If you’ve done any horse training, you’ve likely had some exposure to training basics, liberty work, and using rewards to elicit response. But these are just theory. Today I want to show you how to combine real life situations with these theories and teach an actual trick, the smile. I’ll also help you get past the sticking point for most animal trainers, so both you and your horse can have a fun training session free of frustration.
Lukas’ first trick, the smile, will be our starting point for trick-training – it’s fun, easy and can be polished as desired. All of Lukas’ lessons are started in his stall (he is always loose during training sessions, as you’ll recall from our Liberty article) – I incorporate numerous brief lessons during grooming and cleaning. This allows him the freedom to adjust himself and gives him breaks to absorb the lessons. However, if you’re more comfortable having the horse haltered, hold the lead rope in your non-cueing hand. I suggest that you stand at a slight angle to the horse’s left shoulder. This is a comfortable, familiar spot for both of you. Except for Lukas, I never stand directly in front of a horse; we want to keep our training fun and safe. For convenience sake, it also helps many horses if the stall wall borders their right side. This prevents unwanted shifting about initially, and can help improve the horse’s focus.
Consistency is essential and will be your most useful tool during these lessons. The horse will understand what you want much quicker if your body position, movements, voice, and click are the same every time. This becomes especially important if you plan on adding more tricks in the future.
Now, there are many ways not to teach this, and I don’t want to give you any wrong ideas to consider. The only equipment I use is myself, and for the round pen work, I carry a lead rope to accentuate my directives. I don’t condone using any type of aversive to get the horse to comply. And I can guarantee that Lukas will smile across an arena from my slightest request.
In general, it goes as follows: a light touch (using my left pointing finger) to the muzzle, preferably on the center of the horse’s upper lip. So, we’ve got our feather-light touch (as you’ll remember from our Pressure article) on the horse’s muzzle and…What’s next? We wait. And why are we waiting? Because this is when the learning takes place, when the horse is trying to figure out what we want. Waiting is as important as anything else we do. It’s typical to want things fast and easy, but to have a solid partnership and performance takes time and empathy. I assure you that if we’ve done our basics and prepared our horse properly, we won’t have to wait long. Usually within a minute or so, I’ll notice something I can click for – even a slight wiggle of the lip will do. Remember, if there’s no movement whatsoever, try a light tap or vibration rather than more pressure.
Next, I promised that you wouldn’t get stuck because of a common error. Let’s go back to the smile. You’re lightly touching the horse’s muzzle, your click (the word or whistle you’ve paired with food as described in the Basics article) marks the exact moment of maximum effort given the student’s current capabilities and understanding, simultaneously releasing your cue/the pressure. And the treat follows closely behind. Now, as soon as you begin to get a reliable response, you want to start expanding it. We do this, once again, by waiting, this time for a larger response before clicking and treating.
You can expect that, when the learner isn’t clicked for a usually rewarded behavior, there will be some frustration, irritability and surprise. This is similar to when we go to start our car and the battery is dead. Our anticipation of going somewhere is replaced with numerous reactions: we’ll turn the key in the ignition a few more times, shake our heads, maybe mutter some choice words under our breath. Then we go do what needs to be done – make our calls and get another battery. Horses are no different – they’ll repeat a behavior or offer unrelated responses, until finally coming up with an improvement of their own. During this time, we’re just calmly and casually waiting, trying to maintain the same cue pressure and positioning. Imagine this: for me and my horses, A & B cues lead to response C. It’s very confusing to the animal when C doesn’t happen right away, and then the trainer throws in different cues, and then multiple cues, and then louder cues. There’s no clear, distinct connection and the training gets muddled. It’s our responsibility to be an example for our students; our horses can’t be more reliable than we are.
Keep in mind a few words here about attitude: having a cheerful, appreciative and respectful outlook can do wonders for your training results. Regarding sessions as fun, explorative play that is mutually enjoyable promotes eagerness and curiosity. From a training perspective this also just makes good sense – the more behaviors that an animal is willing to try, without fear of punishment, gives you more opportunities to shape an assortment of actions.
So, we’re in our spot watching and waiting; I click and treat a few times and we take a break. Sessions are brief and the schedule is flexible depending on our time, goals and energy. Animals are a lot like little children in my opinion; they need time to absorb new information and the latitude to explore different options. I encourage this. We don’t get mad at little kids if they get confused, do we? I hope not. As we go along like this, we’ll be able to draw out more of a response with fewer treats, and soon we can dispense with the tactile cue altogether, if we want.
I fade and eliminate all tactile cues eventually. However, depending on your style, you can leave the lessons as touching tricks and still have a lot of fun with them.