Winter Rugging Blues

Posted in: Clicker Training, The Journey – Dancer

We are once again back to that time of year when we find ourselves needing to find the freshly cleaned, re-proofed rugs from their polythene bags, preparing ourselves once more for the cold, wet, muddy winter ahead.

Whether our horses have been clipped already, are getting older in their years, feel the cold or we just choose to keep them toasty for our own peace of mind, the fact is that many horses are none too keen on having their rugs put on!

How many times have we gone to throw a rug over our horse’s back when we notice that their nose wrinkles, their ears tip back a little and they don’t look overly joyous about it?

Whilst we may acknowledge these little signs – we tend to just carry on and gloss over them. After all, apart from abandoning rugs completely, resulting in muddy horses and eliminating the possibility to clip never mind causing us to worry constantly about whether they are warm and dry if the weather suddenly turns nasty, there isn’t much we can do about it?

…Or is there?

I had exactly this problem with my horse Dancer. She is a true princess and feels the cold, even when not clipped. Each winter I am faced with the same dilemma – ignore her faces and behaviour telling me she doesn’t like her rug and she would much rather not have it on or leave her feeling miserable, wet and cold.

For many years, I have followed the former – gloss over her negativity and just get on with it – after all, it is for her own best interest!

However, with clicker training using Alexandra Kurland’s Clicker Methods, I soon realised I had the tools to easily modify her unhappy behaviour from that of ears back, nose wrinkled and head bobbing about to a keen, happy horse, who actually physically asked me to put the rug on her! “Really?!” I hear you say? “Yes, really!”

The great thing about going through this process is that I gave Dancer the tools to control the pace of the training. I also gave her the ability to say “No, I don’t want a rug today.” One would be forgiven for thinking that since she hated rugs, she would learn to ALWAYS say “No” to the rug – each and every day, however as you will see, that is definitely not the case.

So how did I do this?…

I first taught her to shoulder target objects including rugs when I held them up for her using Clicker Training. This is how I give her the choice to choose whether she wants to wear a rug or not. She targets her shoulder to the rug if she wants me to proceed with the rugging process. If she feels she doesn’t want to wear a rug that day, she wont target it at liberty, she will leave and walk away.

Through the use of tiny, tiny steps towards the end goal, each time going back to the very beginning of the process. Only when she was happy, had her ears forward and was asking me (via the shoulder targeting) to move on to the next step did I proceed.

This meant she was in control of the pace of the training. She told me (through her behaviour – ears, nose, face and body) when I could proceed with the training. If she offered her wrinkled nose or ears back or didn’t target the rug, we went back to the beginning and worked where she was happy until she gave me the ok to proceed again.

I gradually built up over a period of days to the rug going on and being done up. I think the whole process probably took 5 short training sessions before I could rug her as before but this time, without a hint of negative emotion from her.

Every autumn I have dreaded having to dig out her rugs. Now she enjoys the process AND is able to tell me when she doesn’t want a rug on.

Here is a video of the 2nd of our 5 short training sessions. I hope you enjoy.