intended & unintended consequences of the clicker game

I started clicker training Murray with some specific goals in mind, one of them being his general attention to and engagement with me.  I also wanted to provide him with mental stimulation while he was stuck in his stall, hopefully change his ability to think and learn, and make his life a little more interesting.  The clicker training has definitely done that, but there have been some unintended consequences too.  Both good and bad.

now-Murray: hello Nicole! being with you is interesting and rewarding!

Intended: Murray is more attentive to me
To be honest, the number of shits Murray has ever given about me has been limited. He’s much more motivated by food and other horses. I’m a distant second to his first favourite person, a fact that is only tolerable because I know that the rest of humanity doesn’t even make the list. The only time Murray consistently shows any interest in me outside of when he is forced to (e.g. I’m holding him, he’s tied up with me) is when I’m the sole deliverer of food and/or comfort.

Now Murray is very interested in me.  He’s more interested even than he was when I was the one just bringing his buckets to his stall daily. In some ways, this makes no sense: he’s getting the same amount of food, so why care more when he has to work for it? On the other hand, it makes perfect sense: clicker training him literally rewards him for paying attention to me.

He neighs and whinnies at me as soon as my car pulls in the driveway, and any time I appear in his field of view, I typically get an earful.  When I come to his stall door he doesn’t immediately stomp out into his paddock (although he still does when I bring the wrapping supplies in), he walks up to me and asks to have his halter put on. It’s quite nice actually.

before-times Murray: why are you here, human?

Unintended: Murray is too attentive to me
Unfortunately, Murray now also bucks in his paddock when we are about to start training, or if I walk away from him with the grain bucket, regardless of whether it’s full or empty. Because he is obsessed with this training game, both the opportunity to play the game and the thought that the game has been taken away are cause for major celebration/major concern.

Intended: Alleviated boredom
Obviously, training my horse is alleviating the boredom he feels standing around in his stall.  Normally he would be able to spend 10-12 hours a day (night, actually) outside with his friends, doing social horsey things. Murray loves social horsey things. I can’t replicated 10 hours of social, horsey things in 1-2 hours with the clicker, but at least I can make his brain work a bit more.  He loves clicker training! And that means I did my job right (kinda).

Unintended: Created stupid, borderline dangerous anticipatory behaviors
You know how when someone posts on OTTB connect about their horse bucking and the keyboard warriors immediately jump in with “he’s clearly unhappy about something! something must be terribly wrong!”  Yeah, well my horse bucks when he’s happy. Or annoyed. Or joyful. Or excited. Or frustrated. Or has any feelings, really. These are showing up more now because the overall quality of his life has decreased (no turnout) so the few awesome things that do happen have more value.  Hopefully this will go away, but I bet it will come back any time he’s on stall rest (sigh).

it will not shock you to learn that this behavior is not appreciated in his stall or paddock

Intended: Increased learning ability
Murray actually thinks about what he’s doing now, and doesn’t go straight to lizard-brain instincts. For example: I train my horse with a big pink bucket full of grain. When we first started, he would take any opportunity to dart into the bucket and just stuff his face.  Now, I can leave the bucket unattended for a minute or so without Murray changing what he’s doing. He might look at it, but when I say “no” he goes back to what he was doing before (usually touching his target).

This was literally not a thing my horse could think of in the past. To not take the food and shove it in his chipmunk cheeks was unthinkable. But now he knows that if he just waits, and has a tiny bit of patience, the food will come to him.  This is really cool.

Unintended: Rearing
Maybe this has more to do with hand walking a stall-rested horse than it does with clicker training, but the timing is uncanny. This horse had reared maybe three times in the four years I’ve known him. In the last three weeks he’s reared a handful of times. Never anything aggressive or dangerous (beyond the inherent danger of rearing), but if he’s surprised by a stiff wind peeking between his butt cheeks or some other horse shifting in the gravel, he’s much freer about standing on his hind legs.

Unintended (unexpected?): I feel more comfortable around him
I didn’t necessarily feel uncomortable with Murray before. Especially not in his stall or tied up or in the trailer. But when we would play around at liberty or I had to do something that I knew he doesn’t love (bandage changes! standing wraps!), I was always on edge.  At liberty, he could easily, accidentally squash me without even thinking about it and it would completely be my fault. Since he’s actually paying more attention to me and where my body is and what I’m doing in order to do the right thing to get treats, Murray is way more considerate of my personal space now.  I ran around with him trotting behind me the other day, and I didn’t at all worry that he might run me down or run off with me by accident.  It was pretty cool.


practicing his sliding stops for when we change careers

Unintended: Food aggression
Er, yeah. So my horse suddenly became super food aggressive to his neighbor, who obviously watches us clicker train with great interest because there’s nothing else to do all day. Not exactly sure how I’m going to undo that one.