It was at Christmas time, several years ago, that I began using the
clicker to calm my horse, Dan.
We'd had a heavy storm of freezing rain that covered everything with a
thick layer of solid ice for nearly a week. Our little metal barn turned
into an echo chamber as broken tree branches came crashing down onto its
Every time he heard a noise, Dan would jump and high tail it out of
there. It didn't matter what or who was in his way! It was every man (and
horse) for himself!
The ice lay heavy on the trees and branches were cracking like shot gun
blasts. They weren't having a saturation effect on Dan either, but rather
his reactions were getting worse and worse. He was one upset Curly horse!
By the time he knocked me down on his charge through the doorway, I
decided that it was time for a change!
We started slowly inside the icy barn. I took a metal rake and ever so
lightly scratched the wall with it. Dan's head popped up. His eyes got big
and he ran out of the barn. He stopped a few feet outside the doorway-I
clicked! Dan's head swung around looking for the treat!
The hook was in! Now let the games begin!
You may already know the story. Girl has fearful horse. Girl clicks
horse. Horse learns how to be brave.
Alexandra Kurland recently wrote a nice piece about spooking and how to
help the horse to control his body when a spook overtakes him. One thing
that she mentioned was especially meaningful to me: "I cannot ask my horse
for something I have not taught him."
So true! This also applies to asking my horse to relax when he
hears a click. He must be taught how to do it.
Survival runs deeply in the horse and fear is it's natural counterpart.
pumps him up and gets his jets firing. Once it's started, it can be hard to
We've probably all experienced the power of fear in a horse. His mind
focuses on one thing: getting away from whatever is scaring him and it
doesn't matter who is in his way. That's how I ended up getting the seat of
my pants soaked and a bruised tailbone on the icy ground that day a couple
of winters ago!
In my mind, the click calms because it contains a promise that is never
broken. A promise that only good things are to come. 100% consistent. It
never varies. The horse can always count on it.
Practice makes perfect even in a fearful situation, when, in the
beginning, even the click cannot be heard by some horses. With Dan, I
thought, he's got to be in a scary situation to learn how to listen in one.
How can he hear that click, with fear running so loudly through his ears, if
he hasn't learned to recognize it while the adrenaline is flowing?
I started to take Dan into new situations that I expected him to have
some fear of. I did it on the ground in the beginning, and later under
saddle. For example, if my neighbors were plowing their fields, we got out
there with them. Dan learned that with the click and my confident attitude,
heck, that tractor wasn't scary, in fact, it was kind of interesting!
The clicker helps me too! Every time I use it, I become more confident.
Dan not only hears the click that calms but I do too. He looks to me to see
what my reaction is. "How does she feel about this?" He can physically see
that I have no fear of these new things so why should he? Every time my
clicker works (and it hasn't failed me yet!) I grow more and more assured. I
become more able to help my horse. The clicker plays a dual role in building
Tom Dorrance has stated that you want to get your horse to a place of
trust where he feels that he will be safe going straight up a tree if you
asked him to. He's also said that the horse's confidence is so easy to
build, but even easier to destroy.
The clicker helps me build a strong foundation in which my horse's
confidence in me can grow. I can't take this responsibility lightly though.
The clicker works so well because, if applied correctly, it is always
consistent. I, too, have to be that way in how I treat my horse and in what
I ask him to do. Responding with understanding. Never asking for something
that he has not been taught or is not prepared to do. Not letting him get
into a position that is not good. Teaching him, that with me, anything is
possible-but we will learn it as partners, quickly if we can, but slowly
if we must!
More of Dan
Morgan's Fence Incident
Morgan gets caught up in the fence.
He starts to pull back, but is given the calm-down cue.
He stands calmly while Holly cuts him out.
Still standing calm prior to removing the wire from between hoof and shoe.
The stress feed-back loop was entirely circumvented leading to no fear/flight adrenaline.
Morgan found a new scenario to practice our click for calm routine (getting
his shoe caught in the fence was getting too easy).
This evening when I went to feed, Morgan's nose looked like a pin cushion.
How he managed to jam so many cactus spines into his nose is something only
he'll ever know.
So now I've got to get them out. But when I try to go straight for the
spines, he yanks his head away. Ah ha! Here's one of those great
opportunities Nancy was talking about!
It just so happens that for the last couple of weeks we've been "playing" at
Morgan resting his face between my two hands. Lest ye think this sounds like
no big deal, try it with your horse. Many horses instantly react by pulling
their heads up & away.
I asked him to rest his face in my hands. "Cool, it's the 'face' game!",
he's thinking. A little tough on my hands though, as each time I feed him
some Cheerios I'm gettin' stuck by the cactus spines!
It was a fast progression to having him stay still while I plucked each spine
out (to be nice to him, I clicked and treated for each spine - hey, they're
So who said clicker training is only for tricks! "If this had been a real
Editorial Note: Why didn't we get a picture of that??
More of Morgan
Phoebe's Adventure--Water Rescue
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