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10305059_668045259909161_6873291079865697123_nThis past weekend I hosted a clinic with trainer Anglelo Telatin at my farm in Honey Brook, Pa. Angelo is an assistant professor and head of the dressage team at Delaware Valley College. He is also an excellent show jumper and has a training approach that is unique to the show world in that he looks at horse behavior and training through the lens of operant conditioning. As soon as I heard him speak at the Horse World Expo February of this year I was hooked and knew I wanted to learn more from Angelo. I had been studying operant conditioning myself as I worked to understand more about dog training, but I had found very few people in the horse world who applied these same principles. Those who did apply them did not teach the easy to understand framework that operant conditioning applies.

If you aren’t familiar with operant conditioning, don’t worry, it’s really very simple. The same basic rules that apply to horses also apply to us. We will do more of what brings us good things or gets rid of bad things (positive and negative reinforcement) and will do less of what causes bad things or takes away good things (positive and negative punishment). These are the principles of operant conditioning, and they are at work whether we recognize them or not. The key is improve our awareness and our timing, so that we can more effectively communicate what we want to our horses.

So to get to the main subject of this post, during the clinic, all of us – participants and auditors – myself included, had one recurring thought… how many of the “bad” things our horses do did we actually train them to do? I will start with Angelo’s example of horses at feeding time. The annoying kicking, pawing, and screaming behaviors that many barns experience at feeding time are actually learned behaviors. That means we have taught our horses to act like this. Here is how it happens. We walk out of the feed room and dump grain to horse #1. The horse in stall #2 does a natural behavior for when he is hungry – like paw the ground or make a nasty face to push his neighbor away from the food (scarce resources), and… it works! We walk up to stall #2 and dump in the grain. Positive reinforcement. The next day, the horse tries the same behavior, perhaps with a bit more intensity since it worked so well last time and again, the food is dumped in. Same thing on the third day. Now horse #2 has got it down – when you want food, paw the ground and threaten your neighbor and within a few minutes the food will consistently arrive in your bucket. Solution? We can train our horses to do something else for food such as play with a ball that is hanging in their stall, as Angelo expertly shows in this video:


Here is another example – the pushy horse. Consider the possibility that is not only some horses natures that make them more “in your face,” but that they were accidentally trained to behave this way. Take the horse that comes up close and (in our opinion) rudely examines your pockets for food. Don’t immediately assume that the horse is being dominant, rude, or intentionally pushy. Instead think of the possibility that this horse may have simply learned that getting up close and personal is the most effective way to earn food and or attention. The easiest solution to this one? Create a boundary by applying pressure (with a moving lead rope or whip) until the horse moves out of your safety zone then drop the pressure.

Now here’s one that made me slap my forehead saying “why didn’t I see this before!”  – the girthy horse. We pull the girth up a hole, our horse flattens his ears and throws a bite our direction. We stop pulling the girth because it’s probably already in the hole we wanted.  But to our horse, his behavior of pin the ears and toss the head stopped our pulling the girth. The solution? Keep the tension upwards on the girth until your horse stands quietly with head forward, then release the tension. Have the patience to be consistent with it – consistency is key! (Of course with this one, make sure your horse isn’t telling you he is pain somewhere or that the saddle is pinching or causing irregular pressure.)

It all boils down to timing. If we give rewards, like treats, petting, or attention we need to give them during behaviors that we like and we want to see more of. When we release any sort of pressure, again it needs to be for the behavior that we want (and this can be a difference of seconds). If we wait too long, or release too early, or give our horses treats or attention at the wrong time we are sending the wrong message to our horses.

How can we all improve our timing? Be aware of how the system works but don’t stress about it. The more you can be “in the moment” and focused on just looking for the good things that your horse does, the better your timing will become. Plus looking for the good in life is something we should all do more of!

Is there a behavior your horse does that you could have accidentally trained him to do? What can you do differently in the future? If you are a local reader and were at the clinic, share what you thought of the weekend!

