Kjrsos Course | Understanding the Tools of Clicker Training

These tools can be powerful.  Any powerful tool needs to be treated with respect.  Used in the training method referred to as clicker training which encompass the concepts of positive and negative reinforcement.  The basic concepts go far beyond just a click and a treat, and are at some level a part of any relationship.  Which is why it is so important that you understand these concepts and how they impact upon your training and your relationship.

Focus:  Into to Clicker Training and How Bright They Are
Today’s Lesson - An Intro to Training through Positive Reinforcement or
A Stranger in a Strange Land
A series of articles as told by a rider of her lesson of the day
Told from the perspective of the rider
But provides prepared lessons for the instructor
Special Breakthroughs
For example
Hi. My name is Robin. I’ve been taking lessons for a couple of years now. I’m lucky in that I’m pretty fearless and I am an athlete both off and on the horse. Riding seems to come easy to me. I am lucky that I found a riding school where they have school horses and I am in love with mine. She is the most beautiful shiny bright copper, chestnut mare. Tiny, maybe a little tiny for me, but she has so much attitude, that she needs a more experienced rider. She is so fine boned, with the most beautiful legs, and agile as a cat. Did I mention though sometimes she can have this real attitude? But mostly I just laugh at her. She is so beautiful that I find I can lost in just brushing, and brushing and brushing her and then have to rush to tack her up for the lesson, and I’m never ready on time to go home when my mom comes to pick me up.
Today my instructor though told our class not to bother to tack up. We are going to learn something new. Something called clicker training. Whatever. I’d rather ride.

An Intro Lesson to Clicker Training?
I am a little curious though, I wonder what this is all about. I mean I saw the demonstrations at the clinic, but I’m still not sure how this can help me and my horse. We are pretty cool together already.
So first of all my instructor calls us into the alleyway of the barn. And so the lesson begins.
“So today girls we are going to learn about clicker training. And how to use it with your horses.  Let’s go over a few things before I turn you loose with your horses.”
“The first task we have to do with each horse is we have to make them clicker savvy. We want our horses to understand that when they hear a click it means treat or food. Some people call this charging the clicker. We begin by clicking and as fast as that click is heard offering a treat. It is important that there not be too much time between the click and the treat at this stage. Actually, the quicker you get the treat to them after they hear the click the better.”
My instructor then demonstrated with one of the horses. And as fast as she could click and treat, one after the other, and after the other. The horse was gobbling all these treats. Click –treat. Click – treat.
“So when do you know when to quit or when the clicker is…what did you call it - charged.”, I asked.
“Good question. You know the clicker is charged when the horse hears the click and starts looking for the treat. It means that he has come to associate the clicker sound with the treat. Click now means food.”
“Okay but why don’t you just say good boy or something.” I asked.
“Well if you remember us talking about it in the clinic, the problem when we say good boy, or anything else, a certain amount of time has passed. Often people go well not really, but it has, and the horse could have done five more things other than the thing that you wanted to praise him for with the good boy. So he is not too sure what the good boy was for. His tendency is to think it was for the very last thing. It can take lots and lots of repetitions for him to understand it was one out of the five last things. It becomes almost a process of elimination for him and makes it that much longer and harder for the horse to learn something and understand what we want.”
Hmm. I was thinking to myself, scrunching my lips to the side, as I have a habit of doing, that doesn’t sound quite right. I mean five things, I can say good boy pretty dang fast. Or in my case good girl. I know she understands what Im praising her for. One thing I can say about my horse is that she is pretty dang smart. But oh well, I guess I have to try this the instructor’s way, if nothing else just to humour her.
My instructor then explained how once we got the clicker charged, we then would try to teach our horses to target. Oh yeah, I had seen this at the clinic, how you taught the horse to touch the whip with their nose when you held it up. Well that didn’t sound too hard. But before we started, our instructor wanted us to go in the stalls with our horses with the whip and see if we could get our horses to touch their nose to the whip without any clicker training.

