Can you Compete with Clicker Training?

This is a question we are asked over and over again, “Can you compete with Clicker Training?” or even “If Clicker Training works so well, why aren’t all the famous competitors doing it?”. There is so much to this I’m going to see if I can break it down. We have a few points to look at – the goals of competing (horse vs. human), the long standing traditions and strict rules of the competition world, the types of behaviors asked for in competitions and why, and which parts are beneficial or detrimental to the horse.

We know that positive reinforcement works just as well as negative reinforcement and can teach any behavior a horse is capable of. We know this because science and experience has shown this, so why is it that people who are excelling at clicker training are not competing and people competing are not excelling at clicker training? We know that if we train the behaviors that we expect our horses to perform in competition, put the behaviors on an appropriate schedule and build it into chains, we can refer to these behaviors even in a competitive environment where we can’t feed. But the nature of the competitions as they are currently doesn’t make it easy to avoid negative reinforcement. These competitions have been built, designed, and judged on standards created based on negative reinforcement training techniques that have been molded over centuries of using horses for labor, entertainment, and warfare. Rules regarding which tools are allowed and how the behaviors should appear were all decided based on these standards – standards of labor, entertainment, and warfare. 

The truth is, Clicker Training is new to the horse world, not many people are daring enough to go against the norms. Those at the top of the competitive industries, however, seem to be more open to trying things out. There are many, many competitive trainers who have integrated positive reinforcement into their training. Those who are confident enough in what they know, are bold enough to explore what they don’t know – and are often thrilled to see the results of their efforts. There are many clicker trainers working with top competitive trainers around the world, helping them overcome problems (like a fear of water jumps). Mostly these trainers use Clicker Training as a way to patch holes, fix problems, and sweeten the traditional deal. There are very few who have clicker trained throughout all the steps of training – and fewer who have actively tried to avoid using aversives as well in their training. But WHY?

Competitions are meant to be extreme – that is the nature of competing, the winner will always be the one who is the most extreme. Who can jump the highest, run the fastest, run the longest, get the ball in the goal the most, hit the target the most, hit the hardest – and then add some fashion and style, who can dance the prettiest, or most accurately follow a set of steps, formations, fighting styles… It’s all about extremes, reaching for perfection, striving for better. Human athletes push themselves to the physical and emotional limits to reach these competitive goals and extremes. Humans may run until their knees are ruined, may dance until their feet fall off, hit each other until career or even life ending injuries take over. We have one difference here with horses however, that is consent. Horses may do well in their competitive goals, but they didn’t sign up for the risks involved. They didn’t sign up for the early arthritis or the risk of a broken leg, they didn’t agree to the torment of training day in and day out, like many human athletes opt to do out of a passion for a sport. This extreme requires great discipline and self-sacrifice, while positive reinforcement can train every behavior, like a beautiful jump, but it can’t push a horse to jump higher, faster, harder, or more often than they are physically or emotionally comfortable with. At some point the aversive nature of the behavior (and any behavior, even a fun one will become aversive when it’s repeated endlessly) will begin to poison the training experience. This is when those who are pushing for the top will need to integrate in aversives – making non-compliance not an option. So while they’re rewarded for doing well, the act of being pushed to be better, the best, is so strenuous it can easily destroy its own pleasure, and result in the need for aversives to get the push they need.

A great setup for a clicker competition! Mounted or not, equine agility is great fun for all ages, levels, and physical abilities.

Often as we delve into the world of positive reinforcement, because information is not readily out there, we are forced to learn a great deal about how horses learn, behave naturally, and express themselves as individuals. As we master the skills of training behaviors positively, we also discover how brilliant and emotional our horses are. We begin to understand how horses are able to participate in their learning, consent and chose to engage with us. Our values as a whole change. Our goals shift from cosmetic and competitive to those that revolve around relationship and understanding between two individuals. We are no longer looking for ways to train and control horses, but ways to communicate, two ways, to listen and not just be heard. With that our training goals take a major shift. Teaching our horses to jump, maneuver obstacles, or perform a series of trained behaviors – this becomes basic and mundane, soon we are challenging ourselves to teach concepts, vocabulary, precision, communication buttons, training ideas and awareness, not just scripted behaviors. We begin not to take our horses to physical extremes, but to new levels cognitively. Our whole focus in horsemanship changes completely, all our goals shift, but how do we explain this to someone who’s not felt this before? It’s a cultural standard that horses are used for riding and competing, it’s almost expected that all those who work with horses both ride and compete, but when you step away from that world and begin to see the horse underneath it all, we see how much more is possible, beyond the traditions and old ideals. 

While we also need to maintain our horse’s physical health and wellbeing – this can be done without competing, but can be used in competition for fun too! We can look at the beneficial parts of our old competitive world. If we pull out the parts that benefit the horse and leave out the parts that become too extreme, repetitive, or become aversive, then we can have a sport designed for the horses! As positive reinforcement becomes more and more the norm among the horse world the competitions will also be forced to evolve. We are seeing a massive movement for bitless competing, this alone will make the competitive world an easier and more appropriate place for clicker trainers. We are also seeing a major up-rise in online competitive options that are positive training friendly. Even we at EE built Clicker Challenges, while these are graded individually and not competitively, it can feel very similar to competing. These provide a clear set of goals and steps focused on your chosen direction, fitness or cognitive, with professional feedback, and the pride of saying “We did it” – and a few tangible prizes, even show ribbons! As the demand grows, these opportunities will continue to grow as well. So hold tight, clicker friendly competitions are going to be here soon.