Guide to Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement

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Why Clicker Training?

The original version of this article was first published when I launched my website in 2004. I’ve updating it a few times over the years and rather than re-write it this time, I’ve just cleaned it up a bit. Doing it this way offers a little more insight into my own journey and what brought me to clicker training and has kept me actively learning more about it. I still continue to amazed at what we can teach with clicker training and the profound changes it has made in every interaction I have with my horses.

Note: I might not approach each of these training problems in the same way now, but I think it’s significant that even my less educated efforts at using positive reinforcement paid off, and they were definite light bulb moments for me.

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With so many training resources and books out there, what makes clicker training different?  This is a question I think about every time I try to explain clicker training to someone new. I live in an area that has a lot of horse activity and good professionals. I could choose to work on a regular basis with someone local who is a well known professional. Instead I work by myself, getting along on 3 or 4 clinics a year (if I’m lucky) which are 5 hours away.  Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it. Then I go out to the barn and look at my horses and the answer is “yes.”

So why? The horses tell me. They are all happy to see me. The horses in the fields come right up to the gate when I go to catch them. Everyone is always eager to come out and play. And yes, I no longer think of horse training as work, I think of it as play.  Some of this is because I tend to mix in some non-traditional lessons with my regular work. I do a lot of tricks and games with my horses.  But, some of it is because, with clicker training, even the traditional work becomes more like learning something together instead of asking the horse to do something.  By mixing things up a bit, the horses get to enjoy the chance to do something different and it gives them a break from the more difficult work.     

It is important to me that my horses enjoy the time we spend together, but that is not my only consideration. I also have training goals and I want to be able to continue my own education as a horse owner, trainer, and rider.  By using clicker training, I am working with my horses in a positive way, but just as importantly, I am using a training system that is based on the science of learning and that has been shown to be a safe and effective way of training.   

Clicker training is the systematic use of positive reinforcement to change behavior. It is based on the work of B. F. Skinner, who described and then studied how animals learn through operant conditioning. Skinner did most of his work in a laboratory setting, but his students took this technology out of the lab and into the real world. Keller and Marian Breland started Animal Behavior Enterprises where they trained many species of animals for commercial work. The marine and zoological community recognized it was a method that could allow them to train previously “untrainable” animals and started using it as well. Clicker training has now been used with a wide variety of species and applications. It is commonly used by both professionals and amateurs for pet, performance, and exotic animals. It has been been used with many different species of animals, including people.

When I am sat down to write this article, I found myself considering all the advantages of clicker training and wanted to present them in a meaningful way.  I knew I could share examples of all the amazing things that have been done with clicker training, or I could explain more about the science of it, but rather than do either of those things, I thought I would just share a few stories of times when it really became clear to me why I love clicker training. I think people use clicker training for different reasons and I wanted to make this article more personal.  For me, clicker training is about finding a way to communicate with my horse and seeing the horse have one of those great light bulb moments where she or he suddenly knows exactly what I want.  

 I have had many “ah-ha” moments, but a few really stand out in my mind.  The first horses I clicker trained were Rosie, my 2 year old Dutch mare, and Willy, my middle-aged TB gelding.  Rosie had already done some groundwork before I started clicker training and I was working toward starting her under saddle. By the time she was 4, I was ready to start riding her and I introduced riding by using a fairly traditional progression, combined with clicker training. I was a novice clicker trainer and a lot of what I did was what we called “piggy-backing,” meaning I added a click and treat for correct answers – but how I got the behavior and how I thought about behavior had not really changed. . I had not really made the profound mental shift to thinking about the side-effects of using aversives and I was not yet skilled at breaking behavior down and setting up the environment to make my horse successful.

Anyway, things were mostly going well until one day when Rosie was working in the ring and became scared of the far end. She’s always been a little more anxious at the far end because it’s away from her friends and our neighbors are often doing potentially scary things back there. Most days, she looks a little, but then decides it’s okay. On this particular day, she kept stopping when I rode her towards the back. She would get about 2/3 of the way down, and then refuse to go. I decided this was silly (old mindset) and decided to make her go there, even though she was clearly uncomfortable with the idea. I was very clear in my intent, kept her facing the back, and asked her to go forward until she took a step. I didn’t use a whip or any undue force, but I gave her no choice as to where she was going. Well, she went. Her head was up, back was down, she was walking stiffly, and she was poised for flight at any moment. I hated it!

