“I have the target… is it worth your time?”

So, the last time I wrote Skye had finally understood targeting with her nose. And it’s like a little light has lit up inside her. It really feels like just the beginning though (which it is). She’s gone from, “well this human isn’t too scary, in fact she’s quite nice, so I’ll be polite and do as I’m asked” to “oh! She wants my opinions! Oh, I didn’t realise I was allowed to share!” 

I always say, I don’t have a problem with pressure cues. Learning more and more about +R world, you find some people who are militantly against any “aversives”, but who have their ideas of what that means without actually asking each horse. If a horse moves off in a rush as soon as you hold a whip because they’ve experienced being hit and found it upsetting, that whip is aversive. If the whip has been used almost like a target or cue, just waiting until the desired answer is given, then surely it isn’t aversive? Manolo Mendez uses bamboo canes, but his use of them appears to be anything but aversive. The object, in and of itself, is just an object. So at this stage, I don’t see all “standard horse world aversives” as automatically always aversive. But, it’s certainly true that they are commonly misused. And what do you do if you’ve a horse who no longer responds to pressure, or who is disproportionately upset by it? Who is either switched off or overly sensitised? That’s one of the reasons I like the clicker ethos. Give them something to work towards rather than away from. 

I was reading about Panksepp again the other day. I really need to go into more detail on it, it’s fascinating. Short version… 

All mammalian brains have seven emotional systems. Pathways in the brain. 


  • CARE
  • PLAY
  • LUST
  • FEAR
  • PANIC 
  • RAGE 


If those pathways are lit up frequently, the connection between stimulus and response becomes strengthened. If we’re training animals, or maintaining human relationships, or working with customers, we need to consider which pathways we’re lighting up. 


  • SEEKING: finding food, shelter, company, other resources. Combined with PLAY, I suppose this is where the state of “flow” comes from. Once all your needs are met, you still have the need to seek, so you seek ideas, information, newness, answers to puzzles. 
  • CARE: affection and safety. Familial relationships. Friendship. Mutual grooming. The giving of food/milk. The sharing of resources. Nurture. 
  • PLAY: joy. Physical activity for its own sake. Again, when all your needs have been met you have room for PLAY. 
  • LUST: I mean, obvious enough. 
  • FEAR: freeze or flight. Fear tends to be silent. 
  • PANIC: grief/loss. Where are my friends? Where is my baby/mother? Panic has shrill whinnies attached to it as it’s worth the risk of making noise to find your lost loved ones. 
  • RAGE: when expectations aren’t met or a fight is brought to you. This is when “fight” may come into it, FEAR doesn’t really have a fight component. Since we’re a fifth the size of horses, we really want to avoid switching this pathway on. It does nothing to help us. In feral horses, RAGE is rarely seen. Since their default setting is to collaborate and co-operate, when does it happen that their expectations aren’t met? Not often. Feral horses show no solid hierarchy, no leaders, no dominance. The work of Panksepp (and Lucy Rees and many others) supports this. So no wonder some of them display RAGE when we try to boss them around. 


So which pathways are lit up in the horses we meet? And in ourselves? Imagine where the wires can get crossed. 

Say a horse is getting a scratch and it goes in to scratch the human in return. The CARE system has kicked in, obviously. But horse teeth are big and bruising. And perhaps the human has a FEAR or RAGE response and aggressively punishes the horse for biting. It’s hard to keep your cool and simply side-step the teeth (which is what animals do to teach their youngsters about appropriate use of teeth, simply disengage from the activity when the youngster transgresses), but as the apparently more intelligent species that’s our responsibility. We can teach it through the same basic method, to ignore it. To let the undesired behaviour go through “extinction”. And what a shame it would be to spoil a moment of CARE. Pathways become strengthened. If you’re the person that gives the horse a good scratch every time you see each other, you’re the person that horse starts nickering to see. Bonds strengthen, the animal’s willingness increases. 

