Introducing Clicker Training through Targeting

Because of the old paint I wrote about last week and the two mares I wrote about yesterday, you might be thinking by now that all the horses at the rescue are terrified of people. Happily, this is far from the case. Many of the horses are quite friendly and would follow you around all day begging for scratches and petting.

One of the friendliest little horses is Tootie, a dark gray yearling. This little guy, who is super smart and inquisitive, loves people. He came to the rescue in his momma’s belly, so he’s only known good people and gentle care. He’s halter trained and leads fairly well, but hasn’t had a whole lot of training. We went for a short walk around the property, which was a bit scary for him once he left all his buddies in the pasture behind! We ended up in the 50 foot round pen, where I let him loose for awhile. He ran around, jumping and bucking for awhile, getting some of his energy out. He’s still very much a baby and since he hasn’t had a whole lot of training, he still doesn’t have a lot of focus. However, we did begin working on some basic targeting.

Targeting’s a great first behavior to begin with for clicker training (or any kind of animal training!), as it can later be developed into many other behaviors, such as standing still for grooming, leading, trailer loading, and even bridleless riding. I began by holding a big yellow horse sponge in front of his nose. A curious little guy, he immediately stuck out his nose and touched the sponge. I clicked with my tounge and then fed him a treat. We repeated this a handful of times. At first, he alternated between touching the target and exploring my pockets, trying to get treats on his own. Pretty soon, he realized that it was touching the target that got him the click and the reward, not mugging my pockets for treats.

We expanded the game a bit and I started moving the target out to either side or down below him. Eventually, he got to the point where I could lower the target all the way to the ground and have him hold his nose on it for 1-2 seconds. He had a little trouble with me just leaving the target on the ground, as he’s still trying to understand that my arm doesn’t have to always be connected to the target. We didn’t work too long, as I didn’t want to bore him (or get him too full of treats!). However, he made great progress in the short time that we did spend playing. Next time we’ll play some more with targeting and also try to expand the duration of time that will lower his head when I ask.

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