equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? U is for …


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: u turns, udder cleaning, umbrella, up


u turns

I gave the name “u-turn” to a groundwork exercise I do where I ask the horse to turn 180 degrees around me while I walk in a very small circle. I started playing with u-turns when I was teaching Red in-hand work and I wanted to be able to ask him to walk forward so that I was positioned closer to his shoulder, further back from my normal mid-neck position. When I tried to adjust my position, he would either either bend his neck too much, drift out with his shoulders, or spin out.

To help him understand what I wanted, I started playing with using my hand on the lead to draw him forward and around me on a turn. I originally was looking for a few steps, but I quickly realized there were a lot of benefits to making a complete turn. The turn helped him keep the bend, engage his inside hind, and keep moving forward. At that point, I didn’t want a lateral component. In the beginning I kept walking myself, but with shorter and higher steps (marching in place) so that he would keep moving. As he got better at it, I could walk more naturally, but still with the idea of more up than forward.

I had a lot of fun playing with them and created patterns that included different lateral movements and u-turns. I felt like it really helped with his flexibility and adjustability. For example, once he knew the full u-turn, I could ask for a few steps as a set-up for yielding the hip or starting lateral work. Because it was taught as a discrete behavior, I found it was easier to control how many steps he did and I could use the u-turn to exit out of the lateral work if he got too drifty.

U-turns are also very practical. I can use them when I need to turn a horse in a narrow space, like when I ask a horse to go into the wash stall or turn around in the aisle.

If you decide to play around with u-turns, keep in mind, that the size of the turn will influence how the horse navigates it. If the turn is too tight and the horse is stiff, he may counterbend or pivot instead of moving around the turn smoothly. Different size turns will create different movement patterns in the horse. Exploring turns of different sizes can help you identify what your horse finds physically challenging and what components of lateral work might still need to be taught. Be sure to do them on both sides. Most of the time, I teach u-turns using lead rope or rein cues, but I’ve also done it using a target.

udder cleaning

Mare owners don’t completely manage to avoid dealing with the underparts of their horses. Like the sheath, the udder can benefit from occasional cleaning as smegma will collect between the teats. Some horses get itchy and are very cooperative about letting the area be cleaned. Others not so much.

I approach udder cleaning the same way I teach sheath cleaning. First, the mare needs to be comfortable being touched in the area around her udder with my hands or a soft cloth. Once she’s fine with that, then I will use a damp washcloth or sponge. If she’s very dirty, I may use some sheath cleaner but I usually can get things clean with soap and water.

One tip that may be helpful is that in the summer, many mares get itchy between their hind legs and on their belly where there is no hair and the flies like to bite. If I can, I try to clean the udder when some scratching in that area is likely to be appreciated. Rosie gets very itchy in the summer and while she tolerates udder cleaning in general, I can actually use scratching itchy spots as a reinforcer in the summer.

Additional resources:

umbrella

Teaching your horse about umbrellas is a good idea. Most horses are likely to encounter umbrellas them at some point in their lives and some horses find them to be scary, especially if the umbrella is opened unexpectedly. If you teach your horse about umbrellas, you will be much safer if you are in a situation where people are using them, and you can even use one yourself when you are near your horses.

What can you do with an umbrella?

  • teach the horse to target an umbrella – it makes an interesting novel object when placed on the ground in various positions
  • teach the horse to put her head under an umbrella. I did this with Rosie and I think it helped her be more comfortable with objects over her head.
  • teach the horse he can control opening the umbrella.

February was very snowy in Pennsylvania and I’ve been stuck inside the barn for training. It’s hard to keep coming up with new ideas, but one day I decided to play with an umbrella with M. I had no idea if he had seen one before or not. I offered it for inspection and he touched it. Then I opened it slowly and he stayed with me, but was clearly on alert. I clicked and treated a few times for opening it a little bit. He would take his treat and then turn away from me, putting some distance between his head and the umbrella.

I wanted to see if he would be more comfortable if I let him tell me when he was ready for me to open it, so I let him offer a start button behavior. After he got his treat, I would wait until he oriented back toward the umbrella (telling me he was ready), open it slowly, click and treat. Within a few repetitions, he figured out that he could control when I opened the umbrella. I knew the moment he got it because he stopped moving his head away from the umbrella after he got his treat.

Here’s a little sequence that shows him touching and then watching the umbrella while I opened it.

up

Up could mean lifting any body part up (head, leg) or stepping up on to something. I’ve already written about lifting legs and stepping up on to objects (see additional resources) but I haven’t written about teaching a head up cue. This may seem like an unlikely behavior to want – usually we are asking horse to lower their heads. But, there are good reasons to teach it. Here is why I teach it:

  • head up is the opposite of head down. I teach and ask my horses to lower their heads all the time. Often it is for practical reasons (haltering, brushing ears, etc.) but I might also use it to improve my horse’s posture or encourage relaxation. In fact, I use head lowering so much that my horses like to offer head lowering. To balance this out, I need a head up cue.
  • It’s useful if I want to work on grass. I can use grass as a reinforcer but only if I teach my horse to leave the grass by lifting his head up on cue.
  • It is a good stretching exercise. If you have a horse that tends to be tight in its throatlatch area, asking the horse to follow a target up and out can be one way to help release tension in that area.
  • If a horse tends to travel on his forehand, I can teach him to raise his head on cue to encourage him to travel in a more balanced posture. When I ask a horse to raise his head, I need to look at the effect it has on the rest of his body and make sure I am asking for the right amount. Too much and it is likely that he will hollow his back. I like to use a target for this work because I can adjust the position of the target to easily communicate where I want the horse to be.

Additional resources:


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, available from Amazon.

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