Bill and Juanita, owners of Allenspark Lodge B&B, are living their dream...

running a successful business and riding as often as possible.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Clicker Training (long)

This is one of my favorite ads:
1996 Super Bowl Ad/Horse Play
When we first got our first two Mustangs, we knew NOTHING about training, and very little about horses in general, so we were making a huge fiasco out of our efforts with these two older guys (a 9 yo and a 10 yo geldings). Realizing we were not getting along well, we went to a BLM auction fairly close to us that was offering a week of pre-training for any adoptors. I talked them into letting me take my horse back for some insight. We saw all kinds of "least resistant training" methods, as the BLM calls it (instead of natural horsemanship), including the gentleman who had taught the Budweiser Clydesdales how to play football - for the 1996 Super Bowl ad above - using clicker training. I just stood and watched in amazement as he was working with a very skittish mare (who had been abused and returned to the BLM, very frightened of any human interaction), teaching her to move her feet by just pointing a finger at one. In reality, he was gaining her trust by not having to lay a hand on her or force her to do what he wanted. I ended up not having time to use this method with my first horse, as we had a tragic accident shortly after coming home, and I had to have him euthanized due to a shattered leg.

Six weeks later, Bill bought Jesse for me, as a five month old wild thing. She is not BLM, having been born on private land next to BLM land, so she does not carry the brand. As I said before, I could not keep her in any enclosure. I had won her trust and she had become my 'pocket pet', following me everywhere like a love-lost puppy. Fun, but not practical. Horses don't belong inside lodges. When I was inside, busy, she would get out and come draw on the big picture windows with her cute little wet nose (cleanest windows in town), following me around the lodge, or she would go forage in the neighbors’ yards. So when our trainer friend suggested teaching her tricks, the clicker guy came to mind. I went online and found information on various forms of clicker training, ordered a training pamphlet specifically for horses that came with a clicker and pack of treats for a reasonable price.

We started just playing with the clicker. A really important part of clicker training is "when" to click and then being really, really honest with its use. If you click the clicker, you give the treat, no matter what. If you clicked at the wrong time or accidentally, you still give the treat. The horse doesn't know if you did it wrong; they just have to ALWAYS count on getting that treat. (It's that consistency thing.) So you have to get some practice in on using that clicker proficiently. Now Bill just clicks with his tongue (which works fine if you condition your horse that way). My tongue got tired and I wasn't good at getting the same sound consistently, so I chose to use the actual clicker, which means one hand is busy with that device. This can be an issue at first, until you become adept at the silly little thing. By the way, you can purchase different sorts of clickers at any pet store for about $5, usually sitting at the checkout counter. I would suggest buying one and walking around the house practicing the motion and getting used to the sound yourself.

The first thing you have to do is condition the horse to expect a treat at the sound of the clicker. You have to know your horse well enough to know what he/she considers a treat. It is easiest to learn using food, anything they like, but some horses are actually NOT food oriented, so just a moment's graze in the grass, etc. can be used. I started with the little horsie biscuits that came with the kit, then switched to bits of carrots - cutting a large carrot into little bite size pieces. Once Jesse was conditioned, it didn't matter what I used, she knew we were 'playing the game'.

Targeting, or the TOUCH command is the first to teach. Be somewhere comfortable with your horse, usually loose. We don't have stalls or anything, so I just used our parking lot out front with a halter and lead rope, but I wound the rope around Jesse's neck and left her loose, since she followed me or came on command, anyway. Have the clicker ready and a treat in one hand, closed fist so they can't bump it and knock it out of your hand. Hold that hand where your horse would most likely 'accidentally' bump it and say, "touch". When she does touch the treat hand, click the clicker and then give her the treat. With a few repetitions, you should see the lightbulb come on in their head, so that as you say, "touch", they search for the hand with the treat. Start moving that hand around so they really 'get it'. I learned this better method at the clicker clinic I attended, several years later. Before knowing this, with Jesse, I started with a floppy frisbee, held it up where I knew she would accidentally bump into it with her head, and told her to touch. Now with her smarts, on the third command she reached for my other hand and tried to click the clicker with her teeth. LOL This is called conditioning; having the horse understand that everytime it hears that distinctive click, it will get something it wants. Underwater trainers use this exclusively for dolphins and whales. This way you can send the animal away from you to do something and return to you for its treat when it hears the click; since horses have such great hearing, you can send them pretty far. At the clinic, they taught us to keep the food treats in a pouch at our waist or somewhere on our person easy to get to, and NOT reach for the treat until after clicking, then handing the horse the treat with a closed fist turned down.

Next lesson - to teach the horse not to get grabby over the treats, or any food presented to them. This is a big misunderstanding for a lot of people, who say they don't believe in hand feeding horses because it makes them pushy. If taught correctly, it does just the opposite. Now you have to learn to WITH-HOLD the click. To start, when you give a food treat, hold it in a closed hand, fingers facing down, in front of the horse. The horse usually will start trying to lip your hand to get at the treat. Just keep your hand that way until the horse quits trying to get into the hand, then click and turn hand over, presenting the treat on an open palm. You have to be really quick with the first few treats so you don't miss that first 'try', as Mark says. The first hesitation of licking on their part gets them the treat. Do this a lot of times, in quick succession; don’t worry about them getting too many treats. (Kind of like letting kids eat their Halloween candy; one time is not going to kill them.) Soon they will hold their nose over your hand without touching you, to get their treat. Some horses get more persistent, going from lipping to teeth. At the first sign of aggressive behavior, just bop your closed fist up into their lips; not hard or mean, just enough that they figure out anything more than lipping causes them discomfort. Most horses learn this really fast. What a great lesson, though, if you teach nothing else. I can now let guests go 'treat' my horses anytime, knowing they won't get bitten. I just tell them to hold the carrot, apple chunk or grass in a closed fist, then open and both my horses very gently lip up whatever is offered, but don't try to grab stuff that smells good. By the way, once a horse has gotten really good with the idea you want, you don't have to use the clicker any more, like my guys knowing how to take food from people.

