equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people


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Motivation:  Motivation is a theoretical construct used to explain behavior. It represents the reasons for people’s actions, desires, and needs. Motivation can also be defined as one’s direction to behavior or what causes a person to want to repeat a behavior and vice versa. A motive is what prompts the person to act in a certain way or at least develop an inclination for specific behavior. (from Wikipedia)

Motivation…Too much, too little, just right?

In the June 7, 2015 post on my FB page, I referred to an article called “The Ethics of Animal Training” which was written by Barbara Heidenreich of www.goodbirdinc.com. The article contained a nice chart showing how an animal’s response to a food reinforcer is a good indication of their level of motivation.  As a clicker trainer, it’s important to me that my animal is “motivated,” meaning it is actively participating in the training session, choosing to engage with me, and is eager to earn reinforcement.  So, on one hand, motivation is simple. We want it!  But what can affect motivation and how can we evaluate our horse’s level of motivation?

In her article she states the importance of finding the right level of motivation for a bird and/or a behavior, with the ideal level being medium motivation. Her scale includes low, medium, high and excessive. Animals that are not motivated will be slow to respond and easily lose interest. Animals that are excessively motivated can be difficult to work with as they tip easily into frustration, and too much enthusiasm can sometimes interfere with precision work.

When I read the article, I thought it would be good to have a horse version of it, listing observable behavior that would help trainers identify different levels of motivation and frustration. There is lots of information available on reading signs of stress in horses, and we can and should be aware of our horse’s body language in all aspects of training, but for this article I am going to focus more on the horse’s behavior around food delivery. That includes what happens right before (between click and treat) and right after the treat is delivered. This is one place where I think clicker trainers have an advantage over trainers who do not use food, because a horse’s behavior in this interval is usually a great source of information about how he feels about the training session.

If we want to discuss the effect of motivation on behavior during food delivery, it’s important to start by establishing a good picture of appropriate behavior in a well trained and comfortably working horse.


Every horse will be slightly different in how he responds to the click and takes food, but there are some basic criteria that I look for when evaluating a horse’s behavior around food delivery.  These criteria are all things that can be influenced by the skill of the person delivering the food.  Good food manners usually evolve because the trainer has good food delivery skills and has taken the time to teach the horse to take food gently and safely.

I like to see that the horse:

  • Responds to the click by stopping movement and waiting for the food to be delivered. Depending upon the situation, I may want the horse to orient toward me as I offer the food (riding, some groundwork and husbandry behaviors) or I may want the horse to position and keep his head in a more neutral position (facing forward) while I deliver the treat directly to him.
  • Allows me to bring the food all the way to his mouth – no lunging toward the hand, although I don’t mind if the horse gently extends his nose toward my hand.
  • Takes the food with his lips or a soft mouth – some horses will nip your hand with their teeth, either pinching the skin or scraping your palm with their teeth. This can be due to inexperience with hand feeding, but if a normally soft mouthed horse starts to use his teeth, it’s a good indicator of tension.
  • Shows relaxation and enjoyment at getting and eating food. Lots of horses put their ears back or wrinkle their noses as they eat. If they spend a lot of time in a herd situation, this may be more of a habit than anything else, and some horses tend to be more intense about eating in general.  But if your horse seems very crabby about getting his treat and this does not improve over time, then it’s worth taking a look at what is reinforcing that behavior. Ideally the horse should look happy to get his treat.
  • Allows me to move my hand away without following it or nipping at me as I withdraw it. It’s very important that this is done smoothly and when the horse is ready. Some horses like to make sure they get every bit of the treat and how you remove your hand can make a big difference.

A horse that has been educated about appropriate behavior during food delivery should meet all these criteria when it is happily working.  Or if it doesn’t (we all get sloppy sometimes), it should be easy to make an adjustment and improve things.  But sometimes a deterioration in food manners is a good indication that the horse’s emotional state is not ideal for training.  This can show up as the horse becoming a little more grabby about the food, either not waiting for the food to be delivered to him or reacting when your hand is removed. The horse can also become less careful about taking the food off your hand and use his teeth (scraping) or even bite.

