Episode 126-Mental games for injured horses, clicker training Q&A

Today I’m answering two questions. The first is about an injured horse that is hand walking…his owner would like suggestions about maintaining other routines through groundwork.
The other question is about trick training…clicker training, loading the clicker, using the clicker when riding…and what is a trick anyway?


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. Today, I’m answering two questions. One is about rehabbing a horse that’s been injured and the other is about trick training. And I think I can tie these two together. So let’s listen to the first question.

Caller 1: Hi, Stacy. My name is Rachel. I’m from New York. I have a question regarding injuries. I have a horse who has hind suspensory desmitis. Unfortunately, he only has a 50% chance of returning to soundness. However, I have decided to try to rehab him. The process will be slow and I am aware of that. We are hand walking approximately 30 minutes a day. This has gone mostly successfully through the winter. I was wondering if you have any suggestions about maintaining other routines through groundwork for a horse that is injured. Thank you so much for all of your hard work and your exceptional information.

Stacy Westfall: Thank you for your question, Rachel, and I’m sorry that your horse is going through this, and I’m really thankful that you’re dedicated to making the most of this time that you’re spending together. Hand walking is not generally my favorite thing to hear assigned to me if I don’t get creative about it. I think a lot of times when I was early on in my horse training and we would have horses that were given a hand walking as an assignment. I do remember letting it be a boring thing, but I don’t stay bored for super long because it’s hard for me. So that’s when I started getting a little bit more creative. And the number one thing I would recommend to you is that whatever you do when you’re getting creative, you get the vet’s approval from. Inside of that there are a lot of things that are easily going to be allowed inside of hand walking, because when you think about it, when you’re hand walking, that already comes with movement. And when the horse is turned loose in the stall that comes with some sort of natural movement, you can still feel free to double-check it with your vet. But for example, while you’re hand walking, there would be pretty much no reason that you wouldn’t be able to ask the horse to raise its head slightly higher or drop its head slightly lower. So when I say there are things that you can do that are pretty easily going to fit within a vet, you know, range of comfort, it can be something as small as that. I think a lot of times when I remember thinking back to hand walking, I had the wrong mindset and it was more just kind of like, you know, kind of getting through it. And if you think about it, when a horse is in stall rest and hand walking, they are living a fairly boring life to the point where you could actually easily think you are the most exciting thing that happens a good part of the day. So I love that, now with a different perspective. And I remember the the first horse, his name was Arnold, where I really switched my perspective on this because I was rehabbing the horse from a different type of suspensory injury. But during that time I was doing hand walking. But I also had this horse that was very creative and that was the first horse that I taught to bow, lay down and sit on, you know, sit like a dog and, and do some of these different things. Every one of those I double-checked with the vet on. But the vet was just like, you know, for example, if you were teaching the horse to bow or lay down, you would want to make sure that you used methods that didn’t involve force because you don’t need a horse that’s already, you know, has an injury that’s using a method that’s going to have the horse hopping around, fighting the rope or something like that.

