15 Rules for Clicker Training Your Horse

Operant conditioning, better known as clicker training, is becoming more and more acceptable in the equine world. Originally used by dolphin trainers, this humane, scientific method was initiated in cases where punishment wouldn’t work. After all, yo

Operant conditioning, better known as clicker training, is becoming more and more acceptable in the equine world. Originally used by dolphin trainers, this humane, scientific method was initiated in cases where punishment wouldn’t work. After all, you can’t put a leash and choke collar on a dolphin. Most people are familiar with the sound of a whistle used in seaquariums – the piercing blast when a dolphin hits the peak of its jump, or twirls the fastest, or makes the biggest splash. It is a “bridge” to the fish reward – a sound that says, “Yes!” to the animal. A click works the same way. This “yes” signal is set apart from the verbal noise we spew constantly. It is distinctive and succinct, thus making the desired behavior stand out in the mind of the animal. In this regard, it is much more effective than praise.

1) Work With a Full Stomach

I quickly learned that in this aspect, horses are the opposite of dogs. Dogs are pack animals and in nature, they have to strategize to catch their food. A hungry dog is a very motivated dog. But a hungry horse is a crabby horse. A horse who is hungry has difficulty concentrating. Make sure he’s had a good ration of hay before you start.

 2) Stay Safe!

Clicker training encourages inventive behavior on the part of the animal. Be sure you are aware of what the horse is doing, of where his body is in relation to yours, and remain safe at all times.

3) Use Discriminating Tastes

In clicker training horses, we put aside all predispositions against using food rewards. The click is what leads to the food. Therefore, no amount of mugging or nipping on the horse’s part will work. A horse can quickly make the distinction between “freebies” – food that is hand-fed at random (always a bad idea) and an earned reward. If you are consistent with this rule (and everyone else who interacts with the horse is, too), you will see a gradual end to mugging behavior.

I use a fanny pack filled with cut-up bits of apples, carrots, molasses wafers or other prepared horse treats, and Clifford’s favorites: Peppermints! Some people use cheerios. A mix of treats is best, as it keeps interest levels high if the horse never really knows what’s coming. Use pieces no larger than the size of a quarter, so there is less time taken up in chewing and lessons can move forward. A varying pay scale works great. For Clifford’s best performances, I use peppermints. This is my way of giving him a “jackpot”. Carrots and apples are good, and worth working for, but the jackpot is really the ultimate reward. He also loves a good neck scratch.

4) Start In Kindergarten

To teach your horse what the click means, do a click and treat, click and treat repeatedly. Click only once, and then treat every time you click. Be sure to keep the timing of the click random. Don’t make it like clockwork, or the horse will lock onto the rhythm and it will take him longer to learn what’s really going on. A good rule of thumb is to deliver the treat within twenty seconds after the click. The timing of the click is crucial – the timing of the treat afterwards is less important. Once he hears the click, the horse knows the treat is coming. And make sure that it is, even if you click by mistake. This is your pact with the horse. Once you see the “lights go on” at the sound of the click -- the horse’s ears may perk up, and he reacts with interest, it means he understands that food is coming. Now you can begin your first session. A good first rule is teaching your horse to lower his head on command. The desired position is to have the horse’s eye level lower than your own. Hold your closed fist down with treat inside, and when the horse lowers his head to sniff your hand, click. Then open your hand and present the treat. Eventually you can combine a word with your hand signal, then fade out the hand cue altogether. This is also the beginning of target training. This is a quick way of establishing to the horse what the click means, and has the added benefit of putting him in a relaxed/submissive position.

5) Keep It Simple – One Small Step at a Time

With clicker training, it’s best to raise criteria in increments small enough that there is always a chance for reinforcement. Don’t ask too much too soon. If you are asking the horse to drop his head, click for just a tiny indication in that direction. Even a tiny movement of the head in any direction is okay to start. You can’t click too many times, or give too many treats. There is no such thing as overdoing it at this point. You want to make sure the horse is happy. Don’t wait too long to reinforce, or turn the experience into something negative or frustrating for him. You can end your session on a high note, at any point, whether it’s five minutes or twenty. Try to get a read on your horse’s attention span and end the session while he is still having fun with it.

6) Keep It Simple – One Criteria at a Time

Patience is a virtue – and clicker training can be a little like watching paint dry at times. During lessons, remember not to ask too much. Decide on a goal ahead of time, and work on that. For instance, if you want the horse to come to you and put his head into his halter when you hold it out, the first step is to teach him to target his halter – perhaps touching the nose band with his nose. You would teach the entire thing in increments. 1) Click him for touching the nose band. 2) When he is touching it consistently, click him for dipping his nose farther into it. 3) When he is consistently pushing his nose into it, click him for dropping his head. 4) When he is consistently dropping his head in the noseband, click him for standing quietly while you buckle or hook his halter. 5) When he is consistently putting his own halter on this way, you can begin holding it out to him from greater distances: Clicking him for taking one step to put his head in, then two, and on. This form of training is called, “Shaping.”

