Q: I am having a hard time bridling my horse. Can clicker training help him to get better at it?
A: Well, what would you think if I told you that I don’t bridle my horses - they bridle themselves?! So, can clicker training help you out? You bet. First, I will refer you to my past Saddle Up articles, as those foundation lessons will definitely get you set up for success at bridling. You especially need the targeting lesson before starting this lesson. As always, you should first check for any physical issues that may be causing the bridling issues. Are his ears or mouth sore? How about his teeth? And how are your bridling skills? Do you fold his ears over or bang his teeth with the bit? Was he always hard to bridle or is this a recent development? Let’s assume there are no health issues and that he has always been difficult to bridle. How do we proceed? First, take off the noseband, browband, chinstrap (if there is one) and reins from your bridle. Th is will make things simpler in the beginning, for everyone. Those of you who have played with the targeting lesson will have found that if you start to withhold the click after your horse has touched the object, he will experiment by trying to lip it or even bite it. Th is is where we would like the horse with the bridling issue to be in his targeting lesson. We want him starting to lip the target. I usually start the bridling lesson with the horse free in a stall. I will do some regular targeting and hopefully by this time in our target teaching we will have attached a cue of “touch” to the action. Remember, we should only attach a cue to the behaviour if we know it is going to happen (cues are predictors of behaviour). After the horse is touching and, hopefully, lipping or biting at the target, we can substitute the bit for the target.
At this stage, you are going to hold the bit up for the horse to target to (the bridle will be upside down, please see photo 1).
After he is targeting his nose to the bit eagerly, begin withholding the click to see if he will try lipping or biting the bit. Click and treat for any increase in lipping. Make sure you take the bit away after each click and treat, and present it as a target again aft er the treat. If he offers to take the bit in his mouth, that is even better. He deserves a click and a big treat for that one. Do not try to force his mouth open by putting your thumb into his mouth in the traditional method of bridling, and remember to take your time - there is no rush. Very soon, he will be happily placing the bit in his mouth.
Next, let’s change to holding the bridle upright, more the way it would be for regular bridling (see picture 2).
Encourage him to target the bit. He may be a bit more hesitant. Remember, when you change one criteria (having to target with the bridle held in a new position) you must expect to have to decrease the other criteria (strength of the touching of the target). Make sure you click and treat for just touching the bit to start with, until his confidence has improved. Take your time and do this over several sessions. He will process his learning between sessions and be even better the next time. If his ears are the issue with his bridling, then this should be a separate lesson. You can also use targeting to solve this problem by training him to target his ear to your hand, or you can teach it with the “Can I touch you here?” game. If you are using the targeting lesson for the ears, remember that he needs to move his ear towards your hand - not you moving your hand towards his ear. Semantics perhaps, but the horse sees it differently.
If you are going to use the “Can I touch you here?” game (which is similar to the advance and retreat game of some of the natural horsemanship teachings), you should not go over the threshold and cause the horse so much stress he cannot deal with it. So, see if you can touch his neck. Yes? Click and treat. Can you touch his cheek? Yes. Click and treat. Monitor his reactions to see if it is too much for him. Can you get close to his ear by the poll? Can you touch his ear?... Try and find out where the limit is regarding his ear. Work on this with clicking and treating and going back and forth between the easy places and not-so-easy places to touch, all the while building his confidence that it is all okay. When you feel he’s ready, put it all together. Hold up your bridle and when he takes the bit in his mouth, click and treat him.
Then add the final steps - push his right ear forward (picture 3) and slip the bridle over that ear.
Success? Yes. Click and treat. Now try the left ear (picture 4). Got it through? Yes. Click and treat. Th ere you go. Pretty soon you will have a horse that bridles himself. What a treat!
If you have a training issue that you would like to see covered in a future article, please email me! Until next time, keep it positive.