equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Clicker Basics: What is equine clicker training and how do you apply it to horses?

This article was originally posted on my website (www.equineclickertraining.com) in July, 2010. The information here is basic. My book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement (available through Amazon (kindle and paperback), which I published in 2018, covers this topic in much greater detail.

Clicker training is a training method that uses the positive reinforcement quadrant of operant conditioning.  Operant conditioning is the name (from B.F. Skinner) given to the process of learning in which our future behavior is determined by the consequences of previous behavior.   If I do something and my actions are immediately followed by something I like, I am more likely to repeat that behavior.   In Skinnerian terms, I have been positively reinforced for doing that behavior. 

Clicker Training is a specific application of positive reinforcement where we use a marker signal (or bridge) to identify a specific behavior, which we then reinforce.  The name “clicker training” refers to the most commonly used marker signal, which is a hand held clicker.   In clicker training, we pair the marker signal with a primary reinforcer (usually food).  By using a clicker, we no longer have to deliver the primary reinforcer exactly when the behavior occurs. The horse learns that the behavior that was clicked is the one that is being reinforced and that is the one he will repeat. This allows the trainer to mark correct behavior with the clicker and use positive reinforcement to motivate the horse to repeat the correct response.  Clicker training encourages the horse to take an active part in the learning process and provides a basis for creating a positive partnership between the trainer and the horse.

For some of us, our first exposure to clicker training comes from the dolphin shows at the aquarium, watching a dog perform agility work, or trained animals at the zoo or circus. While this seems fascinating and interesting, most of us do not interact with our horses in the same way.  Handling horses is mostly a contact sport meaning we use equipment or our own bodies to direct them.   We don’t tend to send them off to work at a distance or need them to perform complicated maneuvers without any human contact.  What is important to realize is that one reason we don’t train horses this way is that traditional methods have been geared toward riding and handling horses directly so this kind of training has not been explored by the general horse owning population.  For most people, there is no need for it. 

However, now that clicker training has been in use for a while with other species, people are exploring how to use it with horses. It turns out that clicker training is a powerful training method that works for all species and that it can be applied in many different ways.  Using clicker training for liberty work is just one application.  To really understand the power of clicker training, you have to learn that there are many ways to apply clicker training.  So how do we clicker train horses?  And why does it work for them as well as it does?

First of all, one of the great things about clicker training is that it is very flexible.  The key components of clicker training are the marker signal, the use of positive reinforcement and the fact that the animal being trained is encouraged to actively participate in the training process.  The details of what you train and how you train it can be modified to suit the trainer and the trainee’s needs.   This means that as clicker trainers, we can look for new and creative ways to get behaviors. Clicker training opens up new possibilities for ways to train behaviors and for new behaviors that we previously did not know how to train.  We can use clicker training to train the same kinds of behaviors that are done with other animals.   For example, it is ideal for training liberty work or any behavior where you are not in direct physical contact (through your body or equipment) with your horse. It is also ideal for teaching horses to voluntarily comply with husbandry procedures without the need for restraint.

Because clicker training is flexible, it also means that we can take more traditional approaches and add the click and treat so that we are using clicker training in combination with other methods.   Adding the click and treat to many traditional training methods makes the lesson clearer to the horse and teaches the trainer to recognize the horse’s effort and how to build behaviors one small step at a time.  It turns out that by rewarding the horse and allowing it to actively participate in the learning process, clicker training is ideal for building the horse’s confidence and changing its attitude toward riding and other handling.  It allow you to communicate in a clear and positive way with horses that have emotional difficulties ranging from those that are aggressive to those that are scared. 

I will describe here a few different ways to teach your horse using clicker training. Most of us use a combination of these methods at different times, depending upon what we are trying to teach.

Capturing: This is what many people think of when they first think of clicker training. You wait for the animal to perform a certain behavior, and then you click and treat. This marks the behavior and makes the animal more likely to repeat it. Capturing is useful for getting an animal to repeat a behavior that it already knows how to do and is doing on a regular basis.  Horse trainers often use capturing to capture behaviors such as lying down, smiling, picking things up, and other discrete behaviors.  While capturing is useful, it is not a reliable way to get a specific behavior unless you know a situation in which the horse is likely to offer it.

Shaping:  This is the essence of clicker training and a clicker trainer’s main tool.  Shaping is the name used to refer to the process of starting with a small piece of the behavior you want and transforming it over time by carefully reinforcing those efforts that lead to the final behavior.  Shaping is also sometimes referred to as training by successive approximations.  The key point about shaping is that in shaping you are building behavior in small steps.  You get from one step to the next by selecting what behaviors you choose to reinforce and allowing the horse to experiment a bit to figure out what behavior gets clicked. It is a very creative process for both trainer and trainee.  I said above that lying down was a behavior that could be captured.  Lying down can also be shaped by reinforcing the horse for behaviors that lead to lying down such as lowering the head, bending the knees and lowering the body. 

There are different kinds of shaping.  In free-shaping, the animal’s only source of information is the click. The trainer is a passive observer who marks and reinforces correct behavior, but does not actively interact with the animal during the process in any other way.  Clicker trainers can also shape using other methods that provide the animal with hints of information about what kinds of behaviors are wanted.  I can shape an animal using my body language, pressure and release, and other tools that provide the animal with some direction but that don’t physically manipulate the animal. 

