Clicker Training; The Power of Cues

The Power of Cues

I do like the snow, it makes everything look so pretty and at night I don’t need my head torch to get around the farm without breaking a toe. It also means I get to check in with whether I am walking in balance or not ! However, the snow does mean colder weather and with the sub-zero temperatures that we have just now it means the barn water pipes freeze on ocassion and, just a few days ago, I had my first morning where I had to get the heater out to defrost the pipes. As I dusted off the heater I was reminded of last winter and it got me thinking in more detail about cues.

Footprints in the Snow

Footprints in the Snow

Last winter, for about a week, we had temperatures that ranged between –10 and -20OC (not unusual for some countries, but that is unusual for Scotland), and that meant the water pipes in my barn didn’t defrost for quite a few days.  Thankfully the water pipes in the old dairy shed were still ok and so I would carry water from there to my barn in tub-trugs. 

Adjoining my barn is a cattle barn that is full in the winter and as their water is from the same pipe as my barn water, their automatic waterer was also frozen up.  I just could not leave them without water, so not only was a carrying water from the dairy shed for the horses, I was also carrying water through for about 20 head of cattle….that is a lot of water !

The cattle learned quite quickly that the sound of me coming through the door meant they would get fresh water and so they would come to water trough and takes turns to drink the fresh water as I poured it in.  We had a great little routine going and it became quite fun training them to wait for me to pour the water in and then the bucket lowering would release them forward for a drink.

The farmer knew I was making sure the cattle in this barn had water and he was very grateful.  He had so much to contend with already and so it was nice to be able to help him out.  Then one evening I arrived and the farmer had made a point of filling up the cattle’s water trough before I arrived.  It was a lovely break for me….or so I thought !

Then the cattle heard me arrive and came round for a drink as usual, in no time the water was all gone !  I was back to lugging water buckets for the cows.  When I spoke to the farmer later he said ‘none of them came for a drink when I filled up the trough’.  Ah ha !  The cattle were used to ME bringing them water and so they didn’t come round to the water trough when the farmer filled it.  They didn’t drink any of the water he had given them ..until they heard me arrive ! 

What has this got to do with clicker training ?

As clicker trainers we consciously teach cues.  We actively teach our horses to perform a particular behaviour in response to a particular cue.  However, our horses are actually responding to more than just what we have chosen as our cue.

Horses are so in tune with body language that they will be picking up on and responding to the most subtle of body language changes from us.  If we change that body language when we ask for a behaviour, even if we think the cue is a verbal cue, changing that body language may actually change the cue that we give our horses and as such, we may see a change in the quality of the behaviour they offer in response to the cue (if they still offer it).  So our body language is usually part of each cue. 

We also have to consider environmental cues, where the horse only learns that a cue has meaning in a particular place.  So the place itself, or at least something in that location actually forms part of the cue.   So when we ask for a behaviour in a new place and our horse does not respond we need think about, among other things, if part of the cue is missing due to a change of location.

But what on earth has this got to do with snow and cattle and the farmer ?

Even as clicker trainers not all the cues we teach are conscious.  Cues are around us all the time…..

  • This year the snow was a cue for me that it would be cold and my barn chores would take longer
  • The colder temperatures were a cue that I was going to have to contend with frozen pipes
  • The cattle learned that I was a cue for fresh water arriving
  • The bucket lifted became a cue to the cattle to step back from the trough
  • The bucket lowered became a cue for them that they can start drinking
  • The farmer was NOT a cue to the cattle that fresh water was available !

What is a Cue ?

Horses in the Snow

Cues are all around us, they are just a part of life !  All a cue is is a signal of a predictable outcome when that cue is presented.  We need to learn these cues through experience.  When we teach cues to our horses that cue tells them which behaviour will result in a reinforcer being delivered.  However, we also need to be aware that they will learn other cues at the same time that we may not be conscious of.  If those other cues that we are not aware of are more consistent than the cue we are hoping to teach, we may find the horse is not responding to our intentional cue at all.

Check in with your horse and ask what their cue really is for each of the behaviours you have on cue.  You might be surprised by some of the answers 🙂

Check back for facts on cues that have ambiguous outcomes (poisoned cues) and the difference between a cue and a command.





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2 Responses to Clicker Training; The Power of Cues

  1. Pingback: The Power of Cues – Poisoned Cues « S.M.A.A.R.T. Horses Blog

  2. therese k says:

    I spend a lot of time thinking on this subject, what cue to use, what does my horse think of my cue? I try to negotiate with him on this, but he blew me away yesterday! We do “kiss” with a cheek tap (my cheek) for a cue, but it didn’t seem to work really well for him. Now, “cookie” simply means I have a cookie for him and it is usually when I am leaving. So I’m standing next to him and he is eating hay and I ask if he would like a “cookie” and he gives a kiss! WHAT? “Yes” he says, that is the cue “I” want for “kiss”, say cookie! OK! cookie it is! Now I don’t know what the purist clicker trainers think of that, but I think it is brilliant. The longer we ct the more blown-away I am. Finding the limits of these incredible minds is an endeavor I am proud to be a part of:)

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