See you in the comments, Callie


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18 Responses

  1. I’ve been struggling with doing up my horse’s girth and getting nips while tightening it. I didn’t realize I was rewarding her for nipping by easing up on the tension. Now I know better! Thanks for the tips, as always. Much appreciated.

    1. Cheryl;
      Horses may get “nippy” when they are girthed up in one fell swoop. I like to girth up in 3 stages: 1) just snug enough to keep the saddle from slipping, 2) untie the horse and tighten girth a little more and walk the horse (be sure to bend in both directions and watch the horse’s expression to see if he/she is acting agitated…if he is, check to see if there’s something pinching or poking, or if the saddle might not be placed correctly, etc. and fix it; 3) tighten girth as necessary for mounting and riding but circle a tight circle each direction before mounting: if horse’s expression is amiable go ahead and longe or ride. If you longe before you ride, though, be sure to check the girth again since this activity really gets the horse breathing deeply (and letting their air out) so you may find the girth can get quite loose. By doing up the girth in stages, (and, as you discovered with Callie’s teaching, not rewarding by releasing when the horse is being nippy), this nippiness should go away. My rule to all my students is to ALWAYS “move the horse” after any tightening of the girth or cinch because when you tighten it…it can sometimes feel like something’s grabbing around the horse’s belly all of a sudden. If you don’t move the horse before getting back on after tightening the girth…you may find yourself riding a buck or bolt! If you tighten the girth while ON your horse (as many English riders do)….be vigilant about this and make your first several steps (after the tightening process) a small circle! Hope you are successful with your tacking up! Stay safe!

  2. Callie, thank you – fascinating article and one I’ll definitely be researching further! I’m guilty of some of the examples given, the carrot treats in the pocket vs space issue.
    Linda. Melbourne, Oz

  3. I really enjoy reading your blog! I am hitting my own forehead about the tightening of the girth! THANK YOU

  4. Just had to report that I used Angelo’s technique on my mare this weekend and it WORKED! She notoriously hated me sponge bathing her face, and I always ended up more wet than she did. However, I realized that when she jerked her head up, the sponge went away. So of course she would keep doing that. I stuck to my guns and held on for dear life (she’s 16.2hh, so it was a bit of a challenge) and as soon as she lowered her head down I took the sponge away. No lie – three times of doing that and she stood completely still and let me scrub and rinse her face. Of course I had to repeat for both sides. Fantastic stuff.

  5. Very interesting post! It just goes to show that anytime we interact with a horse we are training them something. We must always be careful of this.

  6. Very good article. Another great horseman to watch is Buck Branaman. He uses the same approach. Check out the movie Buck. I learner a lot from it. You have a great program.

    1. Hi Mike, I watched part of the Buck movie but I need to finish it, its been highly recommended by several people now!

  7. Again and again, thank you for such great posts, they are immensely helpful! Once I figured out timing with this, it changed my life with my horse(and his, too, I’m sure, lol) I used this technique last year when I had to treat a minor wound on Joe’s hind leg…he was holding his leg up and kicking whenever I touched it. I held the bandage on his leg til he set it down, and immediately took it away. In 5 minutes he was standing quietly. Amazing!!!!

    1. It is amazing what a simple concept this is but how well it works! Great application of negative reinforcement with the bandage, Nancy!

  8. Callie thank you for all your info. I just found out a few days ago Corina’s cinchie/girthy situation has to do with ill fitting saddles. Someone was kind enough to walk me through what was happening to her. She is very short backed and has high withers. This meant nothing to me until recently. I do think Corina has had a life time of bad saddles. Just move your hand down there and the ears move back. Every saddle I have is no good: talk about a slap on the forehead;o)

    I have been doing the Masterson method on her to reprogram her. Love it


    1. An ill-fitting saddle can most definitely cause these those types of behavioral problems…the Masterson method will definitely help! Having a great saddle fitter look at your horse and evaluate a fit for you and your horse!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

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