For over twenty year I have been writing about clicker training, teaching people the nuts and bolts of how to train with positive reinforcement.  The purpose of this blog is not to provide detailed instruction.  For that I will refer you to my web site,, and to my new on-line course (

What I will be sharing here are essays relating to my horses, to clicker training in general, and anything else that strikes my fancy.

Below you will find a list of the articles in chronological order:

1.) Horse Company (published August 2, 2014)


Okay.  I have a problem.  My horses don’t want to stay out on grass.  They would rather spend their mornings with me helping with barn chores! So much for the naysayers who tell us our clicker-trained horses only work for the food!

I opened the gate to their field just after 6 this morning.  Peregrine and Robin went right out, but then they turned around and followed me back into the barn.  “Aren’t you coming with us?”  Read more . . .

2.) Shopping for a New Car:

Lessons Learned From Clicker Training (publ. Aug. 23, 2014)

Part 1: The Demise of the Panda Mobile

Panda getting in car2A sad day has arrived.  I have finally declared my reliable, old Mazda unsafe to drive. This was the first car Panda learned to travel in.  I bought it in February of 2001.  Panda arrived in September of that same year.  When I went shopping for a compact car, I never imagined it was going to turn into a horse transport.  Read more . . .


I prefer writing books to magazine articles.  You’ll discover that as you go through the blogs on this site.  Some of them are very long.  To keep them from overwhelming your day, I have broken these posts up into smaller chunks and presented them as a series of articles.  The following is the first of these series. 

3.) What To Leave behind and What To Take Forward: Parts 1-5 (Publ. Sept. 9 -14, 2014)

clicker image red

My on-line course includes a very active discussion group.  One of the new members of the course asked for help with her young horse.  She was having trouble turning him out.  Some days he was a perfect angel.  Other days he would bolt off as she was leading him out.  One morning he spun and kicked out in her direction.  Needless to say this shook her confidence, and she was asking the group for help.

Part 1: The First Key to The Kingdom
Part 2: What do You Take Forward?: Opening the First Lock
Part 3: Setting Up For Success: The Second and Third Keys
Part 4: Find The Other Way
Part 5: Teaching Creativity Creatively

Read more . . .

The following is a nine part series of articles that were published in November 2014.

4.) In Search of Excellence: Effective Practice (Publ. Nov. 16 – 30, 2014)

3 layer square cake

I wrote this originally for my on-line clicker training course.  It’s a thirty page article so for this blog I have broken it up into 9 parts.  

Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.
Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.
Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.
Part 4: What Does Soccer have to do with Horse training?:
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills.  The second involves the split second decisions you must make.
Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin:
Myelin builds high speed neural pathways.  How does this translate to the building of skills for horses and their handlers?
Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes:
Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.  It’s also good myelin building.  You’re building good habits that create excellence. Myelin wraps.  It doesn’t unwrap so you want to build good habits right from the start.
Part 7: The Role of Patterns in Deep Practice:
In clicker training we break lessons down into thin slices.  It turns out in talent hotspots, they do the same thing.
Part 8: The Deep Practice “Layer Cake”
This section looks at the three tiers of deep practice Coyle identifies in “The Talent Code”
Part 9: Practice Excellence:
The series concludes by looking at the difference between mindless drilling and practicing for excellence.

Read more . . .

5.) Event Schedule for 2015

Ruth Alex deep practice lead handling

Training Intensives – My 2015 Clinics (Publ. Dec. 2, 2014)

What’s In A Name? Not too long ago I would have called my weekend gatherings clinics. Now I have a new name for them: TRAINING INTENSIVES. For years at clinics people have been saying I need to call my work something other than clicker training.
“What you teach is so much more than just clicker training,” they would say.  Read more . . .

6.) Futsal for Horses (Publ. Dec. 8 2014)

Fred Icky  futsal articleThere’s a connection between the horse on the left who is learning to step onto a mat and the horse on the right who is learning to piaffe. To find out what they are – read on.  Read more . . .

