Sunday morning dawned clear and warm in comparison to Saturday (up to 47F from a thrilling 42F, which is lovely when you’re watching a clinic), and I took Speedy for a little walk and round pen run in the morning before our session. I clicked a bit for Speedy trotting and cantering when I asked, but I also let him stare out of the round pen and do his own thing a fair bit too.
Speedy came into the arena ready to play again, and Shawna walked me through the steps we would take to do A-to-Bs. First, we made sure Speedy was catching on to the target with Shawna. Once he realized that Shawna would give him treats AND let him play with the toy, he was right there. Then Shawna would say “ready? okay!” so that I knew she was about to send Speedy, and point toward me. After that, it was my responsibility to be as exciting as possible to get Speedy to join me.
After realizing that the person who had just sent him (and subsequently gone unresponsive) wasn’t going to be very interesting, Speedy was happy to head over to the other person and play with them instead. I love how much he loves people, and the more I’ve been clicker training with him the more he seems to want to engage with me, not just nibble on/mouth me.
I immediately saw application for this game at shows. Managing Speedy’s energy in a productive way away from home is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Lunging can be a great tool, but not all horses calm down and relax during lunging, especially in chaotic show environments. I also need something that helps me keep calm and engaged (a big realization I made during this clinic), so playing a game with Speedy in a lunging area rather than just sending him in circles and worrying about his responses to the outside world is going to be super helpful for me.
Lots of clinic participants had questions about clicker training under saddle, and I really wanted to tack up and get on Speedy and do some clicking under saddle. Less so we could learn or demonstrate anything specific, but because I wanted Speedy to collect some clicks under saddle in a new place. So it worked out perfectly for me to tack up after lunch and come back ready to ride in my second session.
Luckily for me, when we got into the arena, Meika was turning out the resident horses at Polestar. Speedy was fascinated… and a little aroused. I let him stare out of the arena as the horse before us finished up, clicking when he would check back in with me or respond to me asking him to bring his head around with a direct rein aid. But he definitely wasn’t really with me, which he made clear by trotting off a few times and spinning to orient himself back toward the horses outside of the arena. I felt a little of that rising adrenaline that comes as fear just starts to softly grip me, and focused myself on what I could do. Could I ask Speedy to woah and click for that? No, not really. Could I click for him putting his head down? Surprisingly, yes. Could I let him look out of the arena to explore his environment and then redirect the energy back inward? Sometimes.
Shawna asked us what we had been working on lately, and I responded with our process on the woah aid and asking Speedy to lower his head in response to rein pressure. So she set up a couple of targets so we could work on woah, clicking Speedy for slowing his motion as he approached the target rather than for actually touching the target.
Once we got into the game and Speedy realized Shawna was playing target with him, he completely forgot about the outside horses and focused inward on the game. It was awesome. I have never been able to successfully redirect any of my horses’ attention that quickly, from the ground or under saddle. And even though Shawna told me to just be a passenger and let her click and feed Speedy for the beginning of the game, I calmed down immediately. I’ve been thinking about this a ton since the clinic, since clearly my ability to manage my horse’s attention and energy in an environment is going to be affected by my own energy there.
Speedy was a great demo horse for clicker training under saddle. I had just charged up the actual clicker for him the night before (as mentioned previously, I usually use a tongue cluck a la Elisa Wallace) and under saddle the clicker itself was meaningless to him. So I paired the click with the cluck for him to start connecting them under saddle. Speedy also lost all the context for what the target meant when Shawna wasn’t with it, and instead tried to follow Shawna around. This required a little creativity on Shawna’s part to set him up for success. Once he did get that what he was playing with was the target, he immediately started to swing his head back to me after a cluck to get his reward…. after he took a moment to enjoy himself mauling the target a bit first.
The session wasn’t terribly productive in terms of solidifying or making progress on Speedy’s woah aid. However, it was very productive to help him start to play with targets under saddle, which will definitely be a piece I use to help us with other movements. And even more, it showed me just how much I can draw Speedy’s focus back into the arena with targets and games.
This is something I’ve struggled with at home, especially when things change outside the indoor arena doors Speedy is desperate to look at them and doesn’t always want to come back and refocus his attention on work. And who can blame him? But if I can make work more like games, I think Speedy will rejoin me much more readily.
It’s funny; I’ve been into clicker training for a long time now, but it took until this clinic for me to realize how much clicker training would benefit me in addition to my horse. Not just in having a better behaved horse, but by giving me a way to exert control over my environment and create predictability in strange settings. I’m training myself while I’m training my horse. It’s fricking genius. And it’s also exactly what I need.