Saturday, October 30, 2010

23. How to Get your Horse Off Food Rewards?

So your horse has learned a behavior or two that he can do on cue reliably in several different environments. It’s time to get him off the food rewards and start using them in real life. How do you do this?

Step 1: If you haven’t already, replace the clicker with a marker word or mouth cluck.

Step 2: Look back again at the prioritized list of rewards that you created in post number 3. Which of the non-food rewards would be a suitable reward for the behavior he now knows? Try to match the reward with the amount of effort he has to give to do the behavior. If he has put in a lot of effort, make sure that the duration of the rub tells him this. If the behavior is simple, a short neck scratch might be all that is necessary.

Also match the energy level of the reward with the behavior. Releasing him to run in a field is a great reward for an effort that required extended concentration or self control. A massage would be a great reward for a behavior that requires him to be high energy (and would help to calm him faster).

None of your ideas seem to fit?
Look at other things that might be rewarding to him that you have not yet considered. These might be things you allow him to do every day but he doesn’t have to work for.
*Does he enjoy extensive sniffing or mouthing of certain objects?
*Does he get his bucket of food for free?
*Does he get to walk through a gate to go somewhere desirable (to him)?
*Does he enjoy leaving his stall each morning?
*Does he follow you like a lost dog?

What other behaviors does he enjoy doing just for the sake of doing them? Watch your horse in his everyday activities for a week and note what things he enjoys doing. Add these to your prioritized list in post 3 and integrate these as rewards for training.

Here’s an example: If you turned your horse out into a field, what would be the first thing he would do?
-go graze
-run and kick up his heels
-go greet his buddies
-roll in the dirt
-stand under a tree in the shade
-go visit with a stranger over the fence

You can use all of these as rewards. They are called ‘real life rewards’.

Here’s how: Stop him at the gate and ask him to lift each of his feet for 30 seconds, then mark with the mouth cluck and open the gate and let him go visit his buddies. Ask him to do a behavior before allowing him out of his stall. He’ll get more practice with the behavior and learn that he can be rewarded with things other than food.

An even better way to use these rewards is to put them on cue, or capture each behavior. Then you have a way to clearly communicate to him what reward you are offering. The cue can then be used as rewards after a cued behavior.
As you send him to go to his buddies, tell him “Go see”. Teach him a ‘play’ cue that means he is free to explore a novel object you have provided to him.

Step 3:
Start phasing out the use of food with other rewards. Maybe 2 food rewards, paired with one other reward. Then one food, one other reward. Then one food reward and two other rewards. Then just other reward.

There area actually several other ways to get your horse off food rewards (see future posts). You can use them alone or together. Just remember that you can’t go cold turkey off the treats. That would be like your employer telling you that while he would like to come into work tomorrow, he can’t pay you. How long would you continue coming to work?

22. Managing the Environment

In many situations, the easiest way to keep the under horse under threshold is to use distance. For fearful situations, this is where the sound of the metallic clicker excels over other marker sounds or methods. Studies have shown that there may be a link between the sound of the click and its impact on the medulla, the primitive part of the brain.

The click appears to act as a calming mechanism and also puts the horse into the operant mode. What behavior is he doing that is currently getting clicked? You are going to select for any behavior that indicates calm or attention on you. Dropping his head, slight relaxing of tense muscles, ears on less alert, eyes held normally (instead of staring or glancing around) etc. This is where it is really useful to recognize signs of stress as you can click for the absence or reduction of them.

Horse Fearful of Cows (or other animals)

Let’s take a horse that is fearful of cows. Find out at what distance he starts showing fearful behaviors. Depending on the cows and your horse’s level of fear, and how active the herd is, you may want to work with a fence between you and the cows so they cannot get any closer.

Stand on the ground with your horse and wait for him to look at or acknowledge the cows. When he does, c/t.

Walk him parallel to the cows just beyond that distance and c/t for him for glancing at the cows but staying calm, for keeping his head low, any attention of you etc. At the other side of the field, turn back and walk parallel 1 yard closer to the cows. Continue c/t as before. Keep walking back and forth past the cows, getting a little closer each time, as long as your horse stays under threshold.

If his body language and behavior starts to indicate, he is increasing, not decreasing his threshold level, move back to the distance where he was calmer and keep training.

If for some reason, the cows are able to come closer than he is able to handle, c/t more frequently may help keep him in an operant state of mind. If it doesn’t put a physical barrier between him and the cows until he calms, then move him out of the situation.

When is able to stam calm, try cuing and c/t a few known behaviors. That is always a good test to see just how stressed he is. If he can easily and quickly respond, he is still in operant mode. If he can't, he is not. When he can do this, try getting him to do some actual training of other behaviors with the cows nearby.

Next, enlist a helper and have them move the cows at a walk. Again, start with your horse looking at them in a stationary position, then walk parallel to their path along the fence. You may need to increase your distance from the cows when you start this session as the cow movement may trigger a higher arousal level. Work your way towards the cows as before.

Next, have the cows move faster and repeat the process until your horse can move calmly by them.

Next step is to add speed to your horse. Then climb on his back and walk him, then trot. Etc.

Horse Comes Thundering by on a Group Ride and Spooks Your Horse

On a group ride, there may be individuals who find the need to gallop their horse past other horses to catch up (despite that local etiquette says that they should not do this). If your horse is sensitive to this, it could mean a bumpy ride for you!

To prepare for just such incidences, you can train for it, again using distance to assist you.

Start on the ground. Ask a buddy mounted on a horse to help. This will take several training sessions, or more, depending on your horse’s sensitivity level to sounds and startling.

Choose an open field for this exercise. Walk your horse in a straight line towards a landmark in the distance.
Ask your helper to ride a line parallel to you but far enough away that your horse can stay under threshold while he is moving quickly past. Arrange a signal (such as an arm wave) for her to move further away if you give it. This signal means your horse is getting to over-threshold point.

1. In the beginning, have your mounted friend start with her horse facing you and moving towards you at a walk. C/t for your horse staying calm.

2. Have your helper turn and come back past you on the same path (this time coming up from behind you) and increase her speed a little. Repeat as many passes as it takes for you to walk to the other side of the field.
At the end of the field, turn around and come back in a straight line, a little closer to the ridden horse, again walking parallel.

3. Decrease distance each pass as long as your horse stays under threshold.

4. Each subsequent training session, start the other horse a little slower where you left off before increasing the speed of the other horse.

5. Eventually, your horse should be comfortable with the horse thundering by at quite close range. When he is comfortable with that, ask your friend to move further away gain but this time, delaying her passing so it becomes unpredictable. Then start from behind you, instead of in front.

Don’t forget to train on both sides of your horse, if for some reason your specific environment doesn’t allow you to turn and walk back (such as you are doing circles instead of straight lines).

