I am writing this while looking out at the Atlantic Ocean from my room at the Yankee Clipper Inn. I am here for two days with my good friend, Karen Pryor. A couple of times a year we go on these writing retreats. We hole up in our separate rooms and work, then get together over meals for conversation.
Trace back the history of modern dog training, of humane handling of animals in captivity, of clicker training, and it all started with Karen. There were other people working in the lab and in the field, who contributed to the science behind it all, but it was Karen who looked at the big picture, applied it to real life, and then communicated that to the public and other scientists, so that it would be embraced world-wide.
For her, clicker training is far more than an effective training tool. It’s a way to bring kindness to the world and to reduce cruelty. So you might be surprised that when I told her that I thought that horse owners shouldn’t clicker train their horses – at least not until they had first clicker-trained trained a guinea pig – she laughed and agreed with me. (And then she told me a hilarious story about training a guinea pig to step onto a platform. He had one paw on the step, the other in the air, and gave her a full face binocular query, holding eye contact with Karen while he reached forward with his free paw, clearly asking her, Is this what you want? He got the click for stepping on it, and from then on knew this behavior.)
My concern is that as easy as it is to get an animal to do a behavior with clicker training, it’s just as easy to get behavior that you don’t want, and with horses, that can be dangerous. I have seen many cases of horses inadvertently trained to do something other than what was planned. Perhaps you’re clicking your horse for a backward step, but you didn’t notice the pinned ears and the hollow back. In a couple of clicks, you have a horse that steps back in an angry and tense frame. It’s that easy to teach the wrong thing. Being a competent clicker trainer takes practice. Much better to learn from our mistakes with a guinea pig than with a 1,000 pound horse.
Or learn with a mini. I laughed at Sugar’s peeved expression (he hates stepping over things) but I wouldn’t be laughing if this was Sugar’s 1,400 pound stablemate!
Even when you do get the behavior right, most novice trainers don’t have the ability to put it under stimulus control (meaning have it happen only when asked for.) I have a couple of clients who taught their horses the Spanish walk (the horse thrusts out its front legs in an exaggerated way.) It’s a thrilling thing to see your horse do, except when it’s not asked for and whoever is nearby gets hit by a hoof. A guinea pig can be trained to high step. If you can get your piggy to do that on cue, and only on cue, then you’re ready to clicker train your horse to do the same thing.
Reinforcement for a clicked behavior should make the animal happy. (I might have laughed at Sugar, but we revised the training so that this became his working face.)
I like to see the horse respond to the reward with a relaxed demeanor. A jazzed up dog about to run an agility course is fun, a hyped up horse with you on its back – not so great. But most horses, when offered a high-value treat do not respond with calm, because so many of them have food anxiety. This anxiety has many components. A condensed story is that horses are designed to have access to forage 24/7 and to eat more than a dozen hours a day. Most stabled horses have mealtimes and are painfully hungry in-between. Horses are designed to eat in a moving group in which there’s no competition for food. In stabled situations they learn to aggress and resource guard. When the owner arrives with a pocketful of cookies, the horse is already primed to be frustrated and demanding, which is not a good place to start training. (What I’ve written here is only a small piece of the complexity of using food with horses in typical boarding barns. I’ll write more about this! I’ll also be talking about this at Equine Affaire in April.)
Clicker training is an extremely precise and effective way to get desired behavior. Done right, it can be a relief to all involved to have that line of communication open. Done poorly and you can create frustrated and dangerous animals. I’ve seen horses swing their quarters and threaten to kick when the criteria for getting the click wasn’t clear. Of course, all training can be done poorly, and some other methods cause physical harm to the horse. However, unskilled clicker training of your horse can cause physical harm to you.
When I first got Tonka, I managed to teach him to swing in front of me in one short training session. Not good training!
The solution is not to discount clicker training for horses, but to be honest about the challenges, and to work hard at developing the skills so that you can do it right. But, while you and your guinea pig develop a dance routine, (or you teach a fish to swim to a target) you don’t have to throw out the idea of positive reinforcement training.
I’m committed to the perspective that Karen made accessible in her book Don't Shoot the Dog: The Art of Teaching and Training. It’s more than simply a training technique. It’s a way to navigate our relationships in a thoughtful and generous way.
There are those who never get past seeing the clicker as a training tool. They either get highly skilled at its use and their animals perform, or they use it poorly and discount it. But the clicker itself is not what I think that this method is about. The magic happens when the trainers, themselves, are transformed. This is a topic that Karen has put much thought to and is continuing to delve into. She and I talked about it at length on this retreat. It’s something that she’s continuing to delve into. When you use a clicker, you break down the behavior into the smallest of components, and then you mark the slightest of tries. Doing this requires that you notice the good and expand on that, and that you think in terms of rewards, not punishment. This is a paradigm shift! The best trainers become so obervant that they notice, too, the slightest sign of stress, of fear, of eagerness. The flick of an ear. Tension in the jaw. A relaxed breath. They take all of that into account. They are fluid in what they ask for and how they ask it. They always look for a way to make the situation better for the learner. Simply put, the trainers become more empathic. You don’t need a clicker for that.
Using a clicker with your horse can motivate them, clarify what you want, make the communication precise, and speed up training. But, to achieve all of that, first you need a guinea pig. Talk to the piggy with the clicker. Then bring the clicker out to the barn.
Photo of my guinea pig, Chester, circa 1970. I didn’t train him, but he trained me to bring celery when he whistled.