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Clicker Training For Your Horse: First Clicker Lessons

Getting Started

So how do you actually begin to teach this to a horse? I start by teaching a simple trick. My intent here is to condition the secondary reinforcer and to establish the link between behavior and reward. I'll worry about practical applications after he's learned how the game is played.

I like to start with something that's very simple and easy to understand. I'm going to teach the horse to touch his nose to an object. I've found this works really well in part because it is outside the horse's normal training program. It's so different from anything else he's been asked to do, he has to pay attention to figure me out.

I like to begin with the horse in his stall (Fig. 4). I put a stall guard up across his open door. That way he can get his head out, but, if he starts to get pushy about the food, I can easily step back out of reach. I begin by holding a small plastic cone between his nose and my body. Don't worry if you don't have a cone. Any handy object will do. I've used whips, hard hats, the lids off of supplement buckets. Anything that's safe, easy to hold, and large enough for him to see will do.

Targeting a Horse

Fig. 4: A safe way to introduce your horse to the
clicker is to put him in a stall with a stall guard
across the door. If he gets pushy about the food,
you can easily step back out of his reach. For his
first clicker-trained behavior I want this Arabian
to touch a target, the plastic cone I'm holding.

I want my horse to be successful. Without actually pushing the cone at his nose I want to position it so he's likely to bump into it. Most horses are really curious and will want to check it out. As soon as they touch it, I click and hand them a little grain. About a teaspoonful is all that's needed. The horses are usually really surprised and excited by this. They forget about the cone and everything else except my hands and my pockets. Why are they getting grain? Is there more? They can get very pushy at this stage. Keep yourself safe, but basically ignore this. Stay focused on your primary intent. If you get distracted by your horse's greed, you'll miss opportunities to reinforce him for good behavior.

One of the rules of shaping states that unreinforced behavior tends to go away. As you reward your horse only when he touches the cone, he will begin to orient away from your pockets. I have seen this take less than five minutes with some horses and several hours or even days with others. Be patient and be creative.

What do I mean by that? You want to create opportunities for your horse to be rewarded. You want him to be successful. For example, if your horse gets distracted and looks away for a moment, take advantage of that. When he swings his head back for another hopeful search of your pockets make sure the cone is positioned so he'll have to bump into it on the way.

He won't understand at first that his bumping into it is the reason he's getting grain. That's not important. As it happens repeatedly you'll see him begin to actually move towards the cone. You can almost see the light bulbs going on as the horse figures it out. Now you have a horse who is clearly touching the cone on purpose. Click. You give him grain, and almost faster than you can keep up he's back touching the cone.

Fig. 5: He's consistently touching the
cone, so now I'm going to make it a
little harder for him. My goal is to be
able to set the cone on the ground
and still have him touching it. I'll shape
this behavior in small steps, so my
horse continues to be successful.

At this point you can begin to move the cone around. It's important here to remember four of the rules of shaping.

  1. When you improve on a behavior, work on one element of the behavior at a time.
  2. When introducing a new element, relax your standards on the old ones.
  3. Shift the behavior in small enough steps so that the horse continues to be successful.
  4. If behavior deteriorates, return to the previous stage in the training

All behaviors are made up of many elements. Even something as simple as touching a cone has many different criteria you can reinforce. You could focus on having the horse touch a particular spot on the cone, or touching it fast, or tracking it while you move it around.

Suppose you want your horse to touch a cone that's sitting on the ground. You need to focus just on shaping that element. (Rules 1 and 2) If you also worked on how fast he responded, or the precision of where he touched the cone, you'd be training too many different elements of the behavior at once. Your horse could easily become confused and discouraged.

If you've been holding the cone at chest height, and you suddenly lower it to the ground, your horse will probably loose track of it and become frustrated. Instead lower the cone four or five inches at a time. Within minutes your horse will be reaching to the ground to touch it. (Rule 3) There's a wonderful proverb that applies here beautifully. Make haste slowly.

Fig. 6: I've taken my hand off the
cone for the first time. He's got the
idea. He's still touching the cone even
though I'm no longer holding onto it.
I've successfully shaped this Arab's
first ckicker-trained behavior.

You will begin to shift from a fixed to a variable reinforcement schedule. A fixed schedule means that a standard unit of behavior gets a reward. Touch the cone, get a treat. The horse knows exactly how much effort he needs to put out to earn his treat. Fixed schedules create limited results. Variable schedules create excellence.

If your horse stops strongly touching the cone, move it back to a height where it is easy for him. Reestablish the behavior and then go on to increase the difficulty. (Rule 4)

In a variable reinforcement schedule the reward is unpredictable. Since the horse never knows exactly when his treat will come, he keeps offering more behavior. Touching the cone got a click last time, but now it's not working, so the horse tries bumping the cone harder. By withholding the click, you got the behavior to vary. Some of the touches will be strong, solid ones, others will be half-hearted brushes. Once the behavior varies you can selectively reinforce any element you choose. Choose movement, and you can get your horse to follow the cone to the ground (Figs. 5, 6).

About the author
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Alexandra Kurland is the author of Clicker Training for Your Horse and founder of The Clicker Center. She is also a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.