Clicker training is an effective and easy way to create precise and clear communication between you and your horse. Using a click and a reward, you essentially create a dialogue between your horse and yourself. You also end up with a horse who is excited to see you and who wants to work with you.
Anyone who has the desire can learn clicker training. It does, however, involve thinking in a different way. Clicker training is not about punishment; it’s about reinforcement. It provides you with a way to give your horse a paycheck every time he “gets it right”. It’s about looking for the positive, ignoring the unwanted, and finding ways to say “yes” to your horse instead of “no”.
The clicker method is a progressive system that builds on previous tasks. First, you teach the horse what the sound of the click means by pairing it with a reward, most often food. The only other higher-value reward is safety; in order to use safety as a reward, however, you first need to threaten the horse, which is why it’s best to use food instead.
This first lesson is taught to the horse using a method called “targeting” (see sidebar). You hold up a target, such as a soccer cone, a brush, or a supplement lid, and when the horse reaches out to nuzzle it, you click and give him a treat. Horses are naturally curious, so putting the target close to his face will usually cause him to nuzzle it. After a 20-minute session, you should be able to move the target to different spots and your horse will purposefully touch it. This lets you know that he understands the clicker game.
Horses new to clicker training are taught targeting by first putting them in a stall, behind a fence or with something between them and the trainer. This is because horses can get very excited about the food, and that’s what causes many people to give up. Teaching your horse not to mug for food is another training task.
In the beginning, you get what is called the “Helen Keller moment”. You have a horse that hasn’t been included in communication and all of the sudden he starts getting food. He hasn’t yet learned that you are going to deliver a treat only when a certain behavior is offered. You need to wait that out. In the meantime, the barrier is for your safety so you can work comfortably.
You’ve taught your horse how to touch a target. Now let’s teach him how to push a ball around with his nose. Start by breaking the behavior down into its smallest components. What makes up pushing a ball? •Targeting the ball with his nose.
• Targeting the ball while it’s on the ground.
• Pushing the ball with his nose.
• Pushing the ball more than once to move it from one spot to the next.
1. First hold the ball in your hand and click/reward your horse every time he touches it. Do this for 20 minutes and end the session.
2. Come back at least an hour later (or next day) and click/reward your horse a few times for touching the ball while it’s in your hand.
3. Now put the ball on the ground and if your horse even bends his head and gets close to it, click/reward. Don’t worry if he doesn’t touch the ball the first time; even looking at it is worth a “yes”. Within four or five clicks, you should have your horse bending down and touching the ball. Click/reward this behavior a few times.
4. Here comes the tricky part. You are now going to withhold the click/reward until the horse nudges the ball. Being a good trainer, you just need to wait it out, but if your horse starts to lose interest, back up a little bit and reward him just for touching again.
5. If you stick with it, you’ll quickly have your horse nudging the ball a few inches at a time. In the beginning, you might have to click for the nudge, then click when he steps up to nose it, then click for nudging it again.
6. Once your horse nudges the ball every time he touches it, withhold the click until he nudges it twice in a row. Increase the length between clicks at your horse’s pace.
Within a few sessions you should have your horse pushing the ball all over the place. Have fun with this. How you feel is how your horse will feel as well.
Just about everything we train our horses to do is a trick to them: carrying the human, Piaffe on cue, even a sliding stop. If we take that concept to the training session, we can have a lot of fun. Clicker training can be used to teach your horse all kinds of things, from pushing a ball around to lifting her withers and raising her poll in collection. The best reward of all is creating a positive dialogue and a safe, enjoyable relationship with your horse.