Dealing with Emergencies

As positive reinforcement trainers many of us struggle with the fear of what to do in an emergency. What if our horse becomes aggressive or dangerous when spooking, how do we protect ourselves? What if our horse becomes over aroused and potentially aggressive? What if our horse gets hurt or sick and we need to perform a medical procedure we haven’t had time to prepare for? What if our horse is sick and can’t be given food? How do we ensure our safety and our horse’s wellbeing without becoming aversive?

First and foremost. We may all aspire to reducing or eliminating aversives in our horses lives, but the truth is that they are bound to happen. Life isn’t always perfect and emergencies do happen. Even poorly performed R+ can become aversive for a confused learner. So while we may (and I feel we should) aspire to being aversive free we must forgive ourselves the times life isn’t so perfect. We can utilize tools like the Humane Hierarchy which encourages us to assess the horse’s lifestyle, management, nutrition and health care, then arrange the antecedents, before moving towards a training approach with positive reinforcement to alter the behavior. Only then consulting professional trainers, veterinary behaviorists, or anyone with experience to help ensure you’ve tried all logical options before progressing to using aversives to overcome an issue. There will be times we may need to slide down this hierarchy very quickly, ruling out adjustments and training techniques in our mind very quickly in order to keep a situation safe. We may even act instinctively, defend ourselves or fall back on our pre-learned habits to get a job done quickly, rather than rethink a new alternative way to handle it. Ideally we would save these more extreme options for situations like a veterinary procedure that is non-optional. We wouldn’t want to use restraints, confinement, or aversives, just to teach our horse something fun we want to do for ourselves, but rather for something that is needed for their own well-being.

If you’re contemplating going to an aversive extreme to get something you want from your horse, stop and think about how important it really is that it be done, and who is this really for? Is it really vital your horse learn to carry you if it’s emotionally damaging to themself? As opposed to a medical or safety situation which is truly vital.


All this being said, there are constructive ways to handle emergencies with positive reinforcement – reducing the risk, stress, and fear in a wide variety of situations. These aren’t always “ideal training” techniques, as training should be done in a calm, safe environment with no rush or time limit. But just as we have emergency handling techniques with R-, we have them also with R+. I’ll go through a number of examples that I’ve personally seen or used.

First, let’s talk about Protective Contact. This is an under-utilized tool that is detrimental to the horse’s well-being if overlooked. Working with our horse with a protective barrier between horse and human can provide safety and comfort for both horse an human. We can set this up in a huge number of ways. With a horse who is aggressive, wild, feral, or timid working over a fence or stall door can allow the horse space to participate only as they feel comfortable enough to do so, eliminating the potential defensive actions that put the human at risk. We can reduce the freedom of the horse as needed to perform necessary procedures. Using a narrow aisle of fencing or stocks to contain the horse safely can allow a vet or farrier to work safely. These protective contact tools can be trained and conditioned positively and prepared for well ahead of time and even during the procedures, as they do in zoos with exotics. We can also use neat set ups like my vet hospital has, where they have a half wall they reach over to perform procedures to ensure their safety should the horse react to something. This requires the horse to be held or tied in the front, but allows the people space, freedom, and protection. These tools can be utilized for training horses who need the extra sense of safety from the human, as well as providing safety for the human in dangerous, but necessary situations.

Another technique is one of my favorites – we have lots of names for it, open bar/closed bar, on/off, rapid fire reinforcement… It’s simple and extremely effective – more effective than I’ve found even a twitch to be!! When the horse must remain still and calm for a procedure, feeding continuously one pellet after another (small handfuls so they don’t stop to chew for long) while they’re being compliant can quickly encourage correct and safe behavior. This distracts the horse from the stress of the situation, putting their focus on the food, so while they aren’t learning much, they are enjoying themselves while getting the job done. I’ve used this technique in a huge variety of situations. Most often for the farrier in early days with newly rescue horses. Most new rescues either don’t know about the farrier or hate him! So feeding the horse continuously while they have a foot up allows the farrier to get his job done safely, while the horse enjoys their food an ignores the farrier. I find it’s important to hand feed a small amount at a time to keep their focus, a bucket of food will always be there, even after the farrier is laying dead on the floor. 😉 While the small handfuls of food are contingent upon compliance. This is SUCH a strong tool I’ve used this in very extreme cases. Once we had a young colt who jumped out an open window to get to his friend, he cut open his legs. He was so new to us he had no R+ training aside from the very basics. He was a neurological baby and had a very hard time standing still and was a monster for the farrier. But still this technique worked as he stood quietly for the vet to clean, clip, and stitch the wounds on his legs with NO sedation. For this wiggly baby to stand calmly for that long, through that much stimulus was astounding. The technique proved itself again with many horses fearful of hoof work, especially Taina who wants to eat the farrier. While she still makes dragon faces at him whenever she sees him, she has been a doll for getting her feet done. It also helped our horse who had a great deal of pain in his hind legs, due to DSLD, as his disease progressed it was very difficult for him to remain standing through the discomfort. While pain meds helped, it was coming down to a question on when to end his life if he could no longer stand for the farrier. But this technique of rapid feeding helped provide him the distraction and something happy to work for, that he needed to be able to pull through the last few trims of his life. It even helped him stand quietly for the very uncomfortable but very necessary chiropractor visits.

There are also times where we need to watch our own safety. Sometimes we will be in working with our horses who are usually safe (thus why we haven’t opted for protective contact) but something goes wrong and we to defend ourselves! Safety is always first. No matter what you must do to try to keep yourself safe. Don’t get upset with yourself if you needed to use aversives to prevent a real tragedy. But being aware is our number one way to remain safe in training. We should all be paying attention to our horse’s emotional state while training. Are they aroused? Over-aroused? Confused? Frustrated? Nervous? Is there a stimulus stack building? In these cases you want to stop, slow down, break down the steps and make everything easier, or even move to protected contact. It’s also totally ok to say “today isn’t the right day” or “now isn’t the right time”. Many of us who have come from a natural horsemanship background have a very hard time leaving when things are going wrong, or waiting until tomorrow. That terrible sense of “you let the horse win” comes nagging in the back of your mind. But remember a win for your horse now is when they get to work with you, constructively progressing their behaviors and earning rewards. It’s not a win for your horse if you decided today was not a safe day to work together. Your horse is not trying to one-up you, they aren’t trying to trick you, this would only work to their own detriment in a positive reinforcement scheme. If you find most days are becoming “one of those days” however it’s time to assess health, management, and antecedent arrangement. How better can you set your horse and you up for calm and safety?

Don’t be disappointed if you need to walk out of a training session. Be aware of where you are in position with your horse. Be aware of how your horses is feeling about his environment. If there is a scary corner of the ring, position yourself between the horse and the scary corner, so if he shies, he will shy away from you, rather than onto you. We have a horse who when spooked always runs to her stall or the paddock gate (ok most do this). Knowing this, we position ourselves to be on the other side of her, so if she were to spook she has a clear shot to the gate, not taking us out on her way. While we could stay between them and they gate, then defend ourselves should she spook towards us, this would only set her up to meet more aversive situations while they are spooking. This only increases the stimulus stack and does more damage to whatever they were scared of and the whole scenario all together. Why damage your relationship? Always be aware and paying attention to your horse’s emotional needs to remain safe.

If your horse is over-aroused during training, becoming easily frustrated, confused, or even aggressive, please read our blog on this specifically. The key things to pay attention to when discussing a horse who is pent up when working with food is Clarity and Satiation. Ensure the horse knows when and how to earn the rewards (by breaking things down) and make the rewards low value but highly satiating. This provides relaxation and helps the horse reduce those defensive or aggressive seeking behaviors. When Revel broke his leg I thought we wouldn’t make it through. They told me his only chance of survival was 16 weeks of complete stall rest. Revel was NOT the right horse for this job. Though he was a Belgian, he was a haflinger at heart, playful, silly, and boisterous! The pain of his injury wasn’t even beginning to slow him down either. He spent the next 16 weeks being enriched as much as we could manage – every toy would could come up with that kept him still. I am so thankful to the creators of Nose-It treat balls, it stood up to 16 weeks of his huge feet pounding and stomping away while he shook treats out. We survived. But my next task was to do the impossible, how could I ever hand walk 19 hands of hot and wild beasty who’s been trapped in a box for 16 weeks?!

I dreaded the idea but I even contemplated getting a chain lead rope (which he had used in his previous life) or even using a bitted bridle. I could not risk his life if he got away from me and injured his leg irreparably. I died inside but I resigned that I would go that far if I needed to, but before that, let’s just try with R+. We’ll just try. He has always been a difficult horse to lead, he knows his size and drags us about to the grass or out to visit friends, before R+ training saved the day. So for this fateful first few hand walks I lined our driveway with cones (which he loves to target), I blocked off the end of the driveway with my truck (to reduce the chances of him getting into the road if he got loose), and I made sure the rest of the horses were quietly eating hay before I took him out. I walked one step at a time, click, HUGE HANDFUL, step, click, HUGE HANDFUL! But after several steps and cone targets I realized his mind was truly with me. He stayed with me and walked politely beside me for 10 minutes, increasing each day until I could finally turn him out in a small paddock, where he happily exploded. I would have upped my game and used aversives if I needed to get the job done safely. But I’m so, so glad for both of us that we were able to increase our appetitives enough to work through that tricky spot!


We also have those terrible situations when our horses fall ill. What do we do when we can’t use food? I had the terrible opportunity to learn this first hand recently. My amazing Clydesdale, Wisp, colicked quite bad. In our area vets usually come to us and we deal with colic at home – but this was so severe she needed to go to an emergency hospital in case she should need sudden surgery. Wispy has never traveled aside from coming home to me, she has never seen a hospital type environment, and she wasn’t allowed food. But my beautiful Wisp followed me onto a trailer, despite us never having trained for it. She followed me off the trailer and into the hospital, she stood on a scale like her mats, she tolerated needle poke after needle poke, even an abdominal tap. She was only sedated for the more painful parts of her procedures. She spent the next few days fasting, being syringed a variety of medicines, tubed up her nose for fluids, and an IV drip. All this she tolerated with her usual kind demeanor – which had not come about until after R+. She even spent the next several weeks at home slowly re-feeding, but still taking medicine by syringe. As she began to detest the terrible taste of the medicine, she simply held her head too high to reach. Luckily she stood kindly for me to give her the meds rectally. We found a compromise and she got her meds. At no point in her entire ordeal did I need to resort to anything other than R+ trained cues we had previously taught. Even though for this WHOLE period of several weeks I couldn’t reinforce these behaviors, they stayed strong and she pulled through. THIS IS WHY, this is why! This is why I tell people all the time, reinforce your behaviors every – single – time!!! Every time! Build such a strong positive history on every behavior your horse has, so strong that when the worst happens, they will be there. This is also why I try to avoid all uses of aversives unless I truly need them, so as to ensure all my behaviors are so solid. The more we reinforce the behaviors when life is easy, the more likely they will be there for us when life is hard.

This concept I just described is what we call a “relationship piggy bank” (I think Dr. Susan Friedman was the first to coin the term, correct me if I’m wrong). Where we build a strong relationship, a strong conditioned reinforcement history on ourselves and our behaviors and learning history, that this will all remain strong through even the worst of times. I strongly encourage anyone using R+ to not just work on these skills until the horse is doing them well, but maintain the reinforcement history strongly through everything. Many people want to quickly fade away from using treats and rely more on chains and schedules to maintain their behaviors – but this also puts them at risk of fading and not being as strong as needed in an emergency.

Please remember your antecedent arrangement, utilize protective contact, be aware of your horse’s emotional state, and always prepare, prepare, prepare as best you possibly can!