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Clicker Training Instruction Kit
WRITTEN BY: Alexandra Kurland 
Clicker training refers to a new method of teaching behavior using a "yes" signal or conditioned reinforcer, to tell the horse precisely when it has done something right. The "click" in clicker training refers to a small plastic noise maker, similar to a child's toy cricket.
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Clicker training began with dolphin training. Thirty plus years ago when dolphins were first put on display in marine aquariums, people had no idea how to train them. Just imagine what you would do if you had to teach a dolphin to jump through a hoop on command.
None of the traditional training methods people knew thirty years ago seemed to apply to an animal that could just swim away. That training depended too much on restraints and punishment, things you just can't use with dolphins.
The solution was to shape behavior using positive reinforcement, but even that presented a problem. How do you tell a dolphin that you liked what it just did? You can throw a fish in the water, but by the time it finds it, the reward won't have any connection to the behavior you were trying to reinforce. This problem was solved by introducing a high frequency whistle. The trainers blew a whistle just before they threw the fish into the water.
The dolphins very quickly learned to expect a fish every time they heard the whistle. The next step was to link the whistle to behavior. For example, if you lower a hoop into the water and blow the whistle only when the dolphin is swimming near that hoop, pretty soon the dolphin will be spending the majority of its time orienting around the hoop. This is a beginning step towards learning that behavior leads to whistle leads to fish. Once that connection is made, you are well on the way to training very complex behaviors.
The whistle is a bridging signal (or secondary reinforcer to use the more technical term). It gives the animal very clear and precise information. It acts as a "right answer cue". It says to the animal, the behavior you just did will get you a treat.CLICK!
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DOLPHIN TRAINING FOR HORSES
We can adapt this system very easily into horse training. With horses we use a plastic clicker. It's like a children's toy cricket, only a little more sturdy. You can also use a tongue click, so your hands are left free for other things.
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INTRODUCING YOUR HORSE TO A CLICKER
There are many different ways you can do this, but I generally introduce the clicker by teaching the horse to touch a target.
I use small orange cones, the kind you buy as lane markers for sporting events. You can also use lids off of supplement cans, cider jugs, anything that's handy and horse safe. I start with targeting because it's a very simple game, plus it's not part of the horse's normal training.
You put the horse in a stall with a stall guard across the door. Then you hold a cone, or some other object up in front of the horse. Horses tend to be curious about such things. They'll sniff the cone. The instant the horse touches the cone, click, you give it a treat.
The horse may start mugging your hands as soon as it realizes that food is involved. If they get too pushy, just step back out of range. The mugging is part of the learning process, and the key is not to get distracted by it. Keep yourself safe, but let the horse explore. He's going to discover that going directly to the vending machine never earns him treatsHelp your horse to be successful.
If your horse swings his head away to look at something, take advantage of that to position the cone between the horse's head and your body. He'll have to bump into it on his way back to mugging you. When he does, click! he gets a treat. As this happens again and again, he's suddenly going to realize that bumping the cone gets you, the vending machine, to work!
You can almost see the light bulb go on. As many times as I've watched this process, it's still a magical moment when the horse realizes that HE'S in control, that he can make ME click. All he has to do is bump the cone. He's also learning something else that's important. He's learning that he NEVER gets clicked for sniffing my fingers, pulling on my coat, or bumping me. If you have a mouthy horse, clicker training is a great way to teach good manners.
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FINDING THE RIGHT REWARD
The clicker is a bridging signal. It links a desired behavior to a reward. The reward is not what WE say the animal should want. A reward is anything the ANIMAL finds reinforcing. So first we have to find things the HORSE wants.
So what do horses like? Both kicking up their heels, and standing still belong on the list, as does a vigorous massage, time with a favorite pasture mate, or a chance to roll in a sand pit. The problem with this list is obvious. It's hard to use these things in a training session. You can't let your horse drop and roll every time he gives you a right answer.
Timing is another factor in choosing a suitable reward. Without a bridging signal rewards need to be delivered exactly when the behavior occurs. That way the horse can clearly mark what it was doing and repeat it again for another reward. Delays between behavior and reward can lead to confusion. You think you're rewarding your horse for dropping his head. He thinks it's for swishing a fly with his tail. So how do you resolve the problem? Very simply. You introduce a secondary reinforcer.
Food, or a pat on the neck is the primary reinforcer. It's the thing the horse wants. The secondary reinforcer, or bridging signal as it is also called, is a conditioned signal which becomes linked to rewards. It tells the horse, "You are about to get a treat." Without a bridging signal food is hard to use with horses. They get too eager, and it becomes more of a distraction than a help. But WITH a bridging signal you can channel that eagerness into performance. Food as a reward works wonderfully. It's convenient for the rider, and highly motivating to the horse.
I have been using clicker training with my horses since 1993, and I have just been astounded by the results. Everything from basic manners to upper level performance can be taught with the clicker. Clicker training piggy backs beautifully onto other training systems. It's not a substitute for, but an enhancement of techniques you already know. The clear "yes" answer of the clicker accelerates the learning curve and creates eager, happy horses.
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VARYING THE REINFORCER
So what can you use for treats? Grain doled out a teaspoon at a time, carrots, breakfast cereal, chopped up apples, sugar cubes, peppermints, animal crackers, bread . . . really anything that the horse enjoys and that's safe for it to eat will work. The important point here is that you want to vary your reinforcer. You can give your horse important information just by changing your treat. My horses love peppermints. I reserve those for special moments. When the peppermints come out, they know they've done something particularly wonderful, and they make an extra effort the next time.
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SHAPING BEHAVIOR IN SMALL STEPS
Clicker training was first developed by marine mammal trainers who shaped performance exclusively with positive reinforcement.
In shaping you take a small tendency to perform in a desired way, and by reinforcing that behavior you gradually shift it towards a more complex behavior. Dolphin training is the easiest way to view this. You have a dolphin swimming in a tank. You want it to swim through a hoop you have hung in the middle of the tank, so you blow a whistle and throw it a fish every time it turns in the direction of the hoop. By gradually delaying the whistle, you can train the dolphin to swim through the hoop.
This is shaping in it's pure form, but it is not the only way to use the clicker. The clicker is a BRIDGING signal. It says "yes! that's exactly the behavior I wanted. Now I'm going to give you a reward." It doesn't say anything about how that behavior was created in the firstplace.
You can wait for the behavior to occur, or you can use shortcuts that trigger the response you want. For example, in dog training, you don't just wait for a puppy to sit down and then click it. You lure the behavior by holding a bit of food above the puppy's head. When the puppy looks up, his haunches sit down. Click! He gets a treat. The food lure is very quickly faded out, and what you are left with is a hand signal that triggers the sit. (If you want to watch an excellent video on clicker training dogs, check out check out Karen Pryor's "Clicker Magic", or Gary Wilkes' videos "Click and Treat" and "On Target". See the Clicker Resources section for more information.) This kind of training uses TARGETING to prompt the behavior. When I first taught my horse to touch a target, I thought it was just an amusing trick.
I have since discovered it is an incredibly useful tool that can be applied to a wide variety of situations, including trailer loading, ground tying, leading, obstacle training, and lateral work. Targeting isn't the only shortcut I can use. In horse training we use pressure to trigger the responses we want. For example, I can ask my horse to back up by tapping his front legs with a whip. As soon as he shifts his weight even a little, I'll stop tapping. He'll quickly learn that the way to avoid the tapping is to back up. By definition I'm using a negative reinforcer: an uncomfortable or painful stimulus which the animal can avoid by changing its behavior. Negative reinforcers make great "shaping shortcuts", especially when you add the right answer cue of the clicker to them.
With the clicker the tap becomes information the horse uses to get to his reinforcement faster. It tells him what we want. "Move away from here, and I'll click you." The horse learns that the whip is not there to intimidate him, but to give him clues to understanding us. With the clicker negative reinforcers lose their adversarial associations and become instead information providers.
