equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

How to Interpret and Manage Energy, Excitement and Tension

I wrote this article in 2007 and plan to update it this year.

    As a child and young adult working with horses, I was certainly aware that there were some horses that were more energetic and high strung than others.  And that there were some conditions under which horses tended to get more excited (cold, windy days, going to a new place, etc…).  I just assumed that this was part of any horse’s personality or temperament and a good horseperson learned how to handle these types of horses and under these conditions.  In most cases, I learned to either find a safe outlet for the energy by allowing the horse to burn off some steam by moving, or I learned to allow the horse time to settle down and calm himself. It was not until I started clicker training and working with Alexandra Kurland that I started to realize how much we can affect and control our horse’s state of mind by choosing appropriate exercises and teaching the horse that it is ok to be calm, even in a strange place or under conditions that usually generate excitement and/or anxiety.

    In horses, their emotional state is very closely tied in to body position and posture. A grazing horse is calm and relaxed with its head down. An excited horse has its head up and is looking around. Often its whole body is tense and it will be ready to run at a moment’s notice. A horse that is excited, but in a more positive way (not fear) might arch its neck and dance around.  When we work with horses, it can be very helpful to teach a horse to adopt a body position that is tied to the emotion we desire at the time.  This is one reason you read about teaching horses head down as a calm down cue. A horse with a low head is going to calm himself, as long as he is choosing to put his head down voluntarily. Horses that are forced to carry their heads low by the use of force or equipment are not going to find the inner calmness that a horse gets when it drops its head voluntarily.  With clicker training, we can teach a horse to put his head down voluntarily and use that behavior to help the horse find calm in an unsettling situation.

    The opposite is also true. We can teach a horse to carry himself in a way that is associated with excitement and energy, but without the high emotions that are connected with it.  Simple examples of this are horses that have been taught to run fast, rear, spin, and buck on cue.  If the behavior has been well trained, the horse will be calm between requests. If the horse is still getting emotionally wound up when performing these behaviors, that is a message that more work needs to be done on teaching the horse to perform the desired behavior with energy and then relax.  It is normal for horses to get wound up, even when doing well trained behaviors so I am not saying that an increase in general energy and excitement is bad. I am saying that if the horse gets so excited by the high energy behavior that he is then not easily controlled by the handler, then there is more work to be done.

    As a dressage rider, I want to teach my horse to perform behaviors that are normally associated with excitement without tapping into the mental or emotional state that usually accompanies them. I want my horse to lift and carry himself in a certain posture and level of self carriage that incorporates correct use of his back, hind end and neck.  In the early training, I am going to emphasize having the horse calm and relaxed and soft through his topline.  But as the horse develops, I am going to ask for more collection and a higher energy level so that I can eventually do extended gaits, advanced canter work, piaffe and passage.  The level of engagement, self carriage and elevation that you see in an advanced dressage horse is not a natural position for a horse to adopt when he is relaxed and calm.  In general, the only time I see most horses carrying themselves this way is when they are very excited and/or anxious about something.   It could be excitement because the horse has spotted something new or unusual, is interested in another horse, or is just full of energy.  At this point, it is important that we not label energy and excitement as either good or bad. We need some energy, sometimes we need a lot of energy, for the horse to do his job well. But we also need to recognize that we don’t always want the emotions associated with energy and the behaviors that horses do when they are in that state.

   I want to teach my horse to carry himself in one way, but without the adrenaline rush or excitement that goes with it. I am ok with some of that energy, but I want to know that I can control it and that the horse is paying attention to me and not on his own program. I spent 20+ years in the traditional horse world before I found clicker
training. I saw a lot of anxious and tense horses and took this both as normal and as just a part of any horse’s personality. It wasn’t until I met Alex that I started to look a bit more carefully at what I was seeing. For the most part, horses that were considered to be excited, anxious to work etc.. were under some kind of emotional stress. I am not saying they all were, but what I found was that people were very quick to say “he loves to do this, look how excited he is” when I could clearly see that the horse was
overwhelmed. So, I would say if you are talking about energy you have to address both the safety issues and the performance issues. It is not safe to have a horse that is acting out because of high energy. Horses are too dangerous.

