GLOSSARY FOR EQUINE CLICKER TRAINING
Items with an asterisk (*) are also in the glossary.
Acquisition: The beginning phase of training something new. The handler has to work out a series of slices* that take the horse’s behavior from a first approximation to the whole defined task done smoothly.
Ambidextrous: Able to carry out tasks smoothly with both the right and left sides of the body.
Anchor Behavior: This describes a simple task that we teach as a foundation for a more complex task. For example, to teach a horse to target his knees, forehead, ears, eye, hind legs, shoulder or hindquarters to my hand, I established the knee target as our anchor behavior. I taught it first to a high proficiency. Then, when I introduced the idea of targeting a different body part to my hand, I started with the well-known knee target and then suggested a different body part. The anchor behavior ‘sets the stage’ for the activity we are doing.
Behavior: That which is actually happening, not colored by our expectations or an emotional slant from our personal viewpoint.
Body Extensions: A general name for the sticks, whips, wands, reeds, strings, ropes, halters, reins, bridles, saddles and harnesses that people use with horses.
Body Language: the postures, orientations, energy levels and gestures that communicate intent to another being. It is the main language of horses.
Brainstorm: The act of writing down everything we can think of about a topic, without giving any of the ideas a value judgment until later. It often helps to do this over several days, so our mind can mull over the topic and come up with new ideas and new connections. We can ask other people to contribute their ideas. A thorough brainstorm is an ideal way to begin writing a detailed Training Plan* and an Individual Education Program*. We can use the mind mapping* format to lay out our brainstorm ideas.
Capturing: If we click&treat at the moment the horse does a behavior that we like, we can ‘capture’ the complete behavior*. For example, the first time a horse touches his nose to a target we are holding out to him, we click&treat to ‘capture’ the specific complete behavior of ‘put your nose on this target’.
Other examples are click&treat for forward movement, backing up, following us, coming toward us, a stretching bow, pawing, rearing, lowering the head, transitions between gaits, ear position, relaxed body language. Once the horse links the behavior to the click&treat, we can add touch, gesture and voice signals to the behaviors if we want to be able to request them.
Capturing is ideal for adding naturally-occurring behaviors, or behaviors we can arouse with the horse’s curiosity, into the horse’s repertoire.
Chaining: Linking together a number of tasks where each one relates to the task that has gone before. For example, if we want to ride our horse with a saddle, we start with building confidence with a saddle pad. Then we might run a rope around the horse’s girth, so we can tighten and loosen it to simulate a girth. Then we introduce the saddle, first as an object to explore, then on the horse’s back.
When that is smooth, we add the girth, tightening it in easy stages while moving the horse between each new tightening. This chain would continue with teaching the horse to do ground exercises wearing the saddle, stand relaxed at a mounting block, be comfortable with our weight lying across the saddle, one foot in the stirrup, sitting on the horse, asking the horse to move by walking between familiar stationary targets or following a person on the ground, and so on.
Charging the Clicker: When we first introduce a marker sound followed by a food treat, the horse has no idea that the sound and food are connected. We ‘charge the clicker’ by pairing the sound with the treat until the horse understands that when he hears our distinct marker sound, a treat will follow. Ways to do this are outlined in Chapter One.
Click Point: The specific behavior* (or end of a behavior chain*) we are presently actively seeking to reward with a click&treat.
Clicker-Savvy: This describes a horse who understands the relationship between the marker* sound the trainer uses (e.g. the ‘click’) and the treat. The horse knows that when he hears the marker* sound, he has done the action (or inaction) that will earn the next treat.
Clicker Training: General name for training using the ‘mark and reward’ system. We can use a mechanical clicker, a tongue click*, a special word, or any special sound to mark the exact moment that the horse is doing what we want. The ‘marker’* sound is immediately followed by a small food treat.
Click&treat: The ‘click’ marks the exact behavior we would like. The ‘treat’ follows immediately after the click. The horse will seek to repeat the behavior that produced the click followed by the treat. Clicker training is also called the ‘mark and reward’ system.
