Targeting at liberty

The use of a Target stick At Liberty

Has your target stick such a long positive reinforcement history that is became a Horse Magnet? That’s what I call my target stick. With the hundreds of hours of R+ training Kyra and I have done since I tamed her in 2009, some behaviours became really, really strong. Here is how you can use your target stick in at liberty training to keep your horse off of grass and other greens.

Key Lesson Targeting

One of my first DIY targets in 2009
Key Lesson Targeting became way more valuable than I thought when I started teaching it

I’ve been using targeting since 2009 with Kyra and it comes in handy in all kinds of situations. Targeting in itself is not the goal anymore, it became a tool to get other behaviours.

First I started teaching her touching the target with her nose is reinforced with an appetitive and soon after I used the target stick as a tool to provide her with clarity what I want her to do. It’s an invaluable tool and the target in itself has such a high attraction it has even more value than at lib food that is growing in and around the outdoor arena.

The target becomes high value

When I started clicker training (late nineties) I could have never imagined that a piece of plastic on a stick would be more valuable than grass or food for a horse! Because of the long reinforcement history, the target becomes really high valued in itself.

Hundreds of clicks and treats have come her way after touching the thing. Slowly but surely the association built with the target is a really strong, positive one. Touching the target makes her feel good.

Now just seeing the target is enough to trigger happy feelings. That’s how the target in my hand (!) has a really high value for Kyra.

Grass Training pays off

Kyra has Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and therefore is on a restrictive diet that is balanced with the amount of exercise. Because of her EMS she’s always hungry. I think all horses feel (a bit of) hunger most of the day because they need to browse and graze 16 hours/day, but EMS horses are even more hungry.

In this video about training Kyra for one of my HippoLogic Clicker Challenges that I used to offer, you can see that she gets distracted by the freely available blackberry bushes and wonders of. Take a look at the video at 0:45. She walks away to get a snack. This almost never happens, so it’s great I have it on camera.

When I wave my magic wand, my horse magnet as I like to call it lovingly, she can’t resist and chooses to come back. There: focus is back on me. In a calm, positive way. Without struggle or frustration!

This wouldn’t have happened in my early years fo clicker training. Then I would have heard a voice in my head that say I needed to ‘teach her a lesson’… We all know what that means, right? Now “teaching my horse a lesson”, would mean real teaching (learning involved!) and in a pleasant way (win-win) with positive reinforcement so long lasting results can be expected. ;-))

When At Liberty becomes a Struggle

Every time Kyra was on a restrictive diet (either a barn manager that underfed her or due to laminitis) at liberty work turned into a huge struggle. Instead of paying attention to me, she was frantically searching for a strain of grass or a fallen leave to eat. It was no fun at all! I stopped at liberty training for a while because of that.


I was frustrated because she basically ignored me at liberty. That was such a horrible feeling. There I was: with decades of experience in training horses and helping so many horse owners under my belt and my own horse acts if I don’t exist!

In the beginning (years ago when I still mixed the quadrants) I did manage to get her attention, but in negative ways. With positive punishment (adding an aversive to STOP behaviour: grazing). That only payed off in the moment and never led to long lasting results. So that led to even more frustration! Sounds familiar?


Horse training can really lead to frustration and desperation if you can't overcome your struggles

All that frustration lead to real feelings of desperation. I had times that I thought this tug-of-war over grass would never end. I tried everything: pulling her away from the grass, preventing from eating (that only works as long as I kept the lead rope short and even then she pushed her weight into the halter to grab a bite or two). Even punishing her by adding aversives like a wiggling rope until it was averise enough to interrupt grazing and to lift her head. It didn’t really help and … on top of that; it made me feel terrible, too!

2 Common mistakes in At Liberty Training

If you want to read more about commonly made mistakes at liberty training, and their solutions (!), read this blog.

Solving the Struggle

Until I started to figure out ways to teach Kyra to stop grazing (and browsing) with 100% positive reinforcement. It was a challenge to restrict myself from using (undeliberate) punishment or negative reinforcement to get what I wanted: stop eating and ignore the food as long as we were training.

Out of the box solutions in training

Whenever I teach people get results with Grass Training my heart makes little jumps from excitement: people don’t have to be experts or pros to get results, they only have to know what to do (and then do it)! Grass training has nothing to do with the amount years of clicker training. I couldn’t do it after 15 years of positive reinforcement training, but as soon as I used 100% R+ I got results quickly. Anyway I digress…

My Target Stick is now my Horse Magnet

As you can see in the video above (pay attention to 0:45 to 1:00) grass training and the use of my horse magnet come in handy in daily training and interaction. I can enjoy my at liberty training again.
Grass training helped also riding. Now Kyra doesn’t do the unsoliciting snacking on the greens that grow everywhere. Kyra only snacks on cue under saddle, and that makes trail riding and riding in the outdoor arena so much more fun than before.

After grass training, I could use my target stick to ask Kyra to come to me. The target stick now is like a magic wand. How amazing is that!

What about you? How do you see your target stick? Do you still only use it as goal: to ask your horse to touch it? Or do you use it a training tool to provide clarity and help you train other behaviours faster? What behaviours have you trained with the aid of a target stick? Have you turned your target stick into a horse magnet?

Is At Liberty a Challenge that you want to Master?

Join us in the At Liberty Challenge March 1st to March 14th. More info about the 2 most common mistakes made in At Liberty training in this blog. Click the picture below to register!

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.

HippoLogic Grass Training

Self paced online Grass Training course without support

If you are curious about teaching your horse to ignore grass, stop grazing on cue and how you can give an ‘allow grazing’ cue, hop over to my website to check out my Grass Training programs. I have a DIY (self paced) course and a package deal (online course + 14 days of online coaching included). Check out my shop to see when the next Grass Training Course with Coaching starts.

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