Clicker training with horses

apbc equine clicker blog

As an equine clicker trainer, I am always disappointed to hear negative feedback as to why we should not use positive reinforcement with horses.   It appears that horses can become a lot more frustrated when training with a food reward than most dogs and which may be partly due to the fact that they forage/graze for up to 19 hours per day and so the ‘seeking’ system (Panksepp) is nearly always activated and which needs to go through a phase of consummation. 

A lot of the problem behaviours I see with clicker trained horses include over-eagerly taking the food reward and almost ‘biting’ the hand that feeds them, ‘mugging’ behaviours, general tension and over-offering learned behaviours, blocking their trainer from leaving the training area as well as obvious over-arousal in male horses of a seemingly sexual nature!  All of these are frustration behaviours which, in my experience, arise because of poor attention to initial introduction to clicker training procedures.
A lot of the owners that I see or have spoken to achieve seemingly amazing results when clicker training their horses, but the owners excitement from seeing their horse progress in the behaviour they are training – whether it be for fun or just kinder handling and riding techniques -  means that attention to calm behaviours and emotional control don’t feature in their training.
Care with clicker training
When initially conditioning to the clicker (or ‘charging up’ the clicker), rewarding only calm behaviours and further shaping for calm is crucial.  A lot of trainers do this by asking the horse to turn the head away – which does prevent mugging – but there is still a lot of tension present in the horses’ body, mouth and eyes which are a telling feature of their emotional status.  Although training may need to start that way, shaping towards less tension and a more relaxed posture indicating a more relaxed and calm state of mind right at the start seems to significantly reduce the number of unwanted frustration behaviours later.
In addition to this, predictability is key with clear ‘start’ and ‘finish’ cues so that the horse knows when and when not to expect a reward is important.  The same rules that apply to dog training such as increasing duration and number of behaviours before a ‘click’ and reward is received, or chaining, intermittent reward schedules, putting behaviours on cue and phasing out the clicker for learned behaviours are also important. 
Owner-horse interactions
The problem with horse owners appears to be that they get hooked on the power of the clicker and don’t consistently follow these points.  Also, the majority of  interactions with their horse become predominantly clicker based and so the owner/trainer themselves becomes a ‘conditioned stimulus’ and arousal automatically occurs just because they are present.  In one case, an owner was afraid of her pony’s behaviour and so rarely interacted with him, save for essential maintenance.  When she discovered clicker training, she felt empowered and that he was finally ‘listening’ to her.  After that, every single interaction she had with him started with a clicker training session.  After a few months, she was again afraid of him as he snatched at treats and aggressively prevented her from leaving his field.  He also had the ‘other’ signs of male arousal.  This pony had gone from little attention to attention every single day with a food reward.  Working with this pony for months after this problem involved desensitising him to his owner so that when she appeared, he eventually did not associate her with a clicker training session or food reward.  Thereafter, gradual and occasional re-introduction to training was possible.  The reason for telling this story is that I think this is a regular emotional response by owners to their horse and which needs to be identified when working with owners/trainers – the ‘human’ side of horse clicker training!
I have also seen several horses which have had a long or intense negative reinforcement/positive punishment history (particularly those which have been subjected to ‘natural horsemanship’) which, when they begin clicker training, appear to be very polite and calm.  This lulls owners into a false sense of security that they do not need to put ‘calm’ training into their regime.  These appear to me to be horses that, rather than being calm, are actually apprehensive about performing the wrong behaviour.  As their clicker training progresses, they eventually become more confident in themselves and trying out different behaviours – which then leads to trying out the ‘unwanted’ behaviours such as mugging.  But because they have not had the foundation training as to how to behave and have emotional control about food, these behaviours are more difficult to get rid of.
Environmental considerations
Of course, the environment can also be a problem.   Traditional or established horse management often involves stabling horses where they do not have free access to forage or small, bare paddocks where free access to forage is also limited.  Trying to clicker train a horse with food reward where its seeking system is already highly activated due to a lack of free grazing – or where the horse has had a history of a lack of free grazing – is going to mean heightened frustration when training with a food reward which is then withheld.
Some literature on equine clicker training indicate the ‘ideal’ size of each reward when clicker training as being one commercial treat or a piece of carrot or apple the size of a 50 pence piece with the occasional ‘jackpot’ reward.  This may not be enough to satisfy the consummation stage of the seeking circuitry, leaving the horse in a state of frustration.  Rather, providing the horse with a good handful of high fibre food, allowing it to chew for longer and gain more satisfaction from each reward seems to work better for some.  This may mean fewer rewards and a shorter training session until duration of behaviours has been shaped, but this does appear to produce calmer horses and less frustration in the long run.
Avoidance of possible pitfalls
Personally, when learning how to apply positive reinforcement to horses, I found that by following books that were available then on application of clicker training to horses produced frustration.  Fortunately, I have had some excellent mentors who have taught me so much more over the last few years and which has led me to the conclusion that clicker training horses is a valuable tool for improving the human/horse relationship, improving efficacy of training, improving safety in equitation and improving equine welfare.  However, the quality of much freely available material on training for owners means that key messages on application of this training are not getting out there and which can produce frustration (both owners and horses) and is responsible for the bad press equine clicker training currently has.  This, in turn, leads to owners and trainers using or reverting to the negative reinforcement/positive punishment methods that they are used to and which at least makes them feel safer and ‘in control’.
Owners who want to use positive reinforcement including clicker training with their horses to either improve their relationship and mutual understanding with their horse, improve problem behaviours or just improve the general welfare of their horse would do well to initially seek guidance from an experienced equine clicker trainer or at least consider carefully where they seek information as to how to successfully start your horse with clicker training.  With the right information, advice, guidance and practice, you will not be disappointed! 
Nicole Chamberlain BSc(Hons) in Applied Animal Behaviour
Equine and canine behaviourist