How To Start Clicker Training with +R

It Starts With Only Two Simple Skills

This post is intended to be a tutorial for getting started clicker training (CT) with positive reinforcement (+R). The skills I discuss here are the two vital ones that allow for training anything with your horse using +R. After teaching them, you can use CT exclusively for problem behaviors or you can switch entirely! It’s totally up to you, I’d just like to help you get started! I wrote thoroughly to tackle troubleshooting (meaning it’s long lol but skipping steps is not a good idea!) & I hope to set the readers up for success in their +R endeavors!

Starting clicker training can seem intimidating. After all, it’s a totally different way to approach training horses than what we’re traditionally taught. There’s a lot to learn, but never fear—if I can do it, so can you. It requires some dedication and time, but your horse will thank you & I bet you’ll have fun, too!


but first… Etiquette

  • Pick a sound. Start with a mechanical clicker to develop your timing. When the clicking becomes reflex, you’re probably good to move to a mouth sound if you want. It can be difficult for beginners to use a mouth sound at first (it’s a lot to think about). Click here for blog post on why I use a clicker!

  • Use something your horse likes: scratches in his favorite spot, or my personal favorite, alfalfa pellets. They’re cheap & you can buy a TON at once. Horses love them, they’re good for them, & they’re hard to “over-do” whereas an excess of sugary treats can be a problem for gut health.

  • Keep your hand out of the treat pouch until AFTER you click. This helps keep the marker signal (click) clear. Horses are very aware of their surroundings, so if you “pre-load” your treats, you may find the horse decided that that is his marker signal!


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Remember

All horses learn at their own paces just like humans. You may not get everything you planned done in one fell swoop, but that’s okay! Better to have a plan unfulfilled than run out of ideas with big blinky eyes staring expectantly at you! Plus, you’ve just started. Don’t expect to be a pro from the get go; nailing your timing is harder than it looks.


Your first session

Protected Contact

Start with your horse over a stall guard or over a paddock fence (preferably without other horses). We use protected contact (PC) to start for a number of reasons. It may seem elementary, but it’s extremely beneficial—especially when you first start out armed with a treat bag and a clicker. Starting in PC keeps the human safe. If your horse can get grabby with treats (addressing this in a bit), working in PC allows you to back away where the horse can’t follow.

It also keeps the horse safe from you. If he gets overwhelmed, fearful, or brain fatigued, he’s free to leave. This will likely happen often at the beginning, but if you respect the breaks the horse takes, soon you’ll have one who won’t leave you alone! Additionally, if you were in the stall & he/she were to come too close for comfort while mugging for treats, you might need to use undesirable methods on the horse to keep yourself safe. To avoid this, start in PC so we can teach your horse how you’d like him to behave around treats in order to prevent that hypothetical fiasco all together!

Target Training:

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Even if you never use it again, target training is an incredibly clear way for the horse to start to understand the clicker’s (or marker signal) meaning. To start target training, find an object (preferably that your horse is not afraid of) like a bottle, empty supplement container, fly mask, whatever random object you’d like, and hold it up. Remember, you’re outside the stall/paddock & the horse is inside. Hold the target near the horse’s nose so it’s likely they’ll bump into it. The moment the nose comes into contact with the target, click. Remove the target from the horse’s sight. Then, reach into your treat pouch and be sure to feed away from your body. Ideally, you treat where the “perfect horse” would be: head in center of chest; nose in front of the vertical. Remember, if you feed near your body, the horse will keep coming into your space to get his reward.

Represent the target, when the horse touches it, click, move the target away, and treat away from yourself. Continue this cycle until the horse is responding pretty quickly. The target itself will become a cue for the touch behavior, but you can also add a verbal cue like “touch” or “target.” This can be useful for transferring the skill to other objects like stationary targets or potentially scary ones.

I like to start with targeting because, as stated previously, it helps the horse become aware of your marker signal. The horse now knows that when he touches the target, he will get a click that precedes food (Thus, becoming a secondary reinforcer. For more on that see the Clicker Blog Post). In short, he/she learns Click = Food is coming & I did the right thing.

Now that you’ve taught targeting, leave him/her some treats in the bucket as an “end of session” cue (this helps combat potential -P as the horse is losing the access to enrichment & treats. By leaving a small pile of treats, the horse has something to munch on. Over time this becomes clear to the horse that the session is over.). Take a break for a few minutes or save the next step for tomorrow—it’s up to you. If the horse took some time to take to targeting, it may be best to save the next step for the next day. If they pick it up at lightning speed, take a break and come back in 10 minutes or so for the manners step.

