Training animals with a clicker has been proven to be very effective. A great positive reinforcement, it was derived from the study of operant conditioning. It is extensively used on any kinds of animals and used during the acquisition phase of training a new behavior. However, once the animal responds from other cues — such as, verbal and physical cues & the clicker is no longer needed.
Clickers are great for horse training. They respond exceptionally well with it. Many equine trainers use it and succeed almost effortlessly. Trainers usually pair it with other rewards such as food treats, verbal, and physical praises. The horse is encouraged to repeat the favorable behavior. It creates a happy, and eager to learn and please disposition for your horse.
The intelligence of horses is superb. They adapt well to positive reinforcement training. In fact, there is no other way more effective than positive reinforcement and that can be said to all animals. The clicker is one of the most useful devices to implement positive reinforcement and it is just a small plastic. Big things do come from small packages!
However, clickers should be used sparingly and on the right moment. It is pretty useless and may even jeopardize your training objectives if you just click, click, and click for no apparent reason.
Tips on how to use clicker training effectively:
1. Horses are animals with tremendous appetites. That is why food is a great motivator in the equine world and when used in conjunction with clicker, the results are just amazing. The food that horses typically like is apples, carrots, and other fruits. Horse crunchies work well too and you can use grains as well but it can be awkward though. However, bear in mind that horses can get colicky and develop other digestive problems if you overfeed them. Just be wary.
Feeding, as reward, should be done a small bit at a time. In clicker training, a little bit goes a long way. Feeding them lumps of grain or a whole carrot per reward is not only impractical but may also impede with your training.
2. Know exactly what you want to accomplish. It is very important that you know the specific thing that you want your horse to do. Being clear is paramount in clicker training. Clicks must be done at the right moment. Be sure that the horse knows what you want him to do! A confused trainer will create an even more confused horse.
3. In the horse’s mind, the click is an indication that a reward is coming up. Use this to your own advantage. Make it clear to the horse that the click is useless if the command is not done the way you like it to be.
It should be mentioned that food is not only reinforcement that can be used. You can use the click with any kind of reinforcement or reward. Just always makessure that the clicks will involve something that the horse will like.
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Why do some otherwise-calm horses turn into impossible idiots on trail rides with other horses?
Why do they jig, throw their heads, prance in place, even rear or buck, if not allowed right up at the front of the group?
Why do some horses get so hooked on being with a buddy they fall apart at the first hint of separation?
Why the spooking at seemingly ordinary sights, such as rocks or stumps?
What’s with the big fights over water crossings, bridges, and other obstacles with horses that are stars on arena trail courses?
Why do some horses get especially anxious when trail-ridden through dense brush or stands of trees?
And among the most perplexing questions of all: Why do well-broke, seasoned show horses turn out to be some of the worst offenders at any or all of the above?
I didn’t have to invent any of those scenarios. From private rides to saddle-club treks, from pack trips and endurance competitions to casual weekend campouts, from parties of three to parties of 300, I’ve pretty much seen and done it all on the trail-riding front. And that includes coping with my own share of mounts whose initial responses to hitting the trail were educational in their own right.
With that background to draw from, plus some key info about equine psychology, I’m going to help you get “aha!” answers to common trail-behavior puzzles. While insights alone won’t get your horse trained to be a better trail mount, they will help you make better sense of any how-to training plan you decide to follow.
Herd of Prey
Picture this: You’re in the first hour of an organized group ride you’ve looked forward to for ages–and you are not having any fun. Your horse is being a you-know-what, doing everything but bucking in place as he fights to get up with the lead horses.
In your mind: You can’t believe he’s being such a jerk! But at this point, you just hope you survive the ordeal of being on your horrid horse.
In his mind: He’s just trying to survive too, and in the most literal of terms.
What’s up: Horses evolved as herd animals, and that means they’re prey animals, too. From your horse’s point of view, he’s found himself in the middle of a herd on the move through unfamiliar territory. His hard-wired herd instincts have kicked in, and they’re telling him, in no uncertain terms, that his best chances for survival are up near the horses in front. In herd hierarchy, the lead horses aren’t just the experienced leaders. They’re also the least likely to be caught and eaten by a predator.
More horse sense: When your horse is busy obeying his instincts, he can’t really pay attention to obeying you. He’s acting from anxiety, if not out-and-out fear, and that’s got his adrenalin up. The worst thing any rider can do in a situation like this is to come unglued and try to punish the horse into slowing down and minding. All that does is send the horse’s anxiety level up higher, encouraging even more frantic behavior.
To meld minds: Be aware that relaxed and obedient trail behavior, particularly in group settings, doesn’t come naturally to a horse. It requires specific training and accumulated experience, just like any other performance skill set does. One training objective is to establish trust/obedience habits that will help you over-ride those herd instincts once they’ve been activated.
The Buddy Syndrome:
Picture this: You and a barn mate trailer your two horses to a saddle club’s monthly ride. Your horses never act inseparable at home, but now they’re frantic if they’re more than 3 feet apart. Not only that, but yours also acts threateningly toward any other horses that get near his new BFF. He just tried to kick one that got too close to the horse he’s now buddied up with.
