Let’s review what we have done with Bruce so far. His first clicker lesson was to turn and face me. This was done by rewarding him when he looked in my direction. The reward back then was a scratch (we call them scritches) with my lunge whip handle because I couldn’t get very close to him.
By working within his comfort zone, I was soon able to have him associate people with good feelings, and very quickly I could decrease the distance between us; in short order, I was scratching him all over, much to his delight. Bruce’s next lesson was to target (touch) his nose to my hand. This hand target, and the targeting lesson in general, will have many applications in his future training. Bruce was now very curious and like most horses would reach out to sniff or touch a new object. I took advantage of this and had Bruce touch my fist at the end of my outstretched arm. He caught on quickly and would soon follow the fist. By doing this I could “lead” him to where I wanted him, position him away from me, or get him to back up - all without any “restraint” on him.
Last month’s Saddle Up article dealt with combining cues. I wanted and needed Bruce to learn how to give to pressure, a big part of any horse’s life. I taught the give to pressure lesson by putting a soft rope around his neck near the base of it. It was not tied on but had two loose ends that I gently held. I kept the pressure very light so that he didn’t feel restrained or the need to leave, and put very light pressure on to have him shift his weight toward me, which was of course followed by a click and treat. If he got stuck, or didn’t understand what I wanted, I could pair this pressure cue with a cue he already knew to help him find the right answer to this new question.
This paired cue was the closed hand or fist target. I could apply light pressure and if he got stuck in his give I would present the fist target in a place that his reaching toward it would cause the weight shift and release of the “pressure” which would be followed by a click. Th e click ideally would occur aft er the shift but before the touch so he would come to associate the click with the giving to pressure.
He caught on to the giving to pressure lesson very quickly, but it was nice to have a positive cue that I could add in if he had trouble. I never went over the threshold to cause a fear reaction in him from the pressure; I wanted him to figure out the correct answer without upping the pressure. Yelling louder in a language he doesn’t understand doesn’t help him understand any better! If he learned to give to light pressure and figured out that this was the correct answer, then there was no need to go over the threshold to cause the fear/fight/flight/panic response so commonly seen.
What was next for Bruce aft er the giving to pressure lesson from last month?
I wanted to introduce the halter and a more traditional leading scenario before he went to his new home. I first introduced the halter in much the same way as the fist target. I held it out and he got a click and treat for touching it. I then shaped the behaviour by withholding the click until he put his nose slightly into the halter and then clicked and treated. Soon he was eagerly putting his nose into the halter. From there it was an easy step to buckle it up.
This was much easier than it is with most of the older rescue animals I get and this was because Bruce trusted me. I had a relationship with him in which there had never been any over-the-threshold pressure of any kind on my part. I had not pressured him to do any of these behaviours, he was free to choose. During his training, there were only positive responses from me, no punishment, no negatives. Yes, I helped him to get the right answer to the questions I was asking him by breaking the learning into smaller, “easy to get it right” steps so that he could succeed. I rewarded his try and didn’t punish him for his incorrect answers. So my next step was to pair up the fist and pressure cues if needed. Often, clicker trained horses will generalize a lesson. Clicker trained horses are encouraged to think and solve problems. Perhaps Bruce would be able to generalize his giving to pressure on his neck, to giving to pressure from the halter. If he did generalize, great! If not, I had my back up cue of the fist target.
I could once again help him get the correct answer, using the fist target, without ever causing a panic or fear response. I would hold the lead rope with only the tiniest bit of pressure on it and he would usually figure out what direction to go to get the pressure to release. If he was having trouble, I could pair it with the fist target rather than adding more pressure. As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before he caught onto this new game and was happily following. By the time you read this, Bruce and his dam Spyder will be settled into their wonderful new home. Bruce is well on his way to being a great partner for his young new owner, a lovely young man with a gentle soul and a desire to have a great relationship with his horse. I wish them all the best.
“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” - Scott Adams
“You can’t beat fear out of a horse. Oh, how obvious but so many people try to do it nonetheless.” - Susan Amanda Lennon