Ideally, we consider the following points before we start.
We have thin-sliced the task into its smallest teachable parts and have an idea of where the early click points will be.
We have organized a training environment where the horse is able to relax. Ideally, he can see his herd mates, but they are not able to interfere.
We have thought about which part of the horse’s body we need to influence, and we’ve planned possible signal(s) to use (energy levels, body posture, body position, gesture, touch, words, strong intent). My book, Conversations with Horses, An In-Depth Look at Signs and Signals between Horses and their Handlers, looks at this topic in great detail.
The environment is set up to make it as easy as possible for the horse to understand what we want (use of a ‘lane’ or a corner; where we place the mat target or a nose target; use of barriers on the far side of the horse; where we position our body).
We want to make the desired behavior as east as possible for the horse to do. Setting up the training environment to achieve this means we are already halfway there.
For example, if water is challenging for the horse, we can start with walking through a box of rails on the ground, then put unusual surfaces down, like a tarp or these plastic bottles, before moving on to water.
If, instead, the horse learns evasive moves during our first fumbling with a new task, our education program has suddenly become more complex and longer. A bit of thoughtful planning can make things much easier for us and for the horse.
Ideally, we first try out our ideas with another person standing in as the horse. Or we can trial our process on a more experienced, forgiving horse. That allows us to eliminate some of the early trial and error in relation to our positioning and body language.
It allows us to be clearer for the horse when we first introduce something new, rather than confuse him because we have not yet worked out a smooth way to proceed.
The first step is always to make sure the horse is relaxed and in a learning frame of mind. If something has brought up his adrenalin, we do calming procedures or something active until he’s used up the adrenalin and can return to relaxation. If he is uninterested, we need to make ourselves and our treats more interesting. Or stop and just hang out. Maybe the horse is tired due to the weather or other activities.
Or we wait to start the new thing in a later session. If the horse gets tense during a training session, we must first look closely at our own emotional state and the energy we are communicating to the horse, often unconsciously. Both handler and horse need to return to relaxation before continuing.
We start teaching each slice of the whole task with click points determined by what the horse is able to offer already. As both horse and handler get smooth with each tiny additional slice leading toward the whole task, we gradually chain the slices together and shift the click point until the whole task can be achieved with one click point at the end.
When we begin teaching something new, we start by finding a beginning click point. For some things, this may be a very rough approximation of the final goal behavior, e.g. just a tiny drop of the head when we begin to teach head lowering right to the ground.
This is illustrated in the first of two Head Lowering video clips in my Free-ShapingExamples playlist. Click here.
We gradually shift the click point toward closer and closer approximations of what we want until we achieve the goal behavior.
Good timing of the click allows the horse to become more and more accurate. Once the horse understands a task that we are free-shaping, like the head-lowering example, we add a signal (cue) so we can ask for the task and also put in ON CUE so that the horse learns that a click&treat will only follow if we have asked for the task to be done.
When teaching something new, the focus of click&treat is on the new learning, but we can still click&treat good execution of things the horse already knows.
Consolidation of New Learning & Developing Fluidity
The Consolidation Phase begins when the horse generally understands our intent, our signals and usually responds willingly with the move we want.
At this point, we can keep up interest and enthusiasm by providing an extra click&treat whenever any part of the task is done really well.
To put a new task into long-term memory (for horses and for people) it needs to be practiced at least 9 or 10 sessions in a row; ideally over 9 or 10 days in a row. Some tasks will take longer, depending on their complexity. If we can’t have a session every day, we need to accept that it will take longer to build a new behavior solidly. Keeping a written record becomes essential.
How many ‘repeats’ we should do during one session is hard to pin down because it depends so much on:
What we are teaching.
The character type, age and history of the horse.
The skill of the handler.
The nature of the handler-horse relationship.
For some tasks, a rule of thumb might be three practice repeats in a row, unless the first one is perfect and calls for a major celebration. Clicker-savvy horses are usually keen to work until you decide to stop, but even a keen horse can use a short break after 10 repeats of learning something new.
If the horse is in the initial learning stage, a tiny improvement over last time is a valid click point, followed by celebration and doing something relaxing. During the whole training session, we could return to the ‘new learning’ task three times, in-between doing other things.
People are often confused with the scientific/mathematical terms: Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement used in the study of behavior.
‘Negative’ means ‘bad’ in much of everyday language, but used in the mathematical sense, as it is here, it simply means removing (subtracting) something from a situation.
