equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? R 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: rear, reinback, relax, release, retrieve, reverse round pen, riding, roll, rope handling, round pen work


rear

Back in my “circus phase” I thought it would be fun to teach a horse to rear. I knew it probably wasn’t a good idea (for safety reasons), but I still wanted to do it. Luckily I had some sense and I decided that it would teach Buster to do it. I figured that he was small enough that it would be ok. I was very careful to use a specific cue which was a whip with a handkerchief tied on top and I have to say that he never offered the behavior without being cued.

But… he did add the behavior to his general repertoire. The next time the dentist came, and started working on his teeth, he backed up into the corner and reared. I can’t say for sure that he would not have done it if I hadn’t taught him to rear, but it did make me realize that when we put a behavior into a horse’s repertoire, we never know how they will choose to use it.

I’m including the rear because it can be trained with clicker training, but I suggest you think carefully about what would happen if your horse decided that rearing was a useful option in some situations. I do know at least one person who trained it, put it on cue, and never had any issues so it can be done. But for that one person, I know others who were not as successful.

reinback

Many horses struggle with learning to step backwards under saddle (the reinback). It may be difficult for them physically, they may find the rider’s cues/aids confusing, or they may have emotional baggage from how it was used in the past. With clicker training, we can teach our horses to love backing up. I use it as a default behavior for many situations, usually around gates and doorways. It’s so nice to have a horse step back as I enter his stall.

It can be a little more challenging to build the same enthusiasm under saddle. But, if I introduce it carefully and practice it regularly, I can have a horse that is as fluent and comfortable backing under saddle as he is on the ground. Reinback is a very useful behavior because it helps to build correct muscles and improves a horse’s body awareness (proprioception) and coordination. If you are starting or re-training the reinback, here are some tips and things to consider:

  • teach backing on the ground first, before asking for a reinback under saddle
  • work in small increments – ask for a only a few steps and don’t do too many repetitions in a row
  • evaluate your cue. I was originally taught to ask a horse to step back by using my legs while holding the reins, which is essentially saying stop and go at the same time. I know other people who were taught to just use the reins, which can be very aversive to the horse. Take a moment to evaluate your cue and the effect it has on your horse. Maybe it’s time to change it.
  • if the horse shows signs of stress (physical or mental), discontinue working on the reinback until you can have the horse evaluated. Once the horse is clear to begin working on backing again, you may need to:
    • go back to groundwork and teach backing again, using a new strategy that is different than how it was originally trained. Backing can be trained with targeting, free shaping, using mats, touch, or capturing. There’s always another way to introduce it as a “new” behavior.
    • introduce this “new” behavior under saddle with a new cue. If possible, I try to also change when I ask for it so I might use different exercises, locations, etc. Once the horse performs well under those conditions, then I ease back toward some of the ways I might have used the reinback in the past.
  • Find a practical use for it. My horses became much more enthusiastic about reinback when I was teaching them to go through gate obstacles. They seemed to find it more interesting when it was part of a larger “behavior” instead of something we did at random (to them) times.

Additional resources:

relax

You may not want this much relaxation during training….

This is an interesting one. Relaxing is not a behavior, so I can’t train my horse to relax, but I can teach him to do behaviors that are associated with relaxation. These do not guarantee he will be relaxed, but they can be a place to start. I can also build in routines that are more likely to create relaxation either during training or when we take a break. During a training session, I want my horse to have the right energy level for the behaviors I am teaching. It requires paying attention to the “Goldilocks rule” – finding just the right level for each behavior- and having the ability to go back and forth between behaviors that require different levels of energy. When we take a break, I want the horse to realize that he really is being given a few minutes to process, relax, or do what he wants (within the limits of our environment).

Some strategies to encourage relaxation are:

  • match the value of the reinforcer to the behavior (high value reinforcers tend to lead to more energy)
  • teach a lowered head position (level with withers or below).
  • teach the horse to stand with a resting hind leg (I haven’t tried this but I’ve seen it done)
  • focus on breathing, either yours or your horses. Horses are very sensitive to the emotional state/tension level of the people near them. If you feel you can’t find relaxation in the horse, find it in yourself and let him copy you. The links in the additional resources at the bottom can help you with this.
  • incorporate scratching at the withers (research shows this has a physiological effect on horses)
  • be predictable – predictability has a calming effect on horses. You can have routines for the flow of the session or work on behaviors in a predictable order or pattern.
  • mix in high energy behaviors sparingly until the horse learns to regulate his energy level up and down
  • offer the horse a chance to do a movement activity before the session. If that’s not possible, I sometimes work on movement behaviors early in the session so the horse is calmer later when I want to focus on relaxation. But, know your horse. Is he calmer after he moves, or does it just wind him up?

In the beginning, it can be challenging to find the right balance of energy and relaxation and many horses are on one end of the spectrum or the other. You might be starting with an enthusiastic and over-eager student or you might have a fearful, timid, or shutdown horse. Neither one is relaxed, but they will need different approaches. Horses that have a lot of anxiety about food can also benefit from many of the strategies I listed above.

When I want a horse to take a break during a training session, I want to clearly indicate that to him. Here are some ways to do it:

  • A simple way to do it is to have a training location and a “break” location. If I’m working in the barn aisle or grooming area, I could put my horse in his stall for a short break, or take him out to hand graze.
  • If changing locations is not an option, then I can create a routine around breaks. Maybe I take the horse’s lead rope off and let him loose. If he’s already loose, maybe I sit down in a chair and have a cue that tells him he is free to do what he likes.
  • When riding, giving the horse the reins and letting him walk on a long rein for a few minutes can be a break.

This has been a quick look at some of the ways we can encourage relaxation in training. It’s a very big topic and requires the trainer to recognize and adjust for the needs of each individual horse. If you are struggling with this, I suggest you contact a more experienced clicker trainer or professional for help.

Additional resources:

  • Wendy Murdoch’s webinar with Violet Van Hees on Polyvagal theory (SURE FOOT #41) – This is really interesting and they talk about it for both horses and humans. Note: Wendy lists 3 webinars (38, 39, 41). I’m pretty sure 41 is 38 and 39 combined but I haven’t done a side by side comparison.
  • The Facebook group “Unbridled enthusiasm: Control unleashed for horses” run by Leslie McDevitt discusses applying her dog training games/strategies to horses. If the link doesn’t work, just search for the group.
  • My blog “Motivation” describes ways to adjust your training to create the right amount of motivation in your horse.
  • Alexandra Kurland’s ASAT presentation Give me a Break. This presentation was about using easier behaviors as breaks and I think that is one way you can build relaxation – especially if you choose an easier behavior that promotes it.
  • My article “How to interpret and manage energy, excitement, and tension.” This is an older article and I hope to update it soon, but I think it has useful information.

release vs. reward

I always try to include some material (photos, videos, or written material) by other clicker trainers in each alphabet blog. The clicker community is growing and I want to help people find good resources so they get the help they need, instead of looking at other training methods. There are many good clicker trainers out there but it’s not always easy to find them. For this blog, I asked Melissa Deal (Victory Land Dressage, Compassionate Horse Click) if she would like to contribute something. She sent me this nice video in which she explains how she helps people understand about the difference between a release and a reward.

retrieve

Many horses love to pick up and/or retrieve objects. I’ve taught a few horses to retrieve and it turned out to be both practical and fun.

Willy was one of the first horses I clicker trained. He was an OTTB that bounced around a bit before he came to me and he really blossomed with clicker training. He liked to manipulate objects and we had a lot of fun teaching what I called “party tricks.” One of his favorites was picking up a frame ball and putting it in a muck bucket. I also taught him to stack cones. That was tricky as he couldn’t see what he was doing and had to do it by feel. Here he is playing fetch. I wish I had groomed him first, but this was a late night play session.

