I see so many people that look at clicker training as whipped cream, that light fluffy stuff you put on top of something else. The extreme of this application is someone who will use a whip or swinging rope to coerce a horse to do something and then follow with the click and treat. Yes, I’ve seen horse behavior change doing this, although I don’t think it’s clear cut as to what is motivating the change, the coercion or the food, and research is showing this combination could be creating conflict for the horse.
What truly makes me want to address the whipped cream approach to clicker training is how people are missing out on a huge benefit of clicker training. They aren’t learning how to set it up so the horse actually volunteers to figure out what they’re trying to teach him.
Horse people need to learn the powerful tools that clicker trainers of other species have applied for years. They need to experience how the horse learns to search, assess the outcome, re-adjust according to when he hears the click, and be creative. He’s not trying to avoid the pressure – he’s actively trying to solve the puzzle like a detective on a “who-done-it.”
I know it’s hard to change how we do things and view things. Switching over from feeling for a release to visually looking for small muscle movements that indicate effort is not easy for many people. We’ve trained ourselves to hang on until we “feel” the try and now we’re being asked to stand there and watch for repeated motions for which we click. That’s a shift for people AND horses.
I would advocate that people watch the videos of clicker trainers of other animal species. Watch how they shape behavior, working each small try and building a new behavior out of these little efforts, willingly given. Then watch equine clicker trainers who also take this path of shaping behaviors; it might be easier to see the nuances once you’ve seen it evolve with other species.
One of the most inspiring and eye opening videos I’ve seen is the one where a veterinarian was working with a hyena. The vet was doing an IV blood draw from the neck of the hyena, which was voluntarily being pressed into the chain link fence which separated them. The hyena held very still, neck stretched upwards along the fence line, while the vet took the blood sample.
The hyena even held still after the needle was pulled out and pressure was applied to the insertion point. All of this was done for a bite of meat. That is the power of the tools being used with other animals by other trainers.
Whatever you do, I would encourage you to expand your understanding of the power of clicker training as other professionals have. Learn tools like shaping that allow the horse to choose and offer behavior. There is a rich, untapped resource out there for us horse lovers.