equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? E is for …

What can you do with clicker training? Sometimes we are limited by traditional thinking or just need some new ideas. In this A to Z series, I’ll be sharing ideas for things to train. I’ve trained some, but not all of them, and will share links to resources for more information whenever possible. I hope this list inspires you and you can’t wait to go out and teach some new behaviors to your horses.

I’ll be adding to these posts over time when I have time and new material to share. I’ve intentionally been brief because these are not meant to be detailed instructions, just tips and ideas for things to work on. If there is a topic that interests you, and you would like more information, let me know and I will consider writing a more detailed article on the subject.


Contents: ears (care and targeting), ears forward, enrichment, eye care, exhale, extend (a leg, neck, etc.)


Ears (care and targeting)

Ears!
Cindy Martin’s cute mule Rosie

A lot of horses are sensitive about having their ears touched. They may be uncomfortable with routine behaviors like haltering, bridling, and putting on fly masks. Or they may have learned to accept ear contact in those situations, but be uncomfortable if you try to do anything out of the ordinary with their ears. In either case, it’s possible to use clicker training to teach the horse to accept and even enjoy ear handling.

A few of the most useful strategies are:

  • Teaching the horse to bring his ear to your hand (ear targeting). This gives the horse control over when you touch him. To learn more, read my blog on body part targeting.
  • Teaching the horse to hold on a target while you touch him, starting with an “easy’ area and working toward the ears.
  • Using the head lowering behavior to ask the horse to lower his head and then gradually introducing hand contact on the ears.

These strategies (you can use more than one) can be used for a variety of ear related behaviors including:

  • brushing
  • haltering and bridling
  • applying fly spray with a cloth
  • wound care
  • putting on “ear accessories” like fly masks and ear bonnets

At certain times of the year, horses can be more sensitive about having their ears touched. Many horses get painful fly bites in the summer and will be reluctant to have their ears handled. However, I’ve found that if I spent time on ear handling in the spring and I am diligent about keeping them from getting sore, a lot of horses love to have their ears brushed (even the insides) with a soft brush. I think they can get itchy and it’s a hard place to reach.

I’ve taught Rosie ear targeting when I was exploring body part targeting. Here’s a little video of a body part targeting session. I need to get a better video and will do so when the weather improves. The video shows that she learned to touch my hand with her ear, eye, chin, jaw, nose, knee, hip, and shoulder. Laurie Higgins also taught her horse Buzz to do ear targeting as shown below.

Ears forward

Rather than write something new, I thought I would share an excerpt from my book, “Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement.” I’ve added some pictures. I’m trying to use pictures where I know the context, as I think that is important. However, I am more likely to take pictures when the horses have their ears forward, so I’ll be adding more pictures when I find opportunities to capture horses with different ear positions.

Happy Faces: Ears Forward

This is one of Alexandra Kurland’s foundation behaviors, and while the focus is on ear position, the behavior should be taught with the intention of finding and reinforcing moments when the horse is engaged and enjoying the training. Unlike the other foundation behaviors that I teach in formal training sessions, I only set aside time to work specifically on Happy Faces if I am working with a horse that habitually pins his ears.

Instead, I try to be aware of the horse’s ear movement and facial expressions as I am working with him. Most horses have their ears in a variety of positions throughout training, so instead of looking for a horse who always has his ears forward, I want to see a natural range of ear movement. In general, I don’t expect to see or want static ear positions. I want the horse to continue to use his ears in ways that contribute to his comfort (monitoring the environment) while we are doing something together.

At the same time, if I have the opportunity to click while the horse’s ears are forward, then I will do it. For example, if I am working on duration for standing on a mat and I could click at a count of 12, 13, or 14, and the horse puts his ears forward at 13, then I’ll probably click at that moment. If he doesn’t, then I’ll click at 14. I won’t withhold the click until he puts his ears forward. However, even when doing this, I have to view ear position in context. I don’t want to click ears forward if it means the horse has just seen something scary and is about to leave the mat. Let’s look at what different ear positions mean and how to view them in context.

