What can you do with clicker training? Sometimes we are limited by traditional thinking or just need some new ideas. In this A to Z series, I’ll be sharing ideas for things to train. I’ve trained some, but not all of them, and will share links to resources for more information whenever possible. I hope this list inspires you and you can’t wait to go out and teach some new behaviors to your horses.
I’ll be adding to these posts over time when I have time and new material to share. In some cases, I have intentionally been brief because the topic cannot be covered appropriately in this format, but I wanted to mention it so you have more complete list of ideas for things to work on. If there is a topic that interests you, and you would like more information, let me know and I will consider writing a more detailed article on the subject.
If you have a suggestion for an addition to this page, would like to share a photo, or add a comment, please send me a message.
Contents: generalization, girthiness, go forward/out, goat on a rock, going places, grazing on cue, grooming, goals, ground driving, ground tying, groups, grown-ups, guide horse training
Generalization is the tendency for learned behavior to occur in the presence of stimuli that were not present during training.Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior 5th edition
Generalization is an integral part of training. It’s rare that I train a behavior and only want it to occur in exactly the same conditions under which I trained it. Usually I want the horse to generalize the behavior in at least one or both of the following ways:
- Recognize and respond to the cue in a variety of different environments including new locations, with different types of surrounding stimuli and distractions. I may teach a behavior in my barn aisle, but want to be able to use it outside in my riding arena, yard, on the trails, or even in locations far away from home.
- Recognize and respond to variations of some aspect of a cue. For example, I teach some behaviors that involve an interaction with an object like a target or mat. I may use a specific target or mat in the initial training, but my long term goal is to be able to ask the horse to target or stand on other objects in the future. I want the horse to generalize the behavior so that he understands he can do it with a variety of objects.
In some cases, generalization can happen naturally if the training process includes slight variations in the environment or relevant stimuli. This can happen without deliberate effort by the trainer if their usual routine involves training under a variety of different conditions. It can also happen if the horse is very eager to offer new behavior and provides the trainer with lots of opportunities to reinforce the behavior under lots of different conditions. But, more often I have to deliberately plan how to slowly expand where and when I ask for the behavior so that my horse can learn to perform the behavior under many different environmental conditions or with some variations on some aspects of the cue.
Training for generalization is closely related to some of the other topics in this blog series such as cues, fluency, distractions, distance, and stimulus control. It’s also related to discrimination in that all training is about teaching the right combination of generalization and discrimination for behaviors. As a trainer, my goal is to teach the horse which stimuli are relevant (part of the cue or the behavior) and which are not. That’s how I get reliable behavior under a variety of conditions. It’s worth mentioning that it will be easier to generalize a behavior if I am careful to vary non-relevant stimuli in my training sessions so they don’t become part of the cue.
There are different ways to approach training for generalization. Which one I choose depends upon whether or not the behavior comes with an obvious and easily portable cue, the complexity of the behavior, and how well my horse learns in a variety of different locations. The two main strategies that I use are to teach the behavior completely and then generalize to new locations/stimuli or to incorporate some generalization early on, so that the behavior doesn’t become too tightly associated with one set of stimulus conditions.
Here are some examples:
- Touching a target stick – A simple behavior that I want to ask for in many environments. The target stick is a functional cue from the beginning and I know I want to be able to ask the horse to target in different locations, so I generalize to new locations early. As soon as the horse is targeting well in one location, I move to another location. That doesn’t mean I have to change location each time, but just that I vary the conditions enough that my horse learns that the target means the same thing regardless of where I am when I present it.
- Touching a variety of objects: A simple behavior that is taught with one object (the target stick), but that I want to expand to include touching other objects. If I want to generalize the behavior of targeting to include touching other objects, then I may choose to introduce new targets early on, so that the horse doesn’t build too strong a reinforcement history and association with touching ONLY the target stick. I usually start with a target stick and then add in other hand-held targets. Once the horse can target objects in my hand, I introduce targets in other locations (on the ground, on the wall, etc.) and widen the types of targets to include other objects.
