equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Warm-up Routines and The Power of Habit

This week it has been very cold and windy in Pennsylvania, but I’ve still managed to have some good rides on Rosie. Rosie is my almost 21 year old Dutch Warmblood mare and my primary riding horse. I’ve had her since she was 9 months old and started clicker training her when she was 2. We have a long history of working together and it has not always been easy, but she has taught me more than any other horse I’ve owned. I haven’t written a lot about her recently because we have been focusing on more advanced ridden work, but I thought I would share some of the strategies that have worked with her, starting with her warm-up routine. Perhaps they will be helpful for other people who are struggling with some of the same issues.

The main thing you need to know about Rosie is that she is very sensitive to any change in the environment. If something changes, she goes on high alert and becomes either fixated on it or tense in her body. She’s the classic example of a horse that will alert to something, lock up her entire body, and just stare at it. Over the years, I’ve had used a lot of different strategies (with mixed results), and while I’ve had some success in decreasing the intensity, the behavior has never totally disappeared. As a dressage rider, I ride a lot of different lines and patterns in the arena and it’s difficult to work on improving the quality of a movement or exercise if the horse keeps stalling out or deviating from the line of travel.

Most of Rosie’s training is done in my outdoor arena, a familiar environment, but one that can also change daily. The back of my ring is close to the property line and it’s not uncommon for my neighbor to be working in or around his barn doing some activity that involves loud noises, sudden movement, and even fires. Add in some random hot air balloon appearances, trees falling, logging, and deer activity, and the far end of my arena becomes an area of concern. In addition, Rosie’s mental and emotional state can be affected by the weather, her general energy level, and how much time I’ve had to work with her on previous days. On some days, we can come out and pick up right where we left off in the last session. On other days, when the conditions are less than ideal, I may find I have to adjust my plans.

For many years, we would start with a review of some basic behaviors or exercises and/or start working on what we had done in the last session. On many days this worked fine, but I sometimes struggled with finding the best way to start. Do I let her look around first? Do I start asking for behaviors so she starts to connect with me? Do I start with familiar exercises so she knows what to do, or do I start with something new that might be more interesting? Any of these strategies might be the best choice on any given day, and I learned to be flexible and go with what seemed to be working.

However, there are certain times of the year when every day seems to pose a new challenge, and while I can always find something to work on, it may not be what I had in mind. At some level this is fine – you work with the horse you’ve got. But, there came a point when I started to feel like there had to be a better way to set up or structure her training sessions so that what she wanted to do, and could do, was more in line with what I wanted to work on. That sounds kind of obvious, and I had certainly been working toward that goal in many ways, but this time I decided to take a very systematic approach and start over from the beginning.

What does it mean to start from the beginning? In this case, it didn’t mean that I was going to re-teach all her behaviors. What it meant was that I was going to pay more attention to the beginning of her training sessions and honestly evaluate what we could and could not do, and find a starting place where she could be successful every single time she came out. The “catch” if you will, was that I wanted to be able to do it without using “props” like targets and mats. There’s nothing wrong with mats and targets – I use them all the time, but I didn’t want her to be dependent upon them. My goal was to use them as needed, but then phase them out.

Fast forward to this fall and I’ve been I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how often we have been able to pick up on the previous session’s work, even under less than ideal conditions. I think the main reason for this change is that by focusing more on how I structured the beginning of the training session, I ended up creating a specific warm-up routine that I use every time. The predictability of the warm-up routine, combined with it’s basic structure, allows her to assess the environment, warm her up her body, and connect with me when she’s ready.

It’s interesting because it wasn’t really my intention to create a specific warm-up routine. I thought I was just “taking inventory” of what she could do, and that I would be using that information to improve existing behaviors by extending duration, adding new components, or improving the quality. instead I found that once I got to a certain point, the value was in keeping the warm-up the same. If you had asked me if I would be using the same warm-up 3 years later, I would have said “no.” However, I found that it worked so well that I kept using it. Why did it work so well?

