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: walk, water crossing, wave, whoa, worming, wound care
Spending the time to teach your horse to have a good walk is time well spent. What’s a good walk? It’s the one that you need at the moment for both practical and performance behaviors. That could mean walking to and from turnout, or walking on a trail ride, or doing different types of walk (collected, extended, medium, working, free) in a dressage test.
Whether you are working with a green horse or one with more training, there’s always a way to keep teaching your horse more skills at the walk. Here are some ideas that could be done both on the ground and under saddle.
- teach the horse a verbal cue that does not depend upon your body language. Will he walk forward if you cue the walk when you are
- standing behind him?
- standing to the side of him?
- sitting in a chair?
- on the other side of a fence?
- teach your horse to match your pace at the walk.
- will he slow down if you slow down?
- will he speed up if you speed up?
- can you do several adjustments – slow, then quicker, then slow again?
- improve the quality of the walk. Does he tend to ..
- be on his forehand?
- invert and drag himself forward with his front end?
- get lateral and lose the nice clear 4 beat rhythm of the walk?
- lean on one shoulder or be crooked? many horses drift to one side as they walk
- have irregular steps? is there a nice even tempo to his walk?
- incorporate obstacles or other environmental challenges into his walk work. Can he walk
- over poles? poles can be used to improve the quality of the walk as well as to improve proprioception
- over a bridge?
- past a distraction?
- on different types of terrain – up and down hills, sideways across hills, through ditches?
A lot of horses don’t like crossing water or even going through puddles. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact they are not very good at depth perception. Horses also tend to be suspicious of unfamiliar terrain or surfaces. Given the choice, they will go around any area that looks different. If a horse has never encountered water before, I’m sure it looks like something to avoid. On the other hand, I’ve had horses that seemed to enjoy crossing streams and splashing around in ponds, once they had done it a few times. So, I don’t think your horse’s first response determines how he will feel about water long term.
I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve never put a lot of time into teaching my horses to cross water. I don’t do extensive trail riding and I don’t really care if the horse wants to go around puddles. The closest I’ve come to any water training is letting my horses explore the puddles that appear in my ring after heavy rain. They do seem to like to put their noses in them and check them out. Some will step into or splash in them.
Even though I don’t do a lot of water training, I can see the value in systematically introducing a horse to water crossings so that you are prepared if you need to do one. Training ahead of time makes it possible to introduce water slowly and without using pressure.
It helps if you have a variety of water crossings so you can start with an easy one (narrow and shallow) and work up to harder ones. Bringing your horse’s friends along can help too. Horses do take cues from other horses and if the other horses are calm about stepping into the water, your horse has a good example to follow. A few years ago, I took Rosie on a trail ride with a good friend who regularly crosses water to access different trails. Rosie has had very little exposure to water crossings but she followed my friend’s horse right across.
How would I use clicker training to teach a horse to cross water? I would use a combination of classical and operant conditioning – good things happen when you are near/in the water and you can get reinforced for stepping toward and into the water. It sounds simple, but there are a few things you will want to keep in mind.
- I need to be aware of the horse’s comfort zone. A very food motivated horse might push himself past his comfort zone in order to earn his food reinforcer. I don’t want to put the horse in conflict, so I want to make sure that I am watching for signs that he is not entirely comfortable with what we are doing. Some signs of discomfort are that the horse might:
- start snatching at the food
- stop on the click and immediately back up or orient away from the water
- rush forward as if to get past the water as quickly as possible
- show other signs of tension like a high head, tight neck, wringing tail, etc.
- Horses learn well when they are exposed to new stimuli in small doses and allowed some processing time in between. It’s better to have a short positive experience and end the session than to try and accomplish too much at once. Sometimes I feel like nothing happened (did he even see it?) but the next day the horse will be entirely different.
- You can use known behaviors to help create a positive experience. It’s easy to become very task focused, but taking a little break near the water and doing some targeting or other foundation behaviors can contribute to the horse’s overall comfort level about your main goal.
- Don’t interfere with your horse’s natural curiosity. Sometimes we are so focused on wanting to give food rewards for correct responses that we don’t realize other reinforcers are in play. If your horse is more interested in interacting with the water than in taking food, that’s ok. You can usually tell if the horse is not taking food because he’s curious vs. anxious.
- Give him time. Standing near the water is ok. Some horses seem to require additional time to either process or scan the environment. If you horse seems to need this, let him have the time.
- There’s a good article in The Horse on teaching your horse to cross water
Teaching a dog or cat to wave is a pretty standard trick. Most versions are similar in that the animal lifts a front leg and waves it a bit, but there’s room for individual variation. If I think about all the different ways I can wave, there are some versions where I move my hand up and down, side to side, hold it still, or even just wiggle my fingers.
Compared to dogs and cats, horses are a little trickier, not because a horse can’t lift a leg and move it around, but because they usually can’t get the same height and range of motion. However, you can teach an approximation of a wave by teaching the horse to lift his leg and hold it up in the air. I would call this a leg lift or jambette, but if there’s some movement, or it’s used in a greeting context, it could be considered a wave.
If you’re not sure what kind of wave you want, you might start teaching the wave to your horse and see what he offers. He’ll probably pick the version that is easiest for him and then you can decide where to go from there. Keep in mind, that raising a front leg does require strength and coordination and how it looks will also be a function of the horse’s conformation.
As with any trick that involves raising a leg, it’s a good idea to think carefully about whether or not you and your horse understand enough about stimulus control to be able to do it safely. If you’ve never trained a wave and you have a dog or cat, you might consider teaching it to them first and then decide if you want your horse to do it or not.
Teaching a horse to wave a flag, or other object, is described in the entry for “flag” in my blog What can I train? F is for …
- the entry for “jambette” in my blog What can I train? J is for …
- the entry for “spanish walk” in my blog What can I train? S is for …
One of the nice things about clicker training is that the click becomes a cue for the horse to stop. This is so handy that I have to remind students that they need to work on whoa as a separate behavior. Otherwise, it’s easy to spend so much time clicking during movement that your “whoa” cue becomes rusty.
I have a few different ways to teach whoa. I can usually guess which one will be easiest for the horse, but sometimes I try a few out before I decide which one I want to focus on. I might
- use a target. If I am already using a target for leading, it’s easy to stop moving the target to indicate we are stopping. This does work, but I have found it lacks a little clarity, especially if I stop moving the target with no warning. Instead, I like to change the position of the target (up or down) to indicate that we are going to stop. This gives the horse time to slow down and come to a balanced stop because I move the target to the “stop” position over several steps.
My preference is to teach the horse that when I move the target up, we are going to stop. This shifts his weight back and helps him find a balanced stop. If this makes the horse invert or he finds upward movement of the target startling, then I will lower the target as the cue to stop.
- use my body language. If I am working at liberty, I will teach the horse to match my pace. Once he learns to slow down when I slow down, then it’s easy to slow down so much that we stop. I can add a verbal cue once the horse is reliably stopping when I stop.
- add a new cue by taking advantage of the fact the horse already stops for this click. If a horse already reliably stops when I click, I can sometimes, set up a pattern where I do a predictable behavior (the new cue) before I click.
I’ve used this with lunging to add a hand signal for whoa. The way I do this is to raise my hand while the horse is out on the circle. In the beginning, I raise my hand and click. I do that a few times. Then I raise my hand, wait for any response to my hand – an ear flick, a look, a slight slowing – and then click. The horse may not realize what behavior I want, but he starts to associate the hand signal with stopping for the click so the whoa develops out of the pattern, not because I click for the “whoa” from the beginning.
- the entry for “halt” in my blog What can I train? H is for …
Teaching your horse to accept worming with a syringe can make everyone’s lives a lot easier. I use the same procedure to teach horses about worming that I use for any other kind of medication delivered with a syringe. The big challenge to worming is that most wormers (even the flavored ones) have a strong smell and are not palatable. Even if I practice with syringes that contain more palatable contents, my horse knows when I bring out the wormer.
I usually combine two different strategies to make worming easier. They are:
- teach the horse to open his mouth for oral dose syringes using tasty or neutral fillings. I’ve used applesauce, baby food, apple juice, and water – plain or mixed with molasses.
- find ways to dilute the wormer. Most wormer comes in its own syringe but I can transfer it to a larger syringe and mix in other palatable fillers, and/or spread it out over several syringes so there’s only a little wormer in each syringe.
Recently I’ve had to give a lot of oral medications to my horses and I’ve been experimenting with following the medication with a few syringes of plain water. My thought was that it would wash the icky taste out of their mouth and make them more likely to eat a food reinforcer after we were done. I think it does help because Rosie (who has been my main guinea pig) now immediately eats again after we are done. Before, she would stand and make faces for a bit.
I’d be curious to know if this works for anyone else. I had two concerns. One was that the water would make it easier for the horse to spit out (and wash out) the medication. This has not happened. The other was that the horse would find it more aversive to get syringed three times, compared to one. But, this also has not happened. Instead, Rosie seems more willing to take the first syringe.
I wrote a lot about teaching horses to accept oral medication in my What can I train? O is for … blog, so I suggest you check it out if you want more specifics. I plan to make a short video showing how to teach a horse to open his mouth for a dose syringe, but that will be a spring project. If you want some ideas now, I can suggest two videos that show how one might teach or improve a horse’s acceptance/participation in being wormed.
- Melanie Watson shows how to teach a horse to stand at liberty for injections and worming
- Terry Golson on giving oral medication
As with many medical behaviors, practicing ahead of time is one way to make it easier to care for your horse when he has a wound. Depending upon the type of wound and where it is located, you may need to irrigate it, clean it, medicate it, and bandage it. These are all things you can practice ahead of time.
With my young horses, I introduce different aspects of wound care as part of their general husbandry training. With a new horse, I will do the same thing, but the process may be quicker (or not!) depending upon how much previous training he has had.
Here’s a short list of behaviors I want to train:
- accepting touch all over – you never know where the wound will be
- standing for hosing
- standing for irrigation with a squirt bottle of saline (for small wounds in difficult places)
- standing for scrubbing with betadine or some other smelly antibacterial cleanser
- bandaging – not all wounds need to be bandaged, but I try to practice bandaging legs
- clipping – many vets will sedate a horse if a wound requires extensive cleaning, but having a horse that accepts clippers does give you more options.
I’ve covered a lot of the different components of wound care in other blogs. You may want to look at:
- the entry for “bandaging” in my blog What can I train? B is for …
- the entry for “hosing” in my blog What can I train? H is for …
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.