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: canter, carry, cavaletti, cha-cha, chaining, chin rest, circle, circus bow, clipping, collection, color discrimination, come, concept training, counting, crossing legs, cues
There are so many ways you can use clicker training to train cantering. You can use it on the ground or under saddle. I’ve used it to:
- Introduce the canter and put it on cue: Many horses have trouble picking up the canter without losing their balance and just end up running into it. This can create some anxiety for both horse and trainer. If I mark and reinforce for the correct steps leading to a canter as well as for the first canter strides, I can avoid this problem and teach the horse how to pick up the canter in comfort when he is ready. I often use cones and ground poles to set the horse up for the canter.
- Teach a horse to pick up the correct lead. If a horse has trouble picking up and cantering on a certain lead, it can become difficult to communicate that you do want canter, just not that lead. Being able to click and reinforce for any effort to pick up the harder lead can make a big difference about the horse’s willingness to keep trying. I can also work on related behaviors and strengthen them so the horse finds it easier (physically) to pick up the more difficult lead.
- Improve the quality of the canter (make it slower, faster, rounder, straighter, etc.). Once my horse is cantering, I can start to select for the canter I want and exit the canter nicely. Depending upon what I am working on, I may click and let the horse stop, click and ask the horse to downshift (trot then walk then halt), or use a cue to ask for the downward transition, timing the cue so I give it at the moment I want to mark.
Carry (or hold)
You can teach your horse to carry objects. I have to say that I’ve done this mostly as a trick, but I think it could be potentially useful. This can be an easy behavior to teach if you have a horse that likes to interact with objects. It can be harder if your horse is more particular about what type of item he will put in his mouth. Dog toys often work well and are easy to clean. Some horses are more likely to pick up cloth items. I know some people that have taught their horses to pick and put away the cones after use or to carry other small objects. This is a behavior you will want to put on cue and keep under stimulus control. I find it helps if you choose one or two objects that can be picked up and only reinforce for picking up those objects. Later, if your horse shows good stimulus control, you can expand his options for items to carry.
Here are some fun behaviors you can train if your horse will carry an object:
My friend Sally made this nice holiday photo that shows her OTTB (off track thoroughbred) Danny carrying a festive basket for Christmas.
Cavaletti (or ground poles)
One way to make your ground and ridden work more interesting, as well as to improve your horse’s balance, coordination, and flexibility is to use cavaletti or ground poles. They can be used in many different configurations and with varying levels of guidance from the trainer. In some cases, the poles can be set up to create a specific response and the trainer may assist the horse. In other cases, the poles are set up to teach the horse a specific lesson and the trainer takes a more passive role.
However, one of the best ways to really see how the horse moves over a particular setup is to send the horse over the poles at liberty. I think this gives the trainer the most accurate information about how the horse is comfortable going over the poles and what he has learned about going over different pole configurations.
With clicker training, it’s easy to teach a horse to go away from the trainer and over a set of cavaletti. If the horse already knows how to travel on a circle around me, I can just place the poles on the existing line of travel and click and reinforce him for going over them. If he has not learned to go out away from me, I can teach him to go over a pole next to me and then add distance. Eventually I can send him out and over the poles while I observe from a distance. Keep in mind that for most cavaletti work, it is important for the horse to approach the cavaletti from a point directly in front of them. I often use cones to mark the “entrance” so my horse can go through them with more ease than if he approached from an awkward angle.
I did a lot of pole work with Rosie in the fall of 2019. I started with her on a lunge line and then started working toward sending her out away from me. Here’s a photo of an intermediate stage when I was sending her out at liberty, but then running along with her to help her stay in line over the poles. Later I set it up so I could send her from one mat to another, with the line of poles in the middle.
I learned this behavior at a clinic with Alexandra Kurland and it is described in her Step-by-Step book. She named it after the dance which has a part where you step forward and backward, but without coming to a complete stop in the transition. In the dance video below, they call this a “rock step.” In the rock step, you are asking the horse to shift his weight in the new direction before he has fully transferred the weight on to the new supporting leg. It’s about teaching the horse to be light on his feet and keep enough flexion in his joints that he could move in either direction.
