Bonding with horses

Solving Problem Behavior with Clicker Training (Leg Lifting)

Bonding with horses

One of my horses, Fionn, is not (yet) cool about lifting his legs for cleaning and trimming. I’ve never had mini horses before but I can totally see how people would manhandle them instead of training them properly. An adult is so much stronger and it’s enticing to think you can ‘win’ by holding his leg up. But are you really winning that way?

Thinking ‘Just do it’, and holding his little leg until you’re done trimming or cleaning is a fast solution. It does seems quicker in the moment….

Fast results

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should… Yes, keeping his leg in the air might get me what I want today, but will this be sustainable? I don’t think so!
It might seem to take more time to clicker training Fionn MacCool to be cool about leg lifting, but in fact it’s the short cut!

Long-lasting results

Kyra one month after arrival. Her 1st trim

Here’s what most horse people are concerned about. They ask me: ‘How long will it take to clicker train my horse to be ready for the farrier?’. They fear it will take so much longer than just forcing their horse to be trimmed. I do understand the dilemma: your horse is due for his trim next week and he still doesn’t behave safe and confident handling his legs. What to do?

They think clicker training their horse to be fully prepared for the farrier will take too much time… Spending 3 weeks of clicker training Kyra for leg lifting was a small investment for the years of calmness and confidence it brought both of us.

Think about this: how much time will it take to restore your horses confidence and trust in the farrier if you let the farrier coerce your horse? How much more trouble are you heading to, if you can’t decrease your horses fear of people? How safe will you be, if your horse is so fearful about touching his legs or handling his hooves?

It takes less time than you think

Yes, using positive reinforcement to train your horse, not to teach your horse that leg handling is fun will take some time. Yet, the return in (time) investment is so big!

You’re not only teaching your horse that lifting his legs is not scary at all, you’re building mutual trust in the process. Something you’re loosing every time you coerce your horse in doing something fearful. Once you train one behavior with positive reinforcement, other behaviors will improve too! That’s where the time saving element really will work in your favor!

In this video you see Kyra. I taught her to hold her foot up for cleaning without holding her leg.

The biggest mistake

One of the first times I lifted Kyra’s hoof. Look at her tail and ears: this is scary

The biggest mistake I see people making is to want to clicker train the problem away. So they can’t wait to start working on the foot lifting when they come to me. They want to know what they need to do in order to make their horse listen. And that is exactly the problem: they want to use positive reinforcement to solve the problem behavior, I want to solve the cause. Usually the cause is a lack of clarity, lack of communication and a lack of having a clear system in clicker training.

The biggest mistake is that they think the problem is in the behavior itself (leg lifting). But it’s not the behavior, that is the problem…

The real problem that should be tackled is usually something else. For instance a lack of trust, a previous bad experience with people (farriers or care takers) or a lack of balance that is the root of the problem. So when I advice people to start clicker training a simple behavior, like targeting, they usually are disappointed. They want to solve the problem of leg lifting!!

What R+ really does for the horse

If you apply positive reinforcement correctly you’ll offer the horse a choice. Cooperating with you, leads to a treat and not cooperating means there will be no treat, is not a (real) choice!

Building Confidence in Clicker Training

You need to teach your horse first he has options. Start simple to explain him this principle. Teaching your horse Key Lesson Targeting is a great help and gives you a solid foundation to teach your horse choices.

After teaching him the Key Lessons, you’ve taught him that he has Choice, he is in Control and you’ll listen (and act!!) to what he’s communicating to you. For instance you can click and treat for standing still, for lifting his leg and for touching the target. Click for multiple desired behaviors can built trust fast and can prevent frustration.

You do need to train each behavior separately first. If you’re working on teaching your horse to lift his leg and he touches the target: CLICK! Touching the target is a click-worthy behavior! The next step is so very important (and mostly overlooked). Ask yourself why he chose that behavior and not ‘lifting his leg’?

Listen to your Horse’s Feedback

You might learn that your horse is still insecure about YOU holding his leg, but he still wants a treat. He still wants to engage with you and since letting you hold his leg was (still) too hard for him, he choose a behavior that has been positively reinforced in the past: touching the target. Or, he’ll lift his leg, but only very briefly. Too short for you to touch it or hold it off the ground. Or maybe his balance is a factor and now you know that, you can offer a simple solution in order to help your horse get confidence in his own body.

