Wednesday, 9 May 2018


Kachina has fear and tension issues, so I've known for years that I want to train her using positive reinforcement as much as possible. I've used treats successfully in teaching her to help put her halter on, pick up her feet, and to lead more politely, but I've struggled with successfully using positive reinforcement in training her to stand quietly. One problem is that it's substantially easier to train a horse to "do" something, as opposed to "not do" something. However another serious barrier has been that no positive reward has historically been strong enough to overcome her tension. When Kachina would stand in the old barn she would be so wound up that me petting her or talking to her had no effect, and she would refuse treats. Kachina is food motivated to a point, but not very strongly. Positive reinforcement only works if you have a reward that your horse is actually willing to work for. Kachina did like to go back to her friends, so every time I would leave her out I would use it as a training opportunity that she only got to be untied when she stood nicely for a minute, she only got to exit the door when she waited for me to go first, etc, but let's be honest, the training applications of that particular reward were severely limited.

We still have standing problems sometimes in the new barn, but I'm pleased to say that Kachina is now in a situation where food rewards actually work.

The other day I brought Kachina in for a thorough grooming and shedding session. She was settled for most of the time, but when a horse in a nearby stall left to go for a ride, leaving the barn door open behind them, she became extremely distracted and kept turning towards the door and pawing. I stood on her opposite side, and whenever she looked away and started pawing, I cued her flank and asked her to move over and look back towards me. Whenever she looked back to me she got a treat. When her attention stayed with me for a moment she got another treat. We spent a solid 10 minutes repeating this. Initially it took multiple cues for her to push her haunches over and stop pawing, but she always took her treat when offered (a big deal by itself). After enough repetitions she started actively wanting the treat (but I stay firm on no mugging rules), and when her attention would drift she would just swing her head towards the door instead of her whole body, and I could redirect her attention to me before she started pawing. We ended the session on this positive note and I returned her to her pen.

Since then we've repeated this same exercise a few times. The layout of the barn is useful for me because she always want to pay attention down one end of the alley so I can stand on her other side to reward her for re-directing focus to me. Some days have been better than others, but I have been able to get some positive response each time. We have a lot of steps remaining to transition this refocusing exercise into consistently standing quietly, but I have hope that we'll get there now that we actually have a functional positive training tool. 

Has anyone else struggled with clicker or reward-based training with a horse who wasn't food motivated enough?


  1. Luckily all mine wants is scratches and cookies all day every day, even if it's the apocalypse, so clicker training was quite easy for him. I tend to use a fanny pack (I am very fashionable at the barn, it's true) full of grain that he likes vs cookies. He seems to want to work for the grain for longer than the cookies.

    The that TC will work for is scratching the withers, it's a primary reinforcer because it lowers their heart rate so they will work for it. I've used it a TON undersaddle just without clicks and it's been instrumental for his dressage training I think.

    Good luck! I love clicker training.

  2. I think Nicole's horse wasn't that food motivated to start but then he became a food hound after

  3. If any animal is stressed they will often refuse treats. For Carmen the answer has never been treats but to give her a task and help her focus on it.