Clicker Training Horses – Bribery

Clicker Training Horses



We talked about bribery before and what that produces in a horse versus using positive reinforcement (+R). This time we want to talk about the learning theory behind bribery versus +R.

Bribery – Learning Theory

Dictionary definitionThe bribe is the gift bestowed to influence the recipient’s conduct. It may be any money, good, right in action, property, preferment, privilege, emolument, object of value, advantage, or merely a promise.

In other words, you use the reinforcer to elicit the behaviour.  How is this different to +R ? 

+R is where we reinforce a behaviour that is already happening. 

Bribery is about using the reinforcer to get the behaviour to happen.

The difference is huge.  In one we capture something that the horse is already doing, in the other we make it happen with the promise of a reinforcer.

When we capture behaviour then we are really only using +R. We wait for behaviours and then click and reinforce. Once we have that happening reliably we can start to shape the behaviour.  For example, picking up feet.  We can wait for the horse to move a foot, click and reinforce.  When they move it again, click and reinforce and so on until they understand it is about moving that foot.

Picking up feet can also be trained using bribery. We can use the food infront of the horses nose to get the horse to move so that we get the foot to move. Once the foot moves we can click and reinforce.  However, at this stage we have to ask what the horse might think they are being clicked for….following food or moving a foot ?  With +R, the food is not being used to elicit anything and so the horse has a better chance of figuring out what they are being clicked for…we are setting them up to problem solve.

It used to be said that the click reinforces the behaviour that is happening at that moment in time.  However, as the understanding of learning theory and clicker training has evolved and the behavioural analysts have studied the effects of clicker training more, we now know that the click actually reinforces ALL the behavior that came before it.  We need to bear this in mind as we train, whether that is eliciting the movement required or waiting for it to happen.  We need to understand what it is we are reinforcing.

Understanding the Behaviour

The difference with using bribery or +R to train behaviour is the horses understanding of the behaviour.

When we capture/shape the behaviour, the horse is learning to problem solve to work out what it is we are asking for and what we are reinforcing. When we bribe a behaviour, all the horse has to do is to follow the food. As such, the result of bribery is that the handler owns the behaviour and the horse cannot replicate that on their own as they have not worked out how to do the behaviour themselves. When we use +R what we find is that the horse can repeat the behaviour without guidance. What we also see is that the horses then practice this behaviour on their own.


Dictionary definition:  Something that tempts or attracts with the promise of pleasure or reward

Interestingly, luring is very similar to bribery. 

Luring is something that is used in the dog training world. The food is used to guide the dog to perform behaviour. It’s a quick way to get the dog moving and capture behaviour. One of the rules with luring is that you have to stop using the treats in your hand very quickly. The rough number is 3 times (this will vary from one dog to another depending on how quickly they pick up the behaviour).

Once you have the behaviour happening 2 or 3 times, you have now taught the dog to follow your hand. So when you give that hand cue (minus the food) the dog will follow the cue. As such, with luring, we are teaching the cue for the behaviour at the same time as we teach the behaviour.

Horses versus Dogs

With horses, luring is not something I use nor encourage. To start with, there is a big difference between luring a dog and a +550kg horse. One of my horses is food orientated and I can tell you how scary that prospect is to think about luring him. 

If you have a horse who can get anxious or grabby about food and you are asking them to follow food, you can create some very unwanted reactions which you will have to deal with as a result.  Even if you have a horse who is not particularly food orientated, you can get use luring and get energy levels up so high that they can quickly be out of control before you know it. 

With luring, the food becomes a moving target…not something horses have to deal with to eat.  Their food is stationary.  So having to chase their food is probably not fun, it is certainly not instinctive.  However, dogs are born to chase and kill their food.  So following their food is not stressful, it’s fun, that is why we can use it to encourage them to learn new behaviours. We can also use it to play with toys (the kill instinct) to reinforce other behaviours and more.

We can also use play with horses, we just need to be cautious about using play that involves chase, and using play around humans.  Dogs jumping on us out of stress from overfacing them with chasing food or getting them over excited is a whole different ball game than a horse jumping on us for the very same reason.

One of the common questions on the forums is about how to manage horses who get over-excited when clicker training.  With luring we could easily have a horse like that AND be asking them to chase food, or as a result of chasing food.

Chase Instincts

When we get horses to chase things we can be bringing out a behaviour that we are not able to manage and that raises unpleasant emotions in the horse. When horses chase something they are chasing it to defend something; to attack the other thing and inflict injury. In geldings this is the horses’ instinct to protect the herd and with the mares this would be the instinct to protect a foal.  Both very strong emotions and not ones that the horse will perform without good reason.  The emotions that come with that behaviour are not the emotions we want the horse to be feeling when we train.  They are not conducive to good training.

Golden Rule

When we train, we have many options open to us for how we achieve the behaviours we want, and it is good to know how to train for behaviours in different ways. The more ways we can train for behaviours the more rounded the training will be.  However, we also need to be skilled enough to know when to use each method.  The golden rule being; if in doubt stick with +R for behaviours that are already happening.

Something else to keep in mind as we train is something that Alexandra Kurland says frequently; “Even though we are training using +R does not automatically mean the animal is having a positive experience”.  A topic for another blog.

Happy Clicking

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4 Responses to Clicker Training Horses – Bribery

  1. Bob Horan says:

    Short (sad) story: My wife passed away not long ago (suddenly/ traumatically)…..she was in great health and physical condition. We were year round kayakers together and she was the “horse person”. I am fulfilling her wish that her horse be taken care of well and am personally involved now. Her horse is clicker-trained and knows more than me. My wife’s trainer is continuing to ride/train “Charm” and I will be taking lessons. If anyone has suggestions on ways for me to get up to speed, feel free to write. BTW, I have Alexendra Kurland’s DVDs (belonged to my wife) and I am not sure which one(s) to watch first.

    • smaarthorses says:

      Bob, I believe I met you and your wife at ClickerExpo last year in Kentucky. I was so sorry to hear of your loss. It was a great shock to the clicker community.

      It’s great to hear that you are caring for Charm and are actively invovled with her. My best advice would be to let Charm teach you. She will give you lots of feedback (through body language) as you work through the foundation lessons. Listen to her feedback and you will create a wonderful 2-way conversation that will evolve in to a wonderful relationship.

      Start with DVD lesson 1 and work through them. As you watch each DVD take that to Charm and teach her what you learned. From what I know of Charm, she knows this work well and so she will help you as you learn. The ‘Step-by-Step’ book is also a great resource and the DVDs are intended to back up the book as visual aids.

      I hope that helps. It will be great to hear how you get on.


      • Bob Horan says:


        Yes, we met you in Kentucky. I have continued to be involved with Charm and, in fact, had begun to take some short riding lessons with Bridgette. The latter were suspended due to some injury I had unrelated to the riding and then the continued bad weather. I am expecting to receive a new Western saddle soon and will resume lessons (short lessons piggy-backed to Bridgette’s training sessions).

        Life for me has become more difficult than I ever imagined and I am crying every day… world was shattered and I grieve not just associated with the loss I am feeling but for Arlene’s lost opportunities to start riding more frequently and to continue her “life-long commitment to Charm” (and the loss so many people have experienced without her).

        Thank you for your input which is welcome any time.
        Bob Horan

        • smaarthorses says:

          I hope working with Charm helps to bring some comfort to you Bob. I know Arlene put in lots of time and love to Charm and I am very sure Charm will give that back to you and help you each day.

          Arlenes posts are greatly missed on the forums and I think about her often when I am with my horses. Just a few days ago she popped in to my head (just before you sent your message). There was a reply that you had sent to someone and had agreed for it to be posted on the click that teaches forum and your words really struck a chord; it was what you said about ‘what ifs’. Your sons reply was ‘what if you had never met her in that lecture room…’. I think of that often and I am so glad I had the opportunity to meet Arlene.

          I really would love to hear how your training with Charm progresses. Do keep me posted, and I will be more than happy to give tips/advice any time.


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