This article is an updated version of one that was originally published on my website (www.equineclickertraining.com) in 2015. I am combining both websites and have decided to share some of the more frequently read articles as blog posts so they are more accessible. This is the second of a two part series on using clicker training for riding. The first article is Getting started with riding: handling and delivering food.
This is a follow up to the article “Getting Started Riding: Handling and Delivering Food.” If you are new to the idea of using clicker training under saddle, I suggest you read that article to find out how to prepare your horse for food delivery under saddle. This article answers questions about what to do once you are able to click and feed from the saddle.
In this article, I will answer the following questions:
- What do I want the horse to do when you click?
- How do I want the horse to stop when I click? And what do I do if he stops abruptly?
- What do I want the horse to do after I feed him?
- How do I get anything done with all the stopping?
- How do I decide what to click during a session?
- How do I handle stimulus control?
- Can I still ride with teachers and trainers who don’t allow clicking?
I did some mental deliberating about how in depth to go when answering some of these questions. Each question does have a safe and simple answer. However, there are times when the simplest answer is not always the one that suits the individual’s needs in the long term. So, I decided to go into more detail and share options or variations, to show that there is flexibility in how we implement clicker training under saddle. We may choose one of several options and stick with it. Or, we may start with one option and then switch to others, or add other variations as needed. One of my favorite riding instructors always teaches an exercise and then explains what can be done with it in the future. This helps me understand the progression as my horse and I become more advanced. I like this, because if I know what comes next, I am less likely to become stuck in the most basic version of the exercise.
Using clicker training under saddle can be done on many levels and as I get more experienced at it, I find that I appreciate and use a lot of different strategies at different times. As you read the answers, think about what you might want to do now, but remember that there are other options, and they might be useful as you and your horse develop as a team.
What do I want the horse to do when I click?
My horses are all trained to stop when I click. This works great for any behavior when I am on the ground and is essential if I am using food reinforcers, because the horse has to stop so I can give him his food. Under saddle, I start off with the same rule, which is that when I click, I would like the horse to stop in a timely manner. A timely manner does not mean the horse has to slam on the brakes. It just means that the click should be a cue to start stopping.
Most horses figure out very quickly that when I click, I want them to stop. However, I’ve met some horses that had to be taught to stop for the click. Or, they may stop at the walk, but not the trot or canter. I think that, in many cases, these horses have been taught that stopping (without the rider actively asking for it) is not allowed. They have to learn that it’s ok to stop. If this is the case and the horse doesn’t stop when I click, then I calmly ask the horse to halt. Over a few sessions, the horse usually starts to stop on his own as soon as he hears the click. Doing some groundwork at the trot or lunging, and clicking during movement, can sometimes bridge the transition between groundwork and riding if a horse seem unsure what to do when I click.
What do I want the horse to do after I feed him?
In the previous article, I wrote about how to teach the horse how to get his food, but I didn’t say anything about what I want the horse to do after he gets his treat. It’s something that is worth thinking about because once I am mounted, I have additional choices. It’s also one I should think about so that I can be consistent when I start ridden work. After a horse is familiar with clicker training under saddle, I can teach him that I may want him to wait for the cue under one set of conditions (context cues) and walking off is permitted under others. I just have to be clear about setting it up so he learns the difference.
Here are some options:
- I can teach him to stand still until I cue him to do something else. This is the “safest” option and the one I use with green horses or horses that are just starting clicker training under saddle. I will feed the treat, wait until the horse is done chewing, and give him the cue for the behavior I want. I make sure to time my cue so that I give it when the horse is ready to respond to it. Some horses are ready as soon as they have taken the treat and will eat while they start the next behavior. Other horses want to finish chewing before they are asked to do the next behavior. How long I wait to give the cue may also depend upon the behavior I am cueing. I routinely ask my horses to walk off while they are chewing, but I am less likely to ask them to canter. For this option to work well, I need to be consistent about asking him to wait for the cue. It’s not uncommon for horses to start to anticipate because they are eager to get to the next opportunity to be clicked.
- I can permit him to walk off while he is chewing his treat. If I choose this option, I let the horse walk on a loose rein until I cue something else. I like this option for my more experienced horses when they are working at home. If I ask them to stop and stand while they are chewing every time I click, they end up spending a lot of time standing around. I would rather let them walk as part of their reinforcement. When I’m ready to go, I gather the reins and we start again.
