The Truth About Clicker Training

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I was sitting on a rather exuberant

off the track knucklehead Thoroughbred.

Dexter TR XC 3

We were at a cross country clinic in a group of young excitable horses…..

and a train was coming……


locomotive in the autumnal forest


As it rumbled by terrorizing our little band of youngsters. All the ponies scattered……

Shocked Blond Woman with Funny Face

except mine

happy dog

He stood like a rock.

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Oh yeah.

After the mayhem settled someone looked around the group and said, “Did I hear….. a clicker?”

dog listening with big ear

Ruh Roh

Coming Out

I had been outed.

That clicker was, after all, the only reason my wild ride hadn’t rumbled

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when all the rest of them started rocking.

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I could tell you more than a dozen stories where clicker training quite literally
“saved my life”. Here’s one in particular in case you missed it.

Donkeys  – really –  are –  terrifying.

two donkeys in a paddock on a summers day

And I’ve had TONS of fun teaching horses to do things like


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lunge without a rope…..

Spanish walk…..

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You name it……………….

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Unequivocally, my young horses are brave solid citizens thanks to clicker training.

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Recently I was doing a small session with a clicker on a new horse and someone across the barn aisle called out and said, “Do you think that really works?”

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I paused for a moment because that is a bit hard to answer.

Eye Spy

Obviously the answer is, “Yes.”

If it didn’t “work” I wouldn’t bother.

Man Gestures a Slap

But here’s the rub.

Stop and Not Time for Risky Moves words on Road Sign

Reward based reinforcement (RBR) really does work. It works for anything that eats.

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Pets, people and things like sharks repeat behaviors they are rewarded for.


And in case you have read, heard of, or are yourself one of the “I would never ever use food to train a horse” people. Here’s the problem.

Shrugging woman in doubt doing shrug showing open palms.

If you feed them, and you probably do……

You’re using food to train your horse.

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And that’s where this whole “clicker training” aka “reward based reinforcement” concept gets tricky.

ZJ saddle

That’s my zorse Z.J. who was my claim to fame before I started writing the BadEventer Tales. 

OK, back to the topic……….

Imagine your typical busy stable full of horses.

Horses Running

6:45AM rolls around and someone turns on the lights. The horses start moving and stomping around as their breakfast is prepared. A few horses start kicking their stall doors. Others might reach around and bite the latches. If they can see each other there are some pinned ears and mock tussles as they glare at each other through the stall windows.

Bull fight

Sounds familiar right?

Next your trusty and efficient barn helper marches down the aisle with buckets of feed and gives each horse their specially prepared breakfast. Maybe the horse is pawing the door, maybe they are a little pushy and have to be shooed away to get to their bucket. Some of them have their ears pinned for the duration.

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So back to why this whole thing “really works”….pets and people repeat behaviors they are rewarded for.

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While breakfast was being served…. every horse in the barn just got “rewarded” for whatever they happened to be doing when their breakfast got dumped in front of them.

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That behavior may or may not be something you really want them to repeat.

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And this is all pretty innocuous UNTIL……… Suzy Q learns about clicker training from a 2 minute YouTube video and decides to give it a try with Mr. I-kick-my-stall-door-the-hardest at feeding time.

Frustrated Girl with Long Brown Hair Screaming - Isolated on Gray

Suzy learns just enough about RBR to show up at the stable armed with a baggie full of treats…….

motivation with carrot on stick

and she starts asking Mr. Stall Kicker to touch something, or bow, or stand at the mounting block.

As she feeds him treats and asks him to try new things he starts offering ALL of the behaviors that he knows…… that happen to get rewarded.

confused skeptical woman thinking looking at you with disapproval

And guess what he does the most often, that gets rewarded & reinforced, every…..single……day…… stall door kicking. So while Suzy is trying to teach him something like touching a road cone, he offers his favorite “go to” behavior and strongly kicks out with his front foot, accidentally catching Suzy Q in the shin with his giant steel shoe.

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And……… Suzy Q, and her trainer, and her friends all become adamant “treats are bad” converts.

Yep, reward based reinforcement works.

The problem is it works REALLY well. And like many other training tools, it’s one that without enough knowledge & timing…….. can have some unintended consequences.

covering ears dog

And THAT is the truth about clicker training.


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