The backing exercise is very important in the early stages of clicker training. I'm telling the horse that the best way to get the vending machine to work is by stepping away from it. Mugging me for treats won't get it anything. If you have a pushy horse, this is a super way to teach good manners. Can you teach backing without the clicker? Of course you can, but, if you want your horse to understand how to use the clicker for more complex tasks, you have to start with simple exercises. Most horses can benefit from a review of ground manners, so this is a great opportunity to improve your horse's leading skills, and at the same time introduce him to a new tool.
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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
1.) DO I NEED ANY SPECIAL EQUIPMENT TO USE CLICKER TRAINING?
No. That's one of the great things about clicker training. Clicker training dovetails beautifully with other training methods. You don't have to discard everything you are already know, and you don't have to buy a whole lot of special equipment to use it. All you need is a bag of carrots and a willingness to have some fun.
2.) HOW DOES CLICKER TRAINING FIT INTO OTHER STYLES OF HORSE TRAINING? DO YOU ONLY USE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT WITH YOUR HORSE?
No. In the horse world you will never get away from using negative reinforcement, and furthermore, you do not want to. Negative reinforcement, i.e. pressure, is our communication system. Tightening a thigh muscle, pressing your calf against the horse's side, closing your hand on the reins, these are all signals that tell the horse what we want, and they are all negative reinforcers. The question isn't so much whether we use negative reinforcers in our training, but HOW we teach them. That's where the clicker becomes such a wonderful addition to our tool box. I can piggy back the principles of shaping and the use of a bridging signal onto other training systems, and in the process I'll make it easier for the horse to understand what I want. With the clicker I can teach my horse to respond to pressure without using either fear or pain to provoke responses.
3.) DO YOU HAVE TO USE THE CLICKER TO BE A CLICKER TRAINER?
No. Any unique signal that the animal can recognize will work. I use the mechanical clicker when I am first introducing a horse to the clicker. I use this in preference to a verbal cue because of the uniqueness of the sound. The horses are quick to notice the clicker. Verbal signals often get lost in the background noise of our ownchatter. Once the horse understands the basic rules of the game, i.e. behavior leads to click leads to reward, I switch over to a tongue click. This leaves my hands free for other things. I've never had any problem transferring the signal. The horses instantly make the connection.
4.) WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU HAVE MORE THAN ONE CLICKER TRAINED HORSE IN THE RING AT THE SAME TIME? DO THEY GET CONFUSED?
We routinely will have four or five clicker trained horses working together, and they all seem to sort out which click they are supposed to be responding to. What is particularly interesting is I can be working with a client and be clicking her horse from a distance, and none of the other horses will react. These are all horses I work with. They all know I'm a potential vending machine, but they also know that at that moment my click is not intended for them.
5.) WHY CAN'T I JUST SAY "GOOD"? DO I HAVE TO USE A CLICKER?
I personally prefer a tongue click over verbals. The click is a high speed, unique signal that lets me mark very precise criteria. Verbals can do the same thing, but I prefer to use "good" and "yes" as encouragers. Think of the children's game hot and cold. "Good" says you're getting warmer, but the click says "YES! you just found the potof gold". You can certainly use "good" in place of the clicker, but I think you'll find that you're going to prefer some other signal. The important thing is not to get hung up in what signal you use, but to understand that clicker training is really about shaping behavior in small steps with a clear "yes" answer signal that guides and motivates the horse through the learning process. Clicks are NOT clucks, and horses have no trouble telling the difference. A cluck is a request for movement. A click is my "yes answer" signal. Clucks are made from the corner of your mouth. Clicks are made on the roof of your mouth with your tongue. (It's surprising how many people struggle to produce a consistent tongue click).
My book, CLICKER TRAINING FOR YOUR HORSE, has detailed instructions on how to do this. While you're learning, the plastic clicker definitely helps. Clickers can be ordered from Karen Pryor at Sunshine books, see the clicker references section.
6.) WHAT KINDS OF THINGS CAN YOU TEACH WITH THE CLICKER?
