Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why Would I Hand Feed a Horse That Bites?

Because I'm working on training him not to bite - to keep his mouth to himself - using clicker training . . .

I've only made use of clicker training for a few purposes - helping Dawn with scary objects was an important one (we'll do more of that).  I'm certainly no expert at clicker training.  But I really do like it for certain purposes, and I'm sure if I thought about it more, I could find lots more ways to use it.

Drifter is very mouthy - that's probably part of the "I used to be a stallion and still want to act like one" routine.  Now that he's feeling better due to his EPM treatment, he's quite the sassy little dude, and anytime my hand is near his head there's a possibility that he'll try to nip at it in a (highly annoying) playful way - not OK.  I like to use a hand up, palm out, as a signal to back out of my space, and this is problematic with Drifter - he wants to play at that point, which involves biting - again, not OK.

Clicker training also greatly concentrates the equine mind - if you want them to really focus on something, and learn to respond, clicker works very well.  And it's positive, not negative, reinforcement - swatting a horse that nips or bites is often a very counterproductive strategy as it tends to produce even more of the nippy play behavior you're trying to discourage - just watch two geldings doing "bitey-face" play and you've got the idea.

So hand feed the horse to train it not to bite - sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it?  Here's what I did in the barn aisle this afternoon - I'd brought my horses in out of the 45 mph winds - they were ready - and was doing some grooming.  Drifter already understands the basic principle that a tongue click means he's done whatever it is precisely right, and that a treat will follow - I used clicker to teach him good hoof handling and then faded out the treats and now only use them occasionally.  He's also a very smart horse, and clicker works really well with smart horses - it's amazing how fast they figure out what you want.

I took him off the crossties, and holding the lead loosely, put my hand out, palm up and said "back".  (He already knows what the palm up and out and the word "back" mean, he just often prefers to play bitey rather than do it - I think he sees my hand as a challenge.)  He backed a step - I clicked as soon as the first foot moved back and treated promptly.  Now I had his full attention.  We repeated this a few times and he was very interested in complying.  Then I asked him to step back without my saying "back" - it took a moment but he did it.  We repeated this a few times, then I asked for two steps back and had to wait for a moment for him to do it, but he got there. That was it - about 5 minutes in total but I already feel like we made good progress.

On his rearing/lameness issue, he's pretty careful, despite the cold temperatures and high winds, to not move at a speed above the walk in turnout, which isn't typical for him.  He did spook briefly this morning and trotted a few steps, but it wasn't a good trot - the left hind/right front pair clearly didn't feel good.  This afternoon, he told me that it was his armpit area - where the right front joins the body - that was sore - I'm wondering if he slipped in the mud when he was feeling good and extended his front leg too far to the side.  I'm hoping our vet/chiropractor can help him out, and I'm still feeling a bit bad about making him trot yesterday after the rearing, although I'm afraid it was probably necessary and it's good that horses mostly are forgiving sorts . . .


  1. Let me know how it works. Good luck.

  2. I think you were right to ask for the trot after the rear--you knew something was up with him right away, you didn't get angry that he had "misbehaved," and you didn't overwork him.

    I think with certain "horsenalities" it's important to ask a little more of them than you might of another horse.

    Sounds like the clicker training is a great idea!

  3. I've used clicker training sparingly but I don't really know enough about it to use it all the time. I've got to do some more research but it worked great with Donnie and Blue on some things. Dusty sort of thinks it's below her but she will grudgingly do some training with the clicker. Sounds like it's a good tool to use with Drifter and his bitey playfulness. Hope the chiro finds what's bothering him and can help.

  4. Seems to me they can and do learn the difference between a treat being offered and nipping or being mouthy . I have often fed treats by hand , and with the same hand will pop them if the get nippy .Never had one bite or nip when getting or imediatly after a treat , two totally different behaviors in my book

  5. Hmm... never thought of handling a mouthy horse in that manner. Makes sense though. I used clicker training to teach Rosie to drop her head into her bridle.

    Don't feel bad about pushing him past the rear. You really had no choice. Hopefully chiro can figure out what he did and help him feel better.

  6. I think clicker training a mouthy horse is an excellent solution. What better way to teach a horse that is playful or in your pocket to use that energy to get rewards instead of cause problems.

  7. You are an excellent problem solver.

  8. Smokey is great with clicker, as is Lily, although Smokey gets abstract ideas more readily. For example, I was able to transfer an idea to an object with Smokey - touch the hat even if I'm not holding it. Lily doesn't understand and will touch my hand if I have let go of the object.. But I taught lily to take the bit and lift her hind feet, all with clicker.

