equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Getting Help: Strategies for Working with Traditional Trainers (Part 2)

This is the second part of a two part series. If you haven’t read Part 1, I suggest you do so before continuing.

Type and amount of reinforcement

It’s a good idea to plan and practice your reinforcement strategy ahead of time. If your horse is used to being clicked and treated during a training session, but you can’t click and treat during a lesson, you need to decide how you are going to provide meaningful reinforcement. How you do this will depend upon a number of factors including your horse’s previous learning history and whether the trainer will allow you to feed “treats.”

The best option is to find someone who will allow you to use your normal reinforcement strategy (click and treat), even if they’re not a clicker trainer. But this can be hard to do. I found, in general, that if I asked traditional trainers about clicker training, I would get a fairly negative response and the trainer would think I was crazy to want to do it. But, if I said I wanted to feed an occasional treat, that might be permitted – although I was usually told I was spoiling my horse. This always seemed odd to me, that the use of food as an occasional reward was okay, but that the systematic use of it as a reinforcer was not.

I’ve only ridden with two trainers who allowed me to click and treat, and even with them, I couldn’t click and treat as I normally would at home. There were another four that would allow me to feed treats, but not to click. There are certain situations in which I do feed without clicking, so I was okay with this, but if you don’t want to feed without clicking, then you can teach your horse an alternate marker signal that is less obvious.

Even if a trainer allows you to click and/or feed treats, she is unlikely to want you to stop and feed the horse at unpredictable (to her) times during your lesson. I don’t think this is just about the stopping and feeding. It’s also about the difference in how much duration or repetition of a behavior the trainer wants to see before she gives the horse (or rider) a break. I found that most traditional trainers believe that they have to get the student and horse to do a significant amount of the desired behavior in order for the learning to “stick.” They can’t see the power of marking the first baby steps toward learning something – perhaps because they never had a precise way to do it. I’ve also had situations where the trainer was coaching me toward something very specific that I had never done before. In that case, it would have been counterproductive for me to try and click and if I had tried, I probably would have interrupted our progress.

In any case, I find that the horse usually has to do a lot more of the correct behavior, or behavior in general, before I am allowed to take a break and I have an opportunity to feed her. I can prepare my horse for this by spending more time on duration behaviors at home and designing exercises that involve a little repetition. It’s also helpful to condition some secondary reinforcers and to teach Rosie to work in long chains or sequences of behavior before getting a primary reinforcer. I worked on this at home until she could do a series of simple behaviors before stopping for reinforcement. Then, when we were at a lesson, she recognized that type of reinforcement delivery pattern and would keep going until a break. I also think that Rosie learned to identify context cues (new location, person standing in the ring) that told her that we were in a riding lesson and that we would be using that pattern of reinforcement. This is the same strategy I use if I can’t click and treat at all. In that case, I have to rely completely on conditioned reinforcers and using breaks as reinforcers.

Another strategy that I have used is to prepare my horse by teaching her as much as I can about the content of the lesson before I go. This sounds kind of counter-intuitive. Why would I take a lesson if I already knew how to teach the same things? But, in my case, I often take a lesson to get feedback on what I am already doing. In this situation, it makes sense to teach the behavior at home and practice it until I can decrease the amount of food reinforcement. Then, when I got to the lesson, my horse is familiar enough with what I want that she doesn’t need to be clicked and treated for each little stop. Of course, it’s always a work in progress, but I found that if Rosie had the general outline of what we were going to do, she was much more flexible about working without food reinforcement. I was so pleased at one of my lessons last year when the trainer said that she liked Rosie because Rosie keeps trying, instead of giving up or getting upset.

Providing reinforcement during breaks, or by taking breaks, does limit my ability to effectively mark a specific moment during a period of movement, but I found that I usually came away with enough information to go home and rebuild the sequence with more precision. The downside is that it can look a lot like I am just randomly feeding treats during breaks, which is not a great way to educate anyone watching about how to use clicker training with horses.

Keep in mind that a trainer’s attitudes can change if she sees you are using food reinforcers successfully. I’ve met other clicker trainers who started riding with traditional trainers, slowly introduced the idea of food reinforcers, and eventually were able to click and treat as normal during their lessons. Some of these instructors even became clicker trainers themselves. I haven’t had that experience, but I did ride for many years with a trainer who would give Rosie a tic-tac (one tic-tac!) at the end of the ride. That doesn’t seem like much, but she was the only horse I ever saw him feed a treat. After a few years, he started giving her one before the ride too and didn’t mind if I fed her some treats during our lesson. Small steps, but attitudes can change.

