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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.

Now For The Critical Part

Manners are absolutely the most critical part of beginning positive reinforcement training. Manners is what will teach your horse not to be pushy, greedy, or food aggressive. Manners is what can undo pushy greedy behaviors. Manners will keep you safe, and keep your horse happy and relaxed. Manners, manners, manners, manners. I can't say it enough. Feeding horses without regards to their manners and behavior is what gives positive reinforcement a bad name. It's so critical to remember that with great power comes great responsibility. And positive reinforcement training is so powerful it requires absolute responsibility on the handler's part to teach perfect manners. If a horse is taught using positive reinforcement and has poor manners, it is 100% the fault of the trainer/handler.

To begin, you're going to go back to the same set up you had previously with the barrier (this is a MUST) and the horse unrestricted (if possible). You're going to stand a safe distance from your horse on either side and wait for your horse to turn it's head away from you, even in the slightest. click/reward. Make sure you take the treat to the horse's mouth, away from your body. Repeat until you notice the horse starting to get the idea that it needs to keep its head away to earn its reward.

If you notice after a handful or more repetitions the horse is moving its head away, but as soon as it hears the click it swings its head towards you for the treat, just wait a moment for the horse to move it's head away again and take the treat immediately to the horse's mouth where it is at. After a few times the horse should start to understand that the treat will come to him, not the other way around.

Gradually start moving your body around. To the other side of the horse, to the front of the horse, etc. You may have to take it back a few steps when you change location, but don't worry the horse should catch on quick.

It's worth mentioning here that if your horse is acting anxious at all, pushing against the barrier or having an anxious or upset expression you need to stop and go back to the very beginning of teaching manners. Lower your criteria and now focus on reinforcing calm behaviors. Click/reward only when the horse is standing still and/or has a happy expression with it's head away or calmly straight ahead. Stay here, working with the barrier and manners until you have a horse that will turn it's head away in a relaxed and happy way.

Next, you're going to take this to the next level and remove the barrier. Choose a space where you have plenty of room to move out of the horse's way , and preferably a way to separate your horse from you quickly. Honestly, at this point the precautions shouldn't be needed but I'm being very careful to explain how to keep you safe since I don't know each of you personally or your horses and your safety is a priority to me. Especially since most of you will be doing this without an instructor present, and also very likely without an instructor that understands positive reinforcement. Therefore it falls on me, the person writing out the "how to" to make sure you are absolutely careful and do everything with your own safety in mind just in case. This has nothing to do with positive reinforcement directly, if I were giving you a walk through on how to start lunging a horse using negative reinforcement I would absolutely walk you through every safety precautions.

All the rules will stay the same as when you had a barrier, you will click when the horse moves it's head away and you will be looking for a calm happy body language. Do not reward anxious moving around, head swinging, ears back etc. Your horse should already have this down from when there was a barrier, but if the horse begins to act anxious or upset in any way take everything back a few steps and focus on rewarding happy calm behavior. Also, there is absolutely nothing wrong with going back to having a barrier. Safety is always first.

It's very important to remember that you absolutely can not move too slow or over reinforce a behavior. Humans tend to rush things, especially once we start noticing results. Usually anxious or frustrated behavior is due to the human rushing things or skipping steps. So if you notice your horse isn't acting calm or happy, just take it back a few steps and stay there for awhile. Then once ready to move forward again take it a little slower.

Final Notes

When you will be ready to move on to the next step depends on your timing, accuracy, the power of the reinforcer, your horse's desire to learn, and your horse's ability to learn. But please do NOT work with food outside of your targeting and manners sessions until you and your horse have successfully completed everything talked about in this article. Your horse should be calm, happy, and eager to work. Once your horse has accomplished great manners you'll be all set to train whatever you like. Just keep always keep manners the very first criteria for any new behavior.

I hope this was a clear explanation of how to get started with clicker training. I've also made an instructional video to help give you a visual idea of what you'll be looking for in your sessions. Just keep in mind that these horses in the videos are well educated in targeting and manners and so I'm moving rather fast with them. You will not be moving this quickly, and also I didn't spend a lot of time talking about happy or calm behaviors in the video, but I plan to do a more in-depth video showing the difference between a happy/calm horse that is being taught at a pace it's comfortable with vs a irritable/anxious horse that is being taught at a pace too quick or missing steps in it's training. Both examples will be horses taught through positive reinforcement.

I'll link that here once I get it done. In the mean time, just listen to your horse and remember that acting out or acting anxiously is due to human error. It's often easily fixable if you catch it right away. If you have any questions you can comment below, or if you would like someone to give you a second opinion on your training introducing the clicker feel free to get it all on video and send it to me through the "store" link on my website. Or just click here.

So now that you've read through all of this, take a look the video.

I also recommend reading some or all of the following, especially if you are hesitant to give positive reinforcement a try. These books will be able to give you a even deeper look into how to get started as well as the theory and science behind clicker training.

- Adele

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