Clicker training refers to a new method of teaching behavior using a “yes” signal or conditioned reinforcer, to tell the horse precisely when it has done something right. The “click” in clicker training refers to a small plastic noise maker, similar to a child’s toy cricket.
Clicker training began with dolphin training. Thirty plus years ago when dolphins were first put on display in marine aquariums, people had no idea how to train them. Just imagine what you would do if you had to teach a dolphin to jump through a hoop on command.
None of the traditional training methods people knew thirty years ago seemed to apply to an animal that could just swim away. That training depended too much on restraints and punishment, things you just can’t use with dolphins.
The solution was to shape behavior using positive reinforcement, but even that presented a problem. How do you tell a dolphin that you liked what it just did? You can throw a fish in the water, but by the time it finds it, the reward won’t have any connection to the behavior you were trying to reinforce. This problem was solved by introducing a high frequency whistle. The trainers blew a whistle just before they threw the fish into the water.
The dolphins very quickly learned to expect a fish every time they heard the whistle. The next step was to link the whistle to behavior. For example, if you lower a hoop into the water and blow the whistle only when the dolphin is swimming near that hoop, pretty soon the dolphin will be spending the majority of its time orienting around the hoop. This is a beginning step towards learning that behavior leads to whistle leads to fish. Once that connection is made, you are well on the way to training very complex behaviors.
The whistle is a bridging signal (or secondary reinforcer to use the more technical term). It gives the animal very clear and precise information. The acts as a “right answer cue”. The says to the animal, the behavior you just did will get you a treat.
DOLPHIN TRAINING FOR HORSES
We can adapt this system very easily into horse training. With horses we use a plastic clicker. It’s like a children’s toy cricket, only a little more sturdy. You can also use a tongue click, so your hands are left free for other things.
INTRODUCING YOUR HORSE TO A CLICKER
There are many different ways you can do this, but I generally introduce the clicker by teaching the horse to touch a target.
I use small orange cones, the kind you buy as lane markers for sporting events. You can also use lids off of supplement cans, cider jugs, anything that’s handy and horse safe. I start with targeting because it’s a very simple game, plus it’s not part of the horse’s normal training.
You put the horse in a stall with a stall guard across the door. Then you hold a cone, or some other object up in front of the horse. Horses tend to be curious about such things. They’ll sniff the cone. The instant the horse touches the cone, click, you give it a treat.
The horse may start mugging your hands as soon as it realizes that food is involved. If they get too pushy, just step back out of range. The mugging is part of the learning process, and the key is not to get distracted by it. Keep yourself safe, but let the horse explore. He’s going to discover that going directly to the vending machine never earns him treats Help your horse to be successful.
If your horse swings his head away to look at something, take advantage of that to position the cone between the horse’s head and your body. He’ll have to bump into it on his way back to mugging you. When he does, click! he gets a treat. As this happens again and again, he’s suddenly going to realize that bumping the cone gets you, the vending machine, to work!
You can almost see the light bulb go on. As many times as I’ve watched this process, it’s still a magical moment when the horse realizes that He’s in control, that he can make ME click. All he has to do is bump the cone. He’s also learning something else that’s important. He’s learning that he NEVER gets clicked for sniffing my fingers, pulling on my coat, or bumping me. If you have a mouthy horse, clicker training is a great way to teach good manners.
FINDING THE RIGHT REWARD
The clicker is a bridging signal. It links a desired behavior to a reward. The reward is not what WE say the animal should want. A reward is anything the ANIMAL finds reinforcing. So first we have to find things the HORSE wants.
So what do horses like? Both kicking up their heels, and standing still belong on the list, as does a vigorous massage, time with a favorite pasture mate, or a chance to roll in a sand pit. The problem with this list is obvious. It’s hard to use these things in a training session. You can’t let your horse drop and roll every time he gives you a right answer.
Timing is another factor in choosing a suitable reward. Without a bridging signal rewards need to be delivered exactly when the behavior occurs. That way the horse can clearly mark what it was doing and repeat it again for another reward. Delays between behavior and reward can lead to confusion. You think you’re rewarding your horse for dropping his head. He thinks it’s for swishing a fly with his tail. So how do you resolve the problem? Very simply. You introduce a secondary reinforcer.