7) Be a Slot Machine

The power of a variable reinforcement is long established. It’s the power of a slot machine – you keep pulling the lever because you just never know what’s coming, or when. For this reason, you use the variety of treats as mentioned. But also, once a behavior is established, you will begin to “go for two-fers.” This means that once the horse is putting his head into the halter consistently, you will ask him to do it twice before clicking. If you are in the pasture and want him to come to you quickly, you can hold the halter out and only click if he is trotting up to it. If he moves too slowly, no click. This will actually make the behavior stronger, and it also established.

8) Forsake the Old While Teaching the New

While introducing a new criteria, ie, you want him to run to the halter, remember to release old ones. For instance, he is running to the halter, but when he gets to you, he just touches it without putting his head in. Reward him anyway. You can tidy up the sloppy stuff easily, once this new aspect is learned. Concentrate on one criteria at a time.

9) Be Smarter Than the Horse

This is the tricky one for me! Make a plan ahead of time, about what you are working on, and then stick to the plan. Stay ahead of your subject. At the same time, be aware that clicker training can elicit a lot of inventive behaviors, and some things are too good to pass up. For instance, if you are working on bringing the horse to you at top speed, but he suddenly decides to drop and roll, and you would like to teach him to roll, go ahead and click for that. Stay flexible, but as a rule, remember what your intentions are.

10) Don’t Change Trainers

This one should be a given, but just for the sake of clarity, it should be obvious by now that consistency is the key in clicker training. Therefore, to avoid confusion, please use only one trainer per behavior. In fact, it is best to stick to one trainer per animal.

11) If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Something Else

Everyone gets stuck at times, and sometimes different methods will get the message across. For example, with the head lowering: If targeting isn’t working, and the horse doesn’t want to touch your hand, try stepping back and waiting for a bit, just to see if he will move or drop his head. You can elicit head movement in other ways. Move around the aisle. He almost certainly will turn his head to watch you. Click for any head movement, until you see him beginning to volunteer head movements. Then you can wait for the movements that bring his head down. There is always another way to solve the problem if you just put some thought into it.

12) Don’t Stop In the Middle

Interrupting a session is a big no-no, even if the phone rings. Stick with it until you can end on a good note. Short sessions are fine!

13) Go Back to Kindergarten

If the horse forgets something along the way, or you see the behavior deteriorating, don’t hesitate to go back to the beginning and start all over. The best thing about this, is that the behavior has been learned already, and it always comes back faster the second time around.

14) Quit While You’re Ahead

Sometimes it’s tempting to keep working when a new breakthrough has occurred, but that’s usually the best time to quit. Keep spirits up, and keep the horse liking the game, by ending on a positive note.  However, there are alternative ways in which to apply this rule. Quitting a lesson is most often applied as negative reinforcement (removal of pressure). But it can also be used as negative punishment, ie, removal of reward or the possibility of reward. Dolphin trainers employ this technique when dolphins misbehave. They pick up the bucket of fish and walk away from the aquarium, leaving the dolphins in a “time out” – stewing in their own boring universe. I have used this very effectively on Clifford. I call it, “Packing up my Barbies.” Clicker training tends to lead to inventive behavior. If Clifford starts getting too aggressive or pushy, I pack up my Barbies and walk away, leaving him to think things over. It works best if he is left in a stall or otherwise without access to pasture. I don’t do this very often, because I want it to have a real “punch” when I do. This kind of penalty really does work, especially if the animal is very bright and has good understanding of how a training session works.

The last time I employed this technique, I was giving a target training demo in the aisle at the 2009 North American Horse Festival in Novi, Michigan. Clifford was performing at liberty for a small group of onlookers. During our session, he paused, turning away from me to go sniff noses with a mare that was watching from her stall nearby. I walked over, interrupting their visit, and immediately led him back to his own stall, where I left him alone for an hour. I sat down in the booth opposite him and didn’t talk to him or look at him.

The next time I brought him out, he was again given a chance to perform at liberty in the aisle. He had to walk past the mare, and although he did cock an ear in her direction, he did not pause to greet her this time. I could see him working it out.

This “Barbie-packing” technique can keep a horse honest and interested in the session. Best of all, it affirms the message that training is desirable and fun.

15) Respect Him As a Person

Whether or not we believe animals have souls, I think one thing most behaviorists agree on is that each creature is an individual with a distinct personality. Respecting these differences can lead to greater achievements for the individual. One example is how my mare, Trudy, reacted when I took her to the North American Horse Spectacular in 2005. Since I was promoting my book, RETURN TO MANITOU, and the story centered around Trudy, I took her instead of Clifford.

Trudy was not nearly as happy at this show as Clifford had been in the past. She became saturated by the constant noise and the crowds. By the end of the weekend, like many of the other horses, she stood with her face in the corner.

Trudy is a champion show mare, having won classes in harness and in hand. She shines in the show ring. On the other hand, the show arena is something Clifford has absolutely no interest in. He would much rather greet people at an expo, and perform his tricks for an audience, than prance around an arena in an attempt to win a ribbon.

Clicker training by definition is a scientific method, a blanket technique which can cover any species. However, performances are always best when tailored to the individual. Keep in mind not only the talents and potential of your horse, but find out where his heart is. When you learn this, you are well on your way to establishing the greatest bond of all.


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Nancy Bailey
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Dione Morrison
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