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Quick Start Guide to Clicker Training - Page 4

This very timid horse is afraid of the target.  His previous owners beat him badly, so he's afraid of anything new.


To help him, she'll begin by charging the clicker.

Step 3: Charging Up the Clicker


When you first click the clicker, your horse isn't going to understand what the signal means. He isn't going to know that's a good sound, that it means you're about to give him a treat. That's something he has to learn.


Dolphin trainers "charge up" their "yes" answer signal by first pairing it with a food reward. The handler blows a whistle, tosses a fish in the water, blows a whistle, tosses a fish. He goes on repeating this until the dolphin has associated the sound of the whistle with the appearance of a fish.


With horses you can usually skip this step and go straight to using the clicker to teach simple behaviors such as targeting. The horses pick up on the meaning of the clicker through the context of the lesson. The difference between dolphins and horses is pretty simple. Most of us are working with animals who are eager to come up to us. We aren"t working with wild animals.

Clickers are handy tools.  They make it easy to say "yes!".  With horses you are going to want your hands free for other things, so once your horse understands the concept of clicker training, you'll switch to tongue clicks.

Training Tip


You can't expect your horse to understand something you haven't taught. Clicker training begins with a simple step: introducing your horse to the clicker. It then asks: what basic manners does my horse need to work on?

As soon as your horse realizes that food is involved, he'll be right up at the front of his stall eager to play the clicker game. But if you're dealing with a shy horse, one who is timid around people or worried about anything new, you may want to start with this simple step of charging up the clicker.


For those of you who are working with mustangs, or other horses who are truly afraid of people you may need to begin with a game of advance and retreat.


In clicker training the reinforcement doesn't have to be food. It can be anything the horse will actively work for. It doesn't sound very flattering, but what these wary horses want most is for you to go away. You can begin with the clicker by simply waiting for them to look at you. Click, turn your back and walk away.

You've just told them they can control your behavior. All they have to do is look at you, and you'll leave them alone! The clicker marks the exact behavior you want to reinforce. As your horse relaxes, you'll be able to approach a little closer. Now you can charge up the clicker by clicking and offering him some food. Right from the beginning you're building a relationship of trust and good will. You're taking fear completely out of the training equation.

She begins by "charging up the clicker". She'll click and feed, click and feed, until he understands the sound means good things are coming. There's no pressure on him to perform. He doesn't have to do anything to get his treat.  This step helps the very timid horses, or those who have no experience taking food from the hand.*

* Please note: If you are working with aggressive horses, mustangs freshly caught from the range, or extremely fearful horses you may need to break these beginning steps down into much more detail.  This brief guide is intended for the horses most of us are working with: horses that may have some training issues, but who are already familiar with people and basic handling needs.

Step 4: Target Training


When I first started experimenting with clicker training, I tried charging the clicker. I clicked and treated, clicked and treated, but nothing seemed to be happening. No "light bulbs" were going on in my horse's head. He wasn't making a connection between the sound of the clicker and the treats I was feeding him.


I wasn't patient enough to wait for the wheels to turn. I wanted to see something happening, so I held a whip up for him to touch. He sniffed the whip. I clicked and fed him his treat. He sniffed it again. I clicked and treated. I was pairing a behavior I wanted, in this case touching a target, with the click and a treat. Within minutes my horse was eagerly touching the whip. Wherever I held it, he reached out and bumped it with his nose. Smart horse!


For me this was much more reinforcing than taking the time to charge up the clicker. I could see something happening. My horse got the connection. He could turn me into a "vending machine" whenever he wanted just by touching the whip with his nose! The clicker told him when he had guessed right and was about to get a treat. It was a great game, a win-win situation for both of us.


That's how I've started most other horses ever since: I teach them to touch a target. When I first started clicker training, I thought targeting was just a cute trick, a simple lesson I could use to teach horses the basic rules of clicker training. I quickly learned that it is a powerful and very useful training tool. With targets you can teach your horse to ground tie so he can accept grooming, shots, clippers. You can use targeting to get him over his fear of strange objects. And you can use targeting to lead him past scary obstacles and even onto trailers.

You can use all sorts of things as targets.  It's easy to make a target stick out of an empty water bottle duct taped onto a short dowel (top photo).

Getting Started: Targets


If you look around your barn, you'll spot lots of things you can use as targets. Lids off of supplement containers, plastic water bottles, dog toys, small buckets, all work great. Just be sure to choose items that are sturdy enough to be "horse-safe".


When I first started clicker training, I used whips as targets, but I've since found that many horses have trouble seeing them. They learn faster if you use larger objects. My favorite targets are the small orange cones that I also use as markers when I ride.

Training Tip


Clicker training is based on principles not equipment. You don't need to spend a lot of money on equipment to clicker train. Use your imagination to find the targets and other props you'll need.

Training Tip


Clicker training is a win-win situation for everyone.Your horse thinks he's in control because he can get you to click and treat him. You think you're in control because you're picking the behavior that gets reinforced.

For leading and other exercises where you want to direct the horse out away from your body, you can also use target sticks. To make a target stick, put an empty water bottle on the end of an old dressage whip. Wrap the bottle in duct tape to secure it to the end. Another easy target stick can be made from the foam pool noodles children use as floating toys in swimming pools. Cut off a section about a foot long and stick it onto a whip.

Shop the aisles of your favorite department or hardware store for other handy target stick ideas. One of my favorites was made from a telescoping golf ball picker-upper.

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