equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? I 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. In some cases, I have intentionally been brief because the topic cannot be covered appropriately in this format, but I wanted to mention it so you have more complete list of 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.

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.


Contents: inhaler, in-hand work, injections, intelligent disobedience, interactive puzzle toys, introductions, investigating


Inhaler

A few years ago, my mini Buster ate a poisonous plant – twice! In the course of his treatment, we learned that he had a collapsed trachea and the vet prescribed a medication that had to be delivered by nasal spray. This was not something I had ever done and I wasn’t sure how keen Buster would be about having medication sprayed into his nose. Luckily, I didn’t have to administer it at the full dose right away so I was able to take time to train it.

I spent a couple of weeks introducing the inhaler and preparing him for the sound and sensation of the medication being “pumped.” At the end of it, he would stand quietly while I placed the inhaler over his nostril and delivered the medication. I made a little video to show some of the training steps, which were a combination of targeting and systematic desensitization. You can find the video at Buster uses an inhaler.

For husbandry and medical behaviors that contain potential aversives, it is very important to build a strong enough reinforcement history that the horse will tolerate the occasional aversive component, and then continue to do enough non-aversive repetitions that the behavior can be maintained. Even though I desensitized him to the inhalder, I still mixed in repetitions where I went through the initial steps but didn’t administer the medication.

Hannah Weston also has a video showing how to teach a horse to use an inhaler.

In-hand work

I was introduced to in-hand work by Alexandra Kurland, who learned from Bettina Drummond. I was fascinated by it and have spent a lot of time reading, watching videos, and experimenting with different ways to shape and communicate with my horses while working in-hand. It’s been fun building up our repertoire of behaviors and improving my skills. The cool thing about in-hand work is that it connects to riding in a way that groundwork doesn’t. For me, in-hand work is the bridge between groundwork and riding.

What is in-hand work? According to Oliver Hilberger, it’s a very old way of schooling horses to make them more supple, flexible, confident and balanced. It is important preparation for more advanced work. In his book, he writes:

The history book’s first record of in-hand work is in the sixteenth century. Antoine de Pluvinel introduced the pillars to the repertoire of training methods for horses. Work in hand continued to develop until the beginning of the twentieth century, when it reached it’s peak with Francois Baucher.

Subsequently the demands of the cavalry suppressed virtually all in-hand work to the point of extinction. It was only in the centres of equitation such as the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, the Cadre Noir in France, and the Andalucian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, where in-hand work was continued and to this day has a permanent role in the training of horses.

Oliver Hilberger, Schooling Exercises in-hand, p. 11

In recent years, there has been increased interest in working horses in-hand. It’s ideal for horses that are coming back from injuries or can benefit from schooling without the weight (and possible confusion) of the rider. It’s also ideally suited for clicker training because it is very detail oriented work and the click makes it possible to shape with precision.

I love in-hand work because it gives me a different perspective and feel for the movements and I can experiment with my own body and connection to the horse, without getting on him. It’s an excellent way to warm-up and introduce new behaviors, movements, and exercises. Rosie is 22 now and I still do 15 minutes on the ground, using a combination of groundwork and in-hand work before I get on.

What is the difference between groundwork and in- hand work?

Groundwork is a general term that indicates the horse is being trained while the trainer is on the ground (as opposed to riding). The trainer could be at varying distances from the horse and using a variety of equipment (leads, lunge lines, long lines, whips, etc.) In-hand work is a more specific term and refers to work done with the horse wearing either a bridle or cavesson where the trainer is in close proximity, either at the shoulder or head. The trainer may occasionally use a longer line, but the bulk of the work is done in a close position. The trainer influences the horse through the use of the reins, her position, and a whip. Different “schools” of in-hand work (French, Portuguese, German, etc.) use slightly different equipment, hand positions, and cues.

What can you teach with in-hand work?

Here is a list of specific “movements” but there are also endless exercises that can be taught to improve a horse’s balance, coordination, and flexibility.

  • Forward and backward movement in balance
  • Lateral movements like shoulder-in, counter shoulder-in, haunches-in, renvers, and half pass
  • Turns – turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches, pirouettes
  • Collection – collected gaits, starts, and halts
  • Transitions between gaits and within gaits

Oliver Hilberger also writes about how valuable in-hand work is for the trainer.

What’s in it for you?

The work in-hand also offers riders a range of benefits. A rider can develop:

understanding
clarity of vision
co-ordination
fitness
self control

Oliver Hilberger, Schooling Exercises in-hand

Have I sold you on the idea of in-hand work yet?

I learned mostly from books and DVDs, but there are now lots of online courses and coaching available. My favorite book is the one I quoted, but there are others that explain how to get started and teach more advanced behaviors. Two I can recommend are

  • Horse Training In-Hand by Ellen Schuthof-Lesmeister
  • Training the Horse In-Hand by Alfons Dietz

I’ll finish by saying that while the traditional approach to in-hand work can be quite “equipment heavy” and involve aversives, it doesn’t have to be that way. When I teach it with clicker training, I use a combination of targeting, tactile cues, molding, and mirroring to shape behavior, allowing the horse to explore and find his own balance and build flexibility and suppleness.

Injections

Teaching horses to accept injections is one of the most common uses for clicker training. It’s one of the behaviors that I teach regularly to my own horses and i have helped many people and their horses with great success.

The process is similar for most horses, whether they have had shots before or not. What will be different is how long I spend on each step and whether or not I have to break the individual behaviors down into smaller pieces or add more steps. Personally, I find it helpful to think of the entire shot process as a chain. That helps me identify individual components and figure out which ones I can work on separately.

If I am not the one giving the shot, I will make sure that I know exactly how my vet gives shots so I can do a close approximation to giving a real shot. When my vet gives a vaccination or IM shot, it looks like this:

  1. The vet approaches the horse and stops near the neck/shoulder area
  2. She takes a small pinch of skin
  3. She inserts the needle behind the pinched skin
  4. She releases the skin as she gives the shot
  5. She remains in position while she gives the shot
  6. She removes the needle and steps away

This list tells me what behaviors I need to teach. For each step, I need to decide what I want the horse to do and how I am going to teach it. For step 1, I have to decide how I am going to ask my horse to stand while the vet approaches. I could use a lead rope, target, mat, or teach another stationary behavior. For step 2, I need to ask the horse to maintain the behavior while the vet touches the neck, then takes a pinch of skin, and build duration. I map this out for each step. Once I have a list of behaviors, I can decide how to train and practice each one.

While I have always prepared my horses for injections and they usually stand calmly for the vet, it is rare that I am the one administering them. However, there have been a few times when it would have been more convenient if I could do it myself. With that in mind, I recently spent some time practicing how I would give an injection if I was on my own. When I did this, I realized that there a few areas where I could improve my preparation. These were:

  • Practice on both sides of the neck or other areas if those are possibilities.
  • Use a “pretend needle” that is as close to the feel of a real needle as possible. I deliberately picked something a little “pokier” so that there was some mild discomfort. Note: If you are just starting, you will want to build up to this level of discomfort.
  • Mimic the entire process as closely as possible. I held a real syringe where the horse could see it and followed the same steps my vet would use if she was giving an injection (she pinches the neck).
  • Maintain the contact between the “needle” and the skin for as long as it would take to give the shot. I had never focused that much on duration before but when I was giving the shot, I was much more aware of how long it takes! This may be longer than you would think and it’s important to build duration.
  • I found it was helpful to teach a start button behavior so Rosie could tell me when she was ready. You can find out more about start buttons at the animals in control website.

One of the challenges of injections is that the horse can learn the difference between practice/training and getting a real shot. The biggest clue is usually the presence of the vet. While it’s not usually possible to do a lot of “pretend” shots with the vet, I’ve found a few ways to blur the lines between practice and reality. One way is to get another person to hold the horse or pretend to give the shot. Another is to ask the vet to give a pretend shot before or after she does the real thing. You can also ask the vet to do pretend shots on other visits, ones when the vet is there for something else. Vets are busy so you will want to pick times when it is not inconvenient but I’ve found that most vets are pretty cooperative, especially if your horse has been difficult in the past and is improving.

Recently I was listening to the NEI Tec-talks, and Steve Martin talked about why he likes to do injections from behind protected contact. Not only is it safer for the trainer, but he feels it is safer for the animal. He also talked about how you want to set up your simulations so that the animal is the one applying the pressure. If the animal learns to push hard enough that they are used to some discomfort, then the actual needle insertion will be perceived as less aversive. These are good things to keep in mind.

