Clicker Training

Want to learn about clicker training?

Clicker Session Setup

Clicker Session Setup

There are a few types of clicker training sessions you can do with your horses. There is the essential session of teaching a new behavior, these are short (2-5 minutes), teaching steps towards your goal behavior and putting the new behavior on cue. Then there are sessions where we run the gambit, we rotate through the known behaviors to proof the cues against each other and practice stimulus control on them all. There’s also the fun play sessions, without much thinking but lots of fun movement, following targets, sending to targets, going over or around obstacles, playing chase, etc… There’s also counter conditioning sessions, where we introduce something new or different (particularly health related items) and counter condition it. Then there’s unstructured enrichment, these aren’t training so much as just fun ways to engage the horse’s brain and body.

So you want to teach your horse a behavior, you’re new to clicker training, where do you begin and how do your structure your session? First decide on one behavior you want to teach (this is harder than it seems we often lump many behaviors into one), so make sure you’ve divided the goal into 1 behavior. Then decide how you want to shape this behavior. You can shape the behavior by dividing it into tiny steps, clicking and reinforcing as you progress towards the goal. This is not as hard as it sounds, by arranging the environment we can make this fairly easy. For example, when we teach back up we can start over the fence, the horse will be leaning over the fence to reach you/the food. At some point they will rest back, lean back, or step back. You can shape from here. Using the set up to reduce wrong answers and make the goal behavior easier to stumble on. We can also use previously learned behaviors like targeting, sending to targets, body targets, or the use of obstacles to help encourage the end goal. Another option is to capture the behavior, this isn’t just waiting for the behavior to happen freely, but a test of how well you know your horse. If you want to capture a behavior, know when and why it usually happens, so you can be ready to catch them in the act. For example, if you want to capture lying down, think about when it is they usually roll. After a shower? After their blanket was removed? Knowing our horses’ patterns can help us know what triggers different behaviors, so we can capture them.

Once we have the horse doing the behavior correctly, we want to put it on cue, so we can ask for it whenever we’d like. We do this by providing the signal as the behavior is about to happen in our session. Once it seems apparent the horse has connected our cue with the behavior they’re doing, we can do it off pattern. We’ll begin putting the behavior on stimulus control right away as we connect the cue. Quickly we’ll stop reinforcing the offering of the behavior without the cue. We’ll also begin cuing other behaviors in rotation with the new behavior. If you’ve taught “head down” for instance, you might ask for stand and back up a few times, then head down again. At first keeping the new behavior more often than the others, but soon it just becomes part of your repertoire that you do in your stimulus control behavior rotation sessions. These sessions are short, 2-5 minutes, each time you enter, you mark and reinforce as the horse progresses their way to the goal behavior. Whenever there is a breakthrough or a good step forward, end the session and let the horse think.

When you end the session leave a scattered few handfuls on the floor while you leave. This is extremely important for contradicting the disappointment of you leaving/the session ending. Ending the session without leaving a scatter pile or treat ball can be punishing to the horse (negative punishment). If you’ve just had a breakthrough, that’s the last thing you want! You want this to be a soft time for the horse to come down from their excitement of the game and give them time to process what they learned. Often after a break the horse will take a big step forward in their learning. These breaks can be as short as a few minutes or as long as a few days. Try to only work on one behavior at a time or if you must do multiple, make sure their shaping plan is different enough there’s no confusion. Only begin the next behavior once the last one is fully moved into your rotation. Want to get started with Positive Reinforcement? We have lots of video tutorials on the basics:

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training
Traditional vs. Natural vs. Positive

Traditional vs. Natural vs. Positive

There are three main categories of training within the horse world, each come with their own sets of preaching, justifications, and reasons why they are the “right” method to use with your horse. Various trainers have nuanced each style and try to sell it as their own, using specific tools, names for skills, styles of handling, and keeping of horses – but they all share the same foundations. So let’s look at this analytically, let’s strip away the pretty language, the theories and ideas behind why their techniques work, and the well-proven FALSE dominance theory. So what’s really happening with each of these styles? From a science perspective, how does each teach a behavior?