Stacy Westfall: So the good news is when you when I think about training a horse to do tricks and things, I love that I’m not already full of a bunch of preconceived notions on how this should work, and especially when dealing with horses like this one that you’re talking about with a with an injury, I think it’s even easier to slow your mind down on what is progress. So look at it the opposite way. Sometimes when people think about teaching something to a horse, they’re kind of in a rush to get there. But when you’re doing hand walking and stall rest with a horse, there’s a typically a piece of your brain that’s all in on the rehab side of it, which is being dictated as slow and hand walking. I think this opens you up to the perfect mindset to make sure that you’re not pushing too hard. So when I go back and I start talking about, say, teaching a horse to bow or lay down, and again, I’m not saying that this is something you’re going to be able to do with your horse’s specific injury. This is where you have to talk to the vet. But there are so many things inside of the range that you can, for example, like I was just saying, with the leading and lowering or raising the head. And if you’ve ever seen showmanship, you can Google like AQHA showmanship or something like that, and you’ll be able to watch a class that people show their horses in where it’s all about being able to get the horse to place their feet and a square, you know, like square their horse’s feet up, match the front to match the back, to be specific about where they are. It’s about walking straight lines. Yes, they do trot in that class, but you can modify and not trot. It’s about being able to make certain turns. It’s about being able to make certain pivots. So even something like a pivot. If you get the vet’s approval that the horse could pivot without causing additional injury, that’s a lot of detailed work to teach a really good showmanship horse to stand square and focused and walk forward without resistance and stop and be square and back quietly and pivot and trot some of these different things. You can hear where, in there, some of those are probably more easily going to fit into pretty much any horse that’s hand walking could do it, but then some of the other ones are going to be more questionable. So, for example, is the backup allowed with your horse? Is the pivot allowed with your horse? Typically, if you’re doing this kind of stall rest, you’re in contact with your vet and you can do something simple. Like, like I said, pull up a video and show the vet the video of a horse doing showmanship and then say, would I be allowed to do this? Because typically a lot of times when people picture groundwork, they picture lunging. They picture walk, trot, canter. They picture different things. So make sure you’re really specific with your vet. And when you’re when you’re asking the questions, I think that if I were putting myself into the same situation, a lot of times people underestimate how creative they can be and how much the horses appreciate that you notice all the little things. So even the different things that I’ve said about teaching a horse stall manners and moving a horse so that they stand along a specific wall and moving the horse back one step and having them stand along that wall and having them move in these different ways. Those very specific things can be done very slowly and methodically and yet can be creative for this horse that has kind of, you know, lost a lot of his freedom of going out and playing with buddies and running around and doing all that stuff. So, again, you start to become the most interesting thing that’s happening all day long. So if you start to notice all these little things like, yes, you can back them up one step in the stall and have them stand square, you can lead them forward one step and have them stand square. You notice you’re now able, you’ve been working with the cue and you can now move the left front foot forward or back on cue and then you can tip the horse’s head and cause a different set of cues to mean to move the right front foot forward and backwards. So you start getting really detailed about, for example, I’ll just give you this really specific example for anybody listening. If you’re standing like you’re like you’ve been leading your horse, most people lead the horse on the horse’s left side. We also call that the on side, the side that you would mount. Let’s say you’ve been leading your horse and you’re on that side of your horse. You’re on the on side of the horse’s left side. You stop and you turn and you face the horse. So you’re in that quadrant and you’re facing the horse. If you wanted to teach the horse to move its right front foot, that would be the front foot that’s a little further away from you. When we’re teaching the horse showmanship, we would actually–the way that I was taught to do it–was you’d lift up slightly, like raise the head just an inch or two and then tip the head and neck slightly toward you. And they’re more likely to move that right front foot because you’re, you’re putting more of the weight on the left front foot because of the way that you move their head. And then as soon as they move that foot just a little bit, you release and they start to realize, oh, that up and slightly to my left motion with my head means move that right front foot forward or back, depending on if you push forward or back while you’re doing that. And then if you want to move that horse’s left front, you’re still standing in the same area quadrant of the horse. If you want to look at it like that, if you want to move their left front, you would tip their head away from you and lift up slightly because that’s going to help lighten that weight on that left front and you’re going to move that left front forward or backwards. Now, if you keep that in mind, you can kind of see why we would be going up and left or up and right or–and how that’s unloading or loading that front foot, the different front feet.

Stacy Westfall: Well, if you want to add another cue system for the hind end, well, it’d be nice if it was different than the front end so you could actually ask the horse to drop its head lower, which would, by the way, put heavier weight on both front feet, which would be more likely to lighten the hind end. And so then you could you could lower the horse’s head and then push slightly backwards or pull slightly forward. And you could even tip the head left or right, but you would be communicating to the hind feet when you did that. And if nothing else, even if you–even if you ignore the idea that that there is a subtle effect when you lower the horse’s head, that both front feet get a little bit heavier, even if you ignore that idea, if you don’t feel like that’s really working, just the consistency of you sitting there messing with their head low and forward and you’re you’re kind of cuing in until that left hind foot moves and then you release and you’re like, yay. They will figure out that when you’re dropping their head and, and cueing with their head off to a specific side, that it means it’s communicating with a specific foot. It is the coolest thing ever, which when I was in college and they had us doing showmanship everything day I–showmanship every day for like years for, for teaching us how to do it and us teaching horses how to do it and then us being judged on doing showmanship–it was not my favorite thing because I, again, kind of had the outlook of like, why am I doing so much showmanship? I don’t think showmanship is going to be in my future. But what’s really interesting is showmanship is just a different, detailed look at groundwork. And so later on, as I started to respect groundwork more for what it could do for the mental part of training a horse, suddenly all of those years of learning showmanship started to feel maybe like they had more value than I had thought they did. This is where I feel like I should be like, thank you, Mom. Thank you, Dad. But it was actually my teachers in school, so thank you teachers who made me band and clip and prep my horse for showmanship and do showmanship every day that many years. Thank you. I did say that. So this leads me to the next question that was called in. And I think they tie together well, because this question is about clicker training, which is another version of something you could potentially do with an injured horse. Let’s listen to the question.

