Clicker training

There is an increasing interest in the use of positive reinforcement techniques for training new behaviours in horses. The use of secondary reinforcers to establish a new behavioural response was originally used with performing sea mammals. One commonly used form of conditioned reinforcement is called ‘clicker training’.

Clicker training is a reward-based training technique. Using this approach, a novel sound – usually produced from a plastic ‘clicker’ – is classically conditioned to a reinforcer, generally a food reward. The sound is distinctive but in fact anything that is distinctive and consistent can be used as a secondary reinforcer.
Pressing the metal strip of the clicker makes a ‘click’ noise that, through classical conditioning, becomes associated with a rewarding situation for the horse.

The use of a conditioned reinforcer like a clicker has several advantages in animal training:

  • The trainer is able to reward a behavior rapidly after its performance, thereby increasing the chance of the horse associating the reward with the appropriate desired activity.
  • The association allows the trainer to “bridge the gap” between the time at which an animal performs a response correctly and the arrival of a primary reinforcer (usually food). This allows training to be carried out from a distance and when food cannot be administered at that time, hence its use by dolphin trainers and its potential for use by horse riders.

During the initial stages of training, the clicker sound should always be followed by a positive reinforcer such as a food reward (click followed by treat within 2-5 seconds). Simultaneous presentation of a reward and a novel secondary stimulus works less well. Similarly clicking after the food has been given does not result in a clear association being made.
The click and treat event is repeated until the horse has made the association. This usually takes only a few trials but is dependent upon the horse’s motivation for the food, age, and other distractions. Most horses if they are going to make the association, will do so in a maximum of 30 repetitions. Once established the response to the ‘click’ can be maintained and strengthened via variable or intermittent reinforcement, i.e. food does not follow after every click.

Clicker training can be used for training many in hand behaviours, such as teaching a horse to lead, to stand when tied up, and to move forward into a trailer/lorry.

Useful websites

Useful publications

  • Hart B (2008) The Art and Science of Clicker Training for Horses: A Positive Approach to Training Equines and Understanding Them. Souvenir Press Ltd. ISBN-10: 0285638246; ISBN-13: 978-0285638242.
  • Foley S (2007) Getting to Yes: Clicker Training for Improved Horsemanship. TFH Publications. ISBN-10: 0793832004; ISBN-13: 978-0793832002.
  • Kurland A (2007) Clicker Training Your Horse. Sunshine Books. ISBN-10: 1890948357; ISBN-13: 978-1890948351.
  • Karrasch S, Karrasch V & Newman A (2006) You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything!: On Target Training – Clicker Training and Beyond. Kenilworth Press Ltd. ISBN-10: 1872119271; ISBN-13: 978-1872119274.
  • Pryor K (June 2009) Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us about All Animals. Scribner Book Company. ISBN-10: 0743297768; ISBN-13: 978-0743297769.