    I want to make an “aside” here. This article is an expanded version of a post I sent to the BBECT list in response to a question by a dog agility trainer who clicker trains her dogs.  She likes her dogs to be excited and anxious to start the agility course and was looking for the same type of enthusiasm in her horse before she went in for a jumping round.  While I think we all want our horses to be enthusiastic and happy about their work, horses are different than dogs and need to be handled as such.  There are all kinds of safety considerations here, but there are also differences in horse and dog behavior that we have to take into account.  As horse owners, we need to learn to read our horses to know that a horse that is anxious to go and seems enthusiastic about something might be anxious and upset because it wants to move or get away from something and can’t.  I prefer to see a horse that is clearly alert and interested, but does not have tension in its body. Some clicker trained horses do get enthusiastic and energetic during their sessions, but if they are offering trained behaviors in an appropriate manner, I do not consider this being anxiety.

    But back to the idea of how to interpret a horse’s increased excitement and energy level.  Because it is the nature of the horse to move when it is nervous, I am very cautious now, especially without seeing the horse, to attribute excess energy to the horse being happy and excited about his work.  I went through a phase where I wanted my horses to be totally calm and interpreted any rise in energy level as undesirable. I am past that now <grin>, but only in that I have now learned that energy is like anything else. You can train for it, you can train for its absence and you can put it on cue, meaning that you can adjust the horse’s energy levels up and down, as desired.

    It is not uncommon to run across trainers who talk about introducing “stress” or pushing beyond an animal’s comfort zone to make progress.  Some trainers refer to stress as being either positive or negative, the message being that without some stress, the animal is not motivated to learn. While I understand the distinction, I prefer to avoid the word “stress.” I don’t really like it because I think that it has very strong negative associations and I would rather just talk about teaching a horse to add or subtract energy. I can’t think of any time I would purposely stress my horse unless it was to introduce stress in small amounts so that I could teach my horse to deal with it.

    That doesn’t mean my horses don’t end up stressed at times during the training, but I do try to avoid it or keep it very minimal.  Yes, I do need to keep asking for more from my horse in order to keep the training progressing, but I do this at a level where the horse is still ok.  Maybe this is just all a bunch of semantics, but I don’t think so. The trainer’s intent matters here. If I am trying to teach my horse something new and he gets upset/frustrated/”stressed,” I might permit it for a few moments just to see if the horse can work through it or not. But if the horse goes beyond a certain level (depends upon the horse, behavior, situation etc..), then I will change my training plan. I do believe that animals do need to learn to deal with frustration, but I am not going to purposely work on that until I have a lot of basic behavior and training tools that I can use to manage that.

    I spent the last two winters taking Rosie to a neighboring indoor and teaching her that it was a place where she could be calm and quiet. When I first took her, people
admired her because she was moving with such energy and enthusiasm and it showed off what a great mover she is. But I hated it. She was not listening to me and was moving out of anxiety. I had a lot of options for how to deal with her. I could have lunged her or just let her trot around until she settled. But I wanted her to be actively involved in learning to calm herself down. I chose a training program that taught her to work with me and pay attention despite her anxiety.  This kind of training does not work in isolation from other kinds of training. While she was learning to stand with her head down, go to her mat and walk quietly, a lot of other things were happening. I was allowing her to move (at a walk) and I was associating the new place with good things (high rate of reinforcement).

    Now I can take her and work quietly and I know the people there scratch their heads. She doesn’t have the “flash” and “spirit” that she had before. But I know it is still there. What she has learned is that it is ok to be quiet and calm in a new place and I have not suppressed her, I have just taught her another behavior to do when she is upset. The energy and desire to go is still there, she is just waiting for me to tell her when it is something I want. Recently I have been experimenting with allowing her to add energy to see if she can handle it. What I am getting now is a horse that can work quietly when asked, but is capable of working with greater energy and doesn’t let it go
to her head.  This was important for me because I wanted to have very specific behaviors I could use to help her settle down in a new place. Then if I take her somewhere else, I have  lots of options for how to handle the new situation.

