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Building A Strong Foundation For Your R+ Horse

Where should you begin when starting your horse with Positive Reinforcement? A strong foundation is key!

As trainers we want a strong foundation to build on with our horses. So where do I begin when I want to start R+ with my horse? This is a common question. There is a lot of information out there explaining how to clicker train, how to introduce positive reinforcement to your horse, troubleshooting, and even different behaviours that you can train. It can be seriously overwhelming!

Where I like to start…

My favourite place to start is teaching my horse to eat. I know this sounds crazy, but before we introduce the clicker, and start teaching fun behaviours it’s important that we teach our horses how to eat. This is the most important, most basic building block that will ensure a strong foundation for your future work.

What I mean when I say teaching your horse to eat is that they need to understand that they can leave us and find food elsewhere. They can leave and eat even when we have a treat bag on. They don’t have to stay around us and try to get treats out of us. When they understand this, we reduce the chances for accidental behavioural extinction, we reduce the likelihood that they will become muggy, we reduce the chances of food anxiety developing which can lead to dangerous behaviours, and finally we can change all of the above behaviours that may have already developed with this one behaviour installed. Angelica Hesselius of Reward Based Art Of Riding and Eva Bertilsson Of Carpe Momentum have done a lot of work with horses on this subject. I highly recommend auditing one of their feeding courses, or even better participating in it.

Hypothetical Scenario #1:

Picture this, you have started using positive reinforcement with your horse. He understands the clicker, he now associates you with the positive training. Whenever he sees you, he stops what he’s doing and runs to the gate waiting for you to come and get him. Say you go into the paddock to pick poop. Your horse is so excited about the food he runs up to you and is literally going through all of the behaviours he knows hoping to get a treat out of you.

Say you have also been training his heard mate, and she is also trying to get your attention with behaviours. Then because you aren’t rewarding, you are technically causing the behaviours that you worked so hard to teach to go through an extinction process. This makes those behaviours less likely to happen when you do have food and are training. The continuous behavioural extinction frustrates the first horse, and he then begins to feel the need to resource guard you, because if a treat is coming it’s going to be his, and not his heard mate’s. So, then he and his herd mate get into a fight over you while you are just trying to pick poop. When you leave the paddock both horses walk to the gate and begin to paw it. Creating a bunch of noise trying to get your attention.

Imagine, you have finished your chores and now feel ready to train. So, you bring the halter out. Now the horses are fighting over who gets to put their head in the halter first. The first horse bites the second, and the second turns and kicks just missing your head…. You get the picture. Say you finally catch one. You take him out to train, and now he isn’t doing the behaviours that you worked so hard on the day before. You are wondering why your horse isn’t “cooperating”. This could lead you to feel a bit frustrated. Your horse is also taking the treats roughly, indicating that he’s feeling pretty agitated, and frustrated as well…

Hypothetical Scenario #2:

Now imagine this. You walk up to the paddock, both horses are eating at their round bale. They may look, but generally don’t acknowledge your presence. You pick poop, maybe they walk over and check out what you’re up to, and then return to their hay. They are peaceful and relaxed around each other, and you.

Then you finish picking poop and decide to train. You go to the gate and call one horse. He comes over immediately looking forward to training. The other horse stays at his hay. At this point you don’t need to leave the paddock you can train right there without being bothered by the other horse. But you choose to leave anyways. Once in the arena you cue the known behaviours, and your horse calmly does them. You are even able to add to behaviours that you are working on. When you are done you take the horse back to the paddock. You give the end cue, and he returns to his hay. You call the other horse, and he comes over. Then you repeat the scenario until you are done and let the second horse go.

It sounds crazy but teaching your horse to eat, and find food away from you even when you have food is the foundation of training with food.

Which Scenario Sounds Safer To You? Which Is Healthier Socially And Physically For The Horses?

There are several things occurring in both scenarios. (It’s important to note that horses aren’t robots. The second scenario is the goal, but it’s totally ok if it isn’t this perfect.) The most important part is that in the second scenario both horses are continuing the behaviour that they were doing before you arrived. They don’t try to get your attention.

Your presence doesn’t mean that they stop whatever they were doing and try to get food out of you. This is, in my opinion, the most important thing to teach when it comes to training horses with food safely. The second most important thing is that both horses know when it’s their turn to earn reinforcement, and when it isn’t. This is a Reel (click Reel to see it) that I shared on instagram showing how Flare and the other horses react to a start cue. The other horses in the paddock continued what they were doing before. Bow was the only one that looked up. He typically follows Flare wherever she goes. Even he understood what was happening.

Fox hearing the start cue and coming over to train. The other horses stay behind because they known it isn’t their turn yet.

How Can This Be Taught?

