FREQUENTLY ASKED TRAINING QUESTION          What are the mistakes commonly done by beginners horse trainers and how to avoid them?

We all make mistakes, especially when we get started doing some new. This article is aimed to horse riders and handlers that are getting started with positive reinforcement, clicker training and want to avoid the most commonly made mistakes.


1. Not researching the science behind animal training.


Perhaps the biggest mistake of all is to blindly pick up a clicker at a pet store, chop off some carrots and run to the stables after seeing a ‘inspirational’ video of someone doing tricks with his horse on youtube.

If you do not know how animals learn, you cannot be a good teacher. So the first step is to learn how to teach.

Book recommendations:

  1.  “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. If you only read one book, read this one. In this book you will learn about positive reinforcement, shaping, stimulus control and reinforcement schedules. (the basic things you need to know)
  2. “The Horse’s Mind” by Lucy Rees. One chapter of the book is dedicated to learning but I mostly recommend this book to learn more about ethology than about learning theory. There is a very useful chapter on body language that will help you read your horse during training.
  3. “The Mind of the Horse” by Michel-Antoine Leblanc. This is not an easy read but I wanted to recommend one book for the ones interested in equine cognition. The book is full of studies and physiology.

2. Starting by teaching tricks and potential dangerous behaviours.

So now you have found this amazing way to teach, what’s the first thing you are going to teach your horse? Unfortunately a lot of the time it consists of teaching potentially dangerous things like kissing, Spanish walk and rearing up. Quickly it ends up with horses randomly head butting people in the face, mugging for treats, biting, pawing etc. So leave these tricks to more experienced trainers and focus on skills that are safer and more useful to you and your horse, after all positive reinforcement isn’t just for training circus tricks. You can use it for handling and healthcare related behaviours (such as leading, picking up hooves), for groundwork (lunging, going over poles and jumps) and even for riding (tack acceptance, teaching smooth transitions).


So what are the first behaviours you should teach your horse?

  1. Nose targeting: This is a versatile skill where the horse learns to touch and follow a target with his nose. It can be used to teach many behaviours such as leading, backing up, going over poles/jumps/tarps etc.
  2. “The Rules of the Game”: This is the name I give to this “anti-mugging” skill. It consists of teaching the horse that “mugging” behaviour never get reinforced and to stand still with his head forward while waiting for food to be delivered to him.

Picture: Using my hand as a nose target to ask Heros to come (a) and back up (b).

3. Training an unhealthy/poorly managed horse.

Sometimes professional may find themselves obligated to train a horse under poor management conditions in order to improve his welfare. (For example, catching a rescue horse so he can be moved.) However these rare scenarios does not mean that anyone should attempt to train an unhealthy/poorly managed horse.

Before training a horse, always unsure that a health/management issue is not the cause of the unwanted behaviour. For example, if the horse is not standing still to be mounted he could be in pain. If the horse is showing signs of aggression it is most probably due to the current management not meeting his needs.

Sometime the horse may not display any unwanted behaviour but may start to do so when being trained. This is very common in horses that are under fed or had a past of forage restriction; they become “hangry” (hungry and angry) during training. If this happens the problem (the management) needs to be addressed and the training suspended.

4. Adding a cookie at the end.

This is something I see people that did not do their research do a lot. They get the desired behaviour using negative reinforcement (aka pressure/release) and then add a click and a treat at the end. In this scenario, the horse behaviour is first motivated by the removal of an aversive and then a pleasurable stimulus is added. Most likely one of the two reinforcers is more salient to the horse than the other and therefore is responsible for his behaviour. If the removal of aversive (release of pressure) is what motivate the horse then it is not positive reinforcement.

In addition appetitive training and aversive training stimulate a different part of the brain. If a horse is experiencing genuine positive reinforcement then dopamine is released. If the horse is experiencing highly aversive training then adrenaline is released. If the both are mixed to train the same behaviour then the adrenaline release is likely to over-ride the dopamine.

So how do positive reinforcement based trainers get behaviours?

  1. Capturing: It consists of waiting for the individual to perform the behaviour on his own and rewarding him when it happens. For example, if you want to teach a dog to sit you will reward when he naturally sit on his own. Quickly the dog will start throwing sits at you and you will be able to put the behaviour on cue.
  2. Free-Shaping: Is a lot like capturing as you let the individual offer behaviours to you and reinforce what you desire. However this time you break it down in smaller steps. This is suitable for more complex behaviour. For example, if I want to teach a horse to put his head in a head collar. I may simply start rewarding the horse for moving his head toward the head collar, then I may reward him for touching the head-collar, then putting the tip of his nose in and so on.
  3. Luring: it consists of moving the individual using food. This is not to be mistaken with bribing that involves giving the reward before the individual does the desired behaviour. For example, many owners lure their horses in the trailer using a bucket of food.
  4. Targeting: It consists of moving an individual body using targets. Unlike luring you do not use food (primary reinforcers) but targets (secondary reinforcers). An animal can learn to target with different parts of his body: nose, hoof, shoulder, hip etc.

Picture: This behaviour (School Halt) was obtained by first capturing what the mare naturally offered on her own and then improved using shaping.

5. Not have a clear signal the beginning and end of the session.

Some horses are not able to relax in the presence of their owners as they are expecting a training session every time they see them. This situation can be avoided by making it clear to the horse when a session is available (or not). For example you can use a bumb bag as a visual cue that mean training is available. To end a session without the horse feeling punished (negative punishment) you can put a handful of food on the ground every time and leave while your horse is eating. This also gives you the time to remove your bumb bag.

Getting started with positive reinforcement/clicker training? Get the support you need! Training with positive reinforcement is very different to anything else you done with horses in the past, as both traditional and “natural” horsemanship both focus on the use of positive punishment and negative reinforcement. Because there are a lot of things to learn I recommend to get lessons with a professional (see my services) and to join a community for support. (See “Empowered Equestrians” on facebook)