Tarketing the WhipSo in I go. Dang! This is frustrating. I’ve been in the stall for ten minutes now. And nothing! I am getting so frustrated. My horse is ignoring me. I am not allowed to put on a halter and lead rope on her head so I can hold her head still and every time I take the whip to her nose, she just turns her head, or she walks away, or she is looking for more hay to eat. After ten minutes, I can now take the whip and touch her nose with it, and tell her what a good girl she is. But she won’t touch it herself!!! Who thought this would be so hard! She is just not interested in this dang whip. I mean she sniffed it once. And I praised her for it, but after that, she just doesn’t seem interested. Oh well. I hope we get to ride next week. I think this week’s lesson is a write off personally.
So now I get to charge the clicker. Click, I have to laugh, that got her attention, gosh she looks pretty with her ears pricked together like that. Click, treat, click - treat, click – treat. Well, one thing is for dang sure. I have her attention now. I have no idea how long the others are taking to figure out that click means treat, but she’s got this part figured out right away.
Next, my instructor takes us aside and explains certain things to watch for when back into the stall to teach our horses to target. She doesn’t want us clicking and treating anymore unless the horse does what we want. Ever. If the horse starts mugging us for treats we are just to ignore it. And we are not to bring the whip to the horse, we are just to hold it up and wait for the horse to show interest in the whip.  If they touch the whip or even get close, click right away and then treat. And just repeat. Let’s see how long it takes this time for the horse to learn what you want.”
Well, the first thing MY horse did when I got back in the stall was mug me. She wanted more treats. She was being truly annoying. That was the only thing on her mind. She wasn’t interested in the dang whip! But I did what I had been told and just ignored her. It was hard though. I really wanted to just swat her, for being so pushy. Wasn’t letting her get away with this behaviour just teaching her to be bratty and pushy? No, according to my instructor, but I was starting to think that maybe my instructor really was losing it. “Just for now be patient, don’t look at her, ignore her completely and hold that whip out to the side.” Well with all her activity she for a brief moment stretched out her neck took a brief whiff of the whip and as quick as I could I clicked! Her ears perked, and I gave her, her treat. Well there she was mugging me again, this time worse than the first time, she knew I had those treats, now where were they. My instructor standing outside the stall and watching encouraged me to be patient explaining that it was only today probably that we would go through this mugging routine, that my horse just needed to figure out that I was not a treat machine that delivered treats on command, but that she had to work for it. She assured me that once she figured that out, she would stop mugging me. Okay deep breath, stare at the whip, don’t look at her, wait, wait, wait. There she touched the whip again, she didn’t mean to, I think she was looking for treats in my other hand, but I clicked anyway! Here is your treat girl. I swear I could see her tilt her head and pause for a moment trying to figure out what the heck was going on. She looked so comical I just wanted to laugh at her. And then she sniffed my one hand that wasn’t holding the whip and then she sniffed the one that was! And I clicked and treated again! And she touched the whip again! And again! She got it!!!
So then my instructor  had me hold the whip out to one side, and wait. And it took her a few seconds but she touched and I clicked and treated. And then I held it out to other side and she touched it. I could literally walk in a circle around the stall and she followed me and that whip to touch it again! I just looked at my instructor in wonder, going “ I had no idea she was so smart!!!! She just learns new things almost instantly!!” You know I could tell my instructor was happy for me, she was grinning ear to ear. But then her smiled faded, and she looked almost … sad. She said “I don’t know how many times I have taught this lesson, and that is the thing I hear most from riders, riders who have had their horses for years, that they didn’t realize how smart their horses were.”
“ I find that so sad. It makes me want to cry, to shed tears for the horses. No one knew how smart they really are. How bright. How fast they are to learn new things.”
I stood there, patting my horse, stroking her shiny forelock, thinking how when this lesson began I thought it was going to be useless. And how today I learned, after years of lessons, that in front of me was this incredibly bright creature, that I had treated literally like an idiot. And how that would have made me feel, to be treated like that by one of my teachers. By my parents. How this was the very first time that I really knew who was in the stall with me. A bright precocious, and sensitive mare, who obviously many times didn’t have a clue what these idiot humans wanted. And had learned to strike out, and be flightly instead. Always wound up, never relaxed, one of the reasons she needed a more advanced rider. Never feeling calm, never feeling safe. And a tear rolled down my cheek, as that wound up mare, relaxed completely for the very, very first time, no longer a stranger in a strange land.
<The power of that lesson, It changed our relationship forever.>
In an upcoming issue, an instructors perspective of how today she would introduce clicker training differently and reduce the amount of mugging that takes place.