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 these topics in much greater detail.
What can I feed for treats? Clicker trainers use a variety of food rewards with horses. When choosing a type of food reward to use, it should meet the following requirements:
- It provides the right level of motivation, meaning the horse must be interested in working for it, but not so overexcited that it can’t think about anything other than the food. Once a horse understands about clicker training, I find I can use more favored treats to my advantage.
- It is an appropriate size so that I can feed many of them during a session. In the early stages of clicker training, the reinforcement rate is quite high and I want to be able to feed many treats in each session.
- It is convenient to handle, not messy or difficult to divide up.
- It is easy for the horse to eat so I don’t have long pauses while the horse is chewing.
- It is safe for horses and appropriate for the horse’s dietary needs. I usually avoid treats that are high in sugar or molasses, except on occasion.
I find that the types of treats I use varies with the exercise or changes as your horse’s training progresses. Some trainers use a variety of treats and reward better efforts with better value treats. Do think carefully about what you give your horse for treats. There are many options but some are better than others, especially if fed in large quantities. Some typical treats are:
- Grain ( you can just use a portion of your horse’s regular meal)
- Hay Stretchers (Blue Seal makes these)
- ALAM or some other horse feed that is targeted for horses that should not get grain.
- Low starch/low sugar feeds: There are several products out on the market now. I like using ones that have the larger pellets (ovals or cubes)
- hay – I sometimes use higher quality hay as a treat for long duration stationary behaviors
- Hay cubes broken into small piece
- Carrots (cut in small pieces)
- Peppermints (both the soft mints and the hard round ones in wrappers)
- Commercial horse treats
- Dry breakfast cereal (cheerios, mini-wheats, etc..)
- Sunflower seeds
Where do I carry the treats?
For most work, I find it more convenient to carry the treats on me. I have used both a vest and a fanny pack. In the winter I often just use the pockets of my winter coat. Other options I have seen used are a carpenter’s apron, rock climber’s chalk bags, and saddlebags on the horse. You can also look at food pouches designed for clicker training dogs. Some of these have nice closures and are easy to attach to your belt or pants. If you are working behind a barrier or have a horse that is still learning not to mug you, you can put the treats in a bucket that is easy for you (but not the horse) to reach. Whatever you choose, make sure that you can get the treat out promptly. When I use a fanny pack and want to have the horse on a high rate of reinforcement, I leave the top unzippered. If you carry the treats on you in an open pocket, do be careful as the treats sometimes fall out when you bend over.
Do I have to use a clicker?
I prefer to start a new horse with a mechanical clicker as it is a unique sound that most horses have not heard before. There are various kinds of mechanical clickers from the standard box clicker to the I-click (sold by Karen Pryor) which has a raised button. You can get clickers that hook on to a coil that goes around your wrist so that your hand can be free to do other things. A mechanical clicker is usually more easily heard and recognized by the horse and it provides a more consistent sound than using your voice. Clickers are usually easy to buy at pet stores (I know Petsmart carries them) or on the internet.
Once the horse understands is past the early stages, I switch to a tongue click. A tongue click is the sound you make by pushing your tongue up against the roof of your mouth and with practice, most people can make a consistent “klock” sound. This is different than the clucks we use to ask a horse to go. Using a tongue click allows me to have my hands free for other things and it is also much easier to use while riding. I do know people who mount a clicker on a whip for riding, but I have not tried that.
It is possible to train a horse using a word as a marker signal. I had one horse that I trained using the verbal “good” and he responded to that very well. I made sure I was consistent in how I said it, so that it had its own unique sound and would stand out from my other words if I was talking to him. I did find that it was harder for him to hear me in certain circumstances and I eventually switched him to a tongue click. He figured out the new marker signal right away. Most horses can learn to respond to several different marker signals although I don’t recommend using different ones within the same session. I can use either a tongue click or mechanical clicker with mine, but I choose the same one for the entire training session.
My horse is really bad about hand feeding and gets excited about food, can I still clicker train him?
This is actually really normal, especially in horses that have not been hand fed or given a lot of treats. Horses that are overexcited about the food show it by mugging behavior (checking you out for treats) and/or poor treat taking behavior. They will grab at the food before you are ready to deliver it and sometimes they scrape your hand with their teeth. They have to learn to wait politely until the food is delivered and to take the food with their lips. Learning to take a treat politely is a learned skill and some horses need more practice than others. The main thing to realize is that this is a phase. As most horses get used to clicker training, get more practice taking treats, and learn that there are always more treats coming, their enthusiasm becomes manageable.
If I have a horse that gets too excited, I may need to switch to a less desirable treat or clicker train him after he has had his dinner when he is not quite as hungry. With horses that are very excited about the food and mugging is an issue, I spend more time working from behind a barrier. If the problem is more about how they take the treat, there are ways to deliver the treat so that the horse has to be more careful.
Or…My horse doesn’t care about food, can I still clicker train him?
Yes. You might want to try training him just before dinner time, or experiment with different treats. A lot of horses will initially appear uninterested in the food, but once they get into the game, they become more eager for their treats. Remember that the reward doesn’t have to be food. We use food because it is convenient and works for most horses but you can use other rewards (a release of rein or lead, a chance to graze, you backing up or leaving (with a nervous horse), a chance to walk somewhere or look at something, etc..). Even if I use other rewards, I do take the time to make sure all my horses like and will work for food rewards. Food has a lot of advantages over other rewards and I want the option of using it.
Some horses have never been hand fed or have never been offered treats, so they just don’t know that they are allowed to eat what you are offering. Or maybe they have not developed a taste for what you are offering. If I have a really reluctant horse and I think it is about the type of treat, I will mix it in with his dinner or just offer it in a bucket for a few days to see if that generates some interest. I might also feed it to other horses while the reluctant horse is watching and see if that tempts him to try it.
It is worth noting that horses don’t eat if they are stressed or tense. There is a difference between a horse that is just clueless or uninterested in hand feeding and a horse that is too tense or nervous to eat. The clueless horse needs time and education. The tense horse might require you to look at the bigger picture to see if there is a reason why he won’t eat. Maybe he is better if you work in a different environment. Maybe he is better if he has a friend nearby or if he is by himself. The nice thing is that eating promotes relaxation so once you get the tense horse to start eating, things usually improve rapidly. If you can’t get him eating, then you can start by using something else for reinforcement. Most horses have something they will work for, it is just a matter of finding it.
Some pointers on getting off to a good start and good treat taking behavior
It is really important to instill good treat taking behavior in your horse from the very beginning. You cannot train with food if your horse is not polite about it. That means your horse should not be in your space when getting his treat, or expect to get a treat by mugging you. I find it is usually a good idea to start behind a barrier. That way I can just back up if the horse gets pushy. A lot of the problems that come up with treat taking can be solved by becoming very consistent about your food delivery. If food is delivered the same way and in the same location (relative to the horse) every time, most food issues are minor. Good treat taking behavior includes the behavior of the horse around treats (no mugging) and how it takes the treat (soft mouth).
To minimize mugging:
1. feed your horse out away from your body. I feed so the horse’s head is in a neutral position (withers height and lined up between his shoulders)
2. keep your hand empty and out of your treat pocket before the click (no pre-loading)
3. make sure you deliver the food promptly so the horse doesn’t have time to mug you. Your goal is to be able to click, get the food, and feed all in a smooth and continuous motion with no long pauses or hesitations. I sometimes have new students practice this without the horse before they try to train.
4. start by teaching behaviors that encourage the horse to stay out of your space (more on first behaviors is below). If I start with targeting, I present the target out away from my body.
To teach a soft mouth (taking the treat with the lips or tongue):
1. experiment with food size. You can experiment with using one large treat so the horse is not anxious about getting all the crumbs, or smaller treats so the horse has to use his lips or tongue.
2. hold the halter with one hand and treat with the other so that you can control how much the horse moves his head.
3. feed from above. This means that instead of feeding by holding your hand flat and presenting it to the horse from below, hold your hand up higher and sort of dribble the food into the horse’s mouth. This works really well with grain and also with carrots. I learned this from Alexandra Kurland and it really works because a lot of anxious horses push hard against your hand when you hold it flat and end up using their teeth. By changing your hand orientation, if they push into it, they are just pushing with their lips.
4. If I have a horse that pushes down into my hand and/or scrapes me with his teeth, I allow the horse to move my hand as he takes his treat, not a lot, but enough so that he has nothing to push against.
5. have your horse back up before getting the treat. To do this, I present the food so the horse has to bend his neck or back up slightly to get to the food. Most horses will get the idea that they have to back up a step as you feed them, especially if you are consistent about doing it this way.
What about giving treats while riding? What do I need to know?
I do this the same way as for ground work. Click and offer the treat on one side. I usually feed on the side to which the horse was just bent if working on a curve. Otherwise I just make sure I treat equally from both sides. With novice horses, I will offer the treat to one side and ask the horse to bring his nose around with the rein. If a horse has trouble with this, I can teach the horse to bring his nose around by standing at the girth and feeding from there while I am doing groundwork.
