clicker training for the food-distracted horse

Turn your horse’s obsession with spring grass into a reinforcement opportunity by using clicker training and focusing on what you want from him.

It’s spring, and the grass is growing. Sweet and juicy, it’s a major distraction for our horses. During training, you may find yourself on the losing end of a wrestling match as your horse plunges his head down for yet another mouthful. Instead of fighting the temptation of fresh grass, you can turn it into an opportunity for reinforcement, using clicker training.

Changing don’ts into do’s

Whether it’s in training our horses, or in our everyday lives, many of our interactions are focused on stopping behaviors we don’t want. From getting your dog to walk on a leash, to dealing with government regulations, it’s all about “don’t do”.

When it comes to our horses, clicker training changes the “don’t do” approach. Instead, we focus on what we want our horses to do. Some interesting studies in neuroscience   explain why this is so important. When you reach for an object, certain neurons in your brain are activated. When you are told not to grasp the object, most of those neurons will be inhibited, but some will still fire. In other words, when you think about not grasping an object, you first have to think about what it means to grasp the object.

Think of it this way. You’re trying to watch your weight, so you resist reaching into the cookie jar. The problem is, every time you think about not taking a cookie, you are activating the neural circuitry for taking the cookie. The more a circuit is fired, the stronger it gets. So the more you resist taking a cookie, the more you are going to want one!

Focusing on positive behaviors

How do you get out of this conundrum with a grass-focused horse? In clicker training, you shift the focus from what you don’t want from him, and ask instead what you would like him to do. That’s the power of clicker training. You aren’t trying to stop unwanted behavior. Instead, you are forming a very clear picture of what you would like your horse to do. That’s what you teach.

This can be harder than it sounds. I might start out by saying I would like my horse to be able to walk beside me with slack in the lead (so far so good), but without diving down for a mouthful of grass (oops – I’m still focusing on what I don’t want).

None of us enjoys being dragged to grass. So how do we get out of it? One answer is to change how we view the grass. Your horse wants it. Great! Instead of fighting against it, let’s use it to reinforce behavior you do want. Now you won’t be trying to stop him from diving for the grass. Instead, you’ll be looking for opportunities to let him graze. You’re no longer fighting against the grass. You’re focusing instead on all the good things your horse is doing, and reinforcing him with something you know he really wants.

Clicker training lesson

For this lesson, I’m going to assume you have a basic understanding of clicker training. Let’s see how this works!

If you have to hand-graze your horse to acclimate him to spring grass, this is the perfect time for a lesson. (If you need an easier starting point, you can begin in a paddock and use small piles of hay.) The idea is that you are going to teach your horse to leave food in order to get food.

Begin by taking your horse out to graze. Don’t try to keep him from the grass. (If you are using hay piles scattered around your training space, let him take you to the hay. Don’t resist.) Let him eat for a couple of minutes. As he begins to settle and relax, you can start the lesson.

1. Use your lead to bring the horse’s head up. He may resist at first, but do the best you can. As soon as he starts to lift his head, click and offer him a treat.

2. Keeping the lead fairly short, fold your hands together at your waist so you can anchor the lead to your body. Your horse is going to try and drop his head back down to the grass. With your hands anchoring the lead, you are essentially holding him as if he was tied to a post. As soon as he stops trying to pull down (even for an instant), click and treat.

3. Repeat this several times. When your horse is keeping slack in the lead after he gets his treat, click, and let him drop his head down to graze.

4. Let him eat a few mouthfuls, then ask him to lift his head again, click and treat. Repeat the whole pattern, releasing him to the grass whenever you see a noticeable improvement in his behavior.

Instead of fighting the grass, you are now using it to reinforce the behavior you want. Your horse will quickly learn that it’s okay to leave the grass. Not only does he get clicked and reinforced with other treats, he also gets to return to his grazing.

Once he’s coming up readily, you can ask him to walk beside you. At first, just go a couple of steps, then stop. Have him stand beside you, still keeping slack in the line. Click, and let him graze.

Turn it into a game in which you are helping him find the best grass. It’s a wonderful way to connect deeply with your equine partner.

As you build on this basic lesson, you’ll be able train on grass without it becoming a distraction. In fact, when your horse does something you especially like, you’ll be able to thank him by letting him graze. When you’re ready to continue, he’ll come away from the grass without a fuss. Your horse will be relaxed and ready for more work, and you’ll have a great new way to say “thank you” to him for a job well done!


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Alexandra Kurland is the author of Clicker Training for your Horse, The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures, The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker and The Click That Teaches Video Lesson Series. She earned her degree from Cornell University where she specialized in animal behavior. Alexandra has been teaching and training horses since the mid-1980s. A pioneer in the development of humane training methods, she began clicker training in the early 1990s. She very quickly recognized the power of clicker training for improving performance, enhancing the relationship people have with their horses, and for putting fun back into training.;