Horse training starts with the horse learning a few simple concepts such as “whoa” and “step-up” and tolerating being saddled and mounted. But one concept — “touch” — is frequently overlooked by traditional trainers even though it has the potential to open up a world of learning possibilities once it’s put to use.
“Touch” is the command I give when I point to something and want to have the horse look at the article, touch it with its nose and smell it.
Why would I want my horse to do that? Because once the horse “touches” an item, it’s no longer something to be afraid of. If you teach your horse the Touching Game, there’s not a thing in the area or on the trail it can’t be desensitized to. Your horse will quickly learn that no matter how scary something can seem, if it’s on your list of the Touching Game, it’s nothing to be afraid of.
The list to use for the Touching Game is nearly endless: plastic, tarps, lawnchairs, flamingo lawn ornaments, umbrellas, flags, bicycles, four-wheelers, ropes, hoses, blankets, saddles, bits, headstalls, trailers, cars, tractors, culverts in ditches, mailboxes, train tracks, white lines on highways, barking dogs, pigs, chickens, loud motors, etc.
Some things that horses are afraid of simply look odd, (example: a black lump in the road) and once the horse can approach it and smell it, the horse can identify it.
Some things that horses are afraid of smell suspicious, (example: pig manure or gasoline) but once the horse identifies the smell with something benign, the horse won’t be spooked by that smell, either.
How to Teach Your Horse the Touching Game
Before you start, you (the trainer) should be familiar with using a bridging signal with positive reinforcement. Click HERE for more information about Bridging Signals, often also called a marker or a clicker.
The Touching Game is usually the second game I teach a young horse (being caught being the first), but it is usually the first game I teach a rescue horse because it changes everything about training for a horse who has had poor handling and/or training in the past.
Many trainers start with stick with a ball (a “target”) on it and call this Target Training. Target Training and the Touching Game are essentially the same thing, only I don’t use a stick — I use my focus on an item — to identify the “target.” True target training has its own set of advantages over the Touching Game. There is no reason why a horse can’t learn both no matter what their age or abilities are.
First, find an item which looks and smells unfamiliar to the horse. You don’t want it to be too weird so that your horse is immediately afraid of it. I’ve found that a few drops of vanilla flavoring on an old sock balled up and lightly duct-tapped to the end of a stick is just about perfect. Some trainers use a tennis ball stuck on the end of a yardstick. The three main things are: it should have a smell which isn’t repulsive, it should have a pleasant feel if the horse touches it, and it should be on the end of a stick so that you can hold it away from your body.
Second, be prepared to teach with a marker (I use a clicker) and rewards (I a nail pouch filled with oats.) If your horse is not familiar with clicker training, you may need to train in a few short sessions over a couple of days before the “AHA Lightbulb” turns on.
Third, work with your horse in a quiet area with few distractions where you can be in control of your space. Some horses can get physically aggressive around food, particularly yearlings and two-year-olds or rescue horses who have food aggression. The best place to start these horses is with them on the other side of a gate or panel from you. It’s very important that there are no other horses in the pen to interfere with the lesson.