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Clicker Training in the Equine World: An Interview with Alexandra Kurland

Alexandra Kurland has been training horses and teaching since the mid-1980s. In the early 1990s, after reading Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog, Alexandra headed out to the barn with a clicker and a pocket full of treats to see what her horse thought about clicker training. What Alexandra quickly discovered was that the clicker was an effective communication tool, a tool that horses not only understood, but responded to with great enthusiasm. Alexandra documented her experiences, and over time developed a systematic, very detailed program for clicker training horses. Her books, including Clicker Training for Your Horse, along with her video lesson series, The Click That Teaches, are designed to give horse owners an overall roadmap. Now, largely thanks to Alexandra, horse owners are putting away their whips and spurs and discovering what Alexandra had the foresight to discover decades ago—clicker training produces eager, happy horses and delighted handlers. We are thrilled that Alexandra Kurland will be sharing her knowledge and insights once again at ClickerExpo 2011, and appreciate that she has taken time to give us a glimpse of some of that wisdom today.

Clicker training was relatively new when you first began in the early 1990s. Have things changed in horse training since then?

horse playing basketball

We’re still being surprised
by how smart our horses
are. And we’re still
discovering what can
be taught with
clicker training.

Horse training in general hasn’t really changed at all. If you step very far outside a clicker training environment, you can easily find the same excesses of force and the same rhetoric about being dominant that have always been part of the horse world. But within the clicker training community there have been enormous advances. We’re much more sophisticated now both in what we teach and how we teach it.

I remember when we were first using the clicker with horses how excited we were when a horse touched a target. You’d see it in the posts people sent in to the early online discussion groups. “He’s so smart!!!!” they’d exclaim. And the first time a horse picked a cone up off the ground and handed it to us—that was off the charts! It hadn’t occurred to us that horses could be taught to fetch. And then when we discovered how much they loved the game—now that was truly a surprise!

Those were just the beginning steps into clicker training. We’re still being surprised by how smart our horses are. And we’re still discovering what can be taught with clicker training. That early targeting evolved into so many things. Now we have horses not just fetching, but painting, playing the piano, shooting basketballs, flipping hula hoops over their heads, and engaging in a wide variety of other target-based games.

Targeting has helped horses give up their deep-seated fears. It’s helped horses load onto trailers, and to accept shots, clippers, and even something as basic as the touch of a human hand. Targeting has been used to teach miniature horses to be guides for the blind. And it’s part of the tool box for teaching advanced performance in all the riding disciplines. Performance work is where some of the most exciting advances have been made and where clicker training really shines. When I started experimenting with the clicker, I had no idea where it would take us. Now at clinics routinely I see horses looking as though they have just stepped out of the halls of the Spanish Riding School. Mules, draft crosses, backyard ponies, they have all learned to carry themselves with grace and elegance. There are no martingales, side reins, or other gadgets on them. They have been taught with clicks and treats by recreational riders who simply trusted the process and believed that there was no limit to what they could teach. Their reward is a feels-like-heaven ride and a horse that loves to play!

Over the years you’ve taught many people how to use clicker training to develop a better relationship with their horse. What do you need to become a successful clicker trainer?

The handlers I've seen who have been the most successful have all put a lot of time and attention into developing good clicker skills.

The easy answer to this question is good mechanical skills. The handlers I've seen who have been the most successful have all put a lot of time and attention into developing good clicker skills.

Often when a horse is struggling emotionally, improving the handler’s skills is the key to resolving the problem. That’s the easy answer. We need good mechanical skills to be good trainers, but what drives someone to develop those skills? If you have an easy horse, it’s easy to be sloppy. You can get away with slipping your hand into your treat pocket before the click. You can be inconsistent in your timing, clumsy with your rope handling, and your horse will fill in for you.

But so many of the horses I meet at clinics didn’t start out as these easygoing, take-care-of-your-human horses. The horse world can be a rough place, and many of the horses people are working with have been deeply scarred by abusive handling. As I think about how to answer this question, I’m picturing those horses and their handlers. What these successful clicker trainers have in common is persistence and a love for their horses that keeps them going back out to the barn determined to find answers. It takes enormous dedication, creativity, and, given the size of the animals we’re working with, courage to be successful with these horses.

Clicker training doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing. And it doesn’t offer cookbook solutions. It gives you starting places, principles to follow, and foundation lessons that form your basic “tool kit.” It teaches problem-solving skills. It reminds us that training is fun. It brings laughter back into the training arena. It gives us a communication tool that horses understand and respond to with enormous generosity. But it takes persistence to keep going back to the barn, even when the weather is cold, the paddocks are knee deep in mud, and your horse is swiping at you with his teeth.

At clinics I’ll see the horses in this rough beginning stage of their training where they are still shut down or angry as a result of their previous handling. A few clinics later, I’ll see a bright-eyed, enthusiastic horse, and I’ll see an organized handler with great mechanical skills. And I’ll know the dedication to that horse that this picture represents.

What do you need to be successful with the clicker?

Good timing, good mechanical skills, patience, persistence, an ability to see small detail. If you are a clicker trainer, I’m sure you can add other basics to this list. It doesn’t matter the species we train, these are universals.

Clicker training feels like a homecoming for so many, a way to train without force.

The only problem with this list is that most of the people I work with don’t start out with these skills in place. They are often novice handlers who don’t know what they are looking for. They lack patience. Their horse’s behavior frustrates them easily. They are inconsistent in their timing, and clumsy in their rope handling. So what I put on the list are not prerequisites. These skills evolve out of the shaping process. That’s good news—it means we don’t have to be talented trainers to become talented trainers. Everyone who starts out with the clicker has clumsy timing and an unrefined eye compared to the trainer they will be after just a short time spent clicker training. And, patience is just knowledge in disguise. It grows with experience, too.

So what do you need to be successful with the clicker? I think the answer varies from person to person. For some it is a love of puzzles, and the curiosity that drives all good scientific inquiry. For others it is a deep love of horses.

Clicker training feels like a homecoming for so many, a way to train without force. The very best clicker trainers I’ve seen have both—a passion for the puzzles and a deep love for the horses.

You have developed a systematic program for clicker training horses. Can you describe this program?

Clicker training begins with six foundation lessons: targeting, head lowering, backing, “happy faces” (meaning ears forward), “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt,” and stand on a mat. These lessons are not taught in a linear order. The horses tell us which lesson they need to focus on at any given time. And the lessons are not a checklist either. It’s not: Got the horse to back up, check. Got him to drop his head, check. Okay. When do we ride?

The foundation lessons are woven into everything we teach the horses. They are like the letters on this page. There are only twenty-six letters in the alphabet, but look at all the words we can form from them. There are only six foundation lessons, but what we create out of them is a joy of a horse. The foundation lessons are the building blocks we use for advanced performance. They become emotional balancers and reinforcers for other behaviors. The more solid these behaviors are, the easier the rest of the training will be.

The foundation lessons do so many things for both horse and handler. For horses:

  • They introduce the horse to the overall concept of the clicker, and show him how to use the information the marker signal provides.
  • They teach space management, so even pushy horses can be handled safely.
  • They balance the horse's emotions: settling the overly enthusiastic horse, building confidence for the timid horse, developing patience in the pushy horse, calming the high-energy horse, and creating interest in the shut-down or low-energy horses.
  • They introduce other major concepts such as cues and chains.
  • They provide solutions for major training problems such as rearing, spooking, bolting, and biting.
  • They become building blocks that the handler can use to develop more complex behaviors.
horse jumping over a water jump

Once basic safety issues are resolved, the way is
clear for using the clicker to train for the
specific performance goals each rider has.

For handlers, the six foundation lessons also serve many functions:

  • They introduce handlers to the overall concept of the clicker.
  • They show how to get behavior using a variety of shaping techniques: free shaping, capturing, targeting, molding, pressure and release of pressure.
  • They introduce the importance of good handling skills, especially good food-delivery skills.
  • They show how to stabilize behaviors.
  • They teach how to balance one behavior with another, both to eliminate unwanted behaviors and to bring behaviors under stimulus control.
  • They show how to build quality and duration into behaviors.
  • They show how to link behaviors together to build complex chains.
  • They introduce the rules of shaping.
  • They show how to problem solve, both how to resolve pre-existing training issues, and also how to resolve any problems that arise as the horse and handler are learning clicker basics.
  • They show how to build lesson plans, how to split the teaching process down into small achievable steps, how to manage training goals.
  • They introduce handlers to the concept of training for long term soundness.
  • They develop the handler's ability to see and use small detail to improve a horse's balance.

Not bad for six simple lessons! The more I teach, the more I have come to understand just how important these lessons are. They are the building blocks and the anchors for all performance work.

The first phase of clicker training focuses on teaching these basics well to both the horses and their handlers. As the foundation lessons solidify, the next phase in training emerges. This stage focuses on soundness issues and the physical and emotional balance of the horse. I teach lateral flexions—how to get them, how to stabilize them, and finally how to use them to achieve your training goals.

In horses, emotional balance very much evolves out of physical balance, so lateral flexions are key to maintaining both long-term physical soundness and the emotional stability I look for in a safe riding horse. Once basic safety issues are resolved, the way is clear for using the clicker to train for the specific performance goals each rider has. This includes everything from recreational trail riding to advanced performance in specialized disciplines such as dressage, jumping, and reining.

good handling in the ring

The development of good handlers
is the success story I am most proud of.

Can you think of a success story that you’re particularly proud of?

The clinics I teach begin with an evening set aside for introductions. Everyone gets to talk about their horses and their clicker training experiences. They share their success stories. They talk about the mustang they first met in a catch pen dragging a lead rope from a halter the previous trainer put on and then couldn’t get near enough to the horse to take off again. They talk about the beloved horse that has been their companion for twenty plus years whose eyes came back to life when they started clicker training. They talk about the pony that never loads on a trailer, but that followed a target onto the trailer when they absolutely had to get him to a vet for treatment. They talk about their thoroughbred that would never stand for the farrier, but that now has perfect manners thanks to the clicker. Even when they can’t bring their horses to the clinics, trainers often bring video clips so they can show off the horses they are so proud of.

Our evening introductions are followed by three or four days of training. And during those days you will not hear one word of correction. No one will be jerking on lead ropes or chasing horses with whips. No one will be spurring a horse to make it go faster. No one will be getting after a horse for disobedience. Instead you will see patient, caring people working with purpose and clarity and with the good of the horse uppermost in their minds. The development of these good handlers is the success story I am most proud of.

What kind of support is out there for horse owners who may want to try clicker training?

In 1996, I launched my website, theclickercenter.com. It’s the central hub for finding the resources you need to clicker train your horse. It will connect you to other websites and to online discussion groups, as well as provide a wealth of information through the training articles that are on the site.

In 1998, Karen Pryor’s company, Sunshine Books, published my first book, Clicker Training For Your Horse. It has been followed by two other books, The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures, and The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker.

Clicker training can’t be taught just through words, so I also have a DVD lesson series that is designed to complement the material covered in the three books. There are currently 18 DVDs in the lesson series, comprising 6 training units. Unit One contains the “Introduction to Clicker Training” DVD, plus Lessons 1-4. Those lessons cover the foundation lessons of clicker training, with the emphasis on polite manners and safety.

Unit 2 contains Lessons 5-8, which focus on lateral flexions. The lessons show you how to get them, how to stabilize them, and then how to use them to develop the balance of your horse. Unit 3 contains two DVDs, Lessons 9 and 10. It looks at cues, not just how you attach cues to a behavior, but how you can use cues to solve complex training problems. It introduces several advanced training strategies that show you how to get even more value from your foundation lessons. Unit 4, Lessons 11-13, looks in detail at the clicker as a riding tool.

Unit 5, Lessons 14-15, contains Jesús Rosales-Ruiz’s lecture on Poisoned Cues (Lesson 14) as well as a lesson on microriding, a technique for developing a rider’s kinesthetic awareness. Unit 6 contains two more lessons that focus on riding. Lesson 16 looks at that all-so-important component of safe riding—good brakes. Lesson 17 looks at an exercise that is fundamental to advanced training. All of the books and DVDs can be found at my website, as well as at the Karen Pryor Clickertraining’s online store.

In addition to offering the books and DVDs, I also teach clinics. A list of clinic dates and locations can also be found at my website. The clinics are a wonderful place to network and meet other clicker trainers. If you are looking for a local instructor, someone who can help you with your horse on an ongoing basis, the clinics are often a great place to connect with them, too. At the multi-level courses, you’ll meet skilled clicker trainers, many of whom are currently teaching and can provide the local support.

So going back to your very first question, how has clicker training changed since the early 1990s, this is one of the key ways in which it has grown. There is now a solid support system of books, DVDs, websites, online discussion groups, skilled instructors, and clinics in place. It’s taken fifteen years to put all this together, and there’s still more that needs to be done, but it gives people a solid foundation from which to build their own clicker superstar!

Many traditional trainers are reluctant to use food in their training. How do you prevent the horse from becoming too mouthy?

The horse world is truly a funny place. When we’re confronted with a horse that is afraid of plastic flapping in the wind, we don’t shelter the horse from all potentially spooky things. We don’t ride only on calm days, keep the dogs in the house, and block the driveway so no one can disturb us. Instead, we work with that horse. We get him over his fear so flapping tarps, barking dogs, sudden noises, and other scary things are no longer a problem.

But food! That’s treated totally different. Horses get excited and distracted when there are goodies around, so we take the goodies away. We wait until we’re all done with our ride before dropping a carrot in the food tray, believing the horse will somehow, magically, make the connection between the carrot and that decent trot transition we had half an hour ago.

As a clicker trainer I’m delighted that the food is a distraction. I look for things that my horse will “mug” me for. That’s how I measure the value of that resource. My horse gets excited by the smell of carrots in my pockets. That’s golden. I’ve just found something he’ll work for. And even more golden? The process of transforming that resource from a distraction into a training tool will help my horse develop the emotional self-control he needs to be a safe riding horse.

Horse ignoring open treat pocket

This horse has her nose inches away from an open
treat pocket, but her good manners prevent
her from reaching inside to help herself.

So how do we create this transformation? Safety always comes first. I begin by treating the horse more like an exotic zoo animal than a domestic pet. I use protective contact. I put him in a stall with a stall guard between us, or I use a small paddock with horse-safe fencing. The horse is at liberty. He can interact with me, or not. But if he gets overly excited by the food, or he shows aggression, I can simply step safely back out of the range of his teeth. With most horses, especially horses that are already familiar with hand feeding, I begin with simple targeting. The focus of these lessons is as much on the handler as it is on the horse. The horse has a simple job. Bump the target and you can get your human to hand you treats.

The handler has a much harder job. It can look like such a simple lesson. All you are doing is holding a target out to your horse and then clicking the clicker when he bumps it. Easy. But you have to figure out how to manage the clicker and the target and the food delivery. After just a couple of clicks, you’ll discover just how important smooth food delivery is. Any delay while you fumble around trying to get your treat out just creates frustration in your horse. At start-up clinics I have people practice their food delivery before they go out to the horses. That’s when they discover just how many little details there are, and that all of those details matter to the horses.

In clinics I tell people that the click is a cue. But it is a cue for two organisms. It signals the horse to stop whatever he is doing and to go into treat-receiving behavior. And it tells the handler to go into treat-delivery behavior.

I go on to talk a bit about cues and what it means to have a cue under complete stimulus control. I tell my handlers that there is only one place in my training where I am an absolute stickler for having a behavior under complete stimulus control, and I’ll describe that in a moment. In the rest of the training, it really does come down to individual preference whether or not a behavior is brought under full stimulus control. A dressage rider will care very much if her horse picks up a canter promptly every time she asks. She won’t want to get a trot instead of a canter during a dressage test. And she won’t want to have her horse cantering at other times when she hasn’t asked for it. But a trail rider may not care as much. If the horse trots for a few strides before picking up a canter, that’s not all that important to her. But if the trail rider keeps her horse in a twenty-acre field, she may care very much that her horse comes at a canter every time she calls him in. The dressage rider who turns her horse out in a small paddock may not care if she has to walk out to get him. So the degree to which a behavior is brought under full stimulus control is really a season-to-taste matter.

The one place where I am an absolute stickler and need to see the correct response for a cue is this: I want my handlers to be under perfect stimulus control when they hear the click. Note that it’s the handler I fuss about. Not the horse. When my handlers hear the click, I want them to go into food delivery mode promptly. I don’t want to see any other behaviors. I don’t want them answering their cell phones, or asking me questions. When they click, they go into food delivery. And, there can be no food delivery behavior ahead of the click. In the absence of the click, there is no hand movement toward their treat pocket, and no movement of their body into the dance steps of treat delivery.

Now here’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve observed. People combine fast with prompt. They can go promptly into food delivery, but when they do, they also speed up. They start shoving food at their horses as though they were waiters in a fast food diner in New York City. The result is that everything speeds up and their previously well-mannered horse is suddenly behaving like a hyperactive toddler on a sugar high. It’s hard to respond promptly but move slowly. That’s a skill most people have to work on.

Mechanics matter. One of the keys to preventing a horse from becoming too mouthy or too excited by food is to develop good handling skills: to learn how to separate prompt delivery from the speed of the delivery; to feed out away from your body; to use the positioning of the treat to move the horse out of your space.

Food delivery is a powerful tool. I can use food delivery to back a horse out of my space, and in the process I’ll be teaching safe manners. How I turn, where I present the food, repositions the horse. Through food delivery I can set up the next behavior sequence I’ll be teaching. Before I ask for that behavior directly, my horse will already have been practicing the maneuver. In clinics I remind people to feed where the perfect horse would be. As a food trainer, this gives me such an advantage over non-food trainers. I think of this whenever I hear about the resistance to using food in training. Once you stop seeing food as a distraction, it becomes such a powerful tool.Once you stop seeing food as a distraction, it becomes such a powerful tool.

The foundation lessons provide a systematic process for teaching horses the “rules” that surround food. The “grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt” lesson is an important part of this process. It is a basic “leave it” lesson. It asks a simple question: Can I stand next to you with my pockets full of treats? It also teaches handlers an important skill: being non-reactive to behaviors they don’t like.

Again mechanics matter. The “grown-ups” lesson gives the handler a body-neutral position that helps solidify their food delivery. Consistency, good mechanics, and staying focused on what you want your horse to do instead of focusing on the unwanted behavior are all keys to developing great mechanical success. With horses, attention to the details of good food delivery can go a long way toward preventing or correcting many training issues.

Many horse owners who have tried clicker training have described a major change in their horses. One horse owner describes it this way: “It’s as if a magic switch was thrown in his brain.” How would you describe the reason for this transformation?

I often describe this as a “Helen Keller” moment. I’m referring here to that great scene in the movie The Miracle Worker where Helen Keller (played by Patty Duke) is with her teacher, Anne Sullivan (played by Anne Bancroft). Anne has been trying to get through to Helen, who is both deaf and blind. The movie depicts Helen as a wild, untamed little creature whose parents have no idea how to handle her or communicate with her. One day, in total frustration, Anne shoves Helen’s hands under a water pump while she signs the word for water onto the palm of her hand. Suddenly Helen understands. The movement of Anne’s fingers means something! It means water. In a wild frenzy of joy she races from one object to the next, demanding to know the signs that identify them. I think of this scene when I see the eagerness with which many horses respond to clicker training. They can communicate with humans! Something they are doing is producing predictable, desirable results. Their world is making sense. It is becoming reliable, safe, understandable. Yes, the game is fun. Yes, they enjoy the treats. But their eagerness goes beyond that. They want so much more than just the food. They want the connection it creates with their people.

What they want is the secure understanding that clicker training brings.

What evidence do I have for saying this? We can’t know what a horse is feeling. But we can see their actions. And I’ve watched many horses leave grass or piles of hay to play the clicker game with their people. They will ignore grain dropped on the floor to keep playing the game. Given a choice between free food and a puzzle, these horses are actively choosing the puzzle. In her book Reaching the Animal Mind, Karen Pryor talks about the activation of the seeker circuit. It can’t just be food these horses are searching for. They are surrounded by food. What they want is the secure understanding that clicker training brings.

You mention in The Click That Teaches: Riding with a Clicker that training a horse is not a matter of following “cookbook” recipes, but of being creative and responsive to each individual. Can you tell us what you mean by that?

