equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What Can I Train? L 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: laugh (smile), laydown, leg yield, leading, leg lifts, lengthen, liberty work, liberty leading, lift head, long lining, lower head, lungeing,


Laugh (smile)

Willy smiling

The horse has a natural behavior called the “flehmen response” that can looks a bit like the horse is laughing or smiling because of the upturned lip and display of teeth. This behavior can be captured and put on cue quite easily. Horses often do it when they encounter new or pungent smells. If your horse doesn’t do it very often in his natural environment, you can try prompting it with novel smells. Some horses will even do it if they accept a treat and find it is something unexpected.

I hesitate to say that horses like doing it, because one never knows, but my gelding, Red, learned this trick early on and he used it routinely to get my attention. Willy liked to do it too. If you want to teach a trick, this one is fairly easy to train and less likely to be problematic if offered off cue than some other more active behaviors.

Laydown

Teaching a horse to lie down on cue is another trick that people like to train. It can be taught in many different way, and has traditionally been taught using aversives or restraint.

But, with clicker training, it’s possible to shape or capture the laydown and put it on cue, which makes it have a very different emotional association for the horse. Having said that, I do think a person should think carefully about whether or not to teach the laydown. In my early clicker training days, I taught two of my horses to lie down, one through shaping and one through capturing. It was fun to train and I’m glad I experimented with how to do it, but I haven’t felt the desire to teach it to anyone else. But that could change if I meet a horse that seems keen to offer it.

Buster, my mini, is the laydown champion in my barn. I had been teaching him a lot of tricks and he was very quick to offer and repeat behavior. One night I was in the barn when he laid down in his stall. I clicked and treated, left the stall and went back to what I was doing. A few minutes later, he laid down again. I went in and clicked and treated. This time I stayed and he offered a few of his known behaviors. I clicked and treated and left again.

This happened three nights in a row, as he experimented to see what I wanted. By the end of the third night, he was lying down on cue – at least in that context. It took me a few weeks to get the behavior in other locations and at other times of day, etc. Once we were at this stage, the laydown became the “hot” behavior and he offer it almost every time I entered his stall. It was a little disconcerting as I thought he was sick at first, but I learned to redirect him with another behavior and continued to work on my stimulus control.

I also taught Willy, my OTTB, to laydown on cue. In his case, I shaped it. It took me three months of taking him to his favorite sandy rolling spot and clicking for the steps that preceded lying down. It would have been faster to capture it, but once Willy was down and rolling, he would totally ignore me and keep rolling even if I clicked and approached with a treat. He would finish rolling, get up, and then look at me. By then it was too late to accurately mark and reinforce the behavior.

My best option seemed to be to mark and reinforce the beginning steps of the rolling sequence. This is always risky as it interrupts the sequence, but when he started to repeat the beginning steps more often, I found I could slowly extend the time before I clicked and get closer to marking the commitment to lying down. This took me several months, so I also took advantage of every opportunity to reinforce him after he rolled. Eventually he learned to roll and wait for me to feed him before getting up. While this was not during formal shaping sessions, I do think it contributed to his understanding of what behavior I was reinforcing.

I’ve thought a lot about why training the laydown was so easy with Buster and more time consuming with Willy and I think a lot of it had to do with their age and size. Buster was about 6 when he learned to lie down on cue. He’s also about 9 hands high. Getting up and down was easy. Willy was about 15 and he was a 16 hand TB gelding. He had no trouble getting up and down, but at most he would repeat the behavior twice in a session.

This brings up some important points to think about when training your horse to laydown on cue.

  • Is it physically easy for your horse?
    • consider the size and age of your horse
    • does he have any physical limitations?
  • Is there a comfortable place for the horse to lay down?
    • most horses have a place where they prefer to roll or sleep, can you train there?
  • Does your horse feel safe laying down?
    • Is your horse more likely to lie down when other horses are near or not?
    • What does your horse do if he’s lying down and you approach? If the horse stays down, it will be easier to mark and reinforce the behavior.
  • Are there times of day or other specific conditions when your horse is more likely to lie down? Take advantage of these natural patterns.
    • Some horses take a morning nap in the sun
    • Horses often roll if turned out wet

You can answer a lot of these questions by observing your horse. If your horse lies down a lot and you can predict when he might lie down, then you may be able to capture it. If he is less predictable but has conditions that are more likely to prompt the behavior, then you may be able to set up opportunities to shape or capture the behavior.

Leading

Clicker training can be used to teach a foal or unhandled horse to lead, as well as to improve a horse’s existing leading skills. I’ve used clicker training to address a wide variety of issues including horses that walk too fast or slow, stop and refuse to move forward, or crowd into me.

