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Clicker Horse Stories

 

 

One of my favorite things is hearing about how people have used clicker training to rehabilitate horses that were previously abused, mishandled or just misunderstood. At the clinics, each horse seems to have a story.Many of us found clicker training because we were faced with a challenging horse that didnít respond to traditional handling.I would like to create a collection of these stories here. They are a wonderful source of inspiration, encouragement, and ideas for those of us dealing with challenging horses. In addition, I would like to include any story about a clicker trained horse, even those that were performing satisfactorily with traditional handling.These horses also changed through clicker training and became better partners and changed the way we view horse behavior and our relationships with them.

 

If you have a story you would like me to include here, please email me at kabart315@gmail.com and I will be happy to post it here.

 

Brego by Margaret OíShaughnessy

 

Brego is a beautiful 6yo Tennessee Walker that may have had some ok early human contact, but was then left wild for 4 years, and then not treated too well.  There was absolutely no trust in anything to do with people when he got here.   His eyes were all bulged out, his breathing was labored, and all of his muscles were hard as a rock.    The thing that struck me about him was what I saw underneath all that fear.  He has a very gentle nature; of everything he has been through there has never been an offer to kick, bite, or even pin his ears * his response to too much pressure or fear of things is to get the heck out of dodge; but has never tried to go through the human to do that.  This impressed me.  I have worked with abused horses before, and even semi wild ones, but there was always some kind of defensive nature with them that involved fighting back.  When Brego takes treats from my hand it is most delicate and he is still a gentleman after nine months of CT.  He is also good on the halter, and has been from the beginning.  If he jumps from something, it has never been into the person and he stops when he reaches the end of the lead rope, not trying to pull out of my hand.

The funny thing is that even though he is gentle with humans, he is the direct opposite with other horses.  He came to me as a stallion at 6 years of age (now gelded), so I am sure that some of his aggression has to do with that; but I also see he lacks some social skills and rules the herd with an iron hoof.  I am guessing he has been isolated for much of his life.  He is the smallest horse I have (less than 15hh) and even the 17hand Percherons move when he twitches his ear or nods his head.  He really wants horse companions, but doesn't understand mutual grooming or even just how to play around.

I was getting very frustrated after 6 months of having him because he really didn't seem to be breaking through that trust barrier.  He was still hard to 'catch' and he was still slamming against the far wall of his stall when I entered (open corral type 12x12).  Just moving a hand would send him into panic.   On top of all that he is an asthmatic, which is triggered by an allergy to dry hay.  This is a real management issue since I don't have a pasture yet (just a very large pen open to a 40x50 pole shed).  I also free feed my horses with round bales.  I had to keep Brego separated from the rest of the herd (he was right next to them, but not in with them).  I also couldn't put in a buddy for him because he would beat them up.  His hay had to be dunked in water.  As long as I did that, he was fine; but what a hassle * especially up here in WI.

A few things happened.  First a new friend of mine, who practices homeopathic medicine, came over and treated Brego homeopathically.   The change was rather dramatic and after about a month I had a different horse.  Still scared, jumpy * but less.  He 'looked' happier and more at peace.  I could enter his stall without such a dramatic response and he was becoming easier to catch.   Brego was also getting into the taste of sweet feed.  When he first came to me he would not eat anything but hay.  I could leave sweet feed in with him for days and he would ignore it.  He would eat ground corn and plain oats, but not enthusiastically.  Then I fed him a horse licorice treat * he liked those.  So I found something he would readily take, and CT was much easier from then on.  There is still much work to be done, but he is now able to 'ground' himself and overcome some of his flight instinct to everything. 

How he takes and chews treats is a great indicator of 'where' he is mentally.  For a long time I would give him a treat and have to back away far enough for him to feel safe enough to chew.  I worked in the round pen with him; but was not making a lot of headway.  It wasn't until I talked to the wild mustang people that I started to understand why.

I was trying to treat Brego as a normal horse, but in fact he was like a wild mustang that had previous bad experiences with people.  My goal was not only to draw him into me, but also to be able to walk up to him.  I needed to break through that fear of me approaching.  I could get him to walk to me and latch on, follow me around, etc.  But walking to him was another story.  So in a nutshell, I walked to his shoulder.  I never put on so much pressure to make him run around, usually a fast walk or pace.  I would accept an ear to me and stop, which would usually make him stop and turn his head; I'd then approach again instead of try to draw him in.  I kept upping my criteria on what I would accept to stop the pressure.  Once in a while I would draw him in and encourage his acceptance of me being closer; but the last steps were to be mine.  It got to the point in the round pen where I could walk up to him and give him a pat on the neck.  He would let me halter him, but with a lot of brace and ready to flee at any moment.