If someone has really hammered home the point with Skye that lunging means just running on a circle until you’re allowed to stop (which I reckon someone has, at some point), then they’ve done effective training because now that poor horse doesn’t see lunging as something positive at all. It taps instantly into those FEAR pathways, as they’ve been strengthened. How much easier my life would be if they hadn’t! She was the same at first about being free in an arena. “Must run, get chased if I don’t run! Must follow when told to, get chased if I don’t follow!” 

We also know she’s had a couple of foals in her time. And now, at the new grazing where there are two young fillies, she’s suddenly displaying a separation anxiety that she hadn’t shown before. From the human point of view, another “problem” to deal with. But from Skye’s point of view, the presence of babies is possibly firing up those PANIC pathways from when her own babas will have been weaned. That’s a sad thing. Which I suppose brings me round to our three sessions since I last wrote. 



I took my headcollar and target out to the field, and we just did some work there. This was our first session since she had her light-bulb moment about targeting. It was also the first time that she’d properly engaged with being caught, rather than just passively allowing it. She’s always been golden for catching, so long as you were a quiet sort of person, but wouldn’t come to call. Obliging and sweet, but telling you something in her absence of forward motion. This day, I found them dozing under some trees and stepped up a couple of metres from her off hind. Laughed, called her name, and she perked up, looked at me, swung around and stepped forward. Uh, my heart. We ask so much of horses, but it’s the tiny things that get you. 

Head-collar and lead her out of the trees. She came eagerly. To a point. Happy to leave the herd, vast improvement there, but not beyond a certain distance. I thought, “no worries, this is why I brought my target” and got to work. Horse was so keen to show off her targeting skills! PLAY. I ditched the lead rope after a while,  it wasn’t needed. The rest of the herd meandered over, some of them very curious about the target (ah, how easier horses are when they’ve not been made afraid), but Skye just ignored them getting in the way and came with me, free, over the stream to continue our game. She got the hang of both touching and following the target. 

After a while she did switch off a bit and I realised I’d drilled the targeting too much. It’s meant to be for confidence-building, not control. And it doesn’t matter if you’re using treats, you can still demotivate with +R. Memo to self, there. 

So I asked for back-up up a slight slope (she’s getting very good now, the lines are straighter and she moves in proper diagonal pairs, and will go for much longer, very good for posture and proprioception), and called it a day. Took her headcollar off, gave her a fuss, and wondered off. Horse followed. More playtime? My heart. Hung around with the herd for a bit and gave her a few more strokes before leaving. 



Went down with my friends, so we had all three horses on the yard. The girls were going to ride and I was doing my usual silly stuff. Horse again more keen to be caught, and happy to follow us in from the field this time. Excited to show off her targeting again and I had the mat out for her to continue getting used to. She’s never been spooky of it, just assumed it was stepping over rather than on. But oh, she stepped backwards this day and got it caught behind her fetlock. Alarm! FEAR system engaged! Spun around and bolted off the short distance to our yard owner for a fuss. CARE. Now that’s new. She’s starting to see all humans as pleasant things, not just the quiet one that gives her treats. Galloped over to the girls the other day too, wish I’d seen that. Season change, they’re all full of beans right now. 

So, the session continued well enough. I put the mat away and continued targeting, trying to get her comfortable again. She settled, but slightly disengaged, and when we followed the girls over the little bridge and into the current riding-field she became reluctant again. PANIC system engaged. Like the other day, fine leaving the babies in the herd… to a point. I unclipped her lead to see what she was thinking and, no surprise, once she realised she was free she galloped back to the yard to be nearer to the herd. Walked back over laughing and found her getting another fuss from the yard owner. The panic over, because she was near enough to the babies. Did some very easy targeting and then put her back in the field. Expected her to run off desperately, but instead she turned around for nuzzles as if to say, “sorry, just want to be near babies…” That’s fine bonnie lass, we’ll work at your pace. 




This day was wonderful. The girls had their horses on the yard and the herd wasn’t far away, so Skye had nothing to upset her. Did targeting, good, fine. Reluctant to go to the area where she’d had her fright the day before. Isn’t it always true that the less you ask the more you get? 