Leading is not a single behavior, but a set of related behaviors that can be taught with targeting or shaping. I use targeting to teach forward movement, position, and distance. I may use targets to shape pace and balance, but I can shape many aspects of leading by using other prompts that provide guidance or set up the environment to encourage the behavior I want to see. For example, poles can be used to establish distance and movement in straight lines.

Most horses I meet have some leading experience before I start working with them. Therefore, before I jump into the training, I like to evaluate the horse’s existing leading skills and decide where to start.

Here’s my checklist of the criteria for good leading:

  1. The horse maintains a specific distance from me. That means he doesn’t drift toward or away from me.
  2. The horse maintains his position relative to me. If I want to lead the horse so I am at his shoulder, then I am going to set that position as part of my criteria. If I want the horse to walk behind me, then I will pick a different criteria (probably distance behind me). It doesn’t matter where I want the horse to walk relative to me, as long as I am clear and consistent, but I will say that some positions are harder to teach and there might be safety concerns.
  3. The horse walks at the desired speed. I don’t want to have to drag the horse or run to catch up.
  4. The horse is paying attention to me so that if I stop, he stops. I also want to be able to cue a stop, but it’s nice if the horse stops if I stop unexpectedly.
  5. If I teach the horse to walk next to me (not behind me), then I would like him to be mindful of his balance so that he doesn’t lean toward me, or crowd me with his inside shoulder.
  6. The lead should be slack or just have a light contact.
  7. The horse is reading my body language so that he follows me when I turn or adjust my line of travel.

One nice thing about leading is that when I focus on one criteria, there will often be improvement in others at the same time. For example, if the horse learns to watch my body language or respond to cues so that he can match my pace, stop when I stop, and turn when I turn, then it’s likely that he will also be walking on a slack lead or soft contact. In training, I do want to be clear about my criteria and avoid trying to work on too many things at once, but I also try to be aware of (and take advantage of) the ripple effect as I address one particular aspect.

A note about balance and “disrespect:”

Crowding the trainer is often interpreted as “disrespect” but it’s more likely that it’s a coordination or balance issue, either because the horse is unaware of the fact he’s drifting into me or because the handler is inadvertently drawing or pulling the horse off balance into her space. A horse that travels in good balance can walk right next to you and it will not feel like it is crowding, whereas one with poor balance will feel too close even when he is farther out.

For more on leading, be sure to check out “Liberty Leading” later in this blog.

Leg lifts

Leg lifts come in many shapes and sizes. They can be taught with varying degrees of difficulty and with the leg in different positions. Which one I teach will depend upon how I want to use the behavior and how much independence I want the horse to have.

Usually the first version I want is a practical one – teaching the horse to pick up her leg for cleaning. I usually shape this behavior, starting with small approximations (a weight shift) and slowly asking for more height and then building duration. With a horse that accepts touch, I may use my hand as a prompt, but I have also taught it by capturing a step or a shift of weight. I try to be flexible about going with what the horse offers, while keeping my end goal in mind. In some cases, I may want the horse to be very independent – lifting and holding her leg up completely on her own, but in others I may prefer if the horse allows me to manipulate that leg. In that case, I will teach her to relax and allow me to move her leg as needed.

I like to teach both versions, so it’s more a matter of choosing where to start than teaching one or the other. For a horse that is afraid of being restrained, teaching an independent leg lift may be mentally easier, although it does require more balance and strength on the part of the horse. However, if the horse is already able to hold up his feet, but is stiff and holding tension, I may choose to use my hands so I can reinforce moments of relaxation, which are often easier to feel than to see. Using my hands also makes it easier for me to introduce movement in small ways. Can you lift your leg and let me draw it forward an inch? Back an inch? Tip the angle of your foot?

Here’s a brief list of the positions and types I like to teach:

Front legs:

  • pick up and hold with a bent knee – as for cleaning
    • independently with no support from me
    • with contact – resting gently in my hand or on a hoof stand
  • pick up and extend forward
    • independently with no support from me – as in a jambette or spanish walk (see J is for … for information on jambettes)
    • with contact – usually this means placing the hoof on a hoof stand for farrier work
  • pick up and hold with the forearm horizontal, cannon bone hanging vertical – as in leg flexions. I usually teach the horse to do this with no support from me using a knee target.

