equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Why Clicker Training?

The original version of this article was first published when I launched my website in 2004. I’ve updating it a few times over the years and rather than re-write it this time, I’ve just cleaned it up a bit. Doing it this way offers a little more insight into my own journey and what brought me to clicker training and has kept me actively learning more about it. I still continue to amazed at what we can teach with clicker training and the profound changes it has made in every interaction I have with my horses.

Note: I might not approach each of these training problems in the same way now, but I think it’s significant that even my less educated efforts at using positive reinforcement paid off, and they were definite light bulb moments for me.


With so many training resources and books out there, what makes clicker training different?  This is a question I think about every time I try to explain clicker training to someone new. I live in an area that has a lot of horse activity and good professionals. I could choose to work on a regular basis with someone local who is a well known professional. Instead I work by myself, getting along on 3 or 4 clinics a year (if I’m lucky) which are 5 hours away.  Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it. Then I go out to the barn and look at my horses and the answer is “yes.”

So why? The horses tell me. They are all happy to see me. The horses in the fields come right up to the gate when I go to catch them. Everyone is always eager to come out and play. And yes, I no longer think of horse training as work, I think of it as play.  Some of this is because I tend to mix in some non-traditional lessons with my regular work. I do a lot of tricks and games with my horses.  But, some of it is because, with clicker training, even the traditional work becomes more like learning something together instead of asking the horse to do something.  By mixing things up a bit, the horses get to enjoy the chance to do something different and it gives them a break from the more difficult work.     

It is important to me that my horses enjoy the time we spend together, but that is not my only consideration. I also have training goals and I want to be able to continue my own education as a horse owner, trainer, and rider.  By using clicker training, I am working with my horses in a positive way, but just as importantly, I am using a training system that is based on the science of learning and that has been shown to be a safe and effective way of training.   

Clicker training is the systematic use of positive reinforcement to change behavior. It is based on the work of B. F. Skinner, who described and then studied how animals learn through operant conditioning. Skinner did most of his work in a laboratory setting, but his students took this technology out of the lab and into the real world. Keller and Marian Breland started Animal Behavior Enterprises where they trained many species of animals for commercial work. The marine and zoological community recognized it was a method that could allow them to train previously “untrainable” animals and started using it as well. Clicker training has now been used with a wide variety of species and applications. It is commonly used by both professionals and amateurs for pet, performance, and exotic animals. It has been been used with many different species of animals, including people.

When I am sat down to write this article, I found myself considering all the advantages of clicker training and wanted to present them in a meaningful way.  I knew I could share examples of all the amazing things that have been done with clicker training, or I could explain more about the science of it, but rather than do either of those things, I thought I would just share a few stories of times when it really became clear to me why I love clicker training. I think people use clicker training for different reasons and I wanted to make this article more personal.  For me, clicker training is about finding a way to communicate with my horse and seeing the horse have one of those great light bulb moments where she or he suddenly knows exactly what I want.  

 I have had many “ah-ha” moments, but a few really stand out in my mind.  The first horses I clicker trained were Rosie, my 2 year old Dutch mare, and Willy, my middle-aged TB gelding.  Rosie had already done some groundwork before I started clicker training and I was working toward starting her under saddle. By the time she was 4, I was ready to start riding her and I introduced riding by using a fairly traditional progression, combined with clicker training. I was a novice clicker trainer and a lot of what I did was what we called “piggy-backing,” meaning I added a click and treat for correct answers – but how I got the behavior and how I thought about behavior had not really changed. . I had not really made the profound mental shift to thinking about the side-effects of using aversives and I was not yet skilled at breaking behavior down and setting up the environment to make my horse successful.

Anyway, things were mostly going well until one day when Rosie was working in the ring and became scared of the far end. She’s always been a little more anxious at the far end because it’s away from her friends and our neighbors are often doing potentially scary things back there. Most days, she looks a little, but then decides it’s okay. On this particular day, she kept stopping when I rode her towards the back. She would get about 2/3 of the way down, and then refuse to go. I decided this was silly (old mindset) and decided to make her go there, even though she was clearly uncomfortable with the idea. I was very clear in my intent, kept her facing the back, and asked her to go forward until she took a step. I didn’t use a whip or any undue force, but I gave her no choice as to where she was going. Well, she went. Her head was up, back was down, she was walking stiffly, and she was poised for flight at any moment. I hated it!

