equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? V 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: vacuuming, vagus nerve, vegetables


I’ve found most horses don’t mind being vacuumed, once they get used to the noise and hoses moving around. I have a small canister vacuum that I occasionally use on my horses. I go through periods where it seems to help a lot and then there are other times when I feel it just moves the dirt around. In the summer of 2019, I decided to introduce Aurora to the vacuum as part of some research into start button behaviors. I used a training progression that was similar to how I introduce bathing, clipping, and other novel husbandry behaviors. But, this time, I let Aurora touch a target to tell me when she was ready for me to start the next repetition.

When starting any new type of husbandry training (bathing, clipping, vacuuming, etc.). I always make a list of all the novel aspects so I can address the separate components ahead of time. With vacuuming, my list looked like this:

  • noise – the vacuum is quite loud and may be an unusual noise
  • movement
    • of the vacuum – mine is on wheels so it does roll around
    • of the hoses – the vacuum hose is similar to a water hose, but not identical
    • of the cord – the cord on the ground and movement of the cord can make some horses anxious
  • the vacuum attachment
    • the curry brush attachment is a little harsher than my usual curry

My training plan

I have used the phrase “Can you stand calmly…” because that’s my goal, but I realize that “calmly” is open to interpretation. In her case, I wanted her body language to indicate interest but not anxiety. I was watching her ears, tail, muzzle, eyes, neck position, breathing, and general tension level to evaluate her level of calm. If she started to look tense, then I would back up in my training a little and break things down more. I could also evaluate her comfort level by asking for other simple behaviors during the session.

I did use a start button behavior (targeting) in the early sessions when I was teaching her that the vacuum makes noise. However, once she had accepted the noise and movement of the vacuum, I found I didn’t need to use a start button before each repetition. Instead, I offered the target every few repetitions as a way to evaluate how she was feeling. By that point, targeting was not a start button, but just an alternative behavior that was a good way to measure how she was feeling. In retrospect, it might have been better to use two different behaviors, but targeting is just so handy … Anyway, it worked out.

I separated things out and worked on each piece separately. Then, I started combining them.This plan was made with Aurora in mind. I had a pretty good idea where she would have concerns so I chose to add the different components in the order that I thought would be easiest for her. I might rearrange the steps slightly for a different horse.

  • Can you stand calmly while I turn the vacuum on and off? if I put it in different locations – right, left, front of horse?
  • Can you stand calmly while the vacuum moves – while turned off and then turned on?
  • Can you stand calmly while I move the cord around – vacuum on/off, vacuum in different locations?
  • Can you stand calmly while I approach you with the hose:
    • a short length not connected to the vacuum
    • a longer length, also not connected to the vacuum
  • Can you stand calmly while I approach with the hose connected to the vacuum?
  • Can you stand calmly while I touch you with the vacuum attachment?
    • with no hose
    • with hose attached (short and then longer length)
    • attached to vacuum
  • Can you stand calmly while I approach you with the vacuum attachment with the vacuum on?
  • Can you stand calmly while I approach and then touch you with the vacuum attachment with the vacuum on?
    • on the shoulder?
    • on your side?
    • on your rump?

She moved through the steps pretty quickly. I took more time with the noise and when I first combined noise with movement. I think all her previous husbandry training helped her understand that this was just another behavior that involved novel sounds and sights but that was easy to do.

Additional resources:

vagus nerve (polyvagal theory)

This is not a behavior but it’s something I think horse people should know about, and I have a shortage of “v” behaviors, so I am adding it.

Over the last few years, I’ve been seeing references to polyvagal theory and the vagus nerve when reading articles and posts about learning and fear. I tried to read up on it a few times, but I never quite put the time into finding good resources and understanding why it might be relevant to horse training. However, this winter (2020-21) I finally heard a webinar that explained it simply enough to make sense to me. Not only that, I have been dealing with some fear and anxiety issues with Aurora so I decided it was time to learn more.

I started by reading some articles online and then found a book by Dr. Stephen Porges called The Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory. The book is a series of interviews he gave where he describes how and why he developed polyvagal theory and how we can use it to help people suffering from a variety of mental health issues. I found the book to be pretty interesting and it gave me some insight into my own behavior, particularly those times when my brain and body seem to be in disagreement about how I respond to certain situations.

To give you some idea what polyvagal theory is about, I’m going to summarize my current understanding and why it’s relevant to horse trainers. But, I’m very new to this, so I suggest you find additional resources if you want to learn more. I’ve put links to some useful resources at the end of this entry. I’m sure there are many more out there, but those links should get you started.

