Dynamic Food Delivery & Clicker Training

“So let’s assume you’ve decided to do another round of targeting. Things went well the first time through so you are making a slight change, following the mantra of looping training. You’ll change something on one side of the click or the other, but not both in this round of twenty treats. So you might begin moving the target slightly from your original starting point without changing anything in the food delivery. Or you might leave the targeting pretty much where it was in the previous round, but begin to change the food delivery.

I teach “dynamic food delivery”. That means I’m going to use the food delivery strategically. The mantra is ‘feed where the perfect horses would be.” That’s going to change depending upon what I am working on. If it’s a stationary exercise like “grown-ups”, I’ll feed so that my horse is standing in good balance. Emotional balance follows physical balance, so I’ll pay attention to how my horse is standing. I won’t feed so I pull him off to the side or stretch him out over his tippy toes. I’ll feed so he can be in balance over his front end.

If it’s a more mobile exercise like targeting, I’ll begin to use the food delivery to move him back out of my space. I’ll refer you to the books and DVDs for more details on this and for some good visual references. Using the food dynamically is an important part of the process. You are setting up many different elements in your training via this food delivery. You are working on space management and emotional control. You are setting the stage for good rope mechanics. And you are building the foundation of a lifetime of good manners and good balance. This is a process you want to understand and make use of. It’s an important part of your horse’s initial introduction to clicker training.

Before you go to your horse, it helps to find a friend who will play the part of your horse so you can practice your handling with her. When everything feels effective, easy and second nature, you’re ready to go back to your horse.

You’ll do another round of twenty treats. Then you’ll step away to refill your pockets and go through another assessment phase. This time you may decide that your horse is showing a lot of interest in your pockets. Yes, he’s touching the target, but he’s also nudging around to see if he can just help himself directly. This is an important part of his initial exploration of clicker training. It’s okay for him to experiment. Clicker training is all about experimenting, and offering behavior. You don’t want to shut this down by punishing this unwanted behavior. Remember you are working with protective contact. If the behavior feels unsafe, just step back out of range. If all he is doing is nudging your arm, you may be able to stand there and let him explore. Be as non-reactive as you can be. Note: being non-reactive does not mean you are ignoring the behavior. You just aren’t adding any fuel to it by responding to the unwanted behavior.

Good balance makes a difference here. If you are standing over the balance point of your foot, you’ll be very stable. Your horse can bump against you, and you won’t be knocked about. If you are out of balance, when he bumps you, you’ll wobble more. You’ll become a squeaky toy! Think about the way two horses play with one another, grabbing at each other’s halters. Reacting can be reinforcing to a horse who enjoys this kind of close-contact game. That’s why it is so important to be non-reactive. You don’t want your horse to think you are playing this kind of halter game. If you push him away, you’re just engaging in the game and inadvertently reinforcing the very behavior you don’t want.

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