Clicker Training your Laminitis Horse

When your horse get the diagnoses ‘laminitis’, you’re devastated. You panic and you want to know how bad it is, and what you can do. You want to do anything you can to make him healthy again. And pain free. So you listen to the advice you get, after all, it’s the vet who’s talking! You fear you have to give up clicker training.

Stop feeding treats! Start exercising!

The general advice of the professional is usually: “Put your horse on a diet. Let him lose weight and start exercising.” They often also add: “No more treats!
You (clicker) train your horse, you use treats or food reinforcers…. Now what?

Do you need to stop clicker training? No! Not at all.

When your clicker trained horse gets laminitis

I see a lot of clicker trainers struggle so much when their horse gets laminitis. They ask themselves:
Is it fair to my horse to use R- (negative reinforcement) ? I feel horrible but I don’t know what else to do. I want to do anything! But the vet said I can’t give any treats. None!

They’re devastated! They feel deflated!

Not only are they afraid their horse will never get healthy again or have to make that one decision no owner wants to make…

They’re afraid they’ll damage the relationship with their horse if they have to fall back on traditional training…. They’re right! That will impact their relationship! So they turn to me for help. They ask:

  • ‘Can you teach me to clicker train without food appetitives?’
  • ‘How can I exercise my horse if he doesn’t want to move and I can’t use treats?’

Ask better questions!

I get these questions a lot, because my horse got laminitis in 2016. I got the same advice: put your horse on a diet, no more treats and start lunging. I felt devestated. Kyra couldn’t be in a herd in the pasture anymore. I put her in a paddock by herself. She quickly developed several stereotypical behaviours.

She was lost without her herd: she paced along the fence and made a trench within hours! She kept reaching out to them, whinnying. It was heartbreaking.

Kyra started to chew on all the fences of her paddock. In the second week she ate a huge hole in her shelter wall, in just one afternoon.

It was horrible for her, until I figured I had to start thinking out of the (conventional) box! I had to see the problem in a different light! Asking myself how could I clicker train without food wasn’t helpful to Kyra. She is motivated by food! That led to her obesity in the first place. If you ask better questions, you get better answers. So I changed my questions!

Instead of asking:

  • How long do I have to lunge her each day?
  • How many flakes of hay can I give her?
  • How much weight does she has to lose and how fast?

I asked myself:

  • How can I still use food reinforcers, without jeopardizing her health? What could I use to reinforce her, that’s healthy?
  • How can I exercise her with R+ instead of R-/traditional ways (lunging, roundpenning)?
  • What exercises would excite her? Because hand walking her in the arena wasn’t enticing at all! It was torture for both of us.
  • What enrichment can I offer instead of friends & freedom? The answer was ‘food’ (F of Forage). So how can I provide enough food to keep her busy and let her lose weight?
  • What enrichment can I offer to prevent destructive and unhealthy behaviours (like pacing, wood chewing, cribbing)?

Different questions, different answers

These questions still lead to the same outcome: a healthy horse with a good weight. But in a way that improved her welfare (mentally and physically) at the time.

Being on a crash diet, and put in solitary confinement so I could monitor her calorie intake made her (and me!) miserable.

To me, her mental welfare and her physical health were just as important as saving our relationship we developed over a decade of clicker training. That’s why I was determined to change my questions, change my ways so I could change my outcomes.

Results of thinking in a R+ way

I could help her lose weight, without damaging her welfare.

I managed to find a way to keep using R+ in exercising her, without unhealthy treats.

 I found a way to keep her teeth off of the wood while she was on a diet. Without offering 24/7 hay (which she wasn’t allowed to have).

The fact that Kyra became happy and healthy and never had a laminitis attack again, proved to me that what I did worked!

Well meant advice

Usually horse people who use negative reinforcement and punishment in their training can’t see other solutions. It’s understandable that they give advice from that (their) point of view.

The challenge is to find the message they have for you. That usually is: I want to help you and your horse. The way they want to get to that (same) outcome is different. They mean well.

  • When your horse chews the fence, they’ll say: ‘Put sambal on the wood’. Or: ‘Put hot wire on the fence’.
  • When Kyra was making a trench along the fence out of stress they said: ‘She’s exercising herself, that’s great’.
  • ‘She will get used to being alone’, they said.

With my decades of studying horse behaviour and stereotypical behaviours, I saw a stressed-out horse in lots of pain. Stress has a really bad influence on inflammation in the body, so I that worried me even more.  I decided to find positive ways to meet the health requirements for my horse. My biggest discovery was a change of mindset.

You know, the vet only advices lunging your horse and to stop feeding treats because that’s the way traditional professional think. Most of their clients are probably still very traditional. And they don’t see anything wrong with starving their horse a bit to lose weight, lunging their horse when they can’t ride and putting their horse separate so they can keep an eye on their calorie intake…

R+ mindset for laminitis horses

What if..

  • There is a way to let a horse lose weight, without giving up on R+ training
  • I felt confident in training my horse with food rewards even though she has laminitis
  • Positive reinforcement benefits my horse mentally as well as physically and will contribute to her health, instead of damaging it
  • I found solutions to keep my horse off of the wood without a muzzle, hot wire or using sambal?

What if… I could help Kyra lose weight, keep clicker training and bond over this horrible experience?

Change

Problems are never solved in the same environment or mindset that created them. I knew that Kyra was overweight, but otherwise she was also happy and healthy. I kept her in a pasture with friends (in Summer 24/7) and in Winter she got group turnout for at least 8 hours a day (something that is hard very rare where I live!).

Kyra was diagnosed with EMS (Equine Metabolic Syndrome) and the vet told me that this usually manifest between 8 and 10 years old. Kyra was 8! Now I had to change my ways; the way I kept her and the way I trained.

  • Training became focused on the physical aspect (exercise, muscle building), rather than on mental and fun challenges.
  • Her food intake had to be monitored. I soaked hay to flush sugars out and fed multiple portions high fibre/low sugar/low calorie food a day so she wouldn’t be longer than 6 hours without food.
  • I found satisfying enrichment (through trial and error) now she was without friends and unlimited food, to stop and prevent pacing, chewing wood and developing cribbing.

Healthy

Kyra became healthy again. Although the process of helping her to start liking exercise was a long one. I won’t lie: it was challenging and hard, but we did it1 I would have taken less time with traditional training (R- and P), but slow and steady and developing even a better bond was very rewarding.

You can do this!

I know that if you struggle with a laminitis horse and you don’t want to give up on R+ training, that you can do this, too!

Start by asking yourself better questions! If you’re unsure you can do by yourself or you want support, know I’m here to help!

Join me in September ’21

For the first time ever I’m going to be teaching a small, select group of students how get your laminitis horse back on track without giving up on R+, so that you don’t have to jeopardize the bond with your horse. Or abandon positive reinforcement. It’s an online live training (on Zoom) and will be offered September 2021 (on a day in the weekend). Date tbd.

Are you clicker training your horse? Was your horse diagnosed with laminitis recently? This is for you!

  • If you’re done with having to fall back onto R- because you don’t see another way.
  • If you’re done with horse unfriendly ways to nurture your horse back to health.
  • And, if you’re done with the naysayers to treats and people who encourage traditional training ways for your sick horse.
Sandra and her horse Kyra

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *