A bucket of cues

I was thinking about a way to describe how a horse might respond to a cue for a behavior that has been taught using clicker training. By cue I mean the specific signal a trainer uses to let the animal know that it’s time to perform a very specific behavior. In the professional world the cue and the quality of response is closely monitored; training plans are geared towards maintaining good cue response. So I think I’ve found an example of a cue and quality of response that most horse owners can relate to. The fun thing is many people have already inadvertently created this powerful cue to which the horse responds enthusiastically.
If you start feeding a bit of sweet feed or something the horse really likes and you put it in a bucket, you KNOW how quickly the horse learns that the bucket is a good thing. Over time, as you continue to feed your horse the good stuff in the bucket you’ll notice that he becomes very focused on you and often begins to look to see if you have the bucket in your hand as you’re walking towards the stall. Before long he might even nicker as you approach him.

Now imagine that you begin shaking the bucket a bit so your horse hears the grain rattle around. Once again, you’ll notice the horse develop a sensitivity to the sound as well as create some sort of anticipatory response. As you continue, day after day, the association with the bucket builds a rich tapestry of associations and expectations from your horse.

If your horse is in the pasture and sees you with the bucket in hand, at first he may not respond as if he recognizes the bucket, but we all know that it won’t take long before the horse picks his head up and leaves what he’s doing in order to come get his goodies from the bucket.

What’s interesting is that over time, the association of positive occurrences with the bucket are so effective and compelling the horse might begin to trot or even canter in from the pasture, and in fact I know there are horse owners out there who have horses that gallop to the barn when they hear the rattle of the grain bucket. It is obvious that the sight and sound of the bucket has become a cue or signal to “come and get a good thing.” (Many horse owners are nodding their heads in agreement right now.)

So with this being the case, I think it’s fair to ask ourselves how our horses respond to our other “cues” in comparison to how they respond to the “bucket cue.”

Think about how your horse responds to some of your most basic cues. Does he have the same snappy and enthusiastic attentiveness as most horses have to the grain bucket? If so, then I’d say you have a good understanding of the principles of positive reinforcement and how to train and maintain cues.

If not, you might ask yourself how you perceive the nature of cues themselves. Do you look at cues as if they are commands? Compare a command to the “bucket cue” which generates enthusiasm, this cue is not command based, it is reward based.

How was your cue taught?


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.
This entry was posted in clicker training horses, Thinking Out Loud, Training blogs. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A bucket of cues

  1. Thank you Peggy – really good straightforward explanation. I will share this 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Horses under our skin and commented:
    Peggy Hogan on cues (and classical conditioning!). Great little blog post!

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