    That is where I am now. I think that we all want our horses working with energy and enthusiasm, but I want it to be controlled and I want the horse to remain in a place of emotional stability while they are working with energy. A lot of people like the energy and look for it in their horses, but they rely on equipment to control it. Look at any tack
catalog and it is filled with equipment (bits, martingales etc..) to keep the horses energy under control. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Teaching a horse to offer controlled energy is just a matter of learning how much energy you are going to accept from the horse so that he can offer it without going into an emotional state that is counterproductive.

    Unlike some other behaviors where I have a standard progression and it is easy to write down how to set up a training plan, teaching emotional control and learning to manage a horse’s energy level is not quite so clear. When, I am working a horse, I use a lot of factors to decide how much energy I want at any given time and I’m not sure I could describe it here without getting way too complicated, so I am just going to illustrate it with numbers. I can look at energy levels is on a scale of 1-10. 1 would be the horse who is very quiet, happy to stand still and do nothing, but not very alert or watchful either. 10 would be the totally overwhelmed horse that just wants to move, move, move. I don’t actually go out and get on my horse and say “Gee, He is a 7 today,” but I do get on my horse and say “How are you feeling?”  So please don’t take the numbering idea as a rigid system or exactly how to do it. It is just an example of a way to look at it. And the nice thing about numbers is that they are very impersonal. If I get on my horse and he is a 7, I can say “ok, how do I get him to 5” instead of saying “oh no, my horse is dancing around all over the place, what do I do?”   

    With your average horse, on the ground, I want to work somewhere between a 3 and a 4. I want the horse alert and focused, but not too anxious to move. If I start with a new horse who is really anxious (say a 7 or 8), I will start by teaching the horse to relax and I may train the horse to do head down or stand on a mat until I can ask the horse to have an energy level of 1 or 2 any time I want. I may spend quite a few training sessions on this, until I can get the horse to an energy level of 1 or 2 anytime I want. 1 is lower
than I want, but I might train the horse there if I felt the horse needed it.

    Chances are that by the time I am done doing this, the horse is settling into the routine and is now coming out at an energy level of 4 or 5. If this is so, then I will do a check in the beginning to make sure I can get the horse to drop his energy level and then I will continue with any other training. If at some point, the horse goes up past 4, I will ask him to drop his energy back to 2.

    One of the nice things about clicker training and Alexandra Kurland’s work is that she gives you a lot of tools for dropping a horse’s energy level down without having to either tire him out or bore him, or resort to mechanical devices.  A lot of the softening and single rein work teaches horses to relax, drop their heads and quiet down. Many of her ridden exercises and patterns become comforting to anxious horses and you can just pick an exercise and ride it, clicking in appropriate places and the horse will drop his energy level down.  I have found that just the addition of the click and treat to any patterned exercise increases the horse’s level of calmness and relaxation. For a horse, knowing exactly what you want is very comforting. So even if you don’t think your horse is learning anything new and you don’t want to click for already learned behavior, you can think of it as clicking for a learned behavior in a new, higher energy situation. 

    On the other hand, if I am starting with a very unmotivated or shut down horse, I might allow more energy just to build some enthusiasm for the game. If I have a really shut down horse, I might allow the horse to do all its groundwork at 4 or 5 just to show the horse that energy and enthusiasm is ok. This can be a good way to wake horses up to the fun of clicker training. Different horses can be worked at different times with different energy levels. There are no hard and fast rules. It is just a matter of slowly teaching the horse to add and work with energy while maintaining the ability to ask for no/minimal energy at any time.