With this information in mind, let’s take a look at different states of motivation.


Motivation in training is probably a bit of a “catch-all” term, (a “construct” as Dr. Susan Friedman would say), and I’m not suggesting that every training issue comes down to a matter of motivation. But I liked Barbara’s idea that we can observe our animal’s behavior during reinforcement to learn something about their level of motivation, and that we can use that information to decide how to proceed with our training. I think it’s a good place to start and my guess is that in many cases, looking at  the connection between behavior and motivation will be beneficial, even if it only ends up being a piece of the puzzle.

I’ve used the same categories that Barbara chose (low, medium, high and excessive) and listed behaviors that are associated with those levels of motivation. You will notice that some behaviors fall into several categories. For example, a horse could ignore the click if it was not interested or was very distracted and had disengaged from the trainer. Or a horse might also ignore the click if it was very motivated and working independently, which could be appropriate or not depending upon what you were training.


Some indicators of low motivation are:

  • No response to the click
  • Does not orient to the trainer on hearing the click or when the food is presented
  • Does not return to training mode or engage with the handler after eating
  • Leaves the session or spends excessive amounts of time observing the environment, doing other behaviors etc…
  • Eats very slowly and/or does other behavior while eating

Possible reasons for low motivation:

  • Reinforcement value is too low. The reinforcement could be insufficient for the difficulty of the task (difficult behavior, distracting environment). There can also be a mismatch between the behavior and reinforcer as some reinforcers work better for some types of behaviors (movement vs. static, high energy vs. low, etc…).
  • Competing reinforcers are making alternate behaviors more likely, so the horse seems uninterested in what you want to train. This can happen in a very distracting environment (getting to look at things can be reinforcing) or under conditions when other types of reinforcers are available (movement, toys, social interactions, etc…)
  • Errors in food delivery can cause frustration and the animal may disengage. How you deliver the food is very important. If the food is not delivered promptly, smoothly and in a consistent manner, then some horses will chose to just leave the training session, either mentally or physically.
  • The sessions are too long or not varied enough. Some horses thrive on routine and repetition. Others work better when there is some variety and more mental stimulation.
  • Previous learning history has taught the horse that it is not safe to take food and/or offer behaviors. This is often referred to as being “shut down.” Some horses that seem very compliant are a challenge in the early stages of clicker training because they are reluctant to try anything new or engage with their trainer in a different way. This is not as much a question of low motivation as it is a reflection of past training, but it is often described as such (“my horse is not interested,” “my horse is not food motivated”, etc…) by people who are new to clicker training.

What to do about low motivation:

  • Take a closer look at your own behavior. This includes your training skills (timing of the click, food delivery skills, ability to break behavior down into smaller pieces). Often a horse that seems to have low motivation just needs things to be a little clearer, cleaner and have more processing time.
  • Try changing your type of reinforcement, training location or the length of sessions. Some horses work better if you do a short session before feeding time, as long as they have not been without food for too long. If I want to try using a higher value reinforcer, I usually do that in a new session instead of switching from one type to another within a session. It’s also a good idea to be careful that you are not using a very high value reinforcer to overcome low motivation that comes from discomfort, anxiety or emotional conflict.
  • You can also try different types of behaviors. A horse that is an energy conserver might be more motivated if it is warmed up with easy stationary behaviors. A high energy horse might do better if it is allowed to move in the beginning of the training session. And sometimes you find horses that are the reverse so a low energy horse might benefit from a few higher energy behaviors to get going and a high energy horse might benefit from some more stationary behaviors to get focus.


A horse that is showing medium motivation is in a good state of mind for training and is a pleasure to work with. The horse should be alert and interested, but still calm and attentive to what the trainer is doing and/or the structure of the exercise.

