I often see posts of people asking how they can exercise their horse with positive reinforcement training. Having a horse that I would call lazy if I didn’t know any better, I had this struggle too! I would like to share what I came up with, with the help of my friends in my favourite Facebook group ‘Empowered Equestrians’.
First make sure your horse is in good health and that you’ve done your best meeting his basic needs in housing and nutrition. Training cannot fix what’s wrong in management! Be creative and be careful, but most of all have fun!
I don’t have a lot of +R experience, what can I do?
It’s understandable that if you have just started out, and your horse is overweight, that it’s not the best idea to start feeding a lot of yummy treats to teach new behaviours that will get him fit once they’re solid. Unless you find a very healthy snack you can feed a lot, or your horse is easily motivated by play or scratches it might be best to keep things easy for now. Especially if your horse has a serious health issue.
Going for walks
If your horse needs to stay in shape but you cannot afford to teach him something and having to feed him a lot in the beginning: Go for a walk! Everyday for 20-30 minutes, or 3x an hour per week. A brisk walk can be so much more beneficial to your horse’s stamina and weightloss rather than trotting which was designed to cover long distances without using up too much energy. A walk is very enriching for a horse too if you allow him to observe and browse his environment.
Tip: If you like to run, go for one with your horse. They seem to enjoy matching speed with a companion!
Tip: Use your environment! If you’re going out use trees to weave, hills to climb, water for aqua training to add some agility and strength to your fitness routine. At home? Use obstacles (I’ll get back to this later in the article)!
If you have a very cool-headed horse like I do, you might want to try bicycle rides as well! It takes some practise so start at home. Just walk around with a bicyle between you and your horse. You can attach a tennisball to your steer as a target to show him where to move. Make sure you know your horse well: When and how does he spook? This way, you can prevent things escalating by recognizing the signs and triggers early and getting off your bicycle and stuffing his face to install some positive associations to the (potentially) scary situation. You can also teach your horse to switch sides during walks, and then generalize this to bicycle rides as well. I highly recommend a solid recall in case your horse pulls free, but this goes for walks as well. Be sure to practise handfeeding during walk and trot while sitting on your bicycle as well. Some horses might get excited or unsure taking food at the trot, so make sure you don’t pull away or punish them for biting. They can barely see your hands and are pretty preoccupied! It just takes some practise and confidence. You could start by offering a closed fist so they can feel where you are, at which point you turn and open your hand. This way they’ll learn to look for your hand with their mouth closed in stead of wide open.
Get a comfortable bike, preferably one with pedal brakes, not hand brakes. Practice your leadrope handling as well; you don’t want to drop it and get it tangled in your wheels or pedals! Always keep your bike between what’s scary and your horse. If both sides are scary (f.e. he is gonna spook because of something on the right and might push you and your bicycle in front of a car) then lead him on your left and go to the left (wrong) side of the road so that scary thing AND car are on the right side of you and your bike. Or simply get off and find a place for you horse to graze / get his face stuffed with treats until the dangerous situation passes. Get to know your horse! Deejay will stop dead in his tracks if he sees horses or sheep or other animals up ahead. I know this so I anticipate. I allow him to observe, and I prevent myself from getting pulled off my bike.
By the way: simply riding your bicycle around your horse’s paddock or field might prompt the herd to go for a nice run with you as well.
The Bucket Game
I personally used this game when Deejay didn’t have a lot of solid behaviours yet but he was a bit frisky because of the cold weather. What I did was put 2 or 3 buckets in the arena, pretty far apart from each other. I would stand at the first bucket, practise some basics like targeting, head down, standing still facing forward, etc. Then I would give a jackpot in the bucket, enough (in volume and value) to keep him busy, while I calmly walked over to the next bucket. Once he finished eating he would look up and walk all the way over to me, sometimes offer a trot. Other horses I tried this with were a little more enthusiastic and needed a higher value jackpot or else they would come cantering alongside me right away. This can be PLAY, but it can also be FEAR if your horse is not comfortable being left “alone” (in his experience it may seem that way) or simply not comfortable in the environment yet.
Can I lunge a horse with +R?
Of course you can! You can teach your horse to move on a circle in many ways, and I’ll name a few below. Keep in mind that moving on a circle endlessly, or moving too fast on a small circle, can cause physical damage to your horse.
Tip: It helps to play around with the shape of the roundpen. If it has some lenghty straight parts it will be easier for your horse to speed up, while sharper bends will invite your horse to slow down. Use that in your shaping process! Be careful with small circles, but you will need a small circle to begin with and slowly add distance as your horse starts to feel comfortable moving at a distance from you. Start shaping transitions when you have succesfully trained your horse to move on a big enough circle or other shaped figure.
