Starting a horse : clicker-style

This spring my partner Sara’s horse, Fig, turns seven. Fig was unstarted when Sara bought her two years ago and they’ve spent this time getting to know one another and building a solid foundation of clicker lessons. Fig is Sara’s first horse and they are taking their time. As they have progressed in their work from basic emotional control to more subtle work, Fig has become increasingly thoughtful, attentive and controlled. It feels like time to think about riding.

What does this mean?  It means that Fig is able to offer learned behaviors even when the environment changes or is scary. It means Fig is much more centered and calm than she was even a year ago, able to handle maneuvering her body in tight spaces, being asked to stop even when she would rather go and finds listening to Sara reinforcing. She has both learned the behaviors necessary for a safe riding horse and demonstrated she can follow guidance offered from a human partner in a tight situation.

Here’s a video of Sara and Fig’s latest lesson:

In this video, you see that Fig is working in her bridle. Sara first picks up the rein. If Fig stays attentive and doesn’t walk off, click/treat. Once she picks up the rein, she will slide her inside hand down and ask Fig to give at the jaw, click/treat. If she can do both of these things without walking off (receive information about how to move off without rushing or emotionally running away) then Sara breathes in deeply so her side touches Fig where Sara’s leg will once she is mounted. When Fig moves off on this cue, click/treat. If she moves off before this, you will see Sara slide her hand down the inside rein and pivot to face Fig, asking her to ‘re-set’ and back-up. It’s important for Fig and any riding horse to be able to make a mistake and not be upset if she is re-set or told to look for another answer. If Fig looks to the outside of the circle, Sara slides her hand down the rein and waits for Fig to give at the jaw again, asking her to remain on the circle without constant contact as a reminder, click/treat.

While they are walking together on the circle, Fig is using Sara’s body as a target. We literally want her “in front of the leg” just like a horse would be under saddle – not lagging behind and not rushing away without regard for where Sara is in relation to her. This way, Fig already understands the concept of Sara’s body being  a guide for her, as her seatbones and legs will be under saddle. So far it looks like a pretty nice ride!

But how about the mounting block? It’s important to make sure your horse understands how to stand still at the mounting block and is ok with pressure on their back and the sight of you up over their head. Here, Fig is bareback, but she shows she understands the concept of lining up to the mounting block and offering her back to Sara.

Notice that Fig is free to walk off but chooses to stay at the mounting block because of a solid reinforcement history. This allows the mounting block behavior to become a “barometer” of whether or not to get on your horse. Since it was introduced as a fun game and is something Fig enjoys, if she won’t line up or moves off we can guess she is sore, not feeling well or having a bad day. This is good information to have and information we want with all horses, but with a green horse, especially. This week Fig will practice the mounting block saddled, to get used to stirrups being pulled and weighted and the feel of a saddle shifting on her back.

So what’s left? Sara needs to confirm all her bridle cues at the trot and practice all her work saddled with stirrups flapping. Alexandra has a saying, “When your horse is ready, he will invite you onto his back.” I love that saying because I see so much early work that is more like, “If you think you can get away with it with only minor injury, do it.” Riding should be a partnership from the very start and it’s our responsibility to provide the good foundation. I think Sara has done a great job!

Back to basics

Fig has been inconsistent in her emotional state while training lately, so Sara and I decided it would be best to take her back to basics and make sure her foundation skills are solid. I had been working with her outside a lot, in the lane where all the paddocks are, because she was uncomfortable in the arena. But she is also very crabby about other horses in her space, or even them watching her with interest from the other side of the fence and that anxiety manifested as just a general tension in her body, high headedness, and ears back consistently, although not quite pinned.

She has been making beautiful progress in the cross-ties though, with almost no pawing at all, and offering lots of relaxed body posture with a lowered head. She offers her feet completely relaxed and LOVES having her face brushed and touched.

Today we groomed her first and then took her into a stall to review targeting.

She remembered targeting effortlessly, so we moved on to  “backing in a square , an exercise that teaches the horse about maneuvering their bodies in a tight space and how to yield their shoulder, a particular problem for Fig. She did a beautiful job and was able to quickly learn how to yield backwards in a square, calmly and with precision. Success.

Fig is going to practice these lessons for a couple more days, and then we are going to add a walk into the arena for some “mat” training where she will learn to target a mat and stay there until released.  She is doing well with head lowering and can do a 30 second to 1 minute version of “the grown-ups are talking” lesson easily. Over the next three weeks we will refine these lessons and assess her learning and emotional control. Today, Fig felt lovely, like a calm, clicker-wise horse. A glimpse of things to come.