- Lateral work: A more complex behavior that I want to have more finished before I put on cue and take it to new locations. In some cases, I use a particular environmental set-up to teach a behavior. I teach most of my lateral work in my riding arena and I often pick one location and combine it with a few other context cues that tell the horse we are working on lateral work (and which kind). Using context cues in this way, makes it easy for me to pick up where I left off and makes it less likely that the horse will offer it in other locations – where it might be undesirable. I don’t ask for it in other locations until I have a good sense that the horse understands the basic shape of the exercise and I feel we are communicating well.
I’ve described the two “extremes,” which are training for generalization as you go, and training for generalization last. But, of course, there are other variations. I often get a behavior started in one location and train there until I feel it’s appropriate to start asking for it in other locations, even if it’s not completely “finished.”
What are some behaviors that you should (but don’t always remember to) generalize?
- Targeting – It’s very useful to be able to use different types of targets. This gives you more options and means you can substitute something different if your usual target is not available.
- Mat work – Have you taught your horse to stand on different types of mats?
- Tying – Can you tie your horse in different locations?
- Trailer loading – Will your horse load if your trailer is parked in a different location? turned a different way? If you approach from a different angle? If there are other people or objects present?
- Lining up at the mounting block – Will your horse line up at different types of mounting blocks (or even different objects that could be used as mounting blocks)? Will your horse line up if you move the mounting block to a different place?
- Bathing – Can you bathe your horse in different locations? I almost always use my wash stall when I am at home. But when I am at a clinic, I may have to use their wash stall (which looks different than mine) or stand outside with a hose. Have I trained for this?
It’s worth mentioning that sometimes generalization happens when we don’t want it to. Dr. Friedman likes to say “behavior has a function,” and once we teach a horse a new behavior, he may find a function for it that we didn’t expect. Sometimes this is funny. Sometimes it becomes a challenge to keep one step ahead of the horse. My mare Rosie has double locks on her door – need I say more…
- Kay Laurence and Sue McGuire discuss generalization in the Learning about Dogs podcast 9: What does it mean when a behavior is generalized? You can find Kay’s podcast here.
Girthiness is a general term that describes a variety of undesirable behaviors that a horse might exhibit when the girth is tightened during saddling. The undesirable behaviors could include ear pinning, snaking the neck, biting at the handler or the air, kicking out, or worse. These behaviors are the horse’s way of telling you that something is uncomfortable. It could be something physical that needs to be addressed by a veterinarian or it could be something tack-related that requires some investigation to determine if it’s a saddle fit problem, a girth-fit problem, or something to do with what comes next (bridling, riding, etc.).
Whenever I am asked to help with a horse that shows any of these behaviors upon girthing, I always want to rule out any possible reason that having the girth tightened might be uncomfortable. It’s not fair to ask the horse to suppress a legitimate response and ignoring the underlying issue rarely works out in the end. Even if I do manage to dampen the horse’s response to the girth, the discomfort will get worse and his reactions will escalate again unless I make sure I have removed the cause of the girthiness.
So, the first rule for addressing girthy horses is “Do a thorough investigation for all possible causes.”
Once I’ve done that, and rectified the problem, it’s time to address the unwanted emotional response that might have been left behind. There are some horses that immediately change their behavior (in a good way) when the cause of their discomfort is removed. But, in many cases, the behavior has become habitual or the horse continues to do it in anticipation of discomfort. In these cases, I will put together a training plan to teach an incompatible behavior and build a reinforcement history for doing that behavior during girthing. I’ve used targeting, head down, and head forward as incompatible behaviors. I’m not going to write out a complete training plan here, but the basic idea is to break girthing down into tiny steps, clicking and reinforcing the horse for the alternate behavior at each step.
If possible, I try to work up to tightening the girth (enough to ride) over a few sessions. This means doing short sessions and always stopping before the horse gets uncomfortable. In my experience it’s better to take the time to resolve the girthing issue than to try and get it all done in one session. It takes time and repetition to change the emotional component of a behavior but even a few sessions where I do the girth up part way and end on a good note will create a significant change.
Here are some other tips for evaluating and re-introducing girthing:
- Try tightening the girth from the off side. This can sometimes shed some light on whether the horse is experiencing discomfort vs. anticipating or acting out of habit. If the horse has no response when I girth him up from the off side, it’s less likely that girthing is painful – note I said “less likely,” not unlikely…
- Starting the behavior modification process by using an item other than a girth. I might start with other long, thin objects (towel, bandage, surcingle, etc.) that I can use with varying degrees of pressure to mimic girthing.
