Bridle Yourself: Teach Your Horse To Willingly Put The Bit In Their Own Mouth
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Bridle Yourself: Teach Your Horse To Willingly Put The Bit In Their Own Mouth

Teaching your horse to willingly put the bit in their own mouth is easily done using positive reinforcement and shaping. Positive reinforcement is something added to the horse's environment that makes a behaviour more likely to happen again in the future. In horse training, it is usually a small tidbit of tasty food, given immediately after a desired behaviour occurs. Shaping means to take a complex end goal behaviour, like having a horse put a bit in their own mouth, and breaking it down into smaller behaviours - or 'successive approximations' - that build towards that end goal. As you can see in this clip, when combined, the horse receives positive reinforcement every time he successfully completes a successive approximation towards the end goal. Effective trainers usually make a 'shaping plan', or a list of the behaviours that will build towards the end goal. Once the horse is reliably performing a successive approximation, it is changed slightly, and reinforcement is given when the horse successfully completes the new successive approximation. For example, when this horse Calcite was reliably sticking his nose into the open bridle, the next successive approximation I aimed for him to do was to move his muzzle closer to the bit. When he did that, I indicated that’s exactly what I wanted by making a clucking nose and immediately giving him a treat. (One of the first lessons taught in this type of training is that a tongue cluck or other specific sound marker means ‘Yes! A treat is coming!’) Just like us, horses learn from the consequences that follow a behaviour. If the consequences are desirable (like getting a treat) the behaviour is likely to be repeated in the future. This type of training says very clearly ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted you to do!’ to the horse, and it eliminates the need for us to use punishment in training. All animals, humans and horses included, would rather be told ‘Yes!’ and receive a desirable consequence when learning how to perform a new behaviour. It's important to remember that the horse doesn't know what our goal is during training. They are essentially guessing when they try out a new behaviour, to see if it is the one that will result in a desirable consequence. Being told 'No!' and receiving an undesirable consequence for ‘wrong’ behaviours when trying to learn a new behaviour is stressful. This stress usually results in the animal giving up trying to find out what behaviour results in a desirable consequence, for fear of receiving the undesirable consequence instead. This type of training can also damage the trust between trainer and animal learner, and should be avoided. #horsetraining #horsebehaviour #postitivereinforcement #shapingplan
Trailer Loading: Recognizing Thresholds, Building Confidence
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Trailer Loading: Recognizing Thresholds, Building Confidence

Almost every interaction we have with a horse affects their confidence. No matter our horse training goals, this confidence - in themselves and in us - should be a top priority. Learning how to recognize and respond to a confidence threshold - a place where the horse might lose confidence if we proceed - is an important skill for trainers to have. How the trainer responds at these thresholds can affect the horse's confidence. Horses may lose confidence when being taught how to trailer load. This may manifest as stopping forward motion, or displaying escape or avoidance behaviours. Using escalating pressure in those moments is a commonly taught approach, but unfortunately, it's an approach that can damage the horse's confidence in the trainer. In my previous career I used such an approach. But since learning more about horse behaviour, how horses learn, and the effects of stress on learning and welfare, I use different training techniques now. One that I like to use in these instances places equal emphasis on achieving the goal of loading in the trailer and preserving the horse's confidence. The video at the top of this post is a few years old, but it shows an example of how such an approach can be used to good effect. As you can see, I stop approaching the trailer when I recognize that the horse has reached a confidence threshold. Can you see what he did that gave me a clue as to how he was feeling? We stay there together, and I watch the horse's behaviour for clues that any uncertainty he has felt has subsided. When it does, we turn and leave. There are two important things to keep in mind here: 1. The 'confidence threshold' that I'm looking for here is a very subtle shift from the horse feeling 'I'm OK with this' to 'I'm not so sure about this'. Horses communicate quite clearly how they feel about what we are doing with them, and we need to pay attention to the small signs. It is not necessary to trigger a greater level of uncertainty than this in the horse in order to overcome trailer loading issues. To do so is counterproductive, and it puts us in a position where we may need to use escalating levels of pressure to control the horse, which increases their stress and decreases their confidence. 2. Leaving the trailer's vicinity when the horse has visibly relaxed builds both his confidence with the process, and me. This can be seen clearly in the second approach when we get much closer to the trailer, and the horse evens feels confident enough to become curious about the trailer. It is when he is displaying this curiosity that we once again turn and leave. This approach - recognizing subtle thresholds and changes in behaviour, waiting for the uncertainty to subside, and retreating away from the source of potential stress back towards a place of comfort - is a good way to help horses build confidence during training, and in the trainer. It's a technique that I like to use for several issues, including approaching things that the horse may have a negative history with - like the trailer. As training progresses and the horse's confidence grows, I may add in other techniques, such as using positive reinforcement to teach the horse how to confidently enter the trailer. Having a variety of low-stress techniques in your training toolkit can help you be a better trainer, and I hope this is one you will try. Happy training! #lowstresshandling #horsebehaviour #behaviourmodification
Start Button Behaviours: Giving Horses Control While Also Getting Results
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Start Button Behaviours: Giving Horses Control While Also Getting Results

What's a start button, and why should it be part of your horse training? A start button is a way for an animal to give consent to something that the trainer would like to do with the animal. It allows the animal to communicate to the trainer whether or not they are ‘ready’ for the event to happen. The benefits of start buttons are twofold. While it might seem counter-intuitive, teaching an animal that they have some perceived control over what is done with them is both empowering and reinforcing. A pleasant side-effect is that this approach also results in the trainer meeting their training goal. My Arabian gelding True had a learned fear of the saddle when I acquired him. Part of his retraining has involved using start buttons to teach him that he can give consent to participate in events that may be unpleasant, like being hosed or fly sprayed. Start buttons also work well in helping horses overcome learned fears of specific items. True has two start buttons in this clip. The first is when he touches the saddle pad with his nose. The second is when he straightens his neck and allows me to pass down his body to saddle him. To begin, I wait for him to engage with me. You can see this happen at about the 0:05 mark. I then present the saddle pad to him, and he touches it with his nose. To put it into human language, this is essentially the signal that we have agreed means 'Lauren, you may begin the saddling process'. The second start button is at about the 0:20 mark. True and I have agreed that it means 'You may put the saddle on now'. It's critical that I respect if True is ready for me to proceed, or if he's not. If he's not, I use that as valuable information about my training. Perhaps I'm advancing too quickly, or am not fully appreciating how he feels about what is happening. I see this information not as a failure, but as an opportunity to tweak my approach, or be more aware of his body language. If you are new to using start buttons you may think that the animal will just choose never to participate in unpleasant events. But this isn't the case. While this training concept is relatively new to the horse world, it has been used very successfully for years with a wide range of other animals, including zoo animals, such as hippos, giraffes, lions, hyenas and more. If it can work for getting a full-grown lion to willingly give its tail for a blood draw, it can work for you horse too. #horsebehaviour #horsetraining #cooperativecare #behaviourmodification

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