‘My horse can’t stop throwing behaviours at me since I started clicker training‘, ‘My horse keeps doing tricks, even when I don’t ask him to do so‘ are common ‘problems’ or ‘My horse keeps mugging me since I started clicker training‘ are some struggles people encounter when they start clicker training their horse. In other words, they think: “Help, my horse turned into a monster because of clicker training.” They think this is a huge problem!
Problem? No, not at all!
I have written ‘problem’ in the first sentence between quotations marks because it is not ‘a problem’. It is in fact, a normal part of the process: your horse is getting enthusiastic about the influence he now has on his training and of course he is excited about your rewards. It is a step you can’t skip.
Have encountered this problem when you started clicker training? I certainly have! I have struggled with this for a while and I didn’t know how to handle it.
Things became much better when I started using a start and end of training signal. Once I understood how to bind a cue to a behaviour and not let the horse take too much initiative in training things became much better, safer and more fun for both of us. No more frustration or uncertainty about expectations of treats.
Your walking along on a sunny day and a stranger in a red t-shirt walks up to you and gives you a $5 bill and goes away. Wow! Did this happen for real? Cool!
A few minutes later the same stranger comes up to you and gives you another $5 bill. Wow, you can’t believe it. What happened? What did you do to deserve this? You start paying (LOL) attention…. Now you suddenly see people in red t-shirts everywhere.
You figure it out
Then it happens again: the stranger, who you now recognize, comes up to you, smiles and hands you another $5 bill. You figured it out! It seems that every time you cross a street, the stranger gives you something valuable! You are having fun with this person!
The next day you are walking and you notice that person in the red t-shirt, who you now consider a friend. You quickly look if there is a street that you can cross in order to get some more money. Yes, it works! Wow.
You become his friend
Now you know what to do and you start walking back and forth to cross the street in order to earn money. He is a really friendly person, you like him. He is your new friend and you start smiling at him and waving every time you see him.
The next day you get up early and can’t wait to get to the city to cross some streets. You see your new friend, wave at him to attract his attention and start crossing the street back and forth.
Your friend doesn’t want to play along anymore
This time your new friend becomes angry and behaves strangely. It scares you and you are totally confused! What happened? Where is your money? Why doesn’t he give you money? You do your best and you take him by the hand and start crossing the street in order to show him that you know what is expected!
He becomes really angry and doesn’t give you any money. He starts pushing you away, he starts yelling at you that you have to stop. Then he goes away. Sadly he didn’t give you any money. You don’t know what to do… What is going on?
Frustration kicks in…
The next day your friend gives you money each time you cross a street. The day after that he doesn’t. It is really frustrating.
The clue was a cue
It takes you a lot of time to figure out that when the light is green (your cue) he will give you money when you cross the street and when the light is red he won’t. Ah, it is that simple, huh? Now that you know what cue to look for it is easy and fun again!
This is the story from your horses’ point of view.
You teach him to touch a target, maybe it is your hand he has to touch. Presenting the target (your hand) means: you get treats now.
What your horse considers a cue
Wait there is more, animals consider the environment a big part of the cue. So every time you take him to the arena or wherever you clicker trained him before, he will consider that as a signal to receive treats. When he doesn’t, he can become frustrated. What do we do when we get frustrated? We fall back to behaviour that got us rewards in the past: we fall back into our (bad) habits.
The same goes for horses: they will display behaviour that got them rewards in the past. Many horses were rewarded -in some way or another- for mugging. If that isn’t going to work they will try out something new (“Maybe nibbling will help?”). Trying out new behaviours is exactly what clicker trainers want their animals to do! How can you get new behaviours? The new behaviour (targeting) that got him rewards yesterday suddenly won’t get him any today. This is hard to understand for a horse.
Make yourself clear and predictable. You can use an announcer that signals: “Now is there a chance of earning rewards” and “Now there’s not”.
If the light is red, you have no chance of earning money, even if you cross the street. Once the light turns green you could earn money. Once you know this, you start paying attention to the light (your cue). Your frustration goes away as soon as you have clarity and a bit of predictability (that you can influence with your own behaviour).
#1 Start clicker training session-signal
One of the ways you can communicate to your horse that a clicker lesson is about to start is clapping your hands or strapping on your money (treat) belt. If you don’t introduce such a cue your horse will find one. If that one is really a reliable predictor of a clicker training session is to be seen.
#2 End clicker training session-signal
The same goes for an end of session signal that means: sorry, you can try but no more clicks & treats from now on. Be very strict with your start and end of training signals.
Horses soon learn that your end of training signal really means no more clicks and treats. This is very clear and it prevents frustration. Even in between my 5 minute sessions I use a start and end signal. My end of signal session is to show my two empty hands and I say “All gone”. I used to give Kyra a treat when I brought her back to the pasture. I want her to wait for the treat because I don’t want her to run off (and maybe buck) if I am not ready. After the treat I am ready to let her go. I say “All gone” and show my hands. Her cue that no more clicks will follow.
#3 Protective contact
Train for a while with a barrier between you and your horse until he understands the start and end of training signals and the cue for the behaviour. You can work without the barrier as soon as he stops mugging.
Horses that are new to clicker training
They have never experienced the joy of having so much influence in their own training! They discover that if they display a certain behaviour (eg targeting) they can ‘make you give them a treat’. Yes, that is how they feel.
Of course they don’t want to stop. They will try to influence you the next day and they are just asking (by displaying the new behaviour that got them rewarded yesterday): “Hey do you want to give me a treat? I will do X for you! You see?”
If you don’t react by giving them a treat (because you didn’t ask for the behaviour or it became almost dangerous) they don’t understand. A start and end of training session will help them understand when to expect treats and when not to expect treats.
Next important step in the process
In shaping behaviour you start with clicking and treating for every small step towards the goal behaviour. The horse doesn’t know about your goal behaviour! He is just trying new stuff and realizes that he is getting lots of click & treats for it! At this point in the training he thinks you are an awesome vending machine (he puts in the behaviour and you drop him a treat).
When your horse is displaying the goal behaviour solidly it is time to teach your horse to pay attention to your cue. This is the next step in positive reinforcement training:
You only will click & treat
- after you have given your cue
- when he is displaying the right behaviour.
If you don’t give him a cue and he does display the behaviour he won’t get a click and treat. You can ignore the behaviour or ask (cue) for something easy that you will click and treat him for. Or you can simply give the end of session signal again.
This is the part that novice clicker trainers don’t know about. This is the part that they skip (accepting that their horse doesn’t have a cue of what is expected when and when not).
Novice trainers don’t realize that they have to introduce a cue to the new behaviour and teach their horse what a cue means: only after the cue is there a chance to get a click & treat.
Please realize that there are more reasons than just the ones I mentioned here that can cause over-excitement in your horse. If your horse doesn’t listen anymore since you started clicker training, please contact me for a personal consult over Zoom or a FREE discovery call. I have 20 years of experience clicker training horses and empowering equestrians to train their own horse.
Happy Horse training!
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Sandra Poppema, BSc
Teaching horse people to connect with their horse in training so they get the relationship and the results they want.