Clicker training solutions to common horse-handling problems

Switch up your training and teach your horse to stay cool, calm and collected with clicker training and the “do it differently” game.

You need to clip your horse or give him some medicine from a dose syringe. There are two basic ways you can get the job done. You can try to force him into accepting the procedure, or you can gain his cooperation. As a clicker trainer, I want to gain his cooperation. I want it to be my horse’s choice that he’s working with me through a particular task, even an unpleasant one. To get started, I’ll introduce him to clicker training.

When it comes to clicker training, the first step is to teach a strong base behavior. This might involve keeping his nose oriented to a stationary target, or (my favorite) standing on a mat. Mats are wonderful tools. I use them throughout my training, which means there’s a deep history of reinforcement associated with them. When only good things happen on mats, horses are comfortable going to them and staying on them. Once this positive association is established, you can introduce a new phase to the training – the “do it differently” game (see sidebar at right).

Change it up

The “do it differently” game applies to all kinds of procedures, from prepping your horse for the farrier to giving paste wormers to clipping and braiding, even to getting on trailers – the list goes on. You don’t have to be a clicker trainer to use this process (though it does help)!

Let’s use paste worming to illustrate how “do it differently” works. When first introducing a horse to oral meds, most of us are familiar with the technique of filling a dose syringe with applesauce. “Let me put this in your mouth and you’ll get a squirt of applesauce – yum!” With a clicker-trained horse, I can ask him to stand on his mat so his feet are still. Then I can hold out the syringe. I’ll click and give him a treat when he orients to the syringe. In small steps, I’ll teach him to bring his mouth to the syringe and take it on his own. This is so much more elegant than just pushing it into his mouth.

The next step is not to go straight to the bad-tasting medicine, but to vary what you put into the syringe. Begin with other things he likes – pureed carrots or watermelon, or a flaxseed mash flavored with edible peppermint or anise seed oil. Every day, change to something new so he never knows what to expect. Begin to add some unexpected flavors such as apple cider vinegar. Then, fix several syringes – one with an unpleasant flavor, all the others with things he likes. The more he becomes accustomed to the syringe tasting different, the easier it will be to introduce the actual medicine.

Turning tolerance into acceptance

You can do the same thing with many other procedures. For example, try adding the “do it differently” game to your daily grooming. With a clicker-trained horse, you can turn this into a game that gets him used to different stimuli. Collect items from around your house and barn: buckets, towels, pool noodles, umbrellas, plastic cones, shopping bags, etc. Ask your horse to stand on his mat, and have him target one of these items or retrieve it for you. If he walks off the mat, that’s his way of letting you know that what you’re asking for is too hard. Don’t punish him for leaving; just invite him back to the mat and find something easier for him. Groom him with the pool noodle or the brushes from your vacuum cleaner. Scrap mud off his legs with the ice scraper from your car. The more creative you are, the better.

By the time you bring out something truly scary such as clippers or a fly spray bottle, standing on the mat while you wave them around making funny buzzing sounds will be old hat to him. If fly spray is a worry, play the “do it differently” game with what you put in the spray bottle. Begin with warm water. At first, spray into the air instead of directly on the horse. If he stays on his mat, click and treat. When he’s comfortable with this step, you can spray him directly. If he stays, click and treat. Again, if he walks away, that means you asked for too much. Invite him back and ask him for something easier.

When you can spray him all over with warm water, change what is in your spray bottle. Change the temperature. Add peppermint or anise oil to the water. Every day, mix up something a little different. Get him used to lots of different scents before you add in the fly spray.

Once you start playing the “do it differently” game, you’ll find lots of ways to use it. And what’s more, gaining your horse’s cooperation in his own care will have a huge ripple effect through the rest of his training.

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Alexandra Kurland is the author of Clicker Training for your Horse, The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures, The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker and The Click That Teaches Video Lesson Series. She earned her degree from Cornell University where she specialized in animal behavior. Alexandra has been teaching and training horses since the mid-1980s. A pioneer in the development of humane training methods, she began clicker training in the early 1990s. She very quickly recognized the power of clicker training for improving performance, enhancing the relationship people have with their horses, and for putting fun back into training.;