equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? H 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: halt, halter, harnessing, hats, turn on the haunches, head bumper, head lowering, hoof care, hoof stand, hosing, hug,


Halt

Teaching your horse to halt is one of the basic requirements for safe handling on the ground and while riding. At its most basic, it means teaching the horse to stop moving when asked. At its most complicated, it means teaching a specific position (square, parked, offset) with duration, good posture, and reliability under many conditions.

One nice thing about clicker training is that the marker signal tells the horse to stop and wait for reinforcement, so you can take your time to shape the kind of halt you want. But that also makes it easy to forget to practice asking you horse to halt or stop. I find this can happen if I am marking some aspect of movement (quality or duration), and the horse is already stopping a lot. It can also happen if I am using familiar objects like targets or mats to indicate where I want the horse to stop. These are good training strategies, but I’ve learned to mix in some exercises where I do cue the halt, just to keep it in the horse’s repertoire.

I’ve found there is a lot of value in teaching a square halt and asking for it any time the horse is going to be standing still for a period of time. I want my horses to get in the habit of standing in good balance and I can also use it diagnostically. If my horse always offers a square halt and then one day, she doesn’t, that’s a good indication that something is bothering her. It may be physical or it may be environmental. With Rosie, if she’s anxious about something, she finds it hard to stand square and prefers to have her legs in a position more suited to a quick escape.

I’ve taught a square halt in a few different ways:

  • Using mats. I teach the horse to stand square with his front feet on a mat. Then I teach him to square up his hind feet.
  • Using mats. I have also taught the square halt by combining two separate behaviors – front feet square on a mat and hind feet square on a mat.
  • Using Alexandra Kurland’s rope handling where I teach the horse to move individual feet in response to cues from the rope.
  • I may sometimes help the horse by picking up and placing the foot where I want it, just so the horse can feel what it’s like to have the foot placed correctly. I don’t usually train the entire halt this way, but it can be helpful if I am having trouble communicating with a particular foot.

I also have a section in my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement, that describes how I teach a square halt.

Related behaviors are:

Haltering

First introductions are important (Sharon Madere and her week old filly)

Life is much easier when your horse is easy to halter. Therefore, it’s worth taking the time to address any haltering issues if your horse shows any reluctance. Haltering issues are not uncommon and can range from avoidance of the halter (or person carrying the halter) to evasive body language (making it hard to put the halter on). This can happen if the horse has learned that being haltered is usually followed by events that he dislikes or if the haltering process is uncomfortable, perhaps because he’s sensitive about pressure on his ears or poll.

When I retrain a horse that has haltering issues, I start by identifying where in the process he first shows any reluctance. I also have to decide what I want the horse to do at each step of haltering. With my own horses, I want the horse to participate in haltering by lowering his head and putting his nose in the noseband. After the horse has done that, I want him to hold his head still while I slide the halter up over his ears and do up the throatlatch. If I write these steps out, I can identify what behaviors my horse needs to know for successful haltering.

With those behaviors in mind, I have to evaluate if there are specific parts of haltering that I could work on separately. If the horse is sensitive about contact with his ears or poll, I can work on that with a different object and then incorporate those behaviors/learning back into the haltering behavior. I’ve found that haltering often involves a combination of teaching new behaviors, desensitizing to contact, and creating a new association.

Some of the things that I’ve found to be helpful are:

  • Find another way to “catch” him. It’s always challenging to work on a behavior that you need to use daily. If the problem is approaching with the halter, you can try teaching the horse to come to a target and then use the target or a neck rope to bring the horse to the training area.
  • Teach him to target the halter. If the horse learns that reinforcement is available when his nose is near the target, he will start to respond differently when he sees the halter.
  • Teach him to put his nose in another object. An open hoop works well. I’ve also turned the halter upside down and used the noseband that way.
  • Teach him to let you bring a strap over his ears and/or lay a strap over his poll. My friend and fellow trainer Cindy Martin taught her filly to accept a small dog collar laid over her poll before introducing the crown piece of the halter.
  • Is it the ears? Perhaps you need to put the halter on differently, or get a halter that doesn’t go over the ears.
Cindy Martin’s Rosie learning about crown pieces

Maasa Nishimuta’s horse Jackson came to her with a negative association with haltering. I asked her if she would share how she taught Jackson to love being haltered and she sent me this description of her work with him:

For the halter training, it was back in 2014 when I welcomed him as my family. I quickly realized that when I walked toward him WITH the halter, he was so smart that he would walk away. He would not walk away, and in fact approached me, when I walked toward him WITHOUT the halter. When I saw this change in behavior, I quickly thought there may be some aversive experience with the halter, and I needed to train him so that he would be okay with it.

