the downside to clicker training

alternate title: when you fuck up the clicker training

Don’t clicker train your horse, they said. You will make him mouthy, they said. You will make him beg, they said. You will teach him bad behaviors, they said. You can’t change his nature, they said.

Psh, I said.

look how good at standing still this clicker trained horse is

Then it rained.

Then I clipped.

I’ve made a terrible mistake.

have been getting real familiar with this view

So let’s back up just a skosh.

I knew I had to clip last weekend. Murray is getting back into real work, and he’s not really in shape, so he sweats. But he won’t be rid of all that hair until May-ish (when he is usually done shedding out), and I don’t have the time to deal with a fully-haired horse in full work in hot-AF-California weather. It’s just… not going to work for us.  So I sharpened my blades, girded my loins, and prepared to clip.

As in past years, Murray was not totally down with the clipping thing, but he was relatively good. Because I kept a relatively steady stream of small handfuls of his favourite grain headed straight from my fanny-pack-full-of-treats to his mouth.  For some reason, he never really settled down.  Maybe it’s because I was too absorbed listening to Oathbringer on audiobook to pay full attention to him and click for good behavior instead of not-bad behavior (probably should have learned by now not to multitask my training). Maybe it’s because there was a huge storm system coming in and the barometer was plummeting.  Maybe he felt like being a punk.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I get it. It’s hard having such an incompetent clown for an owner. But we got it done.

It was the day after we clipped that the shit hit the fan.

First, Murray had his first tacking up incident since we started clicker training. I couldn’t really blame him… everything was wet and slick, and I wasn’t being considerate of the fact that he was newly nudified.  On top of it, however, he was a cookie-demanding monster.  Kiddo could not stand still to save his life, he just hit me with an onslaught of various behaviors in an attempt to acquire rewards.

This continued when we headed out to the arena, where Murray started digging at the footing almost immediately. I kept him walking so he wouldn’t roll (in the hopes that his desire to roll would dissipate), but there was absolutely no regard for either my personal space or (what I thought were) the firmly established rules of walking and clicker training. Murray was barging past me, cutting in toward me, pushing me over with his shoulders, and then snaking his head around to grab his reward for this excellent behavior from me.

Um, no. It does not work that way.

opinions, opinions, opinions

I stopped giving him treats at this point, instead focusing on the “do not fucking climb on me you horrendous beast” aspect of groundwork.  In response, Murray upped his desperate attempts to acquire any kind of grain reward from him.  When we walked over a ground pole he stopped after putting two feet over, then immediately walked backward over it without prompting. He never wants to walk backward over poles without prompting.  I tested this out again and approached another single ground pole, and he walked forward and backward over it and then looked expectantly at me.  When no treat revealed itself, he threw his head to the ground and started pawing.

It was around this point that I realized we’d not be riding that day, and I needed to take a different approach. I took off his saddle (for which he was really unreasonable and awful), and Murray immediately threw himself on the ground to roll.  He got up, took two drunken steps, then threw himself down again for another go.

After this, we worked on basic ground manner and basics. You don’t walk on top of me, you don’t shove into me with your shoulders, and you definitely don’t run past me and then walk around me in a circle. In fact, all of our sessions since then have been heavily focused on calming the fuck down and listening, instead of wildly offering any and all behaviors in a desperate attempt to see them rewarded.

murray’s spook level post clipping

And this, my friends, is what you get when you fork up your clicker training. I’m fairly certain that my unconscious clicking while clipping led to Murray being rewarded for a lot of crappy behaviors, and his expectation of a lot of rewards in a short amount of time. So I will need to take a new, more self-conscious approach when tackling training during challenging tasks in the future.

This has also highlighted some holes in my clicker training program. Patience and behavior duration, to name a few.  That’s what we’ll be focusing on for the next few weeks as we get back into serious training.  Hopefully I will suffer a minimal number of days when Murray desperately needs to throw himself on the ground instead of being ridden.

20 thoughts on “the downside to clicker training”

  1. I’m glad that you’re being candid about both what works and doesn’t work with your clicker training! Hopefully this is just a minor setback.


    1. Ohhhh I love epic fantasy series! Is this one I should look into or is it another one that will get partly completed and then break my heart for years as I wait for the next installment (AHEM Game of Thrones and Kingkiller Chronicles and Gentleman Bastards).


      1. I enjoyed the books, but I don’t think that Sanderson is a writer on the order of Rothfuss or Lynch. His prose is less pleasing to read, in my opinion. To the point that when I first started Way of Kings I quit 45% of the way through (Kindle!) because I literally could not stand the repetitive chapter structure, one-note characters, and lack of development. However, I picked it up again and slogged through with a lot of skimming. And after the plot and characters developed, it seemed that his writing became better also. Maybe I just got used to it, maybe it’s just really hard to write shitty, flat characters (which is what they were in the beginning, I think on purpose?).

        However, in terms of crafting a world and story that is fascinating and enthralling, he is a master. What he lacks in the art of the word is almost certainly made up for by his demonstrated ability to deliver (as evidenced by his other novels, but also by the fact that he literally finished the Wheel of Time saga in conjunction with its dying original author). Definitely worth reading, and unlikely to break your heart with the timeline!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. ugh murray and those pesky opinions! bummer he backslid in the training, but i’m sure you’ll get him back in shape 😉 the NH guy i worked with (we focused on negative reinforcement: ie, the pressure goes away when the correct answer is given, instead of positive; but the end game is still the same: a willing, obedient horse who is conditioned to the aids) always stressed the importance of rewarding/releasing pressure not just for the correct answer – but when the horse is exhibiting calm, quiet and focused behaviors. ie, it’s not enough if they did the trick or whatever if they were also super hyper about it — the quiet focus was really the foundation of any response we wanted.


    1. Yeah, this is FOR SURE where I failed while clipping (and uh… sometimes in general). Especially with a horse like Murray, I need to focus more on getting him calm, quiet, and thinking instead of letting him get jazzed up!


  3. This sounds like my dog when we’re running through tricks and she just wants to do ALL the tricks ALL AT ONCE so she can get ALL THE COOKIES right away, and she has no time to just calm the fuck down and wait to see what I’m actually asking her to do. #cookiemonstersarereal

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This happens occasionally with my very treat and food-motivated gelding. I’ve found that ignoring him by crossing my arms, not meeting his gaze, and turning my back to him helps when he gets demanding. Once he calms down a bit, it also can be helpful to find a non-treat rewards like scratching an itchy spot to mix up your rewards now and again. Good luck!


    1. AH YES! I had forgotten about using a least reinforcing scenario to respond to this! Thanks for the reminder — LRS is actually a really useful tool that Murray has responded well to in the past.


  5. When I did clicker training with Riley one of the things we primarily worked on was deterring greedy, demanding behavior. He was already a monster about treats so one of the first things I taught him in clicker training was how to get rewarded for ignoring treats. Boy was that an uphill battle, but we got there!


  6. What a pill! I appreciate your candor about your experience. That kind of behavior is why I’m nervous to clicker train any of my horses, well that and I’ve actually watched my BOs horse inadvertently learn to paw too many things…


    1. Yeah, I’ve definitely made some mistakes. And Murray’s weird air-pawing (anticipatory behavior I think) hasn’t gone away yet, even though I never, ever reward him for it. However, negative reinforcement and positive punishment don’t work well all that for this horse, so I am going to keep giving this a good shot!


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