KBR Horse Training Information

Exercising Body AND Mind

Clicker Training;
the Low Resistance Breakthrough

Patience, a "wild mustang"
kept everyone at bay for 5 months
before introducing the clicker.
(Photo taken less than 3 weeks into
the introduction of the clicker.)

We're naturally wary of gimmicks which seem to pervade the riding and horse training industry. Most seem to be designed to permit the handler or rider to ignore good horsemanship techniques in favor of forcing or coercing the horse to do something in lieu of the human learning how to properly handle the horse.

But once in a while someone develops a truly ingenious technique which doesn't replace good horsemanship, but instead addresses some specific barriers in horse training which, when removed, greatly facilitates the application of good horsemanship principles.

We have discovered the appropriate application of the click-reward system of what we call "behavioral shaping" to be an incredibly effective addition to our bag of horse training tools, especially with unduly nervous or difficult horses. Our first experiences were with a couple of very defensive mustang mares which their owners could not get close to. These mares had severely overgrown feet so we were reluctant to "work them down" in the round pen. The clicker literally delivered in minutes the kinds of results we expected to take several days, including the horses lifting their feet on verbal command and lay them quietly across my leg so that I could trim them. In addition to helping the horses focus on the desired lesson or behavior, all the horses so far seem to enjoy clicker training and have a good attitude, even during the most apprehensive types of lessons.

We don't consider ourselves as clicker experts and at the end of this document we will provide links to sites which competently discuss the depths of clicker theory, however we have learned a number of things worth sharing and those are the concepts which we are presenting here.

  CLICKER HISTORY

Clicker training is a product of studies in behavioral science of operant conditioning which was first described by B.F. Skinner. Dolphin trainers were the first to capitalize on Skinner's work. After all, it is rather difficult to try to train an animal who could simply swim away on a whim. Before long the dolphins were demonstrating complex behaviors on command which in turn piqued the interest of zoo and circus trainers as well as the more progressive of the dog trainers.

Karen Pryor teamed up with canine behaviorist Gary Wilkes to produce a series of seminars and Karen wrote a popular book, Don't Shoot the Dog which is considered by many to be a landmark text on the subject of dog training.

Extending the philosophy of clicker training to horses seemed like a natural progression to some, however many of us die hard traditional natural horsemen felt that behavior motivated for treats was an independent behavior (eating) while pure natural horsemanship was a social behavior (interaction). Since we desired interaction between the horse and rider, many of us were concerned that a focus on treat rewards would tend to make the horse more independent which could come at the expense of our social goals; we would produce horses that could do complex tricks but did not develop the interactive skills which we desired.

Perhaps in the empirical sense we were right. Heavy doses of clicker training without appropriate application within the framework of a sensible natural horse training program could result in horses which did not tune into the handler's space, energy and intentions. Clicker training is not a replacement for appropriate resistance free or low resistance (natural horsemanship) handling techniques.

However what we weren't prepared to experience was the incredible power that the clicker methodology has in dealing with a wide variety of behavioral and cognitive issues. Any horse handler can benefit from a safe, quick and humane means of short circuiting undesirable behaviors and to turn on the horse's thinking apparatus. In our experiments with a couple of heretofore difficult, unapproachable and untouchable wild horses, we were able to interrupt the animals' stress-feedback loop and focus them on objects and activities which in a matter of a few days allowed us to safely handle, halter, groom and even trim feet of these horses which heretofore kept humans at bay.

One of these mares is owned by a person who is very experienced with wild horses. She had this mare for a year, the mare was very defensive and the best she could do was to try to handle her in a chute in an attempt to deal with her basic needs until she would kick the chute down. Yet after a relatively short time with the clicker, she would pick up her feet on command, rest them across my leg and let me attempt some serious farriery work.

The second mare managed to get her halter off shortly after being adopted, wouldn't let anyone but her adopter approach (and that was just to touch her shoulder) and was extremely evasive in a round pen situation. Her feet were way too long to work her much in the round and we needed some safe, quiet method to get our hands on her. Within a few days after starting clicker training her adopter was putting weight in the saddle while the mare quietly stood "ground tied."

To say the least we were quite impressed with the potential of clicker training and have begun to use it in other situations, getting equally favorable results.

It is our intent by producing this web document to provide our perspective as to the results which we have achieved, why we think these approaches worked and how we integrated clicker fundamentals into our natural horsemanship program.

The end product:
Patience a short time later as a certified
handicapped riding program horse
Notice that with all this going on
she has a hind leg cocked

How did we do this?

Continue to Part Two

Find Clickers for Sale

OK, so I get a treat
after that noise
Thinking, not reacting
(Getting back to those scary places)
Not bad for a day's work.
(A much happier horse than
the day before.)
Just like a pro
(First time through the tires,
4th day being handled)
The idea here is to keep the horse
relaxed during the training process
Trimming on a slack lead line
(Day 8)
First time placing weight in the saddle.
(Patience is not tied)
A responsible horse has a
better life. (Grazing in
the pasture with Nell)

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KBR Horse Training Information, 1997 Lamm's Kickin' Back Ranch and Willis & Sharon Lamm. All rights reserved. Duplication of any of this material for commercial use is prohibited without express written permission. This prohibition is not intended to extend to personal non-commercial use, including sharing with others for safety and learning purposes, provided this copyright notice is attached.
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This information is presented for informational purposes only. The reader of any information provided in this site understands and agrees that (s)he is solely responsible for all activities involving his or her horse, that (s)he must always exercise good judgement and consider safety when involved in any training situation, and (s)he should not attempt anything which (s)he feels is unsafe, doesn't fully understand or is not fully prepared to execute.