This is Part 3 in this series. The horse I am featuring was one of the horses at the November 2015 Arkansas clinic. He had no clicker training experience prior to the clinic. We tracked his progress via video over a three day period.
Part 1 covered the morning training sessions of Day 1
Part 2 covered the afternoon training sessions of Day 1
If you have not already read Parts 1 and 2, I suggest you begin there. This article covers the training sessions in Day 2.
Day two began with another round of targeting and “the grown-up are talking”. Again, I was choosing to work over the stall guard and to keep the session short.
Video: Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 Session 1
We followed the same pattern of the previous day. After working with Nick, I asked people what they saw. They all agreed that he was doing much better. He was coming forward to touch the target, but the targeting loop was not yet clean. He was first looking down the barn aisle. Since this was not his home barn, it wasn’t surprising that he wanted to look around. However, being easily distracted was one of the issues his owner reported having with him.
One of the participants commented that she was seeing a trend. Yes, he was looking at these competing distractions, but he was re-engaging with the targeting faster. We also liked how far he was backing to get his treat, and how promptly he came forward again once the target was up. He was still cautious about touching the target so we discussed whether we wanted the actual bump of the target, or was it enough for him to orient towards it.
Part of the answer to this depends upon how you are going to use the behavior in the future. This is something to consider as you build your horse’s targeting skills. For example, when horses trail ride in company, horses target on the tail of the horse in front of them. We don’t normally think of this as targeting, but it is. So here’s the question: do you want your horse to catch up to that target? Or would you rather have him learn to maintain a set distance from the horse in front of him? Following at a set distance the kind of target stick we were using with Nick is a good first step towards teaching this skill.
Once I start moving a target, generally I want the horse to keep a set distance from it. There are other targets that I want the horse to catch up to. If I am teaching a horse to retrieve, I not only want the horse to catch up to the target. I want him to put his mouth around it, pick it up and bring it to me.
The beauty of this system is you don’t have to choose. You can teach your horse that one type of target is something you orient to and follow. Another is something you retrieve. And still another type of target is something you station next to.
So what are some examples of different ways you might use targets? You can teach your horse to “self bridle” by first having your horse touch his mouth to a bit that you’re holding out. Through small shifts in the criteria, you can then teach him to put his mouth around it in preparation for bridling.
Here’s an example of what this looks like when it’s a finished behavior:
Here are some other uses for the targeting skills Nick is learning. You can hold a hula hoop out and have your horse put his nose through the center. Change to a smaller hula hoop, and then change again to the nose band of a halter that you’re holding out for him. He’ll be targeting by putting his nose into a halter.
You can hang a stationary target such as an empty orange juice jug in your barn aisle or stall. While you are grooming your horse or doing a medical procedure, he’s staying next to his target.
I can even use the same object for two different target uses. Small cones are a great example. Cones make perfect retrieve toys. They also make great markers. I will often put cones out in a circle for my horses to go around. These are targets that I want the horse to orient to, but not interact with in other ways – until I direct him to. At the end of the lesson I’m going to ask him to pick up all the cones and hand them to me so we leave a tidy arena behind us. How does an experienced clicker horse know the difference? Cues.
Cues and the context in which they are given help a horse understand what to do when. You might have a horse that understands the verbal cue “trot”. When he’s on a lunge line, he picks up a trot promptly when asked. But if you said “trot” to him while he was in a stall, he probably wouldn’t respond. He’s not responding to the word “trot” in isolation. It is “trot” plus all the context cues. “Trot” plus the environment tells him what to do when. So the target alone doesn’t tell the horse what to do with it. As his understanding of clicker training expands, it’s the target plus the associated context cues that he’ll be learning
Generally when I move a target, I want the horse to follow it, but not catch up to it. The timing of my click teaches my horse what I want. If I want my horse to follow a moving target, I’ll click as he orients to the target. I won’t wait until he has caught up to it. So, suppose I’ve been teaching my eager clicker horse to bump a target, and now he’s really hitting it hard with his muzzle. I may be wondering: did I really teach that!? If I want a softer touch, or I want to have him just approach but not make contact with the target, I’ll click as he approaches the target.
Here’s a discussion of this process:
Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2: The Flexibility of Targeting
Based on this discussion in the next round of targeting, I used a flat cone instead of the target stick.
Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Session 2: Targeting with a Cone
Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Session 2 continued: Work in the Stall
Going into the stall with Nick revealed the core issues his owner has been puzzling over. The way Nick struggles to turn in the stall makes the space look small and cramped, but he’s in a stall that was built for draft horses. It’s roughly 14 by 16 feet, more than big enough for a small horse like Nick, and yet he struggled to turn. Again, I am still in the data collecting phase of the training. I make note of the difficulty even while I continue to ask Nick questions.
One question I wanted to ask related to the halter. Was it contributing to Nick’s inability to maneuver in the stall? Was there something in his previous experience with being worked on a lead that caused him to stiffen? The way to answer that question was to slip the halter off and shift to targeting.
In this next clip you’ll see how I begin to ask for backing not via the food delivery, but as a direct request. I’ll ask for backing by placing my hand on his neck. I think of my hand there as a starter button cue. It is very much like the key that turns on your car. Once your car has started, you don’t keep turning the key. In the same way, once Nick is backing, I release my hand. But you’ll see that I walk into him as he backs. So my hand on his neck is a starter button cue. Walking into him is a “keep going” cue. “As long as I am walking towards you, keep backing up.” I want the horse to continue to back until either I click, or I ask for something else.
My hand on his neck is a pressure-and-release-of-pressure cue. I am teaching it in a context that hopefully makes it easy for him to understand what is wanted. In the clip you’ll see I ask at one point where he is close to the back corner of the stall. He doesn’t think he has room to back up, so he stalls out.
When I fail to get a response, I don’t escalate. I don’t push into him harder or become louder in my body language. There’s no “do it or else!” embedded in my request. Instead I make some small adjustments to ensure that my request is clear, and then I wait for him to solve the puzzle. When he steps back, my hand goes away, and, click, he gets a treat.
Choice is what this lesson is all about. When he stops at the door to look at the people, again, I wait him out. I am letting him decide to bring his head inside the stall to touch the target. You see revealed in the small confines of the stall the two issues his owner reports that she has with him. When she goes out to get him, he will approach part way, but he is reluctant to come all the way up to her. And out on the trail he is easily distracted. She has trouble getting him to focus back on her.
I don’t have to turn Nick out or take him out on a trail to see these issues revealed. He’s showing them to us here in the stall. That’s good news. Out on the trail energy levels can shoot up. Small problems can suddenly turn into major safety issues. Here in the stall, if he gets distracted, it’s easy to handle. I can teach Nick some skills that will help him stay with me as the environment becomes more complex.
Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Session 2 continued: More Stall Work
And here is the discussion that followed that session, including what it means to have a Grand Prix clicker horse.
Video: An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2 – Final Discussion
Once again, the clinic participants had to wait overnight to see how Nick processed this day’s lessons. I will make you do the same. I’ll share Day 3 in the next installment of this report.
This is Part 3 of a 4 Part series on introducing a horse to the clicker.
My thanks to Cindy Martin for organizing and hosting the November clinic, and to all the clinic participants, especially Wendy Stephens and her beautiful Nick.
Please note: This article gives you wonderful details to get you started with the clicker, but it is not intended as complete instruction. If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: