Making it click with your horse
By Sandra Poppema,
Clicker training is a perfect way to teach your horse new things or retrain unwanted behaviours. Your horse will love it! Why? Clicker training is a positive reinforcement training method. That means that you are adding rewards in order to tell your horse that he has done something right. In scientific terms it is also referred to as ‘R+ training’.
As an equine clicker trainer you say ‘Yes!’ to your horse by clicking wanted behaviour and a reward will follow promptly. Most traditional and natural horsemanship methods say ‘No!’ to the horse by increasing pressure or even inflict pain when the horse is showing unwanted behaviour, in order to teach the horse that he is not getting it right.
You have to reward a horse within 3 seconds after the wanted behaviour in order to let the horse know what the reward was about. Most of the time it is not possible to present a reward that quickly, so you need a signal to bridge the time between the wanted behaviour and the reward.
In clicker training we use a little box that makes a clicking sound when you press it. Your horse will soon learn that every time he hears the click his reward follows. He will connect the dots quickly: a click means he did something right. What happens? Your horse is going to repeat whatever he was doing in order to make you click again. Now he thinks he is ‘training’ you. Which horse wouldn’t want to be in control of his human (environment)? To prevent that your horse will see you as a living vending machine, one of the first things we teach our horses is that mugging will not be rewarded. Instead we will reward the opposite behaviour, like looking away from the treats.
When I first heard of clicker training I had no idea how it would change my life for the better as horse owner, horse trainer, rider and also as dressage coach. I didn’t know anything about it when I started experimenting with my 21 year old pony, a clicker and some treats. Well, a lot of treats to be honest.
It was 1999 and I just got my bachelors degree in Animal Management. There were no internet pages about horse training or clicker training in general, let alone about equine clicker training. I was lucky to have a co-worker who had followed an Animal training course at the University of California about positive reinforcement training. She told me about R+ training and she taught me the basics of equine clicker training. She also introduced me to an Yahoo email discussion list ‘The Click Ryder’ where I learned so much about this fascinating force free training method. The more I use it, the more I like it.
I started, like a lot of others, with trick training. I was amazed how quickly my senior pony learned the Spanish walk, how to push a skippy ball around with his nose and how to perform a perfect classical bow. On top of that, he showed me that he really liked my new training approach and the new challenges I gave him. How? He lived in a three acre pasture with other horses. He never ran away when I called him, but most of the time I still had to walk all the way over to him in order to halter him. Within a few weeks after I started clicker training he came cantering towards the gate. How can a horse tell you more clearly that he is eager to work with you? Work becomes fun if you motivate your horse with rewards.
The secrets of clicker training are simple. Formulate your training goal into a positive sentence and be very specific. Do not say what you don’t want, like ‘I want my horse to stop walking away while I mount him.’ Say what you do want: ‘I want my horse to have 4 feet on the ground when I mount him.’ It is easy to divide a goal into smaller training steps if it is very specific. Start training 4 feet on the ground for 1 second and build duration in the next sessions. These mini-goals are easy to understand for your horse and you can reward often.
Set your horse up for success. Always make the right ‘answer’ (behaviour) easy and all the other answers harder. Let your horse face the entrance while mounting and make sure there are no distractions, like grass, nearby. In order to state your goals positively and set it up for success you will become more and more creative over time.
Of course your timing has to be good, too. You get what you reinforce (click). If your click is too soon or too late, you might reinforce behaviour you don’t want: lifting a foot or taking a whole step while mounting.
Last, but not least: make sure your rewards are reinforcing to your horse. Sounds simple, but sometimes it is not. Some horses will do anything for little chunks of carrot, others might prefer pellets. Some horses need bigger treats or more often to stay motivated and some horses are not very food oriented at all. Experiment with different rewards to see what motivates him best.
If your horse performs extremely well give him a ‘jackpot’. A jackpot is an extra super tasty treat or a bigger amount. Always end your training session after a jackpot. Your horse earns a break now. Your horse will soon comprehend this fun game of clicking and getting rewarded.
This training method is a very clear way to communicate with horses. And they learn very fast: they will pay attention, now there is something valuable in it for them! In the beginning they will not yet know the rules about polite behaviour around food, but that is something you teach them right away. Only food after a click, only a click after you have asked (cued) a specific behaviour. After all, we all want a safe and polite behaving horse to work with.
It can be quite a change for you as horse owner or rider to think into positives and define specific goals what you do want, instead of what you don’t want and be satisfied with your accomplishments.
Clicker training has taught me how to think in positives and how to chunk down complicated tasks. That makes my life much more pleasurable. Not only as horse trainer and instructor, but also in my daily life. I focus on the positive little steps happening in my life and I reward myself often. And for my horse? She is always happy to see me and willing to work with me.