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Steps to Teach

Written by Holly Cicchirillo

Morgan picking

This is one person's version of how a horse was taught to fetch using clicker training.

I preface it with this though: If I had to do it over again, I would save this trick for much later in a horse's clicker training. It is complex, has many many steps to it, and can easily frustrate horse & owner. If one wanted to work on it while working on other things, that might work out fine. Just give your horse a lot of time - be patient.

Also, just as some dogs won't fetch, some horses won't fetch. It's just a trick. If they absolutely don't want to pick up an object, see if they'll push it around with their nose, and make a cute trick with that. Play soccer! Kickball! Hey, the Clydesdales did it...

1) Begin by having the horse target the chosen object* while holding it in your hand. C/T. Progressively lower your hand closer to the ground so he stretches his head down.

2) Place it on the ground in front of you and ask the horse to target it. C/T.

3) Increase the distance between you and the object as you ask him to target it. C/T.

Do this in small increments (inches) - don't toss it 10 feet away the first time, or the 2nd. Build up to a distance of several feet - far enough he has to move his feet a few steps. C/T along the way.

When your horse understands that he is to walk to a tossed object, touch it and wait for his treat, you're ready for the next step. This is also where the frustration sets in. Remember - Be patient! Reward every little effort.

4) Now we want some lip/mouth action on the target. It's time to wait while they figure this out. You want to wait for some definite involvement of his mouth: wiggling the nose, pushing the target with the nose, lipping the object. Don't click until you get that new action. You may have to wait a while. If the horse so much as parts his lips, I like to C/T that. He's on the right track.

5) When/if he puts it in his mouth, even for a moment, BIG JACKPOT. Bells, whistles, hugs & kisses.

6) Now you want him to hold the object in his mouth longer. Often the horse will start slinging his head up & down, and the object will go flying. Remember, you want him to learn to hang on to it. The timing of the click will help him to understand this. Click only while it is in his mouth, not after he's flung it away.

7) Once he's holding on to it, use your beckoning cue (you have one - right?) to draw him in to you. He must bring the object with him. You need to keep the distance small initially - one step away- and build up to greater distances. Help him to succeed.

So now your horse is fetching!


8) Gradually increase the distance that you ask the horse to go to retrieve the object .

9) Next: introduce different objects to retrieve.

10) Ask him to return to you at a trot.

11) Ask him to go fetch it at a trot, and return at a trot.

12) When he really has it downpat, ask him to fetch while you're mounted (NOW we're talking useful - the next time you drop something while riding on the trail, you won't have to get off to get it:)

If you horse "stalls out" at any step, you have several options:

A) Slow down! You may be going too fast, asking for the next step too soon.

B) Stay at the last step he was successful at for a while - let his confidence build. When he has that phase down strong, try going to the next step again.

C) Stop & do something else he enjoys - you may need to give this trick a rest for a while. How long? Until later that day, the next day, next week...he won't forget the progress he's made, but you don't want to burn him out if he's not enjoying the "game".

C) Some horses don't seem to enjoy the mental challenge this trick presents. It might be time to admit that your horse is one of them. Do something else!

Modify the trick into something he does enjoy. Fetching is not important.

*Pick one object they can easily pick up and stick with it. Sacrifice a baseball cap, or use that dog toy that's rubber & shaped like a child's playing jack.

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