Tension in clicker training
Strategies to reduce excitement and tension in clicker training
Training horses with treats can be satisfying and can lead to success. However, depending on your horse and the method you use, treats might also create excitement, tension, and stress. Your horse’s concentration and inner calm can be reduced if it focuses too much on the treats. Therefore it is very important to keep asking yourself whether your horse is still joyfully cooperating or whether it is already excited and over-motivated. In the next video, Pie-Casso and Anja demonstrate possible emergency measures that help to bring more calm into clicker training. Because one thing is for sure, once subliminal tension has been established there are many (self-made) obstacles to overcome until calm reenters clicker training.
Subtitles available: German and English
Jittery fidgeting and apparent discourtesy
There are many signs of stress that can be noticed in clicker training, and there are as many factors that may cause stress. Some indications can be spotted easily even by an untrained observer. An increased amount of tension, rapid movements, fidgeting on the spot, begging or the presentation of already learned lessons without being asked for are all signs of your horse’s restlessness. Maybe it still lacks stimulus control but more likely this behavior indicates a problem with stress. In the video Pie-Casso shows signs of joy like his softened facial muscles, his joyful blubbering, his active ear play, and his frequent contact with Anja. However, Pie-Casso also drops his sheath in a certain way that indicates an increased level of stress.
Study fragment – The small things
Tension of the sheath
The amount of tension of the sheath is a small but revealing detail that can indicate the level of stress in clicker training for geldings and stallions. The male horse’s body muscles actively hold the sheath in the body. The sheath drops and dangles down when the horse relaxes its muscles, e.g. when being sedated. Positive sensations which are typical in training with treats can also cause to the male horse to drop its sheath in a relaxed manner. This “relaxed dropping” is characterized by a flaccid sheath that dangles down and swings in a hopping manner when the horse moves more rapidly. In comparison, a firmer, thicker, and stiffer sheath does not indicate relaxation but signals tension that is building up. The sheath is better supplied with blood, the cavernous bodies enlarge, and the sheath swings more from the right to the left of the horse’s belly when it moves faster.
A click as trigger
The training session in the video with Pie-Casso is a good example that small, under-estimated details can have far-reaching consequences. The sound of the click, the learning environment as a whole, and the presence of treats can, step by step, transform themselves into a trigger that causes restlessness. The horse will more and more attentively look for signs that might offer an opportunity to receive a click and a treat. The horse will become excited out of nothing as long as it has not been trained to remain calm and deal constructively with treats. For example, it might also become rather excited after seeing the treats bag in a situation completely different to the training environment. Then, the excitement has become an integral part of each training session, and is constantly repeated and consolidated. As a consequence, any interaction with humans is determined by an increased amount of excitement which leads to a lack of impulse control, problems with stimulus control, and permanent restlessness.
Glossar – In short
A trigger in psychology is a stimulus that triggers certain feelings or forms of behavior. This mechanism leads to specific bodily reactions which are often unconscious. Trigger act as signals, and therefore, specific sensations can bring back certain memories, and evoke strong feelings. For example, the distinct smell of apple-pie can bring back all the positive emotions related to the warmth and comfort of your granny’s kitchen.
Different strategies to reduce excitement and tension in training
Different strategies complement each other, and help the horse to become more calm and relaxed over time. An essential component of this part of training is to mark passive behavior. The horse does not receive much attention, and treats are handed over as casually as possible. There are no specific tricks or certain cognitive task involved but meaning is attributed to standing around and strolling about together. Furthermore, the riding arena as typical work space acquires new emotional meaning because it is used for stroking sessions, as can be seen in the video. This enables Pie-Casso to step out of his constant action mode, and he replaces permanent doing with relaxed being. Essentially, Pie-Casso learns to look inward and to experience his corporeality even with the presence of treats.
Relaxation square by Marlitt Wendt
A special type of stroking session takes place in the relaxation square. The horse learns that there is a certain space for pleasant interaction through touch. During the course of a training session this space can be visited whenever the horse loses concentration and when stress levels rise. Subsequently, the square can be substituted for a personal touch ritual that is established. Such a ritual consists of a specific sequence of actions, like bodily approach and touch, and it reliably triggers a moment of relaxation when performed.