Apr 202010

When considering a way to train their horse using positive reinforcement, most horse owners find themselves investigating clicker training. However, once the horse owner starts to read into clicker training, or visits a few clinics, it soon becomes apparent that different trainers use clicker training in different ways. Clicker training is not one singular technique, but a tool, applied in different ways by different trainers. The benefits and potential difficulties associated with each of these approaches to clicker training will be discussed in this article, with the aim that this will hopefully this will abate some of the confusion that can be experienced by owners new to clicker training.

Before we begin, I will quickly review the basics of clicker training theory as applied to practical horse training. Very simply clicker training is a form of positive reinforcement training. Positive reinforcement being the addition of something pleasurable to the horses environment in consequence to the horse performing a desirable behaviour. Positive reinforcement encourages the desired behaviour to reoccur in the future. Anything that the horse finds pleasurable, for example food rewards or stroking, can be used for the purposes of positive reinforcement training, although food rewards are most commonly used. During positive reinforcement the reward must be delivered immediately as the desired behaviour is performed by the horse, so that only the desired behaviour is reinforced.

The definition of positive reinforcement – An increase in the future frequency of a behaviour due to the addition of a pleasurable stimulus immediately following said behaviour.

Positive reinforcement alone is a very effective training method, however, it relies on the immediate delivery of the reward as the horse performs the desired behaviour. Clicker training makes reinforcement of behaviour at the correct moment easier, because, rather than having to deliver the reward to the horse’s mouth at the moment they perform the desire behaviour, the click noise can mark the desire behaviour and the reward can be delivered as soon as possible. The association of the click noise with food reward, transforms the click noise into a secondary reinforcer, which simply means that the click has taken on reinforcing properties and thus become rewarding. Once an association between the click and food reward has been establish, and the click has become a secondary reinforcer, the click can then be used to communicate to the horse when they have performed a desired behaviour. Marking the behaviour using the audible ‘click’ of the clicker is beneficial to any training where the trainer can’t deliver reward immediately following a correct behavioural response, e.g. when the horse is at distance or being ridden. The click of the clicker is a good sound for marking correct behavioural responses because it is short and crisp. Some trainers prefer to use a ‘cluck’ sound made by the tongue for the same purpose. Currently, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the use of a tongue ‘cluck’ is less or more effective than the use of a clicker.

The definition of a secondary reinforcer – A secondary reinforcer, also known as a conditioned reinforcer, is a stimulus (such as a click) that when consistently paired with a pleasurable stimulus (such as food) functions as a reinforcer.

The use of the click sound within clicker training has been applied in different ways by different horse trainers. The key factor, which will be discussed in this article, is how different trainers apply the clicker practically during training. To address this topic, we will consider the use of the click as a terminal bridge and as an intermediate bridge. Now the key to understanding the use of clicker in training is to understand, but not get bogged down in, the terminology. I will explain the theory, but also how the theory is practically applied in everyday horse training. The first thing that needs to be explained is that the click of the clicker is know as a bridging stimulus, this is because it bridges the gap between the desired behaviour and the arrival of the food reward. The click says to the horse ‘yes that’s the behaviour I want and your reward is coming’. However, the click can be one of two types of bridge. It can be a terminal bridge that says ‘yes, well done, finished’, or an intermediate bridge which says to the horse ‘yes, keep going your on the right track’. In practise this mean that the click sound either signals to the horse that they were performing the desired behaviour and they can stop for reward (a terminal bridge), or in the case of the intermediate bridge, the click signals to the horse that they are doing the correct behaviour and to continue until the terminal bridge, which will be a different signal.

It is most common in training to use the click sound of the clicker as a terminal bridge. In practical terms this means that the click is used to signal to the horse to stop and receive their reward. For example, if you were teaching a horse to touch a target with there muzzle, you would click the horse once they touch the target and then reinforce the behaviour with the food reward. If you wanted the targeting behaviour to last longer you would shape the behaviour by gradually leaving longer periods of time between the start of the targeting behaviour and the click. This method of clicker training is used by Alexander Kurland (2001) and Becky Holden, amongst others. There are both pros and cons to this method.

The pros of the terminal bridge clicker training method –

◦This method can be used to teach everything, from basic ground work to advanced riding exercises.

◦The horse can be easily rewarded for desired behaviour, even at a distance or whilst ridden.

◦Owners can usually pick up this method easily under instruction.

The cons of the terminal bridge clicker training method –

◦The method doesn’t include a intermediate bridge stimulus so the horse can be told to stop to be rewarded but not to keep performing the same behaviour, instead the behaviour is modified using shaping or chaining.

Now to discuss the use of the clicker as an intermediate bridge stimulus. When the click sound is used as an intermediate bridge the click says to the horse – ‘Yes, keep going you’re on the right track’. Using the targeting example given earlier, to teach a horse to touch a target using the click as an intermediate bridge, the trainer would click the horse for touching the target to encourage the horse to continue touching the target, until the terminal stimulus was given. The click, which can occur a variable amount of times before the terminal stimulus is given, encourages the horse to continue the behaviour they are currently performing. Ben Hart (2008) is the most famous trainer that uses the clicker as an intermediate bridge stimulus. Ben trains using the hand going to the reward holder as the terminal stimulus. There are also pros and cons to the intermediate bridge method of clicker training.

The pros of the intermediate bridge clicker training method –

◦This method can be used to teach all ground work activities.

◦The horse can be easily rewarded for desired behaviour, even at a distance.

◦The horse can be given guidance as to whether or not the behaviour they are performing is desirable, and be given confidence to continue the behaviour, without stopping for reward.

The cons of the intermediate bridge clicker training method –

◦Some owners find applying the clicker as an intermediate bridge stimulus more difficult, although I suspect this is because most of the literature available describes the terminal bridge method.

◦The terminal bridge stimulus of this method of clicker training often isn’t audible, and thus this method is a little more difficult to apply if the horse can’t directly see the hander, e.g. during ridden work.

Both these methods of clicker training are effective modes of communication with the horse, as such both methods have been applied with great success to training horses for many jobs. Interestingly, neither method has been scientifically shown to be more effective than the other, therefore the deciding factor when choosing how to apply clicker training with your own horses must be which method best suits your horse, your ability and your training. I highly recommend reading literature from many different clicker trainers, and ideally, also seeing the methods demonstrated, before you decide which method will be best for you and your horse.

By Emma Lethbridge (www.emmalethbridge.com)

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Alexandra Kurland (2001). Clicker Training For Your Horse. Ring Books.

Ben Hart (2008). The Art and Science of Clicker Training for Horses: A Positive Approach to Training Equines and Understanding Them. Souvenir Press Ltd.