La vie en Rose, clean and calm food delivery

In my first entry I mentioned that Jenny wanted to help her horse Rose with her anxiety in the arena and when hacking out. Before embarking on behaviour change Rose was checked over by Jenny’s vet to rule out any physical problems that could be triggering her behaviour. Also given the go ahead by dentist, saddler and physio we got started.

I think most of us understand the need to ‘listen’ to the behaviour of horses but often we miss the less obvious, more nuanced conversations they try to engage us in. When we begin to develop a relationship with a horse it can be tempting to ignore some of the obvious signs because we are, after all, human and have an agenda. Horses don’t share our agenda!

When we began clicker training with Rose it was obvious that she struggled to keep calm around food. That might have been because she had a previous history of being hungry. Perhaps she was pushed off food by other horses. Maybe she had come to understand that hand fed treats could be ‘nudged’ out of the human with her nose. It’s usually impossible to know for certain the reasons for behaviour happening. The first protocol is to avoid any potential triggers for the behaviour. The obvious trigger to avoid in this case was hand feeding.

The purists might be shaking their heads at me (they shake their heads a lot). I should be good enough as a trainer to design protocols that allow for food reinforcement that avoid triggering Rose’s anxiety. Yes that’s true and often I would be in agreement but if you have a green horse and a green clicker trainer, what then? My remit as a certified behaviourist is in line my ethics; to apply the LIMA strategy with all clients, horse and human.

Improving Rose’s anxiety around hand feeding for clicker training was going to need more training competence than Jenny had at that time. To avoid the whole training scenario becoming highly aversive to Rose (and therefore Jenny) we needed to cover some basics first. We had already begun the bucket game so Rose could begin to associate food with Jenny but without the stress of hand feeding. This becomes helpful later when different food delivery techniques (like throwing food into a bucket or on to a mat) can help build movement into the training (more in future on this).

Rose now has confidence to play buckets alone

Jenny spent time with Rose wandering down their quiet lane to hand graze. We built this up slowly adding distance and duration to avoid triggering any separation based anxiety. We added some ridden hacks (starting off at metres rather than kms from the gate) with me on foot and rose walking alongside.

At the same time (and outside of any handling procedures) Jenny began work on safe food delivery. Using protected contact at the gate Jenny learned the protocol of cleanly offering food in an easily repeatable manner. This is so important… clean, repeatable and not contingent on any new behaviours. The only behaviour the protocol relies on is calmly waiting for the food. To begin with the food is offered at a superfast rate, to the onlooker it looks like the human is just pumping food in faster than the horse can eat it. This avoids triggering the anxiety that surrounds hand feeding. Rose quickly began to understand that food came from Jenny without any need to demand it. With my help Jenny was able to shape a soft head forwards posture while Rose waited for food. The context was moved from the gate to free in the arena; each time things changed we returned to a superfast rate of reinforcement to help Rose adapt to the changes.

It was essential that both Jenny and Rose understood the food rules. It is vital that we remain consistent when offering food. Inconsistency is one of the biggest triggers for anxiety and it is up to us to be consistent. Horses, like all non-human animals that don’t have complex verbal communication, will spot your inaccuracies even if you don’t! Videoing sessions can help identify short comings so I regularly video myself and Jenny.

Some people prefer to only offer food from a bag or container, others from a pocket or special jacket. As long as the rules are clear it shouldn’t matter. The rules are what keep anticipation anxiety low, not where you keep the food. If the training context allows for it then having secure boxes of food placed around the edge of the arena, that only you the human can unlock, often works brilliantly. If your horse only gets food during training from a bag at your waist then putting on that bag is going to suggest that food is on offer and that can inherently cause anxiety. It is our job to write the rules and stick to them. If we don’t then we’ll be caught out by the super observation powers of the horse.

Jenny also worked with the handsome Travis, Rose’s buddy, who is a completely cool dude around hand fed food. It’s so helpful to have practice with other horses and even other species! Although we are yet to start training Pete the Peacock!

Pete, always on hand to create a spooky moment!

Jenny has done a great job with Rose’s hand feeding, she is now calm and patient when given food during training from the ground and in the saddle. Our clicker training began again a couple of weeks ago. To begin with I set up an area for us to work, close to Rose’s favourite spot of her ramp – an elevated area that is rather heavy to move. Unfortunately it is right next to a building site, Rose gets distracted but is coping with it well. I have set up blocks for us to work around in what I think folks refer to as a reverse round pen. The area leads directly from the ramp and back to it. This is our first video where I began to set up the rules about the way I would offer food. Rose came to the ramp herself (this is a highly repeatable behaviour for her) once I was stood in the centre of the block area. She glanced at me so I clicked and came forwards to remove the head collar…play time.

I used a high rate of reinforcement, clicking before offering food, associating the sound with the food. Building up a good history with no opportunity for her to become anxious about the food. This is a short clip (to save death by boredom of watching paint dry) of a longer procedure. I was happy with her calmness, noted her distractions as the builders made noises and then released myself from the game with multiple clicks and some food on the ramp so that I could cleanly leave the arena without any fuss.

Important things I noted from the session:

  • Rose was happy to come to the ramp with me close by, if she doesn’t then I should consider whether I work with her
  • Rose clearly glanced at me which might be perceived as a let’s go signal, I’ll keep a look out for that and potentially develop it
  • Feeding from a big open bag at my front worked well
  • Carrots and apples seemed to be equally well accepted
  • Making a clear, almost exaggerated, hand delivery from hand resting outside of the bag before clicking to an outstretched open palm under her nose after clicking seemed acceptable to her
  • Offering the hand and food lower encouraged a lower head position
  • Offering food higher made no difference to her calmness, she remained calm throughout
  • Feeding from either side of her followed the same protocols but my left hand is undoubtedly less smooth so I’ll work on that
  • Next time I need to vary the position I stand in or that will become part of the cue for food


This progression does not comprise of huge steps ever skywards, it is painfully slow and in such tiny elements that a blog can’t really get over in its true real time. We went on to some very basic target work in the next element of the session which I’ll talk about more in the next entry. A short sweet return to the clicker.

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