Part 1: How to start using Positive Reinforcement through Clicker Training your horse.
Let’s start at the beginning, what is Positive Reinforcement (R+)?
Have you heard of Positive Reinforcement? What about Clicker Training? If you have a dog perhaps Clicker Training sounds familiar as many dog trainers are using these science based training methods now with great results. Where Clicker Training really became recognised as a successful and humane training method is in the marine mammal world where clearly putting a leash on a dolphin is not really practical or safe. Over the last twenty or so years Clicker Training has moved species and is now used across the animal world, from pet dogs to zoo animals and now in the last few years into horse training.
Believe it or not Clicker Training (aka known as Positive Reinforcement aka R+) does work brilliantly with horses and it is a growing area of interest. Luckily for me, Patricia Lincourt is an expert in using Positive Reinforcement as a method for training horses to bring out their best, and it is a fascinating way to train with them. I have spent the last few years observing Patricia at work and learning from her as well as various Animal Behaviour courses and we wanted to start sharing what we have learned, starting right at the very beginning!
So why try clicker training your horse?
I’ve found the horses that experience Clicker Training are more motivated to work with you because of the scientific principles involved. Why?
Well, let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture for a moment to get a brief understanding of how horses learn. This is where the science comes in and is a tiny insight into learning theory to hopefully whet your appetite! (Some of the terminology may be new but stick with us!) The principles of Learning Theory are important and can really help how you understand, ride and train your horse. Learning Theory also helps explain why Positive Reinforcement and therefore Clicker Training works with animals such as horses.
Here we go, very basically and according to studies in neuroscience there are two main ways horses and other animals learn:
Avoiding pain and danger. This could be anything that may lead your horse to injury or death. For example; heat, cold, predators, falls, cliffs, holes, etc. Which by the way, is the reason why your horse has a strong flight reflex and explains why they may suddenly spook at a plastic bag or react to noises. They have a strong instinct for self preservation whether you like it or not!
The seeking system. Looking for things that sustain life and bring pleasure. For example, food, water, shelter, reproduction etc. This would include play and companionship. Horses are after all herd animals and prefer to be in company, so safety in numbers to protect against predators still runs strong in domesticated horses. The seeking system is where the R+ learning happens, and we want to keep the horse in this ‘seeking’ mode for the best results.
Very basically Positive Reinforcement is adding something to the horses’ environment that causes a behaviour to reoccur, for example food. You may also have heard of Negative Reinforcement, this is where something is taken away from the horses’ environment that causes a behaviour to reoccur. We won’t be going into Negative Reinforcement here as the focus for this article is Positive Reinforcement but I do want to highlight the language and how it can sometimes cause confusion.
It is very tempting to think of positive being good and negative meaning bad but this is not helpful. Instead think about taking the emotion and everyday associations of the words positive and negative out of your mind and if you can place this to one side. Instead think of the words in their mathematical context instead, ie positive = an addition, negative = a subtraction. With animals and Positive Reinforcement you are adding something they are seeking to them which they link to the behaviour you want.
Note - it has taken me months of observing and practicing to really understand this concept but here is a real life example to help explain Positive Reinforcement:
You go to catch your horse, he comes to the gate and you give him a carrot. The horse likes the carrot therefore it is more likely to walk to the gate the next time you go to catch him. If you repeat giving him the carrot when he walks to the gate to meet you he is likely to walk to the gate more frequently because he likes the carrot and associates something he likes with coming to the gate to meet you.
The opposite is when the horse becomes scared (eg needle, farrier or vet phobic), activating the flight response, ie fear and instinct to save themselves and they may try and escape. By escaping they remove the thing they are scared of so they are more likely to repeat the escape or fight behaviour again.
What is Clicker Training?
Where does the clicker come in? The clicker is a very distinct noise that the horse can easily distinguish from other sounds. The importance of the clicker is that it acts as a signal. If you click the clicker at the exact moment you see a behaviour you like and reward the horse with something they seek ie food or a scratch, they learn to pair the click with the reward and then associate the behaviour. The clicker acts as a ‘bridge’ or a ‘marker’ that means a reward is coming.
I know this works because the horses show me. At Lincourt Stables where several of the horses are clicker trained, as soon as you start clicker training one horse all the other horses come to the front of their stalls to see where the rewards are coming from!
Here is a real life example: You are leading a horse and it is walking nicely, so to teach the horse that walking nicely is the behaviour you want to see you periodically click a clicker and reward the horse with food (feed the horse away from you so they do not mug you). The horse learns that walking nicely leads to something it seeks ie food and they walk calmly in the future. Please read the next blog article written by Patricia which covers an exercise in how to ‘Charge the Clicker’. This is an important part of the process of starting Clicker Training to ensure the horse understands the sound of the clicker.
The principles of Learning Theory and R+ through Clicker Training once established can be applied in many scenarios and even under saddle once the basics are in place and the clicker is ‘charged’. Some of the horses that are trained at Lincourt by Patricia are now performing advanced ridden behaviours. They are highly motivated and want to learn because they understand the rewards involved. Like everything to do with horses this takes time, patience and planning but the results are there to be seen, and Patricia can help you apply them too!
We want the horse to know and be wired to hear that sound of the clicker.
We want the horse to associate the behaviour with the bridge sound of the click.
We want the horse to associate the behaviour with a reward.
If you are interested in learning more about how to get started with Clicker Training we have a starter course online which is coming soon. For those in the LA area we can teach Clicker Training techniques at our location at the Paddock Riding Club in Los Angeles. We can travel to clients in the So Cal area or we can offer advice remotely.