This article was originally posted on my website (www.equineclickertraining.com) in 2010. The information here is basic. This article is an overview of the different approaches, not detailed instructions.
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. My book includes a sixth method in which clicker training is introduced more casually by selecting out a few behaviors (ones the horse already does) and marking and reinforcing them. It works well for horses that become anxious during formal training sessions.
Five Ways to Start Clicker Training
I am going to list five ways to get started with clicker training. I could have just described how to start with targeting, which is what I usually do. But, I decided I wanted to include the other options, partly because you might run across some one who uses them, and partly because there are horses out there that might benefit from starting a different way. If you know all the options, then you can find the one that is best for your situation. Knowing all the options will also help you sort through conflicting information when comparing methods used by different trainers.
1. Charging the clicker
In early clicker work with dogs (and other animals), some trainers considered it important to teach the animal that the sound of the clicker predicted food was coming. They would do this before starting to train any behavior, so in the first clicker sessions, the trainer would just click and treat without looking for any specific behavior. In fact, the trainer would often make an effort to ensure that there was no set pattern to this procedure so that the dog did not associate the food coming with anything other than the click. The trainer would move around in different ways and click when the dog was doing a variety of things.
I don’t see people “charging the clicker” as much anymore, although I do run across it sometimes with dog trainers. I think the general consensus has become that it is better to introduce the click in a more meaningful way so that the animal learns that the timing of the click is significant right from the start.
2. Teaching the horse to look away or ignore the food
I don’t know if this was used with other animals, but early work with horses did often start with the trainer standing near the horse and clicking and treating if the horse moved its head out of their space. The trainer would be “wearing” the food, either in a pouch or side bucket or pockets and the goal was to establish from the very beginning that “mugging” the person for food did not work.
This approach is still taught by a lot of horse trainers and they find it can be a useful first step if you have a horse that is very distracted by the food and the handler is not comfortable juggling the target, clicker and doing food delivery.
While I know this works for some people, I don’t usually start this way. I prefer to start by training a specific behavior so that the horse is thinking about what to do, not thinking about the food. Clicker training is about rewarding behaviors we want and setting the horse up so it is likely to do them. I find that when trainers start with this exercise, the most likely behavior they get is mugging, which is what they do not want. So I feel that starting with this exercise is setting the horse up to do the wrong thing (mug you) by putting yourself and the treats within reach when he has not been taught anything about the game yet. This lesson is also often taught by standing next to the horse (not behind protective contact) which raises some safety concerns.
I do want to note that at some point most horses do have to go through “the mugging does not work lesson.” I just prefer to do it after a few other behaviors have been established and I usually teach it through Alexandra Kurland’s “Grown-ups” Lesson. You can read more about “Grown-ups” in this article here.
Another option is to start with teaching the horse to touch his nose to an object. This is called “targeting” which is the name clicker trainers use for the behavior of touching a nose (or paw or other body part) to a specific object (the target). With horses, the first targeting lesson is usually teaching the horse to touch an object with the end of their nose.
My personal preference is to start with targeting. I find that when I start with targeting, I am also teaching good manners around food because the horse orients toward the target which reinforces the behavior of keeping the nose away from me. I like to make the first targeting lesons very easy and concentrate on establishing good food delivery by the trainer and getting the horse into the rhythm of touch, click and treat before I make it more complicated by moving the target around a lot. For detailed instructions on how I start clicker training with targeting, there is a link at the end of this article to another article how I teach targeting.
The three methods listed above all assume that the handler has some way of delivering the reinforcer (food) to the horse safely and that the horse is willing and interested in taking it. Most of the horses I have clicker trained are ones that had been hand fed treats before I got them. They may have needed some fine tuning in the manners department regarding waiting for the treat, taking it nicely off my hand and so on, but they were basically ok with the idea of me offering them food.
