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: targeting (touch), tarp, thermometer, tooth inspection, trailer loading, trailer unloading, trot, trim bridlepath, twirl
If there’s one behavior that people think of when they think of clicker training, it’s got to be targeting. It is one of the first behaviors most people teach and is the foundation for many, many other behaviors. If you can teach your horse to touch, go to, or follow a target, you can teach most behaviors. The most common form of targeting is nose targeting, where the horse touches the object with his nose, but you can also teach a horse to touch an object with another body part.
Here are some examples:
Nose Target: nose targeting leads to:
- picking up objects
- carrying objects
- holding objects (holding signs, paintbrushes, markers, cones, etc.)
- retrieving objects or moving them from one place to another
- other types of manipulation (pushing, turning, spinning, pulling, etc.)
Following a target: the foundation for this is nose targeting. Following leads to:
- going over, under, or through obstacles
- going from one location to another
- movement behaviors – targets can be used to get and shape movement (posture, speed, and other aspects)
Body part targeting: These are useful for:
- medical behaviors
- husbandry behaviors (ears, eyes, chin, feet, shoulders)
- movement behaviors (moving hips, shoulders, head to change posture, orientation, or alignment)
Bex also sent me some pictures of lots of other animals showing off their targeting skills. I’ve used targeting with dogs, cats, and guinea pigs. If you search the internet, you can find lots of videos of targeting being used at zoos and aquariums with a wide variety of animals.
- my blog Body Part Targeting – Moving beyond nose targeting
- My book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement has 40 pages on targeting.
- The additional resource and photo page for Chapter 6: Targeting
- Many of the behaviors in these blogs are based on targeting. If you want more ideas, just pick a blog and you’ll probably find a use for targeting that you hadn’t thought of before.
A tarp can be a good way to introduce your horse to different sounds, sensations, and sights. I like using them because I have lots of options for how I arrange them and what I want the horse to learn from his interaction with the tarp. Another plus is that tarps are cheap, portable, and come in a variety of sizes and colors.
Here are some ideas for what you can do with tarps.
- Put it on the ground and teach your horse to walk over it. I start with it folded so the horse can step over it, and then slowly make it wider.
- Put it on a fence or jump to make a wall on one or both sides of the horse. This helps get the horse used to narrow spaces.
- Put it over a raised frame to simulate the roof of a trailer or low ceiling
- Fold it or take a small piece and touch the horse with it so he gets used to a different sensation on his skin.
- Drape it over the horse so he gets used to having something around him. (note: I’ve never done this as I don’t see the need, but it does seem to be popular thing to do with a tarp).
- Put water on it to simulate a puddle or water crossing.
- Hang it from a high support and cut it into strips to make an obstacle you walk through (like the car wash in agility)
I’m sure there are other creative ideas for how to use tarps. If you have used one in a different way, send me an email and a photo and I’d be happy to add to the list.
Teaching your horse to be comfortable with having his temperature taken is another behavior that should be taught as part of routine husbandry. Not only will it make it less stressful for the horse when you do need to take his temperature, but practicing will allow you to establish a baseline of what’s normal for your horse. Here’s the basic progression I would use when teaching a horse to stand and wait while I take his temperature. I will add more steps if the horse tells me he needs them.
- Can I touch your hind end on either side of the tail?
- Can I touch your tail?
- Can I lift your tail?
- Can I lift your tail and slide my hand under it?
- Can I lift your tail, slide my hand under it, and touch you with the thermometer?
- Can I do the above and slide the thermometer in?
- Can you stand still and wait while I get the reading? I build duration in stages.
- Tail work by itself is good for many horses. If your horse tends to keep his tail clamped down, that often indicates tension in the hind end. You can start to address that by doing a variety of tail exercises. Gillian Higgins has some good exercises that you can find on YouTube. You might start with this one.
- At the Vermont Summer Clinic, one group taught a pony to accept the thermometer using a start button behavior. She would touch a target to tell them when to start the next repetition. They were able to teach her to do the entire behavior at liberty while stationed at a target.
- Many horses will lift their tails if you rub your finger on the bare skin in the buttock groove next to the tail. I slide my finger down next to the tail and sort of pull up with the flat of my fingers. Sometimes you have to move your fingers around a bit to find the right spot. I made a little video showing this technique.
- the entry for “start buttons” in my blog What can I train? S is for …
- my blog Aurora gets a bath: Some tips on how to train your horse for husbandry behaviors has ideas that can be applied to many types of husbandry behaviors.
I’m going to keep this short because I wrote an entire blog on how I trained this behavior with three of my horses. I was inspired to do it because Rosie was having some dental issues and I realized that she was not comfortable with me moving her lips to look at her teeth. She would tighten her lips or move her head around. I just wanted to see her jaw alignment so I needed her to remain still and quiet so her teeth were in their normal position. I decided a good project would be to teach her to relax her mouth and let me look at her teeth.
I’ve had a few people ask me why I didn’t teach her to show me her teeth, as in smiling or opening her mouth. Those are great behaviors and she already knows how to smile on cue, but I wanted to see how her teeth were lined up when she was not deliberately moving her mouth, jaw, or lips. Training for relaxation was more suited to my needs.
I ended up training the behavior with three different horses, mostly because I was curious to see if I could use the same approach for each one and where I might need to make adjustments. I started in slightly different behaviors with each one and each one taught me something new. However, in the end, I found there were more similarities than differences.
- My blog Teaching husbandry behaviors with clicker training: tooth inspection
- My blog Body Part Targeting – Moving beyond nose targeting may be useful if you want to train a chin rest
Trailer loading… where to start? This has got to be one of the most common reasons that people consider using clicker training. They’ve tried everything else and their horse won’t load. Maybe clicker training will work?
While it is possible to use clicker training to load a reluctant horse, even if it’s never been clicker trained before, it’s not my preferred way to do it. It’s much better for everyone if I introduce clicker training first and teach some foundation behaviors before I work on trailer loading. I want the horse to have time to become an enthusiastic and educated clicker partner before I try to do a behavior that might be stressful. Starting with neutral or fun behaviors makes it more likely that the horse will continue to participate when I venture into more difficult territory.
I’ve put some resources at the end that have more information on possible ways to teach trailer loading. I’ll add to them as I come across good videos or articles on the subject. Here, I’m going to share a quick look at some of the things to consider when teaching your horse about trailers and trailering. If you have a horse that is reluctant to load and you are new to clicker training, I strongly suggest you get professional help as there are many small details that can make the training go a lot smoother.
Trailer loading may seem simple – the horse walks in and you shut the door – but it’s not. There are many component behaviors that the horse needs to know in order to be successful. Which behaviors you need will vary somewhat with the type of trailer (ramp/step-up/straight load/slant/van/stock trailer etc…) and your set-up (can you work at liberty? in a small pen? do you have your own trailer? etc.) and how you want the horse to load (lead him in vs. self-loading).
However, if I had to make a list, at the minimum the horse needs to:
- lead well, follow a target, or know how to go to a target. Yes, you can free shape the horse to walk into a trailer, but I always want to have a more directed option available too.
- stand quietly while I move around him and do things (I’ll need him to stand while I close him in)
- step backwards (ramp or step-up) or turn around in a small space (stock trailers, some vans) for unloading
- be comfortable in small spaces with barriers on all four sides
- be comfortable going into an area with a low ceiling or under something
Things will be easier if the horse has learned of these behaviors:
- stationing at a target or mat
- head down (useful for unloading)
- pedestal work or walking/stepping up on to different surfaces
Before I ask the horse to step in the trailer, I make sure he’s familiar with the trailer. I might put it near his turnout area so he can get accustomed to it on his own time. Or, I might hand graze him near the trailer. Sometimes I lead the horse up to the side doors, open them, rummage around and then close them.
My goal is to familiarize him with the trailer – how it smells, noises it makes, etc. I like to expose the horse to trailer sounds (the butt bar banging, doors closing. chains rattling, etc.) before he’s in the trailer. I don’t want to startle the horse with a novel sound after he’s inside the trailer. Another way to familiarize a horse with the trailer is to load another horse (an easy loader) while he’s watching so he can get some exposure to it that way.
When I decide I’m ready to teach the horse to load, I usually choose one of two methods. They are both based on targeting, but one uses a hand-held target and one uses stationary targets. I’ve described them both using nose targets, but option 2 can also be done with a mat, which is a foot target. The difficulty with using a mat is that I will have to fade it out as I don’t want my horse to travel with a mat under his front feet (for safety reasons). Each option has its pros and cons and I usually end up using both, but I will start with the one that I think will be easier for the horse.
Teaching a horse to load with targeting:
- Option 1: teach the horse to follow a target into the trailer. I will use a hand-held one when I am teaching the horse to go in. Once the horse knows how to get in the trailer and I am working on duration, I will switch to a stationary one mounted in a suitable location in the trailer.
- Option 2: teach the horse to go to a stationary target and slowly shift the position of the target so the horse has to go farther and farther into the trailer to touch it. I like this approach because I don’t have to transition from a hand-held target to a stationary target and I can use it to teach the horse to self-load. I also find horses seem to be more confident about going to a stationary target because the target doesn’t move. When a person is holding the target, the horse never knows exactly how many steps he will take before he gets clicked and people have a tendency to try and get “just one more step.”
I’ve been very successful using these methods to load a variety of horses, some that were new to trailering and some that needed to be retrained. I now think of getting the horse into the trailer as the “easy” part because horses that have never been trailered before will often get on within a few sessions. Horses that were reluctant loaders may take longer before they walk on consistently, but I find that once they learn that the trailer does not predict “going somewhere” or “being restrained,” they will also walk willingly on to the trailer.
If getting the horse to load is the easy part, what is the hard part? Well…it’s all the rest.
- Can you stand calmly while I do up the butt bar?
- Can you stand calmly while I close all the doors?
- Can you stand calmly when the trailer is not moving? with and without my presence?
- Can you stand in the trailer for longer, while the trailer is parked?
- Are you ok if the tow vehicle engine starts?
- Are you ok if the trailer moves?
- Can you stand and keep your balance when the trailer moves? Are you ok with it moving a short distance?
- Can we build duration so you can go on longer trips, on different types of roads, in different types of traffic?
- Can you stand quietly in the trailer when we arrive at our destination?
- Can you stand quietly in the trailer while I prepare for unloading?
- Can you walk calmly off the trailer?
Every horse is different and you may find you breeze through some of these steps, but have to take more time with others. The important thing I’ve learned is that there is a lot to trailering and horses need time to become accustomed to all the noise, activity, uncertainty, and balance issues that go with it.
The good news is that you can trailer your horse successfully even if she doesn’t love it. Rosie became an excellent traveler and I routinely trailered her to clinics that were 5 or 6 hours away. She always loaded and unloaded calmly and remained quiet during the ride. But… I know she didn’t love it. I could see the tension in her face and she rarely ate in the trailer. I would have loved to find a way to make trailering itself more pleasant for her, but I had to settle for her tolerating it.
Some horses travel better than others, but there are things you can do that will help maintain trailer loading behavior and help your horse feel comfortable in the trailer. Here are some tips and suggestions:
- Practice loading when you’re not going anywhere. Once your horse loads and has been a few places, it is tempting to think your training is done. But, it’s still a good idea to occasionally load the horse, reinforce her generously, and then unload her and go do something else. With some horses, you need to load and not go anywhere more often than load and travel, just to maintain the trailer loading behavior.
- If you find you usually trailer your horse to events that might be stressful for her (vet, competition, etc.), then it’s a good idea to mix in “fun” trips so that getting on the trailer could mean a fun adventure. You could trailer the horse to a place with good grazing, friends, or some activity you know your horse enjoys. Horses are experts at identifying sequences of events and they will become reluctant loaders if the trailer ride always ends in an activity they don’t like.
- Drive carefully, being mindful that your horse has to stay balanced through all your stops and turns. A bad trailer ride can make even a good loader think twice. Along the same lines, if your horse has trouble trailering, consider if its something about the trailer. If it’s an older trailer, how are the shocks? Is it small and dark? Would he travel better with the upper doors on the back open? Maybe he would prefer a stock trailer where he could move around? Or a slant trailer where he is traveling at an angle? We can’t always have the trailer our horse prefers, but if a horse is having a lot of trouble traveling, these are things I would look into.
- Trailer him with a friend. Some horses travel better with a buddy. If your horse has gotten anxious trailering, a few trips with a more experienced and calm horse might help. This doesn’t guarantee he will show the same level of calm when he’s back to traveling on his own, but I do think it can help because the horse has had the experience of a non-stressful trailer ride.
- The thesis Loading the problem loader: the effects of target training and shaping on trailer-loading behavior of horses
- Shawna Karrasch has 5 podcast episodes on trailer loading. You can find them here. Note: I have not personally listed to them, but she has a lot of experience in this area so I am sure they will be helpful to anyone looking for information.
- Laurie Higgins spent a lot of time exploring free shaping trailer loading with several of her horses. She has written about it in her blog Clicker Chronicles (search for trailer loading).
I mentioned the importance of trailer unloading in the entry for trailer loading, but I’m also making it a separate entry because it’s something so many people overlook. Most people tend to focus on teaching horses to load into the trailer, but it’s important to remember that horses also need to learn to unload from the trailer. It’s no good if you arrive at your destination and your horse doesn’t know how to safely exit the trailer.
The best way to teach unloading is to do it at the same time you teach the horse to load. This is another reason why it’s important to take your time and allow the horse to exit the trailer when he’s taken one, two, three, four steps into the trailer. I don’t always do it quite that systematically, but I do make sure that the horse has lots of practice exiting from various locations within the trailer (front feet in, half way in, all the way in, etc.). I pay special attention to transition zones (floor -> ramp, ramp -> ground) as I find that these transitional spots are the ones where the horse is most likely to rush, misstep, or throw his head up.
I also want to point out that when I am teaching a horse to load, I can use unloading as an additional reinforcer. I might click and treat for going in, then ask the horse to back out and move away from the trailer before I do the next repetition. Being allowed to move off and away from the trailer is a powerful reinforcer for some horses and we can use it as part of our training.
This one is very short because I’ve already covered the component behaviors in other blogs. Trimming a bridlepath is easy when your horse knows:
- standing still
- head lowering with duration
- accepting clippers or scissors (noise, movement around ears, vibration (clippers)
- the entry for “clipping” in my blog What can I train? C is for …
- the entry for “start buttons” in my blog What can I train? S is for …
- the entry for “head lowering” in my blog What can I train? H is for …
I’ve used clicker training to teach young horses to trot quietly on cue for groundwork and riding. I’ve also used it to improve or modify the trot of horses that are already being ridden. I’m going to write about them separately, but there’s quite a bit of overlap so feel free to take tips from either section.
Introducing the trot
Trotting can be exciting for young horses and its not uncommon for them to throw in a few extra behaviors or get too excited to stop. To keep everyone safe, it’s a good idea to plan carefully for your first trot sessions. When I introduce trotting, I tend to use one of the following set-ups:
- Protected contact: a reverse round pen (I’m inside, the horse is outside)
- Protected contact: working from behind a barrier (I’m on one side of the fence, the horse is on the other)
- Physical objects to provide structure: poles – I taught Aurora to trot within a “lane” that I created using ground poles.
- Physical objects to provide start and end points: I might put out two mats, cones, or poles and teach the horse to trot from one to the next. When the horse knows where he is going and how long he will trot, the trot tends to stabilize.
People often ask how to get the horse to trot. In more traditional riding, horses are usually encouraged to trot with the use of movement (whips, ropes, body language). Many clicker trainers are reluctant to use methods that tap into a horse’s flight response so they are looking for other options. Here are three easy way to encourage trotting.
- capture it
- shape for a faster walk – trot is more energy conserving so the horse will eventually transition up
- bring up your energy without chasing the horse – this one is a gray area. I do think it’s possible to bring up your energy without tapping into the horse’s flight response. I used jogging in place next to Aurora. She clearly didn’t think it was a threat because she didn’t change her behavior the first few times I did it.
Improving or modifying the trot
I’ve also used clicker training to improve the trot, or teach new variations, in both young and older horses. My gelding Willy tended to rush in the trot and was very stiff going right. I set up patterns and used them to create moments of better balance. By clicking for those moments, I was able to shape his trot so he moved with a softer, rounder, and more balanced posture.
One of the challenges of shaping the trot is that there are a lot of things happening at every moment (many body parts are moving) so you have to be able to clearly communicate with the horse about whether you are focusing on a specific body part (head stretching down, shoulders lifting, etc.) or a more general aspect (speed, bend, alignment, etc.). I find I am more successful if I pick the aspect I want to concentrate on and shape it in the walk before trying at the trot. This helps build the horse’s awareness and I can learn quite a bit about how to set the horse up so he is more likely to do the behavior I want. There are significant differences in how a horse moves in walk and trot so it is not always a direct translation, but I find that the preparation in walk helps ease the way into doing the same thing in trot.
For example, Aurora has a nice forward walk which I love. She also has a very forward trot, which is great, except when it gets too forward. I spent a fair bit of time trying to slow down her trot, with mixed results. I finally realized I had to teach her to slow down at the walk before she could translate what I wanted at the trot. So, even though I didn’t want a slow walk, I taught a slow walk because it was easier for her to get the idea of “slow” in walk. Once I had that, I could ask for “slow” in trot. Now, I am going back and making sure I have both a slow and active walk so I don’t lose the nice forward walk that I started out with.
- the entry for “jog” in my blog What can I train? J is for …
- the entry for “reverse round pen” in my blog What can I train? R is for …
- my blog Capturing Behavior
If your horse likes to manipulate objects, he might like to learn to twirl a ribbon stick. I can’t remember where I got this idea but I taught it to Willy who loved to hold and wave objects around.
I attached a length of pink ribbon to a dowel and taught him to hold it. Then I taught him to move his head back and forth by capturing small movements while he was holding the dowel. I didn’t have a particular movement in mind when I started teaching this, but I learned how his head movement affected the ribbon and was able to shape him to make it spin in a spiral. It became a fun behavior to do when I only had a little time or wanted to break up some more serious training.
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.