Hind legs:

  • pick up and hold with flexed joints – hoof under the hip
    • independently with no support from me
    • with contact – resting gently in my hand or on a hoof stand
  • pick up and hold with flexed joints but with the hoof ahead of the line of the hip for a stretch or to place on a hoof stand for farrier work

Teaching a horse all the different kinds of leg lifts is both practical and part of a good exercise program. Some of the benefits for the horse are:

  • Improved balance
  • Improved coordination
  • They build strength – both the lifted leg and the standing leg have to do additional work
  • They build core strength – the horse also has to engage his core to maintain the elevation of the leg

For more information on teaching leg lifts as related to hoof care, check out my 6 part blog on “Hoof handling.”

Leg yield

Leg yield is one way to introduce a horse to lateral movement. Like anything, there are various opinions on its value and when to introduce it, but I’ve found leg yield is a good way to introduce the idea of moving over and forward at the same time.

Leg yield is difficult for many horses, but can be made much simpler by teaching the component parts and breaking it down into tiny steps. I start on the ground and teach two separate behaviors: step over with the front end and step over with the hind end. I don’t teach them to perfection because I don’t want the horse to get stuck on the idea that she can only move one end at a time. Instead, I get them started – it’s enough that the horse knows the cue and is able to step over a few steps – and then combine them.

Most of my horses have been eager to offer leg yield (or any of the other lateral movements) once they get the idea and develop some coordination. The challenge is usually getting the behavior under good stimulus control so that that I can control when they do it and how many steps they take. I’ve found it helpful to do a lot of exercises that are one or two steps of leg yield, one or two steps straight (or a turn), and then leg yield again. Once the horse is used to being cued for different combinations and has practiced getting in and out of leg yield, I will start asking for more steps of leg yield so I can build duration.

Lengthen

Lengthen could apply to any body part, but I was thinking specifically of lengthening gaits. I have used clicker training to teach my horses to lengthen at the walk, trot, and canter. I usually introduce the idea on the ground before asking for it under saddle. Some ways to shape/suggest lengthening are:

  • Use ground poles. Start with them set for your horse’s normal gait and then slowly increase the distance between them.
  • Teach the horse to match your steps.

I’ll add more to this entry later, but I do want to mention that when teaching lengthenings and extended gaits, I’ve found I need to be careful about clicking for the actual lengthening too often as the horse will start to hold back in anticipation of the click or will struggle with doing a balanced downward transition out of the new larger gait. I like to set up patterns that include lengthenings so I can teach the transitions in and out of lengthenings early on. Yes, I do click for a good moment in the lengthening at times, but I also have another marker (one that does not mean stop) that I can use. Not every horse will find it challenging to come down to a balanced stop out of a lengthening, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Liberty leading

I could have included liberty leading as a subset of leading, but I decided to list it as a separate entry because it is such a good way to teach a horse to watch and follow the trainer’s movement. That’s one of the reasons that Shawna Karrasch teaches liberty leading as one of her first clicker exercises. I asked Shawna if she would share a few thoughts on why and how she does liberty leading and she sent me the following:

First of all, I love this idea of sharing ideas of things we can teach our horses utilizing clicker training.  The only limits are the horse’s physical limitations and our imaginations.  As we move to “L” I think of liberty leading.  This may seem simple, and it is simple but it is also a behavior I use as a foundation behavior; it is a building block of a lot of other behaviors. So, I go back to Liberty Leading over and over again.

I also practice Liberty Leading to help horses, new to clicker training, to learn two important concepts: focus and impulse control.

Let’s start with how this behavior works to increase focus.  First off, I intentionally don’t use a target for this behavior so I can help the learner to focus on the teacher and their body language. By keeping our bodies as the main source of information, the horse learns to focus on our body language and slight movements. Of course this isn’t always an easy step so it is important we that we create clarity in order to minimize frustration.

As a prerequisite, I tend to use the clicker conditioning process to teach them how to behave in a relaxed and safe manner around food.  This is a simple exercise of teaching them to calmly keep their heads to themselves. For most horses, I prefer the finished product to consist of them quietly keeping their head basically straight ahead and ever so slightly, away from me. As I begin to teach Liberty leading, I start with this first exercise but add in one step. One step, stop, reposition and keep your head to yourself, reinforce and repeat.  Since the horse knows this familiar exercise and desires to stand beside us with their head to themselves, this small step can bring clarity to our new exercise.  They want to realign themselves with us in order to get reinforced. What tends to happen next is that they start watching for our feet to move.  Often times you can see them actually looking to your feet in the early stages.  This begins the process of the horse learning to focus on you and what you are cuing with your body.  

