Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Start of My Clicker Training Experiment

There are a lot of clicker training books out there, but the one I chose to help me on my clicker training experiment is "Clicker Training:  Colt Starting the Natural Horse" by Leslie Pavlich.  Why did I choose this one?  Well, first off, it had some good reviews.  Secondly, it was one of the more recent clicker training books, published in 2008.  Thirdly, it had a whole chapter on the usage of clicker training for trailer training.  Lastly, it covered starting a horse under saddle and translating what was taught on the ground to the saddle.

I have only read the first 25 pages so far while waiting for my clickers to arrive in the mail.  I didn't want to use my tongue as the clicker, because my horses have already learned that the clicking of my tongue means move faster.  I needed a new, more unique sound to represent the yes response.

When my clickers arrived, as recommended in the book, I filled a couple of fanny packs with horse treats and handfuls of grain.  The clickers I ordered came with coils you can wrap around your wrist, so that I can quickly and easily drop the clicker to use my hands and still have it safely attached to me.  Because the clicker dangles from my wrist when I pet the horses, I did have to do a little desensitization so that it didn't startle them too much.

According to the book I'm supposed to start out with something on a stick called a target, and I'm supposed to encourage the horse to touch the target with his nose, and then eventually follow it.  I haven't made or found something to use as a target yet, so I decided that just for today I wanted to make a halter and lead rope my target.

You see, every spring when I pull the horse trailer out of hibernation, the horses go nuts.  They all go into a panic thinking I'm going to force them to go somewhere away from the herd where they don't want to go.  It gets worse when I enter the paddock with a halter and lead rope after pulling out the trailer.  They gallop back and forth up and down the fence line as fast as they can go in an effort to get away from me.  They figure if they keep galloping, I won't be able to catch them, and for the most part, that is true.

So, here they were tearing up the ground sending smoke signals around the neighborhood, so that every neighbor who was home came out of his or her house to watch.  I knew several of them were champing at the bit to tell me what I needed to do to catch my horses, but I just stood there smiling far enough away from the fences that I couldn't hear what anyone had to say over the thunder of hooves.  I knew what I was trying to do and they didn't.

I waited for the horses to tire out and huddle in a corner.  Then I approached them with my hand in my fanny pack stirring the treats around.  That got their attention, because now they could smell the goodies.  Gabbrielle trotted up to me, so I extended the halter toward her.  She touched the halter with her nose, so I clicked the clicker and fed  her a treat.  I then said whoa and put the halter on her, clicked the clicker, and fed her another treat.  I then walked her over to the trailer, petted her, praised her, and released her.

Lostine caught on by watching, so she was the next to trot up to me and touch her nose to the halter.  I repeated the process with her.  However, Bombay just wasn't getting it.  He's the most fearful of the trailer.  You may remember that he bloodied his legs up while panicking inside the trailer on more than one occasion, putting himself in recovery so that his trail riding career came to an early halt last season. 

I had to show him the treat before he would hold still and let me touch the halter to his nose.  I made the mares bring their own noses to the halter, but because Bombay has such a strong neurosis over being put in the trailer, I had to cut him some slack and bring the halter to his nose.  I clicked the clicker and gave him a treat.  I then said whoa and put the halter on, clicked, gave him a treat.  I led him over to the trailer, petted and praised him, then released him.

Why didn't I try putting any of them in the trailer?  Because I wanted to keep the session short and limit it to coming to the halter, because without being able to catch and halter a horse consistently, I won't be able to get them in the trailer.  I also didn't want them to believe that every time I pull the trailer out and halter them, they are going in the trailer.  Sometimes I just happen to pull the trailer out and need to catch them for some other reason.  It's kind of like people who only put their dog in their car when they take it to the vet.  After a while they can't get their dog in their car, assuming the dog doesn't like going to the vet.  Some dogs do.

Anyway, hopefully, I will have some time to read more of the book and start following the directions.  I can already see that mugging is going to be a problem.  While I began the session with all three horses running from me, I ended it with all three poking their noses at my fanny pack, so I had to pressure them to back up out of my space.  When they did back away several steps on command, I clicked the clicker, and gave them a treat. It will be interesting to see if they will come to the halter tomorrow, and if me wearing that fanny pack full of treats will be the deciding factor in whether they come or not.


achieve1dream said...

I use the coil thing too so I don't drop the clicker. :D It makes it sooooo much easier! Chrome doesn't seem to mind when I hit him with the clicker. He knows that metallic sound means we're working on clicker games. :)

I like the book you got. It's a little repetitive, but really good. It had a lot of ideas in it that I hadn't thought of. Another good book that explains the concepts really well is Alexandra Kurland's book Clicker Training for Your Horse (the edition published in 2007). It explained a lot of things I've read before, but in a different way that I found really helpful for helping me understand. She gave a lot of real life examples with horses she'd worked with. Chapter Twenty One by itself was worth the price in my opinion (what an inspiring story!).

