Let me start by highlighting the fact that clicker training in of itself is not a complete system for training, as dressage is. It is not intended to be. Clicker training is a means for reinforcing behavior. It doesn’t dictate what behaviors should be trained. This is good because that means it can be applied to any training situation.
The reason I write so much about clicker training, rather than about horsemanship or dressage, is because so much quality material is already available on those topics. (Check out my Other Resources page for suggestions.) My goal is to find the point at which all of these concepts can intersect. For me that point is what “Getting to Yes” is about.
The rule, that applies no matter what you are training, is behavior that is rewarded will tend to occur more often. All trainers depend on the horse finding doing what you want more desirable than not doing it. Some people may use the method of forcing the horse to “want” to cooperate by making not-cooperating more unpleasant. This puts the emphasis on the “wrong” thing. Clicker training turns the equation around and looks instead only at the goal, the right thing. By giving the right thing the most attention and reinforcement you simply get more of the right thing.
“Some fellas will say, make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult, and that may work for them. But, I say, why not just make the right thing obvious?” — Bill Dorrance
Clicker training is a training method that utilizes a marker signal (the click of a clicker) to highlight desired behaviors which are then rewarded, often with food but not necessarily so. The mark “tells” the horse exactly which behaviors are worth repeating. The behaviors that are marked, and therefore rewarded, are behaviors that the horse will seek to perform again. Okay you say, so what do I do? Click when the horse does a flying change?
Well not exactly. The first behaviors you start with are not finished products. For example you would not start by clicking a flying change. That would be much too big a chunk to work with. You would start with a very tiny bit of behavior which could occur long before-possibly years before-the flying change.
But we get ahead of ourselves here. So let’s roll back to the very beginning. How do you get started with the clicker? These beginning steps will seem far removed from dressage. But hang in there. To do anything right you must do it thoroughly and start from the beginning.
Almost everyone starts clicker training by starting with a super-ultra-simple can’t get it wrong behavior. One very common approach is to teach the horse to touch his nose to an object. Say one of those small orange training cones. This isn’t the only way to start and it isn’t even the only way that I would start. But, I’ll explain targeting as an example.
Here’s how you’d do it.
Put the horse in a stall with a stall guard up. You stand outside the stall door with the cone and clicker in one hand. You’ll use the other hand to dole out the treats. Have your pockets filled with lots of very small tidbits of food. Hay pellets are a good choice. But if the horse turns his nose up at this, then use something he will “do anything for.” Perhaps mints or bits of carrot. Whatever will make it worth his while to play the game. But keep the pieces very small… like the size of the tip of your pinkey finger. You are going to hand out a lot of them!
Hold out the cone one inch from the horse’s nose. Click the clicker one time when he sniffs the cone (and he will because horses are by nature very curious animals). Hide the cone behind your back as you simultaneously feed one hay pellet. Repeat this 3-5 times. Make it ridiculously easy for the horse to be successful so that the clicks occur within a few seconds of one another. During the early learning stages you want to keep the “rate of reinforcement” high.
Repeat the same scenario again another 3 to 5 times but now hold the cone a few inches away and wait there for the horse to move toward it with his nose. He will. When he does, again click the clicker, hide the cone, and feed one hay pellet. Repeat. Again, although you are making it “harder” (by moving the target) you don’t want to make it so hard that there is too much time taking place between clicks. Keep the “click rate” high.
The most common mistake beginners make is making it too hard for the horse to be successful and therefore they don’t click often enough.
Continue in this manner positioning the cone a little bit further away and/or either higher or lower than you have been. You are looking to see the horse seeking out the cone where ever you place it. Always click and treat every time he touches the cone.
After about 10 or 15 minutes of playing the Training Game give the horse a break. You can start again in a few minutes or forget about it until the next day.
Soon, either in the first session or certainly in the second the horse will be clearly seeking out the cone to touch it where ever you put it. Why? Because you have consistently rewarded him each and every time he did. So of course he’d go looking for it. Right about now, as you realize how incredibly quickly your horse learned to do this and how willing he was to do it, you may start to wonder why some other things-the things that are so important to you-are such a struggle. It is a most Excellent Question and one that may change your entire perspective on training.
What I am talking about is what I call the “Paradigm Shift.” The Paradigm Shift is that shift in your thinking that causes you to believe with absolute certainty that if the horse knew what you wanted and was able to do it he would be doing it. Not just sometimes with some horses, but all the time with all horses. After the Paradigm Shift you see all horses, even the most difficult, in a different light. One that gives them the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming that they are just ‘trying to get out of working’ or are ‘pulling one over on you’ or whatever you might think when things are not going as you had hoped. It also comes with a great responsibility. Often times the reason the horse isn’t “able” is because the rider is in the way.
Now I can talk about all that till I’m blue but it won’t mean a thing until you start asking yourself that “Excellent Question”. Why are things so difficult with my horse?
But for now, let’s just get back to the practical day to days.
What did the horse learn in the cone touching lessons? The horse learned that when he hears the click of the clicker that #1, food is coming and #2 whatever he was doing when he heard the click is the reason he’s getting the food. When the horse is clear on these two key points, especially #2, we can say that the light bulb of understanding has turned on. You know that the light is on when the horse perks up and begins to seek out the treat when he hears the click. Soon the horse appears to be seeking the click more than the food by his efforts to find behaviors that make you click. When this is happening we say that the horse is clicker ‘savvy’. He really ‘gets’ the game and the point has become less about the food and more about the game itself. He’s learned how to learn and he’s learned it can be fun.
I have to say that I never get tired of watching a horse’s light bulb start to glow and then suddenly-Snap!-the light is burning brightly. You know the light is ON when as soon as the horse hears the click no matter what he’s doing he screeches to a halt and looks you square in the eye. I think if more people had the chance to see this process take place more would understand why so many people are crazy for clicker training.
Once the proverbial light bulb is ‘on’ you now have a very powerful tool in your training tool kit. A way to reward the horse with laser accuracy. It is up to you to figure out how to use this tool toward accomplishing your riding goals. If you need help figuring all that out, well, that’s what I do. Let me know how I can help. You might also enjoy reading my book which answers the question, “I’ve taught my horse to touch a target. Now what?”