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Clicker Training...Trick or Treat?
by Gwen Santagate
Website: Penzance

When one thinks of horses picking up orange cones in their teeth, standing on platforms with all four hooves and jumping through hula hoops, one generally tends to think of “trick” horses! Either that or the horse is one super-smart cookie! Well, I have personally learned that this just isn’t necessarily so. Any horse, any age, any breed and certainly any discipline, can be easily taught “tricks” (but are they *really* tricks?) and better yet … can learn the handler’s and riders cues twice as quickly than ‘traditional’ methods when using Clicker Training. Clicker Training is NOT just for the circus tricks. It is valuable for everyday training and working with horses; your horses, my horses the horses down the street and the ones across town. Are you ready to string me up yet? Well, hold on and read on … there’s more.

I’m sure that most of you reading this have been in the riding ring many times with a bored-to-death horse. I’m sure most of you have been just as bored as your horse at times! I’m also sure we’ve all run into the following, as well … How many times have you heard, “I can’t catch my horse! The second he lays eyes on the halter and lead in my hand he runs the other way!”. How many of you have at least thought, if not spoken aloud, the words, “You dumb horse! You’re dumber than a rock! Why can’t you just do what I ask you to do! Why do you have to be so stupid all the time!?”. Well, my friend, I really don’t care to be the bearer of bad news however, … these are cases not of a stupid horse, but simply a horse that is not understanding what you are asking of him. A horse is a horse is a horse. He is not a dumb rock. On the other hand, we are the ones who may be the dumb rocks expecting an animal that outweighs us at least 4 – 5 times, can run 3 –4 times faster than we can and has a mind of its own, to understand our spoken language and to obey our ‘commands’! They understand their own language. Whinneys, nickers, snorts, squeals … and, of course, BODY language! Better yet … we expect these animals to carry us on their backs while running around, jumping over weird looking poles, walking through the thick of the forest and more. OK, so who are the dumb rocks? In the wild, the only things that might get on the back of a horse is a *predator* trying to pull him to the luncheon table! You can be sure that predator isn’t asking the horse to be his guest, either!

Horses are animals of prey. This means that they are gentle animals and not prone to attacking another living being except when cornered and fearing for their very lives. They don’t like to eat meat (and that includes you or me!) They don’t like the feel of squishy things under their hooves, live or otherwise. Every foreign sight in their eyes is a potential enemy just waiting for horse stew. This is known as their flee or fight instinct. Horses would much prefer lazing around, munching on their grass with the sun warming their backs. They don’t care to run very far or jump very high or execute sidepasses and pirouettes over the range. These maneuvers are ones that the horse CAN do naturally, but unless highly motivated, would much prefer not to do. This is the horse’s base of behavior; graze, graze, graze until danger arises. Then run like heck for as short of a distance as necessary to get away from the perceived danger. Once the danger has passed, it’s back to the business of grazing once again. Young horses, of course, love to romp and play but as they grown older they learn that their energies must be preserved. Maturity tends to slow them down as it does with all species of animals. Besides, they never know when they might need that energy to run for their lives.

Clicker Training provides a high motivation for a horse to do what it is we are asking of him, regardless of age and character. If we are clear and concise with our requests, our horses would be more than happy to comply IF they are motivated and IF they are understanding exactly what it is we want from them. Clicker Training provides that clarity and that motivation in a unique, playful, fun way. Clicker Training also teaches the human tobe focused and clear with his or her request of the horse. Let’s look at some illustrations:

The best place to start is to introduce the horse to the clicker itself. Now, the clicker does not have to necessarily be a mechanical “clicker”. I use a high pitched, quick “Good!” Or, when really excited about a tremendous achievement, “AWESOME!” I do also use the mechanical “clicker” but find that personally, I do not like to have to think about “clicking” along with everything else I am doing. I am just not that coordinated and haven’t been resourceful enough to purchase a clicker on a wristband. For the first introductions to Clicker Training, I will just allow the horse to get used to the executed “click” and immediately, instantaneously, give him a favorite treat. Now hold on, you say … you don’t like to hand feed your horse? OK, then how about a favorite scritch or hug or rub on the forehead? That works just as well. I tend to have a couple of horses who are severe treat hounds so the food treats really motivate them better than anything else. (Unless it’s a hefty scritch on the udder or belly!) Cut up carrot pieces or Frosted Shredded Mini-Wheats make convenient and wholesome treats around here. So, the scene is this … I ask for a step forward, the horse takes a step and instantly I “click” while feeding a treat. It certainly doesn’t take long for the horse to associate the “click” with something that feels really good … like munching down a piece of carrot! Most of the “average” horses will catch on in just a couple of minutes. For the first couple of initiations to the click, I’ll end the session in a short time. Maybe repeat the session later on in the day again or maybe wait until the next day. As soon as I feel the horse really understands that a “click” means a “positive reward” or “positive reinforcement”, I’ll start to build on that foundation adding new requests and behaviors with each session. Now you’re thinking, “Yeah, so what? You’re teaching the horse he’ll get a treat when you ask him to do a trick!” Well, let’s dig in a bit further …

Any animal, bird, reptile or other living creature learns quickly to execute certain behaviors which reap pleasurable results. Pavlov set up levers which rats had to push in order to get their food. It didn’t take them very long at all to learn how they were served their breakfast. The same applies to most other animal species. If we understand that a horse can only think second to second, then we will understand that a reward (or a punishment) given 10 minutes ‘after’ a desired behavior is being given without any basis for comprehension on the part of the horse. The horse is not going to stand and think, “Hmmmm, that cookie must be because I did such a wonderful collected trot!”. The window of understanding is very small. On the other hand, repeated behaviors cause “habituated” results. In other words, the more times a horse executes a desired act, the more the act, or behavior, becomes a habit in response to a particular cue. The cue then becomes the “switch”. The learning curve is heightened by the motivation of the click and reward. The horse is eager for the reward and because the horse has a high performing memory, second only to the elephant, that memory is increased by the result of a pleasurable consequence to a performed behavior. Whew … that’s a mouthful but read it again, word by word. Let’s put it in everyday terms. If we were asked by our boss to sweep the floor and every time we swept the floor for awhile, we received an immediate bonus of cold cash, I will bet my last dollar than we’d all be sweeping our hearts out! Now a penny’s worth wouldn’t get us far … but if our boss were inclined to give us a dollar an inch? Now THAT would be worth sweeping for around the clock! (Bet we’d have the cleanest towns around!) Those dollars are the “treats”. Now, add a unique sound as you’re being given the dollar. After just a few times of hearing that sound, we would be conditioned to immediately expect a dollar reward! The two, the dollar and the sound, quickly become a sensory motivator. Now, what would happen if one time we didn’t get that dollar? We’d sweep another inch and another until we’d hear the song and get our dollar! Here is where the variable reward comes in. Once the horse learns a specific behavior as a stepping stone to something more advanced, we start to withhold the click and reward while the horse will strive for the click.

Ie: We’ve taught the horse to touch a cone with his nose. This is called Targeting. At first we set it up so the horse would accidently touch the cone with his nose and INSTANTLY … Click/Reward (or Click/Treat. C/T) We set the horse up again to touch the cone. Again … instant C/T. By the third or fourth time that horse will be looking to touch his nose deliberately to get that C/T. So now we move the cone somewhere else and ask him to tough the cone. He deliberately seeks out that cone, touches it with his nose and C/T! Voila! He’s figured it out! Then we start moving the cone around even more … setting it on the ground. The horse will seek out that cone so he can tough his nose to it because he knows that the C/T is coming as soon as he does and boy, oh boy … he LOVES those carrots! Now, we’re going to add a second cone and withhold the C/T until after he touches *both* cones. He’s going to touch the first one, expecting his reward but, not getting it, will try again. This time he’ll find the second cone and touch that one as well. C/T … are you getting it clear now? The C/T is the motivator for the horse to perform a desired behavior. We, also, are motivated to teach the horse because we get an instant feeling of success when our horse has executed a requested behavior!

Yes, Clicker Training is used to teach a horse “Circus Tricks”. However, what a wonderful and FUN way to work with our horse on an everyday basis! It is straightforward, honest and encourages trust between the horse and trainer. Clicker Training provides the motivation for the horse to ‘want’ to perform; it also provides the motivation for us to use our imaginations to creatively teach our horse new behaviors in a fun, safe and non-traumatic manner. C/T opens the pathway to clearer communications between horse and human and forms a bond between the two which is hard surpassed. Why don’t you give it a try? Do you have a horse which finds a particular object frightening? Use that object for your first targeting lesson. Does your horse run away when you approach? Use the clicker and treat when you do get to him! He’ll be following you everywhere within a week. Remember to break the task into small pieces. Start with the targeting then build from there. It works! It’s FUN! For both you and your horse.

--Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate © 1999