Pet Care

Training Your Horse

Shiny brown horse standing in a tree-lined field

So, you’re riding a horse. Maybe you even have your own horse. Lucky you! Do you realize that the first time you rode him or led him from point A to point B—even if it was simply from the doorway of the barn to the cross-tie station—you also instantly gained a new role in life? You are now a horse trainer! Every time you interact with your horse, you’re training him. Every time you walk up to him in his stall or pasture or snap a lead to his halter, you’re teaching him something. And he’s teaching you too. Your horse is a people trainer!

Because you’re a horse trainer, there are some simple guidelines you should know about training horses and some rules about how horses learn. These rules govern how, when and what your horse learns. It’s in everyone’s best interest—certainly yours and your horse’s—to know the rules and use them to help your horse learn what you most want him to learn and do what you most want him to do.

The Basic Guidelines

Safety first!   Horses are big, powerful animals. Whenever possible, stay where your horse can see you. Never walk behind your horse. Walk around in front of him. If you have to be out of his sight but close to him, talk to him so he knows where you are. As you move to where he may not be able to see you, run your hand down his side to let him know where you’re going. When working with his head, stand on his left (as a horse trainer, you should know that his left side is referred to as his near side), in line with his ear and on an angle. He can see you best there, and you can move away easily if something startles him. Never stand directly in front of your horse, and never kneel or sit on the floor around him. If you have to work on his legs or hooves, bend rather than squat.

Take it slow.   Move slowly and don’t try to teach your horse everything all at once. If you wish to teach him a new skill or make changes to the way he does something, teach him the new approach in a series of steps that are small enough for him to successfully master. For instance, if you want to teach your horse to bow, first teach him to follow a target with his nose. Then you can move the target to guide his head between his forelegs. To teach targeting, you must first teach him to touch the target and then teach him to follow the target until you say he can stop. Here’s another example: If you want to teach your horse to back up, your first step might be simply asking him to shift his weight back, and your second step might be asking him to take just one step back. Regardless of what you’re teaching, you should only move to the next step when your horse is happy and successful doing the first.

Talk to your horse as you work with him.   Speak softly in a low tone of voice. Avoid yelling or using a high-pitched tone when communicating with him. A calm voice creates a calm horse.

Reward good behavior!   Let your horse know when he does what you want and then immediately reward him so that he’ll likely repeat the behavior when you ask him to do it again.

Be patient with yourself and your horse.   Temper your temper. Don’t lose your temper—don’t ever even use it. Anger never helps in training. Instead, it actually interferes with your timing, your judgment and even the fluidity of your movements. Be prepared to work through problems. Horses have good days and bad days. They get frustrated and worried, just like people. Your job as your horse’s trainer is to keep calm, be quietly persistent and continue working until you get an acceptable behavior from your horse that you can reward. Even if your horse does get a bit frustrated over something and act up, if he’s been properly prepared in his training—if you aren’t asking him to do something he can’t figure out—he should quiet quickly after his small blow-up.

Respect your horse and your role as his trainer.   Your relationship with your horse must be built on mutual respect and trust. Harsh, abrupt, forceful methods damage the relationship between you and your horse and interfere with learning.

Be patient.   Training a horse takes persistence and, most of all, patience. Attempting to force a horse to behave is rarely productive and most often backfires, creating even more problems than may have existed in the first place. Regardless of what you want to teach your horse, you’ll be most successful if you break the task down into very small steps and help you horse learn each step well before moving on to the next.

Have a goal and know the path to that goal.   Working with horses always goes best when there’s a goal to the training. This is true whether you’re simply putting your horse’s halter on him or teaching him to cut cows from a herd or stay collected in the passage. Always know what it is you wish to accomplish, and know what your horse must do to move toward that goal.

How Horses Learn

Horses learn through reinforcement.   Regardless of whether you’re teaching your horse a new behavior or you simply want him to perform an existing behavior on cue, rewards are the tools you use to tell your horse what you want and ensure that he’ll do it for you again. When rewards are used to create behavior, the process is known as “reinforcement.” Effective training always involves reinforcement.

There are two basic ways to reinforce your horse’s behavior when you train: one is to give him something he loves the instant he does what you want, and the other is to stop applying some type of pressure the instant he does what you want. Both of these techniques are known as reinforcement. Giving your horse something he loves for doing what you want is called positive reinforcement. Stopping some type of pressure for doing what you want is called negative reinforcement. The names of these two types of reinforcement don’t mean good and bad. The words “positive” and “negative” describe whether you give the horse something (positive reinforcement) or take away something (negative reinforcement). Both techniques are good and make your horse’s life—and your life—easier.

Positive reinforcers are usually things like treats or stroking, and you’ll give your horse a reinforcer the moment he does the behavior you want. Negative reinforcers are things like a gentle, consistent finger push or whip tap—only if the horse isn’t afraid of these things—or light and consistent lead, rein or leg pressure. They are never abrupt, they are never frightening or painful for the horse, and they must continue until the horse gives the right response. Then they instantly stop. Positive reinforcers get turned on and then right off when the right behavior occurs. (Your horse does something you want and you give him a treat.) Negative reinforcers get turned on and continue until the right behavior occurs. (Your horse does what you want and you release the pressure on his lead.)

