May 24, 2012

Click. Treat. Hmmm.

I had always been interested in clicker training. I grew up in San Diego and had seen the marine mammals at the San Diego Zoo, and at Sea World, and had met Shawna Karrisch and her wonderful Rottweiller. Horse people I admired, like Beezie Madden, used CT to good ends. Bryan seemed like the perfect candidate for me to expand from interest  to execution. I bought some CT videos, studied them, bought a little clicker at Petsmart, and off to the barn I went.

I tried it first on a couple of the more…er…normal horses. I called my friend Linda who was quite good at CT and she came and gave me a lesson It was interesting and very fun to watch the boys figure out the click treat connection and then to teach them to seek the reward. I loved it. Wonder and Zachy, the two boys we worked  with, got the idea in about two and a half minutes. Cool! I thought. This is it! CT will be The Breakthrough Bryan has been waiting for!

Well, not exactly.

I had already learned to break things in to not just small but infinitesimal steps with B, so I decided to start with the most basic thing. Click, treat. That was it. No target, no trick, just click, treat, respond.

I started in the cross ties, where he felt safe. Right in front of his stall, no Barn In The Distance issue to distress him. Well within his potentially reachable comfort zone. Right?

I had some little alfalfa cookie things that would make my other horses willingly jump through fire. I held one out to Bryan to get his interest. B! Treat!

(insert picture of blank faced horse here)

Bry—annn! Treat! Here ya go, buddy!

(insert picture of Abby rubbing treat on Bryan’s lips)

C’mon B! Yum yum!

(insert picture of Abby sticking treat in the side of Bryan’s mouth)

(insert picture of horse standing there, little alfalfa cookie sticking out the side of his mouth)

(Insert picture of Abby “Waaaaah!!”)

So what the heck? How do you clicker train a horse that is not treat motivated? Not only not treat motivated, but TREAT UNAWARE?!

By this time, every ‘failure’ with B was a personal affront. By now, every plan A had morphed in to Plan D, or G, or R. So now what? I realized I had to break things down even further. Now the goal was to try to find something that Bryan so liked that he would notice when he was being offered one. And not only notice, but want one, and maybe even learn to notice an associated click.

Hey! I am nothing if not tenacious. I was going to reach Bryan, and that was that.


  1. There's always that horse that takes all the truisms and tosses them in the trash for us. They're the ones that make us stretch as horsemen. It does help to be tenacious. As usual, I can't wait for the next installment!

  2. Seriously! Of all the horses I had had up until Bryan, and of the ones I have had after, he was the one who taught me the most. He was Special. And we loved him dearly! I always wanted to write about him and am so enjoying sharing him with you.

  3. Hey Abby: Sometimes horses are so withdrawn into themselves it takes a long, long, time to reach them. Maybe it would be better to allow Bryan to come out of his shell by himself. Maybe you should just turn him out in a field alone until he starts to show signs of awareness.I read a story in one of the natural horsemanship guru's books about a horse who was just like Bryan. They turned him out in a field by himself (but he could see and hear the other horses) He was fed on a very prompt schedule. The caretaker was his only contact. The man would walk in put his feed and water down and walk out. The horse parked himself down by the back fence with his hind end towards the gate and would not look at the man. Little by little the horse started to notice him. Every morning the horse would be a little bit closer to the gate, then he would start to wait for the man and eventually he would nicker when he arrived. The horse made a full recovery. Maybe Bryan needs this isolation until he is ready to live again.

  4. What a lovely experience Elaine! I can just see that horse coming around. Actually Bryan ended up doing great. I like the idea of doing what this person did and certainly agree with the approach. Thank you for sharing it!

  5. Oops. Forgot we aren't in real time here. I am glad he turned out OK.

    1. Yes, me too. It wasnt any of the usual stuff though that turned him around...

  6. Keep trying with the treats. Yankee wouldn't take treats when I first got him, he didn't know what they were. I think I started with tossing them in with his feed, and eventually he made the connection and would take them from my hand.

    1. Hi did figure it out, but was always very polite >;->