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Clicker Training Your Horse

By: Dr. Linda Aronson

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The concept of "clicker training" – using positive reinforcement and operant conditioning to train animals – has been gaining popularity. In basic terms, the animal associates the sound of the clicker with a reward for doing the right thing. As with dogs and other animals, horses are prime candidates for clicker training.

When To Clicker Train

Some examples of where clicker training may be appropriate include such in-hand tasks as:

  • Leading politely
  • Loading quietly onto the trailer or entering unfamiliar places
  • Teaching him to lower his head on command
  • Accepting clippering or bathing
  • Standing quietly for veterinary examination or braiding
  • Coming when called
  • Turning to face anyone entering the stall
  • Lifting feet for general cleaning – which may help improve his balance under saddle

    Horses with aggression, and those that rear or display other dangerous behaviors, can be retrained using the clicker. However, amateurs should not take on an aggressive horse without the help of a professional trainer.

    You can also teach lateral and other complex movements from the ground before you attempt them under saddle. Under saddle, the clicker can be used to mark an attempt towards the desired movement, and to help shape complex sequences.

    Many times in training it seems that the horse just doesn't "get it." If we can clearly tell him what is wanted, despite our own less-than-perfect aids and body position, learning can proceed at a faster rate. Once we start with clicker training, we may find our horses showing a real aptitude for this type of instruction – joy in learning for its own sake. While our horse becomes a model citizen and learns many crowd pleasing tricks, our bond with him deepens and the partnership is strengthened.

    Getting Started

    You will need a clicker, which you can get in many pet stores and even some tack shops. You will also need a number of small tasty treats, such as morsels of carrot or apple, mints or pieces of his grain ration. If you have a horse with a tendency to be grabby or to bite – a common problem in ponies especially – presenting the treats in a flat pan is advisable.

    Another piece of equipment that will help later is a "target." This can be a dressage whip, special stick, or even a traffic cone, although the cone can be unwieldy in some situations. You can use different targets to attain different goals.

    The first step is to pair the click with the treat. This is really simple and most horses will learn in a couple of 5-minute sessions. Simply click the clicker and give the horse a treat. You will see the horse first looking to where you keep the treats, but once he begins to understand the connection he will look to the hand that is clicking.

    The Target

    Once you see this behavior consistently, you can introduce the concept that he must do something to get a click. The easiest first task is to have him touch the target. Make this simple by placing the target somewhere he is likely to move his nose. At first he may be somewhat puzzled by the lack of treats and clicks. He will move around his environment. Start with him at liberty in his stall or a small paddock or round pen. He will probably nudge at the hand with the clicker, and maybe at the treats, but ultimately his nose will connect with the target. Immediately click and give him a treat. In your excitement at his success remember to give only a single click and not a whole string.

    Initially, he will wonder what he did to get the click and become more intent on his activities trying to push the right button. Again, when he touches the target, click and treat. Once he is touching the target consistently you can up the ante. Move the target around so he has to seek it out, then click only for touching a particular spot on the target.

    With a target stick you can get him to follow it down so he places his head between his front legs, or back round to touch his flank, even lifting his head. You can increase the time he has to remain in contact with the target, so that he learns to stand still for various procedures. Using a cone, and possibly the target stick, you can even send him out to touch the cone placed across the other side of the paddock.

    Training Do's

    All training sessions should be kept relatively short. You do not want to bore the horse by repeating the task, overload him on treats or put him off the whole learning process. It has been shown that animals work best if they are rewarded on a random basis. If they receive a reward every time they approximate a behavior, the execution becomes sloppy. If they are rewarded for every third or fourth attempt they will only make a real effort for the one they know will be rewarded. By upping your expectations with your horse you will help him produce the best effort he can.

    Additionally, never try to teach two concepts at the same time. You will confuse your horse (or any other animal, for that matter). Each session should be aimed at a single element.

    Once the horse has the behavior down, and produces it consistently, you can introduce a verbal or hand signal to initiate the behavior. Rather like the children's game Simon Says, from now on the behavior will only be rewarded if you have asked for it, not if he offers it at random. You can lower you execution standards slightly at first until he realizes that "touch" means he puts his nose on the target stick, then gradually refine the click and reward so that only smooth crisp and immediate performance on command is clicked.

    One reason you may want to teach the target stick first is that it gives you instant control of his head, and wherever the head goes the rest of the horse follows. You can use it to get him to stretch his muscles, stop a rear, or bring his head down for bridling or clipping.

    When clicker training a horse under saddle, and even when working in hand, it is obvious that you do not want him to stop for his reward every time he is clicked. While clicking the desired performance, the rider should make the horse wait until the sequence – be it dressage test, jumping round or reining – is complete before giving a reward. In this case the reward could be a bonanza, rather than just a single carrot ring. Similarly, although you should never reward a particularly outstanding performance with a string of clicks, it is perfectly all right to give him a larger than normal treat or number of treats to mark your pleasure in his success.

    One of the more amazing things about clicker training is that even in a ring full of horses, riders and trainers, each horse seems to know if he is the one being clicked for his performance, even when he is receiving his reinforcement from a trainer on the other side of the ring. Of course, riders also can benefit and appreciate being clicked for their performance.

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