We touch the horse’s chest to ask him to step back and when he does, we remove our hand from his chest and drop our energy (-R).
‘Positive’ in everyday language means something ‘good’. But used in the mathematical sense, as it is here, it simply means adding something to a situation.
The horse comes to us and we give him a strip of carrot. We have added the carrot to the situation (+R).
Horses (as do we) behave in ways that stop/lessen the pressure of directional touch, gesture, voice, or energy sent toward them. This is negative reinforcement (-R): we remove the pressure of the signal when the horse complies.
Of course, horses may also seek touch if they love to be groomed, scratched or massaged, so some forms of touch may be positive reinforcement (+R). Young foals often find scratching very reinforcing. They quickly learn to repeat behaviors that result in a good scratch.
Horses (as do we) behave in ways that ensure they get more of something they like. When we train horses, we usually use a small food treat to reward a behavior that we want. This is positive reinforcement (+R): i.e., we add the treat to the situation.
We build up complex behaviors by marking each tiny step of the learning process with the marker sound we’ve chosen (click or word) and delivering a treat. Eventually the horse will be able do the whole task smoothly with one click&treat at the end.
How often we click&treat (rate of reinforcement) depends on the complexity of the behavior we are working with. We have to click&treat often enough to keep the horse being continually successful with working out what will earn his next click&treat.
We can use a touch on the chest, remove our touch as the horse steps back (-R), plus mark the stepping back behavior with our special sound, then deliver a treat (+R). This is ‘combined reinforcement’ because we have used -R and +R together to help the horse understand just what he needs to do to earn another click&treat.
It could be that if -R is reinforcing and +R is reinforcing, using both together in the name of clarity is more than twice as reinforcing for the horse.
Because we are essentially asking the horse to learn a foreign language, striving for clarity is essential. If a horse can only perceive a vague mumble, he will be inclined to zone out, either with his feet, or mentally if he is held by ropes or fences.
When we are riding, we use the energy and inclination of our body as signals for the horse. We use reins or a neck rope to give touch signals. When we train with touch, gesture, voice, body language and our body’s energy, we are using negative reinforcement. When the horse responds, we remove the signal. If we add click&treat to develop the response we want, we are using combined reinforcement.
Combined Reinforcement: Boots learned to ‘smile’ when she reached up to my hand held aloft and I tickled her Upper lip. When she moved her lips, I clicked and gave her a treat. Soon she was offering the smile, and now uses it as one of her ‘consent signals’*
Video Clip: Target & Tickle
Some equine clicker trainers try hard to teach everything using only what they see as being +R (positive reinforcement). This has led to a burst of creativity to work out how we can teach horses by giving them a choice about taking part in what we want to do.
Capturing a complete behavior with a click&treat is possible for some behaviors. Things that horses do naturally can be captured. For example:
Touching the nose to a target.
Downward dog stretching.
Staying in the ‘sit’ position which is part of a horse getting up from lying down.
Backing up – if we are patient enough to wait until it happens naturally.
There are probably others, but for more most things we want to teach we use free-shaping* and guided shaping*. Items with an asterisk (*) are defined in the Glossary section.
Capturing a behavior: A horse’s natural curiosity will cause him to investigate something new with his nose. We can capture this moment with a click&treat. Once targeting is established with a strong history of positive reinforcement, we can use the willingness to touch or follow a target to train a variety of more complex behaviors. In other words, we can use the target for ‘guided shaping’*.
Capturing a behavior: Boots has learned that this stretch always earns a click&treat. I noticed she usually stretched like this after a nap and managed to ‘capture’ it three days in a row with click&treat. Then she began offering it often.
Capturing a behavior: If the horse will walk one step beside us, we click&treat after one step. Gradually we build up the ‘walking together’ by click&treat for two steps, then three steps, and so on, staying within the horse’s comfort zone and understanding. If we lose the behavior, we’ve gone too fast.
For free-shaping we click successive approximations of what we eventually want. For example: look at tarp, walk toward tarp, sniff tarp, put one foot on tarp, walk onto tarp, trot across tarp. We stay with each approximation until the horse is ho-hum with it, then move our click point along the continuum.
Free-shaping allows us more of an agenda than capturing a finished behavior.
Here are a few examples of free-shaping:
Approaching a mat or a tarp. We click&treat each tiny step toward the horse confidently standing on these. Click here.
Putting on a halter. We start with a horse willingly targeting a halter, then proceed from there. Click here.
Picking something up. Ideally we don’t want the horse tied up as in this clip, but in some situations we don’t have a choice. Click here.
Free-shaping: We are playing with picking up a cone and bringing it to me.
Luring can be useful in some situations. If the horse is anxious about approaching a tarp, we can put a treat near the tarp and eventually on the tarp, then let the horse make up his mind about stepping on the tarp in his own time.
We can teach a horse to self-load into a trailer using luring by feeding first near the trailer, then on the ramp, then progressively more in the trailer until the horse is right in and the bucket of feed and hay are at the front of the trailer.
Using this system means the horse has time to overcome his anxiety about entering and exiting a small space. It takes careful planning, but the result can be a horse totally calm about entering and backing out of a trailer.
When I used this method, the horses managed their daily trailer loading sessions independently while I did the chores. By allowing horses the time to make up their own minds about a situation, we give them back some of the control we take from them by having them in captivity.
Luring: We can add a treat to a new situation and let the horse build his confidence in his own time.
Horses are experts at reading the body language of their herd members. After all, a foal raised with his mother and other herd members learns what to do and what not to do by observation and modelling their behaviors.
A handler that the horse knows and trusts can tap into this by modelling the behavior she’d like the horse to copy. When a click&treat follows the horse’s first attempt to model a behavior, he often picks up the new move with enthusiasm.
Putting the feet on an obstacle.
Standing quietly with no intent.
Walk/jog when we walk/jog.
Halt when we halt.
Turn when we turn.
Beginnings of jambette.
Modelling: Boots was keen to follow my suggestion when I put my foot up on the object.
Modelling: If we click&treat the first effort at matching leg-lifts, the horse often becomes keen to do it again to earn another click&treat.
For guided shaping, we use a target, gesture, hand touch, touch on a halter via a lead rope, and energy changes in our body to give the horse information about what will earn him his next click&treat.
We click&treat each small step toward the finished behavior. Then we gradually link the small steps together until the horse can carry out the whole behavior with one click&treat at the end.
These cues we start with, once refined and once the horse understands and accepts them, become signals for requesting the specific behavior. We must be careful to put each behavior ‘on cue’ so the horse understands that a click&treat only happen if the task has been requested.
Guided Shaping with Targets
Using targets is a great way to motivate horses. This is +R where we add two things. The target to gain the horse’s interest, then the click&treat when the horse meets our objective. In a way, using targets is a specific type of luring.
We can use hand-held targets, stationary targets set at nose height, and foot targets.
We ask the horse to target gear we want to use before we use it, e.g., halters, ropes, covers, saddle blankets, saddles, harness parts, balls, wheelbarrows, vets, worming syringes. When I put gear on my horse, I always ask her to target each piece of it (click&treat) before we use it.
Come to a mounting block.
Once the horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement for touching his nose to a target, we can use it to encourage him to explore new situations.
Using a target for stationary flexion of parts of the body. Note that we are using a mat target to build the idea of keeping the feet still to do the stretching.
Our Hand as a Target
Although targets are super useful to teach the horse a variety of movements, they are an intermediate stage of training. We don’t want to have to carry a target with us forever.
We can begin to teach the horse to walk with us by presenting a target, click after a pre-decided number of steps, remove the target out of play behind us and deliver a treat.
As we present the target, we also use body language, breathing, voice, energy level changes. Once these are well established using the target, the target is easily replaced by an arm gesture to accompany the body language, breathing and energy change (energy up for ‘walk on’ and energy down for ‘halt’).
We can use our extended hand as a recall target. And we can use our hand to teach the horse to target various of his body parts to our hand. These include chin to hand, ear to hand, cheek to hand, knee to hand, shoulder to hand, hip to hand. Click here.
Hand as Target: Boots has moved her head to target her ear to my hand. I click, then feed the treat in a position that has her straighten her head again.
Guided Shaping with Touch and Gesture
When we use touch and gesture to explain to the horse what will result in a click&treat, we use ‘combined reinforcement’. We add the touch or gesture energy, remove it as the horse complies and simultaneously click&treat.
At first the horse often gives us just an approximation of what we want as the finished behavior. We click&treat all of these approximations. This is often called ‘rewarding the smallest try’. The horse is then usually keen to repeat the behavior and over time the click&treat point moves closer and closer to the ‘finished’ behavior.
