equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Getting Started With Riding: Handling and delivering food

This blog post is the first in a two part series on using clicker training for riding. It is an updated version of an article that was originally published on my website (www.equineclickertraining.com) in 2015. I am combining both websites and have decided to share some of the more frequently read articles as blog posts so they are more accessible.

Many people use clicker training for husbandry, basic ground manners and groundwork, but not for riding.  I think there are a few reasons for this, one being that there is less information out there about how to do it. So I am going to write a few articles that cover some of the most commonly asked questions about getting started clicker training under saddle.

Why clicker train from the saddle?

Clicker training while riding offers all the same benefits of clicker training behaviors from the ground.  The marker provides clarity and the reinforcer provides motivation and makes the learning process more enjoyable for my horse.  Additional benefits are an increased focus, desire to work together, and a better level of communication.  When riding, I think that being able to use a marker signal (the click) is a big advantage because I can click, allow the horse to stop, and then reinforce him. When I compare this to feeding after the horse stops (no marker), it’s clear that the marker adds clarity about exactly what behavior I want to reinforce. This becomes even more important when I get to complex behaviors or I am working at speed.

I always introduce clicker training on the ground and make sure my horse understands about cues and stimulus control before I start using it for riding. In most cases, I teach behaviors on the ground first before I ask for them while riding. I may not train a behavior to perfection before exploring it under saddle, but the more similar my groundwork is to my early ridden work, the easier it will be for the horse. It really depends upon how I think it will be easier to teach the horse and what information I need to have as I am shaping. There are some behaviors where I want to know what it feels like, as opposed to what it looks like. With those behaviors I tend to explore them under saddle earlier.  

Once the horse is used to being clicker trained under saddle, I find that I can go back and forth between ground and riding exercises, adding little bits and improving things as needed.   By using clicker training both on the ground and under saddle, it’s easy to be consistent about how I train.  This makes it easier for the horse because riding just becomes an extension of groundwork. Alexandra Kurland likes to say that “riding is just groundwork where you get to sit down.”

However you choose to do transition to riding, the first step is making sure that your horse understands how to get his reinforcement when you are sitting on his back. 

Things I do to prepare a horse for clicker training under saddle

There are many things you need to do to prepare a horse for riding and it’s not my intention to cover the whole topic here. I am just describing the items that are related to feeding from the saddle. I usually do all my preparation and start working on food delivery after the horse is comfortable being tacked up and he can walk confidently up to the mounting block and stand in position while I mount. You could certainly teach some of these components earlier if you wish.

1.  Decide what kind of food I want to use as a reinforcer.  While I can reinforce with things other than food, I do always carry some food.  In some cases, I may be able to use the same food that I use for clicker training on the ground, but some horses have more trouble taking food from my hand when I am feeding to the side, so I might have to experiment with this. Some things to consider are:

  • The size of the food.  I find most horses do better if I feed one or two larger items (carrot pieces or larger pellets).  In some cases, I have had horses that did better with a handful of grain, but I find this tends to be messier and they want to pick up pieces they have dropped. Some people do report that initially their horses did better with longer pieces of food like carrot slivers until they got used to taking food from the side.
  • Can the horse eat it while wearing his tack?  It’s a good idea to check and make sure the horse is comfortable eating the chosen reinforcer while he is tacked up.  I usually let my horses practice eating treats while wearing their bridles as preparation for being treated while being ridden. This is important if you are using a bit, as many horses have to learn how to take treats and eat with a bit in their mouth. If the horse has trouble with larger treats, then I start with grain and change to larger treats once the horse is comfortable eating grain.

2.  Decide where I am going to keep the food. Here are some of the most common ways to carry food: 

  • In a vest – fishing or hunting vests with lots of pockets are often used by clicker trainers on the ground and they work just as well under saddle.  Do make sure the pockets are deep enough that the treats don’t fall out when you bend over.
  • In a treat pouch/fanny pack/nail apron – something you buckle around your waist. There are a lot of different options for this depending upon how many pockets you want and how much food you want to carry.
  •  In your coat pocket – this is what I do in the fall/winter when I am already wearing a coat.  Some coats work better than others. It depends upon the type of pockets. I find that “patch pockets” which open at the top are the easiest, but they can be harder to find.
  • On the saddle/saddle pad- some people use saddlebags or some kind of bag they can attach to the saddle. I made pockets that I can attach to my saddle pad with Velcro and I use them for treats. Some trail riding saddle pads come with pockets.

3.   Check to make sure that I am comfortable leaning forward as if to give the horse his treat

  • Even with a very flexible horse, I am going to have to lean forward to feed him from the saddle.  It’s important to make sure that I am ok doing this and that I can do it without making myself unstable in the saddle. Every horse and tack combination is a little different so I always check to make sure I am ok leaning forward to feed and that my horse is ok when I lean forward. 
  • I put this as number 3, but it could be done at any point in the training process because I’m not actually going to feed the horse. I just want to see if I am comfortable leaning forward and moving around in the saddle in ways that are similar to how I would feed. Depending upon my comfort level, I could start by just leaning forward to pat the horse’s neck or leaning over as if to look at his front feet. This is also a good way to evaluate how my horse responds when I start to move around.
  • If I am feeding on a young horse or in a situation where my horse might be anxious or jumpy, I am extra careful about how I feed. I lean forward only as much as necessary and I make sure my legs are in position to support me if he goes in any direction.

4.  Teach the horse how to take food from the saddle.

If I have been feeding the horse so his head is straight forward, he will have to learn how to bring his nose around toward his side and my hand to get his reinforcement. Learning to do this often involves both coordination and an understanding that it’s ok to move toward me after the click.

Here are the steps I use to prepare a horse for food delivery from the saddle: 

  • Targeting – I will check to see how comfortable my horse is with bringing his head around by doing some simple targeting exercises.   I start by asking for a little lateral flexion with the target and build up to asking him to come around toward me when I am standing by his elbow.
  • Lateral flexions – I do the same behavior but using a rein cue. This gives me a way to ask the horse to bring his nose around for the treat.   If you ride with a target you could probably skip this step, but I do like to be able to touch the rein to tell the horse which side the food will be on.  You can also tap the neck to tell the horse where the food will be.
  • As I am doing the targeting and lateral flexions, I will make a point of feeding the horse farther and farther back toward the girth area. I tend to change my position one step at a time (doing a few repetitions at each location), but I will go more slowly if the horse starts getting snatchy or wants to move his feet.
  • When the horse is comfortable turning to get the treat while I am standing at the girth area, I practice with the mounting block. I have a three step block so I will stand on the first step, click/treat (repeat a few times), stand on the second step (repeat a few times), click/treat, stand on the top step, click/treat (repeat a few times).
  • Sometimes when I start clicking and treating from the mounting block, the horse will start backing up or move out of position because he doesn’t know how to get the treat and I will lose my nice mounting block behavior. If this happens, I will click, hop off the block and feed from the ground with the horse’s head facing forward. I do this a few times until the horse waits for his treat. Then I mix in some repetitions where I stay on the block and feed from there.
  • Mount the horse, click and treat while standing at the mounting block.  With a horse that is new to clicker training under saddle, I check to make sure he’s ok with taking a treat from both sides, before I walk off.
  • If you have two people, you can make some of the steps easier by having one person on the ground who does the treating and then transfer that job to the rider. I do this by having the ground person start feeding farther and farther back until she is standing next to the rider’s leg. Once the horse is comfortable taking the treat from that location, the ground person walks into position but the rider feeds. After the horse is comfortable with taking the food from the rider, the ground person can be faded out.

Problem solving: What if my horse has trouble taking the treat?

Some horses just need practice. That doesn’t mean you can’t try to make it easier for them, but I don’t worry too much if food delivery from the saddle feels a little unpolished for the first few rides. As long as I feel safe (the horse is not biting my hand or losing his balance significantly), and the process is getting smoother, I don’t worry too much.

 Is he uncomfortable bringing his head around?

  • If the horse was fine with the targeting exercises and lateral flexions, then I might want to check to see what is different when I am in the saddle.  The horse could just be unsure what to do when I shift my weight or there may be some physical issue that needs to be resolved.   I know someone whose horse would not take treats and she found out that the saddle was digging in when the mare turned her head and neck to the side. She changed saddles and the mare was fine. That’s kind of an extreme example but I have also seen more subtle tack problems that can show up when feeding from the saddle.
  • Some horses are stiffer in their necks or have more trouble balancing in a lateral flexion. With these horses, that’s usually a sign that they would benefit from more groundwork/suppling exercises or that they might need to be seen by an equine body worker.

What if he brings his head around but then takes the treat by snatching or grabbing?

  • Some horses just aren’t very coordinated and have trouble taking a treat gently from what can seem like an awkward position. In general, they just need more practice, but I can experiment around with different treats, different size treats, or spend more time practicing on the ground. 
  • If I can get a helper, the helper can assist with feeding, as well as give me feedback on what the horse is doing when I feed.  Sometimes another set of eyes is useful to watch the horse’s balance as I feed and that can give me some information about things to change. 

What if he can only take treats from one side?

  • It’s also worth noting if the horse finds it easier taking treats from one side than the other.  When I ride, I usually treat on the side that is easier, which is usually on the inside of the bend. If am on a straight line and my horse is straight, I can feed to either side, or to the side that is usually easier for both of us. I do think it’s a good idea to get in the habit of treating from both sides. It will make you both more symmetrical.
  • If one side is more difficult you can start by doing the easier side and then slowly work toward doing both sides.

Once the horse is comfortable taking treats from the saddle, I am ready to start using clicker training to teach and improve the horse’s ridden work.   As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, there are different ways to go about doing this, depending upon how much you like to teach from the ground vs. from the saddle.  However, there are some common questions that people have when first starting ridden work and I’ll have answer them in the next article.

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