There’s a little bit of a gray area between medium and high motivation, and horses can tip into high motivation at times without adverse affects. In some cases, it’s actually helpful to have a little more motivation for difficult behaviors, but it’s important to be mindful for signs of stress or increased tension that can interfere with the behavior being trained or lead to unwanted behaviors (pawing, head tossing, etc…) that then become associated with that behavior or training in general.

Some indicators of medium motivation are:

  • Prompt response to the click and food delivery
  • Takes food politely
  • Stays engaged with the trainer throughout the training session
  • If shaping, immediately returns to offering behavior after eating the treat
  • If working on cued behaviors, immediately engages with the trainer indicating readiness for next cue after eating the treat.

I don’t think we need to discuss solutions to medium motivation, just enjoy your training!


I am going to look at high and excessive motivation as separate categories, but I want to point out that the line between them is often a fine one, and I might see similar behaviors, but to a different degree.  The reason I kept them separate is that there are some important differences and I wanted to make the point that sometimes having a higher level of motivation is a good thing if you know how to channel it.


Some indicators of high motivation are:

  • Decreased latency in behaviors and in returning to behavior after eating.
  • The general energy level of the horse is higher. This may show up as a change in posture – standing in a position of readiness (head up a little more, ears forward, eager to go) or as an inability to stand still.
  • Food is taken politely but there may be small signs of tension (a little over-eager to get the treat, taking it less carefully, signs of tension in ears, mouth and body).
  • duration on behaviors is often reduced and the horse quickly tries another behavior if one does work (searching for what will pay)

Possible reasons for high motivation:

  • The value of the reinforcer. It’s important to choose a reinforcer that your horse will work for, but sometimes a reinforcer can be of such high value that it actually interferes with the horse’s ability to learn.
  • There’s been a gap in time since last training session. I’ve noticed that if I’ve been away or not had time to train, the first sessions after I return can be ones where my horse is much more enthusiastic and motivated than normal.
  • Certain behaviors that are inherently reinforcing to the horse can build a horse’s motivation and enthusiasm up a little higher than is appropriate for a training session.
  • Energy level of the horse. Some days horses just seem more enthusiastic about some behaviors than others. On the first cold day, my horses will be very motivated to do behaviors that allow them to move. On warmer days, they may be more motivated if I choose quieter activities.

What to do about high motivation:

In general, I don’t want to do anything that squashes (technical term – ha!) my horse’s enthusiasm in a training session so I prefer to put that motivation to good use or gently redirect the horse into activities that promote a calmer state of mind.   If that is not an option, then I may try some of the options on the list of possible solutions for excessive motivation.


Some indicators of excessive motivation are:

  • A deterioration in food manners (not waiting for food to be delivered, lunging at the hand, biting or scraping the hand, biting at the hand as it is removed),   This can also happen if the trainer consistently makes errors or is clumsy about food delivery, as the horse will get more anxious about getting the food.
  • The horse ignores the click and continues doing behavior. This can be a sign that the behavior itself is self-reinforcing and/or that the timing of the click needs to be changed. If it is an indicator that the horse is more motivated by something other than what the trainer is using for reinforcement, then the trainer needs to re-evaluate their training plan. Yes, we like it when behaviors become self-reinforcing, but we need to consider if this is affecting our stimulus control in adverse ways.
  • The horse shows frustration behaviors such as pawing, head tossing, rearing and other signs of being anxious, tense or over-excited. In a horse you know well, you may be able identify and use individual behaviors as indicators of the horse’s mental state, but in most cases you need to look at the entire body language of the horse to decide if the horse is in a good emotional state for training or not.  Geldings will sometimes show signs of sexual arousal which can be an indicator that they are not in a good emotional state for training.  Over-arousal in gelding is something that is not well understood and I hope there will eventually be some research that explains why this happens.  This behavior can happen in mares too, but seems to be less common.
  • The horse throws behaviors at you without waiting for cues or seems frantic to do anything to get a click.   At any point in time most of us have some behaviors that are not under complete stimulus control, so some offering of behavior is normal. But a horse that is rapidly doing different behaviors and getting more wound up over time is not in a good mental state for training.

