Some people who embark on the journey of learning clicker training become unnerved with how the horse begins to behave. By that I mean the horse becomes animated, the horse begins to offer behavior, or begins to show enthusiasm for the training and for some, that looks scary or different.
It’s true horses can show behavior that is different from what we’re accustomed to seeing once they become fully engaged in the process of clicker training. For example a horse might canter up to a gate when he sees you arriving or he might offer several uncued behaviors in quick succession. He might begin to show signs of resource guarding when you’re around other horses even if you’re not feeding them. He might want to stand as close as possible to you, or he’s reluctant to leave you to go out longeing.
Sometimes, as is the case of resource guarding, it means we can be at risk and there is no doubt we need to address behaviors and find safer ways for the horse to relate to us.
However, rather than trying to stuff that genie back in the bottle, I also think it is the trainer/owner’s responsibility to learn more about how clicker training affects our horse’s desire to perform behavior. People need to learn that the changes might not be precursors to out-of-control behavior, but might be signs than we also need to learn MORE, like cue control – meaning we need to actively teach the horse WHEN and HOW to offer the behaviors we taught them.
You see, for me and many others the joy of clicker training behaviors is that the horse actively WANTS to participate. After all, once we begin giving the horse good things when he responds, of course he shows more interest in us and what we’re doing.
I do think that this new level of energy is scary for some people and they may be inclined to evaluate this active participation as a symptom of over-arousal, a negative attitude or some other label that implies dysfunction.
Truthfully, we have very few well-explored models of horses who actively engage with us as a result of using training techniques with positive reinforcement. Our visual learning lessons have made us very accustomed to seeing the behaviors and external affect that accompanies those behaviors which are trained with negative reinforcement. We also have those videos which still show a combination of coercion and treats. We have precious little visual input with which to compare.
THE VOLUNTEERING HORSE
When a horse is in the learning phase of a clicker trained behavior, when we use shaping to encourage him, we have given him explicit permission to be creative, in an effort to find out what we are “paying him for.” This cornerstone of getting behavior without pressure means we need to ALLOW the horse begin to offer behavior. An example of this is teaching the horse to move forward without pressure. If we aren’t using whips, ropes, body language or pressure, then HOW are we going to find something to click for? So you see, the horse must be free and wanting to offer movement for us to use as the building material for our forward motion behavior.
What does a Volunteering Horse look like? Since every horse is an individual, we will very quickly notice that what one horse volunteers, another horse might not. After all, they ARE individuals.
I would like to leave that question for YOU to answer. Tell us what your VOLUNTEERING HORSE does that shows an energetic response that you are comfortable with. How does that differ from when the horse had no choice in the goal? How do you evaluate the response when you take away the choice and used a tool of some sort to “help” him decide what to do? How does that compare to a behavior that was shaped and is freely offered?
There are things that you can do to explore what volunteering behavior might look like with your horse. These activities will range from beginning to advanced in terms of the skill required from both the horse and the trainer.
I am hoping you will learn just how creative your horse can be and how little you need to intervene or direct in order to teach behaviors.
Another thing I’m hoping you’ll learn is that volunteered behavior might be animated or energetic but that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. We need to develop new paradigms from which to judge our clicker-trained horses, honoring what their behavior looks like in this new realm. Is their behavior really out of control or are we getting our first glimpse of what a horse looks like when he really wants to do a behavior.
HERE IS THE CATCH TO ALL OF THIS
Once you’ve taught your horse to offer behavior, accomplished during the training phase of a behavior, you must also teach him WHEN to do the new behavior. This is what it means to put the new behavior on CUE. If you have a horse with several behaviors and you haven’t diligently taught him solid cues for that behavior then, well, it’s time to re-examine what you’re doing. The horse can become frustrated if he really doesn’t understand when to offer a behavior and THAT is the “other truth” about training with treats. People think the horse is acting badly when in reality, the poor animal doesn’t know when to do the magic behavior that brings the attention of the human. One day we’re paying for something and the next, we decide the behavior needs to be done without reinforcement. Our rate of reinforcement goes down the tubes and the horse is frustrated. That’s when we’ll notice animation that isn’t a good direction for the horse.
So the question remains, is the horse responding quickly to his cues, earning reinforcement and remaining energetic in the process or is he throwing behaviors at you because he doesn’t have clear cues or he has gone several minutes without any reinforcement? These are the important questions you need to ask yourself. We don’t need to stuff the genie back into the bottle; we just need to learn how to use the gift of their volunteered behavior with wisdom and knowledge.