I think there were several reasons, but before we get to that, let me describe her routine – not because I think you should copy it – but just as an example to illustrate some of the things to consider when choosing a warm-up routine. I do the routine once on the ground and then repeat it once I am mounted. I might vary the order slightly, but only in a few limited ways.

The list below describes the final warm-up routine that I developed, not where I started. In some cases, I had to build the behavior quite slowly, but we are now at the point where each line ends with a square halt after a corner. My original plan had been to start to combine the different “behaviors” to form chains, but instead I found it was more valuable to keep them as separate units with a click and treat at the end. I also ended up using corners the way I might have used mats or cones. They became zones of reinforcement.

Rosie’s warm-up routine:

  • Walk around the ring once in each direction. After each corner, we stop in a square halt.
  • walk each diagonal. I usually start at the beginning of the diagonal (after the corner), walk the diagonal, go through the corner and halt. There are 4 diagonals (2 in each direction). We do each one.
  • Starting from one corner, I walk to the center line, down the center line, turn and continue to the next corner, where I halt. I can either change direction or continue in the same direction. I do the same thing with the half school line.
  • Starting from a corner, I walk each quarter line. I either ask her to halt as we cross the half school line or click her for a nice walk at some point along the line.
  • Walk a circle in each direction. I vary this a little, so we might walk one complete circle, or walk a little more than a circle. I may end with a square halt or click her while she’s moving.
  • Walk other curved lines (figure 8, serpentine, etc.) – any line that I might want to ride that day.

Once she can easily walk from corner to corner on all these lines, then I will start the more variable part of her ride.

The goal of the warm-up:

  • Establish that she is comfortable walking forward on all the lines I tend to use in patterns. She has a long history of spooking or sucking back when there is a change in the environment and something looks different than she expects. Rather than jump right in and work on specific movements or exercises, I want to make sure that she’s okay with all the lines I plan to use.

Why it worked:

  • It has very simple criteria. Even on a “bad” day, she can manage to go from corner to corner.
  • The timing of the click is predictable. Most of my clicks are for square halts after a corner. I wanted the click to occur in a predictable place. This may seem very counter-intuitive as we are so used to thinking of using the click to select behavior. But, in this case, I found that being predictable made it more likely that she would be calm and relaxed.
  • It does not require her undivided attention. The individual “behaviors” are simple enough that she can do them while observing her environment. Expecting her to give me her undivided attention was not realistic until she had done some initial evaluation of the environment. Therefore, it was important that I built some “scanning time” into the warm-up so that she had opportunities to check out the environment – which made it more likely that she would relax later.
  • The amount of reinforcement is appropriate. She earns enough reinforcement to maintain the behaviors, but I am not using the click or treats to distract her or keep her so busy that she can’t look. In the past, I had started many sessions with her on a high rate of reinforcement and while that worked in the moment, it created other issues because she was desperate to look any time she got a break. She also became dependent upon that level of reinforcement. I had also tried just allowing her to walk around until she was ready to train, but that didn’t work very well either. I had to find a happy medium.

Some other benefits:

Some of these were ones I was actively seeking, some were pleasant surprises.

  • Focusing on destinations led to clear forward movement. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line (nice to know geometry is occasionally useful). Most horses will eventually take the direct route, even if they start off a little bit wiggly. I ended up with a nice relaxed walk.
  • I can easily compare her behavior from session to session. Doing the same routine created a baseline that I can use for evaluation. This makes it easy to recognize deviations from the baseline and I am more likely to notice any larger patterns that are developing. I can evaluate both her emotional and physical state. If she slows as she approaches the back, I know there is something of concern back there. If she’s a little stiff on a left turn, the routine contains enough left turns that I can evaluate if it’s a physical issue or if it’s related to her location in the arena.
  • She gets a lot of reinforcement for going through corners. I use corners to set up a lot of exercises and I found it was beneficial to build a strong reinforcement history for going correctly through a corner. When I started, she didn’t like corners. Now she goes through them nicely.
  • The routine can be used anywhere, anytime. Not relying on physical objects means I can do the warm-up routine at any time, without having to set up any equipment. In addition to using it at home, I use it when we go to clinics.
  • A predictable routine led to relaxation. Creating a warm-up routine with predictable patterns (both in where she goes and where she gets clicked) made it so that she knows what to expect. She’s a horse that easily becomes anxious with unexpected changes, so predictability is a key to relaxation with her.
  • It is adjustable. Even thought I try to keep the routine the same, I’m not locked in it. If she’s having a difficult day or a great day, I can change when I click. However, since I know when I would normally have clicked, it’s easy to see how any changes affect her future behavior.
  • It gives her time to warm-up her body. As she’s gotten older, it has become more important to allow her to warm up slowly. Even if she may want to jump right in to more advanced work, I don’t necessarily want her to do it.
  • It gives me time to warm up my body! The routine is simple enough that I can use the time to see how I am feeling. Am I stiff? tense? anxious? I can also check my position or do any warm-ups that I might find useful.

