Would you like to teach your horse to lie down on command? How about improving your mare’s flying lead changes, or testing a young horse’s jumping potential without needing to place a rider on his back? All of these and more are possible with one small training device that costs under $5.00 and never touches your horse: A clicker.
Clicker training is one of the most popular methods for training dogs, but many horse owners have discovered that it works like a charm for teaching everything from parlor tricks to high-level dressage maneuvers to horses. Clicker training, developed from methods used to train dolphins, uses operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to gradually develop behaviors. Even goldfish can learn tricks this way. Check out the video posted here for proof!
But back to clicking with your horse:
This simple trick took only two clicker training sessions to teach to my Thoroughbred gelding, who was four at the time. I also used the clicker to work through his headshyness. Ember came to me with such a fear of hands around his ears that I couldn’t put a bridle on him. Now, I can clip his bridle path, rub Swat ointment in his ears to keep flies away, and he drops his head almost to my knee level to allow bridling. You can get similar results, no matter what exactly you’d like to train your horse to do.
You’ll need a few items to get started clicking with your horse:
- A clicker– find one at your local pet store or at clickertraining.com
- Your horse’s favorite small treats. If your horse is chubby, use his daily grain ration.
- A fanny pack or other method of holding the treats close to your body
- An orange traffic cone
Put the treats in your fanny pack, grab your traffic cone and your clicker (I recommend a lanyard or wristband to keep the clicker close by at all times, even when you need both hands), and away you go!
Your First Training Session
First of all, remember that ten five minute training sessions will do more to help you achieve your training goals than one hour-long training session. So, plan to spend only five to ten minutes on each lesson for now. As you progress, if you find that your horse is a problem-solver who loves long sessions, you can adapt to his or her needs. For now, presume that, like most horses, yours will need short lessons and time to process what he has learned after each brief session.
For your first lesson, ditch the traffic cone; you won’t need it until lesson two. All you’re doing in the first session is “charging the clicker.” In other words, you’re going to explain to your horse, using treats and the clicker, that every time she hears a clicking noise from the box in your hand, she’ll receive a small treat.
If your horse is pushy, keep him in his stall and use a flexible stall-guard to allow him to reach over and accept a treat. No stall? Work in a round pen or turnout, with you outside the gate and the horse in. The key is to be able to simply step out of reach and ignore a pushy, begging horse without needing to scold or punish him.
Begin by clicking the clicker once and immediately providing a treat. One click equals one treat, period, at this initial stage. The only exception is if you accidentally click a bad behavior like biting; in that case, turn away and remain silent for a count of three. Avoid misclicks as often as possible, but if indeed you click the wrong behavior, use the three-second pause to indicate to your horse that this click won’t be followed by a treat.
After the first two or three clicks and treats, your horse is likely to start investigating your treat pouch. Zip it up and let your horse sniff all he likes, so long as he doesn’t actually get a treat out of the fanny pack. In fact, ignore his attempts to mug you for treats completely, stepping out of his reach if he becomes pushy. Meanwhile, watch for any sign that he’s losing interest in the treat pouch. At the first turn of his head away from you or ear flicked toward a distant noise, click and reward.
Click and reward each time your horse turns away from the treats. Soon you’ll have achieved horsey zen: Your horse understands that she must give up the treats in order to receive them. At this point, when your horse is intentionally performing a behavior (head-turn) in exchange for a click and a treat, click but don’t give a treat. If your horse appears surprised or sniffs at your hand, the clicker, or the fanny pack for the anticipated reward, you know she’s got it: One click equals one treat. Your first lesson is complete.
What’s That Cone For, Anyway?
I’m glad you asked. Yes, there’s a good reason that a traffic cone is among the four items you need to begin clicker training, and no, it’s not because you’ll need to direct traffic once the roads jam with gawkers wanting to see your well-trained horse! That part will come later, and you’ll need several more traffic cones when the time comes.
The traffic cone is necessary because the first behavior you will be shaping is targeting. Shaping is the process of gradually reinforcing small steps toward a desired goal, and targeting is a behavior in which an animal touches a target– like your traffic cone. Of course, you could use a different target; anything with two distinctly different ends is suitable. Some people use a marine float on a dowel, and I’ve used a dowel rod with a wad of socks duct taped to the end before! A traffic cone is probably the most common target, however, and most boarding stables have a few on hand.
Targeting is the gateway to success in training a wide variety of behaviors. The bow shown above began with targeting. Nodding and shaking the head, kneeling, lying down, free-jumping, lunging at liberty, trailer loading, and many, many other behaviors start with a single step: The target.
To train targeting, begin by holding the traffic cone near your horse. Resist the urge to wave it or otherwise draw attention to it. If you set that precedent, you’ll miss out on a great learning opportunity for your horse. The lesson here is that, to get treats, he must figure out what you want, and to do so, he will need to try different behaviors until one gets a click. Start by clicking the slightest glance or sniff in the direction of the target.
If you consistently click small movements in the correct direction, soon you’ll be getting a head turn, then a nudge toward the cone, and finally– CLICK– your horse will intentionally bump the target with his nose! Sometimes the first bump is accidental, but click and treat anyway. Within a few minutes, most horses will deliberately bump the target for a click and treat. Some horses will experiment further, pawing at or mouthing the target. It’s your decision whether or not to reward this innovation; if you’re ambitious, you could teach separate cues for each type of targeting, but if you’re a clicker newbie, it may be best to click and treat only for touches with the nose, and add other behaviors later.
When your horse is touching the target for a reward, put the gear away and give her a break to process what she’s learned. In your next session, you’ll explore putting the behavior on a cue. Stay tuned!