Alexandra Kurland and Peregrine
Clicker training refers to a new method of
teaching behavior using a "yes" signal or conditioned reinforcer, to
tell the horse precisely when it has done something right. The
"click" in clicker training refers to a small plastic noise maker,
similar to a child's toy cricket.
Clicker training began with dolphin training.
Thirty plus years ago when dolphins were first put on display in
marine aquariums, people had no idea how to train them. Just imagine what you
would do if you had to teach a dolphin to jump through a hoop on command.
None of the traditional training methods people
knew thirty years ago seemed to apply to an animal that could just swim away.
That training depended too much on restraints and punishment, things you just
can't use with dolphins.
The solution was to shape behavior using
positive reinforcement, but even that presented a problem. How do you tell a
dolphin that you liked what it just did? You can throw a fish in the water, but
by the time it finds it, the reward won't have any connection to the behavior
you were trying to reinforce. This problem was solved by introducing a high
frequency whistle. The trainers blew a whistle just before they threw the fish
into the water.
The dolphins very quickly learned to expect a
fish every time they heard the whistle. The next step was to link the whistle
to behavior. For example, if you lower a hoop into the water and blow the
whistle only when the dolphin is swimming near that hoop, pretty soon the
dolphin will be spending the majority of its time orienting around the hoop.
This is a beginning step towards learning that behavior leads to whistle leads
to fish. Once that connection is made, you are well on the way to training very
The whistle is a bridging signal (or secondary
reinforcer to use the more technical term). It gives the animal very clear and
precise information. It acts as a "right answer cue". It says to the
animal, the behavior you just did will get you a treat.CLICK!
DOLPHIN TRAINING FOR
We can adapt this system very easily into horse
training. With horses we use a plastic clicker. It's like a children's toy
cricket, only a little more sturdy. You can also use a tongue click, so your
hands are left free for other things.
SHAPING BEHAVIOR IN SMALL
Clicker training was first developed by marine
mammal trainers who shaped performance exclusively with positive reinforcement.
In shaping you take a small tendency to perform
in a desired way, and by reinforcing that behavior you gradually shift it
towards a more complex behavior. Dolphin training is the easiest way to view
this. You have a dolphin swimming in a tank. You want it to swim through a hoop
you have hung in the middle of the tank, so you blow a whistle and throw it a
fish every time it turns in the direction of the hoop. By gradually delaying
the whistle, you can train the dolphin to swim through the hoop.
This is shaping in it's pure form, but it is
not the only way to use the clicker. The clicker is a BRIDGING signal. It says
"yes! that's exactly the behavior I wanted. Now I'm going to give you a
reward." It doesn't say anything about how that behavior was created in
You can wait for the behavior to occur, or you
can use shortcuts that trigger the response you want. For example, in dog
training, you don't just wait for a puppy to sit down and then click it. You
lure the behavior by holding a bit of food above the puppy's head. When the
puppy looks up, his haunches sit down. Click! He gets a treat. The food lure is
very quickly faded out, and what you are left with is a hand signal that
triggers the sit. (If you want to watch an excellent video on clicker training
dogs, check out check out Karen Pryor's "Clicker Magic", or Gary
Wilkes' videos "Click and Treat" and "On Target". See the
Clicker Resources section for more information.) This kind of training uses
TARGETING to prompt the behavior. When I first taught my horse to touch a
target, I thought it was just an amusing trick.
I have since discovered it is an incredibly
useful tool that can be applied to a wide variety of situations, including
trailer loading, ground tying, leading, obstacle training, and lateral work.
Targeting isn't the only shortcut I can use. In horse training we use pressure
to trigger the responses we want. For example, I can ask my horse to back up by
tapping his front legs with a whip. As soon as he shifts his weight even a
little, I'll stop tapping. He'll quickly learn that the way to avoid the
tapping is to back up. By definition I'm using a negative reinforcer: an
uncomfortable or painful stimulus which the animal can avoid by changing its
behavior. Negative reinforcers make great "shaping shortcuts",
especially when you add the right answer cue of the clicker to them.
With the clicker the tap becomes information
the horse uses to get to his reinforcement faster. It tells him what we want.
"Move away from here, and I'll click you." The horse learns that the
whip is not there to intimidate him, but to give him clues to understanding us.
