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6 Easy Clicker Training Exercises for Horses (With Pictures)

clicker-training-exercises-horses
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Written by Sandra Poppema

Clicker training horses is fun, useful, and easier to get started than you think.

Many people think clicker training is a dog training method and/or that it’s only useful for trick training a horse. While clicker training certainly is used for both of those scenarios, this approach is able to help you achieve so much more. 

What most horse lovers don’t know is that clicker training can be used to train your horse to do everything you can train with traditional training or natural horsemanship. 

The best thing is that you can now train your horse to do things that you can’t train with any other method.

With only a few pieces of equipment and basic guidance (shared in this article), you’ll be well on your way to developing a better partnership with your horse.

Click to get clickers with handy wrist straps at Amazon.

Read on for step-by-step instructions about how to teach six key lessons using clicker training. But, remember, this is only the beginning of what’s possible with this training approach!

 

 

 

What is clicker training?

The name comes from the small plastic box that makes a click sound when you press the metal blade inside.

Pair a click with something your horse wants to receive, like a treat (appetitive), and it becomes a powerful training tool.

clicker-training-partnership

Clicker training is a fun way to build a stronger partnership with your horse.

Using the click is like the popular children’s game ‘warmer-colder,’ where you tell another player to go to a certain place by guiding them with the words ‘warmer’ if they come closer to the goal and the word ‘colder’ if he or she goes the wrong way.

Every click tells your horse that he’s getting ‘warmer’ to the desired behavior you’re training. It’s a clear, precise, and easy to understand signal for your horse.

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Want more guidance? Request your free 5-Step Clicker Training Plan from HippoLogic

Clicker training terminology

Horses learn quickly from the consequences of their behaviour. This is called reinforcement, and the timing is critical.

The quicker the reinforcement follows the action, the easier it is for the horse to make that association.

Click to see this clicker training guide at Amazon.

Negative Reinforcement (R-)

If you want to teach your horse to follow your lead, you might gently pull the lead rope. By doing that there is pressure on the horse’s head from its halter.

If your horse moves forward, and you release the pressure, your horse quickly learns to avoid that pressure by following your lead. 

This is the traditional way of horse training, and it’s called negative reinforcement (R-).

Reinforcement because you strengthen the behaviour (walking beside you) and negative because you take away the pressure when the horse displays the desired behaviour (following you).

Positive Reinforcement (R+)

The opposite is called positive reinforcement (R+). This means, in scientific terms, that something is added to strengthen behaviour. 

An easy way to remember this is to think of math class: subtraction (something is taken away) is written with a minus (negative), and addition (something is added) with a plus. The same is true in horse training.

In order to strengthen a behaviour by adding something, that ‘something’ must be pleasurable.

How do you add a treat while or within seconds of your horse is doing something desirable? Can you give a treat while your horse is cantering? Not if you want to stay safe!

That’s where the clicker comes in. The click is to bridge the time gap between the desired behaviour and the pleasurable consequence.

Note: If you don’t have a training clicker available, you can use any auditory signal that is short, quick, distinguishable, and unique.

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Benefits of Clicker Training Horses

Clicker training more fully engages your horse’s mind in training because now he can get something he wants to have (vs. avoid something he doesn’t want — like pressure).

Clicker training is a win-win for you and your horse.

horse-positive-reinforcement

Reinforce good behaviors instead of punishing bad ones.

5 Reasons to try horse clicker training

  1. You can train everything you can train with traditional/natural horsemanship methods and more. For instance, you can even reinforce your horse to greet you with a whinny 🙂
  2. In clicker training, we often see that the horse raises his own criteria for training. In other words, he wants to perform better, and he will show you that he can.
  3. It’s a great way to get rid of undesired behaviour without punishing the horse. If he kicks doors during feeding time, turn training into a win-win. You want silence during feeding, and he wants food: click and treat for four hooves on the ground. In no time, your horse will wait patiently with four feet on the floor until dinner is served.
  4. In order to clicker train your horse, you have to learn to pay attention to what your horse is telling you with his body language. Clicker training helps you become a really good horse listener
  5. Since there is no ‘force’ with R+ training, you can build trust really quickly because your horse has the choice to engage with you. Trust, listening skills, and choice are a great foundation for every relationship.

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Clicker Training Equipment for Horses

One of the great things this training method is that you don’t need a lot of expensive gear. In fact, you only need three simple things to start clicker training your horse.

