click or treat

Mu-ray and I have been hitting the clicker training hard the last week or so.  I know that I professed that I would be doing training like crazy, but I avoided it for a few weeks.  To be honest, a big part of it is the judgement I receive at my barn about clicker training.  Some people are just curious and ask a lot of questions.  Some people don’t believe that it can be used to practically train horses to do anything other than “tricks”, and have told me that enough times that I just get a little… self conscious.

But enough people have heard me mope and whine about Murray’s leg hole that they’ve stopped asking, so I don’t need to keep explaining myself! Hooray, leg hole persistence.

The other reason I was avoiding training is that Murray wasn’t actually being very… cooperative. Pre-masticating several carrots just to have Murray crawl all over me to get his treats and not really pay attention to the click-treat paradigm is a waste of time and, quite frankly, not fun.  But then I had a little breakthrough with the treats.  Carrots are too high value right now.  Maybe because he’s on stall rest and needs enrichment in general, but carrots were just way too over-stimulating.  But a tiny handful of stable mix and rolled barley (a portion of his standard grain ration)?  Perfect.  He was willing to work for it, but his brain wasn’t shut down by the OMG SO GOOD desirability of the treat.

Pop quiz time! Which of the following things is Murray not known for?

a) his politeness and reasonable spatial awareness while hand walking
b) his attention to his handler’s stop/go motion while hand walking
c) his ability to control his feelings and not rear or buck at passing trucks while hand walking
d) all of the above

It is as Digital Underground said: the answer is D, all of the above.

when Murray bucks in-hand it’s actually weirdly polite: directed away from me (though not necessarily from other humans/animals) and he never pulls on me — once he hits the end of the lead rope he stops

We started re-establishing the basic click-treat connection while hand-walking.  Despite what my title says, if you click, you must treat.  Otherwise the relationship of the bridge breaks down.  When I stop, you stop.  When I go, you go.  When I say back, you go back.  This really helped me figure out how little food I could use as an effective reinforcer.  I started with my cupped hand full of grain — this was too much.  First, it took too long for Murray to hoover it out of my hand.  Second, with a high rate of reinforcement he ended up with too much food is his mouth and couldn’t keep accepting rewards.

Eventually, I realised that as few as five or six pellets of stable mix or about a tablespoon of rolled barley (or a combination thereof, as I mix the two together in a bucket) worked really well.  It was enough that Murray was satisfied, small enough that I could move my hand around for different positioning quite easily, and little enough that even with a really high rate of reinforcement Murray never had a bunch of food left in his mouth. I should have taken a picture of this amount, it’s smaller than you’d think.  And bonus: I no longer had to pre-masticate carrots.

To you this is a picture of a horse totally normally playing with a toy. To me, this is my horse performing a learned behavior that he literally did not know until today.  This jolly ball has sat in his paddock for a year.  He’s never touched it until today (some other horse threw it in there and his owner never reclaimed it).

Since last week, I’ve worked on a combo of stationary and in-motion behaviors.  When we’re walking I really want Murray to maintain a polite distance (at least one elbow’s-width from me) and not step into my bubble.  This definitely involves me throwing some elbows to remind him as well as clicking and treating.  On the ground there’s a whole suite of behaviors I’m excited to work on!  Like, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to touch my horse all over his body without having to use my entire body weight to hold his head down?  He doesn’t have to like it, I will happily take resigned but stationary annoyance when I clean out his nostrils and wipe down his face.  Even brushing his forelock is more dramatic than it needs to be — he doesn’t even dislike it, he just has to lift his head as high as he can when I lift up my arm, just in case I’m planning something awful.

So I trained it away. I lifted my hand up, and when Murray put his head down, I clicked and treated. Now when I lift my hand up he puts his head down and I can — gasp — put my hand on top of his head even though he’s way way way way way taller than I am.

