Question : Are you in favor of training horses with a clicker?
I was working as a clinician in Springfield, Massachusetts at an event that is a major equine exposition called Equine Affaire. During the course of this event, I was asked to work with several remedial horses. One was brought to me with advice from the owner that the horse was very aggressive and dangerous about biting.
During the course of my work, I communicated with the owner and was told that the horse had been trained with the use of the technique called ‘clicker training.’ She went on to say that treats were used as a reward for the behavior desired . This horse would actually stalk me and charge with ears back and mouth open. He was a four-year-old gelding far too dangerous for anyone except a professional accustomed to dealing with this problem.
While working with him, I said the following words, “This is an example of why I tell my students that I am not a fan of clicker training, especially when it involves rewards in the form of food offered from the human body. I explained that when food is associated with the human body it produces horses that bite. I believe this and hold that opinion to this day. I was able to improve the horse’s attitude in a thirty-minute session, but one could never say that I produced a certain cure.
I advised the owner to stop feeding from the hand . I told my audience that the clicker part of clicker training is no problem for me. An audible marker signal, in my opinion, can be useful as a part of any training system. The clicker is the audible marker signal. The food acts as the reward for the desired behavior. I realize that some people use clicker training more effectively than others and some are downright inept with this science.
After returning home to California, I received two emails from professional clicker trainers. Each admonished me strongly that clicker training can be a very effective method. They told me that I was criticizing clicker training because of problems I had with horses that were trained badly. One of the professional trainers was Kim Cassidy from New York.
After exchanging two or three emails, I found Kim to be open-minded and quite interested in exploring my work. I realize that she wanted me to understand more about clicker training, and I believe hopefully to change my mind about the concept. I invited her to come to Flag Is Up and…lo and behold, she accepted my invitation!
Kim decided on her own to invite another professional clicker trainer to come with her. Linda Pearson from England made the trip, and they arrived on January 11 at about 9:00 a.m. I loved the opportunity to study with these two ladies. For three days we dealt with several classes of horses, raw, remedial and well trained. After returning to their respective homes, Kim and Linda each sent me a letter, and I will quote for you the essential elements of each of their writings.
“My name is Kim Cassidy, and I am a professional horse trainer who uses clicker training. While walking around the Equine Affaire event, I happened to watch a small portion of a Monty Roberts demonstration. I wrote him a letter about my dissatisfaction with some things he said about hand feeding and clicker training.”
“To my surprise, Monty responded to me personally. Following the exchange of a few emails, I was invited to Flag Is Up Farms. I decided to invite Linda Pearson to join me on my trip to California. Linda is from the UK and has studied Monty’s work for approximately ten years. She has successfully integrated his work with clicker training. Linda and I arrived expecting to work with trainers and maybe see Monty periodically. Well, we rounded the corner of the training barn and there was Monty himself.”
“After introductions and a short discussion about the three-day format, we proceeded to the training barn. Monty allowed us full access to a young horse that was sent to him because of biting. He told us that the horse had been trained using the clicker method. He allowed us to condition the horse to the clicking. I found this horse to be a real challenge, and Monty did not seem to be happy that there were no negative consequences when the horse decided to mug me.“
“I didn’t feel I had enough time to display clicker training properly, but we moved on to a mustang filly. Linda and I found an extremely nervous horse, spinning in her stall and jumping out of her skin. Not much was accomplished and Monty appeared within a few minutes to agree that we should take up work with this filly in the round pen the following day.”
“I was very discouraged after the first day, and Linda was too. We didn’t feel we made much progress. We did not showcase clicker training in a very good light, especially compared to the results Monty gets. Despite all of this, we were invited back for round two the next morning. That evening I found Linda ready to quit and go back home. She said, ‘We felt like complete failures and that everything he had said proved him right.'”
“Linda and I showed up at 9:00 in the morning and returned to the stall of the first horse. Monty took over the training of the colt and anytime he invaded Monty’s space, he was corrected, or as Monty calls it, schooled. This means he used the Dually® halter whenever he invaded Monty’s space. The horse definitely improved dramatically. Monty’s timing was perfect…he was not abusing the horse, but he was using pressure unlike I would do in clicker training.”
“Linda and I explained that we believed this horse had been trained badly and that someone had used indiscriminate hand feeding along with clicker training. We explained again that we were against indiscriminate hand feeding…we are in full agreement with Monty on this.”
“Next we went to the nervous mustang filly. She has been sent to the farm for trailer loading problems. The owner said that she couldn’t get her on the trailer unless she was heavily tranquilized. Monty invited Linda to do a Join-Up® with the filly in his round pen. Linda did what I consider to be a beautiful Join-Up and demonstrated to Monty that after Join-Up she could use treat less clicks to show the benefit of an audible marker signal.”
“This was my first experience with real round pen training, and I must say it was beautiful to watch. I know others do it as well, but it was really like magic and the filly became calm and happy. It was clear that she was completely relaxed. Monty then spent about thirty minutes getting her onto and off a trailer. He used very little pressure, and it was amazing to watch.”
“Monty has a quiet about him. He is never rushed, and he does not get agitated. He does not get involved with the “drama” that the horse is exhibiting. This seems to be a characteristic of all good trainers, and something I will take away with me and add to my training program. I have heard many clicker trainers speak of this before, but it was helpful for me to see it used effectively by someone else.”
“During the course of loading and unloading, the filly began playing with Monty and jumping onto the trailer doing little things like prancing next to Monty showing how brave she was. It was obvious that she was very happy with herself. She seemed to be saying, ‘Finally someone is speaking my language.’ I really could feel her joy and happiness…the humans were finally getting it right.”
“It was then my turn, one of Monty’s students brought me a young Thoroughbred gelding that wouldn’t load. The owners relied on heavy drugs to load him. Monty states categorically that he will not use drugs of any kind in the training process. I did my first round pen Join-Up with this particular horse.”
“I was quite clumsy compared to Linda and a complete oaf when compared to Monty, yet I still succeeded. Monty guided me on how to use my eyes and my body to achieve Join-Up…what a feeling! I then worked with the Dually halter getting the gelding to move his feet upon request. I paired an audible click with a rub between the eyes when he did it right. I felt that Monty could appreciate the clicking now that I was pairing it with the rub and not the food. Sometimes we have to compromise to make our point.”
“After a few minutes, I took my Thoroughbred to the trailer and worked on loading him. He was very good, and I got him on the trailer rather easily. We ended on a good note, and we were really looking forward to the next day.”
“Monty asked us to switch animals, so I did Join-Up with the mustang filly and Linda accomplished the same with my Thoroughbred gelding. We were both successful. Linda worked hard on marking good effort with her gelding using click and rub. The horse was much improved when compared to the day before.”
“After successful work with these two horses, Monty sent Linda to a paddock to get a little bay mustang gelding. Linda brought this horse to the round pen as Monty whispered to me that it was Shy Boy. Linda did Join-Up with Shy Boy and didn’t know who he was until it was over. When we told her she looked like she was going to burst. It seemed to be the highlight of her trip.”
“After lunch Monty brought two mustangs for us to work with. They were quite wild, but soon cooperative. I can’t believe how incredibly giving, soft and perfect the mustangs were. I almost cried when I did Join-Up with mine. It was so moving. It is hard to explain, but mustangs are very different from domesticated horses. I think Monty described them as “pure” and he is right.”
“We took them to the trailer and Linda and I both loaded our respective mustangs. It was really exciting because once they start to give you their trust, they don’t hold back. I think Monty felt great satisfaction in seeing our enjoyment. He truly loves doing this work. Despite being an incredibly busy man with many demands on his time, I think he is happiest being around the horses and training them. The happiness shines out of his smile when the human and the horse get it right.”
“What we accomplished in teaching Monty about clicker training, I really don’t know. If all we did is get him to distinguish between clicker training and indiscriminate hand feeding, then I feel we accomplished a lot. If we have started an exchange of ideas between the two communities, it will be an amazing accomplishment. I really like Monty, and I think he is an incredible horse trainer.”
“Monty loves the horses and that is apparent. He repeatedly stated that respect is a fine line and it is not spelled F-E-A-R. We need to offer as much respect to the horse as we expect to get in return. I believe that Monty has brought to the horse world a new understanding.”