How to Train a Stallion

One of my favourite blogs, Some Thoughts About Dogs, shared a link to a video yesterday that had my jaw in my cereal bowl.

Back in December I dashed off a quick post about force-free horse training that caused a bit of consternation. Said post was inspired by a video I caught on a friend’s Facebook page of a horse learning tricks with a clicker. Ever since I started working with my cat, I’ve been convinced that any animal – every animal – can be taught using positive reinforcement methods. It is my belief that positive techniques are not only kinder, but they also work better as they teach the animal what is right, as opposed to just punishing her when she screws up. Indeed, when it comes to working with more dangerous animals, such as a lion, I would imagine positive methods would be a lot safer for the handler.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the way to earn a tiger’s trust is to give her a leash correction.

Dr. Sophia Yin is a highly respected animal behaviorist and veterinarian. She is one of the leading positive reinforcement trainers in the United States. If you haven’t visited her website, I recommend it whenever you have a few hours to spare. It is full of clear information on a number of common behaviour-related problems. While the focus of much of her work is on dogs, there are quite a few videos on her website that feature Dr. Yin working with animals like chickens and horses. Including the one that caught my eye.

Unfortunately, I can’t embed the video here but it you check the link, I am sure you’ll be just as impressed. If I had any doubts that a powerful horse like the stallion in this video could be trained with a clicker, they are long gone. It’s so cool to see how the horse responds to each click and reward. The connection between Dr. Yin and the stallion is evident. She proves that with good timing and the right currency, even animals larger than humans can successfully learn using force-free methods.

Isn’t shaping awesome?

Is there any limit to what a handler and animal can do with the right motivation? I’ve joked about it in the past, but maybe I need to invent some sort of underwater clicker and start training my fish.

30 thoughts on “How to Train a Stallion

  1. http://www.fish-school.com/ –A kit to train your fishies! You can use a visual “clicker” like flashing a flash light or turning on a lamp or you can use a physical marker like tapping the top of the tank (where there is no water to buffer the vibrations they feel) or you could probably “tap” the water.

    With the right motivation and a creative human mind, I really have not been convinced that there is a limit on what we can convince our critters to do.

    Here are my favorite atypical critter training videos:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoEoINlAYhA –hamster agility by my friend sophia

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kuXdYx87s4 –sophia and her goldfish 🙂

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bs-tAHqGruY –clicker training hyenas

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4bZzKpL_MU –clicker train a bear to have his/her teeth brushed!

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    • These are all fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing the video links! I don’t know if I am quite up to fish training yet – my cat is enough of a challenge for now. But it is very cool to watch!

      I believe all animals are far more intelligent than anyone thinks. Far more intelligent than even I think. A few months ago I watched something about jellyfish and how scientists have proven they can learn. If a little glob of slime can learn tricks, what does that mean for a more complex being like a cat or a horse?

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  2. I am sure you could train your fish – all you have to do is observe the cat’s training methods – they have sure learned to swim away fast when his paw hits the water

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    • Heh. Don’t be too hard on yourself. I haven’t managed to teach Shiva to be calm anywhere, let alone in our house with guests. 😛

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  3. The really impressive thing to me is not that so many animals (including humans) can be trained positively with clickers and treats. But, instead, that the trainer can manage the clicker, good timing, a bag of treats, and a spray bottle at the same time. I just don’t have that much focus or dexterity. 🙂

    BTW, if you’re intrigued by fish training, does that mean we’ll see a video with Shiva, the cat, and the fish sometime in the future?

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    • LOL. Neither do I. I even gave up using a clicker at all after just a few classes because I can’t hold it and a leash at the same time. I’m getting better, but it still feels awkward for sure. Hence why I often stick with ther verbal marker as a cheat.

      Don’t hold your breath. The fish are safe from my fumbled attempts for a while. They are more my PH’s fish anyway. Maybe I can get him in on it?

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  4. I *mostly* agree, but two things: handling a clicker while riding is basically impossible. It would be incredibly difficult to hold one with reins and you would inevitably click at the wrong time. Same for carrying treats and stopping every time you wanted to give one (which ignores the danger of your horse choking while trying to eat with a bit in its mouth). For ground training, this is great. Also, a verbal reward marker is something most horses know and you can use just like a clicker.
    That video is nice, but if you’ve ever seen a stallion lose it at the sight of mare in heat, you know there’s no tempting them back with treats (what that horse did in the video is nothing compared to a stallion going out of control). And unlike a dog (or chicken), you can’t easily pull them away. It’s just a matter of size; if a thousand pound animal decides it doesn’t want to listen anymore, you can’t just manhandle them away. The only time I have hit a stallion was because I didn’t want to get raped by a horse or allow my horse to mount another horse that I didn’t intend to breed it to (usually they go nuts when they see little ponies, which are usually being ridden by little children, who probably wouldn’t appreciate being mounted by proxy). It’s not a happy solution, but there’s a lot of instinct that you will never 100% train out of any horse. It’s rare, but a reality. The only other solution would be to never let the stallion see another horse, which unless you have your own hobby farm and you never take your horse anywhere, just isn’t possible.
    That being said, force is used way to liberally in horse training, especially at the competition level (worked for years as a groom with some of the top riders in Canada, so I’m actually speaking from experience here. I once had to take care of a horse that was so dangerous it wore a metal muzzle on its face). You can fix most riding issues with patience and positive reinforcement, both of which are in woefully short supply on the “A circuit.” Unless your horse has gone into complete panic “flight-mode”, there’s usually a better, kinder way, it just won’t be as fast.

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      • Nope, the horse with the muzzle was After Shock, one of Ian Millars old mounts (he wasn’t even a stallion, but could easily have killed someone if you don’t know what you’re doing).

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    • I really appreciate you sharing your experiences and insights. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with horses so I don’t have a lot of knowledge to draw from.

      From what you have described, working with stallions can be similar to training wild animals. While I have watched impressive work done with tigers and hyenas, these animals are not pets and can’t ever be viewed us such. Safety absolutely has to come first. Heck, if a dog was attacking me or someone else, I probably wouldn’t hesitate to fight back with whatever force I deemed necessary. Sometimes a line does need to be drawn. As you say, it’s a reality.

      Kinder, gentler training is never as fast, but I do think it works better and is worth the effort. This discussion reminds me of one I had about training dogs to avoid rattlesnakes. Almost always this training involves the use of a shock collar. Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe I’m just lucky in that I don’t live in an area with poisonous snakes, but I can’t help but think there is a better way.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

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      • No prob, I’m always happy to try and encourage people to use more positive methods. My only worry is when I see people sticking to it with horses and refusing to take that step where their physical safety (and the safety of others) is concerned bad, bad things can happen. The real problem is there isn’t really a lot of purely positive horse trainers around so people tend to just sort of make it up, and the end result is a rider with no control and often a horse who behaves like a bully (best case scenario). There’s guys like Monty Roberts and Pat Parelli trying to do this stuff, and they do amazing things, but not a lot of people are taking the correct steps to learn how to properly use these methods. Also, they’re stuff still sounds pretty gimmicky (it’s hard to take anyone seriously when they insert words like “Horsenality” into their training materials) so it’s hard for people to think it’s better than more traditional methods.
        What’s that line Silvia Jay always touts? “Positive doesn’t mean permissive”? Same with horses.

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    • It definitely helps! In fact, it’s probably a huge part of her success. Maybe one day I’ll have her patience?

      Hahahahaha! Yeah… Right…

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  5. Neat video, and interesting discussion after. I have seen a person work with a goat and a clicker as well. You would have to be very well timed with the clicks with a horse and treats, I would think over time maybe you would wean off to affection or some other form of behaviorally based praise? Gets the thought wheels going for sure.
    Anna
    http://www.akginspiration.com

    PS. I gave you the Versatile Blogger award, I know you get them lots, don’t feel like you have to acknowledge I just love your blog so I felt to share it.

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  6. In Reaching the Animal Mind, Karen Pryor talks about training a fish (in a fish tank. She also, obviously, talks about the dolphins a whole lot as well).

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  7. I agree with Jenn as far as stallions and mares in heat goes. There are some things that just aren’t safe and have to be dealt with in an immediate sort of fashion. I’ve been around breeding horses and it’s not for the faint of heart.

    We had a Kissing Gourami fish that learned to spit a little fountain of water at dinnertime. It cracked me up! But it was the same idea. When the lid opened and he spit, food fell from the sky!

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  8. I think whether a clicker works as a training tool depends on the animal and what you want to do with the animal. For instance there are always people who claim to use a clicker for field training, but they can never point to a dog who is competing on the field champion or even master hunter or lower level who has been trained with this method. I think a good trainer finds the method that works for a particular animal. If a clicker works, great, use it. We use a mix of positive training and corrections. Being fair with corrections and generous with praise is how we do it. It has not hurt our dogs and has turned them into more reliable retrievers.

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  9. Glad you liked the video I linked, Kristine. 🙂 I’ve actually seen someone clicker training a horse ‘in action’ and it’s pretty fun.

    The seminar I went to last year, with Paul McGreevy, had a lot of horse-training stuff thrown it. It was very interesting to think about training with other species. One of the things with horses is there is a lot of habituation. McGreevy was saying how, with his foals, he begins straddling them as youngsters – well before they are of riding age.

    The links that Tena posted are really cool – thanks Tena!

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