I’ve been pretty impressed with how quickly this is coming along.  Not even just the behaviors (some are moving faster than others), but Murray’s ability to learn has improved in the last week.  For example, the other day, for the first time ever, Murray let me spray him in the face with fly spray.  Yes, not a spray on a brush and then tolerate putting it on his face.  He stood there, I sprayed him in the face (albeit from relatively far away so the drops that got to him were very small), and he didn’t run away,  break his halter, or break me.  That took a bunch of repetitions of me spraying fly spray on and around him with lots of reward for standing still, then quietly creeping the spray higher up his neck.  But it happened, and in about ten minutes too.

Now we’re working on station training so I can get pone to stand still while I mess with his body or do other things (coughtackupcough).  It’s going… okay.  Right now it’s more of target training, because Murray is only just learning that interacting with the jolly ball = treat.  What I really like about this video is that you can see his ears perk forward when he hears the click — it’s such a good demonstration of the value of the bridge. (Although I did commit the original sin of shooting in portrait.)

Here’s the last minute — literally — of our training session on Wednesday.  I changed the context up a little bit and stepped into his paddock (I’d done most of the work from the outside, as you can see in the first pic), and then moved further away from the ball.  Murray was torn between sticking close to me (holder of the pink bucket, giver of goodness).  Once I repositioned myself in relation to the ball, he was able to get back to the task at hand.

Hopefully I’ll have some fun clicker training updates in the future!  Our hand walking has to be cut back a bit because Murray got a rub under his bandage, so I think I can only really walk extensively if the bandage is off.  And that only happens every four days.  So there will definitely be more in-stall/paddock training sessions in our future.


17 thoughts on “click or treat”

  1. I loved this!!
    I too have learned that treats that are of too great a value end up with me being swarmed. I tried to use licorice and wow they got obsessed quick! 🙃

    Looks like it’s all going well. Loved the videos !

    Mel x


  2. This is so interesting! My aunt is a huge proponent of clicker training and used it both on the ground and under saddle, and she worked with me on some basics this summer. I need to dig back into the literature she left and play with it some this winter when it’s too gross to ride 🙂


  3. This is super interesting and I don’t know why I never thought to use it with my horse before! I’ve used it with my dog relatively successfully (the whole barking at motorcycles thing may never go away…) so I may need to try it this winter!


  4. I don’t understand why people disparage clicker training. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but literally all the training we do with horses uses cues we have to teach them. This is just another set of cues. It will be really cool to see what you get done with him while he recovers.


  5. Re the treat size and quantity – I bust the fave cookies up into quarters. While I do think Val is fairly smart – he does not have a grasp of relative size /quantity of treats. Crumbs are as effective as handsfull – it’s the speed and consistency of the response that counts. It often feels to me that clicker training works like a translator between human and equine. The communication can be so much more refined. With complicated behaviors you just break the response into smaller parts. Clicker training is awesome!


    1. This was exactly me before stall rest. Part of it is that there’s a finite amount of time in my day, and I want to spend that time riding, not clicker training and being unable to ride. There wasn’t enough evidence that clicker training would make my horse’s training progress better/faster that I was willing to give up the riding-training for the clicker-training. So in this regard, stall rest is a fabulous excuse.


  6. Fun! I had all the intentions in the world of clicker training P, even bought the clicker and had a plan of how to go about it. But it’s totally fallen by the wayside at the moment. I’m glad to hear it’s going well with M, I will have to give it a go!


  7. Yay!!!! Don’t you love clicker training??? You are literally only limited by your own imagination. You can teach them anything. I taught Chrome to let me handle his face the same way you are and I taught him to stand still without moving a muscle. It has made him a dream to handle. To me it is such a better way to train. Figuring out the reward and how to reward can be the hardest part, so I think you’ve got it all in the bag at this point. Congrats on your progress. I hope you keep having tons of fun with it.

    P.S. I’m sooooo far behind on blogs I have no idea what injury he is healing from, but I really hope it heals up quickly.


    1. It’s minor, Nicole-induced, and healing nicely. Thanks!

      I am enjoying getting Murray more on board with face-handling. It’s the kind of thing that no amount of negative punishment could have done for with him. And here’s to hoping this leads to a different kind of training paradigm under saddle also!


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