Amanda Martin is, among many things, an Equine Clicker Training Specialist and in particular, trains problem horses with Fear Free Positive training (read more on this here: animalbehaviourconsultantscotland.co.uk), and I couldn’t have asked for a better person to share her knowledge with me on the subject.
Amanda is highly qualified and experienced in her field but above all is extremely passionate, understanding of both horses and their humans and she has a great sense of humour. She’s the kind of person that reminds you, horses are supposed to be fun, they have personalities and they need to be listened to just as much as we listen to each other. Sometimes we forget that or don’t have the time to enjoy it in busy industry jobs. We met where she keeps her own horses one afternoon so I could ask her some questions on the topic.
“Amanda, given that people in the industry can be less open in deviating from traditional methods, can you explain in a nutshell, the concept of clicker training and why people should consider using it?”
“I want a trusting relationship with my horse and I want my horse to be able to come to me when the proverbial hits the fan… so it’s about being a positive, safe and fun place to be for the animal.”
“How did you get into clicker training and what was your first experience of the training method?”
“I bought a stallion, and I just didn’t want him to be kept traditionally. I wanted people to have to be told he was a stallion before they realised and that’s actually what I got.”
When people are told a horse is a stallion, their reaction tends to be – subconscious or not – completely different to if it were another horse. People are more wary, and have been given cause to avoid the horse just out of the expectation they are going to behave stallion-like or be more dangerous. This, Amanda says, is what causes horses to react badly to people. Before people knew he was a stallion, people would go up to her horses stable and give him attention. As soon as they were made aware or he so much as scowled or pulled a face, they would give him a wide berth, or move out of his way. It was setting him up to behave in a certain way. Through the clicker training and letting people experience him as just another horse without prior knowledge of his entirety, Amanda ended up with a well behaved stallion that was able to live a freer, happier life, far more than most stallions get to experience.
“Is it possible and how effective would training be if you removed the treat as a reward and trained using sound only?”
“Clicker trainers are guilty of talking about click and treat when its actually click and reinforce. So, what is reinforcing in the moment depends on what the situation is. A reinforcer changes in the moment. If I’ve just taken my horses rug off, he’s generally really itchy, so he’d rather have a scratch than food, so I can use scratches then. It doesn’t have to be about food… it’s all in the moment as to what is reinforcing them right now.”
“Are there any types of horses that you’d say would not be suitable for clicker training?”
Amanda shakes her head and laughs, “There’s nothing wrong with the horses! They’re a product of what we have done to them. Everyone experiences positive reinforcement but whether the horse is comfortable with it or not is a whole different ball game. It’s about peeling the comfort back enough to allow them to appreciate positive reinforcement. I haven’t encountered any, but I’ve heard some people say there are some horses where you can’t go straight in with the positive reinforcement because the generally don’t trust it.”
“Does it concern you that some horses may become mouthy or develop biting habits as a result of clicker training? How can this be avoided?”
“I’ve actually used it to train horses out of biting. It all comes back to body language and that I need to make it really clear to the horse where the food is going to be. The food as well has to be contingent. If there’s biting in there then there’s an unpredictability around that food (i.e. children feeding mints and snatching their hands away if they get a fright/horse tickles their hand). But the food has to be contingent, it’s a promise. Its saying to the bargy horse, if you back up out my space, the food comes closer and here’s a little handful for backing up. If you backup, the food comes to you.”
“Is there any behaviour you think clicker training wouldn’t help?”
“It would work for anything, absolutely. My contingency on that is, you can train anything you want but should you? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Things that affect balance or affect the spine have to be considered. Things such as rearing should be taught with caution. You have to teach them to sit back first and balance, then start to lift up. Its very much about the conformation of the horse. I wouldn’t teach a big dog to sit up and beg because its spine couldn’t cope with that. You have to ask if it’s okay emotionally and physically to teach your horse that behaviour.”
“Why is punishment not the ideal method for changing a horses behaviour?”
“The thing with punishment is, I can stop any behaviour I want if the punishment is severe enough, rearing, kicking, attacking – but I have zero control over what comes in its place. The horse has control over that. If I’ve stopped a horse charging at me, who knows what’s coming next. If I’m training with reinforcement, I’m directing the behaviour so I’m actually more in control of that situation.
The way punishment looks successful is that, you generally shut the horse down very quickly and they just stop behaving altogether. You’re now in the realms of depression/learned helplessness. You go through conditioned suppression first which is where basically the horse says, ‘I’ve learned to do nothing unless I’m told to do it because that way I avoid all punishers.’ This tends to be the foot perfect, schoolmaster type horse. That’s not what I’d want from a friend though, I want my horse to come up to me like a friend and be like, “Hey how’s it going, what did you get up to today?” I like seeing them express themselves and I don’t mind that kind of exuberance because I know that he was trained in a way that makes him completely body aware.”
To conclude, Amanda states that, “being a clicker trainer is not about having this little plastic box in your hand. It’s a way of life. It’s about creating a conversation with the horse and constantly asking questions.”
The positive reinforcement training results in an equal friendship between you and the animal, a friendship that’s built on trust and in return you get a horse that isn’t afraid to speak its mind. With Amanda’s patience and awareness of body language, she is able to help both horse and human to overcome problems and miscommunications that may occur. She’s helping owners to teach their horses to be balanced, emotionally and physically, resulting in an equal and respectful relationship where the horse is not only willing to learn but to solve problems and communicate better.
If you’d like to find out more about the work Amanda does, take a course, or enquire about Amanda’s services, then you can follow the links below:
Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/scottishanimalbehaviourcentre
Or get in touch with Amanda via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org