equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Getting Help: Strategies for Working with Traditional Trainers (Part 1)

I meet a lot of people who are clicker training, but also want to ride or compete in specific riding disciplines. These disciplines usually have a traditional training progression and most of the available resources explain how to develop your horse using negative reinforcement based methods. As clicker trainers, we may not choose to use some of the traditional methods, but we may still want to learn about and enjoy the activity.

So, what do we do? In a perfect world, we would find a clicker trainer who also participates in our chosen discipline and get some help, either in person or through remote coaching. But some people may not have access to a local instructor who uses clicker training and may find it difficult to learn through remote coaching. Riding, in particular, can be challenging to learn without some direct, in-the-moment feedback. Therefore, in many cases, the best option is to work with a more traditional instructor, one that does not use clicker training. This brings up a common problem which is how do you ride your clicker trained horse in a non-clicker training environment. Or, should you even try?

I’ve been navigating these waters for about 10 years now. I bought Rosie as a weanling and started her myself (at home), bringing her along with the same general progression that I had used with other horses. I was attending clicker clinics (both with and without her) at the same time, and I was able to apply some of what I learned at clinics, but I also relied heavily on my previous learning, at least as far as the steps were concerned. So, Rosie had a combination of a more traditional start (modified to incorporate positive reinforcement) combined with some additional clicker specific activities such as targets, mats, learning through shaping, etc.

This worked out for me because I was already familiar with the steps to bring along a young horse and I got some useful feedback and support when I took her to clicker clinics. As she became more advanced, we also did some ridden work at clicker clinics, and this was helpful too. But, I knew that getting help a few times a year was not going to be enough to help me reach my riding goals. In the short term, I wanted to be able to take her to other places to ride, which I defined as being able to safely walk, trot, and canter. My thought was that if she could do those things, then I would be able to take lessons or take her to clinics. My long term goal was to learn more advanced dressage with her. Since I didn’t already know how to train a dressage horse to the upper levels, I knew that if I wanted to pursue that goal, I would need to get help at some point.

When Rosie was about 10, I decided that I needed additional help. I wanted to get some feedback on what I had already done, as well as guidance about how to continue her education. At that time, I was pretty naive and I thought that she would be able to transition easily from working at home (with clicker training) to regular riding lessons. Most of what I had read indicated that when the animal knew the behavior, she would be able to do the behaviors without the click and treat. That sounded simple.

What I didn’t realize was that that statement was only true if you took the time to prepare the animal – which I had not. So, I accidentally jumped into the deep end of the pool and then realized how difficult it was going to be to ride her without clicking and treating. In addition, having now ventured back out into the more traditional world of horse training, I became aware how difficult it was going to be to find someone who was would let me click and treat, or who would even understand why I wanted to train her that way.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about how to prepare a horse for working with traditional trainers and how to come away with useful information without too much stress for either horse or rider. I am using the term “traditional trainer” in a very general way and it just means a trainer who relies mostly on negative reinforcement and who is more likely to do things “the way they’ve always been done.”

This article is a collection of tips and suggestions, drawn from my own experience riding with different trainers. Based on conversations with others who are exploring the same path, I suspect that I might have found it more difficult than some other horse and rider combinations. I have encountered other clicker trainers who found it easier to ride in lessons without clicking and treating, or who were able to find flexible or open-minded instructors who were supportive of their desire to use positive reinforcement.

Therefore, while there is a lot of information presented in this article, you probably won’t need all of it. Everyone’s experience will be different and my goal is not to make this seem difficult, but rather to present what I’ve learned so that you can plan, prepare, and be successful. You may also find that it helps you to re-evaluate or clarify your goals in riding with traditional trainers. I’ve often found myself wondering if it’s worth taking lessons when I could just stay home and keep exploring more advanced work on my own. But, for me, it was invaluable to get help with my position (aids, body awareness, ability to feel and influence the horse) and with understanding how to ride and choose appropriate exercises to continue toward my long term goal.

Getting help: What are the options?

Before we jump right into the topic of working with traditional trainers, let’s look at the three most common options for getting help. They are:

  • Taking lessons on a lesson or borrowed horse.
  • Remote learning – Getting coaching from a clicker trainer through video, phone, or internet coaching.
  • Taking lessons with your horse from a traditional instructor.

Each one has advantages and disadvantages and may be useful at certain points in your learning journey. I’ve done all three and each one has helped me in a different way. Here are some points to consider when thinking about which one you want to explore.

Taking lessons on a lesson or borrowed horse

If your chosen trainer offers lessons on her own horses, this can be a good option, particularly if you are working on basic handling or riding skills. It can also be helpful if you are more comfortable learning a new skill with a trained horse, before trying to teach the new skill to your horse. If I have a student who needs to learn basic riding skills, I often recommend she find some place to ride (carefully chosen) that allows her to concentrate on her own riding, without worrying about the horse. It is uncommon to find lesson programs with horses trained with positive reinforcement, but it’s usually possible to find a trainer who is fair, consistent, and considerate with her horses. You may have to filter out some of the information, but it’s usually possible to concentrate on your riding skills, and avoid discussions about training philosophies.

Remote Learning

Over the last 10 years, the number and quality of opportunities for remote learning has increased significantly. It’s now possible to find a nice selection of courses or services offered within any discipline. Remote learning allows you to find an instructor who uses clicker training and trains horses for the activity or discipline that interests you. Most courses or instructors have carefully planned and accessible training progressions so you can work at your own pace, receiving feedback and assistance at each step along the way. Many of them have forums or discussion groups where you can meet other students, compare notes and videos, and get support.

I find that the biggest disadvantage to remote learning is that it does require the ability to videotape your training sessions. This can be more difficult if you don’t have a handy camera person. Some people also struggle a bit with the lack of immediate feedback, but I think that being able to learn through remote coaching is a skill that can be developed. It also has significant advantages because you can ride your horse in his usual location, proceed at your own pace, and you don’t have to respond immediately to the trainer’s suggestions. The last point means that you can filter the information you are getting. If the trainer asks you to do something that you would rather not do, you can disregard the comment, start a discussion, or propose an alternative. Honestly, if remote learning resources had existed when Rosie was younger, I might have explored them instead of choosing to take her to lessons.

If you are interested in remote learning, there are many clicker trainers who offer online or video coaching and courses. You can find them by searching the internet or asking around in the clicker training groups on Facebook or other social media.

Taking lessons with your horse from a traditional trainer

If there are skilled traditional trainers in your local area, or you have access to them through clinics, taking your own horse to lessons may be a good option. This can be particularly helpful if you are looking for help on a specific topic and you need immediate feedback as you work through it.

There are lots of advantages to getting regular instruction in person. The main ones are that you can get direct feedback and guidance on what to do next. Every horse and rider combination is a little different and the instructor can help you adjust a general training plan to fit your individual situation. Good instructors will guide you through the beginning of a new exercise so that you will be able to practice it successfully on your own.

One of the disadvantages is that it may require more preparation and thought to get the most out of your lesson. This is particularly true if you cannot use clicker training in your lessons. Not only will you have to prepare your horse for the lesson, but you will also have to decide how to incorporate or use the information you learned, but in a more clicker friendly fashion. You may also find it difficult to pick up the information you need without being exposed to information you dislike, or without being asked to do that are not consistent with how you want to interact with your horse. I’ve found it takes some mental effort to stay committed to my own training philosophy if I spend a lot of time with someone who has different opinions, especially if they have been helpful in other areas (position, biomechanics, etc.).

This has been a brief summary of the options for getting help. The rest of this article is going to focus on having a successful experience taking lessons with a traditional trainer. Some of the points may also be useful if you are doing remote learning, as you could choose to do remote learning with a trainer who does not use positive reinforcement.

Getting Ready: Choosing a trainer and preparing for lessons

Once you’ve made the decision to work with a traditional trainer, you need to choose a trainer and prepare your horse.

Choosing a trainer

This is easy if you already have a trainer in mind. If not, then it’s a good idea to spend some time watching prospective trainers teach other students and train horses. Among other things, I pay attention to what the trainers say, how they teach new material, and how they handle mistakes. When I observe a trainer, I want to see if the language being used accurately describes the training methods. I’ve seen some trainers that have the “right” language but whose methods rely heavily on aversives and create compliant but shut down horses. I’ve also ridden with some trainers who emphasize submission, obedience, etc. but who are very fair to the horses and will not tolerate harsh aids.

I suggest you also look at the structure of the lessons. Does the trainer give both the horse and rider breaks? Does she allow opportunities for questions? Is there a progression within a lesson that makes sense? Does she teach one piece and then add on to it? Is the lesson constructive? Is the trainer building the skills and confidence of both horse and rider?

If possible, watch lessons that cover the information you want to learn as well as some more advanced lessons. This will give you an idea what your lesson might be like and a look at what future lessons might look like. It will also allow you to see how her students look at different levels and if her teaching changes to suit each horse and ride combination. If you are choosing a local instructor, you should be able to go and observe. If you are considering a visiting clinician, you can often find video links or you can audit a clinic before signing up to ride.

It’s not always possible to accurately evaluate someone before you ride with them, but you can usually get a feel for whether or not they might be compatible. I’ve watched at least 20 trainers over the last 10 years and ended up riding with about twelve of them. Of the twelve, there were only one or two who turned out to be bad choices. Twelve seems like a lot, but there were only four that I rode with for an extended period of time. Some of the others were visiting clinicians and I only had one or two lessons with each one. I might have ridden with some of them longer, but I only had access to them if the hosting barn asked them to return. I also rode with a few local trainers before deciding we were not a good match.