I went back to the “safe” end and regrouped. Later in the session, I changed my strategy to clicking her for walking toward the far end, and then letting her choose whether or not she wanted to continue in that direction, or turn away. She was a different horse. She chose to go the “scary” end, and although she didn’t march bravely down, her whole body posture was different. Her head was lower, her muscle tone was more relaxed, and she took larger steps. Giving her the choice of whether or not to continue in the “scary” direction changed her level of anxiety and what behavior she was willing to offer.

Her fear of the far end also affected her willingness to turn towards it. If I was riding across the ring and wanted to turn at the rail, she would willingly turn toward the gate, but not toward the far end. I experimented around a bit with ways of limiting her options for which direction she could turn (by using obstacles), and I could set it up so she would turn the way I wanted, but it was still clearly causing her anxiety. I got the same kind of braced and tense forward that she had shown when just walking toward the back end. 

To address this, I spent about 2 sessions where I clicked her for turns away from the gate at a much higher rate than turns toward the gate. This solved the problem and when I shifted my criteria to click for more balanced turns (in either direction), she continued to turn either way for me. Because she continued to show some anxiety about the far end of the ring, I tried to make it an area of high reinforcement and I clicked and treated her a lot just for being down there. This paid off and eventually we got to the point where if I gave her a loose rein, she would choose to walk down there on her own. 

Another example of a light bulb moment with Rosie was when I taught her to canter. I rode her for a whole year at walk and trot, just playing around before I tried the canter. It seemed like a good idea to take things slowly as she had a very unorganized trot and I just didn’t feel she was ready to canter. But, when I decided to introduce the canter (on the ground), she had no idea what I wanted. She canters in the field all the time, but it just hadn’t occurred to her that she could canter in the ring. I tried it first on the lunge, or in my temporary round pen, and she just trotted faster and faster when I asked for a canter. If I pushed her beyond that, she would get upset. I didn’t want her to learn to canter by running into it in flight mode so I left it for a while. There is always other stuff to do.

When I was ready to try the canter again, I decided to use a ground pole to build a little energy because I thought she might “jump” into the canter. This had happened accidentally once before when I was working on something else. This time, I set up the pole, asked her to trot, and watched for any additional effort as she went over the pole. I also played a bit with the height of the pole and speed of the trot. Within a few sessions, she started to consistently pop into a canter over the pole.

This was cool, but the real “ah-ha” moment came for me a few days later when I realized the pole had become a cue to canter. If I didn’t have the pole out, she would only walk and trot. If I put the pole out, she would canter. It didn’t even matter if the pole was in position and she didn’t always choose to use the pole to pick up the canter. If the pole was present, then canter was a clickable behavior and she would offer it. I can still remember the day when she figured out that she could offer the canter without the pole. She would canter, hear the click, stop and come to me for her treat, and then immediately offer canter again. She was so enthusiastic and it was so clear that she thought this was wonderful. All I could think about was that this was wonderful too. It was such a fun way to teach a horse something new.

Willy’s canter has given me some “ah-ha” moments too. As an ex-racehorse, his canter was always challenging. He tended to be stiff to the right and it was always tough to regulate his speed. Prior to clicker training, I rode him on a strong contact and I was able to keep things under control. But when I started riding on a looser rein and trying to teach him to balance himself, I realized the extent of the problem. Going back to a strong contact was not a solution because now he braced even more. I had to figure out a way to help him organize his body and learn to use the reins (and my other aids) help him, not to restrict him. This was a problem not just in the canter, but also in his downward transitions. He never wanted to go (or found it easy to go?) from canter to trot and it always took a few requests and too much rein. With him, I introduced single rein riding and it was through that work that he learned to re-balance himself. I started clicking him for moments of better balance as well as responsiveness to my aids and his canter started to change. I eventually got to the point where I could ask for a few strides of canter, click, drop the reins and have him come back to the walk. What an amazing thing!

UPDATE: September 2005

The original content for this page was written in the winter of 2004 when I first created this web site. Since then, a lot has changed, but my fascination with clicker training has not, and I am now clicker training more than ever.  At my house, we have 6 horses which are all clicker trained to various levels.  I have learned a lot about using clicker training to train a foal from day one, start a horse under saddle, and also about how to use clicker training to train a horse for more advanced ridden work.  I have used my clicker training skills to figure out how to maintain the focus and enthusiasm of my horses as the work gets more complicated. Both my riding horses are doing great and we have made a lot of progress. I find the precision of the clicker has been invaluable in teaching them to respond to my rein, leg and seat cues and to “catch” those moments when they get their bodies in correct alignment. 

