Clicker Training: Challenge Accepted
In the midst of all the clicker training debates, someone finally asked if we could show them what makes clicker training useful and valuable. Challenge accepted.
My purpose in this thread is not to debate whether or not you should use clicker training, but rather demonstrate its use and merits by using my horse as an example. If you'd like to debate whether or not clicker training works, please find another thread to do so. I am also not trying to convince you that you should use clicker training - without a solid understanding of clicker training and the ability to use it correctly, you risk causing much more harm than good. Unfortunately, that is why clicker training has earned the the stigma that I've heard so much about on this forum. However, if you'd like to learn, ask questions, or even make suggestions about how our clicker training experience might be even more effective, feel free to stick around and post!
I bought my colt in November 2011 at 18 months having only been halter broke. I was basically getting a clean slate - and, having done some research, I immediately purchased a quality clicker and Alexanda Kurland's boo, The Click that Teaches - and never regretted it. I did some basic ground work last year and even started him under saddle briefly, then gave him this last winter off just to grow up. Now, the snow is melting and we're ready to do some training! Of course, the clicker will be with me along the way.
My goal is for Flash to basically be a reiner that I can ride tackless. I don't know that I necessarily want to compete with him (who knows what the future will hold for us?), but I want him to have that same responsiveness with quick and correct movement like many reiners do. I want him to sidepass, back, spin, slide - the works. And FAST. And, ultimately, without tack and using only leg, seat, and voice aids. Lofty goals? Yes. But SO worth the work I'll be putting in and I believe it'll be very possible using clicker training.
Since I just put the basics on him last year and then gave him the winter off, we'll be starting off from nearly square one. I'm going to do my best to recap the work we've already done to get to where we are now as well as update about our current progress. I'll post pictures and videos when possible. Well.... here goes nothing!
Giving the Clicker Meaning/Targeting
The first thing you have to do when clicker training is to give the clicker meaning. Obviously, a simple click means absolutely nothing to the horse - and it may not mean anything to you. However, that can change for both of you if paired with something that IS meaningful.
The whole point of the clicker is to communicate "yes" to your horse when he does something correct (in traditional training, this "yes" is often a release of pressure). However, the horse won't know it means "yes" unless it's paired with something he wants. In most cases, horses will want food, so treats are often used with clicker training. It doesn't have to be treats, though - anything the horse will work for can be paired with the clicker to make it meaningful - maybe your horse likes a good rub on the neck? Treats are oftentimes the most convenient and motivating, though, and so from here on out I will describe clicker training like when it's used with treats (if you wanted to use something different and the horse does reliably work of it, just substitute your reward in place of when I say to give a treat).
So now, we have to teach the horse that a click means a treat is coming. There are two ways to do this. The first way is to "charge the clicker" - basically, you click and then treat, and then repeat. By doing this, the horse learns to pay attention to the clicker and learns that a click means that a treat will soon follow.
For me, I quickly lost attention and didn't really see any progress using this. Instead, I jumped to the next step to give the clicker meaning: targeting. Targeting is when the horse has to touch ("target") something. This is a very easy skill for the horse to learn, and, for me, it accomplishes teaching the horse that a click means a treat AND that he has to do something to earn it!
One principle of clicker training is that every behavior must be taught in baby steps. At first, the horse won't know what you want him to do. However, as soon as he does something in the general direction of your goal, he earns a click and treat. Sooner or later, the horse will figure out what it was he earned a click for and then do it over and over again. At this point, you ask for a little more before you click and treat (and repeat!), and eventually you've got the horse doing the behavior you set out to train in the first place.
So, back to targeting. I found the most interesting and odd thing that a horse would naturally want to investigate: A plastic water bottle covered in lime green duck tape. It looked funny, sounded funny, and smelled funny - perfect! I brought Flash into the round pen (you want somewhere small at first so they keep their attention on you) along with my bag of treats and clicker, then brought out the water bottle. I held it out with one hand a few inches in front of his nose. As soon as he reached forward to touch it, I clicked and treated. Of course, he didn't have any idea what had just happend and started looking everywhere for more treats - which earned him a firm smack on the nose. Pretty soon, he realized there weren't any free treats to be had, so he went back to investigating the odd-looking green object in my other hand. As soon as he touched it, I clicked and treated again! You could see the wheels turning in his head after two or three times, and within one session he was repeatedly nosing the water bottle and earning treats.
Now, Flash knew what the clicker was for - if he could play my game and figure out what I wanted, he could earn what he wanted. And it all was communicated through a simple click.
