Horse Clicker Training – Bribery or Reinforcer ?

When are you going to stop bribing that horse with treats?

With my treat pouches packed full of low calorie treats, and usually a few tasty mints as well, I head out to the barn to play with the horses.  My horses see the full pouches and recognise their cue that it’s training time.  They are already eager to show me what new things they want to offer today.  Am I bribing them to perform for me, or are they working because they enjoy the learning the process (the mental stimulation)?

A few years ago a horse clicker trainer, whom I hold in very high regard, said to me; ‘go to people for opinions and the horses for answers’.  That sounded so innocent and simple to me at the time and as time has gone by, and as I hear her say it more often and in more situations, it has turned in to a bigger and bigger concept to me.  So what did she mean?

Each of us will interpret her statement slightly differently, what it meant to me was; we can surmise what the horse thinks of something, we think we can see if they are happy or not and we can make educated guesses about what it is in a new movement they might be struggling with however, only the horse can tell us what they really think of what we bring to them.  So when I arrive at the barn with my treat pouches and my horse comes over to stand with me and offers me behaviours that have earned him treats in the past, I have to wonder if he is staying with me because I have treats or because he is enjoying the learning he is doing.  Horse, do you think I bring you good things; do you enjoy spending time with me?

When the horses see me arrive and come trotting up the field, or when they are in the middle of eating dinner and they choose to leave dinner to come and play with me to earn treats (that are not nearly as tasty as dinner!), or they work in collection at liberty right next to me as I walk casually, are they telling me they are enjoying the process or not.  They could leave if they wanted, but they choose to stay.  If they weren’t enjoying what I bring to them, they would not leave their dinner (free food) to come and work to earn treats from me.

Who owns the behaviour?

A really interesting phenomenon has come out of the clicker training process that is sometimes a hard concept to grasp.  However, it is what makes clicker training unique for me; the horses own the behaviours they learn.  Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

If I were to bribe the horse, I own the behaviour and there is no learning going on with the horse.  Will the horse offer that behaviour again?  Not if they were initially bribed.  If they have been reinforced for the behaviour (given a reward for doing the behaviour) then they are more likely to repeat the behaviour again.

When I watch traditionally trained horses I don’t see them use the movements and the behaviours they have been taught any other time than when the handler or rider is asking for them.  Is this because they are not going through the learning process to understand how the behaviour was put together?

With clicker training, I break things down into small pieces.  I reward approximations towards the end goal that I want, so the horse is learning the process of how to get to the end goal.  They are learning how to problem solve.  It’s a bit like setting a math challenge for a child.  We could set them the task of 1473 x 381.  Will they get the right answer?  If this is the first time they have encountered this sort of problem, without some guidance through the calculation process they will never get the right answer.  However, if we teach them the process of problem solving for math equations they will not only be able to solve this problem themselves, but they also have the math problem solving tools to apply to other equations as well.

What we do with clicker training is teach the horses the process of problem solving.  One of my horses is taught to work in collection at liberty.  I only had to teach this at walk, he used his problem solving abilities to apply this behaviour to his trot and canter as well.  “Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime”, simply this means; provide him with the problem solving tools rather than just giving him the right answer.

As a result of understanding the process, I see some spectacular things from clicker trained horses.  They practice the behaviours I have taught them, on their own, when they think no-one is watching!  What!?  It’s hard to believe, but true.  My favourite example of this was when I bought a new field shelter.  It is one of the arch style ones that have a plastic cover over it that can make quite a bit of noise in the wind.  So I had to teach the horse about this new shelter and how to use it.

We built this up slowly and in approximations to the point where we could walk in to the shelter, stop, the horse would touch the side wall with his nose and we would walk out the other side.  It only took us about 20 mins to get to this point, but I needed to re-stock my treats.  I went back to the barn and left the horses out in the field and re-stocked my treat pouches.  When I came back out, my jaw dropped as I saw my stallion on his own, no-one there (just his field mates), walk through the field shelter, stop, touch the side wall with his nose and walk out the other end.  Coincidence?  No!  He walked right back round and repeated it again!

This is what I mean by; clicker trained animals own the behaviour.  They understand the process, the meaning, how to apply it, they make it their own.

Karen Pryor tells a wonderful story of a pod of dolphins that some researchers came across.  They saw a number of the dolphins perform a behaviour that was never seen in the wild before.  So they researched this.  They discovered that this was a behaviour that was taught in captivity for displays, so how did a pod of wild dolphins learn this?  It turns out that one of the male dolphins had been released from an aquarium, he had been taught the behaviour as part of a show he used to do.  When he teamed up with his new wild family he taught them this fun behaviour…..he owned that behaviour well enough to not only perform it without guidance, but to teach it to others as well.  Amazing!

Still think clicker training is bribery?

Contact the S.M.A.A.R.T. Horse Company Ltd,, if you would like to find out more about clicker training.

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6 Responses to Horse Clicker Training – Bribery or Reinforcer ?

  1. Pingback: Could you lend me a hand? – Part 2 « S.M.A.A.R.T. Horses Blog

  2. Pingback: Clicker Training – It’s Not About The Food ! « S.M.A.A.R.T. Horses Blog

  3. J C C says:

    This is a lovely article Amanda.

    I can not rate the use of clicker highly enough and would always turn to this method particularly when dealing with horses that have had a tough time at the hands of humans. It gives them an incentive that they’ve never had before. It makes it abundantly clear that what they’ve done is right and gives them a good reason to give it another go.

    I use clicker regularly – Although I have to say that I don’t think I’m teaching my horse anything at all…. She very much teaches me and I love her all the more for it!

    She teaches me to be more patient (my biggest downfall). She teaches me how small the chunks of information or new questions/tasks need to be. She teaches me when we’re ready to move on. She’s taught me that less is more and knows when I’ve made a mistake and very graviously forgives me for it.

    Through the use of clicker I can see my horse thoroughly enjoying herself. After finding out the full extent of her difficult past, I believe this was something quite new to her and its been wonderful to see and a privilege to be a part of that process.

    To suggest that clicker is a form of bribery suggests that the tasks being asked are to some extent unpleasant hence the need to bribe. This is far from being the case and a somewhat clouded view that needs clearing to let the sunshine through!

    • therese k says:

      J C C , your reply is nearly as good as the article, you expressed my feelings exactly. I really love seeing all the old issues just fade away:)

  4. Philippa says:

    thank you Amanda… the best thing i’ve read for so long… it really made my day! 🙂 But more importantly, I think you’re right. the results, to me, sound irrefutable

  5. Wonderful post Amanda!

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