Comfort Zone: An animal’s comfort zone is defined by all the places and activities with which they feel at ease. Everything that can be done without anxiety falls into the comfort zone. When working with a horse we have to be aware of his comfort zone at the moment, as well as our own.
Consistency: This is the backbone of all good training. The handler needs to be consistent with the signals, body orientation and energy levels he uses to express his intent* to the horse. Through consistency, the horse and handler can develop a clear private language between the two of them.
By being consistent, we build the horse’s confidence that he can understand our meaning. Inconsistent handling leaves horses in mental and emotional turmoil, often causing them to switch off or express a desire to leave the situation.
Counter-Conditioning: This is the behavior biologist’s term for pairing a desired outcome with something that normally causes an anxiety or fear response in a horse. Clicker training* allows us to make the outcome a desired food reward, which clicker-savvy* horses value highly unless they are unusually stressed.
For example, if a horse is anxious about a wheelbarrow, we can put the wheelbarrow in the horse’s pen. Then we wait and observe; click&treat as the horse progressively looks at the wheelbarrow, approaches it, sniffs at it, and so on.
Walking on the road, we can click&treat at the approach of every vehicle. Done consistently, the horse will begin to recognize a wheelbarrow or vehicle as an opportunity to score a click&treat rather than something to worry about.
Counter-conditioning is gradually getting a horse used to something which is not part of a horse’s normal life. It means breaking big tasks or expectations into small enough pieces (slices) which we can click&treat and gradually chain* together. In this way, we gradually build the horse’s confidence with new experiences. It is a key part of desensitization*, habituation* and ‘building confidence’.
Criteria: These are the expectations that we set for a specific lesson. For example, if we are teaching side-stepping, the expectation (criterion) for our first lesson may be to get a single sideways step with the forequarters or the hindquarters, at which point we click&treat. If that goes well, we may shift the expectation (criterion) for our next lesson to a sideways step with both front and hind ends before we click&treat, and so on until the horse easily does multiple sideways steps.
Desensitization: see ‘Counter Conditioning’ and ‘Habituation’.
Dwell Time: The pauses we put between repeats of a task when we stand quietly with the horse and let him absorb the last part of the lesson. We can click&treat the act of standing quietly with the head forward (as opposed to nudging the treat pouch or pocket). We can look for relaxation signs such as: head lower than withers, breathing out or sighing, total body at ease, soft ears, eyes, nostrils, lower lip and tail. Sometimes we might click&treat for these signs of relaxation.
Emotional Neutrality: The handler’s ability to stay calm and not ‘buy into’ any upset or excessive energy that the horse or people in the vicinity are showing. Horses are highly tuned-in to the emotional state of other horses and people nearby. If we can remain calm, the horse is able to link in to our calmness and relaxation. If we are nervous or fearful, the horse has no reason to feel comfortable with what we are asking him to do.
Feedback: Whatever the horse does is feedback that informs our decision about what to do next. Our own feelings about what is happening are also important feedback, since it is imperative that we stay in a calm, relaxed mental state while we are training. Whether feedback is positive, negative or neutral, it all has value.
Fluidity: The second phase of training which follows acquisition*. In this phase, frequent short practice sessions improve the way a task is carried out and put it into the horse’s long-term memory.
Free-shaping: Rather than influencing the horse directly, free-shaping sets up a puzzle and allows him to solve it in his own time and in his own way.
For example, when we first introduce a tarp, we can put it out, wait, and observe in order to click&treat each slice of the horse’s exploration of the new object: looking toward it, moving toward it, sniffing it, putting a foot on it, walking on it, and so on.
His motivation, (rather than application and release of signal pressure) is his natural curiosity and his instinctive seeking response to obtain more of what he likes (the treat that follows the click).
In other words, he has learned a new way to gain ‘forage’ from the environment, in this case, a treat from the handler for carrying out a specific action.
