equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Clicker Training Foals to Halter and Lead

By Barbara Ray

I met Barbara on the clickryder list back in 2001 when I was first learning about clicker training. She was a regular contributor and shared her experience working with both domestic and exotic animals. This article is now “old” but I think she makes some important points so I have kept it.

About Barbara Ray: Her background is in ethology/biology and equine science and reproduction.  She is currently the Conservation Education Director for the Ohio Wildlife Center. She was a trainer at the Columbus Zoo for 15 years where she had the great fortune to work with hundreds of species She has been teaching riding and animal trainers since 1980, and has used clicker training with horses and wildlife as her primary teaching tool! She currently works with just a small handful of students and horses as time permits, plays with her own horses, and teaches dog agility at Dogwood Training Center in Ostrander, Ohio. She has working black and tan coonhounds and enjoys conducting wildlife biosurveys using the detector dogs as companions, sometimes, joyfully, from the back of a horse!  She is a regular contributor to the clickryder list sharing her experiences with exotics and with training dressage horses.

The following protocol is one I have used with 50+ babies and first began to use in 1987. Since there is no “one size fits all” method, this “protocol” is adapted as called for by a given individual baby!

One must be a good student of the foal and be willing to be guided by each foal as a unique individual! This protocol also assumes the foal is being managed in a way that meets its real needs for plenty of space and exercise, roughage (hay or pasture), water, health care and social stimulation. We often will see aberrant or undesirable behavior when a need or needs are not fully met, and such can halt or slow training significantly. In other words, it is not the method that is a problem, but a greater need of the living animal, who will speak out in an attempt to get those needs met, before s/he will be able to absorb the benefits of becoming a thinking-learning foal, engaged in the training game!

I try to work with foals in their pastures, paddocks or some space where they can easily move about freely, kick up their heels a bit if they feel so inclined, and generally work in brief, short spurts conducive to the attention spans. Foals, quite nicely, are so curious as to have quite LONG attention spans for babies of their comparative age, so one can, with certain babies, actually keep them entertained for very long, 5 minute sessions, though depending on the mood and other distractions at that time period, a foal may briefly disengage and repeatedly reengage within seconds!

I find that working with foals in smaller confined places such as a stall smaller than 12 x 14 has some challenges, foals seem to become easily overstimulated, so in this type of scenario, I make sure I work in VERY brief 2-3 minute segments, or less if the foal indicates it.

I stop each session BEFORE the foal gets to practice any overstimulated responses, and while the foal is still highly engaged in what we are doing. This creates a sense of desire in the foal, the foal WANTS interaction with the trainer.

Here is a good place to recall what our job is as “trainer.” Training a behavior is a process of getting an animal to do what we would like him to do willingly, with confidence and joy, and on cue.

Our job is to convince the animal that he WANTS to do what we want him to do. That by doing that thing, he is getting what HE wants!

The way we accomplish this with c/t is through motivating the animal with positive reinforcement. Behavior that is reinforced tends to be repeated. We of course, must practice our timing and rate of reinforcement abilities, so that we reinforce highly enough and with good enough timing that we are actually marking (with the click) the behaviors we INDEED want! We also must choose reinforcers the animal foal actually WANTS!

A weaned foal should be fully eating solid food, and is usually willing to work for its concentrate feed or little horse cookies or carrot pieces if it knows what these are. A foal has a very choosy palate for many months, so we sometimes have to offer the foal plenty of exposure to different types of treats, leaving them in the feed bin, until we can see which of these the foal has gained a palate for before we begin training. Foals often will work quite nicely for whither scritches and the chance to play and mouth various textured objects such as empty plastic milk jug, towels, dog toys such as large kongs and so forth. Always supervise foals with objects to be sure they cannot harm themselves or swallow anything they shouldn’t be swallowing.

Once we have identified reinforcers, we want to make friends with the foal. I am not talking about just “friends,” of course we all want to be our foal’s friend! I am talking, here, about a clicker-friend relationship. The foal associates us, the trainers, with those reinforcers and learns to trust when it hears the click, it will receive a reward, a bit of grain, a carrot piece, a neck scritch etc.

