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Quick Start Guide to Clicker Training - Page 3

Getting Started: Four Simple Steps

Step 1: Decide What You Want Your Horse To Do.

Clicker training begins with a shift in thinking. Clicker training is a POSITIVE training tool. It teaches the horse what TO DO. We don't try to correct unwanted behavior, instead we focus on what we want the horse TO DO. A horse can't be rearing if he has his nose on the ground. Nor can he be bolting off if he's focused instead on a target. By giving him something positive TO DO, we eliminate the behaviors we don't want.

So Step Number One in clicker training is deciding what you want your horse to do. The clearer and more precise you are in this, the easier it is for your horse to learn. For many of us this requires a total shift in the way we think. We are much better at stating what we don't want. The more we focus on the problem, the more we stay stuck in it. To find a solution we have to focus on what we want our horse to do.

In clicker training we focus on what we want the horse TO DO.

So clicker training begins by stating in positive and very precise terms exactly what you want your horse to do. You're going to be using food as a reward, so the first thing that may happen when you start clicker training is your horse may try to mug your pockets.

It's tempting to say you don't want your horse nuzzling you or grabbing at your clothes. of course, you don't, but what do you want your horse to do instead? What alternative behavior can you reinforce that would keep his nose away from your pockets?

How about touching his nose to a target? That's the first lesson I generally start with. I hold a small cone or some other handy object up in front of my horse.When he bumps it, click, I give him a treat. He never gets goodies for nuzzling my pockets or crowding into my space. But he does get a treat every time he bumps the target.

As soon as he realizes that touching the target turns me into a "vending machine", that's the behavior I'll see, not the nudging, nuzzling, grabbing-at-my-pockets behavior I want to eliminate. Think of it like filling up your horse's dance card. Keep him busy by reinforcing him for what you want, and what you you'll get is a well-mannered horse. Clicker training is just that easy. And the first step of clicker training teaches the emotional control that is essential in every horse's training. 

Training Tip

Good Training depends upon one simple thing: the clearer and more specific you are about what you want your horse to do, the easier it is for your horse to learn.

This horse can't rear or barge over his handler with his nose on the ground.

So, click!

He'll get a reward for good manners.

Step 2: Safety Always Comes First

The first rule in any good training program is safety always comes first. That means for both the horse and the handler. After you've decided what it is you're going to teach, the next step in clicker training is setting up a safe "classroom".

When you first introduce food, your horse may get overly excited and try to mug you. To avoid having to punish your horse for his enthusiasm, put him in a stall with a stall guard across the door. If he gets excited and tries to grab at your pockets, you can simply step safely back out of range.

If your horse is polite about the food, that's great. He's just made your job very much easier. But, if the food turns him into a "juvenile delinquent", that's also great. He's just given you a wonderful way to work on his emotional control.

Clicker training begins with safety.  That can mean something as simple as setting up your first clicker sessions in a stall with a stall guard across the door.

Training Tip


Anytime you or your horse is afraid, it means you've missed a step in the training. There is always a simpler, safer step you can begin with. Your goal is to find a starting place that is safe for both you and your horse.

You're going to fill your pockets with grain and other good-smelling delights, but you're going to be saying to your horse that there are rules around the food. Mugging you will NEVER get him goodies, but controlling his emotions and politely bumping a target is magic. Click! That's what turns you into a willing "vending machine".

Emotional control unravels more training than any other element. Your horse may understand perfectly what you want at home, in an empty arena with no other horse around to distract him, but let another horse come into the ring, and he's dragging you over to say "hi"!


Clicker training addresses these emotional control issues right from the beginning by using the very thing most of us have been taught to avoid: food. 

This sequence of three photos illustrates the value of beginning with a barrier between you and your horse.  This horse is free to interact with me or not.  The beginning steps of clicker training offer him choice. I can let him explore my pockets.  If he became too pushy, I would just step back beyond his reach. He's learning that mugging me never earns treats.  Taking his nose away from the treat pockets gets a click and a treat.

The beginning steps of clicker training establish polite manners around the food, and in the process teach your horse the patience and emotional control he needs to be a safe riding partner. They also teach you how to break your training down into small, manageable steps which make it easier for you both to be successful.

Teaching calm, polite food manners is an important part of clicker training. Good manners make clicker fun possible.

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