Using clicker training for husbandry and medical procedures is a great way to teach your horse to accept some of the routine, but less fun, aspects of handling as well as to prepare her for procedures that might involve some discomfort.
We recently had a hot spell and I decided to spend a little time with Aurora in the wash stall, continuing with some work with the hose and bathing that I started last year. When I got her in the fall of 2014 (she was a weanling), I knew she had some previous experience with hoses and bathing and didn’t particularly like it. I learned this on the day I bought her, when her breeder insisted on hosing off her muddy legs. She said she didn’t want to send me off with a dirty horse. Aurora did stand for it, but her posture indicated that she was very uncomfortable with the whole process and I had to intervene and say a little mud was not a problem.
I put hosing on my list of things to do, but since it was November, I didn’t plan on starting right away. Then, a few weeks after she got here, she cut her leg and I had to hose it off daily for about a week. That didn’t exactly fit in with my plan which included being able to do some careful training to prepare her, but we did get through it. And, on the plus side, I did discover that she would stand still (mostly) as long as I fed her treats. So I managed to make it a more positive experience by keeping her busy eating and taking breaks as often as I could.
Last summer, I did a little introductory work to see how she really felt about the hose and getting wet. I waited to do this until she was comfortable in my wash stall. I had spent the previous winter getting her used to grooming in her stall and then in other locations, working up to standing in the wash stall for grooming. While I do a certain amount of work at liberty, I also like to teach my horses that we sometimes work in a halter and lead and to be tied in different locations and configurations (cross-ties as well as single tie). In many cases I can use a target or mat to ask the horse to stand still, but I do like to have the option of limiting the horse’s movement if I think it will make a procedure easier for both of us.
Working at liberty vs. using a halter, lead rope, being tied etc…
This question of whether or not go use any form of restraint in husbandry work is one that comes up a lot. A lot of trainers like to work completely at liberty (horse loose and wearing no halter) so the animal has the choice of leaving the session if they are uncomfortable. I think this is important, but there are many things that have to be considered when choosing whether or not use restraint. And there are many levels of restraint.
I have chosen to use the word “restraint” here because it does seem to be the most common way of describing training with some kind of equipment that limits an animal’s choices. But I am using it with some reservations because it implies the horse is being held against her will and I don’t think that has to be the case. Horses can learn that the presence of certain pieces of equipment are good indicators of what kind of behavior will be reinforced and while the same pieces of equipment can certainly be used in a very restrictive or punishing way, that does not always have to be the case.
For me, restraint rarely means anything more than choosing to put a halter (with or without lead) on a horse or tying her. I do use cross-ties, but I have very stretchy ones and they allow a certain amount of forward and back movement, as well as freedom in the head and neck. My horses can reach back and bite at flies on their shoulders and backs while they are on them. Some cross-ties are overly restrictive and I don’t like ones that hold a horse in a very rigid position
Regardless of what equipment I am using, my goal is for the lead rope or tie to remain loose during the training process. I am not using them to prevent the horse from moving, but more to indicate that I would like the horse to stand still. If I am training with a halter and lead and the horse starts reacting so she is putting pressure on the lead, then I need to re-evaluate my training plan. This may mean breaking the behavior down into smaller steps, removing or changing the equipment, location, or some other element of my training plan.
There are some horses that shut down (offer no behavior and seem depressed) when they are haltered or tied because of past experiences, and this should be taken into account. They may benefit from doing a lot of work with complete freedom as well as making new positive associations with halters and other equipment that needs to be used for routine handling.
I don’t have set rules for whether or not I put a halter and/or lead rope on a horse. It depends upon each individual horse, what I am training, and where I am in the process. I find that I often go back and forth between the different variations. I think it’s fine to start with a halter and lead and work toward doing the same behavior at liberty (if appropriate) and it’s also fine to start at liberty, teach the behavior and then show the horse they have choices even when they are wearing their halter, on a lead, or tied.
Here are some things I consider when choosing whether or not to use restraint:
- How does the horse feel about restraint in general? Some horses panic if they feel trapped and it’s important to be very careful so that no one gets hurt. My horses all know how to tie, but I have one that panics a bit if something unexpected happens. I never tie her up for anything where I think she might move quickly.
