This is a conversation via email that I have been having with a friend about clicker training. It started when she mentioned that she felt her horse would “turn himself inside out” if hand fed as in clicker training. This is such a common worry about clicker training .... the concern about hand feeding.
I have shared this concern too but have realized that for most animals, the potential to nip or bite is quickly addressed through teaching good manners first, respect for personal space and safety.
I responded to my friend’s concerns by sending her Alexandra Kurland’s article from her website (theclickercentre.com) called Mouthy Horses and Hand Feeding.
Here is her reply followed by further correspondence, which is interesting enough to post.
K: I wonder if clicker is the most "positive" of all training disciplines??
ME: I really think so. I'm sure not an authority on the subject but I have had a bit of Parelli experience and have heard a lot about what clicker trainers think of it as a method. Basically, in Parelli, there is "always the threat of Phase Four" - i.e. increasing levels of pressure if the horse isn't giving the response you want. So even if you don't have to go there, the horse knows there is a lingering threat. The reward is just the letting go of pressure.
But don't quote me - many people love Parelli or some version of it. Ringo had a complete melt down with it but I know it has been useful for others.
Clicker training does use pressure and release of pressure - legs, reins and lead ropes all come with pressure. But there is an experience called "the poisoned cue" and so many things can become "poisoned" - your hand, the lead, the halter, - almost everything can be used with an underlying, veiled threat attached.
The animals know this and although you can achieve "good" behaviour in an animal who has not been clicker trained, you don't get the same willing partnership, eagerness and downright joy from the animal. They can be obedient but shut down, or obedient but not engaged.
Clicker training is so effective basically because you are always keeping the animal feeling supported - even for trying - even for a muscle shift.
And because the animal doesn't know at first "what" to do and "when" to do it, they become engaged and curious and then "click" they get told YES!! you did it! So because of this, they learn fast - they look forward to learning.
Clicker training is used with many wild animals in captivity, from dolphins to gorillas and also with search and rescue dogs, seeing eye dogs and horses, sniffer dogs and for dressage as well.
But it's not simply to teach behaviours, it's also to teach body awareness (for the animal) and balance ... ultimately for a happy, healthy horse/ donkey and a dynamic partnership!
K: This is quite interesting for sure. I often think that a blend of things is what might work and even then it needs to be tailored for our own particular animal and their unique temperament. Just like parenting... and that we do the best we can at any give moment and only later when we look back do we really see it clearly. Mind boggling really and I guess we may as well accept that we will for sure make mistakes along the way! I would like to know more about this.
I think what may have given us a negative impression is back when we first started trying to educate ourselves on the various methods of horsemanship we watched a Utube video of horses crossing a stream. Every few seconds the horse would turn it's head and be given a treat on cue to the clicker. It seemed awkward to us then and maybe we prematurely judged the concept. I am not sure why we took exception to this really...just a notion that it looked "over done". But I wholeheartedly admit that we may have judged way to soon. So I am going to look again with an open mind because I do love the idea of putting relationship first.
ME: I've watched a lot of clicker training videos too and, like everything else, there are "good" trainers - and not so good trainers too!
The horse crossing the stream may have been terrified of doing so and needed to be on a high rate of reinforcement - but as the animal learns (and clicker training teaches confidence too) duration is built and the treats can get phased out. Think of it ... no rider wants to be stopping and treating their horses every couple of minutes! That would be tedious and counter-productive - but as clicker training is really a method tailored to each animals' "needs," -some animals need to be supported more for learning particular things that they are scared or unsure of. And what's so neat is that the animal tells us what he/she needs to learn.
For example, Deenah is so easy going with shots but Dorica is terrified. I don't need to teach Deenah how to stand still for a blood draw but I need to teach this to Dorica
Clicker trainers break down lessons into really small steps. It looks easy but actually it requires a lot of thought and planning. Because you are watching the animal all the time to assess how they are doing, you need to figure out different approaches - this is really fun and stimulating!
Ringo would resist any pressure on his halter. I could have whacked him until he moved forward, but instead I looked for something that would help him overcome his resistance because I know it was probably in response to previous handling. His halter could have become "poisoned" for him ... meaning it could bring up memories of punishment or harsh treatment. I want him to want to walk with me, not to do it out of fear of getting punished. So I began to ask him to just touch my closed fist on the cheek of his halter - no pressure - click, treat!
Then bit by bit, move my hand to his nose, then forward, then a teeny bit of forward pressure, releasing immediately when he relaxes.
Once he learned this and that stepping out was okay, I didn't have to work on it anymore. We (animals) remember things that are being encouraged and rewarded. Punishment may stop behaviour in the moment but it doesn't change behaviour - you never know when it will crop up again, usually through fear and lack of understanding.