    When riding, I usually want more energy, but the idea is the same. I may want my horse to have an energy level of 6 or 7 when I am riding, meaning the horse is moving with energy and activity, but I still want to be able to drop the energy at any time. So in a given riding session, I may do some faster work, or more difficult work, but then I will do some head lowering or walking on a loose rein to make sure the horse can release the energy. If I am working on canter transitions and my horse cannot walk on a loose rein
when I am done, then I know I need to spend some time on more calming work before I go back to the canter work.

    In the beginning, what often happens is that any time I allow the horse to add energy, it gets excited and it takes a while to get from energy 6 to energy 4. But over time the horse gains more emotional control and learns that he can raise his energy without getting mentally excited. At this point, you will find that you can add quite a bit of energy and as soon as the horse is clicked or release, he settles right back down.

    Once the horse starts to understand about adjusting his energy level, you can start to take advantage of days when energy is high. If I want to work on extensions and Rosie comes out feeling energetic, I might put that energy to good use. But only if I know that I can ask her to do slow work too. I am not suggesting that we can never take advantage of the energy that your horse might bring to a session. But I do it quite carefully and rarely do I do it two sessions in a row. Tension in horses is not good
for riding so I want to be careful that allowing my horse to work with extra energy does not keep him in a state of higher tension. Tense horses tend to invert their backs and become stiff. What I want is a horse that can work with energy and enthusiasm while staying soft and light. If I try to work on high energy behaviors for too many days in a row, even if that is what Rosie wants to do, other important pieces deteriorate. That is why I build this slowly.

    I learned with my older TB that if I lost the softness, there was no point in going for more energy. With him, his training started by asking him to work in a soft bend and collection on a light contact. I did not care what his energy level was like. He would get nervous when I asked him to organize himself (from previous bad associations with rein contact) so I did a lot of pick up the rein, ask him to come up in his back, carriage, release the rein, allow him to stretch and relax.

    Once he was ok with organizing himself for a stride or two, I asked him to add some energy. In the beginning, he might be walking at an energy level of 2 and he could stay calm. If I asked for a more active walk, he would raise his energy level to 3 or 4. If I asked for a trot (energy level of 5 or 6), he would get too excited and I would get nervous energy instead of just increased activity. So I didn’t let him go there. I just kept working within his comfort zone. Over time I got to the point where I could ask him for a trot and he was ok with it, because he had now learned how to deal with the increase in physical energy without it tapping into mental tension.

    When I start with any horse, I do have a few guidelines I like to follow. First of all, I do not allow unrequested energy that is beyond the range in which I usually work the horse. What does that mean? If I take my horse out and she is bouncing around and wants to go, it is not allowed. I don’t care if she is spooking because of something scary, wants to run and look at something, be near her friends, or is just feeling good. It is not allowed. That does not mean that I punish her or react negatively to her extra energy, although if safety is an issue, I will react to keep myself safe.  What I want to do is just redirect her to an activity that allows her to drop her energy level down.  I was going to write that I would allow her to release her energy and let it go, but I don’t want to give the idea that I am going to let her run around and burn it off. That is not what I do.  I might not always have that option and some horses get more wound up if you let them give in to their desire to move. Instead, I will ask the horse for a calming behavior and I will not proceed until the horse is at the energy level I find acceptable.  Perhaps it would be better to say I find a stationary or slow activity that allows her to release her tension so that she learns to relax without having to actually use up that extra energy and tension by fast physical movement.

    I have found that it is really important to be consistent about this. If I take Rosie out in the winter, she might be energetic because she has been cooped up. In some ways, this could be considered “positive energy” and  I think it is sometimes ok to allow her to express herself. But I have found that is not a good long term policy. If I just let her run around every time she is energetic or tense, she does not learn any other way to manage it.  I might not make her drop her energy level down completely, but I will not allow her to work at a higher energy level than that which we have been working. I find that a few resets down to 1 with head lowering will drop her energy enough so that we can proceed. I am amazed at the number of educated riders I see who still find they need to work their horses for 30 or 40 minutes on some days just so that they can then start to do the real work.

