Friday, August 13, 2010

Fun with Clickers

Let me explain a large chunk of my personal training philosophy:

'Good enough' is never good enough.

I don't mean this in terms of the work my horse gives me. I mean it in terms of how I train, the methods and equipment I use. Example: I used a loose ring double-jointed bit with a lozenge-shaped center piece, and it was good enough. But she could have been a little quieter in the mouth, so I switched her to a loose ring happy mouth french link. Now she is much happier, quieter in the mouth, and more willing to take contact. (Even now, I wonder if this is Good Enough: I've long contemplated trying a Nathe with her, which is a soft flexible rubber rather than harder plastic). I'm the same way with saddle fit - it could always be better, right? This drives my mother crazy, by the way.

So, clicker training as a training technique is always lurking in the back of my mind. I've used it to great success with my smart, friendly, highly toy-motivated dog whenever I have some spare time. (Also known as: it takes me about 15 minutes to teach a simple new trick when I come up with one, and a few 5-minute sessions had him almost skateboarding). So - why not try it with my smart, friendly, highly food-motivated mare? I knew it would work. Once, when I was tired of her not letting me wash her face, we used treats and within about two minutes she was happily letting us wash her face.

Anyway, it's always something I've wanted to play with in addition to my regular training. I'm not about to renounce tack and only ride bareback with a neck rope or only do groundwork or anything, but I think in the right circumstances clicker training is a useful tool to have in the box, and I'm surprised I don't hear of more people using it to supplement their traditional training. In this case it's perfect for me: I have a willing, cheerful, intelligent, and motivated pony.

So I busted out the old yellow clicker I got years ago with a dog-training book, grabbed a bag full of horse cookies, pulled out a long-handled bucket-scrubbing brush, and headed into the arena.

For those of you new to clicker training, it basically works like this: the clicker is a marker signal to say 'yes, that's right, now you're going to get rewarded.' It's a very specific sound that can mark the instant of a behavior with great accuracy, and the horse learns to associate the click with an impending reward. Lots of people use treats, especially with horses. If your horse is suitably motivated by scratches (works very well with babies) or verbal praise, more power to you.

Usually people start clicker training horses by teaching them to target. You hold out your target - lots of people use a cone, I used the end of the long scrubby brush - and as soon as your horse investigates with his muzzle, you click. Remove the target, give your horse a treat. Stick it out again and click/treat when your horse touches it with his muzzle. And so on and so forth.

The idea with clicker work is that you begin by rewarding the slightest effort in the direction you want. So first you could click/treat the horse even moving his muzzle slightly toward the target. As he begins to understand, you reward only when he gets closer to the target. As you progress, you then only click/treat when he actually touches it. Then you begin to require longer touches before you'll click.

Targeting is useful to start with because it's usually a completely new behavior, so horses won't have any old cues or knowledge. It is easy to introduce and it's pretty clear whether they've 'got it' or not, and will help the horse learn how the clicker works.

McKinna had targeting down in about 10 seconds on Wednesday, but we all knew she was a smart pony. Yesterday, as soon as I held out the target she pricked her ears and marched over from halfway across the arena to stick her nose on it.

Okay, so she knows how to target.

I've started working on a bow with her - not a one-knee bow, but a both-legs straight out in front bow.

  Like this, but with the bent foreleg stretched out in front too. Photo: Keegan Jewell, by Larissa Allen.

I'm interested in the stretch value mostly, and to see if I can teach it to her. Call it an intellectual exercise, or a training one - I'm curious to see if I can teach a somewhat complicated behavior, one not related to anything she's learned before.

If I'm successful, I'm curious to see how I can work clicker training under saddle. It's just such an interesting tool to me, one that makes the 'yes/no' distinction clearer to the horse. The clicker means yes. Once the horse understands that, why wouldn't you want to use it under saddle? Maybe it won't work. I don't know, I've never tried it. I know that you don't really hear of competition riders using clicker training much. But if it gives me a clearer way to tell my horse when she's on the right track, and results in a much more enthusiastic effort from her (believe me, after our first day of clicker work she was ready to come in from the pasture and get into that arena!), it sure seems to me that clicker work is a good thing to add. Not to mention that it really installs a fun, "what can we do next?" feeling in both trainer and horse - never a bad thing to have when you're working.

This weekend we're camping, and on Tuesday I'm off to Taiwan for ten days. So I think the majority of the bowing will have to wait until I get back, unfortunately. I'm really, really looking forward to getting to work with McKinna more consistently once I return: our dressage work, as I discussed in my last post, is coming along wonderfully and I'm itching to feel that awesome trot lengthening again; then there's playing around with clicker work; then there's a return to over-fences work, since I'm headed to the Eventing Rally in September.

I am sure my mother will enjoy the chance to ride her horse for a couple weeks in the meantime :-)

I know a lot of people are really against using treats when training horses - I've found it's not an issue with McKinna, especially since targeting teaches her that touching something other than me gets her the treat - but if I had a pushy horse I might be more careful about the use of food rewards. I'm curious to know what you guys think of clicker training. Have you heard of it before? Have you ever tried it? Would you try it?

Good places to start reading if you're interested: (you'll need a login to read - you can create one free or use bugmenot as both username and password) - a good article on introducing clicker to under-saddle work, and using a scratch instead of food reward



Truby's Girl said...

Great minds think alike! I'm a huge clicker person with my dog, but haven't really done any with the horses. Yesterday I was thinking of how to use clicker training to teach my horse to back off a trailer. (she loads and walks off fine, but in 10 years no one has convinced her to back off!) My only concern with under saddle clicker training is reward. I don't know how to give a good enough reward to back up the click. For Truby, food is a great motivator, but praise...isn't. Release of pressure only works if we immediately stop work, untack and leave or play in the arena. Not really practical. I'll have to do some more research into it, too. But I'll definitely start some clicker training soon.
Oh! Great idea to start off with targeting. Especially for those of us with cute and inquisitive grey horses :)

manymisadventures said...

You can still use food under saddle - grain and sugar cubes are quite workable with a bit, since the sugar cubes dissolve and the grain is in small bits that also dissolve pretty well. Your bit may be a slimy mess, though! This is the method I'll probably use with McKinna, who likes scratches but not THAT much. I may try to work into using vocal praise if I can.

Just alternate which hand you reach forward with to give the treat. That way it's even, and they don't whip their head around the moment they hear the click ;)

Let me know how the clicker work goes! I'm curious to see how it works out with other people's horses too.

Leah Fry said...

When you originally blogged about it last year or the year before, it didn't seem like a great idea to me. However, Poco and I have come to a place in our growth where it now seems like a viable idea, and the idea is very appealing for when Daltrey (6 months old) comes to visit.

I'm okay using treats. If that's what motivates them — for Daltrey, scritches will work — why would you try to reward them with anything else?

I've just begun the book, so not ready to get started just yet. But targeting will be the first thing. Can't wait to hear about how McKinna does.

Val said...

My horse finds treats extremely motivating.

He will free jump and then stop and wait for the carrot. All I do is point to the jump and off he goes again. Lately I have been asking him to square up for a cookie. I keep the cookie in my hand under his nose until his feet hit square and then I instantly release the cookie. If he keeps the square I give him another. We are not quite at delaying the treat just yet, but I do find him standing square on his own more often than before and I always praise him lavishly, even if I do not have a cookie handy.

You did a terrific job explaining how critical the timing and delay are to encouraging the behavior.

Albigears said...

I think it can be used for a variety of things on the ground, but I've heard it doesn't work under saddle so well. There was a horse I heard about and every time he heard a click while being ridden he'd slide to a stop and reach around to get his treat. Sometimes he'd stop without a click. He was constantly reaching around when he was not asked to, which was extremely frustrating for the trainer. Just a thought.

manymisadventures said...

Albigears, that's definitely something I'm going to be aware of when I introduce the clicker to under-saddle work. If the clicker becomes a point of distraction and frustration rather than a tool to improve communication and training, I'll certainly take some steps back or eliminate it altogether.

Val, that's cool! And a neat trick to show your friends ;) Look, MY horse will go jump fences all by himself...

Anonymous said...

I use reward based training on my donkeys. The trick is that the first thing they must learn is the correct way to take a treat. If a donk gets grabby, you IMMEDIATELY pinch the nose and say NO! You have to reinforce the "take treat gently" message. If you don't reinforce the necessity of polite treat behavior, then you have the potential of creating a problem. The same thing is true with horses. Rule #1 - take the treat politely or there won't be treats at all.

Twiliath said...

Albigears - there's a way around the sliding stop to get the treat. It's training to a mat first. Then, since that's so highly reinforced, it becomes a reward in itself. So, now when the horse does something well, you ride to the mat and click there. If he doesn't do so well, he doesn't get to go to the mat.

Related Posts with Thumbnails