What can you do with clicker training? Sometimes we are limited by traditional thinking or just need some new ideas. In this A to Z series, I’ll be sharing ideas for things to train. I’ve trained some, but not all of them, and will share links to resources for more information whenever possible. I hope this list inspires you and you can’t wait to go out and teach some new behaviors to your horses.
I’ll be adding to these posts over time when I have time and new material to share. I’ve intentionally been brief because these are not meant to be detailed instructions, just tips and ideas for things to work on. If there is a topic that interests you, and you would like more information, let me know and I will consider writing a more detailed article on the subject.
Contents: backchaining, back up, bandaging, basketball, bathing, bend, blanketing, blindfold, bodywork, boots, bow, bridling
Chaining is a training strategy where you teach the horse to do several behaviors in a row (in a specific order) for a reinforcer that is delivered after the last behavior has been completed. This allows the trainer to create longer or more complex behaviors. Backchaining is a type of chaining where you start with the last behavior and increase the length of the chain by adding new behaviors to the front of the previously trained chain. You can teach all the behaviors ahead of time (in whatever order you choose) and then assemble the chain, or you can use the construction of the chain itself as a way to teach parts of it (more on this below).
When the chain is done, you can add a new cue for the entire chain, or you can continue to use the existing cues for each behavior in the chain. The first option works well for chains where the horse does all the behaviors independently. The second option gives the trainer more control over when the horse finishes one behavior and moves to the next.
An example of a simple chain:
Let’s say I want to teach my horse to go to a mat, step on it, and touch a target. Before I started to assemble my chain, I would teach the horse the behaviors “step on the mat,” “go to the mat,” and “touch the target” ahead of time. If I used simple backchaining, working directly from the last behavior to the first, then the steps to assemble the chain would be:
- touch the target – > click -> treat
- step on the mat -> touch the target -> click -> treat
- go to the mat -> step on the mat -> touch the target -> click -> treat
There are always options for how to assemble a chain. Other options are:
- I might not have to teach “go to the mat” ahead of time. In some cases, it’s easier to teach a horse to go to a mat if he already knows he will be reinforced for stepping on it. So, I could teach “step on the mat” and “touch the target” as a short chain and then slowly increase the distance the horse has to walk before he gets to the mat.
- I could teach two short chains – go to the mat – > step on the mat, and step on the mat -> touch the target, and then combine (through backchaining) the short chains to make the longer chain.
If you have time and a few simple behaviors, backchaining can be a fun way to explore different ways to combine behaviors, test your cues, and see what behaviors are strong enough to function as reinforcers. It’s also a great training strategy to use for riding. A lot of my ridden work consists of building chains and I usually backchain if possible.
Note: Chaining is a fairly complicated subject, and there are some differences of opinion about terminology and procedures, but I think the basic concept is helpful, even if it just gives you more ideas about how to ask for several behaviors in a row. I’ve tried to be as brief as possible here just to give you a general idea.
If you want to learn more about chains, you will find some helpful information in the ASAT conference notes for 2019 – you can find the list of articles in the Archives. I also have two blogs on building simple behavior chains. They are:
- A training strategy for building duration: Backchain it by using a terminal behavior.
- Fetch: A fun game and an introduction to behavior chains
- In Equiosity podcasts #108 and 109, Alexandra Kurland has a conversation with Michele Pouliot on backchaining for freestyle. This is part of a three part series that starts with podcast 107 which is on platform training.
BACK UP (reinback, walk backwards, step back)
It’s easy to use clicker training to teach a horse to back up, whether you just need a few steps or are using backing as part of performance work. It can be taught through free shaping, capturing, targeting, or using tactile information. It can also be taught through food delivery, a technique I learned from Alexandra Kurland. Most horses learn the behavior quickly. I teach it on the ground, add a cue, and then introduce it to ridden work.
Backing can be a good default behavior under certain situations. For example, I want my horses to back up automatically when I enter their stall or if I need to enter a field and the gate swings toward them. However, I am pretty careful about having good stimulus control for backing outside of those conditions as I find it can be frustrating for both of us if the horse offers backing when I don’t want it.
This is a good behavior to practice ahead of time, before you need it. In most cases, bandages are used on legs, so I’m going to focus on that, but many of the same suggestions will help if you need to bandage some other body part. To bandage my horse, I need to be able to ask him to:
- Stand in balance with his foot on the ground in a weight bearing stance.
- Maintain that position for a certain amount of duration.
- Accept the feeling of the bandage being applied, including any medication (ointment). If there are multiple bandages or layers, he needs to accept each one.
- note: don’t forget to consider variations that apply to removing the bandage.
Standing at a stationary target or standing on a mat can be good behaviors to use for bandaging. I don’t like to use mat work for any procedure that might be painful or trigger a fear response in the horse, but mat work can be a great way to teach the horse that you want him to stand still while you bandage his leg, or if there is little chance of the procedure being painful.
