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)