This post is another in the series I have been writing to commemorate the 20th anniversary of “Clicker Training for your Horse”. Each month I have been giving special recognition to individuals who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.
Today clicker training is firmly rooted in the horse world. There are people all around the planet who know two things about it: 1.) clicker training is fun and 2.) it’s good for horses.
But twenty years ago any time I mentioned clicker training very few people knew what I was talking about. I always had to add a lengthy description of what it was, followed by detailed instructions for how to introduce it to your horse. When I sent these posts out to the very limited number of horse groups that existed twenty years ago, here’s the response I would get back:
My Horse is so SMART!!!!!
That’s how the replies would begin. They always made me smile. Someone else was discovering clicker training. More than that, that individual was seeing her horse in a completely new light.
The 1990s don’t seem that long ago to me, but they were truly pioneer days on the internet. The entire community of clicker trainers was so small there was only one list – the Click-L list. That’s where everyone posted. And I mean everyone – dog trainers, parrot specialists, horse owners, exotic animal trainers, we were all on the same list. I loved that. You didn’t have to monitor dozens of separate forums to know what was going on. Everyone was in the same forum talking to one another. You could read a post from Karen Pryor followed by one from Bob Bailey. You could read about different species, dogs, parrots, and yes, even horses.
Any time I sent a post to the Click-L list I was reaching the entire clicker training community. But I wanted to reach out into the broader horse community as well, so I also posted on one of the early horsemanship lists. I was always careful how I used that list. I didn’t want to intrude where I wasn’t wanted. The list was a general one, but even so, clicker training didn’t always fit in to the discussions.
I chose carefully both which posts I responded to and what I said. I knew if I came in like a steam roller telling people that my way was the best and everything they were doing was wrong, I’d get nothing but resentment and push back – and rightfully so. If you push against what somebody else is doing, of course they are going to push back even harder against you. That wasn’t the way to get people to try clicker training.
Instead I would wait until someone asked a question in a way that indicated that they might be open to the use of treats.
I’d respond with a lengthy description of clicker training and a detailed lesson plan that would help them with their specific training issue. I don’t think I ever failed to get back an enthusiastic response. It was always filled with caps and exclamation marks. And it almost always began with:
“My Horse Is So SMART!!!”
Why was this such a surprise? Traditional command-based training is built on a belief that horses are stupid animals. This is not subtly implied. It is stated as fact. The corollary of this is: because horses are stupid animals, we need to use force to train them. But don’t worry dear, (and it was always said in this patronizing tone), they don’t feel pain the way we do.
Clicker training puts the lie to that core belief. We can see how smart our horses are. When you remove the threat of punishment and instead train with positive reinforcement, horse or human, you see a blossoming of personality and enthusiasm. It isn’t just our horses who suddenly seem so much smarter. It is every individual who is training in this way.
Not everyone responded with such enthusiasm to those early posts. Clicker training was both wonderfully well received and strongly pushed against.
There was one individual in particular, an Australian, who felt it was his moral duty to stamp out clicker training before it could spread. He wrote angry posts declaring how wrong all this hand feeding was!! His posts were also filled with caps and exclamation marks. The difference was there was no joy in his posts. There was no laughter – just angry sputtering.
I never responded to his posts – at least not directly. Clicker training was truly the new kid on the block. I knew if I pushed against what others were doing, they would push back even harder against me. That’s only human nature. There was a lot of horrible training going on at that time, but I was careful not to say anything negative. I wrote about what I was doing and why. I worked hard to avoid saying why I thought some other method was wrong.
I also knew that if someone posted something I didn’t like on the internet the best way to guarantee that that post would stay alive and gain traction was to comment on it. As fast as things move on the internet, if you don’t respond to something, it disappears in an instant to be replaced by the next puff of an idea. But as soon as you respond to a post, you give it legs. You can think you’re helping out by offering a rebuttal to someone’s huffing and puffing, but all that does is guarantee that their comments will gain more traction.
I am always mindful of the oft repeated line in Lewis Carol’s “The Hunting of the Snark”: “What I tell you three times is true.”
We’ve seen the power of that in American politics, but I don’t want to disappear down that rabbit hole! Instead I’ll just say I want to be careful how I post so that I don’t give added life to ideas that need to go away.
So I would never respond to this man’s nasty remarks. It must have frustrated him no end that I never took the bait. You could see the extinction burst he was in as he tried harder and harder to draw me into his rants. Instead I would make note of his comments, and in my next long post I would address each of his concerns, but never directly. If he stated that hand feeding treats would teach horses to bite, I would give detailed instructions for the teaching polite manners around food. If he said clicker trained horses would become pushy and always be demanding treats, I would describe in detail the teaching of the foundation lessons and show how they create horses that move readily out of your space.
Whatever arguments he had, I countered them with detailed descriptions of the training – never pushing against him, never even mentioning him. I just addressed point by point each blustering statement by providing people with good instruction for introducing their horses to the clicker. The contrast in tone was startling. I’m sure many of the people who were brave enough and curious enough to go out to the barn to it a try were in part attracted to clicker training because of the contrast in tone.
What people wrote back were posts filled with excitement. The delight in their horses was crystal clear. You could see it in every exclamation mark and underlined phrase. We weren’t using emojis back then, but they found other ways to express their excitement.
Their enthusiastic posts encouraged others to give it a try and the snowball effect began. The angry, blustering posts sent by this one detractor had the opposite effect from the one he intended. If he meant to stamp out clicker training before it could spread like wild fire from horse barn to horse barn, he was too late. Clicker training spread even faster than a wild fire. It’s an infectious idea. It brings with it great joy and that’s certainly something we all want to share.
In 1998 when I published my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, I gave the “snowball” a big push. I was quickly joined by many other people who got the ball rolling ever faster into the horse community.
Each month I’ve been writing thank you posts to the many people who helped bring clicker training into the horse world. I’ve been singling out individuals to thank by highlighting their training. This month is different. I want to thank all those early adapters and their exclamation marks. Your horses are indeed smart!!
I want to thank all those brave people who were curious enough to take treats and a clicker out to their barns and to ask their horses: “What do you think?”. Your exclamations of delight helped spread clicker training around the planet!
Years ago at a clinic I gave in Florida one of the attendees brought a horse she had only recently bought. She was a novice, first-time owner. She had done many things right. She bought a horse she had been riding at a local lesson barn. She was still boarding the horse with her instructor, but this was about to change. She was going to be taking her mare home and caring for her herself. That’s where the worry began. Her mare was one of those horses who makes really ugly faces whenever anyone approaches her in a stall. Her new owner was afraid to go into a stall with her. That had been okay as long as she was boarding her and there were people around to help her, but once she took her home, she would be on her own.
So that weekend we focused on “happy faces”. That’s all we worked on with her mare. Whenever anyone went past her stall, if even one ear perked forward, click, she would get a treat. It was very opportunistic training.
We covered a lot of training topics that weekend – as we always do, but for that horse the focus remained squarely on “happy faces”.
The following year I gave another clinic in that area, and this team were back. This time they were the clicker superstars. She was our demo horse for exploring lateral work and introducing people to single-rein riding. That was a huge jump from our first clinic together.
At the end of the three days we did a wrap up. Each person talked about a highlight of the weekend. When it was her turn, she started out by saying that at the end of the previous clinic she had been so mad at me because all I had let her do was reinforce her mare for putting her ears forward. But when she took her horse home she began to understand why I had made that the central focus. She continued to reinforce her mare for putting her ears forward. It wasn’t all she worked on, but it continued to be an important element in every training session. We could all see the results.
There’s a lovely training principle – The longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things that you see that it gives you. When you focus in on what can seem like a very small and seemingly insignificant detail, it begins to collect other good things around it.
So this was her comment after this second clinic. She said: she had always known her horse was beautiful, but now everyone could see it.
As more and more people are clicker training their horses, that statement takes on even more meaning. We always knew our horses are beautiful. Now we also know they are very smart, and because of clicker training more and more people can see it.
Thank you to all my exclamation mark posters! Twenty years on you are still bringing good things into the horse world.
Keep it positive!!!!
Share the JOY!!!
I remember some of your first posts to CLICK-L. What a wonderful place that was. So positive. So full of joy and excitement. That list really did it for the dog world, and I often think it was a little like the Manhattan Project: bringing together like minds from the corners of the earth to incubate and grow ideas at a blistering pace. (better world outcomes, though)
I remember how we dog people were stunned to find out that it would work with horses, and your post talking about how your horse people were astounded to think that it would work with dogs. I remember your first interspecies clicker class (horses, dogs and goats?)
Thank you for all you have given us. Your tireless work is appreciated. I loved the Goat Diaries and am loving Equiosity, and learning, learning, learning. Micro understanding. Although I do not have a horse or a dog to work with these days, I do have three
baby granddaughters who will love their Nana best because she understands how to guide learning and knows that “should” and “ought” are words that poison progress. Thank you so much for enriching my life, and through it other lives.
Wow! Diana, you made my day. It would be interesting (and fun) to have a virtual Click-L reunion. You’re right about it being a place of great excitement and wonderful sharing. We were all discovering a new world of training.
I was reading recently that humans work best in social groups of 150 or less. When a group reaches that magic number, it divides. We’ve certainly seen that happen over and over again with clicker training. I’m delighted that we have had to divide and divide and divide some more. That means clicker training is growing. But that doesn’t keep me from being nostalgic for the charms of the Click-L list. Thank you for a wonderful comment!
Great day, Alexandra– You are amazing!!! Thank you. Your articles are most helpful with relationship between my horse, dogs , fish, AND skeptic family and friends. I’m dancing through life with a bag full of “gold nuggets”. Many thanks. 🙈🙊🙊 Melanie. Sent from my iPhone
Thank you Melanie, what a great note! It sounds as though you are having fun – exactly right.
Thank you for this article which triggered more excitement and vision to spread to others that clicker training is magical and yes horses are very smart. I am trading an eleven old girl how to clicker train. She dreams of having a horse one day and I dream of how she will train it! We meet each week and she journals all that she is learning. She always tells has that sparkle in her eyes when my horse is polite and clever. Thank you Alexandra for all you have done for horses and for mine.
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What is the expression? Pay it forward. We have to keep sharing so the sparkle spreads!