If Your Surgeon was Clicker-Trained, Why Not Your Horse?
A clicker is a small, inexpensive, colorful, plastic sound maker, which looks for all the world like a child’s party favor. This tool was introduced into dog and marine mammal training four decades ago with sweeping success. In contrast, horse owners and trainers have been slow to adopt clickers into mainstream training practices.

Clickers have been used to help people become better dancers, golfers, and even surgeons. Earlier this month National Public Radio science correspondent Shankar Vedantam interviewed I. Martin Levy, MD, a physician who has incorporated the clicker into surgical skills training. Levy serves as Orthopaedic Surgery Residency Program director at Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx, New York.

Editor’s note: Listen to Vedantam’s short interview with Levi from NPR’s Morning Edition (6 minutes), or his full NPR’s Hidden Brain segment “When Everything Clicks: The Power of Judgment-Free Learning” (51 minutes).

At one point during the interview, Levy demonstrated the use of a clicker to teach a medical resident how to tie a surgical slider knot.

Levy identified several qualities of clicker training he believed were responsible for the students’ quick learning and improved surgical skills. These qualities also apply to clicker training in horses. In the sections below I’ve quoted key points from the interview and described how they apply to horses.

“Animals associate clickers with treats. They’re a form of motivation.”¹

At first the clicker sound has no meaning, but gains value when it’s reliably paired with a primary reinforcer such as food. Once the clicker is charged, simply hearing the unique click sound activates the brain’s pleasure centers. The clicker is now a secondary or conditioned reinforcer and can be incorporated into training.

The value of the clicker reflects the value of the primary reinforcer. What will your horse work for? Nearly all animals are motivated to eat, which makes food a universal reinforcer often used in clicker training. Other reinforcers include wither scratches, opportunities for social interactions, and freedom to explore. In one study, researchers found that food was a more effective reinforcer for horses than petting and scratches.²

When training surgical residents, Levy was able to use the clicker sound alone because the students were already intrinsically motivated with “a burning desire to become surgeons.”¹ However, it’s rare to find a horse with a burning desire to execute a flying lead change, pull a cart, or perform any number of jobs we expect of them. Food provides an extrinsic motivation for the horse to learn these skills.

Clicker training

Clicker training is “a way to shape a behavior you want”¹

When teaching surgical residents, Levy uses the clicker to mark “the precise point a resident positioned a drill properly or tied a knot correctly.”¹

What does the trainer want the horse to do? Clicker training puts the desired behavior in the center of focus, and the trainer’s job is to recognize the horse’s attempt at the correct response and reinforce it. If a trainer focuses instead on correcting unwanted behaviors, from the horse’s perspective trying to figure out what the trainer wants can become a confusing guessing game. And if a trainer doesn’t know what he or she wants, how will the horse ever figure it out?

As is true for any training technique, timing is everything. The clicker sound pinpoints the exact moment the desired behavior occurs, and if the click is early or late, a different behavior has been marked and reinforced and will be repeated. A common error made by novices is using the clicker sound to grab the animal’s attention and distract it away from doing an unwanted behavior. Unfortunately, whatever the horse was doing when it heard the click (in this case an unwanted behavior) will be repeated.

Behavior is trained “by slowing things down into these tiny incremental steps.”¹

The clicker training plan Levy outlined for surgical residents involved reinforcing small steps that progressively build to mastery of a surgical skill. Each step performed correctly is marked with a click. “After five successful clicks, (the students) begin the next step and then the next, until they reach the final step.”¹

A clicker training plan for horses should likewise build the desired behavior by reinforcing successive steps that the horse understands and can do. Shaping is a process that involves breaking the training goal down into attainable successive approximations, reinforcing each successful step and building on those successes. For example, a training goal might be for the horse to stand tied quietly while you hose its legs. Starting with a doable duration, you stretch the length of time out gradually and progressively so the reinforced successes (the horse standing quietly) far outnumber the unsuccessful attempts (the horse starting to fidget and prance). Success comes with the accumulation of small gains, and failure is often due to lack of understanding or ability. Some trainers might have their “eye on the prize” looking for immediate large gains, but the horse doesn’t share that vision.

Feedback is “nonjudgmental” and “instantaneous”¹

In the NPR interview Levy shared an insight: “Clickers might not be useful for all kinds of teaching situations, but they may be effective in situations where the emotional crosscurrents of praise and criticism are getting in the way of learning.”¹

Levy observed that using a clicker to train surgical skills provides different feedback than what a student usually gets from teachers. He added that it is nonjudgmental and eliminates both praise and criticism, allowing the learner to focus on the task instead of what the instructor thinks of them. Similarly, using a clicker can reduce disappointment and frustration felt when the horse doesn’t meet the training goal, perhaps because the trainer has a solution, which is to break the goal down further and set the horse up for success.

Take-Home Message

Clicker training is precise, positive, and focuses on the desired behavior. In horses, clickers can help train performance skills in-hand and under saddle, as well as develop polite ground manners and self-control. Clicker training can improve learning speed and accuracy in any horse, and—because it’s positive and low stress—it’s a preferred method for horses who have past unpleasant experiences with punishment and harsh training.

Becoming a skilled clicker trainer takes dedication and practice. If you want to add a clicker to your horse training toolbox, the following organizations offer additional resources and information: The Clicker Center,³ Connection Training,4 and the Karen Pryor Academy.5


¹  Clicker Training for Dogs is Adapted to Help Surgeons Learn Quickly: NPR.  June 12, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/06/12/619109741/clicker-training-for-dogs-is-adapted-to-help-surgeons-learn-quickly

²  Ellis, S. and Greening, L. (2016) Positively reinforcing an operant task using tactile stimulation and food – a comparison in horses using clicker training.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 15: 78. https://www.journalvetbehavior.com/article/S1558-7878(16)30078-8/abstract

³  https://www.theclickercenter.com/

4 https://connectiontraining.com/

5 https://karenpryoracademy.com/