Clicking with the Pony Fairy

Clicker Training Foals

Begin at the Beginning. No matter what the age of your horse one

By: Clicking with the Pony Fairy |

Begin at the Beginning.

No matter what the age of your horse one should always begin at the beginning of training because there will always be holes to fill in. Going back and revisiting basic lessons is always valuable.

In my latest Horse-Canada article “Starting Them Young: Clicker Training Foals,” in the November/December 2014 issue, I interviewed a good friend and fellow clicker trainer and TCTT Coach Jen Digate. We discussed how to start a brand new foal with clicker training at a very young age, but really it is not different than starting any horse with clicker training with the exception that with a young foal, that you have brought into the world yourself, there will be no ‘baggage’ from previous training that you will need to be aware of.

So, while the article is aimed at foals it has the same foundation lessons in it that we would do with any horse new to clicker training.

The foundation lessons are targeting, grown-ups, standing on a mat, head down and happy faces. There are some variations on the targeting that we mentioned as well; magic hands and touch the goblins, which were mentioned in the article and I’ll show some video here to make them clearer.

I’ll also show some video of a young rescue foal that I worked with a few years ago. He didn’t have the great start that Rune had, he was wilder than a March hare when he came as he only knew the predator side of humans, so we were at a different starting point, but clicker training is so valuable in these situations.

Bruce, the rescue foal, was rather nervous of humans so unlike the usual curious foals that will come up to you if you get small and wait he’d have none of that. I moved the Spyder and Bruce into the barn for a short time each day so that I could manage the environment better and set things up for success.

I was not going to follow him around the stall and attempt to touch him like a predator, or grab him and force him to submit to my touch; none of the usual ‘handle the foal techniques.’ He was too young to look at any food I’d have to offer as a positive reward that I could pair with the click so I was going to use a ‘scritch.’ A scritch is a scratch on one of those great places on a horse that gets them to roll their eyes in their heads and get their muzzle moving; it feels good!

I couldn’t get close enough to Bruce to touch him with my hand so how was I going to accomplish this? I waited by the door of the stall until he looked at me, clicked and then reached with my driving whip, the handle end first and rubbed him by his withers until I got that look of ecstasy on his little face. It didn’t take long before I could shorten up the length of the whip between us and very soon could rub him with my hand. I did not force the distance and if there were signs of being anxious about my closeness I would stand still and wait for the slightest sign of relaxation and then click and scritch.

Within a short time he was comfortable having me in the stall with him and I began to start to shape the behaviour of ‘face me, and follow me’ to get his click and scritch. You do need to be careful not to scritch too long or can evolve into the mutual grooming, which you do not want. If he offered to groom me I would stop scratching until he stopped and then click and scritch just a little again to show him what behavior would be rewarded.

This then continued into the ‘can I touch you here’ game. All the time I would watch for signs of stress; a tense look on his face, a tight muzzle, a tenseness in his body and try and wait where I was till I got a relaxation that I could click and reward with a scritch. If I went too far and caused him to move away I would wait until he was calm again and try for a little less or a different spot and then return to the spot that had caused the fear.

Why was I being so careful to try not to cause fear or frustration during his learning? Kay Lawrence, an amazing UK clicker trainer and a regular presenter at Clicker Expo says that “practicing any emotion – including fear only makes an animal more likely to experience that emotion, earlier and more strongly under similar circumstances.” I did not want Bruce to feel fear and have to deal with it every time a human approached him; I wanted him to view a human encounter as a good thing, a pleasant experience to be looked forward to.

All emotions motivate learning and behaviour. A pleasant emotion is just as effective in eliciting behaviour as is an unpleasant emotion. Kay also says that “emotions experienced during learning colour the learning process and become embedded into the behaviour.” So fear will become embedded into the learning process if it is the emotion used to motivate learning and behaviour. Just as easily we can embed joy and pleasure into the learning process so that new challenges are faced with eager anticipation rather than fear. Pleasant emotions will create positive emotional responses to all learning opportunities and build trust in the relationship.

Kay also goes onto make the distinction between frustration in learning and engagement. Engagement is feeling comfortably challenged. If we as learners aren’t challenged we tend to get bored, but if we are faced with too big a challenge we may get frustrated and quit. Think of the Sudoku puzzles. If you started with the hard one you may get frustrated, not engaged and quit. That is why by starting with the easy ones and experiencing success we are eager to go onto the next level of difficulty. The same applies to our horses.

With clicker training we like to break things down into ‘easy to be right ‘steps. I had just started Bruce on targeting his nose to my fist in the stall. This is, or can be a precursor to leading. I presented my fist to him and he touched it without hesitation. Click and treat (scritch). What a clever boy!

Here is one of Rune too.

I repeated this several times to make sure re understood and then moved my fist so he had to move to touch it. Bruce caught on right away and was happy to follow me away from his dam.
Now this is a great start on leading and giving to the traditional ‘pressure’ idea that most of us associate with leading. So you are wondering how touching and following a fist can teach giving to pressure. This can turn into the game we call magic hands. Here is a little video of Rune doing magic hands to give you the idea of what it looks like. Here Jen has added in a voice cue after building the initial behaviour.

Have you ever tried to learn to do something without some help; some guidance that you are on the right track? Almost like a jigsaw puzzle but no picture on the box to give you a hint. Most of us find this kind of learning (free shaping) very frustrating and mentally tiring. On the other end of the spectrum is directed learning , like following someone in your car but you don’t remember how you got there – sort of on autopilot – only part of the brain is working). The learner in this case is highly dependent on the teacher. In clicker training we will use both these styles that are on the opposite ends of the continuum, but what we hope to produce by using guided learning as well ( in the middle of the continuum) is an animal that has the tools to problem solve and generalize using the skills it has learned.

My next step in Teaching Bruce to ‘lead’ was to put my hand on his shoulder close to me with very light pressure. I would then quickly pair it with my fist target place so he would shift his weight away from the ‘pressure’ of my hand to touch my fist and I would click and scritch, often before he actually touched my fist. He quickly figured out that the light pressure (we are talking the weight of my hand) meant to move, which also earned him a click and ‘treat,’ If he had trouble understanding I would add in my fist cue, so as to give him a bit of directed learning and not just leave him there trying to put the puzzle together with no picture! Yes, I could have just placed my hand on his shoulder and waited for him to figure things but this little bit of directed learning gave him the opportunity to be right sooner.

I then added in a rope around the base of his neck and using the same target, my fist cue, combined with a slight pressure on the rope got him to follow the feel of the rope around his neck. If he hesitated in moving away from the pressure of the rope I would keep that pressure (not add in any more pressure) but add in the target cue. He quickly figured out to move from a very gentle pressure. He had learned how to give to pressure without all the thrashing and pulling that usually comes with teaching a foal to lead.

When we do add in the halter, we will also still use the target fist cue to help him generalize that pressure anywhere on his body means give to it. The pairing of the cues will allow him the chance to be right more often and become confident in his ability to learn and understand what is being asked without the fear factor that so many horses experience during training.
Both Bruce and Rune will be thinking horses that will know how to deal with pressure… the light as a feather pressure you should only ever have to use to get the desired response…

So while this article presented the techniques with foals it can absolutely be used with older horses and horses with perhaps some issues from other training methods. Give it a try! Even after 17 plus years of clicker training the results still amaze me.

Next week’s blog will talk about the touch the goblins game, yet another version of targeting.