I used clicker training for the halter training with Jackson. I wanted to document every shaping steps, which ended up making the video that you may have seen.

Here is the video: https://youtu.be/6E7h7BWOqD8

As in the end of the video, I would make sure that when he wears halter, he gets access to his preferred things, such as going out in the yard where fresh grass are. And now, I do not have to give him food for every step to wear the halter. He wears his halter with no problem, and another caretaker can do it really easily.

It has been years after my halter training with Jackson. Within those years, I have learned a lot. So now, if I have a horse that did not want to wear a halter, I would use Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT) method for halter training. As you probably know, CAT uses distance as a reinforcer to train desirable behaviors. So, with the halter training, I would use taking away the halter from the horse (distance) as a reinforcer to shape desirable behaviors (approach the halter, halter in proximity, halter on their face, wearing the halter) This way I can directly work with the contingency that has been maintained the problem behavior, escaping from the halter. 

Maasa Nishimuta

I met Maasa when she was a student at the University of North Texas. She has since graduated and started a podcast with her partner Sean. It’s titled, “Constructional Approach to Animal Welfare and Training” and worth checking out.

Here are some additional resources for haltering:

As a final note, I should mention that I do occasionally run across horses that are difficult to halter because they are too busy trying to “help.” The horse might try to put his head in the halter before I’m ready, move around too much during haltering, or offer related but unnecessary behaviors. In this case, the solution is usually to teach the horse to do a simple behavior that will keep his head still and build enough duration that he can maintain it for the entire haltering process. Head lowering works well. I’ve also taught it out of “Grown-ups” where the horse learns to keep his head in the same position, but it’s closer to his natural height.

Harnessing

Teaching a horse to be harnessed is similar to teaching a horse to accept any kind of equipment, but harnesses have some additional components, such as the crupper, blinkers, and breeching, that may be novel to your horse. When we got our mini, Buster, he had been taught to drive, but I found he was uncomfortable with some aspects of being harnessed. Therefore, I spent some time on harnessing, making sure he was comfortable with all the parts, before we did much driving.

Resources:

  • Hertha James has published a book “Training a horse to harness using positive reinforcement. “
  • She also has several YouTube videos on harnessing. Here’s one to get you started.

If someone would like to add some tips on introducing a harness to a horse, I would be happy to add them here.

Hats

I’ve included this one just for fun. And maybe because people seem to like putting hats on horses. All that aside, teaching a horse to wear a hat can be another way to get a horse used to having an item on his head and people are often more playful with hats than when training gets serious. Here are some hat pictures for you.

Turn on the haunches

Turn on the haunches is a useful gymnastic exercise and also has some practical applications. Being able to ask the horse to move her front end around her hind end can be useful when maneuvering in tight spaces. I use a half turn regularly when I move horses in and out of one of my fields. The placement of the gate and fences requires a tight turn and being able to ask the horses to stop and then do a half turn on the haunches is easier than making a circle.

A good way to teach a horse to turn on the haunches is to position the horse with her hind feet on, or in, an object and reinforce her for stepping sideways with her front feet so she turns around her back feet. When I teach it, I reinforce the horse for stepping over with her front feet and stepping in place with his hind feet, as I don’t want her to pivot. I can ask the front feet to move by using a target, an opening movement of the lead rope or rein, or by contact on her shoulder. Traditionally the handler stands on the outside of the turn and the horse moves away from her, but I’ve found that it can also work if I stand on the inside. When doing a turn on the haunches, I want to be able to adjust the horse’s bend and control the number of steps and will choose whatever position works best for each horse.

I’ve also played around with setting out several mats in a circle and having the horse move his front end from one mat to the next while the hind end stays in one place. This created a pretty sloppy turn on the haunches but it gave the horse the idea of moving the front end more than the hind end and I was able to refine it later. I think you can be very creative – think about what your horse knows and see what you can do with it.

Head bumper

Red wanted a turn trying on the head bumper

Rosie hit her head unloading from the trailer a few years ago and I bought her a head bumper to wear for all future trailering trips. It’s not something I routinely teach horses to wear so I wasn’t sure how she would feel about it. But she’s used to fly masks and bonnets, so I thought she would be okay. Still, I approached it like I would when introducing any piece of equipment.

  • I let her see it and touched her on other less sensitive parts of her body, clicking and treating if she stood still.
  • I asked her to lower her head and then allow me to put it in place while she kept her head down. She already knew head lowering so it was just a matter of teaching her to lower her head when I was holding the bumper, and keep it down while I put it on.
  • I had her wear it while I fed her dinner or took her out to hand graze.
  • I practiced loading and unloading with the head bumper before I needed to take her anywhere.

Head lowering

Head lowering is one of the most useful behaviors you can teach with clicker training. I was introduced to it by Alexandra Kurland who teaches head lowering as one of her six foundation lessons. It’s one of the first behaviors I learned how to teach and it completely changed the life of my mare and gelding. In new situations, they both tended to become very high headed and unable to stand still. Teaching head lowering to a high level of fluency, so they could do it anywhere and with duration meant I had a safe, simple behavior that was always accessible.

I don’t know if the position itself was significant or if it was just that it became a familiar behavior with a strong reinforcement history, but it made a huge difference. In addition to using head lowering to help in those types of situations, I have used it as part of many practical and performance behaviors. Head lowering is an important component of many husbandry behaviors (haltering, bridling, fly masks, etc.) as well as great way to shape how a horse moves in groundwork and under saddle.

The behavior is usually either taught through targeting, capturing, or free shaping. It’s often easy to teach the initial downward movement, but can take more time to build duration. However once a horse gets past a few seconds of duration, it’s easy to extend the time. It helps if the horse has already learned about duration with other behaviors.

There are many, many resources on head lowering. Most clicker trainers teach some form of head lowering and you can find it in their materials. I learned from Alexandra Kurland and always recommend her as a resource. In addition, I have written about it. Here are some relevant links:

Hoof care

Being able to take care of a horse’s feet is one of the most important aspects of horse ownership. It’s also one of the easiest ones to address with clicker training. Most horses respond very well to a systematic approach using positive reinforcement and even horses with physical issues can learn that to participate and be comfortable with hoof care.

Over the years I’ve used clicker training to teach young horses (with no prior experience) to pick up, allow me to clean, and trim their hooves. I’ve also retrained the behavior with several horses that came with a strong emotional response to any attempt to handle their feet. The most difficult one was my rescue pony Stella, who has some physical issues in her hind end, as well as a lot of generalized anxiety about the whole process. With her, it was important to work at her pace and to make sure that I mixed in many easier sessions so she didn’t feel anxious about being asked to do more each time.

In fall 2019, I published a series of blogs on how to improve your horse’s hoof handling behavior. These tips can help you with planning your training and troubleshooting any problems. They are not really intended to be a start to finish guide to how to do it. Therefore, if you are having trouble and these tips don’t seem to help, then I strongly suggest that you work directly (either online or in person) with someone who is experienced at teaching hoof care behaviors using positive reinforcement.

You can find the blogs listed on the BLOG page as well as on the ARCHIVES page. Here’s the link to the first one: Hoof handling: 12 tips for success (Part 1).

Additional resources:

Hoof stand

Whether you trim your own horse’s feet or have a farrier come do it, it’s likely that your horse will need to be able to put each foot up on a hoof stand. Most farriers use a hoof stand of some kind, at least for finishing the feet from the top. I use one for both the top and bottom and anytime I want the horse to hold his foot up for any period of time.

In parts 5 and 6 of my blog series “Hoof Handling: 12 tips for success,” there is some information on introducing hoof stands to your horse. I cover how to help find a comfortable position for the horse and how to teach the horse to keep his foot on the stand. But I don’t go into some of the things you might want to do before you get to that point, especially if your horse has never been asked to put his foot on a stand before. So I thought I would share a few thoughts on that here.

I introduce the hoof stand as a cradle (foot placed sole up) before I introduce it as a post (foot forward, sole down on top). I find that if my horse is already comfortable with me picking up and cleaning out the foot, it’s not a big deal to put the hoof stand in position and transfer the foot to it. Even if I don’t need to use it for this position, it’s a good way to get the horse comfortable with the hoof stand moving around, how it sounds and feels.

To teach the horse to allow me to lift and rest his foot on the stand in the forward position, I can do some foot targeting exercises or practice with other objects. I like to teach horses to pick up a foot and put it on a foot sized mat placed in front of the horse. This teaches the horse about moving one foot forward and resting it in a specific location. If I have safe, low objects, I can teach the horse to pick up his foot and rest his foot on them. This introduces the idea that the foot will be elevated but he should not put his weight on it. If a horse has done a lot of mat or pedestal work, it’s likely that he will try to stand on any object you place in front of him so make sure the object is safe if the horse does put his weight on it. Sandra Poppema of Hippologic made this video showing some training she did with Kyra using a stool as a hoof stand.

It’s not uncommon for people to ask about teaching teach the horse to put his own hoof up on the stand, especially in the forward position. Personally I’ve never taught this because it just doesn’t seem necessary and I worry about the horse kicking the stand over and scaring himself. But I always pick up the foot and place it on the stand, but once the hoof is on the stand, I do teach the horse to keep his foot there, without me “holding” it in position. That frees up both my hands which is important if I am trimming. I do know trainers who teach the horse to place his own foot on the stand so it can certainly be done. You just have to decide if that’s a practical and safe approach for your individual horse.

Hosing

Within a month of Aurora’s arrival as a weanling, she had cut her leg and I had to cold hose her twice daily. She had some handling before I got her, but being hosed was not on the list of things she knew and I didn’t have time to approach the training gradually. So I used food to manage her while I got the job done. In her case, I had to feed hay pellets on a fairly high rate of reinforcement, trying to reinforce standing, but in reality I was probably just using food to discourage her from leaving town. We got through it, but the next spring I put hosing on the top of my “to do” list.

My experience with Aurora was a good reminder that teaching a horse to stand while I spray her with a hose is another important husbandry behavior that should be taught before you need it. I don’t bathe my horses a lot so it’s easy for it to become low priority – in most cases, I can use a bucket and sponge – but in many cases hosing is quicker and more effective and it may also be part of medical treatment. Here are some of the reasons I might spray my horse with a hose:

  • As part of bathing
  • If she has an injury
  • To cool her down
  • Washing off mud on legs and feet

A lot of horses are initially wary about being hosed. If you think about it, there are lots of possible areas of concern for a horse when you want to spray her with a hose. They include:

  • The movement of the hose
  • The sound of the water turning on and off, and the nozzle turning on and off (some nozzles are noisy)
  • The sensation of the water. A lot of horses don’t like water coming out at high pressure and you have to build up to it. Gentler nozzle options are better for starting. If possible, I prefer to get a horse used to being bathed or wiped with a sponge before I try hosing.
  • The temperature of the water. When I introduce hosing, I always start with lukewarm water.
  • Where you are hosing (location on the body). If your horse has not been hosed or you need to hose a sensitive area, start with an easy area first.
  • The physical location (wash stall) where you are hosing. Some horses are more anxious if you introduce hosing in a more confined space. Or they may react to the sound of the water on the concrete or the appearance of wet concrete/puddles.

Some tips:

  • Consider the environment. While it’s convenient for me to use my wash stall, I sometimes start outside on the grass. There is less splashing, no puddles, and often less noise and the horse will feel less confined. Grass can be used as a distraction or as a reinforcer.
  • If you do work in a wash stall, mats can help dampen the sound and make the horse less likely to slip.
  • When I turn the water on, I always go as far away from the horse as I can to get it going and test the temperature. Hoses and nozzles can make some strange noises when I first turn the water on, and I don’t want to be approaching the horse when that happens.
  • If you are hosing a leg and the horse continues to pick it up, a good strategy can be to stand on the other side of the horse and hose it from the opposite side. For some reason this seems to significantly decrease the amount of fidgeting. Within a few minutes, you can probably switch back to the original side if that makes it easier to access the location you need to hose.
  • Clicker trainer and TCTT coach Mary Concannon‘s horse Newbie had a leg injury and she made hosing into a game. She would hose the leg for a minute and then let him offer a behavior and do a few repetitions of it before going back to hosing.

I’ve found that if I take time in the early stages of hosing to teach the horse to stand, I can slowly decrease my rate of reinforcement or transition to using hay or grazing instead of having to click and treat.

Other resources:

Hug

Heather and Magnum enjoying a hug

Horses can learn to enjoy hugs! It’s a great way to teach your horse to accept and enjoy having his head handled. Alexandra Kurland uses hugging both as a way to connect with a horse and to release tension. She likes to call it the “feldenkrais hug” because the close contact that comes from hugging can become a way to identify and release tension and encourage freer movement in the neck, poll, and jaw of the horse. You can think of it as a little lateral flexion that you support with your hands and body.

I asked Heather Binns to contribute a picture and some thoughts on hugging because I know she has used it a lot with her horses. She sent the nice picture above and this comment:

I started using the hug in particular with Magnum. When I started something new like hoof trimming or using the grinder, I found it really helped him to have a hug. It let him relax a little. I still use it quite often!!

Heather Binns, Horsemagic blog

Here’s another picture of Heather using a modified hug during hoof trimming.


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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2 replies

  1. I’m glad you included hats as something that can be trained.

    I see a lot of people putting hats on horses and dogs, and the animal doesn’t look very happy.

    However, if the trainer goes through a teaching process to introduce the hat and to make wearing the hat fun, this can lead to a completely different outcome.

    Like

    • Thanks Mary. I do think a lot of animals are not sure what to make of hats. I know that Rosie used to hold her head very low when I first had her wear anything on it. It took her a while before she figured out that she could move normally. I have a new hat for Aurora and it will be interesting to see what she thinks of it.

      Like

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