I generally do not “charge” the clicker with foals. I like to pick a specific criteria that is easy for me to judge and easy for the foal to accomplish, in order to start of first-hoof with something that does not encourage or lead to “mugging” behaviors. Most horses will, at some point, “test” the mugging to see if it makes the vending machine work. Foals are actually PROGRAMMED to mug the vending machine, because mare’s milk letdown ONLY occurs if the foal first mugs the teats. A weanling foal is fresh off its mum (compared to an older horse!) and it still has this wiring to mug. (Shove its muzzle, and hard, at the “vending machine,” which is now us, to try and get it to dispense!) In captive domestic bands, if a mare is not rebred, she will allow her foal to comfort suckle to age 2 or 2 1/2! So it is actually not uncommon for horses to have a drive stimulated to mug once they pair the click with us AND the reinforcement for quite some time, even 2-3 years; and of course, even older horses long past weaning or even that extended suckling window may try some mugging!

I find a simple way to teach a “first behavior” is to use a target and have the foal touch that with its nose. Pretty much ALL foals want to touch novel objects with their nose. Our job is to c/t ONLY the briefest touch, to not let the foal bite or grab the target. At first, we may have to hold or move the target away promptly after the first contact with the muzzle. So it is, target>foal extends nose>touches>click>move target away and simultaneously treat. All of this takes about a second! We’re talking fast! Not so hurried we SCARE the foal, but just a brief removing the target altogether form the picture, and offering thr treat.

Then, re-present the target and repeat this entire sequence. Maybe 5-10-15 times, whatever the foal seems to engage with! Then I will leave the area the foal is in, let him do his own thing for 1-2 minutes, I don’t talk to him or play with him or interfere in any way with his “down time,” then I return and repeat. I might do 2-3 periods like this, maybe in 3 sessions a day for a couple days until I can see the lightbulb on, the foal clearly understands the click=treat and that touching the target EARNS the click/t.

I work with a number of high-fire foals who are not real keen on even being touched by humans, as they were not imprinted or handled much the first few months of their life. SO the great thing about the targeting, it builds up a bank account of trust “near the human” and their trust and curiosity begin to override their wariness of being close enough to BE touched, so that the first touch is quite uneventful! I have had foals who are born kicking. They defend readily with a high drive for using their hind legs, a natural response to perceived or real threat, especially in a smaller space like a stall, but many colts, especially will kick readily.

So be safe, and be reading the body language that the foal is getting ready to wheel and kick. Sometimes intial touching will elicit this instinctive response. It is natural and simply OUR job to avoid being in the way when it happens. Pretty soon, the foal figures out that the c/t only works when s/he is FACING the human and standing on four legs!

Be respectful of the Three B’s! BE Persistent, BE Consisistent, BE patient. Really there is a 4th B, BE knowledgeable of when to quit!

Overfacing the foal only sets back our progress. It is not undoable and we are not necessarily “ruining” a foal, but we can create some roadblocks if we get in a hurry. We have all heard the maxim, train as if you have ALL the time in the world. This is true, but also, time is short, so rather than training hard or long, train smart! Train in very brief spurts so we are, rather than rushing the foal, leaving him wanting MORE!

Once the foal is coming to me for the target, I will begin asking him to follow the target, doing nothing more than taking steps forward so he must take a step to touch the target and earn his c/t. I only ask for a step or two at first. Once the foal clearly understands the game, I will begin to “lead” him around in a small half cirlcle, c/t, both directions, with LOTS of opportunity to touch the target and c/t as we walk. I do not stop to give the treat if I don’t have to, as I do not want the foal to learn that c/t MEANS stop. This, for me, is later, for purposes of riding the horse. Each trainer can choose what works best for them, of course!

Some horses/foals do better if they stop and actually back up a step to take the treat, so we are not inadvertently “teaching” mugging over time! My criteria is the horse gets his treat in “his space” about 2′
from me, so this holds whether we are stopped or walking along next to each other as he gets the treat! I prefer the horse to be always thinking “forward” and if criteria is walking and he is still walking while he actually gets his R+, then I am further reinforcing walking.

I DO want the foal to learn whoa, and I will stop, let the foal stop and touch the target, and I happen to actually say “whoa” at that moment the foal’s feet stop moving, and c/t. We often talk about only adding the cue once the behavior is learned, but if the foals feet stop, I like to pair this word all the time with the stopping of feet.

They pick up the word whoa in like 5 minutes this way! They may not be fluent with the cue for several days, so I always make sure I have the stop first, then the word. Later, I will proof that by using the word, to see if the foal actually knows what it means. If not, we train some more!

