equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? D is for …

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.


Dancing

For some reason horses and dancing seem to go together. Whether we dream of dancing with our horses on the ground or under saddle, the idea of being able to move together through space is very appealing. Unfortunately some of what you see described as dancing is really a horse learning to avoid aversive stimuli. But what if you could use positive reinforcement to teach your horse to mirror your own movements and learn to move with you? Then it really would be dancing.

To do this, you need to teach your horse some basic movements, add cues, and put together your dance routine. The nice thing is that the movements don’t have to be complicated because it’s more about how you and your horse match each others steps and flow together. If you want some ideas, you might watch dogs and their trainers performing “Heelwork to Music” routines.

Here are some possible components of “dancing.”

  • moving forward and backward
  • moving sideways
  • crossing legs
  • turning in a circle
  • yielding the front end
  • yielding the hind end
  • Spanish walk

Peggy Hogan made a fun video of dancing with her mini for the “Git up” challenge.

Dentist

Routine dental care should be on every horse’s schedule. Horses can develop a number of abnormalities, ranging from sharp points that can cut the inside of the cheek, broken teeth, and a variety of mis-alignments and uneven wear patterns.

While you may not be able to click and treat during dental sessions, you can teach your horse what to expect ahead of time. At the very least, you should get the horse used to having someone look at his incisors. If your horse tends to be anxious about being held by his head, then it’s worth spending time desensitizing him to a person holding him by his halter. And, if you really want to be prepared, it is possible to buy an inexpensive speculum and teach the horse how to put his head in it and what it feels like to wear it.

At the Vermont Training Intensive in 2019, we had three groups of trainers who chose to work on behaviors related to dentistry and tooth care. One group taught the horse to put his head in the speculum, another taught the horse to hold his head still for a tooth inspection, and the last one worked on teaching an “open mouth” behavior. They all made a lot of progress over the weekend, showing that these behaviors are very doable.

Here’s a tooth inspection blog I wrote on teaching horses to allow me to check their teeth. This is a good first step so the horse is comfortable letting you look at his mouth. Some other behaviors that are useful for checking teeth are the “open mouth” behavior and the “smile” or flehmen response. Both these behaviors can be captured or shaped and I’ll discuss them in later blogs.

Discrimination

Discrimination (dictionary.apa.org):

1. the ability to distinguish between stimuli or objects that differ quantitatively or qualitatively from one another.

2. the ability to respond in different ways in the presence of different stimuli. In conditioning, this is usually established in experiments by differential reinforcement or differential conditioning techniques. See discrimination learningdiscrimination training.

Horses make sense of their world by learning to discriminate between objects, cues, environments, etc. As trainers, we want horses to learn to recognize different cues (discrimination) so they know which behavior will be reinforced. Learning cues also involves recognizing cues in different environments).

Some of the types of discrimination that are relevant to trainers:

  • Cue discrimination – does your horse recognize the difference between two cues? How different do they have to be?
  • Object discrimination – can your horse learn to identify different objects?
  • Color discrimination? – can your horse identify an object by color – Find the yellow cone?
  • Scent discrimination – Yes, there are people exploring scentwork with horses. Horses actually are very sensitive to smell and can be taught to search for specific scents.

I’ve played around with some types of discrimination exercises, mostly color and object discrimination. I found it was easy to teach Rosie to search for an object by color or to select a specific object out of the environment. Sadly, we had some trouble attaching specific cues. I could teach her to find the green cone, when a green cone was placed in a variety of colored cones. Then I could teach her to find the white cone, but I never quite managed to put each one on cue so I could ask her to find either cone within the same session. I guess that’s a project for some other day.

Related topics:

Distance

Distance is one of the “Three D’s” that is often used to describe the process of teaching a behavior to fluency. The other two are distractions and duration.

Most of the time when I am training my horse, I am in close proximity, but there may be times when I need to ask for a behavior at a distance. If I am doing lunge or liberty work, I may want to cue my horse from various distances. When adding distance, it’s important to increase it slowly and adjust back to shorter distances if the horse doesn’t respond. I’ve used both verbal and visual cues, often in combination. In the picture below I was playing with sending Rosie from one object to another to test my verbal cues while I was standing a short distance away.

