Why train with protected contact?

Many horse clicker trainers advise using protected contact when teaching a new horse about clicker training or in situations that could be unsafe for the trainer. I’ve also met some horse clicker trainers who never use protected contact. They feel that they know their horses and they know how to keep themselves safe. However, I hope this post will give you a deeper appreciation of the benefits of training with protected contact in certain training situations. Protected contact not only protects you, it also protects your horse.

What is protected contact?

photo by Lisa Clifton-Bumpass

The term protected contact simply means there is some sort of physical barrier between the horse and the trainer. With horses, a stall door or a fence can work great because the horse cannot walk through the barrier, but can still stick his head over the door or fence. In the photo to the right, Cindy and Scout are using protected contact while working on targeting.

Protected contact originated in zoological facilities. Many wild animals, such as elephants, tigers, or bears, could easily seriously injure or kill a zoo keeper or trainer. Recognizing this, many zoos and parks do not allow staff to enter the enclosures of animal species that have been designated as dangerous. All training and care must be done with a sturdy barrier between the animal and human.

In my previous post about zoo training, you can see a short video clip in which a keeper works with a baboon using protected contact. You’ll see in the video that even though they are working through the bars of the enclosure, this does not limit the trainer in terms of the amount and variety of behaviors that can be trained.

With horses, unlike zoo animals, we don’t want to have to use protected contact all the time. However, in some training situations, protected contact can be a very useful tool.

When should you use protected contact?

Many horse clicker trainers advocate using protected contact with a horse or human who is new to clicker training. This sounds like an odd idea to many horse people who are new to clicker training because they already ride their horses and interact with them every day.

photo courtesy of Monty Gwynne

However, when a person is new to clicker training, it can take a bit to time to learn how to juggle a clicker, a target, and a bag of treats, while still paying attention to the horse. At first, there can be some fumbling and awkward feeling moments! Protected contact keeps the person safe while the person learns the mechanics of clicker training.

Better yet, if you are new to clicker training, you can even practice “training” a human using protected contact before you start clicker training your horse. Although this might initially seem a little silly, it will be incredibly useful for improving your timing and training skills. Working with another person first gives you a chance to practice you mechanics or experiment with new techniques, without worrying about your horse. Also, the person playing the horse can give you valuable feedback to help you improve your skills. In the photo above, the two people are practicing targeting using protected contact with the person in the stall playing the role of the horse.

Also, if a horse is new to clicker training, it will take him a bit of time to figure out the rules of this new, fun game. A horse that has not been taught how to be polite and patient while interacting with a trainer who has treats can be incredibly dangerous. This is why many traditional horse people recommend never using treats or food when training a horse. However, a recent study by researchers in the UK concluded that the problem is not the food, but how it’s sometimes used. (More here about that research.) Trainers who use food can create a pesky, pushy monster. However, if food rewards are used correctly, a horse can easily learn how to be perfectly polite around a trainer who has treats or food. Protected contact gives you a safe way to teach your horse how to be polite around food or treats.

Protected contact gives you time to ask questions

Protected contact also gives the trainer a chance to assess the horse. This is especially important if the horse is new to clicker training or you are new to the horse.

photo courtesy of Rhonda Stock

Is it safe to be in close proximity to this horse? Sometimes, the answer is no! Is the horse pretty laid back and easy going or is he an eager beaver work-a-holic? Does the horse naturally keep his head out of your space or does he spend the entire session trying to figure out how to get to your treat pouch or pockets?

Protected contact means that the horse has zero opportunity to be pushy or barge into your space while you assess his initial reactions to clicker training. If the horse gets pushy, nippy, or otherwise displays unwanted behavior, it’s easy for the trainer take a step backward or, if need be, to even walk away.

By starting with protected contact, you have a chance to ask questions, without putting yourself in a situation where you could potentially be injured. The answers to these questions will help you decide which behaviors the horse needs to work on first and when you can stop using protected contact.

In addition, when working with a new horse, it’s usually best to train in short sessions. With protected contact, you can work on a behavior for a few minutes. Then, drop a handful of food in the horse’s bucket to let him know that you are done. Walk away from the stall, assess how things went, and make a plan for your next short session. Walking away gives the horse a clear signal when training is happening and when it’s not happening. The break gives both you and the horse time to think and process what is happening.

You can teach a variety of different behaviors using protected contact, including touching a target, backing up, head lowering, and many more. Also, you don’t have to have a barn and a stall in order to train using protected contact. Take a look at all of the photos in this post. The trainers have “used what’s available” to create barriers for protected contact, including fences, round pen panels, and more. Of course, once the horse understands how clicker training works and has learned some safety-related behaviors, training no longer has to take place behind a barrier.

Protected contact protects your horse

Protected contact protects your horse. Now, this might seem like a bit of an odd statement. Most people suggest using protected contact to reduce the risk of injury or harm to the human. However, protected contact also keeps your horse safe. Let me explain.