- How much time do I have to train it? If I am dealing with something unexpected and my horse has not been trained to handle it, I will put the horse on a lead rope or tie it. If I have a lot of time to train a behavior, I may choose to train the entire thing at liberty.
- What is my training space like? Is the space one where I can safely work at liberty? Or is it safer if I limit my horse’s movement? It’s good to have a few options so that the horse can learn behaviors under different conditions. I have spaces where the horses are used to being loose, being tied, or put on cross-ties.
- How do I do the rest of my training? If I do most of my training at liberty, then it makes more sense to do husbandry behaviors at liberty too. The same goes for working on a lead. If I do most of my work on a lead rope, then I think it’s fine to do husbandry behaviors with a lead rope too. I don’t want my horse to think there is anything different about husbandry behaviors. I’m not going to say that a horse can learn to enjoy standing for a shot as much as it enjoys pushing a ball around, but the more similar I can make the training for both, the less likely it is that the horse will perceive shot training as “bad” and ball training as “good.”
- Is the procedure one where it is ok if the horse moves? With some husbandry behaviors, it doesn’t matter if the horse leaves before I am done or moves around a little bit. With others (particularly some medical procedures), the horse does need to stand still for a period of time.
- How important is the timing of my click? It can be hard to click and treat with good timing if the horse is moving around a lot. The more structured I can make the procedure, the easier it is to click precisely. Using targets can help a lot with this. I can also teach a horse to accept the use of my hands to hold a body part in position. I routinely teach horses to allow me to manipulate their legs and hold them in certain positions, and I do the same thing with their heads. This can be done through a combination of teaching body part targeting and teaching the horse to accept prolonged contact. For some behaviors, I do want the horse to wait until I click or release them, so the teaching process may include moments when the horse wants to move and I ask him to wait a moment longer and then release him.
- Do I have a helper? If I am working alone, I am more likely to use restraint. If I have a helper, I can have the helper click and treat the horse for a simple behavior like staying on a target. Or I can click and she can treat if I am in the best position to decide when to click.
Passive Restraint vs. Active restraint
Another thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between “active restraint” and “passive restraint.” Ken Ramirez’s book “Animal Training” has some great information on training for husbandry behaviors and it includes this article about teaching a dolphin to accept passive restraint for daily injections. This work was done at the Brookfield Zoo and the article describes why they decided to use passive restraint and how they taught it.
“After much discussion, we realized that we had two options. We could continue to catch and physically restrain Akea for the next several months or teach her to participate in a behavior called “passive restraint.” Passive can be defined as “inactive, while acted upon” and “receptive to outside influences” while restraint is defined as “to hold back from action!” This technique has been used at other facilities and with stranded animals with success, but we had not trained it in recent history at Seven Seas.”
“It was important that the staff realize that we would not be able to condition this behavior fully using only positive reinforcers, and the challenge would be to balance the reinforcement using a minimum of negative reinforcers. Precise implementation of both positive and negative reinforcers would be needed to condition the passive restraint.”
The article goes on to describe how they started with several trainers physically holding the dolphin in place, but were able to condition the dolphin to accept restraint and over time they were able to decrease the number of trainers. The dolphin eventually learned to stay in position for injections with fewer people (few enough she could have left if she wanted) and the behavior was maintained mostly with positive reinforcement. They listed the components that contributed to the success of this training. They included starting with basic restraint (having enough people that they could hold her), positive reinforcement, a companion animal, fading the aversive (they used a net to contain her at times), minimizing time (coming up with ways to make the procedure quicker) and minimizing staff.
This work was done in 1997, so it’s a slightly older article, but I think it shows how you can use restraint as part of a positive training program. My guess would be that most zoos now have training programs in place to prepare the animals for medical procedures, but I thought it was interesting how they did it and that they got good results. I found myself in the same situation when Aurora first cut her leg and I didn’t have any time to teach her to stand for hosing. While it would be nice to always be prepared and train behaviors before you need them, there are going to be times when your training is not completed or you have a time constraint and can’t take the amount of time you would like.
