Troubleshooting

Having equine trouble? Need help problem solving out of difficult behavior?

Food Arousal

As clicker trainers we want our horses to be happy and eager to participate with training, but not so excited that they’re not able to be thoughtful or focused. Often when people start training with food they go to the store and buy a nice bag of treats, or they chop up apples and carrots, their horse’s favorite snack! But when they begin training the horse is SO excited they aren’t able to focus, invade the human’s space, and get so worked up they’re hardly able to even think about what you’re working on. This is often the point where new clicker trainers give up or throw out the food and try to use scratches or pats instead.

Unfortunately, unless scratches are highly valuable to a horse (like a horse with sweet itch) this isn’t likely to work effectively to earn you the behaviors you’re aiming for. Scratching is also not an efficient or easy to use reinforcer as you advance, a good reinforcing scratch needs to be a good minute or so long, deep and thorough enough to engage a happy grooming face from the horse. Too short or not creating a “happy” grooming face, the scratch really wasn’t all that reinforcing. This gets more and more inconvenient and too low a value when you progress to agility, riding, vet work or other advanced training skills.

The truth is that most horses are hungry all the time. They think they’re starving within an hour or two of finishing their last bite. This is because they are designed to be ingesting food slowly but consistently all day, never going long gaps without consuming food. This is grazing, trickle feeding, type consumption. So, many horses in domestication often develop anxiety problems related to food because often they get their healthy allotment of food and they consume it quickly and run out, leaving them feeling “starving” the rest of the day – even though they had an appropriate amount of food and look a good weight. When their food is split into just 2 or 3 meals with long gaps in between horses often develop issues with stress around food. Especially if they have to fight other horses or eat rushed to get the food before another horse moves them off of it. This develops into serious anxiety problems which often becomes a major issue when we attempt to use food in training.

Even if your horse has never known a hungry moment in their life, they may still have tension and over excitement around food. So how do we safely and effectively use food as a reward system for our horses? 

1) Food consistency – outside of training horses should have access to forage 24/7. If you need to limit forage for weight reasons, use slow feeders and enrichment feeders to make sure the horse will eat slowly throughout the day, not binge and starve. This will reduce overall feeding time anxiety. Also make sure there is no competition for food – make sure there are more food locations than number of horses, so no one is ever without. If there are 3 horses in a field, make sure there are 5 or 6 spots to get food.

2) Enrichment – Providing enrichment opportunities that also provide food (puzzle toys, treat balls, likits, and so on) allow the horse the opportunity to work for food without the connection to humans, reducing the intensity of wanting to be around people.

3) Low food value – in training we want to carefully monitor the value of the food we’re using. In situations where we have a horse who is over-aroused, too excited for the food, we want to use very low value food in training. I like to use hay pellets, chopped hay, chaffe hay, hay stretcher, hay cubes, or carb safe pellets (these are great for donkeys or IR ponies/minis). The more time the horse gets to chew this food the more it will allow the horse to feel satiated and relax into the training.

4) Large handfuls – with our low value food we’ll feel larger handfuls or feed small amounts very quickly to help the horse feel satiated and have time to chew. This is relaxing for the horse allowing them to think and process between offering behaviors.

5) High Rate of Reinforcement – when training reinforce at a high frequency – feed often. If your horse isn’t performing the behavior well enough to earn reinforcement that frequently, make the behavior easier. Break down the difficulty of the behavior and make the correct answer easier by arranging the environment to make it easy for your horse to succeed. This will allow you to keep the frequency of reinforcement high enough to feel successful, satiating and motivating to the learner without hitting frustration.

6) When to use higher value – Save the higher value treats for untrusting horses, high speed activities, or advanced training. Using small, wonderful treats, will encourage alot more enthusiasm and engagement from your horse. This is great for horses who are nervous and uncomfortable around people. Putting a pan down and back away with a small amount of higher value food, then when the horse engages you put the next pan down and back away, each time the horse will approach more and more readily towards you. When you’re able to handfeed mixing the high value food into the lower value handfuls can help them have the chew time and value balanced. When working on high speed behaviors a small amount of high value food can encourage the enthusiasm you’re looking for without loosing energy to chew time, but this and other skills like these are for more advanced training, after relaxation has been established and can be re-achieved easily. It can also help to mix in high value treats to your chewy food when working on “the real deal” situations with the vet or farrier or trailer loading, as opposed to your usual low value food for just preparation work.

7) Start with calm – if you’re approaching your horse to work with them and they are buzzing with excitement, this may not be a good place to start. What can help is giving them some free food, scattered on the floor, a flake of hay, or a puzzle toy with food. Once the horse is calmly satiated with this food source, then begin your training.