For some horses, being allowed to walk on a loose rein adds to the quality of the reinforcement as they get a chance to stretch, look around, etc… This is especially true if the horse is feeling a little anxious and would rather walk than halt. It may seem safer to have the horse stand still while he is chewing, but I find that being allowed to walk and eat is often a great way to give the horse a little mental break and allow him to move without being directed. It’s a little bit of a judgment call as to whether this is safe or not, so you do have to know your horse and how he will behave if given a loose rein when he’s nervous. I should also point out that if the horse won’t stand still to eat the treat, you should probably be asking why.
My horse, Rosie, is often nervous in new locations. When I first get on, she doesn’t want to stand still after getting her treat, but after a few minutes she will become relaxed enough to stand and eat. Because I know that this behavior is typical for her, and that she will improve as she gets more relaxed, I will allow her to walk off in the beginning of a ride in a new place. She is very comfortable walking on a long rein, even in a new place, so this is a safe behavior to let her do.
- I can let the horse offer a behavior to tell me when he is ready to go again. I find this happens naturally when I am shaping behavior with a high rate of reinforcement and the behavior is not yet on cue. I will click, treat, and my horse will offer the behavior again when he’s ready. I usually only do this if I am working at the halt or at the walk. I’ve also played around with it a little bit intentionally where I have chosen a behavior that the horse can offer (a startbutton behavior) and I think there are some interesting possibilities for allowing the horse to cue me that he is ready to start, as opposed to me telling him when you are starting again.
I think it’s important to be consistent about what you expect your horse to do, but that doesn’t mean you have to always do it the same way. You can have cues that tell the horse if walking off is permitted or not. With Rosie, if I click and treat while releasing the reins down to the buckle, then she has the choice of standing still or walking off. If I don’t want her to walk off, then I click and treat while keeping the reins shorter and she will stand still. We have worked out a system so that she knows what to do under different conditions and that’s what makes it possible for me to use both options.
How do I want the horse to stop when I click?
What do I do if he stops abruptly?
I like my horses to come to a balanced halt when I click. 76yuhOne thing to remember is that the behavior sequence from click to halt is going to be practiced many, many times, so it’s worth putting some thought and time into making it smooth. Note that I said “smooth,” not perfect. You need to teach the behavior so that it is comfortable for you and your horse at his level of training and that suits your interest (discipline) or riding style.
In some cases, coming to a smooth halt will not be an issue and the horse will stop nicely for the click from the very beginning. Many horses that are already proficient in ridden work (before they are introduced to clicker training), will know how to stop in a comfortable manner. They have already had lots of practice with down transitions and the click just becomes another cue to stop. My older horse, who had been ridden traditionally for years, halted just fine when I clicked and I never had to spend any time working on it.
Other horses will either stop very abruptly or stop out of balance. I need to teach these horses how to do smooth down transitions before I can expect them to halt smoothly in response to a click. That takes time. I can use clicker training to improve the horse’s down transitions, but in the meantime, there are a number of strategies I can use to reduce the number of abrupt or unbalanced stops. It’s worth exploring these options because stopping this way is not just uncomfortable for both the horse and rider, it could also lead to physical discomfort or become a safety issue.
I am listing the following options as “workarounds” so I can avoid clicking while the horse is trotting or cantering, but they are also useful for other reasons. Even after my horse can stop nicely from any gait, I may continue to use them when I am working on more advanced exercises. Some of them will also help teach the horse to stop in better balance. When the horse’s transitions have improved, then I can usually start clicking during movement and allow the horse to stop on his own. In the following sections, I’ve listed each option and my thoughts on its usefulness.
The options I will discuss are:
- Instead of clicking, use a cue for a behavior from which the horse can stop easily
- use chains
- condition alternative marker signals that do not cue a stop
- I can teach the horse to “downshift”
- condition secondary reinforcers so you don’t have to stop
Instead of clicking, use a cue for a behavior from which the horse can stop easily
If my click means “stop,” but I want to mark a behavior, I can take advantage of the fact that cues for positively trained behaviors do not just tell the animal what to do next, they also function as markers and reinforcers. They take on the function of markers when I pay attention to the timing of the cue and use it to mark a specific moment within the behavior. For example, let’s say I am trotting on my horse and I cue him to walk during a moment of trot that meets my criteria. If I follow the walk cue with a click and treat, the horse will start seeking that moment in trot that leads to the walk cue. I click for the walk (correct response to the walk cue) and then allow the horse to stop and get his treat.