What do different ear positions indicate?

A horse’s ear position should always be viewed in context. I have some horses that always have their ears forward and others that tend to have them in middle positions. Just like some people are more outgoing and focused on the environment, some horses are more reserved.

The best way to learn what is normal for your horse is to observe him outside of training sessions. This will help you learn how frequently and under what conditions he naturally chooses different ear positions. As you watch him, see if you can learn how to interpret ear position as part of the overall picture. I tend to look at the horse’s head, neck position, eyes, and muzzle if I want to interpret ear position. But, the horse’s overall stance can be useful too. If his ears are forward, is the rest of his body showing relaxation, mild interest, or anxiety? If his ears are pinned, is he in a defensive or offensive posture?  If you realize that your horse rarely has his ears forward, then you might want to try and find out why.

Here are some general guidelines for different ear positions:

Forward ears: Forward ears usually show a horse is interested and alert, but horses also put their ears forward when they are tense and want to look at something. We tend to think of forward-facing ears as being “happy ears,” but it is probably more accurate to say that they indicate interest directed at something in front of the horse. It’s important to look at the rest of the horse’s body language to see if the forward ears indicate interest or concern.

Head and neck position can provide useful information when evaluating ear position. A tense horse will lift his head and have a more upright neck. A horse that is showing mild interest or attention will maintain a more level neck and may even extend it forward to investigate what has caught his interest. I’m not sure it’s safe to say that the absence of “happy ears” means a horse is unhappy, but a horse that is in pain or shut down will show lack of interest in his environment.

Here are three pictures that show ears forward under three different conditions. In the first one, you can see by Rosie’s posture (high head) and the tension in her muzzle area that she is not relaxed. In the last two, Aurora and Rosie were both chewing so I wouldn’t try to analyze their mouth tension too much.

Pinned ears: Pinned ears are ears that are turned to face backwards and held close to the horse’s head. They indicate some kind of emotional distress, which could be anger or fear. Horses will pin their ears when they feel threatened or are guarding resources like food, territory, and other horses or people. A horse with pinned ears has an accompanying facial expression that shows tension. This may include baring the teeth, showing the whites of the eyes, and wrinkles in and around the muzzle. The horse may also extend his neck forward in a threatening manner.

Slightly back ears: These are ears that are turned to face backward and angled slightly toward the horse’s neck, but not to the same degree as pinned ears. The horse could be listening to something behind him, concentrating, or a little frustrated. If the horse is just listening, there may be some tension in his face, but it will be mild. If there is frustration, there will be more tightness around his mouth, especially in the chin and muzzle area, and I can usually feel or see tension in the rest of his body.

The pictures below slightly back or mobile ears. In the first two pictures, the horse was flicking her ears forward and back. Something had caught Aurora’s attention and she had a moment of waiting and listening. Rosie is in the trailer where she tends to be vigilant and also a little tense. Her muzzle shows she is a little anxious, although she is still eating. Drummer was just hanging out, maybe with his attention a little behind him where there’s an open door.

Mobile ears: Since horses can move their ears independently, there are times when the left and right ears might be in different positions. The horse could have one ear forward or back, or somewhere in the middle. He may be listening to something in the environment and have one ear that keeps “checking in” with some sound or activity. Horses rarely keep their ears all the way forward or back for long periods of time. It’s more normal for a horse’s ears to be moving back and forth at things that catch his attention.

Floppy ears: Floppy ears show relaxation and are often seen when a horse is resting, but they can also be seen in movement when a horse is very relaxed in the poll area. This is the ear position I see the least because it is one of complete relaxation and we don’t usually see this during training. It’s more common during naptime!  Some horses seem to have ears that are floppier than others, or only have floppy ears during certain behaviors. Floppy ears are easily recognizable during movement as they will appear to bounce in time with the horse’s motion.

Should you train ears forward?

