Clicker Training for Horses - How well does it work?
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Clicker Training for Horses - How well does it work?

Clicker training, simply put, is a way of rewarding good behaviour - by pressing the clicker at the appropriate moment and offering a positive incentive, the animal will begin to understand and therefore link noise and reward to the desired behaviour. This is not a new idea, indeed it has been around for some time now and is a commonly accepted practise amongst trainers of dogs, dolphins, sea lions and even killer whales to name but a few. In recent years it has been received into the horse world too. And there is no doubt about it; it can be a remarkably effective tool in the training of horses. Indeed many trainers herald it as a magic solution, a cure all answer to just about every possible problem a horse owner/trainer may come up against.

But how true is this?

In his book, Clicker training for Horses, Ben Hart says "Clicker training is based on the science of learning and if we understand that science we can understand the importance and potential of clicker training." This is not only insightful with regard to clicker training but, if we take it on board in its entirety, the key to a more successful relationship with your horse. However, it also implies another more subtle aspect to the training process, that of the underlying problem, that in the wrong hands or without a full understanding of how it works clicker training is rendered ineffective.

Clicker training in the wrong hands:

Clicker training in the wrong hands or to put it more fairly in the hands of someone who is not apprised of all the facts and therefore does not understand it within the full context of equine/human communication can lead to many problems. It is therefore important to understand that clicker training is only one small part of that essential dialogue. It is not, as some think, the simple act of click, reward and hey presto, bad behaviour sorted. For example, often and rather naively people ask questions such as: can clicker training stop a horse from bolting. The answer is not straightforward. But if we agree and are sensitive to the fact that a horse bolts because it is fearful, then we may also agree and be sensitive to the fact that firstly we need to address the fear. And so the answer for those that understand is an obvious no, clicker training will not stop a bolting horse, but it will help in the retraining of the underlying problems. For those that don't then disappointment and confusion lay in store.The same may be said about a horse that bites. As again in the first instance the cause of the behaviour must be identified before it can begin to be tackled.So it can be seen from this that clicker training is only ever going to be as good as the hands that operate it. Further to this it should never be considered as an answer in itself but as part of a larger and broader scheme.

Clicker training in the right hands:

For this we only have to look at some of the more famously documented instances of clicker training to see that it does indeed have the potential to positively transform animal behaviour. Marine shows for instance never cease to amaze audiences as dolphins and sea lions perform happily and enthusiastically sometimes quite complicated sets of 'tricks'. For this though we should be careful to give credit where credit is due and that is to the knowledge and sensitivity of the trainer.In horse training there are many serious advocates of clicker training and to substantiate their claims they will have an equal amount of success stories to boot. In the main this is all to the good, but beware the man (or woman) who tells you it is simple to learn and will help you to quickly achieve everything you want.Like everything else it takes time and patience to achieve excellence.

But isn't it only good for teaching tricks?

Sceptics of clicker training often dismiss it as being nothing more than the teaching of a few mindless circus tricks. In the first case circus tricks are often anything but mindless and from the simplest to the most difficult a more than modest degree of trust and positive co-operation are required to get a horse to perform these so named tricks and from this we may safely assume that it is but a small leap to enhancing your relationship with your horse in a way that serves you both well.Positive reinforcement (clicker training) has been proved to be a huge success with many equines. It has been used to reduce and eradicate behaviours such as kicking and biting as well as calming and helping in areas of stress and fear.There is much evidence to support this and on the worldwide web alone one can find thousands of pictures and video's of horses alongside many bona fida testaments from highly respected trainers of horses (and owners) that have benefitted from clicker training.Again, Ben Hart, author and equine trainer, recounts many instances where clicker training has been used more than successfully.

Food rewards don't work on prey animals

The horse is a prey animal. Some people think that training by food rewards is not the best way forward with a prey animal - or in other words an animal that is not as easily motivated by food. They think that this type of training will only work with a predator type animal. Make no mistake this is a misconception. So too is the idea that it teaches the horse to bite. In this matter timing is all and when done correctly a well timed reward works perfectly well.

In conclusion then

  • Clicker training should never be viewed separately from the wider context of equine training.
  • It works well in the right hands.
  • It is not however a magic pill for all equine problems.
  • The most common mistake in clicker training is to over simplify it.
  • Successful clicker training requires the additional understanding of the science of equine behaviour.
  • Bad behaviour never results from clicker training alone but from a poorly informed trainer.
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