Clicker Training - Volunteering Behaviour

YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING! YOU WANT TO PLAY AT 30 BELOW? - VOLUNTEERING BEHAVIOUR

What makes a clicker-trained horse different? This question came to me while chasing frozen horse turds across the barn floor during this last cold spell. Why did I like the results I was getting using the clicker better than when I trained all those years, very successfully, without the clicker?

Most of the “behaviours” were the same - picking up feet, standing still for mounting, being light, etc. But some were different. Through the clicker training, my horses were learning more in-hand work, like canter in-hand and all the lateral movements. But whether it was a familiar behaviour or a new one, there was something different with all these behaviours now. They were still oft en taught using pressure and release of pressure, something that was common to the methods I had used before, so why did I like clicker training so much more? What was the difference I was seeing? My questions were partially answered when I headed out to do chores. Chores at 30 below are never fun. Bundled to the eyeballs and doing the Edmonton Shuffle (those of you who live in Edmonton know what that is... it is a definite style of walking while dressed in so many layers you look like the Michelin Tire Man), I endeavoured to put hay out into the feeders. The wind was blowing and I was surrounded by ponies.

But these ponies were not in the least bit interested in the hay! They were ignoring the hay in the feeders, and in my arms. There was no grabbing or rude manners. Instead, they were showing off their favourite behaviours. Snowy was cantering in a lovely, elevated, collected manner beside me as I trudged from feeder to feeder. Her canter got better and better as she tried to engage me in a formal training session. I managed to fumble with the mitts into my pocket so I could click and reinforce a particularly gorgeous bit of canter. While Snowy had been cantering beside me, both Flash and Lightheart were wrapped around me on the other side in a pas de deux of shoulder-in. No fighting or jockeying for position, no grumpy faces, no pushing into me as I wandered from feeder to feeder. They, too, got a treat when I was done placing the hay. I had to smile and even giggle a bit (or as close as I could get to a giggle with a face frozen from the wind).

How is it that these food-driven ponies will follow me rather than plunge into their hay? My horses in the past certainly would not have done this! They would have been polite, as that has always been a requirement in my training. But they would not have left their food to follow me about and, if they did, they would have just followed. They would not have been offering shoulder-in or haunches-in, Spanish walk or Snowy’s gorgeous collected canter. They would not have been trying to engage me. And they absolutely would not have been turning our time together into a training session! Maybe a full-to-the-brim-with-hay pony (like that ever happens) with nothing better to do might follow. But that pony would not have been volunteering the behaviour that I was seeing all around me.

I’ve had good success with my training and, in the past, one of the best ways to say “well done” to my horses was to get off and leave the arena. Not so with my clicker-trained horses. On the way out the arena door they will often hesitate as if they are saying, “Are you sure we have to be done? Can’t we do a little bit more?” If I let go of the lead so they have the choice, they will turn back into the arena for more work. There are some who would say a reluctance to leave the arena is a sign of disobedience or a lack of respect. If I ask them to leave, they will without a fuss. But if I give them a choice, they will more often than not choose to stay. I have to admit it is very reinforcing to me when they make the choice to stay and play longer!

And when I am bundled up in layer upon layer of winter clothes, braving a wind that all but knocks me down, having these three ponies greet me with such obvious delight - not because I’m bringing out hay, but because I represent a chance to play - tells me that I have found something very different in clicker training. If you would like to start working on manners at feeding time, you could start by waiting until the horse starts to back up from the fence while you stand outside it, holding the hay out of grabbing range. Click when he moves back even a small bit or turns and walks away. Any move away from the hay would be a “clickable