Home » Five Reasons Why The “Click” Is Necessary For Reward Based Horse Training

Five Reasons Why The “Click” Is Necessary For Reward Based Horse Training

An example of actual clickers. There are multiple options for marker signals… a mechanical clicker is just one. Verbal, visual, and whistle options are some of the other options….

“Clicker Training” the term is referring to using a mechanical clicker for marking behaviour, but there are lots of ways to mark behaviour…

Training with a marker signal is often called “clicker training” this is referring to the mechanical clicker. That being said there are plenty of options for choosing bridge signals. Some of the options are a verbal word like “yep”, a whistle, a tongue click, a mechanical clicker, something visual like a flash of light etc. What is important is that the marker signal is distinct, and easy for the learner to recognize. The following are five different reasons to use a marker signal (referred to as a click), when training with Positive Reinforcement.

Five Reasons To “Click” With Positive Reinforcement:

  1. The Click works as a bridge signal.
  2. The Click marks the exact behaviour.
  3. The Click is a secondary reinforcer.
  4. The Click functions as a cue.
  5. The Click can be a terminal bridge signal.

The Bridge Signal:

When working with positive reinforcement, a bridge signal is a signal that the trainer gives the moment that the behavioural critera has been met. This signal indicates to the learner that reinforcement is coming. The click buys the trainer time to get the reinforcement to the learner. Instead of having to get the reinforcement to the learner within seconds of the behaviour the trainer can click within moments, and then find and deliver the reinforcer (Food). In short, the clicker works as a bridge between the occurrence of the behaviour, and the food delivery.

Without A Bridge Signal Positive Reinforcement Training Can Get A Bit Messy…

Positive Reinforcement training can get a bit messy without a bridge signal. When not using a bridge signal it’s important to get the reinforcer (food) to the learner within moments of the behaviour occurring. This is a fairly easy task when walking beside the horse, not so easy when on the horse’s back, or further away at liberty. If the reinforcement is delayed it increased the chances of behavioural extinction because the reinforcement is not occurring quick enough for the horse to recognize which behaviour is being reinforced. This can lead to the behaviour we are working on not getting reinforced soon enough, in which case that behaviour will go through and extinction process.

If the timing is even a little off superstitious behaviour will easily sneaking in. Imagine trying to reinforce the horse for stopping after you say woah, but it takes more then three seconds to deliver the reinforcer, in that time the horse takes a step forward just as you are delivering the reinforcer. The woah behaviour has now not been reinforced by a primary reinforcer, and taking one step after woah has. The horse will likely take more steps after the woah cue next time. The steps are the superstitious behaviour, and the woah may go through extinction. This ties into the next reason why using the clicker is helpful!

The Click Marks The Exact Behaviour:

When the horse reaches the behavioural criteria, he is given a very clear and distinct marker signal (click). It is important to note that a mechanical clicker, whistle or other distinct sound is considered better for learner recognition compared to a verbal cue. Regardless of what is being used to mark the behaviour, the distinct click occurring directly after the behaviour gives the learner a lot of information about what behaviour the teacher is looking for. This ties into the next reason why using a clicker is so helpful!

The Click Is A Secondary Reinforcer:

The Click works as a secondary reinforcer. The clicker is paired with a primary reinforcer (food) in a 1:1 ratio. When the clicker and reinforcer have been paired enough times the horse will find the sound of the clicker itself reinforcing. This is a process called classical conditioning, in this case a neutral stimulus (the click) is paired with a primary reinforcer (food) enough times that the neutral stimulus produces the same or similar response as the primary reinforce. This makes the click a secondary reinforcer.

When the horse hears a click following a behaviour he is immediately reinforced by a similar emotional/physiological response that he would experience if I had handed him food in that moment. This is powerful because it gives the human the ability to be very precise with their timing, and ensures the learner can be reinforced at the perfect moment. The click should always be followed with a primary reinforcer to ensure that the click remains a strong secondary reinforcer.

It was very challenging to use R+ from the horse’s back without a clicker (bridge signal). This is where learning the art of Clicker Training is so worth it!
Fox heard the click and is looking back, getting ready to reach for his reinforcement. Notice that he is standing in this picture, much better than the previous photo where he is still moving.

The Click Works As A Cue:

The click also works as a cue. What should the horse do while waiting for the reinforcement after hearing the click? Horses should be taught a specific reinforcement receiving behaviour (RRB). The click should cue this behaviour. A great RRB is the horse stopping, and waiting for the food to be delivered with his head straight forward. Another RRB is a moving RRB, this one occurs if a click has been trained so that the horse knows to maintain the behaviour while the human delivers the reinforcer… more on this in a later post…

Two quick examples of a regular RRB after a click: When riding in the canter, the human marks a lead change with a click, the horse will come to a stop, and the human can then deliver the food. When the human is on the ground, the horse hears a click, the horse immediately stops and waits with his head forward for the human to deliver the reinforcer to him. The click cues the RRB, which in this case is the horse stopping and waiting for the reinforcement.

The Click Works As A Terminal Bridge Signal:

Finally, the click works as a terminal bridge signal. Meaning the behaviour stops the second the horse hears a click. For example, when cued to back up, Fox will continuously back up until he gets another cue, or hears a click. The click will cause him to stop backing up and wait for his reinforcement. When Fox is using his inhaler (a 40 second duration behaviour) the click will cause Fox to stop holding his nose against the inhaler, and he will then wait for reinforcement.

Many of the reasons to use a “clicker” are tied together and occur simultaneously….

The click as a bridge signal, marker of behaviour, secondary reinforcer, and cue all happen together. One click gives the learner a lot of information about what behaviour brings reinforcement, what to do while waiting for reinforcement, and it can even give the learner the same good feelings they get when eating. It is a powerful tool, both for the learner and the teacher.

Have a lovely day!


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