Traditional training was started when horses were divided out from livestock and began to be used as modes of fast transportation and skilled warfare. This relies on the classic use and understanding of Negative Reinforcement (increasing the frequency of the behavior by removing an aversive). They apply an aversive stimulus directly to the horse, when the horse responds accordingly the aversive is relieved. It’s extremely straight-forward. An example would be squeezing or tapping legs on the horse’s sides, when the horse moves forward, the squeeze is released. The horse learns to avoid the discomfort by moving forward. This is basic yielding to pressure. The pressure/stimulus used in the training MUST be aversive to the horse, it may be very mild, but it must be something the horse dislikes enough that they are willing to work to avoid it. If the stimulus is not aversive the horse will not work to avoid it, won’t work for the relief of it. This is Relief not Reward, this is utilizing escape/avoidance in training.


Natural Horsemanship is an evolution of traditional horsemanship, with a goal to be kinder and more species appropriate and for the horse as an individual. Unfortunately it is riddled with romanticized misinterpretations of how horses behave in nature. They also rely on the outdated and misunderstood concepts about dominance (about this here: Dominance).  They attempt to train in a way similar to how horses communicate with one another. Unfortunately we aren’t horses, horses don’t think we’re horses, we physically can’t take most horse-horse communications, and horses don’t ask anything of each other (like standing tied, riding in circles, or using aversive tools on one another) they only ask the other to “stay away from my resource”. However, this movement has had great aspirations and focus on owners learning to train and work with their own horses. So while much of the foundational information is misguided, the results are forward moving and helping move the horse world towards it’s goal – ethical horsemanship.

So let’s look analytically, how does Natural Horsemanship train behaviors? Ironically, despite all the fancy words, it’s not all that different from traditional. They still apply an aversive stimuli, when the horse responds as desired, the aversive stimuli is relieved. So how is it different? The types of aversive stimuli are different, rather than always applying direct painful pressure (like a whip smack, spur poke, or bit pull, kick…) they may use other options like work (being chased around a round pen a signature of NH) or threats of aversives. These warning signals are another signature of natural horsemanship. This is where they condition a benign signal to predict an aversive, so eventually the handler can use gentle cues instead of always relying on the aversive cue. This is done by using the non-aversive cue, then the aversive steadily increasing until the horse responds as desired, then the aversive is removed. Soon the time between the warning signal and the strong aversive shrinks, the horse learns to respond quickly to the warning signal, to avoid the aversive stimuli. So while they still use negative reinforcement, they also utilize classical conditioning to train the horse to respond to a gentler cue so we don’t need to use as many actual aversives. However, unfortunately we’ve learned the emotional reaction in the brain/mind is still the same, whether the stimuli is aversive or just conditioned to predict an aversive.

So really, in the thousands of years of working with and training domestic horses training has changed shockingly little. Even the tools have barely changed. We took nose rings and put them in their mouth instead, to make for easier steering from their back… But that was a few thousand years ago. We still use whips, bits, spurs, heels, hands, ropes, and “work” as aversive control devices for our horses. Whether we give them fair warning and use aversives in a wide variety of ways, it’s all the same basic principle. Negative Reinforcement.

So then what is Positive Reinforcement and how is it different? First let’s remember “positive” and “negative” are “adding” and “removing” not “good” and “bad”. Negative reinforcement is removing something the horse dislikes (an aversive) and Positive reinforcement is adding something the horse does like (an appetitive). So positive reinforcement training techniques involve feeding or otherwise giving the horse something they want, when they do the desired behavior. This means we first need to find a way to get the horse to do the behavior we want, so we can positively reinforce it. We have a few techniques for this, capturing (waiting for it to happen and catching it), shaping (reinforcing small steps towards the end goal), and targeting/luring (following a target or the food to guide them into the goal behavior), these options are limited only by your creativity and how well you know your horse. This new approach to working with horses has flipped the horse world on it’s head. Everything is now backwards, horses seeking instead of avoiding, horses rushing TO the arena, hoping training never ends, getting too excited to play with their favorite humans!

While R+ is new as a horse training method, it’s actually not all that new. These learning quadrants have always existed, even before we understood and labeled them. But marine mammal and exotic animal trainers have been utilizing R+ as training tools for decades. Using Negative Reinforcement limited exotic animal training to only what you could use to physically control the animals, which is difficult with large predators like tigers and marine mammals like whales. While possible, it’s impractical, tricky, and very dangerous. Positive reinforcement allows trainers to teach animals without needing to have physical contact or confrontation with the animals they’re working with. In fact they can teach from the side of the pool or the other side of a fence. Even some dog owners are now using remote control video camera treat dispensers to reinforce their dogs for being good even when their person isn’t home! Dog owners were the next to transition, while there’s still some use of aversives, most domestic pet owners utilize positive reinforcement for their training. Not just your classic dogs and cats being trained with treats, but also all sorts of brilliant, exotic birds, rodents, rabbits, bugs and even fish! Now if a wild, dangerous hippo can be trained to hold their mouth open for dental work, a shark to station in a basket for medicine, a lion to offer their paw for blood draws, giraffes to hold their feet up for trimming…. Why on earth would we be resistant to using this kind and forward thinking approach with horses?

