Working with Penny, a Fearful Horse

Written by Sylvia Koczerzuk, CDBC

I have been working with dogs and their humans for over 20 years. In the last two to three years I have been practicing the use of training with applied behaviour analysis using positive reinforcement with species other than dogs. Applying the science of learning to multiple species has been a big learning curve for me. Talk about honing your training skill and knowledge! There is nothing like the hands-on work to help you learn.

My training journey brought me to help out at a small farm sanctuary where I have been training multiple farm species, including Penny, who is an approximately 13-year-old pony.

Penny came to the sanctuary late in the year with an unknown history. She also had no name, and we while we did know she had lived with at least one other equine, we did not know if she had been socialized to people or other animals, or if she had been used for pony rides.


Behaviours I observed

Penny was easy to lead from trailer to barn, but once she was in the barn she displayed a lot of fear behaviour. She moved to the corner of her box stall when people approached. If someone entered her stall, she would start moving so that her hind end was facing them, ready to kick, although she never did. We could see her skin quiver when she heard certain unknown noises.

Training: first steps

The first steps in my training plan were deciding on what type of bridge (marker) to use, finding an effective reinforcer, and then using that reinforcer to condition a positive conditioned emotional response (CER+) to the marker.

Penny jumped at many of the new noises from the farm so I was sure a clicker or short and sudden verbal “yes” would be too scary to use with her.  I chose a longer, quieter “nice.”

When I met her, I had carrots with me, so I decided to see if I could use them as a primary reinforcer.  There was no way she would approach me for the carrots, so I tossed them toward her and she took them off the ground to eat. I now knew what her reinforcer was.

Creating a CER+ for Penny for the bridge or marker word required me to figure out how to deliver reinforcers.

From observing Penny’s fearful behaviours, I knew that it would take some time before she was able to take food from my hand, so I decided to use a bucket. I chose one that looked different from any other buckets used to feed or water animals at the farm, to make sure Penny could build a strong association between the bucket and reinforcement.

Penny and a bucket

Our first sessions happened in a large box stall where I could place the bucket near her but still stay at the entrance with the door to her stall open. I could throw the reinforcer into the bucket without getting close. It took only a few repetitions of pairing “nice” with tossing carrots into the bucket for Penny to learn the marker, so I quickly changed my reinforcement criteria to any head movements toward me. After a few repetitions of marking and reinforcing head turns, I ended our first session.

The next visit, I continued using the “nice” marker and the bucket as the deliverer of carrots; I set my criteria where we left off the previous visit, with head turns towards me. I still had to remain at a distance from Penny, or she would again begin to display behaviors I recognized as fearful.

There were times I stepped outside of her stall (usually to prepare more carrots) and she continued offering the behaviour of looking in my direction. When this happened, I took the opportunity to keep marking any head turns or eye contact toward me. I realized that while in my mind, our training session was paused, in Penny’s mind we were still in a training session! There was just the appearance of a stimulus (me) she had learned to respond for reinforcement, and if I didn’t offer that reinforcement (indirectly, via the verbal marker) I was missing an opportunity to train.

Raising criteria and encountering challenges

Once the behaviour of head turning toward me became consistent when I was near Penny, I changed my criteria to include making eye contact.

It was clear from my observation of her behaviors of her keeping distance from any persons resulted in her turning her rear toward people, there was some heavy breathing if anyone got too close so this became clear to me that Penny was not ready for me to be near the bucket when she took her reinforcers. There was no way I could approach her, and I did not want to poison the reinforcer, so I did not decrease distance while increasing another criterion.

Looking back at these very early sessions, there were some sessions where I was also inadvertently using negative reinforcement during the delivery of reinforcers. Being too close to Penny was clearly worrying for her. In some sessions, I had to move outside of the entrance of her box stall before she would retrieve the reinforcers.

In subsequent weeks, Penny was out in a paddock with other animals, and with free access to a hay trough.    I started training her using protected contact through a fence. This was more of a challenge than having her in a box stall because there were more distractions, but there were also opportunities — with more space, Penny could increase the distance between her and me if she felt the need to, and I hoped that this increase in agency would help her feel more secure in choosing to engage with me.

Penny with another pony, Iz

A fence can often be a positive presence for the animal as they begin to understand they are safe, even when they are in close proximity to the stimulus they might concerned about. I again began with conditioning the marker in this new environment and throwing the reinforcer directly toward her. Once Penny was aware of the carrots, I changed my criteria back to her paying me any attention, including head turns and eye contact. I knew as long as she was choosing to stay engaged with training — taking the carrots as reinforcers and choosing not to go back to the hay trough — I could continue to make progress.