So how do we teach this concept? This really depends on your individual horse. This is also where having a good instructor can be helpful! A good instructor should know multiple ways to develop behaviour. This ensures that they will be able to tailor the training program to you and your horse. Personally, I have worked with quite a few R+ instructors, and they all had their preferred ways of doing this. They may call it different things, and have slightly different approaches, but the concept is the same.

If you are determined to do it all on your own, I’m going to list a few ways. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you get stuck. This is the foundation of your horse’s R+ training, so it’s very important that it is well established. I’m listing each way randomly; they aren’t listed from my preferred to least preferred or anything like that. You can mix and match between these options, use all of them, or take them as inspiration for designing your own plan as well. That’s where your creativity and understanding of your own horse comes in. Please note that all of this is done without the clicker.

Strong Foundation Way #1:

  • Antecedent Arrangement: Starting in Protected Contact with a flake of hay on the ground. A feed pan is next to the flake of hay that you can easily throw pellets into. Using a low value reinforcer (hay pellets/celery whatever your horse will eat but isn’t excited about).  
  • Leave your horse in the pen. Watch from a distance preferably where he can’t see you. When he has settled into eating his hay walk up to the fence where the feed pan is. Say the word that you will use as your start cue and throw some pellets into the bucket. My start cue is individual to each horse. That way when they are standing together, I don’t get every horse when I cue one. The horse will come over. Once he has eaten the pellets throw another handful into the bucket and say your end cue, I use the cue “All Done”. Walk away out of sight while he is still eating. Wait for him to return to his hay. Once he is back eating his hay repeat the process. Soon he will learn that eating at his hay will bring the human.
Quite a few steps into Way #1… I have added two behaviours in-between the start and end cues. You can see that the antecedent arrangement of the bucket and the flake of hay is still there.
  • Then you gradually reduce the distance that you walk away, until you can stand at the fence and say all done, and the horse automatically returns to his hay. Once this is happening, I usually introduce hand feeding. For me I only hand feed with the start cue. The end cue is still food in the bucket, or on the ground.
  • The next step is entering the paddock. The first goal is to be able to enter and leave the paddock without the horse searching you for treats, preferably remaining at his hay. The second goal is to be able to give the verbal start cue, feed your horse, and then give the verbal end cue and walk away leaving your horse at his hay.
  • NOTE: It’s important at this stage of training to only feed your horse reinforcers when you have given the start cue, and never reinforce after the final reinforcer/end cue. Much later in training it won’t matter as much, but right when you are starting this is very important to pay attention to.  
  • Pros of this way: You build-in your start and end cues, your horse learns when he can get reinforcement and when he can’t, it gives space for the next step (charging the clicker), it’s excellent for setting up the groundwork for grass training, it’s progressive.
  • Cons of this way: Generalizing this behaviour can be confusing for the horse if there isn’t a flake of hay present. The horse can get a bit confused about the actual start and end cue, they can think it’s you walking up, and not the actual verbal cue.

Way #2 Encouraging the horse to keep his head down eating while you toss more food/reinforcers in. It’s important that he keeps his head down, and is “distracted” while you get the reinforcer out of your pocket and throw it in.

Strong Foundation Way #2:

  • Antecedent Arrangement: Start in protected contact. Place a flake of hay on the horse’s side of the fence.
  • Stand as close to the hay as you can get on your side of the fence, and wait for the horse to begin eating the flake. He may try to interact with you. Feel free to offer pets/scratches, but don’t offer food. Once he has begun eating his hay toss the reinforcers (hay pellets) onto or right beside the flake of hay preferable in a pile. Your horse may need help finding the pellets at first.
  • It’s important that the horse’s head stays down eating while you get the reinforcers out of your pocket/treat pouch, and while you toss the pellets in. If the horse’s head comes up wait for him to put it down and continue eating before you make your next move.
  • Pretty soon your horse will continue to keep his head down and eat while you toss pellets in, and won’t acknowledge you when you are about to add more reinforcers.  Once this happens you can move to the next step.
  • Begin making more and more space between you and the hay. Reinforce the horse for having his head down eating. If he starts bringing his head up too much move to an easier step. Once you can leave and toss reinforcement practicing walking up to the hay and reinforcing.
  • Next practice it all over again in your horse’s paddock.
  • Once you can walk away and walk up start practicing moving in different directions, moving objects in the arena etc. periodically reinforcing your horse for staying at his flake of hay.
  • The goal is for your horse to remain eating regardless of what you are doing.  
  • NOTE: It’s important at this stage of training to only feed your horse reinforcers in this context. Much later in training it won’t matter as much, but right when you are starting this is very important to pay attention to.  
  • Pros of this way: The horse learns to stay at his hay no matter what you are doing, you reward the horse for eating independent of you, the horse learns that ignoring you is as reinforcing as working with you.  
  • Cons of this way: You don’t build in the start/end cues, and will have to teach them separately later. It can be confusing for your horse whithout a flake of hay present.
This was tricky for Flare to learn at first, She has a long history of muggy behaviour around food. She also can get very agressive towards the other horses when she knows the human has food. Here she is calmly eating with her friend even though she knows I have food.
This should say “start cue” A start button is a whole other concept. 😉 This is a progression from the previous photo, but you can see that they are doing the exercise very well!

