Chat Transcript: Shawna and Vinton Karrasch’s Training Tips

“Everyone involved with horses wants them to consistently behave well, and perform to the best of their ability and knowledge,” says Shawna. “But many horses do not cooperate, and this is because they are not motivated to do so. The On TargetT Training program can change their attitude.”

Shawna and Vinton Karrasch

Transcript from the March 21 chat:

Welcome to’s and Horse & Rider magazine’s chat with Shawna and Vinton Karrasch of On TargetT Training!

This will be a moderated chat where you will send your questions to the host who will then present them to the Karrasch’s.

Host: As we get started, I would just like to ask how horses differ from the marine mammals you trained?
Shawna Karrasch: Horses actually are very smart and the training system is much the same. I’ve seen it work on any mammal or even birds. But what I find are horses are flight animals like sea lions. They’re lower on the food chain, they both have a flight response. At Sea World we taught sea lions to go in a cart. So teaching horses to trailer is much like training sea lions to ride in a cart. Their thinking processes are similar in that horses are a little questioning, not always sure about a problem, but they try to solve it (should I stay or should I go?).

What’s interesting is, if you deal with a horse with a bad history, you have to go through the apprehension and worry first before you can build on the behavior. But a younger horse is more a clean slate, there’s less stand-offishness, and they’re more willing to learn.

Guest: I have recently started using the on target methods with my horses. I have watched the video and started bridge training. However, it seems to have turned into a game of push the side bucket, look away and get fed. Should I move on to training with the target? I had hoped to reinforce the idea of not being too pushy and respecting my space, especially with one of the more mouthy horses. Suggestions?
Shawna Karrasch: Yes! When they push, leave the stall. It sounds like he’s doing superstitious behavior – that pushing the side bucket will be reinforced.

Here are two things to do. One, wait for more time in between. If he pushes the bucket, turn away for a second, have him hold it. Put more time in between the pushing and that may help. Two, leave the stall. He could learn that if he pushes, you’re going to leave. Teach him to turn his head while you’re in the stall, set him up to succeed more. When he’s good about that, get back in the stall gradually, and if he pushes, close the door and step away for 10-15 seconds.

It sounds like it’s part of the behavior to push and turn away. By nature, horses want to do the least amount they have to. So if he’s learned that his pushing drives you away or makes the session last longer, he’s going to want to do better.

Phoebe: What is On Target training? I have heard snippets but I am not sure what the theories are. Can you explain?
Shawna Karrasch: Well Phoebe, first of all they’re not theories they’re principles. This is not based on conjecture, this is based on proven principles. With our combined training in Sea world and grandprix jumping, it’s all based on psychology, but it was taken from text books and utitilizing operant condition and the factors that influence the behavior in a horse or dog or anything. Figure out what motivates them, what they want or want to avoid, and you use the environment to shape and change their behavior.

Now the element that’s traditional horse training is removal reinforcement, like when you want your horse to go forward, when he goes forward you remove the pressure. When he moves from the pressure you reward him for that, or when you soften the reins, he moves away from the pressure. The new element we’re adding is reward reinforcement – adding something in that they truly want and seek rather than taking something away they don’t like. It steps up motivation, builds confidence, helps nervous horses overcome issues or simply step up criteria.

Like our work with Sue Blinks. We worked with Flim Flam in Florida. Jane Savoie taught piaffe on the ground using On Target. Pony Club to grand prix can use this. That’s it in a nutshell Phoebe, if you want to know more, come to our website later at!

Aaron: I am new to this. I have a windsucker/cribber. He is not gaining weight because he cribs ALL the time. Can On Target Training help me with my horse to change his behavior?
Shawna Karrasch: Actually Aaron, you could work on it but I’ve heard from vets that cribbingis addictive and releases endorphins. It’s a reinforcer because horses are getting something out of it. We have a horse that cribs, and even we’ve learned that the cribbing strap is the best alternative. You could work on him to be better, but you couldn’t get it to totally go away. Cribbing, with that endorphin release, offers its own reinforcment to the horse’s behavior.

Ay Itneter: How can I teach my horse to listen to me?
Shawna Karrasch Do you mean literally listen and take verbal commands or just be more responsive? You can teach them to do either simply starting with On Target. Because you’re putting something in it that your horse wants, he’ll listen to you more because there’s something in it for him/her. Motivation changes when a horse wants something, and wants to please you.

If you literally want to teach verbal commands, like on the longe line and under saddle, you can teach them that, you just need to back it up with rewards that will support that. On the longe line we can use an extended long target, and pretty soon, your voice will take on meaning, and they’ll pay attention to you because there is something in it for them.

Maggie: I recently bought my first horse and he is very nice, with a good temperament. When I ride him he is ok going away from the barn but as we turn back he starts leaping from side to side. I have tried everything from being nice to getting angry but nothing works. I stop him as soon as he exhibits this behavior and turn him away from the barn and let him calm down but I am not sure how to make him stop. Everyone has a different opinion. Help!
Shawna Karrasch: Ok Maggie, what’s important in there that you’re doing good is that you’re actually stopping the action and turning the horse away from the barn. Your horse is excited about going home and gets anxious and is unresponsive. You’re right for turning him away and telling him, if you behave like this you don’t get what you want. But he needs to listen to you and listening to you is more important than the barn. By using On Target he’ll make YOU more important than HOME.

On Target reinforcement teaches them they can get rewards from going away. Turn him away, let him just step a moment or two and reward him. Work on smaller increments. Go out 500 yards if you think he’ll turn around and behave. Reinforce that if he walks back nicely he’ll be rewarded. Set him up to succeed. The next day go on to 600 yards, then 1000 yards, etc. He’ll start to be more interested in what you have to offer, and that being away from the barn is a good thing. Start it under saddle first, and get him to respond to the clicker to start. Then work on the barn sour behavior.

Ben: I have a 3-year-old who is a wonderful guy but has this annoying habit of gumming/biting people, objects, etc. He is not mean, he just seems to want to hold onto things. I have tried being strict, saying no and reinforcing that with a smack. I’ve also tried the nice approach. He just keeps doing it. How can I get him to stop thinking about holding onto things? We do not hand feed him…
Shawna Karrasch: Well Ben, don’t be afraid to feed a mouthy horse by hand. The two things don’t necessarily go together. Horses will investigate things with their mouth, that’s normal. But in operant conditioning, to teach him to do what you want, if he’s mouthy he learns it won’t work and we click when he turns his head away. They’re begging but instead of being pushy to beg, they learn that turning their head away is a better way to do it…

Be aware of the relationship between when he does this behavior and when you’re feeding him. Don’t think that the mouthiness is a food thing because horses don’t have hands; especially foals will investigate with their mouths. So one, you want to draw attention to the correct behavior (doesn’t choose to push or mouth) but he probably wants to play with things, so work on rewarding him when he’s out of context. Draw attention to correct behavior and ignore bad behavior.

If it’s mean behavior, by all means correct it, but a lot of times when horses want attention, pushing and mouthing becomes play and game behavior. It works better if you ignore the behavior. He probably thinks you’re playing a baby game with him

Here’s a story. We had a horse who had a problem with pawing in crossties. It was getting worse so the groom got harsher, running back to hit him when he pawed. It wasn’t pleasant. Well, the behavior increased in frequency so there’s something he was enjoying. The way to deal with it was to NOT respond. We discovered that what he wanted was for his groom to come back to him, even if she was hitting him!. The reinforcement was her presence, so teaching him that she wouldn’t come back to him was a better correction. Whenever a behavior increases, there’s something having a reinforcing effect.

Guest: Can competitive professionals use On Target Training? How can I click if I am a dressage rider?
Shawna Karrasch: Just push the button on the clicker! Just kidding…

You build up a chain of behavior. We took a hunter with a stopping problem to free jump. You start with one little jump, then build up to more. A chain of behaviors is a whole course, or a whole dressage test. You can reinforce randomly or for complete behavior. For a dressage rider you may reward when he piaffes two steps, then four steps, then 25 steps. Build on little tiny pieces. Use your traditional aids and you can reinforce on the end. Competitors like Jane Savoie and Sue Blinks use On Target.

Another thing is, initially, we’ll use a clicker or a whistle as a bridge signal at first. It grabs their attention and expedites the training process. This new foreign sound helps them make the connection. We’ll then use a verbal bridge signal after we’re under saddle for a few weeks. After all, what most of us want is a complete performance, it’s just a matter of breaking it down to increments first. So start with a clicker, move to voice, then move on to rewarding at the end of a test.

Ben: Along the same lines as “Guest’s” question, did you find resistance from the bigger-name trainers? I am a hunter/jumper person, and I know John Madden advocates your system, but I can imagine people dismissing “clicker training”. It is such a conservative, slow-changing industry. What has your experience been?
Shawna Karrasch: I do think it’s a good question. The Westerner is as staid as the English rider! The first place we start breaking through is when a problem can’t be corrected traditionally. When traditional training won’t help we change people’s minds. If anybody stops and listens to it, just about everyone we’ve met, walks away feeling like there’s merit to what we say.

