New Year is a great time to get in there and try something new, determined to find a solution to a problem or improve your existing skills – a great time to give clicker training a go!
It got us thinking about why people start new things and what got all of us started (and then completely hooked) in clicker training.
Rachel kicks it off with her story of why she started…
How I rescued my horse…and me.
Or Why I started Clicker Training
I started clicker training because I rescued Roisin. And although I knew a lot of horsemanship by then, nothing I knew was any use to her. As far as she was concerned, humans were abusive, terrifying and so powerful there was no escape. She didn’t even run away, she just stood, sweating and shaking, and disappeared away inside her head.
By the time I rescued Roisin I was an experienced and well-educated horse-woman. I had great teachers and friends who could help. But Roisin was so lost in her body and mind that none of our attempts to communicate reached her. As far as she was concerned, a human looking at her was pressure and the best reinforcement we could give was to go away and leave her alone.
And that was the first thing I did. Just checked her over the fence and played Advance and Retreat with my presence. That gave her enough trust to eventually stay with us physically. We always let the herd be the real sorters of damaged horses, so we left her to find her way with the others and interfered as little as possible. With free access to the yard, we could bring the others in and she’d follow. She would let us put a head collar on and we could trim her feet etc but she was never at home, never present, never with us emotionally.
She arrived in mid-summer and so I did as little as possible with her until the middle of winter. At that time, we fed the horses in the big shed, each tied up while they ate their feed. Roisin was too scared to come into the shed at first so we fed her at the door. As the winter progressed she got bolder and soon was eating inside the shed. Great! Except that now she would bully our old pony for her feed bucket. She couldn’t be tied up, so what to do?
I had read Alex Kurland’s “The Click that Teaches” some time before and came across the idea of training a horse to stand at a target. I decided to train Roisin to stand with her nose on a traffic cone while she waited for feed and while she waited for the others to finish. I re-read the chapter on targeting, bought a clicker in a pet shop and had a go. As soon as Roisin looked towards the target I clicked. She jumped a mile, terrified of the noise. All the trust we’d built up seemed to disappear as she refused to engage with me again.
I went back to the book…ahhh, this can happen! I could use a tongue click instead. Roisin was very suspicious. She took the food treat a few times and then, looking for the inevitable catch, refused to engage with me again. It took a few sessions for her to trust the process. She looked at the cone, I made a tongue click noise, she got a treat. Bingo!
As the days went on, I was able to introduce the clicker and got her standing over the cone during feeding time. I then progressed this to tying up. I started by having a lead rope draped from her head collar as she stood at the cone. Then I began to wrap it round the cone, then moved the cone to a tying ring. Then looped the rope through the ring, then was able to tie it.
At last, I had a method that worked for this much damaged horse AND me. And that was
crucial. I am not a natural horse trainer, especially if they are scared. I was impatient and goal focussed, easily frustrated and self-critical. In clicker training, I found an utterly forgiving method. If I was angry or impatient, all that happened was that Roisin disappeared to la-la land. No big deal for her, and massively great training for me. Through the process, I became a calm and patient horsewoman.
What’s really great is that clicker training has taken me far beyond where I was aiming, where I thought I could get to with Roisin, because of her abusive history. I thought I could maybe get her to the point where she had relearned everything and was ok to be tacked up, ridden etc. I wasn’t expecting the profound relationship clicker training creates, the bond between Roisin and I, the immense ability to communicate to each other (this definitely goes both ways!) I didn’t expect that Roisin wouldn’t just become ok about her issues – she would become keen, focussed and enthusiastic.
The first paddock that Rosin was in is in the summer field across the valley. I spent many hours tramping across there to say Hi and then reward her by leaving again. It fills me with joy now that, when she sees me coming down the road from across the valley, she gallops to the gate and waits to meet me as if I were her best friend. I never expected that.
Watch this video to see how far Roisin has come: