What is Equine Clicker Training?
Clicker training is also called Positive Reinforcement Training. It is a way of establishing 2-way communication with a horse.
When the horse presents a behavior that we want to encourage, we use a special sound followed right away with a small food treat that the horse really likes. Like all of us, horses will seek to re-create a behavior that gives them a positive result.
The special sound can be made mechanically with a ‘clicker’ or it can be a ‘tongue click’ or a special sound/word that we never use any other time. Often a mechanical clicker is useful to first teach a new behavior. Then it is easy to change to a tongue click or our chosen sound/word. This makes it easier because working with horses we usually need our hands free to use ropes and body extensions.
Since horses are designed to eat much of the time, a food treat is usually appreciated as long as we make sure it is something they really like. It’s important to keep each treat very small and to include the treats in the horse’s daily calorie intake.
A good way to learn clicker training skills is to start with the Target Game. Before communication can start, the horse has to understand the connection between the marker sound and the treat that will follow. Some people call this ‘charging the clicker’. It just means that the horse has learned that if he hears that particular sound, a treat will always follow.
It’s a good idea to first practice the mechanics of this with another person standing in as the horse. Well-timed food delivery is a key to success with this way of training. It is easier for the horse if the handler had muddled through the learning of the mechanics of treat delivery. At the beginning it can feel a bit like tapping ones head and rubbing ones belly at the same time.
Ideally have the horse in view of his friends, but separated from them. He will learn best if he is not hungry or thirsty and if he is in a relaxed frame of mind. I always ensure that the horse has been grazing or had access to hay before I train.
We’d like the horse to put his nose on a ‘target’ that we present near his nose.
The handler’s task is to:
- Have a hand ready on the clicker, if using one.
- Have a safe barrier between you and the horse. Present the target – gently to one side of his nose, not thrust directly at him. A plastic drink bottle or a safe object taped onto a stick is good to start with.
- Wait patiently until the horse touches the target with his nose or whisker at which point CLICK, move the target down out of the way
- And promptly reach into a pocket or pouch to get out a treat. Use a pocket or pouch that allows the hand to smoothly slip in and out. Be careful never to reach into the pocket or pound until after you’ve clicked. This gets important later.
- Present the treat to the horse in a firm, totally flat hand so it is easy for him to retrieve the treat. For some horses it may work better at first to toss the treat into a nearby familiar food bucket. The skill of taking a treat politely from the hand can be learned later. If he pushes your hand down, gently push upwards with equal pressure.
- When he’s eaten his treat, present the target again.
If we keep each targeting session short (3-4 minutes) and are able to repeat them 2 or 3 times in a day, the horse will learn quickly and look forward to each session.
The Target Game is a good one to start with because when you finish you simply put the target away. Using the Target Game will let you decide whether Clicker Training (Training with Positive Reinforcement) is something you’d like to carry on with. It can be done alongside anything else you do with your horse.
The little clip below shows the beginnings and how it might develop over time. The horses in the clip are already clicker-savvy. Be aware that at first we should always present the target in the same place. When the horse consistently gets 10/10 for that, we can change to holding it higher up. Then eventually lower down and to the side and requiring the horse to move to reach it. But it’s important to get 10/10 for each of these, before we make a change.