This is a great exercise that a horse that tends to rush or fall forward in his transitions. I start by teaching it with several steps of forward and back, but then as the horse becomes more balanced, it just becomes a moment of shifting the weight back before we start walking forward. This becomes very subtle, but allows you and the horse to walk off in a nice balance together.
If you want to see what the actual dance (the Cha Cha) looks like, here’s a video.
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. The reason that chains work is that the horse learns that each new cue (and behavior) gets them closer to the end of the chain. Chains are more reliable when the each behavior has been trained with positive reinforcement and trained to fluency.
To build a chain, your best strategy is to to teach all the behaviors ahead of time (in whatever order you choose) and then assemble the chain. However, you can sometimes train a subset of the behaviors and use the construction of the chain itself as a way to teach the missing behaviors. The latter is sometimes necessary when getting from one behavior to another requires additional behaviors or training.
When you assemble the chain, you can start with the first behavior and add each subsequent behavior (forward chaining) or you can start with the last behavior and work backwords (backchaining). More information on backchaining can be found on the “B is for ….” blog.
- A -> click -> treat
- A -> B -> click -> treat
- A -> B -> C -> click -> treat
- C -> click -> treat
- B -> C -> click -> treat
- A -> B -> C -> click -> treat
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.
Chains are useful because they allow you to ask for several behaviors in a row before the horse stops to get his reinforcement. They are also a good way to ask for more complicated behaviors that require some preparatory steps. The last use is particularly relevant in ground or ridden work. I also find it helpful to think of more complicated behaviors as chains. It makes it easier for me to find pieces to pull out and train separately and helps me to identify significant criteria shifts that have a novel component.
Examples of chains:
- Sending your horse out over several obstacles: I could use chaining to teach my horse to go away from me over a series of obstacles. If I wanted the horse to do the chain independently (with no cues from me), I would teach him to go from one obstacle to the next, with the completion of the obstacle and the presence of the next obstacle being the cues to continue.
- Picking up and cleaning all four feet. This is a four behavior chain (one behavior = picking up and cleaning out a foot), where each component could be trained separately. Then I would build the chain by asking for 2 feet before clicking, then 3 feet, then 4 feet. I always pick my horse’s feet out in the same order so building a chain works well for me. The chain should be built over several sessions. The speed at which I can transition from clicking after 1 foot, then 2 feet, 3 feet and 4 feet will vary from horse to horse and should not be done so quickly that the behaviors deteriorate. I always take my time building chains.
- Going to the grooming area. When I want to take my horse out of her stall and go to the grooming area, I ask for several behaviors before I reinforce her with a treat. They are: back up when I enter the stall, put on your halter, walk forward out of the stall, turn right toward the grooming area, walk five steps, turn left into the grooming area, turn around to face out of the front of the grooming area, stop, stand. This chain consists of separate behaviors that I have trained. Since I ask for them in the same order each time, I can slowly replace clicks and treats with the cue for the next behavior until the horse can do the entire chain for a reinforcer at the end. Not only that, I’m guessing it would be easy to put the second part of the chain on cue and have her do it by herself – another project!
Note that in chains, there are always gray areas about how the trainer defines “a behavior.” For simplicity, I picked easily defined behaviors like picking up and cleaning out a foot, but of course that could be broken down into many smaller behaviors and could even be considered a chain within itself. And, as with many terms, there are debates about what is considered “true chaining” vs. variable reinforcement, sequences, etc. For practical purposes, I consider it some form of chaining whenever I am asking the horse for a set of behaviors in a specific order, where progression through the chain is contingent upon successful completion of each behavior, and the highest value reinforcer is delivered at the end.
Here’s an example of a fun behavior chain. I got the idea from the Logans and their llama videos. These are not great pictures but I thought they nicely illustrated how he knows what to do next (he can see the next ball) and how he has to do all the balls in order.
This has been a quick overview of chains. If you want to learn more about them, you can read my conference notes from the 2019 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference (search the blog or archives pages), which had multiple presentations on chains.
In the last few years, teaching a chin rest behavior has become very popular among dog trainers. It’s a great way to teach a dog to hold a position for husbandry behaviors and is often easier for the dog to do than holding his head or nose near a target. It’s also a natural behavior for a lot of dogs. Who hasn’t had a dog rest his chin on their leg or lap to get attention?