Lesson format and content

Lesson format is another potential difference between a clicker training session at home and a traditional riding lesson. I found that traditional trainers usually expect the “work” periods to be longer with short breaks in between, compared to my usual format at home. This is related to the idea that students need to repeat something a lot before they “get it,” but it may also be because many trainers view breaks as disruptions in the learning process or don’t think you should get a break until you have “earned” it. At home, I may have some long duration behavior or chains/sequences that I am practicing, but I will also have periods when I am introducing a new behavior or fine-tuning an existing behavior and I work in very short bursts. It is rare for me to have a session where I work a long time before each break.

Therefore, in addition to considering how I will prepare my horse for changes in the quantity, type, and timing of reinforcers, I need to prepare my horse for lessons that follow a different format. There is some overlap between preparing for a different lesson structure and planning different reinforcement strategies, but I find it’s helpful to think about it from both angles. To prepare my horse for the format of the lesson, I start by watching the trainer teach a few lessons so I can get a feel for how often she gives breaks and how she adjusts her training if the horse and rider seem to need more help, as well as when things are going well. Does she break things down and give more breaks when they are not being successful? Does she give a break when they are doing well, or does she just expect more and more?

Once I know the trainer’s general tendency, I can find ways to insert more breaks, when I need them. This can take some creativity, but I find that there’s usually a way to shift the trainer toward shorter working periods. In some cases, I may be up front about preferring to take more breaks. Or I can tell her I learn better if I can stop and ask a question. This works well because my horse gets to take a break while I ask the question (which is always useful anyway). Or I may say that my horse learns better if we stop right after he has done something well. I think many trainers get a little set in their ways, because on their typical teaching experience, and if you can show them that breaks work well for you, then they will adjust.

Another way to prepare your horse for the format or structure of lessons is to watch a few lessons and make note of the types of exercises the trainer teaches as well as the general routine of the session. For example, if the trainer does a lot of teaching while the rider is working on a 20 meter circle, it’s a good idea to get your horse used to going around and around on a 20 meter circle (Rosie hates this!). If she does a lot of work on the track or quarter lines, make sure you practice these at home.

Don’t forget behaviors like standing still. Lessons can involve more time standing than your normal ride at home. If your horse is not used to standing while you get instructions or while you are waiting to take your turn, you’ll need to teach her how to do this. You’ll also want to make sure that your horse is comfortable if someone approaches her, or wants to stand next to you, while you are mounted. I encountered some difficulties because Rosie gets defensive around new people and would threaten the trainer if she approached me while I was sitting on her. If your horse gets nervous about people approaching, this may be another thing to put on your to-do list.

In general, I found that Rosie did well with trainers that had the same lesson structure as my rides at home. It was closer to the way she was used to learning and she readily accepted breaks as reinforcement, even if I couldn’t feed during them. I found that this format often went hand in hand with a more systematic approach. One of my favorite instructors is very good at presenting new exercises in a very simple step by step approach. First you do this. Can you do it? If so, then you do this. Between each step, the rider could ask questions so it was easy to give Rosie a break after she had done something well.

Some other potential points of disagreement

The use of food and the structure of sessions are not the only differences between clicker trainers and traditional trainers. We also teach and view behavior a little differently and there are some things that we accept as part of the learning process, but that traditional trainers hate, because they don’t know how to handle them. These kinds of differences may have an impact on your ability to work together. That’s probably a topic for another article, but I thought I’d point out a few of the challenges I encountered that come from the differences in how we view behavior, learning, and our relationships with horses.

  • Anticipation: I like anticipation. It tells me what my horse has learned and that she’s ready to do go. Most of the trainers I encountered didn’t want any anticipation. They were very concerned that I didn’t have “control” over my horse and said I was going to get in trouble. Yes, anticipation does have to be monitored, but I’d rather have my horse trying to do the behavior I want than trying to avoid it.
  • Stimulus control: Like with anticipation, most traditional trainers feel uncomfortable around a horse that offers behavior. Again, a lack of stimulus control can be a problem, but I find many clicker trainers have a better understanding of cues and stimulus control than some traditional trainers, and we’re not afraid of letting it relax a little because we know how to get it back. Interestingly enough, I found that this attitude changes somewhat as you get to more advanced work. If you read and listen to really skilled trainers, they recognize the importance of letting the horse show some initiative and are more likely to redirect the horse and adjust their own behavior than just try and squash it.
  • Duration: I mentioned this previously, but I wanted to include it again here. I found that traditional trainers wanted significantly more duration right from the start and wanted to build it more quickly than I would normally would have done at home.
  • Focus: A lot of trainers take a broader view of training behavior, compared to the laser focus that clicker trainers can develop. This can translate into less specific criteria and working on several criteria at once. If you’re used to concentrating on getting behavior step by step, this can seem like a messy way to train. However, sometimes we get a little too focused and don’t see the forest for the trees, so this is not always a bad thing. It just may just take a little while to adjust to the idea that there are times when a broader approach can work just as well. In riding there are a lot of interconnected parts and it’s important to keep both the big picture and the finer details in mind.

