How To: Clicker train your horse, part 1

What do the Papillon and the Hanoverian in this photo have in common? They’re both clicker trained. Breanne Long introduces us to this fun and effective training technique.

From Breanne:

I’ve been training dogs since I was little and have used the principles of clicker training for the past nine years with great success. Last year I began applying the same principles for training certain behaviors in horses. This installment will cover the basics of clicker training and future installments will cover training specific behaviors and classical conditioning theory. Many people don’t understand what clicker training is, so here’s a brief comparison to give you better idea.

Humans: Susie works as a sales associate. Susie chooses to make a big sale (desired behavior). Susie’s boss tells her “well done” (marker). Susie gets a bonus for her hard work (reward).

Dogs: Rover is going for a walk with his owner. Rover chooses to ignore the bird on the sidewalk and remain walking calmly next to his owner (desired behavior). Rover’s owner clicks (marker). Rover gets a treat (reward).

Horses: Buddy is going to be ridden by his owner. Buddy chooses to stand quietly next to the mounting block while his owner mounts (desired behavior). Buddy’s owner clicks (marker). Buddy gets his withers scratched (reward).

Make sense now? The desired behavior can, obviously, be whatever you want, but it’s best to start with simple behaviors while your horse is still learning the process (targeting is a good one, more on that in part 2). The marker can be anything that tells the horse it is doing the right thing. The clicker is so popular because it’s distinctive, easy to hear, and doesn’t sound like anything else.

Some people, myself included at times, use the word “yes” or some other audible marker. It is also possible to use a visual marker if you are training a deaf horse or dog, although there are clearly limitations in that the animal must be watching you at all times. Using a different marker is fine, although your timing must be very precise and the word or sound can’t be something the dog will hear when not training–otherwise you could inadvertently reward the wrong behavior.

Whatever you choose, it’s best to stick with it. So if you start using a clicker, you should continue using a clicker.


Orange cone target (we’ll get to that later), clicker w/ wristlet (easier to hold onto), and small chunks of carrot.

The other important thing to determine is what motivates your horse the most. Does your horse love grain, treats, carrots, face scratches? Your homework this week is to find what reward your horse likes the most and what reward he likes the least. This will give you several rewards of different values.

The horse I’m currently working with loves carrots over any other reward, so when I teach new behaviors or work on particularly difficult behaviors (which for him means standing still for fly spray!) I reward with carrots. When I work on behaviors he already knows or are easy I might reward with a small handful of grain or a scratch between his ears. He still gets a reward, but just like you would expect more money for a harder job, your horse should get a better reward for a more difficult behavior.

Here’s the last thought for this week: If you already have a clicker and are itching to get started with your training you can “charge your clicker”. This is referred to as a transfer of value. Basically you are transferring the value of the reward to the click itself.

It sounds complicated but it’s very easy to do. Click and treat, click and treat, click and treat… repeat 10-15x. It’s easiest to count out 10-15 treats, place your horse behind some sort of barrier (stall door, stall guard, fence, hitching post, etc.) so he can’t invade your space, hold your clicker in one hand and have your treats close by (bait bags are great for this). It’s best to have only one treat in your hand at a time so the horse understands the distinction between each click as preceding each treat.


Behind a hitching post, snoozing in the sun eagerly awaiting a clicker session!

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Breanne is a 23 year-old biological engineer who has been riding hunters since the age of 8. She has been very fortunate and has been able to remain in the saddle through catch riding even after the sale of her horse before starting college. She also trains in dog obedience, agility, and flyball and has titled dogs in multiple venues and sports.


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