ll discover, now you know what to look for.

It can be very obvious or it can be most subtle: You might be the one moving first, just before you click. So you can be successful! Think about that: who do you really want to be successful? You or your horse? Most people don’t realize that they are setting themselves up for a pitfall that is hard to climb out of.

If you want to teach your horse to move by himself (building distance) or for longer (duration) you’ll run into trouble if you’ve clicked too many times for ‘follow the trainer/target’. The pitfall is that we’ve done the behaviour for them (we or our target stick moved), so they haven’t learned to take initiative when it comes to moving. Now your horse simply thinks that he needs to do what you do, because that’s been clicked and reinforced. How to reverse it?

Solution

In other words; we haven’t taught our horse to ‘make the decision’ or to ‘take action’ to move forward. Instead, we’ve fallen into the pitfall to ‘let us trainers/our target sticks do the moving and our horses do the following’.

If that happens you’ve taught your horse to stay passive during exercise training. This mistake can slow down your future training tremendously.

Recovering from this pitfall

We can fall into this pitfall in training almost every behaviour: we push our horse gently over so that we can take his leg up (and click) instead of teaching our horse to lift his own leg. We’re touching their legs with a target, instead of setting our horses up so that they will touch the target (and lift their leg in the process!).

Instead of teaching the horse to move on his own, we (or our target) moved and we reinforced our horses to ‘follow’ , instead of offering trot. Sounds familiar? (Go here if you want to learn to teach your horse to offer movement)

When you know better, you can do better

Instead of training your horse to follow you, you can start teaching your horse to walk, trot and canter without you running in front of him with a target. Then you’re teaching what you actually want him to learn. That will be a skill that your horse will enjoy the rest of his life.

Offering the right baby step!

Instead of making the behaviour easier by ‘doing it for your horse’, you have to think about a solution to make it easier for your horse ‘to make the decision’ so he will offer the behaviour (walk, trot, canter). You can use a target or mats to help you. Just don’t let these training tools turn into crutches you can’t do without. These are just tools for training. Your cue needs to become your most important communication tool.

Overcoming fear of punishment

Keep in mind that this (making decisions and taking imitative in movement) often has been punished in the past if your horse has been traditionally trained. They are not supposed to make decisions on their own or start walking. Therefor we need to encourage our horses for the slightest try to ensure them that this is what we actually want in our setup.

Teach your horse to think

When you reinforce taking initiative and making decisions over and over, clicker training will go faster than ever. You’ll get better results and you get the engagement of your horse that makes working together so pleasurable and fun. Win-win.

Need help or have a question how you can teach your horse to listen to your cues? Come and join the HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy.

In the Academy I teach you the Principles of Clicker Training so that you can become an autonomous clicker trainer, enhance the friendship with your horse and do the things you really want to do with your horse.

HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy 

If you want access to many DIY online clicker training courses, free Clicker Challenges and get weekly personal feedback on your training videos join the HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy

Send in your application today (click the link) so you can enroll the next time the doors open. Only once a month I open the doors, and only for 2 days! Don’t miss the opportunity to join a select group of R+ enthusiasts!

Exercising Your Horse With R+

Interested in learning more? A few times a year I offer courses and teach equine clicker trainers to exercise their horses with positive reinforcement. Most courses are online with personal coaching and feedback in a group, so everyone gets the best results possible. Contact me and we’ll have a chat.

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

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Force Free Movement Training for Laminitis Horses

Is your horse overweight? Did the vet recommended: No more treats!” or “More exercise” to get your horse in shape? Join my R+ for Overweight Horses program. We’ll address your biggest struggle in getting your horse to move with positive reinforcement. You can only join after a personal conversation, so I can tailor this 2-week online coaching program towards your horse, your situation and your needs! You can book a call here.

If you want to get better at things like:

  • Building duration in exercising your horse with R+
  • Getting your horse in shape and lose weight without a crash diet
  • Creating fun in movement training so you don’t have to keep running along

This is for you. Check out the information page here!

Sandra Poppema, BSc

Founder of the HippoLogic and creator of Force Free Movement Training for Laminitis Horses

Sandra Poppema BSc HippoLogic Clicker training coach