What does this have to do with habit?

In the title, I referred to the “Power of Habit” which is a reference to both the effectiveness of creating good habits and the book, “The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg. If you haven’t read the book, I strongly recommend it.

One of the things I learned from the book was how strong habits can be, and how much of our behavior is shaped by habit. On any given day, more of our behavior is determined by habits than by conscious thought and these habits are cued by the environmental stimuli that we encounter. In the first chapter, Mr. Duhigg describes the “Habit Loop” which can be described as cue -> routine -> reward. This looks a lot like the loop we use to describe learned behavior which is cue -> behavior -> consequence.

So, are we just training good habits? Yes, sometimes. As clicker trainers, we tend to focus on the idea that we want our animals to make conscious choices, but in the long term, a lot of training is just about creating good habits. My horses all wait when I open their stall doors. Is this a conscious choice on their part? It might have been at one time, but after years of doing it, it has just become a habit. I can think of many other behaviors around the barn that have become habits and they will continue to do them unless some other learning occurs.

I think that one thing that has contributed to the success of Rosie’s warm-up routine is that it has become, or is approaching, a habit. No, that doesn’t mean she would do it without me (although that would be fun to train). It just means that she doesn’t have to put a lot of active thought into how to do it. Sounds counter-productive, but it turned out to be just what she needed.

Want to create your own warm-up routine?

Here are some things to think about.

  • What does the horse need?
  • What is my goal?
  • When and where do I want to use the warm-up?
  • What behaviors are always available to me, or do I want available to me?
  • What is the most effective level of reinforcement?
  • Do I do I want it to be fixed or adjustable? Or somewhere in between?

It’s funny, when I started this project with Rosie, I didn’t really know how it would work out. I just knew I had to change something in a big way – and I never thought I’d end up using the same warm-up routine for years. Surely, it should change over time, because isn’t that the definition of progress? But, instead I’ve ended up really embracing the idea of starting each session in the same way and not being in a hurry to work on “improving” something. And in the way that things often work, as soon as I relaxed and started enjoying walking simple lines with her, the warm-up started to have a huge ripple effect that spread through the rest of our work.

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4 replies

  1. Really enjoyed reading this Katie!


  2. I can relate to this as I have a very reactional, challenging horse. I wouldn’t have thought about a quiet structured beginning because when he is upset or fearful, he wants to keep his feet moving. I like the structure but not so much that he can’t check things out. My other gelding does the whole body stare. He doesn’t want to move. I am not sure I could get him to move at all. Thanks for the blog!


    • Hi Rosemary, Thanks for your comments. You may find that your reactional, challenging horse settles down more quickly when he knows what to expect. My mare can go either way – stop and stare or want to move her feet. Once she knew the routine, I found it worked in both situations. Teaching a horse to move when they are stuck in that full body stare is another subject. I have a blog post about using targeting for riding out and in that, I describe one strategy I used to help my mare tell me when she was ready to move. When she knew I would wait until I was ready, the amount of time she needed to stare decreased significantly. It took time, but the change did happen. In the blog post I talk about using it to ride out, but you could use it anywhere. The link is: https://equineclickertraining.wordpress.com/2016/10/04/using-targeting-to-build-confidence-when-riding-outside-the-ring/


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