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What is Clicker Training?
WRITTEN BY: Alexandra Kurland 
Clicker training was originally developed by marine dolphin trainers. The early dolphin trainers were faced with the dilemma of trying to work with an animal that couldn't be restrained or forced into working. All the traditional animal training methods that had been developed over thousands of years of working with horses, elephants, and dogs didn't apply to an animal that could just swim away. They couldn't food deprive them, and they couldn't punish them, so the dolphin trainers tried a different approach. They used a positive food reward.
People have used food rewards in training before, but what the dolphin trainers added was a bridging signal. A high frequency whistle was used to mark correct responses. The dolphins learned that the sound of the whistle meant food or a favorite toy was coming. They also learned that they could "make" their trainers blow the whistle by performing certain behaviors.
Dolphin trainers combined this with the principle of shaping through successive approximations to develop complex behaviors. We've all seen the results of their work. When you watch the killer whales at Sea World, you're seeing clicker training in action.
Clicker training isn't just for dolphins. Instead of the high frequency whistle used by dolphin trainers, most trainers of land mammals use a toy clicker, hence the name. The sound of the clicker tells the animal that whatever it was doing at the exact moment it heard the clicker has earned it a reward. Many of the animals you see on television and in the movies are clicker trained, including some surprising ones, like Data's cat on Star Trek The Next Generation.
The Equine Connection.
So how does all this apply to horses? The clicker acts as a "right" answer cue. It lets you tell your horse very precisely when he has done something you want, and it gives him a reason to want to go on producing more of that behavior.
With most horses I begin by teaching the horse to touch his nose to a target. I use a small plastic cone, but the lid off a supplement container will work just as well. The object here is just to condition the horse to the clicker and teach him the connection between behavior and treats. He's going to learn that mugging the vending machine (you) to get treats doesn't work, but he can get the vending machine to work by simply performing certain behaviors.
The clicker is the key to all this. When you add the bridging signal, you gain control of goodies. Without it, the horse has no rules. He never knows when you might have a carrot, so is it any surprise that he's constantly checking out your pockets or nibbling at your hands? Without the bridging signal food is a distraction to good training. With it, it becomes a powerful motivator that can produce outstanding performance, and enthusiastic, can-do horses.
I have been using clicker training with my horses for about four years now, and I have just been astounded by the results. Everything from basic manners to upper level performance can be taught with the clicker. Clicker training piggy backs beautifully onto the other training systems. It's not a substitute for, but an enhancement of this other work. The clear "yes" answer of the clicker accelerates the learning curve and creates eager, happy horses.
Horses like paychecks, too.
Clicker training is new to the horse world, and that means that there will be people who will push against it. Feeding horses treat during training is something most of us have been taught not to do. People will tell you that feeding horses treats during training just gets horses distracted. Horses get pushy. You'll be teaching them to bite.
We've all heard these arguments. And they're right. Without the rules imposed by the clicker, horses can get out of control. It's just that we've learned the wrong lesson from our horse's rude behavior. The horses are trying to tell us what a good motivator food is. Instead of avoiding treats, we should be trying to find a way to use them. If I can harness them into my training program, I'm going to gain a very powerful tool, one I'd be foolish not to use.
It's like using an old-fashioned typewriter in the age of computers. Yes, I can get the job done using outdated technology, but not nearly as well. That in a nutshell is what clicker training represents. It gives us the technology to take one of the most powerful motivators in a horse's life and put it to work for us.
The articles that follow will give you a step by step training guide for conditioning your horse to the clicker, beginning exercises you can try, plus a wide range of applications for the clicker.