Another example: when I wanted Boots to feel comfortable moving beside my bicycle, I walked or rode it around the arena while she was at liberty, with a click&treat first when she looked at it, when she moved closer to it, when she sniffed it, when she followed along with it, and so on.
Generalization: The third phase of training, following Fluidity*, when we expand a task into new contexts and new venues.
Gregarious: Describes animals who prefer living together in groups.
Guided Shaping: Using touch or gesture to help the horse understand the movement we’d like him to do. As soon as the horse makes an attempt in the direction of what we want, we release the signal pressure plus click&treat. This way of training combines the best of release reinforcement* plus the best of reward reinforcement*.
Guided shaping is intimately related to the thin-slicing* of tasks. Its magic lies in immediate removal of the guiding pressure as soon as the horse responds in the way we want, plus a simultaneous click&treat.
Luring* is another example of guided shaping. Once the horse understands that putting his nose on a target will earn a click&treat, we may want to teach him to follow a hand-held target. We click&treat when the horse takes a step (and eventually many steps) to reach the target. Offering the target is the gesture.
We can then use guided-shaping to develop further behaviors*. We can ask the horse to follow a target to walk a circle, weave objects, turn, or stand still and bend his neck around to touch the target.
We can also use stationary nose targets and mats to shape a willingness to walk with the handler. The horse soon realizes that the handler will guide him to another place that earns a click&treat (or a nice patch of grass if out and about).
Having the horse keen to seek out a target opens a large range of training possibilities without the need for halters and ropes if we are in a safe, enclosed area.
Habituation: This is repeated low-key exposure to a new environment or situation so that over time an initial anxious response is no longer aroused. For example, if we feed a horse at his trailer for several days, then at the entrance to the trailer for several days, then halfway in the trailer for several days and then at the front of the trailer every day, the horse has the time and motivation to enter the trailer and exit the trailer when he finishes eating. Habituation is also often called desensitization or ‘confidence building’ and it is part of counter-conditioning*.
Individual Education Program (IEP): This is created by taking a general Training Plan* and refining it to suit the character type, age, health and background experience of the individual horse we are working with.
Additionally, the IEP considers all the same factors in the handler. For example, although I was athletic in my youth, bionic knees now set a limit to how fast and far I can move.
Inhibitors: Anything we do and use to keep ourselves, our horse and others around us safe. Inhibitors include fences, ropes and reins that keep the horse contained in a safe area. Inhibiting actions include the use of our arms and body extensions to block behaviors that may harm the horse, the handler or others.
We want to familiarize a horse with inhibitors such as ropes and body extensions while he is in his home environment. Then they will make sense to him if we have to use them in an unfamiliar environment.
Intent: Horses are masters at the art of reading the intent of another horse. If handlers are consistent with their body language and ways of focusing, horses usually quickly learn to respond to the intent of a gesture, a touch, projected energy or breathing rate. The message is conveyed by body language (sometimes including sound) and change in energy.
Horses raised with other normal horses learn to respond to tiny body language shifts such as the angle of an ear, the tilt of the head, the position of the neck, the smallest flick of the tail. They readily apply this body-language-reading skill to a trusted handler with consistent habits.
Horses hand-reared in the absence of other horses often lack the skills and etiquette of equine social interaction.
Learning Frame of Mind: To be ready to learn something, humans and horses need to be relaxed, well fed and watered, not needing to urinate or defecate, not be too hot or too cold and not be in pain. If we are anxious, fearful, too hungry, cold or hot, or distracted by something else going on, we are not in our comfort zone*.
Most of our brain space will be taken up with trying to regain our comfort zone. A horse with an adrenalin rush needs time to move and cavort until the adrenalin is used up and he’s able to relax again. There will be times when the best way forward is to enable our horse to run off his excess energy.
If the exercise to be learned includes active gymnastic movements, we have to begin the session by warming up the muscles, so the horse is able to respond comfortably.
Luring: A) Putting a food reward in a position that motivates the horse into a new behavior; e.g. placing a treat on a tarp so the horse steps on the tarp, putting food in the trailer, laying out piles of hay so we can ask the horse to move between the piles.
