Digging in a little deeper...
This page includes definitions and brief explanations of the elements of operant conditioning. Note: when we clicker train, we primarily use R+. Central to good training is the use of shaping, which is the gradual building up of behaviours by reinforcing tiny steps in the right direction. Karen Pryor's "Principles of Shaping" are a good place to start.
Why should you care about the science and the technicalities?
If we interact with a horse, we are training that horse (whether we intend to or not). It is important for all horse trainers to understand how horses learn. Some primary ways in which horses learn are via operant conditioning, habituation, and association (classical conditioning).
Operant conditioning is a theory of learning that states that behaviours that are reinforced will become more likely to occur, and behaviours that are not reinforced, or are punished, will become less likely to occur.
By understanding the underlying principles that govern learning, and acknowledging the way they impact upon the behaviour of all animals all the time (yes, including us humans!), we can objectively look at any training method and understand WHY it works (or doesn't work). No more snake-oil and fluffy words, no more magic "horse whisperers"; you will be able to watch any trainer using any method at all, and see the underlying principles at work. This allows you to understand exactly how they are influencing the behaviour of the animal being trained, and you will be more easily able to apply this knowledge to your own interactions with your horse.
This also means you can decide, independently and objectively, if a particular trainer/method 'jives' with your own ethics and philosophy and priorities. Invaluable!
FAQ's, myths & arguments
Will I have to use a clicker and treats all the time, for ever?
No, the clicker is for training new behaviours or improving existing ones. Once the behaviour is established and reliably on cue, the clicker and treats (or other reinforcer) are phased out. You will still need to reinforce the behaviour from time to time, but you can use your everyday interactions to do so - e.g. ask him to back up a few steps before putting down his feed bin or opening the paddock gate. (Note: when we phase out the food, we also phase out the click, because when you click you must always treat - that is your promise to the horse).
Hand-feeding horses leads to biting and mugging
If you feed a horse treats randomly, or wave food around in front of the horse in hopes of inducing a behaviour, yes you will likely get problems such as mugging and other undesired behaviours. Clicker training, however, uses carefully timed reinforcement and precise food delivery to ensure that the horse understands that mugging will NEVER get results. Good manners are the first and most important behaviours taught. When used correctly, clicker training can serve to eliminate these types of behaviours, rather than encourage them.
Equitation is a science. Every science is founded on principles, and theory must indispensably be necessary, because what is truly correct and beautiful cannot depend upon chance.
Image by Fed Up Fred