When the touch and/or gesture signals (-R) are intricately linked with marking & rewarding (+R), the touch and gesture are information for the horse about how to earn his next click&treat.
Used thoughtfully in this way, negative reinforcement gives clarity to our teaching. The energy of our touch/gesture signals is minimal.
We can often teach a task or behavior using Capturing, Free-Shaping, Luring, Modelling, and Shaping with a Target. Once the horse understands the task, we add distinct, consistent voice, touch, and gesture signals.
Gesture Signal: I’m using my focus, arm gesture and energy to ask Boots to move her hind end across. This was one of the steps in the process of teaching her to sidestep along a rail.
Touch signal: Asking the horse to back up using touch on the halter via a lead rope. She is about to step back with her left front and right hind legs. We should teach our horse a variety of signals for backing up, both at liberty and with rope or reins.
It is an interesting learning experience to work out how we can use just positive reinforcement (+R) to teach our horse many of the things he needs to know. Once he understands the task, we add consistent voice, touch, gesture, breathing, body language signals so that we can put the task ‘on cue’ or ‘on signal only’ or under ‘stimulus control’.
When we begin using positive reinforcement, many horses become very keen and begin to throw behaviors at their handler in the hope of scoring a click&treat. This has to be handled carefully by only clicking&treating when an action has been requested. If we randomly hand feed at other times, the horse will of course be confused.
Some horses find this process of ‘putting a task on cue’ very frustrating so we have to plan our training carefully. We need to work in small bursts, develop ‘end of this session’ signals and ensure that the horse is never hungry before we begin a clicker training session. Click here.
Once the horse knows several tasks, we can switch between tasks to avoid this sort of frustration.
Equine clicker training is fun and built on a simple scientific principle, but it is never easy. Horses are complex beings and each horse brings his own twist to the table, as does each handler.
On top of all this, we have to be realistic about the situations most horses face sooner or later. We have to carefully prepare them to understand how to respond to various forms of negative reinforcement. We need to do this at home so when a tricky situation arises away from home, we have a full toolbox to deal with it.
The task above is a good one to prepare a horse for being restricted behind, as in a horse trailer. It is also a task for preparing a horse to back between cart shafts.
Rather than correct something that did not go well, we learn to reset* a task without placing a negative value judgement on what the horse just did. This makes a huge difference to how horses perceive their training.
Clicker-savvy* horses often don’t want their sessions to end. The positive vibrations that go with good clicker training make it fun rather than a chore.
Clicker training gives us a way to let the horse know instantly, by the sound of the marker signal* (click), when he is right. It takes away much of the guessing horses must do as they strive to read our intent* (which is often fuzzy to them).
A horse’s perceptions and world view are quite different from human perception and world view. While we are with our horse, the more closely we can align our world view with that of the horse, the easier it is for him to understand us and comply with our requests.
There is much more about this in my book: Conversations with Horses: An In-depth look at the Signals & Cues between Horses and their Handlers available as an e-book or a paperback.
Clicker training is not a quick fix for problems. It is a carefully crafted language between horse and handler used during every interaction. People often have to let go of what they have always done in order to make room for a new way of interacting with their horse(s).
If frustration becomes part of the equation, for the horse or the handler or both, it is usually a sign of going too fast and expecting too much too soon.
The solution is usually to slow down, think things through, decide on the exact behavior required and write a careful shaping plan to achieve that behavior.
Keeping emotions (horse and person) on the calm/relaxed/joyful side of the emotional continuum is a major part of effective clicker training.
Acquisition, Fluidity, Generalization and Maintenance
Acquisition includes getting our head around how we will ask for a unique behavior and then explaining what we want to the horse.
The way we first present new material to the horse is crucial. As much as possible, we want the horse to be continuously successful.
It’s helpful to practice our ideas and techniques first on a person standing in for the horse. If you are lucky enough to have an experienced horse, it also helps to work out techniques with him before moving on to a novice horse.
Even a well-educated, experienced horse appreciates learning new things in small slices. This allows him to build confidence and expertise with each step toward being able to carry out the whole task smoothly with one click&treat at the end.
We always begin with low-key experimentation to see what the horse can already offer. We may find that some of the basic elements in our Individual Education Program are missing or not quite good enough. We might find some major training holes that need to be addressed.
For example, before we can teach our horse to weave a series of objects, have we taught him to confidently walk with us on a loose lead rope? Does he easily stay beside us, stepping off when we step off, halting when we halt and turning when we turn?
