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Clicker Training With Horses and The Power of “Yes”

Clicker training is ideal when working at liberty. The horse becomes an eager and willing learner. His goal is to win your approval and a reward Targeting is a simple way to initiate clicker training. Although the rope across the stall entrance isn't much of a barrier, it does help define individual spaces. 1) When Nikita comes forward and 2) touches the target (a plastic dog toy attached to a dowel), Sandy Atchison clicks, which gives her horse an instant affirmative. 3) Nikita now knows her food reward is coming. 4) However, she momentarily forgets her manners and encroaches on Sandy's space. 5) To discourage mugging, Sandy steps forward, asks Nikita to step back, and then presents the treat in the horse's space, not close to her own body. Nikita gets the point and takes the reward politely.

In my introductory article ("Clicker Training and Horses: Stepping Stones Across the Swamp," October 2007), I described the first steps with clicker training horses and how I began to work out ways to blend this positive approach with John Lyons' single-rein training techniques. Now it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty. There are three phases of clicker training for horses. Ultimately, you will be able to put this approach to work when you ride your horse, too.

There are six foundation lessons in the first phase of clicker training. Here's what they are and what they're designed to do:


1. Targeting introduces the horse to the clicker.
2. Backing creates respect of space.
3. Head-lowering helps create a calm horse.
4. "The grown-ups are talking, please don't interrupt" teaches emotional control and patience.
5. "Happy faces" makes the handler more aware of the horse's body language and creates a pleasant expression in the horse.
6. Standing on a mat continues to work on space management and emotional control.

Let's take a look at each of these lessons.

Lesson One: Targeting
The first lesson is teaching your horse to target. Basically, this means that you present your horse with an object, and when he touches it with his nose, you click and then feed him a treat. In this way, you begin to pair a desired behavior with the click and treat.

Targets can be anything-a lid from a supplement container, an empty water bottle, an old sweatshirt. Look around your barn. I'm sure you'll find something that's horse-safe and appropriate.

For this first clicker lesson, I borrow an idea from the zoo world. We use "protective contact," meaning the horse is on one side of a barrier and the person is on the other. One good way to achieve this arrangement is to put your horse in his stall with a stall guard across the door.

Clicker training should be a fun, safe experience for both you and your horse. And like the John Lyons' philosophy, clicker training looks at the behavior you want, not the unwanted behavior. You don't want to get sucked into the drama of correcting your horse for his overeager behavior. If you are correcting him for nuzzling at your pockets, you'll be poisoning the experience. With a barrier between you, you can simply step back out of range and wait for your horse to touch the target. When he does, click, take the target out of sight and reach into your pocket for the treat.

You don't want to feed him close to your body. That would only encourage more mugging. Instead, step forward into his space and feed him on his side of the barrier. The food delivery begins to teach him to yield out of your space when you move into his. He won't even realize he's in school having a lesson, but this attention to the details of food delivery is preparing him for the pressure-and-release exercises that are to follow.

Lessons Two and Three: Backing and Head-Lowering
Backing and head-lowering are paired exercises because we use both to create better space management and emotional control. You can teach both in a variety of ways. That's part of the fun of clicker training. You can use different approaches to teach the same behavior. For example, you can use a target to get your horse to take a step back, or have him follow the target down to the ground to lower his head.

In addition to targeting to get these behaviors, you can free-shape them, meaning you do nothing to actively trigger the behavior, but you click and reinforce any slight tendency you see for the horse to move in the desired direction. For instance, to teach your horse to lower his head, you would watch closely for even the slightest natural lowering on his own and immediately click and treat.

You can also use pressure and the release-of-pressure in a variety of ways to encourage your horse to back up. In this case, you are piggy-backing the clicker onto other training methods. You trigger the response you want with pressure. Then you add the power of the "yes" answer signal to connect that desired response to a reward your horse will actively work for.

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