It is so exciting to see that science-backed, positive reinforcement clicker training is catching on in the horse world. This type of training has been popular in the dog training world for a while and in zoos too, where the animals are way more ‘dangerous’, so it’s nice to see horse people starting to put into practice the science behind the training of all animals. The myth that you can’t feed horses treats and be safe should be put to bed.
Many people think clicker training is only for teaching cute tricks and has no place in serious horse training. Well, even serious training should and can be fun. And the more fun the horse has, the more likely he will be to give maximum effort.
People will spend time on the ground with the clicker, beautifully breaking down and rewarding the slightest try and then just get on the horse and ride without continuing to explain the details to the horse. They often say, ‘He should just know!’ Well, did you just know how to read or did someone have to teach you the letters and their sounds first? The ability to break down complex behaviours into their component parts and teach these first ensures understanding from the horse. This is just as critical for the riding part.
I’m hoping that many of you reading this have played around with teaching some behaviours using the clicker or tongue click (or a marker word, though science shows this is not as effective or precise) and are wondering where this great method of learning could take you and your horse. In my barn, I have a sign that says: ‘If you can dream it you can do it.’
From the Ground Up
I start my horses with clicker work on the ground and systematically teach them everything they will need to know about ‘riding’ before I ever get on them. All my horses, even the older rescue restarts will learn everything on the ground first, from go forward, stop and turn, to more advanced exercises like shoulder in and haunches in. I can shape all these behaviours using just positive reinforcement and then transfer the cues to a more traditional, but non-escalating, rein and leg cue, so that there is no perceived threat associated with the cue.
Now, you may think this is a lot of work, but when I get on my youngsters they are soft and supple, and, more importantly, balanced in their mind and body and prepared both physically and mentally to carry the weight. This is time very well spent.
You can also start riding with a clicker without doing all this ground work first. However, you will need to introduce the clicker and what it means to your horse first! (Visit horse-canada.com/the-pony-fairy for foundation lessons to get you started.)
The Power of Choice
With my clicker horses, choice and the right to say no is a huge part of the relationship I build into the clicker work. They have a choice and can say no. Here is an example of how that works.
Riding means you need to be able to get on. I like a horse that volunteers to come to the mounting block and line themselves up with it so I can gracefully get on. So this would be where I might start to introduce riding with the clicker to a horse that is already used to being ridden.
One of the ways to shape this behaviour is to make sure your horse knows his mat lesson really well. Then simply place the mat by the mounting block and walk with him toward the mounting block so he is straight and set up to line up with it. You can stop at the mounting block and he will likely proceed to the mat because it has a history of high reinforcement and is, therefore, a good place to be to get a click and a reward.
While I could take my horse to the mounting block and insist he stand still for me to get on, I would not do that. I use horses’ willingness to do behaviours as an indicator of their level of trust in me and also how they may be feeling that day. If my horse, after going through the shaping process of the mounting block, chooses not to come over one day, I look for the reason why this might be happening. Is he trying to “tell” me something about his physical or mental health? If my riding is enjoyable for him he will want to be ridden, if he is avoiding letting me get on then I need to find out why, and not just ride because I want to.
Another very valuable behaviour to teach for riding, which should first have been taught on the ground, is the ‘touch the goblin’ game. This game encourages a horse to go and approach a scary object without force or ‘making the right choice easy and the wrong one hard.’
The horse will be reinforced with a click and treat for getting closer and closer, but he is also free to retreat if he is too uncomfortable. This will create a horse that will actively start to seek out scary things to go and touch, rather than avoid or run away from them, or just shut down. (See the magic hands and goblins video example.)
The power of choice is empowering for an animal just like it is for us, and a powerful learning tool. We can then transfer this to ridden work. How fun would riding down the trail be if your horse was not afraid of things? You would, of course, start out by clicking and treating in the saddle the same way you did while on the ground, but if you’ve done your work on the ground, you will only need a click and a treat for touching the scary rock or log on the trail. If he appears scared, then click and treat. If not, just carry on past the object. His confidence will build and scary things will become less frequent.
FAQs on Riding with a Clicker
Do I have to get off every time to feed the treat?