What you need: 

  1. A “bridge” or marker signal (e.g. inexpensive clicker from Amazon or even a special word)
  2. Target stick (e.g. stick from Karen Pryor or learn to make your own)
  3. Something your horse wants to work for (e.g. treat, dinner grain, or non-food reinforcers like scratches)
clicker-training-equipment-horses

Clicker (left) and target stick (right)

clicker-training-equipment-horses-treats

Small treats reinforce correct behaviours

Remember, timing is key when you’re clicker training any animal.

If you use treats, it’s important that you can access them easily and give them to your horse quickly.

The more quickly he gets the treat, the more strongly your horse associates the reward with his most recent behaviour.

Treat pouches, like this silicone magnet-closure pouch at Amazon, attach to your belt and are easy to access. (This one also comes with a clicker!)

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Find more clicker training tools on the Horse Rookie Amazon Watch List.

Key Lesson #1: Table Manners

What it does

Teaches your horse what a “bridge signal” means and helps your horse control emotions related to food and treats.

horse-hand-feeding

What you’ll need

  • Clicker
  • Treats
  • Barrier between you and your horse (e.g. fence, stall door)

Why teach it

It provides clarity, safety, teaches the horse desired behaviour around treats and food. This lesson prevents and stops “mugging” (i.e. horse searches for food in a pushy way) and other undesirable behaviours like nipping and biting.

Rules of this game

  1. Horse waits until treat is presented (handler feeds as quickly as possible after the click)
  2. Food always moves towards the horse (never the other way around)
  3. Treat is fed away from the source (your pocket, treat bucket) with an outstretched arm
  4. Preferably, the horse has his neck straight forward when fed
  5. Horse takes food gently with lips only and doesn’t use teeth
  6. Horse is calm

How to do it

Stand near your horse with a barrier between you. This helps mitigate risk if you don’t know how he is going to react to getting lots of treats or if you already know he can be pushy.

The goal is to reinforce moving away and/or keeping a distance from the food source (e.g. pocket, hands, person, food).

Step 1 

Call your horse. Let the horse investigate you without accessing the treats. Click as soon as the horse moves his head away from the food source, then quickly present a treat.

Step 2 

Do 5-10 repetitions before giving your horse a short break.

Step 3 

End the session with a clear ‘End-of-Session’ signal. Do not give any more clicks and treats until the next session starts and you call his name.

Step 4 

Repeat until your horse pays attention to the click, and you see him repeat the behaviour displayed when you clicked.

Step 5 

Make the exercise a bit more difficult by repeating without a barrier. Expect your horse to ‘fall back to old habits’ now that the barrier is removed. That is normal. Repeat step #1-4.

Training tip

End every session with a clear ‘End-of-Session’ signal. I put both hands up to show I have no more treats and say ‘all gone.’ Horses quickly learn that the lesson is over, and they can decide to stay with you or go do something else.

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Key Lesson #2: Patience

What it does

Teaches your horse to stand still in a safe position and wait ‘patiently’ for your next cue.

training-horse-patience

What you’ll need

  • Clicker
  • Treats

Why teach it

  • Safety from potentially dangerous behaviours like rubbing against you, mugging, biting, stepping on your feet, pulling you towards juicy patches of grass, walking away from you, or “impressing” you with unexpected behaviour like Spanish walk
  • Creates trust between horse and handler
  • Provides clarity for horse and handler
  • It’s key to success in teaching your horse many other useful behaviours, like standing for grooming, ground tying, standing for mounting, staying calm in stressful situations, waiting for cues, and mat training

Rules of this game

Horse aligns himself next to your shoulder, stands with four feet on the floor, neck straight, relaxed body posture (as if he is patiently waiting for your next cue).

Start out with ‘looking away from you’ to start with, like you did in lesson one. Then shape it gradually to ‘head forward.’

If your horse is still ‘mugging’ you, go back and repeat the lesson one until your horse understands that the fastest way to get a treat is actually to ignore them.

How to do it

Prerequisites: Table Manners

Step 1 

Stand next to your horse, shoulder to shoulder. 

Step 2 

Wait until he looks forward (neck straight), then click and give him a treat. Present the treat away from your body, where you want his head to be and stay.

You can start out with ‘looking away from you’ if he is still investigating you.

Step 3 

Reinforce ‘relaxation.’ Wait until your horse relaxes and then click and treat.

He might perk up when he hears the click, now he knows that it means a reward is coming. That’s OK. It’s the moment you click you want to see more often.

Make sure that he remembers the Table Manners (taking the treat safely off of your hand) when you feed the treat.

Step 4

Repeat the steps until he wants to stand still for a few seconds. Gradually built it up until 5 seconds.

This might take several training sessions, but don’t get discouraged!

