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Website last updated June 2013 by Catherine Bell

Getting Started with Clicker Training

Clicker training is one of the most appealing training methods - all you have to do is buy a little plastic box with a metal strip inside and that's it, you're a clicker trainer.

Well, maybe not! Not surprisingly, clicker training is much harder than it looks - it is also much harder than is often portrayed by some professionals. For that reason I think it is of great importance that you have some understanding of basic behavioural science before you start trying to clicker train. That way you can avoid some of the pit-falls, such as confusing/upsetting your horse, inadvertantly reinforcing undesired behaviours, inadvertantly punishing desired behaviours and, at worst, putting yourself in a dangerous position.

If you have not read my article on basic behavioural science and completed the first worksheet then I would advise that you do not attempt clicker training yet.

If you are ready to move on then read the rest of this article. Then have a think about positive reinforcement. What is it? How does it make you feel? How should it make your horse feel? If you are not both having fun then you need to think about what is going wrong.

For your first clicker training session I would recommend you use a clicker, 10-15 small treats (e.g. chopped carrot, pony nuts, pinch of chaff) and a target. I would suggest that the treats are kept in some sort of bag, ideally around the waist - something that can be removed to signal "end of session". The target can be anything that is not in every-day use - a cone, dog toy or supplement lid is ideal. If the object is in every-day use then you will need some way of telling your horse whether you are in a clicker session or not - the location or use of a treat bag will aid this association. The first time you try, it might be better to stand with a barrier (such as a stable door) between you and the horse - some horses can be very food-orientated and this will help to keep you safe.

  • In advance of your first clicker session, try clicking the clicker once near your horse. If the horse is distressed by the sound, then you might want a quieter clicker - maybe even a biro top
  • Present the target near the horse's nose so that curiosity and/or accident causes the nose to touch the target. Click and immediately present a treat. At this stage the horse does not know anything about what is going on - it is still just a fluke.
  • Repeat a few times until the horse is deliberately moving his head to touch the target.
  • After a few repetitions your horse may be ready to have the target held a tiny way out to the left and right or up and down. If this is too confusing then don't worry - different horses learn at different rates.
  • Click, jackpot and remove the treat-bag for the final repetition. A jackpot is a few treats so that the end of session is a good thing. If the session just ends gratuitously then it can be perceived as negative punishment - a jackpot can alleviate this perception. Don't run out of treats - save enough for the jackpot.

A few considerations....

Almost all horses will try to mug you. Mugging is always worth a try, it has worked in the past for many horses at some stage in their lives. Mugging is a behaviour that we hope will extinguish as the horse learns alternative ways to earn treats. But we know from our understanding of extinction that behaviour gets worse before it gets better. The horse needs to pass through an extinction burst in order to understand that mugging does not work. In the early stages you can stand behind a barrier such as a stable door to prevent the mugging. But you should bear in mind that this does not enable the horse to work through the extinction burst and learn not to do it; standing behind a barrier just prevents the horse mugging you. If you ever want to progress to clicker training without a barrier then you will probably need to work through the extinction burst. Far from being inadvisable to try clicker training with very food-orientated horses, it is actually a very good way of helping them to understand how not to be demanding.

Some alternative approaches might be to use a tongue-click or train a different behaviour, such as "looking away from the treat bag". I prefer an actual clicker - it makes a consistent and unambiguous sound, it will not be mistaken for the cck-cck we often use to ask for faster movement, it focuses the human's mind on the task in hand. Some people find it too much to handle - I would suggest practice without the horse present. Training is about the human putting in some hard work, not just the horse. I also prefer to use an unambiguous behaviour for early lessons - "looking-away" is a bit of a vague criterion (how far? which way?), compared with the horse's nose touching a target. This type of training is hard enough for the horses, mainly because of human errors, without setting up ambiguous tasks in the first place.

It is really important to remember that your criterion to click/treat is "touch the target with your nose". So if your horse is doing very well it is easy to get carried away and hold the target sufficiently far away that he needs to take a step. "Walking and following the target" is a very different behaviour from "standing and touching the target" - don't change your criteria too soon and always follow Karen Pryor's Rules of Shaping (from her book Don't Shoot the Dog). Combining touching and walking can come later.

After a few sessions like this you might be wanting to move to a more complex stage such as putting the target on the ground, rather than you holding it. Then you could try putting the target a little further away from you, but still close to the horse. Then the horse could try touching the target and walking to you for a treat. That is a nice way of developing the movement. Then you can progress to the horse moving a step towards the target. After this - the world is your oyster. Clicker training is all about imagination and using the brain; the horse has to think about what behaviour to offer, the human has to think about what to train and learn to interpret the information that the horse is giving.

Don't forget to practice - it's a bit unfair to inflict your mistakes on your horse all the time. You can improve your timing by, for example, bouncing a ball and click each time it touches the ground. Try clicker training the children and other half too! Horses almost always pick things up more quickly than the trainer - for that reason it is important to keep things simple until you really understand what is going on.

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Don't forget to practice - it's a bit unfair to inflict your mistakes on your horse all the time. You can improve your timing by, for example, bouncing a ball and click each time it touches the ground. Try clicker training the children and other half too! Horses almost always pick things up more quickly than the trainer - for that reason it is important to keep things simple until you really understand what is going on.

Free-shaping....

A 100% positive reinforcement session like this is called "free-shaping" (shaping being the key - it is not a case of just sitting waiting for some advanced behaviour to suddenly appear from nowhere, although it could happen!). A free-shaping session allows your horse to explore his environment without any fear of making a mistake. There are no negative consequences of any wrong action. This is extremely empowering for the horse and can lead to changes in personality as confidence increases. But it can also be extremely difficult for a timid horse to muster the confidence to try touching the target - it is actually very rare in traditional horse-training that a horse is allowed to make a decision without being corrected and/or punished for making the wrong decision. This can make horses very reluctant to offer behaviours. You may well need professional help, even in the early stages, if you have a horse like this.

I feel very strongly that it is unethical to train a horse using free-shaping if he is also used for some training method in which he is punished for making incorrect behaviours. You cannot have it both ways - free-shaping can give you a confident, free-thinking, decision-making horse who will sometimes teach you hard lessons about yourself. If you do not want to hear those lessons then I would advise you not to encourage your horse to offer behaviours via free-shaping.

An alternative approach is to avoid free-shaping after the initial target-touching lessons are learnt. Some trainers use the clicker in conjunction with cues, so that behaviours are only "offered" in response to a cue. For example, lifting a foot in response to a touch on the fetlock. This is fine, provided that (i) the horse receives unambiguous feed-back on how to obtain the correct answer and (ii) they are genuine cues and not aversive stimuli which will diminish the value of the clicker training. However, it is my belief that such an approach to clicker training is only skimming the surface of a much larger and more exciting world of both equine and human behaviour.

Copyright Catherine Bell 2006