Counter-Conditioning: Or, How to Get Horses to Like Things They Usually Hate


boy with blond curls brushing brown white horse
Counter-conditioning Lilly to like (well, OK, tolerate) being brushed by my son.

It took me a loooong time and a 9-month professional certificate program to realize that there were easy - and I mean really easy - ways to get my horse to do what I want. Prior to that, I had spent years tugging incessantly on lead ropes, breaking out the dreaded lunge whip, pleading, begging and oftentimes, just giving up. (It didn't help that I've always picked out the more "autonomously minded" horses). I used to actually dread the moment that my horse would suddenly decide to come to a dead stop and refuse to continue walking - feet dug into the ground, pulling back against the halter. Because it inevitably turned into a battle of the wills - and that's never pleasant, let alone successful against a 1,000 pound animal.


But once I learned about positive reinforcement, everything changed. As a comparison, standard horsemanship methods rely on negative reinforcement, or applying pressure until the horse responds correctly, at which point we reward the horse by removing the pressure. (A typical example is when you pull on a lead rope until the horse walks forward, and then you stop pulling). But positive reinforcement is all about offering a true reward - something the horse actually wants - in exchange for the horse doing something you ask it to.


I talk more in-depth about positive reinforcement and clicker training in another post. But suffice to say, I discovered I can get most horses I know to do just about anything for a tasty little niblet of their favorite treat. And the same thing goes for getting a horse to accept certain things that they normally aren't very fond of. And that, my friends, is called counter-conditioning, one of my favorite tricks in the whole book.


Before I go more into it, I need to address this: there are definitely some nay-sayers about using treats with horses. Generally, it seems that they believe that using treats spoils the horse.

But this isn't about spoiling the horse. This is about understanding the way the equine mind thinks and works, and using it to your advantage.

Because horses (like most animals and, ahem, people, *raises hand*) are highly motivated by food, you can get faster results even at liberty than you can playing tug-of-war with a halter and lead. The short-term benefit is that you get your horse to follow you, stand still, back up, whatever, in the moment when you need it. But the long-term benefit is that now the horse has created a positive association in their brain between doing a certain activity, and a delicious treat. Which means they're much more likely to do it next time, too.


Which brings me to counter-conditioning, itself. Clicker training/positive reinforcement is generally about getting a horse to do what you want it to do. But counter-conditioning is about getting a horse to accept something it normally doesn't like - and ideally, to not do anything about it (no running away or spooking, that is to say). I find counter-conditioning to be both highly effective and more ethical than the idea of simply trapping a horse and restricting their movement. By offering the horse a reward as we're performing a task that the horse doesn't usually like, we help them form a new, positive association with that thing (fly spray, the farrier, etc.).


I like to use my horse, Lilly, as an example for basically everything because she came to me with very little comprehensive training, so she's a great Step 1 for all these methods. She used to run away from her old owner, and often couldn't be caught for the farrier. I started using positive reinforcement and now nearly exclusively work with her at liberty using clicker training. This wild child used to high-tail it at the sight of a person coming to get her -- and now she comes to me, which is a classic example of a positive association being formed. Beyond that, I've used counter-conditioning to get her to accept fly spray, which she used to see and then be like, "peace out". Now she stands still - at liberty, as I'm spraying her - because she knows there's something in it for her (peppermint nuggets on one of my lazy days; watermelon on a lucky day).


So, how do you actually use counter-conditioning, now that you know what it is? Something as simple as giving a horse their grain inside a trailer is considered counter-conditioning, because they can form a new positive association between a place that they normally might not like (the trailer), and a very pleasant thing that they do like (the grain). With Lilly, I started counter-conditioning her apparent dislike of getting her hooves picked by giving her a nice little pile of hay as I cleaned her hooves. With time, I was able to stop giving her the hay and instead I now just give her little tidbits of apple or carrot here and there as I'm working on her feet (although now mostly in conjunction with clicker training - rewarding her for lifting up her feet, holding them up, etc.). Really the idea is, take a place or experience that your horse doesn't like, and make it more pleasant with something they enjoy (typically food, although if they're big on wither or rump scratches that can work, too!).


The bottom line is, counter-conditioning is a relatively simple training technique, based on a scientific and very real understanding of the horse's ability to form associations between things. Simple - and yet often more effective than the traditional techniques that rely upon force or discomfort. It gets you the results you want, both in the short-term and in the long-term, without the resentment, frustration or sore muscles that come from a power struggle. And in the end, isn't that what it's all about -- efficient, functional partnerships with our horses.


If you'd like help learning how to use counter-conditioning, clicker training or any other training methods that I've talked about, please don't hesitate to contact me at cassidyweyel@gmail.com.