Stepping Stones Across the Swamp

By combining the methods used successfully to train orcas, dolphins, and dogs with Lyons' techniques, you'll have fun and be on firm footing with your horse.

I’m a clicker trainer. that means i use a marker signal to tell my horse when he has done something right. I pair that signal with positive reinforcers-activities or treats my horse will actively work for.

I also use John Lyons’ “give to the bit work.” That means I use pressure-and the release-of-pressure-to communicate with my horse.

Do I feel schizophrenic using these two different systems? No. Absolutely not. I weave them together so the sum is greater than the whole of its parts.

To explain how I work with horses, let me begin by telling a story.

Witness to Change
The first time I saw John Lyons work was at one of his symposiums in the early 1990s. On the second day of the symposium, he worked with a stiff-as-a-two-by-four Quarter Horse mare. The owners of the farm where the symposium was being held were horse dealers. They had kept this mare aside especially for John because they wanted to see what he would do with her. She was so typical of the horses who passed through their hands-stiff, inverted, and totally resistant to the hand.

When John got on, she scooted off into a stiff-legged, nose-in-the-air trot. He kept her in the trot, working her only on the single inside rein. Forty-five minutes later, she was trotting around with her nose down to the dirt.

“Hmm…,” I remember thinking, “How did that happen?”

Next John started talking about how you can connect the inside rein to each leg to produce lateral movement. He demonstrated as he talked, and within minutes, the mare was sidepassing across the round pen.

“Well,” I thought again. “That may be how you get sidepass on a western horse, but I’m a dressage rider. That’s not how we do it. We want suspension!”

How silly.

I could have watched the demo and dismissed it out-of-hand because I didn’t understand what John was doing. Instead, I went home and experimented with the pieces that did make sense to me.

One of John’s expressions is, “Go to people for opinions and horses for answers.” After the symposium, I went home and asked my own horse what he thought of the work. We both liked the results so much that I went back for a second look and began to study in-depth John Lyons’ methods.

Fast forward to 1993. My horse was laid up with abscesses in both front feet. He couldn’t walk, but I wanted to keep his mind stimulated during what turned out to be a seven-week lay-up. I’d been reading about clicker training, the teaching method used with dolphins and other marine mammals. At that time, it was just starting to be widely used with dogs, too. If clicker training worked with all these other species, I thought, why not with horses?

I went out to the barn and asked my gelding Peregrine what he thought. He was in too much pain to walk or do anything else very active, but he could touch his nose to a target, the end of an old dressage whip. Click and treat.

My background is in animal behavior. I enjoyed watching my horse sort through the puzzle this clicker game presented. And he certainly was enjoying figuring out ways to get me to give him goodies! It was a win-win situation for both of us.

As Peregrine’s recovery continued, I began adding the clicker into other activities. I found myself using the clicker to review all of his training. Throughout his lay-up, I never had one of those “Thoroughbred moments” that I would have otherwise expected from my very fit and energetic young horse.

When I started riding again, I began with easy work. I remember so clearly clicking Peregrine for a simple request. I could almost feel him saying: “Oh, that’s what you wanted! Why didn’t you say so before?” The clicker training was, for us, the missing piece of the puzzle.

Everything Starts to Click
I began to share clicker training with my riding clients, and in each case we saw a huge jump forward in their horses’ skills. When I asked one of my clients what she thought about clicker training, she said that of all the things I had shared with her, it was what she liked best. When I asked her why, she responded that it was because of the relationship it built. I knew exactly what this meant.

Fast forward another year. I had signed up to ride Peregrine in one of John’s clinics. At the time my horse was feeling a little stuck to the ground. I wasn’t sure if I was dealing with an on-going physical problem stemming from his feet, or a training issue. I was hoping that during the three days of the Lyons riding clinic, I would find an answer to that question. I was in the process of trying to weave together clicker training with John’s single-rein riding techniques, which made for an even more interesting experience.

I wore a fishing vest over my jacket during the clinic. In one pocket I kept a notebook and pen. In the other were my treats. To John’s credit, he never said anything to me about using clicker training during his clinic. I don’t think anyone, except my clients, even knew what I was doing. I don’t use the actual plastic clicker when I ride. I want my hands free for other things. I make the sound of the click with my tongue. My horse can certainly hear the signal, but it isn’t loud enough to distract other riders or their horses.

I went into the clinic with a major question concerning clicker training. I knew the technique had helped my horse enormously, and I knew it was making an equally dramatic difference for my clients and their horses. But why did we need the clicker when other people could ride successfully without it? John certainly didn’t use clicker training, and he got amazing results with his Appaloosa stallion, Bright Zip. Any of you who were privileged enough to see John and Zip working together know exactly what I mean.

If John could do all that without the clicker, why did I need it? That was one question John was not going to be able to help me answer. I had to figure that one out by myself.

But he certainly helped me answer a lot of other questions. We got Peregrine unstuck and producing some gorgeous work. But too soon it was Wednesday night. The clinic was over. How to keep all these lovely changes continuing? I was still fumbling around in the dark, trying to figure out how to use single-rein riding.

Using a Highlighter
Thursday morning I was back in my own arena, riding Peregrine and trying to recreate the wonderful feel I had had during the clinic. I asked for “baby give” after “baby give.” It felt like nagging. I could tell Peregrine was wondering how much longer this was going to go on. But I kept on picking up the rein and asking for a softening of the jaw. I had to trust the process. Peregrine yielded his jaw to the side and I released-over and over again. He was certainly soft and responsive. That was a good thing. But what else was I looking for? How did we get to that wonderful feel we had discovered during the clinic?

On one of those endless gives, Peregrine’s balance shifted slightly. Instead of just softening his jaw to the side, he lifted up from the base of his neck so his poll also released into my hand. That change could easily have been lost in the ocean of gives. Instead, I clicked and handed him a treat.

My clicker-wise horse was suddenly connected to the process in a way that he hadn’t been before. What had he done that was different? He was acutely aware that he had changed something for the better. How could he do it again? He was now actively looking for the answer. It took him a couple of steps before he again found the balance that let him release his poll, soft as butter into my hand. Click and treat!

Peregrine was showing me the real power of clicker training. It was acting like a highlighter, marking the changes that would create the floating-on-air balance that I so dearly love. He wasn’t just giving me a random response. He was aware of what he was doing. And he could repeat it.

A metaphor I use in my teaching is that of “finding stepping stones across swampy water.” At first you can’t find the firm ground. But each time you click, you are creating a stepping stone. The more you click for a given response, the larger and more solid that stepping stone becomes. Before long, you have a clear path which both you and the horse can follow.

Our clicker-trained horses not only know how to soften and respond to a rider’s requests, they can produce the desired balance at liberty. There is nothing more stunning than watching a horse that is completely free-
moving in the balance of an upper-level performance horse.

So let’s fast forward yet again to the present. I have now been teaching clicker training since 1993. What has evolved is an organized system for using this work. For me, that means not just using those aspects of the training that are unique to clicker training, but also combining it with pressure, and the release-of-pressure, to produce clicker superstars.

Next month, in Part II, we’ll explore more specifically how all this comes together.

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