With a horse that shows a range of ear positions during training, I find that observing the ears and face is a good way to evaluate how a training session is going, and I don’t necessarily want to complicate matters by making ears forward a reinforceable behavior that the horse might offer.

However, I do often end up clicking when the ears are in positions that show interest, engagement, and relaxation, simply because that ear position is occurring at the same time as another behavior that I want. If I do this frequently enough, the horse may start to deliberately offer “ears forward,” and in that case, I may take advantage of the situation and put the behavior on cue. I can use the cue if I think I have accidentally reinforced the horse for an unwanted ear position and it’s always handy for taking pictures. On the other hand, if I notice that I never seem to be clicking when the horse’s ears are forward and the horse seems grumpy about a certain behavior, then I will try to figure out if the ear position indicates discomfort, is related to environmental factors (proximity to other horses is a common one), or has been inadvertently reinforced along with the behavior I am training.

Sometimes, I meet a horse that spends most of his time with his ears back and a grumpy expression. His behavior could be the same both inside and outside of training sessions, or it could be worse in one environment than the other. These horses may also be easily frustrated during training or seem to progress more slowly. The first step is always to check for and address any physical or emotional issues. Horses that are in discomfort will show limited interest in their surroundings and will be reluctant to engage in new activities, find it difficult to focus, and have difficulty relaxing. A stressful environment can have a similar effect. It’s very important to make sure that a horse’s basic needs are addressed before I do any training with him, except for what is essential.

In these cases, once I have sorted through and resolved possible physical or environmental issues, I do sometimes train “ears forward” as a behavior. My intention is not to teach a horse to look “happy” even when he’s not, but to bring more natural ear movement back into the horse’s repertoire. My mare, Rosie, is a good example of a horse who benefitted from being taught to put her ears forward. When I got her, she was aggressive toward people and grumpy about life in general. It was rare for her to have her ears forward unless she was alerting to something in the environment.

As part of her training, I reinforced her for simple behaviors that were incompatible with threatening people. One of the behaviors I chose was “ears forward.” I started by capturing forward movement with one ear, and when she could consistently put one ear forward, I raised the criteria to both ears forward.  Along the way, I also reinforced her for any relaxation in her face and posture. Over time, she became a more pleasant horse to be around because she showed interest and relaxation in my company.

With Rosie, I learned that, instead of “masking” her emotions, reinforcing the behavior “ears forward,” did the opposite. After a few months of reinforcing ears forward, I noticed that she moved her ears around more during our training sessions. This meant that it was easier to read her emotional state because she showed a wider range of ear positions and was more expressive in general. When she always had her ears back, I had to pay close attention to the rest of her body language because it could be hard to tell if her ears were back out of habit or because she was upset. Another interesting discovery was that if I cued “ears forward” and she didn’t do it, then I knew something was bothering her.   

I do want to mention that “ears forward” can be a difficult behavior to shape because it’s easy to get into a downward spiral where the trainer is waiting for ear movement, and the horse is getting frustrated because the rate of reinforcement has dropped. When a horse is frustrated, he is less likely to put his ears forward. So, the more the trainer waits, the less likely the behavior is to happen. Then, the horse gets even more frustrated, which continues to make the behavior less likely, and so on.

This is one reason I now prefer to teach ears forward by capturing it – clicking when it does happen, instead of trying to shape the behavior in structured training sessions. However, if you do choose to shape ears forward, I recommend you spend some time observing the horse so that you can learn what ear positions are normal for him at different times. This will help you decide when and how to train the behavior, and you may learn some interesting things about how your horse uses his ears.

Finally, I want to mention that in training, I do sometimes see an ear position that is out of sync with the rest of the horse’s body language. This can sometimes mean that I have inadvertently reinforced a particular ear position along with another behavior. If I decide this is the case, then I will start to look for opportunities to click for forward ears, or even intermediate ears, so the horse shows more natural ear movement.