This can become one of their favorite games as we build up the momentum, increasing the number of steps, increasing our tempo, changing our pattern.  Adding turns into the equation is more difficult and continues to increase their focus.  The right hand turns are especially challenging.  Horse people tend to do a lot of left hand turns since it helps our smaller stride stay on pace with the horse’s larger stride.  It is more comfortable for all of us.  Right hand turns take a more concentrated effort and this results in more focus.  Of course we need to go slow to help them get this part sorted out, resulting in lots of success with the new element.  As a final product, I like to be able to lean forward, as if I am about to move forward but without actually moving me feet and have them match my movement.  We can lean back, or to either side as if about to turn, but, again, without actually moving our feet, or we can walk off briskly or slowly.  It can be a lot of fun while increasing our ability to become good dance partners for a life time of working together.

The other element that I find hugely beneficial is that this exercise can be utilized to help increase their desire to self regulate or practice impulse control.  Now that sounds kind of ominous.  To simplify that, we create a stronger reinforcement history, and desire, with downward transitions and to physically relax. Some horses are nervous and keen on fleeing, others times we are teaching behaviors that involve adrenalin and some horses simply have too much energy and have never learned how to contain that energy. In any case, it is a good skill to develop in our horses.  It can help us to create more trust and confidence.  In the liberty leading with a lively horse, you can focus on reinforcing the downward transitions. Starting with the slower gaits, walk to halt, bright walk to quieter walk, trot to halt, trot to walk, bright trot to slower trot, etc. As we start we can anticipate that the energy may quickly escalate.  By building a strong association with downward transitions, we can create a stronger desire to settle into a less excitable state.  As we start, just slowing down is good enough.  Then I suggest looking for the physical signs of settling.  Look for the muscles, facial expression and body language to soften and relax.  In the beginning you may not get much in the way of relaxation, but slowly we can actually begin to shape the physical signs of relaxation

Clearly this is an exercise that I find very useful.  Hopefully, it has given you some fun ideas and things to think about.  😊

Shawna Karrasch 11/2/2020

Liberty work or “Training at liberty”

Training a horse without equipment or restraints is referred to as liberty work or “training at liberty.”

Traditionally, the term “liberty work” was used by trainers to describe a style of training where the horse was being trained or shown with no direct connection (leads, lines) between the trainer and the horse. Instead the trainer would use whips, body language, and verbal cues to ask the horse for different behaviors. A typical liberty work routine would show the horse performing at different gaits and in different patterns with a few tricks such as rearing, bowing, and lying down added to the routine. When liberty work is done by clicker trainers, a target stick can be used instead of a whip. The behaviors are also trained using more clicker compatible techniques.

A similar phrase, “working (or training) at liberty,” has a different meaning. It indicates that the horse is being trained while loose and/or without equipment. For example, I can train my horse to stand for grooming “at liberty” by teaching him to stand still, while unrestrained, in my training area. Once he can do that, I slowly introducing the different aspects of grooming. Throughout the entire process, he is able to walk away if he chooses.

Many clicker trainers choose to teach behaviors at liberty because they feel it allows the horse more control over the training process. If the horse is uncomfortable, he can just leave. A lot of horses will also show clearer body language if they are not restrained or wearing equipment. There are advantages for the trainer too. Working at liberty makes it easier to assess the horse’s comfort level and forces the trainer to work at the horse’s speed which makes it less likely that they will overface the horse because he seems to be compliant.

Interestingly enough, a lot of traditional liberty work is trained with equipment, which is removed as the horse no longer requires it. For this reason, it’s important not to assume that any horse working at liberty (or doing “liberty work”) was trained at liberty. You need to ask how it was trained before you can know if aversives were used.

I train a lot of behaviors at liberty and have also dabbled in liberty work with most of my horses. Working without equipment is a great way to improve the trainer’s skills (observation, timing, setting criteria). It also gives me a better feel for how much information the horse wants, or is relying on getting from me. Some horses seem to do better with less physical guidance from me (through leads, reins, touch) and are happier when they only have to pay attention to the timing of the click. Other horses seem to do better when I give more prompts or guidance, but still give them enough freedom to experiment. It’s a different dynamic than when a horse is on a lead or lunge, even if many of the behaviors are the same.

Lift head

If you teach your horse to lower his head, you should also teach him to lift it up on cue. I’ve found that the easiest way to do this is by using a target. I cue head lowering, then present the target at a “normal” head height and say “up.” The horse learns to come up to touch the target.

Depending upon where I place the target, I can influence how and where the horse raises her head. In the photos, I held the target far enough forward that Rosie brought her neck up without flexing it. If I had placed the target farther toward her chest, I could have asked her to bring her head up and adjust her balance to shift her weight back.