Targeting (Continued) and Head Lowering
The next step was to ask for a little more - I moved the water bottle. He already knew he had to touch it, so I didn't click and treat UNLESS he touched it. However, we took baby steps with how far I moved the water bottle. At first it was in front of him. Then a little lower. Then even lower. It took a few sessions, but I ultimately was able to set it on the ground.
This is often step #2 for clicker training: Teaching the horse to lower his head. This is our "calm down" cue. Asking a horse to lower his head gives us a "home base" for the horse to go back to paying attention and calming down if he gets excited. If you can do this on cue, it's like when your teacher held up her hand and said "Give me Five" and all the students got quiet and raised their hands. Once everything is orderly, you can move on with your students' attention - in this case, your student is your horse!
When doing this with the target, I practice by pointing at the target - ultimately, I want this pointing to become a cue for him to target anything I point to. Teaching a horse to target anything on cue is useful for a number of reasons. For training purposes, a number of things can be cued and shaped by first starting with a target. However, thinking about the "big picture", if Flash was afraid of something, I could ask him to target it. Given our previous training, he would know that this was a new challenge for him and just another training exercise, so, if I'm asking him to target something new and unfamiliar, it must be just another training exercise like all the other ones we've done.
Right now, targeting my green water bottle is more like a "brain break", a term teachers use for a quick and easy activity that allows students to relax but still be working for a few minutes while they take a break from more difficult activities. Flash now targets the green water bottle no matter where I put it - in fact, I'll even throw it and he goes trotting after it and touches it. (If I feel like it, I may take advantage of those new teeth growing and teach him to retrieve it!). No matter what, if I want to "end on a good note", all I ever have to do is pull out his favorite green water bottle ;)
Subbing, because I know that I will want to use some aspects of clicker training this spring, and this seems like a great resource to come to.
At this point, you've got a horse that is reliably targeting and lowering his head, understanding that he's working for a click that will be followed by a treat.
BUT, you've also got a mouthy monster mugging you for treats!
Mugging for treats is never ok - not even in clicker training. This is where clicker training and "treat training" are very different. Treat training, without a click to mark the correct behavior, usually fails to communicate the idea of "earning" a treat through correct behavior. Rather, the horse just knows it does some stuff and eventually gets a treat shoved in its face. Clicker training "marks" the correct behavior with a click, allowing for accurate communication of the correct behavior, and then your horse MUST politely wait for his reward.
Have you ever tried telling a kindergartener what NOT to do, only to find out they did something else you didn't want them to do instead? It's much more effective to tell them what they SHOULD do instead to direct their behavior into being what you would like it to be. Horses are the same way. I have no problem giving my horse a firm smack on the nose for treat mugging. However, I also make a point of showing my horse what I DO expect from him - by clicker training it! In order for my horse to receive his treat, he must be politely waiting for it until I put it up to his lips. This is when it's ok for him to take it out of my hand, and never before that. If he reaches for a treat in my hand, I close my fingers around it and take it away. Moreover, if he starts mugging the treat back or is just not getting the message about what he should be doing, I focus specifically on this behavior: I start clicking when he turns his head away from the treats. Between the clicking, the awarding or witholding of treats, and the occasional smack on the nose, it didn't take long for Flash to learn to be a polite little pony and wait until I say he's allowed to take his treat.
I have been wanting to try clicker training with my long yearlings. Just to see what it can do. They are curious friendly things now and seem interested in people. I have a clicker book but I am not sure if it is Kirklands.
And now, we're finally to what we worked on today: Backing up. Flash retained ALL of his knowledge about clicker training over the winter, so I didn't have to re-charge the clicker or work on targeting. We did do backing up last year, but I wanted to start here as a refresher for a few reasons.
First, I needed both of us to be successful. For our first training session of this year, I wanted him to catch on to something quickly and have some progress made. I already knew he could back up with a little bit of a reminder, so this was a good choice for us to focus on.
Second, I wanted to ask for a higher level. Last year, I got him to the point where I could give a little pressure (or even just move my hand behind his chin), and he would step backward. However, I want to prepare him for my expectations as a reining horse: backing up straight, over a longer distance, and doing it quickly.
Third, I want to re-train my cue. Last year, I trained him to back up when I turned around to face him and moved the lead rope toward his chest. Now, with my end goal in mind, I want him to back up on a verbal cue ("Back up"). This way, when I do get on, what we've done on the ground will translate as the same cue and behavior while riding.
So here's what we did today:
I took Flash out into the arena in a lead rope and halter. I had a carrot stick without a line on it, but it more or less proved to be more trouble than it was worth. I started out with the end goal in mind by using the lightest cue possible, simply saying "Back Up". Of course, at this point, that meant nothing to him. So, I took a step forward and shook my finger at his chest. Still nothing. Then, that shaking finger ended up poking him in the chest and he took a step back = click and treat! After a few minutes, he was taking a step back whenever I took a step toward his shoulder and shook my finger (I was still saying "back up" before doing anything and continued saying it like I will while riding, though, so that he'll eventually learn this as the cue).
