Clicker training your horse


   Clicker training has become popular with animal trainers and owners over the past few years for a number of very good reasons.  Initially the technique was developed for training aquatic mammals to perform.  Prior to this most training had historically involved either negative reinforcement or punishment.  It is virtually impossible to “punish” a dolphin or killer whale swimming in a tank.  Trainers needed to be able to “mark” a desired behavior even when they couldn’t immediately reward the animal.  Because aquatic mammals have highly developed hearing using an auditory signal that meant “That’s right!!!” made sense, and the initial signal was a blast on a whistle.  The whistle blast had earlier been paired with something the dolphin would value as a reward – a fish treat.  So when the dolphin heard the whistle, not only would he know he’d done what his trainer wanted, but he also knew he would be rewarded with a fish.  He would go on working through a number of behaviors, limited only by the inventiveness of his mind, until he hit on the one which the trainer desired.  Behaviors that weren’t wanted were not punished (he wasn’t smacked on the beak) they were ignored.  No one was making him try new behaviors by applying negative reinforcement (something nasty that stops when the animal does the “right thing”) he was working because he was determined to find out what would get him his fish treat.  Once he had figured out the desired behavior and was doing it consistently the trainer could pair a verbal command just before the behavior so he’d know what was wanted at any given time.  More complex behaviors could be broken down into small pieces and these later combined to get the whole “trick”.  Learning was a fun, intellectual, win-win exercise.  Once trainers of other species saw the benefits of positive reinforcement (rewarding only the desired behavior) and operant conditioning (pairing a signal with a reward so that the signal alone confirms the animal did what was wanted) this type of training began to spread.


   One big change from the early marine mammal training is the type of signal used to affirm that the animal was doing the right thing and a reward would be forth coming.  Clickers have become the favored signal.  The sound is novel, something the animal is unlikely to have encountered in his everyday life and yet it carries well so that a horse can hear it even across a crowded arena.  Most animals do not find the sound scary, for those that do muffling the clicker with a little duct tape will help the animal accept it during training.  Later the duct tape can be peeled away until the full click is accepted.  However there is nothing special about the clicker.  Any novel sound can be used provided it can be made quickly and consistently and be heard by the animal being trained.  Some trainers prefer to use their voice to trigger a successful response.  There is nothing wrong with this per se, except that most of us do not have the focus without the clicker in hand to always use the same word, one the animal hasn’t heard repeated ad nauseam and meaninglessly, in the same tone of voice at the exact moment every time the animal performs correctly.  The clicker is very clear; the voice carries too many inconsistencies for most of us.



Clicker Training and the Horse


   While the benefits of clicker training with free-swimming dolphins might be fairly obvious, how can it benefit our work with our horses?  The answer to this is really limited only by our imaginations.  Any situation where the horse can do the right thing or the wrong thing either in hand or under saddle would be a suitable task for clicker training.  If you do use it under saddle it is helpful to use a wrist attachment so that you don’t lose the clicker, or better yet have your trainer click particularly pleasing efforts.  Some in hand examples of training exercises where clickers are appropriate would be: leading politely; lifting the feet for general cleaning or the farrier – an added benefit if the horse holds up his own feet besides relieving the strain on your back is that he will improve his balance under saddle as well; teaching him to load on the trailer or enter other strange places; teaching him to lower his head on command; training him to quietly accept clippering or bathing; standing for veterinary examination or braiding; to come from the far end of the pasture when called; to turn to face anyone entering the stall or to relieve his boredom by using his brain during long lay-ups.  Horses with aggression, those that rear or display other dangerous behaviors can be retrained using the clicker.  You can also teach lateral and other complex movements from the ground before you attempt them under saddle.  Under saddle the clicker can be used to mark an attempt towards the desired movement, and to help shape complex sequences.  Often times in training it seems that the horse just doesn’t “get it”, and if we can clearly tell him what is wanted despite our own less than perfect aids and body position learning can proceed at a faster rate.  A frequently found benefit to clicker training is that once we start we find our horses show a real aptitude - joy in learning for its own sake.  While our horse becomes a model citizen and learns a slew of crowd pleasing tricks our bond with him deepens and the partnership is strengthened.



Getting started


   You will need a clicker (obtainable in many pet stores and even some tack shops) and a great number of small tasty treats – such as morsels of carrot or apple, mints or pieces of his grain ration.  If you have a horse with a tendency to be grabby or to bite – a common problem in ponies especially – presenting the treats in a flat pan is advisable.  One additional piece of equipment that will help later is a “target”, this can be a dressage whip, a special stick or even a traffic cone, although the latter can be unwieldy in some situations you can use different targets to attain different goals.

