equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? M 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: mat work, match to sample, medicate, mounting block,


MAT WORK!

I’ve put it in capital letters because it is so valuable.

Mat work is foot targeting for horses. The most common version is teaching a horse to put both front feet on a mat made out of rubber or wood. The behavior can be taught in a variety of ways and once learned, it can be used as the foundation for many stationary behaviors as well as a destination for moving behaviors.

I learned about mat work from Alexandra Kurland, who includes it as one of her foundation lessons. When she started teaching it at her clinics, we used it as a way to teach both horses and trainers about foot placement. But, she took it to another level, using it to improve a horse’s balance and emotional stability. These days mat work is used for many different things. It’s one of the first behaviors I teach and I use it as the foundation for many other behaviors.

“Front feet on the mat” is just one of many variations, which include:

  • hind feet on the mat
  • all four feet on a mat, or on two mats (one for front, one for hind)
  • Each foot on a mat (and all the variations – diagonals, laterals, etc.)
  • Mats of different material (wood, rubber, doormats, tarps, raised surfaces)
  • Standing on a mat
  • Going to a mat
  • Mats used for husbandry, groundwork, and riding
  • mats used for trailer loading, standing at the mounting block

How do you teach mat work?

For the basic “front feet on the mat,” there are 5 components:

  • walk up to the mat (approach in a straight line)
  • put the first foot on the mat (a solid step, no pawing)
  • put the second foot on the mat (a solid step, no pawing
  • stand on the mat (both feet stationary). You can add in:
    • front feet square
    • a specific posture (neutral, head down, or ….)
    • duration
    • distractions (trainer leaving, moving around the horse, etc.)
  • walk off the mat

I teach leaving the mat at the same time I teach going to, and standing on the mat. Horses can become glued to mats if that is the location where all the reinforcement happens, so I like to teach the horse that he will get reinforced for leaving the mat (if asked) as part of the initial mat training.

There are a few different ways I routinely teach these initial steps in mat work. It’s rare to have a horse step on a mat the first time, so I always expect to teach mat work through a series of approximations. I rarely free shape mat work because of the risk of pawing. Instead, I get the behavior started by using one or several of these strategies:

  • Leading the horse up to the mat. I often start by walking the horse over the mat, but not always.
  • Using a hand-held target to ask the horse to step on to the mat
  • Placing the mat in a location where the horse is used to standing

Note: Horses love mats and it’s important to teach appropriate stimulus control so that you can have mats in the training environment and be able to ask the horse to go to and leave the mat when you wish. I want to be able to walk my horse toward a mat and stop a short distance away, as well as walk by a mat, without my horse insisting we go stand on it.

While I am strict about stimulus control when I set up mats in my training environment, I have to confess I have lots of funny mat stories about times when my horse used something unexpected as a mat, or chose to step on or seek out a mat when I wasn’t expecting it. In most of those cases, I laugh and adjust the environment or my training plan to make it clearer what behavior I do want. I don’t really mind if my horses come up with some interesting ideas, as long as I can redirect them to something else if it’s not appropriate.

Resources:

Match to sample

Match to sample is a type of concept training. The goal is to be able to present the learner with one object and ask them to choose the identical object out of a group. To teach this concept, I need pairs of items so I can hold up one item and have the horse select the “matching” item from the group.

Let’s say I have a group of objects including:

  • a ball
  • a frisbee
  • a dog squeaky toy

I arrange the items in a location that my horse can reach. I show the horse an item that matches one of those and he indicates which of the items matches it. If I hold up the ball, I want him to indicate the ball. If I hold up the frisbee, he should indicate the frisbee, etc. I can teach him to indicate by touching or picking up the item.

When he can reliably find the match with my original set of objects, then I can add new pairs. The goal is to be able to add novel objects and have him be able to find the match for each new item, the first time it is presented. When the horse can reliably find the match with objects that he has never seen before, then we say he has learned the concept of “match to sample.”

I spent some time working on this with Rosie using both colored cones and dog toys. We made some progress but I’m not convinced she ever truly understood the concept. Regardless, we had a lot of fun trying. The process is the same for all species and you can find lots of trainers teaching match to sample with a variety of different animals. I believe birds are excellent at it.

Here are two videos to get you started:

Medicate

At some point, your horse will require medication. With horses, these are usually given as injections or by dosing orally. Injections are included in the blog “What Can I train? I is for…“. I’ll write about oral dosing in the O blog.