Once you have practiced these two things A LOT, you can go on to almost anything your imagination can come up with, by either clicking or not clicking. With-holding the click can be as important as clicking. You just have to break any project down into minute pieces of action, which is really difficult for me. If the horse doesn't 'get it', break it into smaller pieces. With Jesse, since I had started with a floppy frisbee, we learned to play frisbee. After she was good with touching the frisbee in my hand on command, I started tossing the frisbee on the ground near our feet. At the command, she would go to it and touch it, I would click and she would come to me for her treat. Soon, I was throwing the frisbee many feet away, with the same results. Next step, how to get her to pick it up? I threw the frisbee on the ground at my feet, but with-held the click when she touched it. She looked at me expecting the click. Nothing, so she touched it again, this time moving it just a bit with her nose. Click and treat. Soon she was pretty good at pushing that frisbee around when I would throw it farther away, until I clicked. OK, with-hold the click again, until she bites the frisbee to pick it up. She didn't have to actually pick it up yet, just get her teeth on it to hold it. Click! Continuing this way, I taught her to pick up the frisbee and bring it back to me, giving it to me on command. I also taught her voice commands at the same time. At the clinic, they insisted this was a separate step, but Jesse picked it all up together. She knows "pick-it-up", "bring it to me", "give", …and "get the frisbee" means all of the above.
Now, there is a lot more involved than just retrieving a frisbee. I would sit on her bareback and ask her to pick things up off the ground and hand them to me. Soon I was tossing my cowboy hat on the ground instead of a frisbee. She didn't care. She also learned the term “gently” just from the tone of my voice; she does NOT crunch my hat! "Pick it up" meant whatever I pointed to. The trail ride guests thought this was great! "Trash", to Jesse, means any plastic bag blowing around. When Bill and I are out riding on the mountain, I can say 'pick up trash' to her and she will look for a plastic bag stuck to or under brush and take me right to it. (She used to grab the bag and hand it to me, but one day she picked one up off the ground that tasted really, really bad. She spit it out and has refused to pick up plastic bags since, however she will still take me to them and stand rock solid so I can pick it up. Look out for smart horses!!) Also, obviously, she is never spooked by blowing plastic bags, because they mean something else to her. See all the great results you get besides the intended ones?

A funny story: when Jesse was three and I had just started her under saddle, we were visiting friends in Arizona who took out rides. I went on a ride with Jesse to get her used to being single file on trails with other horses, but I opted to follow behind in case we had issues, I didn’t want to be a problem for my wrangler friend. It was a family of four, with two smaller children who had been visiting the town of Tombstone and both kids had gotten those cute, little straw cowboy hats – that don’t fit. As we are riding along, a gust blew off the little boy’s hat and it landed at Jesse’s feet. No problem; let’s show off a little bit. I ask Jesse to pick it up. Now the hat is laying on its crown and Jesse, for some unknown reason, sticks her nose inside the hat and pushes it around. I ask her again to “pick it up”; she does. Just lifts her head with this hat on her nose, causing everybody to laugh histerically. I dismount and reach for the hat, thinking it got stuck there, and tried to pull it off her nose. No way! That hat was not coming off her nose! Finally, after one last tug, I see this laughing expression in her eyes, just over the brim of the hat, and the hat pops off her nose. I look in the hat and see a straw knot where it had been tied together. Jesse had that knot in her teeth so I couldn’t pull it off. So you see what a clown I have for a horse…and at only three years old. Never a dull moment with her.

You can just let your imagination wander. There are lots of resources available for clicker training advice. The clinics aren’t that expensive and very worth it to learn easier methods and see lots of examples of its use. I certainly don’t use it for everything; in fact, hardly at all any more, although I should get back to it. It does teach the horse good thinking skills.


  1. I knew I liked you folks! I used the clicker to gentle my mustang too and teach him some little tricks. I never thought to teach him fetch. That would be handy. I love the process and he still enjoys the thinking involved. A lot of folks poo poo it, but hey it works and it is a win win situation. It hasn't worked as well with my domestics though.

  2. Juanita -

    I have about the furthest thing from a mustang (an arab saddlebred), but it wouldn't surprise me a bit if someone had used this with her.

    She is SUPER verbal - understanding several commands that aren't typical for a horse ("Home Jeeves" means we're done, take me back to the barn, etc).

    She also is PERFECT about accepting treats.

    I didn't really mention the whole treat thing much with GunDiva - (Hi GunDiva!) because I'd read up on Julie Goodnight and knew that there were some opposing camps on that.

    But I got her already trained and she was perfectly behaved about it. She knows when she hears that "treat whistle", that she would do well to hurry over. That probably saved us some injuries last week when the neighbor's horse broke through the fence and Joey got into a brawl (horse fights are SICKENING to watch). Well, Kona had taught Joey by example that my whistle meant a treat.

    So when I ran outside and whistled to get Kona away from the brawl... Joey skidded to a halt and immediately came over calmly for a treat. That let the neighbor horse get away without injury to us.

    I think the clicker training is awesome in that it lets them use another sense to learn (hearing).

    A huge THANK YOU for taking the time to post this and explain it for someone who is new like me.

    And I am absolutely cracking up at your 3-year-old's antics... that had to be priceless!

    I will expect a demonstration at HCR, k? :)

  3. Ok Juanita, you got me on this one...:o)

    No matter how much I click the dumb quad just sits there :o(

    great post....


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