Of Interest

Photo 1. Mugging. This Friesian is very excited about the carrot. He'd like to grab it out of my hand. I'm not going to let him have it while he's acting this way.




Clicker Training: The Holy Grail or Just Another Gimmick?

 By Brigid Wasson

 “This is way too much fun to be called training!” my student excitedly said. Her horse, sharing the same feeling, was galloping around playing with a ball.

Clicker training has its origins in marine mammal work. Dolphin trainers, frustrated by an animal who simply swam away when confused or disinterested, developed a method for “marking” desired behaviors. After teaching the dolphins that a whistle equals a treat, the trainers were able to give praise the moment a behavior was performed correctly. This new method had an amazing effect: not only did the animals learn faster and easier, they became self-motivated; they jumped higher, dived deeper, and even invented behaviors in an attempt to earn a reward.

As the world of animal training is a relatively small one, this new method worked its way into the canine circle. Owners discovered that their dogs were just as eager as dolphins to learn in this positive, fun way. Even the most traditional punishment-based dog trainers had to admit that it was darn effective. Today many, if not most, professional canine behaviorists utilize clicker training for everything from aggression to agility.

Head movement
Photo 2. Good boy. This is more like it; his head is politely turned away from me.

Horse trainers are proving to be as set in their ways as those early dog folk, claiming that praising a horse and giving him treats is just bribery and will lead to aggression. Unfortunately, most of the individuals who disavow positive reinforcement have never actually seen it in action. Randomly hand-feeding a horse who walks all over you is a bad idea, but that’s NOT what clicker training is all about. On the contrary, it’s an excellent way to teach a horse to respect your space and keep his mouth out of your pockets.

 “I knew he could be educated,” said another student, “but I never imagined how well-behaved he’d be all around. He’s so much safer and easier to handle by myself, the vet, and the farrier.” Her horse, feeling very proud of himself, stood at a safe distance while she stroked his neck.

How does it work? You simply teach your horse that the sound of the clicker, a small plastic object available at most pet stores, equals a treat. You ask him to do an easy behavior, then click and treat. Most horses understand the game in minutes. They become bright and eager, seeming to enjoy the challenge of doing the right thing as much as the food reward. From here you go anywhere, breaking down desired behavior chains, teaching them, improving them, making them more challenging. Moving away from pressure, lifting feet, accepting grooming … all become fun games. As with any training, consistent practice builds excellence; however, many behaviors can be taught in a basic way in 1-3 sessions.

Clicker training piggybacks onto any positively based program of riding or driving. It’s as useful for basic starting and first rides as it is for serious problem solving. It’s especially effective for unstarted older horses who may have no concept of paying attention, learning, and working. Best of all, clicker training puts the power in your hands. It takes the mystery out of training by breaking down behaviors into small parts that anyone can understand and teach.

Many people are hesitant to try clicker training because they’ve heard it teaches horses to bite. Nothing could be farther from the truth; in fact, the clicker is a very effective tool for rehabilitating pushy, nippy horses. How is that possible? First, let’s take a look at why horses develop these undesirable behaviors.

Head duck
Photo 3. Treat. Now he gets the carrot. Good boy!

In nature, horses do not compete for food; there is an abundance of forage in their nomadic world. Overgrazing and the resulting starvation and fighting occur only in the fenced human world. In nature, equines eat pretty much constantly, ingesting a variety of foods which keep their digestive systems going. No wonder, then, that horses kept in captivity and fed twice daily develop unnatural habits like mugging. Every time your horse is fed, if he makes ugly faces, pins his ears, charges at the stall door, or yanks the hay/grain pan out of the feeder’s hands, he is being reinforced for mugging.

“Manners!” is lesson number one for any horse starting clicker training. With this exercise you will set simple rules and, with consistency, quickly extinguish negative responses around food. First, make sure your horse has something in his stomach before you begin training. If he hasn’t eaten in a couple of hours, a snack of hay will take the edge off and make him more comfortable. Next, set up a safe environment. If your horse is calm and well behaved around food, you can work with him on a halter and lead. If he has any inclination to push, nip, or bite, work behind a barrier such as a stall guard or arena gate. You don’t even need your clicker at this point; a bag of small treats, like carrot medallions, will do. Now, pick up one of the treats and hold it in your hand, but don’t give it to the horse yet. From now on, the rule is that he must turn his head away from food in order to receive it. At first, he will probably try to grab the food from your hand. He might even get mad, pin his ears, show his teeth, paw… ignore it! At some point, he will turn his head away. Immediately dispense the treat. Good boy! After eating it, he will probably lunge for your pocket or bag; again, ignore the incorrect behavior and wait for the head to turn away. Treat! You can see how the stall guard or arena gate will keep you out of harm’s way and prevent the horse from “self rewarding” by grabbing the food.

As with any other training exercise, consistency is the key to success. Never, ever feed your horse when he mugs you. Always require him to turn his head away and, if he is loose, to back out of your space. Educate others about your training program: too often well-meaning people will hand feed your horse (or worse, let their young children hand feed your horse) assuming it’s okay. Often these people become offended when corrected, but they must be made to understand that they are endangering themselves and their children by not following the horse owner’s rules.

With manners well established, you are ready to move on to the next exercise and introduction to the use of the clicker, “Targeting".

To be continued in the next issue of Natural Horse Magazinehoofprint


About the author:
Brigid Wasson, a California native, is currently owned by two Norwegian Fjords, two Thoroughbreds and a Shetland Pony. She teaches clicker training in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is available for private lessons or clinics.
(650) 921-0184