In this year’s Practical Clicker Training series, I have shared tips for teaching horses a variety of behaviours based on the foundation lessons of clicker training and positive reinforcement. I have sought to encourage owners to try this alternative to traditional means in order to improve their relationship with their horses and make learning a fun and cooperative experience.
Clicker training can elicit results from horses of all ages and stages of training, including newborn foals. I recently spoke with a friend and fellow “Click That Teaches” coach, Jen Digate, who had the opportunity to start her foal, Rune, with clicker training right from day one. Here, she discusses her choice and experiences so far.
Pony Fairy: Why did you decide to start clicker training your foal?
Jen Digate: I was dissatisfied with the roughness shown in conventional foal training I had seen, and knew from my years of experience with horses and dogs that positive reinforcement worked better. This was an opportunity to start with a clean slate and see what the work would produce without any conventional training colouring the effect.
PF: How old was Rune when you started working with her?
JD: She was three days old. I was there for her birth to help dry her off (it was 18 below zero at the time) and to make sure she nursed, but I didn’t do any imprinting or initial handling. As soon as she was comfortable in the world, and had better developed senses, I started offering little scratches on her withers and chest while I did daily husbandry – stall cleaning, grooming her mother etc. I worked in very short spurts of two to three minutes at a time at first. She was probably two weeks old when this started to become consistent.
PF: How did you initiate the contact?
JD: I let Rune initiate. Foals are naturally curious and approach people. When she approached, I would offer her a good scratch. Within a few weeks, she was hurrying over to get her scratch. So, I’d offer my outstretched palm, she’d touch it, I’d click and she’d get her scratch. Voila! It was contingent.
If she had been a more fearful foal, I would’ve hung out with her mom, groomed her and let the foal learn to be comfortable with and approach me.
PF: How often did you train in the beginning?
JD: Initially, I worked with Rune daily, each time I went in to do husbandry/chores. Young foals overstimulate easily, so I’d stop before her nervous system became overloaded.
Now, we train three to four times per week, for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Her attention span is phenomenal for such a youngster. She loves to train and really concentrates hard!
PF: What did you use for reinforcement seeing as she was not eating grain etc. yet?
JD: I just used scratches, which she enjoyed, for the first six weeks or so until she stated to be interested in food. I habituated her to my presence and made the scratches she liked contingent to a safe behaviour. The behaviour I chose was targeting her nose to my hand. Horses, being naturally curious and often investigating with their noses made this an easy choice for her.
PF: What behaviours did you feel were important to teach her at this young age?
JD: All the early behaviours were focused on getting her safe to be around and handle. Using the clicker, scratches and food made it easy and quick. She was habituated to having her body parts handled, taught to lead using a hand target (a back-up behaviour for when the halter was added in) and taught to put her nose into a loop of rope, which would also prepare her for haltering.
PF: How did you get her to let you handle her all over?
JD: We played the “Can I Touch You Here?” game, starting with easy spots to touch that she was okay with, like her withers. Then moved gradually to the more ticklish and reactive spots, all the while making sure we were not forcing anything and, of course, clicking and scratching or treating.
PF: How did you manage the mare while you were working with Rune?
JD: Glasswing, her mother, was fine with me playing with Rune in her presence, but being clicker trained herself meant she also wanted to play, so I would have her entertained by hay or grain while I did these short, five-minute sessions with Rune. As Rune got older, I started to work her farther from mom and go on little walks around the pen and down the driveway using hand targeting to lead her in the beginning. She has now been transitioned to a normal halter and lead.
PF: Rune is now almost six months old. What are the behaviours does she know?
JD: We have worked on several of the foundation lessons already including targeting and mat work. She also knows “Magic Hands,” which is another form of targeting body parts. She has had hoof lifts shaped and will now hold her hoof up by herself to have them cleaned. She stands for deworming, and she will lead with a halter or neck rope.
PF: In addition to clicker training, what are some of the next things you will be working on with her?
JD: Management behaviours are next on the agenda. We need to make horses safe before we make them fancy, according to [well-known clicker trainer] Alexandra Kurland. So, I will be working on trailering, preparing her for shots, the dentist, the farrier and those sorts of things. As well, we will be going on longer walks and exploring her environment and using the “Touch the Goblins” game to encourage this as well.
Eventually, I would like to teach Rune classical dressage, starting with work in-hand and moving to under saddle once she is five or six. In the meantime, we will work on colours, mats, leading games, body targeting – anything and everything to expand her learning.
All the while, I am building the trust in the relationship and making sure her time spent is enjoyable and I am a reliable and predictable human who brings good things to the encounters.
Magic Hands The goal of this game is to have the horse maintain a light contact between the part of his body you are touching and your hand, usually the shoulder. As you move and stop and turn it is his job to stay glued to you through the contact of the hand as a guide in order to earn reinforcement.
Touch the Goblins This game is another version of targeting. In it, we use nose targeting, which was one of the first lessons taught, so will have a high reinforcement history and is, therefore, more likely to occur. We use this nose targeting to turn new, scary objects into an opportunity to earn reinforcement. As in, “If you touch this with your nose, you can earn a click and treat.”
Check out my blog, www.horse-canada.com/pony-fairy/clicker-training-foals for videos of Rune. You can also read Jen’s blog at spellboundhorses.com.
And to see the games Magic Hands and Touch the Goblins in action, see www.horse-canada.com/pony-fairy/magic-hands-and-goblins.