equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? F 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. In some cases, I have intentionally been brief because the topic cannot be covered appropriately in this format, but I wanted to mention it so you have more complete list of 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.

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.


Contents: feeding time, fetch, flag training, flashlight, flowchart, fluency, fly masks and bonnets, fly spray, flying change, foot targeting, turn on the forehand, forward, fun


Feeding time

I’ve used clicker training to improve a horse’s manners at feeding time as well as to establish good manners from the beginning. The two things that are most likely to set me up for success are choosing a specific feeding routine (I do this, you do that – which may be multiple behaviors) and practicing the routine to fluency outside of feeding time, before trying to use it when I actually want it.

The latter point is important because it’s much easier to create new habits if you start by building those new habits under conditions that don’t trigger previously learned (and well practiced) responses. It’s also a lot easier to train when you are able to concentrate on the training itself, and not in the middle of your busy feeding routine.

I’m not going to write a specific training plan because there are so many variations on how to do it, many of which depend upon your particular circumstances. But, here are some tips that apply to many situations:

  • Targeting (stationing) is often a good choice for an alternate behavior. I can teach a horse to wait at a target (foot or nose) while I approach and place the food in a specific location.
  • Backing is another behavior that can be useful. I could teach a horse to back up until he is at the back of his stall and wait there.
  • The behavior you choose should be one that is already strong in the horse’s repertoire. If it is not, then you need to take the time to build a strong reinforcement history by asking for it more often for a while, or you should plan to take more time on the initial training steps when teaching the horse what behavior you want at feeding time.
  • If possible, train at a time when the horse has just eaten or at the end of a training session so he is not hungry.
  • If the horse is living with other horses or stabled next to other horses that may contribute to some food anxiety, try to train when the other horses are not present. If that’s not possible, you can teach the behavior in another environment first and build fluency before trying it in the horse’s normal feeding environment.
  • Ultimately I want the horse’s “meal” to reinforce the behavior I have chosen, but I am going to train by using treats from another source. Once the behavior is fluent, then I will teach the horse a release cue that means he can go get his reinforcer, instead of waiting for me to bring it to him.

I have a section on this topic in Chapter 11 in my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement. It covers how to teach a horse to back up and wait while I enter a stall and dump food in his bin, as well as how to teach a horse to stand quietly while I take treats out of a bucket to reload my pockets or treat bag.

Fetch

A lot of horses enjoy picking up objects and you can put this behavior to good use by teaching the horse to fetch items. I have several friends whose horses have learned to pick up dropped items like gloves or small objects. In addition to being a fun trick, I’ve found teaching a horse to pick up or hold an object can be a useful way to teach the horse that he can be reinforced for lip and mouth movement. This can make it easier to teach the horse tooth and mouth related behaviors like open mouth or taking an object (wormer, bit, syringe) into his mouth.

The basic behaviors you need for fetch are going to an object, picking up and carrying the object and returning with the object. I’ve had horses get temporarily stuck at different points in the training progression. Some horse are very oral and like to pick things up, and with them it’s just a matter of reinforcing for mouth and/or teeth movement vs. a nose touch. Other horses are very particular about what they put in their mouths and it can take some time to find an acceptable object and encourage mouth and teeth movement. Some horses are more comfortable carrying an object than others. And some seem to find it harder to track and go out to the object. In most cases, progress can be made by breaking the behavior down into smaller steps or being a little creative about how to set up the environment to make it easier.

I am going to add a few cautions here. If you have a horse that already likes to pick things up, I would not teach fetch until your horse (and you) understand how to put behaviors on cue and add the appropriate level of stimulus control. I also suggest that you choose ONE designated object during the teaching process. This will give you some level of stimulus control, assuming you don’t reinforce the horse if he offers to pick up other objects.

If you’d like to teach your horse to fetch, I have some additional articles that will be helpful.

Flag Training

You can teach your horse to pick up and carry a flag, move easily past a flag, or to allow you to pick up and carry or ride with a flag. The first one is easy if your horse already knows how to pick up an object. You just have to find a suitable flag and teach him how to hold it. It’s always better to start with a small object and build up to a larger item. I haven’t done this with a flag, but I have taught my horses to hold signs which would be similar to holding a small garden flag.

