Clicker training is a training technique that’s used to teach a horse to respond to a stimulus (the clicker) and perform a movement or display an expected behavior. It’s based on classical conditioning where the horse is encouraged to do something in return for a reward of some kind. This type of training is great for teaching a horse to perform an action on command, helping a horse bond more closely with their handler, and giving a horse mental stimulation.
Clicker training for horses can be done anywhere, at any time, and requires little in the way of equipment. You can use it to reduce a horse’s boredom as they recover from an injury, have them perform tricks for an audience, or get them to stretch after a workout. The technique can also be used to refocus a horse that’s been poorly handled or just needs a refresher for good manners.
Horses pick up clicker training quickly, and it’s easy to teach basic movements that you can build upon for more complex actions over time. Clicker training for horses is fun, rewarding for both horse and rider, and gives you another activity to work on with your horse outside of riding.
Read on to learn more about the basics of clicker training for horses, along with its pros and cons.
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase.
What is Clicker Training for Horses?
If you’ve ever heard or read about Ivan Pavlov’s behavioral studies with his dogs, you’re already aware of the basics of clicker training. The underlying premise is to get a horse to perform a certain movement in return for a click, similar to Pavlov’s tests to get a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell.
Clicker training begins with the use of small treats and a clicker to encourage the horse to work for its reward.
The goal of clicker training is to get the horse to associate the sound of the click as a reward for engaging in a desired behavior. For example, you may want your horse to perform carrot stretches, but you want to reduce the use of carrots as a temptation and reward. You begin by keeping bits of carrot in one hand, the clicker in the other, and give a bit of carrot with a click for a successful stretch.
At some point, you reduce the number of carrot bits you give, but keep using the clicker. Over time, your horse learns to associate the click with the movement instead of a carrot bit. You can then use the clicker to stimulate the behavior (in this case a stretch), and know that your horse will respond appropriately.
You’ll always want to have a treat handy to reinforce the behavior, but you don’t need to give the treat for each and every stretch—a couple of treats will do.
Why Should I Clicker Train My Horse?
Horses are individuals just like any other mammal. Part of their basic nature is to please their handler, but some have a stubborn or independent streak that makes them difficult to manage.
Still others have had improper handling during their formative years, turning them into, well, a jerk! Then there are horses who will practically roll over for a positive response and go too far in their efforts. Clicker training works well for these types of personalities and just about all horses, regardless of temperament.
Clicker training provides you and your horse with a mental floor for physical and behavioral response. The technique can be used for simple reinforcement for behaving properly on a lead rope, or for more complex movements such as bowing and kicking a ball. Using a clicker also reassures the horse that they’re doing the right thing, enabling them to relax and deepen the trust between the two of you.
Last but not least, clicker training acts as a kind of communicative shortcut. Essentially, you don’t have to keep repeating yourself to get your horse to engage and respond. You give the visual cue for the desired behavior, snap the clicker, and your horse will do what’s been asked of them without confusion or hesitation. It’s a great way to stimulate your horse’s mind and for the two of you to have fun.
How to Clicker Train Your Horse
Conditioning a horse to respond to a click is relatively easy. Once your horse has established the sound of the click with a treat, you can begin introducing more complex moves. The clicker is then used to build upon each movement and also impress upon your horse the visual cue you give to perform a specific movement.
Clicker training for horses involves introducing a basic response, then building upon that response to achieve more advanced movements. Over time, your horse learns to perform a specific movement on demand. It’s important that you remain consistent in your efforts to reduce confusion and avoid rewarding poor behavior.
Here’s how to get started:
When it comes to clicker training equipment for horses, you can get a purpose-made clicker (like this one) that you keep on your wrist, or you can simply snap your fingers or make a click with your tongue as you would when you’re riding.
Once you’ve reached a stage where you want your horse to make more complex connections, you’ll need a target stick so your horse can track the movement you’re asking them to engage in. The stick can also be used to tap the body part you want them to move.
Establish the connection between horse and human
You want your horse to be relaxed and engaged in the work you’re about to begin. The ideal workspace is an area where your horse can stand loose and distractions are minimal.
Bring your horse to a familiar setting, then do something casual with it, such as scratching an itchy area or stroking the coat. After a little while, start using the clicker or make a clicking sound to begin the association between click and pleasure.
Ask your horse to lower its head below its withers whenever possible. You can do this by offering a treat at their chest level and inviting them to drop their head. This has the effect of relaxing your horse and encouraging them to engage with you while ignoring external stimuli.
Ask for a simple movement associated with the cue or click
You’re using the clicker to ask your horse to perform a movement of some kind. An easy and effective place to begin is to ask your horse to move forward and stop. Ask your horse to move with a verbal cue and click, and ask them to stop with a different word and click.
Once the horse is responding nicely to the request for a start and stop, you can start using food as a reward for more complex actions.
Introducing food as a motivator
Food helps your horse relax and look towards you for further reward. However, this can also make a horse pushy and determined to get a treat instead of focusing on the cue.