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training, Ethics
Make the Change

Make the Change

The horse world is on the verge of a great change, not just a transition, not just an introduction to something new, but a complete flip, a turn on it’s head. Positive reinforcement is here. The numbers are growing, people are learning, and everyone is working to improve the ways horses are trained. This movement isn’t just about training, its about all of horse-care. Using science as our guide to find the best, most ethical, most species appropriate, closest to natural approach to raising horses as a whole. From their hooves, to their diet, to their lifestyle, dentistry, enrichment, etc… we continue to spread education, raise awareness and encourage people to chose kinder, more ethical, and appropriate equine management.
But while this movement blooms into being we have a responsibility to uphold. We are changing the face of the horse world and one thing that needs to be included is how we treat each other. The horse world is deeply saturated with toxic, competitive behavior. People treating each other like enemies, shaming people who are new, condemning people who have different goals or priorities. But if we hope to better the care of our horses, this must start with us working together. We are all unique, we all have varying opinions, methods, strengths, benefits, techniques, approaches, priorities… but we all have one goal, a better life for our horses. No one of us can learn it all, we can’t be experts in everything. We must support each other. There is no need to compete, the resources aren’t limited, there are horses and people who love them in abundance. Instead, each of us fills a niche and meets a need, allowing us to reach our goal. We are a community, its time to move away from the toxicity and to embrace our shared passion.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training, Ethics
Horses and their kids deserve Positive Reinforcement.

Horses and their kids deserve Positive Reinforcement.

 Our horse rescue is run primarily on kids, teens, and people with extra needs or mental health struggles. When they volunteer here and work with our horses they learn not just to care for horses, but to communicate with compassion, empathy, and clarity. Our volunteers and students learn so many life skills by working with horses from a positive reinforcement (R+) lifestyle. R+ isn’t just a way of training but a wholesome care-taking style including a natural living environment, plenty of enrichment, positive training, and developing a loving partnership.
In using positive reinforcement to train and handle our horses young people learn kind and effective ways to communicate what they want and appreciating the efforts given in response. Through formal positive reinforcement training with the horses the young people learn to break down goals into achievable steps, organizing and prioritizing their missions. They learn critical and creative thinking skills as they puzzle out new ways to encourage the horses to reach the goal behaviors without needing to use force, violence, or invasive control techniques. They learn to be resilient when things don’t go according to plan, how to stop and re-evaluate their plans and goals, then determine how to better approach the situation.
More importantly they develop loving partnerships with their horses built on clear communication, compromise, and lots of love. They learn to value their relationship with their horse more than what they can get the horse to do for them. Taking the focus away from themselves and into developing the partnership. They learn to respect the horse as a sentient companion with emotions, deserving of empathy and compassion. Rather than aspiring to control the horse through force or manipulation, they work together with the horse as a partner.
Many of our rescue horses have emotional or physical difficulties to overcome, helping our volunteers develop their empathy by relating to their equine peers. Through understanding and relating to the horse on an emotional level, and then compromising and problem solving to achieve their goals with their horse. They learn to be understanding and forgiving with themselves. This helps them raise their own emotional awareness and self-compassion.
They develop their own self awareness.
They are also made acutely aware of the hardships and rewards that come in life, including some painful decision making. Our volunteers understand that our horses have special needs and our priorities are to improve their quality of life. This means we don’t always get to do what’s fun for us, and sometimes we have to do things that are hard for us. Including participating in their medical care or letting go when the time is right. Learning about the value of life, how to honor the lives of our equine friends, and assure them the highest quality of care in the time they have with us.
These young people not only learn to work with horses in a kind and effective way but also learn to advocate for the horses. They learn values that extend to every area in life. Standing up to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Choosing compassion and kindness, even if it means not always fitting in with their peers. They learn to do what’s right, even if it’s not always what is easy.

Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, Clicker Training, Ethics
What qualifies as a reward?

What qualifies as a reward?

At the Equine Affaire I went to the only event that even sounded remotely R+. It was a seminar about how to use rewards effectively. The first slide and I knew I was in the wrong place, “rewards don’t have to be food”. But I thought, let’s give it a chance, there is likely some valuable tools in here. But when the slide appeared listing the rewards they did use I knew for sure I was in the wrong place.

They listed rewards they used, “rest, quiet, calm voices, gentle/soft hands, loose rein, downwards transitions, consistency, routine, verbal praise, familiar humans, equine buddies, scratches, strokes, and massages”. I rearranged the order so i can discuss them logically. Despite the speaker explaining the difference between R- and using rewards, as well as expressing the benefits of using reward instead of R-, the whole first half of this list IS R-. From rest to downward transitions these are all ways to relieve pressure. These “rewards” are not rewards, they are “relief”. Let’s look at the difference.

Reward “a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.” (Oxford) Or another ” a stimulus (such as food) that is administered to an organism and serves to reinforce a desired response” (Miriam-webster)
Relief “a feeling of reassurance and relaxation following release from anxiety or distress.” (Oxford) or “removal or lightening of something oppressive, painful, or distressing” (miriam-webster)
So let’s be honest, the first half of that list is, in fact, just an effective use of R-. Being aware the release/relief of the aversive is the reinforcer is beneficial, but it IS R-, not any sort of reward.
Now consistency and routine, this is very beneficial to horsemanship. Predictability is safe and comforting to an animal such as horses, who can be naturally neophobic. But this leads to a rather boring life without positive enrichment or variability. But boring can be safe, so definitely a good thing. But still, not a reward. This is just good practice, maintaining consistent cues and an appropriate daily routine is just expected, it should not be contingent on the horse’s behavior.

You know what else should not be contingent on good behavior? “Familiar humans and equine friends”. Connections are not a gift, they are a necessity! These are necessary for an emotionally healthy and socially appropriate life! This is not a reward, its something that is expected. When we domesticate a social animal keeping them in isolation is inhumane and unacceptable (aside from medical needs, then it is a temporary misfortune). But providing a horse their basic needs is NOT a reward. Its just ethical animal care.

Finally scratches, strokes, and massages. Finally something that is actually a reward!! Something you are giving the horse that they don’t need to live, but feels good to them. These are valuable as a reinforcer and as a way to build connection with your horse. However, they are inconsistent and variable in the degree of reinforcement. Scratching and itchy spot is highly reinforcing, but scratching where there is no itch is not very reinforcing at all. Pats and stroking is low value and not worth high effort behaviors. Massages are wonderful but not easily delivered or utilized in the moment. The inconsistency and difficulty with delivering this reinforcement makes it a nice addition, but not an ideal reinforcer for regular use.
And so we return to food. Just like stated before however we aren’t to deny our horse food until they comply with our wishes, food is a necessity of life. But we can freely feed food throughout the day in convenient handfuls of values we can control. We can feed something as simple as hay, which horses consume vast amounts of during the day, or up to a delicious special horse treat, which can be used sparingly as a high value reward. This is the reward that is easiest to add in a safe and appropriate way to their daily life without denying them their needs. Just adding something the horse consistently and predictably values. This makes it the ideal reward for training with R+.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training, Ethics

Safety is not on Contingency!!

I saw an argument against using food reinforcement, supposedly from behaviorists, suggesting a horse values safety and comfort more than food. Thus food is not a primary form of reinforcement (despite the piles of behavioral science texts defining primary and secondary reinforcement).
It took me a moment to let the ringing in my ears settle down so i could process this into a coherent discussion.

At what point did we decide that it was acceptable to use a sense of safety as a contingency in training?!
Safety, comfort, wellness (physical and emotional) is a given. Our domestic horses we purchased or adopted, we are supposed to ensure they feel as safe and comfortable as physically possible. We are meant to meet all their needs as a living, sentient, emotional being – upon NO contingency!! They are in our care, through no deliberate choice or understanding of their own, they have signed no contract of agreement. Their life is in our care and we owe them the best wellness we can provide (within reason of each individual health and living situation). It is listed in all the animal welfare laws, the five freedoms, the humane heirarchy, the basic common sense of animal ownership. You provide for your animal’s needs 100%, always, bar none.
Safety should never be contingent on anything!
What is the human stigma against using food? We love food! Who wants to go to a party without food? What family gathering or holiday is not entirely centered around food? Why are we bothered by the idea of using food with our animals. The biological act of feeding and sharing food is a bonding experience throughout most social species. I saw a quote recently shared that stated “the sad objective of these trainers seems to be to reach the end of the dog’s life having dispensed as few rewards as possible. It’s difficult to explain why an animal trainer would aim to be as stingy as possible, given the evidence of how powerful and safe positive reinforcement is. Maybe it’s psychological.” – Jean Donaldson
We use food because it is the most humane, effective, ethical and easy to control resource in most animals’ lives (though we may use access to heat sources, light, vibration, scents, etc.. for other species who are less enticed with food). We can easily control food with horses, without ever having to withhold in an unhealthy way, or emotionally creating frustration. We can control the values of food, from something as mild as hay all the way up to molasses candy treats. We can determine quantity per delivery, frequency of delivery and everything we may need to influence the horse’s behavior. We can control their outside of training acess to food as well to provide them more choice and consent within training. We use food because it is the safest and most appropriate resource to put contingencies on. We would not put water on contingency, because colic. So why would we ever want to use a sense of safety as a resource they need to work for?
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training, Ethics
How to Change Behavior

How to Change Behavior

It’s important to remember that when we are dealing with training horses, or trying to solve behavioral problems with our animals, it isn’t limited just to training. Training increases or decreases the likelihood of a behavior happening in a chosen scenarios. It allows us to put behaviors on cue and recall them when we may like them performed. Training also allows us to train an appropriate behavior to reduce the chances of the learner choosing an unwanted behavior. Just reinforcing the incompatible behavior makes the unwanted behavior less likely to happen.

But adding and subtracting behavior isn’t the only way we can progress and support our horses’ behavioral improvement. Management is an important tool, it can be as easy as switching which stall the horse goes in, rearranging some fences, reorganizing your turn out groups, putting up some temporary fencing or partitions. We can also use food placement and different feeder styles to reduce issues with resource guarding or food anxiety. Using the support of their peers can help a horse overcome difficult or stressful situations. Visual barriers can help reduce social anxiety or stress related to certain environments. With various management techniques we can help reduce the likelihood of unwanted behaviors occurring, reducing aggression, anxiety, and promoting a healthy lifestyle. Even if we address unwanted behaviors through training, using management can help reduce how often the learner practices the unwanted behavior, reducing the strength of the behavior.
Enrichment is another under-utilized and under-valued training tool. So many people think of enrichment as an optional, fun thing to do for your horse. In reality, it’s an indispensable tool for fulfilling your horses’ emotional needs and expressions of natural behavior. There aren’t many times a horse is engaged in natural behaviors when placed in a barren paddock, using enrichment can simulate a wide variety of natural stimuli.

Enrichment can be used as a great way to prepare your horses for all that life may throw at them. We can engage them with a wide variety of novel food, puzzles, toys, and whatever silly sensation we can entertain them with! We can use enrichment to help them meet their own needs, such as scratching posts to rub against, pools to splash in, toys to play with, and friends to find comfort in. We can help them keep up with their exercise, meet their dietary needs, expose them to new things, and offer a mentally stimulating life.
Enrichment is a great and healthy outlet for unwanted behaviors that horses want to express, such as rough play and mouthing objects. We may not want them to do that with us, but if they have an appropriate place to meet those desires, they’re less likely to do them where they’re unwanted. Enrichment can also help teach our horses about new behaviors we may want to capture on cue. It can also make new, difficult scenarios seem easy and fun, the vet’s tools are just another fun enrichment, nothing to be scared of.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, Clicker Training, Equine Emotions, Troubleshooting


“To say you have no choice is a failure of imagination” – Jean-luc Picard
He’s my hero, and he’s absolutely right. In regards to animal training, I often hear people say “oh but you can’t train X with positive reinforcement”. To which I say “this is a failure of imagination”. Every behavior, every one, that the animal CAN do can be taught with R+. R+ isn’t just a training technique – it’s a learning quadrant. R+ isn’t targeting, or luring, or capturing, those are just methods used to give you something to reinforce. If a behavior can be done by the learner’s will, all you need to do is find out how to engage it, then reinforce it.