Repeat the entire process steps 1 to 5 from the beginning distance, but with you mounted on his back. Make sure you have practiced clicking and delivering the reward from the saddle and he is able to turn and take it from you.

Train through the process at a walk, then a gallop and a lope.

Each time, the process will quite likely progress faster (which means you can probably decrease the distance more quickly each time) as he now knows what is going to happen and what behavior you are rewarding for.

Every now and then to keep him fresh, ask a friend to come thundering by from behind you. (Preferably planning with you ahead of time).

The process you are working through is called ‘Systematic Desensitization’.

Monday, October 25, 2010

21. Training Under Threshold

Both inside and outside influences help determine if an animal is operant or not in a given situation. If he is “out of his head” with fear or distractions, the animal is not able to think about his behavior. This is often called “over threshold”.

Any good trainer knows it is a waste of time (and very stressful on the animal and trainer alike) to try to train an animal that is ‘over threshold’. This is also referred to as ‘arousal level’. Arousal can be high for many reasons. A horse might be fearful, excited, or be experiencing other types of stress. Too much of good and bad things can lead to high arousal levels. If you can identify the causes of his arousal, it helps when retraining as you can use those triggers to teach him to be calm. (see next blog post for more information)

If you are noticing a sudden change in behavior, always consider health reasons (injury, or pain levels) and trauma (emotional or physical) first.  

If those have been ruled out, what good trainers do is to reduce, mitigate or control the factors that lead to the ‘over threshold’ state so the animal can return to under threshold. In the short term they might use physical barriers in the environment to limit visual or sound access to the trigger of arousing. Or they might add distance from the trigger. For long term-retraining, they use ‘systematic desensitization’ with the specific objects, sounds smell etc that cause the stress, and/or ‘counter condition’ them so they trigger a good feeling in the horse.

Signs of Stress
One of the best things you can do as a horse handler or trainer is to learn the signs of stress in horses. The behaviors that tell you he is stressed, aroused or anxious may be subtle, so watch him closely. His ears, where his eyes are looking, his body language all convey how he is feeling. If he is showing any overt signs of anxiety or stress, you need to change how he is feeling before he will be able to learn or perform what he knows.

If you’d like to learn more about horse body language and subtle communication, the best teacher is personal observation. Watch your horse as he goes about his daily life and how he reacts to strange things. Watch other people’s horses when they are in unfamiliar environments such as horse shows. Note any behaviors you see that indicate stress.

Watch the horses on training videos ( or purchased training DVD’s) or at shows to see how they react to training or go to clinics on horse behavior. There are also many good books available at public libraries to help you learn. (some titles coming soon).

Here’s a website to tide you over in the meantime.

At the Edge of Threshold
If the horse is just at the edge of his threshold, the clicker may help to bring him back to an operant state of mind. This past weekend, my sister took her horse on a group ride. 35 other horses, wagons and riders were in attendance. My sister always goes to these events with a few other horses that her horse knows as he otherwise goes over threshold and is very hard to manage.

About an hour into the ride, during a break when he was tied to a heavy post, his two buddies were driven away to transport someone elsewhere. As soon as he realized this was happening, he started pivoting his abck end around the post, throwing his head and pawing the ground, becoming quite agitated.

My sister, standing nearby, pulled out her clicker and waited for a moment of calm between the behaviors. Click and treat. Immediately, he started calming down and trying to figure out what she was clicking for. In under 10 clicks, he had calmed down completely and was standing quietly. She was able to get on and ride him on the trail until his buddies rejoined them. (The clicker attracted quite a bit of attention as people wandered what she was doing and some scoffed at its effectiveness). In past experiences without the clicker, he would have been unmanageable. Instead, she was able to get him back into operant mode. It can work and is worth a try.

I used this method when I was first learning the clicker as I had a very dog reactive foster dog. A useful book that teaches the concepts behind this approach is "Click to Calm" by Emma Parsons. It provides recipes for how to retrain reactive/fear-based behaviors in dogs, but as you can see, it can also be adapted to horses. In a nutshell: click for the behaviors you want and the state of mind/emotion comes with it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

20. Four Ways to Teach Behaviors

The first four are the most commonly used in Clicker Training

1. Luring-this involves having the horse follow a food or toy reward to move through the physical motion you want to get him to do. You want to fade the lure as quickly as possible so the horse does not start to rely on it as a cue to the do the behavior and also becaseu it is a primary reinforcer-that is the horse doesn't need to be conditioned (or trained to know what it is) and therefore it becomes much more difficult to remove once the horse ecpects it as part of the cue for the behavior.

2. Targeting-this involves teaching the horse to target a hand, stick or other object as a way to focus him on the spot or to move him or as the beginning of a more complex chained behavior such as a retrieve. Different parts of the body can be taught as the target: nose, foot, shoulder, hip, butt, chin etc. It can be used to have a horse follow (as in luring but requires more thouhgt from the horse), to send the horse away from you, to stand still on a spot, to load into a trailer, turn around and much more.

3.Capturing-This is an easy way to get any behaviors that your horse does naturally. It involves catching your horse doing a behavior you want to have control over (add a cue to). Standing, moving, stopping, sniffing things, snorting, calling, lip curling, laying down, turning are examples etc. It can take some patience to use this method as you have to set up the situation and then wait for the desired behavior, but if your horse understands how the clicker works, it might also be the easiest way to get a complex behavior on cue.

4. Shaping-This is the best use of the clicker. Think of shaping as capturing little tiny bits of a behavior in steps until the horse is able to do the entire behavior. Or that you take a picture of each tiny step that makes up a more complex behavior. Look back at Teach the Food Zen or 'not mugging' behavior in post 8. This was a process of shaping. Once your horse understands the process of how to shape, he can learn behaviors very quickly. It takes a little time to develop the skill of shaping in both you and your horse, but is well-worth it later on when you can get behaviors very quickly than other training methods.

5. Modeling-This could also be called 'learning by observation'. Some animals learn easily by watching another of its kind do a behavior. When stuck at any point, I use this with my dogs and they usually can do the behavior after seeing the other dogs do it. It is most effective to use it for social behavior as that is its most common application.

6. Molding -This involves physically manipulating an animal to do a behavior. Lifting a horse's foot to teach him a foot lift is a good example. With a large animal for gross movement behaviors, this can be difficult and dangerous unless the horse is already trained to be comfortable with you manipulating his body.

7. Allelomimetic Behavior/Social Facilitation: This involves using behavioral activities of a herd or group of animals that have strong components of social facilitation, imitation, and group coordination. (How the herd turns together when faced with a threat etc.) This type of learning is naturally exhibited in horses and other social animals like dogs & deer but can be used to teach skittish animals to accept humans or other things that are fearful of.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

19. Maslow’s Triangle: a Hierarchy of Needs

The ability to learning and perform behaviors in a horse is similar to learning  and performing in humans. They are based on base needs.

