Clicker Training is a new type of training that allows you to use Positive Reinforcement to its fullest. I was able to do things with horses that I had never dreamed of before. I want to share with you what I have found. This book is the result of over 4 years working with 50 different horses using Clicker Training as my main training tool.
This book is a step by step guide for taking a horse that has never been touched to the beginning of riding combining Clicker Training and Natural Training techniques. If you have a young colt, one of the wild ones, or just want to retrain Old Faithful this book can do that for you.
Join me in this new journey of discovery and you too can have a new outlook for your horse.
CHAPTER 2 GETTING STARTED
CHAPTER 3 CUES
CHAPTER 5 TOUCHING YOUR HORSE
CHAPTER 6 THE HALTER
CHAPTER 7 EXPANDING ON TOUCHING YOUR HORSE
CHAPTER 8 CRUCIAL TASKS
CHAPTER 9 MAINTENANCE
CHAPTER 11 ROUND PENNING
CHAPTER 12 CONTINUATION OF FREEDOM GAMES
CHAPTER 13 TRAILERING
CHAPTER 14 FACE MUZZLE AND EARS
CHAPTER 15 HEAD DOWN AND STANDING STILL
CHAPTER 16 LATERAL FLEXION
CHAPTER 17 SADDLING
CHAPTER 18 LINE DRIVING YOUR HORSE
CHAPTER 19 RIDING
CHAPTER 20 FLEXING WHILE RIDING
CHAPTER 21 TROTTING
CHAPTER 22 ADVANCING
I was raised with horses and I took my first trot on a horse when I was 3. When I was 5 years old I was bucked off almost everyday by a Shetland Pony named Peanuts, but that didn’t bother me, I got back on again and again. I started my first colt when I was 14. A Morgan horse named Gallant. In my teens I showed horses, and even show jumped. I guess I was always fascinated with horses, and how to work with them.
I went to equine school for a year, worked with Natural Horsemanship for 10 years, and continued to train the entire time. When I started with Clicker Training, I had a breeding farm full of horses, and a few clients. I was sure ready for something new and different, but no one else was as ready. They didn’t want to know about this new type of training, and most everybody thought I was half- crazy. Alone, with not much to do other than train my own horses, I went to the web for support. I found the support I was seeking, but mostly I ended up helping others online with Clicker Training. I had prior experience with horses, which helped with advice, but unfortunately, writing e-mails took most of my time. After writing over 100 pages of help to others, I decided to write for myself. I am not a writer and knew nothing about writing a book. I was even amazed that anyone could understand my e-mails. Punctuation was never a strong point. The only thing that I could do was type fast. Most of the words were misspelled and incomplete sentences, but I did get it down.
Everybody thought I lost my mind training horses with a box and food. How could I write a book about it? Why would I want to? I just felt I needed to do something. I was very serious about working with Clicker Training. I felt that it was easier and safer for the horse and me. My clients didn’t agree so I lost most of them. They just couldn’t understand how I could use food as a reward. I had to work with no pay, but did have some savings that I could use. I had an opportunity to work on this new project with no limitations. Four years on a project with no pay is stressful, but you have to make sacrifices to try something new.
After about 4 years of writing, my book was three-quarters finished. People were starting to figure out I was serious about this type of training method. I started to get my clients back with much curiosity. I am sure everyone thought I would give it up, and that I would find out that it doesn’t work. Four years would have been a long time to put into something that didn’t work. Then others started to give it a try. It worked and now I have more faithful clients than ever before. My success shows in their horses, and I am still just as excited about Clicker Training as the day I started with it.