I went back to the “safe” end and regrouped. Later in the session, I changed my strategy to clicking her for walking toward the far end, and then letting her choose whether or not she wanted to continue in that direction, or turn away. She was a different horse. She chose to go the “scary” end, and although she didn’t march bravely down, her whole body posture was different. Her head was lower, her muscle tone was more relaxed, and she took larger steps. Giving her the choice of whether or not to continue in the “scary” direction changed her level of anxiety and what behavior she was willing to offer.

Her fear of the far end also affected her willingness to turn towards it. If I was riding across the ring and wanted to turn at the rail, she would willingly turn toward the gate, but not toward the far end. I experimented around a bit with ways of limiting her options for which direction she could turn (by using obstacles), and I could set it up so she would turn the way I wanted, but it was still clearly causing her anxiety. I got the same kind of braced and tense forward that she had shown when just walking toward the back end. 

To address this, I spent about 2 sessions where I clicked her for turns away from the gate at a much higher rate than turns toward the gate. This solved the problem and when I shifted my criteria to click for more balanced turns (in either direction), she continued to turn either way for me. Because she continued to show some anxiety about the far end of the ring, I tried to make it an area of high reinforcement and I clicked and treated her a lot just for being down there. This paid off and eventually we got to the point where if I gave her a loose rein, she would choose to walk down there on her own. 

Another example of a light bulb moment with Rosie was when I taught her to canter. I rode her for a whole year at walk and trot, just playing around before I tried the canter. It seemed like a good idea to take things slowly as she had a very unorganized trot and I just didn’t feel she was ready to canter. But, when I decided to introduce the canter (on the ground), she had no idea what I wanted. She canters in the field all the time, but it just hadn’t occurred to her that she could canter in the ring. I tried it first on the lunge, or in my temporary round pen, and she just trotted faster and faster when I asked for a canter. If I pushed her beyond that, she would get upset. I didn’t want her to learn to canter by running into it in flight mode so I left it for a while. There is always other stuff to do.

When I was ready to try the canter again, I decided to use a ground pole to build a little energy because I thought she might “jump” into the canter. This had happened accidentally once before when I was working on something else. This time, I set up the pole, asked her to trot, and watched for any additional effort as she went over the pole. I also played a bit with the height of the pole and speed of the trot. Within a few sessions, she started to consistently pop into a canter over the pole.

This was cool, but the real “ah-ha” moment came for me a few days later when I realized the pole had become a cue to canter. If I didn’t have the pole out, she would only walk and trot. If I put the pole out, she would canter. It didn’t even matter if the pole was in position and she didn’t always choose to use the pole to pick up the canter. If the pole was present, then canter was a clickable behavior and she would offer it. I can still remember the day when she figured out that she could offer the canter without the pole. She would canter, hear the click, stop and come to me for her treat, and then immediately offer canter again. She was so enthusiastic and it was so clear that she thought this was wonderful. All I could think about was that this was wonderful too. It was such a fun way to teach a horse something new.

Willy’s canter has given me some “ah-ha” moments too. As an ex-racehorse, his canter was always challenging. He tended to be stiff to the right and it was always tough to regulate his speed. Prior to clicker training, I rode him on a strong contact and I was able to keep things under control. But when I started riding on a looser rein and trying to teach him to balance himself, I realized the extent of the problem. Going back to a strong contact was not a solution because now he braced even more. I had to figure out a way to help him organize his body and learn to use the reins (and my other aids) help him, not to restrict him. This was a problem not just in the canter, but also in his downward transitions. He never wanted to go (or found it easy to go?) from canter to trot and it always took a few requests and too much rein. With him, I introduced single rein riding and it was through that work that he learned to re-balance himself. I started clicking him for moments of better balance as well as responsiveness to my aids and his canter started to change. I eventually got to the point where I could ask for a few strides of canter, click, drop the reins and have him come back to the walk. What an amazing thing!