Sandra Poppema, of Hippologic, taught her mare Kyra to remain calm while she was riding with a flag. I asked her for some tips on her flag training and she sent me a nice article detailing how she introduces flags to horses. Here is an excerpt from it:

If you connect a positive, wonderful association (click and treat) to just ‘looking’ at the flag, your horse will learn many things:

*It’s OK to stand still, no coercion will happen (‘I can trust my handler’)
*Looking at the flag is reinforced with an appetitive
*Investigating the flag (sniffing, touching, pawing) is allowed and encouraged

He learns quickly that showing fear and curiosity (his natural behaviour) are OK and he can do this at his own pace. That last part is what builds trust between the two of you. He doesn’t have to worry about your reaction in scary situations!

These are the steps you can click and reinforce for:

* looking at the flag (don’t mind the distance. Click for 30 meters distance if that’s what your horse needs)
* looking at the flag and relaxing (that’s what happens just before he decides to walk closer)
* approaching the flag, sniffing, touching, pawing or other ways of interacting (without destroying) the flag.

You can read the entire article at flag training by Sandra Poppema.

Flashlight

As part of husbandry training, it’s a good idea to get a horse used to flashlights, particularly on their face. I might use a flashlight to inspect a horse’s teeth or look up a nostril. I might need to look around the edge of the eye or in an ear. If I introduce the flashlight as part of my routine training, my horse won’t be surprised when I want to hold a strange object near a sensitive part of his face. It’s also a good idea to introduce one if your horse is likely to want to interact with it. When I showed Rosie the flashlight, she was sure she should either target it or eat it.

This suggestion came from Jane Jackson, of Bookends Farm, who has an excellent husbandry course that includes information about how to train many different behaviors. You can find her course at www.bookendsfarmacademy.com.

Flow chart

When planning a training session, drawing a flowchart can be a useful way to see if you have carefully mapped out everything you are supposed to be doing, how you expect the horse to react, and how you will respond.

I had not thought about drawing flowcharts for training sessions until I head Eva Bertillson and Emilie Johnson Vegh talk about them in their ClickerExpo presentation. If this interests you, there are some good resources on the subject, including:

Fluency

While it’s a lot of fun to train new behaviors, it’s important to train your most used behaviors to fluency. What does this mean? Fluency means that the animal can perform the behavior promptly and correctly under a variety of conditions. I’ve found it’s easy to get many behaviors to a “good enough” stage, but never go the final step to get them really fluent. From a practical standpoint, this may work out most of the time, but sometimes it’s good idea to take an honest look at the fluency of a behavior and decide if there’s room for improvement.

A few years ago, Cindy Martin, an excellent clicker trainer, made a nice handout on fluency for the Vermont Intensive Summer Clinic. She has allowed me to share it here:

In addition to duration, distractions, and distance, some other aspects of fluency are latency (how quickly the horse responds), speed (how fast the horse does the behavior), and precision (how well the horse meets criteria).

A simple approach to fluency is to pick one behavior and make a list of how you expect to use the behavior and what kind of fluency you need. Then decide where you want to start. This is a good plan for many reasons. One being that we often start to work on fluency when we realize we don’t have it. By thinking ahead, you can get a head start and the planning process will make you more aware of opportunities when you can work toward fluency. Once you are making progress with that behavior, pick another one to work on.

I also recommend that you consider teaching the same aspect of fluency to several simple behaviors, even if you’re not sure you need it. This will allow you to practice building fluency with simple behaviors before you try it with more advanced ones. It will also expand your horse’s understanding of more advanced criteria and the conditions under which you might ask for behaviors.

Here’s a good training article on fluency. It’s written for dogs, but applies equally well to horses.

You may also want to check out the entries for distance, distractions, and duration in the blog post “What can I train: D is for …”

Fly masks (and fly bonnets)

These days most horses seem to wear fly masks. My horses wear them in the spring and fall when they are on day turnout. I think they appreciate the protection from the flies, but they do have to get used to wearing them and some of them have preferences for the type or style that I use. In my case, I prefer to use fly masks with ears because we have a lot of gnats, but that requires a little more training as some horses find them a little strange to put on and wear. With a new horse, I always take the time to introduce the fly mask gradually and the horse is supervised when wearing it. Even though I prefer to use a fly mask with ears, I have sometimes started with one that doesn’t have them, so the horse gets used to one area being covered at a time.

Some of my horses also wear fly bonnets while riding. I introduce them in the same way I introduce fly masks. They tend to be heavier than fly masks and have a fringe so I don’t assume a horse will accept a fly bonnet if he is used to a fly mask and vice versa, but there it is usually easier to teach the second variation.

Some things to consider when introducing a fly mask:

  • Is the horse comfortable with objects being raised over his head/ears?
  • Is the horse used to having his ears touched?
  • Is the horse used to Velcro? – the sound of velcro being undone can be quite loud and it’s very close to the horse’s ears. This can be practiced separately by opening and closing the velcro at a distance and then closer and closer. If I do follow the velcro sound with a treat, I can counter condition the sound of the velcro so it’s not aversive.

I usually let the horse see the fly mask before I ask him to let me put it near his head. If the horse is nervous, I may have him target it a few times, but I try to move quickly away from targeting as it can confusing to the horse if he thinks he is supposed to keep touching the fly mask with his nose while I am trying to put it over his head.

Instead, I usually cue the horse to lower his head when I bring the fly mask toward him. This makes it easier to put the mask on and gives him a specific behavior to do. Eventually the fly mask itself becomes the cue to lower his head. I break this down into a lot of little steps.

Steps to introduce a fly mask

  • Cue head down – > click -> treat
  • Hold fly mask in front of (or to side of) the horse’s head -> horse stays in head down -> click -> take away fly mask -> treat
  • Raise fly mask a little -> horse stays in head down -> click -> take away fly mask -> treat
  • Raise fly mask a little higher -> horse stays in head down -> click -> take away fly mask -> treat
  • Raise fly mask a little -> horse stays in head down -> click -> take away fly mask -> treat
  • slide fly mask over one ear -> horse stays in head down -> click -> take away fly mask -> treat
  • slide fly mask over both ears -> horse stays in head down -> click -> take away fly mask -> treat
  • attach the velcro pieces together -> horse stays in head down -> click -> treat

To teach the horse to allow me to take the fly mask off, I can undo the velcro, remove one ear at a time, and slowly lift it off the horse’s head. Each of these steps could be marked by a click and treat so the horse waits while I remove the fly mask instead of trying to pull his head out of it.

The steps I have listed are general guidelines. There are lots of intermediate steps I could add including folding the fly mask and getting the horse used to it touching his cheek, ears, etc. and starting with another smaller or more familiar object like a washcloth.

Fly spray

Teaching your horse to stand quietly, and be comfortable, while you apply fly spray is something every one should take the time to train. I find it’s usually pretty easy if I take time to break it down into small steps and pay attention to which aspects of spraying are more likely to be followed by avoidance behavior in my horse. Assuming you are using a standard spray bottle, the horse has to become accustomed to various sounds and sensations. These include:

  • the movement of the sprayer (and your hand) toward and around him
  • the sound of the sprayer
  • the sensation of the spray touching his skin
  • the smell of the fly spray

I don’t introduce fly spray until have taught the horse to stand still while I move around him. I may teach that behavior using a mat or target but, by the time I introduce fly spray, I prefer to have the horse at liberty so that he doesn’t feel conflicted about staying on the mat or by the target. If I do choose to use one of those, then I pay extra attention to his body language so I can make the steps small enough.

Here’s a simple training progression that I have used. Each step can be broken down into as many small pieces as necessary and I keep a high rate of reinforcement. For the most part, I click if the horse remains calm and stationary (it’s worth taking time to decide what that looks like before you start) while I do something (move my hand, spray the bottle, etc.).

  1. Introduce the spray bottle and my hand movement. The spray bottle is empty or may have some water in it.
  2. I let the horse see it and then move around him while I move the spray bottle as if spraying.
  3. I stand a short distance from the horse and pull the trigger on the spray bottle. If he stands still, I click and feed. I will do this from various positions around the horse before I start moving and spraying. At this point the bottle has water in it and the spray is not making contact with the horse.
  4. I move closer to the horse and spray the horse. I like to start on the shoulder or back and I stroke the horse before I spray. My hand tells him where he will feel the spray land.
  5. I put fly spray in the bottle and repeat steps 3 – 4 with fly spray.