After a few weeks, Penny was moved to a new paddock with a male pony, Iz, who I had also been in training for a while. Iz posed a whole separate set of challenges, as he had a tendency to guard high-value resources from Penny. It took some time, but I eventually trained a station behaviour for Iz while I was working with Penny.

Penny and Iz stationing

Again I started with pairing the marker and reinforcers, and soon raised the criteria and reinforced head turns and eye contact. I still needed to move away from the bucket for Penny to take the reinforcers, but I started moving a little closer if her behavior suggested she was calm. We made good progress, and each week I was able to stay closer to feed the bucket.

I varied my sessions in the coming weeks. When I entered the paddock and Penny walked away, I knew that this was over threshold for her, and our training sessions had to be adjusted. My training plan then involved keeping the fence between us.

My next training criterion for Penny was that she was able to stay close to the bucket while I was within 3 feet. She continued to take reinforcers and stay near the bucket. She would let me know when our training session was done by walking away.

When Penny was able to take treats out of the bucket with me near her, I checked to see if she would take a reinforcer from my hand. She reached and grabbed as if to bite me — a very clear signal she was not ready, so I continued deliver reinforcers from the bucket.

Introducing a game

After several weeks, I was a little stuck as to what my next criterion was going to be with Penny. With the help of fellow trainer Michelle Martiya, I was able to expand my bucket plan by using multiple buckets.

My initial criteria for was Penny to approach me when I was holding a bucket. These next steps involved having multiple buckets for Penny to approach. When she was in front of me, I would use our verbal marker “nice” and place the bucket down with a reinforcer in it. As she ate the reinforcer out of the bucket, I then moved away from Penny, while holding another bucket. Penny would follow me, and I would mark when she was in front of me. Then I would place the second bucket and reinforcer down, and continue to move around the paddock.

Multiple buckets

Shaping the reinforcer to shape the behavior

I repeated this game for several weeks, and now I knew I needed to change criteria for Penny. She was still not able to comfortably take reinforcers from my hand. I learned that volunteers were continually trying to feed her carrots from their hands. This seemed to limit our progress. I believe that this afforded her with less predictability than our training sessions, in which she always had a choice to interact or not, and this caused her discomfort. Once the volunteers understood this, they stopped, and I was able to make progress and teach her to take food from my hand.

When I had experimented with Penny taking carrots from my hand, I noticed that she flinched if her lip made contact with one of my fingers. I cut the carrots lengthwise so she could easily take them without being near my fingers. I could then slowly shape the size of carrots until she felt comfortable with my hands and fingers. Now I had to make taking the carrot from my hand a behaviour I could reinforce separately from the reinforcement of eating the carrot. I used a higher-value reinforcer, cut apples — when Penny took a piece of carrot from my hand, I delivered a piece of apple to the bucket. We made great progress!

Using higher and lower value reinforcers with Penny

As the summer season continued, I now had some grass I could cut for reinforcers as well. Grass was high-value for Penny and it was long, so I delivered this from my hand to continue reinforcing Penny for taking food from my hand. These last steps were huge, and Penny is now able to take carrots from other people’s hands.

Our continuing journey

There is still more to do with Penny but now her comfort levels with people coming to the farm is positive and she does not hesitate to move forward to them

I have continued working with Penny building stations for both Penny and Iz  where we can continue our training.  Now each week upon my arrival both ponies station themselves without any cues — or I should say, I am the cue for this behaviour.

Our next steps have begun with the approach of human hands. I created a +CER to my hand by placing my palm forward and reinforcing.   I continued this process by moving my hand forward inch by inch. Each inch forward involved many repetitions.  If she moved away, I knew she had enough or I was getting too close. All this training happened from December 2018 to December 2019. Sometimes sessions were weekly; there were breaks in between due to either my being away or focusing on training other animals.

Protected contact with fences and the buckets were important factors in our training, as was reducing her interaction with visitors and volunteers who behaved in ways that caused Penny anxiety. Our last session involved working on reinforcing Penny tolerating hands coming near her head. I have transitioned from presenting my hand to now using a Zoom Groom, and this is where we have left our training. At times it seems like a very slow process, but I am learning to go at the pace the learner lets me.

Penny and friends

Sylvia Koczerzuk is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer with CPDT and a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant with IAABC. Sylvia has been dog training for over 20 years and has trained for her own business, veterinarians, shelters, rescues and farm sanctuaries. Currently she lives in Kingsville Ontario with her husband and two terriers. Sylvia operates Walkabout Canine Consulting where you can find her teaching owners, their pets, and training at farm sanctuaries. Sylvia is available for workshops and seminars where she loves to share her knowledge in working with multiple species.