Distractions

Distraction is one of the “Three D’s” that is often used to describe the process of teaching a behavior to fluency. The other two are distance and duration.

If you teach your horse in only one location, you may find that his response to known cues deteriorates when he is in new locations or when unexpected events happen. It’s a good idea to try and vary the environment, either by adding new stimuli or by taking the horse to a new place. It doesn’t have to be a big change. Sometimes just asking for something in a different place on your property can be a good start. I tend to work with my horses in the barn, ring or their fields. What if I take a horse to the front yard? New sights, sounds, etc. Remember you want the horse to be successful

  • Cue in a familiar place, then move to a slightly more distracting environment
  • Bring along familiar objects that function as cues or provide structure

Resources on this subject:

Doors and Doorways (Polite behaviors around)

Good manners around doors and doorways are important, especially if your horse lives in a stall or has to go through doorways to get from one area to another. Some of the behaviors I teach are:

  • Backing up when I approach and open the stall door
  • When leading a horse out of a stall (or field), I want him to wait at the open door until I ask him to go forward.
  • When leading a horse into a stall (or field), I want him to allow me to go first.
  • Staying in your stall with the door open. I may be in the stall with the horse, or just outside the stall getting something.
  • Being sent through a doorway first. I sometimes will send a horse forward into his stall if I am leading two horses.

Of course there are other door related behaviors you could teach, or that your horse might just decide to learn on her own. Here’s Rosie checking to see what I am doing in the tackroom. If you want to it in action, here’s a little video. And no, I didn’t teach this intentionally, although I find it pretty funny.

I also want to mention that many horses can become protective of their own space and this is expressed as crabbiness when a person or horse approaches their door. When Rosie came to my farm, she would pin her ears and lunge at anyone who walked too close to her stall and the behavior would escalate if you went right up to her door. One of my first projects was marking and reinforcing her for calmer behavior when I approached. And then there was the door banging that she did when she was impatient. I worked on that too and I can say that she is now very polite (to me) whenever I walk toward her and she’s at her door. This took time and I’m sure it was a combination of building a strong reinforcement history for appropriate behavior as well as my own efforts to be predictable and consistent.

Dribbling (a ball)

Some horses love to play with balls. I’ve mostly taught horses to push balls with their noses, but it’s also possible to teach a horse to move a ball around by kicking it with the front legs. Some horses can get a little over-enthusiastic once they learn the ball will move, so it’s a good idea to set up the environment so that you can stay safe. These photos were taken when I put Zan’s ball in the field with him. He had learned to push it with his nose in the level ring, but when the ball started to move on its own, he got a little excited.

Here’s a short clip of my friend Sue Chiverton’s horse Capaz learning to push a ball.

Drinking (and possibly drooling…)

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

We’ve all heard that saying, but actually you can TRAIN your horse to drink on cue. This can be a practical behavior if you have a horse that doesn’t like to drink away from home or is particular about the water and/or bucket. Before you could be confident about this, you would need to practice by teaching the horse to drink on cue from a variety of buckets and in a variety of places.

I think it’s probably possible to capture “drinking” but I haven’t done it. A more reliable strategy has been used by my friend Lyndsey Lewis who has taught her horses to drink on cue using a very clever shaping plan. In the photos below she asks Jewel to drink and then reinforces her with a high value treat. You can read how to do it here.

This blog, Affiliative Behavior (or, Let’s drink together) by Terry Golson may also be of interest. Drinking also can lead to other possibly interesting behaviors…

Driving (ground driving, long lining)

The skills that a horse needs to learn to drive, whether it is ground driving or hitched to a cart, can all be taught with clicker training. I have done ground driving with most of my horses and it’s a great way to prepare a horse for ridden work, provide some variety in training, and improve a horse’s ground manners. You can see things differently from a ground driving position and there are different ways to influence the horse’s behavior.