The first step is to pair the click with the treat.  This is really simple and most horses will have learned this in a couple of 5-minute sessions at most.  Simply click the clicker and give the horse a treat.   You will see the horse first looking to where you keep the treats, but once he begins to “get” the connection he will look to the hand that is clicking.  Once you see this behavior consistently it is time to introduce the concept that he must do something to get a click.  The easiest first task is to have him touch the target.  Make this simple by placing the target somewhere he is liable to have to move his nose.  At first he is liable to be somewhat puzzled by the lack of treats and clicks.  He will move around his environment, I usually prefer to start with him at liberty in his stall or a small paddock or round pen.  He will probably nudge at the hand with the clicker, and maybe at the treats, but ultimately his nose will connect with the target.  Immediately click and give him a treat.  In your excitement at his success remember only give a single click not a whole string.  At first he will wonder what he did to get the click and become more intent on his activities trying to push the right button.  Again he touches the target, click and treat.  Once he is touching the target consistently you can up the ante.  Move the target around so he has to seek it out, only click him for touching a particular spot on the target.  With a target stick you can get him to follow it down so he places his head between his front legs, or back round to touch his flank, even lifting his head.  You can increase the time he has to remain in contact with the target, so that he learns to stand still for various procedures.  Using a cone, but possible with the target stick, you can even send him out to touch the cone placed across the other side of the paddock.  One of my clients was using two cones to encourage her recuperating horse to gently exercise himself by walking back and forth between them, ultimately her horse became bored and picked one cone up and carried it to the side of the other.  This was a good indication to her that she had continued with the particular exercise too long and he was ready for something new.  All training sessions should be kept relatively short.  You do not want to bore the horse by repeating the task ad nauseam, overload him on treats or put him off the whole learning process.  It has been shown that animals work best if they are rewarded on a random basis.  If they receive a reward every time they approximate a behavior the execution becomes sloppy, if they are rewarded for every third or fourth attempt they will only make a real effort for the one they know will be rewarded.  By upping your expectations with your horse you will help him produce the best effort he can.  However, do not be in such a rush that he doesn’t have time to realize that you want the hoof held up for a little longer, before you then ask for him to lift it a little higher.  Always be clear in your mind what you are asking, and it will be clear to your horse.  If you want longer and higher at the same time it will confuse him and it will take longer to learn.  Once the horse has the behavior down, and produces it consistently it is time to introduce a verbal or hand signal to initiate the behavior.  Rather like the children’s game Simon Says from now on the behavior will only be rewarded if you have asked for it, not if he offers it at random.  You can lower you execution standards slightly at first until he realizes that “touch” means he puts his nose on the target stick, then gradually refine the click and reward so that only smooth crisp and immediate performance on command is clicked.  One reason I like to teach the target stick first is that it gives you instant control of his head, and wherever the head goes the rest of the horse follows.  You can use it to get him to stretch his muscles, stop a rear or bring his head down for bridling or clipping.


   When clicker training a horse under saddle and even when working in hand it is obvious that you do not want him to stop for his reward every time he is clicked.  There was at least one rider who taught his horse to jump using the clicker and every time the horse jumped the fence beautifully he would click the performance, then stop the horse and give him a treat.  Unfortunately when he took his much improved horse to its next show the horse stopped after the first jump, expecting his reward.  It is therefore important that as training progresses while clicking the desired performance, the horse waits for its reward until the sequence – be it a dressage test, jumping round or reining performance – is complete.  Even in the early stages of training once the horse has the connection between click and treat and has begun to explore the idea of task performance for a click, that he be expected to receive a short run of successful clicks before reaping his reward.  In this case the reward could be a bonanza, rather than just a single carrot ring.   Similarly, although you should never reward a particularly outstanding performance with a string of clicks, it is perfectly all right to give him a larger than normal treat or number of treats to mark your pleasure in his success. 

One of the more amazing things about clicker training is that even in a ring full of horses, riders and trainers each horse seems to know if he is the one being clicked for his performance, even when he is receiving his reinforcement from a trainer on the other side of the ring.  Of course, riders also can benefit and appreciate being clicked for their performance!


   There are more and more books and videos being produced on clicker training.  Some good places to start are:


Sunshine Books in Waltham, which has clickers, targets and a great many books and videos including:

Clicker Training for your Horse by Alexandra Kurland

Clicker Training for Horses: The Video

Available from Trafalgar Square Press are:

On Target Training by Shawna Karrasch and her video

You Can Teach Your Horse To Do Anything