This is especially for my daughter Lydia; I hope she will be as enthusiastic about clicker training as me.
First the disclaimer; I am not an expert of any kind on any subject! What I know of clicker for horses has been gleaned from my horses and the odd bit of hearsay. I have neither read a book about nor taken lessons in clicker training horses. These are my opinions based on what has worked for me.
I first heard of clicker training in dogs, about 12years ago when I took our last puppy to training club. It worked with our Jack Russell puppy and as most dog trainers will tell you JR’s are not the most biddable of dogs. Sadly we stopped at the sit/lie/stay stage and took our preliminary certificate and ran!
Fast-forward a decade. We have moved into our new home, horses have arrived but no school to work in except the 8 x 12m barn. At the same time I’m hearing clicker training mentioned on the horse forums and my interest is piqued.
I started with targeting and head down, as these were the things I heard people were doing. This was the start of my learning curve.
Popular Clicker Myths
My horse will bite me if I train him with treats.
My horse won’t respect me.
It makes me less of a horse trainer.
So what IS clicker
It is a simple system to reward a stance/behaviour/effort offered by a horse. It is accurate and engaging. It is a positive reward system that can be added on to your existing training with great effect.
Flipside…what isn’t clicker
It isn’t a quick fix; it doesn’t make you a good trainer (although it can help make you a better trainer). It isn’t discipline specific; it can be used in any sphere. It ain’t soppy or ‘hippy’. It isn’t a ‘replacement’ i.e. it is complementary to your existing work. It does not create biters or ‘muggers’ unless it is administered incorrectly.
Tools for Clicker
Treats…something palatable, easily given and stored. Experimentation has led me to Lucerne nuts for regular work and chopped carrot or apple as ‘specials’.
A click…you can buy animal training ‘clickers’ on line. Personally I use ‘my’ click (i.e. my tongue) because I can always be assured of having it with me and it is also less cumbersome than carrying a mechanical clicker. You could actually use any word or sound (and indeed I have two ‘words’ in my clicker work as well as a click). Personally I like to tongue click because it’s good and snappy and easily offered. However, if you are a habitual clicker when looking for forward movement in your horse then you’ll have to wean yourself off or the poor horse will be mighty confused.
Storage for treats…this isn’t essential for all clicker work, I store treats in my pocket when I’m riding. A bum bag or equally suitable easy access bag is easier when working from the ground. The minute you put it on the horse knows what’s coming.
Targeting objects…balls, sticks, cones or blocks, just about anything can be targeted.
Human attributes…patience and wide-open eyes!
As I said earlier I haven’t been trained in this work, I’ve felt my way and been guided by my horses. I don’t take this approach because I think I’m clever, far from it. I have allowed clicker to organically develop because it seems the best way to truly learn all the possibilities. As soon as I read a book on a subject then I feel compelled to follow rather than discover and develop. Make any sense? If it does then stop reading here and go off and develop yourself; when you come back we can share notes!
Each horse is different but one really good place I have found to start is training to target. If you yourself have never tried clicker training then you will probably find it easier to start with the targeting exercise…later it becomes clear that in order of priority the ‘wait’ lesson is most important but in order to teach that the horse has to be able to associate clicking with treating.
To train any kind of behaviour it must be broken down into small pieces. Don’t continue until it goes wrong or the horse becomes bored. Put 10 treats in your bag, when they’re finished you finish!
You can use an object or indeed your hand (although I do teach this a bit later myself) to target. I use a double tap on the object coupled with the word ‘touch’ immediately afterwards. To begin with you can hold the object and then, after giving the aid to touch, bring the object to touch the horse’s nose. The instant that the horse’s nose makes contact with the object you should click and, as quickly as you can, treat immediately afterwards. Otherwise you could just hang around and wait for him to be interested enough in the object (they're damned nosey creatures) and click when he touches it.
Gradually reduce the speed that you move the object towards the horse after giving the aid to touch and as if by magic the horse will start to move his nose towards the object from choice. This may take one or multiple sessions to establish. Don’t be disappointed if your initial progress is slow, all horses learn in their own timeframe.
More next time, happy clicking.