8) Have an alternate available – Make sure there is another food source available while training, a hay net, a food toy, or even just a bucket of free food. This will ensure you keep your training up to par or the horse can easily just go to the other food. This will allow the horse to be more honest in how difficult your training is becoming.

9) Protected Contact – utilizing protected contact is one of the easiest ways to help your horse be successful learning with positive reinforcement, and to keep everyone safe and having fun. This is where you work with any physical barrier between you and the horse, a fence, a stall door, even a temporary pool noodle “fence”. This allows the horse to explore behavioral options without putting the human at risk and needing to resort to punishment or the use of aversives to defend themselves. This also allows the horse time to relax between behaviors and not have to be “on” and perfect throughout the whole session, where they may forget their training and invade your space or forage around your body. It reduces the number of “wrong” choice the horse may make to make the goal behavior easier for the horse to perform. If you’re standing there with a bucket of food it’s awful hard to notice the target off to the left when all their focus is on that bucket! So having a barrier keeping that option unavailable allows the horse to focus on what is available, maybe a target they can reach. This is beneficial for horse and human especially in the early stages of training and should be utilized whenever possible. It’s also great to utilize in advanced training to allow the horse more choice and control in their training and provide more safety for ourselves when first working on high energy behaviors, like using a “reverse round pen”. Those are a round pen made out of small portable fencing of any sort inside a larger area, where the horse works outside of the pen and the human is inside the pen.

10) Safe Space – work in an area the horse feels safe and comfortable. This is usually a quiet, familiar place with other horses nearby, but separated so the horse doesn’t need to resource guard you and the food. If you’re working on going somewhere away from the comfortable place, remain within a comfortable bubble and slowly stretch the distance as your horse grows in confidence.   

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, Troubleshooting

Enrichment as a Supplement

Enrichment is a new concept to the horse world it’s vital we get this information out there. Enrichment sounds like a kindness, like providing an extra gift to our horses, but it’s actually a necessity. If you went to a zoo and watched a lion sit in the middle of a 40x40ft enclosure, with plenty of grass, food, and water – but nothing else – you would be horrified. If it were an elephant, rhino, hippo, or zebra, standing out in a barren field we would watch with sorrow. We’d likely see the animals pacing, circling, weaving, digging, chewing, becoming destructive, or just laying about with nothing to do. We recognize in these exotic animals the need for regular stimulation, ways to mimic their natural lifestyle and habitat. When we have an animal in a domestic or captive setting, we can measure their welfare by watching their behaviors. We watch and analyze an animal’s behavior in nature and compare it to domestication. If a species covers alot of ground, moving around alot, or if they have a stationary home area, spending more time at rest. If they exercise in short, extreme bursts, or slow, continuous exercise over a period of time. We can look at how they socialize, how often and with whom, with multiple species or just the same species, with males or females, small groups or large. We can determine how much time they invest in searching for food, how much effort and what types of food they consume. Do they eat off the ground, bushes, or trees? How do they problem solve variations in nature, breaking ice in water, digging for grass under the snow and so on. We learn how animals would choose to live their lives when they have free choice to do as they please, then we compare the behaviors expressed with our domestic species. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, Equine Emotions, Ethics, Troubleshooting

Emotions Before Behaviors

My lovely flower Taina and I have been struggling lately. Her world continues to shrink smaller as her fear overcomes her. With her trauma, the concept of new is scary, and right now - everythng is new, even the world changed colors and became so cold. Her fear turns quickly to aggression, she violently defends her safety bubble, her stall. Every day we go through the same terrible cycle when I need to clean her stall. She refuses to go outside, no amount of treats will lure her out, even on a lead she won't go out. Especially now that there is snow - I'm sure now that she's never seen snow before. We spent time playing with snow together, in a bucket I brought to her, she tolerated it to get the treats - but was not interested in going out and actually touching it. It was fun for us both to puzzle through in this small dose of enrichment, but in it's massive size and coldness make it not so fun. So, I need to clean around her. I usually put her soup in her bucket in the corner and clean carefully around her. But whenever the pitchfork comes close to her legs she jumps or kicks, or turns to bite me. We carefully work around that issue, but there is no clean spot in her stall to put her where the pitchfork doesn't have to come close. If I don't give her soup to keep her in one spot, we dance around the stall, me carefully avoiding invading her constantly changing personal space bubble. It's exhausting for us both. We had one bad day the other day where I was cleaning in the back of her stall, well away from her, and she turned and lunged a bite towards me. I don't know exactly what happened, there was some drama with people outside the stall which may have been the trigger. Unfortunately her teeth hit the pitchfork and she became overwhelmed with fear for a few minutes. She started stomping and biting in my direction, but not touching me - I could tell this took great restraint on her part to not actually kill me. I carefully slid down the wall of her stall and out her door. A half an hour later she was totally fine with me retrieving my tools and finishing the job. We have been spending the last few days working on things like touch acceptance and trying to push the boundaries of her comfort zone - this all together obviously stimulus stacked just too much over the passing days.

