Horses are fast learners. They have to be; if you’re a prey animal and you’re a slow learner chances are you’re not going to live a long life. Some horses learn so fast it is almost easier to teach them the wrong thing than the right thing. That is because they’re so perceptive that they might take something we do as a cue while we’re not even aware that we’re doing it. Clever Hans comes to mind, the horse that became famous for being able to do arithmetic. A formal investigation showed that the horse was not actually doing any arithmetic; he was watching and responding to involuntary clues in the body language of the watching humans. I think that is actually a far more impressive talent than being able to add or subtract. Ah, if only we could have that kind of perception, any oral examination would be a doddle!
How many involuntary cues are we giving at any time when we are training or riding a horse? How often does our body actually say the opposite of our aids? And how is the horse to make sense of it all? I have a book on liberty dressage, which contains the following warning: “It is important to keep your body in a neutral, upright position at all times. For instance it is not a good idea to bend your body while you’re teaching the Spanish Walk: your horse might decide that this is the cue, with possible tragic consequences when you bend over to pick out a hoof.”
Starting clicker training has been a revelation to me. That neutral, upright body position is not that easy, I have a tendency to “rest” one leg and when I walk I have the introvert’s habit of looking down. When I tried to put the target on a verbal cue, I felt like an idiot, which made me realise that I actually don’t really talk to my horses. Consequently, I am not as consistent using a verbal cue as I need to be. How can I expect my horses to be confident about doing what I’m asking if I’m not clear? I am far more aware now of what I’m doing with my body and thinking about how I can get things across to my horses. I am teaching while I’m learning and because I know how fast they learn, I want to avoid teaching them the wrong thing. So Minnie and Cassie will have to put up with a slow process while I experiment and try to break things down into tiny steps instead of rushing towards my end goal.
When I started with the clicker, I thought I would just do it with Cassie at first until I became more comfortable with it, but of course Minnie is always there and it seemed she was just waiting for her turn. She was watching with interest, and when I held the target out to her she carefully touched it and then she gave a low chuckle while she glanced at my treat bag, so she knew exactly what it was all about. They learn a lot just from watching.
Clicker training is simple, but it is not easy. Sometimes things happen that I just don’t know how to respond to. I put the target on the ground and Cassie has to take a step forward to reach it, which she does and she immediately touches it. I click and expect her to turn to me for her reward, but she doesn’t. She starts playing with the target, knocking it over, moving it around, trying to get her nose inside and finally putting it back upright. I quickly click again as she does so, and this time she looks up and decides to come up for her reward. I have no idea if she ignored the first click because she found the target more intriguing than getting a piece of carrot or if the second click made sense to her. On another occasion, she didn’t move towards the target at all, but just stood beside me. I was just wondering if I had put the target too far away from her when Minnie walked up from behind us, and purposefully touched the target. I clicked and rewarded Minnie, but only afterwards realised that it wasn’t her turn and perhaps I should have ignored her, but I love it when Minnie shows initiative and I didn’t want to discourage her either.
I have had my first real success. Cassie had a cut on her hind leg and I needed to wash it out. I could have done this by tying her up and blocking her against the stable wall, but I prefer to do everything with my horses out in the open and if possible at liberty. It gives them the opportunity to let me know if they’re uncomfortable with what I’m doing and say “no”. Now I really needed Cassie to stand still and allow me to clean the cut. I always have the clicker in my pocket these days, so I asked her to stand, and as she stood I clicked and rewarded. I ran my hand over her body and down her hind leg and clicked and rewarded again. I did a quick dab with some soaked cotton wool, click and reward again. After that, I was able to clean the cut completely. Jackpot for Cassie and a great sense of achievement for me!