equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? O 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: obeisance, obstacles, open, oral medication, over


obeisance

The obeisance is a variation on the bow. Instead of going down on one knee, the horse extends both front legs and lowers his front end between them. Some horses find it easier to do the obeisance (than the bow) because the weight is shared equally over both front legs. I taught it to Willy by teaching him to park and then asking him to rock back and lower his shoulders. I fed him in the “down” position so he learned to maintain it briefly. It took me many months to get to position he is showing in the picture above.

I’ve seen the obeisance trained with different head positions. A flexible horse might drop his shoulders down, but keep his head and neck more upright – which looks a lot like the morning stretch that some horses do. Willy was an older horse when I taught him this behavior and I don’t think his back was that flexible, so I taught him the version that was easier for him. Here’s a foal doing a stretch that is similar to one version of the obeisance.

I debated about whether or not to include the obeisance in this blog. I think you have to be careful about asking horses to assume positions that they might not naturally choose. I shaped it with Willy, but I don’t think I would teach it again unless I had a horse that regularly did a similar stretch. If he did, I would probably try to capture it and put it on cue.

obstacles

You can use clicker training to teach your horse to go over or through a variety of obstacles including:

  • poles, cavaletti, and jumps
  • bridges
  • tarps, ball pits, and other unusual types of footing
  • agility obstacles like the car wash, gates, ladders, tires
  • natural obstacles like logs, ditches, water crossings

I have entries in the blogs on many of these, but the general process is the same for any type of obstacle. I always try to start with the easiest possible version of it and slowly increase the difficulty as the horse becomes more confident. I want to keep the horse on a high rate of reinforcement, which may mean clicking for individual steps over a bridge or tarp.

open mouth

Willy learned to open his mouth on cue

Training an animal to open his mouth for inspection or care is routinely taught to many exotic and domestic animals as part of routine husbandry training. I first heard of it being done in zoos or marine mammal parks and it’s pretty impressive to see a trainer cue a whale or gorilla to open his mouth. We can teach the same behavior to our horses, using similar protocols.

In addition to being a useful husbandry behavior, an open mouth behavior can also be useful when introducing a bit, if you choose to use one. This is not the place for a discussion about whether or not to use a bit, so I’ll just say that it is possible to teach a horse to voluntarily open his mouth for a bit.

I taught Willy an open mouth behavior by clicking and reinforcing when he yawned. I wanted to capture yawning and sometimes he would do a real open mouth, eye rolling yawn. But, other times he would open his mouth and stick his tongue out – what I called a fake yawn, but was a lot like an “open mouth” behavior.

I wanted to teach Rosie to do an open mouth behavior and she rarely yawns. That meant I had to shape it. I had a starting place because she already knew how to pick up an object and she had to open her mouth to do it. I started with a small object (a dog toy) and taught her to open her mouth and hold it between her top and bottom teeth. Then I asked her to do the same thing with increasingly larger objects until she was opening her mouth up wide. This is where I am now. I’ve started clicking for the movement of opening her mouth and plan to fade out the object. I’ll write an update here when we get to the next step.

oral medication

Most horses will need oral medication at some point, so it’s a good idea to introduce oral dosing before you need it. I introduce my horses to standard 60 cc dose syringes by teaching them to target the syringe and then letting me slide it into place. It matters how the syringe is positioned. Many horses will open their mouths so the syringe is between their front teeth, but this is not ideal for administering medication as it’s too easy for the horse to spit it out. I want the horse to let me slide it up to the corner of his mouth.

Once the horse takes the syringe, then I start introducing a variety of “fillings.” I start with substances that I think will be palatable, or at least neutral, such as:

  • applesauce
  • water
  • water mixed with a little sweetener (molasses, sugar, stevia)
  • water with flavoring (my friend Jane dissolves peppermints)
  • baby food fruits and vegetables

Some research has been done on flavor preferences in horses. In this study, the horses’ top-ranked flavors were (in order):

  • Fenugreek
  • Banana
  • Cherry
  • Rosemary
  • Cumin
  • Carrot
  • Peppermint
  • Oregano

In an ideal world, once the horse accepts these substances, then I would introduce other less palatable substances in small doses mixed with a preferred flavor until the horse learned to accept (or tolerate) a wider variety of flavors. But…I rarely do this – lack of time, energy, etc… all contribute to stopping the training once the horse takes a syringe.

Therefore, when I do need to medicate the horse, I am careful to make sure that I review taking medication via syringe before introducing the medicated syringe. This means loading a syringe with something the horse likes and “dosing” him with that a few times before introducing the medicated syringe. Depending upon how much time I have to prepare, I will do this over several days or sessions. Another way to “dilute” the effect of syringes full of bad tasting medication is to also “dose” him with syringes willed with a palatable mixture. For example, if my horse gets medication once daily, I will “dose” him once with the medication and at another time in the day, I will “dose” him with a palatable substance.

Is this tricking the horse? Maybe, but I think it does maintain the behavior better than if every syringe is filled with an unpleasant substance. If your horse seems to get worse when you add in additional “doses,” then you would not want to continue with them.

One of the challenges with teaching horses to accept oral medication is that the horse often won’t take a treat after you have just put something foul tasting in his mouth. This is especially true for wormers which taste bad and can leave the mouth numb or tingly. This frustrated me for a while because I want to reinforce the horse for taking his medicine, but he won’t eat what I am offering him. However, I eventually learned that if the quantity of reinforcers is high enough, most horses will start eating, even if the first bites taste bad. Now when I give medication (or wormer), I dose the horse and then dump a cup of grain (or a high value reinforcer that can be fed in larger amounts) in his bucket.

Additional resources:

over

Over could refer to going over obstacles (see the entry for obstacles above), or it could refer to moving body parts (hips, shoulders, head) or the whole body in one direction. Teaching horse to move an indicated body part can be taught through targeting, capturing, or touch. I often teach a tactile cue, but these behaviors are even more useful if you put them on verbal cues. If you do use verbal cues, you will either need to have different cues for different directions (toward me vs. away from me) or combine the verbal cues with context cues (your position, hand contact or a target, etc.) so the horse knows which way to go.

In the photos above, I have placed a mat next to Aurora’s hind feet so that she is thinking about where she is placing her feet as she steps over. Mats and targets are great ways to teach horses to move in different directions in a thoughtful way.

When Rosie was younger, she was a bit cranky (to put it mildly) when I asked her to move around while she was in her stall. For that reason, I did most of her training outside of her stall. However, when I was feeding or cleaning her stall, there were times when I needed to ask her to move from one side to the other. My first strategy was to teach her to move away from a touch on her side, but this didn’t work if she was against one wall and I needed her to move to the other side of the stall. I wasn’t about to get between her and the wall (or behind her) which is where I needed to be to give the cue.

My solution was to teach her to step sideways toward me when I gave a verbal cue. It was one of the first verbal cues I taught her and I still remember being amazed that she learned it and I could ask her to move her hips over, regardless of where I was standing.

Additional resources:


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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2 replies

  1. Thanks Katherine! That oral medication bit was really useful for me. Also I recently read your book and found it very informative.

    Like

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