Once the foal finds it fun and engaging, is choosing his steps to come to me and walk with me, NOW I will begin to try touching him. I will touch him wherever he allows it. Some foals only will let you touch the face. Some, only the shoulders at first. Some, will turn their rump to you, to be in preparation to bolt or kick, but once they discover the magic feeling of Butt Scritches, they relax and learn to LIKE being touched. With some really wildish foals, it can take several days to weeks to work one’s way up their body to their heads!
Be persistent, be consistent, and be patient, is all I can say about this! For wildish foals, I handle them like other wild animals; I sit near them and read books to them. 30 minutes a day, 2-3 times a day, just to habituate them to soothing voice and unobtrusive presence of humans.

Before I leave, I will find one thing to c/t, then leave a “jackpot” of some sort to be enjoyed at leisure. Most animals greatly appreciate this, and it pays off in the long-term training relationship. Most trainers say they have to have a superior performance or a breakthrough moment before they will jackpot. I find the value of the last interaction that animal had with ME was it got REALLY good stuff, is VERY powerful. They sleep on it or think about it somehow, and it can change the entire flow of training for the better in a hurry. Besides, of what use is it to be stingy in ANY way with a growing baby especially!

Once the foal is allowing me to touch him all over, including his head, ears neck and poll, (all which can be c/t in baby steps as needed; I had one colt who was so violently reactive about kicking with ANY tactile stimulation- he was rather autistic, well, more than the usual for animals- I actually had to use a long pole with a soft tip as my “hand” in order to not be hurt. After several weeks though, this colt was quite safe to work around in hand!) I will be doing a bit of massage on the poll, and the second the foal relaxes, chews or lowers the head, even a FRACTION, c/t. I continue this to teach a head-down response. (Horses can only lower their heads and keep them there when they are relaxed. Head-lowering is also done when a horse is alerting and needs a different view of the threat, but this kind of head down only lasts briefly and is followed by the head thrown quickly back up, often with snorting or stomping or tail flagged etc.)

A foal is going to hold his head down briefly because he has the attention span of a flea, AND, the younger, smaller the horse, the instincts for self-preservation can still be so strong. There are babies of course who are quite docile and laid back, even at a very young age! My homebred Arabian mare was like this as a baby! I had a halter on her six hours after foaling, which I do NOT normally do, but her mother foaled inside in a stall, and the filly was trying to leap and run around, so I Had to get them outside where she had room! She was so young as to not know *I* wasn’t part of her Mum somehow, so the haltering, a little foal slip, was no problem. I like to fool with newborns briefly the first couple hours, off and on, then I like to leave them totally alone with their mums for 24-36 hours so they can properly bond and the foal can imprint on the mother. At day 2, I will begin a little work with the baby in short 2-3 minutes at a time.

This, of course, also depends on the mare. It can require a second handler to work with the mare. If the mare is upset, the baby is not learning what we want in the presence of humans! If he learns such at his mum’s side, he has not forgotten it just because he is weaned!

Once the foal is lowering its head with brief touching or massage of its poll, next I will introduce the ropes. I use a short, 3′ section of soft cotton rope, very pliable. I will simply c/t the same process I did to touch the foal everywhere. I will also begin to drape the rope over the neck, over the nose, c/t each time the foal relaxes or remains calm about it. I do not mind if the foal wants to test the rope with his mouth. I will also then, hold the rope in a loop, and begin to draw the loop up over the foal’s face and nose “as if” I were putting on a halter. This way, if I end up going to fast or asking for too much, I can release the loop. Usually by this time in the training, the loop-over-the-head is no big deal. It can be for some babies though!

I continue the “leading” exercises. Rather like off-leash heeling!
I c/t the foal for walking beside me, in straight lines, circles and figure of eights, whoaing every now and then too, and adding neck scritches and breaks for butt massages if the foal really likes these a lot.

I introduce the actual halter, again, letting the foal mouth it if he needs to explore it, rubbing it on him and c/t for standing or exploring, then same as with the rope, draping his nose, ears and poll. Putting it on is usually no big deal now. I c/t for letting it go on, then take it off and c/t for that too. What I really am rewarding is the ACTION of the halter over the face and ears. It really matters not if it is going on or off.

The foal should stand with his head lowered a bit for BOTH. Some foals will raise the head HIGHER when they feel the halter sliding over their ears as we begin to take it off. If the weanling is already 15h tall, the head can be too high for us to comfortably reach and do this right! I may work on head down more, or, the foal may just need some more desensitization conditioning to the action over the ears.

