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Teach Your Horse To Lie Down At Liberty Force Free

Fox’s favourite place to lie down. He learned this tick completely at liberty. Photo By Trina Cary.

Before You Teach Your Horse This Trick Read This:

I get asked a lot for my process for teaching horses to lie-down on cue. So here is a list of the general steps that I take with this behaviour. Before learning this trick the horse needs to be clicker savvy, understand training session start and end cues, and have at least one other well reinforced R+ behaviour like targeting. Teaching the horse to lie-down is generally easy with R+, putting it on stimulus control (on the end cue) can be a bit more challenging. Be sure that you know how to teach stimulus control before you teach this behaviour. Cone targeting is a great behaviour to practice with to learn how to teach stimulus control reliably.

Some Thoughts On Trick Training:

Just a few thoughts on this behaviour before I get to the how to: There is some controversy around whether or not we should teach horses this trick, or whether we should even teach tricks at all. In my opinion horses likely see all of the behaviours that we teach them as tricks. A horse would not need to self-halter, lead, or pick up his feet for the farrier in the wild. If you’re curious how I classify behaviours as tricks read my blog (follow the link here) where I share my opinion of what makes a behaviour a “trick”.

It Is Important That We Stay Mindful About Where We Ask Our Horses To Lie-Down:

As for teaching the horse to lie-down, I think it is ok, as long as we are respectful of the horse, and his natural behaviour. Meaning we only cue him to lie-down where he is comfortable, and if we cue him and he does not lie-down we don’t cue again. Lying down is a very vulnerable position for a horse. The reason why horses spend most of their time standing is because when lying on the ground, they are vulnerable to a predatory attack. We need to keep this in-mind and be extremely mindful about where we ask/cue our horse to lie-down. Giving him the opportunity to say a clear no and refuse is very important here as well.

Why Using Ropes And Pulling A Horse Down Can Be Problematic:

Note: I never use ropes or any physical restraint/holds to teach a horse to lie-down on cue. He is also free to leave or get up at any point. Using ropes or other forms of restraint to pull the horse into a lying down position risks doing major psychological damage to the horse. Remember we look like predators to horses. If we pull them down, how do they know they aren’t about to be eaten? If you have done this before, just know that I have done things in the past with my horses that I would never do now too. We can only do our best with what we know. Just know now that there is a way that involves a lot less risk!

Finally Here’s The How To:

With that being said, here is how I teach horses to lie-down on cue at liberty. This behaviour involves a process called capturing. Capturing is when the human clicks and reinforces the full behaviour. Instead of shaping the behaviour in increments they wait for the behaviour to happen. Once the behaviour appears they click and reinforce it.

Step 1: Choose a time and or location when the horse is likely to lie-down on his own.

Step 2: Observe the horse and watch him lie-down

Step 3: Click once his body is on the ground preferably before he begins rolling

Step 4: Deliver reinforcement directly after the click.

Step 5: Repeat until the horse begins offering to lie-down (May take a few days). This means he is lying down more than he does for his usual roll. (Steps 6-10 continued below).


Generalizing to different locations. Fox is pretty comfortable laying down in the sand as well. Photo By Trina Cary.
Photo By Trina Cary.

Step 6: Add your cue for lying-down. Pair the lie down cue while the horse is already in the process of lying-down. Repeat this a lot. Continue clicking and reinforcing each time the behaviour happens (May take more days).

Step 7: Add the cue right before the horse chooses to lie-down, then continue with clicking and reinforcing as usual.

Step 8: Cue the lie-down before the horse looks like he is thinking about lying down (In the same location as before).

Step 9: Develop Stimulus control (the horse lies down on cue, and does not offer the lie-down behaviour off cue for reinforcement).

Step 10: Generalize to new environments. Meaning begin cuing the behaviour in new environments (Only where the horse is comfortable, and respecting him if he chooses not to do the behaviour).


An Explanation Of Step 9:

All the steps are pretty self-explanatory except for step 9. Stimulus control is the most important part of teaching this behaviour because once we have the behaviour in place we don’t want the horse to lie-down randomly off cue looking for reinforcement. This can seem a bit complicated but only requires some consistency.

If the horse offers to lie-down for reinforcement off cue at this point it is a good idea to give a different positive reinforcement cue (Targeting for example), that prevents the horse from actually lying down. This way we don’t wait for him to lie down and then withhold reinforcement, but instead offer a heavily reinforced alternative behaviour for him to do instead to get reinforcement. Done correctly this will ensure that the horse only lays down on cue for reinforcement, and will prevent the horse from randomly lying down while he is out on the trail, while being lead to the barn, in the middle of a lesson…etc.

Fox’s expression after the lie down cue. Taken right before the previous photos. Photo by Trina Cary.
Fox waiting patiently for me to bring him his reinforcement.

The Importance Of End Cues:

It is still totally fine if the horse lays down off cue wherever the behaviour was originally captured. The difference is that the human no-longer observes or reinforces the behaviour in this context, they must also be careful to have given the end cue after the training session, before the horse lays down to roll, to make it clear to the horse that the human is no longer giving out food reinforcers. This avoids the behaviour going through an extinction process and the resulting frustration. If the horse understands the training session end cue, and then chooses to go roll in his favourite spot anyways, he is likely rolling because he simply loves to roll in that spot.

Happy trick training!


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