- Massage and other techniques to teach the horse to relax when girthed. Mary Debono has a great blog on some of the techniques she uses with girthy horses.
A note about prevention: If you are starting a young horse, take your time and introduce the girth systematically and carefully, being sure to check for signs of discomfort at any stage. I think a lot of girthiness could be avoided if people paid more attention to the initial signs of discomfort. I also think that some horses have very strong preferences for the type of girth. The only time Rosie was ever girthy was when I switched girths to a “new and improved” style. She showed signs of discomfort the second time I used it. I switched back to her old girth and she went back to her normal relaxed girthing behavior.
Go Forward/Go out
I originally had going forward and going out (or sending) to an object or location as separate behaviors. But they are really the same behavior – being able to ask a horse to move away from the handler with intent or toward a specific destination. I teach horses to go out to mats and targets as part of their groundwork. I usually backchain it (see the “B” blog for backchaing), meaning I start with the horse close to the target or mat and then slowly build distance until I can send the horse from several feet away, or more. I can teach cues for the individual objects or I can teach a general “go forward” cue.
There are lots of practical applications for being able to ask a horse to go forward or out away from me:
- Leading: For most leading, I walk next to the horse, somewhere between his head and shoulders. But I do sometimes want to be able to ask the horse to go ahead without me. I find this useful when taking horses into the field because it allows me to ask the horse to walk in ahead of me, stop, and wait while I manage the gate. Or if I am leading multiple horses, I might want to send a horse forward into a stall.
- Long lining or ground driving: I use my “go forward” cue to ask the horse to walk on while I am standing behind him.
- Lunging: I can use my “go out” cue to ask the horse to go out on to the circle or move away from me if he is coming too close.
- Trailer loading: I can teach a horse to self-load into a trailer by teaching him to go forward to a target or mat.
- Mounting block: A fun behavior is to teach the horse to go to the mounting block by himself and wait for me to join him there.
note: I could have included “Going out alone” as part of going out, but I’m saving it for trail riding. I do have an article on how I used targeting to help Rosie become more comfortable trail riding alone. You can find it at: Using targeting to build confidence outside the ring.
Do you have a clear idea what your training goals are? Have you set both short term and long term goals? Are they specific enough that you can accurately track your progress?
In addition to keeping a regular training journal where I document individual training sessions, I try to sit down every few weeks and look at the big picture. I list all my current training goals and go through them one at a time to evaluate my progress and see if I am on track. I find this is a very important part of the process. Otherwise it’s easy to drift along and feel like I am making progress without having a real sense of what we can do today vs. last week.
It also prevents me from inadvertently creating plateaus. I have a little tendency to get a behavior started, train it so it’s good enough, and then let it stagnate. Later, when I want to use it for a slightly different application, I find that it can be difficult to get out of the rut I have created. By re-evaluating my goals and thinking about each behavior’s progress, I find it’s easier to think of new ways to combine behaviors and use existing behaviors as building blocks for new behaviors.
Keep in mind that goals don’t have to be limited to progress on certain behaviors. They can also be about less tangible things like how you feel after a training session, how your horse feels, whether or not you encouraged a certain quality in your horse or changed his perception of training, or were able to adjust your own thinking about training. When I transitioned to clicker training, I had to make a lot of mental adjustments and I definitely had periods when my goals were about trying new approaches or replacing old habits with new ones.
Goat on a rock
When I was in my “circus phase,” one of the behaviors I taught was called “Goat on a rock.” I’ve also seen it called a few other names like “elephant on a ball” and “bringing the hind feet to the front feet.” It’s often taught as preparation for standing with four feet on a pedestal, but it can also be a useful exercise to teach a horse to step under with a hind foot on cue.
In the picture above I was asking Rosie to bring her left hind forward by touching it with a whip. I used a whip because it’s helpful to be able to touch the leg to indicate which one I want her to move, but you could use a target stick just as easily. In addition to using the whip, I use two mats, one for the hind feet and one for the front feet. I placed the second mat just in front of the hind feet and used the whip to ask for baby steps forward with the hind feet,
Here’s Rosie standing on my longer pedestal. I was never comfortable asking her to close up enough to stand on only one of them, as I always worried about her falling off the side, but her position here is pretty close to what she would need to do if I took one of them away.
