equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

10 Things I’ve Learned from Riding Clicker Trained Horses

Rosiecanter

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.

        1. 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.
        2. 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.
        3. 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…”
        4. 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.
        5. 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.
        6. 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.
        7. 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.
        8. 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…).
        9. 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.
        10. 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.

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7 replies

  1. How do you manage when your horse keeps offering a behavior you have been working on, when you are trying to ask for something else? My horse wants to go side ways over everything, poles, mounting blocks, etc. I will ask for him to trot, he will see a pole and want to stop and go sideways. I a thrilled that he gets it and wants to offer it to me,at the same time we need to do other things. It seems if I repeat my request for forward he just speeds up his sideways. Which is nice, and I would enjoy that also, but not when he takes over and ignores my forward cue. How do it say stop? 😉

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    • It sounds like the environmental objects have become cues for a certain behavior (sideways) and that the object cue overrides whatever cue you have for the behavior you want.

      There are two things that can help you. I would treat them as separate activities at first. So you are working on one or the other, but not both in the same session.

      1. Put the sideways behavior on a cue that is not the objects themselves. In most cases you want a cue to be something you can control, so that you can choose when to give it. Objects are a good way to get behavior started, but they are usually not useful long term cues in themselves, although they can remain as part of the “cue package” because they are context cues. You would put out an object and use the new cue -> old cue technique to add a cue to the behavior of going over it. It’s a little trickier to do when the cue is an object but what you want to do is give your new cue before he decides to go over the object. You might want to start this on the ground. If you’ve never added a cue this way, you might want to read up on it as there is more detail than I can go into here. If you can’t find any information, let me know. I’m sure I have written about it somewhere and can dig it up. But the general idea is you pair new cue -> old cue until he is doing the behavior in response to the new cue (not waiting for the old cue). Then once you have the new cue, you need to teach him that the old cue is no longer functional. This is my step 2 below.

      2. Teach your horse that the presence of the object does not mean he will be reinforced for going over it. This is going to take some time so don’t expect a change overnight. One way to start is by strengthening other behaviors so that going over an object sideways is not such a hot behavior. I would start by asking for other behaviors when there are no objects present. I assume he will do this fine. Then add an object, but work at a distance from it, reinforcing for behaviors that do not involve going sideways over it. Then you can move closer, or introduce another object and continue to reinforce for other behaviors. My guess is that you will find that there is a distance at which the objects become relevant and he wants to go to them, so you want to work on slowly changing this until you can be near them and he doesn’t think he’s supposed to go over them.

      When you get to the point where he can work around the objects without going over them, then you can try cueing him to do the sideways behavior. I would mix this in very slowly at first, so maybe only ask for it once in an entire session, and see how he does. He may revert back to trying to do it more if he thinks he can get reinforced, so you want to set it up so that most of the reinforcement is still for other behaviors, but he does sometimes get asked to do the sideways behaviors.

      This is a very brief overview of what you need to do. If you find it’s not enough information for you, you might want to read up on cues on my facebook page. I did a series of posts on cues last year. I need to finish it (it’s on my to-do list) but it should have some useful information for you.

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  2. Thank you very much. I will try this and see how we do. I will also go explore your Facebook page.

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  3. Insightful and relevant even for dog trainers!

    Miami Dog Training

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  4. Excellent thoughts for ANY rider!

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