Clicker Training

Clicker training is arguably the most popular means of training with positive reinforcement. It can be extremely powerful, enabling complex behaviours to be taught by means of a consistent bridging signal (i.e. the "click") to mark correct responses and contingent rewards. It can also be extremely ethical - depending on its use, training can be (although is not necessarily and very often is not....) purely positive or at least mainly positive. It is also very forgiving of mistakes on the part of the trainer; a misplaced click is rarely a problem compared with a misplaced application of pressure. Performed with sensitivity, clicker training can help a horse to regain trust in the handler and start to offer behaviour spontaneously, as expected from a psychologically healthy individual.

[Clicker training can help increase confidence in horses, sometimes too much so!]

EBTA is fully supportive of clicker training under certain caveats......

It must be stressed that the use of clicker training, even well-applied, does not necessarily make the training positive from the perspective of the horse, despite the typical good intentions of the trainer. If, for example, the horse is afraid of something in the environment, the horse can continue to perform desired responses without actually deriving any pleasure from the training. If the horse is not enjoying the session then it does not trigger the reward-governing neurological circuits and so is not positive. There are many circumstances under which it can actually be aversive. In particular, the power of the training can lead it to be very controlling. The resultant loss in autonomy for the horse can be damaging, particularly as the horse is receiving conflicting information - "offer a behaviour spontaneously but it must be the correct one and only when cued". This effect can be compounded by combining the clicker training with methods rooted in negative reinforcement and/or punishment.

Futhermore, while we agree with its use in some training situations, we are concerned by the seemingly growing trend in the equestrian world of using clicker training to solve a myriad of equine behaviour problems. To truly solve behavioural issues you always need to address the root cause - which is likely to be pain, fear, or a management system that does not meet the horse's needs. By trying to train the problem away using clicker training, the cause is likely be missed and thus the horse's needs remain unmet.

For further considerations regarding ethical clicker training, we refer the reader to this EBTA article.

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