As a girl, I always dreamed of having a horse that I could not only ride, but who would also run up to me, want to spend time with me, play, and be generally well behaved and happy. It was the type of thing that I would daydream about constantly and yearn for the day I could have my own horse.
One day, this happened. But if you’ve ever gotten a horse that wasn’t what you expected them to be, you know that the first few weeks are the most difficult because not only are you getting used to this new horse, the horse is also getting used to you. Even after having a horse for a while, sometimes there just feels like a part of your relationship is “missing” or that you aren’t connecting as well as you would like. It takes more than just that special girlish dream to make a horse want to spend time with you, as you are naturally a predator.
So how do you achieve the childhood dream, if the horse only views you as a potential predator?
Even if they are more or less well behaved (ie. stands tied, rides well, and is generally “broke”), other behavioral issues are often from deeper mistrust, insecurity, or the horse's confusion about expectations. If a horse does not want to drop her head to be bridled, it could be seen as “disobedient” or “difficult.” Or, is it possible that the horse simply never got the chance to fully understand what you are asking for?
This is where clicker training comes in.
Clicker training is a means of giving the horse INSTANT auditory feedback telling them, “great job! You did what I was asking for, and I want to reward you for that.” Except all of that affirmation is expressed with one simple “click!” without the confusion the horse might feel about what exact action they did to get praise.
What exactly is clicker training?
A clicker is a small device that you hold in your hand that makes a clicking sound when pressed (this is usually a piece of metal in a small plastic box, or a button; many types of clickers exist). The sound made by a clicker can be conditioned to mean a reward when paired with food. So the main down side to using a clicker is that you have to have large pockets (or a good treat pouch) and a lot of small treats - though it is also possible to use their normal grain as a reward.
Because of the heavy use of treats, many people choose not to use clickers. Many times a person will begin clicker training, only to find their horse becomes grabby when they know a reward is coming. This is actually a great opportunity for another aspect of training: respecting you as a leader. Horses assert their dominance in a herd by allowing, or not allowing, other horses to eat. If a horse gets mouthy while you are working with a clicker, stop and wait until they look away or get out of your face before you give them their treat. If they are being really pushy, it’s okay to push right back! That’s what another horse would have done if this had happened in pasture. In doing this, you are showing them that you are in control of when they get their reward, and it would do them well to behave until you are ready to give them their treat. Once they know what it is you’re asking, you can lessen the rewards and only offer a treat every few clicks. Alternately, you can offer lots of verbal praise and scratches in their favorite spots.
The most important part about clicker training (or any training): keep at it! The childhood dream is achievable, but it's not going to happen instantly. Just know that things are only worth as much as the time and work you invest in them! 🙂