Gentle experimentation may also lead us to discover that the horse already has a solid foundation on which we can easily build a new task.
How we first present the halter to a horse and the way we handle the rope will have a huge influence on how confident the horse will be about joining in with activities that include the halter and lead.
Once we have created an Individual Education Program and carefully taken the horse through it, we have acquired the ability to carry out a specific behavior together.
If the task is part of daily general care and recreation, such as safety around gates, the horse will have ample opportunity to use the new behavior often and receive reinforcement for it. His response to the signal will become more fluent as long as the handler’s signals are consistent.
If, on the other hand, the new behavior is for a specific purpose, such as loading onto a trailer or trotting through a tunnel for Horse Agility, we have to set up special training opportunities to allow the horse to become fluent.
Thin-slicing the many skills required for trailer-loading leads to fluency. Here we are using a trailer simulation to build duration while standing in a closed-off spot.
In my experience, if we train a new behavior to the point of fluency, the horse tends to remember it forever.
If a behavior is unreliable, it was not originally taught to the point of fluency and was not adequately generalized or maintained.
Once the horse understands a new task or a new skill, it is important to take it out into the world. Through generalization, the horse gains further fluency with a task.
Asking for the behavior in different places but still at home.
Using different props.
Working at different times of the day.
Asking for the behavior away from home.
Working with unusual distractions.
Working at a different gait.
Handler using a different body orientation.
Fading out a signal and replacing it with a new one.
Requesting more repeats or duration before the click&treat.
Working with a different handler (who uses the same signals).
Generalization helps the horse put the new learning into his long-term memory. Each time we quietly repeat the task, we help build the horse’s confidence. If the horse is unable to do the task in a specific situation or context, it gives us vital information about where we are in our Education Program* with this horse for this task.
Once the horse confidently jumps simple obstacles, we generalize the skill to different-looking obstacles and obstacles in different venues.
As already mentioned under Fluency, some behaviors become and remain fluent because we use them a lot, for example, putting on and taking off a halter or cleaning out the feet every day.
Other behaviors are specialized, and we have to create a plan to refresh and use them occasionally so that they stay in our repertoire. Vet procedures usually come into this category.
If we teach our horse to flex toward the prick of a toothpick, so his muscles are loose rather than taut, we need to do such needle simulations on a regular basis. Likewise, if we want the horse to be confident with a worming tube, we can practice with applesauce as frequently as we like.
Hoof trimming, whether we do it ourselves or hire someone, can cause anxiety for a horse if it suddenly happens out of the blue. It’s much easier for us and the horse if we pick up feet regularly and move the feet into trimming positions to make it a normal request. We can also introduce the horse to a variety of different people who are allowed to touch him and handle his legs and feet.
My friend Bridget helping Boots get used to other people handling her feet.
Photo: Using targets as ‘destinations’ makes it much easier to give meaning to our request in a way that the horse easily understands. Reaching the target, whether it is putting the front feet on a mat or touching the nose on a stationary object, earns the horse a click&treat. We can then move between targets to encourage the horse to come with us willingly because there is always something for him to look forward to – the next click&treat when we reach the next destination.
Training with a Marker Signal and Positive Reinforcement
Training with the click&treat dynamic is a skill worth learning well, but it is not the only thing we have to learn well.
Some people handle/condition a horse’s behavior in a way that encourages the horse to always look to the handler – a form of ‘learned helplessness’. The horse is asked to subjugate his own observations, feelings and natural responses in favor of what the handler requires him to do.
Other people set themselves the interesting challenge of doing everything with their horses using only positive reinforcement training (often called ‘clicker training’). They pair each desired response with a marker signal (click) followed immediately by a food treat. They feel that this is the only way to keep a horse’s ‘sparkle’ alive.
Somewhere between these two extremes, fall the people who teach many things with the click&treat dynamic, but they also understand, respect, learn and use universal horse language. In their view, any horse education system that fails to acknowledge group social order, different horse character types and how horses succinctly communicate with body language, will have limited success.
From our human standpoint, we could define ‘success‘ as having a horse that is safe and fun to be with and that we can take places for exercise to maintain blood circulation health, overall fitness and mental stimulation.