But, more than that, I have found that the “clicker mindset” has made me a different rider. Every time I ride my horses, I learn something new, either about their bodies or mine, or about how to become a better trainer. I no longer have “bad” rides when my horse is uncooperative. This doesn’t mean every ride goes the way I planned, but I have learned how to be flexible during my ride so that I work on what is needed that day, not what I had planned. I would not be able to do that if I hadn’t learned to teach behavior systematically, recognize where to start on any given day, and how to build on them to make progress.

The more I think about clicker training and how I work with my horses now, the clearer it is that clicker training has made me a better trainer, not just a clicker trainer, but a horse trainer.  There are some key elements and skills that make good trainers.  I feel that through clicker training, I have developed those qualities and improved my ability to communicate and motivate my horses to learn new things.

         Some of the skills that I have learned are:

  • good timing
  • lesson planning
  • emotional control
  • patience
  • persistence
  • understanding when and how to set up the environment and wait for behavior to happen.
  • problem solving
  • creative thinking
  • increased powers of observation and body awareness
  • a better understanding of how learning happens and how I can influence behavior

These skills have all contributed to building a better relationship with my horses and a better understanding of how to build and maintain desired behaviors.  Because I work on my own most of the time, it is important for me to do my own problem solving and deal with training issues as they arise. Now, instead of getting frustrated, I am able to work through the training process to get the desired result.  I am much more in tune with my horses and I can pick up on their confusion and anxiety before it leads to bigger problems. I think this is one of the biggest benefits of clicker training. It empowers us as trainers because it teaches us how to break down training issues into small steps and work through them on my own. It has given me a lot more confidence in my ability to deal with many of the issues that come up when I work with my horses.

And, of course, since I am a better trainer, my horses benefit too. They benefit both from my new attitude toward training and confidence in what I am doing, as well as from my increased understanding of how horses learn.   Instead of being subjected to long repetitious sessions, I tend to keep the sessions short and varied.  If I only have a short period of time, I can still find something fun and interesting to do with them. If the weather is bad, or my schedule is tight, I can spend 10 minutes training them and it gives them some interaction and adds variety to their day.

It is very clear to me that the horses enjoy their training sessions and if I miss a few days, they start asking me to come play with them. It is addictive for the trainer too. Once I used clicker training to open the lines of communication between me and my horses,  I could never imagine training any other way.  It can be hard to explain this to people because clicker training is new for horses and there are not a lot of clicker trained horses out in the public eye. But it is a whole different level of awareness between you and the horse.  My horses are interested and curious about what I am doing.  They watch me and look for opportunities to interact. Spending time with a clicker trained horse is different than being with other horses. 

About

I attended my first clinic with Alexandra Kurland in 2001 and was a regular attendee at the Groton, NY clinics for about 13 years. The clinics were held three times a year, so that’s a lot of clinics.)  I originally took my OTTB gelding Willy, but after a few years I started taking Rosie, my young KWPN mare.  These clinics were a great way to get her used to traveling and working in a new environment and we learned a lot about clicker training.  When Rosie was about 10, I started looking for local trainers or visiting clinicians who could help me train her to upper level dressage. This has been an interesting process as many traditional trainers are not educated about clicker training and are skeptical about the value of using food.

Over the years we have found some helpful people to work with and I have enjoyed learning from Wendy Murdoch, Francois LeMaire de Ruffieu and Jose Mendez.  In addition, I had regular lessons with Paul Belasik (on his horses) for 3 years and have audited and ridden a few times with both Jean Luc Cornille and Mark Russell.  Recently I’ve been working a few times a year with a very skilled dressage rider and trainer who has helped me learn more about collection.

While Rosie has been my main focus for the last fifteen years, I have also been working with some of my other horses. I started both our young horses (Red the Quarter Horse/X and Finale the Shire) under saddle and rehabbed a rescue pony who came with some serious issues including rearing. With clicker training I was able to re-teach her all the behaviors she needed for husbandry and handling around the barn. I also had a lot of fun with our mini, Buster, and taught him both tricks and useful behaviors. He loves to fetch and stand on his pedestal. In the fall of 2013, I bought a 9 month old filly, Aurora, who will be my next riding horse. In addition to working with my own horses, I do some local teaching and clinics. I love to get people started with clicker training and help them when they have questions.