Manners:

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This is the biggest issue in training horses with treats. No one wants a cookie monster, but it’s important to understand why horses become that way. If the horse has been reinforced for coming into your space or “mugging” you for treats, then they have no reason to stop. So, if his/her head is touching you & you treat them, you’ve encouraged that behavior. Horses are natural foragers so it comes naturally to them to search for food. This isn’t a criminal offense or a show of disrespect! It is our responsibility to teach them how we’d like them to behave around treats.

Teaching manners first can be a bit confusing, so I don’t! The target provides something visual & super clear for them to understand. By doing manners second, you already have a horse that knows what the clicker means.

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Still working in PC, you will stand beside the horse. If your horse has a history of biting, you may need to stand a little further way. Stand patiently as your horse sniffs you or your pockets. (Again, if the horse is a mugger, stand a good distance away.) Eventually, he/she will understand there is nothing happening and decide that you’re quite boring! They will likely move the head away at which point you click instantly. You want to reinforce him/her for having his/her head in between the shoulders—straight. So the moment they begin to move away from your pockets, click, and you will likely hit the sweet spot for the head in the center of the chest.

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When they hear the click, they will likely remember the targeting session & remember “Oh! That means food!” & move back into your space.

Simple solution: Feed where they were when you clicked. Soon, the horse will understand that there is no point in moving to you to look for treats because he/she never gets fed there. When his head is between his shoulders, he gets clicked & he gets fed there… must be a good place to be!

A word to the wise: be on your toes for this lesson as you don’t want to teach “head away.” I made that mistake first starting out. Luckily, horses are forgiving learners & all I needed to do was click sooner; they then gradually started moving to the center of their body instead of flexing the neck all the way away from me. The reason I no longer teach head away is because horses will use that body language as a calming signal. It can mean they need a break or perhaps they’re worried. They often use it with scary objects or other horses to indicate that they wish to avoid conflict (Language Signs & Calming Signals of Horses by Rachaël Draaisma). Either way, that behavior needs to remain intact, so your horse can communicate with you. The line blurs more if it’s a cue-able (conditioned) behavior.

For continuing manners, simply click & reinforce (C/R) whenever you are in “that” position (This will be your cue. I tend to turn away from the horse slightly to cue manners. You can also have a designated hand position/signal or verbal cue.) & the horse has his/her head in-between the shoulders.

Be sure to repeat on the other side! You may find at first you have a well-mannered individual on one side & a cookie monster on the other, so be sure to cover both! In that same vein, be sure to work around the horse from different angles so he/she really understands that treats do not come when his/her nose is in your space.

Final notes

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After this is well established, you can work start work out of PC and in with the horse. You will have a horse who understands the rules when food is involved & be a pleasure to work with. If the horse starts mugging again, reassess your technique and review the rules yourself. You may need to return to protected contact for another session or two.

Even if you aren’t going to continue with clicker training, this is a great skill to teach horses. You also have an advantage knowing that if your horse starts biting, that something else is the cause! If you’re using clicker training just to problem solve a few issues like water fears or trailer loading, these two skills are really important. They teach the horse to touch/follow a target (maybe into a trailer?) & how to behave when you work with treats.

Check out the video that goes with this blog to see the words in action!

 

Listen to the related podcast episode for more!

For +R books, videos, podcasts, gear & more see my Resource page.

For clarification on the +R science jargon check out my Glossary page.

Is +R Just a Fad?

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So, is it a Fad?

The opinion that positive reinforcement (+R) is just the next big thing, an annoying fad, or the newest trend is pretty common. Yet, the reality is… it’s not new — more like 90 years old. The term was coined in the late 1930’s, but that’s just when it was discovered, not how long it’s existed! Reinforcement, punishment, behavioral influence, training, it’s all been around for centuries. The words and reason training worked just hadn’t yet been pinpointed. In horse training, specifically, it’s been used as a primary method for over 40 years. There were theories, but not concrete reasons. Regardless, the research since 1930 is extensive, and the benefits are clear.

By definition a fad is “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities.” I’d argue that something that’s been in a field for well over 40 years is not short-lived, that something centered around trying/learning in effort to improve welfare is not without basis in the object’s qualities, and therefore not a “fad.” It’s science.

If you are unfamiliar with psychology, you may think that positive and negative reinforcement are “good” and “bad” reinforcement, but that is not the case. In the context of operant conditioning, positive means “addition.” You are adding something to increase a behavior’s frequency in +R. In -R, you are removing (negative) something to increase behavior frequency. Not good and bad. That misunderstanding is a serious mistake. (For more on the terms see jetequitheory.com/glossary).