With the clicker negative reinforcers lose their adversarial associations and
become instead information providers.
The backing exercise is very important in the
early stages of clicker training. I'm telling the horse that the best way to
get the vending machine to work is by stepping away from it. Mugging me for
treats won't get it anything. If you have a pushy horse, this is a super way to
teach good manners. Can you teach backing without the clicker? Of course you
can, but, if you want your horse to understand how to use the clicker for more
complex tasks, you have to start with simple exercises. Most horses can benefit
from a review of ground manners, so this is a great opportunity to improve your
horse's leading skills, and at the same time introduce him to a new tool.
1.) DO I NEED ANY SPECIAL EQUIPMENT TO USE
No. That's one of the great things about
clicker training. Clicker training dovetails beautifully with other training
methods. You don't have to discard everything you are already know, and you
don't have to buy a whole lot of special equipment to use it. All you need is a
bag of carrots and a willingness to have some fun.
2.) HOW DOES CLICKER TRAINING FIT INTO OTHER
STYLES OF HORSE TRAINING? DO YOU ONLY USE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT WITH YOUR
No. In the horse world you will never get away
from using negative reinforcement, and furthermore, you do not want to.
Negative reinforcement, i.e. pressure, is our communication system. Tightening
a thigh muscle, pressing your calf against the horse's side, closing your hand
on the reins, these are all signals that tell the horse what we want, and they
are all negative reinforcers. The question isn't so much whether we use
negative reinforcers in our training, but HOW we teach them. That's where the
clicker becomes such a wonderful addition to our tool box. I can piggy back the
principles of shaping and the use of a bridging signal onto other training
systems, and in the process I'll make it easier for the horse to understand
what I want. With the clicker I can teach my horse to respond to pressure
without using either fear or pain to provoke responses.
Robin, Alex's horse, self-loading into the
trailer and waiting.
3.) DO YOU HAVE TO USE THE CLICKER TO BE A
No. Any unique signal that the animal can
recognize will work. I use the mechanical clicker when I am first introducing a
horse to the clicker. I use this in preference to a verbal cue because of the
uniqueness of the sound. The horses are quick to notice the clicker. Verbal
signals often get lost in the background noise of our ownchatter. Once the
horse understands the basic rules of the game, i.e. behavior leads to click
leads to reward, I switch over to a tongue click. This leaves my hands free for
other things. I've never had any problem transferring the signal. The horses
instantly make the connection.
4.) WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU HAVE MORE THAN ONE
CLICKER TRAINED HORSE IN THE RING AT THE SAME TIME? DO THEY GET CONFUSED?
We routinely will have four or five clicker
trained horses working together, and they all seem to sort out which click they
are supposed to be responding to. What is particularly interesting is I can be
working with a client and be clicking her horse from a distance, and none of
the other horses will react. These are all horses I work with. They all know
I'm a potential vending machine, but they also know that at that moment my
click is not intended for them.
5.) WHY CAN'T I JUST SAY "GOOD"? DO I
HAVE TO USE A CLICKER?
I personally prefer a tongue click over
verbals. The click is a high speed, unique signal that lets me mark very
precise criteria. Verbals can do the same thing, but I prefer to use
"good" and "yes" as encouragers. Think of the children's
game hot and cold. "Good" says you're getting warmer, but the click
says "YES! you just found the potof gold". You can certainly use
"good" in place of the clicker, but I think you'll find that you're
going to prefer some other signal. The important thing is not to get hung up in
what signal you use, but to understand that clicker training is really about
shaping behavior in small steps with a clear "yes" answer signal that
guides and motivates the horse through the learning process. Clicks are NOT
clucks, and horses have no trouble telling the difference. A cluck is a request
for movement. A click is my "yes answer" signal. Clucks are made from
the corner of your mouth. Clicks are made on the roof of your mouth with your
tongue. (It's surprising how many people struggle to produce a consistent
My book, CLICKER TRAINING FOR YOUR HORSE, has
detailed instructions on how to do this. While you're learning, the plastic
clicker definitely helps. Clickers can be ordered from Karen Pryor at Sunshine
books, see the clicker references section.)