I think continuing education is very important and horse people can learn a lot from other clicker trainers. I’ve attended both the Clicker Expo and Art and Science of Animal Training Conferences a number of times. I’ve also taken some on-line courses. In 2013 I took Kay Laurence’s Intelligent Dog Training Course (www.learningaboutdogs.com)  with Rosie as my “dog.”  This is an intensive 2 year course (taught on-line) and at the end of it, I received my certification with endorsement from Kay Laurence.  In 2015, I was asked to assist in her new course TAKL (trainer accredited by Kay Laurence) and helped her coach her students for a year.  In 2014, I took Dr. Susan Friedman’s Living and Learning with Animals course (www.behaviorworks.org).  I also coach students on Alexandra Kurland’s on-line course (www.theclickercenter.com).

Clicker Training led me in some new directions. and I started exploring other aspects of horse care that I had previously left to professionals. I became more interested in hoof care and maintenance and in 2005, I started learning to trim my own horses. In 2017 I learned how to apply glue-on shoes to one of my own horses. I also became more interested in bodywork. I started by taking a course in Equine Touch, and passed Level 1 in 2011. In 2014 I became a Masterson Method Certified Practitioner (www.mastersonmethod.com) and I now divide my spare time (what there is of it!) between teaching/writing about clicker training and working on horses.  I also love to do and teach in-hand work.  A lot of times in-hand work is the bridge between bodywork and ridden work and I find it fascinating to see how I can use bodywork to release tension patterns and in-hand or groundwork to re-educate the horse about new ways to move.

Clicker training changed my life. Usually, when I say that to people, they are surprised. They can understand how clicker training might have changed the way I train horses, but my life? That seems a little dramatic. But, it’s true.

Once I started to understand why behavior happens and how I can influence it, my whole view of the world changed. Not only did I start to see connections and associations that I might previously have missed, but I became aware of the importance of every little interaction, and how all those little interactions accumulate to create the relationships I have with my animals, friends, family, and the world.

When I started to put material together for the book, I felt it was important to include some articles about how clicker training changes the people who use it. Clicker training is not just another training method. It’s a different way of thinking about and responding to behavior, and it changes the trainer as much as it changes the individual being trained. In my case, I found it was both exciting and fascinating to be able to see more clearly what was happening and to think about ways to change behavior using reinforcement.

With this in mind, the first chapter contains introductory material that describes both the how and the why of clicker training. Not the scientific “why,” but the reason people choose and stick with clicker training. The following quote is from the article “Why Do I Clicker Train?” and was originally published in 2014, but it’s still true today.

I’ve had a few conversations recently with non-clicker trainers who want to know why I clicker train. Over the years, I have had different answers to this. I can give them the “based on science” answer or explain learning theory and the differences between positive-reinforcement based training and other training methods. I can also talk about how clicker training builds relationships and allows me to communicate with my horse.

But thinking about it today, I realized that while these are all good reasons (and they are part of why I do it), the real reason I clicker train is that I find it reinforcing to have horses that want to engage with me. There are things about the process of clicker training and training behaviors that make me want to continue doing it from a practical point of view, but if my horses didn’t enjoy the process and choose to interact with me, I doubt I would still be doing it.

This reminds me a bit of something Kathy Sdao said at my first ClickerExpo. She pointed out that many people were taking notes and asked what was reinforcing the note taking. She got the usual answers of wanting to remember information, learning better when you write it down, etc. Her answer was that note taking was reinforced by the ink in the pen. If your pen stopped working because it was out of ink, what would happen to the note taking behavior? It would stop.

So, in a way, all the little daily interactions I have with my horses are like the ink in the pen. They provide a constant stream of little reinforcers. I love that my horses are actively paying attention to me and looking for information that will tell them what behavior I might like. I like that they are choosing to interact with me instead of avoiding me or being indifferent. I don’t want to spend time with horses that are shut down or don’t expect life to be fun and full of good things.

A non-clicker trainer will argue that it’s all about the food, but I just see the food as part of a bigger picture. Anyone who has tried to build a relationship knows that you have to start by creating some positive associations. So, we start with food, but then it becomes more about wanting to interact with each other, and I believe that the horses get as much reinforcement out of having me pay attention to them as I get out of having them pay attention to me.

If you want to share why you clicker train, I always love to hear how people got started and what keeps them motivated. You can post a comment or email me (katie@equineclickertraining.com) directly.

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