Why do I choose clicker training? The benefits of positive reinforcement
There are many people who use negative reinforcement, some who use punishment and many folks who muddle through with their horses with some success. So you might be wondering why bother with clicker training? I’m going to explain my reasons for why I choose to train using positive reinforcement and the benefits that I have found over the years.
One of my memories from school is an assignment we were once given: imagine you met some aliens and before they left earth they gave you a gift. This gift could be anything you want – write a story about that gift. My story was about a gift that allowed me to talk to animals and the majority of my story was about the conversations I had with my pets and ponies as a result. As an adult nothing has changed, my childhood dream of being able to communicate with animals is still something I would love. But here’s the thing: the one big reason I love clicker so much is that it actually gives me a way to communicate with animals! Clicker training gives us a way to say “Yes, that was it!”
Many horse owners and trainers are looking for what is wrong and for errors that they can correct. The difference is that clicker training allows you to tell your horse what you DO want and what they got right.
Just imagine for a moment that you are working in an office and your boss tells you that she doesn’t want you to organise a meeting. This doesn’t tell you what she does want. So you might ask “do you want me to organise a teleconference?” but no she doesn’t want that either. Wouldn’t it just be easier if your boss told you what they did want? This is the same with our horses, a good trainer sets their horse up for success and then when they get the correct answer with clicker training we have a way of saying “Yes” to them.
Which environment is going to build confidence and knowledge? Most people prefer to be told when they have been successful. Since your horse is being told when they are getting it right, their confidence builds and they start to believe in themselves and know they can work out the answer. Over time your horse becomes an enthusiastic problem solver who answers your questions with “Yes, I can do that!” Horses that want to be exercised, ridden and learn are the result; they will enthusiastically approach any task you set them because they know they can get the right answer. These horses are involved in their own learning and development, over the long term they are able to take ownership of behaviours. This empowers them to overcome their own fears and the problem solving skills set them up for success in whatever field they are active in. They learn how to learn, much like going to school doesn’t just teach children how to do the particular exercise they are learning – it teaches them how to learn, analyse and think through problems for themselves.
Since they have increased confidence and the horse is invested in the training, the horses have a level of enthusiasm that I personally have never seen in any other form of training. My horses meet me at the gate eager to learn and participate every day. Since they want to train with us, the feeling is very much that you are doing things WITH your horse instead of TO them, as a true partnership. Isn’t that what we all want? For our horses to enjoy our time together as much as we do?
Reducing fear and increasing confidence: Norbert (previously extremely head-shy) confidently playing with a flag flapping in the wind.
This kind of interaction builds a huge amount of trust. Horses learn that they aren’t going to get punished for getting it wrong and they trust you to guide them to the right answer without using force.
This is huge for building and strengthening our bond with our horses but also they become confident to try new things. They experiment and think for themselves more, they become adept at problem solving, more playful and creative and those who have been shutdown are able to come out of their shell.
My Walter has previously had illness and has spent time at rehab centres as a result. After one such visit, I had taken him to a new livery yard. Given the break, he had done some training in arenas but hadn’t been out hacking for around 2 years. He had only been at this new yard for a week and was ready to go on his first hack. Two ladies from the yard were going out on a hack so we joined them. As we set off up the single track road we met a tractor with trailer and several dogs running around the vehicle. The driver stopped and was very considerate, but of course it had rattled down to us, the dogs were still running around and there was very little space to squeeze through. One of the ladies took the lead, her horse refused to pass. The other lady tried – nope, no go. I said I would have a go on Walter, both ladies shook their heads and expressed their doubt that he could possibly do that after his long break from hacking. Nevertheless, I asked Walter to walk forward and he calmly lead the way past the tractor, trailer and dogs without batting an eyelid. I’ll never forget the proud way he walked through that gap as if he was saying “ok ladies, if you would like to follow me”. Why did he do this? Because he trusted me to keep him safe.
Clicker training builds confidence and trust; Walter hacking out safely and confidently
There are many practical advantages to using clicker training too.
This method of training has a scientific basis, it is logical and can be explained in proper terms. Basing our training on tangible scientific methods means that it is accessible to everyone. It is not exclusive to people who have some innate skill or to those who have a certain belief. It’s logical, scientific and available to everyone who wants to learn.
It is also the quickest most effective method of teaching behaviours that I have seen. The horse can very quickly understand what to do, making life safer, simpler and easier for everyone concerned; a horse that knows what to do for the vet or trimmer is going to be much easier and safer to manage than one who doesn’t. This has been highlighted by the current pandemic. I’ve seen several of my clicker training friends commenting how, because of their training the horse was able to be treated by vets, trimmers, dentists without being held by the owner: allowing the professional to handle the horse safely whilst also social distancing from the owner. Having a way to take away fear, build confidence and teach safe behaviours to our horses makes it safer for us and them.
For me personally, positive reinforcement was part of my background as a child growing up with ponies. I didn’t know that that was what I was doing and it was in a less organised format, but using food and praise was always a part of my relationship with animals. We did a round of jumps, my pony got a treat. So to some extent this was how I was brought up and what feels right to me. When I got older and bought Walter as a youngster, I started learning from various professionals teaching different methods. None of them felt right or comfortable to me, until I discovered clicker training.
I am not exaggerating when I say that clicker training has changed my life. Yes it’s what I do in my business and it’s changed my relationship with my own horses, but it’s more than that. When we are clicker training, we need to decide what we DO want from our horses, we set them up for success and are constantly looking for something good that we can click for. This is a very different mindset than many have and can take some adjusting to. Being able to look for the positive in our horses extends to other areas of life, deciding what we want (instead of focusing on what we don’t want), working towards those goals (instead of feeling stuck with whatever the situation is) and looking for all the things that are going right (instead of only seeing the wrong things) is actually a more productive and happy way to live. The skills you as a person learn from clicker training can help you work towards your goals with your horse and enjoy the journey. Like our clicker trained horses, we become enthusiastic about our own learning and are empowered to help ourselves.
What do you like about clicker training? Join in the conversation in the comments below; I would love to hear from you.
Take care of yourselves and give your horses a cuddle from me.