Some people would consider the cue a “tertiary reinforcer,” which is a marker that precedes the click. I don’t think adding more jargon helps here, but it is important to realize that the cue is not going to continue to be reinforcing unless it is reliably followed by a click and treat.
Chaining is when I ask for several behaviors before clicking. If you don’t know anything about chains, I suggest you do some additional reading on them. There is a short description of chaining in my blog article “What can I train? C is for …” Other resources are my Clicker Expo 2008 Report, my article on Loopy Training – both of these can be accessed through the ARTICLES menu (under website). I also wrote an extensive series on chains, which is on my Facebook page (Sept 2014). Chaining behaviors together allows me to ask for several behaviors and only click the last one. For example, if I am working on improving my horse’s trot, but he tends to stop abruptly when I click the trot, I could set up a simple chain of walk -> trot -> walk -> click -> treat.
This is a great strategy to use when a horse is just learning to be ridden in a new gait and I want to work on transitions into and out of it. I start by clicking for the up transition until the horse has the general idea of what I want. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but I like to see some understanding of what behavior I want. Then I will click for the down transition. At this point I am not asking for a lot of duration. I just want the horse to practice the transition into and out of the new gait. By clicking the down transition, I have built a short chain of walk -> trot-> walk -> click -> treat. Some horses initially find this confusing and I may lose the up transition, so I go back and click for trot a few more times. Then I add the walk transition back in to the chain. Once horses understand chaining, it’s an easy strategy to use for adding in new behaviors where clicking during the behavior might be counterproductive.
Once the horse understands the short chain of walk -> trot-> walk, I can add more behaviors to make the chain longer. It’s a great way to practice transitions and teach the horse that he may be asked to do a number of behaviors before I click. I always end the chain with a behavior that my horse can “exit” easily to come to a nice stop. In the beginning this is usually a walk, halt or reinback. As the horse becomes more proficient at transitions, I may add in a collected trot and eventually a collected canter.
Condition alternative marker signals that do not cue a stop.
The click in clicker training functions as both a marker signal and as a cue. When I first learned about clicker training, there was less understanding of the cue aspect of the click, but it’s important because the horse needs to know what to do when it hears the click. As I mentioned earlier, I want my horses to stop when they hear the click – which means the click is another cue for the behavior “stop.”
Luckily, horses can learn to recognize to recognize lots of different marker signals, so we can have several different ones, and they can cue different behaviors. If I have one marker signal (the click) that cues the stop, I can have another marker signal (a different stimulus) that cues a different way to access the reinforcer. For example, I could teach the horse that when I say “yes” (in a specific way), it means walk to a station for reinforcement. In addition to cueing different behaviors, marker signals can be associated with different types of reinforcers. I can teach a horse that the click means stop and get food and a “yes” means walk to a station where we do a favorite behavior, or I get off, or we rest for a few minutes. There’s a lot of flexibility.
Marker signals that do not create an automatic stop are useful if the horse is doing a behavior where I don’t want her to stop immediately. I don’t want a horse to stop if I click over a jump, or when doing behaviors that require coordination to exit easily (extended gaits, lateral movements) – at least in the learning stages.
If I want to condition a marker signal that does not mean stop, I start on the ground. I will pair the marker signal with the reinforcer, in the same way that click is associated with the treat. Let’s say I want to teach the horse that when I say “yes” in a high pitched voice, it means go to a station and get a food reinforcer. I will start at the station, say “yes” and feed the horse. Then I will add distance by moving either the horse or the station, saying “yes” and walking the horse to the station to feed it. After a number of repetitions of this, the horse should start to move toward the station upon hearing the marker “yes.” Once the horse responds well to the marker signal on the ground, I can introduce it when riding. I usually start quite close to the station and add distance slowly even if my horse had been working at a distance on the ground.