This book is the result of over 4 years working with 50 different horses with Clicker Training. This book was also originally intended for just me. I needed a program for myself that I could stick to, so my training would go smoother. I work with many different ages of horses. I would be working on more finished colts, then 6 months later I was back to just weanlings. I wrote a manual that I went by to get me back on track, and to keep me consistent. Since Clicker Training is so new and so different to anything else that I used before, I needed my own training manual. You may forget the interesting moments and forget why you do the things you do. If you write those special moments down, you can capture those feelings forever. Consistency is your greatest asset with training a horse. A horse can stay consistent, but the human tends to forget. I needed to know what worked best for the weanlings and the older horses
CHAPTER 1 UNDERSTANDING CLICKER TRAINING
When I was about 14, I started show jumping my horse Jack. I was fortunate enough to have an Olympic jumping instructor for awhile. We went to a show in Durango Colorado about 50 miles from where we lived. This show was elaborate. More elaborate than I think anyone had seen in Durango. The jumps where very colorful and decorated with many plants. We didn’t have those kinds of jumps in my small town. When Jack took one look at the arena his eyes got huge and he tensed up. When we approached the first jump, Jack stopped dead in his tracks just before he got to the jump. I knew I had three tries to get him over each jump. On the second try he stopped just before the jump again. I remember thinking “It’s going to be one of those days.” I was so embarrassed. On the third try he jumped it beautifully. Jack did it all again on the second jump. By this time I was hot and sweaty. It took all of my focus to try again. I was getting even more embarrassed. It took me three tries for Jack to get enough confidence to jump every jump. I thought I would never get through the course. It took us about 20 minutes to complete. I was horrified. When it was over I looked up and everybody in the stands stood up and clapped. I asked my mom, “Why are they clapping? That was so horrible!” She said, “They are clapping for you. You tried so hard and you made it. That was incredible!” I was shocked that my efforts were being rewarded. I never got a standing ovation before, even when winning a blue ribbon. I still remember that moment, even though it was so many years ago. That moment was life changing for me.
That sums up what Clicker Training is all about, but your horse gets that feeling. The blue ribbon would be the food, and the click was the clapping. I was there because of the hopes of a blue ribbon, but the clapping is what I remember, because I was getting rewarded for my hard work. I did place in the class, but I have forgotten all about that.
When I started with Clicker Training, I had about 10 horses in training. They were all about the same level, and most of them were not even halter broke yet. My end goal was to figure out if I could use Clicker Training to shorten my training time and make it safer for me and the horses. There was not much instruction at the time, so I had to play a little bit of a guessing game on how to use it. I was excited everyday just knowing how fast I could get horses to do certain things, and how easy and safe it was. I learned mostly by trial and error, and I also had to get rid of some of my bad habits. I made a lot of mistakes. My horses ended up teaching me most of what I know about Clicker Training. Horses are really your best teachers.
This book is about the program that I developed with horses, and adding Clicker Training to my own training program. The tasks are in order of how I start a colt. I have been using Clicker Training for over 7 years, and I am here to tell you that it does work! Before I started Clicker Training I tried to work with the horse’s natural instincts, but there was something missing. I knew I was not making the complete connection that I needed. All of the horses reacted in the same way to this new training program, and what worked I continued with. I learned a great deal from those 10 horses, more than the many others that I had started in the past. I wrote down everything that happened daily, and compared notes. Writing the day’s work down was one of the best things that I did to have a log on the successes and failures of the day. Those horses paved a path to what I use today. I made many mistakes, and it took more than one horse to tell me what I needed to be doing. Every horse that I worked with, I learned from. There are some tasks that really make a difference, and other tasks you don’t have to do. You have to bend to the individual horse, but if it works with one, try it with others. They basically think the same, but with different personalities, likes, dislikes, and attitudes.
I was working with a very difficult horse, a horse that had never been touched. I have worked with many horses that had never been touched before and most were easy to work with. About 1 out of 100 are extreme in difficulty, and this particular horse was that one. This book was inspired by that one horse.
There is no way that I can gauge how difficult or easy your horse is. If you go with difficult, you won’t miss any tasks. I have skipped some tasks, because the horses were easy, and I only ended up getting into more trouble down the road. If you have an easygoing horse, they will go through the tasks fast and in just a few days. You cannot skip crucial training tasks, because if you do, it can be tragic. Do your homework. It is for your horse, the horse you plan on keeping for their entire lifetime. No one wants to sell their horse because they were considered un-trainable or just plain unmanageable. It’s not the horse, but the human, and the way they teach. Since I have been using Clicker Training, I can say that it works on all horses.