Luring: Luring refers to using the food directly to get a behavior which you can click and reinforce.  Most clicker trainers use luring sparingly or not at all as part of the reason clicker training works well is that the food is used to motivate and reward, but since it is only delivered after the click, it does not become a distraction. I included luring here because there are some cases where luring can be useful to jump start a behavior.  Luring works if the horse knows they are not allowed to take the treat until you click.  Most clicker trainers agree that if you do use a food lure, you want to fade it as quickly as possible.  Sometimes you can start a behavior with a food lure and then switch to a target. 

Molding:  This is when I physically put the horse or body part in the position I want. If I am trying to teach a horse to step on a mat, I could pick up the foot and place it on the mat. This would be useful for a horse that was being calm about the training and just didn’t seem to be offering any behavior.  Like luring, molding is of limited use.  It’s greatest value is in jump starting a horse that is stuck. If I do use molding, my goal is to show the horse what I want and then see if I can encourage the horse to initiate the behavior on his own.  So I might place the foot on the mat a few times, rewarding each effort. Then I will slow down my own movements and see if the horse anticipates what I want by starting to pick up his own foot as I reach for it. As soon as I get some active participation on the horse’s part, I am going to switch to shaping. 

Shaping using pressure and release:  This is one of the most common ways that clicker training is used with horses. It is a subset of shaping, but it is a very directed form of shaping where the horse gets information about what you want through standard pressure and release cues.  It is combined with clicker training so that the horse is rewarded by the release of pressure AND a treat. The addition of the marker signal adds a level of precision and timing that makes the training process clearer.  Please note that this method is only compatible with clicker training if the horse does not find the pressure aversive. The contact (through touch or a piece of equipment) should be perceived as information that can lead to positive reinforcement. 

This application of clicker training is commonly used because it allows people to just add the click and treat to methods they already know.   Most of horse handling in general, clicker training or not, involves physical contact with the horse either directly through our own hands, seat and legs or through the reins, lead rope, lunge line etc…  Shaping with pressure and release allows you to continue to use these same aids, but without the need to increase the pressure if you don’t get the desired response. With a young horse learning to give to pressure, you can just apply a small amount of pressure and wait. It might just be a slight press of your hand on the hip to teach him to move over. If you wait and click for any small weight shift in the desired direction, you can mark that shift with the clicker and then build from there until he is smoothly yielding his haunches. This is a great way to teach horses to become light and responsive without the need to increase the pressure to a point where either you or the horse become uncomfortable and react negatively.

If you want to read more about using pressure and release (or negative reinforcement) in combination with clicker training, I discuss this in great detail in the article “How to use Negative Reinforcement as a Clicker Trainer,” which you can find on my articles page. It is part of a series of articles on operant conditioning.  If you are not familiar with the four quadrants of operant conditioning, I suggest you start with part 1.

Targeting:   Targeting is the behavior where an animal learns to touch a body part (with horses we usually use the nose) to another object (the target).  Targeting is a behavior that is taught through capturing or shaping, but once learned, it becomes a valuable tool in its own right.   Since it is such a useful tool, I wanted to mention it separately because you can use targeting to teach lots of other behaviors. Once my horse learns to target, I can use targeting to teach my horse other skills such as leading, trailer loading, moving body parts, touching scary objects etc.. I can also use targeting to teach other behaviors by developing more advanced targeting skills such as teaching the horse to target other body parts to other objects.   Targeting has replaced many behaviors that were previously taught through luring as it works better than luring because the horse is not distracted by the food and the horse is more aware of what behavior is associated with the target. 

As I noted above, many of these methods can be combined. Behaviors have many parts. I might start a behavior by shaping with pressure and release and then free-shape some additional details. Or I might start a behavior with targeting and then use pressure and release to fine tune it and add body language cues.  Part of the fun of clicker training is having lots of ways to train behaviors so that you can come up with the combination that works for you and your horse.  In addition, these methods are not limited to any particular aspect of horse handling. I can use them for groundwork, behaviors around the barn, riding, driving, liberty work, trail riding and so on.

People often say that they can see how this works on the ground, but what about riding? I can clicker train from the saddle in the same way I train from the ground.   My horses learn how to stop at the click and bring their heads around for the treat.   I am careful about choosing treats that can be given easily from the saddle and I make sure the horse knows how to eat with his bridle on.  Learning to come around and take a treat under saddle is a great way to increase flexibility and my horse’s behavior when accepting the treat can provide useful information about his mental state.  In the beginning, there will be lots of stopping and starting, but as the training progresses, I can go longer and longer between clicks and treats.  Clicker training under saddle creates horses that are very focused and cued in to the rider.

This page has just been a brief overview of how to apply clicker training to horses. If you want to learn more about operant conditioning in general, there is a lot of information on it available on the web (choose your sources wisely, there is misinformation out there too).  A lot of the information for training dogs and other species can be directly applied to horses. I have a number of other articles on operant conditioning which you can find on the ARTICLES page on this site.

Katie Bartlett 2010 – please do not copy or distribute without my permission