Success could mean that the horse:
greets us willingly
enters our space politely
offers feet confidently for foot care
accepts gear on and off comfortably
leads safely and willingly in a variety of positions
responds equally well to upward and downward transition requests
confidently accepts touch and grooming all over its body
confidently accepts ropes draped all over its body and legs
willingly, at request, moves away from a food dish, pile of hay or grazing spot
not unduly spooked by dragging ropes, wheelbarrows, flapping things, balls, bicycles, vehicles
able to stay ‘parked’ quietly or stand and ‘wait’ for a further signal
confident moving through gates/narrow spaces/lanes and over water/unusual surfaces at our request
approaches new/spooky things as long as we give him the approach & retreat time to convince himself it is harmless
at ease with any body extensions the handler might use to clarify or accentuate signals
Once we have all that, we can endlessly refine the basics and teach new patterns and tricks.
Teaching with the click&treat dynamic is hugely helpful to horse handlers for two main reasons:
Encourages accurate observation of what the horse is doing in order to pick the ‘clickable moments‘, which are also the moments that signal/cue pressure is released. Therefore becoming a good clicker trainer also hones the skill of becoming an excellent trainer with simple ‘release reinforcement’.
It teaches ‘thin-slicing’ — the cutting of a large task into its smallest ‘clickable’ components so that we can get the horse confident with each tiny ‘slice’. Then we can chain the slices together until the whole task is achieved. This way of teaching/learning, often called ‘mastery learning‘ keeps the horse successful all the way through the process. A clicker-savvy horse knows that if the click&treat is withheld, they need to try something else.
Developing the two skills above will greatly increase the ‘feel‘ of the handler. That ‘feel‘ will translate to the times when a good choice is use of ‘release reinforcement’ by itself. Feeling what the horse is doing — understanding what his body language is saying and knowing how to respond to that with our feel and body language, is the key to training with signal pressure and release of signal pressure (‘release reinforcement’).
What horses gain from positive reinforcement Horses trained with the click&treat dynamic discover that they can have a voice. Once they learn that a certain behavior will earn them a click&treat, they can become pro-active in offering that behavior. For many horses this is huge because in the past things have only been done to them or demanded of them — they could only be re-active.
When a task is thin-sliced so they understand each part of the training process, the horse’s learning can progress in leaps and bounds. We’d all rather work for a boss who praises what he likes rather than one who only criticizes what he doesn’t like.
Horses are not blank pages on which we write what we want. They already have a perfectly good language. It seems logical to learn it and use it as best as we can with our non horse-shaped bodies. Horses are very generous with their interpretation of what we mean. No doubt we have a very funny accent, but unless they have been traumatized by humans, they are happy to learn new things and accept us as part of their personal herd.
Social Group Once the horse accepts us as part of her personal ‘ in-group’, we have a position in the group social order. The two things go together. We can’t form a bond of understanding with a horse unless he or she lets us into their social group. Once we are part of the social group, we have a ranking within it. If the horse can move our feet at will, she or he stands above us in the social order. If we can ask move the horse’s feet, we rank above him her in the social grouping recognized by the horse. When people don’t understand this dynamic, or chose to deny/ignore it, things might not go well.
Horse Character Types Like us, horses can be innately anxious or innately confident and imaginative. They come as extroverts who like to/need to move their feet a lot and they come as introverts who prefer the quiet life. A careful look at how our horse perceives and reacts to things can give us insight into how we can best proceed with an individualized training program. What works perfectly with one horse can be quite problematic with another.
Universal Horse LanguageHorses have a complex communication system using their body language and a few vocalizations. They ‘message’ other horses with body tension, body orientation, neck position/movement, ear position, tail activity, posturing, striking out, kicking, biting, nibbling. How they use each of these depends on their intent at the time. An ‘alarm snort’ will instantly have the whole herd on alert. Quietly turning the head away as another horse (or a person) approaches is an appeasement signal.
With the aid of body extensions which make us as tall and long as a horse, and simulate a horse’s expressive tail, we can more clearly emulating universal horse language. If we are good at it and use our movements consistently, any horse will understand our intent without us ever needing to touch the horse or use a rope. We can establish our position in the social order by ensuring we can move the horse’s feet in a variety of situations while the horse is at liberty to move away, as it would be in a natural herd situation.
Once we have established our social position, we maintain it by the way we behave. Anxious type horses may rarely challenge our position. Confident, imaginative type horses may well challenge our position regularly. In a natural herd situation, they have the drive and sparkle to work their way up the group’s social order.