It’s Unrealistic

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There seems to be this perception that trainers who use treats are a lot of unrealistic idealists who think the world is all rainbows & treats, or just don’t understand how horses work; however, even as an amateur +R trainer, I’d argue I know more about horses now than I ever have! And using food rewards makes sense.

That‘s not to say that those who disagree with me do not understand what I do or that they didn’t take the same learning initiative, but simply, they have a different perception/interpretation of the information. That does not make one of us better than the other, but regardless, the general opinion is that there is one that’s better: the one that’s worked for centuries.

Why do anything different? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right? But there’s a reason that phrase and others like it are deemed some of the most dangerous phrases. Why? It doesn’t allow for change. Why search for information when what I already do works? My answer? We can always improve. Times change. Horses are no longer primarily a commodity, a source of transportation, property, or a means to an end.

I am of the opinion that we, as horse trainers, caretakers, lovers, etc., should always be actively pursuing new and relevant information instead of dismissing it, name calling, or belittling because, in truth, we all want to do right by our animals. What matters is the pursuit of knowledge and allowance for change. We’re adaptable for a reason.

Think for Yourself

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For a long time, I didn’t understand why traditional training procedures worked well enough. No matter who or how many questions I asked, I always seemed to get vague and rather unhelpful answers with words like “respect,” “obedience,” and other abstract concepts. Everyone just said “release,” but never why. Is it because it makes the horse uncomfortable on some level? Is it painful? Is it aversive? Is it physically taxing? Why does the horse want release? Why pressure/release works or how to best train using -R wasn’t explained. It wasn’t for lack of riding under accomplished or intelligent trainers. The clinicians & trainers I rode under were brilliant. Regardless, they never explained the science. It’s just not something we consider in training!

When it comes to horses, scientific evidence is mostly reserved for veterinary care and nutrition, but not for training. That’s curious to me because there is so much evidence out there regarding operant training with all kinds of animals. Yet, most people don’t know about it or many, if they do, don’t care about it.

Now, I am less likely to take someone’s word at value just because of their name, position, or label — no matter how credentialed. I want to find out for myself. I’ll accept that what you believe is what you believe, and you may be right; however, I’m still going to look into the concept for myself. I do this now, due to feeling like I’d wasted so much time not knowing and accepting that I would never fully understand, when I could’ve spent that time researching and educating myself. 

The world is at our fingertips now, and if we can convince ourselves to sit down and read for ten minutes, we’d be better off & more enlightened. I spend hours dedicated to reading about & applying training methodology. I’ve delved in to the scientific information available about how horses truly communicate & learn best, not just taken a “professional’s” word for it. A label can’t be the end all be all. Beyond that, it’s not the professional’s responsibility for me to learn the why’s. It’s mine.

Reasons You Shouldn’t Use +R

(Debunking & Addressing Concerns)

What’s even more curious is the common reasoning for not using +R:

Horses are too big. Horses need to be dominated & respect humans. They do it to each other. They can’t be trained with food, they’ll bite.

To address these concerns…

  1. Horses are too big!

    Do you know how massive & powerful animals lions, tigers, rhinos, and elephants are trained? With food. How animals who can’t be led by a rope like whales and dolphins are trained? With food. How attack dogs and wild animals are trained? With food. I’d be much more afraid of a lion or elephant biting me or pushing me around than a horse! And yet, they are trained with +R in many parts of the world. All these animals have been trained to offer a hip to willingly receive a shot. Yes, a shot. Some humans won’t even do that! Dolphins have been trained to jump through hoops without force (how would you?). Wild animals have been taught to accept a caretaker’s presence or touch without tranquilizers. They have been trained to do all sorts of husbandry and care behaviors all without force or ropes. They are not punished and yet, they have cordial, peaceful relationships with their handlers.

    Respect is earned. Not taken.

  2. Horses need to be dominated & respect humans.

    Give this a read, “Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training.” ⇾ https://equitationscience.com.

    Mind you, this is summary written by several doctors, scientists, and researchers. While labels are not everything, peer reviewed scientific evidence is. The TLDR is that there is no evidence to suggest that horses have a concept of a whole-herd-hierarchy. They communicate on a horse to horse level, not horse to whole. Beyond that, dominance theory was debunked—for dogs, too.

