Developing a Soft Feel with Clicker Training

I’ve been working with a new horse recently. It has been so interesting because it has given me a chance to really think about what I click for in the beginning, especially when the horse isn’t “with me”. I wanted to write it down while it was still fresh.

This mare is 10 years old, and pretty set in her ways of bracing and leaving when she is uncertain.

The first session I spent just getting to know her in the stall and turning her on to c/t. She got it pretty quick.

Next session in the round pen she was so far gone (mentally back at the paddock with her herd mates) that food wasn’t even on the radar. I spent the whole time just patting the ground with the longe whip to get her attention. Starting with an ear. She’s flighty, so you blow on her and she was cantering around. Not what I wanted but it was where she was at. I waited. I wanted her to stop and check in with me when I tapped the ground with the whip. Owner asked, won’t this be expecting too much if the whip has always meant go? I just shrugged and smiled…Oh ye of little faith. (to tell the truth, I wasn’t even all that sure if it would be possible that day) I persisted. Eventually the mare did stop and looked at me, a little cock to her head. What??? I said, to the mare, nothing, just that. Thanks! The owner was surprised! So, slowly, she started to let thoughts of the other horses who she was fretting about not being able to see go. When she finally walked over she was calm and a little more ready to let me in. We quit for the day. The owner, being a quick study, followed up with the mare a couple times and told me that things went quite smoothly.

I wanted to see how the mare felt on the lead rope so the next time I worked with her (a couple weeks later) we did some rope work. I introduced following a feel left, right and down because she harbors a lot of tension in her neck. The idea is to show her that my feel through the lead rope to the halter (eventually reins to the bit) can be a Comfort and she can relax. I c/t this a lot. I take note that she loses her ability to stay with me if she gets going too fast. So, I take trotting off the table. I concentrate just on c/t for following that feel down and little inside flexions. When I lose her mentally I notice she refuses the food. When she is starting to offer some stretching down and is a little more relaxed, I quit.

The next visit was a week or so later. Back in the round pen on the lead rope. To start she is a lot more OK which was pretty cool right there. I continue with following a feel down (nose to the ground) and lateral flexions. It needs to be softly offered. I am clicking a lot but I’m also very conscious of how it feels in my hand. If it is pushy or hard I wait, keep asking for soft, click for soft–staying with me. I don’t feed if she looks off into the distance after the click. I click for behavior and feed for position. In this context that means that after I click I ask her to turn her face to me, really look at me (typically I’m standing at her shoulder), in order to get the food. Everything between the click and the actual delivery counts.

People often ask if they should perfect one behavior before moving on. I don’t. To me it isn’t the individual specific behaviors like turning or head down or whatever that a the most crucial thing. How it feels is what is crucial. So, in performing these various moves I have numerous opportunities to clarify my intent vis a vis the FEEL of it. So, with the mare I move between the ‘head down’ work (follow a feel down) and little turns on the rope. Some times, I see if she can follow a feel through an inside turn, click for walking, click for tipping her head in the right direction, click for stepping the shoulder through, this gets pretty good. Sometimes, I see if she can follow a feel through an outside turn, that one she has to follow the feel away from me and ‘unwind’. She finds this really difficult to the left, the side she really protects. I stay there a little bit and work on just the softening aspects and then continue. I go back and forth, checking on the little pieces, integrating, seeing how things have softened up how much more willing she is.

We were at this quite a while. The owner notes that after 1.5hrs the mare is still very present and significantly more relaxed. In the past, the mare would have long since lost her patience and her willingness. In fact, she might have become more braced, rather than less. We both view this as a very good sign indeed. 🙂

My newly acquired massage experience is factoring in too, which is so cool. In previous posts I’ve mentioned how Jim Masterson’s method depends on getting feedback from the horse. A lot of ‘eye blinking’ and ‘lip twitching’ tells us that the horse is aware of our presence on a spot they are concerned about. Time spent on this area with gentle touching/massage eventually leads to lip licking/releasing, sometimes yawning. 🙂 SO interesting to see this mare processing like this when I’m in ‘waiting for a change” through a feel on the rope, I gently stay with it (sending the tiniest of gentle massages through the line) and just like with the massage, she softens and releases with lips licking. I notice that this is pretty much the same thing Phillipe Karl does with his flexions with the bridle.

I will continue in this manner each time I work with the horse testing to see if I can go a little further or deeper until I can have that same soft feel in all gaits on the ground and under saddle.

The mare’s owner and I were talking later about how HARD this process is to articulate. Which is why step by step written instructions are so inadequate. It is NOT a linear process! It is all about how it feels. You present a thought, you wait for a reply, and then you respond. You go back and forth like this until there is clarity between you. What I’ve described here is about a given horse on a set of given days at the beginning of our journey together. Your horse’s situation might have me doing much the same or I might need to adapt my approach to accommodate some unique challenge the horse presents for whatever reason. Hopefully, even with that in mind this story might be useful to read!

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