At the Collaborative Institute of Equestrian Studies, we combine the use of clicker training with extensive horse psychology and behavior work. We believe students must understand all four quadrants of operant conditioning in order to have a solid training methodology.
As riders, we are taught to quickly release the aids when the horse performs well. The horse learns to seek the release of pressure, understanding that when he gives the correct answer, he will earn a rest. This training technique is formally known as negative reinforcement, because the subtraction of pressure reinforces the desired behavior. Negative reinforcement is a very effective way to train a calm mental state, and a natural and fluid way to work with youngstock. However, used singularly, it can sometimes cause horses to shut down and lose motivation over time.
Clicker training is a form of positive reinforcement that is very good for training an engaged mental state and heightened awareness. When the horse does something correctly, you tell him instantaneously with a “click” and offer him a food reward, so that he will be motivated to offer the behavior again. Horses become very attentive with clicker training, so it is an excellent tool for building motivation, but can sometimes cause horses to become hyper and obsessive.
With experience, CIES students will learn how to wisely use both positive and negative training techniques to develop a happy and balanced equine partner. When you understand training theory, you can train for activity from trail riding, to gaming, reining, jumping, and dressage. The wise trainer utilizes reinforcement theory to create a fluid language based on mutual understanding and clear communication. With this dialogue in place, your horse will be free to offer you more than you ever thought possible, creating the bond you’ve always dreamed of.
A Brief History of Clicker Training:
Clicker training is based on research done by B.F. Skinner and other animal behaviorists. This research was first turned into a cohesive training system by trainers at Sea Life park in Hawaii. The researches needed a method that allowed them to communicate with animals that could not be tied, tethered, or harnessed. Trainers of other species, especially dogs, soon came to realize that you could accomplish great results quickly, with long lasting understanding, by using positive reinforcement methods with every species from mice, to wolves, to elephants.
Clicker training is a great fit for horses because of their prey animal psychology. When one uses pressure or fear to motivate a horse, one is automatically putting the horse in a frame of mind that is not ideal for learning. On the other hand, the use of positive reinforcement allows the trainer to keep the horse in a calm, confident, learning frame of mind throughout the training process. Horses that learn through clicker training techniques quickly find that they love learning new skills and behaviors. These horses become confident life-long learners and strong partners for their human companions.
For a good introduction to positive reinforcement training and how it can be applied to a variety of animals and situations we suggest reading Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog.