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.

drowning in attention

This post follows on from the previous where I talked about attention conflict when training.

attention conflict

The struggle to keep attention is just one end of a broad spectrum. Those starting out with liberty work are often eager for attention from their horse but what about the possibility of too much attention? I experienced this with Moralejo when we first started positive reinforcement and I’ve experienced it with new clients.

Balance is the buzz word in everything these days but balance in terms of attention can be tricky. Not least because we humans all see things differently. How might I define balance in terms of the horse’s attention towards me? Is the perfect scenario 100% calm attention, 100% of the time, focused on me? Then the fully flawed version would be 0% attention, 0% of the time! Reality, depending on external distractions, somewhere between the two.Try giving one thing your absolute attention even for one minute, not taking your mind off that one thing. It isn’t easy without training or something exceptionally engaging to put your mind to. Luckily horses, like us, seem to manage multitasking to a degree.

The use of positive reinforcement can get a bad press in terms of over attention but is it the method or the application that fails? Haters really hate food rewarding. Most haters I meet will attach some scientific reason to their dislike but I also think there is an element of genuine concern about working with food and the stress element. If you take any training to it’s empirical formula then an element of bribery, influence or coercion is likely to be present. It works for us humans so why not for animals. The concept of an animal ‘working’ of its own free will is a great one but I don’t think they are that unlike us (excuse the anthropomorphism but I don’t feel it sits too uncomfortably here) and free will is more likely governed by complex interior and exterior controls. Of course natural play type behaviours can be spotted everywhere and sometimes pre-learned behaviours will enter that domain; it might almost appear that your horse is practising his moves ready for your next session. Personally I believe it is not only possible to use food rewards in training but to do so without causing stress.

Some horses are very motivated by food and some less so. If a horse has a poor history around food, or lack of, they need much more work in terms of food delivery and being calm around it. Perhaps more importantly we humans need to learn to work with food. Rewarding with food isn’t about pumping as much in or as often as you can (although the conundrum is that it might be at some times for some horses). For this reason I have moved towards scratching as a reward with students new to clicker training. This means we can work on timing and delivery without the extra tension of getting the hand to the food and to the horses mouth. Seemingly innocent things like having a hand in and out the food bag aside from when necessary to reward can tend to become a bit of a nervous ‘tic’ with new students and leads to horses not discerning the true bridging signal.

Timing! Well as with all horse training timing is crucial and removing food from the initial stages can be helpful for the human. It’s still positive reinforcement but without the potential of souring the relationship as the human gets to grip with the clicker and the sense of timing. The timing of moving on is also crucial; when to stop rewarding and accept that things are on cue. Non-clicker folks watching me train are somewhat puzzled when I’m not madly clicking at every step in every session. Hey, behaviour grows and our expectations should too!

Writing this post is  highlighting lots more potential problem areas that might affect attention- saliency of rewards,  context, reward schedules, ignoring the bad stuff…and so on. You then start to understand how easy it is to make mistakes at the beginning. The lovely behaviours come thick and fast but the calm button can remain hidden; over attention is your reward! When you really get to grips with clicker work you learn to keep everything pretty much below threshold but the damage has probably been done in those early stages. I’ll consider some of these in more depth in future posts along with thoughts on how to both gain attention and avoid over attention.

Too much attention is not always desirable, dealing with it post-training isn’t perfect either but is often necessary. The answer? Well try not to make too many mistakes as you go; take it slowly and understand what you’re working towards as this will help you develop and relinquish as you go. If you are new to clicker training then try starting with scratches until you see the effect of this style of training. Practice lots. Sign up with a great trainer who has lots of background across training methods and understands the link between methods and how to blend different training to individual horses. Understanding your horse is the key to any training system you use, everything they offer us is feedback.

I sometimes read how fast clicker is but I don’t think that sums it up correctly at all. Yes training single behaviours is straight forward but it can be too easy to gloss over the issues. Even at clinics for new students you will see target touching and ‘no mugging’ behaviours looking easy but it’s what comes after that counts. I’ve been called in to help when pockets have been ripped off and horses become snatchy and unhappy- it is not a panacea for the novice trainer.

I sound as if I’m underselling positive reinforcement with food but I’m being honest. It remains the most incredible source of producing behaviours, without force, that I know. It remains a fringe method in relation to mainstream horse training but don’t discount discovering it if you haven’t already.




Don’t Touch Me There

eyeIn my efforts to do ‘some’ thing.’ rather than ‘no’ thing this week I have been playing the touch game again with Chapiro. The touch game came about when he was very young and nervous of just about everything including being touched anywhere around the head or face. I love the TTouch exercises as they are non-evasive and both Fidge and Moo had enjoyed them; not Chaps- so it was back to the drawing board.

