WHEN I first met my Dales gelding, Jack, as an un-backed three-year-old, one of the things I most appreciated about him was his placid, laid back personality. I had reached the age where, although I still wanted to start my own horses from scratch, there was a limit to how much excitement I was looking for, and Jack seemed ideal.
I backed him a few weeks later and plodded around the farm a bit, which he was very relaxed about, then left him until he was four years old before starting ‘proper’ work.
It became obvious right from the start that Jack took energy conservation very seriously.
He was determined not to expend one more calorie than absolutely necessary but he was still very young and a big, strapping lad, even by Dales standards, so I was sure I could enthuse him as he got more mature, fitter and stronger.
I was methodical in trying to teach him to move away from a very light leg aid. I always began with just a tickle and increased the strength of the aid, backing it up when necessary with a tap from a schooling whip, or making a sudden noise by hitting my boot or a nearby object, until I got a result, when I would praise him enthusiastically and hope for a response at an earlier stage at the next time of asking.
It had always worked for me before so there was no reason why Jack should be any different; I just needed to be patient and consistent.
By the time he was rising seven years old Jack had, if anything, got even slower and more idle. He seemed to regard my requests for forward movement as an exercise in tolerance; how much hassle could he ignore before he felt compelled to move or speed up.
By then, he could ignore an awful lot.
Riding him was exhausting and frustrating.
When hacking out with another horse he would walk out well for the first hundred yards then fall further and further behind, making me work ever harder to make him catch up.
In the school or field just getting him from a halt into a walk took much chivvying and pleading before he sighed and lurched into the slowest plod he could manage.
On the lunge he would perform sliding stops a western horse would be proud of at the merest hint of a ‘whoa’ sound but he was incredibly hard of hearing when it came to requests to ‘walk on’ or, worse still, ‘trot’.
It seemed that the harder I tried and more determined I was, the harder he made me work. Each time I seemed to have to do more and more for less and less result.
I didn’t want to have to bully him into reluctant action. I wanted to inspire him into being a willing and enthusiastic partner but I had no idea how to even begin.
Everything changed after I heard about a dressage clinic being held locally and went along to watch. The instructor spoke with huge enthusiasm about ‘clicker training’, which I had thought was only for dogs and dolphins.
Even the non-clicker trained horses gave her their full attention, so she obviously had no need of gimmicks.
Her eyes shone as she told the audience how clicker training allowed clear, precise communication with the horse, and how enthusiastic it made them. Perhaps it might be a way forward for Jack and I. I had to investigate further.
I found out that Alexandra Kurland had been the pioneer of clicker training for horses, so I bought her first book and read it from cover to cover. It was a clear and absorbing read.
The basic premise of clicker training seemed to be that whatever you clicked you got more of.
First you had to teach the horse that the click meant whatever he was doing in the instant he heard the click was exactly what the trainer wanted him to do, and he would receive an immediate reward.
Food was usually the most meaningful reward and as long as you were clicking at the right time, you couldn’t help but be successful.
At first I found it hard to see, given that on hearing the click the horse stops to claim his reward, how I could use this to motivate Jack into wanting to go and to keep going.
However, when I thought about it the click should be doubly rewarding for a horse like Jack because with each click he got two of the things that he most wanted – a stop and a treat.
The way to teach the horse what the click meant seemed to be by teaching them to touch a target so I splashed out on a two pond metal clicker box and grabbed an empty plastic bottle.
Any object unfamiliar to the horse will do, another beauty of clicker training is the equipment is so cheap, and made a start. If a horse is the ‘muggy’ type you begin behind a barrier (and clicker training is a very effective way of teaching a horse to be polite around food) but Jack was used to receiving treats and wasn’t the sort to rip the pockets off my jacket or grab my fingers as well, so I began in his stable.