These are proven principles – we’ve just applied them to a different industry. Professional or beginner, we get a snowball effect of acceptance. But it’s true, some people find it gimmicky to see a whale trainer with a clicker. But once you’ve seen it improve your relationship with your horse, that’s what sells it. You can truly train heart in a horse, it’s all about attitude, and this training can change their attitude around and change their owners’ attitudes too!

Sarah: Do you have a specific set of things that you do with foals/newborns? Do you suggest starting horses that young on clicker training?
Shawna Karrasch: Yes! I definitely do, the sooner you can handle them, the better they will be down the road with farriers, vets, riding, etc. We recommend starting as soon as they’re eating. The nature and basis of what we do is about dealing with horses’ minds. Start with bridge conditioning and target training, then teach them to lead. It’s like teaching a dog to heel: “walk with me, stop with me, turn with me.”

We work on things like picking up feet, touching them all over so if they have an injury, etc., we have them desensitized. Then we’ll work on desensitizing them to tarps, bags, etc. so that strange objects are ok. By the time they’re ready to take a saddle, they’ve learned that everything new and unusual has a good result for them. You can introduce them to clippers, a trailer. All those good lessons they can learn now, if you start them at 4 months, by 7 months they’re pros. You’re building a mental foundation. Because they’re herd animals they learn from each other all the time. So the more they can see going on (like letting a baby watch mom get clipped) the better they will be.

Another good point about On Target, you don’t need to teach them everyday. They’ll remember the good experiences, even if there’s a day or a week or a month in between. In our book, there’s a wonderful story about a horse called Husker Du that remembered clicker training with me even though several months had gone by.

Maggie: What are the 2-3 things people say they like best about clicker training? And what do you see as the 2-3 most common things people do wrong in the training of their horses that clicker training could help?
Shawna Karrasch: Ok Maggie, good question! The things that I hear the most? One, people are amazed at how quickly horses learn. The other is how much fun they have with their horse. People and horses both enjoy it and look forward to it. We also hear how clear and concise we can be with giving them a yes signal. Those are the things I hear the most.

In traditional training, I think there are a lot of good things out there but it’s a lack of education. People want to get something done but forget to ask if a procedure makes sense to them, or will it make sense to the horse? Sometimes you see something like trailer loading that takes hours. And, in a situation like that, the horse is nervous, he’s not trying to be bad, he’s just terrified. And often, it’s not about being bad, but the horse feels it has no choice but to fight for its life. Bringing out the brooms and whips and hooks only compounds his nervous attitude. You may get him in this time, but not again.

Slow down and build the steps. Like with trailering, start a month ahead of when you need to do it. Do short, 5-minute increments, put in positive associations. First reward him for being near the trailer, then reward him if he puts a foot on the ramp, then if he does one baby step. We’re a society that wants to do things quick, but take your time and enjoy your horse. Slow down and make an event a pleasanter experience. We have a saying, “Slow down and you’ll go faster.” Training too quickly is probably traditional training’s weakest flaw. And don’t take for granted what your horse does well. Still reinforce good behavior and you’ll avoid problems down the road.

Aaron: Is weaving a behavior that can be changed or helped by clicker training? Like cribbing, it is one of those vices that can drive you crazy and it is sad to watch a horse look that unhappy. Just wondering if clicker training would help.
Shawna Karrasch: Well Aaron, yes it could help! I haven’t heard of weaving releasing endorphins so you can correct with On Target. One, draw attention to the times they’re NOT weaving – ignore them if they are weaving. Support their correct behavior!

The nature of On Target training is that it will reward and stimulate good behavior. If you see them for 3-5 minutes that can release their boredom, you can add something in to stimulate them mentally. And give them plenty of turnout time and exercise. There are studies where animals have been given free food vs. hitting a lever for food. That means their mental wellbeing wants stimulus, they want to work for their food! What’s important, as horsepeople, we forget about the mental needs while attending to their physical needs. Horses like to solve puzzles.

Gwen: Do you do private sessions with people and their horses or do you only do clinics? Where can we find your clinic schedule?

Shawna Karrasch: Yes, we do clinics and private sessions! We do 3-day clinics, any amount, and can also go one on one with owners. Come to the website ( and we’ll have schedules and articles. Or there’s an 800 number to contact us (800-638-2090). So contact us!

Host: and Horse & Rider magazine would like to thank Shawna and Vinton Karrasch of On Target Training for chatting with us today. What a great hour! Please visit for more info.

Shawna Karrasch: Thanks for having us! Remember you can train your horse to do anything! Thanks again.

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