The ‘A’ Test

Posted in: Clicker Training

When I accidently stumbled across clicker training a number of years ago, I had no idea that it would be the key to unlocking the door to the depths of my difficult horse’s soul. Since then, my mare has developed into the horse of my dreams.

Being a British Horse Society Assistant Instructor, I trained at The Talland School of Equitation with Pammy Hutton, FBHS and Molly Sivewright, FBHS, FIH, FABRS. I have spent many years teaching children right through to advanced riders in dressage, showjumping and cross country.

Whilst I had a lot of success training horses this way, I began to realise that it didn’t suit some horses at all. It was my current horse who forced me to look into other methods of horsemanship. She was hugely reactive, spooky to the point of being frightened of her own shadow, would buck and bolt and was becoming increasingly dangerous to handle using the techniques I had been trained in.

I now use a combination of training techniques; all making use of positive reinforcement to work and train horses incredibly successfully.

The Lesson

One of the lessons I often use in a clinic situation when introducing students to positive reinforcement training is The ‘A’ test. Those who have experienced this will know first hand how the horse trained through repetitive training using purely negative reinforcement and even punishment might feel.

I hand out a piece of plain paper to each of them along with a pencil.

I start off by addressing them in the following way, “I want you to listen carefully and do exactly as I say. Please can you write an ‘A’ on your piece of paper.”

Every student writes the letter ‘A’ on their paper. Some choose a lower-case ‘a’ and others a capital ‘A’. They are usually very confident in their actions at this stage.

Then, making sure I use exactly the same tone and phrasing as I did the first time, I repeat “I want you to listen carefully and do exactly as I say. Please can you write an ‘A’ on your piece of paper.”

They do as I request.

Then a few minutes later, once again, in exactly the same way, I repeat “I want you to listen carefully and do exactly as I say. Please can you write an ‘A’ on your piece of paper.”

At this point every person looks at me blankly and hesitates, completely unsure what to do next.

So I repeat (a little louder and more forcefully this time), “I want you to listen carefully and do exactly as I say. Write an ‘A’ on your piece of paper.”

Some people desperately keep trying to write different types of ‘A’, hoping to get the right answer, while others put down their pencils and give up, clearly completely confused by what I am requesting them to do.

I keep repeating my request, but each time my tone gets slightly more frustrated, eventually tipping over into a little annoyance and even anger. I then begin asking them if they did actually go to school? Are they really as clever as they think they are etc.

If I were able, I would at this point also begin inflicting a teensy-weensy bit of pain at the very same time as angrily repeating myself – but for the purpose of this demonstration, it thankfully isn’t necessary!

It doesn’t take long until every single person is completely frustrated and confused, and most have given up trying. The few, if any, who do keep at it, show obvious anxiety and uncertainty.

At this point, I stop repeating my request and simply move on to the agenda for the day without even acknowledging the task they have just been trying to perform at all!

This little lesson is so powerful because it is the perfect illustration of how using negative reinforcement comes across to the horse. The horse, as do the subjects of my lesson, go from willing to confused to frustrated, onto defeated and completely despondent, all in a very short space of time. This defeated and despondent attitude is known as Conditioned Suppression.

So why do they feel this way?

Those who were involved are quickly able to explain the reasons for their feelings of confusion and frustration. They claim it is because there was absolutely no encouragement or indication that they were heading in the right direction or that they might have got the answer correctly. They had no clue what the right answer was, so even if they had actually got it, there was no acknowledgement of the fact, just the same request being asked again and again which seemed to indicate to them that they had got it wrong instead of right.

Eventually complete confusion set in! Even by the end, none of the students knew whether they had written the right ‘A’ in the correct place or not! All that had happened was the request had ceased, as had the anger, and the day began to progress in a positive but different vein.

If we look at this experiment in terms of how we handle and work with our horses, it becomes a very powerful eye opener.

The horse may eventually stumble across the correct answer by accident. However, the more common outcome is much more sobering…

The horse keeps getting it wrong, or at least thinks it does as it receives no indicator to the contrary.

In an extreme example, the trainer gets louder and louder, metaphorically shouting the request and the horse simply carries on getting it wrong. Maybe the trainer will get angry or frustrated (just as I did with my students – punished them through being disrespectful and rude); kicking harder with the heels (or spurs); pulling more strongly on the reins; even hitting a horse with a whip. In terms of Learning Theory and Operant Conditioning, these are no longer termed negative reinforcers which increase the frequency of a behaviour, but instead become positive punishers which actively decrease the likelihood of the behaviour happening again.

They punish the horse for desperately trying to find the right answer!

Just as the humans did, the horses too become anxious, confused, scared and uncertain, eventually giving up. This giving up, or shutting down, is a recognised psychological phenomenon called ‘Conditioned Suppression’ and can occur in any living creature from rats to humans.


So, how could I have made myself more clearly understood whilst avoiding causing this confusion and anxiety, leading to Conditioned Suppression?

The pupils in my lesson speak the same language as I do and so we already have a common medium through which to communicate. The horse is not well versed in any of our human languages though, and none of us can claim that we are able to speak fluent ‘horse’!

We need to find a common language with which horses and ourselves can converse, and we need to actively teach them the alphabet and grammatical rules of this common language so that both parties may use it for communication. Negative reinforcement (pressure/release in this case – the removal of something aversive when the correct behaviour is given) used in a cleverly designed and systematic way, can provide this alphabet and grammatical rules for us.

However, even with an actively taught common language in place, confusion and lack of understanding can still set in, as my students can testify. What would have helped was if I had provided my pupils with the following two things:

If we switch back to look at this with horses again, it seems quite obvious therefore that if we could provide the horse (via a gentle, calm, clear, positive, systematic use of negative reinforcement without causing the individual any pain or discomfort) with enough information to enable them to find the right answer, we would surely be half the way there?

Adding positive reinforcement into this equation helps speed up the horse’s learning process and can be used to great positive effect, along with a gentle and cleverly constructed use of negative reinforcement which never causes fright or pain.

With the application of a common means of physically communicating plus positive reinforcement to the training process, my willing and enthusiastic equine partner can easily understand what I ask of them via my gentle, calm but positive guidance as I positively reinforce the behaviour I am looking for.

And, how much more likely does it become that my partner will offer that behaviour again if taught through never using punishment, only reinforcement alongside my request?

Far more so than if I had simply repeated my question, getting frustrated and annoyed, disrespectful or even physically forceful when they kept getting it wrong, all of which are forms of punishment.

For more information or to enquire about lessons or clinics, please get in touch by emailing me at

Jo Hughes