The traditional and the clicker…….

Have been discussing “pairing positive (R+) (specifically clicker training) and negative reinforcement (R-)” in horse training – should you or shouldn’t you?  Well, as ever, “it depends”; it can be recipe for disaster or it can make training a pleasurable experience for the horse.  (For any interested none-horsey types, horses are traditionally trained using negative reinforcement methods: application of pressure followed by its removal when the desired behaviour is performed.)  What can make pairing R- and R+ a disaster? is it the horse’s life and environment when s/he isn’t being ridden – are their horse needs met? what is the ratio of R+ and R- in a training session, and what is the horse’s training history? The more R-, and if badly applied in the past, the harder it will be for the R+ to have any effect. Also, it is very easy to inadvertently train anxiety using the clicker, resulting in a tense, worried horse throughout the training session. This is the worst that can happen when pairing the two. It happens when the horse is frustrated/confused/anxious but the trainer doesn’t recognise this and merrily clicks and treats when they see the behaviour they’re looking for, without taking into account the emotional state of the horse. Hence with clicker training (CT) as in traditional methods, calmness must come first. No matter what we’re doing with our horses, feel, awareness and listening to the horse are crucial. It’s perfectly possible, of course, to produce a (seemingly?) calm, responsive, highly schooled horse by just using R- (the last x centuries of equestrian history refer!), by breaking the movements down into segments the horse finds easy to learn, focusing on calmness, great timing of pressure release for doing the right thing, staying within the horse’s coping zone and asking for just the right amount more, building biomechanical capability….. these are all things as riders we’ve learnt to do unconsciously over the years, and it’s difficult and somewhat navel-gazing to try and deconstruct it now. Easier to pick the behaviour apart with a mouse or a pigeon in a laboratory! Setting the horse up to succeed is common to both approaches. Personally I think it’s difficult enough to apply traditional R- riding techniques effectively with the appropriate amount of feel, without possibly causing much confusion for horse and trainer by adding another layer of reinforcer when training the same behaviour/movement. So in my riding I aim for “minimal R- but with some improvement in the way the horse is going.” I use school movements to help develop engagement and self carriage. Positive and negative reinforcers activate the brain in different ways, so you’ve got all that going on too when using both methods. However, ultimately it must come down to the individual rider and what you know about your horse (and what your horse knows about you!). Horses all cope differently with the pressure of learning, according to all sorts of factors like innate predisposition, early life, personality, daily regime, rider ability: with some horse/trainer combos a lot of CT can be used alongside R- with nice, calm results; others use CT with R- to “catch” an uplift in energy to encourage exuberance. When I’m working on a behaviour consultation (which is done to address a specific behavioural problem, not general training/schooling advice) I don’t recommend mixing CT and R- to train the same behaviour, but I will sometimes recommend adding some R+ (without the clicker) to the training session, not necessarily in order to effect learning but to add something pleasant to the event for the horse. Also I’ll sometimes suggest that a R- riding session is broken up with some discrete clicker sessions; for this there must be a clear marker for the start and end of the clicker session, so as to manage expectations and avoid frustration!  For practical tips I would offer: listen to your horse; look out for signs of tension and avoid the clicker at these times – backstep to smaller “asks” from a place of calm; add something pleasant to every schooling session; don’t feel obliged to combine R- and R+; but if you do want to combine both, gen up on what they actually are and how to use them. So – should you combine CT and traditional R- protocols?  Well, it will always depend; and it will always be a very big ask to map the science of behaviour onto the art of horsemanship!

Published by animalbehaviourclinics

ABTC registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist (equine/canine), international author and speaker, expert witness, supervisor/mentor/lecturer

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