    Even if I wanted to say “well, she is excited and wants to get to work,” I still make sure she can do some slow and quiet work. I could say that it would be more productive to let her move for a bit, but I am not always going to have that option. I have no indoor and in the winter we spend quite a bit of time walking. I need her to be able to come out and walk quietly around the block, with traffic and dogs and other distractions. So she has to learn that even when she feels like going, sometimes she can’t.

    You do have to be careful as it is possible to get a horse that is too relaxed and they almost become lazy. You can even shut down the gaits so they don’t move well. Therefore, I never want to shut the horse’s energy level down to 1 or 2 for too long. I am always looking for chances to show the horse that he can work at the next energy level and it is ok. If Rosie is used to working at 5 and comes out one day at a 7, I might bleed off a bit of energy and see if she will work at a 6 for a few efforts. If
she seems to be getting more excited, then I will take her back to 5, or lower and say “she was not ready.” If she is good at 6, I might let her go back to 7 and see what happens.

    If you continue this work, always adding energy so that the horse can add energy without losing softness and balance, you will find that you can work at higher and higher energy levels and the horse will be able to cope. The goal is to have a horse that has such emotional stability and has been trained to handle working at higher energy levels so that you can ride the horse even when there are some elements of stress and anxiety, such as you might have at a show or new location.

    I am going to end this article with some ideas for helping a horse calm down, and some ideas for helping a horse add energy. But I have to add that this list is full of “it depends” because how you use these exercises makes a difference and the same exercise in different situations can have different results.  You can get different results depending upon what you click.  

Calming Behaviors:

  • Head down
  • Stand on your mat
  • Stand quietly while the Grownups are Talking
  • Targeting
  • Backing

Calming exercises:

  • Groundwork in patterns (3 flip 3, Hip Shoulder Shoulder, cone work, lots of gentle turns, bending, lateral work)
  • Single Rein work: use of one rein does not make the horse feel trapped and the softening, bending and lowering of the head that accompanies single rein work is calming.
  • Movement: for a horse that is too high energy, allowing them to move can allow them to release enough tension that they can now listen. The goal is not to let them move until they are tired, but just drop their energy level down enough that they have a chance at being successful at a more thoughtful exercise.
  • Transitions: gentle transitions, and especially if you click for each change. A lot of transitions with no reinforcement of any kind can make a horse more anxious as they don’t know what you want. 

Energy Raising Exercises:

  • Movement: on the part of horse or handler. Bringing up your life will encourage your horse to do so.  My mother used to say “energy begets energy” meaning that if you get yourself (or the horse) moving, you will feel more energetic and want to move. So this is one of those where movement can calm down an excited horse and raise up the energy of a quiet horse.
  • Single rein work that is more advanced and promoting engagement can help a horse move more energetically as he learns to carry himself better
  • Riding to a destination: pick a place to ride or walk to (fencepost, letter, tree) and your horse will move with more energy
  • Adding any element of “play” such as chasing a ball can make a horse more energetic. Sometimes riding with another horse can wake a horse up a bit.
  • Adding obstacles, new items, jumps to the routine, anything to vary the routine and add more interest can liven a horse up.
  • Transitions: these can both calm a horse and get him livened up. Clicking for up transitions can make a horse more enthusiastic.

Just plain clicking for more energy….

    I hope you will take these ideas and play with them. I found that once I started to think about energy and tension this way, my training and horse’s comfort levels improved. I am now much better at recognizing when I need to adjust their energy levels and how to keep them in a good mental state. I want to add that dealing with energy and teaching horses emotional control is something I learned from Alexandra Kurland. She has put a lot of thought and time into teaching horses and handlers how to work in harmony without falling into some of the traps that come up when either horses or handlers get emotional and tension and energy levels rise.   I am grateful to her for sharing her knowledge and insight with me.

Katie Bartlett, March 2007 – Please do not copy or distribute without my permission.