This article briefly explains “What is clicker training?” and why it is a great way to train horses.
Clicker training is a marker training protocol based on proven science and is evidence-based. The click, whistle (or any bespoke noise), is paired up with a reinforcer. Something which is of high value to the horse. This bespoke noise is called the bridge signal. It bridges the desired behaviour or emotion with a reinforce. In the case of a horse, it could be scratches or food. When the bespoke noise is made, the horse learns to work out exactly what it has just done which will then elicit the treat.
Any behaviour shaped with a high-value reinforcer is highly likely to be repeated. Therefore, a money bonus at work- especially an unexpected one, is very likely to feel great and shape you to keep up the good work you are doing!
Positive reinforcement has been used in Marine mammal training for decades. It is the basis of all good zoo training across all species for cooperative care. All zoo animals are free to leave at any time and they are rewarded for staying and allowing certain veterinary and husbandry procedures to occur. The dog training world adopted this practice years ago too- us horsey folks are just slow off the mark
How does clicker training work with horses?
Any animal can be clicker trained meaning that horses are no different to any other species.
Clicker or marker training uses the positive reinforcement (R+) part of something called the Operant Quadrant- where you add something of high value to reward a behaviour.
Operant conditioning (the work of B. F SKINNER ) are all the choices we have in our tool box to use in order to shape future behaviour. All 4 parts are effective training choices but the 3 below risk potential emotional fallout which destroys or erodes trust or cause actual fear.
(a) Pressure on, pressure off is Negative reinforcement (R-), where the horse learns how to stop you doing something it does like and finds aversive, annoying or irritating.
(b) With-holding something the horse values is Negative Punishment (P-), where the horse feels punished by your action but there is no touch involved.
(c) Striking, hitting, feel a whip, spurs, harsh hands on a bit etc all fall into Positive Punishment (P+), where you add something which feels painful and punishing to the horse.
All these choices are the life and experiences we bring to the table when we are training, interacting with and caring for our horses in their daily management. Using clicker training with horses creates a wonderful way to communicate and brings positive associations to his world he shares with you.
Can anyone clicker train their horse?
If you decide to become a positive partner by using R+ (adding positive reinforcement) then there are new skills to be learnt. Shaping any future behaviour means we need to break it down into many tiny parts: – which progressively develop into the whole end game behaviour desired.
The skill is to set the horse up to succeed, give him choice, let him experiment to find out exactly what he got clicked for and then to gradually build it up. These tiny steps are called approximations. Always think that the more small slices you can create during training, then the easier it is for the horse to learn what we are wanting in actions or behaviours.
This process is called behaviour Shaping. Both the horse and the human need to learn to problem solve- therefore careful thought must be used as to how best plan the training from start to finish.
First and foremost is the default behaviour of head straight and not mugging which must be trained from the off. People go so very wrong with clicker training horses if the foundations are not correctly established.
There are possible pitfalls if you do this wrong. Horses can get over excited (arousal) so care must be taken to ensure that each stage of training is introduced properly and with thought. Once calmness, head straight, no mugging and no over arousal is in place we then move the training on to the next stage. Target training.
What is target training horses?
Target training is when the horse touches a part of his body to your hand or to an object. Usually started with nose targetting, the horse touches his nose on an object you hold where you click the very second he touches and then reinforce with food. You can eventually teach him to follow a target for things like leading training or loading into a horse box. We teach foot targetting so that horses lift their own feet up for care procedures on cue. We teach hip targetting so that horses line themselves up at the mounting block. We teach recall to a hand target so that catching in the field is easy and the horse comes to a call cue with enthusiasm.
These are just a few applications of the training – there is a whole massive world of training applications to bring to your table if you decide to learn the art of training using behavioural science.
Every behaviour has a function!
Remember one really important rule! This is that every behaviour has a function to the horse. These behaviours can be observed and described in detail. They may be fear-based, where the horse is avoiding something or somewhere (avoidance behaviours). They may be fear-based, where the horse needs to leave somewhere he feels unsafe. (escape behaviours) They may be driven by separation anxiety from their bonded horses.
Your horse may be in pain! He may be behaving in ways against your wish list because he simply just cannot do your bidding. Obviously none of the above are good scenarios, so look into how you can help your horse feel safe, be pain-free and find calmness instead.
Don’t use labels!
Labelling your horse with words like stupid, awkward, lazy, fizzy, arrogant, being a bitch, crazy, etc. None of these are helpful. Try instead to look at exactly what is happening and find out what the horse is trying to gain by the behaviours. Forcing horses into a place he feels emotionally compromised is only ever going to be destructive. Horses do not lie! They tell the truth and their behaviours reflect that truth.
Equine behaviour Specialist.
I am an Equine Behaviour Specialist. I understand why horses do what they do and why. I can be reached for behaviour consultations and training plans via my website www.instinctivehorsetraining.co.uk or via my social media page www.facebook.com/instinctivehorsetraining.