- B) Once the horse understands the concept of putting his nose or feet on a target to earn a click&treat, we can use targets as lures to ask a horse to walk patterns with us or to walk forward with us toward a fixed target.
Maintenance: The fourth phase of training, following Generalization*. If the task is not something we do regularly, we must ensure that we revisit it often enough to keep it in the horse’s repertoire.
Markers: A marker is the specific sound we use to let a horse know he has done the action (or maintained the inaction) that earns a treat. The marker can be a short, clear word not commonly used, a tongue click, the click of a mechanical clicker, the sound of a specific letter of the alphabet or a short nonsense word like ‘biff’ or ‘ubu’. The key is to use the sound with total consistency, so the horse knows without doubt what sound signals that a treat is coming. The reward, when clicker training horses, is usually a small food treat.
Mugging: When a horse tries to put his nose into our pocket or treat pouch. The very first task when starting clicker training is to teach the horse that a treat will only ever be delivered if he keeps his head away from the treats. (See Chapter One.)
Multi-signal: (Sometimes called a ‘signal bundle’) using a combination of two or more of: gesture, voice, touch, body language intent to indicate the behavior we would like from the horse.
If the horse knows a variety of signals for a certain behavior, we can use the one most appropriate in a specific situation. If the horse is unsure about what we are asking, we can add another signal from a familiar ‘signal bundle’ to clarify the situation for him.
We can use voice, gesture and body language signals to influence the horse at liberty, either for exercise, training or while doing chores in his company.
Negative reinforcement: Stopping an action the horse understands as a signal* or stopping an action he finds bothersome. The pressure* we apply to the horse motivates his action, but it’s the prompt removal of the pressure that reinforces the horse’s action because it tells him that what he did will remove the pressure.
Note: ‘negative’ is not used in the sense of being ‘bad’. It is used in the mathematical sense of subtracting something (i.e. the signal pressure we have applied) from a situation. This is the most common type of reinforcement used by most horse trainers.
Okay Signals: These are sometimes called ‘start buttons’ and have a variety of other names. We look for an explicit ‘okay’ consent signal from the horse while working with stationary tasks such as confidence with a husbandry procedure.
We begin by introducing the task with a click&treat for an approximation of the task with which the horse remains comfortable/relaxed. Then we pause in zero intent* position and watch the horse closely for a sign that indicates he is okay for us to ‘do it again’. It can take a while for the horse to establish a consistent ‘Okay to Repeat’ or ‘Okay to Proceed’ signal, or it might appear quickly.
Gradually we work (in thin-slices*) from the approximation the horse can give us to the final desired behavior; e.g. putting on a halter, lifting of lips for tooth inspection, turning of neck toward needle simulation with a toothpick, bringing eye to a cloth for cleaning or medication, accepting a worming tube. (See Chapter Four.)
Parameters: The guidelines we set up to work within. See also ‘criteria’.
Positive reinforcement: When the horse does something we like, we highlight the moment with a marker* sound and promptly deliver a treat. The treat is something the horse loves to receive, usually a small tasty morsel.
We can tell whether an added treat is reinforcing if the horse begins to offer the behavior we want more frequently.
Note that the term ‘positive’ is used in the mathematical sense of adding something to the situation, in this case a marker sound and a treat.
Many people think that taking away their signal pressure* is the ‘reward’ and therefore they are using positive reinforcement. However, release of pressure is ‘negative reinforcement’ because the pressure has been removed (or subtracted) from the situation.
This misunderstanding has led to a great deal of confusion for people trying to do their best with their horses.
Pressure: It can be argued that almost everything people do with horses consists of some sort of pressure. As with stress, pressure is essential for anything to happen, but too much pressure (or stress) causes extreme anxiety and panic.
Arriving with a pocket or pouch full of treats is a form of pressure. It motivates the clicker-savvy horse to engage in working out what will result in click&treat right now.