It is very easy to understand what Clicker Training is. The problem that we have is there are no set programs available. You can add it to any training program that you like, but you will have 2 training programs. The unlearned task program, (Clicker Training) and the learned task program (which is usually Negative Reinforcement). Clicker Training is working with the mind more than the body, and it will change how your horse perceives you. The understanding of what your horse has been taught becomes clearer to him. Clicker Training is rewarding your horse for specific things that they have done. The clicker is a small hand held plastic box that makes a noise when pressed. It tells the horse “yes, that is correct.” We need to communicate to a horse in a clear, unmistakable manner, what they did right, not what they did wrong. I can recognize something that my horse is doing, and mark the behavior with my clicker (the yes signal) and reinforce it with food, so the click (the yes signal) has value. The food is the horse’s paycheck for getting it right. It is what motivates the horse. Every time the box is clicked, I give some food. If there were no reward, the horse would not be interested in trying to get me to click the box. You can’t make a horse be interested in work without motivation. The food can be anything that your horse likes, such as hay, grain, candy, apples, carrots, and sugar. All horses are different on their food selections. It is up to you to figure out what works best. Some horses would do anything for just a small piece of hay, while others make sure you do some searching to find out what kind of food they are interested in.
So far, we have learned that the click of the box is what tells the horse that what they did was correct, and we give them some food to motivate them to try again. When a horse understands that the click means something desirable, and something good to eat, I call that “Bridge Trained.” When you click the box, you have plenty of time to get the food out because the horse has figured out that what they were doing at the time of the click was the right thing, not when the food was given. A horse will immediately stop what they are doing, and wait for you to give them their favorite treat. If they want that treat again, they need to repeat what they just learned when the click was given. I call this the start of “Offering Behaviors.”
When you first start with Clicker Training your horse will be very motivated to do what you have clicked for. They become workaholics. The confusing part is, if you don’t have a program to help you, you might feel overwhelmed, but you will discover the intelligence of your horse, and it will amaze you. Some people don’t think that horses are intelligent enough to be asked what they would like to do, and learn from it. They think that you have to tell a horse what to do all the time. That includes the learning process. During the learning process, the horse should ‘think,’ and do the task on their own.
I have to set up each situation so the horse succeeds. Once a behavior is learned, I need to back it up with something that is sensible to maintain it. Clicking and feeding for the same task over and over again doesn’t make much sense. The horse would end up like a spoiled child, working less and less, due to boredom. We have things that we have learned, and we have to do things that we don’t like, but we know how, so it becomes a responsibility. After a task is learned you can set it up to be a responsibility, and maintain it. The advantage of Clicker Training is that I know the horse truly understands, because I set the horse up to show me that they can do the task.
When there is a problem with a horse, we don’t always know if the problem is fear, confusion, illness, pain, or just lack of respect. We can take away confusion and fear, because we set our horse up for the success of the task, and the task was performed by the horse’s choice. Eliminating illness or injury is a priority. After that all we have left are respect issues. It is not fair to work on respect issues when the horse is confused about the task. So we first can go back to Clicker Training for a double check, then we can work on respect. Some horses have built in respect for humans, and others just love to take advantage of every situation. I know all of us have met someone in our lifetime that has taken advantage of our kindness. It’s just natural to test to see what they can get away with. We will always treat the next person with the same kindness in the beginning, because that is what is fair. If that person takes advantage of that kindness, they will be dealt with accordingly. Same goes with the horse. I don’t treat all horses as if they are going to take advantage of each situation. They are all given the opportunity to learn. It is up to them how they work with what they have learned later on. I can always take care of respect issues when they know better.