Around the roundpen
Create a roundpen using jumping obstacles or tread-ins with tape. The horse will move around the roundpen while you stay in it. Shape a walk, stand, trot and even canter using targets or freeshaping.
You can slowly fade out the physical barrier if you want to start lunging at liberty.
Move around cones
Teach your horse to move around 1 cone, starting up close. Slowly increase distance, and add more cones right next to the first one. Start increasing the distance between you and the cones, and the distance between the cones themselves. Make sure you increase one criterium at a time.
Once the horse understands the concept to move around a cone at a fair distance you can create shapes. You can create a big circle, or a figure 8 (using your cues to invite your horse back in and sending them out whichever direction you want). Once the horse is moving confidently you can start shaping transitions. You can fade out the cones if you want, although it will become harder to explain your horse where to go. Be prepared to have a plan for that; maybe you can teach your horse to come in a little and go out a little using lateral movements. That would be pretty awesome!
This exercise is slightly more complicated than ‘Around the roundpen’ as you also have to shape the coming in, moving out and staying out because you don’t have a physical barrier.
How can I make the arena more interesting?
Moving from this piece of sand to that piece of sand can be pretty mind numbing for a horse. Here’s how you can spice things up a little!
Teach your horse to follow you or a target stick and guide him through, on, in between or over obstacles. An exciting walk and despooking at the same time! Keep him nice and agile by doing lots of weaving and polework. Small jumps are good too – I love doing in-outs with Deejay!
This is something Shawna Corrin Karrasch taught me. Use a second person or a stationary target and teach your horse to go away from you (A) and to the other person or target (B) with little distance at first. Later you can add more distance and even poles and jumps! Distance and calling them over very enthusiastically really motivates them to trot and even canter.
How can I get my (reluctant) horse to move?
You probably know that you have to reward behaviour that you want more of. But how do you get that behaviour in the first place? How do you motivate a horse to move without driving aversively?
Teach a ‘heel’
In stead of just running and rewarding your horse to follow, you can slowly start by shifting your weight or taking just one step, and rewarding them for following you calmly in a safe position. Imagine using your shoulder as a target for your horse’s eye. Click whenever the eye hovers alongside your shoulder. This way the horse will understand where to move, and that it’s fun to move with you in stead of chasing after you. It’s very easy to prompt a horse to start moving as you move, but we want to make sure he isn’t feeling insecure or annoyed about it.
Teach him to follow or touch targets with his nose
One of the first things you probably teach your horse as you start clicker training, is to teach him to touch the target at the end of your stick with his nose. You can use this skill to teach him to follow a targetstick as well. He doesn’t have to touch it necessarily; click for merely moving towards it. Use a high rate of reinforcement and small steps at first just like with the heel. This way he won’t feel the need as much to catch or chase it.
You can then use the targetstick to guide him around an obstacle course, or if you have a telescopic targetstick (make sure it’s hollow, so your arm doesn’t break off halfway through training) you can get him to walk at a bigger distance creating a situation where it’s easier to see his body, ask for transitions and do gymastic groundwork exercises.
Another fun target to prompt moving with is tossing small lightweight cones that are safe to step on. You can toss them on a circle, or as you lead or ride your horse. It’s a great way to prompt for example a walk. If you cue “walk on” before tossing one, the horse will start anticipating. Soon he’ll start moving right after you say “walk on” because he expects a cone to drop further along the way. You can also use this in your ‘Around the roundpen’ exercise if you horse doesn’t start moving on his on. Be sure he knows that the cones are targets first, so start up close.
Teach his to use his legs and feet to target
Mat training can be very handy in a lot of situations. It can act as an excellent stationary for a horse. For both riding and groundwork you can teach a horse to stand on a mat, go to a mat, stay on a mat, move to the next mat, etc. A lot of ways to prompt and teach behaviours. Use it for your A-B’s, your circle, use it to prompt a halt, etc. You can easily touch your horse to stand on a mat by using one that’s a bit thick so the horse really feels when he’s standing on it. Shape him to step on it with one, then two feet. If your horse is a little bit like mine and wants to paw it destructively which can be way more reinforcing than a treat sometimes, then you can also teach it by walking around, and stopping (+click/treat) whenever you lead him over the mat, then walk on and repeat.