We worked on head down, letting me touch him and pick up feet.  He was and is still EXTREMELY one sided and I learned to greatly lower my criteria on his right side and acknowledge the smallest of tries that I didn't on his left.  I was clicking for eye or ear movement since he froze both when I was on his right side and after I treated him I'd have to go back on his left so he could chew, or at least step back in front of him so he could put me in his other eye.  After a while he could chew with me on the right, but there was quite a bit of hesitation.  When I started working on him bending his neck on both sides towards me, he loosened up some more.

 

Brego now looks forward to CT sessions.  When he sees me he comes right to the gate.  For some time he was still nervous on being caught and if I entered his pen, but I would CT him for coming to me, which would relax him and I could then halter him.  He learned that head down would either get him a treat or a treat and complete release of pressure * depending on what we were working on.  He did not like to be touched and for the longest time the only touch he would accept was patting.  So if I was working on touching him and he lowered his head he would get a click AND I would take my hand away.  I used this with hand movement as well.  I worked on his acceptance of my arms and hands moving up, down, and side-to-side.

We also work on scary objects.  He is always rewarded for checking out things he isn't sure about.  This could be for simple eye/ ear/ or head movement * then for walking closer.  Jackpots for touching.  He now understands 'touch-it' and sometimes just saying that will relax him about things he isn't sure about.  He is also rewarded for any sign of curiosity about anything.  If something is going on outside of the pen that he is unsure about I will walk towards the activity and reward him for checking it out.  Usually I don't do this with my horses since I want their attention on me, but with Brego it's different since his automatic response is to get the heck away.  He will get bonus treats if he stands next to me and watches whatever it is with a relaxed head.

One thing I am working on even now is haltering.  He lets me halter him, but it is stressful.  He holds his head up and very stiff.  When I started to work on him targeting the halter and putting his nose in, he was more at ease with the whole idea.  We are still working on the part where I put the strap over his pole, so I am going to start work on getting him to accept things going over his head.  He will let me touch his ears, but foreign objects are different.

I started treating the asthma with Hydroxazine with relatively good results, other antihistamines were ineffective or he just wouldn't accept the taste (he is quite picky about what he will eat).  I can now put him out with the other horses the majority of the time.  However, if he is starting to have an asthma attack or is in the middle of one, the Hydroxazine is not effective and I have to separate him from the herd keeping him on soaked hay/ hay cubes/ feed/ and beet pulp until his breathing regulates and then I can put him back out with the others.  Since we have now figured that he is an asthmatic I am researching what I can.  We are thinking of trying Ventolin pills for his attacks.  I want to try inhalers, but that is rather expensive - so if anyone has any old inhalers they no longer need - I'd gladly pay shipping ;-)

Brego has really taught me to 'look' for those tries and acknowledge his efforts to deal with his fears.  For a long time I really didn't know if I was going to break through any of those barriers.  I had him for months -he never saw a hard hand- and it didn't seem like we were getting anywhere.  It was very frustrating and discouraging to say the least.

Brego will sometimes back away when I enter his stall, but he is no longer frozen in fear and will move, as well as eat.  He is still somewhat nervous about me coming into the pen, but no longer runs off and comes back; he may back up some, but stays.  He has even let me cross behind him without getting in a panic, which is HUGE for him.

Brego has also started to look to me for support.  For the longest time, if something frightened him (whether it be noise or movement) he was gone.  He would bolt out of the barn and force most of the horses out with him.  Now he may jump or start to leave, but then checks with me to see if it is really something to be afraid of; and boy does he get the jackpots when he chooses to stick around : ) !!

I have yet to get his feet done.  They are not an emergency yet, so I have let it go until I feel he is ready.  He will let me pick up his feet, and pick them out, but has no trust in anyone else.   I think he will let me do it, so I just have to take the time to get it done.  It's hard to find time with a full time job, hour commute, and 5 other horses.  I really wasn't expecting quite the project when I got him.  My home is only a temporary stop for him since I really can't keep him, but he will stay with me until I find the right human.  I really think that at some point he will make a decent riding horse.  He has the gait, just needs to realize that the world isn't as bad as he thinks.


