Pitfalls in Clicker Training (Solution to Pitfall #1)



Solutions to Common Pitfalls for Clicker Trainers

The HippoLogic training system is based on the 6 Key Lessons for Horses and the 6 HippoLogic Keys to Success for Trainers. The Success Keys for Trainers are success habits that are beneficial to everyone who trains horses (or want to accomplish goals in live). In this series I will elaborate on how they can help you avoid common pitfalls and become a confident clicker trainer.

Getting Stuck: Lack of Knowledge or Info Overload

Pitfall number 1 is getting stuck, because clicker trainers lack information or knowledge. Or they’re getting too much (contradictive) information. Overwhelm kicks in and training the behaviour want comes to a halt.

Focus is taken off their goal and a new behaviour will become the focus. Until they get stuck and a new goal is taken on, without accomplishing what they really had in mind or what they really want to do with their horse.

Then they get discouraged, feel incompetent or frustrated, sometimes want to give up on positive reinforcement (clicker) training all together.

They see others reaching their goals with traditional/NH training and they want that too: results! They can be tempted to fall back on training with aversives and coercion, even when they don’t enjoy it.

I’ve struggled with this when I started in 1999. I got ‘Results’ in training using NH, but struggled to get the Relationship with my horse in that method. Something I really craved. I knew in my heart that positive reinforcement (R+) could give me the Relationship I wanted, but at that time I didn’t know how to get the Results with R+. This put me on the path to

Success Key # 1 for Clicker Trainers

When we learn about Key Lesson for Trainers Principles of Learning & Motivation, we’ll have a clear compass. When we use the principles of learning, as our compass, rather than a set of rules, we can find solutions to almost every training challenge.

Know your Learner!

First we need to know about our learner so that we can tailor our training goals and methods to them.

  • What is the natural behaviour of our learner (horse)?
  • What are their natural needs, wants and desires?
  • Physical strengths and limitations (we can’t teach a horse to fly because they have no wings, neither can we teach an elephant to jump)
  • How do horses learn?

What are the Principles of Learning & Motivation?

Why Principles instead of Rules?

The problem with rules is that they don’t apply to all situations. The most common question I get from novice clicker trainers are questions like:

  • How long must my training session be?
  • How often do I click?
  • What do I use as treat?
  • Do I use a clicker, a word or a sound as bridge signal?

These questions are all about ‘rules’. How much, how often, how long? I get it: we all want security.

Rules, will take ‘the thinking’ out of the equation (which can be dangerous!). Also, rules don’t apply to every situation: a horse that is just introduced to clicker training can be mentally tired after a few minutes, while a horse that understands positive reinforcement well, can be trained for much longer.

Answers to these kind of questions are based on Principles: it depends (an answer that no one wants to hear).

  • Your training session can be as long as your learner wants to engage or depending on how much treats your horse can have
  • You can click for every succession towards your goal behaviour, raising your criteria to the pace of the learners learning
  • Use the lowest value treats for easy (physically easy) behaviours.
  • Understanding that the value of a treat can vary (Cupcake #1 is so good! But after the 5th we get sick of it)
  • As long as your bridge signal is first trained (pairing it to a primary reinforcer) it ‘s a matter of personal preference of the trainer and the learner. When a horse is afraid of the click, you might want to start with a word or tongue click. When we need both our hands, a whistle can come in handy.

The more we learn to act from the Principles of Learning and Motivation, the more we can think out of the box and solve our personal challenges in training. Yes, it’s a new skill to learn to think from our learner’s perspective, but it pays of in forms of Relationship with your horse!

The only Rules in Clicker Training

There are only a few ‘rules’ I use in training…. And yes, there are some exceptions to these rule, too (Yep! The danger of using rules).

Win-Win instead of Win-Lose

One of my rules in training is: Always make training a win-win.

Win for the horse: give him something he wants to works for, likes to have (without depriving him first!!). In other words: use positive reinforcement. And a win for the trainer: the specific behaviour we want to see.

I see negative reinforcement often as Win-Lose: win for the rider, lose for the horse (avoidance of an aversive, which is not a reward!).

Stick to the ‘Contract’

Clarity is Key. Therefore I teach most novice clicker trainers to start with: a click is a treat. It’s an easy rule to remember.

When you click too soon, too late or one time too often, no worries: give your horse still a treat. When the horse is also in the beginning stages of learning, learning to pay attention to the click, when to expect a treat and when not to (when training ends), it’s best to give horses clarity.

We can always reinforce a more desired or a different behaviour later and ‘repair the damage’. So, one poorly timed click won’t effect your training in a negative way. It’s worse when the horse gets insecure about the meaning of the click: does it mean a treat or not? Be clear: click = treat. Then, learn to time better. 😉

Once the novice clicker trainer learns to set clear criteria and masters the timing of the click, we can abandon this rule. Again, tis all depends on the situation: the horse, experience level of the trainer, the behaviour we want to train, the circumstances and so on.

Stop when you’re Stuck

When we get stuck in training, our horse disengages, we get tired or frustrated, the best thing we can do is to stop!

Taking a break, gives us literally time to breathe. I know some amazing breathing exercises! That’s when we can come up with solutions! Not when we’re angry, stressed or tired.

When our horse is tired, stressed, fearful, bored or frustrated, he can’t learn anymore. He’s out of Learning Mode. In the one of the next blogs I will elaborate on how to keep your horse in Learning Mode. This is another Success Key for Trainers in the HippoLogic method.

Clarity and consistency

The other ‘rules’ I have are Clarity and Consistency. When we can get clarity, we’re able to give our horses clarity. Clarity will prevent so much problems: confusion, frustration, insecurity and other undesired emotions and feelings that inhibit learning.

When we train consistently towards a goal behaviour, success is inevitable! Even when we only clicker train a horse 5 – 10 minutes a week (!) we can accomplish great results! I’ve seen this happen over and over when I’m training multiple animals in a facility (mostly animal rescues). One of my other Success Keys for Trainers I’m going to blog about will help you get clarity & consistency. If you can’t wait for that blog, and you need help, book a free call.

When you’re ready, there are two ways I can help you

Need help clicker training your horse?

Are you a compassionate horse owner who wants to build a strong friendship with your horse? Would you like to understand your horse better and help your horse to understand YOU better? Get access to many online clicker training courses and a fabulous, supportive R+ community in our HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy. Check out the link!

Not sure? Start with a free clicker training assessment to get taste of what it feels like to work with me. When you have a specific struggle that you want to overcome, don’t hesitate to contact me. In this assessment you’ll discover what’s holding you back from accomplishing the things you want with your horse. After our conversation you’ll know exactly what to do, in order to move forward towards your goals.

Book here

Happy Horse training!
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc., founder of HippoLogic & HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy
HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy transforms horsewomen into clicker trainsters


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