Anything you want. From basic manners to advanced upper level performance, anytime you need a clear "yes" answer signal the clicker can help out your training. For starters go down a check list of basic stable manners. Does your horse lead well? Will he walk right onto a trailer? Does he ground tie? Does he take his bridle easily? Will he stand quietly on cross ties? Is he good for grooming and saddling? Will he accept clippers, pick his feet up for cleaning, etc., etc.. If the answer to any of those questions is no, try a little clicker training.
7.) DO YOU FEED THE HORSE A TREAT AFTER EVERY CLICK? IN A NORMAL DAY, IF YOU ARE CLICKING FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR, WOULDN'T YOU NEED A WHEELBARROW FULL OF FOOD?
I follow every click with a reward. That's the bargain I've established with my horse. Here's an example that may help you to understand this. I live in snow country. Suppose I ask one of the neighborhood kids to shovel out my driveway after a snowstorm. In exchange I tell him, I'll give him twenty dollars. I don't have a very long driveway, so he'll probably think this is a really good deal. Now suppose when he gets all done, I look at the driveway, and I say, "That's a really great job, you did. The driveway looks super." He'll feel good, but he'll still want his money. Praise is nice, but it's not what motivated him to do my drive. Now I say, "Oh, I'm a little short this week. I'm not going to pay you this time, but maybe next time I'll give you twenty dollars." The next time it snows, you can bet I'll be doing my own driveway. That kid is going to have twenty good reasons not to do what I want. So, if I set up a bargain with my horse that says I'm going to pay him for work well done, that's what I need to do. That doesn't mean that I'm going to be clicking and treating every time my horse does something good. The clicker is a TEACHING tool. For example, I can use the clicker to teach a horse to pick up its feet for cleaning. I may start by clicking the horse when it lets me run my hand down below its knee, but I'm going to use a variable reinforcement schedule to ask for more and more.
The variable reinforcement schedule means that the horse never knows exactly when he's going to hear the click. He'll keep working, offering me more good responses, in an effort to get the "vending machine" to work. This is the same principle that runs the Las Vegas slot machines.
Before long my foot shy horse is going to be doing a lot more than simply letting me run my hand down his leg. He'll be picking his own foot up and holding it quietly in the air while I pick out the dirt. Pretty soon, I won't click him until I've cleaned two, then three, then all four feet. And after a while I'll be able to fade the click out completely as he masters that skill, but I'll be using the clicker in other areas to teach new things. It's like saying to that kid, yes I'll give you twenty dollars. You can count on that, but I also want the front walk shoveled, AND the snow pulled off the roof. If he quits part way, he won't get anything, but the more he gets done, the closer he gets to his reward. That keeps him going even though I'm asking for more work. If I were to add both new tasks all at once, he might grumble and go away. But, if I gradually ask for a little bit more each time, after a while it will all seem like just part of the job. If every now and then I surprise him some fresh baked brownies, he might even offer to knock the icicles off the rain gutters. (Doesn't this sound familiar? Not only is it a lot like horse training, but isn't this what happens to most of us at work. Look back at your original job description. After a while it starts to sound as though it's referring to somebody else. You do SO much more than that, but it's still the same paycheck.) With the horses a pocket full of grain or even a single carrot can buy you a lot of training.
Treats are given in small amounts. A teaspoon of grain, one bite of carrot, is enough to keep your horse working for more. I vary my reinforcers. Not only does that make the training more fun and interesting for my horse, it provides him with an additional source of information. I can save his favorite treats for extra efforts. They help me to mark those special "Kodak moments." When my own horse does something I particularly like, click! the peppermints come out. He knows he's just done something super that was well worth the extra effort.
8.) WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE ABOUT CLICKER TRAINING?
My home page, Riding in a State of Excellence, will link you to all the on-line clicker resources. In addition, it will give you more articles on clicker training horses, a photo album of clicker trained horses, and references to the best of the clicker books and videos that are currently available.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexandra Kurland is the author of "CLICKER TRAINING FOR YOUR HORSE". This book is now available and can be ordered through her website, Riding in a State of Excellence, or from the publisher, Sunshine Books. (See links below). Alexandra Kurland can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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CLICKER TRAINING LINKS
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CLICKER TRAINING PICTURES
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