In 1943, Maslow suggested a theory that there are a base of needs upon which all other levels function and that each of the higher levels cannot happen unless the ones below them are met. He created a triangle of needs. Below is slightly modified from his original theory to fit for horses.

At the peak of the triangle is learning and performing (creativity, problem-solving etc).
Next is self esteem (feeling capable, confident, respectful of others).
Next level down is safety, security, belonging (access to resources, health, friends, family).
At the bottom is Physiological needs; breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping,  warmth/cool, defecation)

Before a horse can learn or perform, his basic needs must be met. They far over-ride any other needs. If your horse is tired from a long ride, already full from grazing all day before you train, thirsty, or hot from standing in the sun, he will not be able to learn or perform. What can you do to fill these needs before asking his to train or perform?

Have a look at the list we created in post 13. Which of those reasons for not performing are related to physiological needs of your horse not being met?
Which are related to basic safety, security, belonging needs?

Which are esteem-related?

What can you do to change each for your horse?
Only when all of these are in place (from the bottom of the triangle on up in order) can the horse learn or perform a known behavior.
Since each horse varies in its needs, filling those needs will be different for each horse. Horses that have a sensitive nature will require different levels of adaptation on your part (likely more) than a horse with a resilient temperament. 
Next time, when you have a problem with your horse, reflect on which of his needs are not being and what you can do to help your horse meet them so he can succeed.

18. Poisoned Cues

What is a Poisoned Cue?
Cues are a signal to the horse that he has an opportunity to earn a reward (food, play, attention, do another behavior he likes to do etc) by performing a behavior. When a correction, punishment or aversive experience occurs after a cue (even inadvertently), the horse will stop responding to the cue since it no longer is a reliable predictor of good things. That cue can now also mean bad things may happen. This is known as a poisoned cue and results in the horse responding inconsistently to the cue and weakens the behavior.

If the horse is trained using correction, the cue (actually called a command) is a reliable predictor that if the horse does the behavior, he will avoid a correction for not doing the behavior (his reward for doing the behavior).

How do you Retrain?
Retrain the behavior from the beginning (should be much faster this time around if the horse already knows it) and teach the horse a different cue. Since the new cue has no negative association with it, he will respond willingly, once he knows it. Always make sure he is only rewarded for the behavior when performed and never punished or corrected.

Here is a horse that sees the halter as a poisoned cue. You can see his reaction at 0:38 seconds when he sees the old head collar on the rail, then at 1:11 when it looks like it will be put on him. By starting from the beginning and retraining (I am assuming they used targeting) with a new halter, they were able to get him to be comfortable with it.

Video from OakfieldIcelandics's channel on

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

17. Why Might a Horse Not do a Behavior?

What are the reasons for a horse not doing a behavior? There are many reasons. Here are a few.

What others can you come up with? (Think of specific situations with your own horse where you had challenges)

-doesn’t really understand the behavior
-doesn’t know the cue(s)
-poisoned cue
-your rate of reinforcement too low
-your timing is off
-the criteria you are asking is too much (you are lumping)
-the reward isn’t good enough for the level of difficulty of the behavior you are asking or the environment you are training in
-the value of reward is too high and he can’t focus
-is in a new environment and you have not gone back to the beginning of training the behavior (Horses do not generalize well. That is, they do not transfer learning from one location to another easily.)
-has not been proofed in many different situations
-has done too many repetitions of the behavior
-has been inadvertently been reinforced for doing a slightly different behavior
-tired (from exercise before training)
-recently ate (full) and not food motivated
-underlying health issues
-adrenaline still high from after a long ride
-a plastic bag is flapping in the distance
-too many of his buddies around (and they are doing something more rewarding)
-he is alone
-there’s a herd of cows nearby and he is not comfortable with cows
-he is over threshold (and as a result not able to think)
-his level of self-control isn’t able to handle what you are asking of him
-he doesn’t trust you in this situation
-fearful of the environment (as evidence by fearful body language)
-picking up your stress (perhaps by tension in you body/handling/voice etc)
-hormonally-aroused by a female in estrus
-being intimidated by another horse that is nearby
-the saddle isn’t fitted properly
-rider is sitting off balance

Quick Summary:
Horse Health
Training process
Physical environment
Social environment

As the horse’s teacher, it is up to you to remove, mitigate or change all these things (by controlling the factors in the horse’s environment so that he can perform the behaviors, building the behavior is small enough increments (called splitting criteria) so he can succeed, building up distractions slowly etc) or to retrain him from the beginning of a behavior in a new environment so that he can be successful.

You’ll note none of these reasons for not performing is trying to increase his rank, defiance or blowing you off. It’s always best to look at concrete external reasons when possible than to assume what is going on internally for the horse. Given that we are not a horse, our knowledge of social motivators is at best, a guess.

Here is a video showing an example with a dog. The principle applies across all animal species.
Which of these reasons are likely why neither dog can do the cued behavior?

Video from eileenanddogs's channel on

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

16. How to Change a Cue

If you want to change the cue at any time, give the new cue one second before the old one, he performs the behavior, then click and reward him.
This also works for changing a tactile cue to a verbal one and reverse.

So, if you want to change “Whoa” to “Stop”:

“Stop.Whoa” Horse stops. C/T.

After several practice sessions, you can drop the old cue and see if he understands the new one.
“Stop” horse stops c/t.

If not, keep pairing the new before the old and periodically dropping the old cue to see if he understands it yet.

“Stop. Whoa” horse stops c/t.
“Stop. Whoa” horse stops c/t.
“Stop. Whoa” horse stops c/t.
“Stop. Whoa” horse stops c/t.
“Stop” horse stops c/t.
“Stop. Whoa” horse stops c/t.
“Stop. Whoa” horse stops c/t.
“Stop. Whoa” horse stops c/t.
“Stop” horse stops c/t.
“Stop. Whoa” horse stops c/t.

Test the new cue alone when he is doing something else but is in training. In this case, as he walks along on a day you have not yet trained this, try giving the Stop” cue to see if he responds.

Remember that every time you change environments, you will have to start the behavior from the beginning and drop the cue until you are getting the full behavior reliably again. Then start using the cue again. Ex: If you plan to take him on a ride with his buddies one weekend and he has just learned a new cue, don’t expect him to be able to respond correctly to the new cue in the presence of his buddies. Pretend he doesn’t know the cue and retrain it as you did when first teaching it. Practice the new cue with the old, then drop it as before.

You can also Combine Tactile and Verbal cues.