Using a verbal marker and a station is just one example of an alternative marker signal/cue combination. I often teach a verbal marker that means “check in with me.” I learned this from dog trainers who teach the dog to orient to them upon hearing the click. When the dog looks at the trainer, they can get information about how to access their reinforcer. Will it be thrown? placed on the ground? held out? We can do the same thing with horses, but if we are on their backs, the check in is listening for the next cue, not turning to look at me. Most of the time, I will tell the horse how and where I want her to stop.
Within a session, I can use several types of markers and reinforcers if I have taught them ahead of time and I am careful and systematic about it. However, it IS important to be systematic about teaching the horse how to respond to each marker signal so that he doesn’t get confused. I have also found that it’s easy for me to become inconsistent if I try to use too many different types of markers and reinforcers within one session.
Teach the horse to “downshift. “
Downshifting means that if I click while the horse is cantering, he slows down by changing through several gaits instead of going directly to halt. So, instead of going from canter to halt when clicked at the canter, the horse goes canter -> trot -> walk -> halt.
The easiest way to teach a horse to downshift is from the ground. I start by walking next to the horse. I click and instead of stopping immediately, I take another step or two before I stop. If the horse stopped when I clicked, I hold the food out so he has to take a step forward to get it. I repeat this until the horse starts to read my body language to see when to stop. I usually only take one or two steps after the click as I don’t want the horse to ignore it. I want him to hear the click and prepare to stop, but match my movement.
Then I do the same thing at the trot. If I am running next to the horse, I click and slow down gradually. When the horse and I come to a stop, I feed him. The horse will learn to match my movement. If the horse is out on a lunge line, the process is a little different. Because I am standing still, the horse can’t match my movement. Instead I teach that I will be offering the food slightly ahead of where he was when I clicked. To teach this, I click, he stops and I walk toward him, but angle my path so I end up a step or two in front of his line of travel. I present the food so he has to take a step forward to get it. In the beginning, the horse will stop abruptly and then walk forward when I appear in front of him. But, over time, he will learn that he it is easier to add in a few walk steps and the transition will become more gradual.
I debated about whether or not to include this option because I know that some people really like the automatic stop that many horses learn to do when they hear the click. Or they may want the horse to stop when he hears the click, even if they keep moving. But, I’ve found teaching a horse to downshift is very useful for certain stages of training where I want to mark a moment within a faster gait, but the horse does not yet know how to do a halt transition out of the gait. I’ve also found that even doing a little bit of this on the ground can “soften” a horse’s halt so that it’s not so abrupt.
Condition secondary reinforcers so you don’t have to stop
While food is the most effective reinforcer I’ve found to use in training, it is possible to condition secondary reinforcers for situations in which I do not (or can not) use food. I debated about whether or not to include this option because I find people are often too eager to “get rid of” food reinforcers and I think that going to secondary reinforcers prematurely, or without adequate preparation, is one reason people say clicker training “doesn’t work.” But, they can be useful so I wanted to mention them. Just remember that they are not intended to replace food, just to add variety and allow you to ask for a little more behavior before you provide a higher value reinforcer.
Secondary reinforcers are conditioned through pairing, just as I paired the click with food. I have some articles on conditioning secondary reinforcers that were written after I attended Clicker Expo. You can find them in the WEBSITE section on my ARTICLES page. Look for my 2008 and 2009 Clicker Expo articles. Using secondary reinforcers works well as long as I am sure to maintain their value.
Note: the click is a secondary reinforcer, but I do not recommend using the click as the only reinforcement as in treatless clicks. This can lead to confusion if the horse has learned click = treat and the value of the click will also decrease if it is not reliably paired with food. For more on this subject, you may want to read this blog post from the ASAT conference: Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz: Conditioned reinforcers are worth maintaining
Pay attention to transitions
The options listed above make it possible to work on improving my horse’s transitions until I feel he is ready to do a balanced halt when I click. When Rosie was younger and I was just starting to click during the trot or canter, I would do a few down transitions (trot -> walk, trot -> halt, canter -> trot -> walk) to see if she was balanced enough to be able to do a smooth transition after the click. If she did well, then I might click during the trot or canter. If she fell out of gait and stopped abruptly, then I used a different strategy during the session. For her, marking the moment with a click was more meaningful than chaining, using cues, or using other markers and reinforcers so I wanted to have that option available to me. But I was mindful about when and how I used it.
How do I decide what to click during a session?