Now, it was time to ask for a little more. He had to back 2 steps before getting the cue. Then three. And before long he was having to back up as long as I was giving the cue, though I limited that to about 5 or 6 steps back since it was just his first time. Occasionally, to keep him going, I did put a little pressure on the halter as well. After a bit, I took the lead rope off and asked him to back without it.
OK, so he's doing good so far, so I want to ask for a little more "go" in his backing! So, I picked up my energy, stepped toward him a little more aggressively, and when I got to his chest (because he was dragging his feet), I gave him some firm (not harsh), smacks on the chest to get a move on. That did the trick haha. Though I only intentionally did this to get him to move his feet a little faster, it doubled to communicate that I don't just wan't him to move his feet, but that we actually needed to GO somewhere! After that lightbulb went on for him, he seemed to really get what I was asking him and was becoming really responsive and successful in getting his treats!
Somewhere around this time, he decided he wasn't interested in the treats. He's usually very attentive and excited about clicker training and we can go for quite a while, but after about a half hour of taking breaks when I said so, he was ready for his own break. So I let him have it :) He went to the middle of the arena and had a good roll, then took a stroll around the entire outside of the arena checking out the fences, and then came back to me ready to work. He's a funny guy :D Knowing his 2 1/2-year-old brain was getting tired and his tank-like belly was empty, I only asked him to back up a few more times and ended after two particularly good back-ups in a row (he was even starting to back up just with the verbal cue and no movement from me!) complete with extra treats and rubs for a job well-done.
It was a good day! I can't wait to continue our backing up lesson next time!
JillyBean - I'm loving reading everything so far! It sounds to me like me and you do everything very similar!!
There's only a couple things I do differently - If you don't mind I'll just mention them so everyone reading can see some options in case one way doesn't work too well for them. :)
Personally I use a smooch noise with my mouth - my hands are always full and I'm forgetful so carrying around a clicker wasn't ideal for me. At the same time it needed to be a noise really identifiable and never going to happen on accident - I tried using 'good' but words seemed to get lost with my horses as I talk to them so often. A clear smooching noise made things very clear to them.
The only other difference I noticed was when I 'charge' the clicker, the same as you standing and shoving treats in my horse's mouth seemed useless, so I stepped tot he next step. But rather than jumping quite so far as to targeting I just taught them to stand still and look away.
I stood in their stall with them - pockets bursting with treats (I use hay stretcher pellets) and waited. Of course the moment they realized I had them I was being mugged and knocked around. Anything gentle was ignored and anything rough earned them a dope slap. But normally for some reason the horse would look away - either a noise or they got bored, I'd click+treat. That's when they'd go crazy. Normally after 5 minutes they'd be standing politely all 4 feet on the ground (pawing is Never allowed in my book) and their head turned away. I also only feed treats just a bit behind their chin - just to reinforce that they need to be well out of my space, making them lean back a bit to get the food.
I also wanted to add - When you begin keeping lessons short and sweet is best. Food gets them very excited and they can get worked up - it's best to let them stop and calm down and think about what they learned. The first few lessons I barely spent a whole 5 minutes each session - but I'd do 3-4 a day. Each time I came back the last thing we worked on was mastered. They had thought about it while I was away and figured it out. Now that they've been doing this a while they're less over-eager and I can work on things as long as I want, as long as I need - but I still find leaving and coming back they are 100x better. Even if I just come back 30 minutes later. Normally I'll do some CT, then clean their stalls, then do a little more, do some more chores, then do some more.
JillyBean - I love this thread, I'm eager to read more about what you do and how you do it. I hadn't thought of teaching them to target what I point to - I was relying on putting the target on things they're nervous with. Which helped my mare overcome her terrible fear of leaving her paddock - she would touch my car and the big dumpster with the flappy tarp - targetting REALLY helped her overcome so many fears!! I can take her out for trails and by roads - she still gets nervous sometimes but one of those 'easy' tasks like touching my target just settles her right down!
I use a crop with some colorful duct tape on the end. One of the kids at my rescue uses one of those sparkly riding bats for the pony she's working with. :) Anything can be a target. But I love the idea of pointing! Thanks for that JillyBean!!
I'm learning so much in your threads - often while working with them I know that it's working, but I don't know why. So thank you for explaining!!
PS - I do have a B.A. in Psychology, so I've got the theory thing down if you ever want to discuss the nitty-gritty science behind all this, but I try to stick to the practical application that everyone else cares about haha
This is very good JB!
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