Different Approaches to Training Husbandry Behaviors
With this in mind, let’s look at some different approaches to training horses for husbandry behaviors. I am including training strategies that require a long and carefully thought out training process as well as those that you can use in an emergency or when you have limited training time. I find that in most cases, it is possible to make an unexpected procedure a positive experience for your horse, or at the least, you can avoid setting yourself up for future problems because you had to do something that caused discomfort, before you had time to prepare your horse.
There are different approaches to husbandry behaviors. Some of them focus on teaching the animal to be comfortable with and accept what needs to be done, others put more focus on finding ways that the animal can actively participate. It’s tempting to rate some of these approaches as being better than the others, but I think it’s more appropriate to recognize that any one of them might be the best option at the time and most of us will use each of them at one time or another. Yes, it’s fun to have a horse get excited about and actively participate in husbandry behaviors, but that may not be appropriate or possible for all horses, and all behaviors, all the time. Teaching a horse to stand quietly for husbandry behaviors using positive reinforcement is a big step in the right direction and anyone who does it should feel pleased with their training.
Steady click and treat during the entire procedure (or just treat):
If I don’t have time to prepare the horse and something needs to be done, I can try maintaining a high rate of reinforcement for the procedure. In this situation, I am feeding the horse while something is done to it. Some horses are better if I click and feed. Others are better if I just feed. I may have to experiment to see what works. The food is keeping the horse busy, and while the food is not necessarily being used in the optimum way for classical conditioning, the use of food usually makes the whole process more acceptable to the horse. This is easier to do with two people.
One advantages to this approach is that no previous training is required. If I can’t hand feed, I can use a bucket. When Aurora came and I had to trim her feet, I had someone feed her while I did it. This was a better option than trying to use a more operant approach with a weanling who had no understanding of the click and treat and was worried about having her feet handled. I used the same strategy with her the first time she cut her leg and I had to hose her. I fed her a steady stream of treats while I was hosing her leg.
There are a few disadvantages. It may not work in all cases, especially if the procedure is painful or the horse has to stay absolutely still for a period of time. If I am working alone, I may need to restrict the horse’s movement, either by holding the horse, tying her, or putting her in a small space. It also will not work if the horse won’t eat or the food is not enough to reinforce the behavior I want. In addition, I have to be careful that the horse doesn’t get satiated before I am done.
The other point to keep in mind is that this approach is more about management than it is about training. A horse that learns to stand and eat during husbandry or medical procedures is not learning what it should do. The food is acting more as a distraction or a way to prevent misbehavior and if I want to be able to do the same thing with less food, I will need to start to make the reinforcement contingent upon behavior, which is the next option. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with doing this as a first step or until you can do some more training.
Click and treat for cooperation: the horse accepts the procedure
If I have time to prepare the horse or your horse is already familiar with clicker training, then I can take a more operant approach. This would include teaching the horse the appropriate behavior ahead of time, taking the time to desensitize the horse to any equipment and preparing them for new stimuli (feel of needle, water, etc.). I would be looking very specifically for behavior to reinforce that was consistent with my end goal for the husbandry behavior that I was teaching.
Even under unexpected conditions, I can do a shorter version of this so the horse is introduced to equipment and any new stimuli in as gradual a way as possible. If the horse has previously been clicker trained for some husbandry or medical procedures with positive reinforcement, it is likely that he will be able to accept a new one as long as I take a little time at the beginning and make use of already trained behaviors. A horse that has learned to target for one husbandry behavior will often be willing to target for a new one, as long as I set up similar conditions and take a little extra time at the beginning.
This approach has some advantages over the first one. The first one is that the focus is on training behavior, not on managing behavior. Because I am using the click and treat to mark specific behaviors, I can shape behavior if needed, and I can build some duration. Over a few sessions, I can educate my horse about exactly what I want him to do and he will start to offer behavior and be actively working to earn a click and treat.
Using this method, horses can be taught to accept lengthier procedures with fewer clicks and treats which avoids the problem of satiation or having the click and treat interrupt what is happening. Honestly, I find that the latter is usually only an issue if I am working alone and I have to interrupt what I am doing to feed the horse. I’ve only encountered this for things like wrapping legs or hooves where it’s hard to stop in the middle to feed the horse.
Click and treat for participation: the horse gets to make some decisions about how the procedure is done.
