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Posts tagged ‘primary reinforcer’

How to turn “Standing on a mat” into a reward for your horse

Mat training is one of the Key Lessons, the basics for success in clicker training. In the beginning the goal of mat training is to teach your horse to “stand on the mat”. Then you click and reward. Simple. But, do you know you can also use “standing on the mat” as a reinforcer for another behaviour?


Make standing on the mat rewarding
You start with building a lot of positive associations with the mat. You start using primary reinforcers to reward your horse for standing on the mat, like treats. Don’t forget to bridge and reward for stepping off of the mat.

After a while the mat is supercharged with pleasurable associations. Every time the horse goes to the mat or stepped on the mat a click and reward had come his way._key_lesson_standing_on_mat_hippologic

The mat as reinforcer
Once the mat is very attractive, you can start using it as a secondary reinforcer. You will notice when the mat is supercharged: your horse will be drawn to the mat as a mosquito to a lamp.

Start asking a very simple exercise to perform on the mat, for instance ‘head lowering’, then you click and reward. In this way you create a chain of behaviours. This one consists of three links: stepping on the mat, standing on the mat (duration) plus head lowering. You can variate the rewards you offer your horse.

If the mat is used as a reward, you click and let your horse step on the mat. The click and going to the mat both act as ‘end of exercise’. Your horse can also enjoy a little break on the mat, which can be rewarding in itself. Don’t forget to still use a primary reinforcer most of the time.

If you want to create reliable behaviours you still have to reinforce the secondary reinforcer (mat) with primary reinforcers, like treats. Don’t phase out the primary reinforcers one hundred percent.

Practical use
You can put a few mats in the arena while riding. You can use the mats as reward. You can practise a certain exercise riding from mat to mat. If you are working on canter you can canter from mat to mat. The mat indicates the start and the end of an exercise and can help both rider and horse. Or you can lay down the mats only a few meters apart and work on lateral movements where you ride from mat to mat.

Because the mats are supercharged, you should click and reward for ignoring the mat while passing by, walking, trotting and cantering over the mat. Your horse has to learn that only if you ask to stand on a mat, he will get rewarded.

I have used mats to teach Kyra to jump at liberty. I started off easy with one mat before a pole on the ground and another mat just after the pole and I sent her or walked with her from mat to mat. This is why it is important to reward right from the start for stepping off of the mat. Each session I either increased the distance between the mats or I heightened the jump a bit. Now I can send Kyra around the arena with 2 jumps all by herself. She really seems to like it a lot.

Sandra Poppema

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Clicker training 101: Rewards and Jackpots


In the key lesson ‘Patience’ the horse learns that sniffing pockets will not be rewarded, looking away will!

Many people think that clicker training means you have to reward with food. And that rewarding with food equals a ‘mugging horses’ or that food rewards will turn their horse into a biting disaster.

To prevent mugging and biting behaviour we must teach the horse some rules. As I pointed out in my previous post [->CLICK HERE<-] the horse must understand that there is only a reward coming after the bridge signal (click) and clicks can only be earned during ‘class hours’. A class starts after a specific start signal and ends with a specific end-of-session-signal.

A lot of people think that clicker training is not their cup of tea ‘because their horse doesn’t like treats’ or they are not willing to use food as a training tool.


My favourite topic! Reward-based training is NOT all about the food! It is about the REWARD.

The Most important rule is …

The receiver determines the reward.

If you want to use _Hippologic_rewardbased training_receiver_determinesreward-based training effectively you must remember that it’s not the trainer who determines what the horse ‘must’ like or ‘must’ accept as a reward, it is the horse. I haven’t met one horse in my life that wouldn’t work for something they value. It is the challenge for the trainer to find the right reward that makes ‘the magic’ work.

I like money but Kyra, my horse, doesn’t care about it at all. I like food, but I wouldn’t work or even try to learn a new skill for a handful of grass.

Primary reinforcers

A primary reinforcer is a stimulus that does not require pairing to function as a reinforcer (reward). It is something they need for survival as a species. A horse doesn’t have to ‘learn’ that eating is necessary.

Examples of primary reinforcers are food, air, water, sleep, sex and social behaviours for herd animals. Food and scratches are the most practical in training.

Secondary reinforcers

A secondary reinforcer is a ‘learned reward’. For example once you have taught your horse that he will always be rewarded for standing on a mat, “standing on a mat” will become a reward in itself. The mat is associated to the message “good things happen here” in your horse’s brain.

So, food can be a reward, but a reward doesn’t have to be food.

In my career as horse trainer/clicker training instructor I have seen horses that didn’t valued food highly as a reward. Or they didn’t like the kind of treats that I had to offer. I bloopered once with chunks of apple in a demo. The horse spat it out in front of everybody to make his point. Luckily the owner of the horse helped me out by telling me what was rewarding to the horse (vitamin pellets).


A jackpot is a very special “bonus reward” and will only be given to the horse if he performed extremely well or showed a new behaviour on it’s own that you really want to capture. Like the first time Kyra nickered at me or the first time she laid down in my presence.

A jackpot can be a highly valued treat, maybe mints instead of pellets or carrots instead of grain.

If you don’t have a higher valued reward to offer, you can also increase the amount. If you normally reward with a little chunk of carrot, you can give a big handful as a jackpot or feed multiple chunks quickly after one another. Or if you are riding, you can dismount and unsaddle your horse immediately and take him to a nice patch of grass.

In order to let your horse know he has hit the jackpot you must give it while he is still doing the behaviour. Sometimes that’s not possible. What I do instead is I will extend my bridge signal with a lot of verbal praise when a jackpot is coming to let my horse know she’s doing an extremely good job. Like winning a jackpot from a slot machine: there will be bells and lights to let everybody know you’ve hit the jackpot.

So jackpots are not normal rewards and don’t have normal bridge signals. Jackpots are RARE!

After a jackpot you can best end the training of that day so the horse can let the newly learned knowledge sink in.

To be continued…

Read here the next article: Clicker training 101: Using and Introducing cues

Sandra Poppema
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