I stood next to him and held the bottle up in front of him. He has always wanted to sniff anything new so he immediately did, which was exactly what I wanted so I clicked, moved the bottle away and gave him a piece of carrot. He looked surprised but pleased. I held the bottle up again with the same result.
After ten clicks or so I held the bottle where he had to make more of an effort to touch it.
He hesitated and then reached out and touched it with his nose – click and treat. I could almost see the light go on in his head.
All he had to do was touch the bottle and a funny noise told him that he was going to get a treat.
What a great game! I put it on the floor, held it high in the air, held it between his front legs and he put himself out to touch it wherever it was.
Within a few days we were in the outdoor school with plastic bottles strewn about and I would point at one and say ‘touch’ (you add in a ‘cue’ once you know that the horse will perform the task) and Jack would sniff his way down my arm, to make sure he knew which bottle I was pointing at, and trundle off to touch it. By now the clicks were combined with much spontaneous verbal and tactile praise on my part, and Jack’s eyes lit up when he heard each and every click.
He looked so proud of himself each time. He understood that he was being successful and impressing me so much that I was showering him with treats and praise. We were both having so much fun and I loved him for his intelligence and enthusiasm.
I had begun to understand why my former tactics for getting him going had been doomed from the start. I was beginning to realise just how intelligent Jack is and to see it from his point of view.
Getting him from a halt to a walk, or from a walk to a trot, had always been the most difficult part and so once he was there I was desperate to keep him there.
I gave him a token ‘good boy’ and a pat each time and then pushed and nagged away at him to keep going. Any spark of willingness on his part was met with demands for more.
To him I must have appeared greedy and rude. His best defence was to wear me out before I got the chance to wear him out and the difference between his training strategy and mine was that his was 100 percent effective.
But that was all in the past because now I had a clicker and I knew how to use it!
I took Jack into the school and got on. I put my feet in the stirrups, checked the girth, picked up the reins, gave him a pat (all the same as usual) and then just sat there. Jack waited for the nagging to begin. I just sat there.
After a minute or so he raised his head slightly and flicked an ear back at me, wondering what on earth I was up to.
A smile crept across my face because I knew in that moment that this was going to work. I just sat there. After another minute or so he turned his head to look at me. I just sat there.
He couldn’t understand it and he shuffled his feet slightly – click and treat. That cheered him up and he shuffled his feet a bit more – click and treat.
He couldn’t believe his luck; treats for just moving his feet slightly. This was money for old rope, much easier than trundling around the school after bottles!
A couple of clicks and treats later we were doing whole strides at a time and I was doing nothing to initiate them. I loved this game!
By the end of the session I had introduced the tiniest nudge of my calves as a cue and the only problem I had was getting it in before he moved again after each treat. I very slowly delayed the click for longer and longer. I didn’t have to do anything to keep Jack going because he was waiting for the click.
By the end of the week he was trotting whole laps of the school with no additional input from me after the very subtle leg aid for the transition into trot.
After two weeks he was breaking into a trot without being asked, which had never, ever happened before unless something had frightened him.
After three weeks I suddenly realised that I hadn’t actually asked him to slow down or stop since I began riding with the clicker. I had been concentrating on movement and he always stopped when he heard the click, so I hadn’t needed to.
I asked him to stop and nothing happened. I nearly fell off with shock! All Jack’s motivation was for going and he had none left for stopping.
It was nothing short of a miracle, but it was also time to start clicking him for stopping as well and get the brakes re-lined before I had a runaway on my hands!
I have since bought all of Alexandra Kurland’s books and DVDs and I am a clicker addict. She says that if you can dream it then you can clicker train it, and I believe her.
I have used clicker training for a year now, with all three of my Dales, to successfully tackle all sorts of issues and play all sorts of games, and we have built up so much trust, understanding and communication between us.
All of my ponies are now the bright-eyed, happy, enthusiastic, eager beaver workaholics that Alexandra Kurland promised they would be and I am now that person whose eyes shine when she talks about clicker training.