To change a squeeze with leg for speed into a verbal cue, present the verbal first, leg squeeze second, c/t when he does the behavior:

“Trot” squeeze with your legs. Horse trots, c/t.

With practice, drop the leg squeeze:
“Trot” Horse trots, C/T

Fact: A cue is not a command. Cued behaviors are voluntary. Commands are taught using force.

15. Training Visual, Tactile & Verbal Cues

What is a Cue?
A cue is a hint, indication or trigger for your horse to perform a specific trained behavior at a specific time (now). It is trained by making an associating of the cue with the behavior.

A cue may be visual (like raising your arm)
or tactile (like a finger tap, little rein tension in one direction or leg urge)
or verbal (as in “Stand. Whoa etc”).
Cues can also be environmental. After training, a target stick is a cue to touch the stick, a specific saddle cues the horse to expect a certain type of activity, and the presence of a jump in front of the horse becomes a cue to jump over the jump. Even the physical environment can be a cue to what activity you will be participating in. A horse that competes in jumping trials recognizes the layout and equipment and this then cues him as to what behavior is expected (and usually acts as an emotional cue as well). A smell can be a cue as well.

To keep it simple, we’ll start with training verbal and tactile cues.

In Operant Conditioning, you train the behavior first, then when it looks like what you want, you attach the cue. So get the behavior first, add the cue later. Adding the cue is done through Classical Conditioning. (CC). Think Pavlov.

Pavlov discovered that when he consistently rang a bell just before he fed the dogs he was experimenting on, the dogs started salivating. By accidentally pairing the sound with the drooling, the bell became the precursor or the cue for the drooling.  So any time you add a cue to a behavior, you are using CC.

If you wait until after the behavior is trained exactly as you want it before you add the cue, you get your ideal behavior. If you add the cue when the behavior is incomplete, (say halfway there), the horse thinks that (incomplete) behavior is what you want. Also, if the behavior erodes over time (say, from you rewarding sloppy cued behavior) you can simply stop using the cue, retrain the behavior back to where you want it, then reattach the cue or train a new cue.

How to Train a Visual Cue:
Since horses are sight animals, learning visual cue comes most naturally. Choose a visual cue that your horse can easily see. You may want to exaggerate it at the beginning.

Once you have the behavior how you like and are ready to add a visual cue, get the horse to offer the behavior several times to get him thinking about it. Then, just as he starts doing the behavior, use your cue. Repeat for several sessions.  (If needed, exaggerate your cues, then fade them to more subtle once he shows he knows what they mean.

This would look like:
With you on the ground, horse begins to trot from a walk. Cue with a hand wave in the direction of the trot. Click and reinforce. Repeat.

Next, in a training session, start with a few uncued trials of the behavior, then give the visual cue a half second before the horse is about to offer the behavior. Make sure you are willing to bet $100 that he is intending to do the behavior in that training session. With many repetitions, your horse will associate the behavior with the cue, much like Pavlov’s dogs salivated when they heard the bell, or your horse comes running when he hears the grain in the bucket.
This looks like:
Hand wave. Horse begins to trot from a walk. Click and reinforce.

To see if your horse really understands the visual cue, try giving the it when the horse is in training mode but after a break from training other behaviors. Trying it during the first training session of the day works well so he’s had all night to think about it. If he isn’t able to do it, rule out distractions and other reasons for not performing, and go back to pairing the cue and the behavior for a session or three and try again.

This video shows a leg lifting behavior complete as the beginning of a Spanish Walk. The trainer is now adding her leg lift as the visual cue.

Video from abirdslife's channel on

How to Train a Tactile Cue:
Once you have the behavior how you like and are ready to add a tactile (or physical) cue, get the horse to offer the behavior several times to get him thinking about it. Then, just as he starts doing the behavior, use your cue. Repeat for several sessions.  (Make sure that your cues are gentle and given only once. Giving harsher and louder cues or holding your cue in position continuously only teaches your horse to ignore it or require you to apply more pressure each time.) This is especially important for continuous behaviors such as trotting. The horse will learn later that once he starts trotting, he should keep that pace until cued to do otherwise. (We'll talk about that later).

This would look like:
Horse begins to trot from a walk. Cue with a slight tap on his neck. Click and reinforce.

Next, in a training session, start with a few uncued trials of the behavior, then give the tactile cue a half second before the horse is about to offer the behavior. Make sure you are willing to bet $100 that he is intending to do the behavior in that training session. With many repetitions, your horse will associate the behavior with the cue, much like Pavlov’s dogs salivated when they heard the bell, or your horse comes running when he hears the grain in the bucket.
This looks like:
Slight tap on his neck. Horse begins to trot from a walk. Click and reinforce.

To see if your horse really understands the new tactile cue, try giving the tactile cue when the horse is in training mode but after a break from training other behaviors. Trying it during the first training session of the day works well so he’s had all night to think about it. If he isn’t able to do it, rule out distractions and other reasons for not performing, and go back to pairing the cue and the behavior for a session or two and try again.

How to Train a Verbal Cue:
If you want to add a “Take It” cue to the ‘Food Zen’ behavior in blog post 8, you will need to choose a release cue that means “Okay, you can take it”.  In the early training with the clicker, the click means exactly that. Your marker word “Yes!” from blog post 7 also means “The treat is yours, you earned it”!

Next, you need to give the cue just before the old one.

So it would look like:
He leaves a food presented to him. “Take it!” click, treat (he takes food) 

Practice this for several training sessions, then try dropping the click.
It looks like:
He leaves a food presented to him. “Take it!” Treat.

If he cannot do several of these in a row, go back to using the verbal and the click for more training sessions, then try just the verbal again. (For this particular behavior you can either cue the “leave it” or wait for the uncued default behavior.)

Try asking him to do another behavior he knows well and use the release cue ‘Take it' to eat some food.

Continuing Education for your Horse:Here's a great video showing how to test your horse's knowledge of the cues in different environments and situations. It's all about testing where he can do it, then more training if he can't!

Video from Peggasus09's channel on

Monday, October 18, 2010

14. How to get Reliability of Behavior

To get an animal to offer behaviors that are reliable and predicable, we need to apply additional learning approaches in combination with OC: 

1.      Ensure our animals are mentally and physically up to the tasks we are asking
2.      Train our animal partners desired behaviors & tasks using OC until they are proficient in the performance of them.
3.      Next train the cues (hand, body, verbal or other such as rein) that trigger the behavior (using Classical Conditioning). Once that happens, the response to a cue almost becomes automatic. You cue whoa, your horse stops.
4.      Because, like us human animals, animal thinking and learning are influenced by emotions and distractions, we also need to teach them to ignore outside influences (distractions) and condition them to handle situations that could trigger fear or other stress reactions (using Systematic Desensitization or Counter Conditioning). For some animals, this is a bigger job than teaching the actual behaviors.

When these four approaches have been addressed, you will have an animal that reliably offers behaviors on cue.

13. Operant Conditioning

So by now you have a little experience with the clicker and how it works. So here’s a bit of history and theory.

Marker-based training was first observed and recorded in ‘Operant Conditioning’ experiments by BF Skinner in the 1930’s. Skinner discovered that animals can learn to ‘operate’ their environment. Every animal can become aware of and make behavior choices that affect the environment: a rat accidentally steps on a lever in his box and food is dropped in. Repeating this behavior, the rat learns that he can have food whenever he wants it. The rat thinks about his behavior (pressing the lever) and is rewarded with an outcome (food).

The neat thing about this is that this principle of Operant Conditioning (OC) in learning applies across the animal kingdom. All animals think about what behaviors get rewarded and repeat those behaviors. A crayfish learns to tug a string, a fish swims though a hoop, a bird learns to roll over, a bunny does agility, a dog shuts the door, a cat comes when called, a horse puts clothes in the washing machine, a dolphin jumps high in the air in perfect time with her 5 podmates, an elephant learns to carry her human passengers with care and a pilot learns to fly a plane. All of these behaviors are taught on the basis of the animal being rewarded for the desired behavior. No thought of being the boss or dominant over the learner, just working with the animal to teach him what behavior you are looking for.

Every good teacher knows that all trained behaviors are voluntary and is done by choice. The learner can, at any time, choose not to be operant or may not be in a mental or emotional state to be able to be operant for a variety of reasons.  This is useful to know since if we don’t like a behavior that a horse offers or exhibits, we can look for underlying reasons why the horse is not doing what was asked and is doing something else instead.  It also opens up the possibility to retrain the behavior or train a different behavior instead if the old one wasn’t working for the teacher.

Friday, October 15, 2010

12. Food Zen Continuing Education

Continuing Education
Work your way down to the ground (on a box, on a board, on the ground) so that while he interacts with you, he won’t eat food laying about unless given the release cue. Eventually you can scatter food on the ground as an increased distraction while training some other behavior.

If you increase the value of the objects in small enough increments so he can succeed, he will eventually learn that yes, he CAN ignore a field full of new grass as he walks through it unless you tell him it’s okay to help himself by verbal or dropped lead. (This, by the way, can make a great reward for a behavior such as walking calmly along a trail and periodically reward him with a minute or so of eating new grass.)

Leaving Objects:
To generalize this to objects you don’t want him to mouth, grab or otherwise interact with, provide him with a sample of it and start training from step 1. Move the object out of reach/sight and reward him with a treat, not the thing he wants to grab.

Add distractions in his home training area, and train in locations of increasing distractions. These will all help to solidify and generalize the behavior in your horse.

Remember to keep all training tasks simple for your horse to be successful. Break each behavior into simple steps he can accomplish. As his trainer, it is your job to help him be successful. Avoid lumping.

11. Food Zen Level 4

Goal: Horse leaves a pile of freshly-picked grass on a raised surface with no cue for two minutes. (This is also a default food zen in your presence like the treat pouch is.)

If your horse does not know how to eat off a raised surface, start with food in your hand and c/t for him to eat it and gradually lower it until your hand is lying flat on the top of a upturned bucket or other raised surface.

Next, place the lowest level food on an inverted bucket and start training from step 1 above. Do not cue the behavior. At first, be prepared to cover the food with your hand so he can’t get it. Remove your hand when you c/t and aloow him to eat.

Try to avoid allowing him get the food when he has not yet been c/t since you want him to learn that holding himself back is what earns him the reward, not grabbing for it. All it takes is a few successful grabs to learn that if he tries once in a while, he just might be successful. This can take a long time to retrain so best to be overly careful preventing that behavior from developing the first time.

Increase the value of the food as he is successful as in step 1 to 5. Do not add a cue. This is how it becomes a default behavior, with the presence of the food on the bucket or surface as being the cue. If you would prefer him leaving the food alone to be a cued behavior, simply add the release cue just before the click. Then drop the click and just use the release cue. (some people use a dropped lead rope as a cue that it is okay for your horse to eat while resting on a trail ride, for example.) 
Increase the time that he must leave the food as before to one minute or more.

10. Food Zen Level 3

Goal: Horse stays off treat in strangers hand for 30 seconds, 2 cues.

How to teach this:
Train for added duration first.
Then when you have at least 30 seconds ( I usually do more so the horse has more than the skill that is being asked.) ask a friend that knows your horse to come help you train. This time, demo for your friend what you want her to do. Then have her hold the food in her closed fist and start from the beginning. You control the clicker. Work your way to an open hand first, then to 30 seconds. Ideally, this would occur over several short training sessions.

Next, ask a different person the horse knows but may not be as familair with. Retrain from the start with the friend holding the treat and you holding the clicker as before. Start with low level treats and work your way up as before. Training will likely go faster than the first two times. Your goal is to have 10 different people help you train 'Food Zen' with your horse for 30 seconds each before you test.

If your horse is anxious with strangers at all, take it slow and you will want to practice on more epople until he is confident. Choose people that will follow your instructions closely (or have even trained this beofre on their own horse) so the horse will have a positive experience with each new person and build a positive association.

9. Food Zen Level 2

Goal: Horse stays off treat pouch no matter where it is on your body for one minute, the presence of the pouch is the cue.

Place some low level treats in your treat pouch and keep out for each of your horse. Start by practicing a set of 5 'Food zen' with an open hand to 10 seconds.

Now, present your pouch off to one side and in front of your horse to sniff. C/t if he moves his head away as before. Move the pouch around on both sides of him as you did your hand.

Increase the duration of food zen until your horse can 'leave it' for one minute, then start again at a lower time with a higher value treat. Work your way up to high value treats in the pouch as before.

When he is consistent with leaving the pouch alone no matter where you hold it, place the treat pouch in its regular place on your waist and let him sniff. C/t as before for leaving it. Add duration. Add value of treat.

Move the pouch to a different location on you, such as on your hip, stomach or turned behind you. When he can leave your pouch alone in any postion for one minute, you are ready to move on to training other behaviors. Keep adding duration.

As you train with him on other behaviors, peridodically c/t him for holding himeself back from your pouch. If he goes back to mugging your pouch, stop what you are training and go back to the basics with food zen to remind him of the behavior you want. Avoid lumping by training him other behaviors when he has not yet understood that he must not mug you.

8. 'Food Zen' (or how not to 'Mug' you) Level 1

One of the first things your horse needs to learn is not to mug you or try to steal food when it's not offered (such as from your treat pouch). This is really about self control and it's an important part of 'playing' the clicker training game.  It is also a useful default behavior for your horse to have, especially if he is going to be around many people who carry food or if there is really yummy new grass growing in a field where you want to exercise or train him.

Here's how to start training it:

First, make sure you are safe. If you have a pushy horse or one that does not respect your personal space, use a barrier between the horse and you. A gate, or fence works well. That way you can remove your self to safety if you need to.  One you are comfortable with the horse and know he is safe, then you can progress to training on the same side of the fence.

Level 1
Your Goal: Food Zen is when the horse is presented with your fist or open palm in his space does not make any effort to sniff, touch or steal the fist or food, until clicked or given the cue to do so for 10 seconds.

1. Place a low level treat in your palm and make a fist. (or hold out your treat pouch with one treat in it.)
2. Extend your arm straight out from your shoulder to just within your horse's personal space. You can stand slightly off to the side as well.
3. Your horse will likely sniff, lip, bop or maybe even bite at your fist trying to get the treat. Ignore it until your horse pulls his head away (or backs up or...) even just for a fraction of a second (an no matter the reason-even if he gets distracted by something else. You don't care WHY your horse moves his head away, just that he DOES at this point.). Click the instant the heads starts moving away and treat with what is in your hand.
4. To start the next trial, refill your hand and stick it out in the same position as before. Wait for any holding himself back or moving away and c/t.
Tip: Avoid clicking a retreat after a nose bop as this creates a little chain of 'bop and pull away' which is not food Zen. Instead, pull your hand back and start another trial by extending your hand. This tells the horse the bop is not what you want.
5. Start asking for more time staying away from the food before clicking and rewarding. An easy way is to use one second increments. Count
“One, one thousand”. Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat. Etc.

If he goes for it before your count is up, start back at the beginning the first few times.
If he went for it at five seconds, practice just below that at four seconds for 10 repetitions to see if he can do it. If he can, the 11th repetition, try 5 seconds.

“One, one thousand”. Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand, five one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand.” Click/treat.
“One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand, four one thousand, five one thousand.” Click/treat.

Once he attains longer duration such as 10 seconds, you can throw in a shorter one every now and then to keep him interested and guessing as you don’t want it to always get harder or he might stop trying.

6. When he can hold himself away from your closed fist for 10 seconds, try opening your hand and start from the very beginning (step 1 to 5). Your horse will see this as a different behavior and try to mug your hand again.

7. Move your hand to different locations (above, below, to one side, to the other side, above and to the side etc). Repeat above process with each step 1 to 5.

8. Try increasing the value of the food in your hand by a little and start from the beginning. For most horses, training goes faster the second and subsequent times as they start catching onto the idea. Train from the beginning with at least 5 different food items, increasing in value. (so hay, Cheerio, alfalfa cube, apple, carrot, fresh grass). The more he likes the food item, the harder the exercise will be for him.

Keep Training
9. Once your horse is reliably staying off your open hand for 10 seconds on the highest value treat continue to extend the time in 2 second intervals.
10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 (go back to the starting 10 seconds if he mugs your hand.)
When you get to 30 seconds, you can try increasing in 10 second intervals.
30, 40, 50, 60 etc.
After a minute, try increasing in 15-30 second intervals etc as you progress.
60, 75, 90, 105 etc

Here is a video with a horse that has already been trained to have self control on the hand. Now she has switched to generalizing it to her treat pouch. She is obviously comfortable enough with him to be inside the pen with him.

Video from abirdslife channel on

10. If you want to add a cue, (such as “leave it”) you can do that once your horse is reliably leaving your open hand alone for 10 seconds or more. Present your hand and as he pulls or looks away, cue “leave it”. C/t for compliance. If he thinks you’ve released him to eat it, pull your hand back and retry.

After several training sessions, come back and try it again. Start cuing "Leave it" just before you present your hand.  After more practice, if you cue “Leave it” and he does the first time, he may understands what it means. Practice more alternating with the verbal cue and just presenting your hand. Then just with the verbal cue.

To test if he really understands it, try asking for it in an everyday familiar setting where you have already trained it such as hanging out at the fence. If he can do it, you know he understands the verbal cue. Don’t forget that your extended hand is also a physical cue (or even considered a hand signal) as well at this point.

How long it takes him to understand this depends on how fast he picks up verbal cues. Some horses ar faster than others. Don't worry if it seems to take many sessions. Horses are more oriented to visual and tactile cues than verbal as they are not a verbal species like humans.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

7. How to Use the Clicker

How Do you Teach the Horse What the Click Means?
Just start using it to train a simple behavior. (I suggest one of the basic behaviors such as food zen or targeting). He will quickly pick up that the click means the reward.

Trainers used to believe that you had to 'charge the clicker' which means taking the time to pair the click with the treat before using to train (do say 50 repetitions of click, followed immediately by offering the treat), but we now realize this is unnecessary. If you want to 'charge the clicker' you can, but you don't have to.

A half dozen guidelines to get you started:

1. One Click Always Equals one Treat or Reward.
Do not click if you cannot or do not plan to reward. To do so weakens the meaning of the click for the horse.

The click is called a "conditioned reinforcer". This means that the horse must learn that the click has meaning. You do that by pairing the click with something that has primary value to the horse: food is an easy one to condition. In the beginning, it is very important that you deliver the treat as soon as you can after the click so the pairing will occur. With practice, it is not as critical that you deliver the reward as quickly.

What Does the Click Mean to a Horse?
It means many things. The first is that is marks exactly the behavior you are looking for, giving the horse an opportunity to earn a reward. Once he has learned how it works, the horse will offer different behaviors trying to get you to click. This is often called 'being operant'. The click also means an end to the behavior your horse is doing. It also means "Wait the the reward is coming!" (also called a bridge). Some people think of it as a release cue. It is all these things and more!

Why Use a Clicker and Not Your Voice?
1. A mechanical click is distinctive and is easily heard over distractions that may be around you.
2. Most trainers have better timing with the clicker than with their verbal marker since pressing the button on a clicker is faster than forming words (for most people).
3. The sound is always identical as well so the horse can easily recognize it. That said, each type of clicker has a different sound and this can be used in different environments. A softer clicker may be more appropriate for indoor environments and a louder click for outdoor.
4. Studies have shown using the clicker can be 45% faster learning for the animal than using the voice.
Listen to Karen Pryor podcast
5. Studies point out that there may be a link between effect of the click sound on the amygdala (the animal's primitive brain) and the animal calming down and learning. The same impact is not found when using your voice.

Myth: You cannot train a horse or other animal in the same room or area as other animals being trained with the clicker as it distracts them.
Fact: Once an animal learns that he needs to focus on you to earn the click, he learns to tune out other people working with their animals. This occurs quite quickly for most animals.