Step 5 

Repeat steps #1-4 while standing on the other side.

Step 6 

Once the behaviour is offered consistently, put a verbal cue to it. For example, say ‘Patience.’

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Key Lesson #3: Targeting

What it does

In this exercise you teach your horse to touch an object with a particular body part. We’ll start with nose targeting.

horse-target-training

What you’ll need

Why teach it

  • Safe way of training because it creates distance between horse and handler
  • Creates clarity in training
  • Teaches your horse to move away from you without chasing or scaring him 
  • Teaches your horse to follow you/a target
  • Redirects attention from your pocket to the target (novice horses) and teaches him to pay attention to cues instead of rewards
  • Very versatile: the best way to teach other (more complex) behaviours like Backing, Head lowering, leading, trailer loading, trot, canter, etc.
  • In advanced targeting, you can teach your horse to target an object with other body parts, like targeting the mouth for oral medication, eyes to your hand in order to treat eye infections, ears for cleaning or clipping, hooves on a hoof jack for trimming, etc.

Potential challenges

  • You now have an extra tool in your hands. Start with a barrier to get used to handling a target stick, clicker, and treats. 
  • The target can be frightening your horse in the beginning. Split up the first four steps into smaller steps to build confidence.

How to do it

Prerequisites: Table Manners, Patience

Step 1 

Start working with a barrier between you and your horse so that you can get used to an extra tool in your hands, without giving your horse the opportunity to start mugging you.

Step 2 

Click and treat for every engagement with the target stick: Look at target, approach target, and/or sniff target.

Step 3 

Raise your criterion, and click/treat for touching the target (not the stick). Make sure you click and reinforce a closed mouth; you don’t want to click for biting the target or pushing it hard.

Step 4 

Make it a bit more challenging, and click/treat for touching the target with the part of his nose between the nostrils, just above his upper lip.

From now on all other engagements with the target will be ignored (e.g. licking, biting the target).

Step 5 

Once your horse touches the target consistently, you can keep it a bit more to the left, right, or lower. Click and reinforce for touching the target.

Step 6 

Repeat steps #1-5 without the barrier.

Step 7 

Pair the behaviour on a verbal cue like ‘Touch.’ 

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Want more guidance? Request your free 5-Step Clicker Training Plan from HippoLogic

Key Lesson #4: Mat training

What it does

Teaching your horse to stand with two front hooves on a mat.

clicker-mat-training

What you’ll need

Why teach it

  • Very versatile to teach ‘targeting’ with hooves
  • Provides clarity about where you want the horse to be/or move to
  • Helps teach your horse to ground tie or stay in place
  • Preparation to step onto all kinds of other surfaces like tarps, wooden bridges, man holes covers on the street, trailer ramps, pedestals, hoof jacks, etc.
  • Advanced mat training: sending your horse from mat to mat at liberty helps create more ‘go’ and ‘calmness’ in a horse
  • Other advanced behaviours include: ground tying, stepping up unfamiliar surfaces (e.g. trailer ramps), sending your horse away from you without chasing him away, teaching your horse to come to you

How to do it

Prerequisites: Table Manners, Patience. It helps if your horse knows how to target, but it’s not necessary.

Step 1 

Put a mat on the ground inside a fenced area. Let the horse explore the new object at liberty. Click for all behaviours that help guide the horse to step on the mat with one (and later two) front hooves.

Criteria are: reinforce the horse for looking, moving towards the mat, and/or sniffing or interacting with it.

Step 2 

Handler is inside the fenced area or outside (if working with protective contact make sure the mat and the horse are close enough to the barrier to deliver the reinforcer). Click for one foot on the mat.

Allow pawing, but don’t click and reinforce it. Pawing is normal exploration behaviour, and it’s fun and reinforcing in and of itself. 

Step 3 

Once your horse steps onto the mat, even if it’s with one foot, click and deliver a treat. Then, ask your horse to step off of the mat. Click and reinforce that, too.

Step 4 

Click and reinforce about three times before you raise your criterion. Your criterion in the beginning is one foot (partly) on the mat, then one foot on and the other partly on.

Continue until your horse knows that he only gets clicks and treats for two front feet on the mat.

Step 5 

Once the behaviour is offered consistently, put a verbal cue to it like ‘mat’ or ‘step up.’

In the video below, you can see the benefits of key lessons Table Manners, Patience and Mat Training combined.

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Key Lesson #5: Head lowering

What it does

Horse lowers his head; his nose is approximately at height of the front knee. Horse relaxes.

clicker-training-head-lowering

What you’ll need

  • Clicker
  • Treats
  • Target stick
  • Barrier

Why teach it

  • Safety
  • Redirects attention from your pocket
  • Can calm the horse down
  • Great indicator of equine emotions (nervous horses keep their heads up)
  • Clarity in behaviours like haltering
  • Advanced head lowering can train your horse to ‘self halter’ (see video below) or ‘self bridle’ 
  • Confidence: you can use it to encourage your horse to inspect/explore unfamiliar objects/shadows/light spots on the ground, etc.

How to do it

Prerequisites: Table Manners, Targeting

Step 1 

Stand in front of your horse, and use a fence as barrier. Hold the target stick in front of your horse a bit lower than his head.

Step 2 

Click for the movement of his head going down. The horse does NOT have to touch the target.

You are now using Key Lesson Targeting as training tool to train other behaviours. #celebrate

Step 3 

Repeat for moving his head down until the desired height is reached.

Click and treat every time your horse moves his head down. Present the treat where you want his head to be.

Step 4 

Repeat without a barrier. 

Step 5 

Practice while you’re standing on his left side, as well as on his right side.

Step 6 

Fade out the target stick by holding it closer to the target area. After a few repetitions you can leave out the target stick and you just point to the ground and or slightly bend forward (only intent to do so). Click for where you want his head to be.

Step 7 

Once the behaviour is offered consistently, put a cue to it like ‘Down.’ Move your body slightly forward so your cue stays very subtle.

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Key Lesson #6: Backing

What it does

Horse steps backwards with his abdomen engaged. Horse keeps neck horizontal, or a bit convex, and lifts each hoof nicely off of the ground.

clicker-training-backing

Note: It’s very important to make sure you horse doesn’t have a hollow back or drag his hind legs!

Training tip

Backing is physically challenging for horses. In order to make and keep it fun and easy, ask the horse to go forward after each time you’ve asked for the back up.

What you’ll need

  • Clicker
  • Treats
  • Target stick

Why teach it

  • Safety: you can easily move the horse out of your way (e.g. entering a gate, leaving stall, keep your horse away from the food source), prevent undesirable behaviours because it’s incompatible with activities like rubbing their heads on your body, licking, biting, head bumping, etc. 
  • Athletic exercise: great tool to teach horses body awareness, improve posture on the ground, and under saddle
  • Redirects attention from your pocket

How to do it

Prerequisites: Table Manners, Targeting

Step 1 

Stand slightly to his side and in front of your horse. Use a target stick to let the horse shift his weight back by holding the target stick fairly low.

Click for the movement of his body, not for touching the target stick. 

Note: ‘Feed for position’ by keeping the treat a bit towards his chest so you encourage a weight shift. Don’t expect a whole step–just a shift in weight is enough.

Step 2 

Again, present the target stick, and ask the horse to touch. Click and reinforce for lifting up a hoof/taking the weight off. Just a bit is enough.

It’s the intention of backing that you want to reinforce for now, not the touching of the target.

Step 3 

Present the target low, and ask your horse to touch it while you slowly (!) move it towards his knees.

Click for one step with one hoof.

Step 4 

Repeat step #3. After a few repetitions ask for two hoofs moving backwards.

Step 5 

Use the target stick to entice your horse to move three hoofs backwards, and so on, until your horse can step one step backward.

Step 6

Raise your criterion to two steps and then three steps

Step 7 

Fade out the target stick by holding the stick a bit more towards the target until your horse reacts to the position of your arm (looks like pointing).

Step 8 

Once the behaviour is offered consistently, point and put a verbal cue to it like ‘back up.’

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About Sandra Poppema

Sandra Poppema, BSc, started her career as a riding instructor 30+ years ago. She noticed many riders needed to improve their communication skills. She became a horse trainer and began teaching equestrians how they could improve their relationships with their horses through intentional training and riding. Sandra became the go-to person for online positive reinforcement training after taming and training a wild horse with her innovative HippoLogic Key Lessons. She created this home-study program so horse people around the world can become autonomous equine clicker trainers.

Learn more on the HippoLogic Horse Training website, and request your free 5-Step Clicker Training Plan!

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About the author

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Sandra Poppema, BSc, started her career as a riding instructor 30+ years ago. She noticed many riders needed to improve their communication skills. She became a horse trainer and began teaching equestrians how they could improve their relationships with their horses through intentional training and riding. Sandra became the go-to person for online positive reinforcement training after taming and training a wild horse with her innovative HippoLogic Key Lessons. She created this home-study program so horse people around the world can become autonomous equine clicker trainers.