So this is a hot button for some horse people i.e. giving treats. So lets just set that aside for a moment and have a discussion. Clicker training was originally used to train dolphins. The dolphins are swimming around in a tank but might need vet help, how to get that done? So they started by blowing a whistle each time the dolphin swam by, followed by a fish. That was a great idea to the dolphins! Then they had to swim closer, then stop, then come up on the side. Thats called shaping behavior. The more slowly the steps are taken the faster it goes. The whistle was the sound used to “mark” the desired behavior and it meant “a fish is coming”. That’s called a bridge. The cool thing is that can mark even the correct thought. Animals quickly learn to search for it by trying different behaviors. Its now widely used by zoos to trim rhino and elephants feet through the bars. But, you say, they can’t mug you, and a horse can. True!
With horses it was originally used for “dangerous horses”. It was started from across a stall gate or fence. Still a good plan. You can make a game of “touch it” with an empty paper cup that smells like coffee or something interesting. Instead of a clicker or whistle, a unique sound, like a tongue cluck, can be used as a marker. A marker is the Yes! that‘s the right answer! What it does is take the horse out of fear mode into learning/search mode. The try that we look for. That can be quite dramatic. The treat should be good but not great, and small, always fed in front of the horse’s nose. Once the behavior has been shaped then treats are no longer used for that. Mugging is ignored and never rewarded. Be careful to not use the click as a cue. Also, don’t make my mistake of putting your hand in your treat pocket before giving the click. Horses take that as the marker and get confused about what they did that was “right”.
This training is particularly good for abused horses and things there is not a good release for. So I got Cedar back from a trainer, my first trainer and the worst. We slowly worked her through issues building her trust again. But she would not accept a bit. So I learned clicker training for the first time, starting with just seeing the bridle, very slowly shaping her response. Touching the bridle, a strap over her nose, etc. If she got overwhelmed I went back a step to what she knew. It was a game. She got overwhelmed at one point and wouldn’t try. So I walked away and stood with my back to her. Pretty soon there was a nose at my elbow going “got any more treats?” It took several sessions and she was cool with the bit. So I have used it for real problems, and also for halter breaking foals. Foals got the reward of scratches in their favorite places and not a treat. This marking makes learning fun, a game.
A treat is not necessary for all things. Some of you say “good” and give a rub on the neck and a soak. Be more specific with your timing, or try a marker, it’s essentially the same thing. You might be surprised by the try you get. PS, it doesn’t work on husbands...