I did a lot of clicker training with King. King actually forced me to learn clicker training since he was such an outrageously extravagant horse (still is, really, but in a good way now). I found myself in very deep water when I first got him as a long yearling. He was emotional, extroverted, and reactive. Not to mention the explosive, aggressive temper when he didn’t get his way. Clicker training gave me a path out of trouble. Though it was a bit complicated by my difficulties in shifting my own thought patterns. It’s hard enough to shift your thinking from punishment-based training to pressure and release (aka natural horsemanship or negative reinforcement), never mind to positive reinforcement. I made lots of mistakes. But I learned a lot. The biggest thing I learned was how critically important timing is.
With Dressy, I was kind of lazy. She had been on the track for years, and she was very easy to convert to a saddle horse. So I just sort of cruised along on her past training. A mistake, in hindsight, since she really would have benefited from a whole lot more groundwork to build her confidence in me. I don’t think it would have prevented her spookiness. But it might have mitigated some of the worst of it.
With Diego, I’ve decided to go back to serious clicker training. We did a bit over the winter. But it was mostly just an adjunct to traditional groundwork exercises (valuable in themselves of course).
He’s been going out into the round pen by himself for a few hours every morning (which is going well btw… he seems to be coping and settled down into it pretty quickly). So I went out and worked with him there. First I just took his halter and gently asked him to step forward. He did, of course, and I clicked and treated. Super easy jackpot. He was a little surprised at that. But happily stepped forward again when I asked. Easy treats! Then I just touched his chin as I stepped forward beside him. He hesitantly moved one foot. I rewarded that. Touched his chin a few more times as I stepped forward and he got more confident with that. Then I just stepped forward and waited. He thought for a moment and then stepped forward on his own. I rewarded that.
Then we walked around and around the pen, with me rewarding every few steps. After he had that down pat, I gradually got a bit more precise about where his head needed to be. Ears parallel with my shoulder. He tried to head butt me once, but I just ignored it and waited until his head was in position. He’s quite clever about all this. Once he got ahead of me and after a few steps realized he’d lost me. He drifted to a halt, looked over his shoulder, and circled around back into position. By the end of the session (about 25 minutes), I could do small circles with him on the inside or the outside of the circle, and back up as well as go forward. All at liberty.
He’s a nice horse to work with. Very calm and deliberate when he’s focused. King is exuberant about clicker training, throwing all sorts of creative behaviours out in a an effort to dazzle you into rewarding him more (“If walking beside you is good, wouldn’t piaffing be better?” “You want me to stand on this platform? How about if I SMASH it with my foot?” “How about if I bite this target and fling it in the air??”). Which can be a little scary for the handler (we had to learn a lot of CALM exercises like ‘head down’ and ‘posing as a statue’). Diego is a quiet thinker. He moves slowly, considering his options. He’s pleased at being good, but not jitterbugging around in glee the way King does. As we worked, I could see a sort of blanket of calm confidence settle over him.
Once done, I opened the gate and we walked across the yard with him in position, still at liberty. I opened the pasture gate but he stopped and waited. I had to step through and pivot so he could come through and pivot with me. It felt very choreographed 🙂