So... What's the Deal with the Clicker?

Why a clicker? Is the fanny pack a fashion choice?

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This is hands down my most frequently asked question. It comes at no surprise as carrying around this little noise maker seems peculiar to those familiar with the horse world.

A while ago, I too thought it peculiar and really judged those who used a clicker. It was weird, “unnatural,” and frankly just not appealing to me at the time. It didn’t seem like real training. Why would I carry around this thing in addition to a fanny pack? I saw no point in it.

I had no issue with hand feeding horses or indulging their treat desires, but something about wearing a hip pack was just off putting. Now, I am the proud owner of three. I also own too many clickers! Four are tangible and one is permanent as I use my tongue, but we’ll get to that.

First a brief overview of operant conditioning. Relevant to horse training, operant conditioning occurs when a trainer or handler strengthens or weakens a behavior by either reinforcing or punishing it. In the case of positive reinforcement (+R), the handler gives the horse a carrot for moving his head out of the handler’s “space.” It is important to note that positive does not mean “good” in the context of operant conditioning, but instead means “addition.” The handler added the carrot to reinforce the head away behavior. For the definitions of the other three quadrants (-R, +P, and -P), please see my +R glossary page!

What does all this science jargon have to do with the 99¢ piece of plastic?

The clicker enhances communication in two ways.

  • “Click” tells the horse food is coming.

  • “Click” tells the horse that what he just did earned him the reward. (Ex: The head away behavior)

Why can’t I just feed the horse for doing what I ask without it?

You absolutely can. However, not using a clicker can make training take longer as it lacks that clarity explained earlier. It is sometimes difficult to reward at the precise moment that your desired behavior occurs (training moving behaviors for instance) and this lack of precision can make training take a bit longer as the horse has to work out exactly what he did to earn it.

Let’s say you’re asking your horse to touch a cone. You hold the cone up, the horse touches it. In a clicker training scenario, the trainer would click to “mark” the moment of contact between the nose and the cone. A clicker trained horse will understand that the touching was the behavior that earned him the reward after only a few repetitions. Without the clicker, it may take many more repetitions as there is no clear signal that the behavior was correct (Unless your hand was in the treat pouch in anticipation & became the marker, but that’s another topic for another post!).

There is a lot of time that passes between the desired behavior (nose touching cone) and the food delivery without a marker signal such as a clicker. This is especially true for moving and micro behaviors such as trot, canter, piaffe, crunches, body targeting, small weight shifts, etc. where you’d like to mark the exact moment, but would have to run to the horse’s mouth to deliver on time. The clicker buys you that time, and tells the horse exactly what he did right!

For further clarification, a marker or bridge signal is just that: a marker and a bridge! It marks the precise moment of behavior and bridges the gap from behavior to reward. The horse moves his head away from you on cue, click, reach into that sexy fanny pack, and feed him his reward. The desired behavior is marked by the click and also alerts the horse that his reward is on its way, bridging the gap. This signal (clicker) also takes on another fun name: secondary reinforcer. Food is a primary reinforcer. So, something that tells the horse the food is coming becomes a secondary (conditioned) reinforcer as it predicts desirable things. This is true of money for humans as it predicts primary reinforcers such as food, shelter, water, fun, etc.

So, how do you work this thing? I’d have to recommend some personal research before running off to the barn with a clicker and a handful of treats to avoid creating confusion, frustration, and error for both you and the horse. Click here for my resource page (after you finish this post preferably!) A brief summary on what we call “charging the clicker” starts with making the clicker mean something. At first, the animal may be surprised by the sound, but will eventually stop caring about it unless we give it meaning. How you do dis? You make it a secondary reinforcer, duh!

Start with a simple, achievable exercise. Some trainers will simply click then feed, click then feed, but be warned that while you are clicking and feeding, you are also reinforcing whatever the horse was doing just before. With that in mind, I prefer to choose a very simply task to set the horse up for success all the while giving this noise some meaning. I begin behind protective contact with non-clicker horses as they may not have my standard of food manners just yet. For everyone’s safety in the beginning, working from behind a fence or stall door is brilliant.

To start, hold up a cone, or a ball, or a target stick, or whatever horse-safe object you can find. Hold it up to the horse in a position that is easy for him to reach your target. When the horse looks at the object, moves his nose toward it, or touches it (depends on the individual’s comfort level with various unfamiliar objects) click & reinforce with the treat. Each time the horse gets closer and closer to the desired behavior (touching it), click & reinforce. Soon, you will have a horse who is suddenly very proficient in touching this object up high, down low, far left, far right, etc. and will be giving you the eagle eye at the sound of the clicker! There are levels to this shaping process, but this post is meant to be informative not necessarily a tutorial, so please review some of the suggested resources before attempting.

Some trainers will also click many times in a row (sometimes called Blazing Clicker) without reinforcing each click. I do not recommend clicking without reinforcing. I believe that doing so creates some confusion in the horse as he is not sure when he will be reinforced. The clicker now only means that what right, but not that food is coming. This can potentially begin an extinction cycle, induce frustration, or lessen the value of the clicker as a secondary reinforcer. So, please just stick to click & treat.

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As for the fanny pack… well, it’s not a fashion choice, but it’s a heck of a lot better than getting my jacket/pant pockets all gross in my opinion! You absolutely do not have to have one to start, but they make things much easier when you start to move around or work for a bit longer.

Now you have a general understanding of the clicker’s purpose, you may still be wondering if you have to carry it around all the time! The answer is no! If you’re anything like me and enjoy the least amount of things in your hands as possible, you’re in for good news.

I recommend beginning with a tangible clicker to develop timing and coordination skills at first. This way you aren’t having to trouble yourself with what your tongue needs to do in the moment (It’s more difficult than it looks!). I spent several months at first diligently working on this until I was confident that I could use a verbal clicker proficiently. There is a learning curve involved with making the switch, so really be concentrating so as not to hinder the training process with early or delayed clicks! The same process of “charging the clicker” will need to take place if you switch sounds, but for a proficient clicker horse, this is not difficult. The sound most common among equine clicker trainers is a “clock” tongue sound (to be clear, they’re not saying the word clock). I use a “sssk” sound (careful to not make it sound too close to a cluck as that is often a move-your-feet cue for horses) as my marker signal. Using words like “Yes” or “Good boy” as markers are not recommended due to vocal fluctuation and inflection. It is difficult to give a word marker exactly the same every time, especially when you get excited! Meanwhile, the clicker, the “clock” tongue click, or the “sssk” tongue sounds do not have that ability to sound much different. Consistency is key for clarity, and clarity is key to speed (learning speed that is)!

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Targeting with Zoë

Here, I hold the target for Zo to touch. When she touches it, I’ll click & give her her treat!