Key lesson: Horse, stay in learning mode [emotions in training]

In my last post I wrote about the importance of teaching horses safe behaviour around food and food rewards. Another key lesson that helps keep training safe and fun for all parties is managing the emotional state of mind of the horse during training. You want the horse to use his mind and stay in his learning mode.

Reinforce wanted behaviour

In positive reinforcement training we reinforce the wanted behaviour in order to get more of that behaviour. As trainers we have to pay close attention to the behaviours we are actually rewarding. In other words: you get what you reinforce.

In clicker training, as well as in every other training method, it happens that trainers are not paying attention to the horses’ state of mind during training.

Every trainer can unconsciously reinforce undesired behaviour, due to a lack of timing, lack of knowledge of behaviour or misreading body language. Common examples are horses that express (over)arousal, fear, pain or frustration during training.

If the horse is experiencing arousal, frustration, anger, pain or fear the brain can prioritize these over a state of mind in which learning can occur. The horse goes into ‘survival mode’. He gets out of his ‘thinking mode’ and he can’t learn anymore. That is why these emotions and behaviours that can go with them are undesired in training. It is the trainers responsibility to pay attention and prevent or if necessary re-train these emotions and paired behaviours as soon as possible.

It can be hard to detect the early signs of these emotions. Sometimes it is only recognized when it is already escalating in the horse. Then it is much harder to deal with it.

Two reinforcing moments

There are two moments in training which you have to pay extra close attention to the horses’ emotions because those are the most reinforcing moments.

The fist is the time of the bridge signal, the click. The click means ‘this’ is what I want you to do, it pinpoints the desired behaviour.

The second important moment is the moment you actually deliver the reward, since the reward is reinforcing the behaviour at that moment.


Imagine a horse is in a relaxed state of mind and happy and eager to learn. He pays attention to the trainer and is trying different behaviours and his behaviour soon meets the criterion of the trainer: he touches the target while he is happy and the trainer clicks.

Then the trainer isn’t able to deliver the food reward as quick as the horse expects it.  The horse becomes a bit impatient. He pins his ears, moves to the trainers hand with the treat on it and in his hurry he uses his teeth to take the food off the hand. This happens several times in a row. The trainer doesn’t pay attention or isn’t aware of this little change in the horses’ behaviour.


Can you see what emotion/behaviour is reinforced during the delivering of the treat? Can you imagine that after a few repetitions this behaviour will become a habit for the horse? He is, after all, reinforced over and over by the trainer to behave this way.

The horse can even think he has to ‘try harder’ in the way he takes the food off of the trainers hand and can change into ‘threatening the trainer for treats’.


It is better to pay attention to the horses emotions right from the start and prevent behaviours and situations that can escalate.

Make it a habit to watch a horses’ behaviour closely and change your criteria or training context as soon as you see the first signs of undesired emotions or behaviours.

Keep your training fun and safe for everybody.

Links to other key lessons

Thank you for reading. Let me know how what your favourite key lesson is and why.

This blog doesn’t have enough room to tell you everything I know about emotions in training and how to prevent and deal with undesired emotions. Do you want to learn more about ‘Emotions in Training’ and how to coop with them? Join HippoLogic’s 8 week online course Ultimate Horse Training Formula. In this course is a whole module about Emotions in Training. Not only equine emotions and how you can recognize them, but also human emotions, like dealing with frustration, feeling like a failure, fear and more.

Here is another blog about it.

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Happy Horse training!

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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