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!


5 thoughts on “Click!

  1. I’ve sort of just started clicker training too. I don’t use carrots but small treats and stick them in my pocket. Donnie and Blue are super stars with the cone target and will touch it anywhere I put it. Dusty is just as smart but she must think it’s beneath her to perform tricks for treats so she’ll barely touch it grudgingly. I’ve got to progress to the next step soon so I’ll have to watch some videos and read some up some more for the next step. Glad you’re doing okay and the horses are cooperating. If nothing else I feel it gives them something else to think about and not be bored. Good luck.

    • GHM. Cassie is enjoying it and so am I. I’ve decided to just work with Cassie on clicker training for the moment.They’re all different personalities, so it’s fascinating to see how they respond isn’t it? I look forward to reading some of your clicker stories!

  2. Very good! Here’s how to get horses not to offer you behaviors willy nilly: put it on cue. When I want my horses to target I say “target,” then they know if they touch whatever I’m offering to them I’ll click and treat. If I don’t say “target” they don’t get reinforced. They might try it once and then they’ll remember about the cue.

    Establish the behavior first so she touches the target every time you stick it out (and so you get your mechanics figured out), then associate it with the cue (which can be whatever you want). After you’ve done that enough, offer the target without the cue and then don’t click and treat when the horse touches it. Immediately offer again with the cue and click and treat. Pretty soon she’ll figure out that she should only touch the target when you cue her.

    Establishing the behavior and then a cue takes time, don’t expect to do it all in one day or she’ll get upset with you. Keep the horse winning and make it harder only when she’s ready.

    For more, go to the best: Alex spends a lot of time in the UK every year, you might be able to see her in person.

    • Shannon, the danger with a sharp horse like Cassie is to push things too far too fast, but I’m taking care to have the basis well established before we move on, and that means for both of us. I’m keeping sessions short and sweet and hopefully we’ll progress steadily from here. I might leave putting targetting on cue until next week, I’ll be away for a few days and I don’t want to confuse her.

      I’ve just found out that Alexandra Kurland is coming to Ireland in May, to do an Intermediate Clinic. The requirement is that the foundation lessons are in place. Now that is something to aim for!

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