Teaching the Parelli Friendly Game with Clicker Training (video)

I’m no longer a fan of many of the teachings of the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program. However, many of the program’s ground exercises offer a good foundation for the young horse, especially if they are adapted with clicker training to reduce/eliminate the amount of negative reinforcement used during teaching. The Parelli friendly game is essentially an exercise in desensitization, something we commonly encounter in training animals.

The basis of the Parelli Friendly Game is to show the horse that you and the equipment you use can touch the horse in a friendly manner. This means you can touch, rub and scratch the horse all over his body, not just with your hands, but also with whips, saddle blankets, plastic bags, balls, or whatever other object you come up with. This is often first taught using the Parelli carrot stick (a 4ft. rigid whip that can be used as an extension of the arm).

Some horses will easily accept being touched with novel objects. However, for many more sensitive horses, the possibility of having strange objects touch them is extremely aversive. Many horse trainers teach desensitization exercises using negative reinforcement (or even flooding). The aversive stimulus is presented slightly above the horse’s threshold. Once the horse stops moving away or begins to show signs of relaxing, the object is removed. Doing this skillfully requires a good sense of timing so that horse learns to relax and stand calmly.

However, by teaching this way, I think horse people often create horses that tolerate, rather than enjoy. These skills are almost always first taught with the horse on a lead rope and the scared horse learns he might as well put up with his human’s crazy antics. The horse is having things done to him, rather than learning how to do them or learning how to become comfortable with the process.

Using clicker training, we can help the horse be a successful learner and be actively involved in the learning process. I like teaching desensitization type exercises at liberty rather than on a lead line. Teaching at liberty is extremely empowering for the horse, as it allows him to leave if he ever feels too much pressure. The horse’s confidence increases because he has control over the situation. It also allows the trainer to easily tell if they’ve pushed the horse past a threshold.

Where do we start? I figure out what I can do, and then gradually build from there by increasing in tiny approximations. The video below shows my first session teaching the friendly game to Nika, an Arabian mare who recently arrived at the rescue. I started by seeing if I could touch the stick to her shoulder. Oops, I couldn’t and she left. I should have started with a lower criteria. So, I moved back to something I knew I could do–rub her shoulder with my hand.

Next, I switched the stick to the hand I was rubbing her with, so that I was rubbing her with my hand and the stick at the same time. Then, I gradually increased how much of the stick I could rub her with and the parts of her body that I could rub. Towards the end I attached a string to the end of the stick and began rubbing and flicking it around her body. I was keeping a very high rate of reinforcement, especially at the beginning. Later on, after more practice and when she’s more comfortable with the stick, I can gradually fade out the treats.

Nika can be a bit jumpy sometimes. However, she is incredibly smart and it did not take her long at all to figure out that if she stood calmly and allowed me to rub the carrot stick on her she would earn a click and a treat. Depending on the horse, it could take multiple sessions for them to become comfortable with the stick and string. It’s best to work in short sessions (anywhere from 3-10 minutes) and make sure you end on a good note.

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