I love that there are more articles on clicker training appearing in magazines (Equus, Practical Horseman, Horse Canada) and that they are finally catching up to Saddle Up, who has been publishing clicker training articles for over two years now! Perhaps we are reaching the tipping point in horse training.
Many people come to clicker training because they have tried other training methods and those methods are not working for them or their horse. They are looking for a different way to solve the problems they are having with their horse. They have decided, perhaps, that it is time for them to think smarter, rather than bigger and tougher. Time to build a relationship based not on dominance, but on mutual respect and cooperation - and have fun doing it!
The articles that have appeared lately have done a good job overall in describing clicker training, the science behind it and how to train some behaviours using it. However, I was very surprised by the behaviours they suggested for those critical first lessons in which people would introduce clicker training to their horse. In one article they suggested these behaviours: touching the head of a horse that dislikes its head being touched, catching a hard-to-catch horse, and retraining a horse that is difficult about picking up its feet.
These behaviours would require the handler to simultaneously introduce clicker training and use it to solve existing problems. While clicker training is a SUPERB tool for solving problem behaviours, it is NOT the place to start when both the handler and the horse are new to clicker training. With both being inexperienced, they can get into trouble trying to use clicker training in these cases, and may conclude that this is just another method that doesn’t work. Before working on solving a problem, you have to look at why you have the problem to start with, and this is usually not a quick fix. Clicker training should not be used as a “Band-Aid” approach to solving relationship problems. You have to get to the real answer as to why your horse doesn’t like to be caught, have his face touched or lift his feet.
Open Up the Lines of Communication - First!
So where should you start if you want to begin clicker training so that you can eventually deal with any relationship and training problems? Alexandra Kurland, one of the pioneers in the development of clicker training for horses and author of three books on the subject, recommends teaching both horse and handler six foundation lessons. These foundation lessons teach the horse and handler the rules of the “clicker game” and ensure a solid foundation that will keep everyone safe. These six foundation lessons are:
• Head down
• Backing in a square
• Grownups are talking
• Happy faces
• Standing on a mat
While working through the foundation lessons, both horse and handler learn to communicate better and a relationship develops that will allow the problem behaviours to be examined and solved at the deeper level where they originated. In addition, the handler has the opportunity to develop the mechanical skills necessary to be safe and communicate more clearly to the horse exactly what is wanted - a huge step to solving and preventing issues.
Targeting is a great place to start as it is novel, involves the horse’s curiosity and usually hasn’t been trained previously, so you both can have a fresh start. If your horse is already pushy or muggy, you should teach this lesson with protective contact. Protective contact can be as simple as putting the horse in his stall with a stall guard up, or in his paddock with the fence between you. All that is needed is a barrier to help him learn the rules of this new game while keeping everyone safe and relaxed. When people don’t feel safe they tend to get fearful and that leads to getting big and becoming reactive which, in clicker training, we don’t want. We like to operate under threshold. We don’t want either partner, horse or handler, to become scared.
Go back if needed a review the post on Targeting.
Make sure you visit the Youtube Channel to review the foundation lessons. The foundation lessons themselves will help to solve many common relationship issues. Targeting and head lowering can help with biting and mugging, while correct food delivery and backing will help with barging and crowding. These important lessons are learned by the horse, all without the need for punishment. The foundation lessons teach both partners in the relationship about cues and stimulus control. Once this is established, your relationship and what you can train is limitless. Just look at what they can train a killer whale to do - and that is all without force, fear or punishment. If you can dream it, you can train it using clicker training.