JOY Full Horses: Part 2: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, “JOY Full Horses”.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

In the preceding section I introduced you to the habit loop:

single habit loop
I left it to you to appreciate your habits, good and bad.  In this section we’ll look at how habits are formed.

Forming Habits – Good or Bad
Cues and rewards are not enough to form a habit.  You also need what Charles Duhigg in  “The Power of Cues” calls a craving.  That’s what powers the habit loop.

Duhigg cited a study done with monkeys in the 1990’s by Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge University.  Schultz studied the brains of macaque monkeys as they learned to touch a lever whenever coloured shapes appeared on a computer screen.

Correct responses were rewarded with a few drops of blackberry juice.  Initially the monkeys weren’t interested in the computer screen.  They spent most of their time trying to squirm out of the restraints that held them in place in front of the screen. But once they received that first reward, they became much more focused on the screen.  As soon as they understood the connection between the three steps: a shape appearing on the screen, pressing the lever, and receiving the reward of blackberry juice, they became intensely focused.

The probe that was embedded in the monkey’s brains revealed a consistent pattern. Each time a monkey received his reward, his brain activity would spike in a way that “suggested he was experiencing happiness.”

Whenever the monkey received his reward, the probe recorded a corresponding spike.  A habit was forming.  As that habit became stronger, the monkey’s brain began to anticipate the reward.  Instead of the spike occurring at the point where the monkey received the reward, now it was occurring the instant the shapes appeared on the screen – before the juice arrived.

The shapes on the monitor had become a cue for pulling the lever – the behavior the researcher could observe directly.  They were also a cue for the pleasure response in the brain which was recorded by the probe. A craving in the brain was emerging.

In studies that were done after this initial one, the monkeys were trained to anticipate juice whenever they saw a shape on a screen.  The researchers then tried to distract the monkeys.  They opened the lab’s door so the monkeys could go outside and play with other monkeys.

The monkeys who hadn’t yet developed a strong habit could be distracted.  If the juice triggered a spike at the point when the reward was delivered, they would leave the screen and go out to play with their friends.

However, once the spike occurred when the shapes appeared on the screen, the monkeys stayed put. The anticipation and sense of craving kept them glued to the screen.

Let’s translate this to our horses.  In the early stages of teaching a new behavior, you may have your horse’s attention – until he hears lunch being passed out in the barn, or his friends heading out to pasture.  He’s still easily distracted.

But as you build that behavior, what you may observe is his attention is now locked onto the task.  He’s hard to distract.

That’s the process we observe.  Now we can extrapolate from the macaques and say that a habit has been formed.  The spike of pleasure has shifted from the point where you click and deliver the reward to the presentation of your cue.

The conclusion Duhigg brings us to with this research is that habits are strong because they create neurological cravings.  The monkey learned that pressing the lever when a shape appeared on a screen caused a drop of blackberry juice to be released.  He was learning how the system worked, but that’s not yet a habit.

A habit solidifies once the monkey begins to crave the juice when he sees the cue.  Once the craving develops, the monkey responds automatically.

Habits develop “by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.”  This last step is the important one to understand if you want to either build a new habit or disrupt an established one.

Duhigg used running as an example.  If you want to create the habit of running each morning, you need to establish a simple cue that will trigger the behavior.  It could be putting on your sneakers first thing in the morning.

You also need a reward.  This could be external – a mid-morning treat, or internal – the endorphin rush that you get from the jog.

What the studies show is that the cue and the reward are not enough to make the habit last.  Your brain needs to start craving the reward.  The cue must trigger not just the behavior, but also the craving for the reward.

Coming Next:

Changing Habits:
What happens if you don’t like the habit you’ve formed?  How do you change a habit?  That’s what I’ll be exploring in the next section.

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:          

2 thoughts on “JOY Full Horses: Part 2: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

  1. I find myself thinking about the clicker concept all the time so that it can become clearer to me. My cats eat up on a table where I have my blender. They don’t jump off as soon as they hear the noise of the blender….. they jump off when I start putting the plug into the wall just before I turn the blender on….


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