If you have a horse that stands with his hind legs camped out behind him, this might be a useful exercise to teach him that he can step under with his hind end. It is also a good stretch for the topline, especially if you ask the horse to lower his head at the same time.
I keep my horses at home and our farm is pretty quiet. Not only that, but most of our horses arrived as youngsters so they have limited experience with traveling. While I don’t expect most of them to do extensive traveling, I have taught them all to load and I try to practice loading every few years so that I know that each horse will load if there’s an emergency. Yes – I should probably do it more often, but …
With the horses that might travel, I try to prepare them for some (if not all) of the conditions they may encounter if I take them somewhere. This includes:
- Trailering – getting on and off, standing in the trailer, loading in new locations
- Being led and tied in new locations
- Being ridden in new arenas or out on new trails
- Staying in a stall
- Being around new horses
- Going to places with different kinds of activity (things they might not have seen at home)
What you need to work on will depend upon your horse’s previous experiences (has he traveled before?), his current living conditions (is he in a quiet barn or a busy one?), and any new experiences you expect he will encounter. While it’s not always possible to expose your horse ahead of time to all the conditions he will encounter away from home, it is possible to introduce some of them and/or to plan excursions that only introduce a few new experiences at a time.
When Rosie was 7, I decided it was time to teach her how to trailer to another farm for riding lessons. At the time, I did not have a specific trainer I wanted to work with, but I had permission to use an indoor about 5 minutes away by trailer. This was a great set-up because I could take her there, do what I wanted, and come home again, without committing to someone else’s schedule or plans. It gave me the flexibility to decide how much she was ready to do and I could adjust my plans as needed.
The first few times I took her there, I just walked her around and let her see the fields, barns, and walk in the indoor. When she was calm enough that I felt she was ready, I started doing groundwork in the indoor. After that we would finish the groundwork with a little riding at a walk and I eventually added in trot and canter until I could do a “normal” riding session away from home.
This took time and it was definitely not a linear progression. Some days I would arrive at the barn and there would be more activity or the weather would be making everyone jumpy or there would be a different kind of activity (construction work or …). But, over a period of a time (maybe a year), she got very used to going to the farm, walking around, hand grazing, having a riding session, unwinding and going home again.
In her case, I believe that a big part of her ability to travel later came from the time I took to gradually introduce her to new environments and different amounts of activity at barns away from home. She is not a horse that is comfortable with new experiences and I think that going to the same barn almost every week, for the first year that she traveled off the farm, gave her some degree of security. When we arrived, I always said “Look, we are here again,” and I she would instantly relax and eat hay. Later when I found a barn farther away that hosted multiple clinicians, she adjusted to going there very quickly and I was able to leave her on the trailer and/or put her in a stall and would settle right down.
Grazing (on cue)
I think most of us have had the experience of leading a horse who is determined to get a bite of grass. A normally polite horse may suddenly seem to forget about the person on the other end of the line and act as if he hasn’t eaten in weeks. Sometimes, when I hand graze my horses, I wonder how they are managing to breathe because they are eating so fast and without a break.
When I was a kid, the rule was that we were not allowed to let the horses stop to eat grass if we were leading or riding them. I was told that if the a horse was allowed to do it once, he would become impossible to control when being led near grass. This may have been true under those conditions, but as an adult, I learned that it was possible to teach horses when they are allowed to eat grass and when they aren’t. When I discovered clicker training, I learned that not only was it possible to train on grass, it was possible to use permission to eat as a reinforcer. If this interests you, here are some resources about training on grass:
- Alex and Dominique talk about training on grass in the Equiosity podcast for May 10, 2018.
- Sandra Poppema offers a course on teaching horses to graze on cue (not graze when not cued). You can contact her at www.clickertraining.ca to see when she is offering it.
- Peggy Hogan at www.clickertraininghorses.com also teaches about working on grass. Contact her for more details.
Even if you don’t plan on working your horse on grass or have to lead your horse over grass on a regular basis, I suggest you consider teaching your horse how to be hand grazed. This may seem silly, as horses already know how to graze, but there’s a big difference between a horse that is used to hand grazing and one that is not.
