It Starts With Only Two Simple Skills
This post is intended to be a tutorial for getting started clicker training (CT) with positive reinforcement (+R). The skills I discuss here are the two vital ones that allow for training anything with your horse using +R. After teaching them, you can use CT exclusively for problem behaviors or you can switch entirely! It’s totally up to you, I’d just like to help you get started! I wrote thoroughly to tackle troubleshooting (meaning it’s long lol but skipping steps is not a good idea!) & I hope to set the readers up for success in their +R endeavors!
Starting clicker training can seem intimidating. After all, it’s a totally different way to approach training horses than what we’re traditionally taught. There’s a lot to learn, but never fear—if I can do it, so can you. It requires some dedication and time, but your horse will thank you & I bet you’ll have fun, too!
but first… Etiquette
Pick a sound. Start with a mechanical clicker to develop your timing. When the clicking becomes reflex, you’re probably good to move to a mouth sound if you want. It can be difficult for beginners to use a mouth sound at first (it’s a lot to think about). Click here for blog post on why I use a clicker!
Use something your horse likes: scratches in his favorite spot, or my personal favorite, alfalfa pellets. They’re cheap & you can buy a TON at once. Horses love them, they’re good for them, & they’re hard to “over-do” whereas an excess of sugary treats can be a problem for gut health.
Keep your hand out of the treat pouch until AFTER you click. This helps keep the marker signal (click) clear. Horses are very aware of their surroundings, so if you “pre-load” your treats, you may find the horse decided that that is his marker signal!
All horses learn at their own paces just like humans. You may not get everything you planned done in one fell swoop, but that’s okay! Better to have a plan unfulfilled than run out of ideas with big blinky eyes staring expectantly at you! Plus, you’ve just started. Don’t expect to be a pro from the get go; nailing your timing is harder than it looks.
Your first session
Start with your horse over a stall guard or over a paddock fence (preferably without other horses). We use protected contact (PC) to start for a number of reasons. It may seem elementary, but it’s extremely beneficial—especially when you first start out armed with a treat bag and a clicker. Starting in PC keeps the human safe. If your horse can get grabby with treats (addressing this in a bit), working in PC allows you to back away where the horse can’t follow.
It also keeps the horse safe from you. If he gets overwhelmed, fearful, or brain fatigued, he’s free to leave. This will likely happen often at the beginning, but if you respect the breaks the horse takes, soon you’ll have one who won’t leave you alone! Additionally, if you were in the stall & he/she were to come too close for comfort while mugging for treats, you might need to use undesirable methods on the horse to keep yourself safe. To avoid this, start in PC so we can teach your horse how you’d like him to behave around treats in order to prevent that hypothetical fiasco all together!
Even if you never use it again, target training is an incredibly clear way for the horse to start to understand the clicker’s (or marker signal) meaning. To start target training, find an object (preferably that your horse is not afraid of) like a bottle, empty supplement container, fly mask, whatever random object you’d like, and hold it up. Remember, you’re outside the stall/paddock & the horse is inside. Hold the target near the horse’s nose so it’s likely they’ll bump into it. The moment the nose comes into contact with the target, click. Remove the target from the horse’s sight. Then, reach into your treat pouch and be sure to feed away from your body. Ideally, you treat where the “perfect horse” would be: head in center of chest; nose in front of the vertical. Remember, if you feed near your body, the horse will keep coming into your space to get his reward.
Represent the target, when the horse touches it, click, move the target away, and treat away from yourself. Continue this cycle until the horse is responding pretty quickly. The target itself will become a cue for the touch behavior, but you can also add a verbal cue like “touch” or “target.” This can be useful for transferring the skill to other objects like stationary targets or potentially scary ones.
I like to start with targeting because, as stated previously, it helps the horse become aware of your marker signal. The horse now knows that when he touches the target, he will get a click that precedes food (Thus, becoming a secondary reinforcer. For more on that see the Clicker Blog Post). In short, he/she learns Click = Food is coming & I did the right thing.
Now that you’ve taught targeting, leave him/her some treats in the bucket as an “end of session” cue (this helps combat potential -P as the horse is losing the access to enrichment & treats. By leaving a small pile of treats, the horse has something to munch on. Over time this becomes clear to the horse that the session is over.). Take a break for a few minutes or save the next step for tomorrow—it’s up to you. If the horse took some time to take to targeting, it may be best to save the next step for the next day. If they pick it up at lightning speed, take a break and come back in 10 minutes or so for the manners step.
This is the biggest issue in training horses with treats. No one wants a cookie monster, but it’s important to understand why horses become that way. If the horse has been reinforced for coming into your space or “mugging” you for treats, then they have no reason to stop. So, if his/her head is touching you & you treat them, you’ve encouraged that behavior. Horses are natural foragers so it comes naturally to them to search for food. This isn’t a criminal offense or a show of disrespect! It is our responsibility to teach them how we’d like them to behave around treats.
Teaching manners first can be a bit confusing, so I don’t! The target provides something visual & super clear for them to understand. By doing manners second, you already have a horse that knows what the clicker means.
Still working in PC, you will stand beside the horse. If your horse has a history of biting, you may need to stand a little further way. Stand patiently as your horse sniffs you or your pockets. (Again, if the horse is a mugger, stand a good distance away.) Eventually, he/she will understand there is nothing happening and decide that you’re quite boring! They will likely move the head away at which point you click instantly. You want to reinforce him/her for having his/her head in between the shoulders—straight. So the moment they begin to move away from your pockets, click, and you will likely hit the sweet spot for the head in the center of the chest.
When they hear the click, they will likely remember the targeting session & remember “Oh! That means food!” & move back into your space.
Simple solution: Feed where they were when you clicked. Soon, the horse will understand that there is no point in moving to you to look for treats because he/she never gets fed there. When his head is between his shoulders, he gets clicked & he gets fed there… must be a good place to be!
A word to the wise: be on your toes for this lesson as you don’t want to teach “head away.” I made that mistake first starting out. Luckily, horses are forgiving learners & all I needed to do was click sooner; they then gradually started moving to the center of their body instead of flexing the neck all the way away from me. The reason I no longer teach head away is because horses will use that body language as a calming signal. It can mean they need a break or perhaps they’re worried. They often use it with scary objects or other horses to indicate that they wish to avoid conflict (Language Signs & Calming Signals of Horses by Rachaël Draaisma). Either way, that behavior needs to remain intact, so your horse can communicate with you. The line blurs more if it’s a cue-able (conditioned) behavior.
For continuing manners, simply click & reinforce (C/R) whenever you are in “that” position (This will be your cue. I tend to turn away from the horse slightly to cue manners. You can also have a designated hand position/signal or verbal cue.) & the horse has his/her head in-between the shoulders.
Be sure to repeat on the other side! You may find at first you have a well-mannered individual on one side & a cookie monster on the other, so be sure to cover both! In that same vein, be sure to work around the horse from different angles so he/she really understands that treats do not come when his/her nose is in your space.
After this is well established, you can work start work out of PC and in with the horse. You will have a horse who understands the rules when food is involved & be a pleasure to work with. If the horse starts mugging again, reassess your technique and review the rules yourself. You may need to return to protected contact for another session or two.
Even if you aren’t going to continue with clicker training, this is a great skill to teach horses. You also have an advantage knowing that if your horse starts biting, that something else is the cause! If you’re using clicker training just to problem solve a few issues like water fears or trailer loading, these two skills are really important. They teach the horse to touch/follow a target (maybe into a trailer?) & how to behave when you work with treats.