I already shared some tips on teaching a retrieve in the entry for “fetch” in the blog “What can I train? F is for …“, so I’m going to keep this short, but I’ll mention that fetch leads to a variety of other behaviors including:

  • playing basketball. You can use a bucket on the ground (as shown above) or a child’s basketball hoop
  • helping with clean-up in the ring. I have a friend who taught her horse to help her pick up the cones at the end of her session. You do need GOOD stimulus control for this, so the horse knows when to pick them up.
  • picking up a dropped object. Dropped your gloves – no problem!
  • need help carrying something? Once a horse learns to carry an item for a retrieve, it’s easy to ask him to hold something and carry it.

Additional resources:

reverse round pen

This is a set-up I used where I could have the horse on the inside or the outside, depending upon what I was working on.

In round pen work, the horse and trainer are inside the round pen, with the horse going in a circle around the trainer. In “reverse round pen” work, the trainer is on the inside and the horse is on the outside. The pen itself is within a larger enclosed space so the horse can’t leave completely. The set-up is designed so the horse has room to move (or leave) while the trainer is behind protected contact.

I’m not sure who coined the name “reverse round pen,” but there have been a few versions of this around for a while. Hannah Weston (Connection Training) uses an exercise she calls “around the round pen.” Alexandra Kurland (The Clicker Center) uses cones to create a solid barrier and then slowly increases the distance between the cones to enlarge the circle. The horse learns to stay on the outside of the cones.

There are a lot of advantages to working with a horse from behind protected contact. I discuss this at length in my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement, but the basic idea is that it keeps the trainer safe from the horse if he starts showing unwanted behaviors. It also gives the horse more choices because he can opt out of a session at any time. It’s also a good way to transition people away from pressure based training because the methods they know may not work well when the horse is on the other side of a barrier.

You can set up a round pen using a variety of materials. What you choose to use will depend upon your budget and how often you need to disassemble it. You can see lots of options by searching the internet for pictures of “reverse round pen,” or “around the round pen.” A lot of people use tall traffic cones with horizontal pieces between them. You can buy tall cones and “cone bars” – the horizontal pieces from traffic safety stores. The bars are are easy to find if you search the internet, but I will warn you that they are expensive compared to some of the other options.

traffic cones and bars

I’ve also seen people use pool noodles. If you buy the hollow ones, you can run a rope through them and attach them to cones. When Rosie was young, I used jump standards and strung a rope with colored streamers (for visibility) to make a temporary round pen. It worked well as I could just wind up the rope when I wasn’t using it.

If you can have a more permanent set-up, you can use electric fence stakes (the fiberglass ones) and string rope or some other material in between. I don’t recommend using electric fence tape, even if you never turn it on.

Could you use a metal round pen? Round pens are a great way to set up protected contact. You can train a lot of behaviors from the outside of the round pen (horse inside), but I’ve never seen anyone use one for this specific exercise. Although I have to say that I had a round pen set up in my riding arena for a few years and I did practice circles by riding around the outside of it. But, that’s really another topic.

Ok, you have set up your reverse round pen, now what do you do?

  • use targeting, mats, or free shaping to shape forward movement around the outside
  • teach the horse to balance at walk, trot, and canter
  • teach transitions
  • add ground poles to create gymnastic exercises
  • shape posture – while the horse is going around the outside, click for moments that meet your criteria

Additional resources:

riding

I still meet people who think clicker training is only for tricks, husbandry behaviors, or groundwork. They don’t realize that you can also use it for riding. I’ve been using it for riding for 20 years, first with horses that had been traditionally trained and then with a few young horses that I started. It has worked great for all of them, improving our communication and allowing us to do things that I would not have thought possible.

My OTTB Willy had a number of physical issues relating to his many years on the track. He would get worried, stiff, and rush when asked to do basic dressage work. With clicker training, I learned how to identify and isolate the behaviors he needed to learn. I broke those behaviors down into little pieces, which I presented to him in a way that he could understand. I also learned how to adjust my training so he could communicate back to me about how we were doing. We made huge progress in his dressage work and he became an engaged and eager partner.

I started Rosie myself, with a mix of traditional training and clicker training. As I learned more about clicker training, I started looking for ways to teach something a little differently, with more emphasis on using positive reinforcement. Over her riding career (she’s 23 now), I have shifted so that I make more use of targets, capturing, shaping with guidance and capturing. She’s been an active participant in all her training and even when I was using more traditional methods, I tried to set it so that she had lots of opportunities to choose what we did and how we did it. Honestly, she’s a lot more fun to ride if she thinks she’s training me.

I have started or restarted a few other horses and learned important things from each one. I truly believe that using clicker training made our ridden work more enjoyable for both of us and I learned a lot about riding and training when I tried to teach using positive instead of negative reinforcement.

When I tell people you can use clicker training for riding, they sometimes think it only works for certain types of riding. But, I’ve met people who are using it while training in many disciplines including:

  • dressage
  • jumping
  • trail riding – both for pleasure and performance
  • hunters
  • barrel racing
  • western pleasure
  • reining
  • games – gymkhanas and similar events

Additional resources:

roll

photo from Bex Tasker (positively together)

Teaching horse to roll on cue is not quite as easy as teaching it to a dog, but it can be done. Ok, I haven’t actually done it, but if you can teach a horse to lie down on cue, then I’m sure you can teach a horse to roll on cue, especially if it’s a horse that likes to roll and you are able to capture the behavior.

Here’s Rosie rolling in the snow. This is pretty predictable in that she likes to roll when she’s first turned out and the snow is a little granular. I think it’s probably a nice way to scratch the top of her back. If I wanted to capture it, I would make sure I was prepared for that first roll when she goes into her field.

Additional resources:

rope handling

Instead of teaching your horse a new behavior, you could teach yourself one, or two, or a whole new set of skills. Most of us use lead ropes without thinking too much about how we use them, but some time spent on improving rope handling skills can make a huge difference to your horse. I learned good rope handling skills from Alexandra Kurland at the same time I learned about clicker training. In her mind, the two skills were linked together because you can’t be an effective positive reinforcement trainer unless you educate yourself about the tools you are going to use, and come up with clicker-compatible ways to use them. While I do some training at liberty, I also use lead ropes, so I need to learn to use them well.

The most important thing I learned was how to use lead ropes to communicate (through cues) instead of using them to physically manipulate the horse. This makes it possible to have soft and very educated conversations about what we are doing. My horses and I both appreciate this!

Additional resources:

  • Alex has several DVDs on the topic of rope handling both on the ground and in ridden work (single rein riding). She is also doing virtual clinics on rope handling this year (2021). Visit www.theclickercenter.com to learn more about these options.
  • I have extensive clinic notes from the years when I worked with Alex on a regular basis. Those notes can be found here .

Round pen work

Since I included “reverse round pen,” I thought I should include round pen work as well. Yes, it is possible to do round pen work with positive reinforcement. My first exposure to round pen work was at an Alexandra Kurland clinic. The owner of the facility had installed a new round pen and the clinic attendees got introduced to round pen work, clicker-style, over the weekend. Alex had been studying inside turns and how they affect a horse’s balance so we learned how to set a horse up and direct him through an inside turn.

No, it was not done purely with positive reinforcement, but we learned a lot about how to use our body language to influence a horse’s direction. We also learned how to observe and interpret our horses behavior as we directed them. While I don’t do round pen work the same way anymore, I did learn some useful lessons from that weekend. It was a few years before I bought my own round pen and I’ve used it for liberty work and games. It is nice to have a larger enclosed space to work on movement and I’ve done the same kinds of exercises (circles, turns, transitions) using targets and mats.

Here are some ideas for training with a round pen

  • protected contact – when a horse is in a round pen and the trainer is on the outside, he has enough room to move away if he wants to add distance, but he can’t leave completely. This keeps him “in the game” but allows him some choice. This set-up allows me to:
    • work on manners around food if the horse tends to be muggy
    • work with fearful horses because I can allow them to create distance
    • safely teach movement behaviors. Some horses become very excited when I first reinforce moving at speed (trot, canter) and it may be safer for me if we’re not physically connected or sharing the same space.
  • I can put the horse on the outside and position myself inside the pen if I want to do reverse round pen work, as described above.

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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