top of page

Put On A Happy Face

Whether it is yourself doing the smiling or being on the receiving end of one, smiles just make you feel good. Behaviour and emotion are neurophysiologically linked, so when you change one you can change and influence the other. (Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error) The smile tricks the mind into feeling better, as endorphins are released (Peta Heskell, Speech Mastery).

Now what does all this have to do with clicker training? Often, we will see what folks might call “ears back” in horses that are being clicker trained. In most instances, this is because the horse is concentrating and, just like us, when we concentrate, our expression tends to be less happy-looking. These horses aren’t grumpy, just concentrating on the task at hand. But how can we bring more fun and relaxation into the mix? From my opening paragraph, you get an idea of where we are headed: putting happy faces on horses to help our horses feel good. Now what does a happy horse face look like? A happy horse face will have a soft eye and definitely ears forward. As humans, we are hard-wired to respond differently to a happy expression, so we will tend to deal with a happy expression animal a bit differently, as well (Alexandra Kurland).

So, the happy faces lesson is important. But, how do we get the happy face? How do we shape this behaviour using positive reinforcement - the click and treat? If you have been following my articles you will have several foundation lessons that are fairly well established by now. Happy faces can be layered onto any of these behaviours very easily. Clicker training is very much about layering behaviours.

Start by layering happy faces onto grown-ups are talking. Ears forward is a shaped behaviour, meaning that we will click and treat for a slight flick on an ear in the right direction, and build that behaviour into both ears fully forward by slowly changing our criteria for what is “good enough” ears forward, as we progress. By now, your horse will have caught onto the clicker game and be wondering what you are looking for today. Being in grown-ups, he knows what he will be rewarded for, but you can now add another criterion, a new layer - the ears forward - which needs to be present before the click will happen.

Begin in grown-ups and do a couple of click and treats just as you have been. Then for your next grown-ups try to wait until there is that little bit of “added ear forward” and then click. Remember not to wait until both ears are fully forward as you will frustrate the learner but, by all means, if both ears shoot forward, definitely reward that!

At this point, your horse will only be clicked and treated when he is in grown-ups and has the start of ears forward (or maybe you have a very happy horse and this is an easy lesson). Each time try to wait for a bit more ears forward, but don’t get greedy! With you looking purposefully at his ears, he will take that as a clue that perhaps this new layer has something to do with his ears. After a few successful approximations of happy faces, move to a different location and do either grown-ups again or targeting or mat work. This will give him a bit of processing time for the new behaviour and keep behaviours in balance. Then go back to grown-ups with ears forward. You can eventually add this to all the behaviours, and once you can predict when it will happen you could even put it on cue.

Now perhaps you have encountered grumpy faces in horses when you go to feed them. This behaviour is usually caused by the behaviour of ears back being inadvertently rewarded. The rule says that for a behaviour to continue it is being reinforced somehow. Perhaps, initially, he had his ears back at his neighbour at the instant you threw in his feed. By throwing in the feed when he was doing this behaviour, the “ears back” was accidentally being reinforced, especially if it happened over and over again. How can we stop this grumping so that we can change his view about feeding time, and also his feeling that he needs to resource-guard?

If your horse is in a stall or paddock by himself, it makes it easier to shape this new behaviour than if he is out with others. Start by approaching the stall or paddock with the hay or grain or whatever causes him to put his ears back. As soon as his ears start to go back, stop going towards him!! Wait for the ears to go more forward (don’t ask for the finished “ears fully forward” yet), and then take a step. If the ears start to go back again, then stop; if they stay more forward, then take another step towards him. This process will take a few minutes for at least the first few days as he will be trying to figure out why supper is stopping and starting towards him.

Eventually, you will get there, and he will have his ears more forward than back. Now make sure to wait until his ears are up to throw it over the fence or place it in his feed tub. From your horse’s point of view, he is training you to move towards him whenever he puts his ears forward. Make sure you remember to manage your environment to keep everyone safe and able to be successful. You have to think about how to set this up before you do this to find the best way to arrange your environment so that all goes well. Each day, the time it takes to get his food to him will decrease, as long as you are consistent about what you are rewarding.

This technique will also work for stall banging and pacing, and all those other unwanted feeding time behaviours. However, if you are at a boarding barn, it will be very hard to be successful unless you can have all the staff doing this training each time he is fed. Perhaps you could help them get a whole barn of happy faces and no banging doors at feeding time. Now that would be a nice scene!

Until next month, make sure both you and your horse are smiling. Smiling will make a difference to how both of you are viewing the world and also how the world responds to you. “Smile and the world smiles with you.”

Have fun playing and until next time... keep it positive.

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page