Skeptical About Clicker Training?

Answers to some common questions about clicker training

It is Not About the Food

I thought I would follow up with my own observations of the experience with Danke and the massage therapist. As you may recall (and if you missed it you can read about it here) Danke was not OK with having Heather standing on the hay bale while she worked on her croup area. This was the first time she had attempted to work with her like this. In the past if Danke needed to move Heather would just stay with her till she settled. But, since Danke is so tall (17+hands) it was necessary for Heather to stand on the hay bale to get a better look and feel of this particular area. As such it was necessary that Danke stand still. HA! Initially I simply blocked Danke’s efforts to leave. However, when Heather invited me to join her on the hay bale to look at/feel a particular knotty area the problem escalated when there was no one up front to keep Danke still! So the first problem we solved with clicker training was just getting Danke to stand still long enough so that I could see what Heather wanted me to see. Then it was time for Heather to get to work. It was quickly becoming clear that just telling Danke not to leave was not helping her feel good about the process. That’s when I said, “Well, you know, we could click her for standing here while you work. Do you think that would be too distracting?” As you know Heather believed it would be. But, I felt that it was worth a try because we weren’t...

To Rome Via the Scenic Route

I wrote this article in 1998. It appeared that year in the New England Dressage Association’s annual “Salute” publication. It is interesting to read it back 11 years later. Although I’ve grown a lot in those years the core message remains true. I would only make one change. Looking back on 16 years with Tulsa, I realize that it is she who is the teacher and I the humble student. How many times have we heard that there is so much to learn about dressage it would take a life time (or several!) to learn it all? Lots and it’s true! There is so much to learn that it is almost overwhelming at times. We keep going-or I do anyway!-because it is such a rush to finally “get” some small piece of the puzzle. It is tempting to think that since there is so much to learn that going “outside the box” of traditional dressage training is a waste of precious time. However, in my personal experience the opposite has been true. Some of my most valued “ah-ha!” moments came as the result of connections I made from non-dressage experiences. A Frustrating Start When I got my mare, Tulsa who is now nine, as a four year old I thought I could ride. Well, I could ride, but count on a youngster to show you just how much you don’t know about training! I knew I would need help in bringing her along, and I was getting help, but a year or so into it I hit a wall and had a “major meltdown.” What ever happened to riding...

Clicker Training: Myth vs. Reality

I get asked this question a lot: What is this clicker training business and what could it possibly have to do me? My goal in this article is to dispel some of the more common myths about clicker training that have emerged over the last several years as the method has increased in popularity among horse owners. Unfortunately, at the moment clicker training still conjures up visions of silly pet tricks or dolphin training in the minds of many people. As such many serious riders take exception to the idea that clicker training could have any legitimate place in horse training. In fact, here are some actual objections that I have encountered in my discussions with horse people about clicker training. I’ll respond to each one in turn. Since I’m a dressage rider myself these objections usually come up in the context of dressage but really it could be any discipline. Myth 1: People who employ clicker training in conjunction with dressage training are looking for a quick fix to problems that should be resolved by learning to ride better. Reality: If only it were that easy! There are no quick fixes, no short cuts. We all need to ride better and that is simply a given. In order to use clicker training effectively you will need to add study of it to your existing education efforts. Some may think that this is a “side road” or a distraction that only wastes valuable time. But I have to disagree strongly with this sentiment. Here is why. It is just not enough to be able to ride well. There is...

Why Clicker Training?

Let’s be pragmatic. Compared to horses, we humans can’t compete if the test is one of brute strength. We need to enter the training arena with our wits about us and use our brains to get to the horse’s brain. The more we can get the horse to want to go along with our ideas the less strength we need in the equation. The males among us can afford to play power games with the horse, using their height and strength to their advantage. As such they are willing to take bigger risks that the more slightly built would be stupid to engage in. The smaller you are the smarter you need to be! What if there was a way to make a big impression on a horse without having to ‘get big’ in order to do it? This is the first best reason to consider clicker training. Remember, clicker training isn’t a replacement for horsemanship skills. It justs gives us another tool toward achieving our primary goal: engaging the horse’s mind in the training process. Lady was a big, stout 5 year old mare that I took into training. She’d already had some poor experiences at the hand of a so-called ‘trainer’. She’d actually been knocked unconscious as a result of being longed in side reins and flipped over. So, when she came to me she had already decided that the best defense was a good offense. I watched her interact with my other horses in the field. The gelding who pushed everyone else around couldn’t get her to back down. She kept fighting back. When I brought...

The Paradigm Shift: How a Different Way of Thinking Can Change Everything

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)...