Absolutely not! Another effect that accompanies clicking and treating while riding is that every time you feed, you get a lovely stretch for your horse (and yourself) because he has to reach around to get the treat. This will help him become more supple and balanced.
How can I ride with a clicker? I need three hands!
You don’t have to use an actual clicker; a tongue click is just as effective. Make a short sharp sound by pulling your tongue down off the roof of our mouth. The click you make with your tongue sounds very different, or should, from a cluck to trot or go faster. Your horse will very quickly learn the difference. With a bit of practice, you will get a consistent sound. And that way you always have your clicker with you. You can also use a verbal marker such as “yes” or “oui”. Just be sure to ‘load’ the word the same way you did the clicker. Once the behaviour is solid, you can add a cue – any cue you want, but not before it is solid and predictable. Remember, the click is NOT the cue. Many people get this confused. The click is the marker signal that tells the horse the reinforcement is coming for responding correctly to the cue.
Every time I click, my horse stops. How am I ever going to get anywhere or train anything?
Stopping is often viewed as a bad thing, but if you are rewarding quality and not quantity then it gives you the chance to reward quality first and then build duration into the behaviour.
Trotting around and around in an okay trot is fine, but getting a fabulous engaged trot transition and clicking for it will give you the chance to try and get it again, and it will get more solid the more it is reinforced. So, if I click for a great trot transition and then stop 10 times along the side of the arena, I will have practiced the transition and reinforced it 10 times more often than if I trot around the arena and hope for a good trot then stop and just let my horse have a break. He won’t know why he got to stop trotting, he will just be glad he got to stop.
The power of the science behind the clicker work is that it tells the horse precisely what he is being rewarded for. And because he is being rewarded, he will work for it and give you more and more of what you ask for.
Think of it in human terms as a monetary reward. If I clicked and gave you $20 every time you sat down, you would likely be eager to sit down again and again to get your reward.
The click (marker signal) identifies for the horse the moment he gave the desired effort/behaviour, and the reward reinforces it.
In this example, it is the walk to trot transition that is being reinforced. If you want to work on your trot to walk transitions, that is for another training session. You must focus on one behaviour at a time.
Eventually, after having reinforced the ‘parts’ in a series of movements/behaviours separately – eg. walk to trot, trot to walk, halt – you can reward at the end of the series.
I click when I’m riding, but my horse doesn’t stop for the treat. What should I do?
This is probably due to the horse waiting for previously trained cues. If the horse, for example, has been taught to only stop if the reins are pulled, then he will be unwilling to stop unless that cue is presented, because, in the past, he would be punished for doing so and, therefore, there may be a bit of a disconnect with regard to the response so he will be more guarded in his enthusiasm. To get around this response, you may want to add in a new cue, such as a voice cue that you may have used on the ground so that he associates this new cue for an old behaviour with more pleasant things. Mats are great for this. If the mat game is taught well, you can use his landing on the mat to add the word cue such as ‘stop’ (not ‘whoa,’ as this word might have past feelings associated with it). When he lands on the mat say ‘stop,’ then click and reward for the stopping on the mat, which will be very predictable. You need to keep rewarding until the behaviour has a strong history to build into a chain of behaviours, equally well reinforced, and then you can just click and reward at the end of the chain because the behaviours themselves become rewarding. This is a hard one for folks to wrap their heads around at first. Remember to click and a treat for the smallest try.
Make sure to practice food delivery from the saddle at a standstill first so your horse knows how it works. Just click and treat him for simply standing there. Then, when you are riding, click and go into food delivery mode, which will usually trigger a stop response.
How do I know when to click?
Click for things you like. You can even click when your horse blows out in relaxation and build this behaviour too. If you get a lovely swingy walk, click, a soft contact, click, a lovely lateral flexion, click, one step towards a scary object, click.
If you’ve loved all the things that clicker training on the ground has given to you and your relationship with your horse, why would you not want to continue this into the saddle?
Being able to tell your horse ‘Yes, thank you for that lovely thing you did’ from the saddle will only help to further build the kind of relationship we all want to have with our horses. Until next time, keep it positive.