An update on clicker training

Once Drifter was back to the usual summer turnout pattern (3pm-8am) we no longer had the problem of him being more interested in a haynet than me. I bring him in to ride, clicker train afterwards and then turn out again. This works well.

We’re currently working at liberty on the yard outside his stable. It’s a small courtyard surrounded by stables, with the exit at the other end, so there are often people coming and going which is distracting for him, but as the livery owners around us are usually not there at the same time as me we’re not too much in the way. At some point soon I think we’ll move into a school, when one is free, as we’re moving around more than we were at first, but for the moment the yard is fine for us. This week some stables are being reallocated to different horses so it may be that it won’t be quiet enough to do that soon, but I’ll worry about that when it happens. I do have some concern, working at liberty, that he could escape, bolting, if something horse-eating suddenly happened. I cannot deny that there is some risk. But there is risk whatever you do, and considering the horse and the yard layout I think that risk is not too large. While any horse has the potential of bolting, some are far more likely candidates than others! I think I feel more vulnerable in that sense because no one else does anything at liberty and if I see anyone else doing any groundwork it usually means the vet or physio ordered it.

So what are we doing when we play with the clicker?

“Touch the target” is going well, and so is it’s close friend “Follow the target.” I feel like maybe I should be stepping this up to make it harder, but it’s quite useful having something nice and easy for when he’s not getting a new concept. Instead of keep asking for something he’s not understanding yet, we can do some “touch the target” for a break and then go back to the new thing again.

We are also working on “Back.”  Drifter is good taking the first few steps away from me, but getting him to back further than that is not yet consistently getting through. I think he thinks back means “get out of my space” rather than “step backwards regardless of where I am”. Some days I can get him 4 or 5 steps back. Other days 2 seems to be the limit. I think I’ll have to be patient on this one.

Another one to be patient with is “Open your mouth for the bit.” When I go to put the bridle on he has never been eager to take the bit. And he can be a bit anxious once the bit is in but before everything is buckled up. There are no dental issues (although of course there may have been in his past) and the Happy-mouth eggbutt snaffle is perfectly suitable. I would prefer to hold the bit up to his mouth and wait for him to accept it rather than sticking my thumb in his mouth. Sometimes he does open of his own accord, but often not. I have a friend who holds out the bit and the horse walks towards it, puts it in her mouth and waits nicely for everything to be done up around her. That horse was not trained to do it but made her own decision to do that one day, and the owner has gone with it ever since. It would be nice to get Drifter that far, but I’d be perfectly happy with him just opening his mouth willingly most of the time. The difficulty with this one is that he’s got years and years of experience at not opening his mouth, so it will take longer to change a behaviour, as opposed to rewarding a new one.

We started looking at bitting with a clicker at the weekend. Yesterday he opened his mouth very quickly for the bit but was more agitated about it. I hope that the agitation is going to reduce once this becomes more normal. I think it’s kind of understandable for him to be extra anxious about changes to a process he was already a little anxious about. Also the clicker sounds strange when we’re putting a bridle on because I have to have it in my teeth so I can get the click at the appropriate moment while holding the bit/bridle with two hands. It’s a work in progress but I’m pleased to have the progress!

The last game which we only began yesterday is “Stay.” This one I thought would be hard, because he hates to stand still. In hand or under saddle he hates to stand still. But on our first session he got it! I didn’t go that far away from him, but it worked. I hadn’t read up on how to train a Stay, because I only thought of doing it right that moment. What was I going to click on? I held up a hand and stepped away and clicked when he didn’t follow me. It worked like magic! The horse that never stands still stood still!

I think the biggest challenge with clicker training will be staying ahead of him mentally. The responsibility is on me to keep it interesting and challenging; to keep asking for new things but not confuse him; to give treats for the achievements rather than for almost anything; to keep the sessions the right length to stop while he wants more. I wasn’t really prepared for how quick he’d be at picking it up. Horses are awesome!

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2 thoughts on “An update on clicker training

  1. Liz Dexter says:

    This is amazing – I had no idea you could do this!

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