My mini does pull a cart. He had some training before we got him, but I suspect they just hooked him to the cart and hoped for the best because he was not very easy to drive. He didn’t turn well or stop and stand. I spent a few months ground driving him to improve his responsiveness and teach him some verbal cues before I hitched him up again. That training made a huge difference when we got back to driving, even though I had faded out most of the clicks and treats.

One question people often ask is how you can reinforce the horse while driving, since hopping in and out of the cart to feed him is not that practical. It is true that there will be a point a which that is not practical and you need to switch to other reinforcers, but there is a huge amount of training that can be done before you get to that point. And for most of it, it is very easy to use food reinforcers. They can be used when introducing the harness and cart, teaching the horse to turn, stop and go, and any time you have a helper.

I do a lot more ground driving than driving with a cart, so I am going to provide other resources for that aspect of the training.

I do a lot more ground driving than driving with a cart, so I am going to provide other resources for that aspect of the training. Monty Gwynn has taught several horses to drive using clicker training. She has a video that shows Eggo lining up with the cart and another that shows her driving her pony Eggo. Here he is lining up at liberty.

I will share some tips for ground driving.

  • Make sure the horse is comfortable with lines around his body and legs.
  • Be systematic about what happens between the click and treat (food delivery). I want the horse to stop on the click and stand still while I walk toward him. I usually click, put the lines in one hand, and walk up to the horse to feed him. If I can, I will lift the offside line and drape it over the horse’s back so I don’t accidentally pull on it while walking forward.
  • Teach the horse to wait for the “go forward” cue after food delivery. For most of my groundwork, I use my own forward movement as the cue to walk forward after food delivery. When I walk off, they accompany me. Ground driving is different because I want the horse to stand still while I walk back to my position and wait until I cue him to walk forward again. There are different ways to teach this. If I have taught my horse to ground tie or park, I could use my existing cues. If not, I could use mats or targets, teaching the horse to remain in position until I cue the horse to walk on again.
  • If your goal is to drive with a cart, then have a plan for how and when to introduce non-food reinforcers while you are doing your ground driving. I use conditioned reinforcers (praise and other verbal reinforcers), but it’s also possible to use tactile reinforcers. I know someone who scratches the horse’s tail area with a hand made scratching pole.

Duration

Duration is one of the “Three D’s” that is often used to describe the process of teaching a behavior to fluency. The other two are distance and distractions.

Often we don’t teach duration until we need it. But it’s a good idea to introduce the concept of duration early on by choosing some simple behaviors and asking the horse to do them for longer. Otherwise the horse can get too fixated on the idea that the absence of a click (which is how he might interpret the delay that happens when you are extending time between clicks) means that he should try something new. The good news is that once a horse can do a few behaviors with some duration, it becomes easier to add duration to new behaviors.

Duration could mean:

  • holding a position for a longer period of time (standing at a station, standing on a mat, head lowering)
  • repeating the behavior more times – walking, trotting, or cantering more steps.

Examples of duration behaviors

If you’ve never trained for duration, you’ll want to read about the various ways to do it. I’ve included some resources at the end of this entry, but here are some additional tips.

  • Pick a behavior that is easy for the horse to do. If your horse is a foot mover, you might train duration in moving behaviors first. If he prefers to stand still, then start with a stationary behavior.
  • Think about when in the session the horse is most likely to offer duration. If your horse comes out eager to do things and wants to throw behavior at you, you might wait until later in the session to ask for more of any behavior.
  • If you are teaching duration for a stationary behavior with simple criteria (4 feet on the floor), your horse may offer specific variations on that behavior. For example, he may move his head around to try and find the “right” head position. If you don’t want to specify a head position, then avoid clicking for the same position too frequently. I try to be click for varied positions within a more general “zone” and the horses learn they can move their heads as they wish.
  • Pay attention to the emotional state of the horse as you build duration. Even though you may be focusing on a specific behavior, there is always classical conditioning happening and you don’t want to create an association between the behavior and an unwanted emotional state.

On my website, I have an article on duration. I need to update it, but it still contains some useful information.

You may also find some helpful tips in these resources:


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.

Categories: Uncategorized

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