Friday, October 2, 2009

Adventures in Clicker Training

Adventures in Clicker Training

As I have mentioned in previous newsletters, I have been playing around with clicker training with Mingo. He now goes down the first riverbank like a normal horse instead of molasses in January. I only click him for it once every couple of weeks or so when I remember to bring him a treat. I haven’t tried him on the river ford for quite a while, but I have a feeling that when I do, he will go as confidently as he did in the spring when I worked with him with the clicker.

Our new project does not involve the trail. With the shorter evenings, I am taking Cruiser on trail rides and riding Mingo in the big outdoor arena. I like working out there, though I only do it for a few months in the fall. It is too wet and sloppy in the winter, so I use the indoor arena in the inclement weather.

My main project that I decided to work on with the clicker is improving our walk/trot transitions. He is fine out on the trail, but in the arena, he feels that trotting is optional. This is something I have struggled with him, forever. When he does trot, often he only trots with his front legs and walks with his hind legs. Finally, towards the end of the session, he would give in and start to work. By then, I would be worn out, and we would quit for the day. It is all so frustrating. Last winter, he had me convinced there was something physically wrong with him—until we started riding on the trail in the spring, and he transformed into a regular dynamo for the first month.

We worked a little with clicker transitions on the trail. I would ask him to trot, he would, I would click, he would stop and I would give him a tiny piece of carrot. Sometimes, I use green beans from my garden. It worked fine on the trail, but then again, I seldom have trouble getting him to trot on the trail.

To make things easier for me, I trained him to understand a click noise I made with my tongue. I switched, not so much, because it is that hard to use a clicker while riding, but because it was so hard to remember to bring the clicker with me on the rides! It took only a couple tries, and he knew the tongue click.

Our first venture into the outdoor arena went very well, and I was so excited. At first, I clicked for a transition. When he was doing that well, I had him trot a little before clicking. I gradually increased the distance that we trotted and finally only clicked when he trotted well. Towards the end of the ride, he was going so fast that I was sure we had made a breakthrough.

The next week, he was back to his old self in the arena. I realized that the first time, he was probably just excited to be in the arena after many months on trail. I tried doing what I did the previous training session, but it didn’t make much difference. It was like it always was—it was only towards the end of the ride that he promptly went into the trot and trotted well.

This happened ride after ride, and honestly, I was getting discouraged. We were on our seventh ride. I led him along the perimeter of the arena, and he walked with enthusiasm. This is a rare thing with Mingo at any time; let alone in the arena. This has happened a few times before with him, and I knew something was up. He had something on his mind.

I mounted and started warming him up at a walk. He continued to go fairly fast. I asked him to trot—nothing. I asked him more vigorously, and he gave me a halfhearted trot. It was something, so I clicked. I asked him again—a little better. One more time, and we had it.

We spent the session working on our trotting, and overall he did very well. We practiced transitions and then went to practicing the trot. He gave me a lot of steady, consistent trotting. He wasn’t perfect, but when he didn’t get it right, he didn’t get a click. I think this may work, after all.

I know that I will be able to fade the clicker out—just as I did with the riverbank, so that isn’t a worry. In the end, I think he will realize that even if he doesn’t get a treat all the time, just trotting along without me constantly urging him on is much more pleasant than what we have been doing. Once he is consistent, we will move on to other things—like trotting a whole circle without stopping. What a novel idea. The rides will become more fun for both of us. He is going to love working on canter transitions. (He loves to canter!) Maybe we will finally get out of kindergarten—at the age of 14. Come to think of it, Cruiser was about 14 when we started to do really well in the ring.

Our next training session worked out about the same. There was no improvement, but he didn’t get any worse, either. Our last training session took place out on the trail. He did very well, but he always does better on the trail. Once he started doing well with the transitions, I started clicking for high quality trotting. When we got to his favorite section to canter, he wouldn’t. He only wanted to trot. Could it be because he figured he’d get a click for trotting? I’m not sure, but I didn’t make an issue of it. It will be interesting to see if his highly successful trail ride will influence his next training session in the arena.

My hopes will be that we will learn a lot this winter. I predict, if that happens, in the spring I will vow to continue working with him in the arena through the summer so we don’t lose anything that we gained. I also predict that I will ride him on the trail all summer—like I always do, and then we will have to start all over in the fall.

I will keep you updated on our progress…

1 comment:

IceRyder said...

If you get a video of you and your horse clicker training, let me know and I'll post it to the ClickRyder blog: Thanks!