Commentary: Dabbling in Clicker Training and Groundwork

Have you tried incorporating clicker training into your horse training? Stephanie shares how clicker training exercises are helping strengthen both her OTTB’s core and their communication on the ground.
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Stephanie and Happy
Photo: Bad Pony Creative Equine Photography
Something that’s evident to most when they first meet me is that I’m quite tall—6 feet. That translates to a long femur, and my off-track Thoroughbred Happy is a 15.3-16-hand, short-coupled horse. So, I need a saddle that accommodates my long thigh but doesn’t end up placing my weight behind Happy’s 18th thoracic vertebra, where the last rib meets the spine. Happy prefers I ride with a closed hip angle, so I do all my riding in a jump saddle (no dressage saddle has worked yet for us). It took us four years to find and settle on a saddle that truly fit him and that works for me. I recognize I walk a fine line with our dimensions, and he’s a sensitive, demonstrative guy, so I’m mindful of building and keeping his core strength.

training horse
RELATED CONTENT: If Your Surgeon Was Clicker Trained, Why Not Your Horse?

One of the ways I do this is through groundwork to strengthen his back—work I haven’t really enjoyed until earlier this year, when I reached out to a friend who does learning-theory-based clicker training with a focus on positive reinforcement. I did a few lessons with her, with my goal being to further strengthen Happy’s core and improve our relationship on the ground (he can be a little pushy at the stall door and anytime there’s grass afoot).

A few of the exercises Kara taught me built on mobility exercises we’d already done—carrot stretches, for instance—but we added a target, which she suggested I fashion out of a dressage whip and a few inches of a foam pool noodle at its end. Happy learned quickly to touch the target, getting a well-timed click and delivery of a treat. For lateral stretches I can reach the target over his back to the opposite side from which I’m standing, and he’ll touch the target there, too.

He’s displayed some odd spookiness in the crossties this year, so Kara taught me to work with Happy on standing on a small piece of yoga mat as a “home base” where good things happen. She explained this is also a good tool for helping reluctant trailer loaders, so I’m happy to have this in my arsenal if I need it. Happy also used to be impatient in the crossties, pawing when he wanted something or got bored. With positive reinforcement—clicking and rewarding when he stood quietly for increasing periods—we’ve solved that problem, for the most part

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Written by:

Stephanie L. Church, Editorial Director, grew up riding and caring for her family’s horses in Central Virginia and received a B.A. in journalism and equestrian studies from Averett University. She joined The Horse in 1999 and has led the editorial team since 2010. A 4-H and Pony Club graduate, she enjoys dressage, eventing, and trail riding with her former graded-stakes-winning Thoroughbred gelding, It Happened Again (“Happy”). Stephanie and Happy are based in Lexington, Kentucky.

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