For all these steps, I am avoiding sensitive areas or those with little hair. These are often the areas that need fly spray so if I want to apply it there, I spray it on a cloth and apply it that way. Over time I will transition so I hold the cloth near the area, spray the cloth, wipe it on the horse, and then spray the area. Over time this morphs into spraying him directly. But, I always use a cloth for some sensitive areas like around the eyes, ears, and face.

I have a blog post on teaching husbandry behaviors with many other suggestions for ways to make husbandry training a positive experience for both you and your horse.

Flying Change

This is one that has been on my “to do” list but I haven’t quite managed it. If I had a horse that naturally did flying changes, I would try to capture it by setting up an environment where the horse might do it at liberty. Since my mare doesn’t do them on her own, I have spent some time playing around with teaching it in more traditional ways using some exercises that teach the components and then set the horse up for the change. We were making a small amount of progress but have had to discontinue due to some health issues. Fortunately my young horse easily does flying changes in the field so I’m hoping to try it with her.

Here is the link to an older YouTube video on teaching flying changes. It’s part one of two and explains how they used clicker training. It may seem confusing as they are not clicking at the moment the horse changes, but the process is explained in the video. Georgia Bruce has also been using clicker training to teach flying changes and has several videos that show her doing it. The most recent flying changes with Joey shows how she sets him up, marks and reinforces it.

I asked Georgia Bruce if she had anything she would like to share about using clicker training to teach flying changes and she sent me the following story:

My experience using clicker training to teach flying changes:

One of the first behaviours I ever used clicker training for while riding was teaching my mare Crystal flying changes back in 1998. Crystal was a very sensitive horse and I could do a lot of things with her at liberty and riding tackless, but I had not taught a horse flying changes before and no doubt I was confusing her.

I had been trying to teach her the flying changes for quite some time and had tried a multitude of different methods and exercises. Crystal was very anxious and not understanding what I was asking her to do. I had begun using the clicker to teach her a few tricks on the ground and had been really impressed with how keen and confident Crystal became with the Clicker Training.

So I decided to try clicking and rewarding when she did a flying change. This was huge turning point in my life. With the clarity of a marker signal Crystal finally understood what I was asking her. I clicked when she did a flying change then stopped and gave her a food reward. Crystal became relaxed, confident and keen to do flying changes. Together we went on to compete in Prix St George level dressage which includes flying changes.

From that moment on I have used clicker training with every horse I have worked with and other animals as well. I never looked back.

Foot targeting

Foot targeting is one of my favorite behaviors. In addition to having many practical applications, it’s one that most horses seem to love. I use it both as a building block for other behaviors as well as a fun activity to do if the horse needs a break when doing something that is mentally of physically tiring.

The most common application of foot targeting is mat work, where a horse learns to station with one, two, or four feet on an object. I’m saving Mat work for letter “M,” so here I am going to stick to behaviors that are about teaching the horse to target with one foot.

Some types of foot targeting:

  • Both feet on the same object
  • Each foot on its own object. The yellow/blue mats and the purple pods are examples of single foot targets. I taught her to target with each foot separately and then asked her to do both at once.
  • Touching a raised object. I taught Willy to do Spanish walk by having him touch a foot target (a supplement lid taped on a stick) with his hoof and slowly increasing the height.

If your horse likes foot targeting and has any physical issues, you may want to look into Wendy Murdoch’s SURE FOOT pads. These are specially designed foam pads that she has developed and uses to improve a horse’s balance and proprioception, relieve anxiety, and for a variety of other physical problems or limitations. If your horse likes foot targeting and mat work, it is easy to teach him to stand on the SURE FOOT pads. You can find more information on the pads on her website, www.murdochmethod.com.

Turn on the Forehand

In a turn on the forehand, the horse keeps his front feet in the same place and moves his hind end around, usually until he is facing 180 degrees from where he started. Different disciplines have different standards for how it should be done so make sure you know what you it should look like before you get started.

This summer I’ll try to get some video to show how I teach it. In the meantime, I’ll share a few tips:

  • To help the horse understand that he should keep his front legs in one place, I can ask him to station on or in an object. I’ve used both a mat and a hula hoop. I originally used a mat because it was a behavior my horses knew well, but it did tend to make them reluctant to adjust their front feet as their hind feet stepped around. So I switched to a hula hoop, which defines the area in which the horse can move, but has less “stickiness.”
  • To ask the hind end the hind legs to step over, I teach the horse to move away from a touch on his hip. I’ve taught this by using tactile information (my hand on the hip) and reinforcing for any weight shift or by teaching the horse to hip target and presenting the target on the off side. I’ll cover hip targeting in the H blog. In the meantime, you can read my blog about body part targeting.

note: I’ll probably move this to “T”, and add more details when I write the “What can I train? T is for …” blog.

Forward

There are several behaviors that could be grouped under the category of “forward.” It could mean teaching a horse to walk forward with or without his handler, or to add more energy under saddle. There’s a bit of overlap between the different types of forward and many of the same strategies can be used for all of them. Here, I’m going to focus on how to get more forward energy when doing ground or ridden work.

One of the first articles I ever read about clicker training was in a dressage magazine where the author described how she used clicker training to motivate her less than enthusiastic horse to add more energy. I can’t remember the details of how she did it, but I think clicker training was introduced through targeting, after which she started clicking and reinforcing for moments when the horse responded more promptly to her cues or moved with more energy. According to the article, it created a huge change in her horse’s attitude and energy during ridden work.

That’s one strategy and it can work well if the horse is sufficiently motivated by the reinforcer being used and the trainer is careful about not asking for too much too soon. I’ve found that raising energy takes time, and it’s sometimes a function of conditioning as much as it is of understanding. For some horses, just getting “paid” for their efforts is enough to make a big change.

Other horses benefit from having a more structured approach and/or using environmental prompts that create anticipation or eagerness to perform a specific task. Several of my horses have been so relaxed about riding that I’ve had to be creative about how to make our lessons interesting and reinforcing enough for them that they move with more energy. Some of the best strategies I’ve used are:

  • Mats and targets: Going to a destination is a great way to encourage forward movement. I will set up a pattern with a combination of mats, poles, targets and other objects and ride from one to the next. Once the horse realizes he will be reinforced for going to each object, enthusiasm usually follows.
  • Use anticipation. I often create short chains where the behavior I want to improve is followed by a higher energy behavior. This creates a bit of anticipation and I can use that to my advantage. If my horse is anticipating a trot transition, she will bring up her energy in walk right before it. I can click that and over time I can shape a more energetic walk.
  • Use chains: I love to use backchaining to increase a horse’s enthusiasm or energy. I start with a strong behavior that my horse wants to do. Then I build a chain, keeping that behavior as the last one, and adding more behaviors to the beginning of the chain. The horse is motivated to get to the final behavior in the chain and that usually shows up as more energy.
  • Capture it: I can take advantage of natural opportunities to reinforce forward. There are always going to be some days when my horse has more energy. If I work on forward on those days, I am more likely to be successful and I can build some reinforcement history for the more forward versions of some of our usual behaviors.

Regardless of which strategy you choose, it’s important to check for any physical or equipment related issues if your horse seems reluctant to go forward or move with energy.

Fun

I had to include this because I think it’s important to include a few fun behaviors in your training. In theory, I know that there should be no difference between how we train a “fun” behavior compared to other “necessary” behaviors but I often find it is easier to be creative and flexible when I don’t have a deadline and the behavior is not something I need.

In the winter, I usually pick one fun activity to teach to Rosie. I always think of these as party tricks, but we have done some useful things as well. Over the years I’ve taught her to do a lot of fun behaviors including Spanish walk, play the piano, fetch, push a ball, pick up trash, cross her legs, find the green cone, goat on a rock, color discrimination, going to and standing on single foot mats, open mouth, bow, body part targeting, adduction, spin, and putting her foot on a raised object.

Fun behaviors could be tricks, concept training, games, loosely structured activities like walks or hand grazing, or anything else you can think of. One of the reasons I am writing this blog series is to give you more ideas for fun activities, so take a look through the other blogs and see if anything catches your eye.


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.

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