There are lots of good resources out there about training for injections. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Jane Jackson has several articles on her blog that are about preparing for injections. Some useful ones are the hyena project and choice in husbandry procedures.
  • Melanie Watson has a video showing using a start button with injection training. I don’t know the whole story but this horse had become anxious about injections and they taught him to stand for them using positive reinforcement.
  • Robin Foster and Lauren Fraser teach a course through the IAABC that is on resolving fear issues in horses. You can find it at Resolving Fear course.
  • My blog on husbandry behaviors. This blog is not specific to injections, but covers some basic strategies that work for husbandry behaviors that might have aversive components.
  • The zoo community has embraced the idea of voluntary injections and blood draws, and some of the best information on training for these behaviors can be found on sites that are for training exotic animals. I’ll add some links here when I get a chance. If you know a good link that describes injection training for zoo animals, let me know.

Interactive puzzle toys

Interactive puzzle toys are often used as part of enrichment programs in zoos and are becoming very popular with dogs, birds, and cats. They provide mental stimulation and can be an ideal way to deliver meals or provide entertainment for an animal that is on restricted exercise or confined to a small area. Horses require a large amount of roughage so I think it would be difficult to provide a horse’s entire diet through puzzle toys, but I do think that puzzle toys could be used to make meals last longer and provide some enrichment. Slow feeders and other ways of decreasing the speed or hay intake are also useful, but I’m not sure I would classify them as puzzle toys.

There are a number of commercially available puzzle toys for horses. The only one I have used is a Nose-It, but there are several others that seem to be popular. If you don’t want to buy a toy, or want to have a variety of toys, you may find some ideas in the section on “enrichment” in my blog, “What can I train? E is for …“. I will mention that some horses will need to be taught how to use puzzle toys so don’t assume that your horse will automatically figure them out and enjoy them without any assistance.

Intelligent disobedience

This is probably not something you are going to run out and train, but it’s an interesting topic and has been taught to guide animals with clicker training. I first heard about it when I was new to clicker training and met Ann Edie, who is blind and was using a guide dog. When her dog retired, she tried a few other dogs, but eventually she and Alexandra Kurland trained Panda, the miniature horse, to be her guide.

As part of Panda’s training, they had to teach her when to “disobey” Ann’s cues. I put disobey in quotes because what it really means is that Panda has to learn that there are conditions under which it is not safe to respond to a cue and that it’s ok to do so. For example, if Ann asks her to guide her across the road but a car is coming, Panda should remain standing when Ann gives the “go forward” cue.

Since I’ve never trained intelligent disobedience, I spent a little time trying to find out more about it. There are a few articles on the internet, but I couldn’t find one that I liked. So I decided to contact Michele Pouliot and see if she would help me. Michele Pouliot was involved with guide dog training for over 42 years and recently retired after 16 years as the Director of Research and Development for programs at Guide Dogs for the Blind. She is also a talented freestyle trainer and competitor. She generously sent me a short article that describes the teaching process and two of her favorite stories about it.

Intelligent Disobedience By: Michele Pouliot

Generally speaking, “Intelligent Disobedience” occurs where an individual deliberately refuses to follow directions, given by an authority, due to judging it unsafe or harmful to do so.

In the training of guide dogs for the blind, dogs in formal training are educated in the concept of refusing potentially unsafe cues from their handler. Due to their disability, blind and visually impaired handlers lack ample information when moving through any environment. Their lack of visual information results in blind handlers occasionally giving “wrong” (and sometimes dangerous) directions to their guide dogs.

Click here to read the full article

Michele Pouliot, June 2020 – written for the A to Z blogs

Additional Resources:

  • See guide horse training in “What can I train? G is for …”

Introductions

Horses are social animals and like living in groups, but that doesn’t mean that they always accept new members or live together without occasional conflict. I’ve had a pretty established herd here on my farm for a long time, but I can remember some of the challenges I faced when trying to integrate a new herd member. The most important thing I learned was to do it slowly, taking as much time as possible, so the horses got used to each other before they were put together in a confined space.

Here’s an example of how an introduction can go smoothly if the horses have enough time to get to know each other before they are placed together in a confined space. Stella came to us from a horse rescue. She is 13.2 hand holsteiner/welsh cross pony, very high strung but also afraid of her own shadow. I wanted to put her out with my 12 hand pony, Molly, and Buster, our mini. Molly. Molly and Buster were already living together, but not with any other horses. When I tried to combine them with other horses, it had not gone well and I suspected that Molly would not get along with Stella. However, my fields were set up so that I could put Stella near Molly, if not in with her. I put Stella by herself in a connecting pasture. At first there was some posturing, then the ignored each other. But over time I noticed that all three ponies were often grazing together, separated by the fence, but clearly choosing to be in close proximity. They also occasionally had closer contact because I had to lead Stella through Molly’s pasture to get to her own field.

