Pressure and the Click

I have an internal struggle. I’m seeing more and more articles about clicker training and horses, which is a good thing, right? Well, I’m not so sure. One article discussed how to train your horse to put its head down. It clearly demonstrated how to apply pressure to the poll and then once the horse lowers its head you click.

Herein lies my struggle. Why should the click be associated with pressure?

Why not simply use a target stick to “invite” or “attract” the horse to lower its head. Then after the horse understands a verbal cue of head down then go ahead and place your hand on the poll. The hand on the poll, after the horse has been invited to head down will then be a cue, like sign language, not a way of forcing or even gently forcing a horse into the behavior.

From my perspective, I want my horse to associate the click with things that feel good. I’m thinking that the use of my hand pushing my horse into position may not feel bad or horrible, but I’ve not given my horse the opportunity to use its brain. I’ve found that the behavior (no exaggeration) is at least a million times stronger when my horse has its own ‘ah ha’ moment, where it has logically deduced that something it does, earns it something it wants. I don’t think using pressure allows the horse this type freedom.

I think in all creatures, especially me, my initial response to pressure, is some sort of resistance. I first have to wade through the irritating feelings, then rationalize, if I do this task that I’m being forced to do, like pay my taxes, I’ll avoid a bad feeling (threat of fines or worse) when I cough up the dough.

As the creator of my communication style with my horses, I can choose to focus on methods that allow the horse to feel good. I don’t like pressure to perform a task, so why would I think my horses would like it any more than I would. Negative reinforcement as means of communication with horses is what we’ve been taught for centuries, but I think now is the time to ask, “How does this feel to a horse?”

Here’s what Karen Pryor, leading authority on all things clicker, has to say about negative reinforcement:

However, because negative reinforcers are aversive-something the subject wants to avoid-every instance of their use contains a punisher. Pull on the left rein, and you are punishing going straight ahead, as well as negatively reinforcing turning to the left when that occurs. The traditional trainer typically doesn’t think of his negative reinforcers-his reins or choke chains or verbal corrections-as punishment. After all, trainers explain these tools are gently used, on the whole: if the trainer really wanted to punish, there are much more severe corrections available. And, the argument typically continues if you use a lot of praise and positive reinforcers as well, no harm is done in the long run.

However, the strength of the aversive can only be judged by the recipient. What the trainer may consider to be mild may be seen by the trainee as blisteringly severe. Furthermore, since all negative reinforcement, by definition, includes a punisher, making a practice of using negative reinforcement puts you at risk for all the unpredictable fallout of punishment: avoidance, secrecy, fear, confusion, resistance, passivity, and reduced initiative, as well as spillover associations, in which anything that happens to be around, including the training environment and the trainer, becomes distasteful or disliked, something to be avoided or even fled from. (Samples of Negative Reinforcement by Karen Pryor 2005)

Ouch! What the trainer may consider to be mild may be seen by the trainee as blisteringly severe. This is what I experienced with DaVinci. Had I have placed my hand on his poll to ask him to lower his head, no question, he would have exploded or imploded, or both. He would have viewed my hand, even a gentle hand on his poll as blisteringly severe. Of course, he associated a hand anywhere near his head as threat of pain, and not all horses do, but the point is, it was his association mattered.

DaVinci’s progress, in my not so humble opinion at this point, is due directly to the power of the click being associated with inviting or attracting a behavior. DaVinci was very fluent in his past life that pressure meant pain. He had all the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder in humans, or as Karen Pryon explains as fallout of punishment, with the biggies listed as avoidance, fear and I’ll add one, major stress diarrhea whenever he saw a human.

In my mind, the difference between communicating with negative reinforcement and the clicker, and attraction-based communication being paired with the clicker, is monumental, earth shattering, mind blowing, life changing. Just ask DaVinci.

I think if negative reinforcement is going to be used, don’t click for it. Let the release of pressure be the reward. The click is so darn powerful, I just don’t think it should be associated with something that doesn’t feel good.

For now, I’ll calm my inner struggle with thoughts that our horses will lead the way. They are the ones, who as Karen Pryor suggests, are the ultimate judge of the strength of the aversive. If pressure based communication, even paired with a click, doesn’t feel good, my guess, is that it won’t feel good to the trainer either. This is always my gauge, how is my horse feeling, how am I feeling? I know, in my pasture, if the horses aren’t happy, I’m not happy.

Fortunately, in my pasture, happiness is just an attraction-based click away!


PS I’ve posted a few new paintings. Enjoy


4 thoughts on “Pressure and the Click

  1. What an interesting article, Cheryl. I was wondering if you defined all ‘pressure’ as negative reinforcement? I agree that positive reinforcement is the way to go every time possible. However, sometimes pressure is simply one method of communication that can be completely neutral.

