ClickerSolutions Training Articles

A Horse Trainer's Guide to Clicker Training

If I offered you a way to train your own horse to do anything it was capable of, would you be interested? What if I told you the method was fast and reliable? What if it worked for both ground and under-saddle behaviors? Pleasure and sport? What if I told you both you and your horse would have a blast doing it? Well, I've got just the method for you. It's called clicker training.

Two factors make clicker training unique:

  • First, it emphasizes the science underlying the method. Clicker training applies the principles of operant and classical conditioning.
  • Second, it uses a marker signal, the clicker, to tell the horse when he does what you want. The clicker is like a camera "taking a picture" of the behavior you like.

The method is, at its core, very simple:

  1. Get the behavior.
  2. Mark the behavior.
  3. Reinforce the behavior.

For example, say you want to teach your horse to lower his head. You could get this behavior in several ways... by applying poll pressure, by pulling down on the reins, by teaching the horse to touch a target and then lowering the target, or by capturing the behavior when the horse lowers his head on his own. The instant the horse lowers his head, you would click to tell the horse, "That! Right there! That's what I want!" Then you would reinforce the behavior with something the horse wants, like a piece of carrot or a withers scratch.

Let's look at each step in more detail.


There are as many ways to get a behavior as there are trainers to teach it and horses to do it. The specific method you choose affects more than the behavior at hand. It affects your horse's mind, teaching him how to learn and how to approach problems in the future. Methods of getting behavior can be loosely grouped into two buckets: hands-on and hands-off.

  • Hand-on methods are those in which the trainer uses his hands or a piece of equipment to guide or compel the behavior. These include traditional pressure/release, molding, luring, and targeting. Trainer participation is heavy in these methods. The trainer shows or "helps" the horse through the behavior, leaving little "thinking" to be done by the animal.

    Hands-on methods may include an element of compulsion. Many animals do not respond well to compulsion. Compulsion can increase the "emotionality" of the animal's response, and the most recent research in the field of Behavioral Analysis has found that emotionality is one of the key reasons why some methods have "fall out." Another drawback to compulsion is that if mild compulsion doesn't work quickly, trainers tend to escalate, resulting in more emotionality from both the trainer and the animal.
  • Hands-off methods, on the other hand, have little trainer participation and require a lot of "thinking" by the horse. These include capturing and shaping. In capturing, the trainer waits for the horse to offer the desired behavior, then marks and rewards it. Shaping is a technique of training a complex behavior by teaching, and gradually building upon, the behavior's component responses. For example, to shape head down, you might first click a simple head bob. But gradually you would require lower and lower head bobs until the horse was actively lowering his head all the way to the ground. Then you might shape duration so the horse holds his head down for an extended period of time.

Capturing and shaping are the methods most closely associated with clicker training, but they are not the only legitimate methods of getting behavior. All methods for getting behavior, even the hands-off methods, have pros and cons -- none is a magic pill perfect for every horse, every trainer, or every situation. One of the strengths of clicker training is the ability to "piggy back" the clicker and positive reinforcement on top of most any method of getting behavior.

On Equine ClickerSolutions, we discuss only the positive-reinforcement-based methods of getting behavior, including targeting, luring, (some) molding, capturing, and shaping. The other methods are legitimate ways of getting behavior, but they are off topic on the list.


The second step in clicker training is to "mark" the correct behavior. The traditional marker in clicker training is, not surprisingly, the clicker. A clicker is just a small tin noisemaker. A tool. Clickers aren't the only event markers, however. Dolphin trainers use whistles, which are more easily heard under water. Some dog trainers prefer to use a verbal marker -- either a sound or a word such as "Yes" or "Good." Horse trainers frequently choose to make a click sound by "popping" their tongues off the roof of their mouths.

The power of the clicker lies in using it to identify the exact moment when the horse achieves what it is you want him to do. It is used only in the beginning of training, then, when the horse is first learning the behavior. Once the behavior is exactly what you want and is on cue, you no longer have to use the clicker.

The power of the clicker from the trainer's point of view is that it is able to identify very precise behavior and, as an especially clear communication tool, is able to speed up training. The value of the clicker from the horse's point of view is that it means he has succeeded in doing what you want-- and because of that, has earned a reward.


The clicker's association with positive reinforcers such as food treats is what really makes it stand out in horse training, where such techniques are usually dismissed as bribery. Reinforcement, however, is different from bribery. Reinforcement is part of the science of operant conditioning.

In the video "Patient Like the Chipmunks," Bob Bailey defines operant conditioning as both the science of explaining behavior and the powerful technology of changing it. The principles of operant conditioning describe how animals learn. When trainers use operant conditioning, they apply the principles to obtain the results they want.

Operant conditioning breaks learning into three parts:

...the stimulus that elicits behavior,
...the actual behavior the animal does, and
...the consequence that occurs as a result.

According to this theoretical framework, the consequence of a behavior determines whether it will be repeated or not in the future. If the consequence strengthens a behavior -- causes it to occur more frequently -- we say the behavior has been reinforced. On the other hand, some consequences cause behavior to occur less frequently. Reinforcement increases behavior; punishment suppresses it.

In either case, the consequence results from something being either added (+) or taken away (-) from the environment. This leads us to the definitions of four key operant conditioning terms:

  • Positive reinforcement (R+) means adding something the animal will work to get to strengthen (increase the frequency of) a behavior. For example, giving your horse a treat for touching a target will increase the likelihood that he will touch the target again. The clicker is ALWAYS followed by a positive reinforcer.
  • Negative reinforcement (R-) means removing something the animal will work to avoid in order to strengthen (increase the frequency of) a behavior. "Pressure and release," a common horse training technique is a classic example of R-. To teach a give to the bit, the trainer applies a light, steady pull on the rein, and then, when the horse "gives," the trainer releases and removes the pressure on the bit. It's possible to combine the clicker with pressure and release by clicking the moment that the horse gives to the pressure, and then reinforcing with BOTH release of pressure and a food treat.
  • Positive punishment (P+) means adding something the animal will work to avoid to suppress (lessen the frequency of) a behavior. Slapping a horse's muzzle when he bites is an attempt to suppress biting through P+.
  • Negative punishment (P-) means taking away something the animal will work for to suppress (lessen the frequency of) a behavior. For example, one horse might pin his ears at another horse when you come close with a bucket of grain. If you were to immediately walk away with the grain at the instant he pinned his ears, you would be teaching the horse that pinning his ears results in the loss of the grain he wants. As a result, he would pin his ears less frequently.

People commonly refer to the principles of reinforcement and punishment as the "four quadrants of operant conditioning." That phrase is misleading in two ways.

First, it implies that all four principles are equally weighted or of equal use in a training program. In reality, any technique that relies on the use of an aversive -- something the horse is willing to work to avoid -- may result in well-documented, unwanted side effects. It is NOT that any particular principle of reinforcement or punishment is "wrong" or "bad," only that each affects the animal's emotional state and ability to learn differently, making certain principles more conducive to learning, especially over the long-term, than others.

Second, the quadrant description doesn't include a fifth principle of operant conditioning, one that clicker training makes particular use of. This is the principle of extinction. In extinction, a behavior is weakened through the absence of any kind of reinforcement. For example, if no one answers your knock at a door, you will eventually stop knocking. If a horse can't get a treat by "mugging" your treat pouch, he will stop trying. Pairing extinction -- "ignoring" responses you don't want -- with R+ -- actively reinforcing the responses you do -- creates a powerful method for teaching a horse to do what you want.

Extinction works, however, only when the trainer can control the reinforcement, making sure the horse can't reinforce himself for an undesired choice. Unfortunately, established problem behaviors are frequently self-reinforcing or reinforced by factors in the environment that the trainer can't control. In those cases, the trainer cannot "ignore" problem behavior and expect it to disappear. A combination of teaching -- and highly reinforcing -- a desired behavior and managing the environment so that the undesired behavior is either impossible or results in the animal losing the reinforcement he was getting before, is a better strategy for those established problem behaviors.


Get the behavior, mark the behavior, reinforce the behavior.

One popular clicker trainer recommends beginning by teaching your horse to touch a target with his nose. This is a great first behavior for several reasons. First of all, it's unlikely to be anything like any behavior you taught with another method. Second, it's a simple behavior for both of you, with a clear, obvious moment to click. Third, while teaching this simple first behavior, you can also teach your horse some basic safety and control lessons that will make clicker training safe and fun for both of you.

First, position your horse behind a stall guard or a corral fence. Until you know how your horse responds to this new availability of treats and until you teach him to behave politely, the stall guard will keep you safe. If your horse gets pushy, you'll need only to step back out of his reach.

Next, fill your pockets with treats that your horse loves, and select a target. The treats should be tiny pieces... a bit of carrot no bigger than the end joint of your little finger or a teaspoon of grain. Treats can be anything your horse loves; just remember to give him a taste rather than a mouthful. Your target can be most anything. I use an empty liter-sized water bottle. Others use a small orange cone, like the ones used to mark the boundary of a soccer field.

To get the behavior, simply present the target right in front of your horse's nose (or just off to the side). Hold it close enough that your horse is likely to bump it accidentally if he doesn't sniff it on his own. The moment his nose touches the target, CLICK!

The final step is to offer your horse a small treat. It's very important for your horse to learn to take the treat politely and safely. Therefore deliver the treat under the horse's nose and back into his chest, so he actually has to take a step BACK to get it. Lesson one: Taking a treat is a backwards-moving behavior.

Of course, as your horse figures out that treats are involved, he will likely try to explore your pockets and fingers and hands to entice you to give him more. If you let him succeed, you will reinforce the behavior, and it will occur more frequently. On the other hand, if he never succeeds when he tries to "mug" you, and instead finds treats plentiful when he takes a step back or looks away, then he will instead choose those behaviors to "beg" for treats. Lesson two: Moving into your space or reaching to your pockets or hand does not result in treats. Only backing or looking away does.

Between reps, hide the target behind your back. Present it fresh each time. In the beginning keep the target within a few inches of your horse's nose... in front, to the left, to the right, above, and below. At first he will probably bump it accidentally or just because it is new and different. But after a few clicks, he will begin to figure out the connection between the touch, the click, and the treats. At that point the touches will become deliberate -- he is trying to make you click. He is actively participating in the learning process!

Clicker training enables a partnership between horse and trainer unlike any other. Until you experience it... until you see the light in his eyes as he plays the game... you cannot understand the real power of the clicker. It isn't really its power as a marker. It's its power to reach the hearts and minds of our horses.

Melissa Alexander
mca @
copyright 2006 Melissa Alexander


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