Not a good day

Update at bottom of post 15:19 MDT

In Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley wrote a chapter about a horse suffering colic. When the owner discovered the horse, he reflected that everyone ought to decide whether to pay for colic surgery before calling the vet. I’ve gone one better: I’ve decided in advance for our four horses. My husband knows the decisions, and so does my trainer. It’s a grim little list: who to try to save and who to let go. Colic surgery outcomes have gradually improved over the years, but it is still a costly procedure with a guarded prognosis for a full recovery.
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Clicker Training

Corinna, of SeaShe, asked me about clicker training, which I use for both my dogs and my horses.

Clicker training is a form of operant conditioning, the same sort of training that is used for marine mammals. The trainers of these mammals were faced with a problem: how do you train something that can just leave? Traditional methods based on force or pressure wouldn’t work. The trainers began rewarding the animals for their actions, increasing the likelihood of the behavior.

However, it can be awkward to reward a porpoise with a fish in the middle of a jump. Therefore, the trainers conditioned the animals to expect a reward when they heard a signal like a whistle. Porpoise jumps, hears whistle, and expects a fish. The whistle is called a bridge, since it acts as a bridge between the behavior and the reward.

In clicker training the bridge is a clicker, a little noise maker that can be held in the hand. The bridge solves a problem in using food rewards with enthusiastic animals that can weigh over one thousand pounds. While training the first behaviors with a horse, I continually reinforce the concept “under no circumstances will you get a reward unless you hear the click first.” Clicker trained horses become very polite about taking treats without mugging people for food. Not only does the click train the animal to expect a treat, but it indicates exactly what behavior is being rewarded.

After the initial introduction, I rarely use a mechanical clicker, because I condition my animals to work off a tongue click as a marker. Trying to ride, use a mechanical clicker, and treat can be a logistical challenge. I’ve ridden in howling windstorms and the horse can still hear my tongue click. I’ve also ridden clicker trained horses around other clicker trained horses, and they quickly figure out who is getting clicked.

After years of Hap spooking and bolting, which could be very wearing, I started clicker training in an effort to see if I could train calmness. You can’t train a negative, “don’t spook,” but you can train a positive, “pay attention to my requests.” It worked. I can’t recall the last time he spooked badly enough to shift his rider in the saddle. Right before I began clicker training him, he was good for at least one spook per session.

Clicker training also gave me the confidence to ride Hap with a bareback pad. Since he stops when he hears the click, I know that I can always stop him if I feel myself become unbalanced. Now I call my 16.2 hand horse the “best little bareback pony in Colorado.”

My most recent application was training my Collie to sleep on a protected area in my office. She has been having spay incontinence, and while we got her medication figured out, I still wanted to be able to allow her in the house. Since Lody was already clicker trained, it took no more than an hour or so for her to figure out where I wanted her to stay.


Dudley had a dream day this morning. Not only did he get to go for a car ride, when I picked up Jack who had dropped off the truck at Sears, but he went for a long walk in the Garden of the Gods. Then get got to visit his good friend Brody while I rode Lily. Then he got to go on another car ride to pick up Jack so we could transfer the truck from Sears to the dealer. They allowed him in the waiting room, which was very exciting. One of the mechanics thought he was a very cool dog, and was pointing him out to others. I tried to prevent Dudley from doing things which are very rude in human culture, but quite polite in canine culture. Dudley was still as keen to jump in the car the last ride as he was the first when we brought Jack home to pick up his car. I have never had such an enthusiastic dog for riding in the car.

Despite the heat, Lily and I had a good session. I kept things deliberately low key since it was so hot, and tried to figure out why she is consistently picking up the left lead over a pole on the ground. I don’t want her to do this when we are preparing to turn to the right after the jump, even if she will give me a beautiful flying change afterward to “fix” the lead. Since Lily is clicker-trained, I tried rewarding her for taking the right lead, but that approach only works if the horse is taking their leads randomly, so you can reward what you want. I tried asking her over the pole for the canter lead the way I would on the flat, and she still took the left. Finally, I left her alone, except for exageratedly weighting my outside stirrup, and she easily took the right lead. Allthough I could have sworn I was not off my center and influencing her, Lily obviously disagreed.

Afterward, we worked a small gymnastic with my trainer watching. Lily was turning too abruptly after the jump. I finally stopped looking myself for the turn until we were one stride from the turn, and Lily went into the corner and made the correct turn.

Putting the two problems and their solutions together, I think I discovered something key about Lily today. Hap, my eighteen year old Thoroughbred, was a bit of a locomotive, and required a lot of warning to stop and to turn. As soon as we came off a jump, I was already looking around for the next one and hoping we could get turned in time. Lily, though she isn’t much smaller than Hap, has a lot more finesse, much like my trainer’s old show hunter, Havoc. When I jumped Havoc, I learned that I couldn’t really look at the jump until I was ready for him to turn, or he would turn too abruptly and not make the nice square turns required in a show hunter. I became used to using my peripheral vision to locate the next jump. It looks like a skill I will have to relearn.