After the lesson

It’s important to honestly evaluate the results of each riding lesson. Sometimes, I can tell after one lesson if I want to ride again with a trainer. Other times, I have to take a few lessons before I can tell if the lessons are helpful to me and acceptable to my horse. And things can change. I’ve had a few times when I had a rough start with a new trainer, but I felt that I could address any concerns and I was able to turn future lessons into productive sessions. I’ve also had lessons that seemed okay, but when I went to ride again the next day (at home), Rosie’s behavior indicated that the experience had been very stressful.

Every lesson is a little different, but here are some of the things that I suggest you do, or consider, in the days after a lesson. They will help you decide if you want to ride again with that instructor and process the information you received.

Listen to your horse: Often I can tell if a trainer is going to work for me by paying attention to how my horse behaves in the days after the clinic. This is harder if we have some travel time, because traveling and riding in new locations is stressful in itself. But, if I see any “fallout” in the days after the lesson, then I need to think carefully about riding with that trainer again. Sometimes this is subtle, but not always. I had a lesson a few years ago that seemed to go well, but near the end Rosie started doing a little stress behavior. I finished the lesson and she seemed fine. However, the next time I rode and I picked up the reins, she immediately showed the same behavior. It took me almost a month to undo that 10 minutes of stressful learning.

Recognize that you may have to get pushed a bit out of your comfort zone: When I ride at home, it’s really easy to create little plateaus or glass ceilings that limit my ability to make progress. I can usually work through these myself, but sometimes I get into a pattern without realizing it, or I decide that I like staying in my comfort zone. While I’m not recommending you do something that makes you very uncomfortable during a lesson, it can sometimes be helpful to have someone push you a little. You may learn that you can do more than you thought.

I may not appreciate this during the lesson, but if this does happen, I try to honestly evaluate if it ended up being helpful or not. If I decide that it was just the push I needed, then I want to be careful that I don’t slide back toward my old habits in the days following the lesson. If I decide that it was too much, but that it was in the right direction, then I want to come up with a plan to achieve the same result. I’ll just make a plan that achieves the same goal in smaller steps, so that it’s less stressful for everyone .

Give yourself and your horse time to process or incorporate what you’ve learned: When I first took Rosie to lessons, I would come home and try to pick up exactly where the lesson left off. If I’d learned a new exercise, I would expect to do the same thing at home. That didn’t always work and it took me a while to figure out the best way to use what I’d learned in each lesson.

The first thing I realized is that most trainers give out more information in a lesson than it’s possible for the student to absorb. To some extent, I think this comes from their desire to share what they know and provide as much useful information as possible, so they try to cram as much into a lesson as they can. Their hope is that you will pick up and be able to use some of the information. That makes sense from a certain point of view, but most of us learn better when we are not overwhelmed with too many changes or instructions at once.

Once I realized this, I started thinking of each lesson as providing information that should be slowly incorporated into my rides over the next days or even weeks. This works better for Rosie, who doesn’t like too many changes, and it gives me time to modify the information and present it in a more clicker-friendly way. Of course, there are always some things I can change at once, but taking a more gradual approach has proved very beneficial.

There are lots of ways to do this, but I’ll describe the system that has worked for me. On the first ride after the lesson, I plan a ride that is as close to my normal routine as possible. I don’t go out and try all the new stuff we did at the lesson. This gives me an idea of how Rosie she feels after the lesson. Then, over the next few days, I explore some of the new exercises and see how she does. I might try one each day, or pick one and work on it for a few days, mixing it in with her normal routine. I want to evaluate how much she learned in the lesson, explore how it fits in with what she already knows, and make a plan to continue teaching or fine-tuning the behavior.

It’s been interesting to see how often she manages to do something in a lesson, without really learning what to do. I often have to break the exercise down and reteach it over several sessions. This is not a bad thing. If I do this, I will have a more robust behavior and I will also have learned more about how to teach it. I’ve found this approach has made the whole lesson process much less stressful. Instead of feeling pressure to get things right during the lesson and having expectations about what we have learned, I think of it more as information gathering and giving me ideas for things to play with. Most of my learning comes in the weeks after the lesson, not during it.

I’ve also learned to think of preparing for and processing lessons in the same way that many people approach competitions. I don’t compete, but I use lessons in much the same way. They give me a goal – I need to get ready for my lesson next month. I have to plan and prepare for them – which means identifying areas that need work. They require me to learn some new skills – I don’t know if I would have ever spent as much time on chains/sequences and conditioning secondary reinforcers if I didn’t need them for lessons. And they get me out in a new setting where I can see how well my horse has learned the skills and behaviors she needs to do well.

Rider Challenges

There are a few other things I want to mention, ones that don’t fit neatly into the previous discussions. These are related to the challenges of being a clicker trainer in an environment that is not supportive of clicker training.

One subject I have not addressed is the question of how to talk to prospective trainers about using food or clicker training in lessons. For the most part, I don’t. I might have had some ideas about sharing my enthusiasm for clicker training when I first started working with traditional trainers, but I quickly learned that immediately asking about using clicker training was not a productive approach to take. Most of the people I have ridden with are skilled professionals with many years (or decades) of teaching and training behind them. I don’t want to say that they are not open-minded, but the reality is that they are deeply invested in the training methods that work for them. If a student comes in and says she wants to do something differently, then it can feel like she’s questioning, or even criticizing, their methods although that may not be her intention.

After broaching the subject with a few different trainers, I started to see it from their point of view. I could imagine how I would feel if someone came to me for dressage lessons, but said they didn’t want to clicker train. I would politely tell them to find another teacher. That’s not to say I wouldn’t engage in a discussion about why I choose to use clicker training and try to address their concerns, but the bottom line is that my teaching methods are based on using positive reinforcement and if someone doesn’t want to use it, then I’m not the best teacher for them. So, my general philosophy is that if I want to work with a traditional trainer, I need to go in with an open mind about what I can learn and prepare myself and my horse to work within their system.

Does that mean I don’t put out a few feelers to see how they feel about using food in training? No, I might ask a general question about feeding treats. If that gets a positive response, then I might ask about clicker training. If not, Have they ever tried it? Do they have any thoughts on it? If this gets a positive response, then I might ask about using food in lessons. If the trainer responds that they would never use food in training, then there’s no point in even asking about clicker training. Later, if I continue to work with the trainer, I might bring the subject up again.

At the same time, I don’t hide that I clicker train. Anyone watching me can see that I am using food as I tack up and untack her. I often use clicker training in my warm-up and I always feed her a treat at the mounting block. Sometimes people do notice, are interested, and ask questions, which I’m happy to answer. But, I’ve also had a lot of people question or criticize my training choices. I’ve received more unwanted advice than I can (or care to) remember, had people make assumptions about my ability to ride or handle my horse, and had to listen to endless conversations about how important it is to control, dominate, and have the respect of your horse. For the most part, I’ve learned to ignore it, keep my head down, get what I want out of the lesson, and get out of there. I know that sounds negative, and I suppose it is, but it’s been a good test of my resolve to keep pursing dressage in my own way.

It can be difficult to avoid picking up some of the attitudes and cultural norms that are common among traditional trainers, especially if you attend a clinic where you spend a lot of time with other riders. I sometimes find it challenging, especially if my horse has not done well. Then, it’s easy to let doubts creep in, or start to wonder why other people’s horses seem to be making progress faster. It can also be difficult because if my horse does not do well, I know that her behavior will be blamed on my training methods. On the plus side, I found that once Rosie started to do well, most trainers and other clinic attendees were more supportive of my efforts. They might not approve of some of my training methods, but their attitude went from “You’re wrecking your horse,” to “She has some weird ideas, but her horse goes well.”

I can’t say that the journey has been easy, and I’m nowhere near done, but I’m grateful that I have persisted and gotten to work with some very experienced and knowledgeable professionals who have educated, inspired, and encouraged me. And as an extra bonus, I’ve met some wonderful like-minded people and planted a few seeds along the way.

