I was delighted to be asked to do a series on Clicker training for Saddle Up. These lessons, though they appear very simple, were very carefully designed and if you progress through them, you will see amazing results and reap unexpected benefits.
Each lesson presented will explain another section of the “polite horse” rule book to your horse. The lessons will also address a whole host of issues such as barging, pushing into you with their shoulders, rearing, biting and shying to mention a few. Now, I know you’re eager to go out and try this with your horse but, before that happens, we’re going to begin by perfecting the basic mechanical skills you will need to be a great Clicker trainer. We start by having people work on these lessons with other people. This approach makes Alexandra Kurland’s work very innovative and ingenious. We get to practice the skills we’ll need BEFORE we try things out on our horse. AND we get to experience the training from the horse’s perspective. Working with a human partner gives us “English language” feedback rather than “horse language” feedback so we can perfect our lessons much faster, and all without frustrating our horses while we ourselves are trying to learn.
We will begin with food delivery, seeing as it is at the heart of Clicker training. Th e equipment needed for this lesson is a clicker (available at most pet stores) and a pouch or pocket for holding treats, and some treats. You will also need a friend to help you out by pretending to be “the horse.” (I have found that humans work better for chocolate.) You are going to practice using a friend as “your horse.” Have your friend hold her hands together out in front of her body. Her hands represent your horse’s “head.”
As in all the training we do in Clicker training, we will chunk the lesson down into small bits so we can be successful. We will start without the clicker. Standing on the left side of your “horse” practice reaching into your pouch or pocket and delivering a treat to your “horse.” Th is action should be smooth and deliberate. You will be delivering the food with your left hand when on the left side (and yes you need to practice delivery on the right side with your right hand too!). Once this is fluid (you may need to change where your pouch is or to a different jacket if it is too hard to get the treat out) you will add the clicker to the exercise.
Each part of the ‘click and treat’ delivery is a discreet step.
Now, you will practice clicking the clicker, with your right hand (if standing on the left side) THEN reaching into your pouch with your left hand and THEN delivering the treat AWAY from your body. Present the treat, where you would like your “perfect” horse’s head to be. This series of actions needs to be fluid and should not feel rushed or clumsy. You should be able to do this on both sides of the horse. What now? The horse right? No, not yet!
Now that you have your food delivery skills perfected, it’s time to add another new skill: handling a target. A target can be anything that is easy to hold and is horse safe. An empty plastic water bottle, the lid off of a supplement container or a small cone, all makes great targets. You will be teaching your horse to touch his nose to a target, in your first horse lesson, so we need to practice with your human horse first.
Pretend that your human horse is in a stall with a stall guard across the door. Here is the cycle of behaviours - standing on your horse’s left side, hold the target out with your left hand in a position where she can easily bump it with her clasped hands (the horse’s nose). Click as she touches the target with her “nose” and hand her the treat with your LEFT hand. But here we have a problem! You are holding the target in your left hand. So, as soon as you have clicked, pass the target to your right hand and reach into your pocket with your left . As you are getting the food treat out, the target should be held down and clearly out of range. Hand your partner her “treat,” then switch hands with the target and begin a new cycle (see photos 1 to 4).
Easy, right? Once you start practicing you may find yourself stumbling over the details. And the details are important! Your “horse” partner can act as a coach reminding you to switch hands and to take the target down between trials. You may also want to set up a video camera to help you spot details that are being overlooked.
All this human practice will pay huge dividends once you go to your horse. It is well worth taking the time to do this. If you are clumsy; if the timing of the click is off , if you forget to switch hands after the click, if you feed in too close to your body, all these things can create frustration in your horse and lead to unwanted behaviours. If you are well practiced and smooth, your first clicker session will be easy and your horse will think you’ve brought him the best game ever!
Have fun practicing your clicker targeting skills. Don’t forget to practice on both side of your “horse.” Next month we’ll introduce your real horse to the clicker beginning with this lesson on basic targeting. That’s the first step in teaching him to be polite around food.