Saturday, March 29, 2014

Clickers And Things

A lot of people get really bent about clicker training. It's an equal opportunity bent-edness. Some think clicker training is the anti-thesis of all proper training. Some think it's the only way to train. There isn't much in between.

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you probably know that I'm not into ultimatums. I'm on a journey, I've got nothing to lose, and I'll try anything.

Like most horse people, I use mostly negative reinforcement to train horses.  That means that we apply some sort of pressure or cue and, when the horse does what we want, we remove the pressure or cue.  Most horses learn easily with this method, because it's how they interact with each other naturally.  Horses in a herd use the same type of negative reinforcement to establish boundaries and relationships with their herd mates.  

When I got Jack, I worried a little about how he was going to fit in here. He was willing, but he seemed really dumb. He just didn't understand how to be in a herd and interact with other horses and people. For me, that "herd" interaction is how I train horses. I wondered how I would train this little guy who didn't understand how to be a horse.

He's a savant at figuring out which pocket the treats are in.

Spider and Vinny have been with me a long time. We always have the same routine for dinner time: they go in their stall, I feed them. It never varies, but Spider and Vinny always have to be guided into their stall. They won't go in on their own. 

When Jack was introduced to the herd, he was obviously the lowest in the pecking order. But, he learned which stall was his easily. And he would be in that stall without fail as soon as he saw me with the feed buckets. I'd be guiding Spider and Vinny in, but Jack was already waiting in his stall, at his bucket. The horse I thought was the dumbest had figured out something the other two hadn't figured out in five years.

That got me thinking. Intelligence is the ability to solve a problem, but problems are subjective.  My problem isn't your problem, our problems aren't our horses' problems. I needed explain the problem to Jack so that he could use his intelligence to solve it. Since Jack is highly motivated by food, I needed to frame the question in such a way that food could be used as a motivator.  So, I introduced him to the first stages of clicker training.

It's not "real" clicker training by "purist" standards (I dislike "purists", as I don't believe that dogma has any place in real life.), but it works on the same general theory. 

The theory behind clicker training is that desirable behaviors can be shaped via positive reinforcement by association. The animal first learns to associate the "click" with a reward, over time the reward is no longer necessary and the click itself becomes the reward.

It's like Pavlov's dogs, remember Pavlov's dogs?  Pavlov would ring a bell every time he fed the dogs, and soon the dogs would begin to salivate any time the bell sounded even if no food was present.  (It's a bit more complicated than that, but I'm trying to keep this from being a dissertation.)

The first step in clicker training is teaching the horse to associate a behavior with the "click" and a treat. The easiest way to do this is to show the horse a novel object, wait for them to touch it with their nose, then "click" and give the treat.  (My "click" is just to say the word "good", I don't get fancy with it.)

The novel object (it's called a "target" in the official lingo) can be anything, so I chose my kids' Scooby Doo kickball.  It's a good size for easy handling, not something Jack sees regularly or would automatically associate with a reward, and happened to be laying next to the arena when I decided to start my clicker training adventure.

I held the Scooby Doo ball in my hand and waited.  It didn't take Jack long to get curious about the ball and touch it. I immediately said, "Good" and handed him a treat.  We did that a couple more times, until he got a little obnoxious, then we moved on to something not clicker related.  The key to clicker training is to keep the sessions short, but frequent, and to stop if the horse gets pushy.

This is just the beginning of our clicker experiment, and I'm by no means a Clicker Trainer, but Jack is understanding the concept and enjoying the work.  Once the weather gets better we'll start working on getting him to understand yielding to pressure during in hand work, building on the foundation we're laying now.

The other day I had Jack out while my daughter was playing with the Scooby Doo ball in the yard.  I asked her to kick it over to see what he would do.

Screw this dressage stuff, we're going to teach him to play soccer!


  1. Great post! I certainly feel the same way about clicker training as you do. I'm certainly no rabid follower, but I don't think it is totally stupid either. I have found this type of training to be really useful with things like clippers, mounting blocks, wash racks, etc. But I don't use an actual clicker either - but like you I saw "good boy" or something like that.

  2. Good post indeed :D

    I also say "good boy" instead of using a clicker. For one, I don't have a clicker, and two, I can reward Val more immediately with my voice, rather than trying to juggle a target, a clicker and a treat lol. Seems like good timing is the essence of successful training, especially clicker - style.

    Agree with the observation that horses "train" each other using negative reinforcement such as pinned ears, nips and charges. I wonder why resource sharing (hay piles) or mutual grooming wouldn't count as positive reinforcement...

  3. I use clicker rarely, but I do use it in specific circumstances - to motivate a withdrawn horse to interact with me, to teach a horse not to bite or nip (oddly enough, using food works very well for this because I guess it reprograms the oral impulse of nipping), and to help horses overcome fears. I just use my tongue to make the click sound - no equipment needed.

  4. Admittedly I have giggled at horse clicker training, but it was just coming around a corner and seeing a trainer, rider, and a horse, using an actual clicker that caught me a bit off guard. I think most people use positive reinforcement more than they think, treats, pats on the neck, at least in conjunction with negative reinforcement. I'd love to see him play soccer ;)

  5. Okay, I have a question.
    Are you not a dressage purist? I am referring to training practices only.

  6. I'm all for clicker training, it's the only thing I found that got my anxious little mare to actually calm down and listen to me. I would caution against the use of "good" as your marker though, because most likely it's a word you use a lot without even thinking about it. You might say "good boy" when you're riding one day and he'll slam on the brakes looking for a treat. The nice thing about the clicker is that the sound it makes only means one thing and you aren't likely to make that sound outside of the training context. I use a tongue click when I train, no extra junk to carry around and I've always got my tongue with me :)

  7. We have had tremendous success with clicker training. I would drop the good, too. My sister's horse picked it up even though she used a clicker, and he would stop and wait for a treat when she said "good boy." You can use a tongue click. That's what we do, and it cuts down the confusion. I actually use good boy an an intermediary rewards of keep up the good work and you may get a click.


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