Clicker Training Part 1: Positive Reinforcement

Clicker training is a concept I’m sure most people will have heard of. It’s a method where the participating animal is encouraged to exhibit a behaviour using positive reinforcement, and often used in dog training. However, you’ll find it works across a variety of species, horses included!

For those of you that aren’t aware of what it is, you have a little box that makes a sharp clicking sound when pressed. Alternatively, you can make the click with your tongue. This noise is used to mark a desired behaviour in the animal which is followed up with the offering of a treat. The animal then learns which behavior it must perform, in order to get the treat and associates the click with the reward. The click is used to mark the behaviour more accurately than just rewarding with a treat would.

This technique has been particularly successful for Equine Rehabilitation and Rehoming’s (ERR) Arthur, who has been working with Lyndsey.  Lyndsey has used the clicker training method to encourage Arthur to overcome his fears of the mounting block and associate a head collar more positively. Usually he’d be running a mile at the sight of one, but he’s now learned that if he waits and touches it, he gets a reward. This is then built up to Arthur having to wait while the head collar is put on to receive his treat, allowing him to be caught from the field.

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Lyndsey waits for Arthur to touch the head collar.
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Arthur gives the desired action and nudges the head collar. Lyndsey clicks to acknowledge this.
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Arthur receives the treat as a reward for giving the desired action and remembers this to get the treat next time.

One major theorist for the development of changing behaviours with the use of reinforcement, was B.F. Skinner. This ethical training method came around in the early 1900’s and Skinner called the term operant conditioning.  This has since been widely used, though many still have their doubts and skepticism’s of the particular method of positive reinforcement I’m going to be covering in this post. This I believe, largely comes from a lack of knowledge of the topic and the science behind it, which really must be explored to gain a better understanding. People often get confused with other methods of reinforcement (which are all used within the equestrian industry) so I’m going to highlight these in the table below before we further explore positive reinforcement.

This operant conditioning that Skinner brought to the world’s attention has 4 quadrants which show the various methods we use to encourage or discourage certain behaviours in our animals:

positive reinforcement

Despite being familiar with positive reinforcement, Clicker training is a particular method I haven’t explored myself. The act of rewarding the animal with food when training had me conjuring images of nipping, biting and constantly being frisked for treats thereafter. And I can bet my bottom dollar most people will have the same response. I have always preferred using natural horsemanship techniques in my work, but even then, most of these techniques and riding/training horses in general rely on negative reinforcement. We all use it. You’re using it when you nudge your horse to ask him to walk forward (applying pressure) and by relaxing your leg when he does as you ask (releasing the pressure/taking away the unpleasant stimulus).

Through the ages, we’ve revolved our training methods around using the horses predisposition to avoid discomfort. Is it possible that by using positive reinforcement such as clicker training, we can actually improve horses emotional well-being, reduce stress and create a better bond with our equine partners founded on more solid mutual trust and respect?

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I’m catching up with horse trainer and behaviour consultant, Amanda Martin in part two of this post to find out.

Continue to Part Two…

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