But with horses, well – it’s not as natural. They just don’t rest their chins on objects. However, when I was teaching my horses to hold still while I checked their teeth, I realized that teaching the horse to maintain contact between his chin and my hand was a great way to stabilize his head position. Since I trained that behavior, I’ve used a chin rest (the horse’s chin resting on my hand) for other medical and husbandry behaviors where I need the horse’s head to stay very still.
An easy way to teach a chin rest is to place your hand on the horse’s chin while he is eating his treat. Click as soon as your hand makes contact, feed and remove your hand. It is easy to do this if I use two hands; one feeds the treat, the other touches the horse’s chin. Over time I can delay how quickly I put my hand on the chin and instead of touching the horse, I will hold it close and wait for him to initiate contact. One thing I will mention is that horses have a lot of whiskers on their chins and their natural tendency is to move their head away if those whiskers touch an object. So it’s important that the horse learns to expect your hand. If the horse keeps moving away, it can be helpful to place your hand so it is just touching the whiskers and click for that, slowly moving toward a more solid contact.
If you ride in a ring or any enclosed space, your horse will need to learn to do circles of various sizes and at various gaits. Horses have to be taught how to travel in balance on curved lines under saddle and clicker training can make this easier.
I like to introduce circles by setting up a circle of physical objects to provide guidance. I may teach the horse to go around the outside (if he tends to fall in) or stay along the inside (if he tends to drift out). In many cases, I end up teaching both as that gives me a lot of flexibility. I like to use poles or cones because that’s what I have available, but I’ve seen people use a variety of materials.
If I use cones, I start with them quite close together and reinforce the horse for staying on the outside of the cones. With the poles, they provide a solid barrier, but the horse does need to know this is not a “going over the poles” exercise. If I am working on the inside of a pole circle, I find it helps to have an official entrance which means that I always enter the circle at the same place. In the photo below, the entrance is marked by white blocks which I open and close, even though my horse could easily step over them. This way the horse doesn’t get used to stepping over the poles to go into the ring. I’m sure you could do the same thing with cones but I’ve never found it to be necessary.
If I want to fade out the cones, I can do that by slowly decreasing the number of cones until I can just set out a few cones to mark the basic outline. I can do something similar with the poles, or transition to a cone circle and then slowly decrease the number of cones.
Circus bow (obeisance)
There are several different styles of bows that you can teach your horse. On the “B” page, I described and showed pictures of a bow where the horse bends one front leg as he lowers his front end toward the ground. In a circus bow, the horse keeps both front legs on the ground and bows by rocking back so that his legs are angled out in front of his nose. It’s very similar to the stretch that some horses will do after they have been resting, and in some cases, you can capture that stretch and put it on cue to have a nice circus bow.
The circus bow is a nice option if you would like to teach the horse to bow but are not comfortable asking him to bend on one knee or put all his front weight on the other front leg. It also requires slightly different use of the back and hind end. In the bow on one knee, the horse usually has to bring his hind legs under him and the back tends to be flat or slightly rounded. In the circus bow, the horse is more likely to lower his back and have his hind legs more out behind him. These are general trends and each horse shoulder be allowed to find a position that is comfortable, but you may want to consider your horse’s physical ability when choosing which bow and how much you ask him to lower himself to the ground.
An easy way to teach the circus bow is to use two mats. Start by teaching the horse to put his front feet on one mat and his back feet on another. Then slowly increase the distance between the two mats. I use a target to teach the horse to lower his head and shoulders toward the ground. You’ll want to pay attention to your horse’s comfort and flexibility. The circus bow can be done with the head in a higher position. It doesn’t have to be on the ground. The goal is to teach the horse to lower his shoulders and lowering the head can be one way to encourage that, but if you horse prefers to lower his shoulders with a higher head position, that’s fine.
Here are two pictures. The first one shows Rosie when she was learning. I don’t have a picture of her final bow, but she never learned to go as low as Willy who was able to do a very deep bow.
Chances are that, at some point in your horse’s life, he will need to be clipped. Even if you don’t normally clip him, veterinarians often clip around injuries or to perform certain medical procedures (ultrasounds, joint injections, etc.). Therefore, it’s a good idea to introduce him to clippers so he can get used to the sound and feeling of them.
Here are some tips for how to get started:
- Introduce the noise: If you use clippers, start at a distance or muffle the clippers. If your horse is very sensitive to noises or has already had bad experiences with clippers, you may want to start with something similar but less intense- an electric toothbrush or hand held massager can be an option.
