Clicker Training and the Horse World

horse laughThe horse world is a very interesting place.  It’s full of people who love horses, like horses, have businesses centered on horses, make money on horses, lose money on horses, train them, raise them, ride them, drive them, groom them, and hand-graze them, compete on  or with them, or do nothing but hang out with them.

But that’s about all you can say that “unites” horse people.  Soon the horse world begins to splinter into smaller and smaller subgroups.  Western – pleasure, reining or working cow horse? English – hunt seat, dressage or saddle seat?  Driving – pleasure or combined driving?  Trail – pleasure, competitive, mountain, extreme or endurance?  Horse agility anyone?

It’s as if everyone is in their own little fiefdom and if you’re not in their activity-specific world (and competing at the top levels), they’re not interested in what you do or how you do it, much less how well you do it.

I have had or been involved with horse since forever.  I’ve ridden western, hunt seat, and dressage.  I’ve ridden a Tennessee Walking horse and a paso fino.  I used to take lessons on a reining horse.  I’ve competed in dressage and gymkhana (western).  I learned to fox hunt, but never actually rode to hounds.  I’ve ridden trails for my own pleasure and gone on a cross-county trail ride where it rained for two days.  I learned to drive horses but never invested in a cart.  But most of my experience has been in riding and studying dressage.

Once I wrote an article for a horse club I was in and, being a dressage-based person, I wrote about dressage.  To me, dressage is the basis for every kind of horse riding or driving there is.  The word “dressage” does mean “to prepare”.  But I was told by one person that if she hadn’t known me, she wouldn’t have read the article because it had the “D” word in it.  I was gobsmacked and truly couldn’t understand that frame of mind.

Now let’s add “clicker training” to the mix.

Bob Bailey is a living legend in the world of using operant conditioning to train behaviors humanely.  He’s spent over 40 years training over 150 different species of animals, including horses.  He has tens of thousands of hours under his belt training animals.  But, as Bob Bailey said to me once, horse people don’t listen to him or anything he has to say about training because he doesn’t ride horses.  And he doesn’t ride in their style or compete and win at the very top of that style.  Therefore, his wisdom and experience are dismissed out of hand.

While I might ride dressage, but if I haven’t competed at the top of the sport, I’m no one and no one will listen to anything I have to say about clicker training and horses, dressage or otherwise.

Seeking to connect to other clicker trainers, I once posted on The Chronicle of the Horse forums calling all clicker trainers to just sign in and announce themselves.  I got trolled by a guy who said, “When the FEI approves clicker training, I’ll look into it.  But not before then.”  Since when does the FEI approve of any training system?  I don’t want to start a train wreck here, but the FEI doesn’t approve of rollkur either, but people still use it.  A lot.

The point is, unless you’ve competed at the top level of that particular person’s specific horse sport AND WON, you won’t be listened to, whether you’re talking dressage or learning science.

Now I’ve learned from a reliable source that the same holds true for the dog world.  Regardless of how far ahead of the horse world the dog world is regarding positive reinforcement training, “if the author (of a book) hasn’t titled a dog” that author (and books) are of no value to the person who only wants to know about titling a dog in competition.  The authors that those of us in R+ training revere, such as Kathy Sdao, Ken Ramirez, Hannah Branigan, and others, are of no consequence to those in competition, let alone such luminaries as Bob Bailey, Keller and Marion Breland, B.F. Skinner, and Paul Chance.  Those names aren’t even on the radar.

Keller Breland suffered such ignorance even though he trained several field dogs to championships using R+ training in the ’40s.  No one wanted to know about the training.  They only wanted to know who the breeder was.  That must be the secret to championship behavior – genetics.

It’s like my dad said for years:  “I might be the best buttonholer–coat, but I’m not wanted if I’m not also the top buttonholer–vest.”

Unfortunate for everyone involved, but true.

