Relaxation, softness and attitude

Posted in: Classical Equitation, Clicker Training, Q & A Section, Stories & Thoughts

I recently had the privilege of spending a long weekend as part of an incredible group of clicker trainers at an Advanced Clicker Training Clinic with Shawna Karrasch of On Target Training.

The over-riding theme which ran through the whole weekend was the relaxation, softness and attitude of the horses. I cannot express just how important this seemingly very basic concept is. It is absolutely fundamental to everything else and should be the base upon which all other training is built. It really is the most important criteria of all and should be taught from the outset with clicker training. My experience has been that it is so often overlooked.

As Shawna says:

“Attitude is the most important element of any behavior, period.”

Shawna has just published a blog on this very topic! As my own thoughts, training and teaching have been so focussed on these fundamentals this year, I wanted to share Shawna’s fantastic blog post with you all. 

A calm horse and a still horse are not the same thing: relaxation and attitude are paramount 


Hi Shawna
Love seeing your pics from the UK. Maybe one day you’ll make it to Australia! I just have a quick question. I am working with a horse that has a lot of nervous energy. I am just starting target training and he isn’t entirely relaxed about the target yet. He comes over to me in the paddock to do it, but I can see he’s got an eye on his escape route the whole time. I am doing short frequent sessions but I want to bring attention to when he is softening and relaxing (which isn’t really happening at all yet) but when it does I want to bring attention to that as you often say to do in your answer blogs. However, I’m not sure how best to do that. He’s still learning that the click means he’s performed the correct behaviour, ie touching the target. So I’m not sure if I should click when I see him just relax a little (and not neccessarily touched the target) or just feed and say good boy. Will he relate the click to the relaxation? I’m afraid he’ll relate it to something entirely different and I might inadvertently create a alternate behaviour. Thanks Leone (I guess not such a quick question).


Hi Leone,
I must sing your praises for a moment…That is an exceptional observation and one that a lot of people overlook!! You can build tension into behaviors that may overtly look calm. Standing quietly with their jaw clenched, or head raised up, or tension in their body is definitely not the same as standing quietly with relaxation and softness. Swinging their head at a target is not the same as gently touching the target. This goes with any behavior. Attitude is the most important element of any behavior, period. A great looking behavior is nothing unless it is done with a good attitude. That is why I am such a big proponent of working at liberty. It gives them the freedom to express their worries or concerns as well as there is no subtle coercion. What may appear subtle to us is often deep rooted for the horse trained with pressure and release. This just builds a better attitude. So, I must say I am impressed with your awareness to those details and that alone tells me you are going to go very far with your horse (I am still smiling!)

I recommend that you don’t work on the targeting with him yet but instead just focus on the standing and relaxing while you condition him to the sound of the clicker. Just wait for him to soften, exhale, any sign of relaxation. Even the slightest bit. I try to watch the ears, the eyes, the mouth, nose, jaw, head carriage and body language. The softness will increase once he gets the idea. There is a point when even the most worried of horses gets tired of holding in all of that tension and takes a break. Draw attention to that moment.

Since it seems like he is keeping his escape route open, I suggest maybe starting on the other side of the fence. Maybe this way he will feel a little safer and more relaxed. Also, sometimes squatting down (if you feel it is safe to do with him) will help to remove some suspiciousness and again help him to feel more comfortable. The lower you are the less threatening you will seem. Maybe even sit down outside the fence line if your situation still allows you to feed him from there. Another thing that works for some horses it to walk a bit. Sometimes just the act of walking can help them to focus on walking instead of their tension. Also, when you walk away, you are retreating which can build his confidence. I am confident you will be able to read him and see which thing (or combination of things) works best for him. As you see him consistently being soft and settled, slowly fade out the tools you used to help set him up for success. For example, when he is routinely nice and calm with you outside of the paddock then step inside the paddock and follow the same steps until he is staying calm again.

Once he is consistent with relaxing and seems more trustful, with you two standing together, then I would re-introduce the target. I suggest starting with the target in your hand, down by your side, and continue with the relaxation exercises while not drawing attention to the target. Some horses view something in your hands as a threat. So, for the next step I recommend you keep it slow and low until he learns the target is a safe thing. That usually doesn’t take too long. Also it may help to go back to the early steps you used to help set him up for success. If he was more comfortable with you sitting or squatting, start the target while sitting or squatting, or outside of the paddock or whatever seems to help. You have also got the right idea with the short and very reinforcing sessions. However, it may take a bit longer to wait out his tension until he finally relaxes a bit. I know you will get it worked out, especially since you recognized it on your own in the first place.

As for a visit down under…I have been getting a lot of interest from Australia and requests for clinics. If you know of a group of people or a facility that may be interested in hosting a clinic I think it would not be too hard to organize. Just something to keep in mind. Otherwise, please keep me posted of your progress with your wary horse. I am here to help along the way. Keep up the good work and exceptional observations!!


A Calm Horse and a Still Horse are Not the Same Thing: Relaxation and Attitude are Paramount.