Helen Chats with Jenni Nellist

Helen Chats With Jenni Nellist

In preparation for the Equine Clicker Conference I’ve been getting in touch with our speakers to find out more about what they will be bringing to the conference! This week it was Jenni Nellist I got chatting to.

So I hear you are teaming up with Helen Spence to cover the topic “Getting Started in Clicker Training”. Would you like to tell us what it was that got you started in Clicker Training?
I had always been curious about the different training methods that were promoted towards the end of the 90s and early 00s, I had heard of clicker but knew little about it. I was in my late teens and early twenties then, transitioning from conventional Pony Club where I had represented my branch at Area champs in all three disciplines, through an Equine science degree, which was a ‘90s vintage, ‘learning theory not included’ course, to working for the Blue Cross as an equine welfare groom. It was there that I had the opportunity to look at clicker training. The then head of animal behaviour, Gwen Bailey lent me a copy of the video, ‘take a bow wow’. I substituted ‘horse’ in place of ‘dog’, had a go at charging the clicker and targeting, and curiosity took me to explore positive reinforcement training further. I really got going with Pilgrim, a Blue Cross horse who had a very troubled start in life and was deathly afraid of people. His sensitivity helped me to develop my sensitivity with the clicker.

It sounds like a tough yet rewarding job working as an equine welfare groom, could you tell us more about it? How about starting with the Pilgrim, what did you have to over come with him and how did you go about it?
Pilgrim spent the first part of his life with minimal human contact, what he did receive was traumatic; he was rounded up and herded through an auction ring. His former owner rescued him from that auction, but really struggled to manage him as he was so scared. The first thing Pilgrim needed was some rest and relaxation, and to settle into a herd. So after a day or two in the stable to be wormed and introduced to the clicker he was turned out into around 8 or 9 acres with a group. He quickly established himself; other horses were clearly not a problem. He even demonstrated relatively high ‘resource holding potential’ – he could outcompete the entire herd for hay or feed as long as there were no people nearby to cast him into fear and inhibition. This was the second obstacle that I had to overcome in training him.

The first was that I had to get near him! His first lessons lasted not more than five minutes at a time, and he had around five of them a day, all neatly fitted into my hectic work schedule. I would enter the field and calmly approach him, and when he stopped moving away, I’d leave. I’d trained him to stand still to make me go away, it was what he wanted most in the world at the beginning. When he could do this I would leave only when I had got a little closer, so that he learned to stay still longer and gradually desensitise to me at the same time. When I could reliably get within 10 metres of him I’d make a ‘carrot drop’. Literally leave some food on the floor for him to find once I’d left. I’d begun to become predictive of carrots! 

Only then did I look at giving the positive reinforcement for him approaching me, then for targeting the head collar, for touch acceptance, for approximations of wearing the head collar, lifting his feet and eventually his first trim and proper groom.
The second issue was that another horse realized that Pilgrim would go away if another horse approached me for food. That younger, brighter, much braver horse was a real optimist and an opportunist! He would hear the clicker, smell the food, and he’d be there and Pilgrim would go. I couldn’t chased this horse away as I’d scare Pilgrim, so I’d walk away until this horse gave up. To begin with I’d be walking nonchalantly all over the field in random directions, always away from this ‘pest’. He did give up after a week or two and never tried again. He was lovely, but also a fly in the ointment, but it happens, and having more tools in my training tool box from the learning theory, I had the lateral thinking to solve the problem.

Going back to Pilgrim, his sessions were always short but multiple per day. I planned ahead to achieve only a few small goals, and finished when he was successful, which was pretty much always as the goals were always small enough for us to accomplish. It made work a pleasure and being able to use positive reinforcement in this environment really improved my work life as each time Pilgrim and my other horses got positive reinforcement, I did too! And in welfare, and just grooming generally, it’s hard graft with a lot of aversives – too cold, wet, hot, smelly, back breaking… Plenty of positive reinforcement is essential for staying sane!

That is quite a journey, it seems like you have been incredibly patient with Pilgrim. I’m sure you will be sharing more heart-warming stories with us in your talk “Using Clicker in a welfare centre” at the conference. Do you think there are lessons for people to take away from your talk in regards to working with their own horses at home?
Pilgrim required a great degree of patience but unwittingly so. It just didn’t feel like I had to be patient at all as I’d set small, but very clear goals and he was achieving them all the time. In fact I would say from this experience alone, one very important take home message for people will be to set clear, small, achievable goals because not only will the horse experience success, but you will too, and so training will be enjoyable, it won’t be a labour.

It was a pleasure interviewing Jenni, I hope you all enjoyed reading it, I think everyone can learn something from her patient outlook and her take on goal reaching. I’m really looking forward to seeing her at the conference as I’m sure many of you are after reading this, if not before.

If you are yet to purchase your conference tickets you can click here as a few tickets are still available

More Blogs on the Conference, Helen interviewed the other speakers too!


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