What is so powerful about clicker training? What tools are used and how can they change your training approach?
In this series I am talking about 10 of my favourite tools for training horses and how they changed my training approach to a much more horse friendly way of training. You can read about Training tools # 1 – 3 here, Training tool # 4 here and Tool #5 here.
# 6 Target stick
A target stick is an enormously versatile tool to communicate with a horse. Targeting means that you teach your horse to touch an object (the target) with a body part (nose) on command.
When I started targeting I didn’t have a clue regarding the possibilities I could use the target stick for. I just thought it was a fun game with my horse. I started teaching my first pony to touch a bright pink skippy ball. Then I taught him to nose the ball. I think that was about it.
Now I consider the target stick a very valuable tool. Read more about how to use targeting in your training in this post Best Basics: take targeting to the next level.
If your horse can target different kinds of targets with his nose you can teach him to target other body parts. I always thought that would be very difficult: you can ask a horse to move towards you, instead of away from you. Pushing a prey animal away is not so hard, if he doesn’t go apply more pressure. But how to react if he doesn’t want to come toward you? You can’t ‘make’ him, or can you? Yes, you can with clicker training!
Once a horse is clicker savvy he will always be very eager to find out what you want from him. In order to let the horse come towards the target you have to set him up for success. Sometimes it simply means that you will hold the target only half a centimetre from his body so the chance that he will bump into it accidentally is huge.
# 7 Treats
Treats are not ‘just’ treats to the horse. Treats have a certain ‘value’ to the horse and also to the trainer. In clicker training trainers often speak of ‘high value’ food rewards and ‘low value’ food rewards. There are also certain advantages about the size of the treats you are using in training. How can you use this knowledge to your advantage and turn ‘treats’ into ‘tools’?
High value treats
High value treats can be treats that the horse doesn’t get often but he really likes, for instance sugar cubes. If you use high value treats sparsely the value doesn’t wear of. High value treats don’t have to be healthy because you won’t use them often.
Most people really like birthday cakes, I do. I thought I could eat them every day. Until I worked in a bakery which sold all kinds of super tasty cakes and pies. Since I could have free cake every Saturday my taste for cake changed and I don’t value them as much as I did before.
Super yummie treats can be used to teach your horse difficult tasks, for instance where the horse has to overcome a big fear. Trailer loading can be very scary for some horses and if the reward is something the horse really values he will try harder to overcome his fear and conquer the first step towards the trailer. If you ask a difficult task and the horse gets a treat he doesn’t really like, he might decide that it is not worth it.
Low value treats
In other cases you want to use low valued treats on purpose. When a horse is learning food manners it can be a good idea to start with low valued treats. You don’t want to get him too excited. Especially when he has to learn to take the treat carefully with only his lips off of your hand. With high valued treats the horse might become anxious to loose the treat and he might behave too enthusiastically so he would grab the treat instead of staying calm and taking it gently.
Examples of low value treats can be his diner grain or pellets.
It can be safer to start off with larger sized treats on purpose, for instance to teach a horse food manners. A big treat is easier to see and to take off of your hand gently. The chances of getting bitten while feeding a large treat, like a whole carrot with greens is much smaller.
Small treats can be handy for the trainer but they can also be very useful if you want to increase your rate of reinforcement (RoR). Smaller treats are eaten and swallowed faster so the training is not interrupted by chewing and eating the reward.
If a horse mugs you but he can take treats very politely off of your hands you can increase the rate of reinforcement by clicking and feeding treats faster. You can click the horse for ‘not mugging’-behaviours like: looking away, keeping his nose away from your pocket, keeping his head and neck straight forward if the trainer is standing next to his head. Clicking for the right behaviour while the horse is still eating will prevent the ‘mugging’ behaviour which often will be displayed after he is finished eating.
To be continued….