6.) WHAT KINDS OF THINGS CAN YOU TEACH WITH THE
Anything you want. From basic manners to
advanced upper level performance, anytime you need a clear "yes"
answer signal the clicker can help out your training. For starters go down a
check list of basic stable manners. Does your horse lead well? Will he walk
right onto a trailer? Does he ground tie? Does he take his bridle easily? Will
he stand quietly on cross ties? Is he good for grooming and saddling? Will he
accept clippers, pick his feet up for cleaning, etc., etc.. If the answer to
any of those questions is no, try a little clicker training.
7.) DO YOU FEED THE HORSE A TREAT AFTER EVERY
CLICK? IN A NORMAL DAY, IF YOU ARE CLICKING FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR, WOULDN'T YOU
NEED A WHEELBARROW FULL OF FOOD?
I follow every click with a reward. That's the
bargain I've established with my horse. Here's an example that may help you to
understand this. I live in snow country. Suppose I ask one of the neighborhood
kids to shovel out my driveway after a snowstorm. In exchange I tell him, I'll
give him twenty dollars. I don't have a very long driveway, so he'll probably
think this is a really good deal. Now suppose when he gets all done, I look at
the driveway, and I say, "That's a really great job, you did. The driveway
looks super." He'll feel good, but he'll still want his money. Praise is
nice, but it's not what motivated him to do my drive. Now I say, "Oh, I'm
a little short this week. I'm not going to pay you this time, but maybe next
time I'll give you twenty dollars." The next time it snows, you can bet
I'll be doing my own driveway. That kid is going to have twenty good reasons
not to do what I want. So, if I set up a bargain with my horse that says I'm
going to pay him for work well done, that's what I need to do. That doesn't
mean that I'm going to be clicking and treating every time my horse does
something good. The clicker is a TEACHING tool. For example, I can use the
clicker to teach a horse to pick up its feet for cleaning. I may start by
clicking the horse when it lets me run my hand down below its knee, but I'm
going to use a variable reinforcement schedule to ask for more and more.
The variable reinforcement schedule means that
the horse never knows exactly when he's going to hear the click. He'll keep
working, offering me more good responses, in an effort to get the "vending
machine" to work. This is the same principle that runs the Las Vegas slot
Before long my foot shy horse is going to be
doing a lot more than simply letting me run my hand down his leg. He'll be
picking his own foot up and holding it quietly in the air while I pick out the
dirt. Pretty soon, I won't click him until I've cleaned two, then three, then
all four feet. And after a while I'll be able to fade the click out completely
as he masters that skill, but I'll be using the clicker in other areas to teach
new things. It's like saying to that kid, yes I'll give you twenty dollars. You
can count on that, but I also want the front walk shoveled, AND the snow pulled
off the roof. If he quits part way, he won't get anything, but the more he gets
done, the closer he gets to his reward. That keeps him going even though I'm
asking for more work. If I were to add both new tasks all at once, he might
grumble and go away. But, if I gradually ask for a little bit more each time,
after a while it will all seem like just part of the job. If every now and then
I surprise him some fresh baked brownies, he might even offer to knock the
icicles off the rain gutters. (Doesn't this sound familiar? Not only is it a
lot like horse training, but isn't this what happens to most of us at work.
Look back at your original job description. After a while it starts to sound as
though it's referring to somebody else. You do SO much more than that, but it's
still the same paycheck.) With the horses a pocket full of grain or even a
single carrot can buy you a lot of training.
Treats are given in small amounts. A teaspoon
of grain, one bite of carrot, is enough to keep your horse working for more. I
vary my reinforcers. Not only does that make the training more fun and
interesting for my horse, it provides him with an additional source of
information. I can save his favorite treats for extra efforts. They help me to
mark those special "Kodak moments." When my own horse does something
I particularly like, click! the peppermints come out. He knows he's just done
something super that was well worth the extra effort.
8.) WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE ABOUT CLICKER
My home page will link you to
all the on-line clicker resources. In addition, it will give you more articles
on clicker training horses, a photo album of clicker trained horses, and
references to the best of the clicker books and videos that are currently
My new book CLICKER TRAINING FOR YOUR HORSE is
now available and can be ordered through my web site, or from the publisher,
Sunshine Books at: http://www.dontshootthedog.com/
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Updated: October 2005.