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Training with a clicker

From: Toby

Dear Jessica, I am considering trying to do some clicker training with my horse, but there are a couple of things holding me back. Since you seem to think that clicker training is effective, I hope you can help me understand a few things before I begin. I have a friend who clicker-trains her dog and I have watched her a lot. Her dog does a lot of good tricks and things, but I don't think this kind of training would work nearly as well with horses. Please tell me if I am off base here. Here are the issues I have with clicker training for a horse:

1. Horses aren't predators like dogs and they aren't motivated by food as a goal in the same way.

2. When you're riding (right now I am working on the ground but I hope to be riding in a few months) it isn't very practical to give a horse treats, but I undestand that the click sound must always be followed by a treat.

3. I'm sure that at some point, like in a show or on a long trail ride, I would either run out of treats or not be allowed to use the clicker and the treats, and then how could I be sure that my horse would obey me?

Thank you for answering! Toby

Hi Toby! Yes, I do think that clicker training is effective - it's also enjoyable at both ends of the leadrope. ;-)

Certain aspects of your concerns about treats are perfectly sensible. You're right, prey animals are not motivated by food in the same way that predators are, it can be awkward to offer treats from the saddle, and yes, it's entirely possible to run out of treats!

However, all that said, I think that if you want to investigate clicker training, you'll find that you don't have to motivate your horse with food - and after a point, you won't need an actual clicker, either.

It's important that you understand the concept of a reinforcer.

In the initial stages of clicker training, the "click" sound is a clear, distinct signal that is always followed by a reinforcer. The click says "THIS is good - whatever you are doing when you hear this sound is good!" The treat is used to show the horse what the click means - it's a reinforcer for the click. Treats are very convenient reinforcers, because the horse is happy to be given a treat, and interested in the possibility of additional treats, and a happy, relaxed, interested horse is much easier to train than one that is worried or tense or uninterested. Treats are also convenient because you can carry a lot of them and use them frequently during training sessions. But a treat is A reinforcer - not THE reinforcer. For an itchy-headed horse, a scratch can be a wonderful reinforcer. For certain horses, being allowed to perform a specific action is a reinforcer - I used to know a rather nice dressage horse that absolutely adored doing medium trot, and so was allowed to do medium trot whenever his owner was particularly pleased with him. It's not always practical to allow a horse to do medium trot, however - but treats are practical even in a crowded or too-small space, or in one with poor footing.

The "click" sound has to be followed by some kind of reinforcer - NOT necessarily a treat, although treats are convenient. The reinforcer can be anything your horse views as Something Desirable. Many trainers begin with treats, and as the horse learns to relax and almost purr like a cat when they hear the click, the treat can be replaced with a scratch or a stroke or verbal or murmured (almost "hummed" if you're in a dressage competition where the use of the voice is not permitted) PRAISE.

A reinforcer is, in effect, whatever your horse wants it to be. That's YOUR HORSE - not you. Some horses aren't itchy and don't care about being scratched on the ear or the jaw or the withers; for them, this would NOT be a reinforcer. For many dressage horses, a request for medium trot would be just one more thing to do - not something special that the horse always WANTS to do, and so this would not be a reinforcer. This applies to treats, too - if a horse loves raisins, raisins would be a good reinforcer; if a horse doesn't care for raisins, they would not be a reinforcer at all. If you carry sugar in the tails of your coat, like the riders at the Spanish Riding School, you can use sugar for a reinforcer (even from the saddle). If you don't like to carry treats, or can't remember to carry treats, or run out of treats, no worries - once you're past the initial stage of training, you can begin to phase out the treats and teach your horse that a pat or your verbal praise are Something Desirable.

Reinforcers are relative, not absolute. A horse that likes apples but has just eaten thirty windfalls might not be highly motivated by a slice of apple. A horse that likes apples but adores pears would be more interested in the pear - and a horse that is getting back to the barn just at suppertime, and can hear the feed cart moving from stall to stall, may be entirely focused on its hay or pellets and not interested in either an apple or a pear. Circumstances change, situations change, and you need to realize how changing circumstances and situations will affect your horse. This is not peculiar to clicker training, though - just consider the difference in your horse's behavior when you ride him past an empty field, and when you ride him past the same field when it contains several new horses. When the field is empty, he may not take any notice of it whatsoever, but when the strange horses come trotting down to the fence, he may be so focused on them that he barely remembers you are on his back. Whenever you work with a horse, or any prey animal (or, for that matter, with any predator), you must be aware of circumstances and situations. There may be circumstances and situations in which your horse might NOT obey you, no matter how it was trained, but in those cases, the question is not whether a training method is valid, but whether a horse's basic instincts will sometimes take over and dictate its behaviour. But the issue of OBEDIENCE is not the same as TRAINING - one is, or should be, a habit, whilst the other is a deliberate process. There are many approaches to training, but one of the most simple and satisfying ones is operant conditioning, and one of the most simple and satisfying versions of operant conditioning is clicker training. I hope you'll have a go - I think you'll find it very enjoyable, and your horse will enjoy it as well.


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