She’s so keen on targeting, that I’ve realised I can use it as an invitation in itself. “Would you like to work? Would you trust me this bit further?” 

Studies on dopamine have found that once a task is understood dopamine-spikes occur upon being cued or challenged, not upon receiving a reward. The treats are the way in, but once established the horse is motivated by the game/task itself. We know it ourselves, anticipation is the thing. Variable rates of reward too. If you always get a prize, you stop being motivated to play. Online gambling companies know this! And I feel this is why plenty of quiet, traditional, horsepeople have happy horses. They might not actively use the science of +R or the method of clicker, but they have empathy with their beasts, give them challenges that are intrinsically enjoyable (running, jumping), and build their confidence and abilities slowly. 

So I sat on the mounting block a few paces away, target held casually, chatting to her sweetly. She responds to her name now. Takes it as a, “time to focus” cue. Stood there looking at me like, “oh, there’s no lead, she’s stopped trying to make me go over there, good. But hmm, the target, that’s fun… Maybe I could go over for a moment.” Could see the cogs whirring. Then she meandered over, straight to her target, to get a click. What a sweet horse. 

Played with holding the target in different places (which she’s really got now), then throwing it on the ground. This presented a bit more of a challenge (“but you’re not holding it? Confusion…”), but she got there. 

And this, the spooky flinchy horse who kicks into FEAR and freezes with legs splayed… did she care that I was throwing the target through the air onto the ground? No. It’s her target, why would she worry? It’s only ever meant good things. And this is what I mean when I’m thinking aloud about aversives not always being aversive, and rewards not always being rewarding. It’s an object on the end of a stick, could quite easily be used as a whip or to frighten her away. It doesn’t mean anything until it’s been experienced through the filter of one of the emotional brain systems. My hope for Skye is that we can create confident experiences of PLAY and SEEKING so that new objects are approached with positivity. And hopefully counter-condition old objects, to soften their aversive power. She already has the curiosity, for sure. Bold hacking horse of the future, if we’re lucky. 

Finished the session by getting a traffic cone out and putting the target in the top of it. What a star this horse is. She’s so pleased with herself. Moved the cone around and worked on just having her stand and wait until I’d moved it, then cueing her to “touch”. Worked on having myself positioned in various places so that she can begin to understand that she can go to the target even if that means going away from me. She did so well. 

Oh, but I tell a lie, that isn’t where we finished it. Skye has become worse for lifting her feet since moving to the new yard, so I had a friend hold her. We were getting no-where fast and I thought, “you know what, instead of picking out her feet half-well, I should really go more slowly and clicker this to help her be calm about it.” So the friend held/rewarded her and I clicked for being allowed to run my hands down her legs without her moving. It’s a small start, but she improved for it, so will do more of that. The friend also reported that Skye had turned to her for a fuss for the first time ever. Humans are nice now. 



It’s a shame that we have the new challenge of separation anxiety, but I’m not surprised by it. I’m more surprised that she hadn’t had this problem on the last yard. 

Her targeting is coming on beautifully though. And this is where I need to start being more creative. It was surprisingly hard teaching her to target. I think because she’d never been encouraged to offer behaviours before. Had most likely been punished for doing so. Once she realised I wanted her participation she lit up and it was a joy to see. But I am imagining that the next thing I teach her will likewise be a surprise to her. 

I’ve a few options to try and have made a couple of new string targets to play with. Targeting A to B at ever greater distances… Targeting different objects… Picking a target up… Targeting with different body parts…

This last one, in particular, is something I’m keen on. A withers-target or “crunch” would be very useful. With the separation anxiety, her exercise has been harder to keep up, and I really want to help her posture. Withers-up would help no end and if she took to it with the same enthusiasm as targeting she’d be golden. 

But you know, good days are followed by bad days, and the more you expect to get the worse it goes! So I’m going to try to be super chill with each session and really let her choose her level of involvement. Having seen her response to targeting, I think letting her choose to participate (or not) will do wonders for her overall sense of confidence and calm. And ultimately, that’s the starting point I need. 




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