Have you ever heard someone say “But my horse KNOWS what I want!” I now think that common statement can’t be further from the truth. This changed for me dramatically when I started clicker training, and with it, my understanding of how a horse perceives a cue.
So what changed my thinking? The effects of the way I train behaviors with the clicker. Let me describe the process. First, much of the teaching involves allowing the horse to offer behavior, for which he is reinforced. I do a lot of shaping, which means I teach an animal to guess at what I want and click/treat him for all of the little guesses that are within close range of the goal. Before long I can build a complete behavior from those guesses, including complex riding behaviors.
When trained using this type of shaping, the animal usually loves doing the behavior because there is a strong reinforcement history that is a part of the fiber of the behavior, it is built in. Proof of this is when you even begin to see the animal FREELY offer this behavior in hopes of getting the reinforcement it wants.
The next step of the process is to add a signal to the behavior so that the horse knows when YOU want the behavior to happen. This process of teaching a cue is a bit more complicated and can be a source of confusion for horses and people alike.
Because humans have the ability to process complex combinations of input, we tend to like to give directions that include multiple levels of input. We speak, gesture, nod, touch and more, sometimes all at once. To prove the point, just ask someone to give you driving directions to a place that’s familiar to them.
Because of this human tendency, we often gives multiple signals to our horses, and this can cause confusion. To illustrate this with humans, when you are given directions, which of their signals do you focus on the most? Verbal? Gestures? Visual pictures? How can we be sure which of our cues was significant to the horse?
Another point worth mentioning is that our brain has developed around millennia of complex verbal communications. The horse may understand sounds, but not as we typically use them. Teaching verbal cues that rhyme or sound similar can be a source of confusion.
Aspects that significantly impact our ability to teach our horses to reliably respond to the specific signals that mean “DO this behavior now,” are also ruled by the context in which we teach them. We often teach our behaviors in specific situations and they haven’t been generalized. Horses need to be taught to generalize behaviors as well as their cues.
Imagine standing by a horse and offering the verbal cue “Walk-on” expecting that the horse will step forward. What if the horse takes two steps and stops to touch a target he saw in your hand? Is he being stubborn or disrespectful? Does he know better and is just ignoring you?
Let’s imagine that you taught your horse to automatically go to a place in your barn to stand or be ground tied. He understood that this station was a place where he had gone time and time again and by doing so had earned a lot of reinforcement. Now imagine that as your horse walked towards the station you said “Whoa” before he got there? How would your horse respond?
WHICH cue do you think would be stronger, the visual cue of the station or the verbal cue to “whoa?” Remember, the horse WANTS to earn reinforcement so it is very motivated to pick the right answer.
Back in the days when I used pressure to maintain behavior, a little flick of the rope would have been the follow up to a missed cue. Once I took pressure out of the toolkit as a backup for my cues, I saw how cues can be missed by horses who really WANT to perform a behavior and just didn’t understand the cue, or it was trumped by something else.
The other cue related phenomenon arising in clicker training horses is the situation where people are getting interested in the process, they’re training lots of fun behaviors, they love watching the horse become enthusiastic, but they didn’t follow through and learn the process of teaching cues for those behaviors.
If the horse learned to touch a target, chances are the owners didn’t teach the horse to wait for a SIGNAL to touch the target, and if the owner used a word along with the visual presentation of the target, they assumed the horse really understood the word without testing the cue. The most significant indicator to perform the behavior was the site of the target itself.
So what happens to the horse who is cued to do something else, but sees a target? If the horse isn’t reinforced for that offering, what next? Most likely the horse begins to TOUCH anything and everything in sight in order to get the human to interact and play the game.
This kind of frantic activity startles and even scares some horse owners. They begin to think the horse has a respect problem or they think the attitude is all wrong. They see enthusiasm and sometimes mislabel it as over-excitement, when what we’re REALLY seeing is that natural phenomenon that emerges when an animal is trying to get what it wants, but doesn’t have a clue about the cue. In other words, they work harder at finding a way to get the reinforcement we’ve trained them to expect. I feel a sense of sadness for the horses and how often they’ve been corrected for something that was not clearly taught or proofed.
So what’s the cure? LEARN THE NEXT STEP of clicker training, LEARN how to teach cues correctly. Your horse has an ability to offer behavior, it is a gift, it is precious. Don’t PUNISH that beautiful gift by offering less reinforcement or randomly paying the click to curb his enthusiasm. Learn how to teach your horse the cues that go along with the behavior. Learn how to do this with a few behaviors without using pressure as the motivator. Become proficient at proofing your cues in other places, using good techniques like offering the cue ONCE instead of repeating it, cluttering it up with multiple signals given simulatneously, or having one cue (like pointing) mean five different behaviors.
Once your horse understands the cue, you can change when and how you reinforce it. But please, get educated on this incredibly important part of clicker training.
Don’t try to guess your way through this, speaking from experience, I wasted precious time trying to learn it on my own. Seek the professionals that can show you how to teach cues to clicker trained animals.
Peggy Hogan – the best “whisper” is a “click”