    There is however, evidence to suggest that attempting to assert dominance over a horse can potentially trigger fear and avoidance behaviors, create a horse that no longer attempts to communicate (learned helplessness), and near abuse. I feel like I should say: obviously, not everything is abuse, there are layers to every situation, but using punishment & aversives can easily escalate to abuse. Even if we don’t think it’s abuse, it’s really up to the horse’s perception— not ours.

  3. Horses do it to each other.

    Are you a horse? Will your horse ever see you as a horse? The answer is no. As much as we’d like to communicate on their level, punching them will never read as a kick, pinching them will never read as a bite, and using euphemisms like popping, bopping, and thumping doesn’t matter to the horse. A hit is a hit and a threat to hit is a threat. What using +P (positive punishment: adding an aversive to decrease behavior) does could be decreasing behavior, which is the goal. It could also be discouraging the horse from communicating (i.e. I have ulcers & when you tighten the girth it hurts. I first put my ears back, next I widened my eye, then I tensed my lip, finally my ears went sideways, and nothing worked, so I bit at you.)

    If you punish instead of questioning why the behavior happened in the first place, it’s only worse for the horse. An already painful situation like a girth’s pressure on an ulcerated belly is made even more unpleasant because now the horse is getting hit in the face. I used to do it too, I’m no saint, but let me tell you: Punishment does not always work how you’d like it to. It can create more anger, frustration, or pain. It can create avoidance, and fear. But it does not earn you respect.

  4. Horses can’t or shouldn’t be trained with food! They’ll bite.

    Horses are motivated in a few ways, seeking & avoiding. They are foragers, they look for food. They secrete acid in their stomachs all day because they were designed to consume food all day (save for sleep). So, they are highly motivated by food. They are also flight animals, so they run, they avoid, and they move away. So, there’s two ways right there to train. Train by using their natural desire to seek food, or train with their natural desire to avoid pressure?

    Beyond that, the behavioral problem of biting is usually either brought on by discomfort (ulcers, etc) or the horse being rewarded for being in the human’s space. Example: the horse mugs you or noses you for treats, you give him the treat to get him to leave you alone, but he’s just been rewarded for being all over you. If you try to resist, he’ll go through extinction (what’s always worked is no longer working & that’s frustrating) & perhaps bite. Luckily, it’s very easy to train proper behavior (manners) around treats with treats!

Timing is critical. Incorrect timing is how the ‘old wives tales’ originate telling us that horses will learn to bite. Animals are taught to bite by the incorrect use of rewards. If horses are allowed to take rewards from the trainer when they want, the behavior of being aggressive will be reinforced.
— Patti Dammier from Behavior Modification for Horses
 
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Final Thoughts

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As humans, we tend to get comfortable in what we know. Trying to find alternative solutions can be overwhelming and is often far more difficult than settling with what we already know or letting someone else do the work for us. Despite knowing this and having compassion for it, I’d be lying if I said it weren’t sometimes a struggle to deal with. +R training is consistently argued and often patronized. Yes, it comes with the territory when you’re trying something new. Yes, there will always be some pushback and resistance to change. That’s reality.

But simply because it’s not the norm doesn’t make it wrong, inferior, or worthy of condescension. A thing is not automatically a fad just because of a spike in popularity. History and sustainability are the determinants of a fad, and +R has proved itself to be more than a fad in both categories. It’s always been around (we just didn’t have a name for it), and continues to work over a century later.

Many who preach against +R, aren’t well versed on it or haven’t actually tried it correctly. Yes, there is an incorrect way to train with +R — just like there is with traditional training. Some have done it well, and choose to mix or to continue -R. That’s much better in my opinion than one preaching against something he/she knows little to nothing about. So please, if there’s anything to take away from this lengthy blog post, take this:

  • Be wary of blindly following the words of others. An impressive title or success rate does not automatically make someone correct. Do your own research.

  • There are a million ways to train every behavior. There is no “right” way. Instead, there’re many ways, each with varying emotional and physical consequences.

  • Patronizing others because you don’t agree/understand is an admission of ignorance & immaturity.

  • Every person who works with animals can benefit from having even a basic understanding of both classical & operant conditioning. Well informed decisions can then be made as to which method is used!

  • Lastly, be open to new ideas & hunger to know more so you can make informed decisions for yourself and your horse. This way, you’ve made your own decision and can be independently confident in yourself.

Pursue knowledge vigorously, be skeptical, & open your mind(:


It’s time to move away from the faddish and quick fic methods and invest a little time to learn the basic principles of behavior modification — that teaches anyone to create a positive learning environment and a method of obtaining behavior from horses.
— Patti Dammier from Behavior Modification for Horses

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