Here, I thought I would write a little bit about feeding medication orally. My experience has been that most horses are really good at eating around any type of pill that is added to their food. I have sometimes been successful adding pills to the horse’s usual feed if I grind it up first. But, that only works with pills that do not have an unpleasant taste. Since neither of these strategies are particularly successful…

I’ve often wondered if it would be possible to teach a horse that if she eats a less palatable item (a pill), she will be given a preferred food reinforcer. I know that in the zoo community, they routinely teach the animals to accept less palatable items by exposing them to a wide variety of tastes and smells that are introduced gradually. I haven’t heard of anyone teaching “if you eat that, then you get this,” but it seems like it should be possible if you use the same strategy of gradually introducing novel flavors.

This might be a fun winter project for me. If I learn anything interesting, I’ll be sure to report my results here.

Mounting block

Teaching your horse to cooperate for mounting should be part of every horse’s preparation for riding. It can be taught with varying degrees of precision and participation on the part of the horse. I plan to write up detailed instructions on how I train my horses to line up and stand at the mounting block, but for now I thought I would provide a general outline of things I consider when making a training plan for teaching his set of related behaviors.

Before I learned to clicker train, I felt it was enough if I could walk the horse up to the block and get on without the horse moving right off. I didn’t need the horse to line up perfectly and I didn’t expect a lot of duration at the block. However, once I started clicker training and realized how easy it was to teach excellent mounting block behavior, I started paying more attention to all the behaviors that are important for safe and calm mounting which I define as:

  • The horse walks up to the mounting block
  • The horse lines himself up at the mounting block so you can easily mount
  • The horse stands still while you mount
  • The horse waits until cued before he moves off

In order to be able to do all the components listed above, the horse needs to know a variety of behaviors including:

  • walk forward (one or multiple steps)
  • step back
  • a square or balanced halt (a balanced horse will stand still more easily)
  • move your hip over (if the horse tends to stand crooked at the block)
  • be able to take food when the rider is above ground level
  • stand in place for food delivery (I don’t want the horse to move after I click)
  • optional: mat work and targeting (if you choose to use either strategy)

These are my three favorite ways to teach a horse to line up at the mounting block:

  • Use a mat: If the horse knows mat work, placing a mat for the front feet is a good way to teach the horse where and how to stand.
  • Use a target: if the horse will follow a target, I can use a target to guide him into position. I’ve also seen people set up a stationary target which tells the horse where to stand (similar to using a mat)
  • Shape it with “Capture the saddle.” Capture the saddle is the name of Alexandra Kurland’s exercise where the horse learns to bring his saddle to the riders hand. I usually start by using one of the other methods so the horse learns to approach the block and position himself in the general area. Then I teach him that he gets clicked when my hands touch the saddle, or for approximations towards that goal. Eventually the horse learns to adjust his position until he feels me touch the saddle.

Recommendations for practicing:

With young horses, I teach them about mounting blocks long before I am ready to ride them. They have no previous association so it’s easy to teach them that standing next to the mounting block is a great way to earn reinforcement. With an older horse, and particularly one that shows evasive behavior when approaching the block or when I stand on it, I often have to go more slowly and be more creative.

  • I teach the basic sequence and build duration without tack first
  • If your horse is more concerned when I approach the mounting block with tack on, I do lots of training sessions with the horse tacked up, but without getting on or riding much.
  • I like to start with the easiest approach to build a positive association with the mounting block. This also means setting appropriate criteria so the horse can be successful.
  • I limit the number of adjustments I make in each repetition so the horse gets reinforced more for standing still than for moving around.
  • When the horse has a strong reinforcement history for coming to the block, it can be fun to teach him to come to the block from a distance.
  • I ALWAYS click and reinforce for lining up at the mounting block and waiting while I get on. This is an important behavior and I want to maintain its strong reinforcement history.

Cautions:

Many horses are reluctant to line up at, or stand at, the mounting block. This can be for good reason. They have learned that riding is not always a pleasant experience, which could be due to a variety of reasons -physical discomfort (tack, soundness issues), emotional discomfort (anxiety about leaving friends, familiar spaces, confusion or frustration over training practices.

If you don’t address these issues before doing your mounting block training, it is unlikely that your training will be successful because you are asking the horse to ignore physical discomfort. If you do manage to train past that, you may get in trouble down the road because you have taken away one of the ways that your horse can communicate with you about whether or not he wants to go riding.

Resources:

Caeli and Sebastian


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

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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