I started making this list when I was thinking about things I have learned from riding clicker trained horses. After I wrote the list, I realized that many of the items are not specific to riding, so this could just be a list of some things I have learned from clicker trained horses. But in my case, I did have many of my “ah-ha” moments when I was riding, so I have left it as part of the title.
Don’t let that influence you in how you think about this information. One of the things I love about clicker training is that it teaches you to be a good trainer and the lessons learned in one activity or with one species often easily transfer to other situations.
- Consistency is important, but not easy. Once I started to think of riding in terms of cues, I became more aware of how I asked my horse for behaviors and how important it was to be consistent about how I asked for them. It also made me realize that this is not so easy. It sounds simple to say “the cue is,” but most ridden cues are combinations of leg, seat and hand and these combinations can change subtly over time. The “big” cue that I might use to pick up a canter on a green horse can be refined down to a tiny thought on a more advanced horse. If I want my horse to get lighter and more responsive, I need to allow my cues to evolve, but at the same time I need to keep them consistent and clear.
- It’s ok to stop and take a break – I take breaks all the time. I stop and take a break if the horse has done something really good. I take a break if I want to think or need to restart again. Being freed of the “don’t let him get away with it” or “you can’t stop until he does it right” mentality has been incredibly liberating. I now stop and regroup all the time.
- My horse has a better memory than I do. It’s important to acknowledge her ideas about what we are working on. Sometimes I come out with an idea to work on something new, or I can’t remember what we were doing last time (if we have had a long break) but my horse always remembers. This is a great thing as it keeps me on track and gives me information about what the horse learned from the last session. It’s always worth paying attention when the horse says “we were doing this…”
- Just because the horse did it once, it doesn’t mean she knows it. Behavior is variable! Doing it once is a great start, but I don’t expect the horse to repeat a new behavior consistently after one correct response. A more normal pattern would be to slowly see an increase in correct responses over time until the desired response becomes the most likely one. So I celebrate when I get that first eureka moment, but view it as a sign I am headed in the right direction, not that I have arrived.
- Horses are “goal oriented.” When using a training method that encourages the horse to participate, it is easier for her if I provide some structure that gives her information about what I want to do. This could be using physical objects such as cones, poles, mats, etc…. or a clearly defined pattern. These can be faded out as the lesson progresses if desired. With Rosie, I always try to set it up so that there is some part of the lesson where her job is clearly defined even if it’s as simple as to go out around the cone while I practice transitions.
- Anticipation is good, but I do have to manage it. Prior to clicker training, I always heard that anticipation was a bad thing. Interesting because there’s a famous quote I remember reading that says to “mine the treasures of your horse’s anticipation.” I think it’s by Charles De Kunffy, but I’ll have to find it. In any case, if you read between the lines in many dressage books, you will see that many of the truly great dressage partnerships were between horses and riders where the rider allowed the horse some initiative. In a clicker trained horse, anticipation means “I get it” and I love to see a little anticipation at some point in a ride, especially if I am working on a new behavior. If I don’t get it, then I want to make sure I am allowing the horse the freedom to share that moment with me. On the other hand, I also need to be able to manage anticipation if it starts to create frustration.
- Planning ahead is important. I think (hope?) most riders have a general idea what they want to work on when they start a ridden session with their horse, but clicker training made it much clearer to me that the clearer I am about what I want and how I am going to train it, the more successful I will be. This includes planning ahead of time and taking time during my ride to assess how things are going and what to do next. Planning does not mean being rigid. Ken Ramirez says that one should always go into a training session with a good plan, but be quick to throw it out the window if it’s clear the plan is not suitable for animal based on its mental or physical state when it shows up for training.
- Balance your activities. The best way to have a flexible and responsive horse is to train and reinforce a variety of behaviors. Because clicker trained horses give you more of what you reinforce, it is very easy to get things slightly out of balance. I find this happens much more quickly with clicker trained horses than with traditional horses and it requires a lot of diligence to maintain a nice balance between mental states (energy vs. relaxation) as well as physical qualities (straightness, bend, angle, etc…).
- Each horse is different, stay flexible. I ride several different horses and while I train many of the same behaviors, I have had to learn about how each horse learns and processes information. Some of my horses really love to learn things through targeting, others are better if do more shaping (free or using environmental cues or prompts) and some of them seem more comfortable when I use traditional rein, leg and seat aids as information about what to do. With clicker training I’ve learned that there are always different ways to get behaviors and that it’s important to have a variety of ways to teach any behavior.
- Having a two way conversation is important. Riding is more fun when my horse is trying to figure out what I want and actively participates instead of being a reluctant, anxious, or passive partner. After riding clicker trained horses, I find it really difficult to ride a traditionally trained horse. I like that feeling of connection when both the horse and I know what we are working on.