Good horse training has clear goals, cuts a big task into its smallest clickable portions, teaches each portion or slice until they can all be chained* together with one click&treat at the end. Done this way, there is seldom need for much pressure other than a light guiding touch or gesture.
Prerequisites: Essential things the horse needs to know already, before we can expect him to confidently learn the new thing we want to teach.
Proprioception: An individual’s ability to sense where his body parts are, as well as the amount of effort being used if they are moving. Varied physical activity across varied terrain increases this ability.
Protected Contact: Having a barrier between the horse and the handler, or having the horse tied up. Most clicker trainers use protected contact when they begin clicker training* or if they are with a horse they don’t know well. Protected contact allows us to move away if the horse gets over-enthusiastic about food being part of his training.
Rate of Reinforcement: How often we click&treat. At the beginning of teaching something new, we use a high rate of reinforcement, sometimes as much as 20 treats in a minute. As the horse learns each additional slice* of a task, we move the click point* along to the end of the next slice, so the horse does a bit more before the next click&treat.
Once the horse understands all parts of a complex task, the click&treat usually follows completion of the whole task. In other words, as the horse becomes more proficient with a task, the rate of reinforcement naturally declines. However, it is important to always click&treat for a job well done.
A comparison to consider might be how long we would keep on doing a job if suddenly there is no payment on pay day or the resources we earn with our effort no longer arrive.
Reflex action: A term used for an instinctive response. It is something we or any animal does without thinking about it first. A reflex action can be to move ‘away’, like jerking our hand away when it touches something hot. Maybe our whole body jumps away when we see a big cockroach in our sock drawer.
Generally, reflex actions are concerned with physical safety. One good jolt from an electric fence can modify behavior around electric fences for a long time.
Horses, being prey animals, rely on flight for safety and have a strong set of instinctive responses. We need to be aware of these and recognize them for what they are: the natural reflex actions of a prey animal.
We can take the horse out of the wild, but we can’t take their instinctive reflex actions out of them. We must incorporate them into the way we care for and train our horses.
Release reinforcement: Another name for ‘negative reinforcement’* – removing (releasing) signal pressure* when we get the response we want.
Reset: When the horse is unsure about what we are asking, rather than ‘correct’ the horse, we quietly pause, count to five or ten, and set things up so we can start again. If the horse does not understand what we’d like him to do, we usually need to cut the task into smaller slices (the process of thin-slicing*).
The point of positive reinforcement training is that we organise the learning sequence so that the horse can be continually successful (i.e. easily earn his next click&treat).
We do nothing that makes the horse feel wrong or lose confidence, because obviously we have not yet shown him clearly enough what we want, so he can’t actually be ‘wrong’. There is always the possibility that he is having an off-day or has pain somewhere. Keeping the horse’s confidence is always more important that accomplishing a task right now.
Reward reinforcement: Another name for ‘positive reinforcement’* – adding the marker sound* and treat reward when we get the response we want.
Right-side anxiety: If a horse has always been handled on his left side, he won’t be used to a handler asking him to do things on his right side and he may show signs of stress about things that he does perfectly well when the handler in on his left side. (See also right-side neglect.)
Right-side neglect: If a horse has not been trained to accomplish all tasks asked of him on both sides of his body, the seldom-used side (usually the right) will not have formed strong nerve pathways from brain to muscle. It is up to the handler to spend time on either side of the horse until both sides feel equal.
As humans are right or left-handed, so horses usually use one side of their body more than the other and fall into the habit of doing so. It takes effort and practice to become ambidextrous* because only repeated specific movement will form the new nerve pathways needed to become fluent*.
Shaping: When we want to teach something, we experiment to see what the horse can offer already. Then we carefully develop an Individual Education Program* which allows us, using very small steps (slices), to influence the horse’s behavior until he can confidently carry out the total task we want to accomplish.
All interaction with a horse shapes his behavior*, whether we intend it to or not. How he is kept and fed also shape his behavior.