UPDATE: September 2005

The original content for this page was written in the winter of 2004 when I first created this web site. Since then, a lot has changed, but my fascination with clicker training has not, and I am now clicker training more than ever.  At my house, we have 6 horses which are all clicker trained to various levels.  I have learned a lot about using clicker training to train a foal from day one, start a horse under saddle, and also about how to use clicker training to train a horse for more advanced ridden work.  I have used my clicker training skills to figure out how to maintain the focus and enthusiasm of my horses as the work gets more complicated. Both my riding horses are doing great and we have made a lot of progress. I find the precision of the clicker has been invaluable in teaching them to respond to my rein, leg and seat cues and to “catch” those moments when they get their bodies in correct alignment. 

But, more than that, I have found that the “clicker mindset” has made me a different rider. Every time I ride my horses, I learn something new, either about their bodies or mine, or about how to become a better trainer. I no longer have “bad” rides when my horse is uncooperative. This doesn’t mean every ride goes the way I planned, but I have learned how to be flexible during my ride so that I work on what is needed that day, not what I had planned. I would not be able to do that if I hadn’t learned to teach behavior systematically, recognize where to start on any given day, and how to build on them to make progress.

The more I think about clicker training and how I work with my horses now, the clearer it is that clicker training has made me a better trainer, not just a clicker trainer, but a horse trainer.  There are some key elements and skills that make good trainers.  I feel that through clicker training, I have developed those qualities and improved my ability to communicate and motivate my horses to learn new things.

         Some of the skills that I have learned are:

  • good timing
  • lesson planning
  • emotional control
  • patience
  • persistence
  • understanding when and how to set up the environment and wait for behavior to happen.
  • problem solving
  • creative thinking
  • increased powers of observation and body awareness
  • a better understanding of how learning happens and how I can influence behavior

These skills have all contributed to building a better relationship with my horses and a better understanding of how to build and maintain desired behaviors.  Because I work on my own most of the time, it is important for me to do my own problem solving and deal with training issues as they arise. Now, instead of getting frustrated, I am able to work through the training process to get the desired result.  I am much more in tune with my horses and I can pick up on their confusion and anxiety before it leads to bigger problems. I think this is one of the biggest benefits of clicker training. It empowers us as trainers because it teaches us how to break down training issues into small steps and work through them on my own. It has given me a lot more confidence in my ability to deal with many of the issues that come up when I work with my horses.

And, of course, since I am a better trainer, my horses benefit too. They benefit both from my new attitude toward training and confidence in what I am doing, as well as from my increased understanding of how horses learn.   Instead of being subjected to long repetitious sessions, I tend to keep the sessions short and varied.  If I only have a short period of time, I can still find something fun and interesting to do with them. If the weather is bad, or my schedule is tight, I can spend 10 minutes training them and it gives them some interaction and adds variety to their day.

It is very clear to me that the horses enjoy their training sessions and if I miss a few days, they start asking me to come play with them. It is addictive for the trainer too. Once I used clicker training to open the lines of communication between me and my horses,  I could never imagine training any other way.  It can be hard to explain this to people because clicker training is new for horses and there are not a lot of clicker trained horses out in the public eye. But it is a whole different level of awareness between you and the horse.  My horses are interested and curious about what I am doing.  They watch me and look for opportunities to interact. Spending time with a clicker trained horse is different than being with other horses. 

I think that as more people get to see and spend time with clicker trained horses, it will become more widely recognized as a powerful and flexible training method. I love all the different applications and how easily it can be used by people who would not consider themselves to be “horse trainers.” It can be used to train a horse for performance or competition just as well as it can be used to train a pleasure horse or family pet. When I started clicker training, I just used clicker training for little behaviors here and there, and then I expanded my use of it as I got more comfortable with the mechanics and learned to see new opportunities to use it. I usually encourage new clicker trainers to start with something that is fun or practical.  Then once you understand the basics of clicker training, you will start to see other possibilities.

Sometimes I am asked if there are people using clicker training for performance horses. This question about the versatility of clicker training came up on the clickryder list (in yahoo groups) in September 2005 when a new member posted a question asking if there were high level performance horses out there that had been clicker trained. She was looking for examples that showed that clicker training can be used to teach behaviors that are more “advanced” than basic care and handling. The following response was written by Peggy Ferdinand from Minnesota and she kindly allowed me to share it.

