How to Clicker Train Your Horse
Targeting – Part 1
How do I get started with clicker training ?
Clicker training gets its name from the fact that we use a small plastic box that we can use to make a clicking sound. Other than that, it is simply positive reinforcement training. The click is added in to mark the exact moment that we want to reward and thus reduce any ambiguity as to what it is that we reinforced.
Introduce the Clicker
If we just used treats, then all the behaviour that happens in-between the wanted behaviour and the time it takes us to get our hand in the treat pouch could be interpreted as the right answer. Add on to that, the fact that for the horse to know that you going for treats means ‘yes’ means your horse has to be able to see you at all times. And that is not an idea way to train as we are building in a behaviour that might prevent us from doing certain things with our horses.
We also have to consider ridden work. If we don’t use a marker then how does the horse know to stop and get the treats. The waters will be very muddied indeed as they wonder at what point they need to start to react to us getting the treats out, and all sorts of behaviours might be reinforced. This will all add up to the learning process being slowed, and possibly even made frustrating. So to ensure the waters are nice and clear and the learning process is faster we introduce the clicker to the training. As such, when we are getting started with clicker training, the first thing we need to do is teach the horse what the clicker means. And we use targeting (touch a target with your nose) for this.
Clicker training is fun for both the horse and handler, however, while the handler learns about all the things that they suddenly need to be aware of (how they deliver the treats, the timing of the click, are they moving their feet etc) their body language and movements can be erratic and inconsistent making it very hard for the horse to figure out the pattern. In this situation some horses can show signs of frustration (a part of learning) and we need to monitor that carefully.
Some frustration is a part of learning, but if that frustration gets too much then good learning is no longer happening and the frustration can lead to things like mugging the handlers pockets.
While the handler learns all the things that she needs to learn, for safety reasons, we start with the horse on the other side of a barrier (stable door or similar). That way if the horse gets too frustrated, or we need to step back to re-group, or get treats then we can retreat to a safe distance.
Take your time to set things up; make sure you have a suitable target, you have the right amount of treats (you may be following the 20 treat rule), you have your clicker and your target in the correct hands etc before you approach your horse to start target training.
Touch the Target
By using targeting, it seems to bring a clarity to the horses that they need to do something. This is particularly useful if we are working with a shut down horse who has been taught not to try. We can start to bring them out of their shell a little. For some horses who are very shut down we might even need to go back a step in the process, but that is a whole other topic and in this article we will stick to talking about the horses who are happy to try new behaviours.
Step 1 is to teach the horse to touch a target. Any target will do as long as it is portable and can tuck under your arm (so lightweight and flexible helps as well).
You will hold the target out at arm’s length near to your horse’s nose. Hold it close enough so that if your horse does not actively show interest in the target that they can accidentally bump it just by turning their head. As your horse touches the target, click and give them the reinforcement/treat.
Be careful not to cross the target over your body as this will put you off-balance and is not particularly safe when your horse is being asked to approach the target. The picture to the right shows nice target mechanics with the target being held out at arm’s length for the horse to bump it.
Remove the Target (Cue)
Once your horse has touched the target it is important to get the target out-of-the-way. As your horse learns about the click this is good way to prevent the horse from just going back to the target while you work on getting the treat. It helps them to notice the relationship between the click and the treat with no distractions in between.
The picture to the left shows the target neatly tucked out-of-the-way while the handler goes for the treats.
As with holding your target out at arm’s length, the treat delivery mechanics are equally as important. If your hand is not predictable then it can become a moving target and the horse can get grabby for treats. The series of pictures below shows some really nice treat delivery. The arm curls up, then stretches out and asks the horse for a slight back up to take the treat.