An Introduction to Clicker Training for Horses

Clicker training for horses is a relatively new training style that is catching on fast with horse owners. First used for training dolphins starting in the late 1960's, clicker training has been successfully used with all sorts of animals from wolves to elephants.

It is possible to successfully alter undesirable behaviors that would otherwise be dangerous or just obnoxious, as well as teach new and other desirable behaviors.

This method is based on using food rewards in conjunction with a precisely timed audible cue or “click.” It is the click in equine clicker training that tells the horse what he is doing right.

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clicker training for horses

Have I Seen This Method Used Before?

If you have ever been to Sea World or a larger aquarium you have probably seen clicker training in action. With dolphins you would recognize it as the wave of the trainer's hand through the air that cues the dolphins to jump out of the water or the use of a series of whistle blasts in conjunction with other tricks.

Today clicker training is more commonly associated to the average pet owner with dog training. Many obedience classes offer clicker training for puppies and dogs as a positive, superior and more humane training technique than the traditional “choke chain” method.

Is it Just for Teaching Tricks?

Most definitely not! Horses can learn some really fun tricks like taking mail out of a mailbox, dunking a basketball into a child sized hoop, or even laying down or taking a bow.

This “trick” training will be of benefit to your horse in teaching him how to think through something. He will also feel smarter when he learns something new!

Beyond that and most importantly, clicker training for horses also supplies a positive, non-aggressive solution to many common behavioral issues a horse owner may be facing.

For horse owners clicker training horses can give you solutions and tips how to cope with everyday ground and stall manners, groundwork as well as used to improve riding cues.

How Does it Work? Clicker Training Basics

Clicker training for horses or any animal has two phases, teaching and shaping. For a basic example let’s say you wanted your horse to pick up an orange cone off the ground and hand it to you.

First you teach the horse that you become a vending machine for his favorite treat when he does a specific behavior, and then you shape it into the behavior you want while using appropriately timed clicks and treats.

You will need a plastic clicker which can be bought at most local pet stores or online as well as your horses’ favorite treat such as a commercially prepared treat, carrot pieces, a bit of grain, peppermint, or a sugar cube.

Phase 1: Teaching the Behavior (Touch the Cone or Target)

horse tricks-rearing

When using clicker training for horses to teach this behavior, start by teaching your horse to touch the cone or target with his nose. First, put your horse in a stall with a stall guard chain on so he can’t barge into you.

Stand outside the stall holding a cone out in front of your horse at nose level. Wait for your horse to touch the cone with his nose. You would click right at that moment he touches the cone with his nose (you will take the cone away each time and reintroduce it with each repetition) and then follow immediately with a treat.

If he doesn’t touch the cone right away you would reward him with a click and treat when he puts his nose towards the cone whether he meant to or not.

Get the behavior of him touching the cone consistent when the cone is right in front of him first, then move it off to the side, up higher and then down lower. You want to get him consistent with touching the cone anywhere you place it and while it is on the ground.

Phase 2: Shaping the Behavior

When your horse can consistently touch the cone all around and while on the ground the next part is shaping the behavior further towards your end goal of picking up the cone and handing it to you.

In this instance instead of just touching the cone, you would next reward him for putting it in his mouth which is met with a click and again an immediate food reward.

This is called setting a marker, or very specific behavior that you reward. Then you would reward him swinging it upward (a new marker) and so on until he hands you the cone and you reward that.

Timing is Key

By now you can see that clicker training for horses is a very positive incremental and reward based process. You reward the desired behavior and ignore everything else.

Your timing in giving the click and rewarding the behavior at the precise moment it occurs is the most important element to success. If you are too late, you may reward the wrong behavior. Too soon and you will lose ground.

It is also very important when shaping the behavior not to jump too fast from one marker to the next. For instance you wouldn’t expect him to go from touching the cone with his nose while you are holding it, straight to him touching it while on the ground, it is too big a gap for him to figure out.

Small increments and appropriately timed repetition using the clicks and treats will help your horse feel like a winner! Then he will try harder to learn.

Beyond The Basics

This is a very simple introduction to clicker training for horses and how to start shaping behaviors. Although the example given was using a cone, clicker training horses can easily be extended to more useful purposes once you establish the basics with your horse.

Here are some other uses to think about when using clicker training for horses:

  • What about having your horse bridle himself?
  • Stand still for Grooming?
  • Pick his feet up for you?
  • Put on his own saddle pad?
  • Bend on command while on the ground or being ridden?
  • Find more impulsion while being ridden?
  • Pick up your riding crop for you!

The possibilities of using clicker training for horses are endless! Besides being lots of fun it will make both you and your horse feel like a winner!

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