clicker training

If your horse needs help with hoof handling manners, clicker training can create positive associations and responses in a safe and calm manner.

It’s been almost 25 years since I first went out to the barn with my pockets full of treats and a clicker in my hand. At the time, my horse was laid up with abscesses in both front feet. I was curious about clicker training, and wanted to keep my very fit, very active Thoroughbred entertained during his layup. His feet hurt so much he could barely walk, but he could touch things with his nose, so that’s where I began with the clicker training. I held a dressage whip up in front of his nose. When he sniffed the end out of curiosity, I clicked and handed him a treat.

Targeted training

In clicker parlance, we call this targeting. My horse was orienting toward an object. Simple. It felt like a cute party trick. I was interested in beautiful balance, not silly games, but he was so lame it was all he could do. So I held the target up again, and again he investigated it with his muzzle.

A few clicks and treats later and the action was clearly deliberate. Both of us were enjoying this new game. He had discovered a “magic button”. All he had to do was bump the dressage whip, and he could get me to reach into my pocket and hand him a treat. What could be better than that!

He was in control, and so was I. I was choosing the behavior that would earn treats. Snuffling around my pockets didn’t work. Touching the dressage whip did.

Shaping behaviors

Behavior is determined by its consequences. Often we think it’s what comes before that makes behavior happen. We say “sit”, and our dog sits. The link seems direct and clear. But what about the next time you say “sit”? What determines if your dog will sit again? If you smacked him when he sat because you’re angry that he chewed your favorite shoes, the next time he hears you say “sit”, he may run away. “Sit” has become a predictor of bad things. It’s something to be avoided.

But if you smile and give him a treat because he’s such a clever dog for sitting, the next time you say “sit”, he’s going to be eager to sit again. The verbal cue “sit” has become a predictor of good things. It will trigger the behavior you want because your dog knows it will be followed by good things. Consequences drive behavior.

Targeting for basic hoof handling

We can use this basic understanding to teach great hoof care manners. We can also use our newfound targeting skill. When I first started clicker training, I thought targeting was little more than a trick. I now know better. Targeting is embedded in just about everything we ask of our horses. And a great way to teach or reteach basic foot care manners is through the use of targeting.

Here’s the lesson:

I’m going to assume your horse will stand still for you. That’s our starting position. If that’s not the case, you’ll need to work on that first. We’ll start with the left front foot.

  1. Standing to the side of your horse, cup your hands around his elbow and gently move the skin slightly upward. You are feeling for any shift of balance that lightens his weight on that foot. Click and treat as soon as you feel even a minute change.
  2. As you do, you will find that your horse will be unweighting his foot more and more, and may even start to lift it off the ground.
  3. Now you’re going to teach him to target his knee to the palm of your hand. Cue him to lift his foot. As he does, his knee will come forward. Reach down and cup his knee in your hand. Click and treat.
  4. Repeat several times.
  5. Gradually have him lift his leg up a little higher to find your waiting hand. Now he has to bring his knee up to your hand. You are no longer moving your hand to him.
  6. You can begin to withhold your click slightly so he lifts his knee into the palm of your hand and holds it there. Click and treat. Caution: During this phase, do not take a firm hold of your horse’s foot. You are asking him to target to your hand. You want him to trust that it is safe to rest his foot in your hand. This is very important to understand, especially for horses that have had bad experiences and become very defensive about their feet. Resist any temptation at this stage to hold the foot.
  7. When your horse is consistently and confidently lifting his foot and resting it lightly in your hand, you are ready to move on. Continue to let his foot rest in your right hand, but now steady his foot with your other hand. Click and treat. Continue to build on this until you can hold his foot for routine cleaning and trimming.

You can use a similar approach for the hind feet. Stand at your horse’s hip and ask for a weight shift. Click and treat. When he is consistently unweighting his foot and bringing it slightly off the ground, use your foot as a target. See if you can touch the underside of his foot as it lifts off the ground. Click and treat. Develop this in small increments just as you did the front feet.

Safety first

One of the advantages of this approach is you never have to lean down to try to pick up your horse’s foot. You aren’t putting yourself in a vulnerable position. Instead you are remaining upright. Also, for both the front and back legs, if you don’t feel comfortable using your hand or your foot as a target for his foot, you can use a target on the end of a long dowel.

This is a very safe way to make hoof handling easier. It’s also a lot of fun. And it has the added benefit of bypassing a lot of past history during which your horse may have been pushed, shoved and frightened into picking up his feet. The kind of escape and avoidance behavior this creates works against you. Instead, using targets and the positive consequences of a click followed by a treat help create cooperative hoof handling.