Clicker training is a controversial topic in the horse world that gained popularity along with the rise of the natural horsemanship movement. Some hail it as a humane way to train horses without force or fear, while others dismiss it as tree-hugging mumbo jumbo.
I believe clicker training is a great technique for dogs, but not so much for horses. The difference lies in the predator/prey dynamic.
The Theory Behind Clicker Training
Clicker training is a common training technique for dogs. The theory is one of positive reinforcement. The animal does something good, the trainer clicks the clicker and a treat is given. The animal learns to associate the click with a treat and good behavior with a click. Like any training method it’s all about timing and consistency. After a while, treats do not need to be given with every click as the click itself becomes the reward.
The Difference Between Predators and Prey
I believe that clicker training is a great tool for dogs. Clicker training is a form of treat training. Dogs are predators. As predators, they are hardwired to be food-driven. If attacked, dogs are more likely to fight rather than flee. Their survival depends on their next meal, not being concerned about avoiding predators.
Horses, on the other hand, are prey animals. Their first instinct is flight and they will only fight if cornered. Their survival depends on avoiding predators, not hunting other animals for food. They are pressure driven. They associate pressure with predators and their flight instincts override everything else until they are taught different. This prey mentality makes clicker training inefficient for horses. Many horses view a click as a form of pressure and pressure is something to be avoided, therefore, the clicker becomes a threat, not a reward.
Treat training a dog is far more effective than treat training a horse, just like pressure training a horse is far more effective than pressure training a dog.
If I tried to teach my puppy, Nala, to move away from pressure like my horse, she wouldn’t understand, because that’s not how her mind works. Just like if I tried treat training Moose, she wouldn’t really get it because that not how she understands things – well besides the fact that she doesn’t take treats to begin with – but you get the point.