Horse Motivating : Food
Food, or a pat on the neck is the primary reinforcer. It’s the thing the horse wants. The secondary reinforcer, or bridging signal as it is also called, is a conditioned signal which becomes linked to rewards. It tells the horse, “You are about to get a treat.” Without a bridging signal food is hard to use with horses. They get too eager, and it becomes more of a distraction than a help. But with a bridging signal you can channel that eagerness into performance. Food as a reward works wonderfully. It’s convenient for the rider, and highly motivating to the horse.
I have been using clicker training with my horses since 1993, and I have just been astounded by the results. Everything from basic manners to upper level performance can be taught with the clicker. Clicker training piggy backs beautifully onto other training systems. It’s not a substitute for, but an enhancement of techniques you already know. The clear “yes” answer of the clicker accelerates the learning curve and creates eager, happy horses.
VARYING THE REINFORCER
So what can you use for treats? Grain doled out a teaspoon at a time, carrots, breakfast cereal, chopped up apples, sugar cubes, peppermints, animal crackers, bread . . . really anything that the horse enjoys and that’s safe for it to eat will work. The important point here is that you want to vary your reinforcer. You can give your horse important information just by changing your treat. My horses love peppermints. I reserve those for special moments. When the peppermints come out, they know they’ve done something particularly wonderful, and they make an extra effort the next time.
SHAPING BEHAVIOR IN SMALL STEPS
Clicker training was first developed by marine mammal trainers who shaped performance exclusively with positive reinforcement.
In shaping you take a small tendency to perform in a desired way, and by reinforcing that behavior you gradually shift it towards a more complex behavior. Dolphin training is the easiest way to view this. You have a dolphin swimming in a tank. You want it to swim through a hoop you have hung in the middle of the tank, so you blow a whistle and throw it a fish every time it turns in the direction of the hoop. By gradually delaying the whistle, you can train the dolphin to swim through the hoop.
This is shaping in it’s pure form, but it is not the only way to use the clicker. The clicker is a BRIDGING signal. It says “yes! that’s exactly the behavior I wanted. Now I’m going to give you a reward.” It doesn’t say anything about how that behavior was created in the firstplace.
You can wait for the behavior to occur, or you can use shortcuts that trigger the response you want. For example, in dog training, you don’t just wait for a puppy to sit down and then click it. You lure the behavior by holding a bit of food above the puppy’s head. When the puppy looks up, his haunches sit down. Click! He gets a treat. The food lure is very quickly faded out, and what you are left with is a hand signal that triggers the sit. (If you want to watch an excellent video on clicker training dogs, check out check out Karen Pryor’s “Clicker Magic”, or Gary Wilkes’ videos “Click and Treat” and “On Target”. See the Clicker Resources section for more information.) This kind of training uses TARGETING to prompt the behavior. When I first taught my horse to touch a target, I thought it was just an amusing trick.
In horse training : Pressure
I have since discovered it is an incredibly useful tool that can be applied to a wide variety of situations, including trailer loading, ground tying, leading, obstacle training, and lateral work. Targeting isn’t the only shortcut I can use. In horse training we use pressure to trigger the responses we want. For example, I can ask my horse to back up by tapping his front legs with a whip. As soon as he shifts his weight even a little, I’ll stop tapping. He’ll quickly learn that the way to avoid the tapping is to back up. By definition I’m using a negative reinforcer: an uncomfortable or painful stimulus which the animal can avoid by changing its behavior. Negative reinforcers make great “shaping shortcuts”, especially when you add the right answer cue of the clicker to them.
With the clicker the tap becomes information the horse uses to get to his reinforcement faster. It tells him what we want. “Move away from here, and I’ll click you.” The horse learns that the whip is not there to intimidate him, but to give him clues to understanding us. With the clicker negative reinforcers lose their adversarial associations and become instead information providers.
The backing exercise is very important in the early stages of clicker training. I’m telling the horse that the best way to get the vending machine to work is by stepping away from it. Mugging me for treats won’t get it anything. If you have a pushy horse, this is a super way to teach good manners. Can you teach backing without the clicker? Of course you can, but, if you want your horse to understand how to use the clicker for more complex tasks, you have to start with simple exercises. Most horses can benefit from a review of ground manners, so this is a great opportunity to improve your horse’s leading skills, and at the same time introduce him to a new tool.