Horses are not vocal, as we are. They use body language to communicate. So do we, but we are more in tune to our voices than our body language. We add a huge amount of body language to our voices, but we seem to forget how our body moves with our voices. It’s like watching someone who can’t dance to the beat. All their movements seem to be a little off, and it looks a little funny. If we move our body in a different way than we are speaking, it changes the whole meaning of the word that was spoken. If our body has a jerking motion when we are trying to say something soft, it doesn’t make much sense. How you move your body is a huge reflection of what you are saying. Horses do the same thing. They are talking with their minds and their bodies. We just can’t hear it. I bet you could tell if someone was angry, or happy, just by looking at how they move. It is the same for a horse.
We would all love for our horses to just say it in words when they don’t understand. They can’t, so we have to read their body language. We have to watch what they do to figure out what they are telling us. When you go to a baseball game, the pitcher and the catcher have their own language just before the big pitch is released. They can tell each other what ball to pitch. They use signals and body language to achieve their goals. There are no mistakes between the two of them. We are just the opposite team trying to figure out what kind of pitch they will be throwing next. It is a big mystery about horses, and what they really think of us. Clicker Training can take some of the mystery out of training and make it more clear between the two of us. We both agree on the task, and it is fun for the horse and us.
What kind of things can we click for, and what do you want your horse to do? I train horses to turn, stop, back, stand still, etc. Clicker Training works great with anything that you would like to teach your horse. There are 2 different types of training: Clicker Training which is positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement, which is the use of pressure. Basically, positive reinforcement means something different to everyone. Some people think that it is petting your horse when they do something right. I believe just petting a horse is for comfort. They don’t really know exactly what they did right. Petting and stroking your horse is a wonderful thing that we all do, and should be done, but there is nothing specific to tell the horse exactly what he has done, so repeating what they were petted for is nonexistent. When a horse increases the behavior at their own free will, for the click and then for the reward, that is Positive Reinforcement.
Negative reinforcement is a painful or unpleasant stimulus that a horse can avoid by changing their behavior (the use of pressure). A good example is pulling on the reins to slow a horse down. The pull slows the horse down. When the horse slows down, you release the pressure so your horse can learn. The horse avoided the pressure by slowing down. We all use this everyday in our training, and we cannot get along without it, but in reality we are causing something unpleasant so the horse will avoid it, not enjoy it. When you use only negative reinforcement your horse will only give you minimal effort to get rid of the pressure. I want my horses to want to work without fear and the unpleasantness of it. I want them to learn because it is fun, and interesting. Negative Reinforcement doesn’t mean that it is bad, it is just the name that they gave it.
With Clicker Training you can get very specific to the task. I can tell my horses that if the speed of the trot was correct, or if I am proud of them for standing still. You can even teach them to hold their foot in exact position for trimming. You will have this new language between the two of you that is unmistakable, and the horse will become calmer and more trusting over time.
My colt, Kiowa, was a good example of getting specific. He learned that when I clicked, he would freeze where he was, and he would get his favorite treat. I was asking him to get on top of a small bridge that I had made. He was doing great until the last foot. When he was bringing the foot up in the air I clicked, hoping to get my timing right. He hung his foot in the air, and froze to collect the food. He had all three feet on the bridge, but he left the last foot hanging in the air waiting for more instruction. My husband happened to be watching, laughing with amazement at how specific Clicker Training can be.
A GOOD EXAMPLE OF HORSE BEHAVIOR DURING CLICKER TRAINING
If I have something in my hand, let’s say an empty small water bottle, and I want my horse to touch it with their nose, I would take the water bottle, and put it in a position so my horse could look at it. When my horse looks at it, I would click and then feed my horse. I would repeat this same exercise a few times. My horse will be thinking about the food at this point, not the bottle. My goal is to get my horse to touch the bottle with their nose. I will hold it out to see if my horse will touch it without my help. My horse most likely will go straight to the food source for more food. They smell it, so they attempt to mug you. I use a pouch that can be zipped up, so I can’t be mugged. Mugging fails, so they have to figure something else out. Some will paw or continue mugging. They are hunting for an answer to this puzzle. They will be thinking, “How do I get this food?” which is what you want. If you physically bring the bottle to their nose, and click when it touches their nose, then feed them some food, their mind will start to think more of what worked. If I hold the bottle out again without bringing it to their nose, my horse will ‘think,’ look at the bottle, and touch their nose to it. Click as soon as their nose touches the bottle, then feed. Hold the bottle out again, so my horse will bring their nose to it all on their own. The mugging didn’t work, but touching their nose to the bottle does, and when they touch it, I would click, then feed. Then I can raise the bottle high, and my horse should follow it. I can move it around and my horse should follow it and touch it with their nose. It’s a very simple concept. The problem is that people think horses are not that smart. It can take on the average about 5 minutes for a horse to offer touching the bottle. This is using positive reinforcement to the fullest. ‘Thinking’ of what to do by the horse increases the behavior.
