Have you heard about ‘carrot stretches’ or ‘pilates for horses’ where you entice your horse to bend or stretch with the help of a carrot? While the actual stretching exercises prescribed in these programs can be great for your horse’s body, ‘carrot stretches’ can teach horses to ‘mug you’ for food. This is because they contravene the golden rule of clicker training: “Take the treat to the horse and don’t let the horse’s mouth come to the treat.” In this brand new series, trainer and coach Hayley Chambers-Holt will show you how to teach stretches and great manners around food treats.
Why target training?
Using target training, you can achieve and practice the same beneficial stretches whilst teaching your horse great manners around food treats.
When teaching horses to target, I generally make a point of teaching them to use their nose only – to simply ‘touch’ the item on cue without biting, licking or chewing at the said target item.
Whether you use a food treat or a scratch to reward your horse will depend on what he or she finds motivating. Most horses are very motivated and, therefore, easily trained using food treats but some horses are just as motivated by a scratch in a favourite spot!
Target training is simply teaching any animal to touch an object with his/her nose or a body part repetitively to a signal or cue. In canine, zoos and marine parks, targeting is a very common skill to teach to all different kinds of animals.
While in this series we will focus on target training to practice prescribed core-strengthening exercises, it is especially beneficial for developing a horse’s confidence on items that perhaps they are a bit nervous of or afraid of (we’ll discuss that topic in a future article!)
In this first article I will explain how to get started and then, in future articles I will team up with Dr Lena Clifford from Animal Biomechanical Solutions on breaking down and teaching some of the most common stretches and other useful exercises that will help you keep your horse supple and encourage them to engage their core and use their muscles correctly.
After all, a comfortable horse is a trainable horse! And a strong and pain-free horse is a happy, willing partner.
To begin Target Training you need to first ensure your horse is classically conditioned – correctly – to a marker word or a clicker.
The clicker is ideal because it is a clear and audible sound that is consistent and never changes. The aim is to ‘pair’ the clicker to your horse’s chosen reward – either a food treat or a scratch – using this sequence: click, treat, repeat.
In a very short period of time (as little as 5-15 mins) the horse understands the click sound equals something awesome!
After that, we can ‘mark’ specific behaviours that we want the horse to repeat as necessary by clicking-treating when the horse performs the desired behaviour.
The click eliminates the need for the treat to get to the horse immediately after the desired behaviour so that it ‘makes sense’ to the horse.
Instead, we can click or mark the ‘touch’ behaviour and the horse understands they have done something beneficial which will earn them a great reward.
Remember rule number one when it comes to clicker training – the treat goes to the horse! Not the other way around!
In other words, ensure your horse has good personal space boundaries and understands they don’t move towards or run you over for their treat (no shaking the vending machine ok?!)
Thanks to scientific research in this area, we now know that, when the classical conditioning or pairing of the click to the treat is solid, the click ends up causing a rush of dopamine (the feel-good hormone), before the treat is actually delivered. This means that, eventually, we can click without treating every time and our horse still gets a feel-good physiological response!
In other words, when your horse is solidly conditioned to the clicker you don’t have to hand out treats for everything! Plus, the behaviour itself very quickly becomes a conditioned response itself and, therefore, not always in need of an instant reward.
There is plenty of science behind classical conditioning and we now have some great research to prove the theories work and work exceptionally well!
Now that your horse understands the language of the clicker, you can start presenting them with their target item.
You can make a target stick or do the Google thing and research suitable items. I often suggest using a soft witch’s hat/cone that is light to handle and not easily destroyed. But my favourite (especially for stretching), is an extendable flag pole with the flag replaced by a tennis ball.
We will shape the behaviour which is to get the horse to begin touching the target item in simple steps.
Shaping means we gradually encourage the horse to engage further and further with the item until they are touching it repetitively over and over. For example, you may have to start rewarding your horse for simply looking towards the target item – click and treat.
Many horses will, at least, sniff the item out of curiosity. When they realise that engaging with the target equals a click-treat, they very quickly repeat the behaviour.
Targeting is something I often teach in a very short period of time at clinics, lessons and demonstrations. Within 5 to 15 minutes, most horses will be offering a ‘touch’ to the item with much enthusiasm and positivity.
If your horse tries to mouth, lick or bite the item don’t click and treat – remember we are teaching ‘touch’ – not pick up!
Once your horse is reliably touching the item over and over (about 98% reliability), we can add in a voice cue or physical signal. I generally use the word ‘touch’ or ‘target’. In a short period of time, your horse will pair the verbal signal to the actual action.
Soon you will have your horse reliably ‘touching’ the target item on cue. Great!
Now we need to test the targeting by moving the target item to different spots. Don’t go too far, to begin with. Try just slightly to the left. Slightly to the right. Slightly up. Slightly down.
Doing this will test if your horse really understands the ‘touch the item to earn a reward’ lesson correctly. If he gets stuck – go back a step.
If he continues to follow the target item, move it around further and further and to different places to ensure he really understands what is expected.
Remember that learning a new skill is very tiring for your horse, so think about giving him or her plenty of breaks and finish on a good note. It’s always best to do short sessions often.
Moving on to the stretches
The next step will be to start working towards some more challenging stretches! Start by moving the target item lower and lower down between the horse’s front legs.
Slowly SHAPE the behaviour, one click at a time, further and further, and be sure to only click while the horse keeps their feet still.
Remember, some horses will have physical limitations to how far they can stretch – try to stay within their comfort zone at least to begin with and as you are developing their skill.
As time goes on and your horse gains more suppleness, you can further the stretch as necessary and as their ability and training improve.
Most horses will move their feet when you are asking for too much stretch or when you have made a mistake and clicked when they moved their feet.
Remember, the language of the clicker means that the click sound = Yes! You did that correctly! So timing the click only with the behaviour you want is most important. If you click when the horse moves their feet during the stretch the horse will believe (through no fault of his or her own) that moving the feet and stretching is the desired and more beneficial behaviour.
Your job as their owner and trainer is to ensure you get your timing right!
Think of your clicker or marker word as a camera that takes a snapshot of the desired behaviour (or, in the beginning, the lead up to the desired behaviour).
At this point, I highly recommend playing the Free Shaping Clicker Training Game with your friends – it is a real eye-opener, especially how easy it is to confuse your horse if your timing is incorrect! Find out more here.
As you and your horse progress, you can start developing the target training skills to suit each individual stretch.
Perhaps you need to develop your horse’s suppleness for lateral flexion left and right. Perhaps develop a forwards-downwards stretch and a forwards-upwards stretch. Maybe you need to develop a stretch with your horse’s nose between their knees, to stretch the topline. Perhaps it’s a lateral stretch towards a hindleg. In future issues, Dr Lena Clifford will explain specific stretches and how to ensure they are beneficial.
The options really are endless. You could discuss suitable stretches with your equine body worker, chiropractor, vet or physiotherapist. And, in an upcoming series of articles, I will team up with Dr Lena Clifford from Animal Biomechanical Solutions and work through the correct and beneficial way to stretch the different muscle groups.
Watch out for new articles where I team up with Dr Lena Clifford, from Animal Biomechanical Solutions, to show a series of different stretches recommended by therapists and shown to help build up a horse’s core and flexibility.
Remember the benefit of teaching targeting in terms of stretches is you don’t run the risk of your horse chewing your fingers off throughout the exercises! You also go through less full-size carrots and you can teach and learn the wonderful language of the clicker or Positive Reinforcement which can help you in future training regimes or exercises.
There’s a good reason why animal trainers worldwide have embraced positive reinforcement training and why animals worldwide are benefiting from it.
Until then, happy horsing around and remember to train smarter not harder.
Let’s set the record straight on food treats!
Many horse people think that clicker training and/or training horses using food treats is inherently detrimental, but this is far from the case – it simply depends on your timing and ability to uphold the golden rule of clicker training:
Always take the treat to the horse – never let the horse’s mouth come to the treat.
- If you are consistent and clear in always taking the treat to the horse, your clicker-trained horse will soon learn that ‘tipping the vending machine’ (mugging you for a treat) does not work and he/she will stop doing it.
- With positive reinforcement, treats are used as a reward, not a bribe – and that makes a very, very big difference.
- A reward comes AFTER the desired behaviour, a bribe is used to lure and bargain for the desired behaviour.
- Your timing will define how successful your rewards are and how quickly your horse learns.
- Food treats are only one type of reinforcer – something the horse likes or wants, and motivates the horse to repeat/strengthen a behaviour.
- A reinforcer can also be a scratch on the withers, chest or rump – you know… that spot that makes your horse feel bliss.
- Remember that ‘positive reinforcement’ means adding a reinforcer to strengthen or increase a behaviour. So, whatever you use for your reinforcer/reward needs to be something the horse actually values, not just what you think he values!
Common sense, consistency and good timing will help you have a happy, reliable and willing equine training partner.
Hayley’s article about using target training for core strength training for horses was published in Horses and People January-February 2019 magazine.