When do I start clicker training?

Can all horses be clicker trained? Does the horse need to know anything before we start clicker training? Can clicker training work for shy, scared, abused or aggressive horse? This is a revised version of something I originally posted on the clickryder yahoo discussion group. (Message number 80910).

Some horses aren’t ready for clicker training. I work with rescue horses, some who have been abused and many who have had little if any handling.

The horse needs two skills for clicker training to work well:

1) The horse needs to understand how to take treats from a hand or bucket.

2) The horse should be able to stay relaxed when the trainer is in close proximity. Being able to touch the horse is good, although this isn’t always necessary.

Here’s a good case study of a mare I’ve been working with this summer who initially wasn’t ready for clicker training.

Does the horse know how to take a treat politely?

Most horses who have never been fed treats figure out pretty quickly how to eat from a hand or bucket. However, some horses really have trouble figuring out how to use their lips to take a treat from a hand.

I try to get this figured out first, before teaching other behaviors. This is related to Alexandra Kurland’s concept of loopy training. We have to get the smallest element (in this case, the food delivery) working correctly before we can successfully add other elements.

Can the horse be calm and relaxed in your presence?

With some of our unhandled horses who are curious, but a little fearful, I often jump straight into clicker training. I go slowly at the beginning, building rapport and basic skills. The horse should think I’m awesome to be around. I want the horse choosing to be with me before I start halter training or any ground work.

Clicker training can work (and can work well) for some horses who are initially skeptical or fearful of people. Leslie Pavlich has some really nice clips on youtube of starting horses who were previously untouched using clicker training. (Here’s an example, this is the 1st of 3 videos with this filly.)

Some horses need CAT before clicker training

Starting clicker training with an extremely fearful horse can have mixed results. The horse can learn to perform a variety of behaviors, but the fear doesn’t ever completely go away.

I have one mare I’m working with now who would approach a person if she thought there might be a treat or two. However, if you approached her and watched carefully, she would start showing noticeable signs of tension if you got within 30-40 feet. She would take a treat off the ground but was too terrified to take one from a person’s hand.

Dentists, Horses and Approach-Avoidance

You’re terrified of going to the dentist. So, I give you $500 every time you go to the dentist. You start thinking that going to the dentist is a great deal because you know you’ll get $500, but you are still pretty afraid of the dentist.

In the lab, this is sometimes called an approach-avoidance situation. Lab rats will endure intense electric shocks or other highly aversive events for certain reinforcers (such as access to a female). We can create similar situations with our horses and food if we are training behaviors but are not training for the emotional response we want. The horse does the behavior, but is still afraid of you or the saddle pad or something else.

What is Constructional Aggression Treatment?

With horses that are pretty fearful in the beginning, I start by purposefully shaping the horse’s response from one of skepticism/fear to one of curiousity/interest using a procedure called CAT. The horse’s fear is driven by negative reinforcement–what the horse wants most is for me to go away.

Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT) was originally developed by Kellie Snyder and Jesús Rosales-Ruiz for treating dogs with severe aggression. Aggression is often also maintained by negative reinforcement–what the dog wants most is for the person or other dog to go away.

Fear is often also controlled by proximity to the scary object. We can purposefully use this distance to influence behavior and create new behavior.

CAT uses low levels of negative reinforcement (pressure/release) to build curiosity, interest, relaxation and engagement. The CAT procedure treats emotions as operant behavior and uses negative reinforcement and extinction to shape a new repertoire of positive emotions.

Constructional Aggression Treatment with Horses

When starting CAT with a horse, I start by approaching the horse from about 100 feet away. At the first (sometimes subtle) sign of tension, stress or unrest, I’ll stop. If the horse moves away, I’ve gone way too far!

I wait for any sign of relaxation, interest, curiosity, etc., and then retreat back to my starting point and wait at least 10-15 seconds. I try to return to the same starting point so the horse knows where I’m going.

As I reinforce signs of curiosity and interest by retreating, I start to see more and more of these positive behaviors. Once the horse is interested and actively approaching me, I’ll add in treats or scratches and jump right in to clicker training.

Constructional Aggression Treatment for a Shy Donkey

This is a very shy little donkey who I worked with earlier this year. He liked treats and scratches, but was very skeptical about being approached. He would sometimes approach you, but would not let you approach him. It took about 20 minutes of CAT (negative reinforcement only) and he was letting me approach him and was following me around everywhere.

I’ve also had great success this summer using constructional aggression treatment with Gracie, a rescued mare who has been untouchable for several years.

Clicker training is a great way to train. However we can run into problems if our animals do not understand how to get the food or are uncomfortable in our presence. If we train these skills first, training will progress much faster and smoother.

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