How Clicker Training Saved Me
If you’re an avid blog reader, you’ll know that I’ve always been a strong advocate of natural horsemanship. I still am – I believe that natural horsemanship principles are an important part of a horse/human relationship. However, for years I believed that no other training methods – for example, clicker training – were also necessary. Now, however, I see that clicker training can facilitate training, and also be a lifesaver in some situations.
This belief started after an experience with my wonderful horse, Henley.
I got Henley in August of this year, and although he’s a fairly level-headed and thoughtful guy, the Thoroughbred in him still gives him a reactive and flighty edge. However, his level-headedness made me decide to try some clicker training with him – just for fun, to teach him some tricks at liberty and picking up some objects and handing them to me. It also helped, I noticed, with his girthiness, and helped us desensitize him to umbrellas.
A couple of months ago, when my clicker training experience happened, I had really been wanting to take Henley on a trail ride. Some background about our trails: a wide trail connects the barn’s property to the conversation area, large enough for trucks to drive down – which they do, because at the end of the trail is a dam, and often construction workers and water workers come do some work on the dam. We must go down this trail and cross the dam to get to the trails.
Inconveniently, they decided to rebuild the entire dam right as I got Henley. Therefore, my precious trails were blocked off, and my new horse and I were stuck in the riding arena for a month and a half.
I did take Henley down to the dam on weekends, when the workers weren’t working, and let him take a look at all of the scary foreign objects: parked trucks, bulldozers, and a port-a-potty. I would click him every time he overcame his nervousness and touched one of the objects with his muzzle, as a result of our clicker training exercise, “targeting.”
Sometimes, they opened up the bridge, and we could walk by and get to the trails. Those days were nice surprises – we got our trail ride, and we got to really desensitize our horses by walking them through a construction site. However, the dam had been closed off for a while, and that day I was missing the trails so much that I felt compelled to check if they were open – even though I heard the sounds of machines down there and knew that they were working. We had gone down there when they were building before, and they had nicely halted their construction to let the horses go by.
I figured that if the construction was too scary, I would get off and lead him back. Worse came to worse, I figured, a truck would drive down as we were coming back and forth from the dam, but I figured the chances were slim and that they would just see me and stop, and let us squeeze by slowly. The trail was not wide enough for a horse and a truck, but we could go through the trees.
So I tacked up my boy and rode the 5 minutes down to the dam, where I saw that hacking out was a lost cause: they had turned the bridge into a deep ditch full of strange equipment, and they were doing some crazy construction.
I turned around, bummed out, thinking that I could at least ride him back. However, as we were turning a corner, we heard the rumble of a truck. Annoyed that they had chosen the ten minutes that I happened to be on the trail to drive one of their trucks down, I stopped Henley and was getting ready to flag down the driver to ask them to stop and let us walk by when I noticed the impossible: the truck was reversing towards the dam instead of driving forward towards us. Forget about the driver seeing us through the rearview; it was a huge, scary truck, and I could tell that the driver was blind save from the side view mirrors keeping him on the trail. It was clear, however, that he did not see us.
The truck was advancing rather rapidly; I had very little time to think. The first thing I did was dive into the trees, but I was blocked by a stone wall and could not go very far into the woods – to my other side had been a ditch. In the few seconds that I was in those trees and the truck came nearer and nearer, where it would pass only feet away from me, all of my natural horsemanship came rushing into my head: what to do? Should I dismount and risk him running me over in the trees, out of fear? Did I have time to dismount? A one-rein stop wouldn’t work; we were too tightly squished between trees. No natural horsemanship exercise that I knew would save me now.
The thought came to me right as the truck was only about ten feet away, and Henley was already shaking despite my strokes and vocal reassurances: “Good boy, it’s okay, boy…” I needed to click him!
So I did. As the truck got closer, I clicked and treated, and my horse calmed down. He had been clicked in exchange for touching a truck of this size before at the site, but never moving and rumbling, and it was clear that he was distressed at the motion. I think clicker training saved us that day, when we were stuck in a tight box between a stone wall, trees, and a rumbling, frightening truck.
Finally the truck was gone, and the driver finally caught sight of me: I waved, and then Henley and I stepped calmly out of the trees and walked home as if nothing had happened.
I called my mom, a huge clicker training advocate, right away and told her what happened. She was the one who had guided me in training Henley, and who had taught Henley the meaning of the click, and had given him a positive association to it. I told her that I finally realized that there was more to clicker training that just tricks: it is a vital tool in situations where absolutely nothing else could work!
For more information about clicker training, stay tuned, as we will be coming out with some videos soon. Also, we sell clickers on the website under the “Natural Horsemanship Equipment” section if you have trouble making the clicking sound with your tongue.
Lastly, for those of you who have had experiences like these, or who just have a special relationship or history with your four-legged friend, we are having a blogging contest. Write up your story and e-mail it to Juliane@AllHorseStuff.com and we will publish the winner, and give them a $10 coupon code to AHS.
Happy training, and stay safe!