equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? S 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: send, shake, sheath cleaning, sideways, sit, soaking feet, spanish walk, spin, stand, start buttons, station, stimulus control, stretch.

note: for scentwork, see “nosework” in my blog What can I train? N is for …


send

It’s useful to be able to send your horse to another location. I usually start by teaching the horse to go to a target or mat. Later, I can generalize the behavior so the horse learns to go out away from me. I’ve used this for long-lining, lunging, and liberty work. By teaching the horse to go out to an object makes it easier to work my horse at a distance. I don’t have to send him away from me. Instead, he’s going toward something that is associated with reinforcement.

The pictures below show sending M to the mat from a short distance (on the left) and a longer distance (on the right). You can’t see the mat in the second photo but it’s just outside the frame (look at the red flowers in both pictures).

I trained M to go to the mat by building a strong reinforcement history for mat work until he was very keen to go to a mat placed in front of him. Then I started stopping just before the mat and stepping off as if to walk to the mat, but slowing my pace so he got there ahead of me. Once he learned he was allowed to go ahead of me, it was easy to increase the distance. I did have some interesting sessions where he would be slow to walk ahead of me or travel to the mat at an odd angle. Then the next day he would do it perfectly. I finally learned that if he was slow to walk ahead of me or deviated from the most direct route, it was because he was concerned about something in the environment. When I walked with him, he was ok, but he sure didn’t want to go into scary territory alone.

Additional resources:

shake (and squeak)

Rosie shakes a towel – yes, it’s blurry because she was moving

Shake can be a fun behavior to teach if you have a horse that likes to hold objects. I taught it to Rosie when she was young and just used towels, but I’m sure you could teach a horse to shake a variety of objects, including those that make noise. This can be a good to teach your horse that they can control how something sounds. I didn’t do this with “shake”, but I did teach Aurora a related behavior which was to pick up and bite down on a dog’s squeaky toy.

I started both shake and squeak by having the horse target the item and then shaped her to pick up the object. In Rosie’s case, I captured head movement and shaped it into a side to side head shake. In Aurora’s case, I shaped her to bite down harder on the toy until it made a noise. I did make sure she was used to the sound before I started, so that when it did make a noise, she wasn’t startled by it.

Here’s a link to a video of Aurora and the squeaky toy.

Additional resources:

sheath cleaning

This is not anyone’s favorite job, and the horse usually doesn’t like it either. But, I do think my horses are happier with the entire process when I reinforce them for allowing me to do it. The biggest challenge I find is that my hands are often wet and soapy so it can be difficult to feed treats without “contaminating” them. One option is to keep one hand dry for food delivery. Another is to use a bucket instead of feeding by hand. If I put my treats in a container that I can easily tip with one hand, I can drop a few treats into a shallow bucket and offer the bucket to the horse.

Sheath cleaning can be trained like any other husbandry behavior that might be slightly aversive. You want to:

  • teach it before you need it. If you bathe your horse regularly in the summer, it’s easy to incorporate some of the components of sheath cleaning into routine bathing sessions.
  • find the right starting place. Will your horse let you touch him on the outside of his sheath with a soft cloth, a damp cloth, a sponge?
  • train in small approximations
  • I try to avoid increasing difficulty and duration at the same time although sometimes it takes longer to get to harder places
  • take breaks while things loosen up
  • don’t try to get it all done in one day

sideways

There are lots of ways in which we can ask horses to go sideways. They go under a variety of names, depending upon which part is moving (shoulders, hind quarters, entire horse), how the horse is bent, and the line of travel (angle, relation to the wall). For this section, I’ll share a few tips on teaching a horse to step sideways over a pole. This is a good exercise for both the horse and trainer. I taught this behavior to several horses one summer and it was interesting too see how I had to adjust the set-up and the timing of the click for each horse.

Some tips:

  • decide ahead of time what you want the behavior to look like. Do you want the horse to cross his legs or is side stepping ok?
  • evaluate what your horse can do. You can do this with or without a pole. What is your horse’s natural tendency when asked to step sideways?
  • does the horse always start with the same foot? Rosie likes to lead with her RF, which means she sidesteps when I’m on the right and crosses when I’m on her left. I can train her to be more symmetrical but it helps to know her pattern.
  • Most horses will find it easier in one direction. Start on the easier side.
  • I find it’s easier to start near the far end of the pole and with the pole angled. This way the horse only has to take one step sideways over the pole and he can move forward a little bit as he steps. As he gets better at it, I change where I position him so he has to do more steps before he gets to the end of the pole. You can vary it so that it’s not always getting more difficult.
  • teach the horse to walk over the pole and stop. I like to have the front feet as close to the pole as possible. This allows for more forward movement of the hind feet.
  • ask for one step with the front feet, click and treat.
  • check to see what the back feet did. If they have not moved, then ask the horse to adjust so he’s lined up in position to take another step with the front feet.
  • continue clicking for each step, monitoring the horse’s alignment and comfort with moving sideways If all goes well, you will arrive at the end of the pole. I tend to click every step in the beginning phases, then I become more selective.
  • it’s not uncommon for the horse to come a bit forward with each step so that you end up with the back feet close to the pole and the horse feels stuck or steps his hind feet forward over the pole. If this happens, go back to fewer steps or try to make the steps smaller. It can be a physical issue (coordination, flexibility) that will improve as you do the exercise, or the horse may not be clear about what you want. Making it easier will address both issues.

Additional resources:

sit

Horses naturally sit up when they get up from rolling. I have a pony that gets itchy in the summer and will spend time scratching her tummy (in a sitting position) when she gets up from rolling. If I was organized enough, I could probably capture the sit and that’s how many clicker trainers do teach it.

Horses don’t usually sit down so if you want to be able to ask your horse to sit down, you are going to have to teach it. One winter a long time ago I was part of a yahoo group on trick training. The owner of the group claimed you could not teach a horse to sit just using positive reinforcement. So of course, I did. The picture shows Buster and me playing a game of checkers. The hardest part was getting him to stop trying to eat the checkers. I had to use sticky putty to hold them down.

He’s sitting on a beanbag chair that is stuffed with bedding. I taught him to sit with targeting. Rear end targeting, to be precise. I placed the bean bag chair behind him and put additional pillows on top to make it tall enough that if he backed up to it, he would make contact with it with his butt. I clicked and reinforced him for leaning into it. Then I slowly decreased the height of the “stack” until he had to lower himself down and take the weight off his hind legs. I didn’t dare ask him to go too low so the picture show about as far as we got. However, he was quite keen on sitting for the whole winter when I taught this and if I wasn’t careful and he backed up into a snow bank, he would sit down on it. He was pretty young and flexible at the time and he seemed to have no trouble doing it.

smile

What most people call a “smile” is the flehmen response that horses do when they encounter something that smells or tastes odd. The flehmen response is a behavior that “facilitates the transfer of pheromones and other scents into the vomeronasal (VNO, or Jacobson’s organ) located above the roof of the mouth via a duct which exits just behind the front teeth of the animal.” Horses are not the only animals that do it. It can be seen in other ungulates, cats, and other mammals including hedgehogs.

The easiest way to teach a horse to flehmen on cue is to capture it. If you present the horse with something that smells pungent, the horse will often flehmen in response. That’s how I taught it to both my geldings. Interestingly, Rosie is much less likely to flehmen in response to unusual odors so I shaped the behavior with her. I did it by touching her upper lip with one finger and clicking (and treating) for lip movement until she was lifting her upper lip to expose her front teeth. I was able to shape a pretty good smile and faded the finger touch down to a lift of one finger.

Additional resources:

soaking (feet)

If your horse has an abscess or thrush, you may find you need to soak one or more of his feet. There are different ways to do this including an open bucket, a closed soaker boot, or heavy duty plastic bags. Which one you choose will be determined by your horse’s comfort with items on his legs (boots, wraps, etc.) and the reason/product that you are using for soaking. For the trainer, it’s easier to use a soaking boot as the liquid won’t spill every time the horse moves, but I think it can be challenging with a horse that is sensitive about having his legs handled or wearing “leg clothing.”

Last fall one of my horses had an abscess and I had to soak his foot. He was fairly new and I had not done much training with him. When I suggested he put his foot in a bucket, he said “no way.” I had to start at the very beginning and did manage to get him to stand with his foot in a small amount of water using this progression.

  • I taught him to step down on to an object with one foot. I used a small mat. I would pick up and place his foot. As he learned what I wanted, he would offer to do it on his own. I accepted that, but I also made a point of having times when I picked up and placed his foot.
  • I taught him to stand on the object for increasing amounts of time (building duration)
  • I swapped the object for a small, low bucket. I did this over several sessions. I would do a few reps with the mat and then swap the mat out for the bucket. I could have placed the mat in the bucket if necessary, but he was ok with changing without that intermediate step.
  • I added a tiny bit of water to the bucket. At this point, he said “no way” again, so I regrouped.
  • I taught him to stand on a folded hand towel on the ground.
  • I taught him to stand on a folded hand towel in a bucket.
  • I taught him to stand on the towel when it was damp. I soaked it, wrung it out and placed it in the bucket.
  • I slowly made the towel soggier until he was stepping on to a towel in a little bit of water.
practicing with a towel

Spanish walk

Spanish walk is one of those fun behaviors that everyone wants to train. I first experimented with training Spanish walk with my gelding Willy and learned to do a nice jambette and a few steps of Spanish walk. But he always had a bit of trouble coordinating his front and hind legs. One thing that happens is that when the front legs lift higher, it upsets the rhythm of the walk and the horse tends to strung out and uncoordinated.

With Rosie, I was a little smarter and got her moving earlier. Instead of teaching a high lift and then asking for forward steps, I used food delivery and my “go forward” cue to show her that this was a forward moving exercise. She eventually learned to do a really nice Spanish Walk, but it took time. I wasn’t originally going to teach it to her as I was worried about stimulus control, but one winter when we were limited to training in the barn, I decided to give it a try. She was quite funny at first as she was very uncoordinated. Her head and neck would swing from side to side as she offered lifts with alternating front legs and she would balance by placing her hind legs a bit wide. I called it her “outrigger spanish walk.” But, over time she got stronger and more coordinated and it all came together. Some day I’ll write up details on how I taught it, but here are the bare basics:

  • I taught it under very specific stimulus conditions- in the barn aisle with a target that I only used for Spanish walk.
  • I used targeting to teach the lift (jambette).
  • I started with knee targets and then moved to forearm targets. That helped her bring her knees up.
  • I fed her so she took a step forward. That kept her front end and hind end connected.
  • I introduced forward early – when the lifts were small. The higher they lift, the harder it is for them to keep the walk rhythm so I like to let the height grow slowly over time.
  • I let her choose her head position, but if he started to drop her back and invert, I went back to lower lifts and reinforced for better posture.

Here’s a link to Rosie’s Spanish Walk.

This is one of those behaviors that can become a problem if you don’t have good stimulus control from the beginning. I don’t want a horse to offer a large front leg movement when I’m not expecting it. That’s one reason I teach it under very specific stimulus conditions. The other potential issue is that the horse will get reinforced for pawing during the shaping process. Pawing requires similar muscle movements and it can be hard to encourage more expressive front leg movement without reinforcing some repetitions that are more like pawing. This is one reason I like to use a target. I can present a clear cue for the lift and I can reinforce for contact with the target, not waving in the air.

Also, keep in mind that the type of Spanish walk you get will depend a lot upon your horse’s conformation and shoulder flexibility. Some horses will take rounder steps (knee higher than cannon bone), while others will offer a lift with a straighter leg. I’m sure you can shape it a little, but I think you should also go with what feels natural and easy to the horse. My experience has been that horses really like doing Spanish walk once they learn it and even if you start off with one that seems mediocre, it will improve over time if you continue to make it fun for the horse.

Additional resources:

spin

Horses can be taught to spin or turn in a small circle with clicker training. Dog trainers often teach a spin using a target stick or free shaping. You can use both of those strategies with horses, but I’ve found shaping is easier as the logistics of managing a long target stick make it awkward. My first few attempts to teach Rosie a spin didn’t work out very well. I was working in my barn aisle and shaping her to move away from me. Everything went well until she was facing directly away from me, at which point she would get distracted and wander off, or get confused and stop. It was interesting to see how much she relied on seeing me, it was a bit like “out of sight, out of mind.” Anyway, I put it aside for a bit.

A while later, I tried again using a target and strategic food delivery. I taught her to touch a cone placed in front of her. Then I placed the cone to her right and had her turn a little to touch it. I would reset her back to the beginning after each repetition and I successfully got her to turn 180 degrees away from me to touch a cone placed behind her. In the first part of the circle, I had her return to me (by reversing her movement) when I clicked. In the second part of the circle, I had her return to me by continuing the turn. This approach produced a full circle through a combination of offered behavior and food placement. Once she was expecting to continue around to get her treat, it was easy to move the click closer and closer to the end point. I did eventually get her to offer a full circle, but I don’t think I would have called it a spin.

A few years later, I was looking for some free shaping ideas and I decided to do a free shaping session in her stall. I started out by clicking head down, then head down with nose away, then head down – nose away- one step away. This quickly turned into a full circle in her stall. Because she was in a smaller space, the behavior was much cleaner and tighter than it had been in the aisle. I don’t think it would have been considered a spin because she didn’t pivot around her back feet but it was a lot closer to a spin than I had gotten with my other approaches.

If anyone has taught their horse a spin with clicker training, send me a note and a photo. I’d love to be able to add to this entry.

stand

short horses get to stand on a box

Standing still is one of the most important behaviors for a horse to do. It’s the foundation behavior for many other husbandry and performance behaviors. I want my horses to be comfortable standing still, not because it’s a break from work or because they are afraid to move, but because they have learned they will be reinforced for waiting patiently while I do things or until I give the next cue. This can be challenging for some horses, especially those that seem to be in constant motion when left to their own devices. But, I’ve found that I can teach most horses to stand still quietly through either mat work or targeting if I am careful to extend the duration slowly and give the horse opportunities to move when he needs it.

It’s important to work on standing still when the horse is emotionally able to do so. This means he is comfortable in his environment and has had sufficient exercise or opportunities to move so that standing still is possible. With young horses or very enthusiastic learners, I always do some movement behaviors first and I will work on a variety of behaviors (some active, some more stationary) within each training session.

Additional resources:

start buttons

I first heard the term “start buttons” or “start button behaviors” from Eva Bertilsson and Emilie Johnson Vegh who had been exploring the concept for a while with their agility dogs. In 2017, they teamed up with Peggy Hogan to give a presentation on the subject at Clicker Expo and the three of them have been actively teaching about start buttons ever since. I’m going to put some links to articles, podcasts, and websites that describe how to use them, but I’ll write a bit about the basic idea and use.

A start button behavior is one way to give an animal more control and choice in training. It is a specific behavior that the animal can do that tells the trainer to start the next repetition. It came about when Eva and Emilie were training for agility and wanted to teach dogs to be very enthusiastic about the teeter. A lot of dogs don’t like the teeter because of the combination of movement and noise (bang) that happen as the dog goes over the tipping point. The current approach to training teeters relied on using counter-conditioning to teach the dogs to tolerate the noise and movement.

But, they were not willing to settle for tolerance. They wanted enthusiasm and it was one of their dogs that showed them how to do it. They were counter-conditioning the “bang” sound in a rhythmic trial; bang -> treat, bang -> treat, bang -> treat and accidentally paused. The dog looked at them expectantly as if to say “do the bang so I can get my treat.” From this, they developed the idea of start button behaviors. After this, they may have done more on startbutton behaviors but the general training community didn’t hear about it until the 2014 expo.

I think it’s important to point out that many other skilled trainers have found ways to give animals more control and choice, especially for behaviors that could have aversive components. Start button behaviors are part of a general trend toward giving animals more control in training, but they are not the only way to do it. Here are some others:

  • dialog training (Dr. Susan Friedman) – the animal cues you when to start again
  • cue communication (Alexandra Kurland) – cues work both ways. I cue the horse, the horse cues me
  • Initiator signals (Pony Pros?) – I ran across these about 15 years ago. The horse was taught to touch an object to indicate he was ready for you to proceed.
  • Bucket game (Chirag Patel) – using orientation to the food reserve as a way to indicate willingness to proceed.

Start button behaviors are often used for husbandry behaviors where we want to give the animal more control to ensure that we don’t ask him to do something when he’s not ready. It is often used for behaviors that have some aversive component, at least in the learning phase. For example, many horses are wary of hoses at first and I have to be careful about carefully introducing the hose, the running water, the spray nozzle, etc. A start button might be helpful as the horse can tell me when he’s ready and I am less likely to push him over threshold. But, once he has been bathed multiple times, he might learn to enjoy being bathed and the start button might no longer be necessary. Or maybe I will continue to use it, if he’s a horse that never learns to enjoy a bath.

In 2018, I gave a presentation on start button behaviors at the Vermont Clicker Clinic. To prepare, I taught Emmy, my dog, a startbutton behavior for nail trims. I also taught Aurora, my horse, a start button behavior for vacuuming. Neither one had been taught to do the behaviors I wanted. With Emmy, I found the start button was very helpful. She could cue me to start by putting her chin down on the floor. I could use the latency between her last reinforcement and when she offered the start button behavior as information about how I was doing. If the time between the two events started to get longer, I knew I needed to break the behavior down into smaller easier slices.

With Aurora, it was less clear if the start button helped. I think part of the reason was that I picked a targeting behavior as her start button and she also turned out to be unconcerned about the vacuum so the addition of targeting seemed to add an unnecessary layer of complexity to the process. In retrospect, I might have picked a different start button behavior or tried it with a different activity (bathing, clipping, etc.).

I’ve played with them a bit more since then and found that they may or may not be helpful, depending upon a number of factors. I also think they are not a guarantee that the animal is ok. You still have to read their body language. But… they are definitely something worth exploring and learning how to use for those times when they are helpful.

Additional resources:

station

stationing makes it easier to take pictures

This behavior is closely related to the previous behavior “stand.” However, stationing is taught both as a “stay here” behavior and a “go to this place and stay there” behavior. It can be very useful when working with groups of animals both during training time and during routine chores (feeding, cleaning). When Rosie was young, I taught her to stand in a particular location in her stall while I cleaned it. I would reinforce her periodically for standing at her station and it was a safe way to be around her when I didn’t want to be training more active behaviors.

The most common way to teach stationing is by using a physical object, either a target placed at nose height, or a mat. This gives the horse something obvious to do. You can decide how you want the horse to behave when he gets to the station. Should he be alert, watching you for the next cue? Or is it better if he relaxes and is free to behavior more naturally while you are doing other things.

Depending upon how I want to use the stationing behavior, I will have to teach one or more of the following components:

  • Going to the station
    • I can teach this the same way I teach a “send”
  • Standing at the station
    • I need to define clear criteria
    • I build duration systematically
    • I need to consider and teach the horse how to respond to distractions
  • Ending the behavior: How does the horse know when he’s done?
    • Do I click and walk to feed him?
    • Do I click and have him come to me?
    • Do I cue another behavior or use a release cue?

Stationing is for all animals …

Some trainers working with groups of animals will teach each animal to go to its own station. For this to work, the animal needs to be able to identify its station. Ken Ramirez says that he has used symbols or location in his training. The dolphin is trained to recognize his own symbol and line up in front of it. If location is used, the dolphin learns to go to a specific location when cued. Each dolphin has its own location so that several dolphins can be trained at once.

If you are interested in working with animals in groups, Ken gave a presentation at ASAT on this topic. My notes on his talk are in the article: ASAT 2014.

Additional resources:

stimulus control

It’s a lot of fun to train new behaviors and that’s really what these blogs are about, but if you have a little time, it’s never a bad idea to improve the stimulus control on existing behaviors. What is stimulus control? Most of us learn that it is about putting behavior on cue, but that’s just the first step. There’s much more to getting a behavior under complete stimulus control. According to Karen Pryor in her book, Don’t Shoot the Dog, a behavior is under stimulus control when it meets 4 criteria:

  •     The animal performs the behavior when the cue is presented
  •     The animal does not perform the behavior if the cue is not presented (within that training session – what they do on their own time is not relevant)
  •     The animal does not perform another behavior when presented with the cue
  •     The animal does not perform that behavior when presented with another cue

Does every behavior need to meet all 4 criteria and be under total stimulus control? No, you can decide which ones are important to you. Most people start off by putting the behavior on cue and extinguishing it under “non-cued” conditions. Then, they fine tune their stimulus control by making sure the cue is not easily confused with another cue and is reliably attached to the behavior they want.

An interesting project is to make a list of all the behaviors you have trained and how much stimulus control you think you have. Then, go out and test them. You may be surprised by how much context matters. We like to think that we choose the cue for a behavior, but often the horse is paying attention to a combination of different stimuli – some that we present as part of “the cue” and some that are associated with how or where the behavior was taught. I know my horses pay more attention to my body language and context than they do to my verbal cues. My verbal cues often tell them when to do a behavior, but I’m not convinced they would recognize the individual words without that information. This is something I could work on, if I decided it was important.

I should point out that Karen’s rules for stimulus control are from a trainer’s point of view. In a broader sense, a behavior is under stimulus control when the behavior happens reliably in the presence of the stimulus. This often happens with unwanted behavior. A particular set-up will reliably predict an unwanted behavior. It’s one reason it’s so important to use management to reduce the likelihood of unwanted behavior while you are teaching an alternative behavior.

I could write a lot more about stimulus control, but I’ll have to save that for another day. Instead, I’ll share some resources if you want to learn more about stimulus control or want training ideas related to stimulus control. And,…I’ll mention that if you’ve never read Don’t Shoot the Dog, I recommend you do so.

Additional resources:

stretch

Stretches, both active and passive, are a good way to help a horse become more flexible. They can be done using the food directly (carrot stretches) or with targets. You can also free shape or capture some types of stretches. A lot of horses will do a “downward” dog stretch in the morning, which can be captured if you are consistent about reinforcing it. I haven’t done this with my horse, but I did it with my little dog and, in a few weeks, he started stretching more often and at different times. Once we got to that point, it was easy to put it on cue.

I like to teach horses to travel in a longer, more horizontal posture when warming up. I taught Rosie and Red to do this using head down. I taught both behaviors (go forward and head down) separately and then taught the horse to do them together. This is a form of adduction and most horses quickly learn that they can do both behaviors at once. Once the horse has the general idea, I can continue shaping if I want to fine tune the horse’s posture.

I taught the same behavior to Aurora using a target. First, I taught her to follow a target, held at a comfortable nose height, in walk. Then, I progressively lowered the target until she was walking with a nice stretch in her neck. I did this over several months in the summer, changing things a little bit every week. I felt it was important to go slow with her because she’s built slightly downhill and I wanted to be sure she was strong enough to maintain her balance as her neck went lower.

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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