I’ve just become privy to the best-kept secret of the horse world: clicker training. Clicker training and “trick training” is often poo-pooed in the professional horse training circles. Though it has grown in popularity recently, many horsey people are still hesitant to buy into positive-reinforcement minded methods, especially in regards to trick and clicker training.
“Why would I want to teach my horse something totally impractical, just for show? I’m not doing poodle tricks with my horses! Clicker training is just bribery and brain washing! Real horseman can motivate their horses through a partnership of trust and mutual understanding! Get thee behind me, satanic treats!!!”
Why indeed? Because horses are programmed to seek food 17 hours a day. Because horses are highly intelligent and easily pick up on patterns. Because when horses start to feel like they know exactly what their human is asking for, they feel relaxed. When they feel relaxed, the work is pleasant. When the work is pleasant, new concepts are learned quickly and easily. Only when this level of harmony is reached can a real partnership be reached.
Clicker training is based on positive reinforcement: you display the desired behavior that I ask of you, and in return I will give you a reward. Training with concentration on positive reinforcement can eliminate the need for punishment, because the horse is operating under the assumption that the trainer wants to shower him with rewards and he just needs to find the right behavior to get those goodies. Naughty or incorrect behavior will receive no attention or treats, and will therefore decrease in frequency.
Obviously, there are some caveats as in the case of biting and other dangerous behaviors in which the trainer needs to defensively protect herself. However, these behaviors too can be addressed through careful positive reinforcement, especially if the trainer can create a safe barrier (use a fence between the horse and trainer so she can walk away if the horse is getting pushy).
The simplicity of clicker training makes it stupid easy. Any human, and any horse can do it.
- Human gives the horse a problem to solve or a cue to respond to.
- Horse performs the desired behavior.
- Human dispenses treat.
- Repeat a few times, shaping the behavior by picking and choosing what specific aspects of the behavior you want to highlight and clicking those moments.
Technically, you don’t need a clicker for positive reinforcement training. You could just use an enthusiastic “Yes!” or a pet. The click is a “bridge” between the correct behavior and the reward so the horse knows exactly what you want at the exact moment and doesn’t forget it before you reward him. I like the clicker because it’s immediate, and it’s the same every time.
You can find clickers at any walmart or pet store, and usually they are pretty inexpensive. There are all kinds of versions and clicky sounds, and there are even some that are handily built into a whip. I bought five of of the cheapo plastic and metal clickers and stashed them in strategic locations around the car and barn so I always have one.
I’m a complete newbie in this field, so I still have a lot to learn! Cooper is an absolute cookie monster and he will literally bend over backwards for a nibble of food. I was a little naughty today and let him have more than his fair share of treats. Now that I know he understands the concept of clicker training, I’m going to switch to handing out alfalfa pellets and the occasional treat to keep him interested.
My first foray into the wonderful world of clicker training was targeting. By introducing a target for the horse to touch or stand next to, you can easily establish the connection between the clicker and the treat. You can use a mat, a carrot stick, a bucket, a cone, or basically anything stationary. I used an orange cone. Most horses naturally want to investigate new objects with their noses, so it’s pretty easy to get the process started. Whenever he touched the cone with his nose, I immediately clicked and treated him. He got the hang of it almost immediately. I kept moving the cone around the pasture and trying to put distance between him and the cone so he really had to seek it out, but he was on to me. Before long, he was trotting after the cone and ramming his nose into it. I became his human treat dispenser and he was giddy with the excitement of this new development.
Cooper is now successfully targeting and almost bowing. From here, I plan on working on (depending on his interest and progress):
-Nodding/Shaking head yes or no
-Spanish walk/dressagey moves
I came home and immediately started it on my dog, Butler. He’s a beagle mix and…not the brightest bulb in the box. It goes slower with him, but he’s equally enthusiastic.
Look out, coworkers, family, every animal in my proximity!