The difference between this approach and the previous one is the horse’s level of participation. Both approaches include taking time to desensitize the animal to any equipment, teach appropriate behaviors, and prepare him for what needs to be done.
In the second approach, the horse is usually being trained to stand quietly while something is done to it. In this approach, the horse is trained to do behaviors that allow her to more actively participate or she can be taught how to communicate with the trainer about when sshe is ready to start, when he needs a break, or some other aspect of how the job is done. Many animals feel more comfortable when they are allowed some control over what is happening and even though we can’t always let them choose whether or not something is done to them, we can let them make some choices about some aspect of how and when it is done.
There are lots of variations on this kind of training and it goes by a lot of different names. Dr. Susan Friedman calls it “dialog training.” Alexandra Kurland calls it “cue communication.” Jen Digate calls it using “barometer behaviors.” And Eva Bertilsson, Emelie Johnson-Vegh and Peggy Hogan call it using “start button behaviors.”
The biggest advantage to this method is that it allows for more communication between the horse and the trainer about what is happening. It’s always important for the trainer to be observing the horse for body language that indicates discomfort, but this takes it to another level by giving the horse a clear way to ask for something specific. Some horses do much better if they are given more choices about how husbandry behaviors are done and they will participate willingly in a procedure that that would not tolerate if they felt trapped or restricted.
I hate to say there is any disadvantage to this approach as I think we should all work towards giving our horses more voice about when and how things are done to them, but I will say that it takes a little more careful planning, good observation skills, and it requires that the trainer has complete control over the session, which is not always possible with some veterinary procedures. So I think it’s something to work toward and some elements can be incorporated from the beginning, but it is a more advanced way to teach husbandry behaviors.
Going into the details of how to teach husbandry behaviors this way is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll share a little story that gives an example.
Many years ago I had a foal who was terrified of clippers. I don’t use clippers much but I do like to introduce them in case a vet needs to clip around an injury. I started by running the clippers while he was eating, touching him with them while they were turned off, and then holding them in my hand while they were running, etc., all the standard desensitization ideas that people often use with clippers. He was ok with this, but he was very upset when I touched him with them while they were running. I was working at liberty and as soon as they made contact with his skin, he would flinch and move away.
So I taught him that he could turn them off by touching them. I would turn them on and ask him to target them. If he touched them, I clicked, turned them off and treated. Once he understood that, I would stand next to him, touch him with them, click and treat. Then I would hold them out to him. If he touched them, I would turn them off and give him a break. If he turned and tried to touch them while I was working, I would offer them and let him tell me if he wanted me to turn them off. If he kept his head forward and I was able to use them for a short time (I was actually only pretending to clip), then he got clicked and treated for that. Over time he started asking to touch them less and less and I could keep them running for longer. Since I didn’t actually need to clip him I never built up a lot of duration, but I clearly remember how much more comfortable he became with them once he learned he could ask me to turn them off.
Husbandry Training using Aurora’s bath as an example
I am going to go through the steps I used to introduce Aurora to the hose, related equipment, and getting wet because the general process is one that can be used for any husbandry behavior and it’s a good example of how you can break a behavior down into many small steps. I have found that taking the time to go very slowly, even if the horse seems ok with it, pays off in the long run. It takes much longer if you move too fast and the horse gets worried, because then you have to take a step back and rebuild the behavior again.
Aurora’s Bath Plan
I followed the tips in Ken Ramirez’s book “Animal Training.”
“The important steps are:
- Plan Carefully
- Progress slowly
- Desensitize all stimuli
- Bridge precisely
- Maintain trust
- Apply proven operant techniques”
Plan carefully, Progress slowly, desensitize all stimuli, maintain trust
I wrote out a general training progression and then broke it down into steps for each session. Here’s my general plan and some notes about how it worked out, or any changes I needed to make:
- Let her see other horses being hosed or bathed. Her stall is across from the wash stall so this was easy. I just made a point of using the hose to clean or spray off one of the other horses every few days so she could see how the other horse reacted. This isn’t necessary and is not always possible, but horses do learn from watching each other. Seeing her friends have baths and being exposed to some of the sounds of the bath from a distance was an easy way to introduce the idea to her.