Possible solutions to excessive motivation:

  • In some cases, you might be able to make some changes and continue with a session, but In at other times you may want to end the session, regroup and try again later.
  • Try changing the value or type of reinforcer. You can switch to using a lower value treat (hay based pellets, hay itself (yes, some people do use hay), or a different type of reinforcer (secondary reinforcers including conditioned ones as well as scratching, favorite behaviors and cues. Marker signals (the click) can become associated with unwanted emotional states so changing to a different marker is also an option.
  • Ask for more behavior before reinforcing with food. If the horse seems overexcited about the food itself, then asking for several behaviors in a row can help focus the horse on doing behavior and less on getting food.
  • If excessive motivation is a common problem, then try training after the horse has had dinner or access to hay or pasture.
  • Some horses do better if you give them a large handful of food and a break at regular intervals during training sessions. It gives them a mental break and makes them less anxious about doing things to get.

I’d like to finish by pointing out that it is normal for levels of motivation to change. No animal or person has the same level of motivation every day, even if the conditions are kept as similar as possible. Motivation can also change within a session.

This is one of the challenges of working with animals, because you never get to do the same session over again. Every day is a little different and there are lots of factors that can affect the horse’s behavior.   When the training goes well, everything seems to flow. When it doesn’t go well, it can take some thinking to sort through what is happening and come up with ideas for what to change.

Our job as trainers is to be keen observers of our horse’s behavior and make sure that we monitor their responses to reinforcers and cues so that an appropriate level of motivation is maintained. Taking a closer look at how different levels of motivation can affect behavior in general, and more specifically around food delivery, is one way to gather information that can be used to improve the quality of the training for everyone.


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6 replies

  1. Great article. I loved that you also covered sexual arousal in geldings. I went through this with my horse three and a half years ago. When I asked for help from various equine clicker training groups on line, they had no answers, and told me to start my training over from scratch. The feeling I got was that it was my fault. I kept on going however, and though he still shows arousal, he also stays relaxed and focused. In the spring he becomes “studdish”, and hormone shots are the only answer with him at that time, as he can really get out of hand.
    I have recently started to teach him knee targeting, to start teaching Spanish Walk. Your article was a good reminder for me to do other calming behaviors. He started to rear as doing “knee” took him over threshold. This behavior may not be one I can teach him, but now I will try again before abandoning it. You helped me to formulate a plan. Thanks.


  2. Thanks Linda. My experience with geldings has been that there are certain types of behaviors that tend to create more over-excitement than others. Behaviors that are normally associated with higher energy states or any kind of sexual display (posturing to mares, between stallions etc…) are hard to train without getting additional unwanted behavior. Spanish walk is definitely in that category. I did teach my gelding to Spanish Walk but I had to do it in little steps and I alternated with both calmer behaviors and movement so he never got a chance to get too excited. Even with doing that, there were times when he would get excited while doing Spanish Walk so I would not say I was entirely successful.


  3. Thank you for an excellent article ..a true keeper. I experienced sexual arousal in one of my mares in my early clicker training experiences and it took me a while to realize what was actually happening during a training session . It still lurks in the background whenever she gets excessively motivated but now I know how to manage a session and recognize the tension starting to build and re direct it to other behaviours or end the CT session..


    • Thanks Lois. It can be a challenge to figure out how to work with animals that get very excited about food. I have a pony mare who gets very anxious and tries hard. We’ve worked a lot on simple behaviors and patterns with her and it has helped a lot. She’s interesting because even though she is mentally very quick and learns easily, it takes her a long time to be comfortable with what she has learned so I have to remember that and practice behavior until she can do it calmly.


  4. I don’t know how I missed this when it first came out, but it’s another great article. I’ve also found that sometimes that an excessively motivated horse relaxes as the session goes on. But I haven’t figured out how to predict if that will be so.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. well done..not sure how I missed it the first time either!

    Liked by 1 person

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