Thursday, 17 April 2014

An Introduction to Clicker Training for Horses

An Introduction to Clicker Training for Horses[1]

Clicker training is used to teach behaviour using a "yes" signal that tells our horse that they did something we would like them to repeat. It is based on positive reinforcement where we use the noise from a clicker (which acts as a secondary reinforcer) to bridge the gap between the desired behaviour and the delivery of the positive reinforcement. This increases the likelihood that the behaviour that was reinforced will be repeated. The click is usually made with a small plastic noisemaker. It is very precise and therefore gives us the opportunity of rewarding our horse as close to when the behaviour is occurring. The sound is short and instant and marks the desired behaviour for our horse allot quicker than words. The concept is based on principles of classical conditioning that propose that the best way to form an association between two stimuli is to 'mark' them within a short time of each other.

Our modern day clicker training began with dolphin training. When dolphins were first housed in marine aquariums trainers were having a hard time training the dolphins as none of the traditional training methods of the day applied as the dolphins would swim away. The solution was to shape behaviour using positive reinforcement. Initially the trainers blew the whistle just before they threw the fish into the water. The dolphins quickly learnt to expect a fish every time they heard the whistle.

Of course Ivan Petrovich Pavlov discovered this association between a sound and food way back in the 1920's. Pavlov was interested in the functioning of digestive glands of dogs at the time and his research involved presenting dogs with food and measuring their salivary responses (drooling). Before the food was presented a bell was rung.  Pavlov soon discovered that the dogs were drooling at the sound of the bell.

But in order to tell a dolphin that you liked what it just did (and thereby increase the chance that the dolphin will repeat the behaviour) simply using a treat (in this case throwing a fish in the water) was not enough. Something was needed to connect the treat with the behaviour. So the next step was to link the whistle to behaviour. So for example, trainers could lower a hoop into the water and blow the whistle when the dolphin is swimming near that hoop. Within a short time the dolphin would be spending allot of time near the hoop (as they were waiting for their fish treat). The next step was to wait as the dolphin went through the hoop, then a whistle would blow and a fish would be thrown to the dolphin. This is an example of free shaping. In horse training we can train a horse by free shaping with the clicker but many of us combine clicker training with other forms of reinforcement for some behaviour.

What to use as a reward?

Yes it is most likely if you clicker train you will be using treats. Now there is no evidence that clicker training causes horses to expect food all the time and become muggy. It is all in the delivery - once a horse knows that they will get a treat when the clicker sounds, our horse will learn to expect a treat only when the clicker sounds - in fact properly trained clicker horses are less muggy that a horse that gets treats without a maker. Why? Because without a marker horses probably link the treat with a human. So when they see the human they might expect a treat.....our human becomes the signal for a treat! 

We can eventually pair other things that the horse also finds reinforcing. For example, a good scratch on the withers - or even a word can eventually be as reinforcing for our horse for short periods of time, which might be useful for competition events where you may not be allowed to treat in a show ring. So the main criterion is that our horse is given what they like best and for the most part this will be food. There is also some evidence that the association of a food reward with a learning task enhances learning and the memorisation of the learning task. This association also induced positive memories towards humans (Sankey, Richard-Yris, Leroy, Henry, and Hausberger, (2010)[2].  We can use any treats our horse finds pleasurable but for me I like to only use ones that have the least GI measure.

How to begin?

We can simply mimic what the dolphin trainers did and click and treat. Pretty soon your horse is going to get the connection. But I prefer to start with a behaviour - a simple one - orientating towards an object is a good place to start. So let me show you how we can begin:

Also we can get straight into it and ask to orientate towards a cone that we will be using for targeting:

We follow learning theory in clicker training and there is probably nothing we can't teach a horse to do because horses learn to navigate their environment by learning the consequences of their actions (well we all do of course). Specifically this is called operant conditioning (Edward Lee Thorndike in the late 1800's and then in the early 1900's B.F. Skinner followed suit). Simply put; we form an association between behaviour and a consequence.

There are a number of ways we can begin to teach our horse behaviours once they understand the relationship between the click and the treat.  Target training is probably the easiest behaviour to teach and once a horse understands to touch a target we can teach head down (the foundation for emotional control) or to use a target to ask our horse to follow a feel or lead. So let me show you:

In most cases clicker training can also help our horse recover from anxiety and use his curiosity to embrace what might once have been a spooky situation[3].  For example Innes and McBride (2008) compared training methods using schedules of either positive or negative reinforcement on ponies who had been subjected to chronic stress in the form of long-term neglect or cruelty. Over a 7-week period, 16 ponies were trained to lead in hand, stand to be groomed, traverse an obstacle course and load into a trailer using either positive (clicker training) or negative reinforcement (lightly touching the horse with a riding crop with increasing pressure until it responded with a near-correct response).  It was found that during the latter stages there were significant differences between the two training schedules for some measures which suggested that ponies trained under a positive reinforcement schedule were more motivated to participate in the training sessions and exhibited more exploratory behaviours in novel situations and environments.[4]

Likewise Hendriksen, Elmgreen, and Ladewig (2011) compared the efficacy of clicker training verses pressure and release by training a number of horses who had a high fear response to load into a trailer, by using either positive or negative reinforcement. It was reported that all horses had previous bad experiences with trailer loading and could not be loaded past the beginning of the trailer ramp by their owners.  Hendriksen, Elmgreen,  and Ladewig (2011) found that the level of discomfort behaviour and avoidance expressed during trailer loading was significantly greater in the group of horses who were allocated to the negative reinforcement group (pressure and release) as compared to the group of horses who had been assigned the positive reinforcement group (clicker training with targets) . Further, the overall training time with the positive reinforcement group was shorter than the time spent on a session in the negative reinforcement group[5].

Clicker training provides us with endless possibilities but one of the most important facets is that it fosters a true meaningful partnership with our horse.  Clicker training also helps the human see how behaviour chains are connected and provides us with opportunities to break down behaviour into all its small components and with this we can discover how, when and why a complex behaviour can be formed or when a behaviour chain needs to be tweaked. It teaches us patience and empathy, so we get a better understanding of what we are asking from our horse's point of view. After all, learning is all about repeating behaviours that our horse finds rewarding. If you will permit me, here is my horse showing how he learnt 'relax' with the clicker:

[1] Julie Lannen is the owner of the Australian Clicker Connection ( and has an honours degree in psychology. The video grabs are from Clicker 101 DVD
[2] 'Positive interactions lead to lasting positive memories in horses, Equus caballus' in Animal Behaviour 79, pp 869–875.
[3] I say in most cases, as sometimes we come across a horse that needs distance as a reinforcer for a while until they regain their confidence and control.
[4] Innes, L., and McBride, S. (2007), Negative versus positive reinforcement: An evaluation of training strategies for rehabilitated horses, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 112 (2008) pp. 357–368
[5] Hendriksen, P., Elmgreen, K., and Ladewig, j., (2011). Trailer-loading of horses: Is there a difference between positive and negative reinforcement concerning effectiveness and stress-related signs? Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Vol 6, No 5, pp. 261-266