Today I was reminded of the transformative powers of clicker training when I was asked to introduce a horse to the process. From the new owner I learned that Angel was a relatively young horse, maybe eight years old. To her knowledge this horse had no history of being abused. She had obviously been fed treats; she took the food quite nicely out of the hand, and while she stood a bit too close I didn’t think she had any dangerous behaviors.

So I was looking forward to starting her with the process of clicker training. I began with the horse behind a pipe corral and then I started to click/treat for any head motion that was away from my pouch. Angel was pretty quick with this process so I moved into the pen with her. As I said, she showed no signs of being aggressive or dangerous. Once I was in the pen she was a bit more enthusiastic about getting close to me to get more treats (which is also pretty typical of horses).

I knew from experience she had NOT had enough associations with the head turn/click/treat cycle to understand the full significance; she did not know that her behavior at the time of the click was truly a meaningful event, and she really wasn’t showing signs that she understood that the click meant that food was forthcoming.

She DID however, get more enthusiastic about trying what had previously and historically made the treats happen, and that was standing as close as possible to the handler’s side. In her mind this was the only reliable way to get a treat; this was her “history” with people and treats.

So I went back to using protected contact and presented a target. I clicked every time her nose was near the target; I made it easy for her to touch the target so she could get reinforced. What was interesting was that even though she was getting clicked/treated for having the target near her, I could tell she wasn’t really making the connection that this NEW behavior could earn her treats better than her preferred behavior. To her, the only reliable thing was still her past experience.

I’ve introduced clicker training to countless horses and even dogs, but I was a bit surprised at how long it took her to try a different choice. In other words, she was very stuck on her answer and she didn’t have the depth of training experiences to give up her answer and create a new one. Despite the current evidence that the target was “paying,” she still kept trying to figure out a way to stand by me. I was clicking/treating very rapidly, so the rate of reinforcement was high but for an “un-troubled horse” her lack of mental flexibility was interesting.

Still, I trust the process. I know that animals sometimes need to experience the behavior/click/treat cycle with several behaviors before they “learn how to learn.” When the light bulb moment happens, it can begin the process of profound changes.

This particular training day, watching this horse sort things out, caused me to reflect on my own horses. Some of them have been clicker trained for years. They show a tremendous amount of creativity and ability to guess. They have nimble minds, varying of course, but they all show mental flexibility. Working with Angel was quite a contrast by comparison. I’m not saying she was dumb, quite the contrary but she hadn’t been trained to think creatively.

So back to her story with the target. After about four sessions of twenty-five clicks each, I could see her mind start to open up. I saw her begin to look at that target with new interest. She made a deliberate and conscious effort to bump the target, realizing that she might now have a new way of coaxing the human to give her a treat. By then I knew we were on the way to a smarter, more creative animal. These are the moments that make me love my job.



About clickertraininghorses - Peggy Hogan

I teach people and train horses using positive reinforcement. The horses I work with are given choice, the freedom to volunteer behavior. The joy is that they strive to volunteer what works for both of us.
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