This letter was forwarded to me by my friend Jane (Savoie) who is a big advocate of positive reinforcement/clicker training. We go way back and she knows how much I enjoy helping people to embrace clicker training.
I have listened to all of the audios on the Dressage Mentor site and they are fantastically helpful. In a couple of them, you mentioned clicker training and instances in which you used clicker training help horses get used to clippers, perform square halts, etc.
Hearing you talk about clicker training inspired me to try it with my horses. Thanks to clicker training, they now look away from a treat on command and can “talk” on command. I even am using clicker training in groundwork to help one of my horses learn how to perform a correct turn on the haunches.
I also have been getting my trainer to use the clicker to train me while we work on the timing of my aids, my position, etc. I think that it is helping me a lot!
I was wondering if you could share more advice about clicker training in general and if you had any advice or thoughts about how to use clicker training to help a horse learn how to do flying lead changes.
In the case of using clicker training for flying lead changes, do you think a horse could learn commands that instruct them to move their bodies in very specific ways (such as the command “left” to bring their left hind leg under them to switch to a new lead)? Or “switch” to switch leads?
Thanks so much for all the wonderful information that you share–every time I read your articles or listen to your audios I feel that you have given me a beautiful gift! I truly appreciate it so much.
I am so excited for you getting familiar with clicker training. A big thank you to Jane for introducing you! As it sounds like, you have discovered that it helps to change the relationship between horse and human. I also love that you have started taking it to other areas of training. Positive reinforcement training is something that I am passionate about. It can be used for teaching horses to do just about anything within their physical capacity. That in itself is pretty exciting and the possibilities seem to be endless. I am not sure what general questions you might have but if you let me know I will be glad to address them. If you want more info please feel free to go to my website. My Blog also covers a lot of areas. The Blog has a search bar which makes it easier to find particular topics or you can scroll through and see what strikes your fancy.
Okay let’s get down to flying lead changes. Positive reinforcement can be used with any behavior we want to teach our horses and this of course includes flying lead changes. You may follow traditional methods simply adding in the positive reinforcement or you can think completely outside the box or you may utilize a combination of the two. That is really your choice. My expertise is not in the steps to take to achieve the lead change but in breaking down the process and adding in the positive reinforcement. You have some great ideas and you are on the right track. One place I tend to start is with the simple change (I ride with a waist pack and a clicker attached to a riding stick). I click and reinforce (C/R) at the point when he has switched to the new lead. This helps to draw attention to this behavior as well as to build up a good reinforcement history associated with the change. One caveat, I would C/R once he feels relaxed with the new change. If he feels too revved up, I wait for him to settle into the canter. Since many horses get a little wound up when they are learning changes I want to teach relaxation with the behavior. I also suggest clicking and reinforcing all of the behaviors that prepare them for changes. Counter canter, counter bend, haunches in, haunches out and collection would all help to get him responsive to switching his balance and preparing for changes. Balancing out the reinforcement between all elements of the change helps them to stay focused and on track. This is a huge help. It takes some of the arbitrariness out of the equation. Sometimes when they are getting started it takes a big effort for them to shift their weight. Once they gain their confidence their changes usually get much smoother. I will C/R the first few changes as soon as the change is complete (no cross cantering). Then I shift to clicking once when they are settled after the change. This helps them to realize that the quicker I settle the sooner I may get feed. This helps the changes to get smoother faster. Once your horse is solid with his changes it is time to build the duration.
You can definitely work with verbal cues to accompany your aids or just on their own. Something to keep in mind as you start to use verbal signals, you want to choose words that don’t sound alike. For instance, sit down and lie down may sound very similar to a dog and this makes it hard for them to distinguish between the two. Since he is already under saddle with traditional aids you might want to use the language that he understands (aids), paired with his new signals (verbal) to get started. It is a great tool for helping things to be clear, thereby, helping to set him up for success. I would begin to teach him some verbal cues with something like lungeing. I assume he knows how to lunge and that it was taught through traditional training (if not, that will be a different conversation and may also be taught through positive reinforcement). I like to teach “walk”, “trot”, “canter”, “whoa” and “back up” on the lunge line or in a round pen. You are certainly not limited to these signals as this is just an example. This gets him used to the practice of listening to verbal signals related to the gaits and helps to set him up for success when you move to under saddle. I would ask him to walk saying the verbal signal just a moment before you ask him to move forward to the walk using the signal he already knows. C/R his correct responses. He will begin to put it together pretty quickly. By putting something in it that he values, he becomes invested in the training process and it’s outcome. Next, move to the other gaits. Change it up a bit to be certain that he is listening to your words. Also, don’t overlook the value of standing quietly. There is a tendency to focus on action and forget to balance out the behaviors with being quiet and relaxed between activities. When all is good and solid at this level it is time to go under saddle. Once under saddle I suggest you start introducing the verbal cue just before you use your aids. This will help him to begin to pair the verbal with the appropriate action. You should feel when he starts to respond to the verbal cues and this allows you to start fading the use of the traditional aids. You could add the intermediate step of having a rider getting on and having him respond to the verbals given by you and being able to support him from the ground since this is most familiar at this point. Then you switch the control/focus to the rider. However, I have found it usually translates pretty seamlessly and the extra step isn’t necessary.
To answer your question, yes, you can teach him to move a particular foot underneath himself. If you want to go this direction, I encourage you to start this on the ground and remember to C/R through out the process, break it down to small steps, do “short and sweet” sessions and do what you can to set him up for success. First at the stand still, to isolate the movement you are looking for, then I would begin to work it at the walk. When the behavior is where you would like it to be and he is consistently responding correctly I would get someone to be in the saddle and you on the ground. You will be offering support form the ground by being able to take a step back in the training be applying the steps that helped him to learn it in the first place. This will help make it clear for him and to his minimize his potential for frustration. He may be a little confused at first since he may not be sure who to listen to. First it should be you, ask him to perform the behavior as he normally does, basically ignoring the rider to start. When he has that worked out, I recommend you begin to introduce the under saddle signal whether it is verbal, physical or both. You should do this by using the new under saddle signal, promptly followed by the established signal from the ground. When he responds correctly I would suggest you reinforce from the ground the first couple of times. When you feel like he is listening to the rider consistently then it is time to fade the ground person out of the equation and have the rider do the reinforcing from horseback. When he is clearly understanding this at the walk, it is time to introduce higher gaits, starting slow and only moving up as he understands the concept at the previous gait.
These are some ideas and guidelines but by no means the only way or the only answer. There are so many options it can make my head spin! Also with individual personalities, sometimes the training process moves a little differently than you anticipated, be flexible. I hope this gave you some ideas and answered some of your questions. If you have more questions or want some help as you move along, please do not hesitate to ask. I love your creative thinking and look forward to hearing from you as you progress.