5 Tips for dealing with Frustration in Horse Training

We all get frustrated in training or riding our horses. That’s a given. Horses can also get frustrated if their expectations about their training or the consequences of their actions (release of pressure or receiving a treat) are not being met.

What can you do to prevent frustration and what if you are already frustrated or your horse is, what can you do next?

What causes frustration in your horse

If expectations are not being met it can cause frustration in your horse. For instance, you’ve clicked and now he expects a treat. If you’re clumsy or slow with your food delivery while your horse is waiting he can get frustrated. If you always offer carrots and now you’ve clicked and he gets a hay cube instead he can be dissapointed which can lead to frustration (‘Why am I not getting my favourite treat, a carrot?’).

Same can happen in traditional training and riding: the horse seeks release (relief) from riding aids and body language (pressure, pulling on lead ropes, waving whips and training sticks) and doesn’t get this release of pressure when he performs correctly.

If you, as trainer, raise the criteria in your training too quickly or make the steps too big your horse can get really frustrated: normally he immediately get a click and a treat if he goes to a mat and steps on it, but now he does not! What is going on? You might think you’re working on ‘duration’ but if your horse gets frustrated in the process his learning process will slow down.

Preventing frustration in clicker training is one thing, but what can you do if your horse is already frustrated? 3 Tips.

If you go too slowly it also can cause boredom or frustration in your horse.

Poor timing of the trainer or inconsistency (lack of clarity), can cause the horse to get frustrated. You just clicked for X, now you’re clicking for something different? No, but if the timing is poor this can cause miscommunication, which can lead to frustration.

If you decide to clicker train the new horse in the barn instead of your own horse. This can cause frustration in your horse: now is is being excluded from training, choice and treats. His expectation is not being met.

All examples that can cause frustration in the horse because he can’t seem to influence the circumstances or desired outcome. I think you get the picture.

If you know better, you’ll do better

Now you know, you’ll see this happening all around you. First you’ll recognize it in other people’s horses and if your brave you’ll see it in your own horse too. That can be painful, but it’s a necessary step in order to prevent frustration in the future. Be proud that you’re ready to acknowledge it: now you can move to the next step.

How can you recognize frustration in your horse?

This is a tricky one because I haven’t found any scientific research on recognizing frustration in horses, yet we all have seem in in horses. Haven’t we?

I am willing to take the risk not being scientific and base my story on anecdotes and experience of my own observations.

Next time you observe a person training (riding) a horse look for these behaviours. They cannot taken out of the context but in order for clarity’s sake I have to. Here a signs that the horse is irritated or (getting) frustrated:

  • Tail swishing (can be as subtle as just once)
  • Pawing with one or two (alternating) front leg(s) or weight shift
  • Stomping front foot
  • Head lift (subtle) or
  • Push with the nose
  • Flick of one ear
  • Two ears flicked and closed
  • Snaking of the neck
  • Ears pinned
  • Wrinkles around the nostrils

Horses may not all use these and many are also to express other emotions and messages. Here is a picture of a horse that expects breakfast and was pawing. Instead of giving food, I made a picture to capture her expression.

How to deal with frustration

In order to prevent frustration you have to offer clarity. What to do if your horse is already frustrated?

  1. Start with congratulating yourself for noticing! Not many horse owners/trainers recognize it in their horse
  2. Stop and breathe so that you can come up with a plan to handle your horse’s frustration
  3. Change what you’re doing that is causing frustration (this is crucial) and aim to prevent frustration. If that means you have to give your horse a break or ask something you know he can and will do, ask that. This will interrupt the feelings of frustration.

Prevention

Frustration is not always preventable but you can prepare yourself and your horse in training and set both of you up for success. Clarity provides frustration in training. #animaltraining

  • Improve your timing (watch yourself on video)
  • Improve the RoR (rate of reinforcement)
  • Lower your training criteria until your horse understands what he has to so
  • Become more predictable for your horse and make a plan before you start training
  • Ask help if you can’t solve it on your own. A tiny bit of frustration in your horse can help find solutions, but too much and too often will put a strain on your relationship with your horse.

Read more about preventing frustration in training and riding.

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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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What to do if your horse is mugging you

In clicker training we use often treats as rewards. Why? Food is a primary reinforcer and therefor it motivates most horses. Giving treats as reward or as ‘pay’ for a well done job is highly motivating for the horse. Treats are easy to dispense, it’s a quick delivery and small enough to fit sufficient rewards for one session in your pocket.__safety_hippologic

One of my key lessons is to teach a horse how to behave around food and treats. What to do if your horse isn’t behaving very safe around food? Well, you can decide to find another reinforcer or better yet you can work on your horses behaviour. The first step is to make sure you are working safely. Getting mugged is no fun and losing a finger in the process is even worse.

Work with a barrier between you and your horse until your horse is behaving safely around food. Polite behaviour around food is one of the Key Lessons in clicker training.

Grabbing the treat
Some horses turn to mugging because they have lost treats in the past. This may have been because the handler dropped the food or pulled their hands back as the horse was reaching for it. They have adopted a get it while they can attitude. Sometimes its a phase and they just need to be taught proper table manners again.

Possible solutions
Make sure your horse knows the rule: first a click then a treat.

Only take a treat in your hand after the click. Never the other way around: take a treat, wait for the behaviour you want to reinforce and then click and treat. Always click first, then take and present the treat. This accomplishes three very important things which is why I repeat it so often:

  1. Your horse isn’t distracted by your filled hand and neither are you.
  2. Your horse has no reason to be nibbling or biting at you.
  3. With improper timing your hand reaching for the treat becomes the bridge instead of your click. Horses are incredibly perceptive and will pick up your behaviour before you realize it.

Always bring the treat to your horse, don’t invite the horse to come and get it. Use a stretched arm and deliver the treat near his mouth quickly and calmly after the click.

Deliver the treat directly at the lips of your horse, so he doesn’t have to be afraid he can’t reach it or he has to search for it.

Exercises
Speed up your RoR (Rate of Reinforcement). Click and treat as soon as your horse is keeping his lips still and is not displaying the grabbing behaviour. If he is not using his teeth to get the treat, you can present the treat in a closed first. Wiggle your fist if he nibbles your hand, click and open your hand immediately if he stops moving his lips/mouth for a second or if he looks away.

Encourage (click) all the behaviour that you want: looking away when you put your hand in your pocket, keeping his mouth closed and lips still when you present a treat in a closed fist.

Safety
If your horse is using his teeth you can present the treats in a shallow food bowl or lightweight frying pan to prevent injury.

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Some horses are better at taking large treats, eg big chunks of apple or whole (small) carrots to help reassure him that he gets the treat easily. Some horses will be encouraged to use their lips instead of their teeth if you give them smaller treats (grain). Try out different food sizes to find the one that works best for you and your horse.

Try a context shift for example you can feed your horse from above. Hold a large treat high so your horse has to keep his head up. He’s probably not used to taking a treat from above, so he has to use his lips and thus preventing him from using his teeth.

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Have fun clicker training your horse and let me know how it goes.

Sandra Poppema
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