Using Your Voice as a Marker
After introducing the clicker and working with it for a few sessions, you'll want to also condition your voice to be a marker. This is handy in case you lose your clicker, forget to bring it, or when your hands are otherwise busy with reins etc. It can also be used after a behavior has been learned and accuracy isn't as critical. You condition a verbal marker by simply substituting a verbal sound (such as "X", "Yes", tongue cluck or other unusual and short sound) instead of the clicker and rewarding as usual.

2. Choose a Reward That is of Suitable Value
for the level of difficulty of the behavior you are asking and distraction where you are training. Go back to your prioritized list from blog post number 3. Ideally, you will want to train before your animal is fed as a full animal will need a higher value treat, or may not respond at all if he is feeling full and sluggish after the meal.

3. Make Sure That Your 'Rate of Reinforcement' is High.This means: how many times per minute is your horse getting clicked? The more distracting the environment, the more frequently you'll need to click to keep his attention. You may want to practice your treat delivery to speed it up. Try counting out 10 treats, hold them in your hand or pouch and click and treat a behavior. Time yourself. You'll notice your horse's focus stays on you if you have a faster rate during early learning. This high rate or refinforcement is very important when learning a new behavior and when training in distracting environments.

4. Break Your 'Criteria' into Small Enough Steps
that your horse can be successful 50% of the time when you first start training the behavior (he is successful 5 out of 10 repetitions). If he can achieve 8 out of 10 or better, you can move to the next step. (Do you remember that criteria are the objectives we set back in blog number 5?)

5. Practice Your 'Timing' Before you use the Clicker on Your Horse.
When you click is very important. You want to click the instant the horse does the behavior you are looking for, not before and not after. Usually, a click occurs while the horse is still in motion, not when it stops (unless, of course, a stationary behavior is what you are working on).

If your timing is off, it slows your horse's learning as he thinks the behavior being clicked (perhaps one second after the actual behavior you intended to mark) is the one you are looking for. If you miss a click, it's better not to click at all than to click late.

Have someone bounce a ball on the floor and you click when you think it will hit the floor. Have them fake you out. Have them throw it against a wall and you click when it hits the wall and then the floor. Click it at the top of the arc when they throw it in the air. Click the eye blinks of a TV news announcer. Anticipation is an important part of timing your click.

6. Keep Training Sessions Short. Try 4 sessions of 10 clicks each. Stop for one minute between and then end the session. Try again in a few hours. Once your horse is able to focus for longer periods, you can build up the number of sessions but still keep him interested. If he loses interest, you've trained way too long! Always leave him wanting more!

7. Video tape Yourself. You will learn much about your skills, where you can improve and see a different angle than when you are actually training. In many cases, videotaping is a great problem solver as you can see where you or your horse aren't communicating.

Communicating effectively with your horse is what the click is all about !

6. Your Turn!

Now, I want to hear from you. How would you teach your horse to follow your hand as you walk?
What would the steps be? Use the framework from the previous blog.

This is a useful tool to get your horse to focus on your hand and move from place to place. It can be used to lower his head, move him into another paddock without a bridle or to keep him focused as you move him past a scary thing.

5. Have Goals and Objectives for Each Behavior

Before hitting the ground training, plan what you are going to do.
What is the Behavior You Want?
Picture what it looks like in your head. Write down the exact details of what you imagine. This becomes your goal behavior.

If you don't have a picture, look for videos or get someone to show you what the behavior looks like with their horse.

For example, if you want your goal behavior to be:
Horse moves towards me from 3 feet away and touches my extended fist with his nose (mouth closed) on one verbal cue plus the hand signal of the closed fist. (If you think your horse will have a tendancy to bite, use an object such as a cone or milk just as the target instead of your fist.)

Now make a list of 1 to 10 (or more).

Fill the last step in.
This is how you measure when you have achieved your goal for that behavior.

10. Horse moves towards me from 3 feet away and touches my extended fist with his nose (mouth closed) on one verbal cue plus the hand signal of the closed fist.

Now imagine that each number is a photo that captures one step that progresses towards the final goal behavior.
What would that first photo look like? Make sure that is is something that your horse can easily do or that you can capture.

1. Horse sniffs my fist with his nose when I present it in front of him.
10. Horse moves towards me from 3 feet away and touches my extended fist with his nose (mouth closed) on one verbal cue plus the hand signal of the closed fist.

Here is what a draft plan for this behavior might look like with a middle step filled in.

1. Horse sniffs my fist with his nose when I present it in front of him.
5. Horse touches my fist with his nose when I present it two feet below his nose level
10. Horse moves towards me from 3 feet away and touches my extended fist with his nose (mouth closed) on one verbal cue plus the hand signal of the closed fist.

Next, break Each Step Down Further
until you are comfortable that he will be able to achieve what you are asking at least 50% of the time when you first start. If he gets less than 50% of them, you need to break that behavior into even smaller steps (on the fly) so he can be successful.

Here is a completed draft plan:

1. Horse sniffs my fist with his nose when I present it in front of him.
2. Horse touches my fist with his nose when I present it in front of him.
3. Horse leans towards and touches my fist with his nose when I present it one foot in front of him
4. Horse touches my fist with his nose when I present it one foot to the right side of him
5. Horse touches my fist with his nose when I present it two feet to the right side of him
6. Horse touches my fist with his nose when I present it one foot to the left side of him
7. Horse touches my fist with his nose when I present it two feet to the left side of him
8. Horse touches my fist with his nose when I present it one foot below his nose level
9. Horse touches my fist with his nose when I present it two feet below his nose level
10. Horse touches my fist with his nose when I present it one foot above his nose level
11. Horse touches my fist with his nose when I present it two feet above his nose level
...add distance in one foot increments in each direction over several training sessions until you get to 3 feet away in each direction.
15. When the horse can reliably touch your hand from 3 feet away in at least 5 directions, start adding the verbal cue "touch" just before you know your horse is going to touch it.
16. Cue 'touch' in all directions just before he touches your fist.
17. After much practice, test his understanding by asking him to do the behavior when he is 'cold'. That is, you have not been practicing it and he is just standing around doing nothing. If he is able to do the behavior, he likely understands the cue. If he does not, you will need to do more practice with the cue.
18. Horse moves from 10 feet away and touches my fist with his nose (mouth closed) on one verbal cue plus the hand signal of the closed fist.

Make sure that you click only when he touches with a closed mouth. Grabbing with teeth, tongue or touching with open mouth is NOT the desired behavior and should not get clicked and rewarded. You get what you click (and reward).

Congratulations! You have just 'shaped' your first behavior!

Shaping is the most effective use of the clicker and allows you to train your horse to do some very complicated behaviors that otherwise would be difficult to teach. it also allows you to get the level of precision you want from your horse. Each little objective-called 'criteria' is selected for, marked and rewarded. The more rewards a horse gets for a behavior, the more he is likely to repeat it!

