The last few weeks have been particularly busy for me with workshops in different parts of Europe. Always great to meet new people and share clicker training with them and their horses.
One of the things we do a lot is work with human ‘horses’. For even the most basic of behaviours…asking your horse to touch a target, it helps if you have the processed the necessary skills well. So one person is the trainer and another the ‘horse’. The trainer has to present a target, click as the horse touches it, then hide the target while delivering a treat to the ‘horse’. Sounds simple doesn’t it….What could possibly go wrong?…. well there’s presenting the target in just the right place with one hand while holding a clicker in the other. Getting the timing of the click just right and then removing the target to say, behind your back, while reaching into the pouch or pocket to get some feed, then presenting the reward at arm’s length, without feeding the clicker to your eager horse! A beginner can end up feeling like they simply don’t have enough hands!
An eager horse can be intimidating for a beginner handler. They can become enthusiastic, leaning forward towards the trainer, mugging them for treats. A human partner can mimic all these behaviours and the handler can learn to modify their technique before they go to the four-legged variety of horse! …very useful indeed!
I love working with my horse at liberty….no physical ties between us, just an invisible connection based on trust and understanding. But there are times when we need to have our horse on the end of a lead rope and we also want to communicate with them through reins. So learning how to handle a lead rope in a clicker training compatible manner is important.
We can ask a lot of questions when we work with human ‘horses’. How does it feel to be a horse on the end of a lead rope? How does it feel when the ‘horse’ is tense? when he/she’s relaxed? The beauty of a human horse is that they can use words to describe how they feel. If the handler is a bit quick or grips strongly on the lead, then she is not met with pinned ears or nipping teeth. This means that we have the opportunity to refine our movements so that our request is clear but polite on the lead rope.
In his book “The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle talks about deep practice. A method of slow deliberate practice to get the mechanics absolutely correct before increasing speed. This is the approach that Alexandra Kurland (The Click That Teaches) has used for many years and which her coaches (including yours truly) also use.
That deep practice means that when we want to communicate with our horses down a lead rope or reins, we will do so with skill and confidence .
While our human ‘horse’ holds the snap on the lead rope, the handler can practise good technique while sliding down the lead rope. The handler can ask her ‘horse’ how it feels…is my suggestion polite?, is it clear?, am I too quick?, am I present on the rope or too light and vague?
Every horse is different, so during our workshops we can swop partners to allow our ‘horses’ feel a variety of handlers. The feedback allows the handler to modify and improve their technique.
In Austria, we also took advantage of a “Pushmi-, Pullyu”* horse to practise single rein riding!
Because these horses were very stiff, we added a human to allow the rider to feel softening down the rein.
Practice does indeed make perfect and by practising properly before we get to our four-legged horses, we can ensure that our handling makes the communication with our horses clear.
*The pushmi-pullyu (pronounced “push-me—pull-you”) is a “gazelle-unicorn cross” which has two heads at opposite ends of its body!