If the horse gets snatchy and opens its mouth or wants to use its teeth, I can hold the other rein with just enough contact to limit the reach of the horse’s nose. This way the horse brings his nose around to a point and then has to wait while I present the treat by moving my hand towards him. Most horses pick up on how to get the treat really quickly and coming around is a great way to encourage flexibility.
With more advanced horses, they usually come around as soon as I reach down on one side so I don’t need to use a rein cue. It there is any confusion, I just tap the neck on the side where I have the treat. Some people prefer to use more soluble treats (sugar or grain) for riding as they think it is easier for the horse to eat around the bit. I have been successful using a variety of treats but I do have to be aware of how much chewing time might be needed. In addition, some horses do need some time to figure out how to eat with the bit on. I often bridle a new horse and let it eat its dinner or a handful of carrots in its feed bin so it can figure out how to eat with the bit in its mouth. I have also had success bridling the horse and taking it out to graze.
Some horses need to finish chewing before you ask them to go back to work. Others are happy to start right back and keep chewing at the same time. If I am losing a lot of time because my horse spends a lot of time chewing, I will either make the treats smaller or switch to a different treat. In some cases, the horse just doesn’t know it can go back to work while it is still chewing so I will ask it to walk off while it is chewing, but wait a bit before asking for anything. Over time I can tighten this up until the horse is capably of going right back to work while it is still eating. If am working at faster speeds, I will adjust so that the horse is not trotting or cantering with food in its mouth.
Will my horse hear the click if it is windy or there are other distractions?
This is something I wondered about the first winter after I started clicker training. I was worried that the horses would not hear the clicker when I was working them outside because my farm is very windy. It didn’t turn out to be a problem at all. I found that they responded well to both a tongue click and a mechanical clicker. I do use a mechanical clicker if I am working in more distracting conditions as I think it is usually louder. This is actually one reason to use a clicker instead of some other marker signal. The click sound is very distinct and stands out from other sounds.
Not only is the sound of the click very salient, but most horses are aware of the other behaviors that happen when we click. Watching my horses, I realized that once a horse is clickerwise, they are listening for the click. I think my horses sometimes read the change in my intent and energy level when I click. If I am working on a pattern or doing repetitions of the same behavior, my horses often seem to know when they are doing the right thing and I can see their ear listening for the click at the appropriate moment. This makes it easy to ride with other clicker trained horses. The horses very quickly sort out which click is for which horse, based on their expectation of when they might be clicked and they learn to ignore clicks from other riders because those clicks are never followed by a stop and treat. With more experienced horses, I can even clicker train multiple horses at once and each one knows when it is being clicked.
What are some good behaviors to teach first?
The first behaviors I choose are simple and safe behaviors that the horse is easily capable of doing. Early clicker training sessions are not just about training specific behaviors. They are also about teaching the horse how the clicker game works. I do need to be aware that these early behaviors are going to be the first positively reinforced behaviors that the horse learns so they are going to be the ones he is most likely to offer when he doesn’t know what I want, or wants to get my attention. In clicker training, horses go through a phase where they offer behavior before it is put on cue, so if I don’t want a horse offering a behavior whenever it wants, I will wait until the horse understands about cues before I teach that behavior. In the beginning, I want to be careful about what you teach.
Targeting (teaching the horse to touch an object with his nose) is an ideal first behavior. It is safe, simple and comes with a cue (the target object) so it is easy to limit clicker training to that one activity while you are getting started. It is also helpful that most horses have not been taught how to target so I am starting with a novel behavior. It helps to use a novel behavior so that the horse has no expectations or previous baggage associated with the behavior. Targeting also comes in handy for teaching lots of other behaviors so it is a good foundation for future work.
I often suggest that new clicker trainers pick some fun behaviors to train first. This gives you a chance to practice your timing and get into the flow of clicker training without being worried about getting perfect results. A lot of tricks fall into this category and tricks can be a good way to get started as long as you are careful about which ones you choose and how you set it up. If I want to teach a horse to pick up and manipulate objects, I start with a specific object so that I have more control over when the horse offers the behavior. I have found that most horses will push a ball, pick up an item, or stand on a mat with a little encouragement. Horses are very sensitive to environmental cues so it is easy to teach a horse that it is ok to pick up a ball in his stall, but not other places, if you make that distinction from the beginning. Later, you can always change it once you want the behavior in other locations.
