equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? N 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: nasal spray/aerosol vaccine, neigh, new cue, nicker, no, nod, nose work


nasal spray/aerosol

Most horses don’t appreciate having anything stuck up their nostrils, but it is sometimes necessary for medical care. There are a few vaccines that are now given as a nasal spray and some medical procedures require inserting a tube through the nostrils. The horse is usually sedated for more invasive procedures but I still think it’s a good idea to get the horse accustomed to his nostrils being touched with your hands and other carefully selected objects.

A good place to start is by teaching your horse to stand quietly while you touch his nostrils. This will be useful if you ever need to clean his nostrils or check for discharge or bleeding. I usually start with my hands and click and reinforce if the horse remains still while I touch his nostrils. Over a few sessions, I build up to being able to wipe the inside of his nostrils with a cloth and touch it with the blunt end of a pen or something similar. I don’t insert anything into the nostril, it’s enough to touch the open area at the end.

I’ve found that most horses are quick to figure out that they are being reinforced for my hand making contact with their nostril and they learn this behavior easily. If I have any trouble, it’s usually because they are sure I want to have them target or pick up the item or my hand.

Related blogs:

neigh

image from ponymag.de

I’ve never tried to capture neighing, but I’m sure it could be done. It is very common in the zoo world for trainers to capture a variety of vocalizations, even ones that were originally associated with less desirable emotional states.

One of my favorite stories about capturing sounds comes from animal trainer Kathy Sdao. Kathy works mostly with dogs now, but she started off as a marine mammal trainer and worked extensively with a walrus named E.T. She captured and shaped many behaviors, including the “bell” sound that E.T. the walrus made when he was upset. Any time he made it, she gave him fish. The “bell” sound is actually an aggressive sound that walruses make when they are in rut, and it might seem crazy to reinforce it, but she wasn’t reinforcing the emotion behind it, just the sound itself. Eventually she eventually was able to put the bell sound on cue and he would make it while remaining completely calm. It became just another reinforceable behavior.

To capture a neigh, you could do the same thing. You would have to figure out when your horse is likely to neigh, or come up with a way to prompt it. I think the biggest difficulty would be that horses are more likely to neigh when they are emotional. That’s not a good state for learning, so it might take some time before the horse realized what was being reinforced. I think it could happen faster if the horse already had a repertoire of captured behaviors so he could make the connection between his behavior and the immediate arrival of food.

If you want to read more about Kathy and E.T., she has a nice article on her website. It’s called When Good Walruses go Bad.

For more on capturing vocalizations, see “nicker” below.

new cue

When I train a new behavior, I usually spend some time deciding on an appropriate cue. I want to choose something that is unique and practical. But over time, how and when I use the behavior can change and I may find myself wishing I had chosen a different cue. No problem – I can add a new cue to an existing behavior using the new cue -> old cue procedure.

Let’s say I’ve taught my horse to lower her head from my hand on her poll (the old cue). But, I’d like to be able to ask her to lower her head when I am standing a short distance away. I can add a new cue (a verbal in this example) that doesn’t require contact. The process would look like this:

Note: I click and treat each correct response.

  • touch poll -> horse lowers her head (repeat a few times)
  • say “down” -> touch poll -> horse lowers her head (repeat a few times, maybe over a few sessions)
  • say “down” -> pause/observe -> touch poll -> horse lowers her head.
    • During the “pause/observe” step, I am looking for any lowering of the head which will happen when the horse starts anticipating the touch on the poll.
    • If the horse does start to lower her head before I touch her poll, I click and treat.
  • I stay at the previous step until the horse lowers her head before I can touch her poll. The sequence is now say “down” -> horse lowers her head. I no longer need the “touch poll” cue.
  • Note that the “touch poll” cue is still functional, and will remain so unless I deliberately attach that cue to another behavior.
  • Don’t worry if your horse seems to learn the new cue in one session, but then doesn’t remember it in the next. You may have to review the new cue -> old cue procedure over several days or sessions until the horse recognizes it on its own.

You can read more about cues in these blogs:

nicker

Almost every horse I’ve ever clicker trained has started to nicker more frequently, and somewhat predictably, after several months of clicker training. The horse may nicker at my approach or during particular moments during training.

If I want to capture nickering, I usually observe the horse for a few days or weeks until I can reliably predict when he will nicker. Then I start reinforcing him when he does it. Usually, after a few days, the horse will start nickering more frequently, or more consistently, which is a sign that I am effectively reinforcing the behavior. At this point, I may introduce a cue.

