What to Leave Behind, What to Take Forward: Part 6

Clicker training for many is something they slip on easily like a well fitting glove. For others it represents a real U-turn in their thinking. They have become comfortable with their current tool kit. Swinging a lead doesn’t feel forceful. It’s just how you use leads. The horse complies. Everything is light and polite. They don’t see the lack of sparkle as a problem. Until you have experienced the contrast, how do you know that something is missing? If I don’t know how much better a cake can taste when I add butter and cream and chocolate to it, I won’t mind the bland flavor and heavy consistency.

If you bring your old habits of thoughts with you into clicker training, you can still end up with that bland product. You may be mixing in the “butter and cream”, but you won’t see the result. It will get lost under the weight of the other, heavier ingredients.

Changing habit patterns takes time. For clicker training that often means changing the environment in which you work as well as changing how you work. I saw a great example of just how powerful habits can be during one of the first clinics I gave out in the western part of the country. I was in an area where people use their horses for back country riding. When meeting a grizzly bear on a trail is a very real possibility, you want a reliable horse. The horses in the clinic were all used to traveling. They knew how to come into an arena and go right to work without any emotional drama. They knew how to stand tied for long periods without fussing. They knew how to be ridden, how to load onto trailers. They were the kind of horses many people long to have – safe horses you can just get on and ride. They were also horses without sparkle. They did as they were told, but no more. When they were unsaddled and turned loose, the relationship ended. They weren’t interested in being with their people.

Changing Habits of Thought

For many in the clinic this was their first introduction to clicker training. We spent the weekend immersed in the basics. This was the first time – perhaps ever – that many of them had gone an entire weekend without saying “No” or “Don’t” to their horses. It was clear this represented a huge cultural shift. One woman in particular stood out for me. She was an experienced horse rider who was well trained in traditional “make it happen” methods.

For her it wasn’t just clicker training that was new. She also did very little ground work. So all the foundation lessons were completely foreign territory for her. She had no habits of thought or action to get in the way of learning these new skills. She did a wonderful job and her horse really blossomed throughout the weekend.

Monday afternoon the course ended and people began to leave. I was chatting with someone else when she came up to ask if it was all right if she rode her horse. We had been so busy with foundation skills, there had been no time to ride during the clinic.

The course was over. It was her horse. Of course, she could ride. She could do anything she wanted. She didn’t need to ask my permission. She led her horse into the arena and swung up into the saddle. It was like watching one of those science fiction transformer movies. As soon as her seat was in the saddle, she changed. She became an enforcer. Everything about her posture and her actions was different. Her horse started to walk off and she snatched at his mouth with the rein. Old habits suddenly swept away a weekend of thoughtful training.

Her conditioned responses were the strongest when she was riding. Sitting in the saddle ignited her old triggers. To really embrace clicker training she would need to postpone riding for a while until her new habits were strong enough to be there ahead of her older “make it happen” reactions.

This is one of the reasons I rarely have people ride in their first clicker clinic. Yes, we have a lot to cover and we normally run out of time before we get to the riding questions. But more than that, people need time to shift their habits. It doesn’t happen instantly.

Shifting habits is also one of the reasons I like to use the single-rein riding to reintroduce riding to both the horse and the hander. It is different enough that it sidesteps old riding cues. It doesn’t trigger old reaction patterns. That’s as true for the horse as it is for the handler.