In this case, I will take a 3′ section of 1/2″ garden hose and hold it in a loop. It will look a bit like the head of a tennis racket with no strings! The hose is stiff enough to maintain the loop. I stand next to the foal facing the same way he is, then bring the loop up and on the head “as if” it were a halter. I can hold the loop up such that it applies no or little pressure on the poll or even touches the ears. This way, I can c/t various increments of criteria from no-ear-touch to full rubbing if the hose over the ears as I pull it off. Really, this almost begs a training video, doesn’t it, to see this work in action!

Now, the foal already knows how to walk next to us and whoa, choosing his own steps. he knows how to lower his head. He knows what the ropes feel like. He now lets us put the halter on him. What is next is to teach him what it feels like to follow the pressure of the rope/halter. The reason for this is, at some point, he is going to feel that pressure, unless he is never to be tied or led around by some less educated bloke!

It is a big shock to a horse to suddenly hit the limit of the rope, feel the tug on his head, and not know previously what is that sensation! Ouch! So with the foal haltered, I begin the leading around game, only every once in a while, as I turn, say, and the foal turns, I apply some pressure on the halter with the lead “as if” *I* was pulling his head around a bit, but not pulling, just letting the pressure set there briefly. I c/t a relaxed response to that. I lead from both sides (as all activity should be taught to both sides!), adding these pressures, not so much randomly, though that too, at times, but for turns and stops, a light backwrds pressure on the nose.

The foal already KNOWS how to whoa on his own. I am not forcing or causing the whoa with the pressure. PLEASE make this distinction! As many horses ARE taught to whoa using this R- of applied
pressure>whoa>reward by release of pressure.

Once the foal is clearly calm and easy with the pressures on his halter, I will ask him to whoa and begin a poll-pressure testing of sorts. While he stands, I will pull forward on the lead rope until pressure is applied to his poll. I do NOT want to cause him to move forward, this is R- and defeats the purpose. So I will c/t what pressure he takes and STAYS standing. But I will raise criteria for that until I can just about lean my whole weight against the end of the rope and still he stands there. I of course do not weigh enough to hurt the foal in any way doing this with a standard wide web or leather head collar. But he has to know what it feels like to have a LOT of pressure on his head and not panic or move! Because the first time he is tied, he is likely to PUT that pressure on himself unknowingly, and if he has no idea what that feels like or practice with how to react, he may hurt himself or scare himself beyond repair.

When I do begin to first tie, I tie a bicycle inner tube up high, head level, and run the lead rope through that, just holding the end, not actually tying the foal TO anything! I move out of the way, and let the foal stand there or move around a bit and see what he does when he gets to the “end” of the lead and the tiretube stretches a bit. Once the foal seems bored with this, maybe 2-3 days of a little practice for a few minutes at a stretch, I will begin to actually tie him. The foal who never pulls is a bit of a conundrum. If he never pulls back, he never learns how to correct the pulling back by stepping forward.

When he is an adult, and comes to pull for some reason at 5 years old, he may end up panicking. There really isn’t much we can do about this, short of “causing” a foal to pull back so he can correct himself. I do not choose to do this, however, I have 2 horses who *never* pulled as foals, and then got spooked or something in some freakish scenario as older adults, and panicked about it. I henceforth only tied those horses with tire innertubes, as these have enough give the horse does not feel cornered by his head. I actually don’t even tie horses much at all, but many folks do, so it behooves us to teach horses what this is and what it feels like!

My youngest horse was taught to tie with c/t, and he has never pulled, and I doubt he will, because he has been taught that mild pressure on the halter means “step-forward.” That pressure IS a cue to eliminate the pressure. Once he let me pull all my weight against his head with out moving, and was happy with that, I went back to a very light pressure with the halter, and cued him to step forward. The word cue to “walk-up” was simply paired with the poll pressure, c/t for the step up, such that poll pressure IS a tactile cue to walk up. My stepping forward is ALSO a cue to walk up. So the foal has 3 cues, a verbal, a visual and a tactile. Horses easily remember ALL of these various cues and become easily fluent with multiple cues for one response.

The word and use of pressure has a lot of negative connotation for clicker trainers. It is too bad, really, because pressure is an inherent part of the large, social mammal group behaviors and interactions. It is also a factor, by default.html, of putting restraining equipment ON horses. No matter how you slice it, a collar and leash on a dog or a head collar (halter) and lead rope on a horse is a restraint management tool. Even when we teach Loose leash/lead walking and free healing, it doesn’t change the biomechanics OF the equipment IF and when the animal reaches the limits of its leash or lead. The only thing is, a normal adult horse (i.e. not mini and not draft!) averages about 1100 lbs or so. If he decides to “go somewhere” with his head collar and lead, we ain’t gonna stop him!

Maybe we can stop a big dog, but a horse, no way. So we are pretty much obligated to teach him to know WHAT his equipment is, what it feels like in its “just there” mode and in its “limits” mode. I don’t even need halters on my horses to lead them around most anywhere any time. But there is a public safety issue *IF* something strange and unusual happened to cause one of them to spook or such. We have a responsibility to protect the horse and others from the harm that an 1100lb animal can cause if he is running about scared and unrestrained!

To summarize, I use the c/t to teach a target, to walk beside me, to be touched, then to walk, whoa AND be touched anywhere, then to head lower, then condition the ropes and halter, then actual haltering, then free-leading with halter on and lastly, feeling the various pressures of the halter and lead including tying and self-correcting poll pressure. This last, of course, can save a horse’s life, both by PREVENTING him from panicking and self-destructing in the event of getting spooked, caught up or hung up, and in teaching him to think about poll pressure and be practiced in releasing unexpected poll pressure by stepping FORWARD out of it!

I think most of these things can also be taught in any order. I have chosen this order because it makes sense for me. It rather backchains a bit in that by the time I put the halter on the foal (often just a couple days after beginning this protocol!), he ALREADY knows how to “lead” (walk beside me, turn and whoa on cue), he knows the target, so if I need it to teach leading WITH the halter and pressure I have that tool, and he already knows head-lowering, which allows me to get the halter on and off and be assured the foal is relaxed about it.

In a matter of prudence, I have skipped immense details here of “life with foals” using clicker training to teach haltering. If anyone has specific questions or would like more detail or clarification, please ask!

Happy Training!

Barbara Ray


This article was originally posted on the clickryder list in September 2005. A list member asked Barbara why she initially taught the foals to stand while pressure was applied instead of teaching the foal to move away from pressure right away.  Here is her reply:

Yes, that (teaching foals to stand for pressure) came out of being around several adult horses who were not able to tie ever because they would literally lose their minds!

So I experimented with a lot of ways to teach a baby what that head confinement is and what to do about it. I also found that most horsemen want to teach the babies to IMMEDIATELY step forward ANY time they feel the poll pressure or pull on the side of the halter etc. but these babies didn’t then seem to know what to do when a lot of pressure occurred, maybe a few years later when for some reason or other they got backed up to the end of their tie and boom…

So I started with standing and being okay with the pressure, not moving forward and not moving backward. Once the foal/horse can handle that, which is rather a conditioning/habituation process, then asking the horse to step up, and then having the pressure BE the cue to step up. So more or less a way of backchaining the whole thing!

other list member asked if it was confusing for the foals to learn pressure = stand and then to learn pressure = move, and how Barbara decided how much pressure to apply.  She replied:

It is a matter of baby steps, breaking down criteria of “what is” pressure=stand.

MOST foals will automatically stop and freeze when they feel a certain amount of pressure on the poll. It is different for each horse. So I just observe, as we are standing in “whoa” or on a mat or whatever, I will add enough pressure I get the ears to tell me the foal feels it, but not so much he moves. I do not want him to even raise his head or put pressure back against it, just hold himself there. So this pressure might last 2 seconds and be very light and c/t.

We work up to standing with a lot of pressure. No moving is no panicking and gets c/t.

After the foal is very reliable in this, I will change the rules a bit, add a little pressure on poll and then cue the foal to “step up” (or “walk” whichever I am using for that foal, I usually teach both!); many foals at first will START to move, because the “step up” is a well rehearsed prior cue and the foal knows what to do when he hears it. But then he remembers at the last second, he is “supposed” to stand when he feels poll pressure! So I c/t that moment he “thinks” about moving forward. It only takes them a short time to figure out the new rules.

After I teach “step up” from poll pressure, I do not go back and do anything with pressure = stand. The only point of that exercise for me, is to teach the foal to think about poll pressure, if it happens, as being a reason to stand or, preferably, step up out of the pressure. So he is free to choose what he does on his own, in the future, if he is ever tied or gets hung up. He “should” step up out of the pressure, but if he can’t, he is perfectly schooled to stand with that pressure too and not panic.