Don’t go for the carrots right away! Instead, use bits of boring food such as hay or hay cubes as a reward at this stage. As your horse munches on the food and relaxes, use the clicker or make a clicking noise to get it to associate food with the click. You can introduce more interesting treats when you want to focus on more complex actions.
Using a target or object to make a connection
Once you’ve established a reliable connection between a click and an action with your horse, you can begin with target training. This is an easy association for a horse to make, and comes with the benefit of engaging your horse’s mind to make a more complex connection. That is, you ask your horse to do more than start and stop at your command.
The object you use can be anything from a fence post to a beach ball or anything you happen to have handy. Bring the object to your horse, and draw their attention to it with your body language. Encourage your horse to reach for the object with its nose, then make a click when the horse touches it. Make sure to hold the object close enough for an easy touch, but don’t bump it into your horse’s nose. The goal is to make the horse perform the action of its own accord while avoiding an action that can dissuade it from trying again.
You may wish to switch to a more desirable treat to increase the value of performing the action for your horse. The goal is to encourage the horse to take action on command. Adding in a sweet treat helps reinforce the behavior, but don’t overdo it!
Building on the basics
Once you’re certain that your horse has a good foundation with the use of the clicker, you can move into more complex movements such as bowing, kicking a ball, shaking its head yes or no, and more.
You may find yourself walking your horse through the motion, such as gently drawing their leg forward to kick a ball, or encouraging them to bring their head between their legs and gently pulling a leg forward for a bow. Use the clicker and treat reward during the early stages of these actions to encourage cooperation and understanding of what you’re asking them to do.
Patience and persistence are key to getting results
There are a number of clicker training exercises for you to work on with your horse, but you don’t need to try them all at once. Horses learn best through repetition and rest.
Start working with your horse using a simple exercise, then leave it alone for a couple of days. Giving your horse time away from the exercise has the effect of taking the pressure off their mind, gives them the space to figure out what was going on, and makes them more likely to perform on cue the next time you work on the exercise.
Clicker Training Exercises for Horses
There’s almost no limit to the exercises you can teach your horse through clicker training if you so desire. Alternatively, you may prefer to use the clicker to reinforce positive behavior during ground handling and no more.
However you decide to use clicker training, you’ll find it’s a great way to bond with your horse and encourage them to relax, listen, and learn from your cues. Some of the clicker training exercises for horses include:
- Fetch and retrieve an object
- Kick a ball
- Place garbage in a garbage can
- Open a mailbox and pull out a package or letter
- “Sweep” the floor
- Lie down for a rider to mount
- Stand on a platform
- Spanish walk
When is it Time to Remove the Treats?
If you’ve ever watched a professional animal trainer, you may have noticed that they occasionally reward the animal’s performance with a treat. The treat is an aid to the clicker, and while it’s possible to trade off the use of the treat for a scratch or pat, you’ll always need the treat as a reward for good behavior. You can reduce the reliance on the use of treats with time, but removing it entirely runs the risk of the horse losing interest and forgetting how to perform as expected.
This aspect is a reason why horse owners are hesitant to use the technique for training their horses to perform on command. However, as with any training technique, there are pros and cons to consider before starting the process.
Clicker Training Pros and Cons
Clicker training is a great way to simplify the need for a horse to perform a specific behavior or respond to a command. On the flip side, a horse can become mouthy and expectant when the clicker is used without the addition of a reward.
This kind of training can also stimulate a horse to overperform in anticipation of the reward, regardless if it’s a click or a treat. As with most things, balance is key when it comes to engaging in clicker training a horse. Here’s a look at the positives and negatives to be aware of when clicker training your horse.
- Teaches your horse that interactions with a handler don’t have to be stressful.
- Encourages positive behavior.
- Provides a reward for performing a specific movement or task.
- Establishes a strong relationship between horse and handler.
- Provides stimulation for the horse.
- Enables the horse to influence interaction through its own actions.
- Encourages the horse to engage further in clicker training exercises.
- Can introduce unwanted behaviors such as biting, greediness, or pushiness.
- Not a good technique for riding activities.
- Limited to teaching what some call “circus tricks”.
- Constant use of treats can be a drawback.
- A horse may sour on the training if it doesn’t get a food treat for its performance.
Clicker training for horses has been around for decades, and it’s based on proven behavioral science. It offers the opportunity to teach your horse how to do tricks and have fun in the process. It also helps your horse focus on you as its handler and respond in a positive manner. It can also be used to teach desirable behaviors that make a horse easier to handle.
As with any training technique, there are clicker training pros and cons to consider. You’ll never be able to completely stop the use of food as a reward, and there’s always the risk of unwanted behaviors even if you stop what you’re doing and use negative reinforcement when the horse bites or gets greedy.
If you feel your horse would benefit from clicker training, and you’d like to have fun teaching it to do tricks, then go ahead and begin the training. You never know how your horse is going to surprise you!