After about 6 months of this, I decided to try allowing them to be together. I did this over several days, slowly increasing the length of time. It was a complete non-event. I do realize that the personalities worked in my favor. If Molly looked at Stella, she scooted away, but not in a panicked way – just in a “you want me to move, ok” way. They also had enough space that Stella could add sufficient distance so that Molly didn’t feel she needed to chase her. These three have now lived together for over 10 years and they are a very close little group. Maybe too close, but it’s fun to see how their relationships have changed and all the different ways they interact with each other.

In this example, I did not specifically use clicker training as part of the process, but I wanted to share this story because it shows the value of taking time. I don’t think I would have been as patient about waiting until they were ready if I hadn’t already learned to observe the small changes in behavior and look for opportunities for them to interact safely.

A more structured approach is described by Ken Ramirez in his new book, The Eye of the Trainer. The book contains an article in which he describes a process he has used successfully with animals of many different species. In the book, he uses the process with two dogs, but it could easily be done with horses.

The basic steps Ken used are:

  • Work the animals in adjoining training areas. You need to start far enough away that the animals are not concerned about each other.
  • Decrease the distance between the animals until you can work in closer proximity, with a fence between them.
  • Let the animals see each other from a distance, at times when you are not working with them.
  • Allow the dogs free time along the fence so they can interact but are still safely separated.
  • Try brief introductions in a neutral space.With dogs this was off- leash.
  • Move from a neutral space into one of the training areas and allow supervised off leash time.
  • Gradually increase supervised time playing in the training area.

Another great resource is Jane Jackson’s IAABC article on introducing Walter. Walter is a TB gelding that she bought and added to her existing herd.

Investigating

Giving your horse opportunities to investigate his environment, or adding novel items to his current environment, can be fun activities. This is particularly true for horses that live in “boring” pastures or turnout areas – ones that provide adequate space, food, shelter and water but don’t vary from day to day. I’m not sure horses want excitement, but I do think they enjoy opportunities to do something a little different, especially if they are in the company of friends.

The challenge is finding activities that are new and interesting, but also safe and not too scary. Some of the simplest ones are the best. In the last few years I have done a lot of hand walking my horses around our farm and in the surrounding fields. If I can go with another horse and trainer team, then the horses tend to be more relaxed. But going alone works too, as long as I allow the horse to set the pace and stick to familiar areas. New things to happen in familiar areas so I don’t have to go somewhere completely new each time. We can revisit an old trail to see what has changed since our last visit.

If we encounter objects, I will let the horse go up and look at them, if he wishes. Or sometimes I will ask him to target an object if it’s a familiar and safe object that is in an unexpected place. I’ve taught my horses to target novel objects (if I cue the behavior) and I used to cue my horses to touch items we met on our walks. I still do that occasionally, but these days I prefer to let the horse choose whether or not he wants to touch it.

If you can’t take your horse out to explore and investigate, you can bring novel items to him. I will sometimes bring a novel object into the field and allow my horses to interact with it. I’ve taken balls, umbrellas, boxes, milk jugs, cones, tarps, and various dog toys out into the field and give the horses opportunities to investigate them. It’s always interesting to see who will approach and who hangs back. I can just observe or I can turn it into a little training session.

There is some overlap between encouraging investigation and enrichment. You can read about enrichment in the blog post “What Can I Train? E is for …


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.

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2 replies

  1. Thanks for the link to start buttons for shots. I have been doing “play the vet” but have not been as systematic as the people in the video. Also my vet will do a practice session ” approach, swab, pinch, and step back a few times” before actually giving the shot. I see now I can do a lot more to make this easy for him. Lagsi gets his shots in the butt, but there is the one time a year for the blood draw for the coggins that has to come from the neck. He had a bad experience with a newbie vet…she stuck him 9 times and could not find the vessel. It told her to stop. Blood draws have been a problem every since, and I can understand why!

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    • Hi Hedy, I’m glad it was helpful. With some horses, using start buttons makes a big difference. You are lucky your vet will help, not so lucky with the newbie vet. Rosie has had a few too many blood draws (as she clearly tells me) and I now have to routinely practice in between or she shakes her head. It’s interesting to me that even though she knows the difference between the vet doing it and my practice, practice still helps. There’s a big difference if I stop doing it. Persevere – I’m sure you will get there. Katie

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