    The reaction the horse makes to the pressure/communication determines if the the next communication event will be positive, negative, or also neutral.

    Kissing is basically pressure… so is hugging.

    You conclusions are excellent. The proof is always in the fruit… the result. Leading always builds stronger foundations than pushing. My horses look to me as the herd leader, their pivotal reference for security, safety, and relationship. And, sometimes I use pressure to communicate.

    • Thanks so much for your insightful comment.

      The subject of pressure has so many angles. I was mainly referring to pressure being used as an aversive that a horse has to seek relief from. This then puts the horse in a place where it has to move away from something that feels bad.

      You are very correct to say and thank you for pointing it out, that pressure can also feel good, in the case of a massage, or a horse, almost violently, pressing its neck against a tree for a good scratch. In this case, the horse or person is moving towards something that feels good.

      My goal is to create places where my horses feel as good as possible, so they don’t have to show me they feel bad with defensive behaviors like running away, bucking, biting, resisting etc. Ideally my other goal is to teach my horses about pressure based communication through attraction-based methods. So instead of, like you said, pushing them into a position, I will use a target stick to lead them there. Then after they get the idea, I’ll give that a pressure based cue. Then when I’m in a place where I can’t target them, I can apply ‘pressure’ as a cue, but, my hope is that their association of pressure is pleasant, because it was first taught with attraction.

      So in that case, I’m hoping the use of pressure will trigger a pleasant memory and then a pleasant response.

      My hope is to continually refine how we are communicating with our horses and how they feel about it. As Karen Pryor stated, “strength of the aversive can only be judged by the recipient” as with the use of pressure.

      I’ve found the more I can tailor and Identify how I’m communicating, whether I’m using pressure or attraction, and how the horse reacts to either, has multiplied the tools in my tool box.

      You’ve inspired me to take a closer took at the types of pressure and how they may be interpreted based on the horse’s reactions.

      Thanks again!

  2. Great post, Cheryl!

    I see some people adding the clicker onto their traditional or nh training, and the training (sadly) doesn’t look a whole lot different from before.

    However, I do see some clicker trainers using -R very subtly, as a hint or suggestion, and I see often very happy, eager horses.

    I think there’s a continuum. And in some instances, it can be easier or clearer to use pressure. I think in each instance we should evaluate how we are using it and what impact it is having on the horse, which is what we often forget to do.

    I’m also reminded of something Alexandra Kurland says–

    “just because we are using positive reinforcement does not mean the animal is having a positive learning experience”

    I see some people clicker training horses and dogs and the animal is clearly frustrated, confused or stressed. This happen often in poorly done shaping and in poorly done desensitization (when the animal wants the food but is also afraid of the scary thing).

    There’s a trap some people fall into, that just because they are using food and clicker, that everything is wonderful for the animal.


    • Great point!

      As always, this is my quest, to more clearly define the aspects of pressure and reinforcement so we can have animal partners that enjoy being with their handlers. There are sooo many things to consider. I’m so glad you’re sharing your experiences.

      I keep thinking that perhaps it’s not necessarily what type of reinforcement we’re using, it’s how we’re using it. This is why I’m so attached to using the term ‘attraction’ as a way to interact. I’ve found in the animal is attracted or invited, their “Seeking emotion” is activated (Dr.Jaak Panksepp), which creates that ‘looking forward to something good happening’. I like working with my horses in this space where they are listening and anticipating, with what looks like amusement, for what we’re going to do next.

      Yes, I’ve seen frustration also with positive reinforcement training, especially with the younger horses that are just learning the dynamics and are sooooo anxious to give me what they think I want. This is where I have to simply and clarify to a point where we get back to a place that feels better for the 1000 lb over achiever.

      Your Alexandra Kurland quote is fabulous. This is why I want to continue to define what happy animals look like. If we can clearly define if an animal is happy we can basically insure a steady stream of positive experiences. The problem, I’ve found, especially when folks come to see my horses in action, one of the main comments, even by horse owners is, “I had no idea horses liked to play!” This tells me that collectively so much about the nature of the horse has remained hidden.

      Our dogs and cats live in our houses, often sharing our beds, couches, chairs, counter tops etc. I’d venture to guess we collectively and intuitively know so much more about our domestic animals that live in closer proximity. Perhaps this is why the dog training community is easily 15 years ahead of the horse community with positive reinforcement training, be default we spend much more time with the animals that live in our homes.

      This is why I think this is such an important time for equine history. So many boundaries and preconceived notions are being questioned and explored. I think it’s wonderful. What is equally wonderful is that the answers are getting easier and easier to see and feel the more we can recognize happiness in our animals. The bonus I’ve found, if I can recognize a happy animal, it helps me tune into what makes me happy and I can recreate that experience more often in myself. Then of course, I take that into the pasture, the arena etc. Reciprocity at its finest!

      Good times!

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