Note: This is a big topic and there are some areas where I tried to be brief, both so I could finish the article and because I didn’t want to make things overly complicated. However, I am happy to answer questions if you post them on my blog or Facebook page. I’d also love to hear about other people’s experiences. What worked for you? What were some of your biggest challenges? 

Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , ,

6 replies

  1. Thanks for putting down your thought process! Gaining riding knowledge from experts takes thought, preparation, compromise, and knowing when to watch but not do. Or sometimes to do, get the feel, and then proceed at home as you believe is best. I bridge and use food rewards when training my horse. Dressage is a process and requires on-going education and input from experienced eyes on the ground, but like you, I’m picky about who I’ll clinic with. I always audit lessons before taking them myself. What I call the “unrelenting” trainers I’ll watch but not lesson with. If the trainers says “good boy!” a lot, and stop to discuss training with the riders, I find that I can lesson with them. I have taught my horse duration and behavior chains.(Especially important because I compete at USDF shows and a test is 6 minutes, and not including entering and exiting.) I’ve taught my horse a bridge word for “break time” so he’ll pair the relaxation with the exact moment he was doing something that I appreciated. I’ve used this at a clinic when it was very hot. I picked the moment to bridge, and stopped and got a drink for myself. My horse got a click and reinforcement, and I could do it without the trainer knowing 🙂 I train regularly with a Grand Prix rider. She’s got a great eye, knows the exact exercises to do, and I couldn’t progress without her. I worked with her, very respectfully, for a half-year before asking her to click in the lessons. We were working on more engagement for the horse and both my horse and I needed more clarity when we got the correct action. I asked her to click at that moment for both of us. It made sense to her, and we’ve used the clicker, judiciously in lessons, ever since. I’ve trained my horse that the click means, “wait for me to ask, (it’ll be very soon) and you come to a square halt and then you get the cookie.” (Susan Friedman helped me come up with this protocol.Think about a dolphin that does a jump, which the trainer marks, and then swims to the trainer for the fish) When an instructor sees the horse halting in beautiful form after a click, they’re more willing to be flexible about this method. But what I do with my horse will differ from what you do with yours. Depends on the horse, the rider’s skill, the goal, etc. My work (as a traveling horse behavior consultant and also as a riding instructor) takes me mostly to barns and students that have never seen a clicker, nor will they, and that’s fine. I give them a perspective of looking for the good strides, and responding to them immediately, and their partnership improves immeasurably. That changes one horse and rider pair, and sometimes it can change the culture in an entire barn. I’ve also had a clinician (a Dutch trainer who has competed at the highest international levels of dressage) remark on my harmonious relationship with my willing horse. That led to a discussion of positive reinforcement. You never know who you’ll reach when you step outside of the clicker world and take clinics.


    • “I’ve trained my horse that the click means, “wait for me to ask, (it’ll be very soon) and you come to a square halt and then you get the cookie.” (Susan Friedman helped me come up with this protocol.Think about a dolphin that does a jump, which the trainer marks, and then swims to the trainer for the fish)”
      Wow! This would be very helpful! Getting whiplash as the horse screeches to halt after the click is not fun. Where can I learn how to teach this?


  2. Hi Terry, Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m glad you brought up the point of teaching a nice halt after the click. This is something I recommend for anyone who is using clicker training for riding, even if they are just working on their own. But, it’s worth mentioning in the context of lessons with traditional instructors because it’s one of those things that can drive them crazy. It sounds like you’ve done a great job of creating a good working relationship with your instructor where you get the best of both worlds. I think it’s important for people to get out there and interact with traditional trainers – as long as it can be done in a positive and constructive way. Otherwise, we each stay in our own camps and we miss out on opportunities to learn and grow. Good luck with Tonka. Katie


  3. Hi Erin, I thought that I’d written a blog about how I trained that, but I can’t find it. This one might help a bit. Meanwhile, I’ll have to work on a new blogpost about how to teach the horse to do a balance halt after the click 🙂 https://cooperativehorse.com/2019/01/the-square-halt/


    • Hi Erin, I also have two articles on using clicker training for riding. They are on my website (www.equineclickertraining.com) in the articles section. The second one talks about how to teach a horse to decelerate nicely after hearing the click. For the most part, I teach my horses that when I click, they should “downshift” instead of slamming to a halt. So if we are trotting, they trot, then walk, then halt. If we are cantering, they canter, then trot, then walk, then halt. You can find the article here: http://www.equineclickertraining.com/articles/riding_common_questions.html


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s