I have never been through a global pandemic and I am as prone to spinning out with worry as anyone. As the governor of California announced the “shelter at home” orders, I was drafting this blog about how I first learned of clicker training, lost my clicker, and then re-discovered the method more than fifteen years later.
In meditation, I received the message that nobody can close their eyes and meditate their way OUT of the crises, but we can individually, and together, stay mindful THROUGH it. We can consciously decide to control our responses. I have been practicing the 3 breaths technique each time I get tense, which is countless times every day. I am rooting for everyone, especially my friends and family on the front lines, as well as people living in close quarters all over the world. We know we have to be better at everything we do, and that means letting go of some of the ways things were before. I’m using this time to deepen my animal Reiki practice, and improve my training. When I’m in the zone with my horses, I feel at peace.
My first introduction to clicker training left me skeptical because I saw the method misused. Then along came a horse, years after my first horse Mustang Yogi, who needed to learn in a softer manner. I have yet to achieve consistent liberty with Yogi, but positive reinforcement clicker training created magical communication with Brioso. The method enabled me to connect in a new and deeper way.
When I adopted Mustang Yogi, in 2003, the universe conspired to support us. I joined the Napa Valley Horsemen's Association and I met the right people at the right time, finding exactly the video or book needed.
Kickin’ Back Ranch, run by Willis Lamm, was a Mustang gentling facility near Napa. Willis recommended a few resources including a clicker training pamphlet, and that’s the first time I heard the term. He showed me how he approached the wild ones, by putting on his helmet, and entering a small metal pen with a wild snorting horse. As the gate clanged shut, he left me to figure out how I was going to emulate his ways. Those pamphlets, one on clicker training and the other on using a long bamboo pole to scratch the withers and trace the horse’s silhouette, were my lifeline to getting started.
My first impression of clicker training, however, was exactly what I did not want! I witnessed a handler nearly trampled - as with bared teeth, and pinned ears, the horse lunged for the treat pouch. One guy had his horse touch his nose to a scarf on a stick. I didn’t see the point! I had the impression that clicker trainers just stood there, hand-feeding the spoiled horse. Even then, owing to Willis, I figured I’d give it a try, using a bucket for treats.
Back in Yogi’s gentling pen, I clicked and tossed hay and carrot bits into his bucket if he looked at me. Around day 3 of this, I lost my clicker, and I did not see any point in buying a new one. He was starting to munch hay near my feet anyway.
I had several reasons to avoid clicker training, mostly that I did not want to hand-feed, and I felt Yogi was too dignified to do tricks. Now I realize, I was seeing the ways in which things can go wrong with clicker training, and instead of looking deeper, I missed out. Yogi and I progressed pretty well without the method, but who knows what could have been accomplished had I stuck with it.
In 2016, Yogi was nearing 20 and I wanted him to have a nice semi-retirement. I bought a fancy bred PRE Andalusian yearling named Brioso. From the age of one, Brioso was hyper-sensitive, and had intense growing and teething pains, which caused anxiety. Natural Horsemanship (NH), with its negative reinforcement, or escalating pressure, was not going to be the best method of training for Brioso.
I didn’t think about clicker training again until 2017 when friend and trainer Jenni Purcell posted a video of her tall red horse named Finn, bounding over a complicated jumping pattern AT LIBERTY. Her cues were playful, and she did not have to keep track of a clicker. She clucked with her tongue instead! Jenni and Finn were the embodiment of what I wanted to experience with my horses. I had read somewhere that Cavalia trainers used positive reinforcement too, so my interest was piqued.
Jenni taught me the “Grown-Ups Are Talking, Please Don’t Interrupt” lesson with my smart and sensitive youngster Brioso. The “grown-ups” game teaches the horse to be polite about food. You start with the horse in his pen or stall, but you stand outside, which is called protected contact. Stand facing in the same direction as your horse. The horse will nuzzle you for those treats in your pocket. Just ignore. The moment they have their head turned away, or looking straight in the position you are both facing, cluck and treat. Do this again and again, from both sides, and soon the horse will ASK for that treat by turning his head away from you, looking forward.
You can hand-feed, or toss the treat in a bucket on the ground. I did this 5-10 times from both sides of my horses, several times a day. It takes a bit of practice to get the bridge signal (the click or cluck) at just the right moment when the horse looks away. Each effort was rewarded with a pinch of hay pellets, and we’d start over. It’s called, “a clean loop” when you ask for a behavior using your body language, the horse complies, and you cluck then reward. That’s it! Even with my fumbled timing, the horses learned to be polite about food. The “grown-ups” foundation game is simple, and once established, you need not worry about the horse being a pushy cookie monster.
From there, I experimented with shaping the basics of husbandry like lowering of the head, haltering, and picking up hooves, with cluck and reinforcement. Right away I felt a difference in my horses' energy and they noticed a change in me! The horses started to seek the right answer, and I reinforced with the cluck and treat when their effort was calm and relaxed. I felt a positive shift in their willingness to cooperate. After only a few lessons with Jenni, I was impressed with how quickly youngster Brioso and senior Mustang Yogi took to the foundation games. With clicker or positive reinforcement training, we are teaching the horse how to learn, ask questions, and seek answers. With this method, your horse becomes a partner in a conversation.
When I brought youngster Lusitano Arteiro home in 2019, he was defensive when asked to pick up his hooves because he had a bad experience during his Pre Purchase Exam (PPE). Within weeks, starting with the “grown-ups” game, haltering, and hoof handling with positive reinforcement, he was soft and relaxed. His tension dissipated and he was seeking connection.
The only rules are that you cannot hand-feed your horse unless you are playing a game or working, and if you cluck, you must reward. If you have guests visiting who want to feed the horses, that’s easy, just toss treats into a pan or bucket, and do not hand feed. Better yet, play a round of grown-ups! Since starting clicker training, my horses clamor for my attention, and have brighter eyes when they see me.
You can get in touch with Jenni Purcell of Sonoma, CA at www.ravendaisy.com.
Here’s Jenni’s video, which will make you smile.
I know there are lots of books out there but I found that Alexandra Kurland’s, The Click that Teaches: A Step-by-Step Guide in Pictures, Revised Edition is my favorite. Alexandra's website Equiosity.com is a handy resource for getting started. Alexandra co-hosts her podcast Equiosity with none other than Dominique Day of Cavalia! The podcast is short but packed with takeaways. The free support materials on the website are my secret weapon for getting unstuck as I train alone from home.
It’s my hope that during the pandemic, you find healthy ways to get in the zone with your animals. Whether sharing space in Reiki meditation, journaling outside in nature, or teaching tricks, be gentle with others, especially yourself.
With 3 deep slow breaths, I post this blog with gratitude for my horse and human teachers.
Cover Image: Airborne!
This is And the Crowd Goes Wild! AKA Mustang Yogi, from a year ago, at Rancho Murieta, where we showed 3rd level dressage. The shows for 2020 are canceled owing to the pandemic. Photo by friend, Katy Sommers DVM