Touching a target is one of the first behaviors that many clicker trainers teach to their horses. It’s a great way to introduce the horse to clicker training and show him that he can do a specific behavior to earn reinforcement. Once this targeting behavior has been learned, it can be used to train many other behaviors such as leading, standing still, going over obstacles, turns, lowering the head, etc…
I find targets to be incredibly useful because they allow me to clearly indicate what kind of movement I want, but they give the horse complete control over his own behavior. The horse gets to decide if he is wants to touch or follow the target and if he doesn’t, it’s a clear indication to me that I need to change something about my training plan.
Targeting, as used above, usually refers to the behavior of the horse touching the target with his nose. I can also train a horse to touch a target with his feet. This is often called mat work, which is teaching a horse to put one, two, or all four feet on a flat object on the ground. I usually use pieces of plywood or doormats as foot targets. Mat work can be used to teach lots of other behaviors including stationing, ground tying and work on balance and foot placement. Most clicker trained horses love their mats and Alexandra Kurland uses going to the mat as a form of reinforcement.
I can train a lot of behaviors with nose and foot targeting, and with many horses, that’s all the targeting I do. But if I have time, I also like to teach the horse to touch a target with other body parts. This is a great way to teach a horse about moving other body parts (and awareness of them) as well as being a fun activity to do if you only have a few minutes. Most horses catch on quickly and enjoy learning these types of targeting behaviors. I’ve taught ear, eye, jaw, chin, forehead, shoulder, knee, hip, and hock. I’m sure you could teach every body part if you were creative enough.
Here are some of the benefits of teaching body part targeting:
- Teaching your horse to move a body part on cue builds awareness
- The trainer can learn a lot about the horse’s physical ability or limitations – this is especially helpful when looking at symmetry (left vs. right) and working with horses that are recovering from injuries.
- It’s a great way to work within a horse’s comfort zone for horses that are afraid of touch in certain areas (ears, head, etc…). An ear shy horse can learn to put his ear on a target, or in my hand, which can be more effective than trying to desensitize him to my touch.
- Teaching a horse hip and shoulder targets can be useful if I want to teach lateral work. I’ve used a shoulder target to teach shoulder-in and a hip target to teach haunches-in. I’ve also used them to ask for small adjustments in other in-hand or groundwork.
- It’s fun. I really shouldn’t put this last, but maybe it’s a good one to end on. Most horses really enjoy body part targeting and I think it helps many horses to become more comfortable and enjoy touch instead of just reacting to or tolerating it.
- The target can be anything you want. For some body parts, I find it is easier to use my hand (ears, eyes, chin, jaw, forehead). For others I prefer to use another object (target stick, pool noodle, etc…).
- I always start with a body part that is easy. An easy one is one where the horse is already comfortable with me touching him there and has some awareness of how to move it independently. In the video at the end, I show a knee target which is often easy for most horses.
- The first step is usually to indicate which body part I want the horse to move. I usually start by touching the horse with the target and clicking for contact. I repeat this a few times and then touch and move the target slightly away (half an inch or less?) and click if the horse makes any attempt to come closer to the target. I move back and forth between touching the horse (c/t) and asking the horse to initiate contact (c/t) in the early sessions so that the reinforcement rate stays high. This first step usually takes the longest and there’s a huge variation in how quickly horses catch on. A horse that has been trained to stay out of your space will take longer.
- I find it works better if I start with the target very close and then slowly move it out, always clicking for touching the target. The contact with the target serves as an important piece of information for the horse. This works better than holding the target where I want the body part to be and clicking for getting closer to it.
- Be mindful of safety. Body Part Targeting teaches a horse to move closer to you. If you teach your horse a hip or shoulder target, it’s important to have it on good stimulus control from very early on. You have a little wiggle room here if you are the only one handling the horse, but I really prefer to have some kind of context cues so the horse doesn’t offer it unexpectedly.
- Once a horse has learned a few body parts, it will learn new ones more quickly. You’ll want to be prepared for this when you start a new one.
- There are different ways to add cues to these behaviors. Some people use different targets for different body parts. Others have verbal cues but use the same target. I often use a combination of verbal and context cues. The context cues (where I stand and the position of the target) tell the horse which behavior I want and the verbal cue initiates the behavior.
I thought it would be useful to have a video showing a horse going through the steps of learning to target with a new body part. With this in mind, I started teaching Red to do a knee target early this fall. Red is one of my horses and while he’s been clicker trained for a long time, most of it has been for basic handling, husbandry and riding behaviors. Body part targeting is new to him and I wasn’t sure how quickly he would catch on. I had to be a little creative in the beginning because he has a strong reinforcement history for standing, but once he realized it was about picking up his foot, he progressed very nicely. Here’s a video showing how his training went. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them here or contact me directly through my website or facebook page.