Clicker Training Horses

Clicker training horses - just imagine that you could clearly communicate the word “Yes” to your animal friend! Sound like a fantasy? Well it's not! Clicker training horses allows you to do just that whilst limiting the use of negative reinforcement methods.

Check out our new Clicker Training Guide to get you started!


What is negative reinforcement?

It’s when you apply some stimulus that is uncomfortable, unpleasant (or even painful but I would never do that!) to encourage a change in behaviour. You want the horse to do something in order for the uncomfortable pressure to be removed or stopped.

Let’s use the example of teaching a horse to back up with the touch of your hands on his chest. The horse is standing still (the change of behaviour is, you would like your horse to move his feet backwards).

So you apply finger tip pressure or touch (negative reinforcement) to your horse on the chest. Wait. Hmmm, nothing happens.

So you slightly increase the touch (increased negative reinforcement) now the horse feels discomfort so he makes a new decision and he moves backwards and away from the touch, wanting it to stop.

If you release or remove the touch (negative pressure) the second the horse starts to back up or even leans backwards you will teach the horse how to move away from negative reinforcement. Simply put, negative mostly means the removal of the stimuli or pressure. The difference with clicker training horses is that it allows you to utilize positive reinforcement.

Click here for a further explanation on Negative Reinforcement

Clicker training horses - So what’s positive reinforcement?

Rather than just taking away the stimulus you will be adding something, like food or a scratch (for purposes of explanation, I will use the word "reward").

We concentrate and rewarding the behaviors we want and ignoring the behaviors we do not want.

Clicker training horses often uses food (the positive reinforcement) as the reward but it just needs to be something the animal actively wants and will change its behavior to obtain. I haven’t met a horse yet who doesn’t like food!

You can combine negative reinforcement with positive reinforcement. In the example above, when the horse backs up a step we would remove the touch and at the same time “click” and “reward”. If I only wanted to use positive reinforcement with this particular example, I would have to wait for the horse to back up on his own and the moment he does, “click” and “reward”. This also leads itself to “Shaping” behaviors. We’ll discuss that later.

Horses learn very quickly how to utilize their actions to manipulate their environment (and people too!). This is known as as operant conditioning - with the horse being more likely to repeat a behavior that brought something they like or wanted. The problem we have is it might not be a behavior “we” like!

Food is a good example to use for providing positive feedback. It often used when clicker training horses as it is something most horses like and it is something we can easily provide. A good scratch in a special place for some horses is another good motivator and tool.

Click here for some Examples of Positive Reinforcement

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Why use a clicker sound when clicker training horses?

It does not matter what the sound is, it only matters when the sound is delivered. The clicker happens to be a very accurate and consistent sound. You could snap your fingers (but as I discovered they get very tired!), or make a sound from your mouth (which you will use later to have your hands free) but in the beginning it is highly recommended that you use a clicker (such as the one shown in the picture on the left) for the shear accuracy it delivers.

Its primary use is to be a bridge signal - “Yes” - to mark the exact moment the behaviour was offered.

For example: Say you want your horse to lower his head down to the ground. If your horse lowered his head but then you had to wait for him to raise his head and then delivered the reward, in the horse’s perspective you communicated to him it was the raising of the head you wanted because nothing happened at the moment his head was down. Now if you “clicked” the moment the horse’s head was down, he would understand that down was the behaviour that will be reinforced.

How does my horse learn what the “click” means?

This is called “Charging the Clicker”.

Start by standing next to your horse (preferably in a quiet, comfortable environment) and click and offer a treat. And keep repeating, click & treat, click & treat. It usually only takes 6 to 10 of these and then you click and your horse looks at you and expects the treat! Once you get this look, you know your horse is thinking and probably liking this idea!

It does not take long for any horse to quickly understand that this noise is followed by something he wants and likes. Keep your initial sessions short - from 5 to 10 minutes. It is better to do many short sessions than one long one. Do this for the next three sessions and you and your horse should have a solid understanding of how to charge the clicker.

P.S. In this explanation I am assuming you have a horse that will stand quietly next to you and not try to bite or intimidate you. If this is not the case then get someone well versed in clicker training horses to assist you. Check out our clinics & lessons schedule here.

Please note: Keep safe. Many people start by standing outside of a stall doorway too.

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Where do I go from here with clicker training horses?

The next step is targeting. This is where the fun begins. You will need something that will be easy for a horse to see and touch with their nose. You will utilize a horse’s natural sense of curiosity. A cone works great for short distances but a ball on the end of a stick is really good for moving the target to different heights and positions while you can stand in one place. You can design your own or click here to order one of ours (coming soon).

It is also best to choose a target that your horse does not fear. Once targeting is established you can use this technique for scarier objects. You many need to start with a click and treat for the horse just looking at the object.

Start by holding the target out in front of the horse where it is easy for them to want to investigate it.

The moment they touch it with their nose, click and treat.

Repeat as many times as the horse is interested before moving it to new positions.

Book Recommendations

The best book to buy is, The Click That Teaches by Alexandra Kurland.

Here's my personal review:

If you are a visual learner like me, you will love the amount of great pictures in this book. Alexandra Kurland really captures the behaviours perfectly and her descriptions are clear and precise.

My advice is to follow the directions page by page for the best results and keep in mind the talents of the horse you are working with. Don’t feel like you have to accomplish every advanced task if you horse finds them too challenging at first.

My best example is the kind of horse who in the past was never encouraged (and likely scolded) for putting things in their mouth. So encouraging them to pick something up could be a real challenge. Be patient and understanding and you will be very surprised when they finally take the chance! But don’t get upset if he never does. Move on and find the thing he loves to do instead!

Warning! You and your horse will have so much fun you will wish you discovered this sooner!

If you wish to find out more about this book for yourself, check out the link below.

Click here to visit Alexandra Kurland's website.

And here are some more great ways to help you get started.

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