7.) Metaphors Matter: What Are Your Metaphors? (Publ. Dec. 25, 2014)

stoneMetaphor: noun – a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.  Which image describes you? Are you: set in stone; or growing and changeable like an oak sprouting from an acorn?Do you believe that intellectual abilities or athletic talent are something you’re born with?  If you weren’t born smart, or fast, or coordinated – oh well, you just aren’t going to be able to excel.  Read more . . .


8.) Choosing Your Words, Your Mindset, Your Training Strategies (Publ. Jan 13, 2015)

Little engine that couldTry Again
Years ago I learned to avoid the word “Try”, as in “I’ll try to get that done for you.” or: “I’ll try to make that meeting.”  When someone tells you that, “try” translates to you might as well schedule something else.  That person isn’t going to be there.Try is a polite way of saying I don’t want to do that, but I don’t want to say so, or perhaps even admit to myself, let alone to anyone else, that I’m not going to do it.Why does “try” have such a negative subtext?  We were all raised on “The Little Engine That Could”: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  Try seems as though it should be one of those words that sits on the empowering side of the equation, not the other way around. How did “try” come to have such a negative association?  Read more . . .

9.) The Cloud: Metaphors from a Systems Biologist (Publ. Feb 2, 2015)

Uri Alon new d

I am always in search of good metaphors.  Lately I have been collecting some gems from the sciences.  That seems an appropriate place to look for them since clicker training is science-based.  The two newest additions to the collection come from systems biologist, Uri Alon. The first is The Cloud and the second is “Yes, and . . . Learning to Grab a Whale By The Tail”.  I’ll describe The Cloud first and leave you guessing about the other for another day.  Read more . . .

10.) Yes And . . . Learning to Grab a Whale By The Tail: More Metaphors from a Systems Biologist (Publ. Feb. 2, 2015)

Getting Out Of The Cloud
Systems biologist, Uri Alon has given us the image of the cloud.  As a young graduate student studying physics, he found himself in despair over his research.  Assumption after assumption had failed.  What he thought was a reasonable hypothesis led him nowhere.  The cloud became his metaphor for the state of confusion that sits at the boundary between the known and the unknown. When you are in the cloud, you know you are getting closer to discovering something truly new.  Read more . . .

11.) Words Matter

What Are You Really Saying?
We’ve been having an interesting discussion in my on-line course about the labels people use to describe their horses. Words are so interesting.  Recently I flew on a Delta airlines plane.  Most of the airlines have rows at the front of the economy section that give you a couple more inches of leg room.  United calls this section economy plus.  Delta calls it comfort seating.  Oh dear. As I walked past the last row of this section to my seat in the middle of the plane, I couldn’t help thinking: “abandon hope all ye who enter here.”  If I have just passed the comfort seating zone, what was left – the comfortless seating rows.   Read more . . .

12.) The following is a series of 16 posts celebrating Peregrine’s 30th Birthday (Publ. April 12-April 27, 2015)  Read more . . .

Peregrine halter close editPeregrine in snow head shot

Part 1: Today’s Peregrine Story: Then and Now

Peregrine will be 30 in two weeks.  You can see his age in his face.  Just like an elderly person, his flesh has melted away from his bones.  But there’s something else I see his face.  I see the foal who greeted me thirty years ago. Read more . . .

Today’s Peregrine Story: # 2 Early Lessons (Published April 13, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story: # 3 A Study of One  (Published April 14, 2015
Today’s Peregrine Story: #4 Determination (Published April 15, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story: #5 Intelligence (Published April 16, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story: #7 Pulling Down The Brick Walls  (Published April 18, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story: #8 They Don’t Feel Pain The Way We Do  (Published April 19, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story: #9 My Soap Box  (Published April 20, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story: #10 Standing Up For Our Horses  (Published April 21, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story: #11 What Good Trainers Have in Common  (Published April 22, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story: #12 Unexpected Changes  (Published April 23, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story: #13 Birthday Preparations  (Published April 24, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story: #14 Peregrine Today  (Published April 25, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story: #15 Happy Birthday!  (Published April 26, 2015)
Today’s Peregrine Story #16: Happy First Day – Thank You!  (Published April 27, 2015)

13.) Resurgence and Regression: Five Go To Sea Conference Presentation  (Published May 21-June 9, 2015)

This is a fifteen part series based on a presentation that Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruis gave during the Five Go To Sea conference cruise in April 2014.   Read more . . .

