Horses and Clicker Training
Clicking with every species has its own specifics. Here are some that apply to equines.
This point is almost redundant, but it is worth mentioning that being an equine clicker trainer means two things in one: a clicker trainer and a horse person. Adding clicker training to the mix does not by any means replace “horse sense”. Horses are large, powerful, and fast animals that we work in in direct contact with, up to stacking our bones on top of theirs! Good working horsemanship skills are a prerequisite to quality clicking!
Food delivery mechanics
The use of food as a primary reinforcer means that food delivery is an integral part of the training process. Food delivery that is not running smoothly can create a lot of frustration. Food delivered in a timely fashion and using proper mechanics will clarify training tasks and contribute to the learner’s confidence and motivation. More on food delivery…
Obtaining the behaviors
Some of the behaviors we would like to teach our equines can be obtained with “classical” clicker methods: capturing, free-shaping, and targeting. Click here to read more about them. However, unlike clicker training with other animals, equine clicker training does employ negative reinforcement. Why? The language of pressure and release at the foundation of riding aids and ground work is the language of negative reinforcement. What makes the use of pressure compatible with the positive spirit of clicker training is that it is information only, never an aversive stimulus, i.e. something that causes pain, fear, or emotional and mental discomfort to the recipient. "Negative" in the language of operant conditioning only means that it is taken away when behavior happens, as in releasing the rein as soon as the horse responds to your request. Read more about clicker-compatible mechanics of negative reinforcement.
There is a happy balance in using all of these ways of obtaining behavior. Free-shaping is a major enthusiasm and motivation builder and a great outlet for creativity (human and equine), whereas targeting and especially the use of pressure and release give the trainer more control of when, how, and where the behavior is performed.
Riding with the clicker
Clicking adds an exclamation mark (click and treat) to release. The precision of the click allows for fine-tuning of your horse’s responses to your aids. Of course, there is no reason not to click for any extra brilliance that the horse may offer on his own!