Strong Foundation Way #3

  • Antecedent Arrangment: Round Bale in a Round Bale Feeder.
  • Sit on the roundbale in the feeder. Make sure that the horse can’t touch you. At first just sit and let your horse eat hay around you. He may acknowledge you, but pretty soon he will just graze the bale.
  • Next once he is grazing the bale, say your start cue and hand him a reinforcer. Then say your end cue (I always say my end cue and give a jackpot reinforcement). Wait until he is grazing the bale again, and continue.
  • When you are done say your end cue and leave. Your horse should stay at the bale as you leave.
  • As the horses get more comfortable with the exercise you can practice walking around them and the paddock. Practicing start and end cues periodically.
  • NOTE: It’s important at this stage of training to only feed your horse reinforcers when you have given the start cue, and never reinforce after the end cue/reinforcer. Much later in training it won’t matter as much, but right when you are starting this is very important to pay attention to.  
  • Pros of this way: You build in your start and end cues. The horse has a pretty good chance of learning the verbal start and end cues. It’s fun to sit and enjoy listening to your horse eat. It’s handy if your horse can’t be separated from the other horses in his paddock.
  • Cons of this way: It’s harder to practice moving around your horse. There is a much higher chance of frustration developing in your horse, as its harder to keep them eating/reset them in the right position if they move around (you can’t just pile pellets on the ground in the same way that you can with a flake of hay on the ground).

Strong Foundation Way #4

  • Antecedent Arrangement: 4-8 feed pans set up in a circle. Fairly close together at first. Put a couple of pellets in each pan.
  • Let your horse into the paddock with the feed pans. Show him that there are pellets in the pans. Walk around and quietly refill the pans as he empties them (you don’t want to noisily refill so that he leaves the pan he’s at and runs over to you).
  • Once your horse has the idea, you can spread the pans out, hide reinforcers in different places, use different reinforcers so that your horse gets used to searching for a variety of different things. You can then walk around in the paddock picking poop, or whatever while he searches for reinforcers away from you.
  • NOTE: It’s important at this stage of training to only feed your horse reinforcers in this context. Much later in training it won’t matter as much, but right when you are starting this it’s very important to pay attention to.
  • Pros of this way: Your horse learns to search for food independently of you, you are able to walk around your horse while he is being reinforced elsewhere, he will be less confused about what he should do when you build in the end cue than he would be if you just used a flake of hay.  
  • Cons of this way: You don’t build in a start and end cue. Sometimes the horse will come over and get frustrated if he can’t find the next reinforcement away from you. It’s tricky to quietly refill the empty reinforcement locations without being noticed by the horse. If your horse is like Fox he will quickly realize you are behind the reinforcements and bring you his empty bucket instead of searching the others…
The start of Way #4. Fox searches for reinforcers away from me.
The start of Way #4 Refilling The Bucket… Once this one was filled I would fill the one behind it. Then Fox would move between them. Then I would add more buckets in a circle. Once Fox had the concept of the circle, I would spread them out more.
Here Fox is showing a clear understanding of the end cue. This is the final result of the training put into the cue. I give the end cue, and my horse leaves to search for reinforcers elsewhere. I had hay available here, but Fox chose to use his nose to search for pellets that may have been dropped the day before the snow fall. This understanding is the strong foundation on which we will build the rest of our future behaviours.

These are just a few of many ways to build a strong foundation using R+ training with our horse…

This can be taught many different ways, these are just a few examples. Each of these ways could be their own blog post in themselves. There are many little details and nuances involved with each one. All of these can also be mixed and matched. You can even combine them and use them in different orders to create a more rounded way.

The important part is knowing your horse and figuring out what works best for him, you, and your training environment. There isn’t a right or wrong way. Keep the goal behaviour in mind: The horse continuing to do horse things, even when you have appeared, waiting for the start cue to begin offering behaviour, and beginning horse things when you have ended a training session.

Be sure to pay close attention to the horse’s emotions during the process, and keep the horse’s frustration down by increasing the behaviour slowly, and making sure he understands each step. Once the behaviour is established, then we generalize it to different locations.

The end goal being that we can walk into the horse’s paddock, and pick poop, or fill the water trough while he peacefully continues his day. He may come over and say hi to us, but he isn’t mugging us, or excitedly trying to get food out of us, and we can absolutely halter one of his friends, without any sign of resource guarding behaviours.

I hope this was helpful! Feel free to reach out if you have any questions, or want a hand developing a training plan for your horse!

Have a lovely day!


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