At that time I was delving more and more into clicker training and reflecting on the boundaries of what was acceptable. Is it acceptable to clicker train something that is stressful for the horse? Do we risk making a stressful situation worse or can we actually change their opinion of something and turn stress into relaxation? Those who know me well will be aware of my love of the science behind things – the why and wherefore of behaviour is fascinating but does it always offer the answers we seek?

With the touch game I was winging it, hoping that I wasn’t messing up but truly not knowing. So how does the game work?  Starting in the stable, no physical attachment to each other by way of rope or headcollar just Chaps, me, the clicker and plenty of food or a scratcher (hoof pick, curry comb). I don’t have to approach him as he is always intrigued, as are most equines – smelling of carrot probably helps! He already had a basic ‘touch’ well on cue so I just put out my hand and let him touch it…click!! It wasn’t too difficult to shape this to the point that he would place the front of his face on my hand and then gradually accepted my hand anywhere on his face; a heavy reinforcement rate helps, really full on fast at the start. This helped with teaching him to bridle himself, lowering into the noseband when offered, and generally seemed to ease his head shyness. Winging it definitely paid off in this case and I overcame the moral dilemma of using food to conquer stress because of the outcome.

I never progressed the touch game because I didn’t seem to need to take it further at the time but with my intention of trying to be more alive with my daily training (in small steps) I am looking for simple ways of being with the horses that will build confidence and partnership further. I have now reached the point of him coming to find my hand, often with his poll, and often staying for more than a few seconds. It feels great that he trusts me in offering this, not a big deal for many horses but for him a huge step and for me just another of my small steps in positivity!



ps anyone reminded of The Tubes track can reminisce here



Come On Baby Light My Fire

Chaps yawn

Are horses innately interested in learning? Would they prefer to eat grass and mooch around all day or do they derive some pleasure from learning a task?
What’s in it for the horse and how can we awaken their curiosity sufficiently to enable the process of learning?

Should we know the answers to these questions or doesn’t it matter? As the controller of our horses is it fair to demand things without payback?

I guess we all like to think that our horses enjoy their training with us but is that a delusional viewpoint and one that we use in a self-serving capacity to justify our ownership and training of horses?

I think that’s enough questions to answer in one blog post, many of you humans won’t even read beyond the opening paragraphs without incentive so I think we can see how hard it is to pique the interest of an equine!

Problem solving isn’t exactly a natural gift for a herbivore like the horse, detecting subtle changes on the horizon and running from them as fast as they can is, however, a very innate behaviour. On the plus side horses are very good at making associations between things and after enough repetition they will consolidate an association such that this learned task will not be forgotten.

If we want to engage our horses in the learning process we first need  to offer choice. A problem is potentially resolvable if they have a choice of solutions but not too many choices, ideally only two. Personally I prefer not to reward or punish the ‘undesired’ choice unless it is a danger to the horse or human but instead handsomely reward the ‘desired’ choice.

Make the steps in learning very small; smaller than we (who know what the task requires) can begin to imagine. Take the training of a halt cue as an example. We know that the task requires the horse to stop moving all for feet for a period of at least a few seconds; the horse does not! So praise and reward for the merest thought of engaging the brain to focus on the task would be beneficial as a starting point. As a clicker training the preference is to do this at liberty and just casually ‘pick up’ behaviours as they happen…more on that in a future post. No matter what your choice of training method the breaking it down to crumb size is part of setting up for success, manage your expectations and you will forever be rewarded.

We humans are easily distracted by external stimuli even when the subject we should be studying is relatively interesting.It ‘s all too easy to respond to a sudden stimulus like the offer of a cuppa or the dog barking. Horses are no different but remember they aren’t even that engaged in the learning task to begin with so our ability to pique their curiosity hangs by a thin thread!
So we must create a calm learning environment and in time engage them sufficiently to foster the learning habit.


Breaking down the learning into particle size, creating a calm learning environment and offering clear choice as described are certainly part of the route to success but the greatest addition to these is the creation of winners! No I haven’t decided to re-enter the world of competition I’m talking of winners in terms of us being able to say ‘YES, you got that right’ to our horses. If, like me, the embarrassment of getting a question wrong has struck you nervously dumb then you’ll understand the importance of being able to say YES. If we stop to consider the particle size of choice and the clarity of the choices on offer then it becomes obvious that to engage our horses in the learning process we must set them up for success, YES must be easy, not hard. Incredibly once a horse has learned the association of YES with a task it begins to blossom and offer behaviours more willingly in answer to new tasks and choices; that’s definitely a win/win situation.

When you next arrive at the field gate to take your horse off on a journey of joyous learning don’t be disappointed that he doesn’t canter over and stuff his head into the head-collar;unless that’s one of his learned behaviours of course. Horses can and do learn, innately governed or acquired does it matter? For me the bottom line is that my horses feel safe with me and the stimulating environment that I put them into, if they have a heightened sense of pleasure because of this process then that’s even better!