Note this article (in slightly different form) is also available at Karen Pryor Clicker Training.
Horse people are also often dog people. Barn dogs have to greet animals and people with good manners, come when called, and remain still when necessary. But, for some reason, equestrians don’t think to train their horses to do the same behaviors that their dogs do. I’d like to see that change. Having recently become a KPA-CTP, I understand that the principals of training apply for all species and have taught my horse a number of useful behaviors using a marker and rewards.
I board my gelding, Tonka, at a stable that has an indoor ring. We all contribute to its upkeep by picking up our horses’ manure after we ride. This maintains the good footing, and is the polite thing to do. It can be awkward to lead your horse over to the offending pile, use the pitchfork, and then walk it over to the manure bucket, all the while, holding onto your mount’s reins. I thought it’d be much easier to teach Tonka to stand and stay while I did the task without the tangle of tack or the worry that he’d jostle me and that I’d drop the manure. So I taught Tonka to stay. Just like a dog. Why not?
The horse needs to understand the concept of clicker training. Do this by teaching a nose to a target touch. The goal is to have a horse that touches a target, with a default stance of standing quietly looking forward. At this stage, you also teach polite treat taking. An understanding of horse body language and ethology is integral to the success of the training plan.
The End Goal:
The horse stands calmly while the rider walks away from the horse, does the task, and returns. The end goal is rather complex – at times the handler’s back is to the horse, she is carrying a tool, she might walk out of the horse’s direct line of vision. Of course, the manure isn’t left by the horse in the same spot of the ring each time, so you have to train for doing this task by going away and returning to the horse from all corners of the arena.
Once the behavior is taught, it needs to be put under stimulus control. For a cue I use two gentle taps to his forehead which are distinct from any other touches that I do.
- Set yourself up for success by doing training sessions when you and your horse are the only ones in the arena and the doors are closed. Train this only if your horse is calm and relaxed in the ring. If he is tense or spooky, work on desensitizing him to the space, and on the foundation behavior of targeting. Work your horse in a halter with a soft cotton lead rope attached, resting over his withers. You never know when something is going to happen and you have to stop or catch your horse. (At the boarding barn where I keep Tonka, anyone could enter the indoor ring at anytime.) This is a matter of keeping you, your horse, and the others around you safe.
- Get your horse into the work mode by asking for a couple of target touches. Then, put the target out of sight and stand next to your horse. (I’ve taught my horse to hand target, so this is easy!) Have 15 treats counted out and in your treat bag. While he is standing quietly, click and treat. Take a small step away, and click and treat before your horse has a chance to move. If taking a full step is too much for your horse and he follows you, at first simply shift your weight. Each time that you step away, do it to a slightly different place than the previous step. Once you click, step back to him, and feed so that he is eating while looking straight ahead. In this way your horse will learn that the point is to stand still while you move around him.
- Continue to do short training sessions of no more than 15 treats at a time. Increase the criteria. Take two steps away. Then more. Vary your movement. Step away and to his side, then to his other side. As you increase the distance, be aware of how that changes the rate of reinforcement, after all, it takes more time to walk a few steps than only a half-step. Only increase the criteria if the horse remains relaxed, yet engaged with the work. It’s okay if he swivels his head to look at what you’re doing, as long as his feet stay planted in place. If your horse does move, simply return him to position, and try again. If your horse moves twice in a row, than you’ve likely raised the criteria too quickly.
- At this stage, I add the cue. Before moving away from your horse, use or say your cue. (You could use a verbal “stay” instead of the tap.)
- Once you can walk around your horse without him moving, it’s time to change the criteria again. Turn your back on him. Carry the pitchfork. Walk away and stand for a few seconds before moving again.
Follow this training plan, and you’ll be able to safely park your horse in place while you walk around the indoor arena.
Taking it Further:
The stay is also useful when you want to take a photograph of your horse. Here is Tonka, posing for the camera. His tongue sticking out is his happy response to the highest value treat – a peppermint.
But, don’t assume that this stay, in the halter (or in the case of the photo, naked) will work when your horse is tacked up. Anytime you change the criteria, check to see that the horse continues to understand the task.
A stay in a quiet indoor is a useful behavior, but more can be done! Proof for an open door, and also enlist a friend and her horse to add the distraction of other horses in the arena. Then, take the stay on the trails. Recently, I was out in the woods on Tonka, and spied a leather wallet barely visible under a cover of leaves. I dismounted and cued him to stay. He understood that his job was to remain planted in place while I fussed a few steps away from him. There are times when I’ve had to dismount to move something dangerous (like an old strand of wire) off of the trail. If I hadn’t taught the stay, he would have followed me over to the object, which could have caused him harm. Like a stay taught to a dog, teaching this to my horse provides me with a way to clearly communicate what can be a lifesaving behavior. At the least, it makes picture taking and manure scooping easier!