Caller 2: Hi, Stacy, my name is Roxy, and I’ve been listening to your podcast since Season 2 came out. I am going to have a really hard time with my question today because I tend to have a hard time narrowing it down to just one. So essentially, I’m curious about what you do when you are training your horses. You’ve mentioned it a lot in the podcast. And specifically, I was wondering if you clicker train them. Here’s where it leads into more than one question. I can’t help myself. I’m sorry. So if you do clicker train them, how long does it take you to load the clicker? Have you ever used the clicker when riding to help develop your ridden work? And if so, what kind of effects of that had on your ridden work? I do a lot of work with dogs, but I’ve never clicker trained with horses. I kind of just don’t want to open that can of worms until I’m more confident with it. And in my work with dogs, it’s definitely one of those things that really helps them learn how to learn. So I was curious if that’s something you’ve explored and if you could maybe go into some detail about it. I promise I have a lot more questions than that, but I’ve done my best to narrow it down and hope to pick your brain. I appreciate it.

Stacy Westfall: Thanks for your question, Roxy. I love tangled questions because that’s actually how my brain works. I kind of see it all woven together. So when I get questions, even if you think they’re kind of tangled up, I still see them as totally complete. So the first thing I want to do here is actually answer a question that you didn’t specifically ask, but I did when I was listening, which is, “What is a trick?” Now, I think the traditional definition, if you ask that to a lot of different horse people, it would be something outside of “normal” horse training. But nowadays, I don’t even know what normal horse training would be anymore, really, because if you wanted to look at it, you could look at bridleless riding as a trick. Now, to me, bridleless riding was an extension of the foundation training. It was moving the horse from elementary school up to high school, up to college, up to master’s level. So it didn’t feel like a trick to me. Some people will look at tricks as being things that the horses are taught that are actually disconnected from the training, meaning that they’re not an extension of the training. They’re something like teaching the horse to say yes or no where that’s not really inside of what would be a traditional thing. So where you could see that maybe the bridle was an extension of steering, where shaking their head yes and no is sort of a stand-alone, “trick.” But really, I think when I hear the question, we have to back all the way up to, what is a trick? Because it actually partly answers your question about trick training because the way that I view it is that we’re always training the horse, both physically and mentally, but ultimately mentally. So I think when I watch horses that have been trained and it’s primarily physical, and that’s a strange thought to think. But it is true when I look at horses, when a horse–when I look at horses and you guys have heard me on the podcast in the past talk about horses that are trained like robots. When I say that, that to me means a horse that–that’s almost like shut off part of its brain and it’s just performing things. You could call those things tricks if you wanted to. And it wouldn’t matter if their brain was engaged or not as long as their body did that. But I don’t like that kind of training. So in my world, the training is always engaging the mind and ultimately it’s engaging the mind and–and getting the body. But we always are going to see the mind reflected in the body. So even the horses that are trained in a bit more of a mechanical way where maybe we could argue that you’re getting a horse to perform, but they look distracted. So, you know, you’re not getting 100% of them because they’re giving you part of their body and part of their brain. But you’re not getting the whole body and the whole brain. You’re not getting full buy-in, as you’ve heard me call it before. So to me, I always want that full buy-in. So no matter what I’m training, to me in my training program, I’m always looking at the mind. There are even times where I will reward the way they think, even if they make a mistake with their body. I showed that actually really clearly in some of the YouTube videos with Jac. There was one in particular and I’ll dig it out and put a link to it in the show notes. But it was the one where I got on him and I went to ask him to move forward. And I was–I know I was riding outside. I don’t want to guess at which episode number it was. But I was, I was asking him to–I got on, the video’s