In your mind: You have every reason to be shocked, not to mention frustrated and embarrassed, by your horse’s uncharacteristic behavior. He’s like a horse you don’t even recognize!
In his mind: If the first rule of herd survival is to keep from being eaten, the second is to stick with and protect the herd members your horse knows best. He’s thinking, “that other horse from my barn is the only one I know, and I’m not letting him out of my sight. Not lettin’ some other horse come along and run him off, either!”
More horse sense: Horses don’t necessarily have to be full-time best friends to exhibit the buddy syndrome. They can form a compulsive, protective bond in the time it takes to travel to an event in the same trailer, or by spending a night in adjoining corrals or pens before a ride starts. It’s another manifestation of herd instinct.
To meld minds: Think proactively, and think long-term. If you don’t want to deal with a buddied-up horse (and who does?), minimize your contributions to the human behaviors that help reinforce it. For instance, it might seem easiest to give in and let your horse glue himself to his buddy for the duration of your trail ride, but that only serves to confirm unwanted behavior. It might be more convenient for you and a partner to keep your horses penned together on campout rides, but it also feeds that inborn buddy-up need.
Picture this: You have a horse who’s mastered every scary arena trail obstacle ever devised by mankind. Yet when you ride him out on a trail, it’s a different story. There, he spooks at everything! He’ll negotiate any water obstacle while surrounded by people in a grandstand, but ask him to cross a trickle of a creek out of a trail ride? That’s a guaranteed battle.
In your mind: This horse has got to be one of the dumbest ones who ever lived! He acts like he’s never seen this stuff before.
In his mind: He hasn’t seen anything like this before. To him, the obstacles and circumstances aren’t the least bit related.
What’s up: He’s demonstrating the fact that while horses have a relatively high ability to differentiate, they have a correspondingly low ability to categorize, or put things into related groups. If your horse could talk to you in human language, he might say, “Dude–just because I can fly a plane doesn’t mean I can sail a ship!”
More horse sense: Once again, you can thank evolution for how your horse’s brain might work in a trail ride. In the wild, the better a horse is at detecting differences between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the better his chances of not making a mistake that could cost him his life. Evolution rewards wariness in a prey animal, not risk-taking. You may see an obvious connection between the arena trail obstacles and the ones out in the open, but your horse sees only the differences. As an instinct-programmed prey animal, he acts accordingly.
To meld minds: Don’t make the mistake of believing that your horse’s physical prowess matches up with his abilities upstairs. Just because he can traverse something with his legs doesn’t mean he can do so automatically in his equine brain. That brain needs gradual exposure and habituation–trailing, in other words–to cope with anything that’s different, inside an arena or out.
What Lurks Within
Picture this: You, your significant other, and another couple reserve sports at a forested horse camp for the weekend. You all look forward to riding and enjoying the beautiful, cooled-air trails through the trees. But once you saddle up and get going, one of the four horses has other ideas. He acts like the bogeyman is going to jump out and gobble him up at any moment, especially when he’s asked to bring up the rear.
In your mind: He’s making a big deal out of nothing.
In his mind: He has a perfectly good reason to be channeling the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. (“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”) The bad guys with claws and fangs could leap from the shadows at any moment.
What’s up: Centuries of domestication haven’t erased the fact that horses evolved as dwellers of vast, open plains. In this kind of country, a horse gets long views of his surroundings and can opt for routes that avoid the kinds of treed or brushy places where predators might hide. Deep woods don’t give him those options, and can trigger prey-animal anxiety.
More horse sense: The instinct to seek open areas and avoid potential close-quarter predator habitat is stronger in some horses than others. Like most aspects of a horse’s life, habituation is key to acceptance of out-of-the-ordinary circumstances.
To meld minds: Give consideration to where a horse might be coming from on this one. If yours has no history of exposure to a forested or otherwise close-quarters setting, it’s a stretch to believe he’ll find it as relaxing and refreshing as you do.
Show Me The Stall
Picture this: You own a show horse that’s an ace at every arena task you’ve ever asked him to do. He’s broke, broke, broke! But as a trail-riding mount, he’s a nightmare. It doesn’t matter whether he’s with a group or out on the trail by himself–all he seems to care about is rushing back to his comfort zone inside some kind of enclosure.
In your mind: You’re doing him a favor by getting him out past arena rails and stall walls.
In his mind: Enclosures aren’t a form of jail to be avoided. They’re what the horse knows and feels comfortable with.
What’s up: As creatures of habit, horses are capable of adapting so well to a regular environment; they can end up embracing one that might seem counterintuitive to you.
More horse sense: Meet your horse halfway on this one. A horse that’s accomplished at arena work has had a lot of gradual practice at accepting and feeling secure within its confines. To counteract that familiarity, he needs similar gradual practice at accepting and dealing with the world outside an arena. You may have been mistaking his degree of arena training for something with universal application. But as he’s proved, it isn’t necessarily so.
Juli S. Thorson This article appeared in the June 2009 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.