Which reinforcement technique you use to depends on what you’re teaching your horse and how he feels about it. Often, when you teach your horse to move a part of his body, it’s most convenient to use negative reinforcement because you can target the body part you want him to move. For instance, if you’re teaching your horse to yield his hindquarters by crossing one hind leg over in front of the other, you can cue him and then gently and consistently tap the leg until he moves it. When you stop tapping at the moment he moves his leg, you’ll be teaching your horse that moving his leg stops the tapping. Likewise, if you want to teach him to drop his head when he feels pressure on his poll from you pulling gently on the lead attached to his halter, you simply keep up the pressure until he drops his head. However, if you want your horse to move a part of his body—such as his nose—toward something, or if you can’t reach the part you want to move or if he’s a bit nervous, the best approach is probably positive reinforcement.

How Can You Best Make Reinforcement Work for You?

It’s all about timing.   Two key skills are necessary to reinforce behavior you want from your horse. The first and most important is timing. Reinforcement is very precise—whatever your horse is doing when you give him a treat or stop pressure is the thing that he’ll learn to do. If you’re using negative reinforcement, timing is easier—you simply stop tapping or touching, etc., right when your horse does what you want. When you use positive reinforcement, however, timing can be difficult. It isn’t always possible to give your horse a goody or a rub on his withers the precise moment he does what you want. In fact, you might by accident end up reinforcing his looking at you for his expected treat by accident! To help perfect their timing, trainers use signals known as behavior markers. (Markers are also known as behavior bridges and conditioned reinforcers.) A marker is a signal—quite often a sound—that a trainer can give to “catch” the behavior he or she wants at the exact moment it occurs.

Clickers, clucks and quick, “catchy” words.   The sound you use as a marker doesn’t usually matter, although the best is a sound the horse hasn’t heard before. If you use a kiss or clucking sound to ask for movement, you should use a different sound to catch or mark behavior. Many people use a small hand-held device known as a clicker. In fact, reinforcing behavior with a marker is often referred to as “clicker training.” But any marking signal will do. You can say “Yes!” or “Good boy,” you can snap your fingers, or you can give a short whistle. The most important thing is that when you make the sound, you then quickly follow it with a treat or something else your horse likes. The sound serves to draw your horse’s attention to the exact behavior that earned the reward.

Your “Yes!” or other marker sound helps you be more effective at catching behavior, but it’s still important that you time your sound correctly. The sound itself is not the magic. The magic happens when your perfectly timed marker catches the behavior you want your horse to learn. The trick is to say or make the sound at the instant the behavior occurs—while it’s occurring if possible—not just after, the way you usually tell people they just did something right. When training a horse, you have to be able to tell him when he’s doing something right.

Reinforcing behavior takes persistence.   Remember that there are two skills to reinforcing behavior. The first is timing. The second skill you’ll need is persistence. You have to wait for the right behavior and simply work through behaviors you don’t want. If you’re using positive reinforcement, you ignore behavior you don’t want. If you’re using negative reinforcement, you keep the pressure on while your horse is doing what you don’t want.

Treats in training.   Positive reinforcers don’t always have to be treats. They can be anything your horse enjoys. Food such as bits of grain, horse cookies, wisps of hay, carrot or apple pieces, or mints all work great as long as your horse likes them. But you should also try things like neck stroking, a scratch on the withers and breathing softly into your horse’s nostrils in rhythm with him. Most horses like all these things, too.

If you’ve decided to use treats, you may worry that giving your horse treats could cause him to become pushy with his head or even to bite. The fact is that, if given randomly, it can. That’s the power of reinforcement. If your horse gets treats when he noses you, you’ll reinforce nosing. If you’ve reinforced nosing and then you stop giving your horse treats when he noses you, your horse might get frustrated and try to bite.

But there’s a simple way around this problem. Don’t feed your horse when he nudges you with his head! More importantly, always ask your horse to give you a behavior you like before you treat him, even if it’s simply looking your way. Once he’s given you the behavior, catch it with your marker signal so that all treats are preceded by your marker signal.

Start small.   Whether you’re using positive or negative reinforcement when introducing new exercises or asking your horse for new behavior, reinforce the first behavior that begins your horse on his journey toward the complete behavior. For instance, if you are teaching your horse to drop his head when you put pressure on his lead, don’t keep the pressure on until he lowers his head all the way to where you want it. He may never drop his head with such an approach, and as you struggle against him he’s learning to struggle back. If you want him to drop his head, reinforce the slightest drop at first—even if it’s simply half an inch. Training isn’t about force. It’s about reinforcing tiny advances toward your final goal and creating a willing attitude that will help your horse try to give you what you ask. By taking very small steps and reinforcing each step as if it were the ultimate goal, your horse will think that learning is fun and will soon be performing the goal behavior with enthusiasm.

Set the stage.   Start training sessions with steps that are pleasant and rewarding for your horse. When you’re aiming to teach him to do something he has never done before, begin by asking him to do something he knows and will do willingly. It could be touching his nose to your hand, lifting a hoof, backing up, giving to lead pressure or just looking your way when you say his name. The moment he complies, say “Yes!” and reward him—whether your reward is immediately stopping some kind of pressure or giving him a treat.

Remember, You’re a Trainer and Your Horse’s Guardian!

Have fun with your horse! Make being with you safe, relaxing, enjoyable and interesting. Above all, accept and respect your horse for who he is and relish the moments you have to spend in his company. We horse trainers are very lucky people!