When I started clicker training I had no clue that there was a whole science behind the use of rewards. I only knew about one primary reward: treats.
I didn’t know anything about ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ rewards, how to use high and low value rewards to my advantage. Neither did I know about ‘chaining’ behaviours, I learned all these things in the following years.
High and low value rewards
When I started clicker training I didn’t realize that a horse can consider some rewards as ‘high value’ rewards, and other as ‘low value’ rewards. I never thought that I could use this knowledge to my advantage and to help the horse perform better or make training less stressful.
I didn’t realize some rewards can lose their value and how to use this knowledge in my training. Of course I noticed when my pony became less eager to work for his treats after some training. Then I just stopped the training session and gave him a break. I was not consious enough about this fact to use it in my training approach. Now I am aware, I use high value rewards or low value rewards depending on the circumstances.
I also vary my treats depending on the difficulty level of the behaviour I am training, or depending on the context. In situations where there is more distraction I might use very high value treats (for Kyra that is apple) rather than lower value rewards (non-food) in order to keep my horses attention focused on me.
If Kyra is in a more relaxed state, she values the ear scratches (see picture) more than grain. I experiment with the different value treats during one training session. You can use different treats with different values to build in a certain unpredictability for the horse, in order to stimulate his efforts.
With horses who get overly excited by certain treats I start with lower value treats, horses who have to overcome something really scary or aversive, get really high value treats or rewards. Sometimes I give bigger rewards, sometimes I give smaller amounts. I know how I can really ‘stretch’ the reward moment by throwing in lots of verbal praise and feeding multiple hands full of treats (jackpotting).
I now also know know that I can use secondary rewards, like standing on a mat or verbal praise. A secondary reward is something the horse has ‘learned to like’ because there is an appetite association attached to it.
If you chain a series of behaviours, certain behaviours can become a reward, too. You can also use ‘back chaining’. Then you start teaching the last behaviour in the chain first: behaviour #3. Next step is to teach behaviour #2 and then you chain them together: #2, #3. Behaviour #3 is clicked and rewarded in the chain.
Then you teach another behaviour( #1) and back chain it, so you have chained #1, #2, #3. The horse has already a solid reward history built with behaviour #3 and he will anticipate on what is coming after #1 and #2. By asking the chain, the reward for the horse will lie in performing behaviour #3, which you may or may not reward with a click and reward once the horse knows the chain.
So when I started clicker training I thought it was a simple concept: click and treat for the desired behaviours. I understood that really complex behaviours would be better taught in small steps. That was basically what I thought was clicker training.
The more I learned about reward-based horse training, the more I realize there is so much more to learn. After 15 plus years of experimenting and reading and learning I still enjoy the puzzles my horse gives me that I really want to solve with positive reinforcement only. I just love it!
What are the things you have learned over the years that really stunned you?
Read here part III.