Pool noodles are the new cones. They can be a clicker trainer’s best friend for many reasons. It can act like a target stick, a DS tool for touching a fearful horse’s body, it can be used in beautiful and colorful agility obstacles… but right now we’re gonna use it as a prompt for a Spanish Walk-esque behaviour. Hold the pool noodle out and in front of your horse’s legs, as your horse is standing next to you. He’ll probably paw at it, if not you’ll have to touch his knees and click/treat that a lot at first (body targeting). Once he paws, click and reinforce any paw that has a nice reach towards your pool noodle. Any try is worth a click. Then start shifting your weight a little, inviting your horse to finish his step in stead of just pawing. This requires a lot of balance, coordination and strength so be patient. Once your horse can step towards it, build up the steps and try to shape left-right-left-right. Keep sessions very short because it’s physically challenging and you don’t want them to lose motivation.
Another fun little thing to teach your horse to do with his legs, although this can also be done with his nose, is soccer! Same thing as with the pool noodles: teach him to target the ball, try to shape a nice forward kick (as opposed to what Deejay does, which is to grab the ball with his leg and shove it under his belly..), the ball will start moving and so will your horse if he feels reinforced enough to keep kicking it. You can even go as far as to teach him to score! Make a nice wide goal and make it really easy for him to kick it in the goal. Then start adding distance, work on different directions, and make the goal smaller and smaller. Remember to teach/up one criterium at a time, and taking down a noth with the other criteria as you do.
You can also teach your horse to do the same as we did with the pool noodles and ball, but now with a plastic bag tied on a string on the end of a long stick. This is sometimes referred to as ‘Chase the Tiger’. Make sure your horse doesn’t fear the bag to prevent a conflict as he needs to approach it to get a click and treat. Reward any behaviour that is targeted towards the bag, and then start moving. This exercise can cause frustration with some horses if you go on too long or go too fast. Some horses might become a little over excited. My own horse tends to get more frustrated about simply walking after a target stick rather than trotting after a plastic bag and catching it with his hooves. Every horse has a different backstory, different trainer, and different preference.
I’ve already mentioned stationaries for mat training, A-B’s, and the cone circle. It’s a great way of using target training to explain your horse where to go, where to stay, and that going away from you can be a superfun thing. That last thing is a really good concept to teach your horse before you start working on A-B’s, circles, or a stay. As you work on longer distances, the horse may feel the urge to start trotting or even cantering to the target and/or back to you.
Other body targeting
If you’re into a little straightness training you can start working on lateral movement. For this you’ll need a good hip and shoulder target and anti-target. You can teach a horse to come to your hand with a part of his body by touching and click/treating right away a lot at first. Then you can try to slow down your movement and see if the horse meets you halfway. Kind of goes “Hey, you’re supposed to touch my shoulder and feed me! Can’t you find it or something? Here it is!” Boom, there’s your shoulder target. Do the same with the hip.
An anti-target means your horse moves away from your hand (tactile or gestural cue) without it being an aversive stimulus. I’ve taught horses to move away with their shoulder as I touched their neck (which could be translated to a tactile neckrope cue to move the shoulders) by touching their neck a lot (which didn’t mean anything to the horse, neither aversive or desirable) and then swinging a targetstick under his neck to the other side of his face. He would turn on his haunches to reach the target. After we did this a million times, just kidding, he started anticipating on my hand. As I touched his neck, he already turned on his haunches expecting a target to fly under his nose to that side. Gotcha! Click, and treat.
Teach him to fetch!
People like to say their horse isn’t a dog and you shouldn’t train a horse like one, until they see this. No one can resist a fetching pony. It’s easiest to backchain this behaviour, which means you start with the ending behaviour. First you teach the horse to target a comfortable biting toy, then you delay your click which will invite the horse to wiggle his lips, and there you go. Then ask a little more, and he might try with his teeth. This depends on the horse; mine sunk his teeth in pretty much right away. Teach the horse to grab the toy from your hands and work on a little bit of duration so they hold it for a second. Then try to shape it in a way that he drops it near or in your hands. The next step would be to drop the toy on a chair, and next on the floor, so he learns to pick it up from different soils and heights before giving it to you. Then start working on distance, and there you go: a horse who walks over to a toy, picks it up, walks back over to you, and drops it in your hands. It’s a great exercise to train your own timing, shaping skills, motoric skills, and patience. And I can guarantee lots of laughs!
Can I ride with +R?
Of course you can! I’m not the biggest fan of using riding for weightloss though; I wouldn’t appreciate someone sitting on my back while I struggle with my weight and stamina. And there’s the whole self-carriage thing; it’s nicer for the horse if they know how to carry themselves and you if you’re gonna ride. If you want to ride keep it short and playful in the arena, or go for a nice hack with other horses present.