Polyvagal theory gives us a new understanding of how the nervous system functions under different conditions. Before I describe it, I think it helps to know a little about the vagus nerve and how we used to think about the nervous system.

What is the vagus nerve?

“The vagus nerve, historically cited as the pneumogastric nerve, is the tenth cranial nerve or CN X, and interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. The vagus nerves are normally referred to in the singular. It is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system in the human body and comprises sensory and motor fibers.” (Wikipedia)

Why is it important?

When I studied biology in college, I was taught that there were two branches to the autonomic nervous system (ANS). These were called the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. No, I never could remember which was which and you don’t need to know either. What you do need to know is that one of them (the sympathetic) is responsible for mobilizing the body – as in the fight and flight responses. The other one (the parasympathetic) is responsible for the functions that occur when you are resting or in a state of low anxiety – rest and digest.

According to the model I learned, the nervous system toggles between the two states, ideally spending most of the time in the parasympathetic state, but activating the sympathetic nervous system when needed. If I am relaxing eating lunch, I am in a parasympathetic state. But if there is a sudden loud noise and I jump up, my sympathetic nervous system has been activated. The same is true for horses. A horse grazing in the field is in a parasympathetic state. A horse alerting to a noise or novel object is in a sympathetic state.

This two pathway model of the autonomic nervous system is the model I learned, but neuroscientist Steven Porges (the originator of Polyvagal theory) found it did not explain why individuals might respond differently when exposed to the same stimuli and how our physiological state and cognitive state can be misaligned. The “old” model also did not explain how the nervous system can create a state of immobility (freezing) under stressful conditions.

Dr. Porges proposed a different model. In his model, the autonomic nervous system has three branches – one sympathetic and two parasympathetic. The vagus nerve controls which pathways are activated and to what degree. The way he described it is that the vagus nerve controls the degree to which the sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways are activated and this is done through the degree of “tone.” If the vagus nerve has higher tone, it decreases your hearbeat and the parasympathetic pathways are activated. If the vagus nerve has lower tone, your heartbeat increases and the sympathetic pathways are activated. This effect can be thought of as applying the brakes or dampening the effect of the sympathetic nervous system.

I found this slide that describes the three ways our autonomic nervous system operates:

I should mention that polyvagal theory applies to mammals – they are the ones with the ventral vagus pathway. Dr. Porges doesn’t mention if anyone has specifically studied the vagus nerve in non-mammals but he does state that the ventral pathway is more recent and he believes it evolved with mammals. He believes that it evolved in mammals because they interact socially in different ways than reptiles and because a reptile’s standard defense (freezing/dorsal vagus) is maladaptive for mammals.

So what does this mean for horses?

I’ve been thinking about this and a few things really jumped out at me. Some were ones that I already “knew” in practice, but I hadn’t really understood why (or fully appreciated how) the nervous system was functioning a certain way under various conditions. I can certainly tell when a horse is not in the right mental state for learning, but I do think that learning more about the nervous system has clarified some things for me, as well as given me some new insight into why my training may or may not be effective.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about:

  • Our nervous system’s response to certain stimuli is involuntary. Even if we want to be able to control it, we may not be able to – at least not without going through a process to “rewire” the nervous system. The best example Dr. Porges gave was going into an MRI machine. He was cognitively ready and interested, but his body’s involuntary response made it impossible for him to do it. I have personal experience this body/brain disconnect so I was relieved to hear it was normal!

    I have rarely dealt with extremely fearful horses, but Aurora was in a mental state last fall when there was no reaching her. She was in panic mode and it was clear that I could not do anything with her until I found a way to help her feel safe. Prior to this experience with her, I had not fully realized how stressed a horse could become if her own environment became “unsafe.”

  • A calm horse is not necessarily ok. If you’ve ever worked with a “shutdown” horse, you have learned this. Just because the horse is standing still, it doesn’t mean he is ok with what is happening. He is being still because he has activated the dorsal vagus pathway and is using immobility as a defense mechanism. If he’s really stuck (frozen), then the brake is on. If everything is dampened down, then he may be able to do some things, but he’s not fully present. In that case, there is a blending effect of the different vagal pathways. I knew that horses could become shutdown, but I had not thought about how the nervous system was involved. The article at the bottom explains this blending effect.

  • Through training, we can modify thresholds so that the sympathetic nervous system is not activated until the stimulus is stronger. Or, in other words, if we expose the horse to the stimulus in weaker forms or smaller doses, we can slowly increase his ability to cope with the stimulus – by changing the threshold at which the sympathetic or dorsal vagus nervous systems take over.