For a target I use a two foot (I think) dowel rod with a tennis ball (just cut a slit in it and stick it on) on the end. It's easy to handle, smooth, good length as well as bright and easy for the horse to see. I love it. :)

You may need to work with Bombay somewhere by himself. It is essential to "charge" the clicker so that he knows what the click means. Here is a video that explains it well. He needs to know that the clicker mean "yes, what you did right at that second is what I'm rewarding" or he will just ignore it and the treats will be coming from thin air for no reason at all. I don't know if that makes sense at all. The video probably explains it better than I can. You can see a video of Chrome learning how to target (which is essentially charging the clicker) on his blog. If you can't find it let me know and I'll get the link for you. I'd suggest (not trying to be bossy) working on something less scary for Bombay so that he can concentrate without getting stressed. When they are really stressed or scared they can't learn very well. If you have any questions just leave me a comment or email me at

For the mugging you can start by working with them from the other side of a fence. One you've "charged" the clicker with the target training you can do what Alexandra Kurland calls 'Grownups are talking' where you wait for them to move their face away from you, click and give the treat. When you give the treat make sure you have your hand fully extended away from your body (you can even put it by their chest so they have to back up a step) so that they learn that treats don't appear near you body or fanny pack. Check out Alexandra Kurland's website here The grownups game is the best way to stop mugging because mugging is one of the main reasons people give up on clicker.

Mary from Stale Cheerios also has a TON of helpful posts. is about introducing the clicker. this is about handfeeding treats. and this is a REALLY good one about mugging.

Let me know how it goes working on them together. They may need to be separated for "charging" the clicker. I don't know if working them together is going to confuse them. It's probably possible, I just don't know anything about it, because I've always worked my guys separately. Anyway I'm so happy you're trying it out! Once you get past the boring charging/target training and mugging manners I think you will love it. Let me know if you have any questions!

Sorry for the novel of a comment. :D

Rising Rainbow said...

Good luck with the clicker training. I hope it gets your horses in the trailer like you hope. Sounds like you had a good first session.

Not sure what to think about the animal shelter. Sounds like they let you walk the dogs off their property. Is there liability for you doing that??

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

RR - We sign a liability release, but they do have worker's compensation to cover 100% of our medical bills should we get hurt in the process of serving them. As far as the volunteers screwing up, like losing a dog, they aren't concerned. They say it happens all the time and they have hundreds of volunteers who can get out to search for the missing dog.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

RR - It suddenly hit me what you meant. You mean like what if a volunteer is walking a shelter dog in public and it bites a passerby? They won't let us work with any dangerous dogs. The dog I was walking would probably have protected me, but it wouldn't have randomly attacked someone.

lytha said...

i agree with achieve1dream - they might need to be worked individually.

strange what happened because right away i thought bombay would be the very easiest to clicker train because he's so playful (and mouthy with toys).

i made a target out of a plastic pop bottle on a stick. baasha knows he has to touch the bottle (not the stick) to get clicked. (the plastic is hard plastic, not crushable) he's learned to stretch his neck to wherever i put the bottle.

please let us know how it goes, i think your herd will be really good at being clicker trained.

achieve1dream said...

No problem! I'm full of resources lol. With clicker training YouTube has been my lifesaver! I'm a very visual person and sometimes reading something just isn't enough, so being able to watch videos really helps me out a lot. It's a good way to see different methods too. So if you're ever stuck or need inspiration go to YouTube. :D I'll be eagerly waiting to see how your next session goes. I'm really excited to see what you can do with Bombay because he's so much like Chrome. I think you'll have so much fun with him once he understands the process and starts actively trying to earn the click. :)

If Gabrielle was being aggressive then I definitely agree with putting her in the round pen. Everyone who works multiple animals with clicker training says they learn to distinguish when it is their turn, but working horses together can be dangerous because of fighting over the food. If she's being really ugly about the mugging I would definitely suggest working her from the other side of a fence. That's how I started with Chrome. Once he understood what the click meant I put the target away and clicked when he would move his head away from me. Let me know if you'd like to see a video of me doing it with him. We have some pretty days coming up finally and I can get a video of him doing it. :)

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

I was reading up on those mugging posts and other reading, and I realized that I would handle that the same way that I've been handling hay snatching when I walk down the aisle of the barn with a flake in my arms. I won't give any horse its flake of hay until 1)she backs her head out of the window and 2)she turns her head to the side away from me and the food. So, since I've been doing that with the hay at feeding time, it should be pretty easy to train the same response out of them when I have a fanny pack filled with treats.

achieve1dream said...

That's perfect! You will have no trouble with it at all then. :) Have fun and keep us updated!