With an understanding of, horse character types, equine body language, and how the social order works, we can flow with the information the horse gives us via his behavior and body language. Skills of observation, timing and ‘feel’ allow us to decide how we will use clicker training to make his life in his strange human-dominated world a little bit more interesting and understandable.
With equine clicker training, we experiment to find out what the horse can already do, then build his skills in a way that has him being continually successful.
The link below contains a bit more information about horse character types.
Photo: Sitting with the horse in a roomy, enclosed area, asking nothing of him except politeness. This is a superb way to build a new relationship with a new horse or to to build an improved relationship with a horse we have already.
It’s only when we feel safe with our horse and our horse feels safe with us that real teaching and learning can go on. If our horse makes us feel worried or afraid, we need to take heed of the feeling and organize our environment so that we can be with the horse in a way that allows us to regain our safe, calm, centered core. Maybe we need to sit in our chair just outside the horse’s enclosure to start with.
It will be difficult for a horse to remain in his calm, centered core in our presence if we are sending out vibes that tell him we are uneasy and nervous. A good first step is to spend undemanding time with the horse, in his home if we feel safe there, or on the other side of a fence or gate if we don’t. We need to carry a swishy type body extension so that we can enlarge our bubble without offending the horse by striking out toward him. Horses are very sensitive to the air movement of two swishy twigs or dressage whips, or the swishing of a string rotated like a helicopter blade.
Horses easily understand when we are merely enlarging our bubble of personal space. If we strike out toward their personal bubble rather than just protect our own space, the horse will realize it instantly. It is important to be aware of the difference between acting in an assertive way and acting in an aggressive way, and to be mindful of which one we are doing.
As we sit with our horse, we can read, meditate or just enjoy the quiet of being in the moment, looking and listening and breathing. It’s nice if the horse can be in a roomy area where he is comfortable, able to see his companions but not where they can interfere with your special time together.
It works well to set a time limit. It doesn’t matter what the horse does. We are there as a companion, a paddock mate for the time we have set. We expect nothing of the horse except politeness. If he becomes overbearing, we move away with our chair or ask him to back off by swishing the air toward his feet to protect our personal bubble.
The PDF attached has a look at ways to ensure our safety.
Photo: Teaching the horse to target a pool noodle with his hind foot to help his confidence with standing on three legs is one half of the task.
Photo: The other half of the task is to teach relaxation while being rubbed all over with a pool noodle, keeping all feet on the ground.
Keeping the Balance
For everything we teach our horse, we have to be mindful of also teaching the opposite. If we teach a very good ‘whoa’, it is also important to teach an excellent ‘walk on’ signal.
For most things we teach, we have to also teach a counter-balancing task.
If we teach ‘head down please’, we also need to teach ‘head up please’.
If we teach ‘back up please’, we need to teach, ‘come forward please’.
If we teach targeting a mat with the front feet, we have to teach happily stepping off the mat and walking away from it. Some horses get strongly attached to their mats.
If we teach a turn followed by a ‘halt’, we have to teach a turn followed by a brisk ‘walk on please’.
If we teach entering a trailer, we need to carefully teach exiting the trailer.
If we teach the horse to ground tie, we also need to teach him how to move with a dragging rope so he learns not to step on it and isn’t frightened if something happens to make him move dragging his rope.
If we teach the horse to come to us when we are playing at liberty, we also need to teach him to go away from us in a way that is fun rather than seen as a punishment. Being sent away to the outskirts of the ‘herd’ can be seen by horses as a punitive action because it’s a less safe place to be.
If we teach a move or behavior on one side of the horse, we need to teach it again on the other side of the horse. Maybe also from in front of the horse and from behind the horse. This concept is explored in detail in my book, Walking with Horses:The Eight Leading Positions (see the BOOKS link above).
If we don’t do these things, the horse will become fixated on one way of doing a task. He’ll be determined that he’ll always do it this way. In some situations, the power of the click&treat dynamic can work against us rather than for us.
So, for everything we teach, we need to counterbalance it with another task. How much time we spend balancing out these sorts of tasks depends on many factors. As we get better at understanding our horse, it will get easier to know when we’ve done too much of one dimension and need to consider the other dimension. We’ll find it easier and easier to keep a better balance.
The clip below looks at how we can generalize working with mats to balance the expectation of landing front feet on a mat to earn a click&treat, which we teach first. Once the horse heads straight to a mat as soon as he sees it, we can use tasks like this to balance out his eagerness.