Teach Your Horse to Relax Under Saddle

November 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Ask Shawna, On Target Training, Under Saddle

This is a question about using clicker training/positive reinforcement under saddle to help horses become more relaxed.


Shawna, can I ask- can you use clicker training to promote relaxation under saddle??

ANSWER-Ask Shawna-On Target Training:

Yes, it is great for relaxation. The positive reinforcement training helps build their confidence and trust so the relaxation really starts within them.

First I always recommend thinking what you can do to set him up for success, when is he most likely to be the most relaxed. Maybe after a turn out or longe? maybe it is a particular time of day or a certain ring? Whatever may help him to be his calmest. Later you we can fade these tools out of the picture but for now they can be useful. Once clicker and target training/conditioning is done you are ready take it under saddle.

I ride with a waist pack for grain or treats and I attach a stick clicker to my riding stick so it is easy to get to. As you are in the saddle look for the slightest relaxation. It is usually easily felt by the rider. As you feel the slightest softening of the muscles, lowering of the head or even an exhale, click and feed (C/R). Sometimes horses will soften more after a warm up, if that is the case warm him up a bit and then focus on those moments of relaxation. Some horses will be better before their adrenaline gets going, if that is the case I recommend starting right off looking for softening. Well, you should be watching/feeling for it all along, but try to identify what you can do to help him get to that place. So anytime you feel relaxation draw attention to it with the C/R.

The more you get a chance to reinforce him for softening the more often you will see it. He will most likely get the idea pretty quickly. Working downward transitions should also help. Starting with the slower gaits is usually the most successful with the nervous horse. Start with the walk to the halt. Look for the slightest softening or even the slowing. You may also teach him to lower his head as a behavior from the ground first. As he builds up a reinforcement history with this behavior he will be more apt to do it at other times too.

It is an amazing tool for helping the horses to relax yet be able to transition between work and relaxation. Let me know if you want more guidance as you get started or if you have more questions. :0)


4 Responses to “Teach Your Horse to Relax Under Saddle”
  1. Hey Guys!

    Jackie sent us a progress report on how her horse, Warrior is doing…

    Shawna- an update!
    Warrior and i have been applying the training from the ground under saddle. For the first time in his life he has learnt to walk calmly and collected. No head in the air like a wild donkey!! 2 days of 1/2 hour seasions!
    In addition to this amazing transformation warrior is in the process to learning to can-can with me!! Right leg… Left leg! Literally 5 mins and hes got the hang of it! Im beginning to realise how smart my boy is! Its great for making him think for himself! Hopefully filling him with confidence when he is rewarded!

  2. Here is another comment posted on Facebook. I think it belongs here too!

    Leah Anderson says: Wow, that is great!! I used the same technique to teach my boy to relax under saddle… it transformed him into a happy, confident, willing partner! Jackie’s comment is so true- clicker training really allows you to see how smart your horse truly is.

  3. Janice Genova says:

    Hi Shawna,
    How do you C/R while you are riding?
    If you are trying to teach relaxation at the trot or canter or transitions,
    do you click, stop and reinforce?

  4. Hi Janice,
    Yes, I do. The horses remember what they were doing when they earned the click. So the stopping only happens because you clicked, which tells them yes, what you are doing right now is good and I want to reinforce you. They will repeat the behavior that earned them the click. I know the stopping can seem counter intuitive to us but they figure it out pretty quickly. With relaxation at the higher gaits I focus on moving forward but with relaxed cadence. You know that feeling when you are riding and they feel stiff, their head is kind of up in the air, their jaw feels tight and bending seems to be a struggle? When you feel this keep going doing what you can to help them to relax,to set them up for success, then the moment when you feel the slightest softening is when you want to click. You always want to click on the actions you want to see more often. You are bookmarking that moment of relaxation/softening. Then you will want to build up the time between clicks so you get more and more duration. Remember to take small steps. I could go on and on but hopefully I addressed your question. If you have more questions feel free to ask!

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