Clicker training horses: Where to start?

I love that more horse magazines are publishing information about clicker training in their magazines and on their websites. We’ve been discussing this article from Practical Horseman on a group I’m on. There was also a nice article this summer about clicker training and trick training in Equus magazine.

Many people start clicker training because they need a way to solve problems that they are having with their horses or because they are interested in trick training.

In regards to the Practical Horseman article, I thought the article was overall very good. It does a good job describing clicker training and explaining how to teach several behaviors. However, I was pretty surprised by the 3 behaviors highlighted in the article:

  • Touching the face of a horse who doesn’t like to be touched
  • Retraining a horse who doesn’t like to have his feet picked up
  • Catching a hard to catch horse

Although the clicker is a GREAT tool for problem solving, I think horse people often get into trouble and ultimately decide that the clicker “doesn’t work” when they jump straight to problem solving without first teaching a few other behaviors. I think it’s best to start with behaviors such as targeting, backing, and head lowering when clicker training. (These three behaviors are three of Alexandra Kurland’s six foundation lessons).

Teaching foundation behaviors before you start problem solving is important because:

  1. Behaviors like targeting, backing, head lowering etc. teach the horse the rules of the game and how clicker training works. Better yet, these types of behaviors establish a foundation that will keep the trainer safe. If you can ask your horse to back up or lower his head, he can’t be biting you, pushing into you, or mugging you for treats at the same time.
  2. Teaching a few basic behaviors also teaches the trainer mechanical skills and shaping skills. There’s a lot to think about when you first start clicker training! If the horse and human already have some understanding of the clicker training process, the trainer will be much better prepared to shape what she wants, rather than potentially making the problem worse.
  3. “Problem behaviors,” such as those mentioned in the article, often have to be solved at a deeper layer. Using the clicker for the presenting problem just adds a band-aid if the “problem” is an indicator of a deeper problem. This is often the case with hard to catch horses — it’s not really catching the horse that’s the problem. Instead, the horse is less than thrilled about what happens to him each time he is caught.

So, if people are interested in using clicker training to solve problems I usually encourage them to think about training a few other behaviors first. Teaching your horse to target is a great place to start. Then, teaching the horse to back up, lower his head, or turn his head away from you are all fun behaviors to try next.

All of the above holds true as well for trick training! Once people discover the power of clicker training, they are often interested in teaching their horse all sorts of fun tricks. However, teaching a few foundation behaviors first helps teach the horse and human about cues and stimulus control. Without an understanding of the clicker training process and adding cues, trick training can quickly lead to problems.

If you’re interested in learning more about clicker training with horses, I encourage you to check out my article “What is clicker training?” and my clicker training resources page.

What do you think? What behaviors should a person train first when clicker training a horse? Is it okay to start with problem solving (or trick training) or what other essential behaviors should be taught first?

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