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Let the reinforcement do the talking

My mare came with a bit of, shall we say…history. I’m not sure of the exact history but I could tell we had a ‘bit’ of work ahead of us.

The one big obstacle…floating. To get her home on the very first day was not pretty. She was big and strong, with some established habits to avoid the float.

We didn’t start on the float training straight away – I needed to know I could get her moving forward and stopping instantly from a light signal first (for my safety above all). Ensuring that I could move each leg when and where I wanted was a must before progressing to the float.

I feel we went through some phases.

Phase 1) How Deep Is Your Love (sorry, signals)?

Our first phase was a real attempt at floating. Here I got to see how deep, or not, the signals went for her. They weren’t very deep and rearing, barging, flying backwards was all too common. Not a nice phase.

Phase 2) Oops! I Did It Again

Back to in-hand away from the float to consolidate those signals. Here I thought progress was made and signed up to a clinic ready to take her. Alas, getting to the clinic was not to be…

I saw some things in her responses that highlighted more things about her. As a sensitive mare, she was easily worked up with strong pressures and could quickly escalate in her responses (think, increase of adrenalin = increase of cortisol in her bloodstream = not a good place to be). She had some very specific triggers that sent her flying out of the float – a person behind the float, a person near the door, me moving around her; many things that indicated she may have had a hard time when floated in the past.

Fear that is linked with pain, after all, is ingrained in the horse’s memory.

No learning took place for her that day. I, however, had a big wake up call.

Phase 3) Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Being an Equitation Science practitioner and enjoying the journey of training, I knew I had to approach this situation differently. She came with an amazing ability for ‘trial and error’ approach to new tasks. When you thought you had achieved something, she would try a new behaviour.

I decided it was time I tried a new behaviour too and introduced her to clicker training. The objective here, was to use combined reinforcement to help her remain calm and get clearer messages about the correct response. Combined reinforcement uses both negative and positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is the removal of something aversive (sometimes clearer to think of ‘annoying’ instead of aversive) to make a behaviour more likely to occur. Commonly known as ‘pressure-release’. For example, a squeeze of the leg to make the horse move forward. Positive reinforcement is the addition of something pleasant after a behaviour to make said behaviour more likely to occur. For example, a wither scratch after the horse moves forward from the leg pressure.

The clicker is introduced when the horse has shown the correct answer – click means treat (a piece of carrot, say). It adds a dimension that the horse then associates the ‘click’ to mean ‘treat’, so is more likely to repeat that response.

Phase 4) A Brave New World

I cannot begin to tell you the difference. There are some tips for floating on my website but here is a summary of the outcome:

- She no longer went from 0 – 50 in her adrenalin.

- She stopped using conflict behaviour to avoid certain situations

- Using the clicker in other situations (leading, catching, approaching unfamiliar objects) helped deepen her responses to go, stop and turn

- We progressed quicker than we ever did in previous training sessions

The one big one for me? My SILENCE. I stopped the constant chatter. Constant chatter and noise that perhaps adds to the “drama” of the situation. Involving the clicker quietened the whole process.


Negative reinforcement only – leadrope pressure forward for go (me: SILENT)


Positive reinforcement only – click and treat (me: SILENT)


The simple approach to floating changed her entire demeanor. We didn’t rush it. We haven’t finished. She is now walking on past me (casting), parking inside the float and allowing me to touch her rump. What a positive step in her training. There are some steps needed to be at proof level…but we are progressing further up the ladder, or, erm, float ramp.

Why does clicker training work?

- The sound of the ‘click’ to mean treat – clear and distinct

- Good timing – being able to shape the response you want

- Helps motivate horses to trial new behaviour

- Tells the horse what we want them to do (rather than what you don’t want them to do)

- Is more positive for the horse’s welfare and emotional state

Some key rules to clicker training:

- Click always means treat – no exceptions

- Shape the behaviour you want…you might want to reach the highest rung of the ladder, but you must train each step along the way – without missing a rung.

- Keep training sessions short to not overload your horse

Georgia Bruce is a fabulous clicker trainer with horses and has a clear video on how to start clicker training. See below link

The Times They Are A-Changing. Good luck 😊

Pam Reid

MTeach(EC), Dip.ES, BSc (Hons) Psychology


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