Good trainers need more than good handling skills. That’s just mechanics. Underlying the mechanics is a set of training principles. These include two key statements:

  • There is always another way you can teach any behavior.
  • For every training step you can think of, there is always a smaller step you can break that step down into.

Those two training principles are important to keep in mind. When I hit a snag with a horse, I start scanning for the missing pieces. Is there some simple component of the behavior that I’m working on that is not well understood? Is there another way I could ask for what I want? What is the smaller step I could find?

Let’s say I’m working on something as simple as having my horse follow a lead rope forward. He’s glued to the spot refusing to move. I’ve tried the obvious things. I’ve used my lead rope. I’ve offered him a target to follow. I’ve asked him to come forward from behind. Nothing. It’s time to become creative. Maybe if I use the lead around his neck instead of hooked to his halter, he’ll get the message? Maybe I could get him to back up? Once I have his feet moving in some direction, I might be able to redirect him into forward movement. Or maybe I need to start asking him if he’s okay? Why doesn’t he want to move? Is he lame? Does the gravel drive that’s in front of him hurt his feet?

Clicker training encourages us to listen to our horses and to be responsive to their needs. Clicker training encourages us to listen to our horses and to be responsive to their needs. This is why training can never be condensed down into a cookbook format. We need to be teaching people to question and to be creative. When I’m introducing a horse to the clicker during a clinic, I count out twenty treats. That limits the number of trials I can have with the horse. I offer the horse a target to touch, click, and hand him a couple of treats. After I’ve repeated this a few times, I step away from the horse. While I’m counting out the next round of treats, I ask the people watching what they learned about the horse. Often people don’t know how to answer that question, so I prompt them with more questions. Was he eager or standoffish? How did he take the treats? Did he grab at them or was he soft with his mouth? And the most important question of all: Was there anything about his behavior that would suggest that it would be unsafe to go into his stall with him? If the answer comes back “We’re not sure,” I stay with protective contact. The next question I ask is: What should I do with my next set of treats? Should I do another round of targeting and, if so, what changes, if any, should I make? Should I shift to another of the six foundation lessons? Which one and why?

This isn’t a cookbook, but an assessment process. I want this process to become a habit for my handlers. At every step of their training, whether they are working in hand, or under saddle, I want them to be thinking about the effects of their actions. How is my horse doing? Is my loop clean? What should I be doing next? Am I asking for too much? Do I need to find the smaller step, another way to explain to him what I want, or is it time to move on? These questions keep us safe, and they create not just good riders, but great horsemen.

Your ClickerExpo course on breakthroughs offers strategies for navigating past training “speed bumps.” Where do people get hung up and how do they get past that?

The people I see at clinics are often very good at teaching individual behaviors. Set them the task of teaching a horse to back up, and they are all over it. They’ll have that horse backing twenty feet from just a simple cue in no time at all.

Getting the behavior is the easy part. Knowing what to do with it is another matter. How do you stabilize the behavior so the horse isn’t throwing it at you every time he sees you? How do you integrate it into your training? How do you use this new behavior to help resolve other training issues? This is the creative part of clicker training.

Where people get themselves into trouble is when they teach a lesson only half way. For example, as part of the foundation lessons I teach horses to stand on a mat. Initially many horses are afraid of the mat. Horses in general are very cautious about where they put their feet. They’ll go to great lengths to step over or around the mat, anything but directly on it. So the first phase of mat work is teaching the horse that it’s okay to step on it. Once the horses understand that standing on the mat is a sure-fire predictor of goodies, they’ll be eager to get to the mat. Now instead of avoiding it, they’ll be dragging their handler to it. Some people back off mat work at this point. “I tried it,” they’ll report to me, “but then my horse got too excited and I stopped using the mat.”

horse standing on mat

The mat turns into something
that the horse is overeager to get to.

They are missing the point of mat work. The mat is an emotional balancer. It begins as something the horse is afraid of. Then it turns into something the horse is overeager to get to. In many ways mats are like food treats. You have to go through a teaching process to turn them into a useful tool. With food I have to explain that, yes, treats are available, but mugging my pockets isn’t the way to get them. With the mat, I have to go through a similar process, explaining all the rules to the horse. Yes, we will go to the mat, but you have to go with me on a loose lead—no pulling. And when I ask you to leave the mat, I need you to walk off politely, again on a slack lead. You can’t make ugly faces at me, or stick on the mat hoping to get more goodies.

