I recently returned from two horse expos in under one week and was lucky enough to be invited to present demonstrations on Clicker Training and Horse Archery at both of these.
Particularly at the Total Equine Expo in Toowoomba, QLD, I was overwhelmed with the positive feedback and response to my clicker training display! We SOLD OUT of clickers in less than an hour and had many other orders after that!
So why are so many people taking to Clicking with their Horse?
My background with animals has a history in dog training, and especially in this industry, clicker training is very popular and well accepted. Anyone can learn it, it is very easy to adapt to, and can also be utilised into your already existing training systems as another 'tool' in the toolbox. So to me, it seemed natural to experiment in the early days with clicker training my horses. What a can of worms I opened!!! (well trained worms of course ;)
In fact, most animal training industries widely accept the use of Positive Reinforcement and Clicker Training.
Industries such as wildlife centres, marine animal parks, circus animal training, movie animal training, canine training, zoos and exotic animal centres around the world regularly use and openly accept the benefits of clicker training.
So why has the horse industry been a little slow on the uptake you ask?
Times are changing (thank goodness) and slowly but surely the horse industry is starting to creep out of it's comfort zone and more and more horse owners are seeing the benefits of clicker training.
I personally believe that the 'Natural Horsemanship' revolution (think back to the initial launching of programs and structured systems, DVD's, books and big 3-7 days clinics well marketed to show people a step by step way of humanely and kindly working with their horses) helped people to think outside of the box and be open to new ways of doing things. Yay! We've moved on from the 'old school' brutal methods.
However at the same time these trainers (and many of them VERY good trainers with great timing and feel for a horse) also had a mission to show horse owners that their horse should 'see them as a leader' through the use of
Negative Reinforcement (now don't jump on me too quick for this statement - Negative Reinforcement doesn't mean "BAD" it means 'taking something away' ie; put pressure on, and take it away when the horse responds appropriately).
Positive Reinforcement is "ADDING" something (think of Positive as " + " and Negative as " - " )
Now here's my two cents on this (for what it's worth - I trained under a professional 'systems' trainer from a very popular program for some time, and have no ill feelings at all towards these methods!)
Negative Reinforcement in horse training works. Science and experience tells us that. No arguments here.
But Positive Reinforcement in horse training also works. Science and experience are telling us this too. In fact, experience for many many years shows us that positive reinforcement works when training dolphins, seals, monkeys, tigers, elephants, giraffes, bears, rabbits, cats, chickens, birds of prey etc etc etc the list goes on. Now that's some serious animals there - predatory animals, HUGE animals (bigger than horses), and some very intelligent animals.
Well WHY ADD CLICKER TRAINING you ask???
I'm glad you asked!!!
Your horse now has TWO REASONS for completing the task we require - (a) he gets away from pressure or discomfort and (b) he gets a treat!
It also means YOUR TIMING improves because in order to click and treat, you must do this at the INSTANT the horse starts &/or continues performing the behaviour you've asked of him. When you press your clicker and reach into your waist bag for a treat you in turn have to release all the physical or energetic pressure you've put on him!
Not every horse person has the feel and timing of Ray Hunt (and despite lots of practice may not ever have his feel and timing!) so clicker training is a great way of improving a horse owners timing and make things VERY CLEAR to them and their horse. The "Click" means an instant YES to the horse which avoids confusion.
OK all you sceptics - questions??
~ I hear this one a lot - "When my horses are in the paddock together, they aren't giving each other a treat to do stuff"
Well you are completely right! See in my paddock Jatz Crackers is the Boss Man. Super assertive, super quick, and EVERYONE else in the paddock knows he means business. He warns them (briefly) and then WHAM they get out of his way when he wants their food/water/shady spot/grass/mares etc.
But on that list of things that he asks his paddock mates to do (which sometimes includes play and mutual grooming) you'll notice he hasn't asked the other horses in the paddock to go into a float? Or to be ridden? Or to be rugged/unrugged? Or to be clipped? Or to be washed? Or to perform a piaffe or sliding stop? Or to have their hooves picked out?
See that is all people stuff and priorities, not horse stuff. Jatz doesn't give two hoots if Jordi wears a bridle and saddle, or if Larry has rhythmic paces in the arena, or that RifRaf self loads on the float! He doesn't care if Chicky pony pulls a cart, or if Jethro does a great flying change!
But I do!!!! I'm asking SO MUCH MORE of my horses than their paddock boss ever will, so it only stands to reason that I OFFER so much more!
~ Next sceptic - "My horse should see me as a leader in his herd without offering food"
OK I'm going to come right out and say this - do you HONESTLY THINK that your horse looks at you - the two legged, clumsy, slow animal with your eyes on the front of your head, smelling completely different to a horse, wearing a hat/helmet on your head, covering those frontal facing eyes with sunglasses, and un-mobile ears that don't move with different sounds - as his horsey herd leader in the paddock???!!!! COME ON! Common sense alone (and now science thank god) is telling us that horses do not see us as horses!!
~ Last one (and my favourite) - "My horse is too bossy around food - it would be dangerous for me to use treats"
These horses as any clicker trainer will tell you ARE THE BEST HORSES for teaching clicker training as you already know what strongly motivates them!!! Confused? Ok well think of it like this - horse wants food ever so badly - you use negative reinforcement to move horse away (you can even teach them over a fence initially if it helps) - and SHOW HIM that the best way to get the food is to learn good manners and ALWAYS ALWAYS wait for your click & treat.
Jatz Crackers is one of my best clicker trained horses and never 'mugs' me for his treat - yet when he arrived as a 3 year old he would initially try to double barrel me at feed time to get his food. He is incredibly bossy around food to other horses and anyone that he thinks might accept it (smart horse) but he NEVER gets bossy in his training sessions with me as I've kept consistently showing him that I take the treat to him and he NEVER brings himself to the treat.
He knows that in order to receive his reward he must wait patiently until I am ready every time, all the time.
Do I use Negative Reinforcement in my training regime? You bet your bottom dollar I do! It works and it's effective and in good hands creates great results. Make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy for the horse.
Do I use Positive Reinforcement in most training sessions? You bet your bottom dollar I do! If it can work for tigers, lions, dolphins and monkeys, I'm pretty sure the humble horse will benefit from it!
And lastly, do I get crazily motivated relaxed and calm performance horses quickly because of my choice to train SMARTER not harder? You bet your bottom dollar I do!!!
So next time you and your horse are getting confused and frustrated with your lack of results, think "Could Clicking with my horse benefit us both?"
Thanks for reading :)
Lockyer Valley, QLD.