I am sure you are wondering what a water bottle has to do with training a horse. The water bottle is what we call a ‘Target.’ The horse has to focus on something, so we give them an object to touch with their nose. Target training is one of the most useful tools to have with Clicker Training. The target can be anything from a water bottle to a plunger. I use a broken broom handle with a t-post topper on it. You can ask a horse to follow the target from point A to point B. You can ask your horse to look at something without having to cause pressure. It is a wonderful aid for getting your point across. You can move a horse from stall to stall without them even being halter broke, and it was the horses idea. You can teach them to get on bridges, go in trailers, and walk up to scary objects. The target becomes something safe to look at.
I use Clicker Training for unlearned tasks. It gets your horse excited about the tasks. You can’t feed your horse forever for the same tasks. It will get dull, and boring. When a task is learned, I back it up with negative reinforcement. It is like our first day at school, we know the first day is going to be easy, they can’t ask us to take a test because we don’t even know what is on the test. The teacher has to show us what to do. But in about a week or so we have to take a test or a pop quiz. It is required to test what we have learned. The one problem that I do see with teaching with negative reinforcement is that the horse can mistake it as punishment or even abuse because our timing was off. In the learning process there really should be a reward system for the horse in order for the horse to want to do the task
When Clicker Training is used, the subject is always given the opportunity to succeed. That means that the trainer always succeeds as well. This creates a more positive shift in thinking for both teacher and learner. This really is the key. Your horse will look at the human differently. They won’t have the same attitude of, “do I have to,” but more of “I can do that I know how.” This changes your relationship with your horse, which in turn changes everything else about your horse. This doesn’t mean your horse will always get it right or that they won’t spook or have bad moments. You cannot rewire a horse’s instincts, but you can do everything you can to try to work in their world, and help them work in yours. It is a constant getting along that the both of you have to try to achieve.
It is important that these tasks are done in the order that is presented in the book.
You will need clicker, and pouch of food.
By now they should be calm in their stall, and with you appearing around the barn. Some get into a habit of running away, so start withholding food from them and have them eat in your presence. If they leave and snub you, don’t worry, they will come back. You might want to hold back the free grass hay for now. What will happen is they will eat the grass hay, and ignore you with the food. Let them get a little hungry. I will feed them by hand at first, either with hay or grain, and leave the rest so they can finish. I always make sure they do eat for their health.
I like to feed some alfalfa hay. It seems to be less aggressive to them when fed by hand. They will eat if they are a little hungry. Click for every time they look at you, then offer them some hay. If they are eating grain, you can use a small feed bowl, or hand feed them (see Hand Feeding Chapter 2). When you start using the clicker, you will notice they will become calmer. They will start to understand that the click means food. On average it may only take just a few clicks. They are much more intelligent than we give them credit for.
I like to keep safe, which means staying on the opposite side of the fence. I click every time they look at me, then I present the food, whether it is in a bowl or by hand. Take the food away every time they take a bite. If they stick to the food, and do not come up for air, I wait for them. Continue to do this for a few sessions. Keep thinking good thoughts about them. This will help you with your body language. Keep smiling. Sometimes talking to them helps. If there is food left, click for one last time, give them the whole bowl of food or hay and walk away. I like to feed them their grain rations for my sessions. You will be amazed how fast this works. It is actually the click that makes the difference, not the food. The communication with the human is what they are craving. They already know how to eat. We are taking something they already understand, and using it as a tool. It becomes a good thing to walk up to you, and look at you. They will start to get much more friendly.