4. Create or Follow a Training Plan

Before you start, it's ideal to have a plan of what you want to train. The first few behaviors become 'default' behaviors later on when the horse starts offering behaviors, so it's important that you start with calm desirable behaviors, not rowdy ones. Also choose behaviors that you can use to start building other behaviors from and are helpful in horse management.

Some good ones to start with:

food Zen (no mugging):

nose touches:

front foot targeting:

backing up:

standing still:

lifting feet:

When first beginning, you want to keep training sessions short, say 40 repetitions. Train in batches of 10, then give your horse a one minute break between each to think about what he just learned.

With practice and success, you can increase the number of repetitions as needed in a training session. When shaping a behavior, you may want to do all 40 repetions in a row , especially if he is "in the game" and working towards your desired behavior rapidly.

3. How to Get Started

The first thing you need is a list of rewards that you can use in training. They should be small pieces (so you can do many repetitions) and something that has value to your horse. Only your horse can tell you what he or she likes.

Here is a List of Possible Food Items for Ideas.
When introducing new foods, start by giving only a little each day for a few days to see how your horse's stomach tolerates it. It takes time for the bacteria and enzymes to build to a high enough level to digest new foods easily. If the bacteria is not present in sufficient amounts, the horse's system will shoot out the new food out the back end so take it slow.

horse's regular feed if it is grain of some sort
lucerne chaff
human breakfast cereals (including Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios
Captain Crunch)
sweet potatoes
peanuts in the shell
horse cookies
handfuls of grass & hay
frozen peas and carrots,
black oil sunflower seeds (in shell)
cubes of dried bread
1/4 dried fig
dried plums
Manna-pro bite sized nuggets - apple and peppermint,
pasta black licorice
red jelly beans ("the others don't have enough/any flavor")
jelly bellies (?flavors?)
sugar cubes
candy corn
hard candies, like starlight peppermints (the red and white ones);
after dinner mints (the soft, chalky, pastel ones)
valentine hearts (the soft, chalky, pastel ones)
biscotti (presumably with OUT chocolate)
plain animal crackers (cheap in bulk) (what about the frosted kinds?)
All types of grain and granola cereals
pasta (dried) (esp. shells and rotini)
burned or stale cookies (i.e. oatmeal)
Fritos (many people suggested these);
alfalfa pellets/cubes
molasses chunks (often found in commercial feeds - good jackpot!)
orange peel (!?!)
dried cranberries (it takes a special horse, I think)
various fruits (melons??? lots of animals like cantelope);
Commercial horse treats
Mrs. Pastures Horse Cookies (I smash with hammer for c/t)
Joker's ( mail order only, *very* good jackpot)
Energy Snacks (good basic treat)
...and, of course, all sorts of normal horse food too!

This list was taken from the archives of ClickRyder, a discussion group for positive horse training.

You Can Use Other Things as Reinforcers as Well.
A neck scratch, face rub right between the eyes, bum rub (under and above the tail), and withers are usually enjoyed too! Try different things with you horse to see what he will work for.

Even consider behaviors he enjoys doing. Those can be rewards too! Maybe he likes galloping for short spurts. Use that as a reward after a controlled walk or tricky manoevere. Does he have a favorite game he plays with you? Use that! Cueing him to dip his head down for a mouthful of grass on a walk can reinforce calm behavior on the walk.

You Are Not Done Yet!
Next, find out which of these has the most value to your horse. Give him a choice of two or three foods and see which he picks. Do this with several foods, then create a list that ranks his preferences from highest to lowest. Do this with non-food rewards as well to create a master list.
High value rewards are used when training a new behavior or in very distracting environments. Low value rewards are used when the horse knows a behavior very well and when the behavior itself is enjoyable for the horse.

2. Prerequisite Skills

Your horse needs to be able to eat from your hand or a bucket and to work on a line (dragging or tethered, your preference) if you don't have a small space to start training.

To teach eating from your hand, start with a bucket on the ground with some yummy food inside. Next, invert the bucket and place some treats on that. When the horse is eating successfully at that level, fill your hand with some treats and place your flat palm face up on top of the bucket. Over several training sessions, gradually raise your hand over several sessions until the horse is eating comfortably at your waist level. The clicker is not needed for these sessions.

Also, you need access to clean floor/ground space with no food available freely and no distractions, especially important in the early learning stages. The corner of quiet barn works great! For an outside area, try to work against a wall to limit visual distractions and wind.

If your horse mugs you for treats, use a barrier such as stall door or paddock gate to keep between you and him or tie him on a short line and stand out of reach until he learns food Zen. Keep yourself safe at all times.

Ideally, you want to work your horse off lead if it is safe for you to do so, as it simplifies management of lead ropes, tethering etc for both you and the horse and your horse will learn that being near you is far more fun and exciting than anything else he could do. It is also makes it easier to transition to training from his back.

Start with your horse by himself so he can focus on you and not be interupted by his buddies and you are not being distracted by them as well.
Keep them behind a fence, rope or tie them to a post out of distraction range.

In this video, the trainer would have done better to tether the older horse to a post out of reach of her and the learning horse. She does observe that the older horse is interfering with the new horse's learning, but chooses not to change the situation. This will slow the learning.

How many different distractions can you count that interfere with the horse learning his new task? (Start watching at 0:55 to save you viewing time.)

Video from desertduty's channel on

1. Positive Horse Training

I love being around, working with and training animals. I train my dogs and any other animals I can get my hands on using positive training.

When my sister asked me about using the same approach to her horse, I did a little research to get her started. I already knew that Karen Pryor's method works on any animal large or small. I've trained wild crayfish to pull a string to get food in just 15 repetitions, my gerbil to jump into my hand on cue, my neighbor's cat to touch a target stick with his nose and follow it as well as training my own dogs and neighbor's dogs polite behavior, service dog tasks and dogs sports such as Rally O and agility moves and special needs kids and teens to learn skills previously thought impossible for them. I also knew that Alexandra Kurland pioneered the application of her methods on horses. From that starting point, I am passing on my research to you in this blog. Hopefully it will save you the time it took me to find all this information.

It is fascinating for me to see how the Pryor method is applicable across the species as it is based on principles, not methodology. As a zoologist, teacher and animal lover, that appeals to me. It is applicable for beginners to more advanced horse trainers & riders.

As per usual, becaseu horses are such large animals and there is inherent risk in training such a large animal, you accept all liability if you decide to apply my blog ideas. Train your horse at your own risk. Be aware of what your horse is doing near you and around you and stay safe.

If you like this blog and have a dog, you might enjoy my two 'how to' youtube channels and my 'how to train your own' Assistance Dog blog.