Cues and “Mythunderstandings”

Over the years, I’ve watched many people train animals.  I’ve seen all sorts of species being trained – dogs, cats, horses, birds, dolphins, and many others.  Some are professionals, some call themselves professionals, and most admit that they’re just amateurs trying to train their animal to do something that the human wants.  It might be a sit or fetch for a dog or longeing for a horse or “step up” for bird to step up onto the person’s hand.

One of the biggest mythunderstandings, though, is when to train a cue, whatever that cue might be.  The cue could be verbal (“sit”), or a hand signal, or maybe a particular whistle cue (three sharp blasts).  What it seems that many people do is try to train the cue at the same time they’re trying to train the behavior.  And that simply doesn’t work.  The behavior has to be trained, and trained to be solidly reliable, before it can be put on cue.


For example, I’ve seen a person with a horse walking around and moving their body towards the horse.  The person lifts their arm and their hand and gives a gesture.  They say the words, “Get it, get it, pick it up”.  They do this all at the same time.


The horse may have had some previous experience with a bucket and the horse may have even lifted it a time or two when it was alone and entertaining itself.  The human may have seen that and decided it was a great trick!  So, armed with a clicker and some treats, they went about this haphazard and backwards way of trying to teach the horse to fetch the bucket.


I absolutely love clicker training and I feel I can train a horse to do just about anything it is capable of doing with this technology.  However, I really feel sorry for the horse who knows the human is a food source, but he cannot even begin to sort out which of the twenty signals given will help him get what he wants (the reinforcement).


I would really like to strongly encourage you to study the art of training animals. You don’t need to become a professional; but for your horse’s sake, you do need to learn about the techniques and tools that comprise good training.

Learn about the Factors of Reinforcement:


  1. Timing:  When
  2. Criteria:  What
  3. Rate:  How much How often


If you don’t understand what to look for, then you won’t know what to click for.  If you don’t know what to click for, you’re just feeding the animal.  If you set the bar too high, too soon, you’ll just frustrate yourself and your horse.


Once the behavior is trained to about an 80% reliability rate, THEN and ONLY THEN can you begin to put a cue on the behavior.

You don’t expect, much less teach, a baby to walk overnight or to talk or to read or do math.  It takes time and practice (for both of you).


Do you horse and yourself a favor and learn the details of the technology.  Yes, “The Devil’s in the Details.”

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