All feedback from your horse is so very valuable! If you learn to read his signs and interpret them right, you’ll built a clear communication. That communication will teach you to listen better, understand your horse and eventually help you find (training) solutions that are a real win-win.

How to start

When you’re horse has a problem behavior (the behavior is not the problem, it’s the handler that has a problem with the behavior ;-)) start with solving the cause first. Work on your communication skills, with clicker training (!), before you start re-training the ‘problem behavior’. That is really the fastest way! I suggest my clients to start with a few (or all) of the 6 Key Lessons for Horses.

I know, it sounds counterintuitive to train a completely seemingly unrelated behavior first. But you have to trust me on this: the better your horse masters the Key Lessons (Your Key to Success in Clicker Training), the better he’ll do everything else! And secondly: the quicker everything else goes!

For instance, if he already has perfect Table Manners (Key Lesson #`1), he won’t be looking for a treat when you teach him to lift his legs. No, he will be looking for the right behavior(s) that will lead to treats! Big difference! You prevent him from becoming frustrated when you don’t click. Because now he understands he has to try something else.

Train an unrelated behavior first

That’s another thing you’ve been teaching him with the Key Lessons for Horses: he will be rewarded for trying! He’s encouraged to problem solve! Most traditionally trained horses are afraid of getting punished for taking initiative! And that is also one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in teaching a horse to lift his legs: he doesn’t understand what he has to do, or he can’t offer another way to you, because that has been punished in the past!

If you would try to accomplish this in training your horse to lift his legs, it will take forever! The pitfall is that you think it all has to do with leg lifting and you might be discouraged to use clicker training. You might make things worse before you make them better if you would go for the problem behavior first! If you mess things up (and you will, because making mistakes is a part of learning!) it’s with an unrelated behavior. Which you can repair easily later.

The Problem Melts Away…

Once your horse has learned he has choices, he is encouraged to take initiative and you enhance your communication system with him, you can start working on the ‘problem behavior’. You might notice by then, that the problem has already started to decrease….

With Fionn I’m still working on the basics. We’ve only done a few five-minute clicker sessions together.

Once he has learned the basics of clicker training (Choice, Control, Appetitives), teaching him to lift his leg won’t be a problem. You have a foundation of trust and friendship already! And it’s usually not the lifting that is a problem, it’s the coercion (the holding onto) that they fear so much and the repercussions for when they do pull back their (own!) leg!

I hope you’ll share this blog if you liked it; sharing helps making clicker training the norm. Before you know it, positive reinforcement is norm-al.

If you’ve been teaching your horse some basics already, you can take the next step: working on trusting you to hold his leg up (supporting it, not holding onto it). This program will explain all the steps of teaching your horse to hold up his legs for cleaning and trimming once you’ve trained some basics.

If you’ve had an eye-opener reading this blog, imagine what you can discover in a personal conversation with me.

In the HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy I teach horse friends to enhance to bond with their horse with positive reinforcement, so they’ll more fun and less frustration. They get better results with their horses and feel confident using clicker training.

Are you curious how well you’re doing with clicker training your horse and where you could improve your skills? Then I would like to invite you to a free Equine Clicker Training Assessment over Zoom. The purpose is to get Clarity.

  • Would you like to know what level you are at in Clicker Training?
  • Do you want to find out what is holding you back from achieving your dreams with your horse?
  • Do you know your strong points (and take advantage of them) and discover the holes in your training, so you know what to improve on?

In this assessment you get clarity about your action plan! Book yours today before the 100 free ones run out!

Happy Horse training!

Sandra Poppema, BSc

Sandra Poppema BSc founder of HippoLogic

Teaching horse people to connect with their horse in training so they get the relationship and the results they want.


Want to join my Clicker Community on Facebook? Join us in the (click here:>>) HippoLogic Happy Herd <<, where the R of Relationship is more important than the R of Results in training. Because we know that once you’ve built that Relationship, your horse will do anything for you!

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