This wasn't the same day, but a clip I had gotten to show what her rage looks like when she really gets upset.

While behaviorally she does well here, you can see how conflicted she is about handling this situation.

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Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, EE Horses, Equine Emotions, Ethics, Troubleshooting

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.

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Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, Clicker Training, Ethics, Troubleshooting

Taina Beginning to Explore

Those of you who don't know Taina, she's one of the most damaged horses I've ever met. She came to us last summer as an extreme neglect case, she was emaciated and lame when she stumbled off the truck and up our driveway to her new home. Over the next few weeks we unwrapped layers of her terrible past. With X-rays and grooming the filth off her body we learned she's had the ligaments cut in her tail so it forms the "J" shape so popular in the Paso Fino shows. Her legs lashed with whip marks from dancing in pillars, and her trachea crushed from being roped in rodeo events. As her winter coat grows in the white marks of scars become more and more apparent all over her body. Emotionally she was much worse than physically, which is hard to imagine. When it was time for any sort of interaction she'd tuck her head into the back corner of her stall and tremble while we haltered her and began whatever treatment was needed. While she'd stand near the front of her stall and carefully take handfuls of treats from us, she would leap away at the first sign of danger. Soon her fear began to fade and her feeling of control expressed as aggression. She rapidly learned she could keep humans at a safe distance with her beautiful dragon impersonation.

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Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, EE Horses, Equine Emotions, Troubleshooting

Wispy’s Winter Fitness

Wispy’s Winter Fitness

My beautiful flower, Wispy, has gotten a bit… shall we say, portly? She’s just like me, terrible posture and eats way too many sweets! We’ve decided to take this winter to get ourselves into shape. This being said, I have always really struggled when looking at aspects of equine fitness and exercise. There is so much out there and so much of it is based on unstudied theories, opinions, and misguided training philosophies. I struggle to pull apart what parts are beneficial to the horse’s well being and which parts are for us, for fun, sport, or cosmetic appearances.So much of concepts of physical training is done to help horses become more of what we aspire for them, and not so much for their own health. So much of these concepts are also taken to extremes which push the beneficial aspects of the training to detrimental lengths. Pushing collection to strain the hind end, strength and speed training to strain the joints, everything being pushed to be done to new, higher, faster, more dramatic extremes. My dear friend Janneke helped me puzzle through all of this and break it down step by step for me and Wisp just as she had for her horse DeeJay before he fell ill. So how did we break down what Wisp and I really need? and how do I teach it all with R+?
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Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Care and Management, EE Horses, Troubleshooting

Pressure Free Behaviors

Pressure Free Behaviors
How do we get behaviors without any physical contact? When someone asks “how do I train…” your answers should fall under one of these. “I use this weight shift”, “Try pressing here”, “wave your stick like this”… and so on, are not appropriate answers in this group. If someone is asking how to train something on this group they’re looking for how to train it with positive reinforcement, not pressure/release (R-).

So what are the options? Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Behavioral Science, Clicker Training, Troubleshooting

The Need for Food

The Need for Food
Today one of the kids said that they wish they didn’t have to feed treats when the horse does something they want. I explained again that this is how we both reward good choices and motivate future good choices. But they were still bothered, they wished the horse would just do it like a favor, out of love for their person. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Clicker Training, Ethics, Troubleshooting

Food Related Anxiety and Over-excitement

Food Related Anxiety and Over-excitement
Most horses start out at least a little thrilled about the clicker training experience. Teaching a safe, alternate behavior to mugging, such as stand facing forward, is a fantastic way to keep us safe and help the horse learn to relax around food. A key element in this first behavior MUST be relaxation. A horse can tuck their chin or look away or stand facing forward, but be boiling over, trembling with excitement.

Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Clicker Training, Equine Emotions, Ethics, Troubleshooting

Protective Contact

Protective Contact

“Protective Contact” is working from the other side of a fence, gate, stall door or other barrier (backwards round penning is a blast with the human inside and the horse outside the pen). Protective contact is an extremely valuable tool to keep in our tool box, it’s great for horses new to CT, new to people, new to being hand fed, new to living domestically and great for people new to CT. Continue reading →

Posted by Jessica in Care and Management, Clicker Training, Troubleshooting