Signal pressure: Whenever we show up and want the horse to do things with us, we are exerting signal pressure. The pressure can become an extremely light message of communication once the horse understands what we want.
In some circumstances, the pressure will be more intense if we need to clarify a message or if safety is our first concern.
As mentioned earlier, turning up with treats is signal pressure too, since it communicates the expectation that we will be rewarding specific behaviors.
Slices: A slice is the smallest noticeable bit of behavior toward completion of a task we want to accomplish, that we can click&treat*. The process of thin-slicing* lets us lay out a possible sequence of these ‘bits of behavior’ that might make sense to the horse.
For example, if we want to teach the horse to pick things up or play ‘fetch’, possible slices to use are: l. Look at object. 2. Sniff object. 3. Nuzzle object. 4. Put mouth around object. 5. Repeat 4 with the object in different positions. 6. Touch and nuzzle object on the ground. 7. Put mouth around object while it is on the ground. 8. Any suggestion of lifting the head holding the object. 9. Bringing the object up to our hand. 10. Holding the object until we have time to put our hand on it. 11. Releasing the object into our hand. 12. Moving beside us holding the object. 13. Moving toward us holding the object. 14. Moving away from us toward the object on the ground. 15. As 14 plus picking it up. 16. As 15 plus turning and bringing it back to us.
The key is to stay with each slice until the horse is comfortable and confident with it, before moving on to the next slice.
Successive Approximations: We start with what the horse can offer already, and gradually direct and reward each tiny change in the direction of the final behavior* we want. (See ‘Slices’ and Thin-Slicing.)
Targeting: Asking the horse to put his nose or foot on an object to earn a click&treat.
Thin-slicing: Cutting a task into its smallest teachable (clickable) parts (slices) so we can teach the horse in a way that keeps him being continually successful as much as possible.
Threshold: The point at which we begin to feel uneasy about a situation. Our breathing rate and heart rate increase, we sweat and may get funny feelings in our gut.
The same things happen to horses when they reach threshold. Their confidence turns to anxiety.
The better we are at realizing when horses reach threshold, the more effective our training will be. This is because we can ensure that the horse stays near or at threshold while he is learning, but we don’t tip him too far over threshold, turning his responses into fear reactions.
Once a horse or a person is over threshold, constructive learning is no longer possible because anxiety emotions have taken over.
Timing: This is one of the most important aspects of good training. We must time the click (mark) to the exact movement (or stillness) that we seek and follow the click promptly with the food reward. We also time the release of our signal pressure* to correspond with the click.
Sometimes we carefully time a series of pressure-release sequences as part of the overall task, with the click&treat at the end (as in Chapter Eight when we ask for a series of backward steps before we click&treat).
Sometimes we work through a series of chained tasks with a click&treat at the end of the chain. When we teach a chain of related tasks, the horse often learns that each earlier task is the signal or cue for the upcoming task, until the sequence or chain ends with a click&treat and relaxation. For example, cleaning all four feet can become a chain of tasks with a click&treat after all four feet are done.
Tongue Click: A sound made my bouncing the tongue off the roof of the mouth. It is a handy marker sound to use when training horses because it is always with us, makes a fairly consistent sound and leaves the hands free to do other things.
Training Plan: An outline of the possible thin-slices* that we might be able to use to teach a horse a particular task. A Training Plan is the starting point for writing an Individual Education Program (IEP)* that suits a specific handler, the specific horse and the specific training environments that they have available.
Triple Treat: This is something I use as a major celebration when the horse does something really well or has made a breakthrough with a new piece of learning. First, I click&treat for the behavior* performed as usual.
Then I lift a fist into the air and have the horse target my fist for another click&treat. I repeat the ‘raised fist target’ two more times, making it a ‘triple treat’. The triple treat serves both to accentuate a job well done and gives the horse a short break from the concentrated work we’ve been doing.
Zero Intent: Taking up a body language position that indicates to the horse that we don’t want anything to happen; that we are standing or walking together in a relaxed manner (the details are in Chapter Three).