- Introduce the feel of the clippers. I do this separate from the noise. So even if the horse is used to the noise, I turn the clippers off when I first touch the horse with them. I usually hold the clippers so the back is touching before I touch with the blade.
- When you first touch the horse with the running clippers, pick an area where the horse is most likely to be comfortable. The neck or shoulder can be a good option. Once he is comfortable in these areas, you can move to more sensitive areas like the poll and legs.
- If the clippers have a cord, make sure the horse is ok with the cord moving around him.
- Consider using a startbutton behavior so the horse can tell you when he is ready for you to turn the clippers on, or wants you to turn them off.
I debated about whether or not to include this behavior as there are some schools of thought that believe that collection is the natural end product of correct training and any approach that goes after collection more directly is faulty. However, among dressage trainers, the one behavior that I see mostly commonly taught as an isolated behavior (often in-hand) and reinforced with food is piaffe. So…
Yes, you can definitely use the clicker to capture moment of collection, whether they happen spontaneously or as the result of your careful training program. My mare offered half steps (a precursor to piaffe) one day when I was working on something else. Did I click it? Yes! And it grew into this:
These photos of Michaela Hempen and her horse Asfaloth show different degrees of collection, all taught with clicker training.
Teaching your horse to select an object based on its color can be a great way to introduce concept training. If you want to try this, here are some tips:
- Use identical objects so the only difference is the color
- Start with two colors that are easy for the horse to discriminate between. Horses see in shades of blue, yellow and green. They do not see red and many colors that appear different to us will seem very similar to them. You can read more about horse vision in this blog post by Mary Hunter and this blog post by Terry Golson.
- If you have the option, choose colors of different intensity or hue – light blue and medium green will seem more different than light blue and light green.
- Be aware of the Clever Hans Effect. Horses are very good at reading our body language and your horse can easily learn to observe you for information about which item to pick.
Here are two examples of how to set this up:
In this example, I placed cones on the floor and sent Rosie forward to pick the cone that matched the one in my hand. The pictures are a little dark but there are two cones placed out in front of her. One is black and white and one is blue. In this repetition, I was using a patterned cone, but I did the same thing with solid colored cones. I could have used a verbal cue but Rosie responded better to a visual one.
In this example, Alexandra Kurland holds two cones behind her back. She asks the horse to pick one of a specific color and then holds both of them out so the horse can choose. In this photo series you can see that Alex has taught Robin and Peregrine to take turns so they can both participate in the same training session.
Having a horse that comes when called is very useful. You may want to call your horse in from his field or be able to park him somewhere and then call him to come over to you. This is a good behavior to start training in a small space. I start by teaching the horse to orient toward me when I say his name, choosing moments when he can orient toward me by just turning his head. Then I slowly increase the difficulty, calling him from a greater distance or from harder angles – ones where he has to turn to look at me.
If you’ve never trained an animal to come, you can learn a lot by reading how positive reinforcement dog trainers teach a recall. You can do it exactly the same way with a horse, except you need to be careful about having the horse come toward you at speed. One option is to teach the horse to come to you and touch a target – held out away from your body, or go to a mat.
Want to try something different with your horse? How about concept training? I first heard about concept training from Ken Ramirez who has talked about it at several of the conferences I have attended.
Concept training is not about teaching specific behaviors, but about teaching animals to understand concepts like colors, numbers, quantity (more/less), size (bigger, smaller), position (left/right, up/down), match to sample, etc. If the animal understands the concept, he will be able to respond correctly when presented with novel situations.
For example, if I wanted to teach left and right as modifier cues (not as specific behaviors), I would start by teaching the horse what left and right mean using behaviors he already knows. I do have to choose behaviors that have, or could have, a left/right component. In this case, left and right are not just directional but could apply to the horse’s own body.
Let’s say I choose leg lifts (the horse has a left leg and a right leg), mats (he could go to the one on the left or the one on the right), and cones (he could go around the cone on the left or the cone on the right). Instead of having a different cue for each behavior, I would have the same cue but add the word “left” or “right” to it. If my verbal cue for a leg lift was “lift,” then I would have “left lift” and “right lift.”
