equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Would You Like a Drink?

As the weather warms up, I’ve been thinking about horses and their drinking habits. This has prompted me to do some experimenting with offering water in different places and in different ways.

This may not seem connected to clicker training, but it is – and it’s prompted me to address something that’s been in the back of my mind for years. I routinely train for long periods of time (an hour) using dry hay pellets as reinforcers. When this happens in the barn during veterinary or husbandry behaviors, I do make a point of offering the horse a drink or putting him in a stall for a short break, if possible.

But when I am training in the ring, the horse is exercising and eating hay pellets without access to water. While my horses usually take a long drink when returned to their fields or stalls and I’ve never had any issues related to water consumption, I have occasionally wondered if it’s a great idea to eat dry pellets, exercise, and not be able to drink. If you think about human athletes, they often have water bottles handy and keep themselves hydrated.

This spring I had several training sessions where I finished the session and Madagascar drank A LOT of water, more than I would have expected considering the temperature and the level of activity. It made me wonder if he might have been due for a drink before we started, but just hadn’t done so. Or if he got thirsty because of all the food reinforcers. In either case, it made sense to me that I should give him the opportunity to drink at several points during our training time.

So, I’ve been running a little experiment with offering water at various times during training sessions. First I wanted to figure out if the horses would drink if I offered a bucket of water under “training conditions” and second, when they would choose to drink. I’ve been doing this with Madagascar and Aurora, who are both being ridden regularly and have longer training sessions.

Madagascar

I’ve had Madagascar for 2 years and he doesn’t seem to have any preference for where and when he drinks. He seems to be as comfortable drinking out of buckets as he is out of water troughs, but I’ve never offered him a bucket of water at specific times.

What I did:

I set aside a water bucket to use for water during training and placed it near my grooming area. I fill it up with fresh water before I bring the horse out and I offer them a drink before I start grooming. I also offer a drink right before we go up to the ring. In the ring, I offer water between groundwork and riding and between riding and the cool-down walk around the yard.

Sometimes I put the bucket on the floor in front of the horse. Sometimes I hold it up for them. I’ve been doing it both ways so that they get used to the bucket in different places. I included holding it up because I thought that might be more similar to how I would offer a drink if the horse was in the trailer.

Here’s Madagascar getting a drink between grooming and tacking up. Right now he chooses to drink about half the time when I offer water in the barn before going up to the ring.

I brought the water bucket out and put it next to the mounting block so that he can have a drink before I mount. I always do at least 15 minutes on the ground before I mount so it’s easy to offer water part way through our training session. Most days, he does choose to drink. Here he is getting a drink between doing groundwork and riding.

I haven’t offered water while riding but it would be easy to do since the water bucket is already up in the ring. I would just move it to a more accessible location.

Aurora

I’ve had Aurora for 7 years and I know her drinking habits pretty well. Despite the fact that the picture above suggests that she will drink out of anything, she can be very particular about her water. I realized this a few years ago when I discovered that she would drink more water if I gave her a “fresh” bucket of water. If I didn’t do that, her bucket might remain untouched until much later in the day and she might not drink at all until she had access to the water trough in her field.

Going all day without water seemed like a bad idea, so changing her water became part of my lunchtime feeding routine. Since I was riding in the evening, I would also offer a clean bucket of water before our training sessions. She would usually take a drink.

I have done the same experiment with Aurora, offering water at various times. She has been less interested in drinking and is most likely to drink out of the bucket at the end of the ride. I have been riding her in the evening when it is less hot, so it may be that she’s not thirsty, but I’m going to continue and see if she does choose to drink more as the weather become hotter.

Other benefits

Besides making the training experience more pleasant, I can see there are benefits to getting a horse used to taking a drink when offered. When I traveled with Rosie, it was always concerning that she never drank while traveling. She was also very particular about the water in new places. Sometimes she liked it, sometimes she didn’t, and I usually brought my own water for her. If we went to the same place many times, she would eventually drink the local water, but it was never a guarantee.

There are various strategies that people use to encourage horses to drink, including adding flavor or electrolytes, but I’ve never had very good luck with them. Getting drinking as a fluent behavior in many places at home seems like it may be a better strategy. If the horse drinks under a variety of conditions at home, it should be easy to slowly expand where and when he drinks. Not only that, I bet you’ll learn a lot more about your horse’s drinking habits if you experiment around with it.

Additional resources:

  • If your horse is a reluctant drinker, you may be able to teach them to drink on cue. Lyndsey Lewis has a nice blog post that describes how she taught her horses to drink on cue. You can find it here.
  • My blog “What Can I Train? D is for …” had a section on drinking

Want to learn more about clicker training? Check out my books, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement and What Can I Teach My Horse?

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