I also like to start with small approximations and build up to a full bandage. One of the challenges of bandaging (especially if you have to apply a long one) is that it’s hard to stop in the middle to reinforce the horse. Therefore, when I am teaching, I use various “stand-ins” for bandages, items that are easy to put on and off and that I can modify to create better and better approximations of a real bandage. Depending upon what materials you have on hand, you can come up with different progressions. One possible scenario might be (each step could be further broken down as needed):
- folded washcloth placed on leg – click -> treat
- folded washcloth placed on leg, hold in place – click -> treat
- unfolded washcloth, wrapped around leg, hold in place – click -> treat
- unfolded washcloth, wrapped around leg, and secured with vetrap or tape – click -> treat
- square of padding, place washcloth over, wrap around leg, secure – click -> treat.
If you find yourself in a situation where you need to apply a bandage and you haven’t trained it, your best bet is to find a helper who can feed while you do it. In this scenario, I just have the helper feed while I work. If I have to do this for several sessions, I can slowly shift to having the helper reinforce for specific behaviors, which one of us can mark.
If you can teach your horse to play fetch, then you can also teach your horse to play basketball. I spent one winter teaching Willy and Rosie to put a ball through a kids basketball hoop. It was fun to teach two horses at once because they each had their own style. Willy was fairly cautious and I’m not sure he ever learned to love the behavior. Once he had learned how to do it, I found it was easiest to maintain it by only asking a few times and reinforcing with a high value reward. Rosie, on the other hand, loved it and became the slam dunk queen.
Teaching a horse to put the ball through the hoop is quite a complicated behavior because there are several components; walking to the ball, picking up the ball, walking to the basketball hoop, lifting their head high enough to drop the ball in, and releasing the ball. I taught them to to pick up and put the ball in the hoop first and then added distance. One interesting challenge was teaching them (or helping them figure out) how high to lift the ball so it didn’t snag on the edge of the basket. I used a slightly deflated ball that was easy to pick up.
I don’t have video of them playing basketball as this was before cell phones, but Bob Viviano has a nice video that shows his horse, Crackers, playing basketball. I met Bob at several clinics with Alexandra Kurland. He had taught Crackers a number of fun tricks and performed at local events.
Here’s a video that shows some of their tricks: Bob and Crackers video.
I thought it would be fun to see if Rosie remembered how to play. It’s probably been about 15 years since we last did this. Yes, she did!
Horses can learn to enjoy baths, especially if you take time to introduce all the components and start in the summer when a cool bath feels good. If your horse has never had a bath, you will want to introduce each component separately, taking into account the sound, movement, and feel of the sponge, hose and water.
Some horses learn to love baths and playing with the horse. Jane Jackson of Bookends Farm, sent me this photo of her horse, Percy, playing with the hose.
For a more detailed description of how I introduced bathing to Aurora, you can read the blog post Aurora gets a bath.
Is your horse stiff and unbalanced going around corners or on curved lines? If so, then he probably he needs to learn to bend through his rib cage so he can travel in a biomechanically correct manner. Not only is this better for his body, but it’s more comfortable for you.
There are several different ways to teach a horse to bend. It’s a topic that is too big to cover in detail here, but I’ll say a few words about it because people often don’t realize how to use clicker training for ridden work.
I always start on the ground, even if my end goal is to have the horse bend under saddle. One thing to remember is that while bending is a specific behavior (I can define what it looks like), it is often a by-product of a few other behaviors including lowering the head and learning to step under with the inside hind. Often I get bend by working on those behaviors first. This can be done through a combination of shaping and setting up gymnastic patterns that encourage the horse to shift his weight back and use his hind end more correctly. As the horse learns the patterns, I may be able to capture moments of correct bend or shape approximations toward it.
Many horses wear some type of clothing, whether it is a blanket, fly sheet, or cooler. I’ve used clicker training to introduce these items to a horse who has never worn one. I’ve also used it to improve the horse’s acceptance of them and the general quality of the blanketing experience. My horse, Willy, used to get a big nippy when I adjusted the chest closures and I spent time clicking and reinforcing him for allowing me to touch, wiggle, and then open and close the front of the blanket. Once I had been through this process, he was able to stand quietly while I put blankets on and off.
If a horse has never worn a blanket, you can make blanketing a positive experience by introducing the blanket gradually. Cindy Martin sent me these pictures of her mule, Rosie, being introduced to a saddle pad as preparation for blanketing.
A blanketing success story by Carolyn Jenkinson
My horse, Jos, had a real issue with blankets , stemming I feel from how they were put on rather than actually wearing them. The sight of the blanket was a trigger for behaviours to block or stop me from putting it on and could often be behaviours and emotions that were harmful to the human and to the blanket!
At first, before I learned about clicker Training and learning theory I had just been trying approach and retreat, but that didn’t help, or change how he felt, Then I moved on to systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning but that alone wasn’t enough; I think because the emotions were triggered so strongly by the cue of seeing the blanket plus the cue of the person standing holding the blanket in the traditional position. I had to change the antecedent environment to effectively bypass the trigger.
The sight of a rug no longer caused a problem because of the earlier work with desensitisation and counter conditioning, but we couldn’t move on to the actual rugging process. I had to change the cue to unpoison the process! He knew how to put his nose in halters, through reins, so what about other things? I used circles made of ropes. I also played with holding out cloth objects and shaped towards putting his head and neck under them which he enjoyed. I moved on to a very lightweight cooler with the chest buckle done up, holding it up in front of me and shaped him towards putting his head through the hole, a game he really enjoyed. Then it was easy to unfold and finish rugging him up without problem. The trigger had been removed, as it was probably caused by rugs being thrown over his back and buckles hitting him in his past.
What would your horse do if you were in a situation where you had to blindfold him? While it’s not something I normally teach, Jane Jackson found herself in a situation where she did need to use a blindfold and found herself wishing she had thought to introduce one ahead of time. While there’s a lot of anecdotal information about using blindfolds, controlled scientific research seems to be minimal. Jane did find this study which looked at the heart rate of horses when blindfolded.
This may seem like an odd addition to the list and many bodyworkers are not in favor of using food or teaching the horse to do specific behaviors during bodywork sessions. But, as a Masterson Method Certified Practitioner, I regularly use food reinforcers during bodywork sessions with my own horses and with client horses if it seems appropriate.
In most cases, I use food reinforcers to introduce bodywork or work through specific resistances. My goal is to use food in such a way that it creates relaxation, not tension or anticipation, and encourages the horse to work with me instead of resisting or bracing against me. I am also careful to reinforce for cooperation, not for specific physical responses that indicate the horse is releasing tension (yawning, sneezing, etc.). I don’t want the horse to start to deliberately offer those behaviors as that could interfere with my ability to read how the horse is responding to what I am doing.
Horses wear lots of different kinds of boots – bell boots, hoof boots, splint boots, shipping boots, etc. As with other types of equipment, clicker training can be used to introduce or improve how a horse accepts any kind of boot. I usually start by writing down the steps to put on the boot and listing any behaviors that the horse needs to know. Then I do the same thing for taking off the boot. That gives me an idea what behaviors I might need to train or how I might need to improve existing behaviors in order to be successful.
For example, to put on a hoof boot, my horse needs to pick up his foot, hold it up while I put the boot on, which may involve some manipulating of the foot as well as pushing/pulling on my part, put it back down, and keep the foot on the ground while I do up any closures. On the other hand, a shipping boot requires the horse to keep his foot on the ground for the whole process, even when the velcro makes funny noises.
These shipping boots have big velcro strips. I got Red used to the sound before I put them on him.
Whatever kind of boots you are going to use, it’s always a good idea to introduce them before you need them and let the horse get used to them. I remember the first time I put shipping boots on Rosie. I put them on her in the barn and led her out to graze. As soon as she put her head down to eat, she saw the boots and ran backward to get away from them. That was kind of an extreme reaction, but you never know…
Wearing shipping boots should be associated with good things…
When I started clicker training, I had already been working on teaching some of my horses to do tricks. I wanted to teach Willy to do a bow on one knee and he was getting the idea but was kind of sticky. Once I changed to teaching with clicker training, he improved rapidly and eventually learned to do a beautiful deep bow. Later, I taught it to several other horses. It’s a fun behavior to teach and most horses seem to like it as long as you take time (it does require some flexiblity) and choose the form of bow that is most comfortable for each horse.
In order to bow the horse has to learn to pick up, and hold up, a front leg, then rock back and stretch, lowering his front end close to the ground. Some horses find it easier if you teach them to bow out of a “parked” position. Others find it easier to bow with their hind legs farther underneath them. The horse doesn’t have to put his leg in contact with ground, but if you do choose to do that, I recommend you wrap the leg when he is learning.
Here are three bows. The first two are unfinished and you can see how I am using a treat or a target to ask the horse to lower his/her front end. Willy is showing a finished bow where I am no longer bending down. Back then I still used a whip for cueing. Now, I would use a target stick.
It may seem impossible to capture a bow, but I know at least one person who has done it. Her horse would bow when reaching under the fence to get grass. She captured the behavior and put it on cue. I’ve actually seen Rosie bow to get grass but I don’t know if she does that because she already knows the bow, or if she learned to do it on her own.
More details can be found in my article: How to teach your horse to bow on one knee.
Would you like to teach your horse to help you put on his bridle? Introduce a bridle for the first time? Or maybe he is tall and you are not… Whatever the case, horses can be taught to lower their heads for bridling, take the bit (if you use one), and keep their heads down while you finish putting it on.
I usually use either head lowering or targeting as the starting behavior for bridling. Both behaviors can be used to ask the horse to lower his head and then I build duration so the horse holds his head in position. While I start by cueing the behavior (targeting or head down), eventually the bridle itself becomes the cue for the behavior. As soon as I present the bridle, my horse offers to lower his head and take the bit or insert his nose in the noseband.
If you have a suggestion for an addition to this page, would like to share a photo, or add a comment, please send me a message.
If you want to learn more about clicker training, check out my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement, available from Amazon.