In 1993 I was chatting with a friend who trained Irish wolfhounds. She happened to mention Karen Pryor's book, "Don't Shoot the Dog". "But of course you've read it," she said in an off-hand way.
Not only hadn't I read it. I hadn't even heard of it. Perhaps if Karen had titled her book "Don't Shoot the Horse", it might have come across my radar sooner, but as it was, the dog world was getting a head start learning about clicker training.
The way my friend talked about "Don't Shoot the Dog" I knew I had to add it to my reading list. "Don't Shoot the Dog" really belongs on everybody's "must read" list. It isn't a dog training book. And it really isn't even a clicker training book. It is instead a very clear explanation of applied operant conditioning. Don't let the words scare you off. All that really means is it explains in a very clear, easy to read way why we behave the way we do.
Mastiffs and Bull Elephants
I was intrigued by what Karen wrote about clicker training, so I ordered two of her early videos. They used footage shot at dog training seminars Karen was holding with canine behaviorist Gary Wilkes. Two video clips stood out for me. One was of Gary teaching a twelve week old mastiff puppy to sit. I was used to the push-the-dog's rear-end-down-while-jerking-up-on-the-collar style of dog training. I'd never seen anything like this. Gary never touched the dog. He used a food lure a couple of times. The puppy looked up at Gary's hand. When she did, her rear end went to the ground. Click! Gary gave her a bit of hot dog. He repeated this a couple of times, then he faded out the food lure. Now just the motion of his hand above her head prompted the sit.
A few well times clicks later and she was lying down. Gary could step away from her and she remained in her down stay. There were no barked commands, no jerking on leads. It was so different from the training I'd seen from our local dog training puppy classes.
The other video clip was presented by Gary Priest, the director of training at the San Diego Zoo. He was showing a pilot study in which they used clicker training with an African bull elephant. This particular elephant had attacked his keepers on more than pone occasion so the decision had been made that no one could go in the enclosure with him. That meant that this elephant was not able to get the routine foot care which is so vital to maintaining healthy feet in captivity.
So Gary and his team of trainers were using clicker training to teach the elephant to follow targets. They used the targets to orient the elephant to the gate of his enclosure. They made a small opeing in the gate, just enough for the elephant to lift a foot through. The video showed his early success at holding his foot out for a foot trim.
At one point in the video, Gary said, "I can't stress to you enough just how aggressive this elephant is, and he's standing there with no restraints, all for the social attention and a bucket of food treats."
When I saw that, I thought: "We in the horse world have a lot to learn." What do we do with a horse that's hard to handle and resists having it's feet done? We bring out the twitches, the lip chains, the "three men and a boy" to hold him down. And here was this elephant just standing there with no restraints at all, cooperating fully with his keepers.
I think this may have struck a particularly strong chord with me because my thoughbred, Peregrine, was laid up at the time with foot abscesses in both front feet. I wanted to do something to keep him entertained during what turned into seven weeks of stall rest, and I was curious about the clicker training. My background was in behavior. After watching those two video clips, it was only natural that I would go out to the barn, clicker and treats in hand, to give it a try.
There were no "how to" books explaining how to clicker train a horse. I had no recipe to follow. I had to invent my own starting place. Peregrine was so sore, he couldn't walk. In fact there really wasn't very much he could do. But he could touch a target, so that's where I began. I held a dressage whip out to him, and the rest is, as they say, history. Peregrine loved this new targeting game. It was entertaining for both of us, so, as he gradually began to recover and become more mobile, I continued to experiment with the clicker.
I began to piggy back the "yes answer" of the piggy back onto the daily routine of changing the dressings on his bandaged front feet, onto grooming and simple ground work. I was learning more about the technology. I was understanding how to expand the targeting, how to do some simple free shaping, how to add cues, and build small chains. It was a wonderful time of discovery for both of us.
Peregrine was eight when I introduced him to the clicker. At the time that I am writing this he is now twenty-six. He has lived in a clicker-trained world for eighteen years. He has been my "guinea pig", helping me to explore this new technology we call clicker training.
My Equine "Guinea Pig"
Peregrine was the perfect horse for his role of clicker guinea pig. In so many respects he was a wonderfully well-trained horse, but undermining all of his training was a horrendous physical issue. Peregrine had been injured during his foaling. From the time he was a very young foal he had locked in his stifles. So while other people were learning to ride dressage tests, I was learning how to use those same dressage movements to keep Peregrine sound.
