What is Clicker Training ? Part 3


As promised here is Part 3 of What is Clicker Training


I enjoyed very much the discussion of cues that Part 2 generated.  Let’s see what Part 3 brings.




In Part 1 I defined WHAT clicker training is.  In Part 2 we looked at HOW clicker training works.  Now in Part 3 we’ll consider what it means to reinforce your horse.




Reinforcers are chosen from the perspective of the learner.   There are many things horses find reinforcing: a roll in a sand pit, taking a nap with your equine friends, a run across the field on a cool day.  That’s just a small sampling of the many things horses enjoy.  The problem with this list is these aren’t very practical to use in a training environment.  We need reinforcers which can be delivered in small, repeatable “packets”.  Once a horse has had his roll, he usually doesn’t want another right away.  And anyway – if he’s got a saddle on, his person isn’t going to be too pleased to have him rolling!


So with horses the easiest reinforcer we can use is food. Food is such an effective reinforcer that many people shy away from it.  They will tell you that you can’t use food around horses.  They will be distracted.  They’ll mug you for the treats. They may even bite.    All of this is true is if the food is not well managed.  In clicker training the foundation lessons all center around teaching the horse safe manners and emotional self control.  Instead of running away from using food, we use it to teach great manners.  Once those good food manners are established, food can then be used as a reinforcer for other behaviors we want.


When you teach behaviors using positive reinforcement, the behaviors the horse has learned can become reinforcers for the next new thing you are working on.  So food is not our only reinforcer.  We use the behaviors we’ve taught as conditioned reinforcers.  All of this strengthens the overall bond we have with our horses.


Choice is a huge reinforcer.  When horses feel in control, they feel safe.  So giving horses the freedom to experiment, to make choices, to make mistakes without the fear of punishment is hugely reinforcing.  Food may appear to be the reinforcer we’re using, but it is really choice that underlies the whole system.


What we do not rely on in our training is motivating our horse by taking away his feelings of safety.  This is often used in traditional training where escalating pressure is used.  If a horse is afraid, the most reinforcing thing you can do is give him back a feeling of safety by removing the pressure.  But when the handler is the source of the fear, reducing the pressure and then increasing it again to get the behavior that is wanted takes away the horse’s freedom to choose.  



We can certainly work with fearful horses, but we work hard to structure the training and the environment we’re working in to minimize fear.  We do not want to be adding fuel to the “emotional fire” through our actions.


I recognize that even with the best of intentions “Life” can happen.  A horse can unexpectedly become afraid.  I need to know how to manage these situations to keep both of us safe.  Sometimes that means moving to a more familiar, secure environment.  Sometimes it means asking for less.  Whatever the choices, I need to have the handling skills to manage the situation.  But I do not manipulate the horse’s fear levels to appear to be a source of safety and security.  I do not escalate pressure and then remove the pressure when the horse complies.  This falls outside the parameters of clicker training.


That’s how we teach.  So the next question is: WHAT do we teach?


That’s Part 4 – Coming soon.


Happy Holidays!


Alexandra Kurland



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