- Desensitize her to all possible noise and movement. This includes the sound of the water turning on and off and the sound of the spray nozzle. My spray nozzle can make some odd sounds so I spent time spraying the floor, spraying into a bucket and spraying my hand. I have had horses that were upset by the spray nozzle in the past, so if she had seemed concerned I would have just removed it and added it back in later when she was comfortable with the rest of the process.I spent time moving the hose around, so she saw it going in front of her and behind her. I also lifted it up and down and just moved it around on the floor. I wiped her with a dry sponge and scrubby so she got used to the feel of them on her body. I did all this over a period of weeks a little bit at a time. I could have done it much quicker but I would still have wanted to give her some time between sessions so I didn’t try to expose her to too many things too quickly.
- Start with the part of her body where I think she will be most comfortable. I always start with water that is lukewarm or slightly warm, even if it’s a hot day. With many horses I start by gently hosing the shoulder area. They seem less reactive to water there and it’s easy to stand in that location and click and treat without having to move the hose around.However, with her, I decided to start by hosing off her hooves. This might not be a good choice for some horses because a lot of horses move when they feel water on their legs, but I have done a lot of work handling her legs and she is very comfortable with me working around them. She also had some previous experience and reinforcement history for standing while I hosed her legs.
One advantage to hosing her hooves was that I could introduce the sensation of water on her skin very gradually. So I sprayed her hooves and a little water misted up on her lower legs. Then each day I went a little higher. I found it was easy to move from foot to foot and I would spray one foot for a few seconds and then do another one. This allowed me to slowly build some duration without staying in one spot and made it easier for me to click and treat without accidentally clicking when she moved.
- My plan included an option for what to do if she was reactive to water coming from the hose on to her body. I have worked with a few horses that were uncomfortable being sprayed directly by the hose. One option is to remove the spray nozzle and just set the hose on a slow drip. Once the horse is comfortable with this, I can use my thumb over the end to create a little bit of a misting effect and slowly build up to using a spray nozzle.Another option is to use a sponge as an intermediate step. When I do this, I use the following progression:
Can I touch you with the dry sponge?
Can I touch you with the wet sponge?
Can I touch you with the wet sponge while holding the hose?
Can I touch you with the wet sponge while the water from the hose is going on to the sponge?
Can I touch you with the water from the hose going over the sponge so some is hitting your body directly?
Can I touch you with the water from the hose going over my hand (no sponge) so some is hitting your body directly?
Can I touch you with my hand and water from the hose?
Can I spray you directly with the hose?
This progression prepares the horse for the sensation of the water hitting her skin directly. I think many horses react because they are surprised by the water coming from a distance. They are more comfortable when I use the sponge and my hand because that tells them where the water will touch them.
- Work in short sessions, focusing on one new element each day. She is general pretty accepting of new things so I had to make myself keep the sessions short and not assume that acceptance was the same as really being ok with it. I find she’s sometimes harder to read than a more reactive horse and I have to make myself go slow, even though it may not look like she needs it. I think she does, she just doesn’t make it very obvious. I was able to move pretty quickly through the desensitization steps, but made a point of only using the hose on her for a minute or two in the first few sessions.There has been some research, looking at physical indications like heart rate and breathing, that shows that a quiet horse is not necessarily less stressed than a horse that is reacting to a procedure. This is more likely to be true with horses that have been punished in the past, but I think you have to be careful with any horse to make sure that you are not asking too much of them. Learn to read your horse’s body language and allow her to let you know how she feels about what you are doing.
- Look for opportunities to make it more fun for her. Some horses like to put their noses in the hose or enjoy being hosed in certain areas. My gelding Willy always liked having the underside of his neck hosed off and he would stretch his neck out and try to rub against my hand when I hosed him there. She seems interested in the water so I sometimes hold the spray nozzle near her nose and let the water run into my hand and she will stick her nose in it. Another option is to mix in other favorite behaviors such as targeting or interactions with objects.
The plan covers most of Ken’s steps (plan carefully, progress slowly, desensitize all stimuli, maintain trust) in detail. It also mentions the importance of clicking at the right moment. One of the challenges of training husbandry behaviors is that a poorly timed click can set the training back considerably, especially if it happens in the early stages of training. I find that clicker trained horses like to be clicked for doing things, so a mis-timed click, that happens during movement, can often lead to the horse offering more movement. One way to make this less likely to happen is to try and set up the training so that the clickable moments are long enough or for previously learned behaviors so that they are easy to mark.
