One of the most common staples of positive method training is the introduction of a handheld clicker (also known as a bridge) to mark the correct behavior. Clicker training was mostly popularized with Dog Training, but it didn’t start there, and nor is it species-exclusive. Pigeons, bears, dolphins, seagulls, rats, whales, and even humans have been successfully trained with a clicker. It is famously used in wildlife parks and aquatic facilities around the world, and less-famously in government-funded reconnaissance.
I was introduced to clicker training when I started working with dogs, easily 10+ years ago, and when working with dogs I substitute the use of the clicker with my voice. However, I am a much better Dog Handler than I am a Horse Handler, so with my horse, I will use the clicker. It provides a level of precision that is impossible to replicate just by speaking.
how and when i introduced the clicker
Familiarizing my horse with the clicker was the first phase of our journey into positive-method training. It happened at the very beginning. The introduction was as follows:
- Lead the horse into a familiar area, used almost exclusively for training — in this case, the roundpen. (Pattern Recognition is a very important concept for me. I believe that animals learn in patterns, so by training first in the roundpen, and only the roundpen, my horse learns a pattern.)
- Let the horse explore, but be mindful that we are training and not playing. (That is, I allowed Kurt to sniff around and check out what the other horses had left behind before we started training. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake.)
- With the horse on a halter and lead rope, assume a loose posture standing directly in front of the horse.
- Depress the clicker, once.
- Offer the horse a treat.
This process only sought to introduce the concept of the clicker having a direct relationship to something positive – in this case, food. I was not teaching the horse anything, except that this sound means snack incoming.
I had two medium-sized carrots on me, broken up into about 2″ slices. We repeated this exercise until all the carrots were gone (maybe ten times) and then ended the session for that day.
My horse doesn’t bite, but he is mouthy, and became even more mouthy as every time we hung out. Immediately recognizing this problem, I started to add parameters to accepting the treats (only accepting them at a complete standstill, accepting them very low) and as he understood the causation better, extending the time he had to wait to receive a treat. The last part is very important. He immediately became less mouthy, as a result.
Kurt, my horse, seems to be an unusually fast learner. He seemed to understand the relationship between the clicker and the food after only the first few tries. Still, to be absolutely certain, I continued the ‘introduction’ for about five days.
After the five days, I started to introduce the clicker into his workout. He already knows the basics of lunging in a round pen, but there was so much room for improvement. So, for about a month we worked on improving his rollback, gait changes, directional changes, and briefly, posture.
At the end of our first month of training (enthused as I was about his progress) I thought it would be a great time to start clicking for smaller things – when his headset was just right, when he picked his legs up a bit higher. He improved immediately, and his lunge became very flashy and engaged. However, I rethought the decision to focus on his posture, because I thought I was introducing too much, too quickly. So I stopped — and will pick up at a later date.
We lunged both on a halter/lead rope, and off. He does both just fine, but I prefer the use of a lead rope/halter to guide him, because he still gets distracted, and I would rather he not be allowed to make those mistakes. (His easy ability to be distracted is what made me stop focusing so much on his posture — and focusing more on his focus.)
We are still working on his focus. He likes to watch the other horses. Soon, we will begin clicking for focus — instead of posture, he will learn “Watch me.”
In my experience with Kurt, clicker training is only somewhat faster than negative reinforcement training, but produces much more useful results. When I first taught him to lunge, using negative-reinforcement (known in the horse world as “pressure-release”) he figured it out at about the same speed as he did with a clicker. However, with pressure-release, there was a lot more stress, and the behaviors that he ‘offered’ were mostly about running away, sidestepping, or looking for an escape route. With clicker training, I get long, focused stares while the gears turn. I, personally, find a horse that observes something without running away, much more useful.
Teaching my horse that not all clicks will get a treat (that sometimes you just get a pet on the nose,) has been more challenging than I had anticipated. My horse is devastated every time there is no carrot at the end of his click. I’m still finding a way to work on that.
I have had to work very hard on my posture during training. I am working on being more precise, on giving cues that are both subtle, and obvious, on not interfering with my horse because I leaned the wrong way or spoke to someone outside the roundpen. Horses seem to be much more sensitive (and much less forgiving) to the human condition than dogs are.
Overall, my goal is to achieve a horse who can perform these behaviors at liberty, and I am confident that clicker training and positive method reinforcement will take us there.