Here’s how this worked with Willy:

Willy was my OTTB gelding. He was one of my first clicker trained horses and I taught him a lot of tricks. He LOVED clicker training and was very quick to recognize when I was trying to capture a new behavior. I decided I wanted to have him nicker on cue and spent spent a few days paying attention to when he nickered. Was it predictable? Yes, I figured out that when I came out to the barn for lunch, he would usually nicker at me. It was summer and they were on night turnout so I would feed lunch and then do a little training session. He enjoyed that so he always greeted me enthusiastically at that time of day.

With this in mind, I came up with a plan that I would click and reinforce every time he nickered when I entered the barn, even if the nicker was “small.” I did this for about a week, and most days I did manage to click and feed after he nickered. However, I couldn’t see how I was going to make much progress if I only managed to click and reinforce nickering once a day. So, I started experimenting to see what would happen if I clicked/treated, left the barn, and re-entered. Willy found this rather confusing, but over the next week he started to catch on and I did sometimes manage to click and treat several times in a row for a nicker.

I continued along with this for a while and at some point, I stopped clicking and just started feeding. It seemed like he couldn’t hear the sound of the clicker when he was making noise himself, and if I did click, he would sometimes offer one of his other behaviors, instead of repeating the nicker. Later, I learned that it’s not uncommon for animals to do this – offer known behaviors instead of the new one, because the click indicates the start of a training session. If this does happen, it can be more effective to treat without clicking until the animal starts to offer the behavior more frequently.

Eventually he was consistent enough that I decided to add a cue. This was a long time ago and I didn’t completely understand the power of context cues, but I did manage to add a new verbal cue. This made it possible to cue him to nicker several times without having to leave the barn. However, I never got him to generalize the behavior to other locations – mostly because I didn’t realize how tightly the behavior was associated with his location and my recent arrival.

The general progression was:

  • identify when the behavior happens (he nickers when I enter the barn)
  • click and reinforce the behavior so it happens more often (each time I enter the barn, regardless of how recently I left the barn)
  • encourage him to repeat the behavior immediately after I click (I want to be able to click and reinforce the same behavior several times in a row)
  • add a cue
  • fade out some of the original context cues

If I had continued, I would have started to ask for the behavior in other locations or under different conditions. I could change my location (in the stall, outside the other stall door) or his location (in the field, aisle, wash stall) or have both of us in a new location (ring, yard, etc.).

I do have to share a funny story about one problem I encountered during this training. I thought I was doing well when I got to the point where he was nickering reliably every time I entered the barn. The next step was to stay in the barn and see if he would nicker again after getting his reinforcement. I tried this and realized that the behavior I was reinforcing was not just nickering. It was the chain: come to his stall door -> back up -> walk in a circle -> nicker. The backing and walking in a circle are superstitious behaviors that got attached to the nickering because it’s what he did while I exited and re-entered the barn. When I realized he was doing an entire chain, I had to do the additional step of removing the extra behavior. It’s a good reason to make sure you can see the horse the entire time you are training him!

Want to learn more about chains or superstitious behavior? Check out:

no

Please don’t tell Rosie I shared this unflattering photo of her. She was a good sport about posing for it.

Yes, you can teach your horse to say “no.”

This could be a party trick – shaking the head to say “no” in response to questions, or it could be a way for your horse to say he’s not ready to train or continue training. These are very different behaviors so I’ll look at them separately.

Shaking the head to indicate “no.”

  • It can be captured or shaped.
  • I shaped it with Willy by tickling his ear until he moved his head. It started as a small shake, but got bigger once he realized what I was reinforcing.
  • This is one of those behaviors that can become a nuisance behavior if the horse decides to offer it a lot off cue. Think carefully about how well your horse understands stimulus control before you train it.
  • I used both verbal and visual cues and I only reinforced it in the barn. If Willy offered it in the ring or other locations, I ignored it.

Teaching “no” as communication.

This version of “no” is about teaching the horse that he can use a specific behavior to say “no.” The first person I heard talk about teaching an animal to say “no” was Ken Ramirez at the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. He described some work they had done with a whale that was reluctant to work with one of their trainers. She would start the session, but leave after she was cued to do a few behaviors.