As more people are clicker trainining, I have encountered people and horses that don’t know how to hand feed safely or where the horse is not interested in being hand fed. For the most part, I have found that if the handler is consistent about food delivery, everything improves with practice. The horse’s anxiety level (some horses got overanxious or overeager around food) goes down once it learns food is going to keep coming, as it learns more behaviors, and learns reinforcement is available for lots of things. If you are having trouble with food delivery, you might want to read the section on the FAQ page where I answer specific questions about food delivery.
The last two options for getting started are for horses that have never been hand fed or are afraid of people. If you are trying to use one of the above methods and the food delivery seems to be a problem, I suggest you consider option 4. If you are working with a fearful horse, food may not be the best reinforcer. You might consider using distance or having the handler back up and/or leave as reinforcement (number 5).
4. Teaching food delivery first (no clicker)
If your horse is not used to hand feeding, you might want to consider breaking the beginning steps down into even smaller parts. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and his student Mary Hunter at the University of North Texas looked at how to introduce clicker training with some rescue horses. They found that it was helpful to just practice food delivery (no click) to teach the horses about hand feeding before they introduced the clicker.
This was done as part of a formal training session so it isn’t that they just started randomly hand feeding. Instead they used the same setup and food delivery as in a regular clicker session, but they didn’t click so the process was:
- stand next to the horse (behind a barrier if needed)
- get food from pocket and offer to the horse. The hand should be extended out away from the body so that the food is presented to the horse in the position where his head would be if he was standing in a neutral position facing forward.
- remove hand
- repeat “x” times where x varied from 10-20.
Once the horse was accepting the food and maintaining his distance from the handler, clicker training was started using targeting. This might take a few sessions, but the early practice on just feeding treats made the training process smoother once the horse was asked to start targeting.
5. Using an alternate reinforcer such as distance.
In most cases, I use food as the reinforcement for my training sessions. But it is important to remember that the reinforcer doesn’t have to be food. What you want to do is reinforce the horse with something it wants. With my more advanced horses, I have non-food reinforcers that I use and I take the time to establish rules about them so there are different ways of using other reinforcers.
But in this case, I am talking about using a non-food reinforcer to get the game started and the most common scenario is using distance for a horse that is afraid of people. In some cases, what the horse really does want is for the person to leave, so the early clicker sessions are about reinforcing behavior we like by retreating to give the horse more distance. If you are in this situation, I suggest you do some internet searching on using clicker training to gentle mustangs.
Usually it only takes a few sessions for most horses to get the basic idea behind clicker training and you are then ready to move on to teaching new behaviors or using clicker training to improve behaviors they already know. If you are new to clicker training and want a training progression, Alexandra Kurland has a lot of materials (books and DVD’s) that can guide you through the process. There are other trainers out there with their own programs too, but I am not as familiar with their work. If you have specific goals with your clicker training and you are not sure how to get there, do some research and hopefully you can find someone with a program that will work for you.
READY TO START?
I have two articles on targeting. The first one (the handout) is a general one about types of targets and what you can do with targeting. The second one is part of a workbook I use with my students and details how to start targeting. If you are more of a visual learner, Alexandra Kurland (www.theclickercenter.com) has a video on targeting and Pegy Hogan (www.thebestwhisperisaclick.com) has one too.
Targeting Handout – This handout answers questions such as what is a target? What you can you do with targeting? Katie Bartlett 2011.
Basic Targeting – This is part of a workbook I use for my students which explains how to do basic targeting, starting with an exercise for the handler (without the horse) and then explaining how to do the first targeting session. Katie Bartlett 2011.
I take my time with targeting. I want targeting to become a familiar and favorite activity. I want to spend time on basic targeting so that the new trainer gets comfortable with clicking and delivering food in a smooth and efficient manner and I want the horse to become calmer about getting food and develop good manners about taking the food. Targeting is one of the foundation lessons (Alexandra Kurland) and a behavior that I use all the time, so I want to take the time to make it solid.