How To: Clicker train your horse, part II

What do the Papillon and the Hanoverian in this photo have in common? They’re both clicker trained. Breanne Long continues her series on this fun and effective training technique.

From Breanne:

Note: The word clicker or click can be interchanged with marker or mark if you choose to use a word as your “click.” The word treat can mean anything to you and your horse. Treat can be used interchangeably with reward (wither scratch, face rub, etc).


This week we’ll cover the first few steps in the process of clicker training: adding value to the click, a.k.a. “charging the clicker,” by targeting. Charging the clicker just means teaching the horse to associate the click with a reward.

Part 1 discussed rewards of different values, which means you need to know what reward your horse likes the most and what reward your horse likes the least. That might sound confusing, but picture a big pile of $20 bills versus a $1 bill. You would complete an obstacle course to get the $20s, but you might only walk a few feet in order to get the $1. Harder (or new) behaviors deserve better rewards, while simple (or previously learned) behaviors are rewarded with lower value rewards. Remember, the most rewarding thing for some horses is to be left alone; the approach and retreat method can be adapted for clicker training.

Hint: When target training your horse it’s best to have the horse behind some sort of barrier so he can’t invade your space. We don’t want to reward the horse being pushy or disrespectful so put your horse behind a stall guard or fence. It is easiest to just reward your horse from your hand, but if you have an issue hand feeding your horse you can reward from a bucket and offer it to the horse (a good option is to train around feeding time and just use your horse’s regular ration of grain offered in bites from a bucket). If you’re worried about your horse becoming nippy or pushy remember to reward away from your body by holding your hand out and only do so when the horse isn’t “mugging” you for treats.


This gate is a little tall for a barrier but would work if you kept your target within easy reach.


  • Tools:

-a target (something large and easy to see such as a cone, flag, a dressage letter, or my version of contractor flags taped to an old dressage whip)

-treats (or whatever reward you use)

-horse behind a barrier

-clicker (google “free clicker training apps” if you don’t have a clicker)


  • Process:

1) Hold your clicker in one hand and your target in the other, your treats should be within arm’s reach.

2) Calmly present the target to the horse (it’s important that your horse isn’t afraid of the target!). Don’t push it at their face; just hold it in front of their nose where they can see it. Most horses will poke their nose out to investigate and in doing so they will touch the target.

3) Watch closely and as soon as the horse touches the target you will click.

4) Quickly remove the target and reward the horse. We want to remove the target each time so we can re-present it, even if you present it in the same location each time.

5) When you present the target the second, third, fourth, etc. time, the horse will probably not be as curious so you may have to be patient and click and reward for any movement toward the target.

The first time you present the target will be the easiest until your horse gets the hang of targeting so don’t get discouraged. As long as the horse is motivated by your reward he should stay interested. At this early stage, even if the horse moves his head around and accidentally hits the target you should click and reward. Make sure you pay close attention and click accurately. We want the click and the touch to occur almost simultaneously so the horse understands the correlation.

This video is the first clicker training session for this mare, Dessa. She learned the game very quickly! It’s hard to tell in the video but for the last few repetitions I have moved the flag side to side and only click for her nose making contact with the orange flag. The video is a little choppy because I edited out the portions where I was breaking treats in half and waving gnats out of my face.

Similar to when charging the clicker, we want to practice short sessions. Count out 10-15 treats before you begin so you know when to stop. Do this a few times each day and your horse will be reaching for the target in no time. When your horse is starting to look for the target you can add a command such as “touch,” “target,” “nose,” etc.

Learning Theory Tip of the Week:

This learning process is called shaping. We are letting the horse figure out for himself what earns the reward. Animals that are taught behaviors through shaping typically learn other behaviors more quickly and easily. An animal that has been shaped will start to offer behaviors to try to figure out what the handler is looking for. An alternative to shaping is luring. If we were to lure the horse to the target, we would hold the treat right next to the target and the horse might happen to bump the target while reaching for the treat. This method usually takes longer because the animal isn’t thinking about what will earn the reward; instead they are just blindly following the reward. Luring can be useful in certain situations but it doesn’t teach the horse the “game” of offering behaviors. Additionally, luring encourages your horse to invade your space and nose around looking for treats.

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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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