• Adele Shaw

Clicker Training // How To Get Started


The absolute most important step in using clicker training is to take the time to research how to get started, and how to use it properly. Positive reinforcement is extremely powerful, and the clicker makes it even more so. Using a clicker will improve your horse's success rate, minimize frustration, shorten the time it takes to learn a new behavior, and improve the relationship between you and your horse. (Trust me, once your horse starts realizing you finally have come up with a way to clearly communicate without the use of force things will start changing for the better and quickly.) But if you don't take the time to educate yourself before getting started it may not be powerful in a good way.

I don't mean to say that to scare you off, but I want to be completely realistic and honest with you. You can make your horse even more confused than it was before. You can also create an anxious and mouthy horse. However, if you just pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and do your research that wont happen. Just like any work with horses, there is a right way and a wrong way, a safe way and a dangerous way. Clicker training is absolutely no different than using natural horsemanship or any other training method. You can't just jump in a round pen with a wild horse and tame it without any training, guidance, or research. That only happens in the movies.

So in order to help you get started the right way, I'm going to walk you through my recommended steps. These are the same steps that many positive reinforcement trainers use, but some trainers vary on the order they train them in. So far this is the order I find most successful for introducing clicker training to both human the horse.

What you need to get started

  • A clicker or two (like this), or choose a unique word/sound that you do NOT use in every day conversation or during training. You should never use this sound except for when wanting to mark a correct behavior)

  • A treat bag (like this) or (like this)- deep pockets will also work, just make sure the treats can't fall out.

  • Treats (pick a variety until you find what your horse likes best. carrots, apples, small hay pellets, flavored treats, etc. you'll need at least two to four different kinds that you know your horse likes. make sure to keep conscious of your horse's diet. horses that are overweight don't need the added calories of a high calorie treat. so things like carrots will work best.) You can also use scratches or something similar as a reward, but food is likely to be your most effective and motivating reinforcer, so I highly recommend using treats. Especially in the beginning, you can wean off of them later.

  • A safe place where your horse can be at liberty (not tied or restricted) and easily hang it's head over a gate or door. Preferably not a location the horse is fed it's regular meals at (meaning if your horse is fed it's meals over the stall door or through a feeder door, do not use that specific location to start your training)

  • Something for targeting (you need to be able to comfortably hold it, but it needs to be big enough to be noticeable to the horse. such as a plastic cone, a tennis ball on a stick etc. preferably an object your horse isn't overly familiar with, but not something it would be scared of)

Once you've got all your gear ready, it's time to work on you. Yes, you. Your timing, accuracy, and eye need to be fine tuned before starting work with your horse.

Perfecting Timing

One of the easiest ways to go about this is to start an inanimate object moving, where you can "mark" every time the inanimate object makes a certain movement. An example would be to start a tennis ball bouncing and to click every time the ball hit the ground. Another idea would be to watch an animal move around and pick a particular movement you're looking for. Such as wagging it's tail, or turning left. This is not exactly what you will be doing when working with your horse, but it will get you comfortable hitting that button or making your chosen sound/word.

Building The Foundation

Once you've got your timing down, and your gear ready it's time to go introduce the clicker to your horse. My favorite way to do this is to teach the basics of target training. Basically you're going to teach your horse to touch an object with it's nose, click, treat. By doing this we will in a way be "loading the clicker", which simply means you'll be teaching your horse what the sound of the click (or other chosen sound/word) means.

Sometimes this can take multiple sessions or more, and sometimes a horse will catch on very quickly and will only need a couple short session. Either I recommend at least four brief sessions (5 minutes or so) before moving on to to teaching the next step. We want to really make sure your horse understands what its supposed to do, and also what the clicker sound means. Click = food.

You will also need to do this with a barrier between you and your horse, even if you have a very calm horse or a horse that doesn't show any pushiness. Sometimes horses can become very excited by the idea of earning a reward (which is great! but there are rules that the horse will learn later on), and your safety is ALWAYS priority. A barrier can look like a fence, or stall door, or if no other options are available you can loosely tie your horse if it's 100% safe being tied (but I prefer the horse to be unrestricted in its area). The horse should easily be able to move it's head and get it's head over the barrier.

So the first step is going to be to stand at a safe distance from the barrier, but close enough that you can make the target object easily accessible to your horse. Your horse should be actively paying attention to you or at least very close by.

Next you are going to hold out the target for the horse, you want to place it close enough to the horse that it basically can almost bump into the target. Often they will want to check it out, so that's a perfect opportunity to click/reward. If they don't seem interested, you can try another object, or you can make it so the horse basically is going to "run into" the object when it moves it's head. click/reward even an accidental touch. You may have to do this multiple times before the horse catches on, you may even end up taking a break before your horse catches on. Make sure to keep the sessions short (about five minutes) at first, as to not tire or cause your horse to loose interest. Eventually you'll be able to extend session duration. (My horses now actively work for thirty plus minutes without break. Remember I'm talking about mental activity, not psychical.. you have to build up a horse's mental stamina just as much as you have to build up their physical stamina, it takes time.)

To confirm your horse really understands what targeting means (which also means it understands the marker sound/the clicker), you'll slowly start to add complexity to the criteria. Meaning you will move the target to new and different locations around the space in front of the barrier. For example, ask your horse to reach up high, then far to the side, then down low. All areas the horse can readily reach, but not necessarily easy areas.