How to Clicker Train Your Horse
When Do I Stop Using Treats ?
You have started clicker training and already are thinking “wow, I use a lot of treats !, when do I stop using them ?” or, “I can’t stop 10 times in a dressage test to click and treat my horse !”.
The simple answer is, you don’t stop using the treats. But don’t stop clicker training just yet !….let me explain why you don’t stop feeding treats.
Food for any animal is what is known as a primary reinforcer (it is essential to sustain life). I hear you thinking, ‘that means there are more things I can use a reinforcer’, and you would be right. However (there is always a ‘but’), food is such a simple reinforcer to use and since horses guts are designed to have food going through them all the time then it really is the simplest primary reinforcer to use. Why make things more complex than they need to be ?!
As you progress through clicker training with your horse you will find that there are more reinforcers you can use.
Fading the Clicker
Fading the clicker is a common term that I hear. It’s not one I’m fond of as it sounds negative to me. It sounds like I am taking something away, like the horse has to learn to work without it. What we are really doing is progressing the behaviour. We ask for more behaviour from the horse for them to get a click.
It’s really important that behaviours progress, not just so that we can use fewer treats ! Progression is important so that you don’t get stuck at a particular stage of a behaviour. For example, if you’re teaching a horse to back up, you might start out looking for a weight shift back, progressing that to a full step back. Then you click every time your horse takes one step back. If you don’t progress the behaviour to more than one step then when you ask for back up, you will only ever get one step of back up. The behaviour will get fixed.
It’s Not About the Food !
Another reason it is important to progress behaviours is to keep your horse interested. If you only ever ask for 2+2, although they know the answer really well, the fun has gone out of it as there is no mental stimulation, they no longer need to think about the answer….learning how to problem solve that question is no longer required. And as I shared in a previous post (It’s not about the food) it’s the problem solving aspect of the training that is stimulating to the horse (not the food !). So once we get a criterion, or behaviour loop, right about 80% of the time, we need to progress the behaviour.
Once you and your horse start making good progress with clicker training and you have learned some foundation behaviours, you can start to use those behaviours to your benefit. You can start to use these behaviours to reinforce the behaviour you are working on.
One word of caution with using this principal….make sure the behaviour you are going to use as your reinforcer is very well-known by the horse, and (s)he enjoys it !
Great, this means I can get rid of the food reinforcers !
Alas, you still need food reinforcers. You can use another behaviours to reinforce a new behaviour, however, you still need to use a primary reinforcer to ensure the second behaviour remains significant to the horse.
For example, you can use targeting or stand on a mat to reinforce another behaviour, as long as you horse knows these well. If you find your new behaviour begins to fall apart then you may wish to look at how well your horse knows the behaviour you are using as a reinforcer.
So, as you can see, the short answer is that we need to keep using food as our primary reinforcer, the answer is not quite as simple as that. If you are in any way confused about how to use reinforcers then just focus on the treats as you reinforcers. What you will find is that as your training progresses, you will start to recognise where other reinforcers are at work.