Once I have good mat manners in place, I can use the mat as a reinforcer for other things. My horse has just offered me a beautiful walk-trot transition and has stabilized into a feels-like-heaven trot. I want to highlight that extra effort. Yes, I’m going to click and treat. But I’m also going to follow that by going directly to the mat. Standing on a mat has taken on extra meaning. It tells my mat-savvy horse that he’s just done something extra special. I’ve taken a behavior that initially worried my horse, brought it into his training repertoire, stabilized it, and now I can use it in conjunction with other behaviors to help in my training. If I had stopped mid-way through the process, I would have been left with a frustrated horse that only half understood what was wanted of him.

The easy part of clicker training is getting behaviors. Teaching a horse to back up, to lower his head, to fetch, to target, these are all relatively easy tasks. Developing solid emotional control takes more work. That’s where we encounter the speed bumps.

Here’s another example: The horse doesn’t understand why you haven’t clicked now that he’s given you three steps of backing or dropped his head for half a second. You always click him for this little bit of behavior. Why isn’t it working now? My talk on training strategies shows people that these speed bumps are normal. If you hit one of them with your horse, you haven’t messed up. You are simply only partway through a training process. But if you haven’t worked a horse through the whole sequence, it’s easy to get confused or frustrated.

“My horse is so eager to get to the mat,” people will exclaim, not realizing that that’s exactly what they want! This is good news! It means they have done a good job teaching the first phase of mat work. They have a horse that isn’t afraid of the mat, that wants to get to it. Now they just need to add a few more rules to the mat game, and what looked like a speed bump will smooth out into good training. Understanding the training strategies that accompany the different stages of the learning process helps keep the speed bumps from turning into true road blocks.

Let’s talk about component training, the subject of another seminar you are giving at ClickerExpo.

We keep coming around to the first question you asked me about the changes in clicker training. When I think about the huge “Ah ha” advances we’ve made where we’ve stretched beyond what we were teaching before, every example that comes to mind was something the horses initially came up with, not the handlers.

Years ago I took my young horse, Robin, to the Equine Affaire as my demo horse. I wanted people to see free shaping in action, not just the trained result of free shaping. So I took a hula hoop along and tossed it out for Robin to interact with. Robin was an avid retriever. I figured he might pick up the hula hoop and I would be able to shape him to lift it up over his head, something I’d seen other horses doing, but hadn’t yet taught to Robin. That’s what my limited imagination came up with. That’s what horses could do with a hula hoop.

When I think about the huge “Ah ha” advances we’ve made where we’ve stretched beyond what we were teaching before, every example that comes to mind was something the horses initially came up with, not the handlers.

Robin had other things in mind. He went directly over to the hula hoop, stepped inside the ring with his front legs, and without any hesitation picked the ring up with his teeth and began leading himself forward from the pressure of the hoop. So much for my imagination! Robin was ever so much more creative than I was!

When we start thinking in terms of component parts instead of finished behaviors, we open up the possibility of this sort of creative invention. The concept of component parts looks at the building blocks that go into the creation of complex behaviors. When you have all the component pieces, training goes smoothly. When you are missing one of the critical components, you’ll hit snags in your training. That’s when all the old “get tougher with that horse” recordings start playing in your head, and the “helpers” at your barn rush out with their offers to help you get after your horse. Getting tougher doesn’t help. Going back a few steps in your training to find the missing components is the better answer.

I saw a great example of this last summer. I was watching a stallion being loaded onto a side-loading trailer. Side-loading means just that. Picture a van that’s been set up inside to carry horses. Most horse trailers load from the back. But in this trailer one whole side of the van folds down to create a ramp. The horse walks up this wide ramp, turns sideways so his head faces the back of the van, and then swings his hindquarters over so he can be closed into his traveling compartment.