There are a couple of strategies I can use to help with this:
- Use a target – If the horse has been trained to hold on a target, that gives both of us a focus and makes it easy to decide when to click. A nose target can be useful if I want the horse to hold his head still. A foot target might be a better choice if I want the feet to stand still. I put Aurora on a mat for hosing to encourage her to stand in one place.
- Click and treat for standing quietly when I am doing something to the horse and also when I am not. It’s a good idea to mix in some clicks and treats for standing quietly between repetitions of the husbandry behavior or between procedures. When I was hosing her feet, I clicked and treated when she was standing still while I was hosing. I also clicked and treated when she was standing still when I was not hosing. Those were great opportunities to click and treat for the behavior I wanted, but with less risk that she would move just as I clicked.
- Teach the horse to voluntarily participate. It’s easier to time the click if the horse is the one that initiates contact or movement or the horse is responsible for maintaining contact. For example, if I train my horse to target my hand or an object with his ear or eye, it’s easier to time my click correctly because I can see the horse’s intention. If I just put my hand out toward his ear, I might not be able to tell if he is going to allow the touch or not, so there’s more risk of clicking at the wrong moment.
Apply Proven Operant Techniques
The last point I want to mention as part of the plan is Ken’s comment about using “proven operant techniques.” The operant technique I use the most is positive reinforcement (the click and treat) and it’s an integral part of my training plan. I am going to mark and reinforce Aurora for moments when she is standing still or doing other desirable behaviors. During bathing, I sometimes click for a change to a more relaxed posture. So if her head is up, I can click if she drops it to a lower position. I don’t necessarily want her to take her nose all the way to the floor, but I can encourage a drop to a more neutral position.
I can also click for standing in good balance or for interacting with me in appropriate ways. I don’t need her to stand like a statue, so I sometimes click for natural behaviors that show she is aware of what I am doing and wants to see more or check in with me. I do have to be careful that she doesn’t think these behaviors are required, so I try to respond to her but without creating any expectation or setting up a pattern. I can also mix in simple behaviors to give her a break or additional opportunities for reinforcement.
With a husbandry behavior like bathing, positive reinforcement is not the only operant technique that I am using. Negative reinforcement also comes into it. Does this mean what I am doing is aversive? No, it just means that there will be moments, especially in the beginning, where she finds it reinforcing when I stop using the hose or washing her. She may just be tired of standing while I work on one location or need to take a break. So I can time when I stop hosing to reinforce behaviors I like.
I should point out that I while I am aware that taking the hose away can also reinforce undesirable behavior (fidgeting, moving away), I don’t like to leave it on if the horse is clearly uncomfortable. Waiting for a “good moment” when a horse is already stressed is not a good training strategy. It’s better to listen to what the horse has to say, remove the hose and try again with a slightly modified training plan.
In the beginning, if she stands nicely while I spray one location, I can remove the hose, click and treat. Later I can reinforce the same behavior by taking the hose away for a moment and giving her a break. I don’t necessarily have to click and treat for every area I hose. I actually find that if I am doing something with shampoo, it can be tricky to click and treat a lot during bathing as my hands get covered with soap and the horses don’t like that. So I try to build in other types of reinforcement like a scratch or pat, removal of the hose, or some praise. That way I can click and treat less often but still reinforce good behavior in between.
Most horses can be clicker trained to accept and participate in husbandry behaviors if the trainer takes time to prepare them and works at the pace at which the horse is comfortable. Teaching your horse really strong targeting behaviors and introducing equipment gradually will make the process easier and more enjoyable for everyone. Planning ahead and doing some training before you need it is always a good idea. I try to mix in a little practice here and there as I have time so that it’s not a big deal if I suddenly need to hose a leg, put in eye medication, or wrap a foot.
A lot of the information I have shared in this article can be used for other husbandry behaviors. The key to success is breaking it down into tiny steps and observing your horse carefully to make sure that she is comfortable with what you are doing. Since Aurora is only 2, I’ve been doing a lot of husbandry behaviors with her and I hope to share more tips as we work on each one.