equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? P 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: painting, park, passage, pedestal, piaffe, poles (step over), potty training, pulse, push (a ball)


painting

The pictures show Willy drawing a picture with markers, but I also taught him to paint with a brush. Teaching horses to paint or draw is easy and fun. For me, the biggest challenge was finding brushes that Willy was comfortable holding in his mouth. He was somewhat particular about the size and feel of objects he would hold and I ended up wrapping the brush handles in vetrap and covering it with paper. That gave him some grip as the Vetrap was slightly squishy, and I added a few layers of paper because he didn’t like the taste or the feel of the Vetrap.

To teach your horse to paint, he will need the following skills:

  • pick up and hold a brush – if your horse hasn’t learned to hold an object yet, I suggest you start with something easier and then progress to a brush.
  • dip the brush in paint (optional) – I say optional because you can pass the horse the brush already loaded with paint – the horse could indicate which color he wants
  • touch the brush to the paper or canvas – you need some duration on holding so the horse can learn to move the brush to touch the paper
  • move the brush around on the paper – this is another place you need duration

I started by having Willy draw on paper on a clipboard that I held horizontally. I think it was easier for him to move the paintbrush when his head was in that orientation. Then I slowly changed the angle of the clipboard so he was drawing more “up and down.” Later I had an easel that he used or I could have him draw on paper pinned to the wall, as in the pictures above.

Other resources:

  • My blog, “What can I train? A is for …” look under “artist”
  • My blog, “What can I train? F is for …”, look under fetch

Sites that feature painting horses or ponies:

park

In the “park,” the horse is taught to stand so that his front and hind legs are farther apart than his normal stance. Depending upon your goal, you can teach this one of two ways.

You can ask the horse to keep his front feet in place and move the back feet farther back, with the goal of keeping him lined up over his front legs (vertical cannons) but stretched out behind. This version is how many horses are shown in breed shows.

The other option is to ask the horse to move the front legs forward and the hind legs back, which lowers the middle of the back more. This is good preparation for teaching the bow. I’ve also seen people teach this type of park to make it easier to mount, because the horse’s back becomes lower when he stretches out over more ground. I would not do this unless I was a light rider with a strong backed horse.

An easy way to teach a horse to park is to use two mats, one for the front feet and one for the hind feet. I start by teaching the horse to stand on a mat with either both front feet or both hind feet. Then I set up two mats and ask him to stand with his front feet on one mat and his hind feet on another mat. When I do this, I place out both mats, spacing them at a comfortable distance. I walk the horse up to the first mat and ask him to stand on it, click/treat. Then I walk him off the mat to the next mat and ask him to stand on it, click/treat. If I’ve set the mats up correctly, the horse will now have his front feet on one mat and his hind feet on the other.

The next step is to start increasing the distance between the mats. This can be done in several ways. With some horses I can just slowly increase the distance, but often the horse won’t catch on right away that he needs to be on both mats and he’ll get off one to get on the other. To make the end goal clearer, I’ve had good luck with the following approach:

  • Ask the horse to stand on mat #1 with his hind feet
  • Place the second mat (mat #2) just in front of his front feet
  • Ask him to step on to mat #2 with his front feet
    • If he does it while keeping his hinds on mat #1 – click/treat
    • if he takes his hind feet off mat #1, then I ask him to step back on to it, click/treat and try again
    • if he continues to leave mat #1 to get on mat #2, then I will regroup (see below)
  • Walk off and approach the mats, asking him to stop with his front on mat #2, hinds on mat #1 – achieving this position may take several clicks – for example: clicks for fronts on mat #1, click for hinds on mat #1, click for moving one step forward on to mat #2, click for moving second step forward on to mat #2.
  • Continue with the mats set at this distance until the horse clearly understands the goal is to have his front feet on mat #2 and his hind feet on mat #1.

Through this process, you will probably find that you need to be able to ask the horse to move individual feet either forward or back. The ability to direct individual feet is useful for many different behaviors, so it’s a good behavior to train. I have always trained it using either tactile (a touch on the leg) or through lead rope cues – picking up the lead and asking for a weight shift (Alexandra Kurland’s work).

