equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Hoof handling: 12 Tips for success (Part 4)

This is the fourth blog in a six part series on teaching your horse to cooperate and participate in hoof handling.

Tip 7: Take breaks

This is the simplest tip, but probably one of the most important because I find it’s easy to become too goal oriented when working on hoof handling. There is often a sense of urgency, especially if the horse’s feet are in need of attention. But it’s worth taking your time and including breaks both within a session and after several sessions. An occasional day off can provide some perspective on your progress and horses often benefit from the extra processing time. 

There are lots of different ways to take breaks within a session, which can be combined as needed. You can:

  • Include other activities such as grooming, hand grazing, a little massage or stretching. Grooming and other activities that require less intense focus are good ways to break up a session. One of my ponies came to me with a lot of emotional baggage about hoof trimming. I have used positive reinforcement to retrain all her hoof handling, but there is still a little residual anxiety. With her, if I am trimming her feet, I alternate between working on a foot and grooming. I might trim her left front foot, then go over her with the stiff brush. Trim the right front foot, go over her with the soft brush. The grooming is something she enjoys as well as being a change of pace from working on a more focused behavior.  
  • Ask for other behaviors that have been trained with positive reinforcement. This is similar to the previous suggestion, but I am adding breaks where the horse can do another more reinforcing behavior, maybe a little targeting, or a favorite behavior like standing on a pedestal or picking up a toy. Be creative. There’s no reason that a hoof handling session has to be totally focused on behaviors related to the horse’s feet. I might choose this option (over other more casual activities) if I have a horse that needs a more “active” kind of break.
  • Keep moving. This is about limiting the number of repetitions (in a row) on each foot. In a typical hoof handling session, I start with one foot and work my way around the horse until I have done a little training on each foot. Within each session, each foot gets my attention once and then I move on to the next foot.

    However, there are lots of options for the order and number of times I focus on each foot. One strategy that has worked well for me is to plan on doing a few circuits around the horse. Instead of doing my normal progression (LF, LH, RF, RH) once, I repeat it (LF, LH, RF, RH, LF, LH, RF, RH, LF, LH, RF, RH) asking for fewer repetitions before I move on. I often do this with young horses, horses that have balance issues, or ones that build enthusiasm or tension if I repeat a behavior several times in a row. Moving to another foot provides a break for the horse (just by moving on and doing something else) and makes it easier for me to evaluate the differences between each foot. I often learn useful information as I go around the first time that makes it easier to plan what I will do on the next circuit.

Tip 8: Use a startbutton behavior.

In previous tips I’ve written about ways to teach your horse to be safe and comfortable allowing you to handle his feet. For the most part, I’ve focused on the steps that I use to start and then slowly build the behaviors that I want. As part of this process, it’s important to set appropriate criteria and read the horse’s body language so that I don’t move too quickly and ask for behavior that the horse is not ready to do.

However, even when this process is done slowly and carefully, the trainer is guiding the process and the goal is to teach the horse to comply with the trainer’s requests. From a practical viewpoint, I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. Most husbandry behaviors are done for the well-being of the horse and not because we expect the horse to like them. But, it does mean that there is room for improvement, as far as giving the horse more opportunities to tell the trainer how she feels about the training. This is where startbutton behaviors come in. 

The term “startbutton” behavior comes from Eva Bertilsson and Emilie Johnson Vegh, Swedish agility trainers whose training emphasizes giving animals more choice and control over when and how training is done. I first heard the term at ClickerExpo 2014, where Eva and Emilie gave a presentation on the subject. Although many trainers had already been looking for ways to give animals more control during training, I think that presentation brought a wider awareness to the idea of teaching animals how to use specific behaviors to initiate and control the pace of a session,. Since then, startbuttons have become popular and many trainers are incorporating some variation of them into their training.

What is a startbutton behavior? I’m going to list some resources at the end of this post because it’s a topic that requires more detail than I want to provide here, but in short….

A startbutton behavior is a behavior that the animal offers to tell the trainer when she’s ready to start a training session or the next repetition within a training session. There may be environmental cues that tell the animal that a training session or repetition will follow if she offers the start button behavior, but the trainer does not actively cue it. If the animal offers the start button behavior, the trainer proceeds with the session. If the animal does not offer it, the trainer has to stop and consider what has happened that might make the animal reluctant to train or continue training.

A startbutton behavior can be added deliberately or it can evolve out of the training process. In hoof care, it’s not uncommon for the horse to anticipate what’s coming next and pick up the foot before the trainer asks for it. If the trainer accepts this (she has to decide how much stimulus control she wants), then the hoof lift can become the startbutton behavior that the horse uses to tell the trainer she’s ready for the next repetition. In this scenario, the trainer clicks, treats and waits for the horse to lift the foot before she starts the next repetition. The topography of the lift can be shaped so it’s safe and appropriate. I might not mind a lift a few inches off the ground for a front foot, but prefer just resting the toe for a hind foot.

If the horse does not anticipate and provide the trainer with the opportunity to select a startbutton behavior, then the trainer can add one deliberately. The horse can be taught to touch a target when she’s ready to train or for the next repetition. Or she can be taught to stand on a specific mat. In this scenario, the trainer can choose a startbutton behavior out of the horse’s existing repertoire, or even teach a new behavior that she wants to use as a startbutton behavior.

If you want to learn more about startbutton behaviors, there are a number of resources available. An easy way to get an introduction is to listen to one of these podcasts:

Drinking from the Toilet (Hannah Branigan): Episode 31 with Eva Bertilsson and Emilie Johnson Vegh https://hannahbranigan.dog/podcast/31/

Dog Talk with Nick Benger: Episode 31: Sarah Owings – Choice in Dog Training http://nickbenger.com/?s=sarah+owings

Animal Training Academy Podcast (Ryan Cartlidge): Eva Bertilsson: Carpe Momentum; Animal Training flow-charts & choice/control (November 28, 2017) https://www.animaltrainingacademy.com/…/tra…/eva-bertilsson/

You can also go to:

www.animalsincontrol.com

You can also go to: www.animalsincontrol.com – Eva, Emilie and Peggy’s website for startbutton behaviors.

Sarah Stremming’s blog where she has a blog post on the subject: https://thecognitivecanine.com/blog/start-button-behaviors/

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