  • In the old model, the nervous system toggled back and forth so you were either in the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system. In polyvagal theory, there are more gradations and you can have a blending effect. This makes it easier to slowly increase an individual’s tolerance to a fear-inducing stimulus because you can dip in and out of the overlap zone where the sympathetic nervous system is slightly activated, but not go to the point where the horse goes into fight or flight. I think that polyvagal theory makes it easier to understand how to do this.

  • When we are fearful we miss cues in the environment. Have you ever taken your horse somewhere new and stressful and had him totally ignore you? I always put this down to “needing more training,” which it is – and I would have approached it by spending more time on generalizing behaviors and introducing distractions. That does work, but it’s a more cognitive approach. And, if the horse really can’t perceive cues, it doesn’t help in the moment. Thinking about activating different parts of the nervous system gives me other options for those times when doing more training is not possible.

    For me, it was kind of a “duh” moment to realize that the horse might not even be aware of me because when his sympathetic nervous system is activated, he is unable to hear, see, or feel my cues. He’s not deliberately ignoring you, he really can’t hear you. Doing more training at home may help, but what you really need to do is set up environments where he does activate the sympathetic nervous system a little bit, but not so much that he no longer perceives other information in the environment (your cues).

  • We can create environments or provide cues that indicate safety. Dr. Porges talks a lot about how the nervous system is scanning the environment for cues about whether it is safe or not. In people, certain sounds and social interactions help the nervous system decide if it’s safe. Think about music. What kind of music makes you expect something bad to happen? What kind of music makes you feel more lighthearted or relaxed?

    Physical objects or environments also provide cues to the nervous system about what to expect. A long time ago, I noticed that most horses are calmer when trailer loading if I carry a hand-held target. I may not even ask the horse to touch it, but carrying it seems to change the stimulus picture that surrounds trailer loading.

    Because most horse people can’t control the environment completely – especially if you work outdoors- I find there’s a tendency to hope the horse will learn to cope with continued exposure, especially if we create positive associations with scary environments. But, when we do this, we are really fighting against what the nervous system is wired to do. We need to learn ways to help create a safe environment, even under less than ideal conditions.

I’m sure I will come up with some other thoughts as I mull things over and do some more reading. As I said, I am just starting to explore polyvagal theory. I’m listing the resources I found helpful. If anyone wants to add more resources or share their thoughts on this subject, I’m happy to add to this entry.

Additional resources:


Aurora likes cucumbers …

Offering different vegetables to your horse can be a way to add some enrichment to his life. I don’t seem to have very adventurous eaters in my barn, but I’ve known horses that liked some unusual things. Here is a list of what you can and cannot feed to your horse. Note that I’ve included both fruits and vegetables as I didn’t think to do “fruits” when I was on “F.”

I’m going to start with a list of what you should NOT feed to your horse – just to make sure you see it.

  • NO avocados
  • NO brussels sprouts
  • NO cabbage
  • NO eggplant
  • NO onions
  • NO peppers.
  • NO persimmons
  • NO regular potatoes
  • NO rhubarb
  • NO tomatoes
  • Other gas-producing vegetables or other foods in the nightshade family

What you can feed:

I compiled this list from multiple internet sources. Most articles listed the same core group of safe fruits and vegetables, but each one had a few different ones. If you have any doubt about the safety of anything, please check with your vet. Also, be aware that some of the fruits are high in sugar.

Be sensible about how much you feed and remove any non-digestible parts (seeds, pits, branchy bits).

  • apples
  • apricots
  • bananas (with and without the peel)
  • beetroot
  • blackberries
  • cantaloupe
  • carrots
  • celery
  • chard
  • cherries (remove the pits)
  • citrus (oranges, grapefruit, tangerine) – remove the peel
  • collard greens
  • corn
  • cucumbers
  • figs and dates
  • fresh ginger root
  • grapes
  • green beans
  • kale
  • lettuce
  • mangoes
  • papayas
  • parsnips
  • peaches
  • pears
  • pineapple (small chunks)
  • plums
  • pumpkins
  • radishes
  • raisins
  • snow peas
  • squash – but not gourds
  • strawberries
  • swedes
  • sweet potatoes
  • turnips
  • watermelon

Additional resources:

I’ve been doing some experimenting on my own. As you saw in the photo, Aurora eats cucumbers, which I would not have thought to try. She does not eat turnips.

no turnips…she spit them out

I’m going to keep trying different vegetables when I can find them. I put some thought into how to present a novel vegetable as I did not want to have my horses become suspicious about taking food from my hand. So I put the new vegetable in a feed bucket with a handful of something the horse does like. That way, the horse is guaranteed to find something palatable and they can try the new vegetable if they wish.

I did discover that Finale eats turnips. He was happy to be the clean up crew after everyone else rejected them.

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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