We can and should teach our horses how to behave around food, in the same way we teach them how to behave around children, or how to accept a saddle, or to have their feet picked up. If our young horse refused to have his feet trimmed we wouldn’t just give up and let his hooves grow unimpeded for the rest of his life, we would resolve the issue (hopefully with patience and compassion). So rather than just never feeding treats because we don’t like who our horse becomes, we simply have to teach him how to access the food by behaving in a way that is acceptable to us. After all, why would we want to forego the use of something that is clearly so incredibly motivating for our horse?!
(If you've introduced your horses to clicker training and they are keen to offer behaviour in return for treats AND they are calm and find it easy to be still in both head and feet, then stop reading. Go outside and train something.)
As with all training, we start by thinking about our ultimate goal. What do you want your horse to do?
(If you said “I want my horse to stop mugging me”, then rewind and try again. What do you want your horse TO DO?)
If you said “I want my horse to look away when I have treats” (a common answer), then that’s a good start, but I’d say you’re not quite there yet. If we are talking about the end result, the ultimate goal, do you really want your horse to constantly angle his head away from you? Or do you just want him to keep his nose off your body, for example?
Either way, we’re still not getting to the guts of the issue yet, and the only way to get there is to acknowledge the underlying emotion that drives the behaviour we're seeing.
I’ll tell you what I want: I want a calm horse that behaves much the same way whether I have food on my person or not. I want him to be eager to play and interact, but also to understand how the game works. That means he is confident in the knowledge that I will let him know when it’s time to play the "training game", and until then he can rest and just be. I want him to have a really solid foundation of suitable behaviour that he can offer me if he wants to earn a reward. More tangibly, I want to be able to ask him to keep his feet still while I work around him, or walk away from him.
That is my end goal. And of course as with any behaviour, I can't train all of that in one go. I must first slice it up into a multitude of tiny pieces and start at the beginning, moving up as the horse shows me he is ready. So, next comes my plan to put structure to those steps.
Step one of every training plan is not a task, but a question: what's our baseline? In other words, what is the horse able to do right now? Don't judge, just observe and acknowledge. We are going to place our horse’s baseline, his current reality, at the bottom of a staircase and our ultimate goal at the top. Then we simply fill in the gaps with as many little steps as we can (simple, right?). As Bob Bailey famously says, "training is simple, but it's seldom easy".
This "manners" behaviour is a very simple exercise for the horse in terms of what's physically involved (basically, just stand there and chill), however, as Alexandra Kurland says, "look to people for opinions, look to the horse for answers". And many horses will tell us that this exercise is NOT in fact straightforward at all. At least, not when their human is standing right next to them with pockets full of treats and a prefrontal cortex overflowing with bubbling expectations and infectious energy and churning thoughts and plans for the next thing on the list and the next.
So we hopefully have a clear view of our staircase, with our current baseline at the bottom and our goal at the top. We are going to start by explaining clearly to the horse that keeping her feet still and her nosey nose away from our bodies is the right answer. In a nutshell that's what we call "manners". That’s the obvious bit, and we can generally train the beginnings of that in a few minutes. The problems I so frequently see come about because the trainer gets that far and then stops. They don't finish the job, and in order to finish we must look at the animal holistically, and acknowledge the emotions not just the physical behaviour. So yes we start out by reinforcing the nose being away from our body space, but we very quickly progress to incorporating calmness, balance, a soft eye and happy ears.
If so, I find it helps to visualise an energy bubble around the horse. When we step outside the bubble their energy drops. What is interesting is that if you pay attention you'll probably notice that your own energy drops when you step out of their bubble too. It is very common for the horse's tense or nervous energy to "infect" us and we end up feeling a bit rushed and flustered. Thus begins a vicious spiral into mutual frustration. (I see this pattern occur all the time in horses that are trained with traditional or natural horsemanship, without any food in sight. So this is not caused by the food per se, but rather by any exciting or scary situation. The scale of the horse's reaction is influenced by their temperament and training history. In any case, clicker training will help to teach the horse emotional self control, and that is a very valuable life skill with far-reaching benefits).
To help a horse like this we are going to find the edges of her bubble and work around the threshold, slowly shrinking it down. You can start by click and treating your horse from outside her bubble, usually a few metres away. By doing this you're setting her up for success. She can't "fail", because you're too far away for her to mug you and she's guaranteed to relax as a result. You're not only reinforcing moments of relaxation but you're also demonstrating that having distance between you is ok - she can stay put and she can trust you to deliver the food to her. She'll learn quickly.
But guess what? If the horse is struggling with calmness, it's very likely there's another factor at play.
Spoiler alert: it's you.
Before you do anything more, stop. Step well away from the horse and take a moment. Breathe down into your belly, slowly. Quiet your mind. Soften. Feel the ground, deep beneath your boots. Breathe out your to-do lists and time-frames and let them drift away in the breeze. Your horse lives in the moment - go and join her there. Return to her with calm energy and zero expectations and let's try that again.
TRUST & CONFIDENCE
Whatever a horse's unwanted behaviour might look like (sniffing, nudging, licking, biting etc), the issue generally boils down to anxiety around how to get the food - where will it come from, when will it come, how do I get access to it. So as you go along you are going to show the horse that he can trust you not to be stingy or unpredictable with food. Through consistent and thoughtful food delivery you will prove to him again and again that he doesn’t need to panic about where the food is coming from or whether it's going to be snatched away. You will reward only desired behaviour. And you will take responsibility for yourself and won't exacerbate his anxiety by adding your own frustrations and expectations to the mix.
(Guys, this means not taking it all so personally! Stop thinking "he's being disrespectful", "he knows better". Don't shove or poke or push him away. If you're feeling annoyed, he's feeling worse. We humans are the ones that landed on the moon - take a short break and apply your considerable brain to the problem. YOU figure out how to help him be successful and calm, and then go back and do better.
Hint: the answer is almost always 'click more often, for the right things').
From here we quickly move on to something specific like targeting. These sorts of behaviours solidify understanding of the "clicker game", and get the horse seeking the click by offering behaviour. If we train nothing but manners for too long then the horse doesn't get the chance to learn to experiment and feel safe volunteering behaviour, which is an important lesson for them and one of the biggest benefits of clicker training.
We revisit manners again and again in between presenting the target, and we begin to morph it into "park", aka "ground tying" (in which he stands still while you walk away or move around him). We do this by continuing to reward for the calm stillness but also begin to change our body position, move our feet and add some distance between us and the horse. In other words, we're now adding in another criteria, of "keep your feet still". Teaching the horse a mat target (place his front feet on a mat and stay there) is a closely related exercise which is incredibly valuable for cementing this concept.
We also begin to generalise the behaviour by changing location. We can reinforce park while we're grooming, while we open a gate, when we're putting rugs on and standing at the mounting block. (Just remember: we are climbing the staircase step by step. Don't expect your horse to grow wings and fly directly to the 5th storey).
Alexandra Kurland calls this whole concept "The Grownups are Talking, Please Don't Interrupt", which I think portrays beautifully the intent behind it. Whatever you want to call it, this behaviour of calm, relaxed standing still is our horse's neutral. His default. It is the baseline we will return to over and over again, both as a valuable behaviour in its own right and as a contrast when we are teaching other behaviours and adding new cues (more on this in a future blog). It also feeds directly into relaxation and balance while moving in-hand and under saddle.
Just don't forget that YOU are half of this equation, and make sure you regularly turn a critical gaze inward to assess how you may be impacting upon your horse.