I get asked lots of questions about Clicker Training Horses, most of which apply to us all at some stage of our training. So I thought I would share some of these questions and the responses I have given. I hope this is useful in your training.
As I have been working through the why would you leave me (WWYLM) game we have got to a stage where; when I slide down the lead rope my horse tries to nip me. He’s not nasty or scary but it’s preventing us from moving on and making progress. How do I teach him that I don’t want him nipping at me ?
S.M.A.A.R.T. Horses Answer
My first thought is about food delivery. You may need to have this very clean indeed. Some horses let us away with sloppy treat delivery and others just can’t tolerate it.
Sloppy treat delivery is like that thing that people do when they offer you something in their hand then just as you are about to take it they snatch it away. Now the first time they do that we sort of go ‘ha ha, funny’. The next time we are not so patient, the next time we are thinking things that we can’t really say out loud and after a few more….most people will throw all their toys out the pram !!
So this could be a very real situation for your horse. He might be saying, ok, my treats are a moving target and I can live with that for now. But after some time he just can’t take it any more. So definitely check in with this first. Make sure your treat delivery is clean as a whistle. It always amazes me the number of times I tell people to ‘keep your hand still, keep it still, keep it STILL and they don’t realise the reason I keep saying it is that they are moving it. They just don’t realise their hand is moving at all (our bodies are very good at lying to us). So if you can video your treat delivery that would be great. Just watch it back yourself and see if your hand is indeed a moving target.
Once that is eliminated I would suggest checking in with your criterion. WWYLM is an end behaviour, what stage are you at just now ? What criterion are you working on ? Are you asking too much ? In other words, are you working on one criterion or are you actually trying to get to the end goal a tad too fast.
Your horse may well have a short attention span, or the session may be busy. I just happened to pick up an email yesterday that was about another clicker trainer who had learned the importance of building breaks in to the training. Don’t rush things, and learn where to put in an easy behaviour. Manage the pace of things so that you are not matching the speed of your horse, ask your horse to come and meet your energy.
A common thing I see is a busy horse where the handler feels they need to be busy to mange the horse. What we should really be doing is saying ‘hey, my energy is down here, it’s a great place to be, come and meet me’. Control the pace of things with your energy and the speed that you move at.
I remember at a clinic last year there was a lady there with a horse who was getting more and more wound up. I could see really easily why he was hyper….the handler was hyper and micromanaging him. She was constantly on the snap and heels dug in to the ground to stop him going forwards. The horse must have felt trapped but was actually doing the most amazing job of holding it together (which his handler was not). We had to do a trailer loading session for him to get him home at the end of the clinic and I could see the energies just going up and up and up…..until I took the rope off the handler. The second the rope was in my hand the horse instantly dropped his energy and lowered his head. I didn’t ask him to do that, so it just goes to show how much we communicate down the lead rope with our energy.
Remembering that the click does not mean ‘get the food to the horse as fast as possible’ is so important. You do not need to have the food at the horses mouth quickly….what the click means to the human is ‘start food delivery’. There is a huge difference.
So WE need to manage the speed of the work we do with the horses.
My suggestions would be, check in with treat delivery, ask yourself if you are asking for more than one criterion at a time, ask yourself who is managing the speed of the communication, add in lots of breaks (as in; easy behaviours such as targeting), and go back to the 20 treat rule.
The breaks that the 20 treat rule add in also mean that you run less of a risk of having to end on a bad note (or the horse end the session because they have had enough). You can stop at any time within those 20 treats, and the frequent breaks should mean that both of you are left wanting more.