Yesterday morning I introduced Cassie to the clicker. I was never really interested in clicker training before. When I first heard about it, the idea of working with a clicker didn’t appeal to me and I also heard some negative stories about clicker trained horses that kept offering all kinds of behaviour in an effort to earn a reward. Those stories put me off and I also didn’t like the idea of becoming a giant vending machine myself, so I decided it wasn’t for me and I left it at that. It wasn’t until I ran into the question how I could best motivate Cassie to work with me that I began reconsidering clicker training. The reason was that I didn’t feel I was fast enough rewarding Cassie for a job well done. Positive reinforcement only works when the timing is spot on, or you might be reinforcing the wrong behaviour. Cassie is a sharp horse, so it is very easy to teach her the wrong thing by being too late.
Getting the theory by reading is of course a good place to start, and I read a lot of useful stuff that I liked, but a pound of practice is worth more than a ton of theory. Since I never even held a clicker before I felt I really needed an eye on the ground, someone to help set me up. Fortunately, Maìre, who has experience with clicker training, offered to come over with Ben and Rosie to show me how to get started. There are two ways to start with clicker training. The first method is to establish a link between the clicker and the reward directly, basically click and treat. The second method uses a target, which is how Maìre was taught to do it.
I put Minnie and Cassie in their stables and Maìre brought out Ben. She showed Ben a target, in this case a yellow ball, Ben touched it with his muzzle, Maìre clicked and gave him his reward. As simple as that. Ben of course knew the game and quickly touched the target wherever Maìre put it. It was great to watch. Then it was our turn. The first thing I learned was that it’s a good idea to get properly organised. I needed to improvise something to put the chopped up pieces of carrot in and it is also a good idea to bring the clicker before you go and get your horse. Anyway, we got sorted and I led Cassie out. I had read a lot about horses having a lightbulb moment when they see the link between the sound of the clicker, the reward and touching the target, but I missed Cassie’s lightbulb moment. The first time I held up the ball she immediately touched it and came forward expectantly to receive her reward. She had learned the process by watching Ben! Clever girl. I have to say that Cassie was better at it than I; I fumbled around clumsily trying to coordinate the clicker, the ball and getting the pieces of carrot out of the bag without dropping the ball. But I have no doubt I’ll learn. After all, I have the best incentive there is: a motivated horse!