In which trick training makes communication a little easier

I've said before (though some people think I exaggerate some)
that when Fiddle first came to me, she was dreadful.

If anything, I under-emphasize what a horrible horse she was when she first arrived in late 2006.

She was a biter.  She was a kicker.  She acted awful, and even more: she didn't give an overweight rodent rear-end about me and my opinions.

What we had (among other things) was a failure to communicate.

Fiddle didn't care if I praised her (or not), because what I thought was not important to her.

So, my first task wasn't to teach her a trick.  Before she could learn a trick, she needed to learn to value my praise.

Not an easy task.  Good thing I like a challenge!

Here's what we've got now (video taken during the summer 2014):

Notice, in the video, that she offers me a trick and then changes things in response to my praise or lack of praise before the carrot is offered.  That's an important point.

As I said before, praise originally meant nothing to this mare.  She didn't value me, she didn't value my opinion, she didn't pay any attention to my voice, it was all just noise and bother to her at first.  It wasn't just me, either--she didn't care about anybody.

So my first task was to figure out what this mare did value, and the answer to that was food.

As far as I know, Fiddle was never starved--in fact, I'm pretty sure she's never missed a meal.  However, like many (but not all) horses, she has a sweet tooth.

Okay, then.

There are plenty of trainers (especially in the dog-training world) who say that training with food is a Big No-No.

I respectfully disagree.  My goal with this was to teach Fee to value my praise, and in order to do that, I had to build an associative "bridge" between my words and something she already valued.  I don't always reward behavior with food now, because the praise has become a reward.  But at first, I needed to reward behavior with something she valued.  And that meant food.

I didn't want to work with her using a "high-value" treat, like Mrs Pastures cookies, which she loves. Here's the reason:  Fiddle loves those damn cookies so much that, if they are around, she can't think of anything else except those damn cookies. So I use something that she values, but not something that is so high-value that it becomes a huge distraction.

Carrots are a good choice.  They are cheap, plentiful, and tasty.  They smell nice. She likes them, but she doesn't love them so much that she can't think straight.  I can cram a lot of them in my pocket. And, if her attention starts to wander, I can use a carrot to refocus her fast by snapping the carrot or, if she's really losing interest, by taking a bite of it myself and chewing noisily!

So, now for the first trick:  "Look Away."  

I started this trick over the stall door.  I show her the carrot, and take a big bite.


Me:  (giving the command) "Look Away."

FIDDLE:  (doesn't know that command, reaches forward over the stall door for the carrot):  GIVE CARROT!

Me:  (fwapping the end of her nose with one finger):  "Look Away."

FIDDLE: (surprised by the nose fwap, yanks head away): Ouch!

ME: (as soon as that big head moves away):  Good Girl!  (hand over carrot)

FIDDLE:  (chewing carrot)  Whatever, lady.   (Notices I have another carrot):  GIVE CARROT!

Me: Look Away.

FIDDLE:  (reaches forward for carrot)  GIVE CARR--   (sees fwapping finger raised, hesitates)

ME:  (at the moment of hesitation):  Good girl!  (hand over carrot)

FIDDLE:   Hmmm.  (reaches forward again, yanks head away when fwapping finger raises)

ME:  (when head moves away):  Good girl!  (hand over carrot)

Then it's time to walk away.  

After an hour or two, return with another pocket full of carrots.

Me:  "Look Away."

FIDDLE:  WANT CARROT!  GIVE CARR--  oh, hold on...  (eyes shift sideways)

Me:  Good girl!  (hand over carrot when eyes move).  Want another carrot?  Look away.

FIDDLE: (chewing thoughtfully) :  Got carrot?  (eyes look forward hopefully, then shift sideways)

Me: Good girl!  (as soon as eyes move, hands over carrot)

Gradually, you can "shape" the behavior so that the horse averts not only the eyes, but the entire head and neck.

Take small steps.  Maybe you want more of the head to move, or you want the horse to hold the head averted for a few seconds longer. Maybe you want the body to be absolutely still when the head turns away. Use your bridge (the words) to communicate.

Work for five or ten minutes at a time, then walk away.

You are teaching a trick, but you are also teaching the horse that praise = something worth working for.  

Some of you will notice that the stuff described above sounds a lot like clicker-training but without the clicker, and you are absolutely right.  The only difference is that I am terrifically lazy, and I hate carrying stuff (like a clicker).  If you like using a clicker, by all means use a clicker.  If you want to make a clicking sound with your mouth, go right ahead.  Or, just use your words.  Whichever makes best sense to you.

The important point is that you give the horse immediate feedback (either, yes, that's what I want you to do,  or no, that isn't correct) followed by the carrot-reward.

Later in the training, you will be able to verbally encourage him (yes, do that, but do more of it) and he won't get frustrated or start guessing--he'll know he's on the right track and will continue in the same path without having to stop every stride for a bit of carrot.

Make sense?  Got questions?

The comment box is wide open!


  1. Yesterday J and I arrived home from the grocery store and both horse and donkey knew where we'd been, the source of carrots, and were peering at us, making food noises. Then J took one carrot and walked over to them, and split it between them. As soon as it was eaten, they were begging for another, and for the first time, Mara offered a trick as part of her begging. She dropped her head to the ground and lifted a foreleg, which is all she knows about bowing at this point. I was thrilled about it, so I went in the house, got some carrots, and asked for the precursor bow a few more times. And the donkey had to "shake hands."

    The horse is not very food motivated though. I actually ask her to look at me to get a treat, and sometimes she won't, even though I'm holding it out to her. If I go out to the pasture with some carrots, stand far from them and whistle, the donkey comes running or at least walking, and the horse often doesn't bother to stop grazing.

    Good that Fiddle had this opening for you! I love the stretch exercise she does.

  2. I've never made it to the actual clicker stage either, but I think my confirmation/praise is quicker without the clicker.

    Just recently we've made great progress with taking steps backwards (8-10) at liberty with just a hand signal. My guy is super food motivated, so achieving MOVE AWAY FROM THE TREAT! is especially rewarding. Since Val can get bargy around the gates - this trick has come in handy. Learning to come when called has been easier lol.

    It feels like this kind of training is a communication bridge between two beings who don't speak the same language - I love it. :D

  3. Yeah! I'm doing trick training with Dudley! But only because he's so smart already and it's fun. How did you start teaching the leg lifting?
    - The Equestrian Vagabond

  4. Fabulous! And definitely something I need to do...or try to do...with Q.

    But my question? What to do for a horse who isn't greatly food motivated? She likes her mashes (some days anyway), but her driving motivation in life (at home) is to be with the other horses and for me to just leave her the hell alone. So what to do?


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