equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What can I train? Z 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: zero


What does it mean to train “zero?”

It could be part of counting. If you teach your horse to count to a certain number, you should probably also teach him what zero means.

But on a more serious note….

It could mean teaching your horse to just hang out with you, without doing anything in particular. This is something that many clicker trained horses find difficult to do. They LOVE training and want to interact with us. This is great, but we should be able to spend time with them our horses without having to clicker train them every time we see them.

For some people, this is easy. They only use clicker training for a few things, or they have a horse that easily flows between clicker training and non-clicker training sessions. Other horses (and people) really struggle with this, and it’s not necessarily a reflection of skill or intention. There are some horses that don’t do well when the rules for interaction are not consistent every time you and the horse are together.

Let me tell you a little story.

I got into clicker training because I was looking for something “fun” to do with my yearling Rosie. I wanted something fun because she was difficult to handle and could show aggressive/defensive behavior when I was working with her. I had already owned her for a year and managed to find safe ways to work with her, but I didn’t enjoy being with her. I’m not sure she enjoyed our interactions either. Clicker training seemed like a different way to train and I hoped I could use it to improve our relationship.

It did, but only if I was always in clicker training mode and kept her on a pretty high rate of reinforcement. In other words, every single little interaction with her mattered. She was not a horse that could go between clicker and non-clicker sessions. She was also a horse that didn’t tolerate spending time together more casually because any time I was close to her, she would become defensive. In the end, it was easier (and safer) for both of us if every interaction was carefully scripted and I was consistent about how I marked and reinforced behavior.

This was 20 years ago and maybe I would do things differently now (I have learned a lot about learning, behavior, and clicker training since then), but at the time, the best option was to be clicker training for every interaction. This worked. We built a wonderful relationship and had a lot of fun training together, and …

Somewhere along the way, we learned ways to be together without the intensity of training. I found activities that she enjoyed (bodywork, hand walking, hand grazing). Now I can do my basic chores around her (cleaning, feeding, leading) without feeling like I am in an active training session.

Rosie is not my only clicker trained horse and I have done well with a less intense approach. Yes, I am always in clicker training mode, but with them, it was easier to transition to a lower rate of reinforcement and use alternative reinforcers. Some of them are crossover horses with good basic manners. Others are ones I started clicker training very young. With all of them, I was able to shift away from a high rate of reinforcement as they became more fluent in basic behaviors,

There are many variables that can affect how we choose to use clicker training with our horses and we have to look at each case individually. But, if you have started clicker training and can’t see how to get to the point where you are not always in full clicker mode all the time, here is a diagram that shows how I think about it.

For me, there’s a continuum that reflects the “intensity” of our clicker training sessions. I could describe it by drawing a line with a “structured training session” on one end and “no clicker training” on the other end.

Every horse starts at the “no clicker training” end and we jump immediately to the other end of the spectrum, “active training session,” because we need to build our horse’s repertoire. In the beginning, these two activities (no clicker training and structured training sessions) are separate, at least for most horses.

Once the horse’s repertoire of clicker trained behaviors grows, I start to incorporate clicker trained behaviors into my regular horse handling, or I start to expand how and when I use the behaviors in my training. This takes me from the dark green box into the two middle boxes, although I will return to more active sessions for new behaviors or when I want to improve an existing behavior.

I drew the continuum as four separate boxes, because some horses need there to be clear distinctions between different places along the continuum. But, once a horse has enough experience with clicker training, there is more of a gradual progression from one end to the other and I can flow back and forth along it quite easily. I might have some behaviors that are still in the learning phase, some behaviors that are in the practicing phase, and some behaviors that have become part of our routine (casual training). Depending upon the horse, I may need to provide clear context cues so the horse knows what to expect and whether or not he can offer behavior. Those context cues would help the horse recognize which “box” I am in and can help minimize frustration.

One reason I like to think of this as a continuum is that it reminds me that I need to be clear in my head about where I am on the continuum. The continuum also reminds me that if I want to move away from the high intensity end, I need to plan how I am going to do that. It’s very easy to get stuck in the “active training session” end and find my horse doesn’t know how to respond when I want to shift to a lower ROR or different reinforcers. If my end goal is to use food reinforcers sparingly or not at all for some types of activities, I need to plan how I am going to get there.

What about the “no clicker training” block? Honestly, I don’t spend a lot of time there. But, if I wanted to, I would just think of it as another part of the continuum. I could deliberately incorporate sessions and activities that are designated as “no clicker training” sessions right from the start or I can make a point of moving in that direction once the horse has learned the behavior. It’s very easy to get stuck at certain points along the continuum because everything is working and I don’t want to mess with success, but if my end goal is to move closer to the no clicker training end, then I need to continue to shift in that direction.

That’s a lot of theory. Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Some people use the presence of their treat pouch/vest/container as a cue that they are clicker training. If the trainer is not wearing it (or has not placed it in the environment), then the horse is free to do whatever he wants. This is not quite the same as doing nothing, but it is one way to make it clear when the horse can earn food reinforcers and when he cannot.

    Some horses will be ok with this, especially if you use clicker training for specific types of behaviors. It also helps if their previous training is compatible with clicker training and they are fluent in the those previously learned behaviors.
  • I use different locations for active learning vs. practicing behaviors. If possible, I teach new behaviors in specific locations and get the behavior solid before I generalize to other locations. This means the high rate of reinforcement that is associated with learning is not expected when I put the behavior in use. Expectation plays a big role in how intense or relaxed a horse is about training. If they are expecting a certain type or rate of reinforcement and it doesn’t happen, then they can get frustrated. When I take a behavior to a new location, I am very quick to introduce any changes that are related to how I want to reinforce the horse long term. These changes could be in the rate of reinforcement, the type of reinforcement, and using the behaviors in chains or sequences.
  • Associate different activities with different levels of reinforcement. An example would be cleaning stalls. Some of my horses can visit me when I am doing barn chores because their turnout allows them access to the barn. I have trained specific behaviors for feeding time and when we are in the stall together, but that is a different context than when they are turned out. I am happy to have them interact with me, but I don’t want to do a “real” training session when I am trying to get things done. So, if they come to visit, I may interact with them (talking, stroking) and even click and treat a few times for being polite, but I keep the rate of reinforcement very low. If they are bored, they may hang out for a while, but often they visit for a few minutes and then wander off.
  • Reinforce for doing nothing. Because I started with an aggressive horse, I spent a lot of time reinforcing her for not being aggressive. This was essentially a DRO (differential reinforcement of other behavior) because I wasn’t looking for anything specific. What I was looking for were “normal” behaviors that are associated with relaxation and calmness – the types of behaviors a horse would show if she was comfortable in her environment. At the time, I used this strategy because it was the easiest way to keep us both safe. But, a nice side effect of it was that she got a lot of reinforcement for standing quietly, not actively offering behavior. Yes, I get that standing quietly was an offered behavior, but it had less intensity and over time, it did evolve into relaxation.

There’s a lot more that could be said on this topic, but I’m going to save that for another time. I’ll just leave you with the idea that behavior is always changing and if you get stuck at some point along the continuum, all you have to do is start looking for opportunities that will allow you to shift in the direction you want.

p.s. I have deliberately not said that it’s all about having behaviors on cue. While stimulus control is important, I find that focusing too much on trainer given cues tends to make people focus on too small a part of the big pictures.

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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