playing, and I asked him to move, and the first two questions he asks me are, he volunteers, the two things he volunteers to do, like and pretty much immediately, one is spin and one is back up. And I wasn’t asking him. I was not cueing him remotely in a way that looked like that. But the reason I was willing to hear him out was he was asking me a question. And even though the–even though the way that a horse asks the question is by trying something with their body, for example, I asked him to move forward so I–I started waving my legs and he volunteered to spin, like saying, hey, how about a spin? Then even though the question or the body movement, let’s put it like that, even though the body movement was, “wrong,” I was asking him to move forward. He was asking me a question, hey, how about a spin? I know you like the spin. What if I go into the spin now? What do you think about this? What I recognized in that moment is that he was engaging me in a Q&A. He was asking the question, then I get to answer it. If he’s asking from a very innocent mindset, which if you go watch that video, you’ll see there was nothing threatening or weird or angry or mad or there were no–there was no level of resistance. He was just saying, hey, I’ve been thinking about those last rides and you really like it when I do this. How about if I do this now? So there was an innocence. His mind was open and willing and genuine and asking something I was going to say no to. But how I say no to it matters. If I’m like, no, I can’t believe you asked that question! No! He’s not going to ask questions. But I’m also not going to let it go on for a long time. In the video, I actually let it go on a little bit longer than normal, so I have enough time to explain it. And then what’s interesting is I stop and I am explaining it on the video and then I ask him to go off and he actually asks a different, “wrong” question. But to me, what I was seeing so clearly in there was his level of engagement of back and forth and asking and politely asking and politely receiving my “no,” which is actually a lot of that, is because of the way that I’m handling him now. I love the video series because if you watch him early on in, like Episode 3, 4, or 5, he’s not politely asking questions. And I am answering as clearly as I need to because he is being very big and borderline dangerous with his questions. So it’s quite the progress, progression, to watch him through. But the reason I bring this up now when we talk about this trick training, is because to me, when we do any training with the horses, we’re engaging their mind. And when we’re engaging their mind, we’re engaging in what I just described there, which is this conversation, this back and forth. So when I start thinking about trick training, whether that’s with people or like me, me doing it myself with my own horse or teaching somebody about trick training, typically the thing I like about it is that if you say, like bow, lay down, and sit are kind of really traditional tricks. Although in my world everything falls into communication so even the “tricks” fall into communication. One thing with the tricks, “tricks.” I’m going to stop saying that. I’ve got to stop saying the quote-unquote thing. OK, the one thing about tricks is that a lot of times they fall into a more advanced category. So if you listened to last week’s question when I was talking about, is it subtle? Or is it clear? So a lot of the trick training begins to fall into more subtle, more advanced. So I typically want people to do it when it’s, it’s more of–it’s more of the icing on top of the cake, like you’ve got some of the foundation stuff laid down, which fits well into some of your questions I am going to get to answering with the clicker training. But the reason for that is because I want people to think outside of the box when they’re thinking about the trick training and you’re starting to really notice the details. So if you go watch the Jac videos, I would not have been trick training him back when you watch Episode 3, 4, 5, and he’s standing on his hind legs and he’s turning and dragging me out of the screen and he’s doing all the stuff. Not a great candidate for trick training. He’s just plain, clear-spoken foundation work. But when the horse gets to the point where they are now able to see and hear and understand these–these more subtle, smaller cues, these smaller versions that you already have communicated in a more clear-spoken way, so you can, for example, send the horse around you and ask the horse to stop and this doesn’t feel like a wrestling match. When you’re getting into more of that, that’s when I start thinking about more advanced stuff and one of the advanced things are these tricks.

Stacy Westfall: So when I go more specifically into your question on–on first tricks and then clicker training, originally when I did a lot of the–the trick training, like, for example, with Arnold, the horse that was rehabbing from a suspensory injury, the vet was over and I was asking him and showing him and explaining to him the methods I was going to use and that it wasn’t going to be force. I was totally willing to break it down into teeny tiny steps. And I was using more traditional what you would consider like pressure and release. I was, you know, tapping on the cannon bone. And–and when he picked his foot up, I was rewarding. Although it’s interesting to me, because even then, I think rewarding with praise and scratching is very similar to clicker training, if you’re super clear with it, and the clarity to me is what’s missing sometimes when people use scratching or praise. So maybe they overuse scratching and praise and then it gets more muddy as to whether it’s praise or whether it’s just more of something that they kind of take for granted. Where if I think about clicker training, typically when people set out to do something like clicker training and whether that’s with a physical clicker or with their voice or whatever, they’re much more clear and intentional. And to me, when you’re–anytime you’re training the horse, whether you’re using pressure/release, whether you’re using a verbal cue for a yes or a verbal cue like a good boy or whether you’re scratching or petting, to me, it all blends together in the fact that there’s got to be clarity of what’s going on. And if you really want to dig super deep, when I think about it, it’s also the clarity of the energy I’m carrying in my body, because there when I’m working on something with the horse, when I’m asking them, there’s this very focused, you know, focused intensity coming for me. And when the horse gets closer to the right answer, there’s kind of this happiness in me. And so when you think about it, at the end of the day, I know that when I’m doing my bridleless, riding my horses are reading all of me because all of me is participating in this training. I am, you know, I am asking in a certain way that shows up in my body in a certain way. It’s not just the tap and the release, because that to me when it’s–when–when I say pressure and release, and it’s so just about the tap, if it’s not about my whole presence and their whole state of being, that’s no fun to me either. It’s still really too close to robot trading.

Stacy Westfall: So let’s dive…zigzag? We’re going to zigzag. We’re going to zig over here to this other idea of…so, yes, I do train the tricks like the bow or the lay down. And I do use some of the physical cues like the tapping on the cannon bone to mean lift up your leg and hold it up there. But I also combine that with petting and scratching or–or treats. Now specifically to your clicker training. I have played around with it. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I definitely played with it enough to realize that it could be really powerful, which kind of begs the question, why didn’t I keep going with it? But I’ll try to weave that in, too. So when I started messing around with the clicker training, I watched some YouTube videos about loading the clicker and I was watching as many dog videos as I was horse videos because I knew that I, in my mind, there’s going to be enough similarities when you’re doing this. And so I loaded the clicker by, by, you know, I guarantee it’s the same thing that you were doing. I was actually looking at a puppy the other day and found out it was deaf. And I ended up watching some videos on training a deaf dog with clicker training, which is really funny because the clicker thing that they were doing was they were clicking a light that was kind of being diffused inside of like a ping pong ball. And so it was like a visual clicker training for dogs. I was like, this is so cool because you’re basically making some kind of a mark, whether it’s the click noise or the light in that case or whatever it is. And so, like, let’s just use Presto, for example. I went with–I had this set of sleigh bells out in the barn and I’m like, well, this will be fun. So I’ll just, you know, I’ll have him touch the bell, which it looks weird and he’s going to touch it anyway because he’s that kind of horse. And so, you know, he–he’d get close to it or look at it or touch it depending on what it was. And I would click and I’d make a big deal. And he’s very–he’s very curious and that is his superpower and his weakness. So he’s very curious. So it didn’t take him long to be like, this is kind of interesting. And it was one of the first times that I was really starting to use a lot of treats with him and he’s very into that kind of thing. And so at the end of the day, one thing to answer for you is loading the clicker. There was definitely a difference, depending on the–the horse’s food drive. So some of the ones that are less interested in treats and, for some of you, that sounds like a weird statement, but others of you were like, well, this isn’t going to go well. My horse doesn’t like treats. Some of them really just don’t like treats very much. So what’s interesting is on my ones that didn’t care about the treats that much, I had already been using scratching and praise because I already knew that about them. And so I found it like I still believe they were getting that clear mark of the clicker without necessarily loading it with the treat. The interesting thing about loading it with the scratching instead of loading it with a treat is you don’t have as much of the horse coming back into your space or looking at trying to take the treat from you. But you’ve been training dogs, so you already know that you need to solve that problem. And when you’re training the horse, you also need to figure out how to give them the treat like, say, straight in front of their chest or something, so they’re not learning to frisk you. So the loading of the clicker worked really well with a horse like Presto, who was curious and then super excited that he–the way I viewed it was he was like, whoa, I can control the world. I can control when I get a treat. What was so funny is I ended up hanging up the bells in this–near my gate where I was leading them in and out. And it was really funny to watch him because he very quickly bought into the idea that, like, ringing the bell was getting him a treat. And then I played along with the game, just like I did with Jac in that riding thing, I played along with the game. And I was like, sure, you ring the bell even when I’m not asking you. And I’m going to–I’m going to click and give you a treat. And then I get to the point where I move the bells. And then he was still like going to that spot in the arena and being, like, searching the spot. And I’m like, OK, now you’re not leading. You’re dragging me to the area. This is now a problem. Can you see how at the end of the day, we’re–we’re just playing around with their brain. We’re not getting tangled up in whether or not the clicker did this or whether or not the treat did this or whether or not the whatever. I’m with you with the dogs learning how to learn really well with it. For Presto, it was really cool. And he was the one I wanted to do it the most because he had a lot of focus issues and I wanted to play with a way to mark specific things. And it was really cool that he was, you know, turned out to be very motivated. I really hadn’t given him many treats before that because I’d been like, you know, you have a lot of red flags for being a serious problem, but you have enough training that you’re not really going to be a serious problem. Jac, Episode 3 or 5, no chance I’m feeding that horse treats because if you watch him, his mental state of being was all over the place and he was a two-year-old stallion. So no, thank you. So there’s a lot when you say, you know, when you say, “Open that can of worms with the horses.” It’s funny because I even realize, as I’m talking about this, that I’m opening up a lot of ideas here. And I’m I’m–I’m slightly in concern that somebody is going to run out and be like, I’m going to click and I’m going to try. And they’re not going to recognize that their horse has a lot of these red flags I’m mentioning about Jac in Episode 3 or Episode 5. The downside to loading the clicker with the treats as opposed to like, say, the scratching that I did with–with Willow. So Willow really likes the scratching and Willow’s not that motivated by the treats. And so what was interesting is that she was really responsive to that. But I’d already taken her down the road of rewarding her with scratches a lot. So transitioning the click to that was pretty easy. She was just–it was way more clear because I could click in the middle of something and see that recognition on her face because I know her really well and I could see that recognition happened there.

Stacy Westfall: Now, back to your other question. Now I feel like I’m the one that’s like got this whole tangled-up answer going on. So good luck untangling this answer. So, Roxy, so, and everybody else listening. But when I was messing around with Presto, I started out doing it, you know, with the–with the groundwork to experiment with it there. But at the time, this was much earlier on back when I was talking about there were moments that he would get, you know, he had like the spooking stuff, questions going on earlier on in his training. And there were moments that I could feel where he’s kind of a duller horse, a lot of times. And on purpose, I need to clarify that. He’s actually not a duller type of a horse. I ride my young horses in a duller way because if I have to choose a slightly too sensitive or a slightly too dull horse when they’re early on, I always want them slightly too dull. Because if they do spook, then all my cues don’t all of a sudden get hyper-sensitized because now they’re trying to like, jump away from my leg and try to jump away from the rein. Because can you hear how if they’re supersensitive, that would be a problem? So because he wasn’t solid yet and he’s still–I still kind of–I rock him back and forth, I get a little more sensitive and then I take him back into that slightly more dull side of life. I’m not trying to keep him in this perfect sense. But he was having, he was in this slightly dull state because that’s where I wanted him. But that also made it a little bit more unclear where some of the releases were. Can you see how that dance would happen there? So I was like, oh, this would be really interesting. So if I really like how he’s moving right here, but I don’t want to drop the contact, I don’t want to lose that slight hug, that support that I’m giving him, I wonder what would happen? Because he took so quickly to the–he took so well to the, the clicking and understanding that I wonder what would happen if I transitioned this into my ridden work. So I actually started transitioning it into my lunging work and experimenting with the click while he was in a specific frame while he was lunging. Then came the next question of how much do I need to click and immediately reward, which is going to interrupt the say, trot-circle versus click and let him know that that was a read–the click was the reward, but I don’t need to stop to give you the reward? That is where some of the detail, I think, is hard to explain if you don’t already know a high level of understanding when the pressure and release kind of a release would happen. Because that means you need to see what you want to reward in the body and you need to click. And then you need to decide whether interrupting that motion, let’s say the trot around you with good cadence, you need to decide whether or not the reward of a click and then immediately stopping and giving the treat, whether–you have to weigh the pros and cons of interrupting that motion, because then you can actually accidentally make the click mean stop and come to me to get a treat. Now, you’ve mentioned you’ve been training dogs, so you’re going to know how you’re going to want to cross some of these bridges, but I’m throwing this out there that this is why, yeah. you could be–you could be saying like opening that can of worms. Now for me, I was already well-grounded in feeling confident that either way I do this, it’s not going to be that messy. I’m not going to let it mean that when I click, he can now quit whatever he’s doing and run over to me and frisk me for a treat. That was already off the table. So then it became more of a game of do I see a recognition in him? Do I see a recognition in him when I click? And if I, if I don’t reward with–with an actual reward, let’s say, five times in a row, does he maintain that recognition or does he lose the recognition that the click is the equivalent of a treat? I hope you all followed that.

Stacy Westfall: So in the, in the finished version, what would be really cool is that I’m say lunging a horse or riding a horse and they really step up under and elevate and soften. And they’re in this perfect frame that I wish every step felt like. And I click. It would be really good if that click meant, good job. That’s exactly what I want. Make the next step feel just like that. But that’s hard to get with any method. So you’re rewarding that, but you’re also aware that they’re probably about to lose that. And then the whole idea is like, is that reward, whether that is a reward of pressure being released or whether that is a reward of me laughing or whether that is a reward of the click, whatever that reward is, is just knowing that that horse recognized that piece of the communication. If you can follow that to where that horse, where you understand that that horse is or isn’t recognizing that as a reward, when I started transitioning it to my lunging work and my ridden work, I already had a foundation of that level of communication. Yes, it was a baby level, but he already recognized changes in me as the game I talk about when I say warmer, colder. Maybe you played that when you were a kid and it was like somebody is imagining, you know, an object in the house. And when you–when you start walking around, the person saying warmer, warmer says “warmer” when you get closer to that object and “colder, colder” when you get further away. My horses already know how I feel in my body as I’m always playing that warmer, colder game. So to me, when I rewarded with the click, whether it was in the lunging work or I then did transition it to the ridden work, I know he was already feeling some of those rewards from my up and down. But especially in the ridden work where I was keeping all my aides slightly closed, I was doing a baby version of that hug and I’m trotting around in that baby version of a hug supporting you with all the aides massaging, asking you to go forward. And I feel a particular step that I really like, not just the physical step, but the mental way of being during that step. When I felt that I clicked and it was kind of cool because I could feel…Like I’m not going to say a shudder in his body, but I don’t know how to describe it to you. But I could feel that recognition in his body of like, whoa, she just clicked. But it was just–it just had this little tiny shudder feel because I chose not to stop because I already had a horse that was thinking, like, if things went weird, he kind of had this jerky motion. And jerky motions can lead to bucking motions. And I wanted everything to feel really smooth. So for me personally, with that particular horse at that particular time, I was choosing not to load the clicker in the ridden work with a stop and treat. Now, I say that that was in the trot. There were times that I would say like maybe I would stop him, like the physical stop. I would give him the stop, cue, click, and then I would reach over and treat. But I was already standing still. So I was–I was walking the line of like, am I keeping this loaded enough that he’s recognizing it means something, whether that was then, you know, doing that more on the ground or doing that more with a trick like ring the bell? What–am I keeping this loaded enough that I can feel the recognition? And yet I don’t want to interrupt his motion and I don’t want to interrupt him in the trot because I’m highly valuing the rhythm of this trot. So I experimented and I found it extremely helpful and I used it more as a phase right then. It is definitely something that I want to go back to and experiment more with. One thing that I definitely will confess to, though, is when you have methods that you know work really well, sometimes it’s hard to stop and introduce other ones because they take more time when you’re learning something. So when I go take dressage lessons and I come home and I’m working that in, I recognize I’m taking a slower path to something I know how to do in another way. That, at the end of the day, is the number one reason that I kind of like stopped using it. And really it was almost more about like, that’s my excuse and that’s all it is. I have nothing against it. And I would totally go back and do it again and I will go back and do it again. And the reason why I thought it was interesting to put these two together is because, especially if I had a horse that was injured or needed me to slow down for different ways, I know that would be, like, right at that very top of mind. And then with Presto, knowing how well it worked for him, it would definitely make sense to me to, like, cycle back into that again with a horse that it was especially helpful to like that. So I know that that’s in the back of my mind. And I’m sure that just like any other thing I do…for example, every winter I always go back and like for me that’s like December, January, February. I always take my horses back to the basics, even though I might have taken that horse and just won a class of the Quarter Horse Congress with, with a bridle and riding with spurs or maybe bridleless and riding with nothing, I still take them all back to the basics in December, January, February. That means I go back into snaffle bit. That means I go back in and no spurs. That means I go back to working on groundwork, a.k.a. if they’ve been doing that a few years, that’s liberty work. I go back to the basics back and then and I predict–because that’s about the time, that’s the time of year that I was experimenting with this was over the winter. I predict that that’s–that the clicker training phase is going to be a reoccurring phase for me, at least in a season of–of my–of my training year, because it was definitely something fun. And I do predict this also as I’m looking at getting a dog again. I also predict I’m going to end up signing myself up for some dog training classes that involve the clicker training because, yes, I think there are enough correlations there. So when you’re answering this question for you, Roxy answer this. If you did open that can of worms and start messing around with this, what’s your worst-case scenario? Because if your worst-case scenario is just a little bit of like, you know, fuzziness and there’s a little bit of lack of clarity, if you guys are well within a safe zone, I don’t think–I don’t let that hold me back. Fuzziness and like a lack of clarity if we’re well in a safety zone doesn’t bother me at all. That’s called learning. If you’re fuzziness and lack of clarity ever put you into an unsafe situation, that’s a problem for me always. I think with that in mind, you have full reign to experiment because if you use it and it works great and if you use it and you’re not in love with it, then you know you’re not really out a lot. So I think, why not give it a try? Interestingly, if you think about it, the question that I answered in the beginning for Rachel, Rachel, you could introduce some clicker training, too. You could clicker train the setting of the feet. You could clicker train the standing in the back of the stall. And what is interesting is that I do think that, that when people start looking at details of being able to move a specific foot right front foot forward, right front foot backwards, move the horse over to the wall, stand here one step back, one step forward. I think when you start paying that much attention, I think that detailed work is super engaging for their mind. And I love it for injured horses or non-injured horses. And I definitely do versions of that every day. Is it a trick when I’m ground tying? Or is it training? I think it’s all mental stuff. So that’s what I have for you this week. Thank you for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com For articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

Links mentioned in podcast:

Jac…testing me: https://youtu.be/hYKM0IsHvp8

Jac asking me questions: https://youtu.be/3TXADWHo5SU


  1. Heather Stone on April 27, 2021 at 7:38 pm

    Super interesting,I think that we can all take alot from this podcast. Especially in regards to the finer details, whether or not you have an injured animal, another great way of communication between horse and rider/ owner. The small steps when you break them down can be so rewarding to both.

  2. Heather Wimer on April 15, 2021 at 2:06 pm

    I enjoyed this episode, as always! I recently was advised by my vet to give my mare some time off while she did treatment for some fairly severe ulcers. I decided to spend that time clicker training. I followed the Clicker Training 101 podcast from Horse Radio Network. My mare had been kind of a tough horse. Pressure can make her want to fight and I have had a tough time getting her to really buy into training. I had wanted to experiment with clicker training but just didn’t take the time. So with this forced break I decided to make it my new goal. I did 1-2 short sessions everyday for the 6 weeks we were off and now that we are starting back under saddle I’m using it under saddle as well. I am super excited with the results! My mare is way more engaged in training! I’m excited to see where this will lead and so glad that I didn’t just feel sorry for myself and let her sit there for the 6 weeks.

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