I am going to give a very general answer to this because it depends upon where I am in the training progression with my horse and I often have more than one behavior in progress at at time. They may be at different stages of training and have different levels of stimulus control. I can break the session up into different parts so I might do some shaping for a new behavior, then work on stimulus control for other behaviors. As long as I am clear about what we are working on during each part, my horses enjoy having some variety. Here are some examples of what I might be doing during a session:
- Shaping: If I am shaping a behavior, then I will focus on that behavior for several short periods of time within the larger riding session. During those periods, I will have the horse on a fairly high rate of reinforcement and I ask the horse (or allow the horse to offer) the same behavior several times in a row. For example, if I am teaching my horse to back, I might spend 5 minutes clicking and treating for repetitions of backing. I will choose one aspect of backing (straightness, duration, topography, etc…) and work on that for that set of repetitions. I could focus on backing several times during the ride, alternating with other behaviors, so the horse and I have some processing time.
- Improving stimulus control: If I have already trained several behaviors, then I might be working on stimulus control, focusing on how quickly my horse responds to cues and differentiates between similar cues. In that case, I would be asking for a number of different behaviors and varying the order and frequency of when I cue each behavior. How often I click will depend upon how fluent the horse is in each behavior and if I am trying to address a specific problem. If my horse tends to confuse two similar cues, I might be clicking each time he responds correctly. If he is usually reliable about responding correctly to cues, I might be clicking after a certain number of behaviors, when a behavior is particularly good, or for new combinations or sequences of behavior.
- Fine tuning behaviors: I could be working on making small improvements in already trained behaviors, or selecting out better variations. In my warm-up, I might be clicking for good transitions, duration, or responding correctly to adjustments I ask for within a behavior (slower trot, more bend etc…). This training still falls under the category of shaping, but it’s less focused than doing a set of repetitions where I am carefully adjusting my criteria as I move through my shaping plan.
- Improving a specific aspect of several behaviors: Many of the behaviors I train have some of the same criteria and I sometimes find it helpful to pick one and focus on just that criteria across several behaviors within a session. An example would be if my horse tends to be a bit slow or sluggish, I might click if he offers more energy at the walk, trot, or canter. Or, if he’s too quick, I can do the reverse. The advantage to doing this is that I can do fewer repetitions of each behavior (or at least not as many in a row) which makes it easier on the horse . Improvement in one gait will often lead to improvement in other gaits (ripple effect) and working on the same criteria at several gaits gives me the opportunity to see if my horse understands my cues under a variety of conditions.
How do I get anything done with all the stopping?
This is a really common question as most people are used to riding around with only short breaks. With clicker training, it may seem like it will be impossible to make progress because we interrupt the behavior as soon as it is starting to improve. But, in the beginning, especially on a green horse, all the stopping is a good thing. It gives me lots of opportunities to think about what is happening, gives the horse a moment to think and rebalance, and provides lots of opportunities to practice starting and ending behaviors.
Transitions out of the halt give the horse lots of chances to practice going again. Transitions are also valuable from a physical point of view as doing a balanced walk -> trot transition is often harder that just trotting five more steps. Dressage trainers consider transitions to be excellent for conditioning and teaching a horse to use his hind end well. When teaching something new, I like to have the horse on a pretty high rate of reinforcement so that he is getting a lot of reinforcement (and feedback). This builds his confidence and keeps him motivated and engaged in the session. Allowing him to stop for his reinforcement is part of this process.
As the horse’s training progresses, I will start working on duration and building chains. This will extend the time between clicks and allow me to practice going from one behavior to another. In the question “How do I want my horse to stop?” I wrote about using chains so that I didn’t have to click at the faster gaits. Chains or patterned exercises are also useful for teaching a horse that he might be asked to do multiple behaviors before he is clicked. I introduce chains gradually and then slowly add more duration for the behaviors within the chains. I can also use some of the other options (secondary reinforcers and alternate markers) so that my horse is asked to do more behavior before he stops.
How do I handle stimulus control?
I train most behaviors on the ground first and then finish them while riding. This means that I usually have a cue for a behavior before I ask for it from the saddle. I may still have to go through a teaching process to show the horse that the same cue works under saddle, especially if the horse is new to riding or clicker training. In some cases, I may add new cues. If the horse already understands about cues and stimulus control, it usually doesn’t take long before I have the same level of stimulus control under saddle that I had on the ground. I can add new cues for ridden work as needed, either by doing a cue transfer or by pairing the new cue with the existing behavior.
