equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

How I Found Clicker Training

I am always amazed at the way things work out. In 1999, I had to put down my favorite horse because she went into congestive heart failure. To replace her I bought a 9 month old filly, Rosalien. Well bred and very athletic, she was my dream horse; the one that I would keep forever.

Rosie was found by my trainer on a buying trip to the Netherlands and we had her shipped to my farm. Unfortunately, the trip was so stressful that by the time she arrived, she was both aggressive and skittish. I found it hard to deal with her as she wanted nothing to do with me, and when I did handle her, I had to be very careful. This was depressing because I have always spent a lot of time with my horses and they have always been my friends. Over the next year, Rosie and I learned to get along, but I never felt that she liked me. She was usually okay once she was out of her stall, but when I first walked in the barn she still pinned her ears and raked the bars at me. Not a very welcoming behavior.

About 5 months after I got her, I was in the traveling bookstore at Dressage at Devon. I love to visit the bookstore and am always trying to avoid spending too much money. Alexandra Kurland’s book on clicker training was on the shelf. I picked it up, thought it looked interesting, looked at the pile of books I already had, and put it back. When I went to the checkout I was told I could get a free book, so I went back and got it.  Once home, I put it on my shelf of books to read and it stayed there for 6 months!

In November, I gave birth to my fourth child and suddenly found myself with some time to read.  I picked up Clicker Training for Horses and I was hooked.  When I bought the book, I had been thinking it would be a way to develop a positive relationship with Rosie.  was looking for something fun to do with her that would help her think of me in a positive way.  Now I was inspired to go out and play. It was great timing because I wasn’t back to riding yet and it was winter so there wasn’t too much to do. I keep my horses at home and when the weather is bad, I am restricted to working in the barn.

I went out and started teaching my horses to target. I didn’t start right away with Rosie. Instead I started with my other horse, Willy, because I was more comfortable around him. He was also much more settled about allowing me to work with him in his stall. He caught on really fast and learned to target and then pick up a jolly ball. I did the same with Rosie once I felt confident I knew the basic steps to get started. Rosie loved it. I had been teaching Willy some tricks using food, but now I added the clicker as a marker signal and saw a significant improvement in how fast he was learning. He loved the work and was always eager to come out and play. Over time, I was able to shape Rosie’s behavior so that she was polite when I came up to her stall, and she clearly showed that she was eager to play the “clicker game” too.

Rosie’s training progressed from there.  We did a lot of ground work the summer she was two and she learned some tricks too. She loved to show off her latest behavior by offering it when I went into the stall. Over the winter, she didn’t get a chance to go up the ring as we had too much snow and ice. I played with her as best I could in the barn, and was amazed at how much she remembered when I took her up to the ring in the spring. 

Another winter passed and Rosie was three. She learned how to be saddled and bridled, accept a bit, work in long lines, and walk on a lunge line. She seemed to take everything in stride and whenever we got stuck, I just backed up and reinforced her more for the beginning of the behavior I was after.   I remember teaching her to long line and getting all disorganized with the lines. She would just stop and wait until I was ready to go again. She never panicked when the lines touched her legs. The biggest problem I had was teaching her to walk ahead of me. She was so used to being next to me, that she didn’t want to walk out in front.

When she was 4, I backed her without any problem. We spent the summer walking and working on her steering.  She had developed some fear of the back of the ring. This was mostly due to the fact that the barn cats liked to jump out at unsuspecting (or suspecting) people and horses from behind a tall clump of grass at the back. We were able to worth through that and by the next summer she was trotting around the ring and we even started cantering.

Well, this is more than just how I found clicker training, it is really Rosie’s story. Rosie showed me how much a horse could change with this training method. Clicker training gave me a very clear way to communicate with her and it showed me how to change her behavior by reinforcing the behaviors I liked. Through the process, she learned many new things, but the most important thing she learned was that I was her friend.