I can´t believe how fast time goes. Today was the clicker clinic with Amanda from the group, who has done a lot of work with Alexandra Kurland. It´s the first time we´ve had a clinic specifically on clicker, although we´ve had clinics before with Becky Holden who uses clicker too. Several people couldn´t bring horses so borrowed polo ponies. I´d done a little clicker work with the polo ponies being used, just so that they knew what it was about and could put their nose on a target and stand on a mat.
The clinic was very, very interesting. Amanda didn´t want spectators who didn´t know anything about clicker as she said it could be a bit like watching paint dry, and I could see what she meant, but the horses really got it. They appreciated the simplicity and clarity and became very engaged with the process. In some cases it was almost as if they couldn´t quite believe the answer could be that simple. I guess they are used to questions being pretty complex!
One of the first horses on was a fairly stressy character. He settled very quickly with simple targetting tasks which got him plenty of clicks and treats, and he soon stopped absenting himself and calling for his buddies and engaged in the tasks being set.
One of the polo ponies used doesn´t like bits very much so we used the bit as a target, then narrowed the task so that she only got clicked and treated when she touched the bit itself with her nose, then with her lips. She then offered touching it with her teeth so the next step will be asking her to open her mouth for the bit and then hold it in her mouth. This horse had done two clicker sessions before and it was interesting to see how much thought she put into the task. She´s quite a busy character and she´d take herself away every now and again for a short spell of thinking time and then head back within a few seconds and refocus on the task. This is a horse that can lack focus and I was surprised at how focused she was.
I then worked with my “project” horse who has been beaten in the past. We worked on jaw flexions with her, simply asking her to follow the suggestion on the rein. She was quite different to the previous horse in that her response was much more measured. She really appeared to think about the question and the response that was required rather than just give it a go. When I was working with her the whole energy in the arena changed. It became really quiet and calm. In previous sessions the spectators had been chatting away but in her session it was silent. Interesting what an effect a horse can have on a group of people!
When we finished I took her back to the stable to take the bridle off and a friend came to chat over the door. Normally this horse would have been wary of someone standing the other side of the door. She normally stays with me but not always. Today she stood next to the door and took an interest in the person on the other side of the door, even putting her nose over the door to say hello, which is pretty much unheard of. Then she stood there for ages licking my arm, with really soft eyes and the odd yawn. This is a horse who is does not usually relax around people but this was the most relaxed I´ve seen her.
Next up was Susan´s clinic horse, Flynn. He got to step on and off a mat, which was a wooden board. He got the hang of that pretty quickly and obviously enjoyed the noise it made. His posture when standing on the board with his front feet was quite different to his posture when off the board. When on the board he lifted the withers and looked like a much shorter, taller horse! Next he got to do pilates. When Amanda first mentioned pilates for horse I was pretty sceptical. She explained that you wait for the stomach muscles to engage when the horse is doing something else and click that. Yeah, right, and the horse is going to link the click with that muscle movement. Yeah, right, he did! Very quickly he worked out what it was that got the click and then put his mind to working out how to activate that muscle. You could see various other muscle groups twitch as he worked out how to isolate the one we were looking for. If I hadn´t seen it I wouldn´t have believed it was possible.
Maelea from the group worked on jaw releases with another of the polo ponies. The horse got the hang of it so well that as she slid her hand down the rope to ask for it, he offered the soft flexion which sometimes made it quite hard for her to feel. He grew a couple of inches at the withers. This is the one polo pony we have who is difficult to catch but in the last week since starting with the clicker he´s been much easier to catch, and I haven´t been using the clicker for that purpose, it´s just happened by accident. Interesting!
The first horse had his sessions broken into two and in the second session the owner decided to work on trailer loading. It took a while but it was the most stress free trailer loading session I´ve seen. He got clicked and treated for every forward move, then for touching a target and a forward shift of weight, and in he went. In an ideal world he´d have come off and done that several times more but his owner had to get home and Amanda had to get onto her next stop. There´s plenty of homework to do but a great foundation.
In my session I´d said I wanted to work on collection. Amanda set up a triangle of poles on the ground with gaps at each point of the triangle. Then there was a second triangle of poles set up across the apex of the inner triangle but leaving a channel between the outer and inner triangles, if that makes any sense! The aim is to have the horse walk through the various gaps and over specific places on the poles in whatever pattern the handler chooses, asking for jaw releases and bending at each turn and asking the horse to stay with the handler and go where they go. It was an excellent exercise for the horse to work out where all its feet were and to start connecting its body and collecting for the turns. There´s plenty of work to be done on that with the horse I was working with but it will be a very useful exercise for her.
I guess the thing that surprised me most about the clinic was the number of repetitions done on each task. Amanda explained that the criteria for moving on is when the horse gets the right answer 80% of the time, and maybe even more with a “problem” horse. If I were to put a number on it I´d say I´ve been moving on at about the 50% mark, but it was obvious today that the horses appreciated the repetition and really understood the task. The stressy horse that started the day, came into the arena in a totally different frame of mind for his second session. He was present the whole time, even though he was doing trailer loading which obviously wasn´t his favourite past time.
One of the things that has bothered me in the past about clicker training is the question of whether or not it gets to the inner horse and changes the horse´s way of thinking. Having watched the horses today, I´m pretty confident it is as effective at getting to the inner horse as any other form of horse training I´ve seen, and the horses become very willing, thoughtful partners.
June Scott, 25 July 2010