Developing a Soft Feel with Clicker Training

I’ve been working with a new horse recently. It has been so interesting because it has given me a chance to really think about what I click for in the beginning, especially when the horse isn’t “with me”. I wanted to write it down while it was still fresh. This mare is 10 years old, and pretty set in her ways of bracing and leaving when she is uncertain. The first session I spent just getting to know her in the stall and turning her on to c/t. She got it pretty quick. Next session in the round pen she was so far gone (mentally back at the paddock with her herd mates) that food wasn’t even on the radar. I spent the whole time just patting the ground with the longe whip to get her attention. Starting with an ear. She’s flighty, so you blow on her and she was cantering around. Not what I wanted but it was where she was at. I waited. I wanted her to stop and check in with me when I tapped the ground with the whip. Owner asked, won’t this be expecting too much if the whip has always meant go? I just shrugged and smiled…Oh ye of little faith. (to tell the truth, I wasn’t even all that sure if it would be possible that day) I persisted. Eventually the mare did stop and looked at me, a little cock to her head. What??? I said, to the mare, nothing, just that. Thanks! The owner was surprised! So, slowly, she started to let thoughts of the other horses who she...

Bad Behavior Doesn’t Just Happen

Having been to numerous shows and clinics I am often struck by how willing people are to put up with problems (like tension, resistance, taking off, bucking) with their horse as if there is nothing that can be done about them. I really do think that the reason this happens is because people simply aren’t even aware that things could or should be better. I mean if a person knew it was reasonable to expect the horse to be calm and focused wouldn’t they be doing something about it? Sometimes the horse is young and the ‘drama’ is put down to youthful exuberance. Other times the horse is older and has ‘always’ been this way. In both cases, there is no reason why it has to go on like that. This is where, for me, Horsemanship is crucial and where modern dressage misses the boat. I specifically say ‘modern’ dressage because I don’t think that it supposed to be this way. But it seems to me that in the hustle to achieve competitive goals the matter of how the horse feels seems to be lost. Too frequently riders just start taking dressage riding lessons without lessons in horsemanship. Why is that? Frankly, no dressage trainer that I worked with over the years ever said the problem you’re having is more fundamental and that is where we need to begin. Now certainly there must be some dressage trainers who do address these issues but it just isn’t part of most people’s regular experience. How do we learn how to help the horse to be ready for dressage (or any other...

Everything counts

Every day I am reminded again and again how every little thing counts to the horse. Horses want to get along with us. They are watching us closely for signs of meaning behind the things that we do. Right or wrong doesn’t enter into it. In fact, it is safe to go by the assumption that the horse is always Right. When I say that I mean we can be sure that from their point of view their actions make complete sense based on what we did. So, if we want a change in their behavior we have to see how what we are doing might be entering into the equation. A most excellent ‘for instance’ occurs frequently when doing groundwork in a halter. I have observed how some folks struggle to get the horse to walk a circle around them. Seems like a simple thing. It is, but it isn’t always so easy because of those little things that count to the horse. Here are some examples of little things that can ruin your ground work session. Clenched fists I find that horses are much happier when we allow the rope to drape over our open hand rather than clenching the rope with a hard fist. Horses are so sensitive that they can feel the difference between an open hand and a closed hand. As soon as you close your hand the horse will perceive this you as pulling him in toward you. If you have a horse who you have a hard time getting to go out on the circle check that your leading hand is open....

Teaching a horse to stand for mounting

OK I’ll be honest!! I can’t stand watching the little dance of line up horse to mounting block, he moves as soon as rider starts to get on block, so rider stops getting on and repositions the horse, and the whole thing starts over again ad infinitum. Good grief it doesn’t need to be like that. Here’s the thing. If a person is unable to change this situation in a few sessions then what it tells me is one or both of the following: a serious lack of ideas when it comes to actually TRAINING (not just hoping they figure it out) and/or a serious lack of willingness to pay attention to how the HORSE is feeling. Here’s what I would do instead. First, turn the horse on to clicker training. This is especially valuable when you are dealing with a horse who comes to the table with a whole lotta ‘ideas’ that aren’t the best. Second I would spend time with that horse on the ground showing him how I’m gonna make the ‘right thing obvious’. I get his attention and he starts to let go of the worry he’s carrying inside and the need to flee that comes with that. Through rope work I show him how to follow a feel. I do this rope work in a variety of locations not the least of which is while standing ON the mounting block. With me standing on the mounting block, I have the horse do circles around me and most important changes of direction (a figure eight). This allows me to lead the horse up to the...

New life for a gaited show horse

This is an update on Pamela, a horse I talked about back in February. Just to remind you, Pamela is a 6 year old Tennessee Walker who had been used as a ’show horse’ prior to being acquired by my client, Michele Williams. In the previous installment of her saga I had managed to reduce the catching/haltering process from 30 minutes to 5 minutes and I had gotten on briefly. The picture to the right is from that day. Not a pretty sight! It is now 3 months later. Progress is slow but I generally only work with Pamela once a week although recently while her owners were away they asked me to spend extra time with her which allowed me to move the process along a bit. According to the previous owner, an ‘old-timey’ Tennessee horseman, Pamela was bred to be a show horse and thusly was just ‘high strung’. This was to explain why she would just take off running when Michele got on. This was also the reason given as to why we would never be able to ride her in a snaffle. She had to be ridden in a long shanked curb bit. Oh Ye of Little Faith. Of course, Michele just ignored the man’s ravings confident in my certainty that Pamela really didn’t want to run off like that it was just that she didn’t know any other way to be. And so here we are. Baby steps baby steps. The real problem, that the old owner just can’t see, is the deep worry in Pamela. As soon as you get on her first...