Creative training: From dolphins to equines

The Online Equine Clicker Training Conference ended recently. I’ll be sharing some of my reflections about the conference presentations on my blog over the next few weeks. The conference featured three weeks of fascinating lectures about clicker training horses and other equine. You can still sign up if you’d like, the presentations will be available on the site until the end of the year.

One of the first presentations I watched was a lecture called On Target Training, which was given by Shawna Karrasch. For those not familiar with Shawna, she began her animal training career as a marine mammal trainer, working with dolphins, killer whales, and other aquatic creatures.

Through her connections at Sea World, Shawna became acquainted with several people who owned grand prix-level show jumping horses. Even though Shawna had never trained a horse, she immediately began thinking about all of the ways that positive reinforcement training techniques from the marine mammal world could be used to improve the performance of show horses, while also improving their quality of life.

Horses aren’t smart

However, no one would listen to Shawna. No matter who she talked to, people told her that horses were not smart enough to be trained with clicker training. To Shawna, this didn’t make any sense. Positive reinforcement training techniques worked with dolphins, hippos, rhinos, sharks, and even goldfish. Surely they would work with horses?

Then, one night at a dinner, Shawna met John Madden, husband of the internationally-known Olympic rider Beezie Madden. He was fascinated when Shawna told him about marine mammal training. So, she sent John home with a clicker.

The next day, Shawna got an excited call from John. He tried clicker training with a horse who had previously been terrified of riding crops. Now, the horse would touch the crop with his nose. And, the horse was eager and enthusiastic to keep touching the crop. John was convinced. He told Shawna – if positive reinforcement can change a “no” to a “yes” in such a short amount of time, then there’s definitely a place for it in grand prix show jumping.

The creative trainer

After this, Shawna worked with many of John and Beezie Madden’s horses, as well as other horses that were competing on the top show circuits. Shawna approached horse training differently from other horse trainers, because she had no previous experience training horses. This allowed her to think outside of the box and find creative solutions for problems that traditional horse people found perplexing.

While Shawna was talking about this during her presentation, I was reminded of Dr. Robert Epstein’s concept of Broadening. Behavior analyst Dr. Robert Epstein has developed what he believes are four core competencies that form the basic skill set for creativity. Understanding these can help a person improve their creativity and problem-solving skills.

One of competencies that Dr. Epstein has identified is what he calls broadening. This means learning and exploring concepts and activities that are outside of your current area of expertise. New and diverse experiences increase your potential for creative thinking because if you broaden what you know, you’ll see connections or possibilities that you might never have thought of before.

Shawna was able to see new solutions to horse training problems because of her previous experience as a marine mammal trainer. This gave her a different set of eyes and a different perspective on how to solve problems. I bet as well, that she learned things from working with the horses that made her an even better trainer when working with marine mammals and other species.

It seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes doing something completely unrelated to horse training can make you a better horse trainer. For example, another horse clicker trainer, Alexandra Kurland, has incorporated concepts and exercises from Tai Chi into her training methods.

What do you do when you are not training horses? Have you ever stopped to think about how these skills and ideas could help you when training your animals (or might already be helping you)?

What is the goal of your training?

Throughout her presentation, Shawna kept returning to two important points that trainers should always consider.

Are you adding value to the animal’s life?
Are you improving the animal’s quality of life?

Shawna did have some contact with horses as a young girl. Her grandfather owned a farm and she would visit the farm sometimes on the weekend. However, the horses, although quite well trained, did not want anything to do with people. Shawna remembers being saddened by this, even as a young girl. Although she loved animals, she had no desire to interact with these horses.

For centuries, people have used animals for work or for sport, and the animal has been used for the person’s purposes and gain. However, as we learn more about the intelligence and emotional lives of animals, there is a growing concern for their welfare. In any training interaction, the thoughtful trainer must consider what is in it for the animal. Is the trainer acting in a way that will make the animal happier and healthier?

I think this is an interesting question to consider as a clicker trainer. Clicker training gives us tools and techniques that help make training an enjoyable experience for our equines. However, there is still potential for this to be used inappropriately. Food rewards can potentially be used to convince an animal to do something that he still would rather not do, or to face an obstacle when he is still quite afraid, or to perform a behavior that is physically harmful to his body. Even clicker trainers need to consider carefully the effect that their training will have on the animal’s welfare and quality of life. Does your training improve your animal’s quality of life?


Shawna loves working with horses because she often gets to see a transformation in the horses. The marine mammals she trained at Sea World were trained entirely with positive reinforcement. In contrast, many of the horses she trains come from traditional training backgrounds. Shawna said that it is always very powerful to see the horse’s performance and attitude improve as a result of clicker training.

One thing I loved about Shawna’s presentation was all of her stories. One horse would have been a top level show jumper, except he hated the water jumps. Shawna worked with him and his rider for months, using small steps to reintroduce him to going through water and over jumps in water. When they took him to his first jumping show after all this training, the spectators were amazed and could not believe it was the same horse.

Many trainers get stuck, thinking that they know the best way to train a behavior or that a problem behavior or unwanted behavior cannot be fixed. Clicker training gives trainers new tools for problem solving and creative solutions. However, even now, Shawna reminded us in her presentation that there will always be a better way and there will always be more to learn. I’m eager to see what new ideas and techniques trainers devise in the coming years that continue to improve horse training practices.

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