A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Science behind Clicker Training

Ah clicker training, that mysterious method of training used by so many around the world.  And yet, it's still debated if it even works.  But did you know that you're likely using clicker training already with your pets, your children, your spouse......?

Just like Pat Parelli took many good training ideas, put them together, and offered a DVD package to teach people, many others have done the same thing.  Clicker training is an example of this.  What Parelli and his Natural Horsemanship offers to people is really no different then what John Lyons, Clinton Anderson, and many more both before and after have offered.

Someone sat down, did their research, and made a name for it.  They then sold books, movies, DVDs, and such so that they could share what they learned with others.  So, when you talk about clicker training, you have to talk about the idea separate from the individual trainer's  methods.

Clicker training is a method of positive reinforcement.  That's it, and nothing more.  This makes the ideology behind clicker training rather open and elastic.  Click to praise, that's it.  While Parelli's series talks about what to do when X happens, clicker training rarely has that detailed of information.  This allows the trainer more freedom to be right (according to the method) and requires them to listen to their gut instincts more then to what the "rules" are.

 But what we need to understand about clicker training is how it works, otherwise you get false ideas like the person who made this image! 

Clicker training is positive reinforcement.  It's a variation of Pavlovian training.  The story is that Pavlov trained his dogs to come to food by ringing a bell.  After a short time, when the dogs heard the bell, they responded exactly as they would if food was in front of them.  Their salivary glands kicked up production, their digestion hormones went to work, and they showed all of the same physiological changes that they would if they smelled the food and anticipated eating.  The sound of the bell became exactly the same in their minds as the reward.

The reality though, is not quite as clear.  Pavlov wasn't studying dog behavior exactly.  He was studying digestion, especially salivation (and lots of technical things about it).  He also didn't JUST use a bell, but many other stimuli,  including electric shock, metronomes, and various sights and sounds.  The irony to me, is that his research in digestion is almost unknown, but he's well remembered for this study.  A study which he had planned to use to make collecting of saliva easier.

Ok, so,  this work was done around 1900 (just before and just after; Pavlov spent most of his life studying digestion).  Now, around WWII some students decided to train pigeons to "bowl" (roll a ball with their beaks).  They had some trouble with rewarding the pigeons, and so correlated a specific stimulus with food.  This allowed the researchers to more exactly praise the pigeons at the exact time they wanted to.  In scientific talk, this means that the results of Pavlov's dog were proven through peer review.

Ok, that's cool and all, but what does it all mean?  Well, basically, it proved that the brain can be trained.  In the mind, reactions are caused by electrical impulse and the transmission of molecules called hormones and neurotransmitters.  (I'm making this really simplified here).  The brain is able to make little highways, and back country roads between its cells that make it easier for these things to travel around.  The more often the brain does the exact same thing, the more likely it is that the brain will carve a new highway exactly for that specific thing.  Neural Pathways they are called.

Now, what Pavlov did, and the WWII students after him, is trained the brain that a specific stimulus means a specific reward.  Most people use food, because the body is trained to anticipate food.  This doesn't mean it HAS to be food though.  Pavlovian training is nothing more then correlating one thing to another.  ANY thing to any OTHER thing.  That's it.

It's called a conditioned response.  We see this in war trauma.  Big loud noise, and a person might duck.  Crowded places, and a person might feel anxiety.  While those are examples of negative responses, they are still conditioned responses.  Other examples are when your dog barks, and you open the door to stop the barking.  Taping a horse on the rump to make it move forward and have you stop the annoying tapping.  This is how brains work.  It happens all the time whether we intend to do it, or not (like with post traumatic stress in soldiers).

So clicker training is just another form of this.  In clicker training you click a device (which varies from person to person and trainer to trainer) and it makes the same sound every time.  To start clicker training you must create the conditioned response.  Click, give food.  Click, give food.

Now, with dogs, that's acceptable, because as we talked about yesterday, dogs work well with food as praise.  Horses don't always relate the same way though.  Now, that's not to say that some horses don't do it, but it's not as consistent across the board because of the difference in species.  So, if you aren't using food, what ARE you using?

Well, praise is nothing more then a release of serotonin in the brain.  This is a hormone and a neurotransmitter (it has 2 jobs depending upon where it is in the body, the gut or the brain).  So, when serotonin is released into the brain, it makes us happy.  The smell of grandma's cooking may remind you of good times as a child.  That's an example of how this works.  Grandma cooked, you did good things, and your brain was flooded with serotonin.  Your brain then makes a little neuro-pathway to make the correlation happen faster.  It skips a lot of the middle stuff, like you ate, and then you played games, and goes right from food to happy.

Clicker training does exactly that.  It goes right from click to happy, skipping the food part.  Now you can't always skip the food, or the brain will eventually rewire again.  So, an occasional reminder of click, give food, and that handy little cheat code keeps on working.

So, when people ask me if clicker training works on horses, I can only say yes.  But it's not that cut and dry!  I use Pavlovian training instead.  The difference is that I don't have a clicker, I use my voice, and I don't always give food.  I figure my voice is something that I always have on me.  If you know me, then you'll know that I often forget to bring what I need.  I can't tell you how often I leave my phone inside, or head out to the pasture with out a halter.  So a tool that I kinda can't be without is pretty useful.

As for the reward, I have quite a few horses that don't think of food as praise.  Some were given treats for nothing, and so those horses assume that food is their right, and means nothing.  Others were rewarded with treats for bad behavior.  And still others have social issues because they were never handled until I got them.  I choose my praise based upon each individual.

Hex was rarely handled as a foal.  When she was, it usually was in a manner more like we handle cattle then most people handle their horses.  She likes treats, but as the alpha mare of my herd, she doesn't see them as anything other then what she deserves.  Now, getting her belly scratched.... THAT is love!  Hex can't reach her own belly, but it's her "sweet spot".  I rub my hand there, and she goes gaga.  While I scratch her belly, I usually repeat the phrase "good GIRL!" over and over.  What this does is makes her brain pair the phrase and the way I say that phrase, with the joy of having her belly scratched.

Cayenne was an orphan.  I always gave her food, because she had no mother to do it.  She thinks that food is a right, and it's MY job to give it to her.  Cayenne loves a good brushing though.  She has a specific brush that she likes (not too hard, not too soft) and just adores having a full body massage.  While I brush her, I tend to repeat the phrase "good GIRL" over and over.

Poko loves treats.  When ever I had him an apple and oat horse cookie, I tell him "good BOY".

That's 3 examples of reward that makes the horse feel good.  I pair the feeling with the phrase, and soon the phrase stimulates the response of feeling good.  For me, my "clicker" is nothing more then my voice, and the "reward" is what ever matters to that individual horse.

I also do this to Jae.  He fixes my fence, and I tell him "thank you", and try to do something nice for him.  A hug, a cup of coffee,  or rub his back.  The thank you is most often paired with something that he likes, so his brain quickly relates being told thank you to a reward and feeling happy.  Interestingly, it's MY thank you that does it - the specific sound of my voice.  Jae can do something for my mother or father, and when they say thank you, he doesn't respond with happiness, just a feeling of doing what he was supposed to.  This is because my parents rarely do things immediately afterwards for him to show their appreciation.

Ok, most people rarely analyze their life that much, but that's what poor Jae gets for living with a science student!  But this is how conditioned responses work.  A flash of light can be used as the stimulus.  A sound - such as those "no bark" collars that beep when the dog barks - can also be used.  The conditioned response can be either positive or negative. 

Now what most people think of as "clicker training" is a specific instructor's method.  I mostly saw Karen Pryor mentioned, but there are others who have tried to sell books and DVDs based on this concept.  There's nothing wrong with that.  All they are doing is breaking down the science I've mentioned above, explaining it out, and trying to help people understand the conditioned responses they are making, and how to use them in a timely manner.

Just like what Parelli did with common concepts of horse training.  It's been done before, it will be done again.  What they are doing is marketing a concept to people in a way that they think is easy to understand.  I've never looked into any of the specific trainer's philosophies and methodologies, because as a biology student I had to take more psych classes then I could stand.  The only way I managed to ace those classes was by delving into how they relate to animals.  Well, lots of studies on the mind have used animals, and this is just one example.  So as soon as I realized that "conditioned response" was a term common to both, I did my own research, and made my own methodology.

So, if you want to know if a specific person's method of clicker training works, I really can't say!  If you want to know if the concept of clicker training works, then YES!  It's based on how our minds are built.  It works well on all species because we all have amygdala, and it's a basic part of unconscious brain function.


  1. I forgot to mention that the reason the clicker was chosen is because it makes the exact response time more specific. It really has nothing to do with the specific sound, just that it's a short sound, and can be given quickly.

  2. I actually do use clicker training with a clicker--or a tongue click. I have a pretty consistent tongue click that Cole, the horses and Maggie, the dog, understand perfectly.

    I found it can do some pretty amazing things--and in a very short time. I even trail my cat with clicker, but since he isn't as hungry as the others, he tends to get bored and walk away!

  3. Laughing Orca RanchAugust 3, 2011 at 10:13 AM

    Excellent post! You totally answered the questions I was wondering about.
    So, basically someone very clever came up with the idea to create an official Clicker thing-a-ma-bob and knew how to market it successfully so it seemed like some new fan-dangled idea, even though the concept itself can be done by anyone, and has been used for centuries, using any noise or pleasure trigger at all.

    Fascinating stuff!

  4. I have not been a huge fan of clicker training with dogs or horses, but I love the way you explain the concept here! This, I get! This, I like!!

  5. I'm a tongue clicker myself. I agree, it's just a way of sharply defining a move, it's a "yes! that's it exactly!"

    Worked wonders with my mare. To me, it breaks through barriers. My gelding just likes figuring things out. Easiest horse to teach a trick. Now if we can just work through that bolt.

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