Many of you have probably heard the term ‘clicker training,’ but do you know what it is? Equine clicker training is a relatively new method of training that is becoming popular with horse owners. This method of training is based on using positive reinforcement (food rewards in conjunction with a precisely timed audible “click”) to teach the horse correct behavior. The “click” helps the horse identify what he’s doing correctly. This positive reinforcement training has been used with a variety of animals, from dogs to dolphins for decades. So, are clickers some sort of magical training aid? The answer is no, but they can be extremely helpful!
What is a “Clicker?”
A clicker is a small mechanical device that makes a sharp noise when pressed and is used as a “marker” of good behavior. You can also achieve the same result using other distinctive sounds, such as your voice saying “yes” or “good,” a whistle or a cluck of your tongue; however, the biggest advantage of using a clicker is that it marks a desired behavior without any emotional input. It is very clear-cut and simple, so most animals respond to this type of training.
To start clicker training, you need to “load the clicker,” which means you need to convince your horse that the sound of the clicker has good value to him. The easiest way to do this is to work with your horse with a clicker in one hand and some quick-to-eat treats in the other hand. Be sure to use treats that are appropriate for your horse; for example, if your horse needs a low sugar diet, don’t use sugar cubes. Alfalfa pellets or toasted oat cereal can work just as well for a hungry horse.
For this initial stage, give your horse a small treat every time you click. Most horses learn best with short lessons. It’s better to do three sessions with ten treats each time than one long session. By keeping the sessions short, you should be able to work this into your evening horse care routine. Your horse will learn that the sound of the click means a treat is coming.
Next, think of a behavior you want your horse to perform. It’s easiest to start with something simple that your horse does naturally; most people start with having their horses touch a target. This could be a stick (generally with something on the end to make it obvious, such as a stick with a tennis ball on the end) or even a plastic top to a food container. Horses tend to be curious, so getting them to touch a target is usually simple. There are two ways to reinforce this behavior: shaping and luring.
Shaping, the process of gradually changing the standards of behavior that are rewarded through small steps, is the core of clicker training and the main tool used. When shaping, you patiently wait and watch for your horse to do the behavior you want. Initially you reward even the tiniest movement to the target with a click and a treat. Reward each step of the behavior at this point, so that every movement toward the target earns a click and a treat. Once your horse starts to offer the behavior more frequently, you can wait until the touch is more dramatic, such as having your horse come from a few feet away to touch the target instead of a few inches. Or you can start to look for “duration,” which is the act of your horse touching the target and keeping his nose there for a few seconds.
Luring is using the treat to guide your horse into the behavior or position you want. As your horse moves his head to follow the treat (the lure), you then click and give him the treat. Make sure you click before you reach into your pocket for the treat. If you are in too much of a hurry to reward, the “click” will become the hasty movement of your hand reaching for the treat rather than the sound of the clicker. You can also put something on the target to attract your horse, such as a dab of applesauce or molasses. Luring can lead to your horse offering a behavior faster than shaping, but many people feel that shaping better solidifies the behavior for the horse.
Building on Learned Behaviors
Eventually, your horse may offer the behavior as you approach him. Be sure to click and reward when he performs. Once the behavior is solid, you can start to add in a verbal cue or other signal, such as saying “touch” or “hit it.” Say your verbal cue whenever your horse goes to touch the target, followed by the click and treat. Most horses quickly learn to associate the cue with the entire sequence of events.
With time, clicker-trained horses learn to accept that the clicker marks the “ideal” behavior and that a reward will come. It may not come immediately (for example, when you are riding), but it will come. Rewarding sooner rather than later is best, both from a training standpoint and your horse’s point of view, too.
Clicker Training in Action
Once your horse is comfortable going to a target, you are only limited by your imagination and your horse’s willingness to play along. You could put the target down between your horse’s front legs to begin teaching him to bow. Once the target is between his front legs, he will bend his neck – the start of a bow – to reach the target. Be sure to think in stages: start with the target just down a bit and gradually lower it. Depending on your horse, the whole process may move very quickly or seem frustratingly slow. Be patient!
Most people start with tricks for clicker training, but it can be incorporated into your riding and regular training as well. You may need a friend to help so that the click is well timed and marks the exact behavior you want. Oftentimes riders will substitute a verbal equivalent for the clicker since their hands are tied up; however, an observant friend with good timing can help by clicking when your horse extends a touch more at the trot or spins a bit tighter during a reining pattern.
Clicker and target use is also excellent for starting some conditioning with your horse. You can use the target on both sides to get your horse to bend and reach, while a high target can lead him to stretch. Basically clicker training is, and should be, fun for both you and your horse. Grab a clicker, some treats and use your imagination to come up with some fun things to do together, especially in the winter when it’s too slippery or cold to ride!