Achilles by Meg Francoeur

 

Achilles arrived at my barn about 5 years ago as a 3 year old.  A young girl had bought him thinking that the 3 year old was going to be like her old 23 year old thoroughbred and would happily and quietly walk on the trails. This was not to be!  Achilles is a very large well-built 16.2 hh thoroughbred, and she was about 5í2Ē and not the most experienced rider. She kept getting bucked off.  Go figure.  I rode Achilles at her request to see how he was.  He was a bit skittish about the latigos hanging from the western saddle, but although there was a thunder and lightning storm going full force, he never once offered to bolt or buck.  He had a phenomenal personality, and loved people.  She took a few lessons from me, but then decided he was too much horse for her, and sold her to the Mexican that worked at our ranch.

 

For the next two years the horse was terrorized.  The man would put him in the arena and make him run for 30-40 minutes to try to tire him out, then he would saddle him up, tie his head down, and go out for a bucking spree. When he came back from rides the horse would be dripping wet.  He would wash him down with cold water without cooling him first, put him on the hotwalker, and make him trot on the hotwalker.  When Achilles (or Poison as he named him in Spanish) started running away from him in the pasture when he went to get him, he decided to train him not to.  He took a rope and tied his front legs together and left him that way for several hours.  There was another horse in the pasture with him, and at feeding time, Wilmar put food out for the horses, and left.  Achilles was unable to eat or drink at this point because he was unable to move.  Several of us decided to take the initiative and release the horse.  His legs were so swelled up he could barely walk.  The guy also did things like make him jump in a chute until exhausted, and anytime he got bucked off, I almost didnít want to give him back.  I knew Achillesí treatment would be worse if I didnít though.  It finally got to the point where I threatened to call animal regulation and report him, so the owner of the ranch bought him back.She then turned him over to another guy to train.  This guyís idea of training was go out to the pasture with the bridle, donít brush, clean, anything.  Throw a saddle on, rip up the cinch, never mind about that hair or skin, and then ride the horse.  If the horse threatened to buck, you backed him up, did slide stops and rode in circles.  Pretty soon Achilles wasnít coming to him either.  I finally convinced the owner to let me work him.

 

I rode him twice before he bucked me off.  At that point I decided to really look at his behavior.  Up till then, I hadnít heard about clicker training, but I had always used positive reinforcement on my horses, especially rehabs, and it had worked well.  I saw that he was terrified of the saddle, the girth, didnít want anything to do with the bit, or the arena for that matter.  I had gone to my treeless dressage saddle at this point, and tried to get away from anything that would remind him of his old training and treatment.  Then revelation!  I went to Equine Affaire, and caught the tail end of a clicker training demo.  Hmmmm, I think that would work great!  And it did! I started with targeting, which he caught on to right away, and just as quickly got bored with :)  I started clicking him for remaining relaxed with the pad and then the saddle.  He was fine with that, but it took nearly 3 months for him to stop leaping in the air when you touched him with the girth.  I then started working with him in the arena.  I decided to start over and let him free lunge.  The first few times were less than successful. His only experience in the arena was that you ran around and didnít stop or else.  I turned him loose and away he went.  I tried stepping back and if he turned his head at all in my direction, I would click him.  Up to this point he was coming to me right away, and if he heard the click he would come get his treat.  Not today though.  He would slow, and you could tell he wanted to come in, but he was too afraid to do the wrong thing, and so would just keep going.  It took me quite a while to get him to slow down and come to me.  Once he did though, it didnít take long for him to respond.  Each step took a long time. 

 

He was so fearful when I first started girthing, that I had to shove the treats in his mouth.  He totally blanked out, his eyes would glaze, his head would go up in the air, and his chin would quiver.  It was terribly sad.  I finally got him to respond when girthing, and when working him in the arena.  I had to redo everything again when I started working him with the saddle in the arena, and then I had to train him to not freak out with the lunge whip.  Poles terrorized him, and so did someone climbing on the rails of the arena and leaning over him.  After several months of loving treatment and clicker training, he was transformed. Although he still was very difficult to ride, due to his fears, he was calm on the ground.  You could climb up on the rails of the arena and he would come over and want to be petted.  He learned to walk over ground poles, and would walk a pattern of them when you pointed.  He learned to smile.  I retrained him to lunge, and re-introduced the bit.  He now grabs it out of your hand. 

