I use reward-based training to teach horses what I want them to do. I must say it works like a charm and I don’t need whips, carrot sticks, spurs, swinging or wiggling lead ropes or shouting “Hey!” in my horses face anymore! What a relief that is! And Kyra works more willingly than ever. Today I’ll summarize a few of the basics of reward-based training: equine clicker training 101.
Rewards as training tool
In order to get more of the behaviour you want, you have to reward the horse during or within 3 seconds of the behaviour you want to reinforce. In that way the horse can associate the behaviour with the reward.
The animal learns quickly that a specific behaviour leads to a reward and offers more of that behaviour in order to get more rewards.
It is not always (read: “rarely”) possible to offer a reward to your horse within 3 seconds or even at the time the wanted behaviour occurs. Therefor I use a bridge signal to tell the horse “Yes, THIS was right, your reward is on its way”, while I am reaching for a treat out of my pocket or offering something else that is really rewarding to my horse. The bridge works as a marker signal to mark the wanted behaviour. I use a click from my clicker as marker.
So, a reward is always preceded by the bridge signal. No click = no reward. Clicker training has nothing to do with bribing your horse into behaviour. The horse has to perform first, then a click will follow. Or not, depending on the stage of learning and if the trainers’ criteria are met.
A click has two meanings
A click tells my horse that she is ‘going to receive a reward’, therefor the click also marks the end of the behaviour. Receiving the reward will end the wanted behaviour anyway. After giving the horse the reward, the trainer can ask again for the same behaviour. The marker signal is not a ‘you are doing OK, but keep going’-signal. You can introduce a ‘keep going’-signal if you want to train duration of a certain behaviour.
Teaching a ‘Keep going’-signal (KGS)
In order to train duration you can use or introduce a ‘keep going’-signal. That means that the horse is performing well, but not long enough to earn a click, yet.
Example: you want your horse to stand still and you want to encourage ‘4 legs on the ground and a relaxed expression’ you can build duration once your horse can stand still for a few seconds.
Then you can start using a ‘keep going’-signal to let the horse know that you want to extend a certain behaviour. In the beginning the ‘keep going’-signal is always immediately followed by the click & reward. After a few sessions your horse will know that the ‘keep going’-signal is followed by a click & reward and you can extend the click a second longer. In this way you teach the horse that he has to keep performing and that a click soon will come.
When you become more experienced in using clicker training you will notice that you won’t need the KGS less and less.
‘Starting’ and ‘End of Session’-signals
For safety reasons I recommend using an ‘end of session’-signal. That is very important. In that way the horse will learn that he can offer as much behaviour as he wants, but there will be no more click & rewards until another session starts. It gives the horse clarity that all his tries will now be ‘useless’ until class starts again. Trying harder or doing more will not result in rewards.
As an ‘end of session’-signal I hold up my two empty hands and give the verbal cue “All gone”. A starting signal for a session can be as simple as clapping your hands or getting your fanny pack. Make it clear to your horse when class starts and ends. Outside class hours no click & treats.
If you have any questions, please let me know. I’ll be happy to answer them.
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Sandra Poppema, BSc
I teach horse people to connect with their horse in training, so they get results and the relationship they want with their beloved horse. Make training win-win!