One of the horse training techniques I use on a regular basis is Clicker Training. Basically, Clicker Training uses a simple sequence of events to train an animal to do a certain task. For example, the horse does a desired behavior, a noise is given (I use a clicker) to “mark” the behavior as desired, and then the animal is given a treat (the reward).
Personally, I’ve found clicker training works best when I have a specific behavior I want and it’s especially good for horses that are hard to connect with due to their past (i.e. abuse, neglect, bad training etc…).
First, it makes it easier if you use a target that is distinct, such as a cone. In this instance I’ve made my own target stick using a prod I found in an Ag store for moving pigs and I fastened on the end a piece of upholstery foam covered with a sock in a bold stripe pattern White and black bars are very noticeable to the lens of the horse’s eye and the sock is removable for washing.
I especially like this type of target as I can move it around by holding it in my hand. This makes it easy to transfer the “touching target” lesson to a “move here and touch target” (such as loading in a horse trailer or lining up to a mounting block) or to a “lower your head and touch” (for a head down cue).
I also prefer a clicker (which can be bought a pet store in the dog training area) because of its distinctive sound. Some people like to use their tongue to make a cluck sound but when starting out, the clicker is distinctly different and catches the horse’s attention. If your horse finds the metal click too distractive or even scary, there are other clickers with softer sounds.
I use a coiled wrist strap to hold my clicker on my dominant hand. These wrist straps can be found at home improvement stores where keys are copied. I prefer to be able to drop my clicker at any time but still have it easily accessible.
For treats, I used diced carrots so I can extend my carrots; with the mini ponies I use their low carb feed. Choose appropriate treats and make them small – you don’t need a huge chunk of apple – dice it down so it is about the size of your thumbnail.
Dante is now on his fourth session on “touching target” and has been a bit slow in learning what this is all about. This is typical with a horse who has never done any sort of training of this type so don’t get discouraged. I found it takes about 3-4 sessions for a horse to figure out how it works.
Once he figures out that the clicker marks behavior, other lessons (such as teaching the Look Away to prevent mugging, the Head Down, or Follow will go much quicker).
TYPICAL FIRST SESSION:
The horse will accidentally do the desired behavior; you will click and treat. The horse will not connect the two and starting looking for treats. IGNORE. Wait for the horse to repeat the behavior and when he does, click and treat (CT).
Depending on the horse this might take one session or (typically) three. When you can move the target and he follows and touches – or touches repeatedly to get the treat – you know the lesson has “clicked.”
Once your horse gets it, the next thing he will do is start testing. For example, instead of actually touching the target he will move his nose towards the target (not touching) and then swivel to you for his treat. IGNORE. Wait until he completes the desired behavior before clicking.
Be sure to click IMMEDIATELY upon the desired behavior. This seems to be hardest thing for newcomers to learn about how to use clicker training. The longer you delay between desired behavior and click, the harder it will be for your horse to pick up on what you want.
Don’t reward mugging behavior. Mugging is begging for treats, nuzzling, searching pockets etc… IGNORE IT. Don’t slap or push the horse away. IGNORE. I’ll discuss clicker training to reduce mugging at another point (that is usually the second lesson I teach).
With Dante, since he can be greedy for treats, I am tossing the treats into his feed bucket. It doesn’t matter if the treats come a minute later then the click. The CLICK is the important thing to be attached to the behavior as it MARKS the behavior.
In the beginning, reward often! As you progress, whenever the horse starts becoming bored or disinterested, return to something easier and reward often and/or with more treats then you would normally to rebuild interest.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION FOR TARGETING:
Various things I’ve used clicker training to teach include (although many use it for a whole lot more then I do):
come to me;
accepting a saddle for the first time;
learning to accept the water hose for bathing;
accepting fly spray;
standing in a wash rack area;
standing still for mounting at the block;
opening mouth for bit;
lowering head for bridling;
walking over a bridge;
walking through water;
traveling head down at a walk and trot;
and free lunging.
For horses afraid of tack I have them target the halter, bridle, saddle, saddle pad, fly spray bottle etc… to give a positive experience.
To bring the horse’s head down for bridling and haltering. Nothing is more irritating then a horse who raises their heads up, out of reach, to avoid this simple but necessary chore.
The same goes for horses who squirm during saddling. I reward standing still for saddling.
To encourage a horse to follow such as in leading, for horse’s that balk and plant feet, to cross a bridge, water or a tarp, or to enter a horse trailer or wash rack.
To teach a horse to go low and long – lowering the head during leading, lunging or in hand work. Generally, by this time in the training I change the “target” to my whip handle or hand so I can move around with less equipment.
If teaching horse stretches, you can use the target stick to get the horse to move their nose into the right position before treating.
Targets can be used for free lunging and for asking the horse to follow over a jump.
WHY USE CLICKER TRAINING?
Here are some reasons why I prefer Clicker Training over other training methods for certain exercises (there are other ways to teach head down of course etc…)
Faster – once a horse learns what desired behavior is wanted and they understand clicker training, lessons are learned at a much faster pace then “traditional” training.
Lessons are transferable so once the horse learns how CT works they learn the next lesson even faster.
Engages a horse’s attention in a fun positive way which is especially helpful for horses that have been abused, neglected, have little faith in humans and for horses that have been numbed by people (i.e. lesson horses).
Great training technique for horses that cannot be ridden or who are on stall rest.
Helps the horse owner see alternative ways to train a horse rather then force or domination. Especially helpful for Type A people personalities or those who become easily frustrated and need to see success.
Since it a non-habitual horse training method, the horse will most likely be exposed to this training for the first time; they can accept it without the associated baggage that other training might have given the horse.
Many traditional horse trainers have issues with Clicker Training. IMO their issues are primarily due to ego, a resistance to rewarding a horse with food, and an incomplete understanding of Clicker Training – I’ll give my own opinion in a later post why so many horse people seem to be hostile to this easy and scientific method of training.