When I could begin hand walking Peregrine after seven weeks of stall rest, I was expecting "thoroughbred moments", meaning some rambunctious leaps in the air, or at least some spooking. They didn't appear. Instead Peregrine transitioned smoothly out of his lay-up. In fact he was further ahead in his training than when he went lame. When I started riding him again, I added in the clicker. Since he was out of condition, I began with very easy, simple requests. That was perfect for our first exploration into riding with the clicker.
When I clicked and reached forward to hand Peregrine a treat, I could almost feel him saying: "Oh that's what you wanted! Why didn't you say so before?"
Throughout that first season of riding with the clicker I reshaped everything I had ever taught Peregrine. His training took a big jump forward. Prior to his lay-up his in-hand work included the beginnings of piaffe and Spanish walk. Spanish walk was used to help him manage his locking stifles. He didn't have the back strength to look as elegant as an Andalusian, but it did help to keep his stifles from locking - at least while I had him engaged and collected. As soon as his balance shifted back to "pasture gaits", his stifles would lock up hard and fast. His normal way to release them was either to back up or to buck explosively forward. Backing was manageable. The hard bucks were a different matter entirely.
But over that first winter of clicker training something very interesting happened. As Peregrine learned more and more about how to manage his own balance via the clicker, his stifles stopped locking. That's when I knew that clicker training was something much more powerful than the other training techniques I had been exploring.
Reaching the Equine Mind
With all the different training tools I had in my very eclectic "tool box", I could effectively solve a wide range of training issues. And Peregrine wasn't the only horse I worked with. I had an overflowing client list with horses ranging from backyard companions to upper-level competition horses in a variety of disciplines. What I was already doing was working. But clicker training gave me something more. Karen Pryor has called her most recent book "Reaching the Animal Mind", and I think that is a wonderful accurate description of clicker training.
With the clicker to guide him, Peregrine learned how to manage his own body. He stopped locking in his stifles. He had been locking hard and fast in both stifles over a period of eight years. I could manage the stifles while I rode him. I could put him in a balance that kept the stifles from locking up, but as soon as I released him, they'd haunt every weight shift. But now with the clicker training, he simply wasn't locking up. I'd see the stifles catch slightly from time to time, and I could still feel their influence when we rode, but the hard, rigid locking was gone.
If I was intrigued before, now I was well and truly hooked. I began sharing clicker training with all of my clients. With each horse we saw huge leaps forward in their training. Where we might have been plateauing off a bit with some of the horses, suddenly we were making huge progress, and we were able to introduce work that with some of the horses I would not have ever dreamed we would reach.
But what really changed were the relationships people had with their horses. When I asked one client about her impressions of clicker training, she said she had always enjoyed all the different training methods I had shared with her, but clicker training was her favorite because of the way it deepened the relationship she had with her horse. For me that said it all.
Clicker Training for your Horse
Clicker training is such great fun, it isn't something you want to keep to yourself. I began writing long posts about it which I shared on some of the early horse training discussion groups that were beginning to crop up on the internet. In 1996 I wrote a series of articles about clicker basics which I wanted to post on my new web site. But I wasn't sure if I could use the term "clicker training". I didn't know if it was trademarked. So I emailed Karen Pryor. I sent her the articles and asked her permission to use the term clicker training. Twenty-four hours later I had an response back from her. Not only could I use the term, she was asking if I would like to write a book for her company, Sunshine Books.
That book, "Clicker Training for your Horse" was published in 1998. It has been followed by two more books and at the time of this writing nineteen DVD lessons.
What is presented in those books and DVDs is a complete training program. Clicker training is at its core very simple. If you like it, click and reinforce it, could easily sum up clicker training. But simple isn't always easy. Horses are complex animals. And they are big. How you begin, how you introduce the clicker, how you build the foundation steps can make all the difference between having a clicker pest or a clicker superstar.
And once your horse understands the clicker, then what? My specialty is balance. That's what I have been exploring through thirty odd years of intense training experience. My personal horses have led me to this. I refer to it as "Riding for a Sound Spine". That's what the books, the DVDs, this web site is exploring. It is the underpinning of all good training, no matter the discipline, no matter the breed.
Throughout this web site you'll be meeting many different horses and their riders. That's one of the great strengths of clicker training. It is self-empowering. And it is very inclusive. You'll see horses of all sizes, ages, and breeds. You'll see both amateur and professional riders. Clicker training is for everyone! If you are brand new to horses, clicker training is a great framework to use for developing basic handling skills and an understanding of horses. And if you are an experienced rider - you're in for a treat! Clicker training will so expand not only what you can do, but also how you think about horses.
So have fun! We're all pioneers in this, exploring the new training science we call clicker training.