I discovered this when I started taking Rosie to farms for clinics or lessons. In order to make the experience a pleasant one, I would allow her to hand graze for a period of time before and after the main activity that I had planned. When I first tried this, I realized that she was too anxious to eat and was more inclined to fidget and walk in circles, and that even if she did stop to eat, we had not established any “rules” about how hand grazing was done. It’s never a good idea to train a new behavior under those kinds of conditions, so I decided to start including some hand grazing sessions at home, which gave me the opportunity to work out how we would do it. This helped a lot and she became very comfortable hand grazing in many different new locations. It turned out to be a useful skill as she often did not have access to turnout if we were away for a weekend and her hand grazing sessions were essential for her mental and physical well-being.
With Aurora I have incorporated hand grazing into our daily routine and it’s had some surprising benefits, but that’s a topic for another article. Let’s just say that I think it’s a worthwhile activity to do with your horse.
Some horses love being groomed. They enjoy the attention and will stand quietly while I fuss over them. Others seem to find it difficult to stand still or will react with unhappy body language when I brush certain areas. If I have a horse that doesn’t “like” grooming, I will try to break it down into separate behaviors as well as try to identify if I need to address it from a physical standpoint or from a mental/emotional standpoint. Yes, the two are related but I usually start by addressing one and adding in the other at some point along the way.
What are some possible reasons a horse might not enjoy grooming?
- Is it about standing still? This could be physical – the horse is physically uncomfortable or has too much energy, or it could be emotional – is the grooming area scary? Is he worried because he is separated from his friends? Do other aversive events happen in the grooming area?
- Perhaps the grooming itself is aversive? Is the horse comfortable with each tool? Perhaps some of them are too stiff, pull at his hair, or feel unpleasant when used. Horses can be very sensitive and it’s important to use the right brush for each area.
- Is he sore or tight? Any contact can be uncomfortable if you are already experiencing some discomfort. How does the horse feel if you just touch him with gentle hands? Do his muscles feel soft and loose or are they tight? Are there areas where he seems to react more than others?
These are starting points, not a complete list of all the reasons a horse might not like grooming. With them in mind, I will have a better idea of what things to look for in my next grooming session. If you can set up a camera, video is a great tool to use here. I like to video the entire session, including approaching the horse and/or moving him to the grooming area. I also want to see how he reacts to the end of the session. I may take particular note of things like:
- How does he react when I approach with the tools? Does he start to fidget immediately or only start when I do …. or after …. minutes?
- Does he react more when I groom a certain area?
- Does he react more when I am on the left or the right?
- Does he react more when I use a specific brush or tool?
- Is there anything that he does enjoy?
- How much attention is he paying to me vs. other events (horses, people, equipment, moving around outside)?
Teaching Rosie to stand for grooming was one of the first behaviors that I clicker trained. I was trying to teach her to stand on cross-ties for grooming and she would paw, and paw, and paw. Now, I realize that she probably had all the issues I listed above, and then some. She hated standing still, she hated not being able to see her friends, she has sensitive skin, she had some tight muscles, and she didn’t know what I wanted. I was a novice clicker trainer so I just clicked and reinforced for moments when she had all four feet on the floor. And, even though that might not have been the best strategy (now I would use a mat), it worked. The pawing decreased and while I’m still not sure she loves the process of being groomed, she has learned that it’s an activity that leads to a lot of reinforcement and that I will listen to her if she says “don’t do that.”
I have done ground driving with almost all of my horses. I use it as preparation for ridden work when I am starting a young horse. I also use it as part of my rehabilitation program if I have a horse that has been off work and needs to start getting fit again or is limited in what he can do. Red has had a series of injuries over the years and when I can’t ride, I often put him in long lines and ground drive him. With the ponies, it can be a good way to exercise them as we can do a wider variety of activities ground driving than lunging or working in-hand. While it does take some practice to learn to handle the lines and to set up routines for delivering reinforcement, I find it’s a great addition any horse and trainer’s skill set.
Some benefits of ground driving are:
- It is great preparation for driving and riding. You can work on go forward, stop, turns, and simple patterns. I use ground driving to teach my horses to turn off rein cues, regardless of my position.
- It desensitizes horses to lines on and around their bodies. I make sure the horse is comfortable with the lines touching his legs, dragging on the ground, going over his back before I start. During the training, I continue to find moments to get the horse comfortable with the lines moving around in different ways.
- It teaches the horse to go forward without me at his head or shoulder. Ground driving can reveal some interesting things about how confident a horse is about walking forward on his own. If my horse is comfortable being led to a particular destination, but I can’t ground drive him there, then he’s probably more concerned about it than I has realized.
- It gives me a different perspective on how the horse moves. Walking behind a horse, I can see exactly where and how he places his legs, rib cage, shoulders, head and neck.
- Ground driving can be combined with lunging to create more varied patterns.
- I also used ground driving to teach lunging to a pony that had a lot of emotional baggage about being asked to work on a circle. I taught her to ground drive, first on straight lines and then on circles. Over time I changed my position on the circles until I was double lunging her. Once she was used to this, it was easy to go to a single lunge line.
A few tips:
- Be safe: Don’t stand where you are at risk of getting kicked. This should not be an issue if the horse has been well prepared and you are breaking the training down into small steps, but I’m always aware than unexpected things can happen. Either stay far enough behind that you are out of kicking range or slightly off to the side.
- If you plan on doing this with any frequency, I suggest you buy or make some long line or driving lines. It is easier if you have the right equipment.
- I use a surcingle because it keeps the lines safely off the ground. You can also ground drive using a saddle, running the lines through the stirrups but I don’t like the feel of this set-up as well as using a surcingle.
- I start by teaching the horse to go forward to an object like a mat, target, or some other known object. It will encourage the horse to walk away from you because he will be going to a familiar destination.
- In the first sessions, I usually start by walking near the horse’s head and drop back as he approaches the destination. Over time I can drop back sooner and sooner until the horse is walking to the destination while I am behind him.
- Once he understands he can keep walking while I am behind him, then I teach him to start and stop while I am behind him.
- Using a destination usually prevents the problem of the horse circling back to try and find me. If this is an issue, then I teach my horse a “go out” cue and use that.
Clicking and reinforcing is easy:
- When I want to reinforce a behavior, I click, the horse stops, and I walk forward to feed.
- I ask the horse to wait and walk back to my position. The horse should stand still.
- I ask the horse to go forward.
- In the beginning, it’s not uncommon for the horse to anticipate going forward again and start walking before I can get back in position. If this starts to happen, then I need to shape standing still while I return to my position behind him. This can be done by clicking and treating for successive approximations – can you stand while I take one step back toward my position? click -> treat, can you stand while I take 2 steps back toward my position? click -> treat, etc., continuing this process until the horse stands while I return to position. Once I am at that point, then can cue forward. To maintain the behavior of waiting until I return to position, I occasionally click and treat for standing instead of always cueing the horse to walk forward.
- My blog “What can I train? D is for …” – look under “Driving”
There are so many ways to teach ground tying with clicker training! I’ve taught it out of mat work, grown-ups, and nose targeting. What I like about it is that the horse doesn’t learn to stay in one place because he’s afraid to move. He learns to stay in one place because that’s where the reinforcement occurs.
I probably teach it most often out of mat work. I like using a mat because the horse has a physical prompt (the mat) and the criteria are very clearly defined -keep your feet on the mat. First, I build a strong mat behavior because I want the horse to want to stay on the mat. Then I slowly introduce my own movement, so the horse learns to stay on the mat, even when I am moving. I start by staying close to the horse, moving along his side, then around the back. This is done in baby steps. I have this process written out in detail in my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement. It looks like this:
- Horse stands on mat, I stand next to him (facing him) – > click -> treat
- Horse stands on the mat, I take one step to the side, horse stands on mat – > click -> treat (I return to starting position to feed)
- Horse stands on the mat, I take two steps to the side, horse stands on mat -> click -> treat (I return to starting position to feed)
- I continue, slowly building how many steps I can take before I click.
- If the horse moves when I move, I cue him to go back to the mat. Then, the next time I move less or change how I move so it’s less like an invitation for him to move. Do I click the reset back to the mat? Maybe, it depends….
