Have you ever thought, "I have spent umpteen hours transitioning my horse to barefeet, fitting him for boots, fixing his body, tweaking his diet, saving up for the best tack, and yet he still" (choose from the following):

  • Shoves me for attention; or
  • Won’t stay out of my space; or
  • Jerks his feet away when I am picking them; or
  • Snaps at me, when I put on the saddle (make sure there isn’t pain); or
  • head bobs on the cross ties, etc.

Most of us have at least one equine behavioral peeve that we would love to get rid of. And no matter how much you love your pony, having your horse turn into a giraffe during bridle time is just no fun. Yet most of us never take the time to train away these nuisances. For some, it’s easier to smack and yell at the animal; but the next day, the behavior is still there. For others, we just don’t know how to train him to stop it or chose another pleasant behavior.

Peanut learns to trust again.

Peanut learns to trust again.

Peanut, a Palomino TWH, was so severely harmed in training that he refused to let anyone touch his head. He failed Field Trial Training, returning home with deep halter/bridle sores. When Sara met him he was beyond head shy. It took one week with a few, short lessons each day of clicker training to turn Peanut in a halter-lover. By the end, he offered to drop his head into the halter! Peanut is Sara’s first and only horse.

Whether you are into barrel racing, classical dressage training or something in between, I have found that using a marker signal, click, combined with positive reenforcement, a treat, to be a skillful way to work with horses. Coined Clicker Training is the go-to tool in my equine training tool box. You can use clicker occasionally, sometimes or all the time; you chose. There are ways to tell you horse, "We aren’t playing clicker now."

Panda, the seeing eye mini horse

Panda’s job is a guide (mini) horse. She was trained by Alex Kurland. Her story is now available. All her photos by Neil Soderstrom.

When I found my Sunny (OTTB) at a rescue, I realized pretty quickly that he knew next to nothing. He loved people and wanted to be with them. Beyond that, he was a blank slate. Like so many racehorses, he was muscled and threatened, not trained. A pocket pony was just what I wanted this time around, a best friend. But, a friend with manners and one who lived by the ground rules.

I had some clicker experience training my last rottie, Lily. But as we all know, horses are not dogs. I called my friend, Katie Bartlett, requesting that she bring me up to speed in equine clicker. Katie has been working with Alex Kurland for over ten years. In my opinion, Alex is the premier clicker trainer of horses. She teaches throughout the world and her kindness and patience with horses is without bounds. Just seeing some of the horses she has brought back to sanity will warm your heart. No horse is too far gone. Her introductory DVD will give you a clear understanding of her training style. Whether you are a 50 year old first time horse owner or a competitive rider with a couple of challenges, this training can help you find solutions that work for you and your horse.

I am delighted to say that both Katie and Alex have barefoot horses too. Katie trims her eight equines that range from a mini to a Shire.

Alex often uses people as horses for demonstration purposes.

In a 2008 clinic, on the right, Alex Kurland, as Human, demonstrates a cue that carries through much of her clicker training. In the foreground, as Horse, Laurie Higgins.

A year ago, Katie agreed to take on a pony, Stella, from a rescue. The rescue could not adopt her out because Stella’s answer to everything was rearing. Punishment only upped the ante. One of the reasons that clicker training works so well with difficult horses like Stella is because it changes up the game. Clicker training was unfamiliar, more like a game. Stella was glad to play. She had no bad memories of touching a target, for instance. As time passed, more typical horse behaviors like foot care and leading were reintroduced in the context of the now familiar clicker training. These days, Stella is handled like the a regular horse; she is back on track to becomeing a model citizen.

The new, beautiful Stella

Many positive behaviors are demonstrated in the new and relaxed Stella. Relaxed trot. Head at withers or lower. Soft eye. Nice bend on the circle. Previously, any long lining or longing activated her rear response. Look at her now.

It occured to me when watching the new movie, "Buck", that the spoiled stallion that was sent home to be euthanized, could have been saved. With the right, patient person, clicker may have been an alternative.

Clicker was an overlay for teaching my horse ground manners, ground work, in-hand, trail riding preparation, and now, classical/kind dressage. Although surrounded by some of the top riders and trainers in the world (based in nearby Unionville, PA), I decided against sending him to a professional. With the help of Katie, Alex and other resources, I decided early on that Sunny and I would do this together, slow though it might be. Clicker training made it possible for me, an ordinary horse lover and owner, to turn a racehorse into a well mannered companion horse. For us, ‘training’ continues to be an ongoing process.

Backing with a rein lift. No pressure.

Here (2008), Sunny is backing from a lifted, near rein cue. There is no pressure on the bit. The movement is offered by the horse, not demanded by the person. Introduced first in-hand, I then re-taught it from the saddle. Now, 2011, he easily reads my body language when working in hand or at liberty.

Every journey begins with the first step. For Clicker, the first foundation exercise is Target Training. I think of targeting as a chance for the owner and horse to learn a common language. The second lesson is teaching good food manners. In typical Alex humor, she calls this lesson, "Quiet while the grown-ups are talking." There are a few more foundation lessons that will help turn your horse into a well mannered, curious learner and turn you into a stellar trainer. After that the sky is the limit.

The Foundation Lessons:

  1. Targeting.
  2. Quiet while the grown-ups are talking.
  3. Head Down, the calm down exercises, taught several ways.
  4. Backing.
  5. Happy Face, ears forward for grumps,
  6. Mat work, the clicker form of ground training.
The first offer of a target.

The first offer of a target.

Target Training is how I introduced clicker to Sunny. At its most basic, the target is something you want the horse to touch with his nose. I offered a target, my home-made wand: a short dowel with a tennis ball on the end. TThis toy/tool has no bad associations. When Sunny touched the target, I clicked and rewarded him. The click means "Yes, that’s the behavior I want," and the food reward, reinforces the behavior: click and Treat (C/T). Most horses are curious and learn quickly. Everyone I have met is astonished to meet the genius hiding inside their horse.

Target the bag

Can you touch and grab the oat bag?

Of course, initially these horses didn’t know the click meant "Yes!". It was just a noise. During the training of the first foundation exercise, targeting, they figure it out. The click is fast, simple and can’t be confused with words or other noises you use. After a few weeks, when each horse is clear about the new language, many of us change from the mechanical click you buy at the pet store to a mouth cluck. I get a cluck by putting my tongue on the roof of my mouth. My click is always with me. 

And bring it to you!

Can you bring me the oat bag? Floppy oat bag on windy day: Desensitized. On occasion I can get him to pick up trash on the trail and hand it to me!

As for the relationship between clicker trainers and their horses, attend a clinic sometime. Never have I seen a workshop where every single gelding drops as he works on a lesson. The horses are relaxed and happy.

Along the way, we introduce a cue. A cue initiates behavior. I say "Touch!" (voice cue) when I offer the target. I am putting targeting on stimulus control, "Touch the target only when I ask you to." If you touch when not asked, I won’t C/T.

Another foundation lesson: Mat Work – the Clicker form of ground tying, and more.

Tessa's first ground tying lesson.

Diane as Human and Tessa on the first Mat Lesson. She spent a lot of time pawing but now is a stellar student of the mat at liberty.

Tacking up. What a great use for the Mat Lesson.

Here, Sally, the owner, demonstrates a very practical result from the Mat Lesson. Her OTTB, Molly, was a terror to groom and tack up. Assured that Molly wasn’t in pain, Sally began daily mat exercises. What pleasure she is now. Note the attentive ears as Molly supervises Sally.

There is another practical result of targeting that might be useful this winter.

Did you drop something?

For those of us who can’t mount our horses, how great is this? "Glove please," and point. He hands it to me.

One example of Free Shaping: How Many Things Can You Do with a Barrel? One C/T for each original behavior. Tell me that doesn’t blow your mind.
I can push it. And target with my foot.
Practical Application: If we see a monster on the trail, I may ask him to play the same game. He touches the monsters every time.

The absolutely critical lesson on food, Quiet while the grown ups are talking, wherein my horse learns that I am not a grocery bag to be searched. Nor am I a vending machine. When you push my buttons (literally), I will not dispense food.

Horses, like children, can learn food manners. How many people have said, "Don’t ever hand feed your horse." Oh Please! Even the greediest horse who inhales your entire arm, can learn table manners for heaven’s sake.

This is also first taught behind a stall guard or an enclosed place where the human can control the space. I click and treated for head straight ahead, or head away from me. Over time, I raised the criteria to having his head forward, straight ahead, ears forward.

Because Sunny was excitable in the early days, I added Head Down, the calm down position, to his Grown Ups work. Now whenever I am talking or even just standing still, I have a subtle cue telling Sunny, hang out in your own space. If I want a particular head position – head down or arched neck – I can cue that. If I want feet squared I can cue that. What I do not have is a horse checking out my pockets!

Were are those dang treats?

In the very beginning, 2004 my curious horse during The Duct Tape Lesson. While I took a break to assess our progress, Sunny decided to search my treat pack. Sneaky little bugger.

There are DVDs and articles teaching Grown Ups with the training steps broken down. I encourage you to educate yourself on this one. I hope you won’t wing it or ad lib in early clicker training. Frustrated horses are not happy horses. 

My challenge this winter is to work on the foundation lesson "Happy Face (ears forward)". For some reason Sunny’s are more often back. Maybe that’s how he concentrates? Regardless, it’s not pleasant looking and I want people to like him, not fear him!

Rosie offers Happy Face, with the left ear forward.

Rosie learned to put her left ear forward on cue. Doesn’t she look pleasant? The pre-Happy Face Rosie was scary. Trainer Katie showed me the cue, a gentle touch behind the ear, for the photo. In reality, Katie can now just look at that spot to cue Rosie.

Common Concerns about Equine Clicker Training
(1) Recently a vet told a friend of mine that he hated clicker training because it turned horses into Pavlov’s dogs!
He didn’t think it was normal for horses to offer behavior. As you read above, stimulus control is something we teach from the beginning in lesson 1 and 2.

(2) When I reward my horse with treats he gets pushy and nippy.
Thus the reason for "Grown-Ups", lesson two. I am sure your kids were not the best dinner partners at their first restaurant outing. Well just like kids, horses must learn table manners.

Having stellar table manners is a hallmark of a well trained clicker horse. In one advanced lesson, the horse learns to refuse a treat from your hand until cued. Alex demonstrates this exercise with Robin in one of her DVD’s. "You can not force me to eat that carrot," Robin seems to say as he arches his neck in ‘the dressage pose’ and steadfastly ignores the food until cued. In another exercise, a horse at liberty will walk, trot and canter to his person without eating anything from the equine buffet table he must pass. That’s Clicker Olympics.

(3) I don’t want to click and treat (C/T) all the time.
Depending on your situation, there are different ways to handle this.

In one case, as the behavior advances on cue, you can select just for quality, C/T the best offerings and slowing fade the C/T. I still go back to basics every now and then for a ‘tune up’ but I don’t C/T every cued smile, yawn, Yes, No. That’s the old stuff.

Most of us create a ‘keep going signal’: That’s great and please keep doing it.

Or what if I C/T only when we are working in the ring but not when we hack out. Early on, I can teach the horse that we C/T in some places but not in others. (Note unlike kid training!)

(4) I don’t want a Trick Horse.
While it’s true that I couldn’t resist teaching my horse a repertoire of tricks during his 1 year rehab from a torn suspensory, it doesn’t mean that you must teach tricks. It is fun though. I know that Sunny loves to make me laugh with his slobbery kisses!

The Laugh, on cue.

First Trick: The Laugh on cue. An aside, here Sunny is dark bay in this recent summer photo because he has had his minerals balanced according to his diet. Thank you Dr. Eleanor Kellon for your online course.

The Yawn.

One of My Most Challenging Tricks to Teach: The Yawn on cue. Here Sunny hasn’t had his minerals balanced. In the summer, he used to become a dull, blood bay without adequate copper and zinc.

(5) My horse is prone to laminitis and follows a special diet. This is very common. There are many treats you can use for these horses that are low in sugar, like Alam and hay stretchers.

Red practices Head Down.

Red demonstrates a perfect Head Down, a calming stance taught unmounted and mounted. Red is a Quarter Horse x Belgium. Hay stretchers are a healthy reward.

I hope you will check out this positive way of training. It’s fun for you and your horse.

Favorite Resources to Get You Started

Peanut in Head Down, on a mounting block.

When cued to Head Down, Peanut drops like a rock and stays and stays and stays. He has the best Head Down I have ever seen. And doing it on a platform, well, that’s just The Nut!

Until next time, Happy Trails!

Dawn Willoughby
, new grandma of Matilda Wednesday Villegas. She is getting Panda, A Guide Horse for Ann for Christmas.