    Things just make more sense to Smokey, I believe because he is innately more curious. Now that I see how curious he is, I'm using that in situations where he gets nervous. We check things out now. And when he does, I reward it, not always with a click - click means treat - and it's making a difference in our time together.

    Lily sees it, I think, more as a bargain. I will do this because of the paycheck, and I trust you to come through.

    What are you doing to discourage biting, though? I mean, specifically what actions are you rewarding?

  9. I like the way you are using clicker training with Drifter. Did I understand correctly that you click with your tongue instead of one of those little clicker gadgets? I tried using one with the dog and never could get the whole clicker/treat thing coordinated. I think using your tongue would work much better -- don't know why I couldn't think of that. Thank goodness for great blogs like yours!
    And I also agree with the others on the rearing/trot issue. You didn't make him trot out of frustration or anger or meanness. And you only made him trot long enough to make your point. I don't know how you could have effectively handled the situation any differently.

  10. Hmmm...... It looks good. Ok I will try it.


  11. Breathe - right now, I'm not working on biting in general, but on backing on cue when I put my hand up - this will get him away from my space in a lot of circumstances where he might bite and also helps him learn not to bite when my hand is raised. He doesn't really bite in general, just in certain circumstances, and gets lots of praise when I'm in his space and he's being good.

  12. Annette - I do use my tongue to click - a lot easier than handling that little clicker device.

  13. I love my clicker - and I'm thinking you're going to be successful :)

    Consistent use really teaches them that only the click means they're going to get a treat. I can walk around all day with treats in my pockets and not have them sniffed - by the clicker trained horses. They're more concerned with watching me to see what I'd like, what's going to earn them that click.

    Visiting Rufus and his herd mates, I get mobbed and my pockets get thoroughly snuffled, if not nibbled on. And their owner has a very strict no treat policy because he believes it makes them pushy and spoiled.... I respect his wishes regarding treats/clicker and don't comment when he holds forth on the evils of treats - lol.

  14. I think clicker training is a very useful tool, and it is also such a great way to play and engage your horse. We like to do it on rainy days, when Pippi gets bored and therefor a little grumpy.
    Horses, like humans, will exhibit behaviors that "work" for them. Much like a child, a horse will "throw a fit" if they have received a pay off from doing that in the past.
    I agree that we can't punish a horse sufficiently with a "pop" or a quick "slap" to really discourage bad behavior; horses are really rough on each other, and we just don't have the strength and power to win such a fight. We can show our displeasure, and then reward for appropriate behavior.
    Thought provoking post as usual!

  15. I had to laugh at your 'bitty-face' comment because just as I read that, I looked up to watch my guys playing that way!
    Pippin is bad about space issues. He is also very food oriented and mouthy. Probably smart too. It will be an interesting experiment to see how he'd respond to clicker training to back off! Thanks for the clear step-by-step description.
    Ugh... your weather sounds awful!

  16. i agree working with more of a hands free would be advicable, the hand clicker is just a distraction when you need to watch where the mouth is going! good luck with it!

  17. Clicker training is excellent for teaching emotional control, you just have to be very consistent- something I know that you have no problem with. Google "grownups are talking, please don't interrupt" for another way to work on this biting problem.

  18. smazourek - here's a link to one of the videos I think you were referring to:


  19. I had a horse that used to mob me for treats and I used the clicker to teach her to back up instead. It was hilarious when she would come galloping up to you in the pasture, lower her head to your hand and then back up furiously ten steps. Then she'd stop and look at you like "Tada!! Let me hear the click!"

  20. I also use treats for training, too. My mare is more apt to do what I ask if she believes a treat is forthcoming. It isn't always, but most of the time it is. I don't see a problem with using treats as an aid in training. We humans prefer to do work for others with some kind of payment, whether it be money, gifts, a thank you card or even just a kind word. We use treats to train dogs and don't think anything of it. Why should horses be any different?

    "it's good that horses mostly are forgiving sorts"

    I'm so glad for that, too.


  21. Don't feel bad about pushing Drift to trot. If he had not reared...perhaps...but that evasion needed the consequence of a correct response instead of the rear. You only asked for a few strides, so it's just fine.

  22. I firmly believe that biting issues need to be confronted, not avoided. I support this plan!

  23. Kate, I like your plan to use clicker training. I have used it with Buckshot, when I was training him to stand still for mounting. Like you, I clucked with my mouth and followed it with the treat. Over time, his good standing still behavior has remained, and the treats remain but I don't actually have to cluck to him. It is a good tool to use with horses!

    And your experience with using it to get Drifter to lift his hind legs has given me an idea. Buckshot lifts three of his hooves nicely but one of them he doesn't like to lift (no indication that it is a physical pain thing). I may try clicker training for that! What a great idea! Thank you!


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