I would do this for all three behaviors and then test my left/right modifier cues by choosing another behavior, one that also has a left/right option, and seeing if the horse understood the words left and right were information about which behavior to do (the left or right option).
Concept training does require a more experienced learner and trainer and can take more time than teaching discrete behaviors, but it can be a fun thing to explore if you are looking for something different to do. You can read more about it in the concept training notes from the ASAT conference.
Note: I feel I should mention that I haven’t actually trained left and right with my horses. One of the reasons is that I found it difficult to find behaviors where the horse had not already learned to use my body position as part of the cue. I tend to ask for behaviors involving the left side of the body when I am standing on the left and vice versa. In this case, previous learning made it difficult for me to overcome that positional bias. Teaching left and right is still on my list and someday when I have time, I’d like to explore it more.
- Ken Ramirez teaches a course on modified cues. You can learn about it here.
- Alexandra Kurland (Equiosity.com) has four podcasts on concept training with Vidyha Karthekiyan. They are number 97, 98, 99, and 99a. Vidyha describes why she became fascinated by concept training and what she has done, as well as answers some questions about how to start it.
Counting could be the trick version – you ask the horse math questions and he answers. Or, it could mean teaching the horse to identify how many objects are placed in front of him – which is a type of concept training.
The trick version can be fun, but it can also become a nuisance behavior if you use pawing and aren’t careful about keeping good stimulus control on the behavior. I did teach Willy to count and we went through a phase where his pawing behavior increased, but that faded once he had other behaviors that were more likely to earn reinforcement. So, if your horse already tends to paw, I would not teach him to count by pawing. Either skip this behavior entirely or teach him to count using some other body part.
The second version of counting is something I have seen Ken Ramirez do with a dog. I don’t know if it has been done with a horse. He taught the dog to count the number of objects in a tray and select the card with the same number of dots. Ken shared this work at The Art and Science of Animal Training Conference in 2015. My notes are here: concept training notes from the ASAT conference. You can also watch this video where he describes the work.
I originally taught Willy to cross his front legs as a fun trick, but it turned out to be a useful behavior when I started doing more groundwork and lateral work with him.
I think it helped him understand that he could move his front legs laterally and that movement was not always in a linear (forward or backward) direction. Once the behavior has been learned, you can put it on cue and use it for groundwork or fun behaviors like dancing with your horse.
My daughter taught her pony to do it too.
I’ve taught it a couple of different ways. With Willy, I cued him to lift his leg and then shaped him to put his foot down farther and farther away from me until he was crossing his legs. I have also used a foot target or small mat (the size of one hoof) and taught the horse to target the mat in front of him, then moved the mat to the side, a little bit at a time.
Here’s Rosie standing on a single foot target. I can vary the position of the target to teach different behaviors.
Adding and refining cues is a whole topic in itself. It’s a lot of fun to teach new behaviors, but there’s always value in spending time refining, cleaning up, or teaching new cues. With most behaviors, having them reliably on cue is what makes them useful. There are many different kinds of cues and it’s always helpful to explore different cueing options for each behavior. Most of the cues I use fall into these categories, or some combination of them.
I also find it helpful to have more than one cue for most of my horses behaviors as it gives me more flexibility in when and how I can ask for them.
Here are some ideas to improve your cues:
- Add a new cue to an existing behavior. Tactile or verbal cues can be added after a behavior has been learned.
- Refine the cue. If I have trained a behavior that involves an object, the presence of the object can become the cue for the behavior. This is practical during the teaching process but can lead to problems with stimulus control later if you want to have the object in the environment and tell the horse when to do the behavior. So, I will add a new verbal cue that tells the horse when to do the behavior.
- Practice doing the behavior in a new environment. Ask for a known behavior in a new or different place. This is a good way to teach the horse that the cue means the same thing, regardless of the location.
- If you use verbal cues, how well does the horse discriminate between your chosen cue and other similar sounding words? Does the horse trot if you say “hot” or “toot”? This may or may not matter to you, but it can be interesting to try and parse out what the horse is really using as the cue. Then you can decide how specific you want the cue to be.
Some of my blogs that discuss cues are ASAT Conference 2019: Emily Larlham – Sculpting the Cue, ASAT Conference 2019: Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz: Cues in Context, and Do You Have a Cue for That? (February 2016)
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.