 

All this has taken another year and a half to two years.  I still have a long way to go, but Iím hoping that someday he will make a steady riding horse.  Weíll see.  Thereís a lot to un-do.  In the meantime, heís leaning new tricks, bowing being one of them.  Iíll have to stop his mugging the treat bag one of these days.  At the time, I was thrilled to have him relaxed enough to want to mug.  It seemed forever I was forcing the treats into his mouth!  One womanís problem is another womenís happy moment I guess! In the meantime, the clicking goes on!

 

To see some photos of Achilles, please visit the photos page.

 

Flash by Elo McLaughlin

 

Before Flash, we had TB and Quarter horses, mostly for my daughter. I had just played a little bit with driving and a little bit with riding my 14.3 hh QH Rusty. Rusty was a difficult horse. You could be cantering along beautifully and then Rusty would stop for no apparent reason at all, and then jump sideways so most all people who rode him got off him. I was riding him and got hung up on the saddle horn when he did this, which hurt my leg pretty badly,So, I sold Rusty to a walk rider. He is still with her and both are content just walking twice a year through the field.

 

But I wanted a horse, so after watching Belgian draft horses being calm and nice, I bought a 4 year old Belgian gelding named Flash. At the time Flash was 17 HH and very calm. He was broke to drive single and double, did farm work and was very well behaved at the previous ownerís farm. So, after I rode and drove him several times, I bought him.

 

He walked right on to the trailer, I brought him home. He walked right out of the trailer and proceeded to pull me all over the field. There was no stopping him.He just decided he wanted to go one way and used his superior size to go there.

It went downhill from there. He was ok to hitch up and he was ok to drive. When he was in the crossties he was good and very patient. But outside of them, forget it.He chased me with teeth bared out of his stall and the only way we could walk him was with a big chain over his nose. The ground manners were not really his fault. He grew up with 36 Belgians who were all treated the same way. They were in standing stalls almost 24/7, got little exercise and were handled on the halter, not with a leadline.

 

I was doing a little bit of clicker with my dogs and agility training so I was basically aware of the concept. I read Alexís book and taught Flash the basics of targeting a margarine cover. I never went farther then that. Then a heard that Alex was coming to a place near us and I signed Flash and myself up for the weekend.

 

Up until this time, my daughter had to handle all the chores around Flash.I was afraid to go in his stall and afraid to do much with him, besides sitting on him and walking around after she tacked him up for me.

 

When we came home after that weekend, my daughter ran out of the house and wanted to help me unload him. I told her not to touch my horse again and that was the beginning of a wonderful relationship between Flash and me.

 

Alex and especially Dolores spent all weekend teaching him manners. The first time, it took Alex 20 minutes to get him to stay at the other end of the stall when she was opening the door to feed him. The next time it took 3 minutes. Now I point to the corner, say corner and his head is glued to the wall and I click and release him. Like I mentioned before, he always decided where we were going to go. Not anymore. Now he stays politely next to me, he backs with the pointing of a finger and his head is down when I raise both of my hands to play with his ears and take burdocks out of his forelock.

 

He knows a lot of voice commands, which is really handy with the driving.

Last year he let himself and his two buddies out of the pasture (now everything is double locked) and got hit by a car. He had only a scratch, but the car had a lot of damage. It took only two clicker sessions to get him over the fear of cars on the road.

Since he is so big I had a hard time putting his bridle in his mouth. It took four sessions and one container of sugar cubes for him to take the bit, keep his head down until I put everything over his ears and he is ready. I think this is the most admired task that we perform when other riders watch. I see so much struggling with putting bits in and everyone is envious that this big hunking horse is so accomadating.

 

I show him in halter and driving classes all over Vermont and New York and he did extremely well this summer. We placed in the top three at all the shows we went to.Belgians have to show with their head very high in the halter class. He knows the word ďupĒ for his head position and he knows the word show for strutting his stuff.

 

He is very attached to me, very jealous of any attention I give to the other horses and always happy to see me. With other people we still see the negative behavior a lot, with me none.

 

I know without clicker training I would not have him any more. I am buying a baby at the draft sale in January in Harrisburg PA and I am confident that I can handle the training.

 

Flash is now 6, he has grown into a 17.3 HH 1800 lbs puppy (he is still growing).

I love clicker training and get on people's nerves telling them about it all the time. I did presentations for 4H with him and taught him to bow in 3 minutes during one that demonstration. But the biggest hit was at Halloween. I was a pumpkin and Flash was the witch with a bicycle horn and holding his own trick or treat bag going around the neighborhood and blowing the horn at the door.

 

To see some photos of Flash, visit the photos page.