Clicker Training Foals
Begin at the Beginning.
No matter what the age of your horse one should always begin at the beginning of training because there will always be holes to fill in. Going back and revisiting basic lessons is always valuable.
In my latest Horse-Canada article “Starting Them Young: Clicker Training Foals,” in the November/December 2014 issue, I interviewed a good friend and fellow clicker trainer and TCTT Coach Jen Digate. We discussed how to start a brand new foal with clicker training at a very young age, but really it is not different than starting any horse with clicker training with the exception that with a young foal, that you have brought into the world yourself, there will be no ‘baggage’ from previous training that you will need to be aware of.
So, while the article is aimed at foals it has the same foundation lessons in it that we would do with any horse new to clicker training.
The foundation lessons are targeting, grown-ups, standing on a mat, head down and happy faces. There are some variations on the targeting that we mentioned as well; magic hands and touch the goblins, which were mentioned in the article and I’ll show some video here to make them clearer.
I’ll also show some video of a young rescue foal that I worked with a few years ago. He didn’t have the great start that Rune had, he was wilder than a March hare when he came as he only knew the predator side of humans, so we were at a different starting point, but clicker training is so valuable in these situations.
Bruce, the rescue foal, was rather nervous of humans so unlike the usual curious foals that will come up to you if you get small and wait he’d have none of that. I moved the Spyder and Bruce into the barn for a short time each day so that I could manage the environment better and set things up for success.
I was not going to follow him around the stall and attempt to touch him like a predator, or grab him and force him to submit to my touch; none of the usual ‘handle the foal techniques.’ He was too young to look at any food I’d have to offer as a positive reward that I could pair with the click so I was going to use a ‘scritch.’ A scritch is a scratch on one of those great places on a horse that gets them to roll their eyes in their heads and get their muzzle moving; it feels good!
I couldn’t get close enough to Bruce to touch him with my hand so how was I going to accomplish this? I waited by the door of the stall until he looked at me, clicked and then reached with my driving whip, the handle end first and rubbed him by his withers until I got that look of ecstasy on his little face. It didn’t take long before I could shorten up the length of the whip between us and very soon could rub him with my hand. I did not force the distance and if there were signs of being anxious about my closeness I would stand still and wait for the slightest sign of relaxation and then click and scritch.
Within a short time he was comfortable having me in the stall with him and I began to start to shape the behaviour of ‘face me, and follow me’ to get his click and scritch. You do need to be careful not to scritch too long or can evolve into the mutual grooming, which you do not want. If he offered to groom me I would stop scratching until he stopped and then click and scritch just a little again to show him what behavior would be rewarded.
This then continued into the ‘can I touch you here’ game. All the time I would watch for signs of stress; a tense look on his face, a tight muzzle, a tenseness in his body and try and wait where I was till I got a relaxation that I could click and reward with a scritch. If I went too far and caused him to move away I would wait until he was calm again and try for a little less or a different spot and then return to the spot that had caused the fear.