Fig’s shoulder

I was training Fig today, still working on her calmly walking TOWARD the pasture. She is interesting in that she is eager to come out and train, waits at the fence for “her turn”, and calmly lowers her head into her halter when I go in to get her. Once out of the pasture she walks slowly and calmly away from her paddock, but she is often inverted and slightly high headed. In the barn she is a bit antsy and eager to work for her treats, but does a good job in the cross ties and is improving each time with standing still with her head low. BUT… on her way back toward the paddock, whether she is 70 feet away from the gate or 2 feet away from the gate, she gets very tense and walks out ahead of you. If you put pressure on her face she pushes into the pressure, throws her shoulder in at you and barrels around until she is facing AWAY from the pasture. Once there she is calm, you can back her up, lower her head, walk her all the way back to the barn if you like with her complete compliance. Interesting…

Not that it matters a lot, but my guess is since she was seldom taken out of her pasture and not really in relationship to any human in her previous life; I imagine when she was taken out  she was eager to get back to her herd. Since she was more excited and anxious on the way back, and most people choose to jerk/yank when horses move just past the line of their body, I think she learned to “power through” the correction. That’s my best guess. And she just seems worried, a little angry, like she is expecting a fight. I don’t want any of my horses expecting a fight. That’s not safe for anybody.

Today I let her circle, let her steamroll her shoulder like a buzz-saw – but I kept my own elbow pressed into her shoulder, lightly, as a guide, until she opened up some space between us. I didn’t trap her with the halter, I didn’t push back and I didn’t escalate my behavior in any way. When she opened up some space, I clicked and treated her even farther away from me, to reinforce that position. I also fed her while still moving as it appears the stop right now is a punisher, even with the carrot reward. After two or three tries, she started to open up lots of space and, FASCINATINGLY, her head came down. Suddenly, she was able to walk next to me, but out a few feet to my side, head low and truly relaxed. We were able to walk toward the paddock on a loose  lead, unemotionally. Hmm… so I have a chicken or egg question, I suppose. Was  her yielding her shoulder to me something that reflexively caused her to relax? Or the fact that I took any pressure/escalation out of the situation and let her be at a distance as well?

The natural horsemanship camp would have said  space and yielding space is what matters. They also might have said: “That horse is disrespectful”  or “That horse CAN’T be allowed to do that” or “That horse is telling you what she thinks of you”. Believe me, I know the standard fix for this sort of thing and I am in no way willing to use that amount of force to stop a horse’s shoulder. And I also know you can get a horse’s body to yield without  ever touching their mind or their heart. A good trainer yields all three.

A new learner: Fig

the new learner

Aside from working with my own horse, Dragon, I am also helping my partner, Sara, start her new horse, Fig. Fig is a 4 or so year old Grulla Quarter horse mare. She has spent the bulk of her life in a pasture with other mares, and likely has gone years without handling except to have her feet done or to be pulled out once in a while when her (previous) owner made it out to the barn. Although she is friendly and social, I would not quite call her tame. She is definitely a new learner. What does this mean?

A new learner is an animal who isn’t experienced with any sort of training, and has no expectations that they can control their environment in a positive way through their behavior. Typically, they are more emotional than an experienced learner, because things are novel and they have not yet learned how to deal with frustration. New learners need simple but faster paced lessons that keep them busy earning reinforcement. Shorter lessons that leave them feeling successful.

Fig is especially food motivated: our barn owner Kathy told us she is going to video the pre-morning feed because of Fig’s “airs above the ground” as she anticipates her hay. Because of this, I am particularly impressed with how quickly Fig is figuring out the rules that surround earning a treat. She is perhaps on her 7th training session  and is not grabby at all.

She does have some worries, which I assume come from her previous life, and lack of exposure. She is anxious about being in buildings, anxious about gates and doors, particularly waiting outside closed gates or doors, and somewhat anxious about handling. The gate anxiety is the most pronounced and I assume she had a negative experience near or with a gate. But despite these (minor) worries, she is eager to learn and already waiting at the fence when she sees us.

Fig is working on her foundation lessons, which are: targeting, backing up, staying in your own space (the grown-ups are talking lesson), happy faces, head-lowering and stand on a mat. These are the lessons we use to introduce horses to the clicker and ensure they have good emotional control of themselves. For more information on the six foundation lessons of horse clicker training, visit: