equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? Y 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: yawn, yes


Horses yawn just like people do, but for different reasons. The two most common times when I see a horse yawn are when he is “recovering” from a stressful event or when bodywork is done and the horse is releasing habitual tension patterns. According to my reading, yawning can also have a social component as horses may yawn when interacting with other horses, possibly as a calming signal. Male horses also yawn more than females. My understanding is that horse do not yawn when they are tired or bored.

I taught Willy to yawn on cue through a combination of capturing and shaping. I say that I used both because I clicked and reinforced any time he yawned (capturing), but he didn’t start to offer yawning more frequently until I started clicking and reinforcing for the very beginning of the yawn. At the time, I wondered if he could hear the click when he was in the middle of a yawn because he clearly knew he was being reinforced for something, but he would offer another trick instead of repeating the yawn.

Clicking for the beginning of the yawn was a step in the right direction, but it had the side effect that I was no longer getting a complete yawn. The click was interrupting the behavior so he was doing this little half-yawn. To get past that, I had to withhold the click until he gave the next approximation of a yawn. Over a few weeks, he started to do a bigger and bigger yawn. I think this kind of training is challenging because if you click too early, you interrupt the behavior, if you click in the middle, the horse might not notice, and if you don’t click enough, you lose the behavior entirely.

If you want to read an interesting story about capturing a natural behavior, I have a blog on shaping beluga whales to blow bubbles. This work was presented by Ken Ramirez at the ASAT conference and describes some of the challenges with capturing behaviors.

What actually happens when a horse yawns?

There is quite a lot of individuality in yawns. If you want to capture your horse’s yawn, you will want to observe how he yawns, as well as when he yawns. The basic components of a yawn are …

The horse:

  • opens his mouth
  • lifts his head (not always, but I see this more often than not)
  • sticks out his tongue (some horses do this more than others)
  • opens his mouth wider
  • rolls his eyes back in his head (in a big yawn)
  • some horses move their jaws back and forth as they yawn

Yawning may seem random, but I have found that there are times when horses are more likely to yawn. I noticed that Rosie would often yawn when I brought Willy back into the barn after a training session. They were good friends and I imagine she had a little anxiety when he was gone. I had never noticed any obvious behavior (pacing, calling, etc.) but she clearly had some kind of physiological change when he returned. I’m not suggesting you stress your horse out to get him to yawn. I’m suggesting that the behavior can occur at predictable times and if you observe your horse, you may be able to capture it.

I thought I would mention that if you have a horse that doesn’t yawn, or doesn’t seem to be able to do a full yawn, you might want to check to make sure he doesn’t have a restriction or problem with his TMJ. My horse, Red, was a big jowled quarter horse type and he never did a “true” yawn for the first 10 years of his life. He would open his mouth as if to yawn, but then just work it side to side. When I learned to do Masterson Method Integrated Bodywork, I spent a lot of time working on his TMJ because I got big responses there. About a year after I started working on him, he started to do a full yawn.

Additional resources:


There are a few different ways I could use the word “yes” in the context of clicker training.

Teaching “yes” could refer to the physical behavior of nodding the head. Horses can be taught to nod their heads up and down, in the same motion that I would use if I wanted to say “yes” when talking to someone. The entry for “nod” in my blog What can I train? N is for … describes some of the ways to teach his action to your horse.

But that’s not what I want to talk about here.

Instead, let’s consider how we can help a horse learn to say “yes” in our interactions with him. Clicker training is about teaching horses to say “yes.” Yes, I can do that. Yes, I want to do that. Yes, it’s easy for me to do that.

Learning to break behaviors down into small steps or components makes it possible to train horses that are eager to participate and are successful in training. Shutdown horses will perk up and start to enjoy training. Anxious horses will relax once they realize that they will not be asked to do more than they can, and that the training will be clear and consistent.

The image for this entry shows some of the ways we can help our horses learn to say “yes.” I put this together in one afternoon and it’s not intended to show all the components, just the ones that immediately came to mind. I’ll probably update it as I think more on the subject.

On the top, I’ve written some of the trainer skills that will make us and our horses more successful. We need to find the right:

  • reinforcers – what kind, how much and how often? what reinforcers have the right value and promotes the right level of stimulation?
  • approximations – how can I break the behavior down into small steps?
  • environment – where can I train so that my horse is likely to offer the desired behavior?
  • timing – when should I click? Do I need to improve or practice my timing?
  • criteria- what are my criteria and when do I go from one step to the next?

On the bottom, I’ve written some ideas for how to make it more obvious for your horse to say “yes”

  • control – are there ways I can give the horse more control over when and how something is done?
  • dialogue – are we having a conversation about what is happening? or am I telling him what to do?
  • time – am I giving the horse time to prepare, respond and process what is happening. A high rate of reinforcement is good but not if it makes the training rushed.
  • choice – what happens if the horse does not do the behavior? are there other ways for him to earn reinforcers? can he leave if he wants?
  • start buttons – I can teach my horse to say “yes, I’m ready to start” using start button behaviors. A start button behavior is a behavior the horse uses to tell the trainer when he is ready for the training to start. They are often used for husbandry or medical behaviors but can be used for anything. Start buttons are one way to create a dialogue between you and your horse – a dialogue that includes choice and control.

Additional resources:

  • The entry for “start button behaviors” in my blog What can I train? S is for … describes start buttons and provides links to additional resources.
  • Want to learn to be a better trainer? There are many good resources out there. My book provides lots of tips to help you be more successful (so your horse can say “yes”), but it’s only one of many excellent resources. My hope is that these blogs can help you find other resources so you can keep learning.

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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2 replies

  1. Thanks you so much for the time, knowledge and effort you have put into this A to Z series. I really appreciate it, and am working my way through printing them off so that I always have them as a resource.


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