If you can’t get the horse to step on both mats at once, then you may want to teach the horse to extend his leg forward to touch a single foot mat. This is a different behavior than stepping on to a mat and it can be a good intermediate step to help your horse learn to keep his back feet on one mat while stepping forward on to another mat.

Pictures:

Rosie volunteered to demonstrate the sequence for teaching a horse to stand on mats of varying distances. Yes, it’s winter and she’s very fuzzy. She’s semi-retired and showing her age, but she still loves to come out and play. I only asked her to park out enough to demonstrate the progression. At her age, this is not a position that is good for her back.

top row: hind feet on mat only, on two mats in normal stance, on two mats slightly father apart (there’s room for her to step forward)
second row: stepping forward with the right front, stepping forward with the left front.

Note: If you wish to teach the horse to step back with his hind feet to get into the park position, you will want to teach him to stop with his front feet on mat #1 and then step back to mat #2. To do this, you will need a way to cue an individual step back. I’ve done this with a tactile cue (touch of a whip). It could probably also be done with targeting, but I haven’t personally done it.

For comparison, here’s using mats to teach a horse to bring her feet closer together.

passage

Valegro – he is holding this place until someone sends me a picture of a horse clicker trained to do passage.

A passage is an elevated trot with a longer moment of suspension than a collected or working trot. Many horses naturally passage when they are excited. It’s sometimes possible to capture some steps of passage if your horse offers it reliably under conditions that you can create on a regular basis. But, in most cases, it’s easier to shape it either through targeting or by capturing tiny moments of increased suspension.

While Rosie has done a few steps of passage here and there during training, I’ve never intentionally trained passage. I’d love to be able to do it, but I have always been concerned that I would end up with a biomechanically incorrect passage if I tried to train it as a “behavior.” Rosie has a tendency to invert and hop up and down anyway, and I didn’t want to encourage that. We were doing some nice work that was leading to passage before she started to have some soundness issues (mostly age related) and I think I could have started to select passage-like moments and slowly developed it, if we had kept going.

If you are interested in teaching passage, I suggest you learn as much as you can about the qualities of a good passage and the pre-requisites before attempting to train it. A good starting place is Sola’s video about how she taught Umber, her mule, to do passage.

pedestals

Horses love pedestals. They are just a version of mat work where the horse has to step up, and they require more coordination and balance, but horses seem to really love them. I think they may provide a nice stretch and perhaps a different view of the world. If you want to do some pedestal work, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • safety – make sure the pedestal is stable and strong enough to support the horse’s weight. You don’t want the horse to get scared or injured if he steps on it unevenly or tips it.
  • safety – you also want to make sure there are no sharp edges. It’s not a bad idea to wrap your horse’s legs before starting pedestal work.
  • find the lowest pedestal you can. Ideally you would be able slowly increase the height of the pedestal.
  • Teach the horse how to get off. Is he going to step back off? Walk forward off?

If your horse already knows mat work, pedestal work is much easier. The horse already understands about stepping on to an object. I work on foot placement (standing in the middle of the mat) before I start pedestal work as this makes it safer for the horse.

When I introduced a pedestal to Aurora, I did it by practicing mat work with her usual rubber mat and then placing her mat on top of the pedestal. This helped her understand that I wanted her to step on it, instead of sniffing or pawing it. After she had gotten used to stepping up on to the pedestal, I removed the mat. My pedestal has a doormat on top so it’s similar but not identical to her rubber mat. Using the mat through the transition helped avoid confusion and frustration.

Additional resources:

My friend Sally taught her horse Danny to stand on a tall pedestal.

piaffe

A piaffe is a highly collected trot, almost on the spot, that is part of the Grand Prix dressage test. It takes years to train a correct piaffe and many dressage trainers start with the baby steps when a horse is quite young. I’ve always found it paradoxical that piaffe is considered the “ultimate collection,” but it’s the one behavior that I routinely see trainers start with very young horses and train with food. It’s also a behavior that is often incorrectly trained because not enough emphasis is put on the emotional and biomechanical aspects of highly collected work.

