the downside to clicker training

alternate title: when you fuck up the clicker training

Don’t clicker train your horse, they said. You will make him mouthy, they said. You will make him beg, they said. You will teach him bad behaviors, they said. You can’t change his nature, they said.

Psh, I said.


look how good at standing still this clicker trained horse is

Then it rained.

Then I clipped.

I’ve made a terrible mistake.

have been getting real familiar with this view

So let’s back up just a skosh.

I knew I had to clip last weekend. Murray is getting back into real work, and he’s not really in shape, so he sweats. But he won’t be rid of all that hair until May-ish (when he is usually done shedding out), and I don’t have the time to deal with a fully-haired horse in full work in hot-AF-California weather. It’s just… not going to work for us.¬† So I sharpened my blades, girded my loins, and prepared to clip.

As in past years, Murray was not totally down with the clipping thing, but he was relatively good. Because I kept a relatively steady stream of small handfuls of his favourite grain headed straight from my fanny-pack-full-of-treats to his mouth.¬† For some reason, he never really settled down.¬† Maybe it’s because I was too absorbed listening to Oathbringer on audiobook to pay full attention to him and click for good behavior instead of not-bad behavior¬†(probably should have learned by now not to multitask my training). Maybe it’s because there was a huge storm system coming in and the barometer was plummeting.¬† Maybe he felt like being a punk.¬† Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I get it. It’s hard having such an incompetent clown for an owner. But we got it done.

It was the day after we clipped that the shit hit the fan.

First, Murray had his first tacking up incident since we started clicker training. I couldn’t really blame him… everything was wet and slick, and I wasn’t being considerate of the fact that he was newly nudified.¬† On top of it, however, he was a cookie-demanding¬†monster.¬† Kiddo could not stand still to save his life, he just hit me with an onslaught of various behaviors in an attempt to acquire rewards.

This continued when we headed out to the arena, where Murray started digging at the footing almost immediately. I kept him walking so he wouldn’t roll (in the hopes that his desire to roll would dissipate), but there was absolutely no regard for either my personal space or (what I thought were) the firmly established rules of walking and clicker training. Murray was barging past me, cutting in toward me, pushing me over with his shoulders, and then snaking his head around to grab his reward for this¬†excellent¬†behavior from me.

Um, no. It does not work that way.


opinions, opinions, opinions

I stopped giving him treats at this point, instead focusing on the “do not fucking climb on me you horrendous beast” aspect of groundwork.¬† In response, Murray upped his desperate attempts to acquire any kind of grain reward from him.¬† When we walked over a ground pole he stopped after putting two feet over, then immediately walked backward over it without prompting. He¬†never wants to walk backward over poles without prompting.¬† I tested this out again and approached another single ground pole, and he walked forward and backward over it and then looked expectantly at me.¬† When no treat revealed itself, he threw his head to the ground and started pawing.

It was around this point that I realized we’d not be riding that day, and I needed to take a different approach. I took off his saddle (for which he was really unreasonable and awful), and Murray immediately threw himself on the ground to roll.¬† He got up, took two drunken steps, then threw himself down again for another go.

After this, we worked on basic ground manner and basics. You don’t walk on top of me, you don’t shove into me with your shoulders, and you definitely don’t run past me and then walk around me in a circle. In fact, all of our sessions since then have been heavily focused on calming the fuck down and listening, instead of wildly offering any and all behaviors in a desperate attempt to see them rewarded.

murray’s spook level post clipping

And this, my friends, is what you get when you fork up your clicker training. I’m fairly certain that my unconscious clicking while clipping led to Murray being rewarded for a lot of crappy behaviors, and his expectation of a lot of rewards in a short amount of time. So I will need to take a new, more self-conscious approach when tackling training during challenging tasks in the future.

This has also¬†highlighted some holes in my clicker training program. Patience and behavior duration, to name a few.¬† That’s what we’ll be focusing on for the next few weeks as we get back into serious training.¬† Hopefully I will suffer a minimal number of days when Murray desperately needs to throw himself on the ground instead of being ridden.