However, when I start asking for a behavior under saddle, it’s often one that I want to continue shaping while riding. I could keep it under tight stimulus control, but I find it is often beneficial to be somewhat flexible about whether or not I accept “off cue” behavior. “Off cue” behavior means that the horse offers it when I haven’t given the cue I want to use. This can happen if I am doing a behavior several times in a row. For example, if I am working on teaching my horse to step backward and I do several repetitions in a row, my horse may start to offer backing immediately after I feed him, before I give the cue. I could make him wait for the cue, but sometimes I find that my horses offer better variations when they are given some flexibility about when they start, instead of always waiting for the cue.
You can, of course, keep behaviors under tight stimulus control and this may be more appropriate for some horse and rider combinations. Whatever you choose, make sure that your horse understands if and when he is allowed to offer behavior so that you don’t get into situations where an unexpected behavior creates a problem.
Can I still ride with teachers and trainers who don’t allow clicking?
It depends. I hate to give that answer but it really does depend upon your horse’s previous training experience, your own skill level in clicker training and riding, and on the person who will be teaching you. There are some crossover horses who seem to go back and forth between clicker and non-clicker sessions quite easily, especially if they are done in different locations (clicker at home, non-clicker away at lessons, shows, etc…). My first clicker trained horse had been ridden traditionally until he was 15 and I could ride him with or without clicker training. He was much better if I did use clicker training, but he still remembered all his previous training and I could ride him in situations where I could not click and treat.
I’m going to share some tips below, but if you are interested in this topic, you should read my two part series on riding with traditional trainers. It answers this question in more detail. You can find the articles through these links: Getting Help: Strategies for working with traditional trainers, part 1 and Getting Help: Strategies for working with traditional trainers, part 2.
- Choose a trainer who breaks behavior down into small pieces: Clicker training is not just about the click and treat. It’s a training philosophy that emphasizes breaking behavior down into small steps and reinforcing the horse for correct answers. Clicker training is also about recognizing that horses are smart animals who are doing their best to figure out what we want. If you choose a trainer that has this same attitude toward horses and understands how to break behavior down into smaller pieces, you are more likely to be successful. I have had good results working with some very traditional trainers whose teaching style is very compatible with clicker training, not because they use food, but because of how they teach behaviors and structure their lessons.
- Choose a trainer who is ok with food reinforcers: Some trainers are very opposed to using food in training, but others are ok with feeding a treat for a job done well. Working with a trainer who does allow the use of food (even if they are not a clicker trainer) means you can still provide some of your horse’s usual reinforcement. You can use a tongue click or alternate bridge, or just reinforce the horse for behaviors he knows well where the marker is less important.
- Prepare ahead of time: Think ahead of time about what you want to get out of the lesson and prepare your horse. Depending upon your skill level and what you want to teach your horse, this may be easy to do, or not… But, I find it’s always possible to do some preparation that will make things go more smoothly. If I want help with a specific exercise, I often teach my horse as much as I can before the lesson and use the lesson to get additional pointers and feedback from some “eyes on the ground.” It means that I am not teaching something entirely new in the lesson, so my horse is more likely to be successful even if I can’t click and treat.
- Be your horse’s advocate. If you get in a situation where you are uncomfortable with what the trainer wants you to do, it’s important to say so. For me, this would be a red flag that this person might not be a good match, but I have sometimes found that it is possible to have a discussion about alternate ways to do things. This can actually be a good opportunity to learn more about the teacher’s philosophy and also share your own views on training. Then you can decide if continuing to work with that trainer is a good idea or not.
Clicker training transformed the way I ride my horses. It changed how I teach, integrate, and maintain behaviors and taught me how to develop an educated, engaged, and entertaining riding partner. 20 years later, I am still fascinated with how to use clicker training in ridden work and am always looking for new ways to reduce frustration, add clarity, and make it fun for both of us. I haven’t written as much about riding as I have on other subjects, but a few years ago I wrote a blog post titled “10 Things I’ve learned from riding clicker trained horses”. It’s worth a read if you are looking for some inspiration.