equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Stages of Clicker Training

This article was written for my website by Elaine Elmer, dressage judge, horse breeder and avid clicker trainer. It’s an important topic as the horse you have when you start clicker training, the horse you have after 4 months of clicker training, and the horse you have after 2 years of clicker training may all be quite different. If you recognize the stages, you will be prepared to address any issues as well as take advantage of any opportunities.

Clicker Stages & Getting Stuck

When I hear people talk about a horse getting stuck with Clicker Training and not really making progress beyond a certain point, I think there are a lot of dependences.  First, having started a range of horses from sucklings (clean slates) to rehabs (carrying around maximum baggage), I have found in the case of young horses, there can be a maturity issue because babies tend to think they should always get what they want instantly.  But there is also a buy-in issue, and that occurs with all horses at any age.  Clicker training is like any training method in that until the horse has accepted the idea of a task, it doesn’t pay off to move on beyond the most fundamental stuff.  For example, you would probably never consider trying to ride a jumping course or a dressage test or run a barrel pattern on a horse that had not accepted a rider on his back.  I think this is a variation of the same theme.  Perhaps because the consequences are less obvious, Clicker Trainers often do try to rush through some of the stages of Clicker Training.

There are a number of stages that a horse may go through with c/t, and how fast a horse goes through these stages will depend upon the horse (age, history, baggage, eagerness, attention span) and the trainer (age, history, baggage, eagerness, attention span).

1. All You Can Eat Food Bar Stage:  The horse thinks the trainer is a walking food bar.  The horse can be greedy and can be pushy.  He only sees what this food bar can do for him.

2. Trigger Stage:  The horse makes a connection between the bridge sound and the food.  It might be easy for some folks to think that this stage means the horse has figured out what this training is all about, but I don’t think so (yet).
Mugging can be just as obnoxious if it isn’t stopped, but he is coming to see there is a sequence.  At this point, they may appear to get it, but the horse tends to be inconsistent and easily frustrated.

3. Light bulb Stage:  The horse makes a connection between a behavior causing the bridge (click), which triggers the food vendor to vend.  If the horse is emotionally immature and hasn’t bought into the ‘process’, they may appear to have ‘gotten it’ but in reality, some personalities may be easily frustrated because they are struggling with: do they want the treat enough to do <fill in the blank>.   They are coming to see this is their choice and that alone can be a new and unusual state for certain horses.   At this point, some prior understanding of training will help progress the horse to the next stage.  A trainer can *prevent* a horse from moving on to the next stage by increasing pressure instead of waiting for the horse to choose the correct response at this stage because the horse learns that if he doesn’t do it, he will be pressured.  In the worst case, the treat can become a bribe instead of a reward.  This is a trainer issue, not a c/t issue.  The only way to progress a horse thru this stage is to keep on keepin’ on with consistent training behavior so that the horse can ‘buy in’.

4. Buy-In Stage:  The horse develops an understanding of “learning” (not just a behavior causes the click but a particular behavior causes a click.  He has developed some level of trust in the trainer – that the trainer will not ask for anything too unreasonable, even if things appear scary.  I think this stage is where many repetitions often occur in order to refine a behavior.  And at this state, the horse is beginning to see that there is an end to the means, in his own way.

5. Eureka Stage: The horse and trainer develop a dialog of learning where chains of behavior can be built without extensive repetitions because a dialog has been established between the horse and trainer.  At this stage, the horse has finally learned to learn and in this last phase, the actual food motivator can become less important than the dialog and the game.  Some people may not make a distinction between Buy-In and Eureka.

I think horses get stuck in stages just like humans can get stuck.   I suspect many horses stall out at the point that they have made a connection, but hasn’t bought into the concept of learning yet.  The treat is supposed to be the
motivator and it works because food IS such a strong motivator.  But it can also dredge up some less than pleasant attributes in a horse’s personality if he is under the impression that he should get the treat without earning it in any way or being confused and not being able to clear up his confusion.  I think this is where the anger displays come from – being in this stage and not moving beyond.

So, there are two ways to move beyond being stuck, keep going with c/t, diligently until the horse progresses into the 4th phase (which is what all Clicker Trainers are likely to recommend) OR drop c/t and go to other methods where the horse is less motivated and less prone to acting out.  Both can work, it depends upon the trainer’s ability and desire to work past any obnoxious phase and the options available. For example, if the horse has been a training drop out from all other imaginable methods, there may be few options but to forge ahead. 

I think the reason that some horses can return to c/t later after they have a knowledge base is because at that point, a good trainer has established a foundation of communication so that there is some common training  language.  This means that the horse progresses thru to step 4 faster, possibly in minutes instead of days.

Of course, training mistakes can and do happen, but those mistakes are less critical once the horse has reached a state of confidence.  And this confidence isn’t really fully installed until stages 4-5. Prior to that point, the horse tends to be more volatile because he is insecure and easily confused.   Add some immaturity to the equation and things can escalate.

The added difficulty when applying C/T to an immature horse (physically or mentally) is young horses are like most young things, they can be very self centered and enthusiastic.  Lots of enthusiasm is a good thing, as long as the trainer can direct it comfortably.  Young horses function as if they have a mantra: MeMeMeMeMeMe.  They have to learn that life is give and take, not just take.  For some personalities (horses and trainers), more conventional methods are more comfortable because the trainer may not feel he/she has the tools to redirect the enthusiasm and self-centeredness to a more partnership based relationship.

I’ve seen these stages in all ages, sizes, breeds (that I have worked with) and emotional states that I’ve encountered.  I’ve always seen a consistent pattern in each horse I’ve worked with. What hasn’t been consistent is the amount of time it takes to move through each phase.  C/T is pretty much a one-size-fits-all training plan, but each horse and trainer will encounter different hurdles as they go and progress through the different stages at their own pace.