Can you use clicker training to teach a horse to piaffe? Yes – but the quality of the piaffe will depend upon the natural ability of the horse and the skill of the trainer. Having said that, if it’s something that interests you, and you are willing to educate yourself, it’s a lot of fun to play around with teaching it. The benefit to doing it with clicker training is that there is no need to “force” the horse into a frame or restrict his movement and it’s a lot easier to break the behavior down into small pieces that can be marked and reinforced. I’ve found most horses love exploring this kind of work as long as you find ways to make it fun for them.

poles

Poles are useful training tools and clicker training can be used to help horses learn to navigate them successfully. Here are some of the benefits to using poles. They:

  • improve adjustability
  • target specific muscle groups (e.g. those used for collection or extension)
  • improve proprioception – poles placed singly or at set distances build proprioceptive skills. Piles arranged in more random patterns or piles (like pick-up sticks) can also teach a horse to be more aware of his foot placement.
  • create relaxation – many horses lower their heads as they go over poles
  • provide structure to a lesson – I use poles as destinations – “trot until you go over the pole.”

I always start with single poles until the horse can step over the pole without hitting it. Some horses are very careful about where they place their feet and will learn this quickly. Others will continue to tap the pole or miscalculate the distance for quite some time. I sometimes have to slow the horse way down so that he takes time to think about where he is placing his feet.

Once a horse is comfortable going over poles in a forward direction, I like to teach the horse to step back over a pole. This asks the horse to flex the joints in his hind leg and extend the leg backward, which requires more core strength and coordination. It’s easier for the horse if you ask the horse to step over the pole going forward, stop, and immediately ask him to step back. He will remember the location of the pole and pick his feet up in an appropriate manner. If you wait too long, he’ll forget it’s there and it will be harder for him.

You can also ask a horse to straddle a pole and walk along it lengthwise. I got this exercise from Jec Ballou and it is supposed to increase coordination and proprioception. If your horse naturally travels wide in front or behind, this may be simple for him. If he tends to step more towards his midline, it may be challenging. Rosie travels close behind and she found it very challenging. It didn’t help that she thought maybe she should walk on it like a tightrope!

Resources:

potty training

Hmm… not exactly what I had in mind.

I never thought you could potty train a horse until I met Panda, the miniature horse that Alexandra Kurland trained as a guide horse. As a working guide, Panda needed to be able to accompany her owner into buildings and around in urban areas, so it was important to potty train her. Panda learned separate cues for urination and defecation and was able to go safely into many places including homes, schools, restaurants, hotels and other public places.

Most of us don’t need to potty train our horses to this level, but I do know a few people who have worked on teaching their horse to urinate on cue. In some cases, the trainer was encouraging the horse to go outside, as opposed to in a stall. In other cases, the trainer wanted to be able to ask the horse to urinate before getting on a trailer or engaging in a particular activity.

I’ve never tried to potty train a horse. I suspect it is easier with horses that have regular habits or are neat to start with. Rosie is very particular about where she goes in her stall and field so it would be possible to set up a scenario where I knew she was likely to defecate and capture it.

Additional resources:

pulse

For most horses, having their pulse taken is not a trained behavior. But, you certainly could train a horse to stand still while you checked his pulse on his jaw or legs. This might be useful if your horse tends to be reactive when touched on his head or legs. In the picture, Aurora is targeting a disc cone so that she keeps her head still while I check her pulse under her jaw. This turned out to be a good way to do it as the target told her that I wanted her to keep her head still.

If you don’t know how to take your horse’s pulse, you can find information in the following links:

push (a ball)

I like to teach horses to push balls. It’s a simple behavior that most horses enjoy. This makes it easier to explore how the horse responds when I start selecting behavior, as opposed to reinforcing every touch. With a stationary or hand-held target, selecting for “better” touches can be frustrating to the horse unless you are very clear about criteria. With a ball, the movement of the ball provides feedback. If I push the ball and it moves, the horse gets a click and a treat. It can be a real “ah-ha” moment for the horse as he learns to experiment with how to touch the ball to get it to move. I also like that playing with a ball allows for movement and I often bring out the ball if my horse is a little high energy and I want to do something simple that allows him to move around a bit. I can do it from behind protected contact if necessary.

Every horse has their own style of pushing a ball. Some like to do it with the side of their nose. Others come up from underneath and push it with the front of their face. Once you get started, you can usually recognize when the horse is going to give a good push, by watching how he approaches the ball.

I’ve used both exercise balls and playground balls. People also use those very large balls that police use to teach horses about crowd control. Here’s an example of one being used:


Additional 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.

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