Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted to show off the amazing goals you’ve accomplished with clicker training?
Visitors at the barn
One time a Facebook friend who was eager to learn more about clicker training visited me at the barn.
On this particular day in Winter it was cold, windy and rainy. The field was muddy and when we arrived all horses where gathered around the feeding place in the field.
As soon as Kyra heard my voice she came over to the gate and while I was haltering her, I was pondering how I could show off and what I would do in order to impress my friend.
We went to the indoor arena where Kyra and I demonstrated a few tricks at liberty. I also kept it short because it was cold and when we brought Kyra back to the field, I asked her what she liked best.
Her answer was not at all what I expected!
Instead of asking me about How I trained lying down or Spanish walk, she told me that she was very impressed that Kyra had came across field, all the way to the gate. My friend assumed we had at least to wade thru the ankle-deep mud in order to get Kyra or maybe even chase her a bit before I could halter her.
To me this was not something impressive. I didn’t realize that something as simple as your horse coming over to meet you could impress people and I will never forget that feeling. She was already impressed before we started! Just by Kyra showing me she was eager to interact with me and willing to go through the mud!
From that day on, I paid more attention to what impresses horse people.
Some people are surprised that, when Kyra gets loose because I am bad at tying knots, she doesn’t run away from me and I can simply walk over to get her.
Others notice that she’s not mugging me while I obviously have treats in my pocket. While I hope they are impressed by the behaviours I spent hours training, most people are impressed by the side-effects positive reinforcement training has: a confident horse and the relationship I have with Kyra.
How does your horse impress other horse people?
Next time you’re at the barn, pay attention to what others admire about your training. What remarks do they make that tells you they want what you can do? Sometimes their sentence starts with simply with the words “I wish my horse would….
I wish my horse would be easy to catch…
I wish my horse would stand still…
I wish my horse was more like yours…
Share with in the comments what others admire about the relationship you have with your horse or what you’ve trained they wish they could.
When I was young and learned to ride in the local riding school, we sometimes were allowed to bring the ponies to the pasture. This came with a simple warning: ‘Always turn your horse to the gate before you take the halter off, so they don’t kick you.’
I still use that advice and teach it to others but there is more to learn about safety. Some horses run off, kick or bolt when released. How to handle those horses?
Horses that run off, kick and bolt
Some horses like to run off immediately and kick or bolt in the process. If you stand ‘in his way’, there is a chance that you get hurt. I’ve seen people deal with this problem by taking the halter off and shooing them away with it! I think the idea is to get them as quickly as possible out of their personal space.
I don’t think shooing away a horse that already has a tendency for bolting and running away will make a horse behave more safely.
On the contrary, it will add to his stress and he might anticipate the next time by shooing you away from his personal space. That is the last thing you want him to do, right?
There is a simple way to prevent horses from running off when you take the halter or lead rope off. You have to teach them that:
They won’t get chased or shooed away by you, and there is no need for them to run off or defend themselves
It’s safe and fun to stay a little longer with you
They can leave in a calm way, there is no need to rush
When a horse displays undesired behaviour, in this case dangerous behaviour, the simple solution is to teach them incompatible behaviour and reinforce that behaviour more.
An incompatible behaviour is a behaviour that simply cannot be displayed while doing another behaviour.
Step 1: What is the undesired behaviour?
Running off immediately with the chance of you getting hurt in the process
Turning around quickly and bolting when leaving
Keeping their head up and/or walking backwards so you can’t take the halter or lead rope off safely
Step 2: What is the cause?
Knowing what causes these behaviours is a huge step towards preventing them.
It can be learned behaviour: the horse has learned that the person will shoo him away and he anticipates by trying to get away before that happens. This creates a dangerous vicious circle that is hard to break when you don’t realize what drives the behaviour.
It can be a lack of education. I always teach my horses to turn around every time we go through a gate. One day I was leading a young stallion pony out of the arena. I didn’t realize that he had not yet learned to turn after walking through a gate. I wasn’t prepared that he simply walked straight out the gate, directly towards the barn. I expected him to turn around or at least wait for me, but he didn’t, because no one had taught him that. I tripped and was dragged on my belly in the mud for several meters. When he finally stopped to see what made walking so hard, I could get up quickly and reinforce him for stopping. It was not the smartest idea to hold on, and I was lucky he didn’t panic.
It can be fear: the horse is afraid of the other horses or one horse in particular that approaches him. If he feels trapped because he is still on a lead rope that can cause him to panic and flee.
It can be impatience: maybe the horse is super excited to go to the pasture to have a good run. He simply can’t wait to stretch his legs.
Step 3: Work on the cause
If the horse hasn’t learned to stay with you until you cue him to wonder off, you can teach him to wait. If he hasn’t learned to turn around, teach him that this will be reinforced and that it’s worthwhile for him. Simply offer him a treat before you take the halter off and one after. He will learn to wait for his treat before he leaves. Better even is to use a bridge signal (a click) before you give the treat to mark the desired behaviour.
If he is fearful for the other horses, you have to find a way to distract or prevent the other horses from coming too close and crowd you.