In general, I found that I was more likely to find compatible trainers if I looked at trainers that were not competition oriented and that had been through some experience that made them question the way horses (or riders) are trained. These were people who had started out as traditional trainers, or within the traditional riding system, until some event occurred that prompted a change in their thinking, methods, and approach to horse training. In general, I looked for trainers who were open to new ideas and willing to work with someone who was choosing a slightly different approach.

Preparing your horse

Preparation is key. The more time you spend preparing your horse, the more successful you will be. I know that sounds obvious, but there are a lot of differences between clicker training your horse in his usual training area and taking him to a traditional riding lesson. When I’m getting my horse ready for a lesson, the three areas I want to make sure I cover are preparing the horse for traveling and working in a new environment, planning my reinforcement strategy, and teaching my horse the structure or format of the lesson.

Traveling, environmental changes, etc.

I’m not going to cover everything you need to do before taking your horse to a lesson at a new location, but at the very least you should teach him to be a safe traveler and practice going to, and riding in, new locations. Some horses adjust easily to riding in new arenas, but most horses need some experience before they can do it. I spent about 3 years taking Rosie to other barns and riding in different arenas before I tried to do a riding lesson. I knew she was ready when she could:

  • Load and unload easily.
  • Stand in the trailer after we arrived.
  • Stand tied to the trailer or in another location for tacking and untacking.
  • Hand graze safely – This is not necessary, but it’s a great way to give a horse time to adjust to a new location or rest before getting on the trailer to go home.
  • Go into a new arena and walk on a loose rein.
  • Do some simple patterns or exercises in walk and trot.
  • Handle being in the arena with other horses. This may not be relevant for everyone, but it’s worth considering if you usually ride by yourself. Rosie had little experience sharing an arena with other horses and she had to get used to having other horses in the arena. She also had to learn to remain relaxed and focused if the other horse left and she became the only horse in the arena.

This article is continued in Part 2.

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4 replies

  1. Hello, this is an amazingly helpful article! I can’t wait to read part two. Thank you, Chloe

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  2. I’ve had this post sitting unread in my email inbox for a while. I finally found time to read it & will look for part 2. I can’t believe the emotion I feel reading it! A complete mix of frustration, irritation, confusion, relief, gratitude, and everything in-between.
    I’m frustrated and irritated from various experiences I’ve had from being in a “traditional trainer’s” world. Confused at how to navigate that world. It’s worse because I’m new to horse training, but I was raised in the dog training world. (My mom has shown performance dogs since before I was born & naturally as I grew up I learned to train dogs too; first with negative reinforcement since positive reinforcement wasn’t a thing back then, but then later with positive reinforcement. It shocks me that Karen Pryor wrote “Don’t Shoot the Dog” over 3.5 decades ago and it’s still a “new” training method in the horse world.) But since I’m new to horse training I encounter even more resistance to trying alternate training methods because I have no credibility. I have found the most open minded trainers I can, ones that ‘allow’ me to use treats, but they still don’t take it well when I don’t do what they suggest. I frustrate them & they feel like I’m too proud and arrogant to be teachable. Maybe there’s an element of truth to that too. Which is why I loved the parts of your article about filtering information.
    Regrettably, I’ve actually moved away from using the clicker or treats around others. That’s unfair and makes me sad, but I felt I had to succumb to the pressure from all the traditional trainers because I just didn’t want to fight or argue anymore. I also feel defeated when my horse isn’t perfect & my training methods are blamed. I get so tired of the stereotypes. My 4-yr-old horse is naturally mouthy & of course everyone says it’s because I’ve hand fed her & used treats. It doesn’t matter that my 14-yr-old gelding or my 24-yr-old mare aren’t mouthy and I give them treats. It has absolutely nothing to do with the horse’s personality or disposition, it’s because I use treats and I’m going to train her to bite. *insert eye roll here*. If she crowds my space it has nothing to do with the fact that I didn’t teach her good ground manners. It’s because I use treats. But if a traditionally trained horse does those things then it isn’t the training method, it’s the horse or trainer.
    I felt relief and gratitude when I read the parts of your post about how to know when your horse is ready for the environment change. That is so helpful!!! I’m going to print that list out and work towards those items. I had thought of these things on my own and have been working towards them, but took it too far and decided to not use the clicker or treats around others. That isn’t a good solution. Your suggestion is much better (more balanced). And having it in black and white is so beneficial. Thank you!

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    • Hi Shiree, I’m sorry (but not surprised) to hear about your experiences. I do hope that this will change over time and there will be more positive reinforcement trainers out there, or there will be more traditional trainers who have a better understanding of how to use food and are willing to work within the system we use. I hope you find part 2 helpful. Katie

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