A couple days ago, a friend of ours who is interested in taking clicker training up to the next level, came out to see a Cole performance.
Julie has a Haflinger mare that has done a little clicker training on the ground. Her trainer, until recently, saw no need for clicker training. The mare had some soreness, due to saddle fit. The saddle was corrected, but they thought doing stretches would help her with the soreness. The trainer told Julie to bring out the clicker to help with the stretches. They used targeting to guide her in the way they wanted her to stretch. Now the trainer is interested in getting a clicker, herself!
Julie felt that though the clicker was helpful with her horse, she is not sure if her mare truly understands it. I will be visiting her at her stable in the future, but in the meantime, I thought it might be helpful for Julie to see what a clicker horse is like.
I put on Cole’s brand new bling-covered halter for his performance. (I will be doing a product review on his halter next month.) Now, it had been a long day for Cole. We took him out for a ride in the morning, and the vet came out in the afternoon to give him shots and float his teeth. I don’t think he was ready to put on a 100 percent performance. Still, he did well.
I brought Cole out in the arena, and he showed Julie how he can stand parked out and bow. I then showed her his silly walk and explained how he got it. I initially taught him to put his head down when I pointed to the ground with a whip. I turned that into putting his head down at a walk when I pointed to the ground. That was for safety. There were many times in the early days that he would get overexcited when I led him. By getting his head down, I got control of him.
Then, for fun, I taught him to match my steps as I walked. Julie wondered how I did that, and I explained that I matched his steps and clicked when we did it. (I did step harder to draw his attention to it.) After a while, when he understood what he was getting clicked for, he started to take the lead and match my steps. Of course, he got clicked for that, too. One day, he volunteered lifting up his feet really high while he was matching my steps—and the silly walk was born. It is his version of the Spanish Walk. (He does it under saddle, too.)
I showed her how easy it is too teach a horse to chase a ball—a game that really might engage her horse into the concept of clicking. I was disappointed that Cole wasn’t as spirited in his chasing as he usually is. He just walked after the ball instead of running and bucking.
I wanted to show how we can affect the quality of our horses’ gaits by shaping what we want. I asked Cole to trot on a lead rope next to me, requested that he lower his head, and he went into his show trot. (It is a very collected trot with a lot of suspension.) Of course, his show trot is something that didn’t happen overnight. I started it on the lounge line—clicking what was pretty—when he held his head at the right level, when he engaged his hindquarters and when he added suspension. Once he learned what I liked, I got to skip all the steps to get there, and I would just ask him to lower his head. Later, he volunteered it at a trot and got clicked for it. The rest is history.
I thought it would be fun to show her that he can do it when he is free lounging when I stomp my feet, but Cole had other ideas. He just decided to run around, bucking and playing. In the beginning, he showed her how he stops when I tell him whoa, even if I don’t have a lead rope or lounge line to back up my command, but once he really got running, there was no stopping him. He was having more fun than eating a carrot!
I put him back in the stall and brought our Ranger to show her what I was doing to teach him how to stand. He did pretty well, and then he demonstrated his other talent.
When we first started clicking Ranger, he got so excited about the treats, he would try to help himself to them. I refused to give him a treat when he did that. Instead, after I clicked him, I would wait for him to turn his head away from me, first. It took him no time at all to realize that was what he had to do to get a treat. Ranger was glad to show Julie how he turned his head away so he could get a treat.
Many people worry that hand feeding a horse will cause them to be nippy and mug for treats. Ranger showed how hand feeding can actually stop such behavior. It is all in the approach.
Julie left that evening a total convert. I hope she can convert her trainer, too. Even if her trainer doesn’t want to use clicker in riding, by teaching “whoa,” “stand,” and “head down, “on the ground makes for much safer handling. Not to mention, all 3 of those cues are super helpful in the saddle.
Julie said she would keep us updated.