If your horse is super excited you have to keep him calm and keep his excitement low so he won’t run off and take you with him in the process. You can train this easily with positive reinforcement training.
Step 4: Teach an incompatible behaviour
In order to prevent undesirable and dangerous behaviours you can work on an incompatible behaviour and reinforce that more. Punishment the way we apply it, is usually not very effective. Teaching and reinforcing an incompatible behaviour is and will give you quick results, too!
What is an ‘incompatible behaviour’? A behaviour that cannot be displayed at the same time as the undesired behaviour. It takes a bit of thinking out of the box to master this skill, but it will bring you so much clarity once you can!
Incompatible behaviours: a horse can’t run off or kick when he is standing still (focus on reinforcing ‘4 hooves on the ground’), a horse can’t lift his head if he keeps his head low, a horse can’t bite with his mouth closed or when his head is turned away from you. He can’t be excited and calm at the same time! Teach him to be calm and focused on you.
Teach you horse to stay with you until you give him the cue that he can leave now. I do this by simply creating the expectation that there is something in it for the horse. I use high value reinforcers: super yummy treats or if a horse loves scratches and attention more, I will use those.
I start by reinforcing incompatible behaviours and work on the cause of the dangerous behaviours. I reinforce turning around after entering the pasture, standing still, keeping head low and after I take the halter off. Then I get out of the pasture before I give a clear signal that the horse can’t expect any more treats, my ‘end-of-training-signal’.
Then I fade out the treats slowly. I never totally quit forever with the treats because I want to keep us safe. A treat can also be just a bit of grass that you plucked just outside the fence, where the grass always is greener….
Some horses are very excited to be back in the field and take off immediately. Some horses do this bucking and bolting. This can be dangerous but is very easy to prevent.
Bringing your horse back to the pasture in a safe way requires a few steps. You can train and reinforce each step separately. The steps are similar to getting your horse out of the pasture, but in the opposite order.
To graze or not to graze
The greenest grass always grows outside the pasture. A lot of horses take the opportunity to have a juicy bite of grass while the handler is opening the gate.
You can teach your horse to stop grazing/lift his head with positive reinforcement. He has to wait patiently until you have unlocked the gate.
I always teach my horses to turn around on cue, so I can close the gate safely. I don’t want horses to escape and I don’t want my horse to run off before I say so.
Prevent running off
If you turn your horse around before unleashing him or before you take the halter off, he is facing the fence. This will help prevent him from running off immediately.
Make sure your horse wants to stay with you after you set him free. Simply reward him for staying and not taking off. I click and reinforce my horse for waiting. I usually reward this with a desired reward like a treat.
Reward the desired behaviour
In the beginning you might need to click and reinforce your horse just after going through the gate and turning around. Now you have his attention.
Take the halter off and click and reinforce immediately for waiting patiently. Then you can leave the field.
You might want to click and reinforce again for ‘waiting’. A few freshly picked dandelions or some grass will do. Horses learn very quickly that staying with you for a few moments after you’ve left the field can be very rewarding.
After you have left the pasture you can give your horse the ‘end-of-session’ signal. Your horse now knows there are no more treats to earn. Your horse will probably not run off, but even if he does, you’re not in danger of being knocked over.
After he no longer has the urge to go running off when you set him free, you can fade the clicks out slowly. Sometimes I just ask Kyra to perform a simple trick after I have left the pasture. She really likes that.
My mission is to improve horse-human relationships by educating equestrians about ethical and horse friendly training. I offer coaching to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that empowers both you and your horse.
I’ve always wanted a horse that called me. The nicker**) they use is often so heartwarming and soft. A warm welcome to their human. My first pony Sholto whinnied to me in the field when he came cantering to me. Here is a video of Sholto cantering and whinnying when I wistle to call him.
Kyra never whinnied or nickered to me, until recently.
How did I teach her to call me? It was accidental, to be honest. In hindsight it took quite a lot of patience if I had to teach her on purpose. How did I set it up for success?
Kyra’s stall is in the back of the barn. I have a certain routine that starts with saying ‘Hello’ to Kyra and petting her a few moments. Then I open my tack locker and start the rest of the routine.
This winter I ran into my barn fellows and started to talk. And talk. And talk. If you have a horse, you know how this goes. If you’re talking about horses, it’s hard to stop.
Kyra couldn’t see me but she could hear me talking. That happened a few times. Of course she wanted to communicate to me that I had to come. Since we couldn’t see each other she had to use a sound. I am happy that she is never been reinforced for kicking the boards.
So one night, while I was being held up in the front of the barn, she nickered to me. Of course I ran over and gave her a lot of attention.
A few weeks later, the same thing happened: I ran into my friend and we talked and talked and Kyra could hear me, but couldn’t see me. So she called me again. I captured the behaviour by bridging and giving treats. And of course my full attention. Jackpot!
It didn’t take long for her to figure out that if she is in the pasture, that she now has a way to let me come over to her. I reinforce it, because I like it.
**) See this list [-> click here <-] of all horse behaviour sounds to learn the difference between a nicker and a whinny