equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

What is targeting and why should you teach it?

This article was originally posted on my website (www.equineclickertraining.com) in 2010. I wanted people to be aware of the wide number of applications for targeting. Not only is it a useful behavior on its own, but it is the foundation or component behavior for many more complex behaviors.

My book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement (available through Amazon (kindle and paperback), which I published in 2018, has an entire chapter on targeting as well as additional material on how to use targets to teach other behaviors.


Targets: A red hand-held target, disc and traffic cones that make good stationary targets. A mat is a foot target.

Targeting is a good way to introduce clicker training to horses.  In the easiest version of  “targeting”, the horse is taught to touch an object with its nose.   Through targeting, the horse learns that the click marks a specific behavior, and that it will be followed by a reinforcer. Horses can also be taught to target with other body parts. I teach foot targeting (mat work) after a horse has learned nose targeting. Later, I may teach the horse to target with other body parts (knee, hip, shoulder, chin, jaw, etc..). You can find more information on body part targeting in my blog Body Targeting – moving beyond nose targeting.

I like starting with targeting because it is a behavior most people and horses don’t know, so there is no emotional baggage associated with it. You can’t force it and you can learn a lot about your horse by teaching it.  In addition, it comes with a cue, which is the presentation of the target, so it is easy to get under stimulus control. You can add more cues later if you want to ask the horse to target other items or don’t want the target itself to be the cue.

TYPES OF TARGETS

A target can be anything you choose, but most targets can be classified as either stationary or hand-held. 

Stationary targets are placed in one location and the horse is either parked at them, or sent to them.  Popular stationary targets are mats, milk jugs or other objects that can be tied in different locations, boat bumpers (this is what Shawna Karrasch uses), cones and pedestals.  Any object can be treated like a stationary target once you have targeting on cue. This means you can ask your horse to target any item that it is safe for him to touch. 

Hand-held targets are carried by the handler and used for targeting exercises that involve motion.  A good hand-held target has an obvious targeting location on one end.  You can easily make a hand held target by putting a larger object on the end of a dowel or old whip.   I have seen targets where the targeting “hot spot” is made out of pieces of pool noodle, tennis balls and water bottles.  Having an object on one end and holding that end away from you makes it easier to establish good manners around food. The horse learns to keep his distance because both the target and the food are presented away from your body.

APPLICATIONS FOR TARGETING

I am always coming up with new ways to use targeting so this is not a complete list, but it should provide enough ideas to see the value of targeting.

Leading:  teach the horse to follow a hand held target

Standing while tied:  teach the horse to stand on a target (mat) or keep its nose near or on a target

Ground tying: teach the horse to stand on a target (mat) or stay near a target

Lungeing:  teach the horse to follow a target moving in a circle, or go from target to target so that it travels on a circle

Trailer loading: teach the horse to follow a target on to a trailer or go to a stationary target on a trailer

Stall manners: teach the horset to back to or stand next to a target when you are working in the stall

Approaching scary objects:  teach a horse to target new items so that instead of being scary, they are opportunities for reinforcement

Obstacles/trail courses:  you can use foot targeting (touch the foot to the object) to train horses to walk on or over obstacles

First aid and husbandry issues:  horses can learn to target with other body parts. If you have to medicate an eye, teach the horse to put the eye in your hand and hold it there.  You can do the same thing with feet and other body parts using the idea of holding on a target.

Worming:  teach the horse to target the syringe.

Liberty work and trick training:  targets can be used in lots of areas, from sending horse to locations, to directing body parts for lateral work, rears, laying down, sitting, spanish walk, etc..

Games that involve picking things up/indicating with the nose:  targets can be used to get horses started on the idea of using their nose or mouth to manipulate things. This includes things like playing fetch, soccer (with the nose or feet), indicating letters or colors with the nose or feet, holding things, drawing and painting and so on.

In-hand and groundwork:  targets can be used to “direct body parts” in specific directions to teach lateral work (shoudler-in, haunches-in, half pass, sidepass, backing, backing in different directions, etc…)

Mounting block manners:  teach your horse to line up at the mounting block through targeting, either of body parts under your direction of my teaching him to target a mat next to the block, or the block itself (with his side).

Haltering and bridling:  teach the horse to target the noseband (halter) or bit (bridle) so he can self halter or bridle.