Why Clicker Training Works for Horses
I’ve been using clicker training to train horses (training young horses, old horses, problem horses all horses) for a number of years now, with stunning results. It’s such a fun way to train and has really shown how fast horses can learn, and what great problem solvers they are. As with any training that starts to catch on, it comes with myths and misconceptions. I have encountered many of these along the way and hope that as I take you through what clicker training is for me that I can help to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions.
What is this new fangled horse clicker training method?
It no longer phases me when people look at me oddly with my treat pouches, carrying a mat for my horses to stand on, or setting out my cones as marker points (for the horse, not – yes they do use markers). What’s that clicking noise? is a routine question for me to answer, but the looks change and the questions become; ‘how did you do that?’, when my horse works in collection at liberty for me, or he picks up a hula hoop and swings it up and over his head to sit around his neck, stands squarely on his mat and poses, or presents the saddle to me as I stand on the mounting block.
Although I train specific behaviours using clicker training, clicker training is not really a horse training method; rather it’s an approach to horse training. Hmm, what does that mean? What I mean by that is; it’s not a method that you have to follow, instead it’s just about telling your horse when they got the right answer. It’s rewards-based training.
The nice thing is, the vast majority of our horses are highly motivated by food and so we can use food as a reward to guide behaviours. Horses are meant to graze for about 70% of the time (approximately 17 hours per day), so trickle feeding them for clicker training is a perfect way to use food that is suitable for how their guts were designed. It’s a win-win situation!
In learning theory food is known as a primary reinforcer, but lets not get bogged down in the learning theory terminology just yet, we can cover that another time.
There are no expensive start-up costs. All you need to clicker train are; a clicker, some treats and a horse!
So how does clicker training work?
Clicker training is called ‘clicker training’ simply because we use a little plastic box that makes a clicking sound to tell the horse the moment they got something right. Then we give the horse a treat (a reward). What we are doing is rewards based training.
Rewards-based training works by saying ‘yes’ to the right answer, behaviour or movement from the horse. The click means ‘yes’ and the treats reward the behaviour. When we say yes, the horse is motivated to try again. With each try we can guide the movement and with each click we tell the horse that that attempt was correct.
Why Train with ‘yes’?
We hear ‘no’ so often that we just accept it as being normal. We then go on to use this less than ideal way of communicating our wishes to others. When you only hear ‘no’ in response to what you do, does it make you feel good or do you start to feel like there is ‘no point in trying because everything I do is wrong anyway’? With horse training, we generally add pressure (e.g. to reins or put the leg on) then release that pressure when the horse does what we asked. By doing that, are you saying ‘yes you got it’, or are you just training with ‘no’, releasing ‘no’ when the horse complies?
With clicker training we train with ‘yes’. As soon as we see or feel an approximation towards the right answer we tell the horse they got it right. Hold on, if we are training in approximations how much food will I need? You would be surprised how little food you have to use for each reward to keep the horse motivated. Coupled with rewarding bigger and better approximations (e.g. asking for more behaviour or longer duration) you would be surprised how little food you actually need.
What is more effective; the carrot or the stick?
Studies in a French University have tested this theory. Unsurprisingly to clicker trainers, the answer is that horses learn better and faster with the carrot (treats). Food for thought!
Mutual respect and Trust
The results of clicker training are incredible; fixing problem behaviours, teaching new behaviours, breaking the glass ceiling on performance, teaching liberty work. For me, one of the most powerful of the results in a wonderful relationship with the horse that has it’s foundations in mutual respect and trust. The connection with the horses is just incredible and just continues to evolve.
What can I teach with clicker training ?
Anything you want to ! No matter your discipline, happy hacker to competition rider, dressage to western, no matter the age of your horse or it’s physical capabilities, every horse and handler can clicker train and build that wonderful relationship that I see emerge out of this ever so simple training approach.
Great, this sounds like a good training approach, how do I get started?
There are a number of resources (clicker training books, clicker training DVDs, treat equipment and more ) that you can obtain to get you started.
Or you can contact the S.M.A.A.R.T. Horse Company Ltd if you would like to find out more.
Do you have a horse with a problem behaviour ?
Positive reinforcement training is a wonderful training approach and is producing amazing results in horses the world over. SMAART Horses have taken positive reinforcement training (clicker training) to a number of horses; old, young, for backing, unwell and healthy alike and to teach simple behaviours or complex behaviours. We have also taken it to horses who have emotional or behavioural issues, and those who don´t, with great success.
We are now embarking on a new project and are currently seeking horses with who are presenting one or more problem behaviours (such as not wanting the bridle on, or to be caught) and you just don´t know how to get started in changing that behaviour.
Do you have a horse that has issues with:
- being caught
- trimming / shoeing
- ….or another problem (let us know anyway)
Do you live in the South Lanarkshire area of Scotland ?
Do you have a few hours each week to spend with your horse for training both on your own and/or with a SMAART Horses trainer ?
If you answered yes to one or more of the above and would like help in turning your horse in to the ´horse of your dreams´, contact SMAART Horses for more details.
We will teach you how to re-train your horse. Contact us to tell us about your horse. Our aim is to work along side the owners to re-train the horse to create the ´horse of your dreams´.
SMAART Horses adhere to the Data Protection Act and so your contact with us and contact details will be confidential.