Human Vending Machine – An analogy about clicker training

Picture this; A hot summer day, you have been queuing in a stuffy government office for some paperwork for over an hour. The air is dry and hot, people around you are sweaty and smelly, you are bothered and thirsty. Didn’t think to bring a drink, this wasn’t supposed to take this long.  As the queue turns around a corner, you see a beautiful sight. Something that could save the day and make you feel better. A vending machine. A cooled, refreshing machine filled with the most colourful variety of cold, refreshing drinks you could ever imagine.  It’s there, right in front of you. Decision is made, you will make a purchase. You seek your purse for the right coins, choose the drink, press the button and wait. Now a welcoming sound of the machine working fills the stuffy government office and the cold refreshment of your choice enters the vending machine delivery slot and your queuing experience just got better. It fizzes as it opens and feels heavenly as you indulge in all the refreshing, cooling goodness of the drink.

Now what has this got to do with clicker training, I hear you ask. This may be far fletched, but hear me out.

Imagine you as the vending machine. Filled with delicious treats, one more delicious than the other. Your horse is using the machine, eagerly awaiting to indulge in the treats inside the machine.  In an ideal world, your horse knows how to use the machine, because he has been taught the instructions. Press the button, eg. complete the task you are asking your horse, the sound of the machine working is your bridge signal, often known as the click and that is followed by the treat that gets delivered, like the cool drink falling into the delivery slot. Simple enough, right?

The fun thing about this human vending machine is that the instructions change. Occasionally the human asks the horse for a different task, the horse knows that this human vending machine doesn’t always work the same way, but he is eager to figure out where the “button” is this time. Horse tries a few different things and finds the button, the machine works, treat gets delivered. He tries it again a few times and grows in confidence, he has figured out the new instructions. Machine keeps working, horse is happy and confident and good learning has taken place.

Now imagine if the machine gets jammed. Imagine what you would feel like, after hours in the queue, desperate for a drink. You put your money in, press the button, but nothing happens. You keep pressing the button, try a different button and even  try getting your money out but nothing is happening. Come on! Give me something. I want my money back or a drink in my hand. You get frustrated. You start pressing the buttons harder, maybe even trying to nudge the machine to see if it has become stuck.  Depending on your mood, you may start shaking the machine, hitting it, even kicking it. Sometimes that works, hit it hard enough and a drink will fall. COME ON! I just want a drink. At the end of the effort, maybe you get a drink, maybe you don’t. But one thing is for sure, your mood has changed. You are frustrated, maybe even angry. Stupid machine, ruined your day! At the end of it, if someone asks you to explain how you got the drink to come out in the end, you probably won’t be able to tell. You say; well, I was trying everything; hitting, nudging and pressing buttons, but I don’t know what exactly made it work in the end.

The horse can feel the same way. If the machines instructions change so much that he can’t figure them out, he will become frustrated. He knows the where the treats are but doesn’t know how to get to them. He will try everything he knows to figure out where the “button” is. How to make this machine work. First few tries he is calm and happy, in a good inquisitive mood trying to solve this problem. If his efforts are not rewarded, he soon grows more and more frustrated. He becomes angry, starts pushing the machine, nudging it, desperate to make this work. As his efforts grow and no result gets delivered, the frustration increases. Every try the fails on makes him feel worse. The learning experience is ruined, your horse is in the wrong frame of mind ( eagerly inquisitive vs frustrated and dissappointed) and you have failed a session.

Next time your horse sees a human vending machine, it will try whatever worked for him last. If your horse is pushy and enters your pockets and mugs you, you can be sure that the machine has at some point worked for him like that, by pushing and nudging he got treats. Impolite horses are created by malfunctioning vending machines.

Can you fix it? Of course. Take a break, let both yourself and your horse take a breath and let those negative energies subside. Then come back to it, but this time make sure the instructions to the machine are so basic that the horse can figure them out and will succeed. Give him confidence, show him that his machine is not broken and he can still successfully use it.

He will want to use the machine, he will learn to love the challenges it brings. You just need to make sure that the challenges are easy enough for the horse to solve. Make them progressively harder and  eventually your horse will understand even the most complex instructions.  Always start on page 1, don’t skip straight to chapter 8. It’s not fair on the horse and it won’t get you the result you are after.


It is your job as a trainer to make sure you give the horse clear instructions to the human vending machine.

Keep changing the instructions, teach them different things. Just remember, when you do change the instructions, make sure you start on page 1 and let him figure it out step by step so he does not end up getting frustrated. Frustrated horse quickly becomes dangerous and unpleasant to work with and very little learning takes place.


If you want to practise clicker training, please get in touch with Pia at Country Quest Portugal. Come for a visit, we can practice together.


Pia Saari is the founder and owner of Country Quest Portugal. Throughout her life she has gathered extensive experience with horses in many different ways. She has worked with horses professionally in riding schools, livery yards and racing stables. She has worked in horse rescue and helped numerous horses recover from severe physical and mental negligence. She has studied equine ethology and psychology, learning theory and many other subjects relating to horses. Country Quest Portugal has a mission and a vision to make the world a better place for horses - sharing knowledge by an online course is a very important part of this mission. The course is priced low to make it accessible for everyone who wants to learn how to better care for their horses.