This stallion was perfectly willing to go up into the trailer. He was willing to put his head into the manger. He was even willing to swing his hips over. There was just one snag. When he swung his hips, his front feet moved too, and so off the trailer he went. It was a mess. He didn’t have the underlying piece: swing your hips while keeping your front feet in place. Getting tougher wasn’t working. It was just making the stallion more reluctant to go up onto the ramp. Teaching him to keep his front feet on a mat while he moved his hips over was the solution. Identifying the missing component kept the handler from becoming frustrated and got the horse on the trailer.

Now, anytime that I encounter difficulties in my training I start scanning for the missing components. That applies to people as much as to horses. If I find I’m repeating instructions, I know I haven’t laid enough groundwork for the current lesson. My handler is missing pieces. Rather than frustrate us both, I need to break off the current lesson and go back and identify the missing components. The handler may be eager to be moving forward, but in the long run we’ll make more progress by taking time now to fill in those holes.

Frustration, resistance, and slow learning are all signs that I am missing key component behaviors. This is good news because those component parts are often much easier to teach than the more complex behavior we’re aiming for. It’s easy to teach a horse to back up. And it’s easy to teach him to come forward. When you’ve taught those pieces really well, you can combine them to create sliding stops for a reiner or piaffe for a dressage horse. And if you’re working with a clicker trained horse, he might just get creative and show you some other clever thing that horses can do, something we would never have thought of on our own.

Is there a limit to what a horse can be taught through clicker training?

If there is, we haven’t found it yet. Clicker training is limited only by our imagination. You began the questions by asking how clicker training has changed since the early 1990s. When we were first offering horses targets to touch, none of us were thinking about the things we now routinely teach horses with the clicker. We weren’t teaching horses the self carriage that’s now one of the hallmarks of this work. We weren’t teaching horses modifier cues, or the advanced targeting skills that are now standard.

Clicker training is limited only by our imagination.

ClickerExpo has played a huge role in creating these changes. I know for myself that the opportunity to exchange ideas with clicker trainers specializing in species other than the horse has greatly expanded my training tool box. As time goes on, I see the possibilities expanding, so whatever limits there may be out there, we’re a long way from being anywhere near them.

Several years ago, you trained a miniature horse, Panda, to serve as the guide animal for a blind owner. How are they doing?

ann and panda on a walk

Ann and Panda

Panda is going to be 10 years old this coming January. That’s one of those “Where did the time go?” sorts of things. How did she get to be 10! Her owner, Ann Edie, keeps her big horses in the same barn where my horses live. Panda comes with Ann to the barn every night, so I still see her on a regular basis. In good weather they walk over with Panda guiding. Otherwise they get a ride from Ann’s husband.

Panda works with the same enthusiasm that she had when she first started. What a statement that is! How many people can say they still love their job ten years into it? So if anyone says clicker training doesn’t work, you have only to point in Panda’s direction for evidence to the contrary. Clicker training taught her the skills she needed to be a guide, and clicker training has maintained those skills now through eight years of work.

In past years at ClickerExpo, Jesús Rosales-Ruiz has given the Poisoned Cue lecture. That’s been for me one of the major takeaways of the whole ClickerExpo experience. When I watched the video clips Jesús showed of the dog they used in the poisoned cue research, I recognized the look. So many of our horses show the same body language, the same depressed attitude, when confronted with poisoned cues from their previous training.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we encountered in our work environment the same positive, supportive attitude that Panda has always known in hers?

Panda was trained without poisoned cue corrections. When I was training her if she made a mistake, if, for example, she bumped me into an obstacle or missed a curb crossing, I simply re-presented her to the obstacle and let her make the needed corrections herself. Ann has used this practice in her guide work. She does not use active corrections. The result is a confident, competent guide. When I think about how Panda was trained and contrast that with the experience many people encounter at work, I know we have come a long way since the 1990s, but we still have a long way to go. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we encountered in our work environment the same positive, supportive attitude that Panda has always known in hers?

Thank you, Alexandra, for bringing clicker training to the horse community and for showing us the great strides that are still being made. We look forward to learning more from you at ClickerExpo!

About the author

Julie Gordon is the Content & Communications Manager at Karen Pryor Clicker Training. She oversees editorial development and content management for the company’s websites, and regularly contributes articles and blogs.

GREAT article

Thanks so much for doing this, it's a great article.

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