Most often we utilize tools like targets, this is easy to control and encourages large chunks of behavior to happen at once. We can use targets in a number of ways, like a lure, they can follow targets with their nose (teaching them to go places, over, into, or around obstacles, etc…) We can use body targets to encourage movement of different parts of their body, moving their hips, shoulder, knee, hoof, etc… Wherever we place the target. We can send our horse away from us to a target or series of targets, into, onto, over, or around obstacles as well. Last of all we can use targets to teach a horse to station still on the target, whether a mat or nose, chin, cheek target for various stationary skills (like standing for veterinary procedures).

Aside from targeting we can also capture behaviors as they happen freely. Being prepared with reinforcement while your horse is going about their day we can catch certain behaviors in the act. We can help this along by knowing our individual well. Do they always drink after eating? Do they often roll when they are wet? Do they like to run when they are first turned out? Knowing their habits and patterns can help us be prepared to capture anything our horses do. With this we can capture a complete behavior and get it on cue with minimal training effort.
With arranging the environment, knowing our learner, and getting creative we can train any behavior they are capable of performing and put it on cue. A skilled trainer can even train a horse while sitting in a chair on the other side of a fence, simply by marking and reinforcing the approaches toward the goal behavior. With the help of antecedent arrangement and positive reinforcement, the reaches of your training is only limited by your imagination.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, Clicker Training, Troubleshooting


You know what really gets my goat? Chupacabras…
Ok but really, what really upsets me is being considered an “extremist” or “purist” because I try to avoid the use of Punishment. Why is extreme to try to be kind? Why is it “purist” to aspire to minimal harm? What an odd cultural bias to think it extreme to avoid aversives… What ever happened to the Humane Hierarchy? Why is it an extreme belief to save the extreme options for last?

For me, punishment is the extreme option, something to be reserved for the most serious situations. I couldn’t say I never use punishment, and I sure couldn’t say my horses never feel punished (even if it wasn’t my intended goal). But I take my use of punishment very seriously, I take this to be an extreme option. These scenarios are usually regarding safety or medical needs. If I need to resort to punishment (even negative punishment) I consider this a screw up on my part, I have not managed the situation appropriately or prepared my horse well enough. Though sometimes the reality of life is that things happen we can’t prepare for or avoid. We do the best we can with the situation we’re handed. The important part is to learn from these experiences, for the sake of the horse, we learn what we need to better prepare for.

But isn’t it strange that in current horse culture, it’s normal to use punishment and aversive tools, but the extreme option is to utilize tools that reduce the need for punishment? Especially when these are regularly used in parenting, dog training, and marine mammal/exotic/zoo training. We are talking about the use of protected contact, positive reinforcement behavioral preparation, environmental management, antecedent arrangement, and enrichment. With these tools in use we can adjust the environment to provide us and our horses safety and security while their behavioral training progresses to meet our training goals. We can also use these tools to adjust the horse’s emotional state to ensure safety in handling and care until we are able to build the confidence and relationship to do these things with progressively less management.
Yet our egos often encourage us to take risks with our horses that may predispose the horse to punishment. In current horse culture there is a sense of trying to make ourselves look good, confident, or brave, by confronting a horse with a situation they aren’t able to handle – thus resulting in the need for punishment. We regularly push our horses too far, too fast, and it is the horse who suffers for our ego. This lack of management and preparedness rapidly sets our horses up to fail and results in punishment for safety or getting the job done, when it could have been avoided by smarter handling.


We also need to consider the human’s emotions, very often when we overface the horse we have a flood of emotions that lead to anger, frustration, and fear triggering physical defensiveness. When we feel the need to get the job done at all costs or need to save face and not be embarrassed by setting our horse up for failure. Or we utilize punishment just out of fear of being hurt by your horse or the horse hurting themselves. But it always starts with our lack of management and preparedness, our decision to overface our horse’s current emotional and behavioral ability to do what we are asking of them. Then we shift the blame to the horse to justify our use of punishment.
Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, Clicker Training, Ethics

Radical Acceptance

I’ve been trying to understand a phenomenon in the horse world. We understand Learned Helplessness and Tonic Immobility and why humans chose to utilize these psychologically distressing tools. They are effective restraints and control devices for emotionally sensitive animals.  We also understand the extreme emotional cost using these tools comes at for horses, instilling life-long trauma and avoidance behaviors, and redirecting into dangerous reactivity, and majorly compromising the welfare of a sentient being. But how do some horses still come out of this world looking relatively undamaged? Functioning well and appropriately in their job or sport?

Art by Janneke Koekhoven in the book “Equine Empowererment: A Guide to Positive Reinforcement Training”

Tonic Immobility occurs in times of extreme distress, feelings of being trapped, out of control, and devoid of all hope. The animal freezes physically and disconnects emotionally from the reality of their situation. In horses we witness this when the horse is forcibly laid down, extreme restraints (multiple hobbling with no prior training), and when twitched. Freezing and disconnecting preserve the animal from greater distress and suffering. While little is known about the evolution of this psychological event, we can presume it became a safety measure to protect animals from the suffering of immanent death (like when caught by a predator). It can also go a long way to increasing chances of survival, if they are entangled in something and they were to continue to thrash, they would likely do much more harm to themselves. If they were to fight with the predator they would likely lose. But by remaining totally still they allow the minimal damage done to their body and something may distract the predator (other predators or scavengers) giving the animal a chance to escape.

Learned Helplessness is a similar such occurrence, when repeatedly exposed to unavoidable, yet horrible stimuli, the learner stops trying to escape it – even if given an easy escape route. We see this often in horses who are being “sacked out” or “desensitized” to items, the horse is chased and hazed by the frightening object and they are either kept in a small, inescapable pen or are tied. So they quickly learn they cannot escape the frightening stimuli, they give up hope that escape is possible. Then even when escape is very possible, even easily presented to them, they no longer try. This hopelessness is convenient for riders, as the horse will no longer fight or flee from upsetting stimuli. However damaging to their psyche.

But in reality, we don’t want a horse in total learned helplessness or tonic immobility all the time. While these are beneficial for us to impose our will on animals far more powerful than us, they’re not effective for sporting or getting a job done. So what is happening in the mind of the horse when being responsive to aversive aids and stimuli? When they are light and responsive to aversive aids, we know this is not Learned Helplessness, because the horse is actively working to resolve their uncomfortable situation. Complete LH would mean the horse is non-responsive to aids, you could kick all day long and the horse would just stand there and suffer. So what is happening in the mind of a horse who is responsive to aversive aids, but not fighting against or inappropriately reactive to these aids? Why do some horses adjust and even seem comfortable, I might not say “happy”, but they are ok with their circumstances?

I recently read a book on dealing with depression and anxiety (DBT Skill Training Manual, second edition by Marsha M. Linehan). In it it discussed a concept of “Radical Acceptance”, this is “a distress tolerance skill that is designed to keep pain from turning into suffering. While pain is part of life, radical acceptance allows us to keep that pain from becoming suffering.” (

Some people are able to do this readily, others have to learn this as a skill. Sometimes this can be a healthy coping mechanism, sometimes this can become toxic and inappropriate. When we get the alert for a tornado in our area, we can not just sit there and say “this isn’t fair!”, “I don’t want a tornado”, “not today, I’m busy”, “why does this always happen to me?”… Instead we need to accept the reality of the situation, the tornado is coming and there is nothing we can do about it. We need to do what we can to alleviate the damage of the tornado, block our windows, lock things up, weigh things down, make everything as safe as possible, using whatever techniques you know to help keep yourself and your loved ones as safe as possible. There are some things in life we must accept as unchangeable, unalterable, all we can do is respond accordingly and reduce the damage as much as possible.


The horses who are thriving in a world of unavoidable pain, and yet aren’t suffering, have mastered this coping skill. They may have felt LH and TI from an early age (extreme imprinting techniques can do this), or seen enough of it to accept that their fate is inescapable. They have accepted the reality of their situation and learned to cope within it. By responding quickly and appropriately to their aversive aids they have reduced their suffering to the lowest they are able to. While this isn’t ideal or something I promote or condone, it makes sense to me now how some horses can live a relatively happy and comfortable life, even when handled with harsh aversives and even when exposed to extreme techniques of LH or TI.

However not all horses are so lucky. Few horses live a life full of pain, especially when the pain is unavoidable and inescapable (like when techniques used to cause LH or TI are used) and cope with it well. There are some, and I understand now how they have managed, but most have not. So my next article will be on how to help those horses who have not. Those horses who are left with trauma, reactivity, “shut down”, “explosive”, or just not right. Those horses who have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms like stereotypical behaviors, self-destructive behaviors, explosive reactivity, superstitious behaviors, or internalize their suffering turning into health issues (like ulcers). We need tools to help these horses overcome this history. While switching to R+ can and does better the welfare of all horses, even those who were coping well with aversive techniques, it’s not the only thing we can be doing to help those horses who are left with trauma from their past.

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, Clicker Training, Ethics