I’ll be honest, teaching a horse to touch or follow a “target” seemed REALLY dumb to me when I first started getting into clicker/+R training. So dumb in fact, that I never really taught it to my horses for the longest time. I would see all these trainers walking around with weird looking "anti-whips" and think to myself.. "surely there has got to be another way to teach that same behavior where it just doesn't look so ridiculous."
So I did without for a long time, and we got by.. I did successfully train many of the same behaviors without target training, but I didn't realize how much I was missing out on! It wasn’t until my filly River arrived on the scene that I started experimenting with using a target for training. And boy..... am I HOOKED. My life as a horse trainer is forever changed, and I now understand WHY targeting is so useful and powerful.
I realized that since she didn't have any training whatsoever, no basics to build on, no understanding of walking on a lead or even interacting with a human, the target could be a very helpful tool to shape behaviors I wanted.
I’ve since trained my horses to do ...
In-Hand Touch Target
(where the horse touches a target object in my hand on cue)
(the horse follows the target, but does not touch it)
(the horse is trained to touch or stand on the target and remain until released)
(they touch your hand on cue)
You can absolutely start using +R without the target, but if you’re wanting to use exclusively +R, meaning you’re not going to use any pressure or punishment, the target is really the key. It’s a helpful guide/lure for the horse to communicate what you would like the horse to do without forcing them to do anything. They can choose to follow or not follow the target, without fear of consequences, but it’s a lot clearer and often less frustrating for horses that completely free shaping a behavior or using combined -R and +R.
The target allows me to teach many things to my horses completely force free.
Some examples are.....
Standing tied quietly
Waiting patiently at gates
Safe personal space
Turn on the haunches/forehand
and SOOOO much more.
So it’s easy to see why training a horse to target is a key “foundation” behavior in +R training; helping train behaviors without force, frustration, or confusion. It’s a way to communicate with clarity and without coercion for maximum success for both horse and human.