Updated: Dec 9, 2019
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.