Clicker training

We had some polo ponies staying at the yard this week, one of them is only 3 & hasn’t been handled very much, so I had a play using some clicker training to help improve some of the basics, like leading without barging/walking all over you, picking out feet without snatching, etc.

Clicker training was originally used to train dolphins but has been successfully adopted by dog trainers & now horse trainers are finding it an effective tool too.

With horses it has been particular successful in helping overcome problems or difficulties, such as refusing to load in a trailer or fear of clipping but it isn’t confined to just overcoming these types of problems it can also be used to train any behaviour to your horse. Whether like us you wanted a more obedient horse to handle around the yard or even if you wanted to refine your horse’s ridden skills (movements such as the spanish walk can be trained with a clicker). If you can think of a task & break it up into progressive steps then you can use a clicker to train your horse.

A few hints to get you started:

1) Get yourself a clicker, they are relatively inexpensive & can be purchased from most pet stores (all you need is the type you would use for a dog).

2) Decide on a secondary reward for your horse, this will be something your horse will view as a reward, it could be a small treat (like a pony nut) or even a stroke from you. If you decide on a treat perpare yourself with a few in a pocket for when you begin working.

3) Getting started, you need to begin with a simple task so that you can condition your horse to understanding the link between correct behaviour (what you are asking) the click reward & the secondary reward that will follow.

For our first task we had a small plastic cone (when I showed a friend with her horse, we used a tennis ball, so anything you have that your horse can target on) which we used to ask the horse to touch with his nose. At first you want to make it pretty easy, stand fairly close & hold it so your horse stands a good chance of bumping it accidentally with his nose. Be ready with the clicker, as soon as he touches the cone you need to click, then reward with a treat or a stroke/praise.

4) Once your horse has made the connection & touched the cone several times consistently, you can gradually make it  a little harder, move the cone slightly further away, gradually lowering onto the ground for example, or off to the left or right. Basically starting to require a little more effort from your horse. Make the steps small you want your horse to be successful, you’re not trying to outsmart him here.

If your horse stops touching the cone strongly then move it back a stage & get that back up to level before trying again to move it further.

5) You can then start being more selective in the behaviour your horse gets rewarded for (clicked), maybe her has to really touch the cone rather then just half heartedly brushing past it, only click when you get the exact behaviour your want. Remember you need to be quick with the click so that your horse associates it with the behaviour you wanted. At first I found it hard because I wanted to say good boy first (obviously this is not the right order to successfully use the clicker), but I also learned that this actually takes far longer then to click & at times would result in rewarding the wrong part of my horses behaviour.

6) Once your horse is doing this strongly & consistently you can then add in a cue for your horse, so in this case you would maybe say “touch”. Its a good idea to step it back a few stages, so go back to holding the cone at an easy height & then teach the cue. Say “touch”, horse touches the cone, you click & reward.

7) Start making it harder again, moving the cone to the ground, off a little way so he has to move to it, what ever you want. You can have lots of fun with it.

And that’s the start of clicker training. Once your horse understands the click reward, you can train anything you think of. The main thing is to keep it in simple steps, you are trying to have your horse succeed at all times.

With the youngster we actually got her to follow the cone & this helped us immensely when it was time for her to go home after her holiday. She had not been very good to load into the trailer when she arrived (it had taken her owner over an hour, with 4 people trying to help), when it was time for her to leave we got out the cone & although their were about 6 people standing around ready to do battle, i was able to use the cone & lead her onto the trailer with very little fuss, the whole process taking little more then 5 minutes & the pony stayed calm & relaxed through the whole experience.

Karen Pryor originally developed the system, so have  look for her books or anything approved by her, I have brought ALexander Kurlands book, Clicker training for your horse. If you are interested then I definitely recommend having a read, it gives some great examples, but also loads of ideas of things you can do & try.

Until next time

With Love

Fiona & Jasper


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