In general, it is easier on you and your horse if you start by playing with a few new behaviors instead of jumping in and trying to clicker train a lot of things at once. Experiment with the clicker, get a sense of how your horse is going to behave around food, and think about what kinds of things it might be useful for, before you start clicking a lot. A lot of clicker trainers do end up teaching everything with the clicker, but there are also lots of ways to weave clicker training into an existing training program. You do need to remember that part of the power of clicker training is that you are now asking your horse to actively participate in training sessions by offering behavior. In order for the horse to do this, your horse must feel comfortable guessing and offering new behavior when you are training him. If you try to combine clicker training with other methods that discourage your horse from taking any initiative, you will have poorer results and your horse will become confused.
Will it confuse my horse if I am clicker training him but other handlers are not?
Most horses figure out pretty quickly who is clicker training and who is not. I clicker train our 8 horses and the other people who handle them do not. I clicker trained all their general handling behaviors (leading, haltering, etc..) and they are fine when other non-clicking people have to handle them. At the same time, there are a lot of behaviors they don’t offer because they know they will not be reinforced for them. This works out better because I don’t want them offering a lot of unexpected behaviors to other people.
If I am working on a specific behavior and I know the horse might offer the behavior unexpectedly, I will explain what I am doing to anyone who might handle him. This way they know what I am working on and how I want it handled if the horse starts offering behavior they don’t expect. In most cases, they can just ignore or praise the horse, but sometimes a behavior can disconcerting if you are not expecting it, so I do usually warn them. When I taught Red head down, he did it all the time and I had to explain to my daughter that he might be offering it a lot until he understood the cue. I didn’t want her to think he was being bad or ignoring her if she was trying to halter him and he was trying to put his nose on the floor.
What do I do about unwanted behavior?
As a clicker trainer, I focus on rewarding the behavior I want. Sometimes this is easy. I have a behavior in mind and I spend some time shaping it from some early form to the final behavior I want. When I do this, I have usually set aside some dedicated training sessions and in those sessions, I reinforce what I like and ignore what I don’t like. The horse is more likely to repeat those behaviors that are reinforced and the other behaviors disappear. When I hear someone say to ignore unwanted behavior, this is the scenario in which I would ignore those behaviors that were not part of my final goal.
However, the rule of any good horse training is safety first. In the above training scenario, when I say I can ignore unwanted behaviors, that does not mean that I am not aware of them. My main focus is on behavior I do want, but I am also monitoring everything my horse does to see what behaviors are increasing or decreasing because that gives me information about how the session is going. If a behavior that I don’t want is increasing in frequency, then I need to address that in my training plan.
There are two general types of unwanted behavior. There are unwanted behaviors that are really just “wrong answers,” so the horse is trying to figure out what I want and some of his guesses are not correct. This is no big deal and my job is to let the click and treat show the horse which ones I like. If I continue to get a lot of wrong answers, then I need to change my training set-up, check my timing, or adjust my criteria so the horse is more successful at getting reinforced for behaviors I do want.
Then there are unwanted behaviors that are behaviors I never want. These are often stress or frustration related behaviors and include mugging, biting, pawing, ear pinning, invading my space, and so on. If these are occurring during a training session, then I need to look at why. These behaviors can occur for many reasons such as poor timing, poor mechanics, too low rate of reinforcement, sloppy definition of criteria so there is no consistency, tapping into previous baggage from past training or other basic training problems. I need to look at all those areas to see if there is something I can change to make the training less stressful for the horse. Sometimes it is hard to figure out what is going on so I might need to use management strategies to keep myself safe. I could go back to working behind a barrier or put the horse on a lead. Some trainers have good luck using time-outs where you leave the session briefly when the animal does something you don’t like.
And then there is the question of what to do about unwanted behaviors that happen during general handling or when you are not specifically shaping a behavior. The first time something happens, I will just make note of it unless it is a safety issue. In that case, I think you really do just have to deal with it in whatever way you can. This is a judgment call and while my goal is to avoid punishment, that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been times when I have had to do something negative to stay safe. If my safety or the horse’s safety is involved, then I use whatever horsemanship skills I have to get out of the situation. But I don’t consider this “training.” I consider it staying safe and I don’t expect my horse to have learned a lesson from it.
This is why it is important to go back and try to figure out what was missing in my training or management that led to that situation. This is especially true if a pattern of unwanted behavior is developing. If something happens more than once or twice, it is a training issue and needs to be handled as such. My experience is that most unwanted behavior does not happen “out of the blue.” Usually there was some warning that was missed by the handler or an obvious hole in the horse’s training. I want to think of a training solution that teaches the horse what I DO want in a positive way and without the emotional baggage of “my horse is being bad.” Then I use positive training methods to teach the horse what he needs to know so that situation doesn’t occur again.
I will be adding to this list of question as I have time, and think of new questions that novice clicker trainers ask. If you have a suggestion for an additional question that is not covered here, please email me.