Ronnie gets an itchy mane, and I have been using Coconut Oil and counter-conditioning via combined reinforcement (CR) to treat it… and the head shyness that developed…


This is not an advertisement for Coconut Oil!!! Although I have to admit it is my product of choice on itchy horses… and in the nicest possible way I am not looking for 1000x offers of what to do with an itchy horse…

This post is about:

Combined Reinforcement and Counter-Conditioning 

CR is the combined use of the two reinforces that we have available to us: Negative (-R) and Positive (+R).

In this case I am using downward pressure applied to his poll via the halter and releasing on the lowering of the head: -R

And then adding the +R in the form of food via a bridge (in this case a clicker). 

Counter-Conditioning is a habituation process that follows the classical conditioning process. You offer the horse a reward (in this case food) directly after he experiences something he finds aversive (in this case my hands, the oil bottle and the oil bottle moving). In this case what occurs is that Ronnie learns the appearance of the oil bottle heralds food.  

I also do a little bit of overshadowing as well… overshadowing is where two stimuli compete for salience. The one that ‘wins’ overshadows or deletes the one that doesn’t… in this case I do head down at times to overshadow his ‘head up’ behaviour when I am applying the oil or raising the bottle towards his neck…


So why go to all this effort? Well I know from personal experience that many horses get head shy on various levels about stuff around their head and ears. Washing the mane and even plaiting, not to mention on some putting on the bridle or halter, can be annoying, inconvenient or downright impossible depending on the horse and his aversion to touch in that area.

Ronnie wasn’t totally anti head and ears when I first started applying the oil, but he wasn’t exactly happy about the situation, and to be honest I did a few applications of oil before he decided to go from tolerant of oil to anti-oil… and then I had a head shy horse instantly…

And again this is a good example where systematic desensitization DID NOT lead to habituation… which is what lazy me was hoping was going to happen… and it didn’t… but it has lead to a nice video on how to deal with head shyness and probably a good lesson for me… in the past I probably have relied a little to much on the horse just gradually learning head down and systematic desensitization regarding situations like these. But seeing Ronnie now after 3 lessons of this particular context (this is the 3rd repetition), I’m thinking I will make a little more effort in the future…

And it is also adding more weight to my use of food +R, used in the right way and right context it is certainly very very powerful! It actually kinda feels like cheating… it makes the training so simple…



So this is the 3rd time I have actually ‘trained’ him in this context. And in the video I do actually show the process that I did over the 3 trails. This is the first time that I have actually got head down + oil bottle + tipping bottle: head stays down… and I’m relaxed.

The first two times went:- head down + oil bottle: head up! Head down + oil bottle + tipping: head less up, and I am tolerating the process, but I’m not truly happy and really really want to throw my head up…

So what I actually did wasn’t a truly perfect example of how you technically should do it… ideally I should have repeated each step until he was totally relaxed before I moved onto the next step on a different day but he needed oil on the mane, so every time, he got oil on the mane regardless…

Also I didn’t add the overshadowing till today… the other two days I did head down as a single response trained utilizing CR and did pure counter-conditioning with +R regarding lifting the bottle to his neck, tipping the bottle and rubbing it in with my hands… I never would have overshadowed the head up response with head down till today as prior to today he was showing far too much aversion to the process, the overshadowing would have never lead to relaxation as the response would have been far to heavy to work.



So footage breakdown:

  1. 00:00:17 ~ Step 1 – Head Down
  2. 00:00:36 ~ Overshadowing arrival of the bottle
  3. 00:00:49 ~ Step 2 – Counter-Conditioning the arrival of the bottle
  4. 00:00:58 ~ Overshadowing pouring of the oil
  5. 00:01:17 ~ Step 3 – Counter-Conditioning the pouring of the oil
  6. 00:01:41 ~ This is all overshadowing…
  7. 00:02:23 ~ Nice CC here…
  8. 00:02:45 ~ Starting to see him relax and become lighter
  9. 00:02:56 ~ Another really good example of CC
  10. 00:03:58 ~ CC my hand on his poll
  11. 00:04:37 ~ CC rubbing his ears
  12. 00:04:55 ~ +R to the voluntary head drop
  13. 00:05:42 ~ These voluntary head drops were lovely to see
  14. 00:06:33 ~ Back into the realm of systematic desen now…



Soooo…. If you had a truly head shy horse you would do Step 1 until the horse was light and relaxed, then you would do Step 2 as a single lesson, not shaping any other related behaviour or adding a step until you had a response like what you see at #7 00:02:23.

Then you would progress to step 3 and repeat 1 to 3 until the horse was totally cool with that, and then so on and so on, depending on what exactly you are dealing with and how small you need to make your progressions…  

In this case specifically after he was calm and reliable at step 3, which is the pouring of the oil, and is the final step required, I would then start to shape head down, which is what you can see I am already doing in step 2 of this footage.

I will continue to target this behaviour in this way for another 3 trials at least, until he pretty much couldn’t care less right from the very beginning. When he gets to the point where the head shyness is gone from the very beginning, I would still repeat the training one or two more times in the same way in order to solidly confirm the correct learned behaviour and solidify the newly formed memory. 

If a horse has a long history of head shyness you may need to repeat the training in many different contexts (environments) with different stimulant’s in order to truly remove the incorrect learned response. 

Hope this helps out some, Cheers.