By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
Originally published in San Francisco Chronicle Sep 2001
Imagine you’re walking down the street in a foreign country-like, maybe Texas or Louisiana- and suddenly people start shouting wildly at you. Like a scene out of Hitchcock, you see a crowd of distorting mouths but can’t understand the words coming out. Only the increasingly frantic arm flailing tells you a climax is about to spring.
While you may have never been in such a situation, chances are your horse or dog has experienced something similar. Believe it or not, horses and dogs aren’t born knowing English, and while they are experts at learning to read human body language, they’re no more adept at reading human minds than men are at reading their spouse’s thoughts. That means that half the time when you think your horse or dog knows what you want, he’s just feeling his way around.
How can you fix this communication gap? For decades, dolphin and killer whale trainers have been using a variation on positive reinforcement called clicker training. In the 1980s, the method started picking up steam with dog trainers and now it’s finally catching on with horses too.
It’s all about teaching the animal what’s right by rewarding it for the correct behavior. The added trick in this case though is the click. If you first train the horse that a click from a toy clicker or any other novel sound means food’s coming, you can use the sound to bridge the gap between the behavior you want and the food reinforcement. So when he performs the behavior correctly, you sound the click to mark what’s right and then give him his food reward. This simple method can change a horse’s attitude completely.
Says Shawna Karrasch, a former marine mammal trainer at Sea World and co-creator of the horse training DVD—On Target Training, “In traditional training, you communicate that the horse has done something correct by leaving him alone-by stopping your leg pressure or pressure on the reins. The horse is learning to avoid something. But by putting something into it that the horse really wants, you change the horse’s motivation. The communication and motivation go hand in hand.”
Like all techniques, timing is crucial. Says Vinton Karrasch, Shawna’s ex-husband and a veteran of the grand prix show jumping circuit. “Before I knew what clicker training was, I’d go to Sea World and was interested in why or how they were getting the results they were getting. I thought that when the animal did something the trainers liked, they fed it.”
He tried to take this information back to his horses, but didn’t have any success. “What I would do was jump a course and then feed the horse as it was going out the gate or something like that, not realizing that what I was actually rewarding the horse for was going out the gate. I still felt like there was something to it though. It just happened that I met Shawna and we got organized enough to train horses together.” Now the two travel the U.S. teaching workshops as well as helping riders ranging from recreational to Olympic level.
As you might expect, a new found communication based on positive reinforcement has many benefits. “For one,” says Shawna, “you’re helping to reduce the fear response, which is really important because when the fear response is gone, it helps the horse to trust you and to concentrate and focus on its job.” Right off the bat, that’s a big change. Especially when you’re dealing with performance issues. “When you’re trying to train a horse to do something, the more you can get it to relax, the more it can focus and do its job correctly. A fearful horse may not be thinking about the jump,” explains Shawna. “He may be thinking more about you and your response and your reactions rather than relaxing and focusing and doing the best he can.”
Another important element is that, in clicker training, you divide each exercise into smaller pieces. For instance, when teaching a horse to load into a trailer, the Karraschs first reward a front leg bending as if to step up the ramp. When this behavior is consistent, they reward a step onto the ramp. Then they go on to the second leg and then the whole body.
“You break it into small steps,” emphasized Shawna, which makes it easier.” Easier in the end for both you and the horse. The final result-a happy, trusting horse that likes to work.
Watch How to Train a Stallion to see an example of clicker training a horse.
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