To encourage her to stay, he decided to provide her with access to a target, which she could touch if she didn’t want to do the cued behavior. That meant she had two ways to get reinforcement. She could do the cued behavior or she could touch the target. The goal was to make it very easy for her to earn reinforcement so that she would continue to participate in the session, instead of leaving. They could have just had sessions where she only did targeting, but including the opportunity to do other behaviors added some variety and encouraged her to keep her repertoire broader.

When they introduced the target, she had sessions where she only wanted to touch the target and ignored all other cues. But, over time, she started to respond to the other cues and became more interested in engaging with the trainer. Giving her a way to say “no,” and reinforcing her for it, changed her attitude during training sessions. You can read more about Ken’s work on teaching “no,” in my blog “ASAT 2017: Teaching an animal to say “no.”

I don’t know anyone who has followed Ken’s protocol completely, but I do know several people who have experimented with some aspects of it. For example, you can:

  • choose a default behavior that the horse can offer, if he doesn’t want to do the cued behavior. This can function as a “no.” If you try this, be aware that you may see some deterioration in stimulus control (at least for a time) if you are reinforcing for correct answers as well as for saying “no.”
  • choose a specific behavior to indicate the end of some part of the training session. If the session includes ridden work, some people teach the horse a specific behavior that means “I want you to get off.” Possible behaviors are returning to the mounting block or touching your leg with their nose.

Keep in mind that animals have lots of ways to say “no” and good trainers are always observing and watching for signs of fatigue, confusion, or distress. In most cases, it’s not necessary to train a “no” behavior. But, there may be some situations where there is value in providing the animal with a more obvious way to communicate with the trainer. As Dr. Susan Friedman likes to say, “control is a primary reinforcer.”

nod

I don’t have a picture of a nodding horse, so here’s one of a young Finale.

If you are interested in teaching tricks, it’s quite easy to teach a horse to nod his head up and down to say “yes.” I taught Willy to say “yes” and “no” and my kids loved to ask him questions which he would answer as directed. I had the behaviors on cue, but sometimes he would ignore my cues and make up his own answers. I think he found the whole game reinforcing and he was definitely reinforced by the kids laughter. They thought it was great fun and I’m sure it gave them new ideas about how we can interact with horses.

With Willy, I captured the behavior. He had already learned several other tricks that involved head movement so he caught on right away when I clicked and reinforced any up and down head movement. With Red, I taught it using two targets, one placed higher than the other. I taught him to touch each target separately and then to touch one, then the other. This created an up and down movement that I clicked and reinforced. Once he learned to go from one target to the next, creating an up and down movement, I faded out the targets. I think you could also teaching nodding by clicking the horse for following a target up and down, but it might be harder to fade the target out if you used it that way.

Be warned that this can be a nuisance behavior. Some horses toss their heads up and down when they are annoyed, impatient, or frustrated. I never taught this trick to Rosie because she already does this behavior when she’s impatient and I didn’t want to encourage her. If I had wanted to “get rid of” the behavior, I could have captured the behavior and put it on cue, which is a strategy that sometimes works to decrease a problem behavior. But, I wasn’t willing to take the risk that any reinforcement would make the behavior stronger.

nose work

Nose work is very popular with dogs right now. There are a number of different activities where dogs are trained to detect or follow scents. This includes formal scent work and tracking, as well as more informal activities like “barn hunt.”

With all the interest in nose work for dogs, it’s no surprise that horse people are exploring ways to do nose work (scentwork) with horses. While we don’t typically think of using horses for tracking, horses are very sensitive to smell and can be taught to find and follow scent trails. I’m not that surprised by this as I’ve had several horses that would smell something from a distance and walk in “bloodhound” mode until they found it. My horses also show a lot of interest in new smells and will intensely sniff new objects to see how they smell.

According to Michel-Antoine Leblanc in “The Mind of the Horse,” the anatomical structure of the horse’s olfactory system suggests that their sense of smell is closer to that of a dog, than of a human. There has not been a lot of research in smell in horses, but there has been some interesting work on laterality – do horses prefer to smell with one nostril over the other? According to one study, more horses sniffed first and more frequently with the right nostril. I’m not sure what the implications of this are, but I am curious enough that I’ll be observing my horses a little more carefully.

Nose work articles:

I should mention that scent can be used as part of an enrichment program. Horses are very interested in scent and you can place scented objects or drop of scent in their living areas for them to discover on their own.

I’m going to be adding more information on nosework in the next week or two so check back here if you are interested in learning more.


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.

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