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Clicker Training // Clearing Up Misconceptions

So you've been watching these awesome videos of horses that are trained using positive reinforcement and clicker training. You've asked some questions, you've even probably googled about clicker training, but the information out there just isn't informative enough or it's false and biased against clicker training. Well, here I am to help with the confusion, the lack of information, and putting to ease your doubts about the use of clicker training.

1. Clicker Training equals "Trick Training"

Honestly there is nothing that annoys me more than hearing my horses are trick horses or that when I'm training something new they are learning a new trick. I'm curious why people automatically assume the horse must be learning to perform in a circus or for the movies whenever they find out I use positive reinforcement. I have absolutely nothing against training what would commonly perceived as tricks, but the use of positive reinforcement is widely used in the training of many species of animals as well as in humans not just for trick training. When you praise a child for bringing home an exceptional grade report from school you are using positive reinforcement. No tricks, you are merely choosing specific behaviors you wish to see repeated. When a marine animal is trained to present it's belly for medical attention using positive reinforcement, that's not a circus trick it's necessary and functional.

Training anything, animal or human, requires some sort of drive or reinforcement. Traditionally horse owners and trainers have always used what is called "negative reinforcement", they are actually using a reinforcer but that reinforcer is pressure. The horse "performs" because it will feel an uncomfortable pressure if it does not respond, and then it is rewarded for performing by the removal of pressure. For example, when you are asking a horse to back up you start off with a cue, such as a rope shake, and if the horse doesn't respond immediately you begin applying more and more pressure (usually a stronger and stronger application of the original cue) until the horse does what is being asked, and then you stop applying pressure to symbolize that the horse did what was asked (the reward). With exclusively positive reinforcement you are simply choosing to shape a behavior through pressure-less methods until you get the horse to do a specific movement or action, then you follow with a reward. Instead of the reward being a release of pressure the reward is something the horse desires instinctively, like food.

As you can see the two methods really are working towards the same goal, but taking a different path. You can train tricks, like lying down or rearing up, using negative reinforcement. You can also train those same tricks using positive reinforcement. Or, using either method, you can train your horse to lunge a circle around you or quietly trail ride. One could argue everything we train our horses to do outside of instinctive survival behaviors is a "trick". So.... in that case.... we are all trick trainers. Not just clicker trainers.

2. Clicker Training will make a horse pushy or aggressive around food

Clicker training is actually proven to do the exact opposite when applied correctly. Teaching a horse to be polite around food is extremely easy and very effective with clicker training. Many species are trained with positive reinforcement and clicker training. Species that range from marine animals to notoriously dangerous elephants and lions. These animals can successfully be taught to take food politely from a human with clicker training. There are countless reports of food aggressive horses and other animals that have been completely turned around and are now gentle giants that eat their food politely. I even have a mare myself that used to be pushy and borderline aggressive when it came to food. As soon as she found out the only way to get this delicious food was by having good manners she immediately changed course and is the most polite treat taker in my barn. Actually I would say her strong drive for food made her that much more willing to be extremely polite because she wanted it that much.

It's important to do your research and really spend the time necessary to build a good foundation before moving forward with using food in your training. It's also critical to not feed your horse treats "just because" without a care for their manners. I'm not saying you can't feed your horse a special treat, but always be aware of its manners when taking the treat, even if you aren't clicker training. I will go more in-depth with how to develop manners in my next article.

On a side note, I do have a piece of advice to improve your horse's success and lifestyle. A horse that is food deprived and kept in an unnatural eating environment is far likelier to be food aggressive or struggle with manners. Horses are herbivores that are intended to graze a little bit all the time, they are not designed to eat two restricted meals a day at set times. They are also not designed to eat massive amounts of condensed processed feeds. I'm not saying you can't teach a horse to be polite around food if it's living in an unnatural environment, but you will have an easier time if you can at least provide your horse with longer periods of forage throughout the day/night. Such as hay in a slow feeder net, or more daily turnout.

3. The words "Clicker Training"

You probably got a little confused reading that last one. You're thinking "aren't I reading an article about clicker training?" No, you're not. You're actually reading an article about positive reinforcement with the use of a tool called a "clicker". Let me explain.

Saying you "Clicker Train" sounds like the horse will only perform when a clicker is present. Like you're bribing the horse, or like it's trained to perform to the sound of the click. For example.... one click means walk, two clicks means trot. Saying you do "clicker training" or you "clicker train" is like saying you "whip train" or "leg train", or "rein train". There are specific times during training that you may introduce a tool or a way of training where you will temporarily say you are training the horse to use that item,"Halter training" for example, but you don't say you are halter training every time you halter that horse for the rest of it's life. Once the horse has the concept of what the halter does, and how to respond to it, the term "halter training" is no longer used. The horse then becomes "halter trained".

So for this reason I want to change the use of the label "Clicker Training" to only when first introducing this new tool to our training program. After the horse understands basic manners, and what the sound of a clicker (or a specific marker sound) means, the horse is from that point forward "clicker trained" and you are no longer "clicker training" every time you train using a clicker, you are training using positive reinforcement with a tool called a clicker.

4. Clicker Training Spoils Horses

This actually ties in to topic #2, but is a little different. It's easy when watching someone train with food to think that the horse is only performing because food is present. The questions you may want to ask might sound something like "Will the horse still do it without food?" "Will I have to have food with me all the time?" "What happens if I run out of food?". These are extremely valid questions that were honestly my primary concerns when I was presented with the idea of incorporating positive reinforcement in my horses' training. However, I was quickly reminded of what the result of an effective training program looks like when using positive reinforcement. My dog was my first hand example. Let me explain.

When my dog was just a puppy I immediately started working with 100% positive reinforcement. In the beginning there were a lot of rewards for seemingly very basic small behaviors. Gradually I expanded on these small basic behaviors and they developed into full blown, and amazingly solid, behaviors that required little to no reinforcement once they were "known behaviors". When he was still learning to sit, I had to shape each step of the behavior with a high reinforcement rate. Now, I can't honestly remember the last time I reinforced a sit with a treat, yet he performs them 100% of the time anywhere and anytime on cue with a mere verbal praise or brief petting as reward.

The goal with any training program is to decrease the amount of reinforcement needed to obtain the same behaviors. In horses this is usually through the use of negative or positive reinforcement. You start off with either more negative or more positive reinforcement and gradually wean off the frequency and/or intensity of the reinforcement until little to no reinforcement is needed for a very advanced behavior as well as extended duration of the behavior.

To break this down even simpler I will use the example of when I start teaching leading to a horse. At first I may only be looking for something so small as a weight shift and this action will receive immediate reinforcement. Naturally the rate of reinforcement will be higher as you will be asking for such small actions it will require more. Eventually I will work up to having the horse walking circles, then to leading for long walks that are miles at a time, then to jogging in hand and so on before receiving reinforcement. The frequency rate of reinforcement will naturally decrease as the requirements for the behavior become more advanced and lengthier in time.

To be more specific with the use of how positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement work in this scenario.... Using positive reinforcement I will ask for a weight shift forward by using a previously learned cue (such as targeting), add a verbal or psychical cue, then click/reward when horse shifts forward. With negative reinforcement you would apply (usually) slight and constant pressure until the horse shifted forward, then immediately reinforce this movement by releasing pressure. The process is the same, the end goal is the same. Eventually with positive reinforcement you will have no need for using food except for when teaching new behaviors, just like when teaching a new behavior using negative reinforcement you will have less and less need for pressure except for when teaching a new behavior.

It's also worth pointing out that food is not the only form of positive reinforcement you can use. Scratches, rest, and verbal praise can all be positive reinforcers for a horse. Usually food is a primary or higher valued reinforcer though, which I will explain more in detail in a later article. In the meantime, just know that you can mix it up! Especially as the behavior is becoming more and more "known" or "confirmed" you can begin to alternate food and scratches, reserving the higher valued reward (usually food) for exceptional performances. This has also been proven to actually increase the quality of the performance, but we will get into that more later.


I hope I clarified some questions you guys may have had. If you have any questions that would fall into a "why you shouldn't use clicker training/food/positive reinforcement" category, please comment them below. I would love to address them in a Part II article about Clicker Training Misconceptions.

- Adele

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