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What Does Clicker Training Mean to Me?

(An excerpt from The JOY FULL Horses blog published in

The term clicker training was coined by Karen Pryor. In it’s simplest form it refers to applied operant condition in which a marker signal is paired with positive reinforcement. In other words, if you like what your animal is doing, you click and reinforce him.

For years at clinics I’ve had people say to me you really need to call your work something other than clicker training. What you do is so much more than clicker training.

I always throw this right back to them. What would you call it?

One of my Click That Teaches coaches: Michaela Hempen on her Arab Asfaloth.
Monty Gwynne, one of my Click That Teaches coaches with her beautiful Icaro.

I get lots of suggestions but nothing so far has stuck. Harmony, balance, partnership have all been used so many times by so many different approaches to training they have lost any meaning. You can have two diametrically opposed training systems both talking about partnership. They’ll end up with very different looking horses and each group will be convinced they have “true partnership” and the others don’t. Sigh. Labels can leave behind a huge and very controversial mine field to navigate.

When I first came across clicker training, it had no associations attached to it. It was just a label, a way of referencing a particular approach to training. I had not seen other clicker-trained horses because there weren’t any around. I hadn’t yet experimented with it, so I brought no strong biases to the term – good or bad. It was simply a label, a convenient way to reference a system of training in which a marker signal was paired with positive reinforcement.

For me the term “clicker training” is still a convenient way to refer to a system of training that uses a marker signal.  I’ve seen plenty of clumsy, not well-thought-out clicker training sessions over the years, but that doesn’t make me want to run from the label. It makes me want to find better ways to teach the work.

I don’t know what clicker training has come to mean to others, but to me, when I think of clicker-trained horses, I see happy, well mannered, beautifully balanced horses who are a joy to be around.

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