Part 1: The Elevator Question
elevatorWhat would you do if you were trapped in an elevator?  You’d probably push all the buttons.  You’d bang on the door. You’d call out in the hope that someone would hear you.  But what if none of those things worked?  What would you do then? Would you wait patiently for the help that you know would be coming?  Or would end up huddled in a corner calling out for your mother?  That’s what happened to a professor at a conference in Mexico.  By the time help arrived, she had regressed back to very early childhood behavior.  Read more . . .
Part 2: The Translation to Horses: Is Personality Expressed or Suppressed?
Personality Expressed or Suppressed
In the opening of his presentation on regression and resurgence Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz defined regression and gave some examples in terms of human behavior.  I ended yesterday’s post with this statement:
roman ruinsExtinction reveals our history.
How does this translate to horse training?  At the very beginning of clicker training the extinction process may reveal your horse’s training history. It helps us to understand the “childhood” our horses have had.  Did your horse have a fair introduction to people, or are there issues you need to know about? Read more . . .
Part 3: Unraveling the Regression Mess
Emitted Versus Permitted Behavior
What are the keys to unraveling the regression mess?
The first is to tighten up your training and learn how to set up the environment so the behavior you want is the behavior that is most likely to occur. Jesús made the distinction between emitted and permitted behaviors.
When behavior is emitted, you are waiting to see what the learner offers.  When behavior is permitted, you set up the environment so the behavior you want is the behavior that is most likely to occur.
If you’re waiting, waiting, waiting for the dog to sit or the horse to step on a mat, you may see lots of experimenting before you get something you want to click.  All that experimenting can end up as part of a chain.  And it could also lead to a regression into previously learned, but unwanted behavior.  Read more . . .
Part 4: Extinction and Shaping
Often clicker trainers say they never use extinction.  I certainly work hard to set up my training so the horses aren’t put into the kind of guessing game that can lead to outbursts of frustration and aggression.  That’s something I very much want to avoid. But that doesn’t mean I don’t use extinction.  That’s what Jesús’ talk made so very clear.
To the people who say they never use extinction, his response is: “What do you mean you never use extinction!  Extinction is at the heart of shaping.  Shaping is differential reinforcement.  It’s the interplay between positive reinforcement and extinction.  So if someone says they aren’t using extinction, probably they don’t understand what they are saying.”  Read more . . .
Part 5: Extinction Reveals The Past
The Extinction Process
In the previous section I  said that extinction produces resurgence and regression.  I went on to talk about extinction without defining it.  In general we understand the meaning of that term, at least how we would use it in everyday language.
Here’s the definition Jesús gave us:
“When reinforcement is no longer forthcoming, when a response becomes less and less frequent, you get operant extinction.”
How does this play out?  What do you see in your animals?  Read more . . .
Part 6: Accidental Extinction
Accidental Extinction
Natilie grown ups close up Extinction is not a rarity.  Extinction is going on all the time, but we aren’t always aware of it. Suppose you’re working with your horse. Perhaps you’re in the early stages of clicker training and the focus of your lesson is teaching your horse to keep his head in his own space, away from your treat pouch, a lesson I refer to as: “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”.  What this implies is that you can stand next to your horse with your pockets full of treats while you carry on a conversation with someone, and your very polite clicker horse will be able to wait politely beside you.
To teach this behavior you’ve been asking your horse to stand quietly with his nose centered between his shoulders.  He’s been doing well.  You’re almost done with the session when your cell phone rings.   You answer it, taking your attention away from your horse.  Read more . . .
Part 7: Emotions
Shaping With Micro Versus Macro Extinction
When someone is shaping and they want to raise the criterion, they stop reinforcing for a behavior that was just successful.  The learner goes through a resurgence/regression process.  She begins to offer other behaviors that have worked in the past.
People tend to think of extinction as happening over a long period of time, but Jesús kept emphasizing that it happens over seconds.  Two to three seconds is all you need for a mini extinction. You’ll begin to see the learner offering behavior other than the one that was previously reinforced.
Again this got my attention.  I don’t like the frustration you see when a puzzle appears to be unsolvable.  Shaping shouldn’t be marked by sharp drop offs in reinforcement. I don’t want to see macro extinctions.  If reinforcement is that sticky, it’s time to take a break. Either put the horse away altogether while you go have a think, or regroup by shifting to another activity.  If you keep waiting, waiting, waiting until your learner finally gets close to the answer, you could lock in some unwanted behavior, and you will almost certainly lock in some unwanted emotions. Read more . . .
Part 8: Training With High Rates Of Reinforcement
Raising Criteria
In a successful shaping session with horses it can seem as though they never stop eating. That doesn’t mean that the criteria are never raised.  Quite the contrary.
In a good shaping session the next criterion you’re going to shift to is already occurring a high percentage of the time BEFORE you make that the new standard.
Suppose I’m working on having my horse stand politely next to me in the behavior I call: “the grown-ups are talking please don’t interrupt”.  My horse is keeping his head consistently positioned so he is looking straight ahead.  I’ve decided that now I also want him to have his ears forward.  That’s a great goal, but if I abruptly stop clicking for good head position because the ears are back, guess what I’ll get – more pinned ears.  Why?  Because I’m frustrating my horse, and that emotion is expressed through pinned ears. Read more . . .
Part 9: Cues and Extinction
Cue Communication
Cues have a lot to do with reducing the emotional effect of extinction.  Cues can tell an animal whether or not you’re you’re engaged with him in training.  If your cues say “not now”, he knows he can go take a nap.  Kay Laurence has very clear protocols for training. If someone who is working a dog has a question, the handler first parks the dog.  That is, the handler stands on the lead.  The dog quickly learns this means that he doesn’t need to watch his handler closely.  His handler won’t be asking anything of him as long as her foot is on the lead.  He can take a break from the training conversation.
With our horses we often forget to put this piece in. Generally we train by ourselves. The time in the barn is horse time so our focus is on them.  It’s only when someone comes to visit that we discover the “grown-ups” really can’t talk.  Our horse wants to be part of the conversation as well!  If you abruptly ignore your horse, that’s when you can get macro extinctions with all of the associated problems.  The solution is to teach the equine version of “park”. Read more . . .
Part 10: PORTL
PORTL’s Origins
Jesús and the son of one of the conference attendees playing PORTL during the Five Go To Sea cruise.
PORTL evolved out of Genabacab, a table game Kay Laurence developed for teaching shaping.  Genabacab has very few instructions and really only one rule: the only person who is allowed to talk is the learner.  The trainer and spectators are not to give any verbal hints or to discuss what is going on until afterwards.
The table game lets you work out shaping plans BEFORE you go to your animal.  Do you want to learn how to attach a cue to a behavior and then change that cue to a new cue?  You can work out the process playing the table game and spare your animals the frustration of your learning curve. Read More . . .
Part 11: Mastering Extinction
Using PORTL to Master Extinction
Extinction happens all the time.  When you withhold your click, you set up an extinction process.
If you withhold the click because you are unclear about your criteria or you’re clumsy in your handling skills, you could be setting up your learner for a macro extinction with all of the painful emotions that go along with it.
Or you could be withholding the click with very deliberate intent.  In this case you are using a micro extinction process to help shape a more complex behavior.  You are using extinction to your advantage.  The conclusion: extinction doesn’t have to be something you avoid.  It can be something you actively use to create more complex behavior patterns.
Today’s post shows how the shaping game, PORTL can help us understand how this works. Read more . . .
Part 12: Creativity Explored
Creativity Explored
Do you have a training-related question?  Are you wondering which teaching strategy will work the best?  Are you puzzling over some element in learning theory?  Great.  Design a set up, test it a few times to work out the procedure and then invite your friends over for a pizza and PORTL party.  In the course of an evening you’ll be well on your way to answering your questions, and you might even have collected data to write a scientific paper!
I do like the new name that’s been given to this shaping game, PORTL: Portable Operant Research and Teaching Laboratory.  As Jesús pointed out, we’ve been using lab rats to learn about human behavior.  Now we are doing the reverse.  We’re using humans as a model for animal behavior. Turnabout is fair play.  Much better to frustrate an undergrad than some poor lab rat!
So how does this help us?  Jesús shared several examples where extinction strategies were used to train complex, creative behaviors.  Read more . . .
Part 13: Degrees of Freedom
Optimistic Puzzle Solvers
How do you help horses and handlers to become more optimistic puzzle solvers?  One way is to expand the repertoire of both the handler and the learner.  The broader and more extensive the repertoire, the more options an individual has.  If a horse knows only two choices and neither of them are working, he’s in trouble.
Jesús referred to this as being coerced by your repertoire.  Here’s the example: suppose a high school student is a great debater.  In fact he’s so good, he’s captain of the debating team. You’d expect someone like that to have a really high self-esteem. He’s so successful how could he not?  Read more . . .
Part 14: The Positive Side of Resurgence
Building Unlikely Behaviors with Resurgence
Jesús reminded us that nothing is either all good or all bad.  We want to use positive reinforcement with our animals because we see it as effective and more humane.  But positive reinforcement doesn’t always produce desirable outcomes.  In people it can lead to addictions to harmful behaviors such as over eating or gambling.
Resurgence and regression can be very negative procedures, but they can also be used to produce what might otherwise be very difficult behaviors to obtain.
Jesús again used PORTL to illustrate how this can work. Read more . . .
Part 15: Micro Masters
The “Pose”
Jesús closed his presentation with two horse examples.  The first was Robin’s “pose”. I’ve told the story of the “pose” many times.  I’ll keep it brief here.  Robin first learned a stationary “pose”.  It originally was a by-product of cleaning up his treat taking manners when he was two years old.  During the process he started “posing”, arching his neck and looking like a very pretty dressage horse.  I liked the look so I continued to reinforce it.  It became a default behavior.  In the absence of any other active cue from me, if Robin posed, I would click and reinforce him.  I became the cue for the behavior.
Offering “the pose” meant that if Robin wanted to interact with me and engage in the clicker game, he had a sure fire way of doing so.  Even if I was busy doing barn chores, if I saw him posing, I would click and reinforce him.  I never wanted him to feel like the proverbial toddler who is banging the kitchen pots and pans to get his mother’s attention. If Robin wanted attention from me, he had a behavior which he could use to satisfy his need for social interaction.  Read more . . .

This is the end of the series on Resurgence.

14. ) Independence Day! (Published July 5, 2015)

Peregrine in barn door 5:17:12While others celebrate July 4th as a national holiday, for me it marks a much more personal anniversary.  July 4 is truly Independence Day for me.July 4, 2011 is the day I moved my horses out of the boarding barn to their very own home.I spent the better part of yesterday going through photos.  Things have changed so much for the horses.  The first nine months living in a construction site was hard, but now they have what I wanted for them, a good life.  Read more . . .


15.) Is It A Barn or An Aviary? (Published July 11, 2015)

This is the view from my office window.  Read more . . .


16.) A Summer of Adventures!  (Published Sept. 5, 2015)

scenery whales conference horses

Labor Day weekend seems like a good time to post this report on the Five Go To Sea conference and the August clinics. It’s taken me a while to put it together.  The problem with heading off on a summer of adventures is at some point you come bumping back into reality.  That happened to me when I returned from three weeks of travel.  I got home to find the hot water heater in my house was leaking and the tank was sizzling ominously.  I turned off everything I could find that was even remotely connected to the hot water tank and headed off to spend the night at the barn.  Thursday got the hot water tank replaced.  Friday a repair man came to fix the snowblower that wouldn’t start last winter.  I know the first snowfall is still a fair way off, but waiting until November to get it fixed is a bad idea.  Just to round things out, I also took my aged truck in for servicing.  I was learning that these machines have one thing in common with our brains.  They all operate under a use it or lose it principle.

Our brains thrive on novelty and that was certainly provided by the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  The first cruise took us to the Caribbean. This year we sailed up the Alaska coastline.  The route the ship took was through what is referred to as the inner passage.

Read more . . .

17.) An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1 

This is Part 1 of a 4 part article.The last time I posted I had just returned from the Five Go To Sea conference cruise.  It’s now November and I have just finished the 2015 clinic season.  Thank you to everyone who was able to join me this year.   Sharing clicker training is such a joy.  I am looking forward to seeing you again in 2016.The last clinic of the 2015 season was at Cindy Martin’s farm in Arkansas. One of the participants brought a horse who was completely new to clicker training. Usually when I have a start-up horse we are in narrow barn aisles with poor lighting and limited site lines.  Cindy’s barn is a perfect film studio. It had an extra wide aisle, tall ceilings and great lighting.  So we were we able to video this horse’s progress over three days. Read more . . .

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 1: Afternoon Session

Afternoon Targeting SessionsJust when you think you have that rare thing, a complete video record of a horse’s introduction to clicker training, you discover that several sessions are missing.  For the first two rounds of Nick’s afternoon session the record button wasn’t on.In both sets he was at the door waiting for me and began with three very definite target touches.  He came forward promptly, touched the target and backed up easily for the treat delivery.  He came out further over the stall guard than he had been in the morning.  His interest in the game was growing.  That was encouraging progress, but it was also that’s something needed to be monitored.  I wanted to make sure that this new found confidence remained in balance with his general good manners. Read more . . .

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 2

Day two began with another round of targeting and “the grown-up are talking”.  Again, I was choosing to work over the stall guard and to keep the session short.We followed the same pattern of the previous day.  After working with Nick, I asked people what they saw.  They all agreed that he was doing much better.  He was coming forward to touch the target, but the targeting loop was not yet clean.  He was first looking down the barn aisle.  Since this was not his home barn, it wasn’t surprising that he wanted to look around.  However, being easily distracted was one of the issues his owner reported having with him.  Read more . . .

An Introduction to Clicker Training: Day 3

Day 3: Session 1:We’ll begin by going straight to Nick to see what he’s processed from his first two days of clicker training.  You will want to watch the previous two days of training in order to appreciate the changes he’s making.Video:  An Introduction To Clicker Training: Day 3 – Session 1   Read more . . .


18.) Happy New Year! (Published Jan. 1, 2016)

No one wants to read a long post on New Year’s Day.  Instead I’ll just share three quick things.  The first is to let you know that tomorrow I will be posting the first in a very long series of articles.  I am looking forward to sharing them with you, so save a bit of time tomorrow to join me for a cup of tea and the first of the articles.The second is share this New Year’s Greeting from Panda and all of us at The Clicker Center.  Read more . . .

JOY Full Horses

IMG_0218 Fengur snow greatIn 2014 I surprised myself by writing a book.  Once the book was written, there remained the question of what to do with it. The normal answer is you publish it as a hold-in-your-hand actual book, but somehow that didn’t seem the right answer for this particular project. I sat with it for a year while I considered what I wanted to do.  In the end I decided to share it here.Because I know we all have a lot to read, I have broken the book up not into chapter-sized units, but into smaller chunks. Go to the JOY Full Horses section of this site for a complete listing of the contents.  Read more . . .