My favourite thing in the world is to see the light come back into the eyes of a horse that has lived its life constantly being told 'no'. A horse that has never really been given any convincing reason to do anything for its various human 'partners', other than pressure (or perhaps pain). And those horses are everywhere: from the competition arena to pony club to the paddock down the road to clinics of every possible description.
Again and again I see their personalities start to emerge with the epiphany of being encouraged to experiment and be creative, and to voluntarily participate in what is happening to them. I see them start to sparkle.The excitement of students new to R+ when they realise just how much their horses are enjoying the whole learning process and how quickly they're progressing with the added clarity and motivation of clicker training is just as inspiring for me.
The horse's "why"
Horses do what makes sense to them in the moment. When it boils right down to it, there's two reasons why any animal is going to change their behaviour - because they are seeking something they want, or because they're trying to avoid something they don't like or that makes them feel unsafe.
Whenever we seek to influence an animal's behaviour in any way we must, by necessity, provide sufficient motivation to convince them to change what they're currently doing.
If the only reason we give them to change their status quo is some degree of discomfort, annoyance, fear or pain, then they will do the minimum required to avoid that. If we reward their efforts with something tangible that they are motivated to earn, then they become enthusiastic partners in their own learning - confident, creative, expressive and full of "try". I know which horse I'd rather have.
Clicker training, applied skillfully, will work for every horse... because no horse is immune to the principles of learning.
What is clicker training?
Clicker training is based on the principles of behavioural psychology and decades of scientific research. When we clicker train we primarily focus on increasing behaviours we want via positive reinforcement (giving a reward), as compared to traditional or natural horsemanship which primarily uses negative reinforcement (things the horse wants to avoid/escape, e.g. pressure) to motivate and teach the horse. Click here for some more detail on the science of learning and definitions of these terms.
In a nutshell, when our horse does something we like, we mark that moment with a distinctive signal (usually a 'click' with either a clicker or with the tongue). The click is paired with something the horse wants, usually food.
The click enables you to communicate to the horse with absolute precision exactly what he did that earned the reinforcement, i.e. what action you would like your horse to repeat. Your horse will then offer the behaviour more often in order to earn the click and get more of the reinforcer. By setting our horse up for success and gradually increasing the criteria for which we click, we can teach the horse to do almost anything he is physically and mentally capable of doing.
Adding in the marker signal takes a lot of frustrating guess work out of the learning process. When it is consistently paired with things the HORSE wants, YOU get more of the behaviour you want.
Central to this method is that we do not correct mistakes or "wrong" answers, and instead reinforce what we do want. Hence the real beauty of clicker training - trust, enjoyment and motivation is enhanced. The horse is focused and eager to participate and feels confident to experiment as he learns, because there is no fear of being 'wrong'.
"Clicker training is not a fad or the invention or method of some particular guru. Clicker training is a technology, based on behavioral science. This technology is rapidly overtaking traditional methods in the handling and management of all kinds of animals, including dogs, horses, birds, cats, and all the once untouchable species of wild birds and animals in zoos. There are human applications, too, such as physical therapy and sports training.
Clicker training is not obscure or hard to learn; it’s just different. This system doesn’t depend on dominance or “respect”, like traditional animal training. It’s a mutual agreement based on accurate communication; it works without causing fear or requiring submissiveness."
- Karen Pryor ("Click to Win!")