Horses are big, dangerous animals. An unruly or disagreeable horse can easily barge into a human, knock a person over, kick, bite, and step on toes. Traditional horse training methods use punishment, as well as intimidation and threats of force or pain to stop these kinds of unwanted behaviors. Even though a horse might be much bigger, horse people have devised ways to use their body language, whips, chains, and other devices/techniques, to protect themselves from a misbehaving horse.

photos courtesy of Peggy Hogan

Although these methods can be used to stop the behavior, they also create an atmosphere of distrust. And, even for an experienced horse person, there is still a big chance for injury. Also, these types of methods of stopping behavior don’t necessarily teach the horse the correct, appropriate behavior and they don’t mean that the horse won’t try the unwanted behavior again in the future. Both horse and human begin to fear what the other one might try next.

This type of environment is not ideal for training. By using protected contact, there is no need for punishment, force or threats. The trainer doesn’t have to hit the horse or wave a whip to get the horse out of her space. Protected contact means the potential for punishment is gone. Rather than trying to defend her space and fight with an animal, a trainer using protected contact can just take a step back from a pushy horse.

Clicker trainers try to avoid punishment-based training methods. They do this by first visualizing how the “perfect” animal would behave. Then, the trainer figures out a step-by-step shaping process to get the animal from where he is now to how he should be behaving.

However, this means that the trainer can’t wait to react until after an unwanted behavior occurs. Instead, the trainer has to be pro-active and, from the start, teach the horse appropriate, alternative behaviors that are incompatible with unwanted behaviors.

For example, imagine a horse who is always pushing into your space and searching your pockets for treats. A traditional trainer might pop the horse on the nose or wave her hands at the horse. Instead, doing some training sessions using clicker training and protected contact would give the trainer a chance to teach the horse alternative ways to get attention and treats. These alternative behaviors could include teaching the horse to turn his head away, back up, or lower his head.

In the great photo series just above, Peggy Hogan demonstrates step-by-step how to use treat delivery to encourage a horse to take a step backward out of the trainer’s space. If you have a horse who has a tendency to come into your space, delivering treats in this manner is an easy way to teach the horse to take a step backward to get his treat, rather than coming into your space to take his treat.

Protected contact can reduce frustration

Great trainers are always searching for ways to train behaviors that will make it easy for their animals to be successful. Protected contact helps you set up optimal training sessions, especially with horses new to clicker training. Although trainers can and do start clicker training horses without protected contact, using protected contact can reduce errors, frustration, and stress.

I watched a video recently of a clicker trainer explaining how to teach targeting while working with a young pony. The pony was relatively new to clicker training. The trainer would train for awhile and then stop, give the pony a break, and explain to the camera what she was doing. Well, she thought she was giving the pony a break! The poor pony didn’t understand that the clicker game wasn’t still going during those breaks. She got quite frustrated and repeatedly looked for the target and searched the person for food. The human wasn’t enjoying this either and waved her hands several times to shoo the pony out of her space. Although the pony figured out how to target, protected contact could have made this training session a more positive experience for both the horse and human.

Protected contact gives the trainer a way to clearly tell the animal when she is taking a break, because the trainer can walk away. Most horses pick up on this pretty fast and learn when the game is “on” or “off.” As the horse learns more behaviors and figures out the rules of the clicker game, you can teach other signals that mean “now the game’s over” or teach longer duration polite behaviors, so that you can take a break and relax with the horse, without worrying about frustrating or confusing your horse. Protected contact can add structure to your early training sessions and reduce the animal’s level of frustration, creating a happier time for everyone.

Protected contact: Two case studies

photo courtesy of Jen Digate

Jen Digate is an experienced horse clicker trainer. She works as a professional dog trainer and also teaches people about horse clicker training. Still, when she got a new mustang this past summer, she worked with Djinn for several weeks using protected contact before ever trying to train the mare using free contact. (Free contact is the opposite of protect contact. It means the trainer is in the same space or enclosure with the animal.)

In the photo to the right, Djinn practices touching a blue ball with her nose. Before going into the pen with Djinn, Jen taught her a handful of behaviors, including following a target, standing at a stationary target, dropping her nose into a halter and staying still while the halter was fastened, backing up from lead rope pressure, standing to be brushed, and accepting fly spray. You can read Jen’s weekly training reports from the first seven weeks of Djinn’s training on her blog.

Even though Jen is an experienced trainer, she chose to start training Djinn using protected contact because Djinn had no previous training experience and only limited previous contact with people. Protected contact gave Jen time to teach Djinn the language of clicker training and how to interact safely and politely with people.

photo courtesy of Jody Ambrose

Another horse who needed some training using protected contact was Titan (pictured to the right). Trainer Jody Ambrose worked with Titan and his owners when they were about ready to give up on him. When Jody met Titan, he was presented as an extremely dangerous, “last chance” type case. Titan’s problems turned out to be a combination of neurological issues and learned behavior.

The owner’s fiancé liked to play with Titan at liberty and had encouraged behaviors such as biting, nipping, and even tearing at clothes. The owner became terrified of Titan after getting seriously injured by the horse. Jody started Titan’s training using protected contact to keep herself from getting hurt. This gave her a safe way to teach him alternative behaviors and new ways to interact with people. Because Jody used protected contact, she did not have to use force, intimidation, or punishment to teach Titan how she wanted him to behave.

I hope you enjoyed this post! If you’ve not used protected contact before, I hope you’ll consider giving it a try in the future, if you find yourself training a horse who could benefit from protected contact. If you have trained with protected contact before, I’d love to hear about your experiences using protected contact.

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