If you want to learn more about reading a horse’s body language, there are some excellent resources out there that have pictures of different ear, head, and neck positions. I’ve listed a few references in the Notes section, but you can also find sections on reading horse body language in many horse behavior and care books.

Enrichment

This definition comes from Tara Gifford’s webinar on equine enrichment.
You can find the webinar at http://www.IAABC.org

Providing enrichment has become an important part of the animal care and training programs at most zoos. It has been shown to improve the quality of life by providing mental and physical stimulation to the animals. In recent years, trainers working with domesticated animals have become more aware of the importance of providing opportunities for animals to act in species-specific ways and this has led to an increased interest in ways to provide enrichment for dogs, cats, horses and other pets.

Training itself can be considered a form of enrichment, but when I think of enrichment, I think of additional activities that I can provide to my horse outside of normal training sessions. So, rather than thinking of behaviors you can train, think about ways you can set up activities that the horse can do by themselves, with supervision if needed.

There are five types of enrichment: food, sensory, physical environment, cognitive, and social. Horses can benefit from all types of enrichment, especially if you provide a variety of different types and change things around regularly to keep things interesting.

Some of the most simple ones to do are food toys. You can buy a variety of food toys, but you can also make some simple ones. Here is Aurora rolling around a milk jug that has some hay pellets in it.

When considering enrichment, always keep safety in mind. Here are some enrichment ideas:

  • hay nets
  • grazing balls (there are several on the market)
  • hay balls
  • boxes or other objects stuffed with hay or treats
  • treats on ropes
  • lick-its
  • food toys like Nos-It! or puzzle toys
  • bobbing for apples
  • ice blocks with treats frozen into them
  • branches, logs, natural items for chewing etc. (be sure to make sure they are safe and not poisonous)
  • areas with different footing/substrate – sand, water
  • a hanging object that makes noise (milk jug with rocks, can with bells, old measuring spoons)
  • pedestal or raised area for climbing
  • opportunity to explore a new area or go over varied terrain (pasture, hand walk, etc.)
  • interactions with other horses or animals (social enrichment)
  • mirrors
  • training sessions that provide mental stimulation (the horse has to actively think and problem solve) – cognitive enrichment

I found most of this information on several websites. You may want to visit them for more ideas. There are also several Facebook groups where people share ideas for enrichment.

Eye care

It was bound to happen… Every now and then one of my horses comes in with an eye that is swollen and/or has discharge. In most cases, the vet recommends treating it with antibiotics, which has to be done once or twice daily for a short period of time. This could be a nightmare, but luckily I teach my horses to accept my hands in and around their eyes as part of my routine husbandry training. There are several different behaviors I teach, all of which are useful if I have to examine or treat an eye.

  • Can I wipe your eye with a cloth?- a good first introduction. The horse can learn to hold still while I approach and touch with a cloth, or I can teach him to bring his eye to the cloth (an eye targeting behavior).
  • Can I put my fingers on your lower eyelid?
  • Can I wipe my finger along the lower eyelid?
  • This is another place where a startbutton behavior can be helpful. Let the horse tell you when she is ready to start. You can read more on startbutton behaviors at www.animalsincontrol.com

Some horses do well with these exercises when they are at liberty and reinforced for holding still. Others find it easier if they are asked to hold on a target while I treat the eye. It gives them a more specific behavior to do. You may have to experiment to find what works the best. My friend Jane Jackson‘s pony Kizzy had a series of eye infections which required regular medication. Because Kizzy is small, Jane taught her to put her head on Jane’s shoulder and hold it there for treatment. Here’s a video clip of the behavior.

Note: The fact that my horses have been taught some behaviors that make it easier to treat their eyes doesn’t mean they are ready for a complete eye exam by the vet, especially if their eye is painful. In some cases, we do sedate them so the vet can get a better look. This is usually the best option as it means the vet can do her job more easily and when I have to apply medication, I am not doing it immediately after the horse has had a more difficult eye exam.