If my horse already knows a verbal cue for targeting, I often add the new verbal cue for “lift your head” within a few repetitions of the behavior. The horse quickly learns that “up” tells her to lift her head because that is where she will find the target. If I click as the head comes up, before the horse touches the target, the word “up” gets attached to the movement of picking the head up. Later I can fade the target and just use the verbal cue.

Long lining

Like ground driving, long lining is about teaching a horse to be worked in two lines with the handler walking behind the horse, or next to the horse’s hip. I tend to think of ground driving as preparation for driving and riding, whereas long lining is more closely related to work in-hand and can stand alone as an art in itself. Yes, it can be used to improve ridden work, but there are some trainers who teach everything in long lines without ever taking the work under saddle. It’s a great way to train and exercise smaller horses and ponies or those who have limitations that make them unable to be ridden.

Most of the long line work I have done has been at the walk. It’s easier on both parties as we are used to walking at the same speed and I can walk a bit slower or faster if I want to work on changing from a more collected walk to a extended walk. It gets a little trickier to work at the trot as the trainer has to be able to find a trot that doesn’t restrict the horse, but is slow enough that she can keep up. One option is to teach the trot work in-hand, where the focus is on collection and then shift to long lines later when the horse already understands how to collect and move at a slower pace.

An advanced horse and trainer can longline at all three gaits. The most impressive long lining (long reining) I’ve seen is by the Spanish Riding School where the horses can do movements at walk, trot and canter – including half passes and flying changes. Here’s an example of one performance – Spanish Riding School Long Reining.

If you want to explore long lining, I suggest you start with basic ground driving. Once the horse is comfortable in the lines and you have turns, stop and go, then you can start to explore asking for lateral movements, more complicated turns, and transitions within and between gaits.

I find it easier to teach the lateral movements in-hand before asking for them in the long lines, but I know people who teach them in the long lines first. One advantage to long lining is that you can use the contact points of the lines on the horse’s body to cue different body parts (shoulders, hips, rib cage) so that you are not totally dependent upon the connection with the horse’s head.

Some additional tips on working on two lines can be found in the section on ground driving in the blog “G is for …

Lower head (head lowering)

Teaching a horse to lower his head has many practical applications and is something I strongly recommend teaching to your horse. I was introduced to the exercise by Alexandra Kurland, who lists it as one of her foundation exercises.

For more information on teaching your horse to lower his head, check the section on head lowering in the blog “H is for …

Lungeing

If you wish to teach your horse to lunge in a traditional manner, there are a number of different ways to teach it with clicker training. Which one you choose will depend upon what you want the final product to look like, your goals in teaching it, and what resources you have available to you. A few of the more common strategies are:

  • Start with a small circle and expand: I teach the horse to walk around me on a small circle and slowly expand the size of the circle until the horse has learned to travel on a circle that is the appropriate size. I’ve done this with the horse on a lead in the beginning, switching to a longer line as the circle expands. The horse has to be taught to go forward while the trainer stays still (or close to it), maintain the desired distance, and move back out if asked.
  • Use a target: There are a few different ways to use a target. One is to guide the horse around you with the target (starting on a small circle) and then either increase the length of the target or teach the horse to follow the target at a greater distance. In the latter case, the target provides information about direction and speed but the horse has to be taught to stay at a certain distance. The other option is to start with the horse following the target on a larger circle and then slowly move toward the center – so instead of horse learning to move out, the horse learns to stay out while the trainer moves toward the center and walks less.
  • Teach the horse to go around a small circle of cones and then expand: I start by teaching the horse to go around me while I stand inside a very small, almost “solid” circle of cones. I place the cones right next to each other so the horse can easily learn that his job is to stay on the outside of the cones. Once the horse learns to stay on the outside of the cones, I start to enlarge the “cone circle” by increasing the distance between each cone. I can add more cones if needed. This strategy comes from Alexandra Kurland.
  • Set up a physical structure that guides the horse. A popular set-up is to build a circular barrier of the desired size and mark and reinforce the horse for walking around the outside of it while the trainer stays in the middle. This is usually called using “around a round pen” or “reverse round pen.” Hannah Weston shows how she uses it in a video called “Around a round pen – for easy leading and lunging training.”
  • Use some other known behavior or prompt: I’ve used poles to indicate the line of travel, set out mats in a circular pattern, and set up “cone gates” to show the horse where I want him to go.

I should mention that many people start off with the idea of teaching their horse to lunge, but then decide that they like one of the approaches listed above better and never transition to the horse working out on the end of a lunge line. This is one case where the variations that are possible with clicker training often end up being more flexible and useful training techniques than the original exercise (lungeing).

Other 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.

If you want to learn more about clicker training, check out my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement, available from Amazon.

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