Friday, June 29, 2012

Clicker on the Trail

Clicker on the Trail

For those of you that have been following my adventures on Cole, you know that he is my clicker horse. I bought him as an unridden 4 year old, trained him for the saddle and headed down the trail. I have trained horses for trail before, of course, but Cole is the first horse that I have used a clicker to help me from the beginning.

I thought I would write a book on clicker training and trail riding, but then I realized I didn’t quite have enough material. It all seems to boil down to—if your horse is doing well, click him. If you want to say “good boy” or “good girl,” do it with a click and a treat. They learn so much faster this way.

In the very beginning, before I started riding him, I would take him for walks in the park. At first, he didn’t want to walk down the hill. He wanted to wander around, looking for something to eat. When I realized the reason, and that he wasn’t afraid, I had to tap him with the whip to get going. When he did, I would click him. Soon, we were able to leave that lesson behind. We then had a new problem. He wanted to trot instead of walk. It took me some time to figure out that I not only had to click him when he was walking nicely, but I needed a way to get his mind on something different. Since he would lift his head up in the air and try to trot, I taught him to put his head down as he walked with me. That worked remarkably and has evolved to him timing his feet with mine and lifting them up into a small Spanish Walk if I do the same.

That trick has become very useful. Whenever he gets distracted or worried when I am leading him, I point to the ground and he starts his silly walk.

The clicker was a great help in teaching him to cross the river. I led him to the river and clicked when he put his head down to look at it. I clicked him for standing quietly by it, and the day he stepped into the water—he got a jackpot click. Each time he added another hoof, he got clicked again. When he walked in all the way, he got clicked, of course, and when he crossed, he got lots of clicks all the way.

He hasn’t always been a perfect crosser. There was a time when he would only cross from that certain spot and I had to teach him other places were good to cross, too. Except or the time when we crossed the first time, the only occasion that he was frightened to step in the water was that day when I tried to cross back to go home the first time. It is so nice to have a horse that is a bold river crosser. I never had any trouble at any of the other crossing on our rides, and I think that clicker helped with that. I still click him now and then crossing the river—just because he is a good boy.

I used the clicker extensively on the trail when a scary monster approached. I would ask him to stop and click him when he did. I would then click him for standing patiently, too. When the noisy motorcycles come tearing down the adjacent street, he stands for them to pass or I can just keep riding him. Cole spooks very little on the trail. He will stand quietly for any distraction.

I used the clicker to reinforce anything that he did well. If he approached a scary obstacle with confidence, he got clicked. If he let a group of horses pass without a fuss, he got clicked. Anytime he did anything well that a young horse may not have, he got clicked.

He is a very spirited horse, and I knew I may have some problems when I introduced the trot on the trail. At the time, we were barely trotting in the arena—he was that green. What I did was have me sister walk a short distance up the trail. I would ask him to trot towards her, and then when he reached her, I asked for a stop and clicked him for it. Since he wanted to stop there, anyway, he was willing to stop. This way, I could get him stopping well. Then, when we went off alone, I knew he was conditioned to stop quickly. There were only a few times that his excitement the got better of him. Eventually, he would stop. We practiced stopping from the trot a lot.

I handled the canter in the same way. Of course the excitement level is much higher with the canter. Using Ellen as my target, we cantered to her, and then I clicked him for stopping by her. He loves cantering on then trail, and does it with much enthusiasm. Still—I seldom have trouble stopping him.

There is another thing that my sister and I trained him for—not to pass other horses without permission. It may not seem like a big deal until you ride horses together that are competitive. We have struggle with Cruiser and Ranger for years. They both want to be leaders. We have various techniques that work—the best is riding many, many miles. Anyway, we wanted to avoid all that.

Last spring, I started to ride him with Ranger on a regular basis. Until then, I mostly rode him alone. They were fine at a walk. Cole was very respectful, so that helped. When we started to trot together, Cole wanted to go faster than Ranger. When he would slow down with his nose lined up with Ellen’s leg, I clicked him. By now, Ranger was a clicker horse, too, so they would both stop to get their treats. After a while, Cole decided he didn’t need to travel next to Ranger. He was happy to follow. I would click him when he matched Ranger’s speed about a horse length behind. I now have a horse that is happy leading or following. I seldom click for it anymore. It is something that he is very content with.

When I introduced trotting towards home, I discovered that the clicker didn’t work so well. He wanted so much to trot towards home that he didn’t want to stop for his treat. In a sense, the click became a punishment. Instead, when he trotted steady and calmly, I used vocal praise and rubbing his withers as a reward. The other reward was just to allow him to continue along. If he starts to act in any way that I don’t like, I stop him, walk a bit and restart. I will still click him for a good downward transition—which is something he doesn’t want to do when we trot on the way home—a good one should be rewarded. He still needs more work with that—or maybe better treats!

I could have done all of this without the help of a clicker, but it helped him learn faster and kept his good attitude. He is quite a joy to ride, and I will continue to click him.

Now if only my dog would learn so quickly…

1 comment:

~Allison said...

That is awesome! You have done a great job with him!
I use the clicker to help Shy get over "scary" things and once she realizes they are not scary,s he is fine. I also use it to teach her tricks.
Unfortunately, since she is green and I have her in training and the trainer does not use a clicker. But I am thinking when I get her on the trails, I will use it in a similar way that you do.