It seems complicated to use positive reinforcement during riding. Most common struggle points are: ‘It’s hard to hold a clicker and the reins in my hands’, ‘Clicker training is useful on the ground, but I don’t know how to use it from the saddle‘ and ‘If you use clicker training in riding you have to stop all the time to give a treat‘. How to address these issues?
Keep it simple!
Positive reinforcement is positive reinforcement, whether you apply it from the ground, standing next to your horse, or when you sit in the saddle. Therefor you have to apply the same rules to set you and your horse up for success:
- Start with your shaping plan: write down your step-by-step procedure in which you describe how to train a specific behaviour.
- Write a separate plan for each behaviour you want to train under saddle. You also can take into consideration how you can ‘chain’ two or more simple behaviours and turn them into a more complex behaviour.
- Just like on the ground you only train one behaviour at a time. This means only one behaviour per clicker training session. I see riders making the mistake to click for multiple behaviours under saddle in one session. This can cause confusion in the horse. It’s better to focus on one specific behaviour. It will be easier to see if the behaviour improves in quality, declines or stays the same.
- Focus on very small improvements and raise your criterion only bit by bit. This is called ‘splitting’ a behaviour and it’s the opposite of ‘lumping’ (making the steps too big). Lumping can cause frustration and can cause the horse to ‘tune out’ of your training.
- Keep your training sessions short! Riders often think that they have to ride for 45-60 minutes and therefor they make their training sessions under saddle way too long. Longer sessions don’t give better results. Give your horse lots of breaks and keep training sessions short. I get the best results if I keep my sessions 5-10 minutes and then take a break. It depends on the circumstances how many sessions will give the optimum results. Evaluate this as you go.
In my decades long career as a riding instructor I’ve only heard a few riders complain about holding a whip in their hands while riding. I had a very simple solution for them: ride without a whip!
When it comes to riding with a clicker a lot more riders seem to have this problem than riding with a whip. The solution stays the same: if you find it too hard to use a handheld clicker in the saddle, don’t! You can easily train your horse to another bridge signal: a tongue click for instance. Make sure you introduce the new bridge properly.
Use treats that are easily fed from the saddle. Experiment with different sizes and values.
Find a way to take keep enough treats on you while riding. Use deep pockets and don’t overfill them so you don’t loose them during trot or canter. I like to put my food scoop with treats on a jumping standard so I can do refills from the saddle.
Mind your own training!
I see riders often worried about their training under saddle. Instead of focusing on their own results, they are concerned about what other people might think: ‘What would they think when I only ride 5 minutes?‘ or ‘I would stand still more often than I ride. They might think that’s silly or counterproductive.’
Accept that your approach is different than all traditional and natural horsemanship methods. Don’t try to fit traditional rules, habits or even myths into your training.
- You don’t have to ride for an hour when you are teaching your horse a new behaviour.
- You don’t need to ride for an hour in a lesson.
- You don’t let ‘the horse win’ if you don’t get supernatural results in one training.
- The horse doesn’t need to sweat in order to have had a ‘good ride’.
Set your riding up for success
Don’t start with a new behaviour in the saddle. Find ways to prepare your horse from the ground to the exercise you want him to perform under saddle. This will make riding with the clicker so much easier!
Have fun riding!
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve horse-human relationships by educating equestrians about ethical and horse friendly training. I offer coaching to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that empowers both you and your horse.