EQUINE CLICKER TRAINING.....
using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people
In March of 2001, I attended my first Alexandra Kurland clinic. I am not usually brave about trying new things or going new places, but I drove 5 hours north to meet people I didn’t know because I was so hooked on clicker training. At the time I had already been clicker training for a year and just wanted to make sure I was doing it right. I thought of this as a one-shot deal. I would make sure I was ok and then I would go home and keep doing what I was doing, or change things as necessary.
What an amazing experience! I think my brain was working on fast forward all weekend and I remember driving home and not wanting to turn on the radio because I had too much information in my head. Not only did I learn about the mechanics of clicker training, but I got a glimpse into another world of horsemanship.
Since then I have attended a number of clinics and they have all been wonderful experiences. I have made lots of friends and gotten to see other clicker trainers at work. We have worked on everything starting from basic targeting, head lowering and backing to more advanced lateral work and riding with the clicker. One clinic we worked on what Alexandra Kurland calls the “line of garbage” and taught our horses to accept strange objects. Another one was where I learned about how to round pen a horse the “clicker” way. We did lots of lateral work and give to the bit and talked about how to work our horses through physical problems by teaching them how to organize their bodies into proper alignment.
If Rosie is the horse who got me started with clicker training, Willy is the one who showed me the value of going to clinics. I went to 3 full clinics, and spent one day at another one before I brought Willy. At the time, Willy was 16 years old and hadn’t really been anywhere, except for one test ride at a friend’s farm, since he arrived at my house when he was 11. He is an ex-racehorse who had not adjusted well to being retired from racing, and bounced around from owner to owner before he was given to me. In addition to having some physical issues, he had a lot of mental issues. In the 5 years before I started clicker training him, we had come a long way, but we were stuck at a certain level of riding and handling.
When I went to the first clinic, I realized that not only could clicker training really help with the mental issues, but it provided a way to help him work through his body issues. Almost 2 1/2 years (and about 5 clinics) later, he is really a changed horse. Before clicker training, I sometimes felt that every ride was a challenge. There was always something…if it was windy, he might be spooky, if he hadn’t gotten turnout, he might be too full of energy, if he was feeling a bit uncomfortable physically, he might buck, and so on….Last winter I realized that I had ridden him all winter, through bad weather and days off without any problem. This year he is learning to be ridden on a slack rein. It’s not always there, but it is coming. And when I say a slack rein, I mean that he is still carrying himself and organizing his body as I ask, but there is a greater softness in the reins than I would have thought possible with him. When I first got him, a slack rein allowed him to hollow his back and speed up. Now, a slack rein gives him the freedom to find his own balance and use his body correctly. He looks beautiful. And, most importantly, he is sounder than when I got him, and clearly more comfortable in his own body. Another big change has been that now when he gets stuck (either physically or mentally), he doesn’t explode, but stops or tries to offer other behaviors. He used to over-react, sometimes violently, to being asked for something he didn’t understand or couldn’t do.
Could I have done it without the clinics, or some other guidance? I might have been able to do it with some horses, but not with Willy. The way I was taught to ride did not break down well into little pieces, so I had a hard time applying clicker training principles to the way I already rode. And he had so many issues that I really needed to start back over and find a new way to teach him how to be ridden. However, I was able to apply my clinic knowledge to my other horses and they have all progressed along nicely. I think one important thing that I got out of the clinics was total immersion in the “clicker mindset” for a few days. It really gave me to time to think through a lot of my previous horse experience and sort out what was useful and what was getting in my way. I think this is especially helpful for someone who has been exposed or is being exposed to a lot of other methods of training, or people with negative attitudes toward clicker training. The clinics gave me the conviction and the tools to trust in the process.
This is one reason I wanted to create this site and share my experiences. I think there are a lot of people who dabble in clicker training, and then get discouraged and leave it. Sometimes all you need is the chance to get to a clinic and really see the possibilities of clicker training and the changes in the clinic horses. The horses that attend the clinics with me have all made tremendous progress and it is so much fun to see how everyone is working. So, if you get a chance to go to a clinic, GO! You don’t have to get hooked on them like I am (although that’s good too), but that clinic experience might be enough to get you over whatever training hurdle you are facing.
What if you can’t find a clinic? Consider hosting one. Most beginner clinics don’t require elaborate facilities and can be a way to get a group of interested people together. If you don’t have a place to do that, then how about finding someone to come and help you? A lot of dog trainers are now using clicker training and some are interested in working with horses. Or, you can try to find some internet buddies and share your training plans and experiences on line. One reason for the members list on this site is to provide a place for clicker trainers to find each other.
There is something magical about clinics and the people you meet at them. Hopefully, as clicker training spreads and becomes more accessible, everyone will get to experience the inspiration that comes from a gathering of positive thinking clicker trainers.