The Unexpected Consequence of Clicker Training

The essence of Christian faith is personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Saving faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit that bursts into the human heart to take up permanent residence. New Creations in Christ are transformed – different – more – than they used to be. Clicker training does not seek transformative relationship with a horse, but a fast, efficient, and shallow method to teach behaviors. Neither the horse nor human is changed; they simply agree on a form of transaction.

Failure to Bond with a Horse

Recently I met a horse and owner who are both talented and accomplished yet experiencing some difficulty bonding with each other. I had the opportunity to work with the little mare for a while and saw an open road ahead. So what was the problem? It wasn’t the horse and it isn’t the owner. I had heard the answer during conversation with the owner but didn’t recognize it immediately.

Years ago a client of one of the dressage trainers based at my facility bought a new horse. She was working the gelding in the round pen and didn’t understand why his responses were somewhat bizarre. She asked me to take a look and see if I could figure out the problem. After messing with him for a bit I realized he had been trick trained. Movements of the whip were specific cues for behaviors, not generalized movements to indicate direction and energy. He was simply doing what he thought was right. It took a little time, but the trick responses were extinguished and he returned to more normal behaviors.

Discipleship – Leadership – Faith

Sometimes the cause of relationship problems is clicker-training. I don’t use clickers and do not recommend them because my interests are  discipleship, relationship, and leadership. My interest is building faith. The failure of a clicker-trained equine and human to bond illustrates the reason why my clicker has been sitting in a drawer for ten years without seeing the light of day. Successful clicker-training blocks the path to relationship.

Before going further into why clicker-training is an obstacle to  relationship I want to be clear that clickers aren’t inherently bad. They certainly have their place when used properly. However, in order to be used correctly the human needs to realize what the consequences are.

Clickers teach behaviors. Clickers teach a method of learning. Clickers are a contract with an animal that promises a reward for correct behavior. Like most relationship issues, principles and truth are amazingly simple. Effective application? Not so much.

How Clicker-Training Works

If clickers teach correct behavior, what’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. The problem is the nature of the reward. Clicker training conditions a horse or dog to connect the mastery of a challenge or obstacle with a food or other physical reward. The term for the process is operant conditioning,  first described by Pavlov. Clicker-training teaches a horse to focus on some THING, not some ONE.

Relationship is never about a thing – it is always the subject of two somebodies, not a somebody and a something. The term for that type of interaction or “relationship” is idolatry. The little mare I met appears to be attached to obstacles. When left to her own devices she seeks the company of an obstacle, whether poles, barrels, or tires rather than her owner. Is it because she loves her work so much? No. It is because the reward is attached to the inanimate objects not the human.

Relationship is Always About a WHO not a WHAT

Clicker-trained horses seek comfort and security from a WHAT, not from a WHO. A relationship-based horse seeks out the leader when faced with boredom or anxiety. A transaction-based horse when faced with boredom or anxiety offers a variety of behaviors hoping to stumble on the one that provides a reward that says, “Correct.” Sadly, the sound of a clicker or food reward has no power to provide lasting security.

Clickers may have a place in your training program as a cue. The sound and timing is precise and,  if used wisely, enhances communication and vocabulary. The unexpected consequence of using the clicker as a reward is how detrimental it is to the pursuit of relationship.

There are two general ways to train horses; from the habit of task or the habit of obedience. One is based on what the horse does the other on who is asking. There is never power in a what, only in a who. Barrel horses, rope horses, jumpers, and commercial trail horses are great examples of horses who know how to do their job and will do it for pretty much anyone. Horses who are trained based upon relationship don’t think in terms of what is in the arena or on the path ahead, but think about the state of the relationship and conversation with their rider.

God doesn’t give us a course of obstacles to master, He puts obstacles in our path to teach us to look to Him for guidance and direction. The right answer is always to focus on Him. Clicker-trained horses are task oriented. Horses trained by relationship focus on their human. Companionship isn’t found in a set of ground poles or a barrel, but in the presence of the one they trust. The reward for a clicker-trained horse eventually becomes the sound of the clicker. The reward is NOT connected to the human.

The focus is on the gift, not the giver. Both clicker-trained and relationship-based  horses seek a reward. In the first case the reward is food or the sound of the clicker. One is motivated by some THING, the other seeks something more personal —

“Well done my good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21)

Transformative Relationship

New Creations in Christ are different than what they used to be. Idols of wood or stone have no power. Things cannot save or love. There is no eternal security in a transaction. Clicker-training changes what a horse DOES.

Transformative relationship based on a committed and worthy leader changes not only the horse, but the human. Clicker-training is perfectly fine if the goal is to modify behavior at the expense of relationship. Teaching your horse to focus on a THING and not YOU produces what are, for many, unexpected consequences.

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This topic is discussed at length in the new book, Discipleship with Horses – Journey of Joy.  To browse other titles, visit Lynn’s book page on,   CLICK HERE.

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