A calm, relaxed, yet keen, horse is what we’re all searching for, but if you’ve had much to do with horses, you’ll know it’s not easy to get!! Horses are prey animals who are naturally quite spooky because running first and thinking later has kept them alive for thousands of years. How can we use our training skills to change this evolutionary pattern and help make them calmer and more likely to stop, think and turn to us in spooky situations?
As with any horse-related question, there are a huge number of variables because each horse and human is different, not to mention the variables in each day, session or moment. However, there are some basic techniques and behaviours that can really help build connection, calmness and focus…
Clarity Clarity Clarity
Clarity in training is the single biggest factor in helping build relaxation. Grey areas, muddled cues and bad click timing cause a lot of confusion, frustration and anxiety in horses. If your cues are clear and the horse understands what you’re asking for and knows how to respond, you’ll find that calmness and confidence become an intrinsic part of your training. There are some easy ways to clear up your training; when you click and treat your horse, say out loud what you’re going to ask for next. Video your training sessions and watch yourself for timing and cue clarity or get a friend to watch you train and see if they can tell what you’re asking for and what you’re clicking for. If they can’t, your horse probably won’t know either!
You can also help to build relaxation in your horse and the behaviours by choosing to click at moments in the behavour when the horse FEELS soft, calm and relaxed. If they bang or bite the target or have their ears back when they do it, you can simply re-present it and wait until the touch is softer and click that. This way you’re reinforcing the type of touch and the emotions that go with it as well as the more gross behaviour itself.
I have had amazing success with lots of horses only clicking when the behaviour feels calm, looking for softening eyes, deep breaths and a lowering head as well as those moments in leading, riding, lunging etc when everything is generally more chilled, soft and relaxed.
Cues as Secondary Reinforcers
For some horses (and humans!) this ‘feel’ approach doesn’t work so well because it can lack clarity and they get frustrated not knowing exactly what the click was for (clicking for emotion is obviously not as clear as clicking for behaviour, although the two are linked). In this instance, you’re better off using the emotional control techniques (there are step-by-step videos on this in Clix College) where you wait for signs of focus and relaxation before giving a cue for a behaviour the horse enjoys, so the cue is the reinforcer for relaxation and the click is for only a very precise behaviour.
For example, if your horse is staring at something in the distance, wait for him to look to you slightly, then give your cue such as presenting the target. Click your horse when he touches the target. The emotional calmness comes from him tuning into you slightly, but the very precise click comes as your horses touches the target. This means that you avoid confusion because your horse might turn to you slightly the first time, which is one sign on tuning in, but the next sign of focus and relaxation might be a deep breath and a head lower. These are both great signs of relaxation and focus, but they are different behaviours. Because the click is so precise, this can confuse some horses, but by giving a cue instead the click can remain for a definite behaviour.
Using cues as secondary reinforcers like this is something to be aware of throughout training sessions and makes a huge difference to the emotional state of your horse.
What worked yesterday isn’t working today!
Another major contributing factor to calmness in training is knowing what to ask for when. So, head-down is seen as a calming behaviour (and there are videos on how to teach it in Clix College), which it is when used in the right way at the right moments. At other times, you’ll need to ask for something else – forward movement, backing, standing on a mat, lateral flexions, targeting etc etc – again, this is so individual to the horse and the moment that training by rote simply doesn’t work. A great trainer knows which behaviour is most likely to work in each moment, and is ready to change tack at the tiniest inkling that it might not be the best way to go. That way, they rarely get big behaviours, because the conversation between them is happening way before it gets to that stage.
For example: you have a horse who’s seen something in the distance and is frozen, head up, nostrils going, ignoring the human (those times when your little horse becomes an 18hh dragon!). You start to ask for head down but feel the tension increase slightly as you move into the cue… ooops, that might not be best.. ok, “can you (the horse) move your weight back?” Ask for the back-up, feel a slight softening in the horse as you ask for it – click! The horse is still not ready to take treat so instead of waiting limply trying to tempt horse to take the treat (another sign of tension), ask for another lean back, then a slight flexion towards you, then a tiny suggestion of head down – horse takes a breath and slightly brings focus back onto you while lowering the head a centremetre – click! This time the horse is there to take the treat and you’re a big step towards getting calmness and focus back.
You CAN learn feel!
The only way I know of of getting this feel without it being a natural skill is to practice practice practice, and be aware of yourself and what you’re asking for, what works, what doesn’t, always viewing what is actually happening with your horse (rather than disaster scenario imagining – really, your horse is JUST standing still, even if it’s tense, for example). This is not easy but I have trained myself quite well so I know it’s do-able – mental discipline! Simply (but not easily!) change your imagining to the picture you WANT rather than the one you’re worrying about.
“When your horse is at his worst, you must be at your best. Don’t panic together.”
(Shawna Karrasch shared this quote on Facebook the other day and I thought it was perfect!)
The other thing which is a huge contributing factor to the results you get from cueing and clicking is HOW you give a cue. In the above scenario, it’s common that the handler gives a quicker, more tense head down cue than they would if the horse was calm, because you want to stop any unwanted behaviours and anxiety pops up. Breathing, and softly, gently and slowly giving the cue is far more likely to get he results you want. It’s counter-intuitive, so again, just practice lots and click yourself for every small try in the right direction!!
Practice what you need to improve… and click yourself!
So, all in all, once again, there is no simple answer – it’s a combination of it all. To be the most successful trainer, you have to train yourself in both sides – if you tend to focus more on behaviour, become more aware of the emotional climate in your training sessions. Do you feel calm, happy and confident with your horse? Does your horse feel soft, relaxed and happy? You can trying just shutting your eyes, taking some deep breaths and getting grounded in the moment to get a sense of atmosphere.
If you tend to work more on feel, you’ll maybe have to brush up the specifics of your cues and clicking to bring more clarity into the session. ask yourself what exactly is my cue for this behaviour? What exactly am I clicking for?
Calmness and relaxation are corner stones in training and can be tricky to achieve because there’s a lot to it! However, with awareness and perseverance, you can help your horse become calmer, safer and more focused generally, as well as during scary or spooky situations. Clicker training is such an effective tool for teaching this!