Clicker Training = Magic Method...Yes or No or a bit of Both? - Jo Hughes

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So you've read some articles and blogs on the Internet about Clicker Training and it really is sounding like the most incredible way to teach your horse what you'd like him to do!

You decide to buy yourself a clicker and a bum bag, fill your pouch with grass nuts and head out to the barn to give this new 'method' a try!

Perhaps you have a specific problem behaviour that you'd like to address with your horse, or perhaps you are just keen to develop that incredible bond and trusting relationship that is so commonly spoken about as a result of using a clicker and reward-based training techniques. The latter reason was primarily the one that started me on the journey I have been on for so many years now.

You have read all about how to start introducing the clicker to your horse - by pairing the click noise with a treat straight afterwards. You have also read about the importance of teaching your horse to keep its head out of your space during these early sessions of bridge conditioning, sometimes called teaching 'manners' around food. The goal of this lesson of course, is to teach your horse that performing mugging behaviours directed towards you and the food such as nibbling, biting, nuzzling etc. are not what is going to make the vending machine work!

Perhaps you have also read about how to teach your horse to touch his nose to a target as one of the next behaviours to train.

These are generally speaking pretty much the early stages that the majority of people go through when beginning to introduce a clicker and training with food to their horses. And it all seems so beautifully simple, leading to our horses experiencing that wonderful pleasure and willingness produced by reward-based training. We will soon be well on our way to building enthusiastic cooperation in our horse, motivated to offer us behaviours that we like and want rather than those which we don't like and don't want.

Clicker training is so often hailed as this amazing 'fix all' method where the simple concept of rewarding what we do like in our horses is a much more ethical way to train, leading instantly to better welfare for our horses and ultimately turning them into relaxed, happy, willing and trusting partners.

And this is how it is so often sold to empathic, well-meaning horse owners who simply adore their horses and want to gain access to those fabulous benefits.

Sadly, the stark reality is that this means of marketing to people (yes, it is a marketing tactic) is a little understated to say the least! What often isn't described or discussed with quite the same openness are the other considerations that MUST be assessed and addressed before you can safely begin training your horse with food:

  • Does the horse owner who will be training the horse have an understanding of Learning Theory and equine specific ethology (the natural behaviour of the equine)

  • Friends/Forage/Freedom - does the horse live in a herd with other companions where his social needs are met, does he have access to 24/7 round the clock forage or does he have his diet restricted in any way and does he have freedom to express his natural behaviours through being able to move as his feral companions do or is he confined to a stable

  • How does the horse behave around food? Does he remain calm in the presence of food, even when it is removed before he has finished or does he push, barge, pull faces, tip his ears, nip, get frustrated or angry, threaten to kick or drive another horse away?

All horses are entirely unique, just like we are as humans! Each one will have had a different set of experiences throughout its life which has sculpted that individual into what it is today. As a result of the individual's answers to the questions above, each horse will need a slightly different approach when introducing it to using food and a bridge signal in order that he is able to remain relaxed and calm during any bridge/clicker training sessions.

Food is an incredible motivator and being as grass doesn't run away from horses, they aren't very genetically prepared to handle frustrations when trying to figure out how to gain their food rewards. If they have ever experienced any deprivation of food from having access to it 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days a year - even if not recently and perhaps if they also spend a lot of time stabled without physical contact with other horses, frustration is going to be very close to the surface. If they have also learned at any point in their lives that escalation of defensive, agonistic behaviours protects a resource they value highly such as food, they are pretty likely to display these frustration based, possibly aggressive behaviours towards humans as well.

Just because you are giving them food, doesn't automatically mean the animal is having an enjoyable and pleasurable experience.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not damning the use of a bridge and rewards in training at all, nor am I suggesting that these individuals can't be trained this way successfully. The majority absolutely can and so they and their owners go on to achieve those goals I mentioned above - the specific problem behaviour disappears or that incredible bond starts to develop.

But is it as pure and simple as pairing the click noise with a food treat, teaching the horse to move its head away and not actively mug you and then teaching it to target? No, in some (or most) cases, it really isn't!

I honestly believe that anybody who teaches clicker training has a duty to point out both the pre-requisites and the potential fallouts from applying bridge and reward training. To do any less is to fail the learner (both human and equine). Period.

I live and breathe using a bridge signal and rewards to train horses, in fact, I simply I wouldn't train in any other way! I know there just isn't a more ethical, gentle, kind and understanding way to train horses to achieve whatever it is we want to achieve. But it's not a magic method, in fact, it's not a method at all! It is a set of dynamic and fluid scientific evidence based principles which give a framework to be able to understand the horse and therefore enable any training of that individual to be moulded and sculpted according to their unique needs - warts and all! Done badly, without guidance and without understanding the bigger picture, it can produce some very unsavoury problems of its own.

After all, any horse training can be done well or not so well!

Bridge and reward training is absolutely not just about giving a food treat here and there, it's a philosophy to do no harm, only to improve and allow our horses to grow and develop emotionally, physically and mentally into the wonderful individuals that they are.

The Academy of Positive Horsemanship

Here at The Academy, we have been there, done that and got the T-shirt to prove it! As such, we give you the whole package - the evidence, the knowledge as well as how to avoid those fallouts and pitfalls so you really can understand the bigger picture in its entirety.

You will learn how to understand your beautifully unique horse with all his life long experiences that have made him the horse you love so much. More importantly, on your journey with us here at The Academy, you will learn how to develop him into a calm, confident, trusting partner no matter what you are doing together, using ethical and gentle communication that you have developed together and that has been designed purely for him as the individual he is.

Frustration and Anger to Calm and Relaxed

To show an example of an individual horse who really wasn't able to handle her emotions around food and her resulting frustrations and anger that tended to occur at the beginning of her bridge and reward training journey, these next videos show the phenomenal change in her emotional development at the beginning and the end of the process I went through to help her learn how to handle her emotions around food.

These videos show 'before' and 'after' we had worked through a long process to change her anxieties, emotions and behaviours in the presence of food.

They DO NOT show the process through which this was achieved, instead they simply show her emotional state through a specific behaviour of moving her hip across away from me.

Stage 1 - Fairly early on in this horse's Bridge & Reward Training journey when shaping Hip Over - note the frustration and kick threat

Stage 2 - Later in this horse's Bridge & Reward Training journey once we had helped her to learn how to handle her emotions

Reprinted with permission from Jo Hughes ( )