The horse world is about thirty years (or more) behind the dog world in utilizing the power of operant conditioning, but the times they are a changing.  For the better.  The time has come for all of us to learn everything we can about operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, and a better, more humane way to train any animal, whether that animal is a dog, cat, horse, giraffe, or marine mammal.  Read, study, listen.  Go and learn from the best in the field of positive reinforcement training of whatever species.  The species doesn’t really matter; the science does.


About Laurie Higgins

I play with clicker training - with my horses, dogs, and cats. I also attempt to grow vegetables with the hope of one day being able to feed my family from my garden. My daughter and I are learning ballroom dancing. Well, we were. But she left me for a paying horse job, so now my husband and I are learning ballroom dancing. I'm also now helping Peggy Hogan, of Clicker Training Horses (and The Best Whisper is a Click) to teach people how to train their own horses using "clicker training".
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10 Responses to Clicker Training and the Horse World

  1. Cynthia says:

    Hi Laurie, I just came inside for a break and read your latest blog post – I clicker train donkeys and study with Alexandra Kurland (her on-line course is wonderful!) I completely agree that the horse-world is way behind the dog world as far as CT goes … but try the donkey world – there’s still a LOT of force and punishment and disrespect there. However I have been aware of a growing interest in CT – more and more people jumping on board (yay!) as they choose to look for other ways to train so I think it’s hopefully just a matter of time. I enjoy your blog!


  2. Excellent post! As a dog clicker trainer, and someone who has clicker trained for multiple types of competition, I have found that the best way to influence those who don’t “believe” is to saturate the world with information, blog posts and videos showing dogs being clicker trained. I don’t truly feel that it matters to most dog’s humans who are looking to compete, that a training instructor hasn’t won competitions. Most dog training schools now are focusing on R+ based anyway, so people are being exposed to it more and more. The same will happen with horses eventually. I have found that simply doing the training and SHOWING it being done – like you are doing on this blog – is what will help right now. Even my friend who lives on a ranch with multiple horses and has trained forcefully her whole life has taken a few pages from my dog training methods and has realized that she can simply no longer train the way she used to. Anyway, hang in there!


  3. Jody Anderson says:

    Nice article, I really do understand how people can be locked into their way of thinking. This week is Farm Expo at the fairgrounds, it a field trip for all the 4th graders in the county and my Dairy Goat group has a space where we teach the kids about goats, and the many products that they provide, we give cheese samples and one of our members has Angora goats and she does a yarn spinning demo. We bring babies and mature goats to do a milking demo. As you know I do freestyle dancing with my goat Pepper, she also has a Blue Ribbon in Showmanship. Last year I took Pepper, she had her own area and she did tricks and we danced and she did the Hokey Pokey, she was a really big hit and the kids loved her. We also did demonstrations on animal husbandry at liberty, even the horse group was blown away by her, and their mouth’s dropped open when I told them I train with a couple of horse trainers. (For those that don’t know me, I train with Laurie Higgins and Peggy Hogan).

    This week I will not be bringing Pepper to the Expo. I was just informed that the farm committee voted that she will not be allowed because they were worried that the local news paper might take a picture of a dancing goat and that is not how they wanted to be represented. I will still be participating at the Expo for the next 3 days, but very disappointed and with a heavy heart.


    • Jody Anderson says:

      Pepper is a good ambassador for clicker training and demonstrates how easily an animal can be trained to a high degree. This is very foreign to the farm community and they wish to turn a blind eye to it. My biggest hope is to open up the possibilities to the children, whenever and wherever I can. To show them that all animals can be trained in a positive and humane manner.


      • Jody, I am just stunned. Really, I think you should go to the local newspaper and do a special presentation on just how wonderful it is when you use R+ in your training. Just blow them away with your skills. You will reach the right people, the ones who are willing to treat their animals as more than just livestock.

        Hang in there. You are an INSPIRATION to all who meet you.


    • Wonderful on the first half, Jody! My hat is off to you!

      Not so great on the second half that they disinvited you and Pepper! That’s just awful!


  4. Laurie, this is a great article. Super and informative as usual.


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