Peggy has been clicker training dogs for about 9 years and has attended three of the Bailey & Bailey chicken camps. She teaches some classes on clicker training and is developing a series of workshops for first-time horse owners that covers some of the things they may not know about basic horse-keeping. In her teaching, she is firmly committed to helping people understand the “whys” of clicker training so that they are not limited to trying to follow someone else’s “recipe”—which may or may not work for their horse, or their situation. She has her own horse and is clicker-re-training him (he had a few small “issues” to be addressed when she got him). Horses have always been her “first love,” and she is hoping to be able to do more horse training.

Peggy writes:

“I’ve been thinking about your request for serious/high-level (not your words) training projects that have proven the usefulness of the clicker for training all sorts of behaviors. I wasn’t sure whether you were asking whether there was sufficient evidence to justify “switching over” completely to clicker training, or whether you were just starting a discussion for some other reason–but I have enjoyed thinking about it all, and reading the various posts.

     As far as evidence goes, I think it’s useful to remember that most people who have horses as pets/companions train to the level that they need, given what they do with their horses on a regular basis. Most folks do train behaviors like picking up feet, for instance, or calm behavior when in the arena or on the trail, or standing still for mounting, or riding/showing disciplines (for those who know enough about the sports to do that–for example, I love dressage and have had lessons but would not be capable of training a dressage horse because *I* am still learning the “rider” part; I don’t have any doubt about my training skills per se, but I wouldn’t know how to chunk down the horse’s job enough to train those things effectively).

 I’ve been inspired by Beth’s scent work training with Ao and am planning to start Sass on the same stuff once I can get on him without two assistants (I ride with a bareback pad, and till I finish training him to stand still, in order to get on I would need one person to hold Sass and one person to give me a leg up).

    To me, the acid test of the clicker method is not whether clicker training can be used to create extremely high-level behaviors, but whether it works “on the ground,” for lots of different people with lots of different challenges, rather than only for the “best” trainers/those in the ‘Master’ category. Since people on this list are working on AND succeeding with a wide variety of training tasks—often based on **e-mail coaching** for heaven’s sake(!!!!!), and/or experience with another species (often dogs), and/or occasional opportunities to interact with other clicker trainers—there is solid evidence that clicker training is VERY effective, on an *extremely* broad basis, AND very accessible (i.e., you don’t have to go to Spain or Germany for years and apprentice with one of the masters to benefit from using it—although that would be an incredibly cool experience, IMHO!!).

     And when you add the fact that many folks on this list are, as Beth phrased it, “refugees” who have in many cases tried the other methods and found that they wouldn’t work for their horses (i.e., we are dealing with a population of “difficult” animals)–that says a lot to me, too!

    Finally, the variety of species that can be clicker-trained is another thing in favor of clicker training. Elephants, big cats, wolves, horses, domestic cats, dolphins, killer whales, coatimundi (sp?), pigeons, ravens, vultures, rats, dogs, goldfish, raccoons, chickens, fiddler crabs . . . all of these and more have been trained to do things using the clicker, and many of them learned tasks that *did* have to go on the road in just the way you were asking about. (Not the goldfish, and not the chickens, BTW <ggg>.) This says to me that clicker training isn’t limited to this or that animal, or this or that task: it’s a question, rather, of how far the trainer wants to go in learning to use the techniques, and of what training projects s/he is willing to take on.

    Well, this got longer than I expected, so I’ll stop now, but I found your question was very thought-provoking and answering it allowed me to put into words a lot of things I’ve been mulling over, over the years. “

I think Peggy summed it up very well.  When we evaluate a training method, it is not enough to look at one aspect of training (advanced performance) as the best indicator of the method’s effectiveness.  There is nothing wrong with looking at performance goals, but we should also consider how the method works across many different applications.  A good training method should enhance and enrich the training process for trainers and trainees of all levels.  We are still learning how to harness the power of clicker training and the more people explore it, the more we will learn about what it can do.  As Alexandra Kurland likes to say, “There are no limits with clicker training.”

     Thanks for reading and happy clicking,