Horse Kisses

Dressy and King are both clicker trained. Which simply means that they are trained using a positive reward system. During the training phase of a new exercise, I will make a click sound to mark the point at which they’ve succeeded, then give them a small treat as a reward. In scientific terms, it’s “operant conditioning”. Dressy has not had nearly so much foundation in clicker as King though. Just the basics. Targeting, learning to stand for mounting, backing.

Brooke is a young girl who started riding Dressy this winter. She’s going to compete on her this season, most likely in Novice and Set Speed rides, which generally range from 12 to 25 miles. Brooke is completely horse mad. The same as I was way back in the mists of time. So when she started coming this winter, she was very happy to be giving the horses treats. It became a bit of a problem, since she didn’t know clicker work, and was just handing them out willy-nilly to all the horses. Some of them became a little grabby and rude (particularly Diego, Misha’s horse). So I had to give Brooke rudimentary instruction in clicker training and made it a rule that no horse got a free treat. They work for their goodies around here. And also that no horse be allowed to grab for food. So Brooke learned to feed for position too.

Last Sunday, Brooke came running into the house and insisted that I come out and see Dressy. She’d taught her a new trick. Kissing. This is one of King’s favourite tricks, and Brooke loves it. But King can be a bit enthusiastic about it. Not that he will hurt anyone, but he does tend to offer it when you assume the position. Which basically means that you stand beside him facing the same direction. He reaches over and rubs his upper lip against your cheek. Startles the visitors a bit when he offers it unsolicited. Dressy’s version though is much nicer than King’s. When Brooke taps her cheek and says “kiss, kiss”, Dressy slowly reaches over and just barely feathers her lip against Brooke’s cheek. It’s very slow and delicate.

If you show an adult clicker training, they fuss and fume, and screw up the timing, and just generally obscure the whole process for themselves and the horse. Show a kid the basics though, and walk away. You’ll come back to a high-school level performance in a couple of days. Quite amazing.

King has taken to clicker training himself these days. I’m not creative enough for him anymore. Not long ago, I was riding him around my newly built trails. Some of the branches are still a bit low, so I asked him to stop and stand while I broke a few off. I clicked/treated him for standing. “Hmmm” says King. “here’s another branch, why don’t you break that one off too?” He started pointing them out with his nose and then positioning himself under it so I could break it off. Eventually, I had to put a stop to the whole thing because I wanted to get on with the ride. But I did allow it to go on much too long in sheer fascination at his entrepreneurial spirit.

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