Exhale

The quality of our breathing is connected to our emotional state. When we are anxious, we tend to take quick, shallow breaths. Focusing on breathing can help us become more relaxed and able to focus. The same is true with horses. When they are upset, it is reflected in how they breathe. One of the simplest ways to help a horse relax is to slow your own breathing and bring your energy level down, which encourages the horse to do the same. This is particularly helpful if your own tension is what is triggering the horse’s anxiety.

In addition to this, you can mark the moment the horse exhales and reinforce him. I find it helpful to watch the nostrils, but you can also watch the rib cage or abdominal area. Even when a horse is tense, there will be moments when he takes a deeper breath or exhales more deeply. By observing for a short period, I can often get a sense of when a deeper breath might be coming.

If the horse is too upset to take food, then I usually use an alternate marker and pair it with a gentle stoke or scratch, something that provides a little bit of physical connection. This may or may not function as a reinforcer (it will depend upon the horse’s learning history) but even if it doesn’t, I think it starts to build a little awareness that I am there.

Observing and reinforcing for exhaling (or deeper breathing) is a good thing to try at home when things are quiet so that you learn to observe when and how your horse breathes when he’s not upset. I’ve only played around with this a little bit but reinforcing for deeper breaths has been used as part of relaxation protocols in dogs for many years. If you want to read more about relaxation protocols in dogs, the most common reference is to Dr. Karen Overall’s relaxation protocol. I haven’t tried it, but there is a lot of information on various websites and I imagine it would be easily adaptable to horses.

Extend (your leg, neck, etc.)

Extending the leg

One of my favorite exercises for horses that are tight in their shoulders is to teach them to release each front leg forward. There are a several different ways to do this. They are all useful and have slightly different effects on the horse.

Options for leg extensions/releases.

  • Teach the horse to extend his front leg forward as Spanish Walk (pictured above). This is called a jambette and is usually taught with a target. This can be good for teaching balance, coordination, core strength (if you pay attention to the horse’s posture), and extensor muscles of the foreleg.
  • Ask the horse to allow me to bring his front leg forward as a stretch. This can be a good way to improve the horse’s flexibility. If the horse remains relaxed and/or learns to stretch himself (pandiculation), there is usually an accompanying release of tension.

  • Ask the horse to release in the shoulders and allow me to draw the front leg forward. This is something I learned as part of the Masterson Method and it’s a little different than the previous options because it’s about teaching the horse to release tension so his front leg can be drawn forward in complete relaxation. The leg should feel very soft and loose. Here’s a video clip that shows asking the horse to release his legs forward and back.

Extending the neck

A gentle stretch – she’s following my hand

Extending the neck is another useful behavior/exercise. Moving or standing with a short or compressed neck can become a habit for many horses. This can create other tension patterns in the rest of the body and make it more difficult for a horse to move in a biomechanically correct manner.

Teaching a horse to lower his head is one way to teach a horse to lengthen his neck, but it’s also useful to teach a horse to extend his neck forward and out in a more horizontal plane. The easiest way to do that is with a target. If you do this, it’s important to set up the environment so the horse knows he is not supposed to step forward to the target. An easy option is to offer the target when the horse is behind some kind of barrier (stall door, fence, etc.). I will start with the target in an easy position (close to his nose) and then present it farther and farther away so the horse has to reach for it, adjusting if the horse seems to get frustrated. With some horses, I may also teach them to reach up to a target. This adds an additional stretch for the lower part of the neck and opens the jaw area more.

These two stretches are often recommended as part of a routine of “carrot stretches.” You can certainly do them with a carrot, but I prefer to use a target stick and teach the horse to follow and then hold on the target so I get a little duration. I don’t have pictures right now but here’s a picture from an article on carrot stretches.

Asking for a larger stretch with a carrot


If you have a suggestion for an addition to this page, would like to share a photo, or add a comment, please send me a message.


If you want to learn more about clicker training, check out my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement, available from Amazon.

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