Have your sessions run about 5 minutes long, but no more than 10. You will be able to tell when they are getting tired of it. They start to get less interested. When this happens end, the session.
I like to start with the target as soon as possible. This gives the food some meaning, and will help the horse start to think. (See Items You Will Need Chapter 2) I like to start outside the stall. The colt or horse will be scared of the target at first, so once they look at it, click and feed. They know that the click means, “YES that is what I want.”
When this task is finished you should be able to:
CHAPTER 10 FEET
To handle a horse’s foot can sometimes be a physical effort, and when you have many young horses that need their feet worked with, it takes even more physical effort. It doesn’t make much sense to over exhaust yourself.
Since you have been working with touching your horse, you can start to ask for their foot. I don’t like to just grab a foot and hope for the best. For some reason I have more people complain about the feet. For example, they won’t hold the foot and they pull away. It is lack of confidence in the human and the method.
Getting Started with the Front Feet
You will need halter, lead, clicker, and pouch of food.
Make sure your horse is standing square. It is hard for a horse to pick up their foot if they are leaning on it. Stand next to your horse’s shoulder facing the back end of your horse. I like to tap the chestnut as the cue for them to pick up their foot. Take your hand from their shoulder and slide your hand down to the chestnut. Tap on the chestnut continually. You can also pinch the chestnut if tapping is not successful. Most of the time they will pick up their foot. If that doesn’t work, go down the leg just below the pastern on the back of the foot, where it gives in a little just before you get to the hoof. Place your hand there and add some light pressure. They should pick up. This seems to always work.
Remember, you don’t want to cause any pain or panic to your horse to get them to pick up their foot. If you are really having problems, you can ask them to walk forward and when they pick up their foot, click and feed. You might have to get creative. I usually continue tapping until they move their foot. As soon as they pick up their foot, click and feed. Your timing has to be very good. You want to click when the foot is in the air. If your timing is off, they will think you want it down rather than up.
In the beginning of this process your horse may pick up their foot and put it down really fast. Don’t worry. This is normal. Repeat by tapping the chestnut. When they lift their foot, click when it is in the air. They are so fast that you might have to click just before they lift it to get the timing correct. At this point your horse might want to start pawing to show you that they figured out what you wanted. They will think that lifting the foot up and bringing it down really hard and fast is what you want. If your horse starts to paw continuously, ignore the pawing and wait until they are done, then start over. Put them up if it gets really bad.
To fix the pawing horse, tap the chestnut and hold the foot for 1 second, click, place the foot down nice and calm, then feed. Do not hold the foot if the horse wants to paw or pull away. Let them. It is all a part of the process of their learning. They can paw their way to China and it still won’t get the click. It is up to your horse what they do. They have to figure out what gets the click. The only way to do that is to work with what they think, they understand.
Repeat and hold (when I say hold that only means to support) the foot for 1 more second. Click and feed. Hold the hoof part of the horse not the bone. If they try to pull away let them. It didn’t make the box go off. Keep trying, they just need some time to think. As soon as you can hold the foot for 1 second, next time hold it for 2 seconds. If they start to lean on you, let the foot go. You are looking for them to hold their own foot up. You are just helping them along at this point.
Tap the chestnut. When they pick their foot up, hold for 2 seconds, click and feed.
Tap the chestnut. When they pick their foot up, hold for 3 seconds, click and feed.
Tap the chestnut. When they pick their foot up, hold for 4 seconds, click and feed.
Continue this process until you can hold it for 10 seconds. It should be a light hold, just to support them.
You will start to notice your horse figuring out that you want them to hold their foot up. They will start slowing down and helping you hold their foot.
When this task is finished, your chain of tasks should be:
Stand at your horse’s shoulder, slide your hand down to the chestnut, and tap the chestnut (don’t be surprised that your horse picks his foot up before you ask), hold the foot for 10 seconds.
Then click and feed.
Now do the other side. You will still be working with short sessions of 5 to 10 minutes. Working with feet does take some time.