I usually spread the training out over several sessions, starting over again each time, but quickly moving to the new criteria. I find that once I can circle the horse, they learn very quickly that I will reinforce them for standing still. Once I can move all the way around the horse, keeping close to his side, I add distance by stepping away from the horse. If he stays on the mat, I click and return to the horse to give him his treat. Before I start adding distance, I usually add a cue that tells him I am leaving and he should stay in position. After I’ve added the cue, I can start to fade out the mat.
Groups could refer to riding in groups or training horses in groups (training several horses at the same time). I’m going to write a few words on riding in groups here, and save the other kind of training in groups for M – multiple horses.
After I started keeping my horses at home, I found that I rarely rode in groups, but I still think that this is something that every horse should know how to do. Horses need to learn how to ride in close proximity to other horses and how to handle things like one horse passing or leaving the group. This can be interesting as horses are social animals and have their own ways of communicating with each other when in close proximity and responding when members leave or join the group. While recognizing the nature of horses, we have to teach them how to behave so that everyone stays safe.
Horses that are uncomfortable when other horses come too close may respond by trying to increase distance – either by making the other horse leave (fight) or by leaving themselves (flight). In either case, you need to teach the horse what behavior you do want him to do and set up progressively more realistic scenarios so he can practice doing it. Remember to start with success which may mean having the horse some distance away. If you want to ride regularly with a group of friends, get your friends to help you.
You can also have the opposite problem if you want to ride in a group with two horses that know each other too well and are comfortable in close proximity. When my oldest daughter was at home, we would sometimes take two of our horses out for trail rides. These were two horses that were pasture buddies and the younger one (Red) was new to trail riding. We had to teach him that he could not react to his buddy Drummer in the same way he would if they were in the field. That meant no reaching over to play bite Drummer if he was beside or in front of him, and that he could be in front of, or behind Drummer.
Over the years I’ve met a number of trainers who use clicker training to teach horses to ride out in groups. Many years ago I hosted a clinic with Alexandra Kurland at my farm and one of the attendees was a woman who had been using clicker training for several years. She described how she teaches young horses to remain calm on the trail, even when the other horses are passing or leaving the group, and when there are other distractions. She wanted the young horse to learn to remain calm and focused on the rider if another horse and rider approached or left the group. She wanted the young horse to learn to move with speed in a group without getting too excited. She was very successful and attributed her success to using clicker training.
As with any training, your success will depend upon identifying the behavior you want your horse to do, setting up a good learning environment, and building a strong reinforcement history for that behavior under those conditions. This may take a team of friends who can help you by supporting your efforts when you ride with them.
The full name of this exercise is “The grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.” It is one of Alexandra Kurland‘s six foundation lessons and is one that she uses to teach a horse to stand quietly next to his handler without mugging or offering random behaviors. Once the horse has a basic understanding of the exercise, it can be used as a building block for many other behaviors including ground tying, mat work, stationing, waiting at the mounting block, and other stationary behaviors. It is also a good way to add pauses or breaks in training.
You can find more information on this exercise in Alexandra Kurland’s books and DVDs, available through www.theclickercenter.com. If you have my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement, there is a short training plan (in chapter 7) that describes how I teach it . Mary Hunter wrote a nice blog about teaching this exercise to her new horse, Apollo. You can find the blog post at Stale cheerios: Grown-ups and initial training environments.
Guide horse training
Did you know that miniature horses have been trained as guides for blind people? This is not something most of us will ever train, but I wanted to include it in case anyone hadn’t heard of it and because I think it’s interesting to read about how horses are being trained and used as guide horses.
I first learned about this one summer when I was attending clinics with Alexandra Kurland. She was training Panda, a miniature horse as a guide for her friend Ann. I was able to see some of the training and we had some interesting discussions about how many of the skills and behaviors that she was teaching to Panda were ones that might also be useful for our “regular” horses. Alex has documented her training with Panda in a series of articles on her web site. You can find them at The Panda Project.
There is also a children’s book on Panda and her training. It’s called “Panda. A Guide Horse for Ann.”
If you have a suggestion for an addition to this page, would like to share a photo, or add a comment, please send me a message.
If you want to learn more about clicker training, check out my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement.